Life as a Monopoly game…

We’d like to believe we live in a meritocracy. This is part of the American myth we tell ourselves, that only the person with the best qualifications should be admitted to the college, get the job, etc.

However, we don’t start out on a level playing field. The circumstances of your birth gives you distinct advantages and disadvantages. Yet, for people who are born with many advantages, it’s very difficult to see how much those advantages have helped them. It’s just natural to tell yourself that you got where you are based on your skills, talents, merit.

I recently heard about an interesting experiment. Two people were asked to play Monopoly. But one person was given twice as much money to start as the other, and got twice the dice rolls in every turn. Later, when that person inevitably won, they would most often credit their win to better skill at the game or even a few lucky dice rolls. They hardly ever mentioned that they started out the game with an extremely unfair advantage.

We value equality, but when inequality is built into the game, how do we uphold that value?


Thoughts on tolerance of others’ beliefs…

Here’s something I see a lot, at least in Internet discussions: When someone criticizes a belief held by a group of people, such as a political or religious group, they are shouted down for being “intolerant” of that group as a whole and not willing to accept others’ beliefs. But this is a fallacy.

There are certainly groups on both sides of the political spectrum who are hostile to beliefs that are not their own. The Tea Party immediately comes to mind. The fallacy is assuming a monolith attitude–for example, believing that the extremist views of the Tea Party apply to all conservatives, which is a perception the Republican Party is struggling with now. 

But giving a belief a fair hearing shouldn’t result in automatic acceptance of that idea, even if it is grounded in religious faith. Ideas and even beliefs should be criticized. And there is no “rule” that just because someone has authentic beliefs, everyone else must honor them.

Take, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was dis-invited from speaking at Brandeis University on the grounds of being “Islamaphobic.” You can read what she had to say here. She is criticizing some authentic beliefs of some Muslims. She is not criticizing all Muslims or even claiming that all Muslims hold these beliefs. The fallacy is believing that whenever anyone speaks out against a belief grounded in religion, they are being intolerant of that religion as a whole. No, they are being intolerant of the belief, in this case, the curtailing of women’s rights. 

There is a balance between automatically rejecting beliefs that are not your own and automatically accepting every belief in the name of liberalism or tolerance or what-have-you. Crying “Intolerance!” every time someone criticizes a belief, and assuming that criticism of a belief means hatred of a group, shuts down free and open discussion, which shuts down free exchange of ideas. It does not lead to less intolerance; it leads to less understanding.

For further reading, I found this essay at Psychology Today to be a thoughtful analysis of this subject.

Less than perfect…

It has become the norm to blog about every teeny-tiny facet of daily life, from cooking to getting dressed to home organization to raising children. I think these blogs have set an unreasonable standard for daily living, though. If you follow enough of them, you start to think that everything must be absolutely perfect all the time. This is a pretty old article at Jezebel, but it gets at what I’m talking about, and also shows that this insidious behavior has been going on for far too long.

As I walk around my cluttered, slightly dirty house, eating cold leftovers out of the Tupperware container, I have to wonder whether perfect should really be the goal. Not every meal has to be a gourmet experience, just so it can be documented on Instagram. We don’t have to love absolutely every t-shirt in our closets or banish it to Goodwill, as some fashion or minimalists bloggers exhort us; sometimes we just need something to wear. Every crafty project I have found on Pinterest and tried with my kid has failed utterly, but when we wing it and do what we feel, we generally have a good time.

Let’s make 2014 the year of not being perfect. Not reaching the perfect weight. Not having the perfect house or the perfect wardrobe or perfect children. Not living the perfect life. And being okay with that. No…loving that.

Blank slate…

I find myself wishing sometimes I could start all over again with a blank slate. Just wipe everything out and start anew.

I don’t mean my entire life, of course (or I should say, I rarely mean that). I have to believe that many people have had one moment or two when they wished they could just wipe the slate clean. It’s that fantasy of disappearing, picking a new name, starting an entirely new career as international spy or landscape artist or bookseller. Most of us don’t act on it, of course, and the moment passes.

More often, though, I look around myself and wish I could start again. Often it’s little things, such as wiping out all of my online identities, or redoing my house decor or wardrobe from scratch. Less often, I wonder what if… Pursue an entirely different career? Sell everything and move the family to the South of France?

These moments pass as well. It’s fun to fantasize, but in the end, it seems like too much work.

Whenever I get a new notebook, I feel a sense of satisfaction, starting with a fresh, clean page. The possibilities are endless. I can do anything with this fresh start. Once I start to write in the notebook, the satisfaction gradually fades into discontent. And then comes the inevitable moment when I want to throw the notebook in the trash, go buy a pretty new one, and start all over.

Well, it’s certainly less drastic to trash a notebook than to trash a whole life.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Some thoughts on George Orwell’s 1984 inspired by the so-called Birther debate and other current events…

Big Brother Is Watching You

Image by thefoxling via Flickr

Like most people who have read 1984, it profoundly affected my way of thinking about power and political systems. Orwell introduced concepts and language into the general consciousness, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother.” The struggle against political oppression and the tyranny of the powerful few over the many seems to be a never-ending one, but I think Orwell’s masterpiece has become a great weapon in that struggle, by making us more aware of the forms oppression can take and helping us recognize when it may be happening in our own society.

Certainly, Orwell’s full bleak, dystopian vision hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps total control of the people through surveillance and torture isn’t very realistic. Yet, it frightens me to recognize how pervasive propaganda, misinformation and historical revision have become in our current political climate, just as Orwell depicted it. I can turn on my TV and see it happening every day. I see people blithely accepting fabrications even in the face of contradictory evidence and eagerly supporting measures that run contrary to their self-interests. I wonder if Orwell would laugh at the irony of the propagandists twisting his words into their own form of double speak.

Even more than 50 years later, Orwell’s 1984 is as relevant as when it was first published. We should never stop reading Orwell or learning lessons from it.

Thoughts on publishing & the digital age…

I have been following all of the conversations about the future of publishing, particularly with regard to e-books, going on over the past few months with interest. I thought I’d share some of the more interesting conversations I’ve found, as well as some of my still-nascent thoughts on the whole kerfuffle.

I have a bit of an inside view of publishing — 10 years out of date, but it’s not an industry that changes very quickly — and it’s not a positive one. I love books and writers, but publishing, as it exists today, seems like a necessary evil. It is too big, too cumbersome, too costly and too reluctant to change. Their business practices, which didn’t make any sense years ago, seem woefully out of date, wasteful and expensive today. The industry is ready for upstarts with new ideas to come in and turn things upside down.

When the world is changing around you, you either adapt or die. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know someone will come up with it. And that’s likely who we’ll be buying books from in the future.

Please to read more on this: