One America?

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What is our American story today? Is there a narrative that unites us, or are many stories competing with one another?

As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit. And while few are willing to take on this huge question, David Brooks is. Here is part of what he shared in, “The Unifying American Story.”

For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.

The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn’t make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence.

The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land. The waves of mobility — from east to west, from south to north — were also seen as Exodus journeys. These people could endure every hardship because they were serving in a spiritual drama and not just a financial one.

The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists.

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.

It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.

Want more? You can read this fascinating article here.

Rude?

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Society has a rich history of people seizing on social evolution as an excuse for bad manners. From the Romantic poets to the transcendentalists to the Summer of Love hippies, many have rejected a supposed facade of good behavior in favor of being true to their inner nature. Good manners are mere mannerisms, the argument goes, which serve only to put barriers in the way of deeper connections.

That’s why this article in the New York Times, “Am I Introverted, or Just Rude?” spoke to me, and I think it might speak to you. It explores the benefits – and risks – of being introverted and not trying to “morph” into being even a bit of extrovert. A powerful difference – I think so. It’s no accident that “Introvert-Extrovert” represents the first part of the Myers-Briggs type indicator.

Want more? Read this intriguing article here.

Enlightened America?

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Are we Americans enlightened? David Brooks gave us something to think about in a recent piece in the New York Times. Here is part of what he shared:

“When anti-Enlightenment movements arose in the past, Enlightenment heroes rose to combat them. The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions.”

“De Tocqueville came along and said that if a rules-based democratic government was going to work anywhere it was going to be the United States. America became the test case for the entire Enlightenment project. With his distrust of mob rule and his reverence for law, Abraham Lincoln was a classic Enlightenment man. His success in the Civil War seemed to vindicate faith in democracy and the entire Enlightenment cause.”

The forces of the Enlightenment have always defeated the anti-Enlightenment threats. When the Cold War ended, the Enlightenment project seemed utterly triumphant. But now we’re living in the wake of another set of failures: the financial crisis, the slow collapse of the European project, Iraq. What’s interesting, Hill noted, is that the anti-Enlightenment traditions are somehow back. Nietzschean thinking is back in the form of Vladimir Putin. Marxian thinking is back in the form of an aggressive China. Both Russia and China are trying to harvest the benefits of the Enlightenment order, but they also want to break the rules when they feel like it. They incorporate deep strains of anti-Enlightenment thinking and undermine the post-Enlightenment world order.

Want more? You can read this fascinating article here.

It’s the Economy Stupid

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It has been a quarter-century since Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” as a focusing metaphor for Clinton’s campaign workers as the campaign sought to unseat a sitting president, George H.W. Bush. It worked, and Clinton became our 42nd president by driving home the message that he could fix America’s economy.

Most agree that he did, but since then, the U.S. economy has been on roller coaster ride of boom and bust. Many of us feel that the nation is moving forward from the depths of the 2008 recession.

But are we really making progress? David Brooks asks this question in his op-ed piece, “This Century is Broken.” Brooks suggests that the 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order. Then he points out that at the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. His thoughts are chilling:

Read this intriguing, and troubling, article here.

America and the Oscars

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I suspect many of you watched the Academy Awards show Sunday night – all four-hours worth – closer to eight if you count the Red Carpet warm-up.

Many of us think that art imitates life and that the kind of movies nominated for the Oscar represent us – American writ large.

That’s why I found this article “America as Told by the Oscars,” so riveting and eye-opening. It spoke to me, and I think it will speak to you. Here is part of what the writer said:

“For years, the Academy Awards reliably recognized movies that attempted to capture the sweep of the American idea — in earnest films like “Forrest Gump” and “Saving Private Ryan” as well as more scorching efforts like “There Will Be Blood” — that seemed to want to define the country, and its people, all at once. If you wanted a shot at a best-picture Oscar in that era, an ambitious statement film that tried to tell Americans who they really are was a good bet.”

“The narrow, personal focus of this year’s top Oscar nominees suggests how tough it may be for Americans, or Hollywood, to settle on a single unifying vision of what America means, or what it means to be an American. It may never again be possible for one movie to fully answer those questions. More likely, it never was.”

“Yet this year’s best-picture crop may have provided an answer — in the notion that there is no one American story, but a variety of specific and unique American stories, and in the idea that America is a nation of both individualism and pluralism. You might think of the movies in the best-picture category as a kind of expanded cinematic universe — not of superheroes, but of ordinary, extraordinary lives, overlapping and intersecting in a sprawling national epic too big for any one film.”

“Of course, that means the task is more difficult for moviegoers as well: If you really want to find out what America looks like, you have to watch all of them.”

You can read this fascinating article here.

What in the World?

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We have access to so much information, we should always be able to find precisely what we want to. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Sadly, this isn’t the case. We are bombarded with information on multiple fronts and for most of us, separating the wheat from the chaff is difficult, often extraordinarily so.

That’s why a recent report from the non-partisan World Economic Forum is so refreshing. In a few hard-hitting charts we learn important facts ranging from: The top ten global economies, to what countries are rising fastest, to global risks we need to be concerned about, to so much more.

Thought provoking? You can read the full report here.

Now What?

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Few writers can dissect an issue as well as The New York Times David Brooks. It’s no surprise then that he recently took to the op-ed page to discuss the woman’s march on Washington. Here is part of what he shared:

“The women’s marches were a phenomenal success and an important cultural moment. Most everybody came back uplifted and empowered. Many said they felt hopeful for the first time since Election Day. But these marches can never be an effective opposition to Donald Trump.

In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”

These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities. But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.

All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.”

Here is where his message is compelling:

“Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements — the civil rights movement. But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, and the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.

Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. They have a social experience with a lot of people and fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community. Such movements descend to the language of mass therapy.”

Thought provoking? You can read the full article here.

King of the Court

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Roger Federer won the Australian Open men’s singles tennis title a week ago in an epic match against arch-rival Rafael Nadal. This five-set match was one for the ages, and marked the 18th Tennis Majors title for Federer, adding to his record setting majors trophy haul.

When Roger Federer broke on the tennis scene well over a decade ago, most sensed excellence and some sensed greatness. But one person saw the truly astonishing excellence we witnessed last Sunday.

David Foster Wallace, recognized as one of the greatest novelists of his generation, was also an avid tennis fan and an admirer of Roger Federer. In 2006, he captured Federer’s greatness in a sublime article in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” Here is part of what he said:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

“This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.”

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Best Year Ever?

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It’s nearly impossible to read a news story or hear a network or cable broadcast without coming to the conclusion that we’re moving backwards, and that, to use the now-trite phrase, the world is “going to hell in a hand basket.”

That’s why Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times op-ed is so refreshing. It turns this gloom and doom on its head and instead of relying on “alternative facts,” looks at where we stand in the realm of human progress. Here is part of what he said:

There’s a broad consensus that the world is falling apart, with every headline reminding us that life is getting worse.

Except that it isn’t. In fact, by some important metrics, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity. And 2017 will probably be better still. Here, take my quiz:

On any given day, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty:

A.) Rises by 5,000, because of climate change, food shortages and endemic corruption.

B.) Stays about the same.

C.) Drops by 250,000.

Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same. But in fact, the correct answer is C. Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures.

Or if you need more of a blast of good news, consider this: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more. If just about the worst thing that can happen is for a parent to lose a child, that’s only half as likely today as in 1990.

When I began writing about global poverty in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be. (Extreme poverty is defined as less than $1.90 per person per day, adjusted for inflation.)

Want more? You can read the full article here.

A New Year Revolution

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Made any New Year’s resolutions yet? Most who do focus on improving their lives in some way. But is this the smart play. What about resolving to accept yourself the way you are. I just read a compelling New York Times article by Jennifer Weiner who suggests we do just that. Here is part of what she shared:

But here we are, once again, in the month of New Year’s resolutions; the month where even the staunchest believer in self-acceptance can find herself falling for the pitchmen and the first-month-free come-ons. This year, the notion of self-improvement feels especially seductive. Diets, and resolutions in general, are all about hope — hope that things can get better, hope that you are going to actually learn that new language, de-clutter that junk drawer, lose those 20 pounds for good.

No matter what bit of 2016 has left you feeling battered and bludgeoned and blue, the siren song of self-improvement has never sounded louder. We can’t heal the divides in the country, can’t stop violence, and can’t keep death from taking the artists and actors who defined our youth. We can’t magically extend the term of a president who did not tweet as if he was channeling a furious, academically challenged 12-year-old, but maybe we can at least squeeze into our jeans from the era before it all went wrong.

Thought provoking? You can read the full article here.