Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

 

I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. There’s a need for vigilance, surely, as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, there’s also a need for those authorities themselves, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

 

Credidero #3: Security

We’re in the midst of a household move right now (from ORD to DSM), which means I’m peeking into those types of deep storage boxes that haven’t been opened since the last time we moved, pondering whether to purge them or carry their contents onward.

In one box, I found an old plastic bag contained four truly ratty, soiled and tattered stuffed animals that my mother must have sent to me at some point when she herself was moving: my childhood “friends” Sister, Rabbit, Bear and Clown. Sister was a hairless kitten (now with only one eye, and originally furry), and you can probably guess what Rabbit, Bear and Clown were. (I guess my creativity with names came later in my childhood development than they did). The fact that I still have those stuffed animals (compounded with the fact that I put them back in the box, carefully) is a powerful, lasting testament to the simple, yet profound, role they played as childhood comfort objects, providing me with a sense of security at a time in my development when I had absolutely no real idea as to all of things there were in life that could cause me harm.

English psychologist Donald Woods Winnicott explored and wrote about the ways in which most children develop security bonds with what he labeled “transitional objects,” which help ease a child as it loses the perceived “subjective omnipotence” of a mother-to-child bond and develops a relationship with an objective reality where the mother, and the child, and objects in the world around them are not a unity. Winnicott further theorized that transitional objects enable children to experience a fantasized bond with their mothers when the latter are apart from them for increasingly long periods of time, and that the Binkies, the Teddies, and all of the other much loved surrogates serve as keys to alleviating anxiety at the very time when children first begin to encounter the complexity and scariness of the real world around them.

Oh, to imagine if security was that simple for us all today as adults! By definition, security is “freedom from, or resilience against, potential harm (or other unwanted coercive change) caused by others,” and the various realms of security that we all contend with or read about regularly — communications security, data security, airport security, food security, home security, national security, homeland security, environmental security, transportation security, to name but a few — make it screamingly clear as to just how many things, people, concepts, and forces out there are either willfully committed to or passively engaged in trying to cause us harm, collectively and individually. We take so many steps, at such great cost, to create warnings, to protect ourselves, and to deter others, where once a good snuggle sufficed to get the job done — at least in our heads, anyway.

But then, on some level, security really is all about what goes on in our heads, given that humans’ abilities to accurately discern, react and respond to risks are notably, provably wonky. We fear sharks, lightning strikes, and plane crashes more than we fear bathtubs, cars, and the things in our medicine cabinets, though more of us are killed by the latter list each year than by the former. Given this fact, there’s an argument to be made that the vast majority of the security steps that we take aren’t actually much different than our childhood transitional objects: we chain and padlock doors at night and feel better doing so, when a rock through a window is a still a perfectly easy ingress approach for anyone seriously committed to harming us or our property. We go through all sorts of security rituals throughout the course of the day, and they comfort us, but does anybody really, truly believe that taking our shoes off at the airport makes our flight experiences any safer? Or is that ritual just a big imaginary virtual teddy bear designed primarily to soothe transportation patrons and providers alike?

That element of “first, assuage concern” is deeply embedded in the very etymological history of the word “security,” which entered the English language in the 16th Century via the Latin “securus,” combining precursor words for “freedom” (se: without) and “anxiety” (cura: care). That’s kind of daunting to consider, especially for a person (like me) wrestles regularly with anxiety as a constant part of my basic biochemical and psychological composition. If security really means nothing more than “freedom from anxiety,” then ipso facto, I’m almost never secure, or at least not when I’m awake! (And as bad of a sleeper as I am, probably not when I am asleep either).

As I ponder that conundrum, I have to note that the very act of being in the middle of a household move provides strong fuel for feeling less than fully secure: most of our belongings — all the grown-up comfort items with which we surround ourselves — were picked up and taken away on a truck two days ago, and I won’t see them again until next week, hopefully all together still, hopefully intact. Then there’s that transitional period of time of sorting things, placing things, hanging things, moving things, figuring out what goes where, and why, and when, that comes with any move, as we rebuild nests, often hoping to create something that’s at least structurally similar to the nests we’ve left behind. Where will I sit to work at the computer? Where will I eat? Where will we watch TV together? Which cabinet did I put the Ziplock Bags in? (Note: I always feel better knowing where the Ziplocks are . . . they are up there with Duct Tape, WD-40 and Windex when it comes to knowing you’ve got the right tools for whatever jobs need to be done, right now).

