Tuesday, August 30, 2005

“Boston Legal” TV: God and Evolution

As Steven Johnson has famously pointed out, contemporary dramas give your brain an excellent workout by making you think fast — although, I believe, rarely deeply. (See http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/) Snappy editing, obscure references, and multiple story-lines force us to work hard to follow the complex . I agree with Johnson’s opinion that this trend is making us smarter in some ways. I don’t think, however, that it makes us wiser, for insightful judgment requires reflection and analysis, which take time. Unlike Johnson, I prefer television dramas in which characters explore significant issues. Happily, David E. Kelley’s series, Boston Legal, often does so in at least one of its three story-lines. A particularly intriguing episode that I saw recently involved a legal case concerning whether “Intelligent Design” theory should be excluded from the high school science curriculum.

Kelley could not have picked a more timely topic. Indeed, the vast attention now focusing on this controversy exemplifies modern journalists’ herd mentality — the “bandwagon effect,” as it used to be called. Yet in this case, one can hardly object. The public’s current fascination with the issue is actually a sign of growing sophistication, for this debate deserves wide discussion.

Surprisingly, the Boston Legal writers argued against the opinion that most intellectuals and share. The script showed a brilliant lawyer (played by Candice Bergen) arguing that “Intelligent Design” should not be excluded from the curriculum; indeed, she persuaded the judge. Whereas I agree with that verdict, I’d have framed the issue differently. I loved the show, but it might have gone deeper.

The case was depicted as a -trial-in-reverse. Here the dispute was about banning, not , but an opposing doctrine, “Intelligent Design,” which was portrayed as a moderate form of . Its proponents did not deny evolution, but only theorized that something else may also be operating besides evolution — namely, . Such a notion does not seem outlandish to me, but in the show, the science teacher dismisses it as an anti-scientific proposition, unworthy of mention in a classroom. Nevertheless, the judge decides against banning Intelligent Design theory for the same reason that he would have refused to ban evolutionism: that every issue is discussable. So far as it goes, that verdict seems right to me.

I mentioned the show to an academic friend — an evolutionist — who, along with most other scientists, regards Intelligent Design theory as a reactionary, irrational attack on evolutionism. , she says, has passed every empirical challenge with flying colors and it is impossible to discuss Intelligent Design as if it were intellectually equivalent. It’s a theological, not a scientific doctrine, and therefore does not belong in the classroom. My friend herself, like the majority of other scientists, believes in God, but she keeps her theology entirely separate from her evolutionism, which is based on empirical findings.

I think it’s a mistake to suppose that science and religion have nothing to say to each other. Both projects are attempts to explain how the universe works. Officially, the majority of scientists and traditional Christians do treat Darwinism and faith in God as incompatible notions, but that does not make religious concerns unimportant — even to scientists. The apparent clash between evolution and religion can be addressed as a serious intellectual problem. Certainly most scientists reflect about it in private, though officially they treat science as a secular discourse appropriate for public discussions from which theology is excluded.

To be sure, a science teacher shouldn’t promote a particular theological solution to the contradiction, but she can mention a range of theories that others have taken when addressing it as a valid question fraught with existential urgency.

To exclude religious concerns from public discussion, as liberals often do, is counterproductive. People whose theological views are simplistic may cling to them all the more fiercely if their concerns are dismissed. Some political observers — notably Rabbi Michael — (see http://www.tikkun.org/) argue that the Democrats are losing elections mainly because their platform offers no spiritual orientation to voters, who turn instead to a party that espouses a religious, albeit reductive, message.

Science teachers can properly point out that what evolutionism seems mainly to contradict is the concept of God as a being who created the universe and set it running according to certain causal laws, while nevertheless intruding sporadically to produce particular outcomes.

Instead, religious scientists typically conceive of the supreme being as an intelligence, sort of a “field” that pervades the entire universe, creating its effects constantly — not in opposition to, but rather through, such scientifically ascertainable processes as natural selection and the laws of physics. Science teachers might do their students a real favor by assigning them to read some of ’s spiritual reflections as homework.

Begin with these two quotations: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” And, “I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details.”

Friday, August 26, 2005

What Makes News News? A Question, Not an Answer

Certain events and issues capture public attention, whereas others do not. Lately, if you read the newspaper or watch TV newscasts, you’ll notice a tendency for professional to seize upon one issue or event after the other, like a huge herd of buffalo rushing here, then wheeling about and rushing there, always imitating each other. Excellence seems to consists of taking the and tweaking it slightly, casting on it a little different interpretation — or if you’re brilliant, a radically different one. I thought it was just a sign that the paper to which I subscribe, Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, is going downhill. But it’s a wider matter than that. The New York Times is also part of the herd. I was in New York a few months ago for several days. The Times was full of stories about the ’s and Terri Schiavo’s impending and then actual death. Page upon page repeated the same story, just as newspapers everywhere else did.

Why is this happening? What determines which stories are newsworthy — and how can there be such a remarkable degree of consensus? It has something to do with newspapers’ declining sales. Increasingly, we’re getting our news elsewhere. Probably they are all clamoring to capture the attention of the average reader, just as political parties in countries that have first-past-the-post systems must compete for the middle-range of voters by taking practically the same positions. It also may have something to do with concentration of ownership. The owners and are a tighter little group nowadays with policies that determine, to some degree (I can’t guess how much) the content of news coverage.

Maybe it also has something to do with the limited imagination of journalists. To appear up-to-the-minute, one should notice what others are discussing and write about that. As a neophyte blogger, I can already be tempted that way myself. (Thus: What shall I write about today? Let’s see. What were people discussing at my dinner party last night? If I pick up on their interests I’ll be safe.)

But what determines the of discussion at a dinner party? I’ll bet there were thousands of dinner parties last night around the world that discussed the same topics. Cindy Sheehan and the movement. Was part of a conspiracy between the KGB and the CIA? The controversy about “Intelligent Design” versus Darwinism. The declining belief in and in Chinese hospitals.

All of these topics are saleable to journalists. I haven’t read anything yet about the unpopularity of traditional Chinese medicine, which only means that it’s a highly promising topic for a journalist to pick up and develop. Oswald is very old news, of course, but the KGB-CIA angle is a fresh enough angle to make a new story. Cindy Sheehan as the “” of American public opinion and the Intelligent Design debate are the top items of actual public discourse today. Why? Or rather, why not something else?

