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The Advantage of a Generalist

James Holmes plumbs the zombie apocalypse, as described in World War Z by Max Brooks, for strategic lessons, concluding thus:

Resourceful folk fashion new weapons and tactics while unimaginative foes plod along, doing the same thing time after time—which makes a hopeful note to close on. When facing new circumstances, get to know the circumstances and stay loose. Recognize that the nimbler contender is apt to be the victor—and broad-mindedness is the key to staying nimble. I daresay Epstein and Clausewitz would agree.

Being something of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type, myself, this paragraph near the beginning of the essay caught my attention:

Maintains [David] Epstein, specialists encounter trouble when tackling the problems characteristic of a “wicked” world. Wicked problems are intricate. They involve variables that combine and recombine in offbeat ways. They defy the boundaries of a single field and often vex specialists. By contrast, generalists hunt for “distant” analogies to challenges. Analogies seldom reveal answers, but they help inquisitors discover the right questions to ask. Asking penetrating questions constitutes the first step toward a solution, toward wisdom.

Exactly right.  We err if we look to analogies for answers, but by our nature we understand situations by comparison, through metaphors — stories.  The closer the metaphor we apply to a situation, the more correct (even if unexpected) conclusions we can find.  Having a broad range of experience allows us to cast more broadly for metaphors.

For example, a social problem will have nothing to do with building a house, but metaphorically, they may have some things in common: the need for a strong foundation on which sturdy framing supports the useful and aesthetically pleasing components.  If your social institutions and artistic productions are crumbling, the metaphor might direct your attention to problems with the cultural foundation that is failing to support it all.  If your popular art is cracked and allowing evil ideas in, they can rot the institutional framing.

Metaphors can be pretty abstract.  We still use the metaphor of particles to understand physics, but we know that the building blocks of material reality don’t act very much like particles.   They can act like waves, they can occupy the same physical space, and so on.  Perhaps a different abstract metaphor — seeing “particles” as identities with certain qualities might help us resolve some of the remaining puzzles.

This is why innovators in particular fields are often newcomers who aren’t bogged down in standard ways of thinking, but bring metaphors from their earlier lives.

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A Far-Reaching Conversation on State of the State

State of the State co-host Richard August invited me on for a full hour of the show to cover a broad range of topics, from Tiverton’s recall election to broad political philosophy.

12-9-19 A Different View of Matters from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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Rhode Island’s Very Own Green New Deal

How much more money can Rhode Island’s political class take from your pocket using green energy as an excuse?

The Ocean State has already signed on to the Transport and Climate Initiative, a cabal of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states designed to foster a radical change (for the worse) to our economic well-being through costly green energy policies.

Indeed, this very well could be Rhode Island own version of the “Green New Deal,” driving costs higher and higher.

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Geologists as the Orwellian Vanguard

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, the unironic slogans of the totalitarian government are: “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.”  The modern totalitarians of the progressive American Left who have ramped up their efforts in the past decade have added “discrimination is tolerance.”

Witness this statement from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) explaining why the organization, along with the Geological Society of America (GSA), banned Brigham Young University (BYU) from advertising jobs for which their members might be qualified:

“AGU has always encouraged and fostered a diverse geoscience community throughout its history because we believe—and repeatedly see—that diversity and inclusion are essential to advancing science,” Billy Williams, the union’s vice president of ethics, diversity, and inclusion, wrote in a statement. “Since the job posting from BYU referenced its Honor Code as a requirement of employment, which conflicts with our policy, we removed the job posting from our website.”

This isn’t just a faint echo of Orwell’s constructs; it’s the actual thing.  To restate, the VP of “ethics, diversity, and inclusion” is saying that his organization must shun a well-regarded university because “diversity and inclusion are essential to advancing science.”  That is, they must discriminate against adherents of a religion because the Honor Code that it inspires conflicts with the progressive fundamentalism of the geological organizations.

Science, according to this way of thinking, is advanced by restricting participation based on ideological rules that have nothing to do with the narrow field of study or practice of investigation.  In the view of these organizations, no geologist who belongs to either the union or the society and who has beliefs that would fit with those of BYU should be permitted to find a work environment in which they’d be comfortable.  Indeed, the message is clearly sent that they should keep their beliefs to themselves if they know what is good for them.

That a statement like the one quoted above could be passed off with a straight face and without bringing upon its author a wave of ridicule is terrifying.

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After Risk Turns to Tragedy in Worcester

As he so often does, Michael Morse brings out the human detail in the heart of a terrible incident.  In this case, the incident is the death of Worcester fire lieutenant Jason Menard in the early hours of Wednesday.  Writes Michael:

I’m certain that until the very last seconds he thought he would pull it off and be on his way to Disney when the shift was over. …

I hope Lieutenant Menard’s family understands this, and that he had every intention of coming home.