I have moved enough over the years (27 times, I think) to know that at some point a few weeks or months in, some little switch in the brain pops from one position to the other, and the new nest acquires that crucial sense of place where I feel that it’s right, and it’s comfortable, and it’s home — with all of the ancillary feelings of security that come along with that distinction to follow. There’s still plenty of things to worry and be anxious about, of course, but at least I’ll know where the sofa and the blankets are so I can bundle up and ponder them comfortably without concern for the very physical infrastructure associated with my housing and possessions. And, of course, Marcia and I will be both there in the new nest most of the time (that’s why we’re moving, after three years of frequent separations), and there’s truly no stronger anchor for security than close, regular proximity to those who love and care for us the most. Honestly, at this stage in my life, my favorite part of most days is getting in bed together and holding hands and talking about whatever and saying “I love you” before we go to sleep. That ritual feels wholly secure no matter where it happens (we travel a lot, so we sleep in a lot of different beds), and that’s the deepest core of my sense of safety and comfort and stability as an adult, regardless of what the next day brings.

Which, of course, it always does. While the new home paradigm will be an improvement, I’ll be working remotely three out of four weeks, and that’s a new situation that will take some time to adapt to, and to develop or learn new security rituals. My physical office has its own sense of place for me, too, as does being with my staff in person, and not just via phone or video conference. The organization itself is and will remain secure in the ways that such things are judged, but my place within it is changing, which is cause for some anxiety, which leads to some feelings of insecurity about how things are going to work for me, and around me. I’m not sure, exactly, what sort of virtual stuffed animal will be required in this case, but I know it’s out there, in some form or another. I’ll know it when I hug it, hopefully.

Then the circle spins outward from home and work, in some cases toward the comforting, in some cases toward the scary. We’re financially secure as a family, thankfully, and we have good health care coverage, and are generally healthy for our ages, so those things don’t trouble or worry too much, and I know what I need to do if they do ever move to the front burner of security concerns. Having spent my life with the name “John Smith” and all of the confusion that can cause (e.g. after September 11th, I was routinely escorted away from my family by armed airport personnel for “secondary screening,” since apparently terrorists are also not very creative when it comes to fabricating fake identities), I’ve always been close to paranoid when it comes to computer and information and personal ID security, so I actually probably feel better about that stuff than most people do, since I so assiduously work to protect myself in that regard, having already learned those lessons many years ago. My rituals may be nothing more than rituals, but they push away the “cura” and that’s all I ask for or expect, most of the time.

Having a possibly senile sociopath at the head of our Federal government certainly doesn’t provide me with any good sense of comfort when it comes to national security, and I’ve chosen to largely withdraw from the constant bombardment of reminders of that fact that’s become part and parcel of the modern social media experience. I don’t wish to spend my time being yelled at, even when I agree with people, and that’s the lion’s share of virtual discourse in the public sector at this point, so I reject that, depending instead on a small, carefully curated list of trusted sources who can amicably share discomforting facts with me in a measured fashion that helps to sort things that are legitimate threads to our collective well-being from those that are just hateful noise. The Economist and Electoral Vote are good security blankets from that standpoint: proven, dependable, honest, and familiar. Always happy to curl up with them.

I’m just about finished with a book that discusses at graphic length what’s likely to be the greatest existential threat to me, mine, and ours in the decades (hopefully) that remain in my life: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. I heartily commend it to you, and hope that it might be widely read, and eventually be as widely influential as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which clearly laid out in terse prose what was obvious in front of us at the time, but which we did not wish to address — until we did. Virtually every other form and facet of physical, philosophical, emotional, and structural security surrounding us today has the potential to be irrevocably altered and destabilized in the years ahead by the myriad challenges that a rapidly changing planet is going to place before us, as individuals, as nations, as a species, and as one of many potentially fragile life-forms clinging desperately to the only ball of dirt, rock and water we have and know.

There’s no security blanket, ritual, or teddy bear large enough to hug away the highly tangible security threats that could come from environmental change, and yet their very enormity means that the vast majority of us don’t feel any real, palpable anxiety about them, because they are almost beyond our capabilities to comprehend in any meaningful fashion — never mind having ability to negate or control them. Ironically, if there’s a terminal fallacy embodied in the etymological definition of security as “freedom from anxiety,” that’s probably it: the correlation between that which should cause us anxiety and that which does cause us anxiety is nowhere near as strong as it should be if we are, as individuals and collectively, are to actually create meaningful security barriers from that which can credibly do us harm. We’re not anxious enough when we should be, and we’re too anxious when we don’t need to be, and so our comforting rituals and objects are ultimately just props to support our subjective views of an objective world with no shortage of killer threats swirling around us, literally and figuratively.

Maybe that’s what makes us weirdly, beautifully, stupidly human though, as we create art, and fall in love, and build homes, and work jobs, and write poetry, and look at stars, and continue to find meaning, comfort and joy in the face of the unrelenting entropic forces constantly working to grind us up onto our constituent chemical elements. Oddly enough, despite my innate anxious disposition, I actually do take deep comfort from the idea that no matter what barriers and borders I build around myself, ultimately I’m a small part of a big thing beyond my comprehending, and the best I can do within it is to chase those moments of beauty, and to find those fear-free spaces, however fleeting they might be, and to love and appreciate what I have, when I have it, with others who love and appreciate me. I don’t, and can’t, always practice what I preach in that regard, but I do try, and it feels good to do so, as perhaps the simplest expression of selfish hedonism available to me.

On one hand, I know that the more I focus on those little things, the less I’m doing to respond to those big things, and that’s perhaps a bad trade-off if I take a long-term, macro, evolutionary view of things. (Though on that front, I’ve already spawned and am medically no longer capable of doing so, so from an evolutionary standpoint, I’m already surplus to the Great God DNA’s purposes at this point anyway). But on the other hand, I know that freedom from anxiety feels like a worthy pursuit, and if more of us experienced such freedom, more often, we’d likely be kinder and gentler and more apt to cooperate and collaborate on the structural issues that shape human experience today, including the big scary beast of global climate change and all of its attendant horrors.

“Think Globally, Act Locally” the bumper stickers exhort us, and maybe that’s a good rubric, even though it only works if everyone follows it, and we know that the vast majority of the rapidly developing world’s citizens, flush with the first fruits of middle class consumer experience, are not going to collectively deny themselves the pleasures that we have already experienced, just because they came to them later. On a macro basis, global security in all of its myriad facets is going to get far worse, for a long, long time, in ways we can’t even conceive of today, before it even begins to get better — if it ever can do so, without us first being wiped from the lithosphere like mold from a grapefruit. No matter what the bumper stickers say, there’s nothing I, myself, can do to change that. Nor can you. Nor can even a Democratic U.S. Federal administration fully committed to the most ambitious Green New Deal imaginable, because China, India, Brazil, Russia and countless other nations will not be practicing parties to it, no matter what their leaders’ signatures say on various international accords. It’s an all-or-nothing game ultimately, and the vast majority of players will perish on its board before we actually figure out the rules.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to play that game. We should. We must. If for no other reason than to give ourselves the big security blanket that makes us collectively feel that we are in control of uncontrollable forces. It’s collective madness for us not to, and when we become mad collectively, we foment madness individually, with anomie and ennui and atrophy and atomization dissolving the bonds that tie us and shredding the structures that secure us, tenuously, in the nests of our own making. Recycling our plastic bottles and riding our bikes may not make any more real difference to anything than taking our shoes off as we pass through airport security, but the rituals are important in their own rights, and the security, however ill-founded, they provide to us as individuals is deeply meaningful to our experience as feeling, knowing human animals. Maybe, just maybe, if our brains are less filled with the little security anxieties, we might adapt our perceptions of the objective world a bit, so that we may begin to more accurately gauge and respond to those big security threats.

Ultimately, in our time, that “se cura” model of a life without anxiety has to be a myth, an idealized form of heaven on earth, where soon we will be done with the troubles of the world, even as we still live in that world. My brain may be therapeutically broken in the ways that it processes anxiety, but I don’t believe that even the healthiest brains can truly build such elaborate security measures around them to completely preclude them from anxiety either, except perhaps when they are in a state of complete obliteration from chemical or other depressives. Anxiety might even be a form of psychological friction, endemic to the very act of objects/concepts interacting with other objects/concepts and creating heat and energy, without which work cannot be done, physically speaking. Better to harness that heat and deploy it in positive pursuits, rather than denying its very existence, or denigrating those who experience and express it.

Our security rituals and transitional objects might be more meaningful and impactful if they were rooted less in a “se cura” model and more in a “cum minima cura” — with a little anxiety, so we remain mindful, but not paralyzed, attuned, but not hyper-aware, engaged, but not overcome. “Cuminamacurity” isn’t as elegant a word as “Security” in English, but it might be more meaningful one, and a more realistic one for our collective psyches, as we prepare as a species to face challenges and risks that might be collectively greater than any yet put before us.

The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise.

As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.

Note: This is part three of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using an online random die roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Nine: “Absurdity.”

There’s always a bigger cannonball coming, sooner or later . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

 

Hunnik Asju

Note: Certain portions of this article were separated into their own standalone post, here. If you’re looking for The Mothership, that’s where you need to go . . . 

1. Marcia and I purchased our first home computer nearly 25 years ago. Since then, I have been very good at maintaining and updating Die Maschinen, I always practice “Safe Surf,” and I am averse to technological change for change’s sake. This means I’ve managed to do everything I’ve ever done on computers at home while only owning three Maschinen. (That number could conceivably have only been two, actually, had not my spawn melted down Das Maschine Nummer Zwei accidentally during those awkward early teen years, enticed by the dangerous computer-eating wonders of the early social web). My current Das Maschine has been running like a champ since 2007, but Microsoft, Mozilla and others have announced that they are ending support and upgrades for its operating system (MS Vista), and I’m not willing to maintain an unsupported system for very long once that goes away. I researched updating the OS, but the economics of doing so didn’t make sense, so I finally succumbed and bought a new Das Maschine (Nummer Vier) last week. It arrived yesterday, and last night I went to break the news to Ol’ Yeller 9000 (Das Maschine Nummer Drei) that it was time for us to take a walk out behind the woodshed to talk about stuff, just the two of us. Things went downhill from there, though . . . negotiations are ongoing . . .

Ol’ Yeller 9000 doesn’t believe in fiat currency, so we’re negotiating in precious metal and booze . . .

2. I had hoped and planned that 2017 would be a bit less travel-heavy for me than 2016 had been. Looking at my first quarter route map, I’m thinking this may not actually turn out to be the case:

Upcoming stops: DC (again), Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis . . .

Looks Like America? Fixing the Broken Primary System

Let me introduce this post by stating one strongly held belief, loud and clear: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” caucus is very bad for our country, and the state’s stranglehold on this position of political power should be ended, soon.

I’ve lived for at least a year in eleven different states, and I worked full-time for two years in a twelfth. I’ve traveled extensively through another twenty-some states, so I have a good sense of “what America looks like” at a fairly granular level. After four years of living in Iowa, I can tell you that this is not that. In fact, in many important ways, Iowa feels far more different and unusual than any other state where I’ve spent a lot of time: it’s whiter, it’s older, it’s less military, it’s less tolerant, it’s more paternalistic, it’s more agricultural, and its culture is quirky, to say the least.

kingBut Iowa doesn’t seem to know this. After decades of having local, national and international media outlets spinning the narrative that Iowans are somehow better qualified than other states’ citizens to vet Presidential candidates, and more responsible than their peers at taking this important civic duty to heart, the natives have actually come to believe this, and there’s a layer of smug superiority at play over which other states should take umbrage.

The state’s latent conservatism hurts the GOP more than it hurts the Democratic party, because it forces Republicans to spout hard right ideology to win over the locals, while liberals are required to shift their positions rightward toward the center. Viable moderate Republicans are quashed or smeared early on as a result, and the things they say to the Iowans generally come back to haunt them later on, if they survive past the first caucus. Democrats who play moderate in Iowa are then accused of flip-flopping when they return to leftward form after escaping the cornfields. It’s a bad first wicket, either way.

And here’s the bottom line: the ability to serve as Commander in Chief of a global super-power has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to make small talk while eating a pork tenderloin sandwich in a rural Iowa diner. And that’s the quaint cornerstone of the Iowa caucus experience, along with pledged devotion to the “Full Grassley” tour of all 99 counties. (I’ve done that tour myself; it’s time consuming and over-rated). There’s also the huge economic boom that the caucuses deliver to Iowa, which makes local politicians shrill in their defense of these politically quaint and culturally out-dated electoral notions. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep it here, whether its good for America or not.

While I don’t have the personal experience in New Hampshire that I have in Iowa, I would suspect that the same narrative holds true: locals think they’re somehow better than the rest of the country at eye-balling political candidates, though their tests and rituals are no more effective than those that any other state would deploy under similar circumstances.monsanto

So what would I do about it? If I were Emperor of the American States, I’d mandate a nation-wide primary day, where all fifty states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands would cast primary ballots at the same time, thereby drastically shortening the obscenely long process our political parties undertake to select their nominees. This would also dramatically undercut the power of money in the process, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

If I were only Majordomo of the American States, without full imperial powers to command all to do my bidding, then my second choice would be to have the parties go to a rotating process, where a different 10 states — selected to represent ~20% of the electoral college each cycle, ideally with some regional variety — would get “First in Nation” privileges each cycle, so everyone would get a shot every fifth election. It’s not ideal, obviously, but at least it would break the unfair and unhealthy Iowa and New Hampshire stranglehold.

