Advice In Unexpected Places

Thank You For Being Late

Thomas Friedman’s recent book, Thank You For Being Late, is in the Globalization/Political Economy genre according the the ISBN code sticker on the back of the book.  One usually doesn’t look in such books for suggestions about creativity, but that is what I found in the first chapter, also titled Thank You For Being Late.

Creativity involves having ideas and then doing something with them whether you turn those ideas into – in Friedman’s case, a column in the New York Times,  or in my case a photograph.  Friedman says

. . . a column idea [or an idea for a photograph] can spring from anywhere:  a newspaper headline that strikes you as odd, a simple gesture by a stranger, the moving speech of a leader, the naive question of a child, the cruelty of a school shooter, the wrenching tale of a refugee.  Everything and anything is raw fodder for creating heat or light.

How can one nurture the ability to recognize ideas when they appear?

. . . you have to be constantly reporting and learning – more so today that ever.  Anyone who falls back on tried-and-true formulae or dogmatisms in a world changing this fast is asking for trouble.  Indeed, as the world becomes more interdependent and complex, it becomes more vital than ever to widen your aperture and to synthesize more perspectives.

Friedman paraphrases and then quotes Lin Wells of the National Defense University.

. . . it is fanciful to suppose that you can opine about or explain this world by clinging to the inside or outside of any one rigid explanatory box or any single disciplinary silo.  Wells describes three ways of thinking about a problem:  “inside the box”, “outside the box,”, and “where there is no box.”  The only sustainable approach to thinking today about problems, he argues, “is thinking without a box”.

Friedman continues:

. . . it means having no limits on your curiosity or the different disciplines you might draw on to appreciate how [the world] works.  [A person needs to be] radically inclusive.

As a photographer, thinking without a box means not being constrained by accepted norms of beauty or of what makes a compelling photograph.  It means not being constrained by the rules that are trotted out by the experts who then tell us to freely ignore them.  It means not being overly influenced by the latest hot stuff on Instagram or what is winning contests on ViewBug.  It means shooting from the heart.  As Friedman says, “What doesn’t come from the heart will never enter someone  else’s heart.

For me it means walking down an alley behind the stores that present their trendy, polished facades to the main street.  In the alley is where you find the unexpected and serendipitous examples of unexpected beauty.  Below are recent examples of beauty I found in alleys.

Side View Of Galloway Grill
Galloway Grill – Side View







An Illegal Alien Crisis?

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle ClassI am once again going to be quoting extensively from Dog-Whistle Politics.  This is a book to read if you want information to counter the cant and hypocrisy spewed forth by today’s conservatives and Tea Partiers.

Something that came as a surprise to me is “that ‘illegal’ is a misnomer: crossing into or remaining in the United States without proper authorization is not a crime, but rather a civil matter.”  A Supreme Court ruling stated that “as a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.”

Lopez goes on to write:

On the more fundamental question of assimilation, scholars recognize that today’s immigrants from Latin America (and also Asia), no different from the generations of European immigrants before them, are “being successfully incorporated into American society”; indeed, studies find “great continuities between the experiences of earlier European immigrants and current, predominantly non-European immigrants.”  Moreover, the notion that crossing the border without authorization generates a pervasive disdain for the  law is demonstrably false.  Research shows that undocumented immigrants from Latin America commit far fewer [emphasis mine] depredations, not far more, than citizens.  Evidence shows too that undocumented immigrants are far less likely than others to use expensive social services, including hospital emergency rooms.  Indeed, unauthorized immigrants pay considerable more in taxes – typically through payroll withholding – than they receive in social services.

If illegal immigration is actually not a big problem (or not a problem at all), why all the furor stirred up by the right?

. . . the “illegal alien” rhetoric is highly popular with racial demagogues.  Stressing illegality provides a way to seed racial fears without directly referencing race. . . . By constantly drumming on the crises posed by “illegals”, the right fuels a racial frenzy but can deny its intention to do any such thing.

This illegal-alien demagoguery started back as least as early as the time of (guess who?) the god-king Ronald Reagan.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had warned that migrant workers from Mexico, as well as war refugees from Central America, constituted a potentially traitorous group in the nation’s midst [did Reagan actually believe this?]  To many this suggestions seemed farcical.

Get the book and read it.  We progressives and liberals need to fight back.

Mass Incarceration In America

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle ClassI am in the midst of reading Dog Whistle Politics.  I usually don’t write about a book until I’ve finished it.  I’m making an exception because the statistics I’m going to state are so disturbing.  If you want to know more I suggest The New Jim Crow, a must read, in addition to Dog Whistle Politics.  What I quote is from pages 50 – 53 of Dog Whistle Politics.

