My first summer job in high school was as a copy boy for The Indianapolis Star newspaper. Yes, it was so long ago that we were called copy “boys” and nobody got triggered about sexism or patriarchy.
Every morning when I arrived at work, I passed a plaque in the building’s lobby. It had a quote from the publisher of the newspaper, Eugene S. Pulliam:
“America is great only because America is free.”
The Indianapolis Star of that era is long gone, gobbled up by the Gannett media company and transformed into an ever-thinner local edition of USA Today. But Pulliam’s quote has stuck with me. Does freedom make it possible to achieve greatness?
Pulliam was talking about individual freedom: that is, each person’s right to decide what to believe, how to live, and what to do with his or her life.
That kind of freedom is both exhilarating and a little frightening. It means you can choose your own path, but also that you are responsible for your choices.
If you choose wrong, then you might fall on your face: not because of “the system” or because people are mean, but because you made a mistake. It’s kind of a scary thought.
I’ll tell you a couple of things that most people know in their hearts, but often forget in their heads:
Life kicks the hell out of everyone: the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, regardless of status or social group. Suffering comes to all of us. We can’t control that fact. What we can control is how we react to it. Do we learn from the experience and vow to do better next time? Or do we wallow in self-pity?
The only people who never fail are those who never try. People who stay inside their comfort zone can never become more than they already are. If we only do things for which success is guaranteed, we’ll never know how much more we could have achieved. The way to improve is to push our limits, and that means risking failure. Television evangelist Robert Schuller had a saying I like: “The only shame is low aim.”
Being free means taking responsibility for your own life. If you want other people to take care of you, then you must surrender some of your freedom to them. If they’re going to be responsible for what happens to you, it’s only fair that they get to tell you what to do. You can’t have it both ways.
So which way will you choose? Either way, the choice is yours. And so is responsibility for the results. Don’t be scared. You’re stronger than you think.
(Originally written for The Jewish Journal, published on August 16, 2016.)
Why are people so mean on the Internet?
Political polarization is sad, but it’s not the problem. Every day, we encounter people who disagree with us, but we do it without histrionics or name-calling. We probably even count some of them as friends and family.
Nasty people are also not the cause. They exist, but there aren’t enough of them to poison the Internet. And even they restrain themselves most of the time.
However, the Internet is a different environment. We don’t interact with people face to face. We don’t see them. Sometimes, we don’t even know their names, nor they ours. That’s important in a couple of ways.
First, the people we encounter on the Internet seem less real to us than those we meet in person. As a result, we tend to take them less seriously as human beings. We are less inclined to worry about hurting their feelings or treating them unjustly. Quite realistically, we are also less likely to worry about arguments leading to physical confrontation or retribution.
Second, the Internet feels anonymous even if it really isn’t. We are sitting in our homes where nobody can see us. We are less inclined to feel shame if we do something hurtful.
Those two factors combine to bring out the nastiness in many people who are otherwise perfectly normal.
All of us suffer from occasional anger and frustration, but in real life, we might not be able to do anything about them. Our boss might unjustly criticize our work, but we don’t want to get fired so we say nothing. A friend might disappoint us, but we have no recourse. A spouse might infuriate us, but we don’t want to prolong the argument. So we bottle up our rage, until we get on the computer. Then, some of us have a rage-fest.
On the Internet, people often vent their anger at whatever targets are available. Someone who has a different political opinion. A celebrity who did something that made the news. A person who we think made too much money and didn’t deserve it. Someone we just don’t like for no particular reason.
A psychological principle applies both on and off the Internet:
If people’s anger is wildly out of proportion to what they say they’re angry about, then they’re really angry about something else.
If someone on the Internet calls you vile names or makes horrible accusations because you support candidate X or you’re a member of religion Y, then it’s not about X or Y at all. It’s about something in the person’s own life that he or she can’t handle, so the anger gets targeted at you instead. The drama is playing inside the person’s head, and you got cast as the villain.
The same thing is true off the Internet. If your spouse is enraged because of something trivial, it’s not really about the trivial thing. It’s about what happened yesterday, or last week.
