Weaponizing Capitalism

In my freshman year in college, I fell in love with economics and switched my major.  Like my friend and fellow economist Scott in a different time and place, I felt Aha! This is a tool that can be used to make the world a better place.  It is, indeed, a very useful tool.  But economics can also lead to worship of the golden calf and become an alternative religion. I have always  found that disturbing. Not only does greed fuel the system, but greed itself, or at least a narrow self-interest, becomes a virtue.  (Remember Gordon Gecko and Greed is good?) Like Putin’s Russia, a capitalist system requires government constraints to keep it from an unbalanced concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few (or as Russians say, the oligarchs).   

I held firmly to that view until 2022, but I confess that I am quite ready to make an exception. Capitalism is famous for its ability to innovate and turn around more rapidly than the cumbersome bureaucracy of government, as this nation learned when Henry Ford’s assembly line in World War II was retrofitted  to switch from producing cars to turning out planes.  Capitalism, dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, found the Achilles’ heel of the Russian system  to create a new nonlethal weapon of war, using the greed of the Russian oligarchs to undermine support inside Russia for the Ukraine war.

The initial Western response to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was to turn to conventional economic weapons along with arms and humanitarian aid.  Sanctions, which had been used with relatively little effect in Iran, included freezing government assets held abroad.  Many foreign business  firms ceased to do business in or with Russia. NATO countries reluctantly upped the ante by refusing to buy Russian oil and gas, a major Russian industry. Other nations cut off credit to the Russian government and to private borrowers inside Russia, including those who depended on their American and European issued credit cards. Russia was disconnected from the international banking system.  The ruble fell sharply, the central bank was unable to function, and the Russian financial system , tightly linked to the rest of the world through SWIFT and networks of lenders and borrowers, was reduced to as much rubble as the streets of Kyiv.

Those economic weapons were powerful tools, but they were not enough to dissuade Putin from focusing on his mission—to restore Russia to the good old days of the czars, territory included. The newest economic weapon is customized to Russia, although it could be useful elsewhere.  That nonlethal weapon is to seize the assets of the supporters of the government, the oligarchs who flaunt their wealth in yachts and villas and a sumptuous lifestyle financed by billions in ill-gotten assets stashed around the world. Governments in NATO nations and elsewhere are seizing those assets.  It is relatively easy to hide financial assets, although it has become harder when banks have been cooperating with governments to identify Russian-owned assets.  But it’s hard to hide a villa in Italy, or a yacht, or a personal jet airplane.  The extravagant toys that were the reason for oligarchs to support and enable Putin have become a means to detach many of these oligarchs from his side.

Putin has managed to restore the Western alliance, bankrupt his country, and alienate his support among the military and his wealthy friends.  He has made heroes of Ukrainians and their president. So on this side of the ocean, I suggest two cheers for capitalism for its contribution of creativity and innovation in combatting this unjust war, but still withholding a third cheer withheld to acknowledge the inequality and concentration of wealth and power that the market system has allowed to flourish here at home.

Original Sin and Original Blessing: Why Does It Matter?

Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there has been theological dissension over the nature of humans–whether humans are born bad who must be redeemed or whether we are born good, created in the image of God. It’s an important question, but framing it as binary or absolutes misses the point.  We humans like certainty, absolutes, right-wrong, good-bad, all those binaries that enable us to choose the “right” side of an argument.  The  most defensible  answer to the question of what is inborn, based on observation, is that we are all born with the capacity for good and evil in varying combinations, and our life circumstances and experiences may tip us in one direction or the other.

I take my philosophy from Aristotle and the golden mean, that every virtue lies between two vices, its opposite and its extreme, and we all find ourselves lying somewhere on that spectrum in our own thinking and behavior. I also take my philosophy from statistics, because I am more economist than theologian, and in statistics, most of a population lies within one or two standard deviations of the mean.  A little bit brave and a little bit cowardly, or a little bit brave and a little bit foolhardy. Generous on some days and stingy on others. Kind to our friends but not to our enemies.  Accepting of people who look and talk and think like us, less tolerant of those who are different.

When we choose to create a public policy that maximizes safety and security, we lean to the original sin view of humankind, like the harsh anti-crime measures passed in the Clinton administration  The result has not been redemption, but overcrowded prisons, convictions that are or should be overturned, and no rehabilitation. Released back into society with no skills and unable to find a job or housing, many of these people wind up back in jail after release, affirming the conviction that some people are just born bad. (If you haven’t seen the original or new version of West Side Story, this dilemma is the basis for one of the best songs in the movie and play, the one about Officer Krupke.)

A policy based on redemption would probably make the opposite error and turn some irredeemable people loose to do more harm—remember the Willie Horton ads devised by Lee Atwater for the 1988  presidential campaign?  Both sides of the debate want to limit the discretion of judges, because the same offense gets widely different sentences depending on the judge. But they can’t agree on guidelines that meet their polar opposite views of humanity.

The harm done by binary thinking is not just about crime. It’ is also, for example, about whether people will be motivated to work for a living if the government provides them too much, or whether they will be unemployable or unable to earn an adequate living if the government gives them too little (education, health care, access to decent housing). That abstruse theological debate about original sin and original blessing lies behind many of our public policy dilemmas.

It is the task of democratic process to honor both of those views , each of which contains a grain of truth, and to craft policies that empower and encourage the best in each of us while constraining the worst.  We can begin that process by examining our own conception of original sin, original blessing, and the possibility of redemption.

The End of Hibernation?

February 1st or 2nd is an ancient Celtic holiday.  Since my DNA test informed me that I am 40% Celtic (a mix of Scottish, Irish and Welsh), I have taken increased interest in the eight holidays on the Celtic Wheel of the Year.  It is divided by four earth holidays and four sky holidays, beginning with Samhain (Hallowe’en),.the Celtic New Year. It is followed by Yul at the winter solstice, Imbolc at the beginning of February, Ostara at the Spring equinox, Beltain the first of May, Litha at the summer solstice, Lughnasadh or Lammas the first of August, and Mabon at the vernal equinox.  Since the Celts were all over Europe, if your ancestry is at least partly European, you probably have at least a few drops of Celtic blood in your veins as well.

Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk, or lambing time, as a harbinger of spring.  In ancient times it was a housecleaning day, removing all the greens (or browns!) left over from Yul and re-lighting the housefires in anticipation of spring. If you haven’t finished taking down your Christmas decorations, this is the time! It is also celebrated as Saint Brigid’s Day, an Irish saint whose previous incarnation was as the great Goddess in her maiden state (the others being the mother and the crone).

This holiday survives in an odd but appropriate way in Groundhog Day. There are lots of ways to celebrate, but I am intrigued with a holiday that celebrates housecleaning as well as the end of hibernation. Or not, depending on what Punxsutawney Phil has to say. (If you have been doing a lot of hibernating, chances are your cave needs a thorough airing out!)  We have been in a COVID-induced hibernation for almost two years now, but this Imbolc is special because we hear increasing forecasts of a steady (or rapid!) downturn in the pandemic in the next month or so.  Regardless of whether the groundhog sees his shadow, we need to prepared ourselves to re-enter a post-COVID world that has changed dramatically in these two years.

Perhaps by Ostara on (appropriately) March 20th, we can figure out what is our own new normal.  It will  definitely involve more hybrid meetings,  more working from home, and less travel. It is likely that many of us adopted habits during the pandemic that involve more solitude and found that we liked those new habits better.  Many people changed their minds about working and consumerism.  We all learned to be aware of the balance we choose between safety and risk and the implications of our choices for those with whom we come in contact. We have a new appreciation for the difference between encountering one another on Zoom and in person.  We recognize the fragility of some of our cherished institutions, especially religious and social organizations that have struggled to survive quarantining.