  • In 1970, about 200,000 people were serving at least one year behind bars, or one out of every 1,000 Americans.
  • In 2014. about 2,319,258 people were being bars.  This is more than one out of every 100 Americans.
  • America’s incarceration rate in the highest in the world and exceeds the highest rate in the European democracies by 500 percent.
  • The United States has 5 percent of the world’s populations but holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
  • This system of excessive incarceration is closely tied to race.  In 2008, among white men aged 18 years or older, 1 in 106 were behind bars.  The comparable number for Latino men was 1 in 36; for black men, it was 1 in 15.  For black men between the ages of 20 and 34, a sickening 1 in 9 were locked up in 2008.
  • As of 2008, more African-American men were imprisoned, on parole or probation than were enslaved in 1850.
  • Poor youth of color . . . are less likely to commit crimes than poor white youth
  • Young men of color are far, far more likely to be swept into the maw of the American crime control system, even when taking into account youth and poverty.


The Coming of the Third ReichDemocracies that are under the threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.

The Atlantic Monthly posed this question to its readers and posted some of the answers in  the March issue:  “What was the worst year in history.” One of the answers – ” 2001, the worst year in U.S. History; we lost our Constitution.”

The destruction of the two towers in New York in 2001 was certainly a catastrophe.  Our nation was not “under threat of destruction” from terrorism and is not today, but our Constitution was and is.  We have violated our constitutional principles, and since it appears that we are in an unending and undeclared war against terrorism we may never get them back.  Take, for example, Amendment IV:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons,houses, papers, and effects , against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be Violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Can anyone read the Fourth Amendment and not come to the firm conclusion, regardless of what the courts and the executive branch say, that NSA surveillance is unconstitutional?   Does NSA surveillance particularly describe the persons, places, or things to be searched?  No.

The quote at the beginning of this post is by Richard J. Evans in The Coming Of the Third Reich, the first in a three-volume history of Nazi Germany.  At the end of the book, he sums up the factors that paved the way for the coming of the Nazis.  (Interestingly, Evans describes the twelve-year Nazi reign as a “permanent state of emergency that was more fictive than real”; not much different from our seemingly permanent war on terror.)

The death of democracy in Germany was part of a much broader European pattern in the interwar years; but it also had very specific roots in German history and drew on ideas that were part of a very specific German tradition.  German nationalism, the Pan-German vision of the completion through conquest in war of Bismarck’s unfinished work of bringing all Germans together in a single state, the conviction of the superiority of the Aryan race and the threat posed to it by the Jews, the belief in eugenic planning and racial hygiene, the military ideal of a society clad in uniform, regimented, obedient, and ready for battle – all this and much more that came to fruition in 1933 drew on ideas that had  been circulating in Germany since the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Some of these ideas, in turn, had their roots in other countries or were shared by significant thinkers within them . . .  they came together in Germany in a uniquely poisonous mixture, rendered all the more potent by Germany’s preeminent position as the most advanced and most powerful state on the European Continent.


The Emergency State

The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All CostsWe in the United States have yielded

. . . our most basic liberties to a secretive, unaccountable emergency state – a vast but increasingly misdirected complex of national security institutions, reflexes, and beliefs that so define our present world that we forget that there was ever a different America.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have given way to permanent crisis management:  to policing the planet and fighting preventive wars of ideological containment, usually on terrain chosen by, and favorable to, our enemies.  Limited government and constitutional accountability have been shouldered aside by the kind of imperial presidency our constitutional system was explicitly designed to prevent.

Postwar presidents have assumed broad foreign policy and war-making powers never intended by the Constitution.

Since the 1940s, the traditional tenets of American democracy – limited military intervention abroad, checks and balance at home, executive accountability to Congress and the electorate – have ceded place to something radically different, something Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would have abhorred – the steady expansion of a unaccountable, presidentially directed national security establishment.

As Kaplan points out in this engrossing book, each one of our Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have continued and furthered the emergency state.  The emergency state is a bipartisan construction – both Republicans and Democrats and the voters have played along through a fear of perceived danger.  One thing that has been missing is rudimentary risk management in which we recognize that

. . . all threats are not equally serious and urgent, and military force is not always the trump card of American power.  Out repeated failure to make such essential distinctions makes us more vulnerable internationally, not more secure – and it is eroding our democracy, and our economy at home.  Because we cannot preventively extinguish every potential threat, we need to develop a hierarchy of current threats, and to understand the criteria on which such a hierarchy should be based.

