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Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.
~Robert A. Heinlein
We’ve certainly gotten our share of weather this season. Blizzards in New England, ice storms in Florida, subzero temperatures in the Midwest, and devastating dry heat in California. Whatever we were expecting from winter, this was not it.
Of course, you can always find a silver lining if you look hard enough. As humorist Kin Hubbard wrote, Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.
It is remarkable how much we seem to delight in stating the obvious. Do we think that others won’t notice Mother Nature’s current disposition if we don’t bring it to their attention?
But the weather teaches a deeper lesson in human psychology, one first observed by the sages of the Talmud some 2000 years ago:
Everything is in the hands of heaven except cold and heat.
At first glance, it appears that the author of this remark was playing with our minds. After all, is anything less in our control than the weather? To complicate matters, this comment seems to contradict the more famous talmudic dictum that,
Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.
The meaning of the second statement is easier to grasp. As much as we human beings like to think of ourselves as masters of our own fate, the truth is that we have no control whatsoever over what happens to us.
Of course, we can choose how we act. But where our actions will lead, where our choices will take us, and what twists of fate lie lurking around every corner – about those we have nothing to say at all.
Consider these ironic footnotes to history:
The trendy, textured wallpaper invented in 1960 by Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding turned out to be a total failure. Well, not a total failure. Several years later it was put to good use. You know it as Bubble Wrap.
In 1968, Spencer Silver tried and failed to develop a super-strong adhesive for 3M laboratories. Instead, he produced a stickum that easily peels right off. His failure gave us Post-it notes.
Then there’s the story of John DeLorean, the wunderkind who rose to become general manager of Chevrolet, only to leave General Motors and start his own car company. His sleek, gull-winged, stainless steel luxury car captured the world’s imagination, and experts predicted boundless success. But production delays and a global recession drove his company into bankruptcy. DeLorean was arrested and charged with drug-trafficking, purportedly to raise the $17 million he needed to save his ailing company.
Sometimes we do everything right and fail; sometimes we do everything wrong and succeed. Ultimately, we have no more control over the outcome of our efforts than we have over the weather. What we do control, however, is how we respond to what happens to us.
When we forget where we left our keys, do we start snarling at the people around us? When we’re late for an appointment, do we curse the red light that makes us later? When we get caught making a mistake, do we try to deflect responsibility by shifting blame onto others? When a project fails, do we make excuses, or do we try to learn how to turn the experience of failure into a formula for success?
It’s the way we respond to situations of stress and disappointment that reflects the quality of our character. This is what the sages call fear of heaven.
Don’t we do a greater service to ourselves, as well as to the people around us, when we laugh at our own foolishness, admit our own mistakes, and quietly accept the inconveniences that fate scatters along our way? Don’t we make it easier for others to look for the good and cope with the bad when we model keeping perspective and priorities where they should be? Don’t we come out ahead in the end by challenging ourselves to do better than by cursing the randomness of misfortune?
We can’t change the weather, but we can dress warmly against the cold and stay hydrated against the heat. That’s plain common sense.
It’s less common to remain even-tempered and upbeat in the face of life’s bumps and bruises. But it makes just as much sense.
And it’s entirely in our hands.
It happened when John F. Kennedy appeared at his presidential inauguration without a hat. One instant of astonishment, followed by men’s hats instantaneously dropping out of style.
It happened when Michelle Obama began appearing sleeveless as First Lady. A few days of disdain and mockery from the right, after which virtually every female commentator on Fox News had shed her sleeves.
And currently, it has happened with Donald Trump’s unfiltered attacks on anyone who dares to question or oppose him. After excoriating the president for his vitriol and divisiveness, his detractors on the left have used the exact same tactics in their campaign against him.
This has nothing to do with taking sides.
There is something dark and sinister about the word compliance.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with being in compliance. But the way we say things matters. That’s why there’s such a strong link between ethics and communication.
To say we are in compliance presumes ethical conduct as something imposed on us contractually or legislatively. And the problem with that attitude is that we start to resent the rules of compliance as a burden and an inconvenience.