For instance, why not the plight of the of Botswana? My guest of honor was a famous specialist on Bushman society; she can even speak their language. Yet we didn’t discuss the shocking information coming out of southern Africa about the Bushmen’s predicament. (I won’t call it “news” because you’ll only get it via an e-mail list or personal contact with someone traveling there.) The Botswana government is apparently trying to destroy the Bushman way of life. They have evicted Bushmen from the Central Kalahari and are arresting Bushmen for hunting to feed their families. The radio authority refuses to renew licenses of Bushmen to use community transmitters to contact each other or ask for medical help. Officials prevent the Bushmen’s own organization, First People of the , from talking to those on the reserve. The government is about to change Botswana’s constitution to remove any existing protection for the Bushmen. Selelo Tshiamo, one of several Bushmen tortured by officials in June, died of his injuries in August. Why is this news not covered in the Western press?

There are plenty of other salacious stories that are covered in exhaustive detail, though my particular dinner party was too highbrow to discuss them. Karla Homulka, for example. Probably this is a purely Canadian topic. For other readers, I’ll only say that Ms Homulka was convicted of assisting her then-husband in sexually torturing and murdering several young girls about a decade ago. She has now been released from prison, yet her conversations have been taped and released to the press. Newspapers are following her doings avidly — presumably because their readers also remain fascinated. Even a movie has been made about the events for which she and her partner were convicted.

I have no answer to this question: Why do we engage with certain topics but not others.? I can only answer for myself — and, even so, only partially. I avoid reading the Karla Homulka stuff (though I can’t help knowing more than I want to know) because it is about human depravity of a kind that I can do nothing about. I know there is evil in the world, but I gain nothing from wallowing in it.

I am willing, however, to engage with horrors that can perhaps be mitigated. It may be possible to help the Bushmen if attention can be mobilized — siphoned off from discussions of thrilling sexual depravity — so I’ve arranged to meet a fellow tomorrow who knows their situation well.

What about the Kennedy assassination? One of my friends is fascinated by it, and I respect him a lot. I think I don’t get caught up in it because I have a policy of disbelieving in . It’s not quite a conscious policy, because I know that there are real conspiracies in this world; it would be ridiculous to deny that they exist. Russians are particularly open to believing in conspiracies, I have noticed — possibly because they actually have more of them than we do. But my “policy” of disbelief is a psychological mechanism of self-protection. If I open myself to that line of reasoning I will begin mistrusting everyone, or at least I will have no particular reason for trusting anyone. I don’t like that state of mind, so I’ll accept the cost of rejecting it: a high probability that I’ll be taken in by deceptions of various kinds. I enjoy my naiveté because it feels good. That’s unwise, I know, but I’m willing to pay the price. I function better that way.

Here’s a news item at the back of today’s paper. I don’t think it will ever make it to the front page, though it ought to be a big headline: , appointed as US Ambassador to the United Nations through a shady maneuver, is going to scupper the UN Reform proposal that would otherwise be adopted next month. The US does not want to allow the UN to pursue poverty reduction, climate change, or nuclear . What we need is a Cindy Sheehan operation outside Bolton’s headquarters in New York. This is an item that we can and should do something about. It‘s shameful.

But the more general question remains: How can we get front-page coverage of most important topics? And how can we be sure to notice urgent human predicaments that we have an obligation to address? If you have an answer (even if you feel uncertain about it) please enter it here as a comment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

“Big Brother,” the Friendly Camera

There’s a security monitoring the swimming pool in my apartment building and two others recording the comings and goings at the building’s entrances. The mom and pop grocery store across the street keeps two of them rolling, the better to catch me if I steal something. My bank has three. If I drive on the new expressway, instead of stopping at a toll booth I’ll get a bill in the mail, courtesy of the . A dozen years ago, I might even have received a speeding ticket from an unmanned video camera, but a new provincial government abolished surveillance — regrettably, in my opinion, for they probably reduced the accident rates. In some countries I understand there are cameras at most major intersections. Thank goodness there are cameras at airports and subway stations; they make it easier to identify and criminals.

The spookiest prospect is the combining of surveillance technology with weapons in . One false move or one conspiratorial conversation, recorded on tape, and a laser beam from a satellite takes out your living room. This is not far-fetched. One Iraqi guy actually was talking on his mobile while driving; an American helicopter followed his car along the highway and blew it up. Likewise, Russian missiles zeroed in on a Chechen leader who was standing out in a field talking on his phone.

I don’t actually feel worried yet about this technology, but if I lived in a totalitarian state I’d sure be scared. In the 1980s I used to visit peace activists in Moscow. I assumed that the KGB couldn’t follow me to their apartments if I traveled by subway, but that was actually easy; there were at every Metro station and they could watch me getting on and off.

People in China have been protesting about the proliferation of cameras monitoring their own public behavior — just as Orwell’s hero, Winston Smith, worried because everywhere, “Big Brother is Watching You.” I understand that Saddam Hussein outdid Hitler by bugging people’s beds and even trees and park benches. There was no place in Iraq where one could be sure of having privacy.

When should we begin to worry in Western, societies? I think the answer must depend on two factors: first, whether the cameras are limited to public places or begin invading homes and private offices too, and second, whether they are accessible to everyone, or only to certain officials. I’d also prohibit for snooping. Cameras yes, microphones no.

David Brin has written a book on the subject: The Transparent Society. He argues that cameras are increasing in public places; that they do reduce crime rates; and that we should encourage their proliferation — so long as they are never permitted in private places. He says that video-cameras can give us more , rather than less. Indeed, when I park in my condo’s underground garage late at night and walk indoors, I feel safer if a camera is rolling. Whether we welcome these cameras or fear them depends on whether they are a public resource or available only to the police or other powerful persons. If everyone can watch everyone else in public, we can be more confident there’s no thug lurking outside, and we can let kids play safely in the park, keeping our eye on them by remote surveillance. But we must absolutely insist on excluding these devices from private areas.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Community: Button Up Your Coat, Brother!

