In the four days of public mourning and recognition devoted to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a few themes emerged. His devotion to the liberal cause. His checkered political and personal life. His devotion to his family, and the families of his brothers. His faith, laughter, and love of life. But also, his consummate skill as a legislator who had a legendary ability to get things done, in no small part because he was respected on both sides of the aisle and had developed friendships with many his political adversaries. He had, as Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah noted, a unique talent for seeking out common ground with an adversary, no matter how small that space was, and then working to get something accomplished through that place of shared priorities or perspective.
One could regard Kennedy's acts as shrewd Machiavellian maneuvering. But politicians are skilled enough in that art to recognize the difference between authentic connection and political expediency, and the friendship and sorrow on the faces of Kennedy's Republican colleagues these past few days resonated as something very authentic.
So it appears that Kennedy was a master at truly seeking and finding common ground; better than many of us seem to be, these days. Why is that? Many reasons. But part of the answer may be that finding common ground first requires a deep and compassionate understanding and acceptance of the idea that humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures, as multi-faceted as any cut diamond. And beyond that, an understanding of how seemingly irreconcilable characteristics and beliefs can coexist within a single person.
We all learn, without ever being told, that people have many characteristics, some of which we like better than others. Most siblings understand that one that before the age of six. But fewer of us have to wrestle with the far more difficult mix posed by a person who at once exhibits beliefs or characteristics we find admirable, along with others we find abhorrent. In most cases, if we see evidence of a belief or character trait we find that objectionable, we steer clear. And our ability to keep our distance from those we dislike has grown in the past few decades.
In a city apartment, it's hard not to deal with your neighbors. Even front-porch America forced a bit more neighborly interaction. But with the advent of the backyard deck, the automatic garage-door opener and the suburban sprawl of gated communities, we gained a far greater ability to separate ourselves from others unless we expressly chose to socialize with them. And that trend of specialization has grown. We can now not only get 200 narrowly focused cable or satellite channels; we can also choose from thousands and thousands of narrowly-focused blogs and websites for our "news." No matter how arcane our points of view, we can find and immerse ourselves in a like-minded community through chat rooms and forums around the internet world. Many more of us telecommute, reducing our need to learn to cope with co-workers whose views don't mirror ours. We don't even have to cope with listening our way through tracks on an album or CD we don't like in order to get to our favorites. We just download the individual songs we want.
In short, it's increasingly possible to live our lives in a "silo" of like-minded thought, music, entertainment and personalities. The problem with this, of course, is that it isolates us from those who would teach us difficult and uncomfortable truths about human complexity and, through that, the art of finding common ground.
A number of years ago, I found myself living for a time in the middle of a social and professional circle where nobody else shared my worldview, or my opinions on most subjects. If I had had more options for social interaction or friendship, I probably wouldn't have spent much time getting to know the people in the group very well. But because my social options were limited, I had to look for some kind of connection or common ground. And as I got to know some of the individuals better, I saw tremendous acts of kindness and generosity, deep and heartfelt fears and sorrows, and traits of loyalty, honesty, and integrity that were both admirable and authentic.
The tough part was that in those same people, I also saw acts, and heard opinions, that were deeply abhorrent to me. Acts, phrases, insults and opinions that I would willingly spend a lifetime fighting to overcome. How could such diametrically opposed traits coexist in a single person? And how could I reconcile my admiration for parts of a person with my visceral opposition to other pieces of the puzzle?
There was no running from the question. I confronted it daily, in all my interactions. I wrestled through outrage, generalization and judgment. I tried to change their opinions through argument. But in the course of that struggle, I also slowly gained new understanding, not just of how complex humans are, but of how few people are all right, or all wrong, or without merit or fault. And that just as my admiration of a person's strengths did not mean I had to condone other traits or opinions I vehemently opposed, neither did my dismay at those traits negate the person's other strengths.
In the end, I came to some kind of peace with the possibility of agreeing and disagreeing with someone else, all at the same time. Of understanding and respecting a little bit better how they came to see the world the way they did, even as I continued to argue for a different set of attitudes, priorities, or rules. Of getting beyond a global "good guy/bad guy" dichotomy to a more nuanced place and perspective about how we all end up with such different takes on the world. As the philosopher/writer Joseph Campbell said, "One has to go beyond the pairs of opposites to find the real source ... When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion."
There's undoubtedly more to the equation, of course. Senator Kennedy also came from an era in politics and Congressional life without televised hearings and the grandstanding that evolved from that, or a 24/7 media culture that rewards simplistic sound-bites over complex and nuanced positions, negotiations, or approaches. Perhaps if we want more bipartisanship among our politicians, we have to turn off the cameras and grant them a lot more privacy in which to develop more nuanced relationships.
But fundamental to forging those relationships; to finding the small spaces of common ground upon which they can be built, is first gaining an understanding and acceptance of the many and oftentimes disparate facets that can coexist in another person. Of gaining a deep and authentic respect and compassion for the whole of a person that allows genuine friendship, and an open spirit of alliance on the 10 percent of shared purpose despite 90 percent of adamantly held opposition.
Fewer of us these days have to wrestle our way to a deep or intimate understanding of those human complexities. But if Kennedy was a master at the art, perhaps it's in part because he surely wrestled with that question every time he looked in the mirror. In coming to some measure of understanding or compassion about his own behavior and past, perhaps he developed a deeper acceptance of the complexity, differences and imperfections of others, as well. And a sense of compassion beyond simple opposites that not only led to some of his greatest achievements, but is surely one of the qualities his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, will miss the most.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.