Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why the Rise of Donald Trump is our Collective Failure

“There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.”
Mahatma Gandhi

There is a reason why we are suddenly seeing extreme voices gain political footholds and their support grows across every western democracy. The rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, to name a few, can only be explained by a failure of our societies.

I don’t just mean the politicians and captains of industry, but each one of us must accept the blame. Divisive and extreme people never rise up in a vacuum in stable democracies. They need oxygen in order to rear their ugly heads, and unless we provide this oxygen they cannot exist.

For me there is not a single moment or event that led to their rise, but a cumulative effect of years of small abdications in personal responsibility, erosion of principles, a loosening work ethic, misplaced priorities and deteriorating culture and values that have led to a social chasm that we see today.

Unlike generations before us, who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved when they saw something wrong in neighborhoods, childrens' schools, communities, governments and countries, I fear we have become so distracted with finding ways to personally get ahead that we have forgotten the basic social bonds and community relationships that are vital to keeping us healthy, empathetic, tolerant and happy human beings. 
 
I think there are big and small things that have changed, in terms of how we behave, interact and function, that have resulted in an erosion of the social glue that used to bond us more tightly together, and these have contributed to the rise the Trumps of the world.

When America invades a sovereign nation without provocation and the media and all of us stand by watching silently even when we know it is wrong, we create room for Trump.

When kids use chalk to desecrate a public monument and we say nothing to the parents because we think it is not our place to say something, we create room for Trump.

When we are not outraged by our country ignoring the Geneva Convention and circumventing the constitution to detain enemy combatants without evidence or due process, we create room for Trump. 
 
When we tune in to reality TV, knowing it glorifies the ills of society and turns people who contribute nothing into celebrities but excuse it as guilty pleasure, we create room for Trump.

When we sue doctors, police and our own families for accidents or well-intended mistakes, not willful negligence, and suing becomes a way to make a quick buck, we create room for Trump.

When we ignore professional courtesies, in business, like refusing to get back to people when we have bad news to share because we want to avoid confrontation, we create room for Trump.

When we stop going to Church, not for religious worship but to connect with our neighbours, get involved in their lives and in our community, and replace it with nothing, we make room for Trump.

When we become numb to the fact that there are two active wars, and we stop honoring the sacrifice of those serving, ignore rising military suicides and do nothing about the growing number of homeless vets, we create room for Trump.

When we see someone being wronged or treated unfairly and we look the other way because we do not want to get involved, we create room for Trump.

When we force people to stop saying Merry Christmas because we are worried about offending people, where no offense is meant, we create room for Trump.

When we tell curious young college-going minds that their feelings are more important than broadening their minds, by challenging their worldviews and offending them in the pursuit of knowledge and creativity, we create room for Trump.

When we desecrate works of literature and art because we deem them offensive, we do a great disservice to humanity because you cannot fix history by whitewashing it, but you do ensure that we learn nothing from our past, and we create room for Trump.

When our President draws a red line for the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations and does nothing when that line is crossed, we create room for Trump.

When we allow legislation with far-reaching consequences to be written by lobbyists and corporations and pass it without knowing what thousands of pages contain, we create room for Trump.

When politicians spew vitriol, attack each other personally, forego decorum, stop talking about the issues and we simply laugh, take sides or join in, we create room for Trump.

When we get our news from the Daily Show and 24 hour cable news that deliver information without objectivity, depth or a well-rounded perspective and we also stop doing our own research, we create room for Trump.

When we complain about the broken education system and our child’s teacher but expect that the government should fix these problems rather than that we get involved, we create room for Trump.

When educated people start to debunk sound scientific and medical evidence using unverified articles and citing dubious sources with previously discredited facts, we create room for Trump.

When we decide that the best way to compensate for the excessive discipline our parents instilled and the constant no’s we heard growing up is by over-indulging, mollycoddling and never saying no to our kids (rather than finding the balance between those two extremes), we create room for Trump.

When we start to see complex issues through a simple black and white lens like GMO’s are good or bad and paint all cops with a single brush, we lose sight of complexity and nuance and we create room for Trump.

When we rename Tug of War to “Tug of Love” and stop keeping score to portray a false sense that everyone is a winner, rather than teach our kids that hard work, participation and effort count most (not just winning) and explain that losing does not make you a loser, we create room for Trump.

