Saturday, September 26, 2009

Post No. 136: We Try Harder

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

In what areas is the United States still No. 1? Was it ever? Or was this exalted status something we told ourselves to boost our sense of pride and accomplishment?

In a previous post about the mark made by political thought giant Irving Kristol, columnist David Brooks wrote something which struck us:

“He [Kristol] was unabashedly neoconservative. But he also stood apart, and directed his skeptical gaze even on his own positions, and even on the things to which he was most loyal… ‘There are no benefits without costs in human affairs,’ he once wrote. And so there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.”

A question might be raised as to whether it would be a good thing for us, as a Nation, to acknowledge that others have surpassed us in certain areas, or are nipping at our heels. There’s lots of rhetoric these days about our “great nation” and how this is the most powerful nation in the history of humankind.

But resting on one’s laurels has its problems, as does continuing to do things the same way, simply because they worked in the past, or through rigid adherence to a particular philosophy.

The Father of one of our friends claims that golfer Tiger Woods can cruise now in his career, “since he has already made his money.” But whether it is Tiger Woods, or legendary basketball star Larry Bird, the existence of talent without continuing effort, and a desire to excel, yields few championship trophies.

In order for the Road Runner to have existed all of these years, he had to outrun Wile E. Coyote everyday, and come up with new ways to “out-coyote” him.

His survival is dependent upon his speed and agility.

Yesterday, the 2009 National Book Festival, founded by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2001, commenced in Washington, D.C. That such a festival was only started recently might come as a surprise to many, but may reflect something about us.

Many of us consider a good education and the ability to read as givens. Yet, the percentage of functionally illiterate citizens in America would probably shock most.

At least those of us who can read.

A friend of ours spent some time teaching courses at a community college. He often tells the story of a student who, while taking a math test, summoned him. He told her that he could not assist her.

She noted that the issue was not a math issue, but a word issue. When he looked at the problem, she pointed to the word “suspension,” and said she did not know its meaning. Without knowing its meaning, it was impossible for her to perform the calculation necessary.

In response to this revelation, our friend decided that even in his math classes, his students would learn 10 new words each day. After announcing his new policy to his night class and the reasons for the change, a student approached him after class, and said that he was one of the people about whom the instructor had spoken.

When our friend inquired as to what the student meant, the student related an amazing story. He said that although he was not very proud of it, he got kicked out of high school one month before graduation, and did not learn to read prior to that time.

Imagine an educational system where a student can be promoted for 12 years, and still not manage to read. And consider the fact that no one single factor, teacher, school, or system can be singled out for this travesty.

One of our other friends has been in collegiate and professional athletics for years. He has always contended that he’d rather have a bunch of C grade players who hustled and gave their best, than a team of A grade players who didn’t.

After listening to the introductory speakers during the opening ceremonies for National Book Festival, it occurred to us that we have a long way to go in getting the most out of our human resources, and that acknowledging that many of our current systems are perhaps not the best in the world, might be a good starting point.

For some reason, this line of thinking made us re-visit one of the longest running marketing slogans around, that for Avis Rent a Car, the number two agency behind number one Hertz. “We try harder.”

We did not know who started this campaign, but we had a suspicion, and looked it up. And yes, it turned out to be another Bill Bernbach masterpiece.

Its beauty is in its simplicity.

It’s neither un-American, nor un-patriotic to question our standing in the world, and investigate whether what we’ve been doing is really in the long-term, national, collective interest.

Societal responsibility is not dramatically different from personal responsibility. A nation can’t complain about its standing in the world, if it hasn’t done all that it can do to excel, and use its human resources to the fullest extent possible. That includes equipping all of its citizens with competitive tools, and ensuring that they are ready for the fight.

And that’s just plain Common Sense.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Post No. 135c: Three Cheers for Irving Kristol

Last year, a giant of modern American political thought, William F. Buckley, Jr., passed away. Earlier this month, we lost another giant, Irving Kristol. Although their views of the Universe did not always mesh with ours, we respected their thought processes, and the fact they did not rigidly adhere to the positions of any particular party.

They had the ability to analyze each issue objectively and present their positions with clarity. Perhaps more importantly, they did not find the need to yell or scream, thus prompting more people to listen to their views. We were big fans.

David Brooks of the New York Times has written a column about the life of Mr. Kristol, and his thoughts are provided below. To give you some sense of Mr. Kristol, the following is a quote attributed to him:

"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

David Brooks: Three Cheers for Irving Kristol

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By David Brooks

“Irving Kristol was born into a fanatical century and thrust himself into every ideologically charged battle of his age. In the 1930s, as a young socialist, he fought the Stalinists. In the 1940s, as a soldier, he fought fascism. In the decades beyond, as a writer and intellectual, he engaged with McCarthyism, the cold war, the Great Society, the Woodstock generation, the culture wars of the 1970s, the Reagan revolution and so on.

“The century was filled with hysterias, all of which he refused to join. There were fanaticisms, none of which he had any part in. Kristol, who died on Friday, seemed to enter life with an intellectual demeanor that he once characterized as ‘detached attachment.’”

To view the remainder of the article, click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Post No. 135b: The High Price of Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth

Yesterday, we re-posted an article dealing with how society might respond to "offensive" or "inappropriate" comments made by those in the public eye. We suggested that the same principles might be applicable to Rep. Joe Wilson, tennis stars Serena Williams and Roger Federer, and entertainer Kayne West.

Some of these individuals have since made apologies, or have attempted to do so. Back in February of this year, we generated another post, "The High Price of Stubbing Your Toe," which focused on apologies by public figures, and whether society's response to "apologies" truly motivated others to apologize.

It occurred to us that there is a difference between "embarrassing conduct," and "offensive" or "inappropriate" comments. We are therefore re-posting our earlier piece on apologies, and we have changed its title to "The High Price of Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth."

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Owning up to one’s mistakes seems to be one of mortal man’s most difficult acts.

In January 1998, for example, Bill Clinton famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky,” though months later, after surviving the ordeal of impeachment, he admitted that his relationship with the young woman had been “wrong” and “not appropriate.”

A cloud of presidential hanky-panky has hung over him ever since, likely diminishing his legacy, though it’s possible that his efforts around the world will offer some degree of redemption.

Lately, a new parade of politicians, celebrities, business people and athletes has come forward to face the white-hot glare of public scrutiny.

The former governor of Illinois, for example, a man seemingly caught red-handed in blatantly illegal activities, stonewalled and attempted to make the case for his innocence on America’s talk shows, at the same time the impeachment machine moved forward unimpeded.

Earlier this month, we saw Michael Phelps admit, without hesitation, that he made a mistake. Despite this, lucrative sponsorship deals that resulted from his eight Olympic gold medals were immediately withdrawn, and law enforcement conducted an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

Not long ago, another athlete, Alex Rodriguez, arguably the best baseball player of all time, admitted to using performance-enhancement drugs, sullying his past accomplishments and calling into question whether any records he may break in the future will be legitimate achievements.

In Washington, a respected former Senator, Tom Daschle, up for a key cabinet post in the new administration, ran into a buzz saw when it was revealed that he hadn’t paid taxes on benefits he had received in the position he had held prior to his nomination.

Daschle’s mea culpa was “too little, too late,” according to his critics, though the same comments were not levied against Timothy Geithner, now Secretary of the Treasury and head of the IRS, when his nomination was questioned over his back taxes owed.

Later, Geithner, in a pro-active sleight of hand, said that mistakes would be made in the Administration’s effort to stimulate the economy.

Watching all these large and small melodramas unfold – believe us, Michael Phelps’ mistake was a small one in the big picture – it occurred to us that immediate benefits ought to accrue to those who admit fault and accept responsibility.

We admire our new president’s forthright response to the Daschle incident.

“I screwed up,” he said.

And take note. He said, “I,” not “we” or “my people in charge of vetting cabinet nominees.” Like the small placard that sat on Harry Truman’s desk, the one that read “The buck stops here,” he took ownership of the problem.

Unfortunately, public reaction to admissions of culpability suggests that we, as a society, may be at risk of making it more and more difficult for people, as the expression goes, to fess up.

We have become a society that, in many ways, salivates for red meat from the mouths of talk show pundits and late night comedians.

As children, our parents and teachers encouraged us to tell the truth, even if it meant punishment.

As we matured, we appreciated that doing the right thing, while not always rewarded at the time, would ultimately prove to be in our long-term interests.

Somehow, society must create an environment in which citizens, particularly our elected officials, are permitted, even encouraged, to stand up and admit mistakes, with society viewing such admissions, not as signs of weakness but instead, as individual strength.

At some point, we have to change the culture of denial. Revisiting the potential legal liability associated with acknowledging mistakes might be a start.

We applaud the Obama administration for initiating the climate change, however underappreciated the effort may seem.

While the costs to our pride and social standing in the short term may appear to be high, the failure to pay that price up front may have a far greater cost over the long haul.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just plain Common Sense.

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Post No. 135a: Never Underestimate the Power of Laughter

In theory, if thoughts we share in our articles truly constitute Common Sense, then the approaches recommended should be able to stand the test of time, and be applicable to new fact situations as they arise.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen outbursts on the part of Rep. Joe Wilson (during a joint session of Congress while the President was speaking), and tennis stars Serena Williams and Roger Federer (on the tennis court). Additionally, some would lump in rapper Kanye West for his interruption of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Many have spoken about the lack of civility in our society today, and the need to punish or sanction people for their "inappropriate" or "offensive" comments.

In June of 2008, we posted the following article, which we believe is also applicable to the comments of Wilson, Williams, Federer, and West.

© 2008 and 2009, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

We are all aware of the numerous instances, during the past year, where prominent individuals were severely criticized for comments that some termed “offensive,” or “inappropriate.” One of the most widely covered was the comment by Don Imus regarding the predominantly black female basketball team which won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.

Ironically, in that instance, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who typically argues that there are numerous ways to view situations, recommended one of the harshest forms of response, thus suggesting that there was only one “right thing to do.”

Many commentators suggested various responses to deal with the offending speakers, essentially saying that we as a society need to make a statement and ensure that folks do not regularly engage in such speech.

The ladies in question were the essence of grace. They had, after all, just brought home a national basketball championship to an academic institution that invests precious little in sports championships of any sort. Their composure and compassion under attack shamed Shock Jock Imus into a rarely observed heart felt apology.

Most reasonable folks would agree that there was virtually no explanation, or justification, for his statement that would have made sense to us.

Following the revelations about the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. John Hagee, the talkingheads had much to say about how the respective candidates should have responded.

However, no one suggested that their churches be “taken away.” It is our understanding that Wright is retired, and thus there is nothing to take away, and Hagee is far too integral to his church's existence to remove him from the church which he built.

However, following the mocking, by a Catholic priest, of candidate Clinton in Chicago recently, not only did the local Archbishop chastise the priest, but so did a representative of a group of Catholic women. She said, in essence, that the priest’s comments did not reflect the Catholic faith, did not reflect the Catholic Church, scandalized them, and that he should have his church taken away from him.

Ever since she reacted in that fashion, some of us thought of this issue in free speech, legalistic terms. Of course, our most senior Fellow, the Laughingman, brought us back to reality, and provided instant clarity to the whole situation.

“The worst conceivable way to silence one with whom we disagree is to stop him from talking. By doing so, you create a martyr to his similarly warped followers, and take him off the radar screen of the rest of the public.

"Had we, as a society, a bit thicker skins, we would broadcast these lunacies far and wide, with an appropriate apology to the more sensitive among us, demonstrate a little Common Sense for our fellow man, and let the fringe element drown in the laughter and public ridicule generated by their own thinking or lack thereof.

"Along with the right to free speech comes the right to make a public fool of oneself; and like the naked, fools have little or no influence on society.”

Yesterday, we heard a news report regarding some Minnesota high school kids who took a Confederate flag to school. The kids were banned from their graduation exercises because of their conduct.

One of them, as he sat on the back of a pick up truck, said that he was about as far away from being a racist as one could get. However, they both said that they wanted to make a statement about independence, and the freedom of one to express oneself.

Appearing on CNN yesterday morning, we're sure that they now have a following consisting of hundreds of thousands of sympathizers. It probably would have been better to simply let them attend their graduation ceremonies, assuming that no further conduct was involved which might have lead to violence or some other disruptive behavior.

We considered entitling this article, “Ignoring People – A Novel Thought,” and then we recalled that as Americans, we always have to make sure that we punish folks with whom we disagree. It, unfortunately, is built into who we are as a people.

Perhaps once we learn to ignore those making statements which we consider offensive or inappropriate, they’ll flog themselves, and we as a public will find no need to punish them.

In the immortal words of the famous Forrest Gump; “Stupid is as stupid does.”

© 2008 and 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Post No. 135: More Things People Have to Say about Muhammad Ali

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Earlier this week, we posted a piece on how Muhammad Ali still commands the world’s attention, even though his boxing days are behind him, and Father Time has been in his opponent’s corner in recent years. By writing it, we gained a better appreciation of the man, and what sets him apart.

For decades, many have asked why so many admired him, warts and all. He never claimed that he was perfect, just that he was pretty.

Our readers from all across the philosophical and ideological spectrum, even at its extremes, shared their admiration. Something about his appeal is obviously universal.

Simply put, Ali is the quintessential “Fighter.” He has always stood up for what he believed in, even if society did not always believe in it with him. For all of us who do not stand up for ourselves on occasion, he represents the possibility.

During his recent trip to Ireland, much was written about Ali’s legacy. Sports Illustrated and PBS commentator Frank Deford, in a poignant piece, A Fading Champ, But a Champ Still, claims that, “… a great many people find it as upsetting as it is sad that the old champ continues to make personal appearances.”

But, as one of our readers noted, “They don’t really understand who Ali is.” His eternally youthful attitude, humor, and quick wit have served him well, and counter the ravages of time.

One of our friends loves The Champ – always has; always will. Ali made 3 personal appearances in his life, although the first was not exactly face-to-face, and perhaps apocryphal in nature. They reflect certain aspects of who Ali is.

In 1978, on his way to a wedding, our friend visited a friend in St. Joseph, Michigan on the shore of Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. At the time, The Champ maintained a training camp in nearby Berrien Springs.

After getting off the train in a torrential down pour, he took a cab along the winding road alongside the river, and noted people sitting on its banks in the dark of the night, with giant lanterns. He inquired as to what they were doing out in the rain, in the dark.

The cabbie said they were illegally fishing. The area was known for its salmon, and fish are attracted to light emitted by the lanterns. The poachers simply extended their nets from banks, catching salmon as they sprang into the air.

The cabbie told of how The Champ was once on a boat fishing with a local resident, when a group of salmon sprang into the air, and surprised him. Without hesitation, he instinctively turned and punched one of them in mid-air, with his eyes wide open.

The second meeting took place in Universal City in the offices of MCA Music. Our friend maintained his office in the same building. One of his associates had just traveled up the elevator with Ali and his confidante, Bundini Brown. She burst into our friend’s office and yelled that one of his idols was in the house.

He ran back and forth through the halls of the 2nd floor to find Ali, and found him in the dark gray, glass, Italian motif, minimalist lobby of MCA Music. There he stood panting from his run, alone with The Champ and Bundini. Even the receptionist had left her desk to get the person Ali was to meet.

He nervously approached this massive man, and said, “Champ, I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity.”

Ali flicked his head, clinched his teeth, shot out his left fist stopping just short of our friend. In that characteristic Ali tone, he said, “Whew! Bundini. He’d better be glad that I’m so fast. He look like Joe Frazier. I thought that you were Joe Frazier! I was about to kill him Bundini!” His face reflected that special Ali “join me in the joke” smile.

The third meeting was even more personal. During the 80s and 90s, our friend ran the Los Angeles Marathon, and The Champ frequently shot the starter pistol for the race. It was necessary to arrive early, in order to park, store one’s sweat suit, get a massage, and then stretch.

While warming up one year, he encountered The Champ wandering alone amongst the trees and grass outside of the Los Angeles Coliseum, and once again shook The Champ’s hand. However, by this time, The Champ was more distant, already suffering from the condition which makes him tremble, and appear dazed. Additionally, the one-time, rapid-fire “loudmouth,” as proclaimed by our friend’s Mother, was more subdued and mumbling slightly.

But he still had that twinkle in his eyes, and that smirky smile. He wished our friend a good race.

He was, and still is The Champ.

It made us consider what many have learned from this man, with very little formal education?

1. Backing up your promises is generally viewed as a positive attribute.

2. Cheating on your spouse is not.

3. There is some value to recognizing that there are some issues bigger than your short-term personal issues.

4. There is tremendous value to being open to associating with people of all backgrounds, faiths, social position, classes, races, and such, and not judging them.

5. Society admires people who just keep going like the Energizer Bunny.

6. A Father must ensure that he takes care of and is involved in the lives of his children.

7. Saying that you are sorry and admitting that you messed up goes a long way.

8. Society will always admire someone with a twinkle in his eye.

9. Your legacy is enduring and long-lasting, and doesn’t die with you.

There’s only one Champ in our book.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Post No. 134: Who is this Muhammad Ali, and Why are So Many Still Saying Things about Him?

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

A quote from Anne Sexton was featured in a recent post on fatherhood:

“It does not matter who my Father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

If temptation had won out, the title of this piece would have been, “It does not matter who Muhammad Ali is; it matters who we remember he was.”

But it didn’t.

The recognition that Ali transcends time won out. It’s been 42 years since he was convicted in a US court for refusing to be inducted into the Army on religious grounds. (He also claimed he had a right to refuse to go fight Vietnamese who had never called him “the N-word.” In that same era, a visiting U.S.S.R. Premier was barred from visiting Disneyland.)

Thirty-eight years after the US Supreme Court reversed his conviction (and allowed him to return to earning a livelihood through his chosen profession), he continues to embody “something” difficult to define or frame, but which society keeps watching.

Ali’s surprise visit to the Atlanta Olympic Games, as the final torch carrier, represented the best of the American Ideal in a way that Barack Obama had to win the Presidency to trump.

He was loved; respected; magnificent; and he was the best of us, and what we purportedly believe in. At one time, he had the most recognizable face, and name, on this planet.

Despite its sometimes less than savory aspects, pugilism is the art of obtaining respect; of earning it from the audience; and of taking it away from your opponent-by rendering him unwilling or unable to continue.

Ali never rested at demonstrating the supremacy of his skills. (Scroll down, after clicking on the link where his name appears above, to see his long list of fights.) He used them, and his title as World Champion… even the title itself, to call attention to taking pride in who you are, and what you believe in.

In the process of standing up for who he is, even when it pisses off many, he’s become one of the most respected men on the planet… among blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, agnostics and academics, sportsmen and slum dogs… and all the rest of us.

His physical grace transcended his sport, and his mental courage transcends even the ravages of age and infirmity.

The super masculine menials and omnipotent administrators of his youth notwithstanding, Ali is still a man with something to say.

In late August, he flew to the UK to appear in soccer numerous stadiums. During the trip, he visited Ireland, from which one of his ancestors emigrated to the US in the late 1860s. Who would have thunk it?