That makes us want to rebel.
The UN vote is about more than Jerusalem and about more than an embassy
It’s depressing to have to state the obvious. But it’s too maddening to remain silent. So please forgive me if I revisit what many have said but few have heard.
Last week’s United Nations vote – which censured the United States for planning to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – is a pitch-perfect example of human society’s collective descent into tribalism. And the heart of the matter has nothing to do with Jerusalem, the Mideast, or American foreign policy.
One could reasonably make the case that moving the embassy is ill-advised. I have had my own doubts whether or not the benefits of the largely symbolic gesture outweigh the potential for violent Palestinian reaction.
But that was not the stated reason behind the U.N. resolution.
Instead, leaders and pundits the world around claimed that the move will derail the peace process. And to that, the logical retort is: what peace process?
In the 53 years since the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which preceded the Six Day War and Israel’s so-called “occupation” of the West Bank), the only concession offered up by the Palestinian Authority has been to remove from its charter the call for Israel’s destruction.
The concession to stop publicly advocating the extermination of 6 million Israeli Jews was a good first step, not a final offer. Negotiation requires compromise, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak demonstrated back in 2000 when he offered to return 94% of the West Bank – an offer the P.A. refused. Since then, the only progress has been Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, to which the P.A. responded by launching missiles against Israeli civilians.
So exactly what “process” does the international community think has been derailed?
PSYCHOLOGY AND PATHOLOGY
Even more absurd is denouncing the U.S. embassy move as “illegal.” The whole world has recognized Israel’s ownership of West Jerusalem since 1947. So why should any country not be allowed to name its own capital in its own land? And why should any other country be censured for establishing its embassy in a legal foreign capital? Finally, why should longtime allies join the chorus of condemnation with absolutely no legal or moral justification?
The first two questions are merely rhetorical. It is the third question that really needs answering. Are you listening, Europe and Canada?
There are two explanations. First is the irrational Utopianism that characterizes much of the political left. Like the delusional naturalists who believe that grizzly bears and mountain lions are really peaceful creatures who will respond to human gestures of affection in kind, radical progressives fantasize that terrorists and the sponsors of terror will eagerly embrace peace once the rest of us confess our sins and beg for absolution.
It hasn’t worked yet. But the Utopians have faith, even as they remain blind and deaf to the irrefutable evidence that they themselves have become the enablers of terrorism. For all their good intentions, they have prolonged suffering on all sides by allowing corrupt Palestinian leaders to squander hundreds of millions in international aid on terror tunnels rather than easing the plight of their own people.
The second reason is that western governments are terrified that any sign of support for Israel will spark violent uprisings among their restless Arab minorities. It’s a disappointing fact of life that the politics of cowardice almost always trump commitment to justice.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The more fundamental problem, however, is the unapologetic disregard for truth.
Think whatever you want and believe whatever you want – but defend your positions with facts and logic, not disinformation and distortion. Once reasoned debate and civil discourse become impossible – whether because of ideology or fear – civilization is sure to crumble beneath our feet.
Truth be told, it’s possible that by showing the Palestinian Authority that intransigence will no longer serve their interests, the U.S. has actually moved the peace process a step forward. If other countries begin to follow America’s example, the PA will be left scrambling to make a deal before they have no more chips left to bargain.
King Solomon says, One who trusts his own heart is a fool, but one who walks in wisdom shall be kept safe.
If we truly hope to bring about peace, we have cast off our rose-colored glasses and confront our fear. Only then might we achieve the intellectual and moral integrity that will allow us to follow in the ways of wise counsel.
Fashions change, and so do standards. John F. Kennedy attended his presidential inauguration without a hat, and instantly hats fell out of style. Female attire that’s perfectly acceptable today would have landed a woman in jail a century ago.
But there’s a difference between styles and standards. A relaxed dress code may work in the offices of Facebook and Google, but conventional businesses find that productivity drops off when executives drop their office shirts, skirts, and slacks.
So if United airlines wants to hold its employees to a more formal standard of attire when they’re flying as a corporate perk, perhaps the company should have been applauded for its professionalism.
