Nora’s First Published Fiction

My four-year-old daughter and I are seated at my desk. She’s curled up in a comfortable chair with a warm blanket on top of her. I’m at the keyboard. We’ve decided to write a story together,

“What should it be called?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“I should name it The Doggy Who Was Lost in the Forest.”

“That sounds good,” I say. “So how does it begin?”

“Okay. I’m just writing in the letters here.” She scratches with a red marker on a piece of paper she’s holding. The paper is on a clipboard. “There,” she says. “I’ve got it dad.

“Beginning that day,” she continues, “everybody was at the celebration. We were all there, except Lila. She was always coming for dinners, but this day, she was all lost. But her dog was also lost in the forest. She knowed nothing to do, but she knowed a friend.  But all that day, it grew dark. And everybody in the world happened to be scared, except Lila. It was so dark and so stormy. She saw a creature called the Lila-taker, and that monster, her name was that because she wanted to take every kid whose name was Lila in the city. And it grew darker, and darker, and darker. All that day — once a year, every year they would all gather around the Lila tree to taste…”

“Don’t start telling the story of Trolls,” I say.

“It’s a little like,” she answers. “They wanted to taste true happiness.”

“No, not like Trolls. We’re not gonna tell the Trolls story. Let’s back up. So it grew darker and darker… Maybe you want to talk about her dog.”

“I don’t know how to make up any dog parts.”

“So what’s the dog’s name?”

“John,” she answers. “Yeah, I like this. You ask me questions about the dog, and then I’ll do it. Okay?”

“Okay. John is lost in the woods. What does he see?”

“He doesn’t see anything. He’s dead.”

“He’s dead?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Okaaaaay,” I say. “Tell me about the kitty that you mentioned at dinnertime.”

“Ask me questions about it.”

“What’s the kitty’s name?” I ask.

“Mmmm…Stuart.”

“And where is Stuart?” I ask.

“At home.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Sleeping.”

“How does he figure into the story?”

“What does that mean?” she says.

“Well, you have Lila lost in the woods…”

“Lila’s not lost in the woods. She’s at the celebration.”

“Oh, right,” I answer. “Okay…soooo…you have Lila at the celebration, her dog is lost in the woods, and Stuart is sleeping at home, and there are Lila-takers….where are the Lila-takers?”

“In the truck.”

“In a truck?”

“In a truck with dogs.”

“Okay,” I say. “So what does Lila want?”

“Umm…a party.”

“But she’s at a party.”

“No,” she corrects me, “She’s at a celebration.”

“Who else is at the celebration?”

“Um…Lila’s parents, her cousins, Jayden…um…Maddie and Caleb.”

“And those are her cousins?” I ask.

“And Caleb, yeah.”

“What are they celebrating?”

“Don’t know exactly how to tell you this. Hmmm. A kitty.”

“Stuart?”

“They’re celebrating Stuart,” she says.

“Okay. So, you’ve Lila celebrating…is Stuart her kitty?”

“Stuart is Lila’s kitty.”

“And where are the Lila-takers?”

“I told you!,” she says. “In a truck! I already told you. Did you not know that?”

“I forgot. Sorry. So what happens in the story?”

“So the Lila-takers, they’re in a phone patch.”

“A phone patch?”

“Uh-huh. So they’re inside a phone.”

“Okay,” I say.

“And they all deserve to hug. To eat, to taste, and hug.”

“Is this Trolls again?”

“Nooooo!”

“Okay, so what happens next?”

“They all…want…lots of Lilas, but there’s only just one Lila.”

“And then what?” I ask.

“Because…they…they…I mean…want Lilas and they really like Lilas.”

“So what do they do about it?”

“They kind of just hug. Do what do about what?”

“So we have the Lila-takers, Lila…”

“Monsters.”

“Aren’t the Lila-takers monsters?” I ask.

“There are monster Lila-takers and there are human Lila-takers. And dada?”

“Yep.”

“What did I just say?”

“You said…um…we have Lila-takers that are monsters and that are not monsters…”

“Daddy?”

“Yeah.”

“Can we write a song too?”

“Sure.”

“Right now?”

“Sure.”

“That was the whole story. That’s a long story right? Now we can write a song, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Um…I don’t…” She stands up and climbs onto my lap. “Dad, you have to erase all of that.”

“No.”

“You have to! I didn’t mean that! It wasn’t in the story! Daddy, no!”

And that was the end of that.

 

They Can’t Get No…

I’m trying to figure out what a person needs to be satisfied. I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, because I know several people who are not satisfied in their lives and they’ve come to me for help, and two, because we have a problem in this world with our wealthy class seemingly not being able to feel that enough is ever enough, and I’d like to understand why.

Generally speaking, I’m a very happy man.

What contributes to my happiness? First and foremost, of course, is my family. My wife truly is my best friend, and while we annoy each other to no end and snipe at each other about household chores as much as any other married couple, we also love to have intellectually and emotionally stimulating conversations that help each of us grow together as human beings.

My four-year-old daughter, obviously, makes me happy.

I also have good relationships with my extended family. The fact that I live in a different state from them helps — as George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family living in another city.” I love all of them with all my heart, and I enjoy spending time with them whenever we get the chance, but I also enjoy not having to deal with the daily drama that would come from all of us being together for too long.

The second thing that contributes to my happiness is my job. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details, but from a general perspective, what makes the job so satisfying is that it is deeply and authentically meaningful to me. My company has a mission that speaks to my passions, and my input on the best way to achieve that mission is truly valued by my employer and my peers. Virtually any responsibility or task I want to take on is made available to me, allowing me to improve my skills and my understanding, and if things become too overwhelming, my colleagues are willing to let me adjust as necessary.

Could my wife and I make more money? Of course, but if we didn’t have our student loans and weren’t concerned about retirement or our daughter’s college tuition, we’d basically be making as much money as we’d need, so I don’t have much room to complain.

The third thing is my community. I live in a rural village of about 3,500 people. My wife works in the public middle school, so she knows virtually everyone, and we’ve lived in town going on 15 years, so essentially every face is a familiar face. It’s also a community where our friends are consciously thinking about and acting out the very concept of community — i.e., most of them are academics (even if not in an official sense) whose fields of interest somehow relate to the idea of creating a vibrant local ecology, human or otherwise — which means they try their best to stay connected to one another, to spend quality time with one another, and to support and inspire one another.

Family, career, and community. That’s what makes me such a satisfied person. My friends who are unsatisfied often find one of them is lacking. The challenge comes when the pursuit of satisfaction in one of those areas risks your satisfaction in the others. For example, if you don’t find meaning in your job but your family loves your community, do you take the risk of accepting a more fulfilling job someplace else?

When it comes to the 1%, however, I’m completely at a loss.

There’s a book I haven’t read yet (but is now on my “to read” list) called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic ThinkersWhile researching for this post, I found an interesting selection from it, which reads:

The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times; and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As an ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.

Apparently (according the author anyway), until the rise of the market economy in the 18th century, the vast majority of human beings did not even consider the possibility that through discipline and hard work they could improve their material lives, which would make sense given the feudal nature of the economy and a pervasive religious dogma that valued striving for success in the afterlife rather than success in the here and now.

It’s not until the market economy comes along that people start to get the sense that they can actually improve their lot in life, provided they can put in the time and effort to do so.

I’m not going to talk here about the flaws in this particular theory, neither the part that says people didn’t strive to improve their lives prior to the market economy nor with the part that suggests that all it takes to become wealthy is a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic.

What I will do is talk about the natural desire of homo sapiens to protect what they think is theirs and to pursue what they think could be, both of which prioritize the future over the present. In the future, we want to keep what we already have. And in the future, we want to get what, by all rights, can be gotten.

But when do we stop looking over our shoulder to see what might be coming for us and stop looking at the horizon to see what we might be approaching, and instead look our lives up and down to see if everything we already have is actually all we’ll ever need?

In other words, what drives a billionaire like Donald Trump to do yet another “big deal” that will net him millions of dollars? What drives bankers to screw over millions of homeowners just to put more money in their already overly filled pockets? What drives a company like ExxonMobil — which (even with a recent 50% drop in profits) still generates more profits than virtually every other company in human history — what drives them to choose their financial bottom line over and above their social and environmental ones? What drives a Russian oligarch who already has billions of dollars to rob his fellow citizens of whatever wealth they can generate? What motivates a sitting member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires) to sell out his or her constituents to the highest bidder?

One of the world’s richest richest men, Carlos Slim, told Larry King that his motivation was not to make money, but to fulfill his vocation for numbers. He said, “When you have a vocation for numbers, you have many activities, and you will develop yourself professionally…I like investments, creation of investments and economic activities that come with investments.” The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, said that, “You’ve got to enjoy what you do every day, and for me that’s working with very smart people, it’s working with new problems.” The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote recently that what motivates him and his team is “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Are we to understand that the wealthy continue to generate wealth because they’re passionate about something whose byproduct is wealth? That might be true for some.

But how does that explain an already wealthy political leader who knowingly does harm through his or her actions just to put more money in his or her pocket? How does that explain billionaires such as the Koch brothers actively working to destroy the environment for the sake of their bottom line? How does that explain a billionaire in Texas lobbying for six years for the right to store nuclear waste on top of a number of aquifers?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand people like that.

Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.

On The Mind, Body, & (Not So Much) on the Soul.

A couple of nights ago, I was doing some creative writing around the concept of democracy. This wasn’t for a blog post, but for something else I’m working on.

So that’s the first thing. Stick a pin it.

The second thing is that, earlier today, I was talking with two of my students about the problems we face as a world, global problems such as climate change, poverty, disease, war and other forms of systemic violence, etc. After we differentiated between global problems and more localized problems, I asked the students to choose one problem that we could focus on. They selected “equal access to personal growth” and “equal rights.”

I then asked each of them to design their own superheroes, ones who could take on the global problem of equality. Each student had to decide not only on a name and superpower,  but also on a costume, weapon, motto, attitude, and day job (i.e., Clark Kent being a reporter).

One of the students called out her superpower right away: “I want to give people empathy.”

Boom. Done. Yes. Go. Run with that.

My other student had a more difficult time. Part of his hesitation may have been because he seemed to be feeling a little more down today than usual, but the other part was because these are really serious problems and there are no easy answers.

He finally said, after some back and forth,”I think my superhero would be considered a super villain.” His idea was that he would make everybody become part of a hive mind. His weapon would be that he would open his mouth and these little bugs would come flying out; the bugs would crawl into everyone’s brain and hook them into the hive mind.

He said that this would solve the problem because everyone in the world would pull together and strive for the exact same thing (in this case, equal rights and equal access). No one would stand in the way. No one would be the enemy. There’d be no racists, no sexists, no classists, etc., and hence no racism, no sexism, no classism, etc.

But he was hesitant because he thought this would be seen as a bad thing. We tend to believe in the sanctity of the individual, and he recognized that this superpower would rob people of their individuality by forcing them into the hive mind. Even though the hive mind would be striving for something good, the theft of their individuality would be seen as too much of an evil for the end goal to be worth it, and thus his super hero would be seen as a super villain.

So that’s the second thing.

The third thing is another class I’m teaching. I’ve spoken about this one before: my class on the Philosophy of Death. The students’ homework is to write a 500-word essay about the difference between the mind and the soul. Their answers have to come from them directly; this is not a research paper. As a class, they’d already agreed that there is a difference between the mind and the soul, but because class ended just as we came to that conclusion, I asked them to take their idea a little deeper in the form of a short essay. We’d then discuss their answers in class. I have to facilitate that discussion in just a few hours, and I’m wondering myself what my own answer would be.

So those are the three things: democracy, theories of mind, and the difference between the mind and the soul. Now let’s get on with it.

First, I don’t think I really believe in the mind, or at least, not in the mind per se. I think the mind is more like an ephemeral document, a record of a discussion written in fading ink.

To connect it to what I said earlier: the mind is the product of a democracy. The inputs — the voters — are all the parts of my physical body getting a say in whatever it is that my body does next. My Vision department (and make no mistake, the experience of vision is the result of a large consortium of cells in your body, much like the formal recommendation of the State department are the results of thousands of individual people passing their ideas up the chain to the Secretary of State) — anyway, my Vision department reports that such and such a thing is the most important aspect of the world to be aware of at the moment, but my Hearing department suggests something else. My Touch department can’t agree where to focus, so all of the various stakeholders shout out their own reports (itch in elbow!, pressure in jaw!, ache in neck!). My Taste and Smell departments, who often caucus together, continue to do so, and for the moment, they both remain silent. Meanwhile, messengers from the Memory Banks and anxious clerks from my Neuroses division constantly interrupt the conversation, and paranoia leaking negative messages from somewhere deep in my Intelligence agency.

Finally, miraculously, a decision gets made: enough votes are cast by all the stakeholders to focus on….whatever…say this, do that, veg out, etc., and then an action is taken in the world (actually, the real process is that, usually, an action is taken in the world, and then someone reports back on that action, leaving the congress to ask, “How can we rationalize that?”)

Anyway, the mind is not the process of that democratic moment (not the rationalization), nor is it the action taken in the world. It is, instead, like the law itself, something that seems to have more spirit than body, and like the law itself, powerless to stop anyone or anything that has the ability to act.

That’s why we have heart attacks, why we get cancer, why we say things that are hurtful when we know it is wrong to say them, and why we don’t get up and go to the gym. It’s because there’s no one really in control.

The law can say that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” but that won’t stop some citizens of a state from preventing people of color from reaching the voting booth on any given voting day in any given district, whether through armed guards at the door or through “voter I.D.” laws that disenfranchise citizens who are not able to, for whatever reason, satisfy the list of onerous requirements developed by that state in congress.

Because the law, as itself, has no power, much as the mind, as itself, has no power. Power is reserved to the people, just as it is reserved to your sensory neurons and motor neurons,  your muscles and bones.

So I don’t believe in the mind. Instead, I believe in the body’s attention and intention, created by the body and enacted by the body.

If the mind exists, it is only in the spirit of the law.

Both of my students had interesting superpower-driven solutions to the problems of equal rights and equal access. Both of them understood that the problems require people to change their minds. My first student wanted to give people a sense of empathy, to make them connect with other people’s minds, to understand, intimately, their interests and experiences, and to share, if only for a few moments, their subjectivity.

My second student wanted to take control of everyone’s mind — not in a greedy way, mind you (pun!), but in a way that forces everyone’s mind to act in concert, to act in union.

