Knowledge and Self

Mary Gergen writes about the concept of Social Ghosts[i], people we still speak to and hear from though they are absent in our current lives. One of my big (huge) ones is my father. Since I get to select which version of him is useful to me, I mostly speak to and hear from person he was when he was around the age I am now, before cognitive decline muted one of the finest minds with which I have ever interacted.

He is particularly on my mind these days for two reasons. The first is that a dear friend of his has just lost her father and I saw his obituary in the New York Times. Though she and I have never had a direct relationship, I sent her a condolence note and she was kind enough to open up a conversation about the having of highly visible fathers.

The second is that I recently decided (again) that I really need to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The copy I bought last time I decided this has gone missing, but I did find (tucked in a safe corner) Dad’s copy with his marginalia.

I have this book because these were the books I kept when he passed, the books in which his spidery handwriting noted, expanded, and argued with the authors’ ideas, in which his underlines, exclamation points, and particular ways of marking passages point out to me what caught his attention. These are the books through which I can still learn from him, evoking the most powerful social ghost in my world. All the markings are, of course, in ink … the same way he did the NYT Crossword puzzle. He did not lack intellectual confidence.

In some of these books the notes are minimal, maybe half a dozen comments total. Not so with his responses to Dr. Kuhn. His hand has marked at least a third of the pages. In these notes he:

  • Identifies Kuhn’s arguments (“The concept of development-by-accumulation” (Kuhn) is “the paradigm he wants to disenfranchise” (Dad));
  • Makes note of resources to track down, such as Copernicus’ classic definition of a crisis state.
  • Applies Kuhn’ arguments to others’ ideas, most frequently Marx;
  • Applies others’ ideas to Kuhn’s points, such as the note inside the front cover quoting Cossier’s The Philosophy of Enlightenment about “the self-development of the idea of knowledge itself”, complete with page number; and
  • Argues with Kuhn’s points. These comments generally get too complex to explain here without extending this already-too-long post, but I think the case is made when he responds to Kuhn’s point that previous scholars should not be accused of bias with a succinct “No?”

My favorite note, however, might be the most obscure. It comes at the end of a heavily marked passage about how errors in previous ways of thinking show more clearly when those previous ways of thinking have matured, revealing their errors as anomalies in the theory. He summarizes this point in the margins, but the bit I love is the comment written at an angle at the end of the paragraph: “Very happy…”. I have no idea why he wrote this.

When I studied rhetoric as a grad student, the idea that most drew me was epistemology, the question of how we know what we know. Readers of a particular bent will have already noticed this theme running through what I post here, this importance of questioning what we take to be true.

Reading dad reading Kuhn reminds me that, when it comes to this type of intellectual inquiry, I have not fallen far from my tree. This understanding-of-self-through-relationship is one of the uses of Social Ghosts. The other, of course, is that through a physical book I once again get to talk to my dad about ideas. Still, I wish I could still do it in person.



[i] Gergen, M. M. (1987). Social ghosts: Opening inquiry on imaginal relationships. In 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Not Quite (Hu)Man

Way back when some of us thought The Naked Emperor couldn’t be elected, he boasted that his celebrity status meant that any woman was his for the grabbing. This wasn’t surprising to those of us paying attention; the stories and his verbal and nonverbal communication painted a pretty clear picture. What was surprising (at least to me) was that the population at large didn’t care. This ate at me for a while before it hit me that what freaked me out was that this contained the message that simple human dignity wasn’t mine to claim. Trump, rape culture, us as Things… it’s all part of this denial that women are, I am, fully human. This insight brought me into a feeling of despair and sadness I do not remember experiencing before.

In the next moment light again flashed in the epiphany that this denial of humanity is what the Black Lives Matter people have been trying to get us to see. I had believed them before, and had intellectual understanding, but that punch in the gut connection was a whole new thing. Though my Whiteness bars me forever from complete empathy, meeting in that type of grief shattered yet another layer of the shell that protects me (us) from feeling what racism does.

This mechanism of making the Other less than human is key to all the other screwed up stuff. Today this article on how that works bobbed by in the stream. And I wanted to share it with you.

