Cleopatra≈Game of Thrones

Have you heard about the series Game of Thrones? For sure it’s a stupid question because even a squatter in the middle of the woods has the mass market paperback. Christina and I started the HBO show about 4 years ago, and I finally convinced my parents to give it a try – they are almost caught up after binge-watching for a month straight. I started to read the first book because I figured in 50 years it will be considered a classic like Lord of the Rings – there are five total installments in the series with two more set to release in the distant future. The reason I love Game of Thrones is that it reads like historical fiction and it helps me understand real life ancient history. Of course, the plot, characters, and dragons are not real, but the foundation of the series is based on an era of our very own past: an era of kings and queens,  love and murder, conquests and defeats. While reading the first book in the series – A Song of Ice and Fire – I was concurrently digesting a nonfiction work on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. At times I thought both books were fiction because Cleopatra’s life mirrored the drama taking place in the medieval fantasy. Cleopatra’s rise and fall is no fantasy, but I hope to clear up a few misconceptions about one of the world’s most powerful women.

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Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt and was a member of the royal Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemaic dynasty began its rule over Egypt after Ptolemy I – a general of Alexander the Great – was appointed the leader of the region. The Ptolemies believed in keeping their family line pure and hence practiced incest. The very close-knit and confusing family tree of the Ptolemies resulted in an endless stream of murder for the sake of political power. By the time Cleopatra took control in 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty was in a severe decline from its once prosperous beginnings; that decline was primarily due to the rising power in the west – the Roman Empire. Cleopatra was a ruthless politician who understood how to wrestle with Rome; her domestic resume included killing her brother-husband and most of her family members to ascend the throne.

 

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The most authentic image of Cleopatra we have today…not what most people imagine.

 

Along with murder, Cleopatra understood the art of seduction, and she found favor with Rome’s highest official – Julius Ceasar. The couple would have a child together and Cleopatra gained a critical military alliance. All came crashing down however for the Queen when Ceasar was assassinated by his fellow senators. Wasting no time, Cleopatra seduced Ceasar’s predecessor Mark Antony. Mark Antony was one of three Roman rulers after Ceasar’s death and was the man most likely to take total control of the empire. Antony would eventually be defeated by his co-ruler Octavian – later known as Ceaser Augustus. Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide in their defeat; arguably history’s most dramatic love affair.

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Cleopatra’s life is fascinating, and throughout the ages, her image has been negatively caricatured. She is portrayed as a beautiful temptress who used sex to advance her political power. This picture is not entirely accurate and doesn’t give the Queen her due justice. Cleopatra was not physically beautiful, and she had to use her personality to seduce the greatest playboys of the age. That speaks to Cleopatra’s intelligence and wit during an era when women were little respected for their minds. Cleopatra also was not a sex-addict who was only concerned with hedonism. She was a compassionate ruler who was loved by the Egyptian people – her conquests of love brought prosperity to the citizens and her dynasty. More than anything, Cleopatra genuinely loved Antony and her children – a benevolent wife and mother until the very end. Cleopatra was one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the history of the world. We turn her into a sexual sound bite today, but have no doubt, she was an intelligent, reliable, and compassionate ruler. To understand Cleopatra’s success, let’s remember that the span of the Ptolemaic dynasty covered three centuries – a period longer than the current age of the United States of America. Cleopatra was the most successful and famous leader during that long rule. Before you dig into Game of Thrones, read about Cleopatra; incest, murder, politics, and power has no better model.

Andrew Jackson vs. Donald Trump

I’ve been delaying this post because I felt uninspired to write about America’s seventh President – Andrew Jackson. Jackson is a big name in history for good and bad reasons. His face adorns the $20 bill and his name is often compared with our current President – Donald Trump. I am not going to write a dry list of all Jackson’s accolades, but instead, I just want to focus on three major components of his presidency. First, however, I must mention that the biography I read was American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham. My lack of inspiration with Jackson may partly stem from Meacham’s style of biography which was disjointed and a little heavy on 19th-century gossip. I like biographies which start from birth and end at death – American Lion focuses primarily on Jackson’s presidency – making it difficult to follow a timeline.

