Economy is Not Community

In the debate over reopening—how soon, how fast—the question is posed as a choice between the economy and public health.  Both are certainly important, but there is a third missing element.  We are more than bodies to be kept healthy and workers/consumers to keep the wheels of commerce going.  We are also persons in community, engaging the mind and spirit with other humans.  Fortunately for some of us, we have had the gift of technology to keep in touch, but it didn’t include everyone, and it was in imperfect substitute for real human contact.  We need to acknowledge the desire to attend live worship services, the concern among students of all ages that online learning is at best an imperfect substitute for live real time classrooms and labs, the missed scout troops and  team sports and outings to movie theaters and ball games and restaurants, the absence of a real live presidential election campaign, virtual conventions and festivals, and the inability to have neighborhood and extended family gatherings and vacations at the beach in the summer.

Yes, the workplace often is a community, but we all belong to multiple and overlapping communities.  Schools and colleges, churches, youth activities, bridge clubs, extended family, volunteer organizations—these are our communities. So are our cities and towns, who provide a lot of these opportunities to gather and are struggling with demands for first responder services and declining revenue from sales taxes and tourism.  These kinds of direct face-to-face contact with no computer screen intervening fill an important human need for community.  We are asked to wear masks and wash our hands frequently not just to protect ourselves but to protect the larger community, but in order to persuade people to do those things, they need to feel like a part of the community. If we don’t get to experience other people directly, our sense of being in community and being responsible to and for the well- being of that community. Health and economic activity are only two components of that well being.

Maybe with months of electronic church services, on-line classes,  on-line shopping, Zoom meetings for work and social interaction, and virtual experiences of entertainment, we won’t want to return to those communities when the pandemic ends.  Or the communities will no longer exist. We are already seeing malls and retailers closing, smaller colleges wondering if they will survive a prolonged reliance on distance learning, children and youth getting used to being loners instead of part of a class, team, or other group.  Even travel, where we broaden our horizons with new experiences of people and places, is experiencing a dramatic decline in a large part of the industry including air travel, cruises, hotel stays, and other kinds of business travel and tourism, an economic challenge with a strong social dimension.  If we don’t find a way to resume in-person experiences of people and places, communities and community institutions, these programs, services and communities can wither and die, and revival will be hard.

So I invite you to reflect on the communities to which you belong and how some of them might be able to occasionally assemble in person, with masks and social distancing, in small numbers. Add your voice to the reopening debate. Reopen with lots of masks, hand washing, and deep cleaning. The pandemic has already killed more than 90,000 Americans. Let’s ensure that it does not kill some of our cherished social institutions from NASCAR to college to community worship as well.


Five Pieces a Day


I owe a debt to two of my teachers about how to get myself to do things I don’t find very appealing.  My mother was a compulsive ironer. It wasn’t that she liked ironing, she just had it in her head that everything needed ironing, even my brother’s boxer shorts.  So she set a goal of ironing five pieces every day.  It was apparently enough to stay abreast of the ironing basket.

My friend Fran, with whom I taught a course and wrote a book  about decluttering, had a similar way of overcoming resistance.  She recommended that we set the timer for 15 minutes and do whatever we can in that time, whether it is cleaning our kitchen drawers or bringing order to the garage.  If you don’t finish the task, you can either continue or not when the timer dings. Even if your choice is “not,” the next iteration of the task will be less daunting tomorrow.

Learning from these two teachers,  I have been mulching my flower beds with weeding, newspaper, and putting down mulch as a natural weed control strategy.  My simple rule is not five pieces, not 15 minutes but one bag of mulch a day.  I weed a good stretch, lay down four layers of newspapers, open a bag of mulch, and spread it over the newspapers. My ability to estimate the amount of newspaper I can cover with one bag has improved as I work my way around my flower beds, and the task is now at the point where I can envision the end.

Before applying this good principle to the yard, I had long used it to manage my work on writing and other tasks that stretched over long periods of time.  Five hundred words a day on the sermon, blog, or chapter. File papers or clean out one paper file and eliminate 100 emails and 10 documents form my computer.  It’s a very simple strategy, but it reduces a daunting task to manageable daily goals.

I also have used this approach to develop exercise habits.  I like segments, so I commit to three 20-minute daily exercise routines, usually one on the exercycle, one for Jazzercise, and one dog walk, although it may vary.  And all before about 2 pm, because my urge to exercise declines after that time. It has worked so well that I resent days that don’t lend themselves to my full exercise routine.  The defined commitment of time or task is a great way to develop good habits and feel good about having done what you have committed to do. I manage my day as best I can to get my three segments in.  The dog is particularly unforgiving if her turn is neglected.

So, where are the backlogs in your life? Cleaning the pantry and bookshelves? Decluttering? Yard work? Writing? Balancing the checkbook?  Take the daunting overall goal, especially when the task will continue to pile up—ironing, weeding, deleting emails, cleaning files—and make a limited commitment to address it on a recurring basis, daily or weekly, for a finite time or a finite amount of task completed.

Give it a try!  You have nothing to lose but frustration, guilt,  and chaos.


Life Lessons from the Pandemic


What have I, we, some of us learned from the last three months that will change the way we live and interact when  we return to “normal?”

  1. We have a responsibility for self-care both to ourselves and to everyone else.
  2. Preventing deaths from a pandemic is not costless, not just in economic terms but in the quality of life for survivors.
  3. There are multiple ways of staying connected, but technology is a mixed blessing, excluding some, empowering others but providing less than real human contact for others.
  4. It is clear that working at home will evolve from a trend to a new norm in many occupations. But it too has a shadow side, isolation for some, distractions and disruptions for others.
  5. We need to be better prepared for future pandemics, because an overcrowded globe has greater opportunities for transmission (animal to human, human to human).
  6. Science is not fact. Science is theories supported by statistical evidence that the theory is probably true. The circumstances of human life and of the planet is the context in which scientific evidence is heard and weighed against other considerations, values and priorities that are economic, social, political, spiritual, and psychological in nature.
  7. Life has been disrupted for our children and young adults in ways they will carry with them into their future.
  8. Online learning is not the wave of the future, but rather a tool that complements rather than supplanting in-person and hands on-learning. The acquisition of knowledge and understanding is contextual and interpersonal.  Ever try learning how to ride a bicycle  by watching a YouTube video?
  9. We put too much faith in science as a savior and not enough in the potential positive change from altering human behavior, whether by personal practice and example or by regulation and education. No one can do it alone. We have to change the culture to be willing to acknowledge that we are less autonomous and more interdependent.
  10. Government is neither Santa Claus nor oppressive dictator but rather a tool for living together in a community of mutuality and shared responsibilitiy. Next time you talk to a candidate for public office, ask him/her how they feel about that understanding of government.
  11. Be safe. Be well. Be careful. Be kind.


Healthy Body, Healthy Wallet


There is an old saying in Latin, Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. Some contemporary comedians have adapted that saying to “healthy mind, healthy body, take your pick! “ If we substitute succulus (purse or wallet) for mens, then it appears that in the current pandemic Americans are being asked to choose between corpore sano and succulus sano, a healthy body or a healthy wallet (or economy).  But the choice is not at all that simple.  Like body and mind, body and economic health do not have to be either/or. They can and should be both/and.  In fact, perhaps this pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on how we can make the economy and public health and well-being into partners, not antagonists.

In the short run, the answer is fourfold–testing, patience, caution, and focused support for those who are struggling financially.  Testing is coming, hopefully to be followed by a vaccine. Patience and caution are what brought China, Singapore, and other places through the end of the tunnel and into the light.  Patience and caution are not popular attitudes in our culture of instant gratification and short time horizons, but they are both qualities we need to cultivate, respect and encourage if we are to survive as a nation and even as a species. In Aristotle’s scheme of the four cardinal virtues, prudence (a blend of patience and caution) and temperance shared the honors with the more “manly” virtues of courage and justice. So, as the first George Bush might say, prudence is where we need to be. In other words, in a culture where we all want the freedom and irresponsibility of adolescents, it is a good time to evoke our inner adult and to model adult behavior for the next generation.

Turning to the wallet part,reopening the economy has been posed as a question of personal freedom.  But our personal freedom has always been constrained when our exercise of that freedom would pose risks of great harm to others.  Freedom, like any other assumed right, cannot stand alone without responsibility.  If we use our freedom irresponsibly, there are consequences to ourselves and others. Masks, social distancing, better personal hygiene—all responsible forms of patience and caution–should not be so much to ask.  As well as patience with a gradual process of widening our opportunities for personal contact and letting people return to work.  I know it’s easy for me to call for patience when I am not unemployed and relatively healthy.  But the consequences of too much haste in throwing off the constraints could be deadly–for you, for others, and for the economy, leaving us with neither healthy bodies nor healthy wallets.

