Proverbs That Last Forever

“However, a much older Near Eastern origin is suggested by a near equivalent in the 6th century BC Proverbs of Ahiqar: ‘a sparrow in thy hand is better than a thousand sparrows flying’.”

I love finding proverbs that have somehow survived 25 centuries of linguistic translations and societal changes. Such proverbs are almost certainly somewhat accurate (in the right context), because the only way people would keep saying them for 2,500 years is if they feel like they have a decent reason to do so, themselves, and to teach their children to say them, too.

Interestingly, it’s possible that personal adherence to old texts of philosophy, poetry, mythology, scripture, and fable–stems from the same phenomena; and that, therefore, religion, philosophy, ethics, and more are a result of old thoughts being consistently seen as worthwhile enough to repeat and teach future generations to repeat.
The historic use of force to enforce adherence to ideas skews this effect, somewhat. This includes classic examples of European churches imposing laws and punishments, as well as popular non-religious philosophies making law with legislation and court cases (incl. case law), and punishing those who violate those laws. It can’t really be argued that the modern law and punishment is as brutal or authoritarian as ancient law and punishment; but when an armed person can come to your home and put you in shackles (handcuffs) for not obeying, one can neither argue that this isn’t the use of force. Sure, the methods are different, but disobeying gets you punished.
How do we decide whether and when old ideas are more/less valuable to us than new ideas? How effective have those uses of force been in making a given idea persist? Does an idea that has been appreciated (even/especially out of pure expediency) for 2.5 millennia have more (objective) believability than an idea that’s been around for 50 years? Each person chooses how to weigh these and other factors to create a personal philosophy. Then, they explain their philosophies to their children using proverbs.


I’m of the generation that started off in one world and then crossed into the next during my formative years.

While those before me barely understood how to use a typewriter, I spent much of my childhood building computers and typing at a rate that would put most secretaries to shame.

My generation was the first to start off talking on a phone with a 6-foot long spiral cord, and then carry around high-powered computers in our pockets as we entered adulthood.

As soon as we entered kindergarten or first grade–since, back then, kindergarten wasn’t required–our teachers did a little bit of math on their abacuses and realized that when we graduated high school, it would be the year 2000.  I know you think I’m kidding about the abacuses, but when I started school, that’s actually what we did math on.

Graduating high school in that seminal year somehow carried a lot of weight.

It wasn’t just a number; it meant that humanity was getting a sort of “new start”, in the minds of a lot of people.  Therefore, it was generally instilled in us from an early age that it was up to us and those born at a similar time to change the world drastically and, essentially, fix all the epic screw-ups of our parents, grandparents, and every previous generation.

The funny thing is, while we were starting to learn the world and contemplate how we might change it when we finally got all grown up, it actually did change into something that nobody before our generation could have fully expected or adapted to.

Just about every piece of academic information suddenly became free.  Yes, I know that if you want to really drill into a topic, you still have to take a free online course from an actual university; but essentially, it became the new big thing that, if you didn’t know something, you could type it into Yahoo, Excite, Altavista, and later, Google, and then…you knew it.

This was really cool, and our parents, teachers, and, once we got all grown up, our bosses thought that this was the best thing ever…until they actually got a taste of what it was like to be around someone who knew more than they did.

Not long into my adult-ness I got hired on as a Computer Assisted Drafter at a door company.  This wasn’t because I’d ever done drafting of any kind before, and certainly not because I knew a thing about wood-working, beyond a few projects in elementary school; but the boss had realized that the digital age–whatever that meant–had arrived, and all the famous ink-and-paper magazines said that it was going to make her rich if she embraced it.  Therefore, she eagerly hired the first freshly minted grown-up who knew a particularly great amount about computers to do all the computer-thingies that she and her other employees didn’t really understand.

My first task was to start learning the drafting program, and my second task was to remove the plethora of viruses and other malware from all the computers on the network so that the program would actually run.  That was cool, and dollar signs began to flash before my boss’s eyes.

My next task was to actually start drafting.  This was easy enough: plug in the numbers, draw the lines, and print it out on a really big piece of paper so the guys in the shop could build it.  Except that the head of the woodworking department, who was over me, didn’t trust anything that wasn’t written in graphite.  Therefore, my final task before I could be happily away in my new career was to learn how to teach a person born in the ignorant world of pencils and paper that computers could do things better.  We were running Windows Millennium Edition, so this wasn’t an easy task.  Ultimately, though, despite all the difficulties this entailed, the company failed for the most venerable and inane of reasons: the boss liked to play fast and loose with the books, and apparently “going digital” didn’t make that any more legal.

From this, it quickly became apparent that simply knowing how to do one’s job wasn’t enough to be successful at making money.  One first had to figure out how to deal with the obtuseness of human nature.

Funny thing: in all of our classes on learning “the theory of how to do everything”, not one class was taught on how to actually get along in society.  Stuff like “how to talk to your boss without making him mad” and “what a checkbook is for, and how to make the numbers be nice to you” just weren’t considered important.  Thusly, Millennials, for all our unique insights into what technology does and doesn’t change, and despite being the foremost experts in turning an ignorant world into a knowledgeable one, it’s become a famous fact that, as a group, we simply can’t hold down jobs to save our lives.  People are just too stupid to know when they’re being stupid, and being as how (according to everyone more than 10 years older than us) we were supposed to teach the world how to drastically change for the better, we’ve largely done what any brilliantly unwise person would do and tried to actually teach people how to stop being stupid.