And if that requires family members who fly on non-revenue tickets to spruce up a bit, is that such a high price to pay?
Well, you’d certainly think so after the twitterstorm that engulfed the carrier earlier this year. And since it’s the season for New Year’s resolutions, let’s think back to last March, when an uninformed bystander jumped to conclusions and — rather than investigating to get her facts straight — tried and convicted United in the court of public opinion.
Love him or hate him, you have to admire Donald Trump’s genius for manipulating the media. What’s even more impressive is the way he’s been beating them at their own game.
In his recent book, Win Bigly, Scott Adams deconstructs the president’s odyssey of extremist declarations, puerile outbursts, and over-the-top promises. The renowned cartoonist of Dilbert fame convincingly reframes the Trump campaign and presidency, not as the random escapades of a cartoonish narcissist but as the calculated strategy of a smooth and savvy operator.
According to this thesis, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric calling for building a wall, mass deportations of immigrants, and banning Muslims – together with his warning of ISIS in the Vatican and his torrent of adolescent tweets – have all been pieces of a prearranged puzzle. One can argue the extent to which he advocated these positions or intended to implement them. What seems clear is that Mr. Trump anticipated exactly how incendiary they would sound, how violently his detractors would react to them, and how staking out extreme starting positions would give him room to negotiate later on.
How could he not have sucked all the air out of the country by sparking dual conflagrations of nationalist celebration and liberal outrage?
So why exactly did this help Donald Trump? Because the constant repetition of his ideas gradually drained them of their shock value while systematically embedding them in the country’s collective consciousness.
The more we hear something – anything – the more familiar it becomes and, proportionately, the less frightening. At the same time, the very outrageousness of his early proposals allowed him to walk them back and thereby appear more reasonable by moderating his positions.
He even colored his hair more blond and tinted his skin less orange.
In short, Mr. Trump played the media like a virtuoso, conscripting their irreflective aid as they blasted his name and image across the country. With their cooperation, the electorate gradually got used to the idea of an otherwise unthinkable candidate and voted him into office.
But the media should have known better. Because they have been doing the same thing themselves for decades.
Since the 1970s, the news media and the entertainment industry have been allies in the transformation of American culture. The family-based values of the post-World War II generation did not suit the progressives who envisioned a country free from traditional conventions and unfettered by social stigma.
And so filmmakers brought us movies like Brokeback Mountain, the gay-cowboy saga that, predictably, garnered a slew of Oscar nominations. The television studios showed us clever children running circles around their clueless parents in The Simpsons, and brought a gay couple front and center in American homes with Will and Grace.
During those years, Americans grew increasingly accustomed to the withering of traditional roles, as young people were indoctrinated into the new normal and their conservative elders were worn down by the relentless force of cultural inertia.
None of this was accidental. And whether you think it has been good or bad for the country, it succeeded with ruthless effectiveness.
But what took the media decades to achieve, Donald Trump accomplished in 18 months.
But here’s the real problem. As power players become more sophisticated at manipulating the public, we slip further and further into an Orwellian future where truth becomes expendable, morality becomes relative, and civility becomes an anachronism.
As a culture, we have never believed in victory at any cost. That’s why there’s a Geneva Convention for warfare, compliance standards for business, and sportsmanship recognition on the athletic field. But nowhere is moral conduct more critical than among our leaders.
Be a tail among lions rather than a head among foxes, teaches the Talmud. Good leaders benefit all who follow them by raising the standard of personal conduct. But one who attracts followers with fox-like craftiness by appealing to the darker side of human nature will inevitably leave chaos in his wake.
Every community rests on a foundation of civility and ethics, a foundation that needs constant reinforcement to remain steadfast. But when a society is overtaken by the politics of personal ideology and personal power, the most solid foundation can be eroded in no time at all.
The art of dealing is a given in the jungle of the boardroom. In the halls of government and the chambers of civic discourse, the diplomacy of character, discipline, and nobility is the only formula for lasting success.
Photo Credit: Max Pixel