Monday, July 14, 2014

Cheering for the World

A question inspired by the World Cup: What if the team was all of us, together, and the trophy was a magnificent, life-giving planet orbiting through space?

The World Cup final was, for me, nerve-racking to watch. It was of more than idle curiosity, as my wife is from Argentina, thoroughly trumping my mostly German ancestry. In its semifinal against the Netherlands, the Argentine team was victorious but took a physical beating. Heads collided; bodies took jarring blows; legs were pushed to their limits. The hard road to the finals entails attritions large and small. Players reach the most defining game in their careers depleted, battered and bruised. The Germans, so ruthlessly efficient against Brazil, offered the Argentines the game with some early and glaring mistakes. But perhaps the Argentines lacked a killer instinct, and let the opportunities vanish as quickly as they were presented.

What a fickle and capricious game is soccer. First it strips players of the appendage that most defines humanity. With both hands figuratively tied behind their backs, they must channel a nation's aspirations unnaturally through foot and head. The result is a mix of grace and grit, tap dancing on turf alternating with bursts of speed. Its emphasis on endurance and nimbleness rather than brute strength also takes us back to our distant beginnings, as lean hunters who had to either outsmart our prey or chase them until they collapsed from heat exhaustion. There are echoes of the hunt, too, in the diminished role of the coach. No time-outs, only three substitutions, few set plays. The players have a basic plan and individual positions, but the rest is patience, improvisation and spontaneity.

Then there's the combination of nonstop effort and fleeting opportunity. Players push against a wall of impregnable defense for an hour, then through chance, clever maneuvering, or sudden defensive lapse, an instant of opportunity opens up. The World Cup, so elusive a prize, is suddenly there for the taking, the door wide open. In that moment, everything must go right, the ball struck at just the right angle, or the door slams shut, the opportunity gone, very possibly not to come again. This, too, is reminiscent of the hunt--the long prelude of stealth and savvy that leads to the moment upon which all depends. How hard it is to be in the moment when the moment arrives. As it happened, experienced players on both teams missed their chances, leaving it to a young German off the bench to be in just the right place, and make just the right kick in that one moment he was given.

Americans criticize soccer for not having enough scoring. And yet, when Germany routed Brazil, scoring easily and often, the game was cheapened. Soccer thrives on slowly building tension. The harder a goal is to score, the more it is prized. Because one goal can make the difference, and danger or opportunity can evolve very quickly, the game could be decided at any moment.

In basketball, another game that combines grit and grace, players get immediate gratification. Make a good shot, you get a point or two or three. But soccer at the World Cup level is full of excellence--perfect passes, deft touches, clever deceptions--all done with no promise of anything to show for it. In that way, it more accurately reflects our dreams and values, as we expend effort and seek to do the right thing with no certainty of reward. There is no quid pro quo in soccer, only a striving, and a hope that it will all lead to something worthwhile.

Soccer, too, with its uninterruptible stream of play, defies commercialism to interject itself into the fray and compete for the fans' attention and affections. For 45 long minutes each half, no softdrink or car brand can intrude on that sacred space between fan and national team and say "Buy me!"

I was surprised when my wife, who is working this summer in Argentina, called after the game and said that the streets of Buenos Aires are filled with celebration and national pride. Not the wild joyous frenzy of victory, but a pride in and celebration of their team and the extraordinary effort the players put forward. Though goals dominate the replays, the brilliance in this World Cup was in defensive efforts, particularly those of Argentina, and also of the U.S. team as its goalie and defensemen repulsed wave after wave of attacks in its loss to Belgium. Our national anthem, after all, is primarily about surviving relentless attack, not delivering the decisive blow.

And as the players gave their all for their country, fans cheered as if their cheers and hopes and passions might make a difference. That is what was so refreshing in this World Cup, the feeling of unity, the coming together of a nation to support its team, each fan invested in a shared outcome that will reflect positively upon the nation. In contrast to the intransigent polarization of politics, the pettiness and relentless effort to diminish any shared national achievement, it is deeply moving to see countries coming together for their respective teams, cheering together, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. How extraordinary it would be if Americans defined themselves less by difference and more by shared interest, and sought a common goal, something whose lasting meaning and consequence would not be symbolic but have a substantive impact on our collective fate as a nation and a planet.

We've seen the dangers of national unity and collective endeavor, in the environmental atrocities of China under Mao Zedong, or the German imperialism and genocide in the 30s and 40s. But we desperately need to act collectively in an intentional way, to counteract the massive and unintentional negative impact we are having, collectively, through the biproducts of our day to day lifestyles. That unity will depend on everyone accepting reality, as soccer teams do. Unlike in politics, where denial of scientific findings is now entrenched, one soccer team doesn't unilaterally opt out if it doesn't like the facts. Regulation in soccer--the boundary lines and rules of the game--is calibrated not to weaken the game but to help channel the energy of the players in constructive directions.

It would have been hard to imagine, back when I was growing up, that the biggest of World Cups is being played every day. We have, it turns out, tremendous collective power to transform the planet. We really are, each day, playing to decide the fate of the world, and each one of us is a part of that power. The more of us there are, seeking understandably to live the good life, the more collective power we wield. Many people seek to deny responsibility for that power and its consequences. Some pretend it's negative impact is a hoax, or hope we'll get lucky, or are content to leave our fate in God's hands. In soccer, there is room for luck and for God, and yet the players do everything they can to influence the outcome, knowing the folly of assuming everything will turn out all right.

So imagine a world where, despite our differences, we are all rooting for the same team, and that team is us, with the planet's web of life and elemental powers as our allies. And rather than just pretending we each can have an influence on the outcome, we actually do. And imagine all hands on deck, not to tear each other down, but to raise the most precious trophy of all, spinning gloriously in space, and whose miraculous gifts to life are in our hands.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Brief Conversation With Fox News' John Stossel About Climate Change

As mental nourishment for the alumni who gather each spring on the beautiful Princeton University campus for the annual reunion, morning panels are offered on topics of the time. Non-alumni, if not clearly welcomed, are not unwelcome, so I took the opportunity to attend a panel discussion entitled "Perspectives on Modern Conservatism and Libertarianism", moderated by Robert George.

Of the two libertarians on the panel, the first to speak was someone named John Stossel, currently with Fox News, and surely one of the most youthful looking members of the class of '69. He said he graduated from Princeton with a liberal perspective like most others, but that he began to see flaws in liberalism and gravitated towards a libertarian perspective. He is, by his own account, "a lousy conservative", because he was against the Iraq War, believes in the right to die, drug legalization, even prostitution--anything that's peaceful and doesn't harm others. He said the welfare state has obviously failed, and though he doesn't think that Walter Cronkite really was telling us "the way it is", he believes that liberals, conservatives and moderates are now much too isolated and should be talking to each other more.

What followed from other panelists were recurrent themes associated with modern conservatism: government regulation and debt are bad, privatization and charter schools good. Liberals were presented as wanting to impose a culture of dependency, in which government takes care of you from cradle to grave. This characterization sounded over the top. Panelist Bob Ehrlich, former governor of Maryland, found particular catharsis in turning liberals into straw men who could easily be knocked over. If I give my daughter money to buy lunch at the mall, or help pay her college tuition, am I imposing a culture of dependency? Or is it only when government doles out money, usually to people who don't have prosperous parents, that dependency is cultivated?

Robert George, director of Princeton's James Madison center and a strong promoter of the conservative perspective on campus, made some interesting interjections. Conservatives, he said, view freedom as an absence of outside interference, while liberals view freedom as something given by government, through programs that help people live a good life. He also suggested that conservatives more closely reflect Hamiltonian liberalism than liberals do. By coincidence, I had just been thinking that liberals adhere more to the definition of conservative-the-adjective than the current sort of conservative who promotes destabilization by shutting down the government and denying climate change. 

If called on during Q and A, I would have asked what conservatives will say when they have to admit that climate change is real, largely human-caused, and that the failure to act in recent decades is risking massive damage to the planet and human economies. "Oops," perhaps, in the tradition of Texas governor Rick Perry?

Afterwards, noticing Mr. Stossel standing alone, I asked him. Yes, he acknowledged, "Oops" is a possibility. But he says there's too much doubt to act, and besides, action is unlikely to be successful. I responded that he was denying both the problem and the solution. He said that maybe it won't be so bad, and besides, there's always a chance that someone will come up with a way to fix the problem at the last moment. He said we will eventually run out of fossil fuels, at which point people will have to come up with some different source of energy. 

There were a number of things I pointed out to him, and another alumnus who joined our conversation. One was that we are collectively creating the problem, each one of us contributing, and it makes no sense to allow people to collectively create a problem while denying all possibility that we can work together to solve it. The idea that we have the freedom to consume all of this wonderful energy, then leave future generations to deal with the negative consequences, seems irresponsible and unfair. And how can a free market be free if it doesn't factor in the future cost of consuming a commodity like carbon-based fuels?

Now, Mr. Stossel may have thought he was being optimistic. After all, he thinks that climate change, if it's real, won't be so bad. And he holds out the possibility that someone will solve the problem at the last moment. But this is the optimism of a gambler, a form of wishful thinking. It's like a coach telling team America to wait until the game is all but lost, then throw a hail mary.

Mr. Stossel is in fact preaching a form of resolute pessimism, about America's capacity to identify hazards in its path, about America's capacity to take on a technological and leadership challenge and win, about the power of collective action, about the government's capacity to complement the private sector. 

