26 November 2015

My Recommendations for Your Thanksgiving Dinner Conversations

A lot of people are giving advice about how to talk politics at the family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. (I won't link to them; they're easy to find.) I thought I would join the fun and add my own recommendations.

1. Let others speak. Being thankful for one's blessings is what should be paramount in one's mind at Thanksgiving. But one cannot be thankful if one is thinking primarily about dominating others. Let others shine; let others speak; let others take the spotlight. When they talk about the good things that have happened to them this past year, or talk about their accomplishments or their children's accomplishments, let them. And join in their happiness. Listen attentively. Smile, laugh with them, congratulate them, show love to them. Don't be envious, jealous, peevish, or cynical: that would make you--and everyone else--unhappy. On this one occasion, let go of your ego.

2. Remember that you don't know as much as you think. You may think that your opinions about politics, economics, or morality are true, even unquestionably right. But you are an imperfect being, and you might be wrong. Remind yourself of that. And remember that it's okay to learn from others, even if what you're learning is simply what others believe and what makes other people tick. 

3. Remember that your family has helped make you what you are. If you have a proverbial "crazy Republican uncle" or "crazy liberal niece," that's okay. In fact, it's awesome! It's part of the rich pageantry of human life and human diversity. Your family has helped to shape you: be mindful of that fact and let yourself enjoy them. You don't need to correct them, you don't need to argue with them, you don't even need to say what you think. And you should not be embarrassed or chagrined or upset for having members of your family who see the world differently from the way you do. That is a beautiful thing. Embrace it and take joy in it.

4. Say grace. Even if you're not a believer, take a moment before you eat to say "thank you" for your family. During the meal, ask everyone at the table to take a turn telling everyone what they're thankful for. Listen to what others say. Don't interrupt them, don't put anyone down or roll your eyes; they are people too, every bit as entitled to respect as you are. Saying grace and taking a moment to think--and speak--about what you're thankful for reminds you of your blessings and reminds everyone that you are a family. And that's what is truly important.

5. Enjoy this time with your family. It might be a long time before you're together again. This is your family, warts and all: accept them and love them. There is all the time in the world to criticize and judge others; take this time simply to enjoy being in each other's presence. Recall the great memories of your times together. Tell tales. Ask others to talk about what's on their minds. And whatever they say or talk about, take it at face value. Don't get offended or upset or angry. Forgive and forget. For at least this one day, let bygones be bygones. Just enjoy your time together.

So many people dread Thanksgiving, but enjoying Thanksgiving can be as simple as changing your attitude. If you are determined not to get upset, if you are determined to be charitable and loving and respectful to everyone, you may just find yourself enjoying your time, not only despite your "crazy" relatives but perhaps even despite yourself. Life is short. We can spend the rest of the year focusing on the many bad things going on in our lives and in the world. On this day, focus on the good. And be thankful for this day.

26 October 2015

He Said It: Ip

"The notion that a sense of safety can lead to disaster is quite intuitive. After all, that's the essence of complacency: let your guard down, take too much for granted, and nasty surprises await. Teenagers famously have too much faith in their own immortality and ability. That's why they hurt themselves so often, in cars, sports, and romance. 'Best safety lies in fear,' Laertes tells his sister, Ophelia, by way of protecting her from Hamlet's sinister overtures. 'Only the paranoid survive' is legendary Intel chief executive Andy Grove's advice to business leaders." 

--Greg Ip, Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 6

13 October 2015

He Said It: Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1881-1895)
[On luck egalitarianism:] "I do not think much of the accident or good luck theory of self-made men. It is worth but little attention and has no practical value. An apple carelessly flung into a crowd may hit one person, or it may hit another, or it may hit nobody. The probabilities are precisely the same in this accident theory of self-made men. It divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration. Yet the accident theory is among the most popular theories of individual success. It has the air of mystery which the multitude so well like, and withal, it does something to mar the complacency of the successful. [...]

"But the main objection to this very comfortable ["accident"] theory is that, like most other theories, it is made to explain too much. While it ascribes success to chance and friendly circumstances, it is apt to take no cognizance of the very different uses to which different men put their circumstances and their chances."


[On the key to success in life:] "From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Every one may avail himself of this marvellous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection."


--Frederick Douglass, "Self-Made Men: An Address Delivered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in March 1893" (in John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds., The Frederick Douglas Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 5: 1881-95 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992], pp. 552-3 and 556)

23 September 2015

He Said It: Ferguson

"The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties, not in enjoying the repose of a pacific station; penetration and wisdom are the fruits of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure; ardour and generosity are the qualities of a mind roused and animated in the conduct of scenes that engage the heart, not the gifts of reflection or knowledge." 

--Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), part IV, section IV

17 September 2015

He Said It: Smith

"The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice."

--Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), III.3.31

04 June 2015

He Said It: Nock

"The anarchist does not want economic freedom for the sake of shifting a dollar or two from one man's pocket to another's; or social freedom for the sake of rollicking in detestable license; or political freedom for the sake of a mere rash and restless experimentation in system-making. His desire for freedom has but the one practical object, i.e., that men may become as good and decent, as elevated and noble, as they might be and really wish to be. Reason, experience and observation lead him to the conviction that under absolute and unqualified freedom they can, and rather promptly will, educate themselves to this desirable end; but that so long as they are to the least degree dominated by legalism and authoritarianism, they never can."

--Albert Jay Nock, "On Doing the Right Thing" (1924)

28 May 2015

He Said It: Washington

"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution. For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."

--George Washington, Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, May 10, 1789

30 March 2015

He Said It: Churchill

"Accordingly I have always been surprised to see some of our Bishops and clergy making such heavy weather about reconciling the Bible story with modern scientific and historical knowledge. Why do they need to reconcile them? If you are the recipient of a message which cheers your heart and fortifies your soul, which promises you reunion with those you have loved in a world of larger opportunity and wider sympathies, why should you worry about the shape or the colour of the travel-stained envelope; whether it is duly stamped, whether the date on the postmark is right or wrong? These matters may be puzzling, but they are certainly not important. What is important is the message and the benefits to you of receiving it. Close reasoning can conduct one to the precise conclusion that miracles are impossible; that 'it is much more likely that human testimony should err, than that the laws of nature should be violated'; and at the same time one may rejoice to read how Christ turned the water into wine in Cana of Galilee or walked on the lake or rose from the dead. The human brain cannot comprehend infinity, but the discovery of mathematics enables it to be handled quite easily. The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still."

--Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874-1904 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930), 116-17

13 February 2015

A Personal Statement of Scholarly Purpose

[Note: If I were in charge of my own college or university, the following is what I would put on page one of its handbook. It reflects only my own convictions, not necessarily those of my current employer, those of any past or potentially future employer, or those of anyone else.]


The purpose of an institution of higher learning is to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and to beat new paths into unexplored regions of ignorance. Our mission is to use the knowledge we discover to serve humankind. We believe this purpose and this mission are honorable and worthy of our professional dedication.

We will therefore preserve and pass on to future generations in sacred trust what we believe we have discovered, but we will never presume to possess the final word on open, contested, or controversial ideas; we will ask others to learn and consider what we profess, but will not seek to limit what others may deem worthy of exploration, investigation, acceptance, or rejection; and we will face and engage differing ideas, but we will not denigrate or demean them, or the people who hold them, merely because they conflict with what we already believe.

We understand that we can achieve neither our purpose nor our mission if we peremptorily rule some avenues of inquiry out, prevent some ideas from receiving a full hearing, or rest content in the pretense that we already know what we need or will need to know.

This means we will continually and robustly exercise the freedom to investigate and examine new ideas, to review our prejudices and settled beliefs critically and regularly, and to confront, in good faith, lines of thought with which we are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. We will judge ideas, assertions, claims, proposals, hypotheses, and conjectures on their merits. If we believe they are false, we will seek to refute them with arguments and evidence; if we cannot refute them, we will accept them, but only tentatively and with a vigilant eye toward future arguments or evidence that may overturn them.

This is the essence of a liberal arts education, without which we are no longer an institution of higher learning. We are the inheritors of a noble millennia-long tradition seeking unfettered inquiry, and we honor that heritage by protecting, preserving, and continuing it. If we cease, limit, or restrict our explorations, we betray not only our purpose and mission but also our solemn duty as scholars. In voluntarily deciding to join the life of the gown, we humbly but resolutely accept, affirm, and attest our charge with the seriousness its importance warrants, and we pledge to uphold and defend its integrity against all those who would corrupt it.