Knowing the causes of Internet nastiness doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Children, especially, are vulnerable to Internet bullying – even to the point of suicide. Adults can suffer depression or job loss because of Internet harassment.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to offer a reassuring solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. The best I can suggest is this:
Don’t take Internet insults seriously. People who resort to insults, name-calling, and other kinds of online vitriol are either venting anger that has nothing to do with you, or they are deliberately trying to goad you into a screaming match. Ignore them. A long-standing bit of Internet wisdom applies: “Please do not feed the trolls.”
Remember that even well-meaning comments sometimes don’t come across as the writer intended. In real life, we rely on vocal intonations, facial expressions, and body language to provide context that is completely absent on the Internet. If something can be interpreted in an innocuous way or as an insult, then you should interpret it in the innocuous way.
When you write things to other people on the Internet, remember that even if you don’t see them, they are still real people. Don’t treat them in ways that you wouldn’t treat them if they were standing in front of you. And be careful to avoid saying things that might be misinterpreted.
American founder Benjamin Franklin had a helpful motto: “I will speak ill of no one, and say all the good I can of everyone.”
Of course, people in the Middle Ages didn’t think they were living in “the Middle Ages.” That term was invented during the Renaissance to denote the era between Late Antiquity (after the fall of the Roman Empire) and the writers’ own era.
But I digress. In“An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” Bertrand Russelldescribed how many people of the Middle Ages viewed the world:
“Dangers were held to lurk at every turn. Devils would settle on the food that monks were about to eat, and would take possession of the bodies of incautious feeders who omitted to make the sign of the Cross before each mouthful.”
Then, as now, pervasive fear was a very effective way to control people. If you terrify people and then promise them safety, they’ll do whatever you tell them, no matter how unscientific or nonsensical. Even highly intelligent people are vulnerable, because fear hampers their ability to use their intelligence.
Subsitute “viruses” for “Devils” and “face burqas” for “the sign of the Cross” and it’s pretty much the same now as it was back then.
According to the author, each type of government needs to encourage different qualities in the people who live under it.
A republican government needs to encourage virtue in all of its people. Specifically, that’s civic virtue: The ability to reason clearly about public issues, obey the law, and cooperate for the common good:
“When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community … The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the licence of many.”
Aristocratic government also needs to encourage civic virtue, but only in the rulers because only they have political power. The author calls that kind of virtue “honor” to distinguish it from the widespread kind of virtue needed in a republic.
Though the word “aristocracy” literally means rule by the best, in practice, it’s rule by the few: that is, by a small group of privileged elites. In a healthy society, the elites actually are some of the best people, in the sense that they are honest, wise, and virtuous:
“But how are the [elites] to be restrained? … either by a very eminent virtue, which puts them in some measure on a level with the people, and may be the means of forming a great republic; or by an inferior virtue, which puts them at least on a level with each other.”
If a country’s elites go bad, then the country is in danger. It will suffer:
“Ambition in idleness; meanness mixed with pride; a desire of riches without work; aversion to truth; flattery, perfidy, contempt of civil duties … It is exceedingly difficult for the leading men of the nation to be knaves, and the common people to be honest; for the former to be cheats, and the latter to rest satisfied with being only dupes.”
Despotic government is the simplest of the three types. It has no need of virtue or honor:
“As virtue is necessary in a republic, and honor in a monarchy, fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous.”
So despotic governments need to cultivate fear: to keep their subjects in constant terror so that they don’t start thinking too much:
“In despotic states, the nature of government requires the most passive obedience … man is a creature that blindly submits to the absolute will of the sovereign. His portion here, like that of beasts, is instinct, compliance, and punishment.”
All right, it’s time for the quiz. Put away your books. Freddie, give me that cell phone, you know they’re not allowed in class. No cheating. You should make up your own mind. Your own government encourages:
Pass your quiz papers to the front. Class dismissed.
If you’re swimming, then you’re going someplace. If you’re treading water, then you’re just waiting to drown.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think that waiting to die is a good way to live.
If your life is going to mean something — to you, at least — it has to be about something beyond itself.
That’s one reason why many people today are so anguished. They’ve been taught since childhood that they’re just animals and that their lives don’t mean anything. They believe that morality, justice, love, and truth don’t really exist. They believe that it’s pointless to strive for knowledge because there are only lies: my lies or your lies, take your pick. It’s pointless to strive for improvement because there’s no better or worse, no good or evil: only savage, amoral brutes fighting over who gets the biggest piece of meat from the prey they just killed.
That’s their vision of life, and it drives them mad. They lose all sense of reality because the reality they see is absolutely unbearable.
But that vision is wrong, and we can do better.
The remedy is to stop treading water. Our lives need to have a goal, a worthy goal that helps people and makes the world a better place.
In previous eras, that goal and moral framework were provided by religion: in the West, mainly Christianity and Judaism. But as our wealthy and faux-educated elites have been progressively seduced by their own delusions of omnipotence and increasingly depraved vices, they’ve rejected the religious, historical, and cultural patrimony that had made both their luxury and our societies possible. They replaced our sacred patrimony with: nothing.
So there’s no longer a default framework that we can use to give our lives meaning and purpose. We have to decide for ourselves. How can we know what goals will make our lives worth living?
Everyone will have his or her own unique answers. But our goals should be:
Achievable. Impossible goals are bad not only because they’re a waste of effort, but also because they lead to hopelessness and giving up. It must be at least conceivable that you can achieve your goals. You need not know in advance all the details of how you’ll do it, but you should be able to figure out some general ideas.
Specific. Goals should be specific enough for us to know if we’ve achieved them or not. “I want to live in a nice place” is too vague. But if you say, “I want to live in a beach house in Malibu,” it’s easier to know if you’ve achieved your goal.
Challenging. Goals that are too easy aren’t inspiring and they’re over too fast. Goals should be possible, but not guaranteed. A little bit of uncertainty provides motivation while you work toward the goal, and increases your satisfaction when you achieve it.
Win-win. The best goals are win-win propositions. If you achieve your goal, then that’s great! You won. But win-win goals do a lot of good even if you lose. For example, do you want to qualify for the track team? Then get busy with physical training. Even if you don’t make the team, you’ll be in great shape. That’s an example of a win-win goal.
Morally good. The best goals are the ones that help people and make the world a better place. It’s not always easy to know if our goals can achieve those things. But if they increase human happiness and well-being, don’t cause significant harm, and don’t break any obvious moral laws (e.g., “don’t lie,” “don’t murder”), then they’re at least worth considering.
And finally, there’s a big point that’s different for everyone. Your goals should be:
Inspiring to you. The best goals for you are those that can stir your heart and move your mind to action. Only those goals can imbue your life with meaning and purpose, drawing you forward to the good place that you see ahead in the distance.
Don’t just tread water: swim. There’s treasure on the far shore that only you can unearth.
P.S. Peripherally relevant: today, October 11, is my college girlfriend’s birthday. She joined a cult, I think because she felt her life lacked meaning. The last time I talked to her, she was still in the cult — 20 years later. The cult gave her a sense of meaning and purpose in life that religion and society had failed to provide. I miss her, but I’m happy that she found what she needed. And as cults go, hers isn’t too bad.
Note: With a presidential election coming up, the news media are full of misleading headlines, biased reporting, and less often, outright lies. Here’s how to avoid some of the most common traps. (Originally posted on my other blog in 2018.)
Are the news media corrupt? Most people say “yes.” Leftists point to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Conservatives point to CNN and The New York Times. They believe that such news outlets distort the facts and even lie about them.
Sometimes, that’s true. But there’s more to the story. In the 1990s, I was a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. I was an accredited member of the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries, covering Capitol Hill and several federal agencies. I saw from the inside how the news works.
News versus opinion
Most people fail to make an important distinction. Editorial writers, columnists, and televised political commentators don’t report unbiased news. Usually, they don’t even pretend to do it. They’re arguing for their side of a debate.
If you read the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, then you either know what you’re getting or you’re very naive. The same applies if you watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. They’re “on your side” of the debate. You want to learn things that reinforce what you already believe. Facts are okay, but you’re mainly looking for reassurance that you’re right.
As a result, there’s nothing dishonest about editorials or commentators arguing their case — as long as they don’t flat-out lie and as long as the other side is free to argue its case, which the tech giants are now trying mightily to prevent. None of it is straight news.
News reporting is different
News reporting is held to a higher standard. Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.”
My proudest claim as a news reporter was this: That from reading my news articles, no one could discern what I personally believed about the subjects of the articles. I had opinions, but I kept them out of the news.