If I were just a humble party chairman, I’d go with a lesser approach of allowing a small number of states, maybe still only two to four, to maintain a position of primacy — but I’d try to figure out which states would actually make sense if the goal was to produce a state primary outcome that might in some way more realistically and rationally reflect the national will. Unlike, say, Iowa Republicans voting for Rick Santorum four years ago. But only after miscounting the vote, and initially reporting that they’d voted for Mitt Romney. Yeesh.

eyesI don’t have the power or authority to do that — but with 30 years in the public sector and two political science/public policy degrees, I do have the ability to try the answer the core question in a quantitative fashion: if one state was to receive a permanent (or at least long term) appointment as “First in Nation” in the Presidential election process, which state should it be?

Toward this end, I made a spreadsheet, as I so often do when confronted with otherwise unanswerable questions. Spreadsheets make everything better.

In the spreadsheet, I identified a set of metrics on a state by state basis, normalized them on a logarithmic scale, then scored states on their variance from national norms. For each metric, I used the most current, defensible data sets available; the oldest data deployed are from 2010, with most being more current. The closer a state falls to the national norm in each metric, the higher its awarded score is in that particular category. The further a state falls (high or low) from the national norm, the lower its score in that category.iowawine

If a single state was smack in the middle of each and every category, then that state could legitimately make a claim that it “looked like America.” I would then support that state’s right to the special role as Evaluator General for Presidential Elections, since its people were truly as representative of the nation as a whole as any state could be. Even if that State was Iowa.

I tried to use metrics that capture the way regular Americans think about themselves and their communities. What color are we? What language do we speak? How old are we? How educated? How rich? Where do we worship? Are we military? Are we healthy?

Here are the categories I evaluated for each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia. I did not include Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in my database, since they do hold primaries, but their citizens are not allowed to vote in the actual Presidential elections. (I’d change that, too, if I were Emperor of the American States, but that’s a different article).

  • Black Population Percentage
  • Hispanic Population Percentage
  • Median Age
  • College Degree Percentage
  • Percent Self-Declared Christians
  • Urban Population Percentage
  • Household Income
  • Jobless Rate
  • Life Expectancy
  • Per Capita Healthcare Spending
  • Per Capita Military Spending
  • Per Capita Federal Revenue
  • Correlation with Actual Presidential Results (1916-2012)

I loaded all of these data sets into the spreadsheet, set up the normalizing and summarizing formulas, and pushed the big calculator button. And got a result that feels right and good.

By my estimation, if one state in the nation should be given the right to represent all of us in a “First in Nation” primary, then that state should be Wisconsin. If we needed to have a pairing of the Iowa vs New Hampshire variety, then the two states most qualified to represent us all would be Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Here’s the entire list, from most to least qualified to serve as proxy for the nation as a whole. The scores are normalized to a 100 point scale, with the highest ranking state receiving 100 points, and the lowest ranking state (Maine) receiving 0 points, to allow all 51 states (and District) to be compared in relative terms.

LooksLikeAmericaThe four highlighted lines represent the four states that are currently accorded special privileges when it comes to early primaries. None of them deserve the right to represent us, if we want our bellwether to “Look Like America.”

So why do they continue to do so? Well, here’s a list I developed of reasons why Iowa might claim the right, and I’d love to hear from somebody who could develop a similar list for New Hampshire.

If those tongue-in-cheek reasons don’t resonate with you, then I guess we just have to sigh and say “Well, it’s always been that way” (even though it hasn’t) or “Well, nobody else could do any better” (even though they could) or “Because that’s where the money bags want it to be” (which is probably right).

But I don’t like any of those answers, and I long for change. So let’s give Wisconsin and Pennsylvania a crack in 2020 and see how they do, shall we?

Make it so, Number Two. The Emperor of the Americas has other spreadsheets to create.

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Hondakinak

1. I am prone to feats of creative masochism, where I put myself into difficult physical situations just to see how well I respond to them, and then write about the results. Epic drives to nowhere, tedious creative projects followed by destruction of the results, extreme bike marathons, urban exploration, long-term public writing endeavors, cold turkey cessation of bad habits, you name it, I’ve probably tried it, and then written about it. One of my more intense physical feats was losing 30 pounds in about 30 days to mark my 30th birthday, through a really brutal gym regimen and Spartan diet. That was 20 years ago this month, and (since I’m warped) it begged this follow-on question for me: could I lose 50 pounds for my 50th birthday? It seemed to be an absurd premise at first, since even at my heaviest weight, I’ve never looked rotund, given my height and large frame. But I decided to give it a shot anyway, and this week I met the challenge: I weighed 231.7 pounds on February 1, 2014 — and I weighed 179.2 pounds on May 3, 2015. Total weight loss: 52.5 pounds, or 22.7% of my initial body weight. Note well, though, that I didn’t do this in a particularly masochistic fashion, since I took 15 months to shed the extra pounds, with doctor’s consultation, after my family’s proclivity for adult onset diabetes and cholesterol problems had manifested themselves during my 2014 physical. I feel good having hit the mark, and the results from the doctor’s office have been excellent, with both blood sugar and cholesterol returning to healthier ranges, and my body mass index being lower than it has been since high school. Of course, now that I am a lean, mean, masochistic, middle-aged fighting machine, the internet tells me that a squishier “Dad Bod” is officially more desirable in our ever-fickle culture. Can’t win for trying, I guess.

2. The “How Old” app has been dueling with “Dad Bod” reports recently for social media band-width, so I checked it out, figuring skinnier me would clearly look youthful to the Age-Calculating Helper Bots powering this engaging little online trifle. But I was wrong, and clearly not the member of my family who has been drinking from the Fountain of Youth for the past 25 years. Behold: Cradle Robber With No Dad Bod, and His Child Bride! (Click Marcia’s photo to visit her own blog, if you get tired of looking at and reading creepy old me):

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3. I don’t mind Tax Day on April 15, since it reminds me every year that I am a contributing investor in the social contracts that bind us together as a nation. We e-filed our Federal, New York and Iowa State returns this year, and our Federal payment and New York refund processed quickly. But after three weeks, we’d not seen our fairly sizable Iowa return deposited in our bank account, so I checked the State’s “Where’s My Refund” website, and was shocked to discover that our return was being held, because the City of Des Moines had informed the State of Iowa that we owed it money, which would be docked from our State income tax return if we did not settle with the City. We had no clue what this might be, and had never received word from the City of Des Moines that we were in arrears on anything. Until yesterday, that is, when I received a letter telling me that we owed $130 to the City for speeding citations recorded by robot speed traps somewhere in Central Iowa. I have no idea what car, what driver, when, where, or why these citations were issued, since I have never received notice, nor been charged in writing, nor had the chance to address and pay these violations on my own. Which I would have done, had I known about them, obviously. This strikes me as an egregious collusion between State and City governments, and also as a completely inappropriate use of the State’s powers to apply levies to refunds due to its citizens. I get it, maybe, for things like child support payments or long overdue property taxes, but for a Robo-Cop speeding ticket in a city where I rarely drive more than 40 mph while going about my business? Come on . . . that’s a Mickey Mouse shakedown tactic, and it’s wrong. Fortunately, we’re financially solvent enough to roll with having our four-figure return delayed for a month or more, but there must be lower income families who suffer as a result of such strong arm tactics when piddly infractions result in the forced retention of refunds, which might have been ear-marked for food, housing, or healthcare expenses. So shame on you, Iowa, and shame on you, Des Moines. I’ll accept and pay my speeding tickets like a man if I deserve them, thank you, but you have to tell me that I was actually speeding before I can do that, rather than skulking around in the shadows, zapping me with hidden radar, and sniffing at the money that I already pay you both for the privilege of working and living here. That’s just bad governance.

A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley

Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.

Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 30th largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.IowaCounty

Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.

The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.

But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?

I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”

I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.

So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.

First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Clinton County), with all of the top ten counties having over 60,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:

  1. Polk County
  2. Linn County
  3. Scott County
  4. Black Hawk County
  5. Johnson County
  6. Woodbury County
  7. Dubuque County
  8. Pottawattamie County
  9. Story County
  10. Dallas County

Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:

  1. Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
  2. Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
  3. Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
  4. Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
  5. Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
  6. Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
  7. Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
  8. Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract”)

So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.

Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.

Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a middle of the pack State, size-wise and people-wise.

Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.

What do you think? I would love to see someone with better map skills than me take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?