Many Forms of Power

A few years ago I asked a biologist how she liked her work. She told me it was sad, because her field had the task of “monitoring the decline.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase lately, as we collectively witness the decline of support for so many things that support healthy biological and human communities.

Each day seems to bring with it threat of some new unacceptable loss: Laws that protect bear cubs on public land and their moms while they hibernate; Unexploited federal lands; Federal funding for the arts (including Big Bird!); Legal help for people without a lot of money; Computers for people without a lot of money; Decent public education; Clean water; Clean air; Thoughtful community policing; Affordable, comprehensive health care; Policy informed by data and compassion. If you’re still reading my work after the first few weeks, you probably have your own I didn’t get to here. If you are still reading my work, you are likely keenly aware of the disruption, pain, and death that will come to the least protected of us through these changes.

And all this is hard to hold.

And the power of the forces we are resisting is located in important places, primarily the legislative and budgetary processes of the federal and most state governments. Since they are the ones with the legal ability to collect and spend our money (and to legally shoot and imprison people), they do require attention and response. I am loving the response I’m seeing in the grassroots efforts to find and run candidates who support healthy communities, the resistance at town meetings, and the flood (too small a word) of calls and letters to our elected representatives.


They do not have all the power, not even all the power we sometimes assume they do. When I hear on the news that their proposed budgets would cut arts, legal services, food to poor families, health care to a whole lot of us, and programs to help cops see Black people as humans rather than criminals, then I remember that “would” is conditional, not definite. Then I remember that if we are irritating enough we might mitigate some of the damage.

I also remember that we have the power of the legal system, imperfect as it is; that journalists have the power to name truth no matter how much the Bully Pulpit tries to live up to its name; and that we, collectively, have the power to be decent to each other, to protect each other, and care for the community of life of which we are part.

Yes, there are awful forces moving against things that I love, but it is not naïve to notice that there is also a vibrant network nurturing, supporting, and defending these beloved lives, places, ideas, and values. The magazine that feeds me best for remembering these good works is Yes Magazine. I’ve linked here to their 20th anniversary issue, which lists 50 inspiring ideas to make the places we live more sustainable and inclusive, but it’s pretty much always great.

I’m not sure yet if we’re monitoring the decline or witnessing a birth of something we need to become. I am sure which one I’m going to try to make happen.


(This post is dedicated to Louise Spencer, who is one of the most effective and humble change agents I’ve met in a long time. I am grateful to have found my way into the vibrant network she helps to create without even really noticing how powerful she is.)

Causes = Greed & Exploitation

Wendell Berry connecting racism, war, and the environment, said:

“For I believe that the separation of these three problems is artificial. They have the same cause, and this is the mentality of greed and exploitation. The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, that imposes on young men the tyranny of the military draft, that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology…We would be fools to believe that we could solve any of these problems without solving the others.”
(From “Think Little” essay in “
“A Continuous Harmony.”, 1972)

Racism: Trump is moving forward on “law and order”, including bringing back a program that was shut down in 2014 because it led to wide-spread racial profiling of Latinos, and cutting back support of DOJ-mandated reforms (consent decrees) of police departments with records of civil rights violations.

War: His actions in Yemen are seen by some as unravelling progress made toward a political solution.

Environment: The house just approved the NRA-backed bill to permit killing bear cubs in Alaskan wildlife refuges. (The senate vote hasn’t been scheduled.) And, you know, that whole shut down the EPA thing.

This all didn’t start with Trump, of course. Today a state report out of Michigan says that racism played role in the Flint water crisis. No surprise here. The causes are greed and exploitation.


In my last post I had a list of racist organizations Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists as being active in New Hampshire. Today I ran across a reference to one of those groups as being one of the “most violent U.S. racist organizations”[i]. These words sent a chill across my skin. These words made me want to edit my last post.

I have known for a long time that one of the hallmarks of privilege is that we get to decide when take advantage of it. So far, that’s mostly meant deciding if I want to speak at a meeting if I know that I’m using stolen airtime, or if I really want to be one of a handful of people on a street corner saying that Black Lives Matter. It turns out to have a very different feel when I choose to name groups who use physical violence to resist values I espouse. Most of the risks asked of the privileged are social or emotional. Physical risk is a whole other thing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t scurry back into that protective privilege, if only for a moment, when I realized these people could now learn about me, find me, and hurt me.

I get it that listing a racist group in a tiny blog doesn’t get me anywhere near the level of risk experienced by members of our marginalized communities for simply existing. This does not mean, however, that I want to ignore that shot of fear and my panicked initial reaction.

Better, I think, to notice what made me want to cut and run. I’m not the only person with some sort of privilege to decline it until the moment it will protect me or people I love. This is why I don’t take it personally when members of marginalized communities are skeptical of my commitment to addressing their concerns. I think a prerequisite for being an effective ally or accomplice is to know that these moments will happen and that sometimes we may fail to live up to our values. What matters more is what we do next.

In my case, I’ll leave in place my blog that names scary groups, and maybe even try to get my butt to the next BLM event. Do you have a story about when you were startled back into privilege by your fear, and what you did next? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.


White People Losing It (part one of ?)

I can’t say I have delved deep into an understanding of the white supremacist mindset. As far as I can tell, it’s swampy, illogical, and disturbing and not a place I want to hang out. That said, I do attend to it when it pops up in my world, as it did this morning in my FB feed from D.L. Hughley about these folks losing their, um, cool over Netflix’s promotion of the series, Dear White People, based on the 2014 movie of the same name.

Their concern is that this show promotes White Genocide. By this they mean genocide of White People because, you know, giving Black People space to do themselves without being hassled or hurt is the thin edge of the wedge to White People being wiped out because of their race. It’s possible that they have an alt-dictionary for the term in which genocide means we’ll intermarry more and have a smaller portion of White People down the road, but this is part of the swamp I’ve not gone into yet.

It’s easy to ridicule this and decide to ignore them for silly wrongheadedness, but the four cases of racist school graffiti I’ve heard about here in the last few weeks have had the same message, that “Diversity is code for White genocide”. I’m thinking this is a message these people are coalescing around. I’m thinking the words (as vile as they are) aren’t their only plans. This suggests some push back is needed.

The article I link to above observes that their boycott is unlikely to ding Netflix’s bottom line, but I’d like to show the series some love anyway. Counteracting the trolls by looking for #NoNetflix or thanking Netflix through some channel would offer some satisfaction. While you’re at it, though, you could also give a few bucks to, because they do great work and today asked for help training Black student activists to protect free, quality education. It’s an intersectional world we live in… I figure saving decent education is a pretty good way of resisting swampy, illogical and disturbing thinking.

Poetry which heals me

Out of respect for the labor of artists, I’m not copying the poem here, but The Art of Blessing the Day by Marge Piercy sooths my soul in some essential way. I value Piercy’s love for the power of attention to the small riches of life and her injunction that

What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

I thought it might ease you a little as well.



What a long strange week it’s been


I am growing weary of the drip drip drip of reading (scanning) and posting the information we are sharing to support each other and figure out how to navigate this unnerving new situation . This post is my experiment in a new way of processing the information: I’ll keep consuming what comes to me, and “like” the ones that make me smile, think, or appreciate someone’s vulnerability, but I’m setting aside the ones I want to send on. These I will revisit to see if the interest held and look for patterns. What follows is what I noticed the first time I tried this. (Material from 1/23 – 1/27)

Most of what interested me this time relates to our shared post-election life. For the most part, I’m assuming the things I refer to are general knowledge or easy to find. Let me know if you want sources. The general categories are:

Evidence of the problems:

·         Replacing “Equality and Social Progress” with “Law and Order” on the WH website. More people are going to be killed by those paid to protect them (and others), and more of them will be People of Color.

·         Repression: Bannon telling the Press to “shut up”. (Does he know what’s in the constitution?) and shutting down reporting of government funded climate science. (To be fair, I haven’t check that this isn’t normal procedure… I just don’t think EPA, NPS, and NASA rogue twitter accounts suggest everything is fine.)

