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Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

Do The Right Thing

Winston Churchill once famously said that Americans can be trusted to do the right thing…after they’ve tried everything else first.

We have had our ups and downs as a nation, but we still lead in many important ways, some good and some not so much. There are dire signals emanating from the budget deficit and a broad understanding that our current situation is somewhere between a deteriorating democracy and a strengthening oligarchy. Americans are not yet accustomed to being treated as peasants, but certain realities are making it so.

Citizens now live in a world where business has an augmented reality view. Business sees the world through datasets profiling potential customers. We’ve all been, are being, assessed, analyzed, tagged, sorted. Now that the tools are cheap, surveillance is good for business, and law enforcement is only one of the buyers.

For democracy to survive, it will have to change to deal with this new reality. The first danger is a world of glass walls becoming one-way mirrors. To some extent it already is that way and long has been, but there’s more awareness now, and resistance. You’ve already seen the friction, in Occupy and more recently in Hong Kong. Power is a restless beast. Retaining and restraining it requires a strong leash, which is the function of a democratic system of checks and balances.

Coordination between commercial interests and government paired with surveillance is corrosive to democracy. The perception of American decline is not an illusion. We are losing influence, exclusive and/or privleged access to resources, and perhaps worst of all, credibility.

What can we do? You already know the answer, and you know it so well you’re tired of hearing about it:


Battered as it is, American democracy still exists, but people who want change must vote – and vote for progressive change, vote for progressive candidates, people who don’t blindly follow an ideological or religious agenda.

There are many distractions and not a few hurdles, but voting is important enough that you should think of it as comparable to checking in with your doctor.

In this situation however, you are the doctor, and your vote is your prescription, your treatment plan, your best recommendation.

If you feel your vote doesn’t count or isn’t enough, then roll up your sleeves and get involved beyond voting. Talk to people. Differ without being disagreeable. Seek out progressives, engage them, encourage them to vote. We need every one of them.

Let’s not enable a society of one-way mirrors through apathy. Let’s use these tools to develop a more transparent, fairer society. Let’s ensure the leash is on power, and not on us. If we remain passive, we’ll all be on leashes soon enough.

It’s time to do the right thing.


Written by Influential Prose

October 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm