Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Italy's Enduring Humanity

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

Today, Italy holds its national election for its Parliament. While I read about the possible outcomes and the state of both the Italian political landscape and its economy, I’m reflecting on the time I spent living in Italy 5 years ago, just as America was gearing up for its own national election.   

In the fall of 2008 I studied abroad in Florence, Italy.  It was an interesting time to be an American living abroad- while you could sense that Europeans were dissatisfied with our previous choice of a national leader, they were also hopeful that this time we would pick the right one.  The school I attended held a weekly pre-election series where they would bring in local Italian professors or university students to discuss politics.  In almost every conversation I had with these people they spoke, kindly, of how they had stopped trusting Americans. They could not believe America had elected George Bush not once, but twice.  They viewed him as an ignorant war-monger who should never have been handed the keys to the White House (as, in truth, did I). They told us we held the fate of the free world in our hands, and that a vote for Obama would at least signal some sort of hope for a future in which America as a nation could make smart decisions.  Before I knew much about Italian politics, I viewed these conversations as earnest and accurate (I, too, was frustrated with our current president and was hopeful for a wave of change).  Yet as I learned more about the leaders of Italy, and experienced countless strikes and marches and protests during my time there, I started to view them a bit differently.  Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister at the time, was a corporate giant who owned almost all of the country’s media (and was famous for controlling what it produced), sparked a national protest of high school students during the semester I was there because of egregious educational budget cuts, and was known to be a rampant philanderer (he was later indicted on corruption charges, as well as charges of consorting with underage prostitutes).  I often thought that it seemed as though these people who I had such deep and intelligent conversations with were missing a larger point about their own nation.  

But as I was perusing election coverage this morning I came across this piece in the New York Times, about the Italians’ refusal to accept the whole truth when it comes to their national politics.  The author notes that, while they might seem to avoid certain unsavory details when it comes to their politicians, Italians hold on to an enduring humanity that perhaps we all could learn a little something from.  Which, I think, is a fair point.  Perhaps sometimes there’s a lot to be said for logic, and sometimes there’s a lot to be said for heart.  The Italians I spoke with might have avoided mention of Berlusconi’s corruption, but they were some of the warmest, most amicable people I have ever met.  Perhaps a Commons society should strive for a combination of both- head and heart.  Logic and humanity.  A knowledge that our leaders should be making the best decisions for the nation, but also that they still are, in fact, human.   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

If It Were Up to Funders, We Would Never Be Free

Posted by Kim Klein

The attached article from the incredible newsletter, Blue Avocado, is a hilarious, pointed and, in my view, very accurate depiction of what current grant evaluation and criteria for selection would have meant for the US Constitution. 

Head here to read the full piece:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Utopia from Scratch

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

An interesting experiment: sometimes, would it be easier to solve a society’s problems simply by starting from scratch? 

In a recent This American Life episode (go to Act III, transcript here), regular Planet Money contributors Chana Joffe-Walt and Jacob Goldstein traveled to Honduras to speak to some local officials, and one internationally-known economist, about their attempts at doing just that.  It’s an interesting theory- take a country with a wealth of problems but not fiscal resources, where people are resistant to wide-sweeping reforms that would be necessary to get the country back on track, and create within that country a small space where the old rules don’t exist.  A space where you toss out all the corruption and all the things that don’t work in the rest of the nation and create a real-life utopia, using laws and infrastructures modeled after successful developed nations.   In theory, what happens is people in the country surrounding the carved-out utopia see that these reforms work, and make for a better quality of life, and then they advocate for the country as a whole to adopt similar systems.  Then, a few years down the line, you’re able to essentially re-create an entire nation in a better image. 

In practice, it doesn’t quite go that smoothly.  This radio piece lays out how the Honduran government initially ran with this idea, but then got mired in a series of pitfalls ranging from a lack of outside financial investments to the clashing of key-player personalities.  Not to mention scars of history and the implications of imposing western systems on a formerly-colonized nation. Still, it’s interesting to think about.  If you could create a utopia within a nation, one where you could throw out all the laws and rules and systems that didn’t work and replace them with ones you thought would, what would that place look like?  If we were creating a Commons utopia, what laws would we keep?  What new infrastructures would we make sure we put in place? Does this very idea- of starting from scratch- fit into a commons framework? 

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Curiosity as a Commons Value

Posted by Kim Klein

I have a category of people I call “NIMF” which stands for Nothing Is My Fault. I thought about these people this weekend at a talk I went to by psychotherapist and Buddhist retreat leader, George Taylor.  I meet these people a lot in customer service roles. 

ME:  My flight has been cancelled and so I will miss the meeting I was flying to attend.  Can I cancel this ticket and use the credit later?

CUSTOMER SERVICE:  You will have to pay a $150 change fee.

ME:  But the plane had a mechanical problem.  I don’t think I should have to pay a change fee.

CUSTOMER SERVICE:  I don’t make the rules.  Those are the rules.  There is nothing I can do about it. 

Or a recent run-in with a hotel clerk: 

ME:  The plastic card that opens my door isn’t working.  Can you reactivate?

CLERK:  You must have put it near your cell phone.  Don’t do that in the future. 

ME:  Actually I just got the key and haven’t had it near my cell phone as it has been in my hand the whole time. 

CLERK:  You probably brushed up against your cell phone.  These cards don’t de-activate themselves, you know. 

I admit, and my partner will testify, that I am not always the first to take responsibility for things.  “Did you get milk on your way home?” often yields, “I thought you were getting it” rather than, “I completely forgot.” 

It turns out our brains are kind of wired for negative and defensive reactions.  Taylor noted that for millennia we had to be alert for danger:  fire, saber-toothed tigers, snakes and the like.  Even today, walking down the street we are not so much on the lookout for a beautiful cloud or a fragrant rose, but are much more attuned to watching strangers behaving oddly or dodging fast moving vehicles. 

In such hostile environments, the ego also protects itself by preemptively warding off attack:  “I am not weird—that other person is weird.” Or “The customers are angry and threatening and I have to strike first.”    Taylor said the brain holds on to negative thoughts like Velcro and to positive thoughts like Teflon—the negative sticks and the positive slides right off.  In fact in the field of child psychology it is clear that it takes at least five instances of genuine praise and encouragement to wipe out one instance of criticism.  

I know this from being a trainer:  after a training, I will have 30 positive evaluations but will hone in on the one critical evaluation.  I will go over and over that participant’s comments. If the comment has been particularly negative I may fear that it is time for me to stop training.  To cure myself of that thought I will tell myself, “This is not my fault.  He misunderstood.  He wasn’t paying attention most of the time anyway.” Sometimes I might even add, “That participant was kind of a jerk.”
The problem with our predilection to react defensively to every shadow—both physical and psychological—is that we spend a good deal of our lives in fear and anxiety.  Taylor recommends making a conscious choice to approach anything scary (which, from the point of view of our unconscious, is most activities of daily life) with an attitude of curiosity:  we still protect ourselves but we don’t immediately default to defensiveness.   For example in the training evaluations, what if I just thought, “One person didn’t like the training.  I’m sorry about that but I am glad that 30 people did like it.  I’m curious what I could have done to make it better for that person. ” Perhaps I even call that person and learn something, but I don’t let it define how  (or whether) I train in the future.

In the examples above, what if I said, “You probably get tired of this question, but since my flight is cancelled, can I use the credit another time?” or with the hotel clerk, “Me again!  I am not able to make my room key work.  Can you help me?”  The fact is that I often set up the circumstances for someone to be defensive because I am so clear that I am not at fault.  I set off this reaction. 

A commitment to a commons society means making sure there is a kind of psychological “open space” of friendliness that does what it can to override the negative velcro.  I can open up that space around me—it won’t cost anything, it doesn’t mean I surrender anything.  It just means I exercise choices I do have—choices set to not set off alarm bells in others by overriding the alarm bells in myself.  And the great thing is the curiosity is a fairly easy practice because most of us are curious, perhaps even nosy, people.  I love the idea of curiosity being a commons value and look forward to exploring it more. 


Note:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly named George Taylor. Those of you familiar with Buddhist psychotherapists may well have thought, “This Chamberlin Kim refers to sounds a lot like George Taylor, whose wife (also a noted Buddhist teacher and therapist) is named Debra Chamberlin-Taylor.  And you would have been right.  I conflated their names, and because I need to work on mindfulness as well as kindness, I accidently called him by the wrong name.  He is George Taylor.  Sorry about that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Very Different City

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

The New York papers have been filled with tributes to former mayor Ed Koch since his death on February 1st.  He served as mayor from 1978 to 1989, and was a controversial figure- one who is credited for saving New York City from bankruptcy but who also largely ignored the AIDS crisis ravaging the city at the same time.

I wasn’t alive for his tenure so I can’t speak at length about my impressions of him as a leader of the city, but I did find this interactive map, featured in the New York Times, quite interesting.  The map outlines the average incomes of New York residents by location, painting a picture of a very different city now than existed in 1980 as it shows a growing proportion of wealthy New Yorkers throughout the city since his tenure.  The map seems to suggest that Koch’s policies set this trend into motion (though Giuliani and Bloomberg can be credited for carrying the torch). New York City remains one of the places at the top of the list when it comes to income inequality in America, and this map visualizes an ever-increasing problem.  While the rich in New York continue to get richer, the poor not only continue to get poorer, but they also find themselves concentrated in only a few remaining pockets of affordable living spaces within the city’s limits. 

Head here to check out the map for yourself: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/01/nyregion/the-difference-between-kochs-city-and-today.html?ref=nyregion

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Prepping" and Fear

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

Last weekend, the New York Times featured a piece on New York City’s “Doomsday Prepper” culture, a small but growing group of people convinced that they need to prepare for a time that society as a whole will become unsustainable and they’ll have to “bug out” of town with just their own supplies and knowledge to rely on.  It’s an interesting glimpse into a somewhat underground group; particularly intriguing are the looks inside each person’s “Bug out Bag”, or the backpack of stuff that they have prepared and ready-to-go so in the event of a disaster or societal breakdown they can escape the city quickly and with key items necessary for survival. 

But what struck me was how anti-commons the entire ideology around Prepping was.  Not only does the premise that you would even have to “prep” hinge on the idea that society is crumbling around us and we have only ourselves to rely on, but that in the event of such a disaster the idea is not to gather with your fellow citizens to help rebuild, but instead to “get out of dodge” quickly and only with enough supplies to guarantee your own individual well-being.  The article centers on the idea that more people are prepping than you would think- your neighbors, your school teachers, your colleagues. But rather than imply that this means you are surrounded by a community of people who would be prepared to keep you safe, the piece instead seems to stress that you will be left behind if you don’t follow suit.

Head here to read the full piece, and let us know what you think about “Prepping” in the comments. What could a commons response to this growing movement be? How can we provide an alternative to this culture of fear?