I’ve finished reading Amitai Etzioni’s book, My Brother’s Keeper. It’s an apt title for a moral polemic against , and I’m attracted to his views despite my initial skepticism. When he was teaching in the Harvard Business School (see photo) he found that most of the students considered it okay to lie whenever it was in their firm’s interests. (No wonder the scandal occurred a couple of decades later.) Etzioni concluded that the only way to change the culture in a measurable way was through a social — so he decided to start one. He largely succeeded, though I’m not sure I’d call it a social movement (its roots are not in the grass) but rather an movement or “school of thought” about political affairs. I’m not sure how well it’s doing these days because it seems to depend on schmoozing with heads of and Etzioni admits that he’s getting old and running out of energy. But he actually did work in the White House and later had frequent meetings bending the ears of the , Tony Blair, Helmut Kohl, and on and on. He calls his movement “” and claims that hundreds of famous writers belong to it. I know the general perspective of an impressive few, including Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah, and Charles Taylor. As a name-dropper, has plenty of names to play with.

Myself, I’ve never grappled with the problem of community, though I ought to; my friend Ann Swidler was one of the co-authors of Habits of the Heart, a study of American individualism that Etzioni admires. Now’s the time, I guess.

The main Communitarian doctrine puts responsibilities on an equal (if not higher) level than rights. Instead of handling most social problems through government intervention, it suggests treating them as issues and holding us personally responsible for managing them. For example, Etzioni is dubious about government schemes that pay people to look after the elderly, since that only commodifies relationships that should be personal and familial. My friend Arlie is troubled by the same point and has been writing a book about the of personal care. (I admit that this has never troubled me.)

Etzioni grew up on a kibbutz and still recalls the strong sense of mutuality that he experienced within that community. He wants to evoke the same spirit in today’s American society to offset the prevailing self-centered individualism. I can see his point and, at least this morning, I’m leaning more in that direction. However, he doesn’t really reflect on the down-side of .

Communitarians want to revive our moral sensibilities and stimulate us to act on them. At one point, Etzioni asks three “what-would-you-do-if” questions to assess our willingness to intervene when we see a wrong being done. I passed two of the items, but not the third; I wasn’t sure whether I would stop and reproach a pair of lovers who were carving their initials into a tree. (I don’t actually know whether that harms the tree. Is it worse than tattooing one’s arm or piercing one’s bellybutton? I don’t like those practices either but I don’t scold strangers on the street for mutilating themselves, whereas I’d try to stop an assault or murder.)

The logic is impeccable. If you don’t want government to legislate on every conceivable topic (and Communitarians don’t) then you have to “gently chide” those who violate your community’s moral standards. In some societies, people are urged to be their brothers’ keepers instead of minding their own business. I remember reading a book decades ago by the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who said that children were brought up better in Russia than America. They spent more time in group care, where they were taught to and to take care of each other. In a Soviet school, if the teacher left the room, pandemonium did not break out, as in the United States, for the children were trained to monitor each other’s behavior and uphold the standards they had been taught. (This educational philosophy was developed by a guy named Makarenko, who had run successful orphanages on those principles during and after the Russian Revolution.)

This community-orientation has diminished in Russia today, leaving people uncertain what ethics to believe in, but a decade or two ago, there was still considerable mutual monitoring. A stranger might stop you on the street and advise you to button up your overcoat. One Canadian friend recounted having gone to a bank in Moscow, where she was studying for a year, intending to withdraw money. The teller advised her against taking out so much cash. She had to explain that she was getting married and would need an unusual amount. On another occasion, when walking through a library carrying a dozen books, my friend was stopped by a librarian, who told her that it was “uncultured” to carry so many at one time; she should make two trips instead!

I‘m uncertain what to think of this ethic. Extreme seems to go with the totalitarian social control of the communist days. Did the librarian also denounce her neighbor to the secret police? What would follow if my Canadian friend were to reply, “Mind your own business!”?

No doubt social interactions are more polite in an individualistic culture. People don’t even criticize their own friends – much less strangers — even when they are concerned about them. If we want more mutuality and even more intimacy, we have to authorize each other to make blunt comments. On balance, I’m prepared to do that, though I feel uncomfortable after I’ve done so — especially if I’ve appeared rude. Civil society, the realm outside of government, requires a great sense of responsibility for each other. It is too easy to retreat into polite conversations about private matters – family, health, styles, new consumer items, office politics — instead of larger public issues that may be contentious. Folk wisdom in North America advises people to avoid politics and religion. Those are the topics I most enjoy discussing – and certainly the topics that are most important for our collective life.

Community spirit varies from one society to another. Etzioni see it most fully manifested in Scandinavia. He does not find it well developed nowadays in , mainly because of the conflicts between different communities — obviously between Arabs and Jews, but also between secular and religious Jews. Personally, I think that certain other societies are even more individualistic than North America: societies in particular. I remember reading Aung San Suu Kyi’s opinion that it was hard to organize nonviolent resistance to the dictatorship in Burma because Burmese people are not affiliated to any particular temple as a community, the way Christians are to their own parish church. Also, salvation for the Buddhist is entirely a result of personal meditation and insight; no monk, community, or congregation can help. That moral isolation is radical individualism. Probably a moderate balance between the extremes is best.

(See Etzioni’s blog: http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog/.)

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Islam and American WMDs

I belong to , an organization dedicated to solving the world’s problems — initially the nuclear arms race, and now other looming dangers too. One member of the international council of Pugwash is Pervez , a Pakistani professor of nuclear and high-energy physics in Islamabad. I want to quote small portions from his paper, entitled “Bin Laden and .” In it he traces the still-unfolding consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one thing, other countries immediately began seeking nuclear weapons of their own. Most fateful among them, in the world, was Israel. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion ordered his agents to seek out East European Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses.”

America’s continuing military dominance has perpetuated hatred against it around the world. Hoodbhoy reveals Bin Ladin’s aspirations as shown in one of his taped messages:

“Bin Laden called up the image of the bombing of Japan, claiming: ‘When people at the ends of the earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is something that has justification. Millions of children in Iraq is something that has justification.’”

