The Rapey Boy of 21st St

He wants it intensely. No matter how many times you say “no” or try to push him away, he keeps coming back, holding your leg, pressing himself against you. He has needs. How can you be so cruel as to deny them?

Readers may be relieved to know at this point that I am not describing a human assailant or an even slightly traumatic experience. Rather, I am talking about my puppy’s desire to get on the couch with me. Continue reading “The Rapey Boy of 21st St”

Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”

With Liberty and Justice For All

I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom. Continue reading “With Liberty and Justice For All”

December Book Review: The Prince

The Prince has been on my reading list for the better part of fifteen years and I borrowed it over a year ago, so it is a bit ironic that my first reaction on finally cracking it open and reading the first few pages was, “Wow, this is so useful! I should have read it years ago!” That reaction fluxed and changed over the course of the book, and this is the story of how that happened.

Of course, The Prince is often spoken of in shocked terms as being an amoral book, and certainly, as the introduction to this edition readily admits, “Machiavelli’s chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral consideration.”

True, Machiavelli does not insist upon morality if that will lessen power. But neither does he completely ignore moral considerations:

Still it cannot be called virtue to slay one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion. By such methods one may win dominion but not glory.

His savage and inhuman cruelty and his many acts of wickedness do not permit him to be celebrated among men of unusual excellence.

His philosophy seems to be summed up by his remark that

The way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.

You cannot criticize his honesty; someone who shares his opinion that the acquisition and maintenance of political power is an end in itself would probably do well to take his advice. Yet it is still possible for someone who seeks or accepts power for altruistic motives to study his analysis of the underlying situations and universal pitfalls and combine that analysis with their own value system to arrive at a completely different set of tactics.

It is important to remember that one may be innocent as a dove while still being wise as a serpent.

For example, consider these statements and their applicability to everyday life:

It must be realized that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more dangerous to manage than the establishment of a new order of government; for he who introduces it makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order and finds but lukewarm defenders among those who stand to gain from the new one.

Someone attempting to impose a new order – in a family, at work or in a larger sense – would do well to remember this.

Or

Men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future. (Yeah, we’re talking to you, Wall Street!)

Or

You offend [your subjects, your employees or your friends] by showing them that, either from cowardliness or from lack of faith, you distrust them; and either conclusion will induce them to hate you.

Or

One should never allow a disorder to persist in order to avoid a war, for war is not avoided thereby but merely deferred to one’s own disadvantage.

Think of the manager who allows a seditious and troublesome employee to continue their bad behavior unchecked because the manager dislikes “conflict.” This is bad on several levels. As Machiavelli illustrates in chapter 20, “divisions are never tolerated in a strong state” because such dissention among the citizens can lead to a city’s lessened productivity and ultimate downfall. The manager who follows this course, having inflicted suffering on their department, is likely to ultimately lose it. Better to deal with the matter swiftly and move on.

Or

Every wise prince should… never submit to idleness in time of peace, but rather endeavor to turn such time to advantage so as to profit from it in adversity.

Or

Having set an example once or twice, he may thereafter act far more mercifully than the princes who, through excessive kindness, allow disorders to arise from which murder and rapine [the seizure of property by force] ensue.

The teacher who can establish order on the first day of school may afterwards have fun with the students, but the teacher who is too soft on the first day will never have their respect and so will be much less effective at both teaching and guiding them – or will be forced to resort to much stricter punishments throughout the year to re-establish order.

Or

When you see a man who thinks more about his own interests than about yours, who seeks his own advantage in everything he does, then you may be sure that such a man will never be a good minister, and you will never be able to trust him.

I think most people would agree that these are true, which leads me to the opinion that never have I read anything in which the good and bad were so thoroughly, even ironically, mixed.

The quote about never submitting to idleness is immediately preceded by the instruction that “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war.” This may or may not have been good advice in Machiavelli’s time and place – he recounts countless wars and armed conflicts just in Italy in the 50 years preceding his book – but it is unequivocally bad advice now that politics and daily life have taken a less dangerous turn.

Even if one amends “war” to “politics” or “how to maintain power,” I think few would agree that that should be one’s only focus. There are many other things a prince should learn: how to maintain peace in his domain, how to improve the prosperity of his people, how to discern and practice justice.

The principle I have applied to teachers comes from a chapter titled “Concerning Cruelty: Whether it is better to be loved or feared.” It is surprising how often Machiavelli does use the word “cruelty” – so often that I began to wonder if it was an accurate translation – but, in fact, the word he uses throughout, “crudele,” seems to be universally translated as “cruelty”.

Certainly, in many situations discipline is necessary, or a show of strength is called for. But must that be cruel? In a classroom, certainly not!

Surprisingly, for one of his era and ruthlessness, he applies the word “cruelty” to the execution of people who will otherwise never stop making trouble. Some modern readers will agree with this; others will find such executions to be not only justified, but in some cases, merciful. So there is still a lot of room for each person to decide what they consider cruel and whether there is any other way to accomplish the desired result.

Finally, considering that Machiavelli approved the judicious use of cruelty and deception (“If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them.”), it is clear that his warning about a man who is completely self-absorbed is intended to help those who are completely self-absorbed and seek their own advantage in everything!

In the end, I resorted to a little Googling to help make sense of it all.

The abortive fate of The Prince [after all, it failed in its stated goals of launching a new school of political thought, “saving” Italy from invaders, and winning Machiavelli a political post] makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world. – Rosina Pierrotti

If Machiavelli were as purely evil as he has often been painted, it would perhaps be easier to separate the good from the bad in his book. The danger of it is that, as he condones cruelty and trickery only as a last resort, a reader may find this to be reasonable, and may come to believe that there are situations that can be handled no other way. Whether or not it is true that there are political situations that can be won no other way, there is always another course of action.

The reader must decide whether they wish for power without glory, whether their own desires are so important to them that they will contribute to the evils of the world to attain them – or whether they wish to be “celebrated among men of unusual excellence.” The latter course may, in the end, be more effective anyway.

A couple of references, for those who are curious:
http://qn.som.yale.edu/content/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli (The source of the Rosina Pierrotti quote)
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/polybius-hannibal.asp Not quoted in the blog, but this text by Polybius from the 2nd century BCE interestingly shows that not all of Machiavelli’s ideas are as original as he gets credit for!

(Although writing this review was somewhat delayed by my computer dying, I assure you I did read the book in December, per my resolution! I also read my November book – review coming shortly.)

Balance v. Fairness

Talk to me about history and you will almost certainly come away convinced that I’m a militant feminist. The injustices and limitations wreaked on women through the centuries do make me boiling mad.

And yet, on a recent wine-tasting trip, I had no desire to visit the winery which touted the fact that it was “all woman owned.” In fact, hearing the fact trumpeted made me wish to avoid it.

Yes, I know the stats. Twice as many businesses are owned by men as by women. Working in the legal industry, I hear the constant hullabaloo about the fact that only about 31% of lawyers are women. “We need to make more opportunities for female lawyers so the legal profession reflects the wider population,” I hear over and over again.

Yet only 5.8% of nurses are male, and I’d guess there isn’t the same concern in that industry about evening out the sexes. If men are less drawn to nursing than women, as it appears they are, isn’t it possible that women are less drawn to lawyering than men? And if so, is that a bad thing?

It’s not to say that there aren’t still real injustices between the sexes, such as the fact that women make 77¢ for every dollar earned by men. Even when the sample is adjusted for the usual justifications for why that is, such as maternity leave, it doesn’t get much better. That should not be the case, and I know that – like the civil rights movement of the 60s – it will only change once an intense glare of attention is directed at the issue.

But when a business makes a big deal over the fact that only women own it, I can’t help thinking that a business wouldn’t think it necessary to advertise that it’s “all male owned.” It seems to me – correctly or not – that emphasizing it betrays a desire to raise women over men, not just bring them equal.

Women dominating men for the next 10 centuries or so would certainly bring some balance to history.  But it wouldn’t be fair.

So much of life is a pendulum, and there often aren’t easy answers about how to correct injustices without perpetrating them on the opposite side. But when looking for those answers, there are two things to remember: “balance” is not the same thing as “fairness” – and “equality” is not the same thing as “being the same.”

Intersections of Responsibility

Read someone like Seth Godin regularly and you quickly become a convert to the idea that you should always bring your A-game to your work and your life and your “art”, that you should never give less than your full allowance of passion and energy, that you should never just show up and think you’ve done your duty.
 
Great. Agreed: that is ideal.
 
But what about those days when your A-game just isn’t going to happen? The flip-side of the above ideas is that if you aren’t having one of those “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out” days (to quote the Rands article from my last post), you shouldn’t bother showing up at all. And that’s obviously not practical. It’s also a slippery slope that gives you permission to say, “Well, I don’t feel like working today, so…”
 
The last few weeks my posts haven’t been finished on time. I caught myself saying, “But it’s not my fault! I couldn’t do it that day because there were internet problems/I ended up having dinner plans/I was really tired/etc!” Hold on a minute here. I’m not writing a daily blog, I’m writing a weekly one. Sure there might be very valid reasons why I could not post in the final 24 hours… but what about the rest of the week?!
 
I’m down to the wire again this week and, looking back, I have some extremely valid excuses. Leaving aside Monday, which I don’t even remember:
 
Sunday: unexpectedly spent the entire day with visiting family, then finished it with a crippling headache that lasted until bedtime.
Tuesday: I got proposed to (yes!) – obviously derailing the rest of the plans for the evening.
Wednesday: surprise dinner with the new in-laws-to-be.
Thursday: drinks with a friend, which I planned three weeks ago and forgot about because I’ve been so busy and so tired. And also two hours of overtime.
 
The thing is, very valid though all those excuses may be, I still had to make those choices. I set my priorities as family > sleep > blog (also dishes and tackling the pile of papers that is growing on my desk… apologies to my roommate).
 
Mom’s mantra is, “You can only do what you can do.” This is helpful to a perfectionist like me, especially one who happens to live in a world where everyone seems to think they can or should have it all. You can’t, and there’s no need to feel bad about that.
 
But that brings me back around full circle. Are there really truly times when the best you can do is less than your best, or times when some commitments have to slide? And how do you know when it’s one of those times and when you’re just being lazy and/or making excuses? I wish I knew.

Ethics, Sleep and Creativity

Lately, I admit, I’ve been fudging the posting timeframe a bit. So, to make some amends, a bonus post with links to some helpful articles I ran across this week.

First, an interview that takes the ethics of everyday decisions to a whole new level:

people have to understand that there’s no latitude, that there’s no such thing as a little bit wrong, like there’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant… if you look at things that way, even a bad attitude is an ethical issue, because it might mean your own work isn’t being done properly, and you’re probably infecting others so their performance suffers, too.

Then two posts that made me feel both better and worse about my productivity levels:

From the Wall Street Journal, why some people can sleep so little and get so much done.

For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time. Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

From Rands In Repose, a discussion of how creativity can be harnessed.

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

Finally, a long, beautiful, depressing and inspiring story about an experiment in which a world-famous violinist played for a crowd of commuters.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?