I am always drawn to the idea of new beginnings. I’m up for celebrating not just the turning of the calendar on January 1st but also Chinese New Year,  April Fool’s day (from the calendar change that moved the new year back to January), a new year of my life every July 1st, a new school year, Jewish and Celtic new year, and for traditional Christians, a new year that begins with Advent four weeks before Christmas.

This year I want to celebrate a new year on March 20th that will hopefully mark a change in the way we spend our days and invest our time and resources in what matters most to us. From Groundhog Day to Ostara can be a Celtic Lent in which to assess, prepare, and plan for the post-pandemic world.  How will your way of being in the world be different after Ostara? What kinds of housecleaning are needed to make that happen?

COVID Claims Another Victim

We all know about the many individuals (and families) impacted by the two years of COVID19.  We also know about its harmful effects on some of our cherished business firms and  institutions.  Public schools and colleges and their students and teachers, because learning is enriched by the presence of one another. Team sports. Hospitals.Governments. Nursing homes filled with frail and elderly people isolated in pandemic-induced lockdowns.  The travel industry. Restaurants.

There is another critcal group of social institutions that have been largely suffering in silence.  They are what sociologists call “mediating structures”—voluntary and nonprofit organizations that thrive on direct human contact and wither and die in a virtual world.  Faith communities, civic organizations, and volunteer-dependent nonprofits have all withered and decayed during the era of Zoom.  In fairness to Zoom, it has also empowered participation by those who can’t get out to be physically present, a gain that will continue into the post-pandemic era.  Fueled by COVID, Zoom has also powered networks across distances and enabled the creation of virtual communities, like the statewide working groups on specific issues (health care, environment, public education) that I have been mentoring on behalf of the state League of Women Voters. But on balance, there seems to be more loss than gain.

My faith community, despite two years of increasingly creative virtual services and innovative ways of engaging families with children, has lost members, attendance, and financial support, and many of those lost are unlikely to return after two years.  That is true of many congregations, which are sustained by bonds of mutual support that are nurtured by direct contact and chance encounters at worship, a potluck, or other gatherings that bring people together in one room.  I am also a member of a lifelong learning community and a civic community, both of which have relied on virtual meetings and have experienced steadily declining attendance and members.

I have long been fascinated by the somewhat obscure statistical concept of Type I and Type 2 error.  A choice to play it safe and minimize risk (Type 2 error)  is by default a way to increase the likelihood of missing good outcomes (Type 1 error). That set of choices lies behind the confusing and ever-changing signals from the CDC and others about how to keep both safety and community alive during a pandemic. Most choices are not binary, but more nuanced, finding the right point along a continuum.

I am a cautious risk taker. I am fully vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask in groups, prefer open-air encounters or small groups of the also-vaccinated. But when offered a choice of how to attend a a worship service, a committee meeting, a social or organizational gathering, or a class, I almost always opt for the in-person version. My physical presence will make a difference to others and their physical presence matters to me. As the pandemic wanes (it will never disappear entirely), please consider what social institutions you need and that need you, and promise to return. These organizations are an integral part of the social fabric in which we affirm our need for personal encounters and mutual support. Go to church. Coach a team. Volunteer at a food bank. Take a class in person. 

My daughter Carla, a singer-songwriter, wrote a funny pandemic song about how the patriotic thing to do was to sit on you a__ and do nothing.  There was a time for that. Now it is time to carefully rebalance safety and community, and the task is  urgent.  Stay safe. Be present.  If you are vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, and pick your venues, you can do both. You, our communities, and our nation will be enriched and strengthened by your active engagement.