·         Gaslighting: Others were more important, but the No, It Was Sunny example floors me for the simple, straightforward, ignore-the-evidence-of-everyone’s senses gall of it. We have made progress… a few weeks ago NPR was coyly referring to itself as “fact based news”, now mainstream publications are calling, um, misrepresentations lies, or at least “disproven”.

·         All the grownups left the State Department. What could possibly go wrong? (Note ironic tone.)

·         Bringing his own cheering squad to press briefing (?) and the CIA, then smiling like the applause was such a pleasant surprise.

·         All those folders at his press conference full of all that paper he had to sign to “not run” his companies…Reporters were not allowed to look inside them, and I read/heard that they never actually got filed with the appropriate office but haven’t been able to find that source again.

·         All those Republican governors doing their Republican thing: Did you know that Michigan is banning the banning of plastic bags? (I’ll wait here while you read that again.) And Voting Rights. And restricting access to abortion (Want a bad day, look up Indiana). And repression of peaceful protest (again, just ignore that pesky constitution.)

·         Not gone into here, but on the radar: Threat to cut LOTS of regulations, health insurance, the desire to reinstate torture (though Mad Dog said that can’t happen), education, Russia, ethics, preparing to sell off our public lands, immigration, climate change, sexual assault prevention, geopolitics, Tax returns anyone?…. I’m sure I’ve left something out.

How people are responding:

·         My hands down favorite was the unfurling of the RESIST banner over the White House. Honor and delight to the Greenpeace activists who thought of it, planned it, and executed it. Their website doesn’t say anything about arrests, but hard to imagine there won’t be financial consequences for them. I’d love to have seen his face when he learned of it.

·         I am also delighted that marching on Washington seems to be becoming an industry: (climate change) on April 29,  Scientists on March 4 (get your brain hat knitting pattern here:, and I thought I heard something about a transgendered rights march, but that may have been wishful thinking.

·         Al Gore replacing the funding cancelled by The Naked Emperor (TNE) for a climate change summit

·         Of course, The March. I was at a smallish one in Concord NH, but it was amazing to be part of that global eruption of “hell no!”. That is true along with paying attention to the ways we are imperfect (e.g. not all the way up to speed on the mattering of non-white lives), and the need to use it as fuel for a movement rather than blowing off steam before returning to commentary-as-activism. Rinku Sen at Colorlines helped my check myself about my responses (

·         Spike in sales of 1984 reminding us that literature serves essential functions. (I’m a little afraid to reread Handmaid’s Tale.)

Things that still matter but are having a hard time cutting through the new noise:

·         DAPL is still being attacked on the ground as well as through policy.

·         Animals are still being hurt for human entertainment and profit.

·         Mental health is still woefully underfunded, especially for kids.

·         Again, I am sure I am missing many.

How we know what we know:

·         Sources I trust to get the basic facts of a story right include NYT, Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR, and CNN (since TNE woke them up by going after Jake Tepper at the press conference).

·         Sources I trust to be compatible with my bias toward compassionate, equitable justice as a good way to run things and data as a good way to know how to do that include Robert Reich, Bill Moyers, Yes Magazine, and Rinku Sen at Colorlines. Happily, this is not a complete list.

·         I subscribe to or support four of the above, as well as having a gift subscription to Vanity Fair.

·         I’ve come up with a new classification in my head: Investigate Before Outrage (IBO). An example of this is the recent ruling in an Oklahoma court that forcible oral sex doesn’t count as rape if the victim was unconscious from drinking. A close reading of the article clarifies that the laws were changed to call forced anal or vaginal sex rape if the victim was unconscious, but oral was left out, and the judge had to rule on the law as written. There is a lot we don’t know (like if anyone is writing an improvement to the law to fix the omission), but it’s not like the judges who let guys off easy because they “don’t want to ruin their lives.” I’m not always going to bother checking, but I am trying to remember that the headline alone isn’t giving me the whole story. (

So this is what happens when I try to consolidate all the things I wanted to SHARE when I read them. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime.