Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The first verse of our national anthem is a question. We almost never sing the other verses–honestly, they’re not nearly as inspired, and they’re more than a tad jingoistic. No loss. But the first verse is a question worth asking, every day.

I don’t mean to be unpatriotic, but I do mean to say say we should always check in, because the answer to the question “Are we free this morning?” is never guaranteed for anyone. It’s just as uncertain now as it was 200 years ago, when Francis Scott Key was stuck on a British ship the morning after the decisive Battle of Baltimore and couldn’t see what flag was flying over Fort McHenry.

This is why I still get teary-eyed at the anthem. I’m not childish enough to worship the flag or the various nationalist myths that surround this country’s founding or destiny, but I do appreciate how fragile and precious the right answer to that particular question is. And the answer can change at any time. It’s important to keep asking and working to make sure the answer is what we want.

Reflections after mugging

About a month ago, I had a really nice day. Er, well, I had a really nice day until I was assaulted by three men in an attempted robbery. I ran and I’m ok, just a couple bruises and a headache. Although, my glasses unfortunately didn’t survive. … Anyway, it was a really nice day and I took a picture of these tulips, below, in Mt. Vernon earlier that day.

I was lucky in a lot of ways, some in my control and some not.

More than anything, I think the incident speaks to the crucial value of being in shape if you can be. First, when one of them knocked against me, I kept my balance and didn’t go to the ground. It would have gone very differently if I’d gone to the ground. I remember vividly being aware (almost single-pointedly) of just “don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall”. … my takeaway is, those ballet classes and core exercises and yoga were a worthwhile investment of my time, and one I’ll continue making.

And second, I ran fast. I have no clue how I got through or what happened right before I bolted, but I bolted and didn’t look back for the next quarter mile. I rarely run because of an old injury, but I walk something like 10-15 miles a week, at a pretty brisk pace. Apparently that was enough, and I’m gonna keep that up, too.

But with that said, a lot wasn’t in my control.

I didn’t have direct control over the more-or-less reflexive things I did or didn’t do… I have very little training on how to handle fights, and somehow I made the (right) decision to run rather than lose a 3 vs 1 fight. Many people, I’m told, mess that decision up. I didn’t have any control over the fact that they didn’t have (or maybe chose not to use) any weapons. I didn’t have control over their apparent decision to stop chasing me. I didn’t have control over the location–it was a familiar street and area for me, and once I ran I had a plan within two seconds. I got lucky in all those ways.

But most importantly, I didn’t have control over bumping into three kids looking to mug passers-by. They were just out on the prowl. I’ve never had any trouble walking that particular street before, even at night… they were just there this time. There’s literally nothing I can do to eliminate the chance of random, absurd events like this happening, no matter how many street corners I avoid. In the past few days, among other emotions, I’ve honestly laughed a few times about how absurd & random the whole thing was.

We really don’t have control over much in life. I thought I’d accepted this already, but this took it to a new level. I’m sure I’ll be mulling over this new perspective on reality for a while, and I’m curious to see if I change anything about the way I live my life.

“Don’t you look for a lamp?”

It’s probably obvious to everyone that 2016 is a season ripe for some kind of alternative–most of us, regardless of partisan affiliation, recognize on some level that politics as usual has been a failure for our needs. Wealth disparity: no meaningful action. Climate change: no meaningful action. Structural racism: no meaningful action. “Meaningful” would involve substantially changing society as a whole system such that the problems don’t occur, and that’s just not how we’ve been doing politics.

This, I believe, is why both Bernie and Trump have gotten so much traction: there is a dissatisfaction that the real problems are not being talked about as such, and they talk about them. I’d guess Trump is mostly only pushing emotional buttons and doesn’t actually have useful solutions, and I’d say it’s entirely possible that Bernie’s solutions might be too late, even if he’s elected. And I’d say that it’s a toss-up as to what would happen if any other candidate wins: the same forces of social dissatisfaction could push them toward change (good or bad), or they could try to stave off change and just make it worse for the next election.

This is not an isolated pattern in history. Similar problems, and stifled discussion, existed in the Middle East and North Africa in advance of the Arab Spring. Similar circumstances existed in Germany after WWI. Similar circumstances existed in the United States before the Civil War. Many other countries tried to make a change through Communism. None of those situations turned out especially well. And let’s not even get into the French Revolution or the Khmer Rouge. Just awful.

It’s true that there have, in history, been some good, constructive leaders in these situations. The first ones that come to mind, for me, are Lincoln, Ataturk, Gandhi, and Washington, who all rose to power under roughly similar circumstances requiring fundamental policy changes (although I don’t know if that’s how they would have phrased it) and saw those changes through. We usually regard them fondly in history, although I suspect they were just riding (or, swept up in) existing waves of social change–it’s telling, for example, that Gandhi opposed nationalism and was assassinated, and that Washington opposed partisanship but his precedents in that regard didn’t last after he left office.

So I just feel like we’ve heard the song that both Bernie and Trump are singing a few times already. Their verses are different, but they’re singing almost the same hook… and the hook is the part everyone actually sings. What really seems to matter in politics is not what the putative leader sings so much as what the population sings in response. I guess I can always hope that it will go differently this time–that this time, we’ll see the start of the next Pax Romana, Egyptian Middle Kingdom, or Song dynasty–but that’s difficult for me.

The thing about these systems? These systems that we as a populace are sufficiently aware of to feel dissatisfaction but not quite enough to articulate why? They aren’t necessarily the ones we leap to the first time we consciously ask “what’s wrong here?”. The salient systems at play in a situation aren’t necessarily the ones we can see right away. There’s a whole universe of factors at play in any given dissatisfaction, and it’s tricky to tell which factors you’re missing, let alone which factors are the most relevant. Following a rising social tide to a shining shore, and then seeing the tide withdraw abruptly, is another system, and it turns out–if you’ve read your history and your political philosophy–that we’ve known about these kinds of tides for literally millennia. Human nature hasn’t really changed in all that time.

There’s only so much that any one person has control over, whether they’re a president or just some citizen. We’re responsible for what we have control over in the progression of politics and history, but the rest of it is out of our control, and putting too much energy toward it takes energy away from other things we do have control over. We have control over our lives and we have effects on the lives around us, but we generally don’t have control over history, only over how we respond to it.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I (quaint little homer) think the real solution, if you’re serious about saving the world, is to get educated, plan and cast your vote (or other actions, if you’re in a position to have other ways to affect the political process), and then turn away from the political cycle, whether it’s the little four-year-presidential one or the bigger history-is-happening one. That’s a cycle of inevitability. Then turn to other constructive pursuits. Turn away from the picture box and turn to the big picture. Turn to reading old books about history and philosophy, and help save human knowledge. Turn to gardening and learning science, and help people eat and stay alive. Learn how to communicate well, turn your conversations toward less volatile ideas, and help calm down the social discourse. Maybe turn to meditation, art, or prayer.

That’s what I think the right course of action for any one person is: turning mostly away. I think I’m mostly turned away. I could be wrong about that, but assuming I’m truly looking at the other side–well, I can’t really describe what’s on the other side, except to say that I find it empowering and I actually find hope there–hope that I don’t find in politics.