When we feel like we have performed a social service and done some good in the world by simply LIKING a cause on Facebook or creating a hashtag, we create room for Trump. 
 
When we go to the polls and vote blindly for the party we have always supported rather than research candidates, study their positions and understand their stances, we abdicate our most basic democratic duty and we create room for Trump.

When we think live and let live means we should stay silent when we see something wrong or disagree with someone, for fear of being seen to judge or hurt their feelings, we create room for Trump.

People often ask me how America got here.

How has a man like Donald Trump been able to upend a one hundred and sixty year old political party without a coup and managed to garner much popular support along the way?

My answer is that he exists only because we have given him the room to exist by retreating from our greater societal responsibility.

We live in neighborhoods with like-minded people from similar backgrounds, education levels, jobs and basic interests. In doing so, we have shrunk our world so dramatically that we no longer listen or have the ability to appreciate or understand any view that does not fit neatly into our own little worldview. Even online and in social media we retreat and find comfort only in our own echo chambers.

Think about the mix of people you grew up around, even in your own family; it was a broad swathe of lower to upper middle class, blue collar and white collar. Our neighborhoods had everyone from post office workers and handymen to mid-level executives at IBM and AT&T. This is no longer true.

Today, it has become easier for us to forget large segments of people in our society as we have become more isolated and divided based on income, education, skill level and race.

We have stopped learning and growing, and most importantly we have stopped building empathy for people and alternate views outside of our small, safe and like-minded worlds.

This has been our collective failure and until we fix our broken social divides and start to fill the local and community voids again we will continue to see men like Trump thrive in the vacuum we have created.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Vicious Cycle of Stupid Capitalism



“To live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, and not love things and use people.” 
John Powell 

Work. Earn. Buy. Work harder. Earn more. Buy more. Want more. Work even harder. Wages stagnate. Prices go up. Use credit. Want more. Use more credit. Buy even more. Prices rise. Wages stay stagnant. Start giving up essentials; use more credit to buy more stuff. Get deeper and deeper in debt. Repeat.

Therein lies the vicious cycle of the stupid, wasteful, excessive consumptive capitalism that we have become trapped in. One in which companies are driven purely by profiteering based on selling us more stuff; no longer innovating or solving real problems but simply updating existing products with more memory, larger screen sizes or higher definition. We in turn want to keep up with the Joneses and even though there is absolutely no reason to discard your iPhone 5, ROKU 1 or 2009 model 40” LG flat screen TV, we want the newest gadgets and products because everyone else has them.

Even if you try to resist the urge to constantly consume (like our family does), companies have started to ensure that we have no choice. Many now make products with shorter lifespans, that fall apart in a less than a couple of years. I still remember when all white goods and even clothes and furniture from my parents’ generation lasted for decades. My father’s shoes and shirts lasted him more than twenty years; mine last less than two. My mother’s fridge stayed with us for more than a decade; our last one broke in one year. My last laptop died two years after I bought it. I had to buy a new one after Lenovo told me that the cost of replacing the broken part would be more than I paid for the laptop. In fact, it has gotten so out of hand that leading up to the financial crisis people were buying and selling homes as regularly as people upgrade iPhones.

Today, it is as if companies exist purely for profit at all costs. Consumption and consumerism has reached a fever pitch and are now bordering on insanity. Amazon just introduced a DASH button that allows you to re-order household products the moment you start to run low (Source: TechCrunch article). God forbid we ever run out of paper towels or washing detergent, the world might end; toilet paper is another matter entirely.

Perhaps, it started with Wall Street’s introduction of quarterly earnings results which were presumably designed to gauge the health of public companies and create greater transparency. Somewhere along the way it became a measure of profits, with growth expected every quarter. Shareholders started to expect their piece of this pie via an always rising share price and dividends every quarter. 

The problem with this model is that companies realistically cannot grow at such a frenetic pace. Such rapid rate of growth is neither realistic nor feasible and leads to putting the kinds of pressure on management that always lead to ill-conceived and myopic decisions at best and totally dishonest, illegal and fraudulent ones at worst. Essentially, we have created a system where we reward short-term success, at any cost, and penalize long-term or strategic thinking, the type that leads to real and sustainable growth.

This is not a viable model of capitalism and more importantly it is based largely on false premises and unrealistic expectations. It is not the fundamentals of capitalist theory that are in question but the people applying them who seem to have become increasingly devoid of ethics, morals, principles and personal responsibility. We have created a system where winner takes all, at the expense of everyone else. If we continue down this path we are putting the wonderful system of capitalism on a path to failure and also creating conditions for major social unrest across the world.

It seems that all sins are permissible as long as companies continue to produce profits. And when senior leadership fails, they simply move on to the next job with a golden parachute, instead of into management oblivion or jail where they really belong. After Enron, every senior executive learned to never leave an email or paper trail; when topics broached sensitive territory in e-mails, they would often write ‘LDL’—let’s discuss live.” (Source: New Yorker). It used to take generations to amass substantial wealth. Today, between Wall Street hedge funds and Silicon Valley startups Rockefeller and Vanderbilt-like wealth is being created in a matter of years, and is often based on valuations pulled out of blue sky or based on misleading small investors.

Even the world of academia has succumbed to this growing greed and worship of money. Colleges, whose critical role was to broaden minds beyond traditional spheres of influence and thinking and to encourage generations to discover, are busy peddling sophisticated financial models that help companies evaluate ‘risk.’ Professors have become advisers to large corporations, showing up on company boards and espousing ‘financial and economic’ expertise via regular columns in newspapers or appearances on television and basking under the bright lights of six and seven figure celebrity. 

There are numerous reports of how talk of becoming a doctor, public servant, poet or teacher has long disappeared from the modern day dorm rooms. Today, it is all about how kids can make their first million dollars before starting their sophomore year in college. 

We have moved away from the notion of steady, honest hard work as the key recipes for success to a model that supports fast, easy, reality-TV-type do-nothing success. Everything is about an exit and not about building companies that span generations. Bluster wins the day while substance, it seems, is considered old-fashioned and outdated.

With this approach to success we have washed away the fundamental human values and principles that used to govern our inner consciences. We are looking out for ourselves (in much larger numbers than generations before us) and worried less about improving the lives of our employees, communities and children.

So we can blame our politicians, the business elites, media and everyone else for our woes and push for stricter laws and more stringent regulation, but I don’t believe this will solve the deeper underlying problem we are facing; we have made money our new God. It is this greed that we need to tackle; one that forgoes ethics, principles and decency in a bid to get ahead. 

Until we remember that each of us has a greater responsibility to society and to the generations that follow, we will remain plagued by this imbalance in our lives and in our little global village.

Friday, April 22, 2016

To the Weird and the Wonderful: Prince Rogers Nelson


(Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Who is that freak asked my mother when I proudly pulled out the Purple Rain vinyl record, from the HMV bag to show my parents how I had spent my pocket money. Yes, I said defiantly, “he is a freak and so am I”.  I was thirteen years old, had just fallen in love with the music of a freak named Prince, and was I damned proud of it.

As I turned and walked away I chuckled to myself, wondering how my mother would react when she heard the lyrics to Darling Nikki. 
I knew a girl named Nikki 
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine… 

My next act of teenage defiance was to go see Purple Rain the movie, which was A rated, and officially released the day after my birthday; which of course I took to be a sign. Therein lies the magic of Prince; I truly believe that people who found and loved his music will also have deeply personal connections, experiences and memories of this discovery. 

Prince once said “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand;” but yet it feels like he understood each one of us in a way few artists ever do. I love music and admire many bands and singers but there was something special about this freak. He was proud of being a freak. He was not scared of being weird, of being different, of being himself. And perhaps it was this deep, pure and unadulterated confidence in his being that came through in his music and gave us all permission to be teenage freaks.

Being a teenager is hard enough. Add pimples, girls, plumpness, girls and the complexities of navigating teendom increase exponentially. For me Prince was the beacon who helped us navigate those weird, wonderful and at times superficially torturous years. He gave us permission to go forth and be ourselves; pimples, warts and all.

Part of his allure was that unlike most pop stars he seemed shy, nervous and almost insular. It was like he wanted to share the genius of his musical soul and then hide from the fame that naturally accompanies it. Perhaps it was this quality that made him more endearing and made him feel more like a family member than a distant pop icon.

To a genius, recluse, singer, performer, hermit, producer, man, songwriter, guitar God, woman, dancer, the funk, the punk, the misfit, multi-instrumentalist and mysterious enigma we knew and loved – we finally know what it feel like when doves cry…

RIP Sweet, sweet Prince.