Hoodbhoy has his own moral objections to American . He continues:

“The United States has bombed 21 countries since 1948, and recently killed tens of thousands of people on the pretext of chasing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It claims to be a force for democracy and rule of law despite a long history of supporting the bloodiest of dictators and rejecting the International Criminal Court. And now it threatens its adversaries – those with and without weapons – with nuclear attack. George Bush’s “Nuclear Posture Review 2002” identifies as possible targets China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. The review also recommended new facilities for the manufacture of nuclear bombs, research into bunker busters, a new ICBM in 2020, and much more….

“The US currently will spend $455 billion on its armed forces in 2005, with another $82 billion to be spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more than the total sum spent by the next 32 countries down the list, and is close to 50% of total world military spending. US military doctrines have shifted away from deterrence to pre-emption, unilateral military intervention, and simultaneously fighting several local wars overseas. The US military has put in place a 2004 “Interim Global Strike Alert Order" from Donald requiring it to be ready to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea. The military claims to be capable of carrying out such attacks within ‘half a day or less’ and to use nuclear weapons for this purpose.

“There are demands from the US Air Force for authority to put weapons in . A former Secretary of the Air Force explained ‘We haven't reached the point of strafing and bombing from space… nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.’ Full spectrum dominance – in land, sea, air, and space – is necessary to achieve the goal of total planetary control.”

Hoodbhoy quotes Major (P) Ralph Peters, a planner in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, as saying:

“We have entered an age of constant conflict. We are entering a new American century, in which we will become still wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful. We will excite hatreds without precedent.

“There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”

But now the cat is out of the bag. The nuclear monopoly is breaking down. Hoodbhoy writes,

“…The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students. By stealing fissile materials present in the thousands of ex-Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, or even a tiny fraction of the vast amounts of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium present in research reactors and storage sites the world over, it is unnecessary to go through complex processes for uranium enrichment or reprocessing.”

In Hoodbhoy’s opinion, the danger of nuclear conflict comes not from Muslim states, but from radical individuals inside those states. Pakistan, for example, has airlifted some of its nuclear weapons to safer, isolated areas. Yet a high-ranking nuclear engineer, Syed Bashiruddin Mahmood and a materials specialist have traveled to Afghanistan. Mahmood was photographed with Osama Bin Laden. Hoodbhoy notes,

“The possibilities for nuclear attack are not limited to the so-called suitcase bomb stolen from the arsenal of a nuclear state. In fact, this is far more difficult than the use of improvised nuclear devices fabricated from highly enriched uranium, constructed in the very place where they will eventually be detonated. Still more likely is an attack on a vulnerable nuclear or spent fuel repository.

“Some nuclear weapon experts (who I am not at liberty to name) privately believe that it is not a question of if but when the attack is to happen. This may be too pessimistic, but obviously tight policing and monitoring of nuclear materials (and rapid reduction of stockpiles) and nuclear weapons knowledge must be the first step. There should not be the slightest delay in moving on this. But this is far from sufficient…. Humanity’s best chance of survival lies in creating taboos against nuclear weapons, much as already exist for chemical and biological weapons, and to work rapidly toward their global elimination. We cannot afford to live in a savage dog-eat-dog world. Instead, we must dare to imagine and work urgently towards a future that is based on universal, compassionate, human, secular values. For this to happen, the civilized world will have to subdue the twin ogres of American and Islamic radicalism.”


So how do we achieve this? In a democratic society, the government responds to public pressure. There’s a huge difference between living one’s own quiet, private life, hoping for the best, and becoming engaged in the extraordinary public responsibility to save the world.

You can pick your issue (I choose the nuclear issue) but please don’t waste your time. We need you to help save the world.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What Makes a Story Shocking?

can do wonderful – or terrible – things to an audience, so why aren’t there any guidelines for authors? Answer: because for every conceivable rule, we can find valid exceptions. I have thought long and hard about the of storytelling, but without arriving at consistent rules. Some friends of mine, on the other hand, are waging an honorable battle to eliminate violence and explicit sex from popular entertainment.

I call their struggle honorable because it’s intended to protect society, and we do need protection. Yes, there is far too much violence and vulgarity in movies and television. But a will have a terrible time if she tries to be even-handed and consistent. If she rules out violence, there goes Hamlet! If she rules out passionate , there goes the Song of Solomon! If we say that sometimes sex and violence are okay, we cannot say what makes them so. One legendary judge, ruling on a case involving , supposedly said, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Probably that’s the only answer, but it’s far too imprecise to fit within the rule of law. Perhaps we can clarify it slightly by bringing in the notion of “context.”

criticism, which I admire and even attempt to perform, assumes that the value of a story is measured by its answer to this question: How should human beings live? Stories give us tips on how to flourish in our mortal existence. They can elevate our souls to higher aspirations or leave us feeling dirty. Yet no quantitative analysis of content can explain why a particular story has the former, rather than the latter effect. The meaning of a particular word or an act is determined by the larger .

I was reminded of that fact a few days ago by hearing that a radio station in the midwest had cut off a broadcast by Garrison , my favorite . I adore the man, though I’ve never met him. (See photo.)

It seems that new regulations have been established to prohibit vulgar language. Mr. Keillor allegedly uttered the word “breast” on one of his shows and was summarily banned for it. Fortunately, scores of listeners protested and the authorities soon restored him to good standing in radio land. I did not hear that particular show, but I’ve listened to at least 200 hours of his programs and I know his style. Sometimes Keillor actually does mention topics — yet if I were asked to name the single nicest person in the world, I might pick him — or at least his radio persona. (Obviously, a person might be sweet on the air but a tyrant in real life. I have no idea what Keillor’s dark side is like, but I presume it’s no worse than mine.)

The puzzle to explain is this: Keillor can tell a story about, say, a taxicab passenger with catastrophic diarrhea, and the audience will enjoy it. Nobody will consider it off-color, but if anybody else told it, we all would. Context makes all the difference. Keillor loves his characters and explores their predicaments and shortcomings with benign warmth. He never expresses hostility or even dismay (except briefly after George W. Bush and the other “vandals” were returned to power in Washington). His characters are so natural and ordinary that we can easily imagine being in their shoes. The stories are especially touching, endearing — including memories of his own that he shares with us.

Once, for example, he described his tenderness upon watching his five-year-old daughter singing Christmas carols in a chorus for the first time. There he sat in the audience, reminiscing about the occasion when she was conceived. (I gasped. Surely he’s not going to tell us about that! But he went on in his mellow way.) It had been in a hospital. He had leaned against the wall watching as a technician named Ron carried out the procedure. And here was his little girl now — singing in a Christmas pageant. His memories, his feelings seem so simple and normal.

There are sordid stories all around us. Sordid, sleazy, artificial. I wish we could replace them with Garrison Keillor’s stories, which always are pure. Yet there’s probably no situation so shocking that Keillor cannot tell it in a way that allows us to , to feel for the characters, perhaps to laugh, but always to wish them well. How does he do that? I think it springs from his avuncular decency, the unstudied charity of a compassionate man. The meaning of anything depends on context, on the intention behind it. There can be no objective measure of depravity or goodness, no scientific tabulation of instances of ugliness or beauty. We just have to know it when we see it.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Publish Your Own Obituary Here!

Amitai ’s memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, is delightful and inspiring. Early on, when faced with a choice between a successful academic career and an activist’s life, he recounts spending a weekend of . Here’s that passage:

“Ethicists advise people to use a device to clarify their life goals. They suggest writing your own . Look at your life from the end backward, they recommend, and determine what it is you wish you had accomplished. Then examine yourself candidly to determine if the life you lead is going to get you there.

“Instead, I composed an epitaph that weekend that read: ‘Here lies one who cared, who labored hard to serve purposes greater than self, one who attempted the best he could, within his limited abilities, to make the world better than it would otherwise be.’ A briefer inscription came to me: ‘One Who Served.’’’

But on the next day, Etzioni wavered, asking himself, “How could I make a contribution to the world if I were out in the street, preoccupied with trying to make a living?” He told his wife he would go to no more rallies against the bomb. He’d stick to sociology.

“That’ll be the day,” she grinned.

In the end, Etzioni resolved that somehow he’d do both. He’d be such a productive scholar that nobody could deny him recognition — and he’d do peace too.

He succeeded amazingly well. (Read the book and you’ll agree.) Or see his blog at http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog/

I’ve been thinking about my own obituary ever since. What an excellent exercise! It’s supposed to be especially effective if you let other people see what you’ve written. I’ve decided to write mine and publish it here, so I can never deny what my goals were. Moreover, everyone should have the same opportunity. Hence, here’s my one-time-only offer: Write your obituary, in 150 words or less, and post it as a comment to today’s blog. Unless you write something outrageously offensive, I’ll leave it here for everyone to read. That way, you’ll be committed, just as I will be. I won’t speculate about how realistic my goals are, but not one of them is impossible, and some have already been attained. Here goes:

“Here lies Metta Spencer, . Besides sustaining rich relationships with her fine friends, she tried to leave the world in better condition than when she’d found it. Her influential sociology textbook, Foundations of Modern Sociology, appeared in nine editions. Her book Bears and Doves documented the remarkable influence of the international peace movement on Soviet military policy. For decades she edited Peace Magazine. Her book Two Aspirins and a Comedy raised public awareness of entertainment’s impact on audiences’ health; emotional well-being; moral dispositions; and approaches to societal problems. That book, plus her blog and other writings, prompted TV to create several new serials showing benign ways of handling difficult issues. In her later years, she assisted the producers of two acclaimed shows, Green Cross in the Middle East, and A Nonviolent Peaceforce, to develop several episodes with enlightening plots. RIP, Metta.”

Now it’s your turn. May your obituary be wonderful!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Who Ya Gonna Call — a Social Scientist?

Not likely — except possibly an economist. People do seek advice from them — but no longer from , as they did in the 1950s. I’ve heard lots of theories about the declining importance of sociology in public affairs. Some say the long skid began when the discipline started favoring quantitative research methods, which don’t lend themselves to every kind of inquiry. Others blame the decline on the radical that prevailed among sociologists in the 1970s, when we talked more to each other than to the wider society. In any case, when government leaders seek advice about societal problems, the first person they think of consulting is rarely a sociologist. What will it take to turn that around?

The sociologists are gathering now in Philadelphia for their annual — which reminds me that I’ve never discussed last year’s wonderful presidential address by Michael .(See his photo above.) Addressing a packed auditorium in San Francisco, he stirred us up and made us root for what he called “.” Burawoy distinguishes among four different orientations that can be found in his discipline: the professional; the critical; policy; and public sociology. The two middle types can get along together without difficulty; hot disputes occur only between “professional sociologists” and “public sociologists.” I belong to the latter category, so I was delighted with Burawoy’s speech because I’d never heard my orientation praised before by a ranking colleague.

Amitai may be the best-known public sociologist in North America today. In his memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, he recounts the disapproval that he incurred for his way of working. Shortly after assuming his first academic position at Columbia University, he was summoned to the office of an eminent professor, Paul Lazarsfeld, who berated him for publishing a movie review, since the Columbia faculty didn’t “want another C. Wright .”

Nevertheless, Etzioni continued writing on every political or social issue that he cared about. For example, he criticized the US program — especially the expensive “moon-doggle” that was being pursued at the time. He argued that lots of human needs could be solved with that money, whereas the knowledge that NASA would generate would help no one. He also became active in criticizing the ongoing arms race. He kept submitting op-ed to newspapers, proposing solutions to various societal problems but most of them were never printed.

Eventually people did pay attention. For a while he worked at the , and then he started a community-building social movement. This “communitarian” orientation attracted a following, including the Clintons. Its philosophy can be summarized by John F. Kennedy’s famous admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That is, Etzioni places as much emphasis on as on rights.

Public sociologists engage with the various publics that constitute a society. They support and participate in civil society, including politically. According to Burawoy, the object and value of political science is the state and the defence of order. The object and value of economics is the market and its expansion. And the object and value of sociology are and its resilience. This insight seems to be catching on. There’s now a web site for public sociologists; I just found it today and immediately registered on it.

Sociologists who take the “professional” orientation typically disapprove of those who do advocacy and activism. They base their disengagement on a famous article by Max Weber, who considered it academically questionable to combine with scientific research. Yet in our day, “hard” scientists are far more engaged than social scientists. For example, I have been active for 24 years in Science for Peace — which has many physical scientist members but very few social scientists. Why? Having been involved in creating the atomic bomb — and then being unable to prevent its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists consider it their duty to participate in determining the use of all discoveries. Many sociologists are still too innocent, believing it is possible to let the world take its course without any intervention on their part. If you want to be a public sociologist, I invite you to join Science for Peace and to work with us on .