Be Proud of Your Humility

For a long time, I thought that there were just four virtuous attitudes, or habits of the heart (hope, faith, love, and gratitude), that  would guide us to the course of right action.  And then I had an epiphany (just in time for the season, since January 6th is the Epiphany with a capital E). If Pride, or as it was previously called, Vainglory, is the queen of the deadly sins, then it must have an opposite, a virtue that holds it in check. That virtue is humility. Humility is the hardest of all virtues to cultivate, because it requires owing up to your shortcomings and limitations.  It’s also the most liberating, because it means that not everything is your responsibility. Lacking all of Superman’s powers, you are not called on to exercise your superpowers 24/7 on behalf of all those in need or aid, wisdom, or sustenance. That awareness frees you to do jigsaw puzzles or watch ESPN or the new season of Bridgerton without guilt,  knowing that you have done the best you could with the gifts and skills that you do have.

If you are a bit late on your list of New Year’s resolutions, let me suggest that cultivating humility might be a good addition to the list. Humility is a partner with gratitude for the gifts and good deeds and kindness of others in making up for our deficiencies or coming to our aid in times of need—which, humbly speaking, we do all experience.

How do we cultivate humility? It was pretty easy growing up with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches and sometimes preachers to remind us of our deficiencies.  I may have been an academic superstar in elementary school, but I got C’s in penmanship, and I discovered my limited ability to visualize in three dimensions in courses like solid geometry, engineering drawing, and third semester calculus.  I was pretty sure that I was rhythmically challenged when I struggled to learn to type, a deficiency confirmed by flunking my rhythm test in freshman PE in college.  But once we have gone through the discovery process of figuring out what our gifts and talents are and which ones we lack, and been through an employment experience or two that helped us to define what we were and were not, we are left on our own to practice and cultivate humility.

An inventory might help.  Start with a list of things you do well, and those that you don’t do well but admire in those who can. I am good at leadership, writing, and teaching. I am not good at most sports, or art, although it helps me to reinforce humility by participating in both. I am an adequate singer and cook, and a struggling gardener with much to learn. I have lots of outlets for lessons in humility. It is too easy to spend all my time doing things I am at least pretty good at, and avoiding those I am not. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When I was musing one day about how I could help as a volunteer at our nursing home across the street, I thoughts I might be able to help in the dining room. My friend Cynthia, who knew the limits of my patience, said”Do the old folks a favor. Don’t help in the dining room. Find something else. She was right. I now happily engage in fund-raising efforts for the volunteers to provide additional experiences and services for the residents. Other times I resist that challenge to my self esteem. On one of those occasion I complained to my daughter Carla, who offered two great words of advice:”Stretch, Mom!”

I treasure the story my late friend Bob, who was a very talented bridge player but musically challenged, told about his attempts to stretch. He had good rhythm, lousy pitch.I have the opposite challenge. As an adequate but not particularly talented member of two church choirs, I managed to do not too much damage to the alto line One day Bob decided to join a local band in a nearby town and learn to play the trumpet. He was awful.  He gave it a good try and then returned, duly humbled,  to his quest to become a bridge life master. It was good for his balanced sense of self to affirm what he was good at while struggling to master something he wasn’t. I take my New Year’s challenge of learning to draw as a memorial to Bob.  I am certain it will offer a lesson in humility. 

Hibernation Time and the New Year

My family departed for home Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning, so I have been in hibernation mode since 9 a.m. on the 25th.  These seven post-Solstice, post- Christmas days  (my family always celebrates on the 24th ), are my wintering time.  It is when I, like TV specials and pundits, reflect on the year past, but it is also the time when I set my course for the year to come.

My wintering or hibernation (the noun winter is German, but hiver is the French word for winter)  is about rest and renewal, about letting go and taking on, about reflecting on the departing year and planning for the new one.  I mostly stay at home, using up the Christmas leftovers and undecorating the house, reading my Christmas books and doing one of my Christmas jigsaw puzzles. I write in my journal with a focus on the year past and the year to come, including New Year’s resolutions, which I have been doing since elementary school.  ( I remember when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas stove. It didn’t have a pilot light, so it involved  a match, and I found it scary. To this day I am an electric range person.)