Wikipedia has the following to say about the Millennial generation:

Millennials [were predicted to] become more like the “civic-minded” G.I. Generation with a strong sense of community both local and global…[Some attribute] Millennials with the traits of confidence and tolerance, but also a sense of entitlement and narcissism…Millennials in adulthood are detached from institutions and networked with friends…Millennials are somewhat more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with 49% of Millennials saying the country’s best years are ahead though they’re the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt and unemployment…Some employers are concerned that Millennials have too great expectations from the workplace.  Some studies predict that Millennials will switch jobs frequently, holding many more jobs than Gen Xers due to their great expectations…[Some describe] Millennials’ approach to social change as “pragmatic idealism,” a deep desire to make the world a better place combined with an understanding that doing so requires building new institutions while working inside and outside existing institutions.

That last part is a real pain in the butt.  As children and young adults, we were stuck playing the game of, “Yes, teacher/parent/employer, you are older and therefore much wiser than I am.  Sure, I’ll teach you how to open your word processor…again.”  Being the lowest person on the social totem pole because of your age, and having the best insights about how to actually get stuff done in this strange new world is a really fast path toward unemployment, unless you learn to (A) forget that you know what you’re doing, and become satisfied with doing everything the stupid way–at least until your so-called superiors retire, die, or stop telling you how to do things–or (B) try to be your own boss…just like every other unemployed person.  So, “changing the world”, apparently, must first start from a position of not doing anything to change the world, or being jobless.

About that.  Changing the world, I mean.  Sitting on the fence between the world of mostly-unwilling ignorance and the world of willful ignorance means that pretty much every modern “social change” movement not created and run by Millennials looks a lot like a pipe dream created by those who grew up with a search engine good enough to avoid ever having to look at anything they don’t want to.  While the older generation could, in most cases, rightfully claim to be doing the best they knew how, based on the information they were given, the generation after us sounds a little tinny when they say that “something is a basic human right” because they read it on  How do these people who started life with the best access to information that the world has ever seen still not realize that the kinds of supposedly radical changes they’re totally bent on bringing about have either failed or caused total economic, social, political, and governmental meltdowns every time they succeeded?

Sure, it must be a good idea to let Russia keep pushing west, through Ukraine, in spite of the treaty they signed at the end of the Cold War.  Maybe if we shake our fingers at them hard enough, they’ll march back to their own territory like Germany did in 1939.

The truly galling thing about this, though, isn’t the naivety of post-Millennial 20-somethings, but how the previous generation seems to have decided that if something shows up on the Internet when they type “social justice in Crimea” into Google, it must be absolute truth.  Did they totally forget about voting for education reforms that involved teaching HTML code to high school kids who showed any particular aptitude in computing?  It would take me under an hour to create a not-too-shabby-looking web page saying that cheeseburgers cause cancer because cows are naturally-occurring GMOs.  But I won’t bother to do that, because it’s already been done, and a lot of people already believe that cheeseburgers cause cancer because…”GMOs!!!!”…to a sufficient degree that they’re willing to start a protest in front of Burger King.  They might even bring their very-skinny-but-still-cute-enough-to-post-pictures-on-Pinterest vegan cats with them.

To put all this another way, Millennials who really absorbed and believed what they were taught in school tend not to start “blooming” until they’re in their thirties, if ever.

Wikipedia also notes that some sociologists refer to us as the “Peter Pan Generation”, and as horrible as it might seem to be called that, I can’t help but agree with this assessment.  How does a person learn how life works before the dawn of the Information Age, then learn how to be the fore-runners of that age, then learn how to avoid pissing people off by being too good at it, and then finally learn how to have a career (read: wait for the older generations to die or retire) without taking a long time doing it?  If we’re lucky, we’ll have started our careers by age 35, and not hate ourselves for the dead end careers we picked back before all the careers that were profitable and fun switched with all the careers that didn’t used to be.  Some of us are bloody lucky to land a “career” at a fast food restaurant by virtue of having a bachelor’s degree.  And our parents’ generation is all up in arms because we complain about having $50,000 of student debt and want the minimum wage to be raised.

Well, except for those Millennials who, against everyone’s wishes, didn’t attend or finish college.

Sure, there are a lot of people my age who managed to buy degrees that will eventually pay themselves off.  However, most of the people I know who were born around 1982 did what all the adults told them to and ended up with little more than very expensive pieces of paper and a few years wasted in college housing.

One the upside, additional time spent learning things means that, to an even greater degree, those who spent at least a little time studying the “cutting edge” in such institutions know more about this “brave, new world” than people who didn’t attend college, at all.  On the down side, we’re once again stuck trying to convince people older than us that we do, in fact, know some better ways in which to do things, that are different from how they’ve always been done, without getting into trouble for saying so.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is a very sizeable contingent of Millennials who have figured out how to “live the American Dream.”  Overwhelmingly, these are the people who were uninterested in, or just too stupid to understand all that new-fangled computer stuff, back in high school.  Sorry, but those Millennials who were good at these things know exactly who and what I’m talking about.  They did as their parents and grandparents did, before them, and got jobs doing stuff that wasn’t, in any way, going to change the world.  Some examples include accounting, vehicle repair, construction work, bartending, marketing, and anything involving keeping your head down in a bureaucracy.  Perhaps the rest of us realized too late that anything that has generated tax revenue consistently for a few thousand years will, by extension of a famous proverb, result in job security–even if it’s the sort of thing that only a trained monkey could totally avoid feeling suicidal about.  Surprisingly, most people who actually got into computers when Forbes was predicting that people who got into computers would get rich, currently do computer repair or technical support for close to minimum wage.  After all, how much are people really willing to spend to keep a computer running when they can get a cheap-and-crappy new one for around $300?

I’ve never met a business owner who wasn’t willing to save a penny, now at the cost of a dollar, later.  Computers are like that, and contrary to what one might expect, business owners are willing to pay more than most to keep theirs running.  That should put things nicely into perspective.

This has been a rather long rant, and what I really mean to say by all of it is that people of other generations gripe way too much about people of my generation not “hitting the ground running”, “grabbing life with both hands”, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”, and all that jazz.  The fact is, we did all that, and it turned out that both the ground and life were covered in grease.  A lot of us fell flat on our faces with suddenly-ending careers, nervous breakdowns and other mental health catastrophes, stock market crashes, unrealistic expectations instilled in us from an early age, and so on.  That we’re at all willing to try–yet again–to get back on our feet in spite of how painful and discouraging our early adulthood was, is a sign of just how great this generation really is.

And we are going to change the world, damn it.

The World’s Wrongs Aren’t As Wrong As You Think They Are


I just saw something about “things we didn’t know were made with sweat shop labor”.  It’s sardonically funny because it’s utterly obvious to anyone who knows how humanity has worked for all of our history.  Realistically, the only way to have everything we want without doing this kind of labor, ourselves, and without having other people do it, is to have robots do it all–which would mean mass unemployment, especially for those who are already poor.  (No, “fair trade” with foreign entities isn’t feasible in most cases, because it’s ultimately impossible to enforce where those collecting your money spend it–whether on their workers or on themselves.  Or, we could enforce it, but that would require sending soldiers into a sovereign nation and killing people who resist.  Embargoes against countries who refuse to participate in fair trade tend to result in economic collapse and death by crime, warfare, and poverty for people in those countries.)  The short explanation of why things are done this way is because, like everything else our society does, it’s the method we’ve found that “works” with minimal problems.  It’s not necessarily good, but it’s better than everything else we’ve tried, so far; therefore, any truly helpful suggestion for change is going to have to involve a more complete solution than, “let’s just pay more for stuff, and shame those who don’t or can’t do that!”

These items include:
-Food (Cheap labor is required to grow it plentifully.  In almost all countries, farmers are the poorest of the poor.  Here, farmers aren’t poor, but farm workers still are–which is an improvement from the global norm, if we’re being honest about it.)
-Clothing (Textile workers have pretty much always had it rough.  Working with fibers can mess up your body if you do it enough.  A lot of people I know struggle to buy clothes at the current price.  Multiply that price that by 500-1000%, and a lot more folks will start freezing to death in the winter.)
-Drugs of all kinds (Which come from crops…therefore use cheap farm labor.)
-Plastic objects of all kinds (If we want them to be plentiful, and therefore affordable, that requires cheap labor, and a huge supply of petroleum.)

This article sucks:

Yes this is messed-up…but I don’t think anyone reading this has ever gone a day in their lives without benefiting from these abuses.  In fact, the computer or mobile device you’re using right now–regardless of brand–was made using these practices, unless you paid about 10x what every other comparable model costs.  (I know this because I’ve been building computers since I was a little kid and have a pretty good idea of where the parts come from, and what they would cost if we made them using better practices.  All the local computer stores pay minimum wage to build computers, and would pay less if they could get away with it.  The reason you can get a computer or smart phone for under $1,000 is because the parts were made in sweat shops and assembled by underpaid techies.)  Worse, the people who like to share such statistics about “sweat shop labor” are usually the same people who support organic farming, which pits food shortages against human rights abuses and outright lies (for marketing to sensitive shoppers), when you get right down to how it works.

The local political party/advocacy group/guilt factory where I live, the Chico Peace and Justice Center, is all about making people feel bad about <insert verb here>, while providing only the most superficial and infeasible alternatives.  I’m sorry, but I wish that people would pay more attention to figuring out why people do what they do, under the assumption that nobody is “born evil”, rather than going around condemning people for doing whatever they can to deal with life as well as they can manage.  All the injustices in the world exist because they help meet somebody’s needs, or have done so in the past (and no better solution has become readily available); therefore, any meaningful solution requires us to put ourselves in the “perpetrator’s” shoes and figure out why they need to do what they do in order to be OK with life.  Yes, this includes actual villains like S. Hussein and A. Hitler, even though what they did was obviously unacceptable.  They both had very human reasons, though, and if you really dig around in their history, you’ll see that they were just trying to meet their personal needs, and sometimes those of the people around them.  Did they both deserve what they got, in the end?  Yeah, I think so.  Would you have acted in a similar fashion, given the same upbringing and life experiences?  That’s a harder question to answer, and I hope that one would hesitate to do so blithely.  I think that if our local (or not-so-local) activists were to seriously consider why these unfair practices exist, they would have a lot less anger, and not feel as much like they need to look down their noses at us “plebeians”, for one silly reason or another, no matter how <insert political leaning here> either person or party might be.


The Parable of the Circular Track

Imagine that life is lived upon a circular track.  It’s not a race, of course, but rather, an event wherein every participant uses this opportunity to better themselves.  Here, we seek to become more physically and mentally fit.  We seek to improve our running, jogging, and walking techniques, and to learn proper pacing.  The more we learn, and the harder we work at it, the faster and more steadily we are able to proceed around the track.  Eventually, we decide we’ve had enough, and walk off, hopefully better than we were when we stepped on.

There’s a huge throng of people on this track–everyone who’s alive right now.  It’s crowded, and we often bump into each other, sometimes becoming annoyed or aggravated.  Still, we do our best to see what’s ahead, and to respect and travel peaceably with those around us.  Some people on the track have gotten into better shape than others.  Some have learned pacing better than others.  The most sought-after teachers are those who have learned how to better themselves and those around them at a great rate.

The Runner In Front

About 50 feet ahead of you is a runner who’s moving a bit faster than you are.  He appears to be confident and in decent shape.  Naturally, you assume that this person would be good to learn from, so you shout ahead, “Please share your understanding with me, so I can go faster, too!”