Thursday, August 11, 2005

It’s Not a Crime to be a Jerk

It’s not a crime, but — if you’ll permit me to use heavy-handed terminology — it’s immoral.

I like the kind of literary and that judges a story according to its implications. The leading proponents of that approach are the literary critic Wayne and the philosopher Martha . (See her photo.) While they call it “ethical” criticism, I would rather call it “” criticism, since it often describes social situations that involve emotional incompetence more than actual wrong-doing.

The truth is, when we judge another person’s character, our verdict is always a moral opinion. But here morality has to be defined broadly as encompassing emotional conditions too. Even if the person is not violating any specific rule, we may consider her as seriously flawed if her emotional dispositions and sentiments are inappropriate. A “jerk” is socially off-putting just because her feelings simply don’t fit the situation. “Jerkhood” is a status. It’s low emotional , which disqualifies a person in many ways, whether or not she violates specific rules or laws.

There’s nothing illegal about any . And we cannot (and probably should not) control our emotions all the time instead letting them come and go spontaneously. However, our emotions are determined by our thoughts and beliefs. If our feelings seem inappropriate, it’s because our ideas are inappropriate — which will certainly influence the way others regard us and treat us. We may not get invited to certain parties. If we apply for a job, we may not be hired. If we run for office, we may not get elected. (George W. Bush is an exception.)

The wonderful thing about drama is that it poses interesting predicaments that we may never encounter personally. A play demonstrates one or more ways of responding to such a predicament, and in doing so, it us about how we too should respond, if the occasion ever arises. A tale depicts someone making a poor choice, and then we observe the unfavorable consequences and learn what to avoid doing. But if the writer uses bad judgment in the story-telling, she may give us poor advice by, for instance, depicting the protagonist as a genuine jerk — but one who attains great success in the end. Or he may be worse than a jerk; he may be a real criminal for whom pays handsomely. There have been several such movie plots lately. Personally, I long for more movies that show characters addressing difficult issues well, and inspiring me to take on equal challenges myself. I need a motivational boost sometimes.

is always more important than even entertainers like to suppose. Lots of screen writers say, “It’s just fiction. Don’t take it seriously.” But fiction can be immensely powerful — for good or ill. It’s a big factor in our social learning. We need to make better use of it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Your Hero Defends the Right to Water

Who’s your favorite living hero? Mine is Mikhail . Yours may be Leonardo . Both our heroes are working to save the world — primarily by showing the rest of us that what we do also matters. Take use, for example. What could be more mundane than washing clothes, say, or repairing sewers, or digging a tube well in the desert? But if these jobs seem dull, it’s only for a lack of vision about the whole picture. Although our planet is mostly water, only a tiny portion of it can be used for human consumption — and that portion is unfairly distributed, often wasted, and increasingly . Hence, every action that conserves fresh, safe water or makes it more accessible to others is a worthy contribution. So I congratulate you for watering your flowers early this morning instead of during the day! We share a grand project, all the components of which may seem trivial — except in context.

What do Gorbachev and DiCaprio have to do with it? They are admired public figures who have a vision and who remind us of what we actually knew. We need our heroes. Gorbachev gives speeches promoting his great idea: a new Global Treaty on the Right to Water. And the actor Di Caprio has helped produce a short documentary film that explains and supports Gorbachev’s proposal. It will soon be available in the United States through Global Green, the American affiliate of Green Cross International, the organization that Gorbachev founded. Both of those heroes can touch your heart and make you want to fix your leaky faucet and sign a petition demanding better stewardship of the planet‘s water. and visionary public figures probably save more lives than risk-taking heroes. However, they may never meet anyone whose life they saved. Nor will you or I, though what we do also matters.

More than 1.2 billion human beings lack clean water. About 2.5 billion people lack water sanitation services, and five million people die from waterborne diseases each year. According to the president of Green Cross International, Dr. Alexander Likhotal (shown above with Mr. Gorbachev), diarrhea has killed more children in the past ten years than all the people who were killed in armed conflicts since World War II. For about $50 per person, such misery can be overcome. One of the key Millennium Development Goals is to halve the number of people without access to water services by 2015.

The Global on the Right to Water will bring us closer to that goal. When ratified by the member states of the United Nations, it will give citizens a tool to assert their right and will require national governments to see that the right is respected. The right to water already has been enshrined in several human rights treaties, but none of them are legally enforceable. This new treaty, however, will obligate states to incorporate those rights into their national laws and implement them without discrimination. Thereafter, legal redress will be available for any violations. If you visit http://www.watertreaty.org you can read a draft of the proposed treaty and also sign a petition asking your to support it.

The treaty will establish that water is not a commodity but rather a public good. To be sure, the provision of water services can be costly. However, it must be equitable, ensuring that water — whether provided publicly or privately — is affordable to all, including socially disadvantaged groups.

The campaign also distinguishes between various uses of water — particularly between “water for life” (i.e. clean, safe, sufficient water to satisfy human needs for drinking, hygeine, cleaning, cooking, subsistence agriculture and ) and “productive water” (the efficient use of water in activities of economic value, such as commercial farming and manufacturing). Water for life must take priority over all commercial uses.

Naturally, Green Cross International does not suggest that a treaty alone can resolve all the practical problems involved in providing water. Scarcity is a fact of life in many areas, and technological ingenuity is required to develop solutions. The purpose of the initiative is to institutionalize the provision of water services as a human right, subject to clear principles of equity and . To learn more, visit http://www.globalgreen.org/ or http://www.gci.ch/.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Of Bombs, Frogs, and Heroes

Yesterday, sixty years after the bombing of , hundreds turned out for a memorial in front of City Hall and floated paper lanterns on a pool. Polls show that most citizens in every democratic country want nuclear weapons abolished, yet over 30,000 of them still exist — vastly bigger ones than those that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a , if most citizens insist, they can get their way. But citizens aren’t insisting. Why not?