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Upon the completion of a book, I always have a few key takeaways that stick in my mind. For Jackson, I have three major points that I want to discuss. First off, Jackson was easily caricatured by politicians but in reality, his personality was far from the public imaginings. Jackson is responsible for the powerful presidency we know of today and this shift in thinking made him appear as a despot. Behind the scenes, Jackson loved his country and wanted to protect it like a father – he was highly successful in this arena. My second takeaway was that Jackson was a stubborn man who had conflicting philosophies. This was most pronounced with his views towards Native Americans and slaves. Jackson is responsible for the Trail of Tears which forced Native Americans to move “yet again” from land in the South to the West. This policy was due to Jackson’s belief that different races of people could not cohabitate together – separation or subjugation were the only solutions. My third takeaway was that this erroneous philosophy did not apply to the States in the Union. During his tenure, Jackson prevented South Carolina from succeeding and held the States accountable to federal laws; preventing a civil war and strengthening the power of the Supreme Court.

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As one can see, Jackson was a complex man who had conflicting philosophies which resulted in policies with negative and positive outcomes. Is the country better off because of Andrew Jackson? Like most Presidents’ track record, this is a hard question to answer. I think overall, Jackson did benefit the country by keeping it together during a time when it was falling apart at the seams. His policies with the Native Americans were disastrous, and that is why I have a hard time liking Jackson. This brings me to my comparison between Jackson and Trump. Donald Trump is a complicated man who is easily caricatured. He is either vilified by the left or overly praised by the right. Jackson changed the strength of the Presidency and Trump is continuing that tradition. I believe just like Jackson, Trump loves his country. But I also think that just like Jackson, Trump has some philosophies which cause contradictions – both helping and hurting the nation.

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For a long time, I caricatured Trump in my mind. After reading Jackson’s biography, I have changed my mind about our current President. Trump is a very intelligent man and in my opinion a political mastermind. He knows exactly how to rally his base and precisely what to Tweet – ensuring his message is spread throughout the internet. Many on the left think he is an idiot for his comments just like intellectuals thought Jackson was mad for some of his statements. Trump and Jackson are strategists. Some of these strategies have good outcomes for the country while others do not. The point I want to make is that both Trump and Jackson have flaws, but they also have strengths. It is our job not to caricature and be petty but rather to be rationale and discerning. When we caricature we dehumanize. When we dehumanize we become a caricature ourselves. Does that mean I support Trump? Yes and no. Just like Jackson, I have my critiques, but just like Jackson, I think Trump’s biography will give us a more complete picture. At this point in time, however, I am unenthused to write about Trump.

PS – The more I read, the more I see myself as an Independent in the realms of politics. I think party politics close ourselves off from seeing the other side. Thoughts, comments, or questions on anything I said…please send me a message.

The Communist in All of Us

Sometimes I get embarrassed when I read certain books in public; one time while I was working at an Elementary school I was confronted by a little girl who asked the simple question – “Why are you reading?” That is a funny story, but I have also gotten unamusing looks from adults with titles like Pride and Prejudice (In a purple cover) and The Book of Mormon. Stares get even icier when I grow my beard out and my appearance resembles that of a homeless man. I just recently reached the epitome of glances with my newest classic – The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. I was reading this scary-sounding book on a park bench one day – my beard looked like a birds nest, and I had my hair up in a man bun. Suffice it to say; mothers walked hurriedly past me and phones were being primed for an Amber Alert. Books are compelling and in the wrong hands can cause a lot of problems; imagine seeing someone reading The ISIS Manifesto: A Guide to Being a Lonewolf. That is why 70 years ago it was hard finding books on Communism and why many libraries blacklisted specific titles. I have mixed feelings about this, but I do believe that it is essential to understand the logic of extreme political thought.

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The Communist Manifesto was a political pamphlet published in 1848 by the German Philosophers Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels (credited for editing). Europe at the time was in a post-French Revolution reordering; class struggle was preeminent and capitalism was taking over the world. The life of a poor laborer consisted of arduous factory work – think of the desperation experienced during the Dust Bowl but tinged with aristocratic barriers. Marx desired to rally the working class against the bourgeoisie (middle to upper class) just like the bourgeoise assembled to fight the aristocracy during the French Revolution. Below is a list of the Communist Parties’ objectives.