The runner glances back, and, seeing that you’re moving slower than he is, begins to tell you everything he’s learned, since–obviously–he must have some insights that you haven’t gathered, yet.

The Runner Behind

About 50 feet behind you is a runner who’s moving at about the same pace as you.  She’s in decent shape, but seems to have little or no interest in going faster.  Consequently, you shout back to her, “Let me show you how you can go faster!”

Assuming that, because you’re in front, you must be more skilled than her, she accepts your offer and tentatively begins trying to emulate you.

Teacher vs. Student

The reality is, however, that the person in front of you is actually almost an entire track-length behind you; and the person behind you is almost an entire track length ahead of you!

The person in front has no grasp of pacing, and keeps urging you to run faster; and the only reason you can see him is because he keeps trying to run faster than he has strength, and has repeatedly fallen down due to exhaustion.  At the moment you see him, he’s desperately trying to catch up, again, still confident that if he only runs fast enough, he’ll be able to re-join his friends.

The person behind you has no immediate interest in running faster because she’s found her rhythm: by running just a hair’s breadth faster than you are–imperceptible to the untrained eye–she’s able to consistently out-pace everybody else on the track.  She doesn’t care who’s going faster or slower, but is still keenly interested in improving herself, and is willing to take advice from anyone who gives it, in hopes of learning something new.

So, whose lesson do you really want to learn?  Chances are, you can learn valuable lessons from both people, but you’ll only be able to run alongside one of them for any noteworthy distance, before the other vanishes from sight.

The Lesson This Track Teaches

Sometimes, we latch onto the teachings of those who appear to be more wise than we are, because we desperately want to speed ahead and improve ourselves as fast as we possibly can.  In doing so, we primarily rely upon our perceptions of social currency, and trust that whomever has the most (according to what we presently value) must be the person(s) most fit to teach us.  We look to gurus, priests, PhDs, celebrities, popular friends, and others, and do everything in our power to emulate them.  Simultaneously, we dismiss or seek to teach–but not learn from–those who, by our current standards of perceived social currency, seem to have nothing to teach us.  Only after we’ve spent years, or even a lifetime following those who are more clueless than we are, do we sometimes come to realize that we’ve been valuing the wrong things.

So, here’s the lesson:

Sometimes, the person who’s the least attractive to our current sensibilities is the person most fit to teach us the things we desperately want or need to know.

Government is Broken Because People are Broken–So How Do We Fix It?

This is a reply to a discussion on Facebook.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to copy/paste the post that started the discussion, then my reply, below.  The discussion “ran the gamut” through partisan politics, the need to regulate businesses, the problems with regulating business, corruption in government, etc.  My response, below, is after many, MANY other comments, but I hope you’ll get the “jist” of the discussion from what I’m putting in this blog post.  I encourage people to continue the discussion in the comments section!

Original Post (Erin W.)
May 14th, 2013
if there ever were a week to start leaning libertarian, this would be it….. 🙂 i invite people on both sides of the isles to consider the possibility that BOTH sides are corrupt. this is not so we can become more cynical, it’s so we can learn to hold our OWN favorite politicans just as accountable as we hold the ones we didn’t vote for.nothing really changes unless republicans start caring more about corruption in their OWN party than in the other, and democrats start caring more about corruption in their OWN party than in the other. democrats will never eradicate corruption in the republican party and republicans will never eradicate corruption in the republican party. change only comes when we start with ourselves. that is what it means to be the change.

to republicans i plead- look into the crimes you see happening now. now look back at previous administrations and recognize with humility the SAME THINGS HAPPENING. to democrats i plead- look into the crimes you saw happening in previous administrations. now look at the current administration and recognize with humility the SAME THINGS HAPPENING.

few of us want to believe it. we are much more comfortable with the soothing idea that our side is wonderful and the other side is corrupt. we rationalize and justify with great effort to avoid challenging our easy way of looking at things. our desire to be right is often so much more powerful than our desire to see what’s really going on.

we cannot begin to heal our nation until we can recognize this.

i don’t know how to help in this process. i wish i knew. i suppose i can start with me. i can do my best to be the change.

My Response

The fact is, neither conservatives, liberals, business, nor government merit more trust than the others.  They’re all just “people.”  What happens when you give a person authority over another person?  Most people will immediately begin to exercise it unrighteously.  I’ve worked for enough small businesses to see that one doesn’t have to be more than a low-level assistant manager at a “po-dunk” shack-of-a-business to start exercising unrighteous dominion over everyone whose current position is lesser than one’s own.

So, the real question is, how do we manage the human tendency to behave thus?

Clearly elections don’t work; we just end up with “leaders” who are good at playing to the public sensibilities.  This is a “macrocosm” of high school student government fiascos–and basically the same sorts of people get elected.  The only main difference is how sophisticated their deceptions are, and how many people they’ve duped into helping them do it.  Sure, they don’t promise “free Cheetos for everyone,” but they do dangle silly, unreasonable incentives that their given parties are favoring at the moment.  “Immediately deport all illegal immigrants!”  “Cut all emissions in half by 2020!”  What the claims are really doesn’t matter; they’re designed to get votes and place those running in positions of power and comfort.  Think your party/candidate is different?  You probably just haven’t really dug into the implications of its/his/her promises, yet.  (Note: you may need a doctorate degree in a particular field to do so meaningfully.)  So, let’s look at other ways of dealing with this problem of humans needing leadership, but nearly every human being someone who should NOT lead other humans.

I’d almost further the idea of a simple “lottery” to elect people to office.  This would weed out those actively seeking power (since those people are almost always the ones who SHOULD NOT have power), and ensure an even demographic of rich/poor/black/white/Ivy Leage/community college, etc.–and thus ensure fair representation in the same way that random sampling ensures representative/valid statistical outcomes.  Sadly, not everyone is actually decent at leadership or smart–or especially WISE–enough to get things done sensibly.  (Note: education does not equal competence!  Most of our greatest, most renowned thinkers dropped out of school and got any degrees they had “meritoriously,” after having done something worthwhile that they weren’t formally educated in.)  So, from this, we’d end up with, essentially, a farm run by the farm animals.  This might sound egalitarian and all that, but in reality, most people just aren’t cut out for the kinds of responsibilities that are required of those who lead a nation (or even a small city, or even a Best Buy).  I wrote an essay on the topic of why not all people should be taught to be “leaders”, in case you’re interested: “What it Means to Be Yourself—and Why You Should Buck Current Trends in Education”.

So, if elections guarantee that we get power-hungry, corrupt, and usually feckless leaders, and random sampling guarantees that MOST of our leaders will be feckless, unqualified (i.e. lacking the necessary skills and talents), and spineless (since they’re inexperienced at commanding people)–and still corrupt, in the end; then what is a good system of government?

Let’s look at a benevolent dictatorship!  Monarchy is basically the same thing as a benevolent dictatorship, but is couched in more pretense of “propriety.”  Despite our cultural preferences, this is much more sane than any other option–so long as the dictator is extremely benevolent, extremely wise, extremely ethical, and extremely intelligent.  Some such people exist and history has record of them!  Sadly, their successors are almost always the opposite.  For a Biblical example, look at Solomon versus his son, Rehoboam.  The latter was so feckless, entitled, greedy, power-hungry, and unwise that he raised taxes to the point of dividing the kingdom of Israel into two pieces (which later shattered into countless more pieces)–and they’ve been at war (under various names) ever since.  For a contemporary example (a little less stark, but good enough for my purposes), look at Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, who freed Brazil’s under class, only to be succeeded by a long chain of military despots who reversed all the good he’d done (and then some).  (See my poem, “The Cowardly Artist,” for a reference to him and his successors.)

Oligarchy doesn’t work because it has all the same flaws as Representative Democracy–albeit trending toward more competency and less “deadlock” among legislators–but has even more tendency toward corruption than our current form of government, by way of having more obvious, more vulnerable, “points of attack” for would-be bribers to exploit, and less accountability, since there are fewer people of equal position to “check and balance” them.

Pure direct democracy is much like the “circus” of random selection, but adds a huge layer of complexity to getting anything done, and would basically guarantee our destruction the first time we get attacked by another nation (militarily), by way of not having a clear, fast, and efficient power structure.  Also, who’s going to tally the votes?  There’s your “quota of corruption!”  I tend to like a lot of things about adding elements of direct democracy to other forms of government, but doing it as a pure, direct democracy is fatal.

So, how would you handle this?

Should we place our trust in those who “know better” and trust that they actually do, and won’t take advantage of us?  How would you ensure it’s so?

Should we trust the under-qualified masses to somehow figure it out?  How do we mitigate the risks?

Do we combine several forms of government, much as the Founding Fathers did–only different?  How do we avoid their mistakes without creating even more serious ones?

Should the people really be allowed to run things?  If so, what do we do when the people make bad choices?  Do we let them do it, anyway, hoping that the mistakes aren’t fatal, and that we’ll all eventually learn from them?  If we don’t allow it, then we don’t really have democracy, now, do we?(!)  How do we ensure that we do learn from them in a timely fashion, rather than simply passing around (often-pointless) blame and fear, as we do now?  Are we, as a society, anywhere near mature enough for this level of responsibility?  If not, who is, and how do we find them?

Personally, I currently favor somehow putting reasonable, minimal, safeties in place, but letting the public make all the mistakes they want until we finally “grow up” and stop being rash, easy to bribe (with “cookies” from our leaders, as above), overly-emotional (i.e. avoiding near-solutions because of the problems their flaws created–rather than seeking to perfect them), etc.  Honestly, though, this solution also scares me because I don’t believe we’re ready for it–and that the only way to become ready for it is to simply do it.  This will almost certainly result in a dysfunctional society for a decade or more (or just a few years if we’re really quick on the uptake), and people are likely to die of starvation, in riots, and in plenty other “creative” ways.  It will leave scars–but will we let them cripple us or teach us?  I just don’t know how people would react…

Please share your thoughts, below.


Update 6-25-13: Erin W. pointed out a parallel to the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which I find quite apt.  For those not familiar with it, here’s a link:

Do you think this closely related or a stretch?

Why WOULDN’T there be another shooting? Lessons not yet learned…

This essay hasn’t received my usual amount of “polish,” so please have mercy on the grammar, punctuation, works-cited, etc.  Here it is:


I recently read a portion of “Animals in Translation” by Temple Grandin, a renowned animal science expert.  One case she mentioned was that of a large-scale problem of roosters who were somehow predisposed to murder chickens while attempting to mate with them.  The farmers had grown used to this, but to an outsider, it came as a shock.  “Why would you ever think this is ‘normal,'” was the key question (paraphrased) from Grandin to the farmers.  Nature would NEVER produce roosters like this–but humans did.

So, let me rephrase this in terms of school shootings and other acts of unexpected-yet-horrible violence in developed nations, committed by people whom we’d never expect capable of such things.  Clearly, this is a trend.  It’s been going on since at least the 1990s.  When I was in high school, some of us found the causes of the Columbine shooting so obvious that we painted shirts with bulls-eyes and the date of that then-recent shooting–which we wore to school the next day (except for those of us who got caught by our parents).  Our rebuttal to the media frenzy–that has never changed its tenor since–was, “what made anyone think that this wasn’t going to happen somewhere, at some point?”  My further question, nearly 15 years later, is, “why are we still scratching our heads when a heart-to-heart with many of our local high school students would tell us the reasons?”

Let’s look at the “profile” of those who have, so far, committed these acts.  Common threads include:

1) Being socially ostracized or otherwise isolated–whether via having unusual apparel, being exceptionally quiet, etc.

2) Exceptionally-high intellect.  If you take those people described in #1 and weed out anyone whose IQ is less than, say, 130, you’ll have a much more specific–and accurate–demographic.

3) Under-appreciated.  These kids (and some adults) have been of the kind who are marginalized in society–economically, socially, etc.  They’re much too unique (in terms of personality and such) and too smart to find a place amongst normal folks.  They’ve struggled to somehow “make it work,” anyway, so instead of becoming the leaders of the local academic scene, they’ve become the American equivalent of “pariahs.”

4) Many have had bad home lives–but not all.  Broken families seem to be a common theme, but since about 1/2 of all families in the USA are now “broken,” this isn’t much to go on.  More aptly, one might say that they don’t find relief from the pains of school and/or work by coming home.  Thus, their internal “pressure tanks” have had a dearth of opportunities to vent.  Anger, resentment, feelings of being unloved, feelings of being under-appreciated, unwanted, etc. have built-up for years–and probably even decades.

5) Soft-spoken, submissive, or otherwise amiable personalities (at least, outwardly).  These people don’t tend to lash out at others when they’re feeling bad, as most people do.  Sure, they might get snippy once in a while, but most of their acquaintances will remark at their being generally unremarkable.  (The Columbine shooters were remarkable for their dress and some threats they made just before their shooting, but their personalities before that were often described as being “quiet” and “withdrawn.”)  Having no tendency toward “venting,” these people continued to build toward and “explosion.”


If you combine these factors (and perhaps some others that aren’t immediately coming to mind) in sufficient amplitude, you’ll have the “formula” for an explosive outburst of random violence–probably followed by suicide.  Why suicide?  The world has been hateful to these people (intentionally or not), and once they’ve said their piece (i.e. killing some people), they decide that there’s no way they’ll let law enforcement, psychologists/psychiatrists, the public, etc. any more opportunity to make their lives miserable.  Obviously, death is the only “escape route” when seen from this perspective.

So, getting back to my initial point, the problem of school shootings, random bombings (by American nationals), and so on isn’t AT ALL about what weapons such people have at their disposal.  Sure, they’ll use the best weapons they can get–but a chemical or fertilizer bomb is both impossible to prevent the creation of (by someone not on a “watch list” of some kind), and impossible to outlaw (since that would mean outlawing farming and/or cleaning products).  Therefore, there’s only ONE way to stop these random, horrific acts of violence: fix the underlying problems.

Let me ask, then, why so many literal geniuses drop out of school (K12, college, etc.)?  Out of the roughly dozen geniuses I’ve met, very few have ever gotten a chance to “shine” in society.  Those who are able to be gainfully employed at all do so in whatever trade they’ve fallen into–which is almost never something they’d wanted to do.  One works at data entry, cropping newspaper ads to be put online.  Several are disabled with mental illness–doubtlessly brought on by how others have treated them throughout their lives.  A few work in minimum-wage jobs (some of which are in the computer repair industry).  Not many have ever been able to use their vast mental prowess to “make something of themselves,” since our system of labor and schooling is exactly wrong for geniuses to do well with.  So, instead, they become jaded and bitter.

If you want to stop the school shootings, you (that is, all of us in our society) need to find a way to value–to TREASURE–the gifted among us, instead of making their lives a living hell.  Do you have a teenage child?  Ask him or her to introduce you to all the people he/she knows, who are considered “unpopular,” and too smart for their own good.  You might just find yourself a future killer–or, if you’re willing, an opportunity to change such a person’s life for the better, before something terrible happens.  That is, assuming they’re not too jaded to even speak with you by now.

Of course, most gifted kids (like I was) slink off into ignominity and never do anything nasty to anyone–but there are always a few who dream of something more…”poignant.”

What it Means to Be Yourself—and Why You Should Buck Current Trends in Education

A dissertation on how to determine whether being a “leader” is right for you.

It’s become the stated goal—and norm—of many educational institutions in the USA to attempt to train all their students to be “leaders.” The motivation behind this is multifaceted, but the aspect I wish to delve into here is the one which supposes that if we teach every person to be a leader, then every person will seek to act for him/herself and achieve the greatest degree of that “pinnacle of success” we sometimes call, “self-actualization.”

Self-actualization, as described by Abraham Maslow in his article, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” is:

“[…]the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

In other words, to be “self-actualized” is to increase that stature of what one already is, at heart, so as to become all that one can be, using one’s own inner self as a template. This, I’ll shortly argue, is directly contrary to the notion that everyone must become a leader in order to become self-actualized.

First, let’s examine the concept of what it means to “be a leader.”

One “clinical” definition of leadership is, “organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal.” This is true in the sense of getting a specific task (or set of tasks) done, but in my experience, it only holds so long as the “leader” has some kind of outside authority (such as being the owner or manager of a company), or is given power (A.K.A. “authority” or “influence”)—by any mechanism, as we’ll discuss next—by the group that he or she governs. The former is irrelevant to the current topic, so we’ll delve into the latter.

