Friday, September 28, 2012

a better truth about power

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's the (slightly corrupted) quote that everyone knows about power and corruption. It's not very useful.

In the 1870s, Lord Acton wrote the following (in an argument about papal infallibility, a doctrine that was just then being debated — the Pope apparently wasn't infallible before the late 19th century):
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
These words have become to politics what "No pain, no gain" is to athletics. Unfortunately, although they enlighten us about others and keep us worthily wary of others, they do little to tell us about ourselves. Granted, with this wisdom under my belt, if I ever get as much power as Hitler or Stalin, I'll know to dial it back. But it's just not the most important thing to note about the connection between power and character.

Here's a truth more forceful and useful: Power corrupts, and incremental power corrupts incrementally. That is, finally, something that hits home. It's true for all of us. There's an even better corollary:

Power corrupts, and slight power corrupts more than slightly.

Now that is something I need to know, something I need to guard against in my own character and environs, something I need to watch for in myself, in the kids I raise, in my family, in my work, in my church, and everywhere else I live life.

It's a truth that teachers, Sunday school leaders, committee members, and team captains should inscribe on the doorposts of their hearts. We've all seen it happen. It's the single moral lesson of The Office. (Is anything more horrifying and saddening than the sight of sweet Phyllis getting a tiny tiny bit of power over someone?) There's a fashionable idea that goes around every so often that claims that certain powerful positions only attract those who are already corrupt. But that idea isn't necessary: Occam doesn't need it, and, on reflection, neither do we. The thing is, we're already corrupt by nature. We're flawed human beings. To say that only the corrupt are drawn to certain positions of power is to allow the same distancing we do in the "absolute power" quote: the shift of responsibility and blame to a far-off other. Corruption is in Rome; Washington. Well, the fact is that corruption is within me and grows all out of proportion to the slight amounts of temporal power I have over other people.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Here's a new song I wrote. I premiered it at Catherine's church summer retreat. When I got around to writing the bridge, for some reason it reminded me of the architecture of a typical rave set — which I'd always heard in Christological terms, a sort of gospel of tragedy and triumph — a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection that perfectly fits a praise-and-worship message. So I did an electronic-ish arrangement of it, albeit with the epic stadium guitars of its original Hillsongish pitch.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

about college, part 2

The conclusion to the article Catherine's father wrote this to some students he knows who are entering college this semester. Part 1 is here.

Part Two: How to succeed in college

Intending to go to college is one thing; accomplishing it is another. (I'm not going to discuss financing it here.) If you see the social aspect (e.g., having fun) as primary or even coequal to getting the education, you have set an obstacle for yourself (probably bigger at Texas State U, and smaller at Middlebury). The social side is a side effect, a great benefit, but should not be primary.

Nine rules for success in college

All nine recommendations here are served by good habits and hindered by bad habits. You cannot say, "I'm in college! Today I will begin using good habits and stop my bad habits." Good habits have to be cultivated, and bad habits slowly driven into extinction. Thus if you have bad study habits you will develop good ones incrementally. If you find it difficult to study more than fifteen minutes at a time, study fifteen minutes at a time until it is more doable, then try, say, twenty. If you play video games (for instance) an hour a day, try limiting yourself to fifty minutes, and then do that only after you have finished your homework.

1. PRIORITIZE. What are your goals? You might start by listing them (yes, having a good time is a legitimate goal). By writing them down you might reveal to yourself that one goal is incompatible with — even inimical to — another goal. Now take the resulting list and prioritize your goals. With this list of priorities you can now decide how to divide your time. Some goals on the bottom of the list might even have to fall off due to lack of time. Without such a list of priorities, you might hurt an important goal by spending too much time on an unimportant one.

2. FOCUS ON YOUR MOST IMPORTANT GOALS. "I don't feel like working today": if that thought guides you dozens of times each semester the cumulative effect will divert you from your goals. Sometimes hard work, even drudgery, today will help you get the life you want in the future. Less play time with your friends this year may help you get the job that will give you more time with your family in the future.

3. LISTEN. Cultivate paying attention in class. A wandering mind signifies danger in your life. Focus — "listen" — when reading. You can too easily run your eyes down a textbook page without absorbing anything.

4. INTERACT. With your textbook. With the lecture. With yourself. Ask questions. Ask questions. Did I say ask questions? Sometimes asking questions can clarify your thinking, sometimes it's as simple as "What did I just read?" Sometimes an out loud question to the instructor (if allowed!) can correct a misunderstanding or fill in a gap.

5. THINK SKEPTICALLY. ("sceptically" is OK, too) "Where is the evidence?" is the number one question of skeptical thinking. "Is that logical?" is probably the number two question. Practice skeptical thinking. Being skeptical is not the same thing as being cynical.

6. BE TEACHABLE. Learning can come from any source. I was always happy to learn something from someone much younger than me, especially if it was to correct an error. (Correcting errors in our understanding is an important part of our growth.) Why do babies learn so fast? Because they are teachable and never defensive when corrected.

7. STUDY. Don't try to get by on your intelligence alone (you know who you are!). You have two full time jobs: going to class is one; studying is the other. (You can't work at a full time money job and take a full load at college. You might have a full time money job and go to school half time. That would give you two full time jobs.) Use those odd-moments to study — on the bus, on the toilet, while eating. We all have 24 hours each day — the question is what can you wring out of that?

8. STAY IN REALITY. Don't make plans or set goals that are unrealistic. You probably shouldn't plan on running the mile in 3:45. If you don't achieve way beyond your high school level in your first college semester, that may be a sign that you were thinking unrealistically, rather than you being a failure. Adjust your aim as you see what is possible for you. Doing the above should enable you to meet realistic goals and gradually set higher ones, if you so wish. Not doing the above will probably require you to lower your sights. (If you are brilliant you can probably ignore most of the above, but then you are not living up to your potential.)

9. PERSEVERE. I can't tell you how often I have heard a former student say, "I'm dropping a couple of classes because I've fallen behind" or "I'm going to take a semester off" (that's sometimes a good idea, but almost never, except out of financial necessity).
"Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."
Winston Churchill, 1941

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

about college, part 1

Catherine's father wrote this to some students he knows who are entering college this semester. Worthy reflections for the young as well as the old.

Part One: The purposes of college

One reason for going to college
I want to discuss why a college education is important. At the risk of over-simplifying, the first function of college is to provide a door into the world of the educated adult. Those outside that world do not — and cannot — understand what that means. Among other things, it means a broader awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the world around us, not only through the viewpoint of our own culture, but beyond that. The lesser educated person is aware of some of this, but not as much.

In fact, the lesser educated person is usually unaware of the depths of his ignorance — he not only doesn't know about the "world" beyond him, he doesn't know that that world exists. (One characteristic of higher education is that it provides an awareness of our ignorance. To put it another way, when I graduated from high school I was aware of how much I knew; today I am aware of how much I don't know.) As we learn more, we learn that there is more to be learned ("Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise" — I remember that from a college course).

The reason college provides this doorway is because colleges (and universities, of course) follow the vision of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts ideal begins in elementary and secondary school. It means that you learn something in several areas, specifically in the areas of language and literature, mathematics, science, history, art, music, physical education, and foreign languages. These will inevitably include other areas, such as psychology, sociology, geography, and anthropology. We should not end our studies of these areas in high school, according to the American liberal arts ideal (in contrast with various European educational systems, which do end this with secondary education). This is why many see the American college system as the best in the world — although probably not our pre-college education. (In Europe, university begins the way our graduate schools operate; in Japan, college is seen as a four year vacation.)

There are other gateways into the world of increased awareness, appreciation, and understanding and I know a few non-college graduates who, through widespread reading and thinking, have entered in this way, but it is not common. There are also college graduates (probably fairly common among those who graduated in the 1970s when many colleges weakened the liberal arts vision) for whom college didn't succeed in moving them into this realm. It depends on going to a college with a rigorous commitment to the liberal arts ideal — one that won't give you a degree without following the path.

A second reason for going to college
Employers often demand a college degree for a job. On the lowest level this is because it means you are a member of The Club. But I also think that it means you have a general set of skills, an awareness of the world around you not generally held by the high school graduate, and a proven ability to perform on a certain level. Note that college is not really necessary for this and many highly qualified high school graduates are unfairly locked out of certain jobs because they don't belong to The Club.

Often high school counselors (and others) crassly present this as the primary value of college (I, myself, never heard such crude arguments when I was in high school). That certainly is the second reason to attend college, and such an argument has a strong appeal if you come from an environment where college is not part of your family tradition and seems primarily the gateway to a better life. It certainly is, for most people. It's just that this is, in my opinion, the secondary value of college.

