Being Good Ancestors

This post has a few different threads going on and it might jump among them in such a way as to make for awkward reading. As it contains no life updates, you may be tempted to give this post a miss. I ask you, forbear.

Today, I have many thoughts for you. Thoughts for a time when the world, it seems, is in great peril. Thoughts for you and for me, when it feels like we’re failing in all of our efforts to be the change in the story of our earth. The story is already written, I’m afraid, but it is not yet complete. Ruminate a moment, then, not on the change you want to see in your life or in the world as we see it. Cast yourself a hundred years–a thousand years–into a future built as you might wish it for a beloved posterity.

I was reading an article some time ago, nothing particularly moving or anything but the author used a phrase that I found very arresting. I don’t know if it’s common parlance in environmentalist circles or what, but it’s really something. The author said we were not, and encouraged us to become, good ancestors.

Ancestor, for me, has two main connotations: ancestor veneration (typically in the East Asian sense) and like neanderthal/cave man/Australopithecus whatever (as in last common ancestor, obviously I’m not a science person). I don’t typically apply it to myself. Though I don’t anticipate having children (who knows, life is mysterious) I will, regardless, be the ancestor of some people. I already have a niece. How are they going to think of me? Or even in a general sense: what will people think of my generation, several generations hence?

I also heard an interesting analogy the other day and I think it’s relevant. They were talking about police brutality and such, and a defender of police said that a couple of bad apples shouldn’t make you hate the whole profession. The person responded by saying that they don’t hate the whole profession but it doesn’t matter if every single apple is a good apple if the barrel itself is rotten. In other words, our system doesn’t fail–it’s meant to operate in an imperfect, categorically unjust way. We need a whole new barrel.

Relating to ancestors. It’s not enough to raise good children–give them a moral compass, a backbone, the milk of human kindness–if the world we leave them sucks. This applies to the environment because of course. But it also applies to the systems of our society. I think it entirely misses the point to try to plant courage in the coming generations so that they can face challenges well. Of course we should do that, but we should also mitigate the challenges they will face as much as possible!

It makes me think of Harry Potter. Surprise. A lot of people have noted how the series has set up a generation of activists. Ideas like Dumbledore’s Army and the failed Ministry of Magic planted the impetus to incite young people to take control of crises instead of just taking the world as it is. Consider this: Harry’s parents and the original Order of the Phoenix, essentially lost. Voldemort would have continued a reign of terror if he hadn’t unexpectedly died (kind of). In the wake of his disappearance, did society change at all? Did people become more accepting of people with mixed magical heritage? Were systems put in place to ensure that someone else could not come along with the same ideas again? Did human society reconcile with house elves, centaurs, and other magical creatures?

Obviously, it’s heroic to fight evil forces. But, while Voldemort was evil in and of himself, he also represented a strain of evil present in society at large. And it seems to me that those older characters just let it lie. Brought up their children to be kind, but didn’t really fight systemic injustice. Hermione (because she is incredible) makes this her life’s work in the epilogue. Because conquering a villain, in some ways, is the easy part. Building a new world is hard. But if we want to be good ancestors, it’s necessary.

We mustn’t fight a villain and then rest on our laurels. In the words of the Constitution of the United States, we ought to build a new world “for ourselves and our Posterity.”

All these thoughts were compounded by another article I read just this week whose main thrust was this: if we look at the likely span of future humanity, there are literal quadrillions of people who have yet to be born and, it stands to reason, those lives are a significantly weightier moral object than present day existence. Bearing that in mind, everyday acts of altruism, the writer argues, can and do make a difference in forming and reforming the structure of our world.

I want to live life in such a way as to have a positive impact on the quadrillions whom I will never see. I want other people to want that, too. I want people to vote, organize, protest, and work hard for justice. I want people to protect those who need protecting, to advocate for the rights of all, to refuse to be part of a system that systematically dispossesses and abuses and denies humanity to those who are most vulnerable.

Basically: be good, do good, change the world. May the light of history shine kindly on our efforts in the ages to come.

The Difference between Chicago and a Space Colony

Most important update first, of course. This Airbnb has a cat, goes by California. Is super cute. We snuggled a great deal over the past couple days

I drove into Chicago on the early evening on October 8th and it was 87°F which, I’ll be honest with you, wasn’t great. Too hot in general, definitely too hot for the middle of October. Anyway.

I got an early start on Tuesday morning and, without much forethought, walked from where I was staying in Uptown to the Art Institute. Which is a long walk, FYI, especially when it’s hot. I worried about sunburns since I followed the shore directly south for approximately three hours. Luckily, I think I mostly escaped unscathed. Just felt kinda sticky and salty–not from the ocean breeze (would that it were so) but from sweat.

The Art Institute presented, of course, a large selection of Very Beautiful Things. I am no art critic but I do enjoy a good walk-through of art museums. Romantic landscapes, that’s the thing for me. Got to see several famous works in person, always cool. After the Institute, I walked along most of the Magnificent Mile because it seemed like the thing to do. There is some truly wonderful architecture in this city. Later, as I was staying in a very Vietnamese neighborhood, I had to go for Vietnamese for dinner.

On Wednesday, I got a much needed later start (though it wasn’t really that much later). Pastries for breakfast from the patisserie down the street, then onward to Navy Pier. Had a personal deep dish at Giordano’s, it was fine. Poked around Museum Campus and actually went through the planetarium because it was starting to rain. I went to Cheesie’s for dinner. They serve only different kinds of grilled cheese. Please go, it will be good.

I’m headed back to Michigan this morning. Back to fall, too. Trying to think of a big idea to take back from the trip and to share with you.

Overall, mostly positive Chicago experience. The fountain was drained and empty, my car was towed but only to a nearby park, the Art Institute store had a teensy postcard selection. But overall, plenty good. One little story for you as an applicable takeaway.

In the planetarium–which is more of a space science center, really, I didn’t even go into the original planetarium part. Very rainy outside. Extending my stay to avoid the rain. That’s the scene.

I found myself ushered into an open talk with one of the institution’s astronomers. A professional astronomer, how neat is that. She talked about some stuff, answered loads of questions. One question was along the lines of: should we colonize the moon or Mars? Her answer was terrific. I’ll summarize her main points because I liked them and they tie into things, you’ll see.

First, there’s feasibility. She suggested some starter stuff on the moon to prepare for a long-term and large-scale settlement on Mars. But her primary caution was not about the science, it was the ethics. Looking at the example of indigenous peoples and pristine environments here on Earth–and our abuses thereof– she insisted that any space colonization must first avoid the huge problems that we’ve created for ourselves here. She also said that systems of power, where the powerful get more powerful and the have-nots get even less needs to be righted in any theoretical space colony.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest what you’re doing with your life, justice is the cause of everyone. Even astronomers can forward the cause of justice. In my mind, I’m returning to that Mandela quote; let us live free and enhance the freedom of others.

Chicago has a history deeply marred by injustice and inequality. Space colonies don’t have to. You’ve heard it before but that’s just because it’s true: be the change.

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Ethical Quandary sans Quandary

Happy October, everyone. It’s no November but I guess it’s a decent month even so.

So this week is parent conferences, big thrills. The ones I’m involved with are tomorrow, we’ll see how that goes. But then it’s October Break! Because apparently that’s a thing here. A week off. I don’t feel like I’m really in need of a vacation and I suppose that’s a good thing, but I’m definitely not complaining. I have some plans but I’ll elaborate mostly after the fact next week. Should be nice.

And here’s an update on the princess, looking very regal with her arms crossed.

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Last week, I noted that I didn’t really have any musings for you and it looks like I’m making up for that by having some substantial space dedicated to it in this post. Prepare yourselves. Or don’t, you do you.

There’s a fabulous moment in the show Psych when the main character is naming the first books of the Bible. You know: Genesis, Exorcist, Leviathan, Doo… the Right Thing. It’s relevant, I promise.

When I studied abroad in Exeter, one of the classes I took was political philosophy. It remains the only philosophy class I’ve ever taken but it was super interesting. The format of the class was this: we examined one contemporary political philosopher (John Rawls) and responses to his major works. According to the professor (who was Scottish and had a lovely accent), the primary concern of political philosophy in the contemporary era was the question of justice. What is justice and how can it happen in the world.

To start with, we read a lot about how modern philosophers conceived of the creation of the state; its purposes and how those inform its operations. We talked about socialist critiques, libertarian theories, gender, multicultural lenses– all kinds of things.

One thing that I still remember pretty clearly was talking about this main libertarian guy. I won’t explain his who conception of the state and justice and all that, but basically it boiled down to a system that was very simple but absolutely impossible to bring into reality. And the professor asked us this: is his conception of justice wrong or just hard? It couldn’t happen in the world, problems with land ownership after colonialism and stuff like that. But the question still stands. Even if it’s impossible, it can still have merit.

So often and so easily, people and ideas are dismissed for being unrealistic. Certainly, there are good reasons for that sometimes. However, if ideas that weren’t readily applicable were never heard, there would only be the status quo forever. History is a varied fabric of the unthinkable coming to pass. Sometimes in terrible, unimagined darkness. Other times bringing fantastical, innovative light.

The sermon at church this past week was on ethics, how to think about them and how to live with them. In essence: it’s hard, but do good. It does not matter how many times we drive off the ethical road; the line it traces on the map does not change just because we are no longer following it. Some–many, even– ethical choices are hard. That’s why there’s a whole branch of academia devoted to thinking about it. The underlying motives, values, and beliefs don’t have to be.

It’s one thing to think ‘It’s hard to tell what the right thing is in this situation.’ It’s entirely different to think ‘I don’t care what the right thing is.’

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One element of the sermon’s description of ethics was thinking about how our actions benefit or harm those around us. Very utilitarian, though it was only one consideration among many. But I think we can agree that lust for personal power is generally unethical. Even when those people do good things. It’s like in The Good Place, it’s not enough to do good things, you should be doing them for good reasons. And apparently, we’ve abdicated our national social responsibility to hold people to that. Which is unfortunate.

I wanted to finish with some questions, as I am often wont to do here. Struggling to think of them, since I’m pretty medium at ethics. Do you think about ‘right’ when you make important decisions? When you make decisions that don’t seem that important? What’s the difference between nice and good? What role do you play in preserving harmful status quo by the operation of your ethics or lack thereof?

The world is a complicated place for ethical thinkers. As The Good Place amusingly depicts, constantly worrying about the morality of everyday choices will make you a nervous, incoherent wreck. I know I want to be more deliberate about thinking through the implications of my decisions–not just their consequences but their meaning, if that makes sense. But I’m also lazy and don’t want to go insane.

Hmm. Work in progress.