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. Heavy progressive or graduated tax.
  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. 
  6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

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As history has shown, Communism doesn’t work. The idea of “equality” is great but in the Soviet Union – as one example – there were just as many divisions in society – rich and poor, ruling class and working class. What I have taken away most from this book is the idea that we are all a little Communistic. We all think we are 100% right on certain occasions and we believe that our way is the right way – think Liberal and Conservative. In Communist countries, there is no party system – no room for opposing viewpoints – no way to balance out opponents. There are truths in this world and I am not arguing that everyone’s opinion is “correct;” my point is that no individual or group of individuals has all the answers. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party need each other – the extremes of each lead to Communism or Fascism. The flaw with Communism was not that it sought equality; its flaw was the belief that one viewpoint could obtain equality. When we listen to others and learn from the past, we realize that truth lies in the middle. Be wary of extremes and be wary of individuals that proclaim their way is the only way. Marx was a genius, but he forgot what happened to Robespierre in the French Revolution – both examples of government were far from the middle and ended in disaster. What do you think about extreme political beliefs? Do you tend to be in the middle or a staunch fan of one particular party? I would love your comments.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
 -Karl Marx

My Newest Book is Here! – Chapter 1

I am happy to announce that the second installation of the Tackle the Library series is finally here! This book took me five months to write and I am thrilled to have the project completed. Plato is a tough dude to study and I read over 4,000 pages of text to write this tiny book. Do not fret, I guarantee that you will be able to understand Plato’s philosophy in this easy-to-read narrative. Below is the description.

Plato’s philosophy, political theory, and scholasticism shaped our modern day world. His ideas and writings are both important and honestly confusing. Have you ever wanted to learn about this crucial man but felt overwhelmed by the number of books on the subject? Have you tried to read dry Wikipedia articles on the “Forms” or the “Philosopher King” which soon made your eyeballs glaze over? Do you simply not care that much about Plato to commit a lot of time in dissecting his complicated beliefs? 

The Tackle the Library series takes the top 5 books on a subject and turns them into a cohesive story that is not only interesting to read but highly informative. Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is worth learning about because he attempted to understand topics which impact our everyday life: ethics, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose to name a few. This book makes nonfiction a painless process – no other text naturally explains the background, the evolution, the application, the history, and the paradoxes of Plato’s philosophy in a way that keeps the pages turning. Stop staring at that dusty shelf of nonfiction texts in the library and crack open a book that you’ll actually want to read.

If your curiosity is piqued, please give this book a try. It will take you a couple hours to finish and you will gain an entirely new understanding of the world. Just like my last book, We’re all Chihuahuas, I am having a special weekend sale where you can download it for free. Please click this link or any link you see on this page to download. For the next three days, I will post the first three chapters as a thank you to my readers. I hope you enjoy and gain something from the experience.

Without further adieu…

Chapter 1 – The Cave

“The beginning is the most important
part of the work.” – Plato

The path seems to meander in the distance and turn hazy in spots from shimmers of light-reflected heat. You’re on a hiking trail and slowly ascending a steep hillside during the peak days of summer – magnificent in beauty but sweltering in humidity. A quick glance off trail reveals a shaded spot and a possible resting place before the final push upwards. Sitting under the shade, you set your bag down and notice a small opening. It is a hole that emits cold air – what appears to be the entry to a natural cave. After an arduous dig, the gap widens to a large opening that teases the curiosity. Slowly you descend until your eyes adjust and all of the surroundings become discernible; this is no ordinary cave but rather one with a group of mystified inhabitants staring at a particular wall. These inhabitants were born in the cave and were forced, since birth, to watch the shapes and figures on the stone – created by the tiny holes of light behind them. They believe these shadows are actual objects and there is no more to the world than what is observed on that slimy edifice. You tap a few on the shoulder and break the spell of their imprisonment. You turn them towards the light source and show how the images are created; they are stunned and cannot believe that their reality was just a mirage.

