Three Problems of Modern Life

Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.

  1. Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
  2. The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
  3. Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.

Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.

The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.

prometheus-1930-2017-ss-4.jpg
José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930, Fresco, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.

Notes and Comments from Rockville Town Square and Town Center Community Meeting, 10/9/2018

I attended a community meeting (10/9/2018) to discuss Rockville Town Square and Town Center this evening. Many thanks to Mayor Newton, the City Council, city staff, the Rockville Chamber of Commerce, Federal Realty Investment Trust, and VisArts for making it happen. It was an important meeting — hopefully the first of many.

43505838_10155539988392553_3325004118233186304_oSo many important local elected officials attended: Mayor Bridget Newton, City Councilmembers Beryl Feinberg, Virginia Onley, Julie Palakovich Carr, and Mark Pierzchala, State Senator Cheryl Kagan, State Delegate Kumar Barve, County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Sidney Katz. I also saw former Mayor Larry Giammo and former City Councilmember Tom Moore. I am certain I missed others who were there that I just did not see.

I did not intend to make any significant reports, but it seemed like it might be helpful to do so. So I started to keep track of the statements that jumped out at me. This is just my own list of what struck me — it is not complete nor comprehensive. I organized the statements into “concerns,” “ideas for solutions,” and “other thoughts.” They are roughly in order that I heard them or thought to jot them down. Others can add to them.

Strong concerns:

  • Parking — cost, confusion, convenience
  • Rents for businesses
  • Smoking & homeless (expressed by police)
  • Need more density for viability
  • Duplicitous Federal Realty behavior (multiple business complaints)
  • “Losing the heart of the city” (small independent business)
  • Ice rink up too long, how about Nov-Feb?
  • Families let down — mix of businesses (“reasonable retail” toy store, haircut)
  • Who gets the parking money?
  • Loss of Dawson’s as community hub

Ideas suggested:

  • Make Dawson’s a coop
  • Invest in the arts as a magnet
  • Transit infrastructure — improve connection with Metro
  • Local business kickbacks to draw local small business (eg Seven Locks Brewery)
  • Frequent shuttle from Montgomery College
  • Fight as a community to keep Dawson’s
  • Permanent farmers’ market
  • Eastern Market-style market
  • 4 hour free parking
  • City-Federal Realty ombudsperson
  • Dog park nearby (across from Starbucks)
  • Raise parking charge — reduce rent proportionately to better keep business
  • Target local businesses (eg Compass Coffee) and provide incentives
  • Think about how you want to spend your money the next time you shop online

Other ideas:

  • Properly identify the problem first — what problem are we trying to solve?
  • Federal Realty should do more to develop relationships with current business tenants (“how is it going, how was your month?”)
  • A resident: “I want t be on a committee” that works on this
  • West side of 270 (and elsewhere outside of the central area) disenfranchised
  • This meeting could have been a conversation not just a feedback session; residents have questions that could be answered and discussed in the room instead of waiting for an email response
  • Another meeting in two weeks

My own thoughts: The concerns and energy expressed by the standing-room and overflow crowd were overwhelming. I hope that we can turn this from an initial discussion into something more meaningful. It would be a mistake, I think, to leave everything in the hands of JUST the City, or JUST Federal Realty. I think some sort of ongoing mechanism for shared responsibility between the City, Federal Realty, local business owners, community members, and others would be a great step. If we had a way to create a sense of joint ownership of our shared space — tonight’s energy convinces me we would ALL benefit.

As one resident said, enthusiastically: “I want to be on a committee that works on this!” I hope many others do, too.

 

The Pioneers of Courage

Independence Day is my favorite holiday of the year. The day we declared ourselves a free people. Our efforts were imperfect then, our freedom parsimoniously shared, our efforts remained imperfect through the decades, and they are imperfect now. We have much progress to make. But I relish this day, as I meditate on the courage — born of frustration and injustice — that our forebears showed in collectively saying “enough.” It was treason. Its success was unlikely. I imagine some felt as if they were signing their own death warrants, should the effort have failed.