Over time my resolutions have become more abstract and complex. They all involve self-improvement. Even at 80 there are improvements to be made. I am deeply engaged in virtue ethics, so my guides to living wisely and well are the four attitude virtues of hope, trust, lovingkindness, and gratitude , and the behavioral virtues of self-care, prudence (practical wisdom), simplicity, and  mindfulness.  The arenas in which those virtues are played out are lifelong learning, vocation (write-teach-preach-lead-serve), and cultivating healthy relationships. My daily journal is the ongoing record of my intentions and my performance. 

What about surprises? There are always plenty of those. In 2021, COVID changed my travel plans.  I rethought some of my volunteer commitments and rearranged them to better it my lifestyle, especially that part of my lifestyle that involves sleeping from 9 to 5 and driving after dark as seldom as possible.  Self-care surprised me with an unplanned but very rewarding journey with NOOM to lose 25 pounds. I lost a cat, a dog, and most sadly, a brother.  I lost friends, some to death, others to relationships that no longer worked, but was surprised to acquire two new ones (one to hike with, one to travel with) and strengthen the bonds of several old friendships. Man (and woman) plan, and God laughs. Like Columbus, I set my course for India and found a new world along the way.

So, I invite you to a few final days of hibernation and reflection before returning to the daily round. What was your year 2021 like? What did you learn and change, gain and lose? What are your hopes for 2022, personally and collectively? What are you grateful for, concerned about, desirous of changing? As the days begin to lengthen again, and the signs daffodils and crocuses appear, may you be rested and renewed, armed with faith, hope and good intentions for the year that begins in just three days.

Tyranny of the minority

When South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, US Vice President and Secretary of State, wasn’t busy running his South Carolina plantation, he gave a lot of thought to political theory.  His biggest worry was the threat to the South from tyranny of the majority, which would allow them to ability to impose their will on a minority that did not share their values and priorities.

The Tenth Amendment and states’ rights was the strongest defense against that ‘tyranny.”  While invoking the Tenth amendment was most often used to defend slavery, Calhoun first used it against the 1828 tariff bill.  The North, with emerging manufactures, wanted protection for their infant industries against competing English products.  The South, a major agricultural exporter, preferred the less expensive products of European producers and European markets for their indigo, cotton, tobacco and rice.  Calhoun invoked the Nullification Doctrine against what he labeled the Tariff of Abominations. Nullification was the supposed right of any state to refuse to enforce a federal law with which it disagreed–in this case, in the port of Charleston. (Leading political thinkers in the Texas legislature have revived that doctrine with their novel vigilante approach to suppressing abortions.) Eventually a compromise was reached in 1833 and civil war was averted for another 28 years. It was perpetuating slavery, an institution that allowed the tyranny of the minority of mostly white southern slave owners against the enslaved people and their supporters in the rest of the nation, that eventually led to the civil war—which has yet to end.

The shadow side of protecting us from the tyranny of the majority is to enable society and government to fall victim to the tyranny of the minority, a situation toward which our nation is moving at dizzying speed. Knowing that some of the states were fearful of a strong central government, the authors of the Constitution took great pains to protect the minority, inviting compromise, dialogue, and middle ground solutions. The U.S. Constitution is full of compromises between the will of the majority and the protection of minorities.  Permitting slavery.  Two senators per state regardless of size, giving the makeup of the senate a strong bias toward less populated states. Creating the Electoral College for selecting a president, which also has a bias toward less populated state.  The Tenth Amendment, reserving undefined broad powers to the states, or the people.  One person, one vote, was not part of the guidelines for the authors of the original Constitution.Other tools that empower the tyranny of the minority have been created since the Constitution. Lifetime appointments for Supreme Court judges. The filibuster in the Senate. Substantial but not total delegation of the running of elections to the states.