Roosevelt started it all.  Presidents before Roosevelt had exercise extraordinary powers during wartime or the threat of war – Adams with the Alien and Seditions Acts, Lincoln with the suspension of habeas corpus during The Civil War.  The powers used by Adams, Lincoln, and others “were not carried over into subsequent periods of peace.”  This did not happen after World War II.  Harry Truman retained wartime powers and institutionalized them in the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, and the National Security Council and Advisor.

Eisenhower spoke about the danger of the Military Industrial Complex, but it was under his administration “that Americans began to accept the new emergency state system of government as a bipartisan fixture of national life, an inseparable part of America’s destined passage from interwar isolationism to postwar global leadership.”

A peculiar aspect of some of our presidents is that they ran on a platform that was leery of The Emergency State, but once in office “could never bring himself [their selves] to fully renounce” or to renounce at all.  This was particularly the case for Eisenhower and Obama.

Obama was elected at a moment when the emergency state’s national security strategy was proving unable to cope with a new set of nonstate enemies and unconventional threats, when the emergency state’s approach to international economics was undermining the economic security and prospects of most Americans, and when the emergency state’s cumulative encroachments on the Constitution where threatening American democracy and the Bill of Rights.

None of those concerns have been adequately addressed.  Instead, hopes for changes “were almost instantly deflated by the new administration’s backward-looking appointments, timid and inadequate policies, and muddled political message.”

One result of Emergency State policies has been that “essential global problems like halting climate degradation, curbing nuclear weapons proliferation, and combating infectious disease’’ have been largely ignored.

What to do?  I find myself cynical about the chances of changing course what with the rancorous partisanship of our politics, the willful ignorance of a large part of the electorate, and the tight grip that the corporate and financial world has on our legislature. Kaplan’s suggestions are practical in every sense except the political.  Kaplan suggests that

We do not need to change our Constitution.  It was well designed by the framers to provide accountable government and checks on executive power with a view to avoiding the endless wars that eroded Europe’s finances and its freedoms.  It can achieve the same ends today.

I agree with the above conclusion.  I agree that the nine changes that Kaplan describes will move us back to Constitutional government.  My cynical self tells me that in order to achieve any of Kaplan’s suggestions (e.g., “Presidential war powers come only with a congressional declaration of war”; and “No branch of the federal government should exercise unreviewable powers”) other basic changes are needed to break the logjam in Washington:  do something about gerrymandering and filibustering, and in general do away with practices that make it possible for small minorities or individuals to stop legislation even if favored by a majority of the electorate.


The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against FateHere are a few quotes from The Revenge of Geography that lay out the book’s objective.

. . . the aim of my study [is] to have an appreciation of the map so that, counter-intuitively, we need not always be bounded by it.  For it is not only narrow-mindedness that leads to isolationism, but the overstretching of resources that causes an isolationist  backlash.  [The U.S. has been aggressively overstretching our resources throughout the new century.]

Geography informs, rather than determines.  Geography, therefore, is not synonymous with fatalism.  But it is, like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on – and an instigator of – the actions of states.

I wish to argue for a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy, a zeal of which I myself have been guilty.

Kaplan writes not just about how geography affects the United States.  He covers the globe, with chapters for each of the world region’s:  Europe; Russia and Central Asia; China; India; the Mideast from Egypt to Afghanistan; Iran; the former Ottoman empire and specifically Turkey; and the Americas.  His ideas about the United States and Mexico are, for me, revelatory.

The blurring of America’s Southern frontier is becoming a geographical fact that all the security devices on the actual border itself cannot invalidate.

While we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to affect historical outcomes in Eurasia, we are curiously passive about what is happening to a country with which we share a long land border, that verges on disorder, and whose population is close to double that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

In the long run, looking deep into the twenty-first century and beyond, . . . a border between a highly developed society and a less highly developed society will not attain an equilibrium, but will advance in the more backward society’s favor.  In other words, the preservation of American nationalism . . . is unachievable unless Mexico reaches First World status.  And if Mexico does reach First World status, then it might become less of a threat, and the melding of the two societies only quickens.  Either way, because of the facts that the map imposes, we are headed for a conjoining of Mexico and America in some form . . .

Kaplan throws in a healthy does of information about the history of geographic and geopolitical thinking – about a third of the book  is devoted to such.  He concludes this section with the chapter The “Crisis of Room”

With civilizations densely jammed one against the other, and the media a vehicle for constant verbal outrages, as well as for popular pressure from oppressed groups, the need for quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy will never be greater.  One crisis will flow into the next, and there will be perennial need for everyone to calm down [Kaplan’s emphasis].

I learned a great deal from this book.  Kaplan writes objectively with no partisanship.  He just wishes to point out that geography is important – so pay attention.  The maps are excellent; the writing absorbing; the lessons important, believable, and thoroughly backed-up by logic and geographic fact.

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