Exalted in your good deeds, you try to lead them further out of the cave. Surprisingly though, you see the inhabitants turn back to their familiar wall and continue in their most comfortable state – ignorance. The truth is too much for them, and they prefer to look at the shadows instead of understanding their outer and inner worlds. Frustrated, you grab a few by the arm and you force them out into the summer day. The cave dwellers’ eyes sear from the brightness and they are unable to see. You slowly get them use to their new reality, and eventually, they grow in their belief and reason of what the world entails. They go back to the cave and try to get more people – only a few more decide to step out – most remain steadfast to the wall. Having done your job, you continue on with your hike and immediately tap your phone and post about your experience. You get to the top of the hill and check the news, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and various other media outlets; looking up for a second you see the horizon and have a weird thought pop into your head – “Am I also looking at the wall of a cave?”

The idea of “The Cave” is one of Plato’s most relevant and endearing metaphors. In today’s world, we no doubt would have an easy time finding “cave dwellers” who propagate stupidity and selfishness – just imagine Plato reading the comment sections of an internet post. Plato was not pretentious in his view of humanity but hopeful that man could turn from ignorance and reach a better life through active reasoning; Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, you cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.” This cultivation begins with the belief that wisdom is something worth pursuing and that we can climb above our “sense perception” to a greater realm of understanding. Plato’s highest goal in life was not understanding the physical realities of the world – which our cave eyes could quickly ascertain – but rather the light source itself. The sun in the Cave metaphor is the source of all things good in this life: virtue, happiness, love, justice, courage, beauty, and loyalty are a few examples of the “goodness.” Plato wanted to understand a universal standard for the “Good” and a level of knowledge which would allow us to fully grasp our inner self – ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of life.

Plato made it clear that most people will never leave the wall in the cave and few will cross over the threshold of understanding the highest truths. The journey out of the cave is a lifelong process and I wanted to give the ascent my best shot. Like Bilbo Baggins exiting the Shire, I soon realized that my path towards truth was not an easy road and not a solitary pursuit. To understand Plato, I enlisted the help of others and decided to read the top five books on the subject: Plato: Complete Works – edited by John M. Cooper, Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock, Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor, and The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. These books were challenging and entailed 4,000 pages of cave-exiting illumination. My eyes are now turned from the wall and it is my job to help you understand how beliefs morph into knowledge and how knowledge morphs into wisdom. We will climb through the mountains of Plato’s philosophy and cover subjects which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time: the soul, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose. Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, but his teachings seem more relevant today than any other time in history – our world sinking further into a “virtual” reality. Ultimately, we study Plato to open up our perspective of our inner self and our humanity so that we can live a better existence and help others to cross over the bridge of ignorance. So let’s turn our heads from the wall and take a step towards the light – let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.

US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 2

I want to give a shout out to one particular reader for sticking with me through all these Presidential posts. Thank you, Allie Nye, for your loyal following and steadfast interest in a subject I find extremely relevant. Last week I posted about Ulysses S. Grant and for some reason, not many people wanted to read about one of America’s most popular presidents. For those who did read part one – I’m sure you had a sleepless night anticipating the release of Part 2. To all my readers who are sick of dead white men, I assure you this is the last post for quite some time concerning the subject. Let’s get back to where we last left Grant – a downtrodden man with a smeared reputation trying to bake bread for the Union Army.

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Before Grant could put his first loaf of bread in the oven, he was given a new lease on life from a longtime friend – Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois. Thanks to Washburne – who was a close acquaintance to Lincoln – Grant moved up the military ladder from simple aid to Brigadier General of volunteers. This meteoric rise was partially due to Grant’s talent in organizing men and his tenacious leadership. The now military leader would go on to win the Union’s first major victory at Fort Donaldson and the bloodiest battle in American history up until that point – Shiloh.  Grant became a national figure after these two events and was admired by Lincoln as an “offensive” general not scared of his Confederate counterparts. This executive admiration was contrasted by cries from the press that Grant was a “Butcher” and a reckless campaigner. To worsen Grant’s image, there were reports of him getting drunk on regular occasions – these being half-truths and whole exaggerations.