As usual, the explanation is both emotional and cognitive. People are passive and fatalistic, not agitated, and they aren’t sure whether their opinions are completely rational. “Maybe I’m wrong,” they admit. “If our president wants these , he probably has good reasons that I’m not aware of. Besides, I’m just an ordinary person. What could I do about it anyhow? I try to keep calm and peaceful in my mind, since I can’t make real peace on earth.”

That’s the song of a boiling . If you throw a frog into a pot of simmering water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog into a pan of cool water and start heating it, it will stay there and boil to death. Frogs need a shock to become aware of their peril. Same with people. We’ve been in this pot since 1945, and nothing has happened to make us jump out. It may take the hostile use of a bomb to set off our mental alarm.

That could happen at any time. We’re damn lucky. Russian and American nuclear bombs are kept ready to be launched within about 15 minutes after any warning that missiles are en route from an unfriendly source. That launch-on-warning status means that any mistaken warning may set off a nuclear war. Indeed, false alarms occur daily, and in some cases have not been discovered to be false until after retaliatory bombs should have been launched. For example, in 1983, during a period of high tension between East and West, Colonel Vladimir was in charge of a Soviet bunker when the klaxon went off, indicating the start of World War III. The satellite Cosmos, monitoring the skies above US fields, had detected five launches — one after the other. If he had obeyed orders, we would have perished. But Petrov refused to believe that anyone would launch a war with just five missiles, so he disobeyed orders, which is why you and I are still alive today. There are other similar near-launches from false alarms, including one caused by a moon rising over the horizon and another caused by a flock of geese mistaken for a missile. Numerous military experts believe that our luck cannot continue indefinitely. For example, Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, now urges the United States and Russia (who own 96 percent of the world’s nuclear bombs) to dismantle them all.

There was a time when the nuclear states seemed willing to do just that. In Geneva in 1965, negotiations began to draft a nuclear nonproliferation treaty (). Such a was completed by July 1968 and in 1970 it entered into force. The United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were among the 43 original parties. The NPT represents a “deal” between the nuclear and the non-nuclear states, with the former pledging to move toward nuclear disarmament and the non-nuclear states promising not to acquire nuclear weapons, on condition that the peaceful benefits of nuclear technologies be made available to them.

Since then, the original five nuclear states have reneged on their promise, while warning all the other countries not to acquire nuclear weapons. This spring, the regular five-year review conference of the NPT collapsed in utter failure. Indeed, President George W. plans to build new nuclear weapons, and the Russians are testing a new intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile, the Topol-M, though their early warning system is aging and becoming less reliable.

These changes are a signal: It’s time to jump out of the boiling water. It’s time for citizens to compel their governments to end the growing peril. Why isn’t this happening? The explanation is emotional. Whereas people often expect the public to over-react in panic and stampede if they hear of a danger, the truth is just the opposite. almost never happens. False complacency, however, is completely normal. If, say, a dam breaks and a wall of water is rushing to your town, the police may drive up and down the streets warning people to flee immediately, but many people will simply ignore the message. However dangerous it may be, is psychologically normal. Often people look out the window and decide that it must be a false alarm because the neighbor is still raking his lawn. We follow each other.

It may take a hero to set examples for others to follow. A hero is someone who doesn’t follow the crowd but who uses good judgment on his own, and actively works to save the world. Heroes don’t even have to be real to be persuasive. We may be moved by a remarkable character in a and — especially if we discuss the plot with friends — decide to emulate him. When we’re short of real heroes, let’s create some inspiring fictional ones.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Did Archie Bunker Teach Us Anything?

My son Jonathan told me he’d been trying to explain the basic argument of my book to a woman friend. He had said to her, “Mom’s showing how and other can change society for the better. Say, the way Archie Bunker did.” And, he told me with satisfaction, “She got the point immediately.”

To his surprise, I cringed. All in the Family is not the kind of show I’d recommend as a way of influencing public opinion. Admittedly, I never watched many episodes of it because I disliked it. Still, I need to explain why it’s a bad approach to promoting cultural change, though it’s generally believed that it taught us to be more tolerant.

I’m not so sure it did. All in the Family featured Archie Bunker, an uncouth bigot who spouted and reactionary social views. Viewers were expected to laugh at him — not with him — for his troglodyte mentality. But as I recall, surveys at the time showed that the show often had the opposite effect. As go, Archie was almost lovable, so certain viewers identified with him and clapped whenever he confirmed their own . Even if this was rare, I think we need stories that influence public opinion without presenting negative role models for audiences to mock.

I don’t find stereotypes funny — even those such as All in the Family that ridicule my adversaries, since they are exactly the people that I want to influence. No one is persuaded to change his mind when we exclude the Bunkers of this world from the moral community called “we” — the group with whom you and I identify. We need to bring such people back in as members of “us.” To reintegrate them depends on our empathy for them and the rational discussion of our opposing beliefs.

Mirthful laughter benefits a viewer’s health. But there’s — and then there’s laughter. It’s sometimes possible to laugh, even at anti-heroes, without contempt. After all, anti-heroes are not necessarily villains — merely limited characters without “heroic” qualities. Sometimes we even identify with them. Take Mr. Bean, Rodney Dangerfield, or Charlie Chaplin, for example. Like Bunker, they are anti-heroes, except that, even as we laugh at their inadequacies, we feel affection for them.

But anti-heroes — even charming ones — are poor salesman for social doctrines. For example, The Great Dictator was filmed during World War II. In it Chaplin played the least heroic character on record: Hitler. We might suppose that this monstrous role was utterly antithetical to . Yet Chaplin played him as a charming, light-hearted simpleton. In no way does this likeable anti-hero influence our political opinions, though we smilingly empathize with him. Had Chaplin played his Hitler in a realistic rather than a clownish way, empathy would have been impossible.

The bigot Archie Bunker was too realistic to be funny and if we had empathized with him, that would have brought us down to his moral level. When watching such realistic anti-heroes as Bunker, I cannot laugh, but some people do. Their laughter is derisive and contemptuous. Worse yet, such shows antagonize the real bigots of the world, who realize that they are being mocked. What we need to do is to enlighten sensibilities throughout our culture — especially among people of limited insight.