How does a person become a leader? Believe it or not, there are college majors—and Master’s degree programs—designed to “make” a person a leader. At the state college here, in Chico, CA, there was a woman in one of my classes (circa 2001) whose stated major was Communication Studies with an Option in Leadership. As she briefly explained it to me, it was basically a major in how to lead people. Yet, according to the Small Group Communication class we were in together (which was one of the few truly “stellar” classes I managed to find at that school), the ways in which a person normally becomes a leader (i.e. gains a “majority share” of power in a group) are the following (though others may exist that I don’t immediately recall/know):

  • Delegated authority (“The boss says this person is in charge;” also a democratic election or governmental appointment. Note that this only works if the delegating person/body is seen as having authority over the people who are to be ruled, and the “right” to appoint a leader.)
  • Social class (material wealth and assumed “right to rule”—which is essentially delegated authority [as above], if only indirectly, and delegated informally by society-as-a-whole, rather than a single person or ruling body)
  • Social currency (a person is considered “cool” or otherwise socially-authoritative)
  • Having proven value to the group (such as having saved the group from a disaster or orchestrated a group “win”)
  • Bringing the group together (such as being the one person that everyone knows)
  • Resource currency (such as money food, wealth, etc. that the group wants/needs)
  • Personal charisma (another way to be “cool,” or socially-authorative)
  • Ascribed abilities (people think this person can do something worthwhile and/or extraordinary)
  • Expertise (in a field relevant to the group’s needs)
  • Persuasion (of various kinds, including rhetoric, bribery, intimidation, flattery, etc.)
  • Knowledge (knowing something the group thinks is important/essential for a leader to know)
  • Celebrity/fame (not typically of the “saw him on TV” variety, though that works for this category, as well)
  • Social influence and tradition (such as elected officials and others assumed to have a “right to rule;” see above)

Most of this list can be found here:

So, which, if any of these does “having a degree in ‘leadership’” fall into?

Delegated authority? No, because the university isn’t in charge of anyone but its employees and students.

Social class/social influence? Maybe, but only if the others in the “leader’s” group believe that attending college or having such a degree merit a “right to rule”—so probably not.

Social currency? Would you consider a person who says, “I should be in-charge because I have a degree in being in-charge” to be “cool?” Definitely not! So, this is “out.”

Ascribed abilities? Maybe—but only if this “leader” is thought to have all (or perhaps most) of the abilities that the group finds appropriate for such a position; “leadership know-how,” alone, isn’t likely to be sufficient.

Expertise? This really only applies to the category of “Persuasion,” above, since college courses in leadership are likely to teach a student how to get others to put one in charge—but it has nothing to do with most aspects of life, as will be relevant in a “real world” scenario, so I argue that it’s otherwise useless for this purpose.

Furthermore, if you’ve ever tried to actually talk about a group’s power dynamic with the people in that group, you’ll quickly find that the group will immediately dislike you for doing so—and relegate you to a sub-leadership position unless your current leadership position is particularly strong. (Try this if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

I claim, therefore, that college training in “leadership,” while a potentially useful study in terms of human behavior, isn’t all that useful for getting the opportunity to actually lead people. Similarly, other institutional training is of extremely limited value for actually becoming a “leader” in any “real-world” situation. (Please be aware that such training, depending on how it’s done, can help one become a good, beneficent, leader once chosen—but it won’t likely make one a leader in any case.)

What, then, makes a person likely to become a leader over a particular group of people? The above list is more-or-less complete, from a “getting things done” perspective, so we’ll skip elaborating on the details thereof. What about in life, generally, as our public schools and colleges advertise? Now, we get to the interesting part!

Alpha, Beta, and Omega Personality Types

(You don’t have to pick just one—but you probably already have.)

This is a relatively simplified theory that is commonly used to describe the behaviors of “social animals”—such as dogs, (bovine) cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. (Yes, humans.)

The theory goes, that there are basically three types of “critters” in a social order:

Alphas: The de facto leader of the pack, herd, or society. This person or animal is in-charge simply because he/she is in charge. Usually, there’s some kind of unspoken ritual for making this happen, but once the Alpha is chosen (and I’ll note that as humans, we rarely pay attention to it when this happens), the Alpha typically leads the group without ever mentioning that he’s/she’s the leader. In fact, it’s usually detrimental to do so.

Alpha humans are characterized by traits like, interrupting more in conversation (without being chided for it); being the one who walks off in a certain direction and—without saying anything or looking back—is followed by the rest of the group; validating what the rest of the group is feeling/thinking as if it were his/her own thoughts; acting like an Omega (see below) without actually following the rest of the group; and so on. When a human Alpha is confronted with a Beta, he/she will often pretend to be an Omega so that the rest of the group will see the Beta as trying to “grab power” or similar (especially effective with Americans, who like to think everyone has an equal power quotient)—and/or the Alpha might use subtle passive-aggressive techniques to antagonize the Beta into incurring the group’s annoyance or wrath, so as to remove the threat to the Alpha’s current power and social position. Interestingly, an Alpha may become a Beta or even an Omega, depending on the situation—but in my experience, this isn’t terribly common.

Alpha animals are usually very possessive of the others in their society. For dogs (and other canids), this means nipping at other dogs who act without the Alpha’s permission; laying on top of the other dogs; staring the others directly in the eye until the non-Alphas look away; showing protectiveness over the other dogs; etc. As an interesting sidebar, “small dog syndrome” (yes, this is a real diagnosis) is the result of humans allowing their small dogs to become dominant (or to think they are) because the humans don’t think that such small creatures can become dominant. Ever want to “punt” a chihuahua (for a field goal)? That’s why! The little dog thinks the humans are its underlings, and behaves with aggression when they start to show that they disagree (however unwittingly) with this “axiom.” In other words, its owners have failed to maintain Alpha status over the 6-pound quadruped. (Pathetic, right?) [/rant]

There can be only one Alpha in any discrete group. An organization (like a company) might have a dozen Alphas, but each department or social group will have only one—and it’s not necessarily the “boss!” (Workplace conflict, anyone? We’ve all probably been involved—somehow—in an Alpha-Beta struggle at work, regardless of our own personality types.)