But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.

The reference is to the Menard family’s planned vacation, which was to start at the end of his shift just a few hours later, and it speaks to the looming uncertainty that surrounds the lives of those who undertake dangerous jobs.

The heart-wrenching, humanizing details abound.  A cafe at which Menard and his wife would eat breakfast together once they’d gotten their three children to school put out a memorial mimosa, accompanied by his picture and the Fireman’s Prayer.

The words of that poem are especially poignant in this case, given that they appear to have been written after a fire during which rescuers were not able to save some children.  Menard’s crew reportedly went out on its own dangerous limb in response to information that two people, including a baby, were trapped there.

As Michael writes, Menard died in the line of duty “simply doing what his training allowed him to do.”  That includes making split-second decisions about the amount of risk justified in unpredictable circumstances.  A professional calculates risks based not on the moment alone, but on the likelihood that the same decision made over and over again by different people will turn out well.  But sometimes risk turns into tragedy and, as the prayer’s author wrote of his own uncertainties, “according to Your Will I have to lose my life.”

When that happens, with or without the details so richly available around Jason Menard, the rest of us should pause and reflect for a moment in gratitude, because the fallen partake in the unknowable rescues whose incalculable number we cannot know.

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A Need for Space and Friction in Social Media Gravity

What if, all of a sudden, the force of gravity doubled throughout the universe?  This, according to social scientist Jonathan Haidt, is analogous to what society has experienced with the rapid effect of social media on human nature.

The implications for political science are particularly immediate:

… in “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of “faction,” by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that “inflamed [men] with mutual animosity” and made them forget about the common good. He thought that the vastness of the United States might offer some protection from the ravages of factionalism, because it would be hard for anyone to spread outrage over such a large distance. Madison presumed that factious or divisive leaders “may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” The Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, let passions cool, and encourage reflection and deliberation.

The palliative effect of time and distance apply on a smaller scale, too.  Even in a relatively small community, when people were having their feuds either face-to-face or in the necessarily well-paced medium of letters to the editor, they could not spread as broadly or as powerfully.  Now the group think and the side-picking spreads at the speed of the Internet, and as I’ve recently written, there is no escaping it.

While he captures something in social media and offers some suggestions for adding a little distance and friction to its processes, Haidt doesn’t go far enough in assigning responsibility to changes in society with which social media interacts.  A need for space and friction is also why our system limits the activities that we pursue through government, with its powers to tax, regulate, and police.

As government becomes an increasingly efficient way to impose our wills on each other, not only does it become easier to accomplish that goal, but the stakes go up for winning the fight.  The attractiveness of leveraging the tools of social warfare goes up even as the opportunity to defend against them goes down.

This is much like campaign finance reform.  We can make changes around the edges, but the only way to really “get the money out of politics” is to reduce the value of winning.  The same is true of social media.   The nasties have escaped the bag, so the better approach would be to become the type of society in which their bad effects will do less harm.

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Simply Service

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empireby Edward Gibbon, presents an alternating image of the Roman military.  At times, it’s the savior of the empire; at times, it’s the cause of its downfall.  At times, it’s the only institution carrying forward the essence of the people; at times, it aligns with foreign forces.  At times, one gets the impression that the Roman soldiers were driven centrally by a sense of honor; at times, the impression is more of a collection of mercenaries.

As is the way with history, these changes were both causes and effects — amplifying the direction that the circumstances, the enemies, or the emperor dictated while also changing the course of history.  How differently the people must have looked at soldiers in each of those epochs.

Over the course of my life, the United States has treated its military personnel with a complicated, often contradictory, presentation.  In the times of the old movies, the nation was all but uniformly convinced of the honor of such service.  After the ’60s, and with Vietnam, we experienced a flip.  Rather, we experienced a division, with one part of the culture flipping to present military service as inherently suspect and the military condemnable as an institution.

At the same time, both sides of that division focused more on personalities and archetypes, or at least that is how it has seemed.  If the portrayal is one of villainy, the characters are villains; if it is one of honor, such is invested in the personage of demigods, often performing superhuman feats.

What we need in our time is a sense of the honorable hero defined simply by service, holding the lines and traditions in a way somewhat better than we arguably deserve.  What we need even more is for those heroes to be honored by more than a day — but rather by a history-changing imitation.

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Rhode Island Became A Less Hospitable Place To Raise A Family In 2019

Recently, our Center released our 2019 Freedom Index and Legislator Scorecard for the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Sadly, with only 12 of 113 lawmakers scoring above zero, the members of the political class failed to fulfill their promises to help everyday citizens. Worse, the 2019 legislative session was an unadulterated assault on individual and economic rights, the totality of which I have not seen before.