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By the end of the war, Grant would have decisive victories in Vicksburg and Petersburg; all the while devastating the south through his command of Sheridan’s cavalry and Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was promoted to Lieutenant General – which was the highest rank in America only held once before by George Washington. His military power reached its zenith at Appomattox Courthouse where he forced the magnanimous surrender of Robert E. Lee – pardoning all Confederate soldiers and allowing them to go back home without further prosecution. Grant by far was the most responsible person for winning the Civil War: free of vanity, generous to friends,  and patriotic to the core.

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Grant’s accomplishments in the Civil War catapulted him into the national psyche – on a level equal to Abraham Lincoln. He immediately enforced Reconstruction and ordered troops into the south to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves. For the first time in history, blacks were able to vote and Grant was elected as President in a landslide victory at the young age of 46. He championed the enforcement of the 13th amendment and helped pass the 14th and 15th amendments which ensured equal citizenship and voting rights for former slaves. It was said that Lincoln was responsible for freeing the slaves but Grant was responsible for fostering their humanity. He formed the Justice Department to prosecute the newly formed and powerful terrorist organization – the Ku Klux Klan.  Grant promoted a record number of blacks to public office and freely welcomed black activists like Frederick Douglas into the White House. He helped found the first National Park at Yellowstone and pushed for public education like no other president before. His popularity was so great that he was elected to a second presidency and the famous feminist Susan B. Anthony campaigned in his name.  Grant won his second term and was the first two-term president since Andrew Jackson.

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Of course, Grant was not perfect and he had several problems in his cabinet from nepotism and trying to lead the country with a military mindset. Politics were not Grant’s forte and he didn’t know when to back down from a political fight – a trait that helped him on the battlefield but hurt him in Congress. He was loyal to friends to the point of foolishness and this burned him many times when uncovering corruption schemes. By the end of his second term, Reconstruction was a dead issue and he felt helpless in his ability to defend blacks – a moral fatigue inundated the north. Upon retiring from office, he went on a two-year world tour where he met the most famous leaders of the gilded age – from Queen Victoria of England to Emperor Meiji of Japan. He was pushed towards a third term as president but due to George Washinton’s tradition of two terms, he failed to achieve the nomination.

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The end of Grant’s life is a sad tale of betrayal and suffering. Shortly after reentering civilian life, Grant trusted his financial health to a supposed friend. This swindling Wall Street man stole all of Grant’s family and friends’ money through the use of a pyramid scheme. He was left penniless and only sustained himself through donations from admirers across the country. One day, Grant experienced a sharp pain in his mouth – the annoyance was actually throat cancer. To prevent his family from complete poverty upon his death, Grant wrote a memoir that Mark Twain would go on to publish. He wrote his memoir in excruciating pain and barely finished it before dying in 1885 – his body only weighed 90 lbs from his inability to drink and eat. His memoir gained $450,000 dollars in royalties ($11,000,000 in today’s value) and his funeral in New York was attended by 1.5 million people – eulogized as a man equal to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He was a man of character and virtue who overcame his vices of drink and stood up for society’s downtrodden – making him one of my favorite presidents. Next time you have a $50 bill, use Grant’s face to go buy Ron Chernow’s book and some baked goods in commemoration.
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The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

Rethink Your Righteousness

Have you ever gotten into a political argument with someone on the other side of the aisle? With the 2016 tire-fire-election still burning, I can guess the response to that question. Liberals think Conservatives are uneducated and unsympathetic. Conservatives think Liberals are bleeding-hearts and unpatriotic. Around and around we go till Uncle Fred is blue in the face and millennial Sally is red with furry. Growing up I was more conservative because of my parent’s love for the Republican party and in my college years, I swung more liberal because of inequality enlightenment. So what are my views now? Well, that is complicated because I just read an excellent book by Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist and has made it his life’s work to figure out what defines personal, community, and world morality. Let’s test your own morality…

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They have heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cook it and eat it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why?

Or how about this one…

Julie and Mark are a brother and sister who, one night on a vacation together, decide to make love. Julie is already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. Was it wrong for them to have sex?

One more just for fun…

A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong?