To return to my metaphor: both students wanted to add more inputs to the process of an individual’s democracy. My first wanted everyone to honestly and respectfully consider the subjective interests of the other before reaching any decision; my second wanted to insert a kind of dictatorial overlord over the congress, an overlord that is not an individual, but rather, the consensus of the all. 

I think both of their answers are terrific. Hers because, yes, of course empathy is the answer to the problems of equality, and we should all be mad that we didn’t see it sooner. And his because, essentially, his superpower (to spit out bugs that go into people’s ears and change their minds) is a metaphor for persuasive argument, which yes, of course, is the only ethical way to change people’s minds, since violence and compulsion enact the tyranny of one over the other.

But even (for arguments sake) we agree that all of that is true, where does “the mind as democracy leave us in regards to the soul?

I’m not sure. And for the moment, I’m okay with that.

(For a different but related take on all of this, see Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained).

Trying to Make Sense of the Russian Thing

There’s something knocking me out about this story that Rachel Maddow blew open on Monday. If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the video, let me recap it for you.

Deutsche Bank was fined $425m last month by the Federal government for helping Russian oligarchs (and members of Putin’s family) launder $10b out of Russia. They did it through branches in Moscow, New York, and Cyprus.

Now, the current chairman of the Bank of Cyprus is the previous chairman of Deutsche Bank, a man who left his job under a cloud of allegations.  After he left Deutsche, he was made chairman of the Bank of Cyprus by its major shareholders, one of whom is a close personal friend of Putin’s.

Another major shareholder is known as the King of Fertilizer and is among the richest men in Russia. As Maddow makes clear, this man’s divorce (the most expensive divorce in history, by the way) caused him to hide aspects of his vast fortune from his soon-to-be ex-wife. One of the ways he did this was to purchase incredibly expensive real estate, including an incredibly gaudy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Its seller? Donald Trump. Trump sold it to the Russian oligarch for $100m, the most ever paid for a private estate in the U.S. at the time. Trump had purchased the mansion at auction just two years prior for $40m. Trump did not move into the mansion, and it stayed empty for two years. Then he sold it at a $60m profit to the Russian King of Fertilizer.

This Russian billionaire, as Maddow says, “does not have much of an American profile, but he does have one important American connection.” Remember, he is among the largest shareholders of the Bank of Cyprus. The two vice-chairmen of that bank, the ones who put the former chairman of Deutsche Bank in charge, are the close personal friend of Putin I mentioned above and an American named Wilbur Ross, who the single largest shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus.

Let’s make this clear for a moment. Wilbur Ross is the single largest shareholder of a bank whose other major shareholders include close personal friends and former KGB associates of Putin’s and a chairman who came from a bank that our Federal government just fined for more than half a billion dollars for helping Russian billionaires smuggle money out of Russia. Joining Ross and Putin’s friends and former KGB associates at the Bank of Cyprus is the Russian King of Fertilizer, “who did this inexplicable deal that Donald Trump miraculously stumbled into, that netted [Trump] $60m for doing basically nothing.”

Wilbur Ross is a major connection between President Trump and a whole slew of Russian oligarchs, including former members of the KGB and close, personal friends of Putin’s.

And Wilbur Ross was confirmed Monday night as our new Commerce Secretary.

One more note: At the same time as this “inexplicable deal” for $60m fell into Donald Trump’s lap, he was in debt to Deutsche Bank for $40m.

Again — follow this: Donald Trump owes Deutsche Bank $40m, which means Deutsche Bank needs $40m. Where are they going to get that money from? From Trump. But where is Trump going to get that money? If only they both knew someone who could give Trump $40m, someone who was looking to hide a lot of money somewhere and who could do it without Trump having to do anything for it.

But honestly, can anyone get $40m without having to do anything? And can anyone get $40m from a Russian oligarch without having to do anything, Russian oligarchs being essentially the world’s scariest loan sharks?

Now connect this to what we learned from that infamous dossier back in January, the non-salacious elements of which — “that the Russians had been ‘cultivating, supporting, and assisting’ Trump for years” — seem to be checking out. The New Yorker claims that, “Some officials believe that one reason the Russians compiled information on Trump…was that he was meeting with Russian oligarchs who might be stashing money abroad.”

Okay, that’s all incredible, right? It’s the exact link people have been looking for  between Trump and the Russians; Wilbur Ross, our new Commerce Secretary and an old friend of Trump’s, is the nexus.

But what Maddow’s story seems to imply is that this is all about money. Trump finds himself in massive debt to a Russian oligarch — a debt that has been laundered as a real-estate transaction, but debt nonetheless. From there though, it seems a bit of a jump to say that, partly in order to pay back that debt, Donald Trump got himself elected President of the United States, from whose perch he could repay that debt a thousand times over (which actually, now that I think about it, is probably the kind of interest that a Russian oligarch would charge, right?).

But why? What’s the point from the oligarch’s perspective? What does Russia actually expect to get for its money? Is it just more money?

Three days ago, Glenn Greenwald published a story on his websiteThe Intercept. The story is a deep read of the New Yorker article I linked to above, whose author, by the way, was the first guest Maddow spoke to after her segment.

Greenwald is an incredible journalist. He is the person Edward Snow contacted when he wanted to be assured of reaching an ethical and independent journalist, and the work he accomplished with Snowden resulted in him being given a George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.

In his recent article, Greenwald highlights “five uncomfortable truths about U.S. and Russia.”

First, Hillary Clinton promoted a much more aggressive stance toward Russia than Obama did, and “Russian experts…feared that Clinton…was so eager for escalated U.S. military action in Syria…that a military conflict with Russia was a real possibility.”

This is not simply to say that Hillary was more willing to fight Russia than Obama was. It’s also to say that “the leading accommodationist of Putin was named Barack Obama.” Clinton agreed with virtually all of the Republican candidates that the United States should be more aggressive towards Russia, to the point that Clinton was willing to put our Air Force into direct conflict with Russian airplanes, via the establishment of a No-Fly Zone in Syria.

Second, the relationship between Russia and the United States is at its lowest point in my lifetime. I was raised in the era of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and I came of age during Yeltsin’s free for all. Putin has been in power for close to twenty years, and while it hasn’t been a great relationship, it’s never been as bad as it is today.

What I love about Greenwald is that he refuses to accept “the singular message of the U.S. Patriotic Media,” and so in his article, he embeds a long monologue from Noam Chomsky, who explains that, from Russia’s perspective, it’s the West who has been acting aggressively since the end of the Cold War, expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, despite Presidents Reagan & Bush having told Gorbachev that it wouldn’t do so. Remember,  Russia had spent much of the twentieth century defending itself from German invasions, so it’s probably not keen on having NATO (of which Germany is now a member) butting right up against it.

Remember the Ukraine? This is a country that NATO was actively trying to recruit into its orbit. It’s also a country that is geopolitically important to Russia. Not only does the Ukraine offer Moscow a pipeline to the southern seas, but it also serves as a physical buffer between Russia and the West. If the Russians allowed Ukraine to join NATO, they’d lose a major chunk of their own great wall.

In the monologue, Chomsky also notes that President Obama recently placed “a missile defense system” in Romania. He explains that strategic analysts on all sides believe that what’s called “missile defense” is really an offensive weapon. The U.S. placing missles in Romania is like the Russians placing missiles in Cuba: a highly aggressive action.

In short, things are not good between the U.S. and Russia, and not all of it is Russia’s fault.

Third, Greenwald points out that the American media refuses to ask the question of whether the U.S. tries “to manipulate Russian politics [in] the way Russia now stands accused of…”. He notes how openly proud American advisors were after helping Boris Yeltsin get elected President back in 1996, and he questions why more American journalists don’t follow this particular lead in their reporting. What is it that holds them back?

Fourth, Greenwald notes that “the U.S. government still has provided no evidence of its theories about Russian hacking.” Greenwald is not saying that this evidence does not exist, but given the stakes, he believes that the American public ought to be more skeptical of any claim that pushes two nuclear powers closer to armed conflict with one another.

He also notes that the information we’re receiving about virtually all of this is coming from anonymous officials in the “agenda-driven, disinformation-dispensing intelligence community,” the same community that was hijacked by Republican elites to make the U.S. invade Iraq more than a decade ago.

Fifth, “fixating on Russia continues to be used to distract from systemic failures of U.S. elites.”

This is where it gets damning for the Democrats.

First, by arguing that Trump’s rise to power in the United States is only due to his connections with Russian oligarchs, Democratic elites (made up of the mainstream corporate media, their friends in the financial sector, and the politicians they all pay for) call into question Trump’s right to call himself an American, just as Trump did to Obama.

But the elites aren’t doing it just to be ironic. By calling Trump’s loyalty into question, they call into question the loyalty and intelligence of all the people who voted for him, millions of whom who were moved to vote on the off-chance that President Crazy would bring some kind of — any kind of — radical change to the “neoliberal policies [that] destroyed [their] economic security and future…”

If the Democratic elites can discredit Trump’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of Russia (much like the Republicans tried to discredit Obama’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of ISIS), then they won’t have to address the systemic failures of their own economic policies.

So where does that leave us?

Maddow’s report connects at least one solid strand (or as she calls it, a thick rope) between President Trump and the oligarchs of Russia. But Greenwald’s analysis wants us to question why we should even care in the first place.

What’s really at stake here?

Is it something as simple as money? If the elites can distract us with a foreign scapegoat, then they can continue to distribute the wealth of our nations upward. If they can drive our two powers into a second Cold War, then all of them — especially the intelligence officials and weapons manufacturers — can continue to have jobs and continue to afford their houses and swimming pools. And if they can succeed at actually defeating Russia somehow, then they can secure its oil for use in the ever-coming age of global scarcity or in their ever-coming war with the underclass.

Russia, meanwhile, gets a U.S. President (however they got him) who will work to counteract the aggression plainly espoused by the anointed leader of the Democratic elites (and plainly disavowed by her upstart challenger on the left). If they can fight off the Western elite, then the Russian oligarchs can continue distributing the wealth of their nation into their bank accounts in Cyprus. But to do that, they need to make sure the United States lifts its sanctions and protects the secrecy of its dealings so that Western businesses (such as Exxon) can continue to funnel Western money into Russia. They also need to make sure that the United States has someone else on whom it can focus its natural aggression (aggression caused by its economic pain), someone such as ISIS, “the terrorists,” and/or Muslim and Hispanic immigrants.

What does Trump get out of it, though? He gets to have the biggest name in the entire world, have everyone on the entire planet constantly be talking about him , and get easy access to some of the finest looking women money can buy; oh, and he can also get paid while doing it.

But what’s blowing my mind after connecting all these dots is how much it doesn’t fucking matter. Oh, it matters in the sense that it could lead to the destruction of everything and everyone I love, whether through a nuclear war with Russia, the deconstruction of every environmental gain of the past forty years, or the loss of fundamental legal rights and protections. Of course it matters; of course it does.

But it doesn’t matter in the sense that both of those fucking jokers we could have elected in November were representatives of a class of human beings whose daily experiences are so different from the rest of us in the 99%.

Trump represents Russian oligarchs; Clinton represented American ones.

Either way, we were getting robbed.

Fuck, I miss Bernie.

 

An Open Letter to My Advisory

This is the narrative evaluation for all of my advisory students for this past quarter. I usually write individualized evaluations (you all belong to a highly individualized school, after all), but because of our day-to-day conversations, I think all of you know what I would write about your individual strengths and challenges, and we can discuss those with your parents/guardians at your Learning Plan meetings.

Instead, I’m giving our advisory a group evaluation.

We’ve gotten away from our identity as an advisory this year. The reasons are obvious. With only eleven students in our program, separating into two different advisories can sometimes feel unwarranted. I work just as closely with the students in Stuart’s advisory as I do with you, and vice-versa for Stuart.

But the fact remains, we are an advisory. That advisory includes four students who come to school every day and one student who has yet to make it to school this year (though that student is working with me online). It also includes students who have come and gone over the years, students who have graduated, transferred to other schools, or even dropped out. If you’re still in contact with me on even a semi-regular basis (and yes, Facebook counts), then you are still part of my advisory, and I will always be here for you.

What does it mean to be a part of our advisory? Let me set the scene. A few weeks ago, some of our members (but not all) were sitting down in the new cafe for the last block of the day. We were joined by a couple of students and a staff member from the Therapeutic program, all of whom were waiting for a meeting to take place after school. I was working on my laptop, designing a new template for our Learning Plans. Two of our members were documenting their work for their Phase Level Expectations; another was helping me build the Learning Plan, serving as a sounding board for my ideas and asking insightful questions as to how the plan would be used.

There was a vibe in the room that afternoon. Even the people who weren’t part of our advisory could feel it. It was a relaxed vibe, but also productive. We were all making forward momentum on something. There was also a kind of joyousness to it. Everyone was friendly to one another, and when one of us needed help on something, someone else provided it without allowing themselves to get distracted from their own work. I loved it. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the room could feel it.

Even if you weren’t in the room that afternoon, you know that scene. As a current or former member of our advisory, you’ve taken part and contributed to that vibe, and you know how good it feels.

That’s what it means to be a member of our advisory. It means forward momentum, accompanied by a joyous commitment to support one another.

Despite that wonderful afternoon, our advisory has had some challenges this year (not the least of which was the loss of one of our former members to a gunshot wound — but I don’t want to talk about that right now). Outside of that tragedy, our biggest challenge has been in creating cohesion and connectedness as a group.

As you know, we have a new student who has not joined us at school this year because they suffer from severe anxiety. As I mentioned above, I am working with this student online. I’ve also sat with this student’s parent a number of times and am working closely with an entire team of people to help the student join us on a semi-regular basis in the Spring. In addition, some of you have emailed this student, introducing yourself and trying to make them feel welcome at our school, and I think that is just awesome.

But I wonder if all of us could be doing more? If we were a connected advisory, we would have made our attempts to reach out to this student a regular thing. We would have sent them packages in the mail to let them know we haven’t forgotten them. We’d think of them less as the student who doesn’t show up and more as a member of our advisory who can’t come to school because they’ve been sick for a long time. We should be — and we can be — doing more to help this student connect with our school in the same way that rest of us have, to feel like this is truly a place where they can feel safe and supported as they figure out how to pursue their passion.

But that’s not the only place where we’ve had challenges. We have another new student who is part of our advisory, and this new student, while making strong bonds with the members of the staff, has yet to make strong bonds among the members of the student body. When I think back to our original three members — the first three students our school ever had — I remember that two of them arrived as best friends and the third arrived as someone they kind of knew but weren’t really friends with. Within weeks, all three of them were best friends. Those connections happened because the two who were already best friends made a concerted effort to bring the third student into the fold. They made plans for after school. They ate lunch together. They worked at becoming friends. That’s what I would like to see for every new student who joins our advisory. There’s no reason any single member of our advisory should feel like they don’t have any peers whom they can trust.

For the rest of this year, I’d like us to make a commitment to one another. Every other day, we are scheduled to spend the last block as an advisory. We often blow this off, choosing instead to stay with the rest of our classmates in a single room; again, because our program is so small, this feels natural, and it’s also helped us forge connections with the other members of our program. But doing so has done us a disservice as an advisory.

We need to use this dedicated time to check in as a group. When it’s the eight, nine, or ten of us all in the same room, it’s easy for one or two of us to separate off and spend the time essentially alone. This is not good. So let’s make a commitment to each other to meet as an advisory and use that time to not only check in as a group, but to offer whatever kind of support is immediately needed.

Let’s also use this time to expand our concept of our advisory. I mentioned above that every student I’m still in contact with is part of our advisory. That group includes world travelers, successful professionals, and college students. Let’s use part of our advisory time to become pen-pals with these people. They’re out in the world doing real things: paying bills, getting jobs, working on initiatives, figuring out their next steps. Let’s not only seek them out for advice, but also offer our support.

Let’s also use our advisory time to do community service as a group, whether doing activities that support the wider community of Poultney or the Rutland region, or activities that benefit our school (did someone say “yearbook” or “dinner and auction”?).

By doing these activities together, by connecting with ALL of our members, by being there for one another on a regular and committed basis, we will develop the cohesion and connectedness that we all want in our advisory.

So that’s it. That’s our evaluation. Now let’s get to work.

 

 

To Keep My Money Local

One of the buildings here on Main Street in Poultney has been for sale for a least a few years. It’s an old gas station with a two-bay garage attached. It sits on the corner of Rt. 30 and Main Street, right at the entrance to the village. A year or two ago, one of the organizations in town hoped to purchase it using taxpayer money to create a welcome center for the village. It was also going serve as the main location in town for weather-protected access to our regional bus route (i.e., a bus stop). Unfortunately (in my view), the taxpayers voted it down at town meeting that year.

This morning, in the shower, I had another idea for that building.

One of the biggest issues with Vermont is the lack of meaningful employment opportunities. In the list of the occupations with the largest employment in Vermont, you’ll find at or near the top of the list not-so-rewarding jobs such as cashier, retail sales, food prep (including fast food), and waitstaff. According to the Burlington Free Press, “almost all of the new jobs [created last year] were concentrated in four sectors of the economy:  health care, hotels and restaurants, business and professional services, and construction.”

In other words, outside of some version of nursing, there’s not a lot of jobs in Vermont that provide secure, long-term employment with health benefits, retirement accounts, and the ability to feel as if you’re making a meaningful contribution to the wider community.

Forbes’ profile of Vermont explains some of the reasons behind this.  We have the smallest economy in the nation, the second highest business costs, and an economic outlook that is supposed to be the fifth worst in the country over the next five years, all of which affects our residents’ income growth. Add on an aging population (second oldest in the country) and a brain drain of young college graduates (as with all young college graduates, ours are more attracted to urban areas than to rural), and it’s easy to see why more large-scale employers don’t choose to make Vermont their home.

On the other hand, the state of our small businesses is strong. According to a Business News Daily survey of Vermont’s small business owners, “entrepreneurs in Vermont may have to contend with a tight labor market and an elevated cost of living, but they also have access to strong, entrepreneurial communities and operate within a stable economy.”

One of the entrepreneurs said, “There are events every month in and around Burlington to facilitate networking with [investors, mentors, incubators, and entrepreneurs]” — but if you don’t live in or around Burlington (as I do not), then your access to this network is greatly diminished.

That’s where my idea for the building on the corner of Main Street comes in.

It has to do with a thing called locavesting:

In the wake of the financial crisis, people [looked] for ways to rebuild their communities, dotted with foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts. And they knew they had to look beyond Wall Street. In some cases, that [meant] rediscovering tried and true solutions, such as community banks, cooperatives and CDFIs, or resurrecting centuries-old concepts, like local stock exchanges. In other cases, it meant inventing brand new models, like crowdfunding. All of these alternatives harken back to a time before our global financial age, when finance was something that happened largely within a community, among trusted participants, for mutual benefit.

The word locavesting is analogous to the successful locavore movement; where locavores eat food grown or raised in their local community, “locavestors seek to invest that way.”

In Vermont (as in many other states), we have rules designed to help Vermont businesses seek investments from Vermont residents. Our Small Business Offering Exemption, for example, “allows Vermont businesses and start-up companies to raise up to $2 million in capital by selling shares in their company to in-state investors.”