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The Example the Teachers Set

“Imagine that! Teachers sending out postcards with a picture of violence to silence others in town.”  Tiverton Town Council member Donna Cook makes that statement in a new letter to the editor informing people about some facts from the recent recall election in town (which knocked me out of office).

She’s referring to one of the five mailings that the recall advocates sent to homes in Tiverton.  The return address claims that it comes from “Progress RI,” which although not registered appears to be a “doing business as” name of the state’s teachers unions.  The return address is that of a middle school teacher in town. And this is the front of the card, which Cook describes as “a violent picture similar to a kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, or a hostage situation.”

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Note that the claim at the top of the card is demonstrably false; it’s a lie.

While recording an episode of a soon-to-be-released local podcast, Cook contrasted this card with all of the talk we hear from those in the education system about bullying.  That’s an important contrast that isn’t made often enough in our world of hostile politics and toxic social media.

Imagine a high school student sending out something similar on social media about other students.  Nobody would have any trouble seeing that as inappropriate bullying, and the student would face consequences, probably including suspension.

Of course, we rightly balance freedom of speech versus the giving of offense differently for children and adults.  Grown-ups should be able to handle more, and society has less right to impose restrictions on them, at least in an official way.  Still, this card was sent out by teachers in our public schools, behind a thin veil of anonymity and the thin excuse that it actually came from their labor union.

Is that the sort of standard we want for our nation, state, and community?

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Suicide and the Modern World

A brief WBUR segment includes a critically important insight about increases in youth suicide.  Speaking about factors contributing to the problem:

[Emory University psychologist Nadine] KASLOW: When there’s abuse in the home, that can be a factor that really impacts children.

[Interviewer Rhitu] CHATTERJEE: As is substance abuse, she says, and the fact that most kids nowadays are growing up in communities that are not tightknit. Strong community ties provide a source of social support, a key protective factor against suicide.

KASLOW: Even if you feel down or badly about yourself or hopeless and helpless, that you feel loved and cared for and protected.

Note that this isn’t just love and care from a family, but from a community.  This is where social media may plug in.  Any meanness in the community is always there.  Every time the phone pings or shows that some app or other has unread messages, it could be another sneer, and anxiety goes up.  Kids can’t get away from it because they bring it with them all the time, on the phone.  At the same time, not having a phone is a path to exclusion, while knowing that the aggression is still out there, unseen.

The inability to escape manifests in another way, too.  Even a relatively small community will have sub-communities into which one can escape.  Once upon a time, the kids in math class might not have known what the bullies on the sports team were saying, and neighborhood kids who went to different schools would have no connection to any of it.  The families at the church gathering would have been another group, and coworkers at the part-time job came from yet another alcove.

Now social media finds those connections, and it isn’t implausible that everybody in a kid’s life has heard some whisper of a rumor.

A couple of weeks ago, I was helping out at a bingo event in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and somebody mentioned having seen me in the newspaper in connection with the recall in Tiverton.  By the time an adult gets to the point of being read about across the region in newspapers, he or she should (one hopes) have a pretty thick skin and a support system.

But just as blogging and social media have flattened and spread out access to audiences, they have also flattened and spread out the reach of whispers, and that’s a lot for kids to handle.

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The Foundation of Human Rights

A British court ruling made international headlines last week when it decided that the Bible is incompatible with human dignity. The case involved a Christian doctor who, out of the conviction of his beliefs, refused to refer to a transgender patient by their desired pronouns. As a result, the doctor was fired.

Should, God forbid, these same sentiments become commonplace in the United States, we should fear that it would mark the beginning of the end of not just religious liberty, but the acknowledgement of universal human rights in general. The most important piece of the philosophy upon which America was founded is the idea that we are endowed by our Creator the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This statement recognizes that human dignity is absolute, not because of the decisions made by judges, rulers, and governors, but because of the dictates of a God that is infinitely more powerful and authoritative.

If the United States, like this British court, at some point decides to throw God out of the picture, we would be forced to come to terms with the fact that government, being the most authoritative force over our lives, is the entity that has the final say over the definition of our rights and dignity. As it currently stands under the precepts of the Declaration, government does not grant us our rights, it dutifully acknowledges them as absolute, universal, and eternal, and protects them accordingly. A society that rejects God’s say in this matter grants this authority to its government, and had better hope and pray it doesn’t change its mind on what human rights should be.

For more thoughts on the issue of human dignity, I have written a more extensive piece on my personal site.

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Making a Tinderbox Out of a City

In response to an ideologically driven attack on a statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence on Columbus Day, this is a terrible idea, as reported by the Associated Press:

Democratic Mayor Jorge Elorza told WPRO he’d entertain the idea of moving the statue from the city’s Elmwood neighborhood to the Federal Hill neighborhood, which is known for its Italian American community and Italian restaurants. His spokeswoman later said that any move would require input from the community.