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So what do you think? Is it OK that the brother and sister have sex or the old lady scrubs the crapper with the American flag? Some may say that if the actions are not harming others, then there is nothing immoral being done. Others would say that there is a sanctity to specific objects and the human body, so those previous scenarios are entirely immoral. Haidt found that these questions are answered very quickly by people based on their intuition or “feelings”; reasoning in morality is an afterthought and falls short of ever explaining a knee-jerk reaction. Put in another way, we are tiny riders on large elephants. The elephant is our moral and emotional intuition that is powerful and somewhat wild. The rider is our reasoning and rational brain that tries to steer the elephant in the right direction but does little of the actual legwork.

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Our elephant is an amalgamation of life experiences, evolution, genetic predisposition, and worldviews. Haidt discovered through years of research that there are six “taste” buds of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. People have different moral tastes just like they have different tastes for cuisine. Liberals are concerned with the care and fairness tastebuds and are much more likely to accept the above questions as moral because they do not harm others. Conservatives actually have a wider moral palate with the proclivity for liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This is why historically, conservative candidates receive more votes because those politicians can run on a wider platform. In general, worldviews outside of the West focus more on the last four moral tastebuds because the social fabric of society is far more important than self-expression or “American Individualism.” The point here is not that Conservatives are better than Liberals or more righteous. The point is that both sides of the aisle have legitimate moral concerns that complement the spectrum of human good.

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So what should we do with all this information? First, we need to train our rider to control the elephant. Realize that your beliefs may not always be 100% correct and that listening to others is an excellent exercise in understanding. Realize that your liberal/conservative foe is not someone to defeat but actually someone to embrace – a ying-yang effect that covers the entire moral spectrum. Realize that there are many worldviews out there and that yours is only one type of lens. Hadit makes this recommendation for liberals – progress is good, but it must be taken with caution to protect the traditional pillars of society (Hadit is a Liberal). Hadit makes this recommendation for conservatives – use the liberal  “care and fairness” attributes when businesses prey on others with entrenched interests. Overall, the point is that both sides have important things to offer and neither is entirely righteous. Let’s control our elephants and steer our beliefs from their normal head-on collision to a more amicable side-long saunter.

The Best Gift I Can Give

During the Christmas season, I am generally a scrooge. Not surprisingly, I loathe shopping malls where the almighty god of commercialization is most worshipped. This past weekend, I was at a mall in Metro-Detroit – a suburban sprawl which requires a 30-minute commute to seemingly every destination. This mall was packed to the gills, and I felt like a human bumper cart weaving in and out of overpriced clothing stores. Me being me, I ranted to Christina the whole time about how stupid it all was and how I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. My wife is the opposite of my curmudgeon self; her ideal world would probably be the one located inside a snowflake where celebrations occur for maxed-out credit cards – Whoville. After a few grumpy rants, Christina started to deter my negativity with every woman’s rationalization for the holidays…

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Me – “What is the point of buying all these gifts that no one needs?! I can’t wait till the 26th.”

Christina – “MY LOVE (not said in a loving way) stop being an old man. Christmas is all about tradition and celebrating family.”

Me – “Why can’t we just celebrate family without all the gifts? It just makes us materialistic.”

Christina – “We have to give gifts because God gave us the gift of baby Jesus. That is why we need to stand in line for an hour at Pandora and buy a $100 charm. And if you don’t shut up I am going to buy some gifts at that new vegetarian make-up store that doesn’t believe in “sales.”

Me – “Alright, I’ll stop. Maybe we can find a “What Would Jesus Do” charm?”

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This conversation is a microcosm of the American Christmas experience. That is why I wanted to write this blog about the reason for the season. Jesus is indeed a forgotten figure during this time, and I thought it would be fun to juxtapose some of His philosophy with the philosophy in my most recent classic The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Prince is a how-to guide to being a powerful and successful monarch during the 1500’s. Although the book is old, it has many sad truths about how politicians can climb the career ladder – the term “Machiavellian” is defined as…

cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one’s career.

Essentially, Machiavelli makes the point that a Prince needs to be ready at any time for battle…

“A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study; but war and its organisation and disciplice, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands…”

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 A key component in the battle of politics is to know when to be good and when to be evil…

“Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.”