But I’m wondering how your everyday small business and your everyday Vermont resident gets access to this kind of financial market. If more people were able to invest in the growth and success of local businesses, wouldn’t Vermont be more attractive to entrepreneurs, and not just entrepreneurs who are coming from out of state, but entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs who already live here?

Imagine this:

Let’s say I receive a $1,200 tax return on my Federal taxes. I’ve got several options on what to do with this windfall: I can pay down my debt (always a good idea); I can spend it on goods and services; or I can invest it in either a traditional savings account or in something a little fancier (of course, I can also do some combination of the three).

Let’s say I choose to invest it.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could walk down the street to a beautiful new building where I could sit down with a professional financial consultant who could help me invest my $1,200 in a local business of some kind?

Because the building is located in Poultney, various brochures and video-playing kiosks would direct my attention to businesses located within or around Poultney, with each business making some sort of pitch as to what they would like to do with my money and what kind of return I can hope to generate from it.

Maybe there’s a video from a man I know who is looking to hire a second construction worker to help him grow his business. He’s hoping to raise roughly $40,000 to afford the second worker’s salary, and in return for the investment, he is willing to split a portion of his company’s profits with his investors.

Maybe there’s a pitch from a local entrepreneur who’d like to start a locavore restaurant, or another from a woman who would like to expand the location of her daycare, or another from a college student who is seeking investors to help him build a company around his recently acquired patent, or another from an elderly man who’d like to take his cottage industry online, or another from a local farmer who wants to buy a new piece of heavy equipment, etc.

It’s not just people looking to do something specific, however. There are also shares available in already thriving companies: a local plumber, a local hardware store, a local private school, a local baker. My investment in these small businesses signal my willingness to trust these entrepreneurs to make the most of my money, to use it to generate a return greater than I might find with a traditional savings account.

Of course, I would also have access to the larger Vermont market, but the priority of this particular building in Poultney would focus on entrepreneurs who live and work within 35 miles of my home — people I know, businesses I recognize and patronize, families who send their children to school with my daughter.

The upshot is that the exchange would act as a kind of hybrid between crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, micro-loan services such as Kiva, and a traditional stock exchange.

Okay. So, that’s what it looks like if I’m an investor. But what if I’m a small business owner? As an entrepreneur (in this scenario), I’m already pulled in every direction and don’t have the time or the finances to do all of the legwork necessary to get my business listed on such an exchange, or once I’m there, to figure out how to conform with all the transparency requirements that are only fair in a public market.

That’s where the person working behind the desk in our imaginary building comes in. He or she is not just a resource for individual investors; he or she is also a resource for the businesses that are looking for those investors. This professional consultant can help walk the business owner through all of the required steps to getting listed on the market, and can put the business owner in touch with other consultants who can help maximize the offering (i.e., local professionals who can produce brochures, create videos, develop websites, assist with financial audits, etc.).

Because he or she is walking all of the local businesses through the process of getting onto the exchange, he or she will know the local market better than almost anyone else, and will therefore be able to assist the individual investors when they come looking for guidance.

Now imagine this particular building (and this particular kind of financial consultant) in all of Vermont’s 255 municipalities, each dedicated to driving investments in their local economies.

This isn’t a crazy idea. The financial rules are already in place. The only thing that is missing is the local access point.

What if the legislature set aside some kind of funding for this? The funding would go towards the creation of the Internet-enabled backbone that allows an investor in Brattleboro to send her money to a cupcake maker in the Northeast Kingdom, and to track the rise and fall of the various shares listed on the exchange.

The next step would be for the legislature to create an unfunded mandate that basically says, “Okay municipalities, if you want to give your local business owners access to an entire state’s worth of local investors, you have to create a physical location in your municipality where residents can receive professional advice related to the local market. The wages of the person providing the advice must (at least) meet your county’s designated living wage, and the physical location must have access to the Internet. Until you are able to meet these requirements, your businesses will not be allowed to list themselves on the exchange.”

This would not only create (at least) 255 well-paying jobs in the state (Burlington, for example, might choose to open a few of these access points), it would also equalize the opportunity to participate in the market: you wouldn’t need the Internet at your house because it would be available at your local access point; you wouldn’t need to hire a financial manager because the consultant would be available to everyone in your town for free (his or her services would already be covered by the taxpayers); and small businesses wouldn’t have to deal with a ton of up-front costs to prepare their businesses to be listed (again, because the consultant is already working for free).

The benefits of such a marketplace would greatly outweigh the costs. It would not only ensure that more Vermont dollars stay in Vermont, but it would also increase the rate of entrepreneurship throughout the state. With more local money flowing to more local entrepreneurs, more residents would have the opportunity to follow their passions to meaningful employment, whether that means starting their own businesses or hiring more of their neighbors, funneling my investment dollars into my neighbors’ lives.

Anyway, that was the idea I had in the shower this morning. It might not be wholly original, but I thought it was good enough to share.