I didn't say all of this at the time, but did point out the pessimism embedded in Mr. Stossel's denialism. He appeared less than pleased, drifted off into another conversation, and I continued talking to the other alum, who characterized Germans as having foolishly cluttered up their towns with unattractive solar panels and wind generators while turning their backs on nuclear energy. France, I noted, had invested heavily in nuclear. And at that point, when I didn't respond negatively to nuclear energy, we started to find some things in common. I would say the appearance of solar panels seems a small price to pay for clean energy, but we agreed that the government's ethanol requirement is a destructive boondoggle, harmful to the environment and, according to him, harmful even to car engines, and that the only reason ethanol production is subsidized is because the first presidential campaign primary is in Iowa. He gleefully said that fossil fuel had saved the whales, because the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania provided an alternative to whale oil. Interesting, though the next question is who will save us from the consequences of fossil fuels? And the whales could easily be hunted to extinction now, by deadly fishing fleets made possible by fossil fuels. Only regulations and international law stand in the way.

I suggested that the conservative panelists were exaggerating the intensity of government intrusion, that the back and forth about government and markets sounds like past debates on nature vs. nurture. Both play a role and have their place. Too little regulation is as harmful as too much.

Afterwards, I had to agree with Mr. Stossel on one thing, that liberals, conservatives and moderates are too isolated and should be talking to each other more. One example of this is when Stossel had NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt on his program. Schmidt's performance is a tour de force of optimistic realism. Stossel suggests we can't know how much climate is changing or what's causing it. Gavin details how it's changing and how various natural factors that have caused climate to change in the past have been considered and ruled out, leaving human influence as the primary cause. Stossel then goes through a rapid sequence of one pessimistic view after another: We can't do anything about it, and if we can it won't do any good anyway, and if action would do some good, then poor people will suffer. To each of these negative propositions, Gavin offers a positive solution. After Gavin left the stage, the rest of Stossel's program on climate change was a celebration of the good that fossil fuels and carbon dioxide have done. Burning fossil fuels means fewer trees being cut down for wood. Machines have taken the place of slaves. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow. All of this is true, but just because a substance is beneficial in one way does not mean it isn't harmful in another. Though water is essential to my life, that doesn't mean I want it flooding my basement. Nor does our need for warmth make an argument for parking our cars in the summer sun with the windows rolled up. Whether something is good or bad depends on how much and where.

At some point, John Stossel will have no alternative but to say "oops". When he does, he'll gain in optimism and realism what he loses in identity, ideological certainty, and wishful thinking. Meanwhile, precious time is being lost.

Details of the event:
Alumni-Faculty Forum: Views of Modern Conservatism
and Libertarianism
Moderator: Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of
Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics, and Director, James
Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Panelists: John F. Stossel ’69, Host of Stossel; Robert L.
Ehrlich, Jr. ’79, Senior Counsel, King & Spalding LLP;
Henry E. Payne, IV ’84, Columnist, The Detroit News;
Andrew L. Malcolm ’09, Communications Director, Office
of Representative Greg Walden. To 10:00 AM. Sponsored
by the Alumni Association of Princeton University. Frist
Campus Center, Room 302.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Being Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves

(originally published in Princeton's Town Topics newspaper, after Memorial Day, 2014)

Every time Memorial Day comes around (or July 4th or Veterans' Day, for that matter) it feels more disconnected from reality. Yes, it's important to acknowledge those who died for our country. Parades are a spirited celebration of community. But are we fighting to protect the legacy of that past sacrifice? What I see is people going about business as usual, while the warnings grow that we are headed in a very dangerous direction.

This year, I went searching for meaning in Memorial weekend's speeches and sermons. A common theme was that soldiers face a difficult and sometimes perilous transition back to civilian life.
Whether it was Iraq War veteran Elana Duffy, speaking at the ceremony in front of Monument Hall, or the Reverend Bill Neely eloquently recounting the ancient tragedy of Ajax the next day, the stories were of soldiers unable to adjust to a civilian world lacking in shared purpose or any outlet for a soldier's engrained readiness to do battle.

Sergeant First Class Duffy spoke of a persistent desire to be part of something larger than herself, and finally found an outlet in Team Rubicon, a group that joins veterans and first responders in helping victims of tornadoes, floods, and storms like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. For others, with an average of 20 veterans committing suicide each day and thousands being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, civilian life still brings a sense of isolation and alienation.

Meanwhile, there are those of us who have never worn a uniform, yet were deeply influenced by the afterglow of World War II--a time when civilians sacrificed for the war effort, when everyone found a way to contribute to a unified and ultimately successful struggle against a global threat. Many of us also find the dissipated energy of civilian life--the apathy, denial, pessimism, and reflexive political polarization--to be alienating and incongruous in a time when humanity again faces a global threat, this time of its own making.

Though veterans like Sergeant Duffy are finding meaning in helping repair the damage made worse by a destabilized climate, we will not truly be on the offensive again until we go beyond fighting symptoms and take on the causes of radical climate change. Only then can the giant and perilous chasm between uniformed and civilian outlooks be bridged, and a deeper healing of spirit, nation, and planet begin.