If I wanted to argue for my viewpoint, I wrote an opinion column. It might surprise you to learn that many other reporters felt the same way. They often agonized about how to present the news fairly and without bias. I attended several conferences about how to report the news professionally but truthfully. It’s not as easy as you might think.
News reporting vs. human nature
A big problem is that news reporters aren’t robots. They’re fallible human beings. Despite their best efforts, human nature sometimes leads them astray.
One week when I was a reporter, there were rumors of a scandal at a certain federal department. In our daily staff meeting, the news editor asked if anyone could find out about it.
I didn’t normally cover that department, but I had a friend who worked there. I volunteered to call him and ask. When I called, he didn’t know anything about the rumors but he agreed to ask around. He later called back to explain that the “scandal” was just an acrimonious turf battle between two groups in the department. What he told me was “not for attribution,” which meant that I could quote him but not identify him by name.
We weren’t close friends, but I knew him fairly well. I knew his wife and children. He was a decent and honest guy. His explanation sounded reasonable, and I wanted to believe it. I checked around a little more, but I didn’t have any other good sources and I thought that I already knew the truth. So that’s what I reported in a news article.
It turned out to be wrong. I misinformed my readers: unintentionally, to be sure, but I did. After I called him, my friend probably went to his own boss to ask about the rumors. In turn, the boss probably asked his boss, who asked his boss, and they all agreed on what to tell the news media. That’s what they told my friend, and he relayed it to me.
The most dangerous media corruption
The most dangerous kind of media corruption doesn’t involve bribery, Russian hookers, or anything like that. It’s dangerous precisely because its origin is innocent. We want to believe in our friends. We want to believe that what’s good for them is also what’s true. We usually see the world in about the same way as they do: similar assumptions, moral beliefs, and feelings about political issues.
Now that news has become largely infotainment, there are plenty of dishonest reporters. Some less-experienced reporters probably have no idea of what “straight news” even is. However, at least half of today’s biased news results from the fact that reporters know the people in the fields they cover. They believe their friends and they don’t want to hurt them. Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid.
Getting a balanced perspective
As with buying sandwiches from street vendors, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is a good motto for reading the news. If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe:
Look at a variety of news outlets to get different perspectives. If you read Breitbart all the time, make a point of reading The New York Times. If you watch MSNBC, force yourself to watch some Fox News. Each will tell you things that the others omitted and will give you a different slant on the news. If you combine the opposing slants, they often cancel each other out so you get a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
Don’t read only the headlines. The reporter doesn’t write the headline under which the article is published. Often, headlines give a misleading idea of what the articles say. Sometimes, they even contradict what the articles say.
Watch out for weasel words such as “alleged,” “might,” “possibly,” and “could.” Those are red flags, indicating a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Anyone can “allege” anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
Watch out for anonymous sources. Sometimes, anonymous sources tell the truth. Other times, they lie under the cloak of anonymity. Treat all anonymous statements with skepticism, even — or especially — if they support “your side” of an argument.
Read the last few paragraphs. Biased reporters often “bury” inconvenient facts at the ends of articles. That way, people who only read the first few paragraphs get a false impression about what happened. Occasionally, less-biased reporters do it as well. If a scrupulous reporter knows that the editor is biased and won’t allow the mention of certain facts, he or she might bury them at the end, hoping that the editor won’t notice them. I’ve seen several articles like that in The New York Times.
Beware of accusations phrased as questions. Neither “Did Obama order illegal spying on the Trump campaign?” nor “Has Trump sided with Nazis?” tells you anything. They’re questions. But if you’re not paying much attention, your mind will convert them into beliefs that “Obama did” and “Trump has.” That’s why they work as propaganda. You’ll often see that trick used in headlines at the bottom of the screen on cable news shows.
Beware of claims that people said things. Cable news shows often ask guests questions like “What do you think of Mr./Ms. X’s statement that all puppies should be killed?” The guest replies, “It’s just disgusting that Mr./Ms. X hates puppies and wants them dead.” But if you look at the transcript to find out what Mr./Ms. X actually said, nine times out of 10 it’s nothing at all like what the cable news host or guest claimed. (I added this bullet point on 2020-10-07.)
Check links and citations. When internet articles give links to support their claims, don’t just assume that the linked pages say what you’d expect. For example, one article claimed that Covid-19 infection causes lasting damage to bodily organs. As evidence, it linked to another article about autopsies that found damage — in people who had died from Covid-19. In other words, the article was only about the most severe cases. It did not support the claim that Covid-19 causes lasting damage to most people who get it. (I added this bullet point on 2020-10-07.)
Right now, someone who loves you is thinking about you. Wondering if you’re all right. Wondering if you’re happy or sad. Wondering if now is a good time to give you a phone call just to say “hi.”
Maybe they think you’re busy. Maybe they don’t want to be a pest. But they are thinking about you. They care what happens to you.
If you’re feeling sad and they found out about it, they’d call you right away. And if you’re feeling great and wish you had someone to share your happiness, they’d want to do that, too. Happy is better, but happy or sad, they will stand with you if they can.
We hear a lot about the risks of Covid-19, but not much about the risks of isolation. Loneliness, depression, and all kinds of problems face people who feel cut off from the world. They sit alone at home, and when they go out, it’s not much better. Instead of smiling faces, they see masks. Instead of handshakes, they get hand sanitizer. They’re told to keep their distance. Even when they’re around other people, they still feel alone.
That’s why it’s important to remember that we’re not alone and we do have people who care about us.
Think about it: there are people about whom you care. Have you called them today? Probably not, for the same reasons they haven’t called you. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. If you knew they needed you, you’d call right away. And if they knew you needed them, they’d do the same.
Right now, people who love you are thinking about you. And they hope you’re all right.
It’s a good cause, but focusing on suicide risks missing the point.
The suicide is only the final act of the tragedy.
The greatest tragedy comes earlier, when someone reaches a point in his or her life where suicide seems like the best option.
Despair is the real enemy: the belief that life is intolerably bad and there’s no chance it can get better. That is almost never true.
Everyone, without exception, sometimes encounters suffering and sorrow. The only question is how we are going to respond. If we respond with faith and courage, we can almost always survive our sorrows.
In my family, the only suicide I know about is Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). He was a popular American poet who toured the country performing his poetry on stage. He spent most of his life in Springfield, Illinois, where a street bears his name. He took his life because of financial problems that overwhelmed him.
I get it. I really do. Sometimes, we feel hopeless and the world seems determined to crush us as painfully as possible. That’s what ultimately killed Vachel Lindsay.
If I could go back in time and talk to him, I’d ask him to tell me about his worries. Just talking with a friend or family member can help put our worries into perspective.
And I’d encourage him to think. Each person has a unique contribution to make to the world: in that sense, we are all irreplaceable. Nobody else can substitute for us.
That also applies to how we treat other people. We are made to help each other. If we aren’t there for them when we should be, they suffer because of it. Our lives aren’t just about us as individuals.
It helps to believe that the world makes sense and that life has a purpose. As the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) said:
“Even in deepest despair, faith in G-d gives us the capacity to reconcile and deal with our grief. In a world without G-d, pain and suffering would be fruitless. But with G-d at the helm, even though the pain may not subside, we can accept it as a challenge of life; it motivates us to seek answers, to explore our relationship with G-d, and to grow from the experience.”
He was not a perfect person. He failed often, but he never let it stop him. He kept on going.
And whether he failed or succeeded, he knew who was responsible: He was. Nobody else.
Lincoln taught himself law by reading books that he borrowed. He taught himself land surveying in the same way. He took any work he could find, no matter how humble. He was determined to make something of himself: to live a life that made a difference. And if it was going to happen, it would be up to him to make it happen.
That’s the advice that he gave in 1848 to young lawyers:
“The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that any body wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation.”
It’s true that sometimes, people will try to hinder us. But even then, what ultimately happens is still up to us.
Blaming others is a psychological crutch that we don’t need. We can’t control what other people do. We can only control what we do.
If we take responsibility for our own lives, then success is not guaranteed. Like Lincoln, we might still fail sometimes.
But if we don’t take responsibility, then failure is guaranteed. Even if we get what we want, we’ll know that we didn’t earn it. The sweet things will taste bitter in our mouths.
Taking responsibility keeps the sweet things sweet. As they should be.
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