The Blessings of Liberty

Recently I came across this great sentence in a book by Timothy Synder:

Our politics are too much about the curse of pain and too little about the blessings of liberty.

There is so much in that short sentence to unpack. Our politics is filled with too many grievance mongers and selfish, dishonest applause seekers instead of people trying to solve real problems and improve the lives of our citizenry. The blessings of liberty are about a free people coming together, working together, through their natural disagreements, finding compromise, and finding solutions through the democratic process. History reminds us that oligarchy, autocracy, chaos, and civil strife are the rule and democracy, peace, and the blessings of Liberty the exception.

What we need right now is more humility, grace, intelligence, and compassion and less of the dark, greedy, selfish, tribal hatreds from the curse-of-pain crowd that are always seeking attention and stoking fear. In this brief moment of history we have the blessings of Liberty and self governance and a way of life only dreamed of by millions of souls who came long before us across the great span of human history.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this.

Ghent’s Little Free Library

I was walking through the Ghent district of Norfolk, Virginia, the other day. Ghent is one of Norfolk’s most affluent sections of town. The streets are lined with old brick homes with stately looking facades and shrubberied lawns. Mixed among the homes are beautiful old churches, small gardens, and parks. It was a nice summer day. Not too humid and there was a nice gentle breeze. The only sounds in the air were birds chirping. It was a nice place and the perfect day to be alone with your thoughts and take in the scenery.

As I was walking up one sidewalk I saw what appeared to be, from a distance, a big birdhouse of sorts. But it wasn’t. Much to my surprise it was part of the neighborhood’s “Little Free Library.” A young lady sitting on some steps nearby saw me take the pictures and could see I was fascinated by what I’d found. She said, “Those Little Free Library boxes are all over the neighborhood.”

Book: First Principles

When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move to Canada!? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.

Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? And so in First Principles Ricks examines some of those core principles around which this nation was originally founded upon.

This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.

For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.

Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.

Book: Into Thin Air

Finished reading Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer. A very interesting, but hauntingly true story. Krakauer is journalist (and mountaineer) who accompanies a group on a climb to the summit of Mount Everest—a very challenging and dangerous assent into very cold and very thin air. Originally Krakauer was on the trip to write about the commercialization of Mount Everest, but Krakauer ended up being part of a major disaster. Five of sixteen of his fellow climbers—3 of them guides—perished on the upper mountain during their May 10, 1996, assent. Wikipedia has a fairly good summary of what happened. There’s also the made for TV movie available on YouTube, made not long after the event, and there’s a fairly good documentary on Youtube worth watching if you’re interested.

I think this quote of Krakauer’s probably best captures the theme of this human tragedy:

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.*

* Of the 300 people who’ve died while climbing on the slopes of Mount Everest over the decades, about 150 of those bodies still remain on the mountain to this day. As Krakauer says, being up that high is like being on the surface of the moon. If something goes wrong, you’re largely on your own. It’s too high for a helicopter rescue and bringing a seriously injured climber or dead body down the upper reaches of the mountain is a perilous task. Thus many frozen corpses remain on the upper slopes.

Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t put libraries out of business yet.

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on that.

For example, when visiting my local library recently I noticed all the computers were taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking out or turning in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t often hear many people talking much about the subject of some sustained reading they’ve been involved in. That requires sustained attention and an interest in learning and the mystery of things, which, at the moment, seems to be a declining thing in America. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests. And believe me, maintaining the rule of law and the democratic institutions that protect your individual freedoms is in your interest.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our education and autotomy is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure for human folly and prejudice. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along is wrong or misinformed, or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, our society, and the world. That is how positive change begins, how freedom and democracy have advanced.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, the arts typically aim at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

Of course I can’t leave out the reading of books that elevate our scientific grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more empirically, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And, in addressing public policy, that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check out some books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.