These protections for minorities have enabled the prospect of overthrowing democracy, which is more fragile than many of us realize. It depends on good will, good intentions, and mutual respect, all of which are in short supply. An alternative vision of how government should be run is increasingly articulated by a substantial minority of Americans who have tried democracy and found it an wanting. It is  not suited to promoting their worldview, a stratified society in which men outrank women, whites outrank people of color, indoctrination trumps genuine education for critical thinking,  and religious freedom is used as a weapon against change in some cases and a way to impose a particular religious viewpoint on the majority at other times. This angry, vocal, and often violent minority refuse to accede to the  will of the majority, using the tools provided by the constitution and the weapons of social media to stir up anger and confusion.

Both the sustainability and resilience of the earth and the resilience and sustainability of democracy are at risk around the planet. Now is the time for all good people to be engaged, involved, and active in reversing the threats that we face.

Inclusive History, Anyone?

Warning to my readers, this is a polemic.

I’m not sure when state legislators around the country and particularly in my home state of South Carolina started thinking they were curriculum experts.  Despite the fact that few of them have any training or experience in teaching kids, they think they know what public school pupils should learn and when and how they should learn it.  So far, they’ve pretty much left math and science alone (except for their superior expertise in matters of public health, like masks and vaccines).  But when it comes to teaching history, they know which version they prefer. The whitewashed, sanitized virtue of America’s greatness, without any reference to uncomfortable truth, like, say, slavery, extinction of native peoples, Vietnam….  

Their argument is not historical but psychological.  Knowing the facts of American history (for instance, that it is  always has been governed primarily by and for old rich white men) might make children feel guilty. Or ashamed of being white, or male, or from a wealthy family.  That’s the construction they put on what academics have been calling critical race theory.  In the war of labels, let’s begin by calling it what it is, inclusive history. Here are some South Carolina people I would like to include. Eliza Pinckney and the development of indigo as a major cash crop by a woman.  The Stono Rebellion (look it up) and the Denmark Vesey plot (look that up too). The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears.  The abolitionist Grimke sisters, daughters of a South Carolina judge and slave owner. The capture of a Southern navy ship by Robert Smalls and his fellow enslaved companions, who safely delivered it to the blockading Union navy in Charleston harbor. Jim Crow laws and underfunding of public education in areas where African Americans were in the majority that limited the ability of  former slaves to become full members of society.  Organized and often violent efforts to prevent these same formerly enslaved workers from leaving Southern states for opportunities in the North. The long battle for women’s right to vote. Maybe telling those well-documented true stories without judgment would help African American, Native American, and female children feel that they are a part of our history.

The Civil War (NOT the War Between the States, because they had all signed on to the Constitution that made the USA a single nation) was fought over slavery.  Of course, it was fought over states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment, but they only right that Southern states were really interested in preserving and protecting in 1861 was the right to own slaves, as their own secession documents make very clear.  (Modern Southern states have added the right to own guns and the right to keep other people from having abortions, but that’s another story.)  Legislators’ right to tell teachers how and what to teach shouldn’t be protected either; I’m pretty sure their heavy-handedness in exercising control and their miserliness in adequately funding education plays a role in the 1,000 teacher shortage that the state is experiencing right now. (That, and low teacher pay and excessive paperwork).

The rationale for this obsession with “critical race theory”  (translation: :inclusive history) is , as I mentioned above, that teaching the actual facts of state and national history may make some students feel guilty or ashamed to be white and/or male.  It shouldn’t, and no self-respecting teacher (who has been trained to understand child psychology!) would allow that to happen.  Perhaps an accurate reading of the facts of history makes legislators feel that way, but that might be a good thing. Children are not personally accountable for what their ancestors did, but they do be aware of the impact of slavery, patriarchy, segregation, and discrimination on formerly enslaved people to the benefit of others.  After Reconstruction, white Southerners turned to what they called Redemption, which was to say, restoring the status quo ante.  True redemption would be working toward a equal society with opportunities and support for every person.