When I am alone and fearful, in the dark mornings, contemplating some challenge, some task, some call to action that I must answer yet before which I feel cowardly — I think about them, and other pioneers of courage. If they could act, under much harsher conditions than I will ever face, then so must I be able.

Photo by A. Jarrell

And this courage is and has been on display not just on national matters of consequence. My neighbors display it. I see it all around. People quietly, courageously solving the local problems we encounter every day. I believe we are living in times upon which we will look back and say, “there began the rebirth of communities.” And the rebirth will have emerged as a result of national dysfunction. Here, where we live together, we face challenges. No force from on high will intervene. The mechanisms have ground to a halt.

So here we are.

Our nation is not some institution, some complicated mechanism established and set in motion. It grew. It emerged from villages, towns, cities — communities. It remains a land of communities, knit together by a mixture of geography and of ideas.

I am not blind to injustice nor infamy. I am not blind, either, to the precarious place the globe has become. But I feel I cannot afford to be overcome by despair nor by rage.

Today, the anniversary of our declaration of independence, I will spend time with neighbors and with family. And I will reflect on how best to improve my immediate surroundings. From a thousand, nameless, similar small acts, this land of communities might start to heal itself.

That is what I am thinking about today.

Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do? — New Issue Guide Released by National Issues Forums Institute

I am pleased to announce that the latest NIF issue guide, Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?, is released today.

At the NIFI link, there is also available an “issue advisory” for free download – such advisories are the core “name” and “frame” of the issue in an easy to use format, and are suitable to use in a deliberative forum setting on their own.

The immigration issue affects virtually every American, directly or indirectly, often in deeply personal ways. The issue guide is designed for people to use to deliberate together about how we should approach the issue as a society. It presents three options that reflect different ways of understanding what is at stake and that force us to think about what matters most when we face difficult problems that involve all of us — and that do not have perfect solutions.

The concerns that underlie this issue are not confined to party affiliation, nor are they captured by labels like “conservative” or “liberal.”

Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?

Option 1: Welcome Immigrants, Be a Beacon of Freedom
This option says that immigration has helped make America what it is today — a dynamic and diverse culture, an engine of the global economy, and a beacon of freedom around the world.

Option 2: Enforce the Law, Be Fair to Those Who Follow the Rules
This option says we need a fair system, where the rules are clear and, above all, enforced. With an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally, our current system is unjust and uncontrolled.

Option 3: Slow Down and Rebuild Our Common Bonds
This option recognizes that newcomers have strengthened American culture in the past. But the current levels of immigration are so high, and the country is now so diverse, that we must regain our sense of national purpose and identity.

The Kettering Foundation researches and develops issue guides like this one and makes them available to NIFI to publish.

Follow the link for more information and to order or download your own.

What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic? — New Issue Advisory from the National Issues Forums Institute

I am pleased to announce a new “issue advisory” that is available as a free download (or fold-out hard copy) from the National Issues Forums Institute titled What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic? I am proud of my role in helping develop this resource. The Kettering Foundation researches and develops issue frameworks like this one and makes them available to NIFI to publish.

My friend and longtime colleague Tony Wharton wrote the text. Drafts of this advisory have been tested all throughout the U.S. and it has proven to spark a useful conversation.

The issue advisory is meant to support broad-based community conversation about what we, in our communities, should do in response to the drastically rising epidemic of opioid use, abuse, and deaths.

This difficult conversation involves tensions between compassion, personal responsibility, and freedom of choice. The advisory presents three options for people to talk about together:

  1. We should extend and provide treatment for all, get people the medical help they need
  2. We should crack down, people should take responsibility for their choices and actions
  3. We should allow people freedom to do as they want, if they are not hurting anyone it is their business

Follow the link to order or download your own.