If you have an Alpha personality type, you may feel “entitled” to positions of power/authority, or you may have never considered that you’re naturally in-charge, since you’re always naturally in-charge. (Particularly adept Alphas probably fall into the latter category, most of the time; I’ve met a few who don’t, though.) Importantly, being an Alpha doesn’t make you more “worthy” or valuable than does being an Omega or Beta.

Betas: These are the creatures/people who want to be Alphas, and probably think they’re Alphas, but who are actually not Alphas. They’re characterized by repeatedly getting into “spats” with the Alpha and continually vying for leadership of the group. Interestingly, Betas can actually become Alphas in the right situation, and can even become Omegas if they decide that the present Alpha is doing a good enough job of things (or if they really like that person/creature for whatever reason). In my experience, the latter is unlikely, but only a little less likely than turning into Alphas.

If you find yourself habitually bucking authority, you may have a Beta personality type. Please note that this doesn’t make your personality or position any more or less valid than that of an Alpha’s or Omega’s; it simply may be an indicator of where you’re starting from. It’s probably also true that Alphas need Betas in order to (1) maintain a solid base of power, through continually showing the group that they’re the right person/creature to be in-charge; and (2) have a “devil’s advocate” available when the Alpha has a bad idea. Note, however, that only a particularly adept Alpha will consistently be able to incorporate a Beta’s idea without giving up some quantity of group credibility to the Beta. For this reason, many unskilled Alphas misstep by outright dismissing the ideas of the Betas, to the detriment of the group—and this can eventually lead to one of the Betas becoming the Alpha as a result of having Expertise and/or Proven Value (see these items in the list, above).

Omegas: Probably the most telling trait of an Omega is a strong desire to avoid conflict. If you find yourself far more interested in keeping things “running smoothly,” and avoiding contention than in dealing with power dynamics, then you’re almost certainly an Omega. If so, you’re in good company! Probably 90% (very rough estimate, based on personal experience) of the human population is comprised of Omegas. If it were any other way, we’d be too busy arguing with one another to get anything done!

Omega humans “go with the flow” and “keep their heads down,” though this doesn’t mean any lack of participation in group activities. To the contrary, an Omega is likely to have a great time in a social setting—probably a better time than an Alpha or Beta, in many cases—because all an Omega has to worry about is having fun; power dynamics don’t even come up.

In fact, Omega humans hate talking about the power dynamics of their own groups! More likely, Omegas (and consequently, Alphas) will vehemently deny that any such dynamic exists, and are likely to reject (and thereby dis-empower) whomever insists on talking about such dynamics. (Academic note: all groups have power dynamics; this is a “corner stone” of human interaction, as attested in behavioral sciences, communication sciences, sociology, anthropology, and other well-established and well-respected fields. Also, it’s noted prominently in certain sub-fields of psychology. [No, I don’t respect the current state of psychology.]) For this reason—the adamant dislike of speaking of power dynamics espoused by Omegas—it’s “political suicide” for a leader or would-be leader of a group to mention power dynamics as they relate to present company; you don’t want to rile the Omegas!

Here’s the important thing, though—especially as it applies to this essay: Omegas are the “backbone” of society; we can’t live without them! No leader is a leader without Omegas to follow him/her; and more importantly, no society can’t survive without being comprised of almost nothing but Omegas.

Before I continue, let me first point out, again, that a person doesn’t have to be in just one of these above categories. In my experience, most people fall fairly soundly into just one, but not all do. If you’re an Alpha or Beta, you might regularly oscillate between all three personality types! Also, an Omega who sees that “something must be done” may well take up the mantle of Alpha for just one (or more) important thing(s), and later revert to being an Omega when the need for his/her leadership is no longer pressing. While these above categories may prove to be a valuable guideline for determine what it means to be the “you” that you are, they’re by no means exclusive; you should be the “you” that you like being—whatever that may mean, and however many of these personality types you might have.

The Verdict

So, how about that edict that our educational institutions (public, private, primary, secondary, etc.) are so fond of—that we should make everyone “leaders of society” and such? Well, let me lay it out bluntly for you: it’s utter rubbish.

If you want to become self-actualized, you need to determine for yourself what kind of person you are, and set about being the absolute greatest “you” that you can be. If that means that you are not a “leader of society,” that ‘s perfectly OK! In fact, it means that your life will probably be a whole-heck-of-a-lot easier than it would be if you were naturally an Alpha or Beta.

As a self-realized (not quite self-actualized, yet) Alpha/Beta personality, I can personally attest with great “amplitude” that being an Alpha or Beta is an unending pain-in-the-butt. What happens when you get hired on at a new job and you think that your boss is incompetent (or that you can do parts of his/her job better than he/she can)? When the innermost part of your self says that you need to “take charge,” and the boss tells you that if try to “take charge” one more time, you’ll be fired—you have a real problem. (If you have an unusually-high IQ, this is almost always going to be the case, sadly—even if you generally respect other people and their beliefs, as I typically to do.) Please note that even an Omega can become upset if a position he/she currently inhabits—by delegation or other means—is threatened—even if the Omega doesn’t even like being “in-charge.”

In conclusion, my advice to those who think that “leadership training” and the like are the best “ambrosia” for making healthy adults and pupils, is this: come up with a better plan. To make a truly healthy and effective group of people, the best thing to do is to encourage them to discover whom they are and to unrelentingly pursue actualizing whatever persons they find themselves to be.

A Final Note

Please be aware that not trying to lead is utterly different from simply believing/doing as you’re told, without thinking it over for yourself. “Being yourself” means being yourself! Never let anyone tell you differently.