It’s fine to respond to the request for patience, self-isolation, hand sanitation, masks, social distancing to protect ourselves and others.  But what can we DO? Because to our credit as well as discredit,we are a nation of doers rather than “be-ers.” Give us action! How can we help? Here are some simple suggestions.  These are not for those without income, or those without enough income to get by, or those who are sick with the corona virus. If you are one of those, you don’t need to add guilt to your problems. No, I am talking to you wannabe Superhero action figures who want to feel you are doing something.

  1. So your trip was cancelled and you got a refund, you got a check from the government you didn’t really need, or you are retired like me, and at least so far, our pension checks and Social Security just kept coming.  Don’t just save it for a rainy day. This IS the rainy day. Hire someone out of work to help take care of your yard, pressure wash your driveway.  Give money and food to food banks.  Contribute to the United Way or other sources of local aid. Out of gratitude for health,  a job you can get paid for to work at home, and/or a dependable source of income, spread some of that surplus to those who need your help right now.
  2. Support your community. Get takeout from local restaurants. Buy gifts cards to give them cash flow.  Give more to your church to make up for those who can’t pay their pledges. Buy from local farmers. Or give it to the local United Way, or an international relief organization.  Check out Global Giving on line.
  3. Pitch in! There are lots of volunteer needs in the community that don’t require a high level of personal contact.  If you sew, make masks. I just heard that pantihose (we dont wear them any more,do we?) make a great liner for a mask, hard to penetrate even with  teeny-tiny a corona virus. If you cook, bring someone a home-cooked meal. No, you can’t visit people in nursing homes, but you can send a card or maybe make a phone call.  You can run errands for those whose health is too fragile to risk a trip to the grocery store.  You can supervise the neighbor’s kids for some outdoor time to let him or her get caught up on working at home.
  4. Write. Email. Facetime. Stay in touch. We are used to triple communication—hear, see, touch.  Touch is off the table right now, but seeing and heaingr is better than just hearing. Seeing a face is better than reading an email or letter. I have been to late afternoon wine and conversation on Zoom. Not to mention board meetings, committee meetings, and church services. I have even been to a Zoom birthday party for two of my sons-in-law who share a birthday.
  5. Get outdoors. The virus doesn’t live there.  Time in nature can heal all kinds of ailments. Walk in the woods, walk in the park if it’s open, get takeout from a restaurant and find a park bench and someone sitting a social distance away on another bench for a new kind of “doing lunch.”
  6. Be kind to yourself. Binge watch a Netflix series.  Read those books you have always meant to read. (I’m in the second volume of Tolkien’s Hobbit Series.) Take an on-line adult education class. I teach them, but I take them, too—right now I am getting ready to teach a class on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, and taking a class in Google Docs. Make yourself an interesting meal with a new recipe. Plant flowers. Or plant trees whose fruits will be there for generations after you.
  7. Be aware of how your life is changing, and what won’t happen after it’s all over. I know I will fly less and drive less, partly because I don’t need to go-go-go so much, and partly because of the impact I have seen on the environment of less fly and drive time. I have spent more time gardening and started a compost pile. I’ve discovered I like exercising online better than at the gym, because I can choose the time.
  8. Start a journal. A year from now, you will want to remember what it was like.  You should be journalling anyway. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth  living.”

So, back to the wallet. The short run economic solution, a hastily designed and poorly managed economic response by the federal government, has thrown money at programs that often fail to target the truly needy while often being captured by the truly greedy.  It reminds me of the quote from mid-20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who described preaching as similar to “dropping eye medicine from an eye dropper into the crowd below, hoping it will hit someone in the eye who needs it.” In the meantime, the already swollen federal deficit, fed by a greed-driven tax cut, is reaching unimaginable proportions that will have consequences for generations to come. As more of federal revenue is diverted to paying interest on a huge national debt, there will be challenges to funding our fundamental needs—not a wall with Mexico or more military hardware but health care, Social Security, education, infrastructure, environmental protection.  These are the government responsibilities that will be on the chopping block as we pay for the consequences of a hasty and poorly considered response. Not to mention not prudent.

For more thoughts on the long run…well, watch for the next blog. Speaking of long run, this has run on long enough.