College doesn't make you a better person in any moral sense, as good people exist on every educational level, as do bad people. But it does allow you to enter the world discussed above.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

can't smile without you

"Can't Smile Without You" came out when I was a little kid. I can still remember the glowing sense of uplift it had. So singalongable.

I also distinctly remember the claps that came in on the last chorus. I assumed at the time that it was a live audience, but it's definitely done in the studio, albeit with way more people than the usual studio claps. That's, what, at least 60 or 70? (The Beatles usually used 2 or 3 clappers.) More songs need clappers.

The thing I remember is that the claps were off time. I thought "Man, big crowds really can't clap in time very well, can they?" Of course, since it was done in-studio, either [a] it was intentional or [b] the producers and engineers [b1] didn't notice or [b2] didn't mind.

Actually, at this point I don't mind either. Really nice arrangement. And what an odd bridge:
v7 - v7 - I13 - IVM7 - iv6(#7) - iv6(#7) - V13
I don't think there's another pop song that has that chord structure as a bridge. Totally works though, and all those key changes, often in the middle of a chorus. Great pop art there.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

you demonize, you lose

Here's sort of the flip side of the other day's post.

A while back, because of how parties were aligned, there were liberal and moderate and conservative Democrats and liberal and moderate and conservative Republicans. Starting back in the 60s there were all these shifts to make it so that now things are more "pure," if you can call it that. One of the results is that now, since so many package-deal issues are exclusive, there's a much smaller chance that someone who disagrees with you on X issue will even be in your party. (Even if you don't consider yourself part of a party, it still holds because, face it, we do wind up somewhere on the spectrum.) That makes it possible for us to begin attacking things other than positions and arguments. We're now in a political culture in which it's not only not outrageous but it's also somewhat common for a candidate to openly speculate on the motives or patriotism of another candidate. How did we get there? How on earth can we get somewhere else?

Demonizing is wrong for anyone to do. It's wrong for someone to do to me; wrong for me to do to them back; wrong for them to do back to me in return; wrong for me to do again in return; and on and on.

The time has come to simply stop it. Let's vigorously debate what it means to defend the Constitution; let's argue over our differences regarding what it means to have a fair system, what it means to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare; let's say this guy's economic policy is horrible, that guy's foreign policy is an embarrassment, and so on — but please, please, let us stop demonizing each other, darkly questioning each other's motives, and saying whoever disagrees hates America.

I'm perfectly happy for people to attack bad policy and bad government ideas — Romney and Obama both have plenty of those to attack — but it's time for the other attacks, the personal attacks and motive attacks, on anybody on any side, to stop.

I'm an involved, concerned, informed voter, and from everything I've seen I confidently say that both these men are running for president because they really do want to serve this country.

Change can happen in a society. We've seen it before: behavior X is perfectly normal and acceptable; then it's a bit obnoxious but people dismiss it with a thats'-my-crazy-uncle-for-ya chuckle; then it's seriously looked down on; then it can get you fired. In just a little over one generation, Mad Men-style sexual harassment has gone from acceptable to unacceptable; same with stinking up public spaces with cigarette smoke, and with drinking and driving. It's not just that the regulations have changed: people's hearts, values, really are different now regarding those things. The same can happen with this horrible trend in our politics.

What if, a few short years from now, someone who says a candidate isn't patriotic enough or doesn't really love America enough simply lost credibility right then and there?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I love my friends

Saturday, September 1, 2012

passion project at jazzSAlive market

Jazz'SAlive Market is a new cool thing that expands the jazz festival in San Antonio - every Tuesday evening a nice big fat multi-hour performance by a jazz group.

No puny 40-minute sets here: it's a whole gig full of music. In this case, it's the music of Passion, a studio project I did several years back. Not long ago I got it in my head that this stuff *could* actually be done live, and got together a tight-as-the-dickens bunch of musicians:
Jim Kalson, bass
Anthony Bazzani, piano
John Alexander, drums
and of course me on piano as well. With two keyboards, and such a great rhythm section, the result is a big rich sound and some really terrific musical communication.

Come on out to Travis Park! Admission is free, the weather is actually getting very tolerable, the company will be fellow music-lovers, there'll be food and drink and love and music.

That's THIS Tuesday night, September 4th. 6-9 pm.See you there.