If it isn’t immediately clear why moving the statue to an ethnic enclave would be the wrong response, consider this commentary from Italo-American Club of Rhode Island President Anthony Napolitano, appearing in a WPRI article by Nancy Krause:

While moving the statue may not guarantee it won’t be vandalized, Napolitano said the plan would include putting security cameras in place.

“We’ll watch the statue,” he said.

Because the city apparently can’t, the Italians will defend their statue from the assault of others.

Dividing the city into fortified neighborhoods based on demographic identity would be a disaster waiting to happen.  It would declare a retrogression of our community toward a less-enlightened time.  It would be an acknowledgement that, as a society, we are incapable of the maturity necessary to take a balanced view of history and handle each other as individuals and as peers in the modern world.

We face a lot of work undoing the deterioration of our shared culture, but the easy accommodation of moving statues would be a marker of a step too far.

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Is Government Over-Reacting With Vape Bans?

Are the decisions by the governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts to halt the sale of vaping products (which will destroy jobs and small businesses) fueled by solid research or inspired by politically-correct activism?

While we recognize that this may be a sensitive topic to some people, there are many pro-liberty arguments that can be made on why these vape bans are wrong. It is deeply concerning that Governor Raimondo used her office to unilaterally ban a class of products.

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Ocean State Exodus: We Are Losing Productive People

No single indicator should be of more importance to lawmakers and civic leaders than whether or not our state is retaining and attracting talented and productive people.

The opportunity for prosperity is a primary factor in the migration of families from state to state. In this regard, our Ocean State is more than just losing the race. Far too many Rhode Islanders are fleeing our state, leaving a swath of empty chairs at our family dinner tables.

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Where Might an Objective Morality Come From?

The essay to which Isaac Whitney linked this morning comes right up to a question that is almost so obviously right at the center of questions about morality that nobody ever asks it:  If people are coming to their own conclusions about morality, where are they coming from?

Writes Isaac:

In one of my favorite quotes, Thomas Sowell says, “…each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late” (162). If, God forbid, the death of freedom should arrive, its death will be a result of our refusal to civilize these little barbarians. Our downfall will begin with our fear of infringing upon their personal autonomy, and our playing into the individualistic American gospel that says we must be free to choose our own path, find our own morality, and speak our own truth.

If everyone were rational, you’d expect this notion of radical autonomy to overlap with small-government and religious perspectives.  One oddity is that those who most vociferously proclaim that society has no right to impose a moral code also tend to emphasize the use of our most compulsory institution — government — to solve problems and disputes.  Another oddity is that you would expect people who trust in our ability to discern morality would also believe that there must be some form of deity dispensing it.  The opposite seems to be the case.

Of course, people don’t tend to be rational, especially in these areas of thought.  We tend to come to the conclusions that we want to be correct and then fit arguments to that image.

Consequently, as Isaac suggests, we risk coming un-moored.  Whereas conservatives would suggest that God defines an objective morality toward which we should guide each other by the least coercive means feasible, radicals object to any coercion at all (except where they want it to be total) on the grounds that there is no objective standard (except the one they trust us all to follow).

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The Autonomous Individual Versus Institutions

Looking for ways to create the new and improved you? This mindset can be harmful to society.

Freedom, liberty, and individuality are great things, but a society that considers them to be the ultimate things is bound to lose them. The art of subjectively finding one’s own truth without outside influence may sound attractive on the surface but will ultimately lead to destructive ends.

I explore this theme and ways to combat it in a blog post titled “The Surprising Roots of Liberty.”

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Societal-Corruption Of “Political-Correctness” Reaches into Providence School Reading List

Right from the start, the Rhode Island media got it wrong when they criticized interim-superintendent, Fran Gallo, for making a ‘costly’ mistake in ordering motivational books for dispirited students in the beleaguered Providence school system. How dare she corrupt the minds of city youth with an otherwise uplifting book that happened to include passive “religious overtones?

The media was all over the story. But, the issue should not have been that Gallo wasted almost two-hundred thousand dollars in inappropriate books that she was forced to recall, but, rather, the critical moral question should have been ‘why’ were the books deemed unacceptable in the first place? What could possibly be so offensive about famous athletes providing motivational messages to youth about overcoming adversity, even if some of them cited their wholesome faith in God as a major factor?

But, it gets even better.

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A Progressive Summer (Reading List)

An uproar of progressive complaints led to book mentioning God to be removed from lesson plans, while the official Providence school’s summer reading list contains sexually explicit and politically charged novels including one that details a pedophiliac relationship.

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