This advice sadly has a lot of relevance today for politicians and government officials. Put in another way, one must appear in public as an angel and in private as a demon – sounds like a House of Cards episode.

The advice of the Earthly Prince must be juxtaposed with the Heavenly Prince of Jesus. Jesus said that…

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Luke 6:27-30
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Humility and generosity should be the most common tools of today’s leaders. Aggression, deceit, and pride all help individuals reach temporary power – shortsightedly killing the goose to get the golden egg. Leadership depends on relationships and relationships depend on some degree of love.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
So this Christmas let’s give each other the gift of mercy. Let’s be more patient with each other. Let’s be more empathetic with each other. Let’s be more honest with each other. The material gifts on the 25th will eventually fade away, but the rewards of virtue will make you feel like royalty throughout the rest of the year.
Merry Christmas Everyone

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

Trump Economics?

Following the election of Trump, I became apolitical. My current view on politics is similar to my current view of the night sky – it is there but I only gaze up in wonder every now and again. I want Trump to do well because we should always root for our leaders to make the right decisions. However, it seems that whenever I do gaze up into the twinkling lights of Washington – I suddenly get a crick in my neck. In the past, I posted about Mike Rowe and his views on voting. Basically, he doesn’t think everyone should vote; only those individuals who are informed and educated enough to respect the privilege. In his article, he references a book that everyone should read to get a sound understanding of economic policy: Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt wrote this book in 1946 and it has sold over 1 million copies in the past 70 years. Suffice it to say, this book’s principles are solid and are still applicable to today’s economy. I say this because economics is many times a political subject.This book is not tainted by left or right wing media and it disproves many fallacies which are commonly used to wrongly steer our decisions. I’ll explain one of the biggest and most encompassing fallacies of all – putting America first at the expense of everyone else.

Imagine a little boy playing baseball and accidentally breaking a window. His friends all crowd around with their jaws gaping and they immediately start a philosophical conversation about the economic implications of the event. The first obvious line of thought is that a new window will have to be purchased. One boy exclaims that this will be beneficial to the window installer and hence stimulate the economy. All the boys agree and use this line of argument when confronted by the angry home owner. The home owner will have to spend 100 dollars to fix the window. The man listens to the boys but then says he was just about to use that 100 dollars to buy a new golf club. The boys learn an important economic lesson. Certain policies that appear to help, actually have a reciprocal effect of hurting others. Humans have a hard time with economics because we focus on the winners and not the losers. It is easy for us to see jobs being created but it is hard for us to imagine jobs or purchasing power being lost.

Let’s imagine that America put itself first in all trade deals. From the example above it is a fallacy to think this will benefit us because there is always another group which suffers. In this example, the domestic America manufactures may have better protection and hence better sales. But what about the American manufactures who export products to other countries? They no longer can profit from the open trade agreements and hence lose out on business. Countries around the world would have less reason to buy from America and thus would take their money elsewhere. Additionally, these policies promote greater inefficiencies which in the end reduce American purchasing power, real wages, and production potential. The negatives are overlooked because it is easy to see new manufacturing jobs, but hard to see the world economy shifting. To put it another way, policies which benefit 12.3 million American manufactures, in the long run, will hurt the other 140 million American workers.

Whats’s the win-win economic policy? The best economic policy in the long run is to have open trade. This will benefit the most efficient American manufacturers and allow Americans to have the greatest purchasing power. It will also allow other countries to buy more American products which will stimulate greater production and job growth. These policies are in fact usually trumpeted by Republicans. Ironically, Trump is pushing for more Democratic protectionist views. These aforementioned economic policies are proven effective and it only takes one to read about the sad history of protectionism to quickly understand their soundness. Hazlitt, in 1946 wrote this quote several times in the book.

“…those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, demagogues go for the policies that appear to be sound but usually only help specific groups in the short term. We are a globalized world and we need economic policies that benefit all sectors. We can do this in a responsible way that facilitates environmental projects, new job training, and stability in developing countries. There is no first place when it comes to economics. There is no benefit of putting America first – our strength comes from the strength of others.