Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘america’

We Have More In Common Than Not

Several people of whom I am very fond have recently asked me to engage in something or another about which they are very, very passionate. In truth, my interest in any of these particular things/issues/ventures begins and ends with my friendship or association with the individual. For a number of reasons I just cannot find the time-space, brain-space, or emotional-space to engage in any but the most superficial manner in that which has my colleagues/associates/friends all fired-up.

In no way does this mean that these issues, etc. are not significant or important, it means only that they are not close enough to what is central to my core for me to become involved. Not becoming involved also does not mean that I think any less, or even any differently about the individuals involved. Not at all. That is the point, and more so, that I believe may be the tonic that is necessary to treat the virulent strain of discord that seems to have consumed so much of our discourse whether it be writ large of small.

We all have more in common than not. There are more things that we each hold dearly, that we feel are existentially important, than there are things on which we disagree to a point that we cannot inhabit the same space. This is the 80/20 rule of a functioning society.

Sure, maybe it’s 70/30 or 95/5, but does that really matter? Personally I think it’s more like 95/5 or even 98/2, but that may be a reflection of my worldview or frame of reference (when asked about my Holiday season I tell folks I batted .950). The point is that our commonality is far, far greater than not. If you and I agree on 95% of the things we might encounter but disagree on 5%, is our relationship over? If I do, in fact, agree with you but decide I do not have the time (or the stomach) to join you at the same level of commitment you’ve chosen, are we not able to continue our discourse? When I choose to spend 4 hours playing with the Man Cub and his Thomas the Tank Train rather than take up the mantel of your cause/issue/enterprise I am not really saying anything about those, or you, at all.

Where once Americans separated themselves along only large, even epic fissures (Religion, wealth, race, etc.) we now seem willing to render ourselves asunder over progressively smaller, hairline fractures in a connection. This is sad, and all the more sad because it is unnecessary. Pick a number–80/20, 95/5. Whatever. The solution to many of our social disquietudes lies in choosing to begin your engagement on the side of the larger of the two numbers, that which we have in common, before giving consideration to that which we may not share.

That which we have in common is the greater.

Warren Buffett, Soulmate

Planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve been on the road and on the go for weeks now, days filled with unavoidable down time, and hence unable to avoid the din of our national tragedy: Election 2016. Whether it be 20 candidates spread over two stages and 12 hours, or two candidates circling a track in a never-ending series of left turns, one theme arched high above it all. America is somehow no longer great. Neither side of the political divide seems able to find even the dimmest silver lining. One candidate has gone so far as to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Planes, trains, and automobiles. Internet, newsprint, and audio. For weeks I’ve been bombarded with nothing else.

Which got me to thinking Warren Buffett, of course, and how much Mr. Buffett and I have in common. Now to be truthful, there are a few not insignificant things that we don’t share, attitudes and things a bit more concrete that separate us. There would be the tiny issue of money, about $50 Billion, give or take a few hundred thousand. That’ll put a little distance between folks. He drinks Cherry Coke by the gallon; I stopped drinking most soft drinks long before CrossFit went to war with Coca-Cola. Mr. Buffett is a well-known, accomplished bridge player, circling the globe with his buddy Bill Gates and playing the world’s best because he can. I peaked as a card player in the 5th grade when I finally beat my mother at “Go Fish”.

The biggest difference between us is more elemental. Mr. Buffet is a bully, a most distasteful thing in my mind since I have always considered myself one who defends against bullies. He is an awful type of bully, the sanctimonious hypocrite. Do as I say, not as I do, at once imploring the well-to-do to accept usurious taxation and willfully divest the gains of their hard work, while simultaneously using his power and wealth to effectively do neither. This creates a cynical worldview from which he gives himself permission to denounce others who do as he does, yet not so artfully or with not as much stealth. Which all makes it all the more of a wonder that Warren Buffett and I actually have in common something that is more powerful and more important than what separates us (though I’d certainly be OK is I shared a bit of that $50BB).

Both Warren Buffett and I are optimists when it comes to both the state of America today, and what is likely in store for America and Americans in the future.

In a series of speeches, articles and letters over the last 2 or 3 years Mr. Buffett has laid out in some detail how good it is to be an American. This is in respect not only to the lives of Americans in comparison with citizens of the world elsewhere, but also in comparison with past iterations of America and Americans. We are a land of plenty. Outrageous plenty in comparison to past Americas and present others. There likely will never be a time where there is no poverty, yet poverty today does not mean what it meant in years past. The Great Depression brought with it true starvation; the Great Recession gave us Hunger Anxiety, the fear that one might not have enough to eat. While we as a nation and a people rightly focus on continuing to better the lives of the unfortunate, those who spend their lives cushioned by the societal safety net are infinitely better than before, and lives which are unimaginable for the impoverished elsewhere in the world.

There remain in America barriers of varying degree that make if very difficult for members of large, easily identifiable groups to succeed at the highest levels of societal achievement. Buffett and I agree and acknowledge that there is NOT a truly level playing field when it comes to advancement in business, law, or even government. Deeply engrained prejudices along racial and gender lines continue to thwart all but the very most talented, and let’s face it, thick-skinned and dogged individuals. The reality, sad or otherwise, is that there will never be a truly level playing field; someone always has an edge of some sort. Where we agree again, though, is that there has been a vast improvement, a dramatic decrease in both the magnitude and amplitude of these barriers in America.

More people from more backgrounds can rise more easily to a greater height in America than ever before.