This is possible through brilliant . The shows that have the best effects always involve characters whom audiences come to love and respect — fictive characters who make discoveries that we too can absorb through our for them.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Talk with a Libertarian about Aid

Recently I got in touch with four high school friends whom I haven’t seen since 1947. That’s a 58-year hiatus in friendship. Naturally, we have all changed — none more remarkably than Ted, who somehow became a along the way. Never having met a Libertarian before, I began a discussion. Fortunately, it has forced me to respond to comments that would never have been offered by anyone I meet here in Canada. (I live among left-liberals and a handful of wistful retired .) Ted and I are sparring by e-mail, and I enjoy confronting his startling arguments.

For example, last week I forwarded a piece from Harper’s to him about how Americans are more likely than any other society to claim they are Christian, yet of all the rich countries, they are the least peaceable and least generous to the poor. Like other countries, the United States has pledged to give 0.7% of GDP in aid, but actually gives only 0.15%. That’s fifteen cents a day, per capita. To be sure, lots of other countries have also failed to fulfill their pledges, but the Americans’ shortfall is the most extreme. (This is not just my showing, since I was born in the United States and retain dual citizenship.)

Ted tried to argue that Americans prefer to make their donations privately. Sorry; that doesn’t explain the gap. If you add in private , the American donations come to twenty-one cents per capita — far less than the 70 cents per day that was promised. I remember Ted as a devout Catholic, and I figured this little datum would be a painful thing for him to acknowledge.

Not so. He replied by arguing that development aid doesn’t work, and he closed with this aphorism (which I recall hearing Reagan utter as well): “Don’t just hand out fish. Teach people to fish for themselves.“

Fair enough. That’s an argument I haven’t heard for a long time and I must deal with it honestly. There’s actually such a thing as becoming dependent on others. Last summer at the Pearson Centre in Nova Scotia, I talked with an African woman who was extremely troubled by seeing it happen in her village. She said the villagers used to be hard-working farmers but now the young men sit around waiting for the UN truck to arrive with food.

Such problems can actually arise. It happens especially in situations of near-famine, such as the one in Niger right now. Many people are going hungry, and only recently has the rest of the world begun to send them food. The delay came from legitimate concern that free food can disrupt the market and destroy the incentive for local farmers to produce. (That’s also why it’s harmful to Third World countries to sell them cheap food from highly productive European and North American farms. “,” it’s rightly called.) Sometimes in an emergency, it is necessary to provide free food, but that is not an ideal solution to hunger. Instead, money should be spent whenever possible — to use Ted’s metaphor — on “fishing rods and nets” and other elements of infrastructure.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, who leads the UN’s project on the Development Goals, points out that in many situations, people cannot get out of poverty by their own efforts. Nor is it fair to blame the African governments for the poverty. Yes, there is always room for improved governance. However, as Sachs notes, some “slow-growing African countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Malawi have less corruption than the fast-growing Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.”

The Millennium Development Goals can be met, says Sachs, by increasing “investment in people (health, education, nutrition, and family planning), the environment (water and sanitation, soils, forests, and biodiversity), and infrastructure (roads, power, and ports). Poor countries cannot afford these investments on their own, so rich countries must help.“

Amen! Yet I wonder whether my political debate makes any difference. I really want Ted to join in eagerly in the work of saving . My personal goal is to discover how to touch people’s hearts in ways that make that happen. There has to be a way. But debate may be less convincing than sensitive stories depicting generous, wise people. I’m not sure.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Peak Oil and Peaks of Inspiration

Brace yourself. We’re in for a huge shock within a decade or two. The world’s production of will drop precipitously and prices will skyrocket, making the oil crisis of 1972 look trivial in retrospect. Transportation, , and manufacturing will become prohibitively expensive — especially for people in poorer countries. In rich countries, suburban people will start moving back to the cities and consuming local instead of imported products. Nobody can really predict the specific economic effects, but shortly after oil production peaks, watch out! Whereas there are possible alternatives to fossil fuels, they aren’t being developed fast enough. The is going to be traumatic.

This is not news. For a generation humankind has been exhausting, not only the planet’s fossil fuels but also its minerals, animals, plants, arable land, fisheries, and fresh water. In so doing we’ve air, land, and sea irreversibly.

As Jared has reminded us, several previous have become extinct from ignoring the limitations of their environment’s carrying capacity. The question is, will modern society be next?

Wonderful changes are within our grasp — innovations that can solve several problems at the same time. For example, if research and development focuses urgently on producing effective, substitutes for oil, we will simultaneously slow down global warming, enable Third World countries to meet their own economic needs, and remove the conditions that bring to power in oil-producing countries. By spreading democracy this will reduce terrorism and warfare. But such technological changes require urgent, intelligent action — which is not happening.

Were the Easter Islanders also in denial until the end? Were they as unperturbed as we are, watching their forests being cut down until every sapling was gone? Or did they hug trees, lobby their rulers, and stage Live 8 concerts to warn of the impending and to urge others to act?

If we intend to preserve our own civilization, we must take concerted collective action. There is a role for everyone — including people who feel that they are too small to make a difference. No normal grown-up human being is too small to contribute something.

Two human qualities are essential: and motivation. Neither, by itself, will suffice. First, we need the advice of genuine experts. Their information must be disseminated everywhere through the , the Internet, and in public discussions. We must spread that information, even to people who resist hearing it.

Second, we must care enough get up and do what needs to be done. Knowledge without an initiative to respond accomplishes nothing. Many smart, well-read individuals know the facts without becoming in any way whatever. But by itself, motivation is not enough either. Enthusiastic, committed, active, purposeful individuals may accomplish exactly the wrong things because they are misinformed or convinced of a faulty theory. Motivation and knowledge are both essential.

is a component of emotional maturation. It’s a sense of responsibility that most often comes from empathically observing other people who are dedicated to solving the world’s problems. Strong affection and admiration for others is a wellspring of motivation. Notice your own deep admiration of someone. It will be for a person who knows he makes a difference. Admiring him may inspire and challenge you to do something more difficult than you have attempted before.

Fortunately, even fictive friends can inspire and inform us. and writers are important in motivating us — whether we’re young or old, smart or average, popular or reclusive — to step forward boldly and do our part. So choose your stories thoughtfully.