History is messy.  It is written by the winners in most places, except the American South. Facts are facts, but facts have context and interpretation. South Carolina has an elected Superintendent of Education whose job it is to determine what children need to learn and at what grade level.  There is a State Board of Education and an Education Oversight Committee and 79 local school boards who are all trying to look after our children so that they have the skills and knowledge they need to function in adult society as consumers, workers, and citizens.  I trust their judgment about what to teach and at what grade level more than that of 170 people elected and regularly re-elected from largely noncompetitive districts who need to get their priorities straight.  Health care, housing, infrastructure, education funding—those issues affect all of us and our children.

One of my granddaughters started her public school teaching career this month.  For her sake , for the sake of her fellow teachers and the children in their care, please let them teach.  If I have to choose between trusting a teacher and trusting legislators to ensure that our children learn the critical thinking skills needed to function in a democracy, it’s a no-brainer!

The Art of Appreciation

While there are a few skills and talents in which I am proficient, there are lots of them that I am not.  A good enough for a small church choir singer. An I-can-make-it-to-the -end-of-the-pool swimmer. I am a decent quilter but without the artistry of some and precision of others.  I have tried my hand at printmaking (hated it), flute (not enough breath support), basket making (okay but not great), and a variety of other skills and crafts.  In the process, I discovered something I’m pretty good at. I am an appreciator, an audience, a fan.  And so, I expect, are you in most things.

Great musicians, athletes, actors, writers, gardeners,or painters usually have some inborn inclination and natural talent that were transformed into skills finely honed by regular effort and practice, practice, practice. They have a dedication to their craft and often a limited range of other interests and skills.  And then—there are the rest of us.  Interested, attracted, give it a try. Can I draw? Not really, but my daughter the artist assures me that I can learn.  Can I dance? Yes, but not well. Can I play softball? Put me at third base and late middle of the batting order and I will try to do as little harm as possible.

Many years ago, when I was struggling to learn to pick out the alto line from the accompaniment, I read an article that claimed that people we used to call retarded, but now describe inmore compassionate terms like slow learners, or developmentally delayed. The writer claimed that they could learn anything anyone else us could learn.  It just took them longer, so they couldn’t reach a high level of attainment in a lot of different skills.  But they could become proficient in a more limited number. Aha, I said to myself, I am a retarded musician. I got pretty good at picking out the alto line, but it took me longer than someone with more natural talent.  My singing “career” was further hampered by a rather limited sense of rhythm. I learned about that flaw when I flunked my rhythm test in college freshman PE and then I understood why I was such a terrible typist.  But there was more hope for getting the pitch. Like most of my family, I could pick out a one fingered tune from listening to the notes in my head.  (My late husband, who had excellent rhythm, could not pick out Mary Had A Little Lamb on the piano without sheet music.)  While I sing in the kitchen, or the shower, or the car, and sang for about 25 years in a church choir, my main achievement is that I have become at least a moderately competent appreciator.

How did I learn to become an appreciator of music, athletics, quilting, basket making, and even the dreaded printmaking?  In some cases, I set out to learn enough about how these things are done.  That effort enabled me to appreciate the complexities, the precision, the practice it takes to make a skill or a product look easy.  I can appreciate a good basket or a good quilt because I took the trouble to try my hand at it and learn from others about the art I was observing and the effort it took to create something beautiful. I was never a good dancer, but 23 years of Jazzercise has improved my sense of rhythm and has helped me to understand how the body learns things like how to ride a bike, sail a boat, or throw a ball, which made me more appreciative of athletes and athletics.

Being a good audience is not passive.  It too requires skill and continuous practice and learning, although less intensively than the actual actor, singer, artist or athlete. When I used to go to sporting events, there was one cheer that particularly spoke to me: “Two, four, six, eight, whom do we appreciate?” That’s why we are there , to appreciate, encourage, and support.  It is no small contribution to offer to those who need witnesses to their accomplishments and comfort in their stumbles in order too keep on truckin’, to get up and try again.

As we athletic appreciators say over and over in Clemson, on good Saturdays and not so good ones, Go Tigers!

The Shadow of Competition

Last Saturday I attended my first live college football game in 38 years. I used to attend them when I was president of the Faculty Senate because I got free tickets in the president’s box and was expected to go.  But this time it was different.  Clemson University, where I taught for fifty years, and has long been a football powerhouse but not so much this year. They played my alma mater, the University of Connecticut, which never was nor will be a powerhouse.  UConn came in with a 1-8 record and left with a 1-9.  But it was fun. 

This football game reminded me of my love-hate relationship with competition. Football is the ultimate team sport, each member with a defined role to play. With few exceptions, the athletes handle competition much better than the fans.  The athletes compete to do their best.  The fans just want their team to win, their only required effort being their presence, their purchase of tickets, and their yelling and screaming. Me? I wore a UConn sweatshirt and cap and sang the Clemson alma mater (which I knew by heart from attending many graduations) and cheered for both teams. For me, it just was live theater.

Competition is, of course, at the heart of market economics as an incentive to do better. Produce a better product, listen to your customers, take good care of your employees, and above all, make a profit for your shareholders. The shadow over competition is failure, of being second-best, or worse yet, a loser.  In order for some people to have success, acclaim, fame and wealth, we need some others to be losers. Losers do learn from their failures, but in football there is only one winner in a game and only one national champion, and UConn had already learned the lessons and replaced its coach–and lost another game. For the Clemson University students and administration, every win, even over UConn, carries extrinsic rewards.  Every win matters, and an occasional national championship (two in the last few years for Clemson) spurs a spike in applications for admission and a lot of money for the University.

Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book, The Winner Take All Society, about the very low ratio of winners to losers in our market system. There is only one Miss America and a lot of runner ups, only one national champion in every sport, only one best actor, best picture, best actress, only one best party school in America (that isn’t either Clemson or UConn).  In my homeowner’s association, there is even only one yard of the month, apparently to encourage competition among residents for having the loveliest lawn.

Don’t get me wrong. Competition has a role to play.  But a good athlete, actor/actress, cook, professor, CEO is not solely motivated by competition and not a failure at being #3. Or 10. Or not having a number at all. People are also motivated  to excel at what they are good at and find satisfying,  not just a bunch of blue ribbons and trophies.

The team part of competition is good.  The chance to develop and use one’s skills as part of a group effort can build character, responsibility, appreciation of the contributions of others, camaraderie, and a sense of community.  The rankings, the score, the blue ribbon can actually distract from those good outcomes.  In the study of motivation within the discipline of ethics, there has been much written about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards include money, recognition, power, fame, and being number one for your fifteen minutes of fame.  But depending on extrinsic motives tend to displace the more valuable and lasting rewards of a job well done, a skill well mastered, or making a difference in the lives of others.  For a university, success in football can both enhance and detract from its core missions, which is equip its students with the skills, experiences, knowledge and wisdom that will see them into successful adulthood.  Learning to be a good team player is one of those skills. Finding your gifts and passions and shaping them into a vocation is another. Neither of these is measured by the morning after quarterbacking that rank teams, coaches, and players at individual positions like wide receiver or quarterback on a weekly basis. Or for that matter, rank in class, a criterion for admission and an honor bestowed on those who graduate as valedictorian.

We all need to be the best we can be.  A little competition can help, but too much can stifle the developing  young people from discovering, honing and practicing their particular skill and passion and misleading them into focusing on extrinsic rewards.

No applause, thanks. I write for the sheer joy of writing and the hope that it will be meaningful to my readers.  I do not aspire to be the number one blogger, just one with a unique point of view.  May you too find your niche, your passion, your gifts, and practice them for the joy of being and doing, and hang the applause.