It’s really all about a point of view. America is great right now. Period. It is far greater in all respects than it was 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. On balance it, and Americans, are in the most positive position anywhere in the world. Mr. Buffett points out several fairly macro issues as illustrations. As noted above, we no longer measure hunger as an issue to address as a country, we measure the fear of being hungry. Our concern is not so much with how much food is consumed but more about the quality of that food. Housing as a quality measure is not examined with a measure of how many citizens are un-housed, but rather by the percentage of Americans who own their own home. Or even more to the point, could afford to consider owning a home. Access to technology is a reasonable proxy for “the pursuit of happiness” for Mr. Buffett. When he was young only the wealthy had color TV. We now concern ourselves with whether there is free access to the internet in our inner cities so that those who are below the poverty line can connect their iPhones or Galaxies to their Amazon Prime account.

This is not meant to give America and Americans permission to gloat and float. There are still some among us who have more needs than wants, who need and deserve a society that continually seeks to remove those barriers that leave them in need. To be sure, Buffett the bully, the scold, is quite content to point this out. However we, Warren Buffett and I, take issue with the basic assumption of those who would say that America is in decline, or is destined to decline. We are both openly pleased and proud of the improvements in the lives of Americans of all walks of life because they live in America. The rule of law, free markets, and an elected government at multiple levels has provided the platform from which American Exceptionalism has grown for almost all of us. The needs of almost all of us are comfortably covered, leaving us and our country to move on to considering our fears and our wants.

This is something for which we should be proud, the prevailing political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should make us optimistic about our future, both distant and near. We have had an inexorable and uninterrupted path toward a better life for almost all Americans. America and Americans are not complacent. We are quite self-critical as we readily see in election years (especially if we are imprisoned in planes, trains, and automobiles), and we are ever seeking more and better for America and Americans. As objectionable as the unrelenting negativism of Election 2016 may be, this, too, should make us optimistic about what is ahead of us as a country and as a people. America is great now; no “again” is necessary. For all that separates us, Warren Buffett and I are joined in an optimism about what it is that is America today, and what we believe is to come in our future. We both think that the rest of America should be more in line with that worldview than that which we hear from our candidates, our newspapers, and our media outlets of all kinds..

Let’s all go with “Make America Greater”. For all of our differences, I’m sure that Warren Buffett and I can agree on that.

When Cultural Norms Collide

It takes very little effort to observe the intersection of cultural norms. Indeed, it takes a substantial effort NOT to notice them when they collide, as they must, in the polyglot that is the United States. Physicians, it’s been noted, are little more than paid observers; I see these collisions daily. What are we to do when cultures collide?

Now, I’m not talking about the “old as eternity” cultural divide between teenagers and their parents; in the end the teens will either hew closely to the cultural norms of their heritage or fall more in line with those of their present address. What I am interested in are those cultural norms that remain an integral part of the fully formed adult one might encounter in a rather typical day, and by extension whether and how one should respond to any cultural dissonance. Or for that matter, WHO should be the one to respond.

It’s the tiny ones that catch my attention. Personal space for example. The typical American personal space extends one arm’s length between individuals. Something shorter than a handshake, more like a handshake distance with bent elbows. The Mediterranean space involves an elbow, too: put your hand on your shoulder and point your elbow to the front and you have measured the personal space of a Sicilian. Asians on the other hand occupy a much larger personal space that can be loosely measured by a fully extended fist-bump. Something which would be anathema in polite Japanese company, but no matter. Gotta leave room for a proper bow, after all.

My favorite little example of the variety of cultural norms that swirl in the soup of the great Melting Pot is the affectionate greeting. You know, what most fully acclimatized Americans would recognize as the “bro hug” shoulder bump and clasp, something that would be appalling to a Parisian or Persian, or indeed even to a Princess of the Antebellum South. Yet even here there are differences. The Princess, joined by legions of Housewives of Wherever and Junior Leaguers everywhere are ninjas in the practice of the single-cheek air kiss. It should be noted that ~90% of men are NOT ninjas in this particular art, and are expected by its practitioners to bungle the act.

Persians and Parisians, on the other hand, find the one-cheek air kiss to accomplish only half the job. They, and others who share centuries old cultures, warmly greet each other with a two-cheek kiss. I am sure that there are nuances involved here that remain unseen and unknown to both most men and certainly most (all?) who don’t share the heritage. (As an aside let me just say that I am a huge fan of this particular cultural norm because it means that one of my very favorite colleagues, Neda, always arrives bearing TWO kisses).

And please, don’t even get me started on kissing hands. I’m pretty much O-fer life on that one. Come to think of it, as a nation of men we are winless on the kissing the hand thing.

So what’s the point here? Two, I think. First, there is a certain boorishness in the failure to observe and recognize the existence of these cultural norms when they are encountered. Some, like those I’ve mentioned, are the relative equivalent of a soft breeze, neither strong enough to fill a sail nor de-leaf a tree. Recognizing them, even in the tiny manner that one tries not to trample on them even if they will be ignored, is a tiny gesture of kindness, respect, and courtesy.

The flip side, number two, is deciding which of these norms is the default setting. Here things get a bit stickier, especially when cultural norms run afoul of SOP on the particular ground they occupy. Think air kiss between a man and a woman in Afghanistan, for example. Bowing in the boardroom of Samsung in San Clemente. There are more, and bigger examples, but you get the idea. Here I think geography holds the trump card: “when in Rome” should be your guide, especially with cultural norms where the collision may be substantially more impactful then whether or when you turn the other cheek, a tornado to the above’s tickling breeze.

Every land has culture; there’s culture here in the land of CrossFit for example. Personal space? Roughly one Pendlay bar apart, at least in the gym! Bro hugs with the guys, one cheek air kiss with every girl! Fist bumps all around, most especially with the CrossFitter who was DFL (if you have to ask…). The only thing that could be better would be if we could all agree on the two-cheek greeting thing.

Maybe if I could get my friend Neda to do CrossFit.