Zoom In, Zoom Out

The pandemic is testing the impact of communications technology on American society.  On the one hand, those of us with ready access to and familiarity with social media, teleconferencing, Google Hangouts, Zoom and other means of communications have found it to offer human contact in a safe and clearly socially distancing form.  On the other hand, there are those who either lack access or just can’t get the hang of it. The old, the rural, the poor.  Many of the children set adrift from school miss the direct interpersonal contact and the way of learning that works for them.  The sunny side of technology is that it allows some of us to remain in touch, with virtual everything—classes, meetings, social gatherings, even church services. The shadow side is the left behinds.

I grew up in a left behind environment. My parents split when I was a toddler. No Dad and no child support meant not having what others had. I could live without dancing lessons and music lessons and travel. The two most important missing enrichments, other than an actual present father, were a car and, in the 1950s, a television. All my friends’ families had both. On the way to school they would talk about what they saw on TV and the places their family had been. I was a teenager before our family caught up.  I am now at the other end of the age spectrum, and while I am reasonably comfortable with at least some forms of social media and communications technology, many of my fellow senior citizens are not. Many of the upcoming generations don’t have the access that helps them feel like part of a common culture. Social distancing has widened the technology divide.

There’s also the personal dimension. Virtual presence is not the same as actual presence. Touch is  missing. Body languages is not as readily apparent, even on Zoom. On-line classes for K-12 are quite different from the interaction that takes place in the physical classroom.  Children have different learning styles and different degrees of parental support and supervision in the learning process, especially if parents are working from home. For college students, being present among peers is an important part of the transition to adulthood. For many occupations, conferences with their peers are an important way not just to stay abreast of new developments but also to network and socialize with their peers away from the workplace. That kind of experience is not replicated by teleconferencing.

This week I have a routine doctor’s appointment. It will take place on my iPhone with facetime, which is nice but definitely less personal.  I will get my Jazzercise online, and miss the presence of others in the room sharing the experience. I will watch a church service prepared on Zoom and broadcast on YouTube, but I would rather be saying the affirmation and singing the hymns amidst the familiar faces I know and love. I will get takeout from a restaurant once or twice to try to keep them in business, but it isn’t even close to eating with friends or family at a restaurant.  I will drink a glass of wine in the late afternoon with a group of friends, their faces all looking back on my Zoomcast. And I will long for the days of surprise visits, actual hugs, bringing cookies or a book to loan to a friend, and a sit -own restaurant meal.

So after pandemic, does normal mean same?  Probably not. The longer we have to practice social distancing ,the more different the world will be. One difference may be how much we shift from physical presence to virtual presence, and how many people are shut out from the contact they need in the process.

Be Kind to Prophets

A real prophet doesn’t just predict the future.  He or she predicts what will happen if we don’t come to our senses, repent of our sins, or practice social distancing.  Economists talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and self-negating prophecies.  For many of us, the most amusing self-fulfilling prophecy was by Johnny Carson many years ago on the Tonight Show when he predicted a toilet paper shortage.  People dashed out and stocked up, and his prophecy came true. Wall Street prophets exaggerate the swings in stock prices withtheir predictions, another common type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the most famous case of a self-negating prophecy was Jonah, who was sent to Ninevah to warn the people that if they did not mend their wicked ways, God would smite them.  Jonah didn’t want to go, but after seeing in the inside of a whale, he reluctantly delivered the message.  The people of Ninevah repented, and God spared them.  But Jonah took some heat from people who failed to pay attention to the if…then nature of his prophecy.  It is never easy to be that kind of prophet, whether you are predicting climate disaster, football championships, or medical nightmares.

The medical prophets predicted anywhere from 100,000 to over a million deaths in the United States form the corona virus.  Early indicators suggested they were right, because we were both unprepared and undisciplined. Warned in early January, we had some preparation time, much of which was wasted while we minimized the danger and failed to ramp up needed supplies.  But then a surprising thing happened.  Governors took on the leadership role, and their key response was creating and encouraging, sometimes mandating social distancing by shutting down schools, businesses and facilities, encouraging wearing masks and handwashing, and forbidding large gatherings.  While there were pockets of resistance, something like 90 percent of Americans were staying home and protecting themselves and others.  Overnight we were studying, working, exercising, attending worship and having gatherings of friends on the internet. The states and the people rose to the challenge.

Those were if…then forecasts.  If we didn’t ramp up our defenses, those scary big death forecasts might well have happened.  But we did act collectively, and it looks like the death rate is going to be much lower. So when this is all over and life returns to some kind of normal, please don’t shoot the messengers for what seemed like unduly alarming us.

Remember Jonah and Nineveh, and be thankful that we had enough good advice, good sense, and good state governments to keep the worst from happening.  And next time—because there will be a next time—we as a nation, not just a collection of states, need to be better prepared.



Virtual Visiting in a Time of Crisis

Human interaction is vital to our emotional and even physical health.  We interact with sound, sight, and touch.  Social distancing means no touching, at least outside the household,  but technology has given us the opportunity to add sight to sound.  What a difference Zoom, Facetime, Skype, and live streaming can make! Churches are live streaming services in a variety of ways, some of which are interactive, others not.  Virtual meetings are being held for business, community groups, governments and  social organizations, although it doesn’t work for golf, bridge, or quilting groups. Government bodies are holding meetings via conferencing software.  Book clubs can discuss their reading with software help.

Most students from kindergarten through college are now finishing courses online, which has been a logistical challenge (or a learning opportunity?) for teachers, parents and students. Some of that is interactive, seeing each other in real time; others are recorded and watched.  It’s a poor substitute for being present with your peers, but it’s a lot better than it would have been 20 years ago because of the communications tools we have acquired.

I was teaching two classes in journaling when the two organizations that had scheduled them shut down, so my students, many of them senior citizens, quickly adapted to online meetings to finish the classes.  Informal groups have organized on-line happy hours, just you, your computer, and your friends, face to face.  And as for those special friends, Facetime on a smart phone is the easiest of all to use.  I had three conversations with close friends via Facetime yesterday, and while a hug would have been nice, we wouldn’t have done that even if we met in person.

Virtual socializing is not the only skill we have learned from this pandemic. We have  learned creative ways to shop, even for groceries, to order takeout, to visit the doctor with telemedicine. I had been procrastinating on joining the local on-line farmers’ market, but this was the push I needed. It was an easy way to shop, especially because I could bypass  hoarding-induced shortages of meat and fresh vegetables in traditional stores, and it offered a convenient local pickup. A recent NPR story highlighted getting reacquainted with your kitchen as more than a storage place for snacks, dishes, and a microwave. Being at home more and with no hectic schedule for music lessons, dance lessons, sports practices and other child activities, the family dinner may be rediscovered.

Each of us who are healthy and want to contribute to helping others cope with the challenges of the corona pandemic has to find a way to make a difference.  I applaud my friend making face masks and the one helping hand out food to elementary school students.  I have contributed to the United Way and the local food bank, as have many others.  But my particular focus is to help people stay in contact with each other that at least involves both sound and sight. I am actively engaged in two communities, my church and the League of Women Voters.  We need to stay connected, but gatherings are out.  So I  upgraded my Zoom account to include more time and people, taught them how to use it, and set up meetings for small groups (committees, discussion groups, social groups, informational meetings, classes) in both places. I am working on using Zoom for family conversations and neighborhood groups.  One on one, my phone conversations always are by Facetime if the other person has a smart phone, which most do, and I am making more phone calls instead of using email or texting.

Virtual visiting is my personal contribution.  May you be well, and may the crisis be short, and may you find a way to be part of the glue that holds our society together as we weather this crisis. And may we all emerge from this crisis more conscious of the need (and tools!) for regular human interaction with sight and sound, and looking forward to eventually again, resuming touch.

Reflections on Friendship

An old friend of mine, getting ready to leave a public office he had held for 14 years, explained why: Friends come, friends go. Enemies accumulate.  I probably have enemies I am unaware of, but I was more struck by the friends come, friends go part.  I don’t have any close friends from high school with whom I have stayed in touch , but two college friends maintain regular contact.  My late husband and I were together for 56 years, from first date until death did us part. His sister is still a dear friend.  I moved to Clemson 54 years ago, and my first friend is still my good friend. One of my very closest friends has been part of my life for 43 years.

Yes, friends go.  Some die, or move away, and we lose touch. When marriages end through death or divorce, some married friends become less available, and we loners are more inclined seek the company of others who also live alone.  That’s part of life.  What I have never adapted well to are the friendships that spring up, are fairly intense, and then fade away.

Many years ago, there was a woman in my circle (neighbor, children the same age) whom I’ll call Penny.  She had a new best friend every six months.  I had my turn as her best friend. Penny was funny and outgoing and involved in lots of things, so she could always find a new best friend.  She finally found the right best friend and stuck with her for several years until the friend moved away. Penny was what one might call a friend consumer, looking on a friend as an experience to enjoy, get tired of and replace. Kind of like a car, or a piece of furniture, or a restaurant. I found it baffling.  For me, finding a friend with whom to share conversation, experiences, joys, sorrows, hopes and fears takes time and effort, so I want it to last.

One of my dearest friends died four years ago, but she taught me a great deal about friendship during the 18 years that we knew each other.  I learned to regard a deep friendship as a covenant, a mutual understanding of what we ask and expect from each other and what we give in return. That shared understanding of friendship is critical to acknowledging that someone has become a part of my inner circle.

Lasting and deep friendships—and I count four of those in my present inmost circle, another less intense group of seven or eight friends in the next circle—involve effort by both partners.  When a friend is suffering illness or grief or stress, we need to be there for her, counting on her to do the same for us. We need to laugh together, cry together, and vent without being judged or criticized when we are hurt or angry or frustrated. When there is conflict, and at some point there usually is, friends need to find ways to address it and move beyond it. Sometimes it’s a cooling off period, although in a truly covenantal relationship, there is a need to eventually talk about what happened.  My life only has emotional space for a few of those intense friendships at a time.

Some of us prefer to settle for less intimacy and honesty and feel safer in a more superficial and expendable relationship. Perhaps that’s what worked for Penny. There’s also a comfortable middle ground, in which friendships, like many marriages, settle into a pattern of familiarity that doesn’t require a lot of interaction.  I have several friends with whom I had been very close in the past because of regular interaction at church or work that I now see once a month for lunch, and I still enjoy their company, but it’s a different kind of friendship.  The initial intensity  has faded but there is still pleasure in each other’s company, affirming shared memories and often shared values.  But even if we drift apart, usually these are people we still count as friends. It is harder when a person whom you once regarded as part of your inner circle decide to defect to a more remote location without explanation, as happens from time to time. But that, too, is part of the dynamic of friendship.

In Eastern Europe, the First of March was International Friendship Day.  They pin red and white ribbons, buttons, stickers, or yarn figures  on their friends, advertising to the world how many friends they have.  I still have a yarn boy and girl from a visit to Bulgaria. But quality, depth, and intensity are at least as important as quantity of people you count as friends.  So a bit late for the occasion of International Friendship Day, and being observant of our current national health policy of social distancing, spend time with a friend today (just don’t hug!).  It will make your day, and the other person’s day too.




The Preacher and the Pragmatist


Margaret Marron writes mystery novels set in eastern North Carolina.  Her heroine is a lawyer turned judge.  Deborah Knott is a bootlegger’s daughter, the youngest and only girl in a family of boys.  Deborah is the name of one of the few female judges in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott always hears from her own version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  She calls these two inner voices the preacher and the pragmatist. I can relate to that.  The preacher is my inner theologian, the pragmatist my inner economist.

I am supposed to be strictly nonpartisan in my role as Co-president on the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, but I can do that and still vote in primaries, because South Carolina has open primaries, and I don’t always choose the same one. It was an easy choice of February 29th, the historic presidential primary in South Carolina that saved the candidacy of Joe Biden. That is, it was easy to choose to vote in the Democratic primary, because there was no Republican primary.  Come June, the Republican primary will be the interesting one. But which of the seven surviving presidential candidates to vote for?  The preacher and the theologian told me to vote for the one I thought would make the best president.  I knew the answer to that one, the choice of my oldest daughter and a dear friend f mine about my daughter’s age.  Elizabeth Warren.  Smart, competent, funny, experienced, energetic, not too far left. The preacher’s choice.  But in a crucial year, was she electable?—a pragmatist’s word if ever I heard one.

In 2020, who was the pragmatic choice?  I vacillated.  The ideal candidate is both a good campaigner and has the relevant skills, values and experience for the presidency. Each candidate had weaknesses. Joe Biden was not campaigning or polling well.  Sanders was too far left to win, Bloomberg was not an effective campaigner.  I thought that Mayor Pete’s youth, inexperience, and sexual orientation could be liabilities.  Klobuchar was appealing but not very inspiring. I finally settled on Tom Steyer, who debated well, had decent poll numbers, and came closest to my views on the issues.  He’s something of a pragmatist too. But so is the Democratic party, and Joe Biden was the pragmatic choice of the voters of South Carolina and is likely to ultimately be the choice of the Democratic party. A field of more than 20 candidates had systematically weeded out women, people of color, billionaires, a self-avowed socialist, and the lone LGBTQ candidate in favor of the safe choice. In politics, pragmatism means living by the maxim that the best is often the enemy of the good, or the good enough.  That’s an economist’s way of thinking.  Economist Kenneth Boulding always liked to point to the contrast between economic man and heroic man—the knight on the white horse fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, and the practical person on a plodding donkey—which happens to be the symbol of the Democratic party.

Pragmatism is about how we make collective choices.  In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.   He wrote that each of us may listen to the preacher on our shoulder as an individual,  but get us together in a situation of collective decision making—otherwise known as democracy—and we tend to sink toward the lowest common denominator.  Pragmatists all, we take what we can get and settle for less than we want.

Back in my working days I wrote textbooks with my dean and fellow economist, Ryan Amacher.  One day we got an ad flyer from our book on Principles of Economics with the clever title, Don’t Compromise Your Principles!  Ryan laughed. He said, I’m a dean, compromising my principles is what I do for a living.

So, preacher on my shoulder, what principles did I compromise?  The core of my faith tradition lies in the seven principles.  I compromised on the first,  respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The third, acceptance of one another and by implication, inclusiveness. The fifth, use of the democratic process, which I was unwilling to trust.

Our children have seen only one person of color as president.  Never a woman. The safe choice in uncertain times, means putting off for four more years the chance for a woman or another person of color or even both. By compromising, I helped to postpone the day when we will be truly inclusive at least as far as gender is concerned.  Obama proved that a person of color could be elected and served with dignity and honor. It calls to memory the fact that black men got the vote in 1868 while women of all races had to wait another 52 years. Let us hope that the same will not be true for a woman president.

Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Susan B. Anthony was too ill to get to the polls.

There was a deep division in the suffrage movement between focusing on the right to vote and a broader Equal Rights Amendment.  The prevailing pragmatists settled for the right to vote, figuring they could use the vote to make the other changes in divorce laws, child labor laws, access to health care, protection from domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, fair labor standards.  100 years later ERA is still unratified.

Pragmatism gets you half a loaf.  It keeps you from starving, but we can do better.  Sometimes we need to listen to the preacher on the other shoulder.


Political Tribalism

I am a life member of the League of Women Voters.  I organized the Clemson (SC) League in 1968 and currently serve as state co-president. So this blog reflects that particular tribe in which I am proud to claim membership.

It is human nature to identify with a tribe, whether that tribe’s base is ethnicity, religion, occupation, geography, income, politics, shared interests, or even sports teams.  (My native New England remains sharply divided even within families between Yankees and Red Sox loyalists.)  Most of us belong to multiple tribes, some overlapping more than others. Bonding with our tribes is part of how we develop our own identity and self-understanding.  But to make democracy work, we have to not only bond but also bridge—to communicate across tribal lines to others who perceive the world differently from the purview of their tribal identities.

Over the last few decades, aided and abetted by the proliferation of social media that cater to defined tribes, our civil society has degenerated into tribalism, hiding behind our barricades and shouting over the ramparts.  Theologian Paul Tillich defines neurosis as “retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas.”  By that definition, we are an increasingly neurotic society.

The League of Women Voters, committed to nonpartisanship, has had to learn to operate outside or across many tribal divisions. So we have a contribution to make not only to a vibrant democracy but perhaps to our collective mental health as well.  In voter service, we encourage everyone to participate in the political process, whether they share our hopes for the outcome or not.  We invite dialogue at candidate forms and insist that every candidate be treated with respect. In advocating with public officials, we seek common ground in trying to identify the public good and how we might best achieve it. In a world of yes/no, either/or, we stand for compromise, for that fundamental principle of public policy that the best is often the enemy of the good (or the good enough, or the good enough for now, or a move in the right direction.) It took 72 long years for our foremothers to win the right to vote, but they persisted. Compromise is not a  four-letter word.  It is the essence of being able to live together in spite of differences, whether it is in a family, a workplace, a neighborhood, a city, state or nation.

So as we move into the fray of electoral politics, remember that our task is, as Rudyard Kipling said, to keep our heads when all of those around us are losing theirs and blaming it on you (or us). As we begin our next century of serving the public interest and rising above our tribal allegiances, let us be mindful in this year of the centennial of the 19th amendment, we are in it for the long haul.