About his racial make-up you say? No. Rather that in a country which has been fighting over religion (and property) for more than 200 years, this pugilist could motivate an all white group of historical combatants to put down their guns, deck out Ennis in County Clare, Ireland, and welcome a black man, and an Infidel, as one of their own, and one of their idols.

Their pride was just overwhelming.

So is ours.

So should be yours.

He was over there representing us… not a single drop of blood was shed, and the world was suddenly a better place for his being in it.

We humbly suggest that the future of our planet rests on our ability to get along and respect one another, and that personal pride is a function of personal behavior.

We would further suggest that if more people listened to what this man is saying, rather than competing for his autograph, we would be living in a much more peaceful world.

Lest we be misunderstood, this is not to suggest Ali is perfect, and free of flaws. But he always gave us his best, and he always stood up for what he believed. It’s also worth noting that a man associated with a violent sport promoted peace world-wide.

Being fans of TCM, we can’t miss the opportunity to insert some insight provided by the movie, Inherit the Wind.

The wife of the Fredric March character (Matthew Harrison Brady / William Jennings Bryan), who was a figment of his former self by the time that he tried the Monkey Trial against the Spencer Tracy character (Henry Drummond / Clarence Darrow), had an exchange with the fiancée of teacher Bertram Cates (on trial for teaching evolution), who criticized the March character for one of his tactics as the prosecutor:

"Sarah Brady: Youth can be so pure. What do you know of good or evil? What do you understand of the sum of a man's life?

"Rachel Brown: He betrayed me!

"Sarah Brady: You betrayed yourself! You see my husband as a saint, and so he must be right in everything he says and does. And then you see him as a devil, and everything he says and does must be wrong. Well my husband's neither a saint nor a devil. He's just a human being, and he makes mistakes.

"Rachel Brown: How can you defend him?

"Sarah Brady: It's not he I'm defending! I'm defending the forty years I've lived with this man, and watched him carry the burdens of people like you! If he's been wrong, at least he stood for something! What do you stand for? Do you believe in Bertram Cates? I believe in my husband. What do you believe in?"

Ali at least stands for "something," though illusive it may....

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Post No. 133c: TV Program of Interest: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times

At 5:00 pm EDST today, Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University will discuss his book, The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times, on C-Span2 Book TV. Click here to see a synopsis of the program.

Mr. Frank is also a New York Times columnist, and will discuss what he believes are the most important economic principles, and the need to explode the worst economic myths.

During his discussion he discusses the conflict between individual logic and group logic, and ways to address that conflict. He also addresses how society might address behaviors which all humans recognize are bad for us, but we pursue anyway.

Post No. 133b: TV Program of Interest on U.S. Educational System

In the late 1960s, Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol was required reading for some high school students in the southeastern region of the United States. Death is the story of how teachers in the Boston Public School System suppressed the expectations of their young, inner city students because the teachers themselves had low expectations of the students.

That book had a profound influence on our view of the power of expectation, and remains on our book shelf here at the Institute to this day.

C-Span has an “In Depth” series where they discuss issues with authors for 3 hours. Jonathan Kozol is featured today. His life’s work has focused on the inequities in the educational system, and how certain aspects of it actually do harm.

Click here for further information. The program starts at 12 Noon EDST. In our opinion, it will be time well-spent.

Post No. 133a: TV Program of Interest: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times

As we type this, Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University is discussing his book, The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times, on C-Span2 Book TV. Click here to see a synopsis of the program. If you miss it, it will air again today, Sunday, September 6, 2009, at 5:00pm EDST.

During his discussion he discusses the conflict between individual logic and group logic, and ways to address that conflict. He also addresses how society might address behaviors which all humans recognize are bad for us, but we pursue anyway.

"There Are More Than 2 Or 3 Ways To View Any Issue; There Are At Least 27"™

"Experience Isn't Expensive; It's Priceless"™

"Common Sense Should be a Way of Life"™