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I am optimistic again. Let me tell you why.

When I was very young, the world was an uncertain place. 1968 was a turbulent time, with an unpopular war, multiple political assassinations, and a steeply rising crime rate.

That fall would see the election of a president who would soon face legal pressure to resign. Protesters were shot by our own military. Domestic terrorism would plague the country for a decade.

Around the world, starvation was rampant, poverty seemed intractable, and an out-of-control population bomb promised to make these problems ever worse.

More than all this, though, we lived in the shadow of imminent destruction as two superpowers aimed nuclear death at one another. No one knew if democracy could survive the challenge of totalitarian communism, and at times it seemed that every country’s government faced the threat of violent overthrow, fueled by either our own Western governments or those of the Soviet bloc.

This is the world I grew up in. Now let’s look at today.

(By the way, I know many of you, of all political persuasions, will not believe what I’m about to write. You are convinced that things are terrible, maybe worse than ever. I urge you to look at the data. In particular, read books by Steven Pinker, David Deutsch, Matt Ridley, Max Roser, and Hans Rosling.)

The threat of totalitarian communism has disappeared. There were many reasons for its decline, but chief among them is this: liberal democracy is a better system. Democracy is ascending all over the world, because people want it.

The world is more peaceful than at any time in history. Yes, there are still wars, but nowhere do we have the level of violence and bloodshed that characterized the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century and the world wars of the early 20th century. The level of violence compared to these events barely registers.

In addition to international peace, we have domestic peace. Crime rates started falling in the 1990s and are still on the way down. I know it doesn’t feel that way. Again, I urge you, look at the statistics. We are far more peaceful today than we were only a few decades ago.

Poverty is plummeting. Not just decreasing – plummeting. Two hundred years ago 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. That left only 10% not in this condition. Today the numbers are exactly reversed. Only 10% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Certainly 10% is still too high, but surely this is monumental progress – particularly considering that in the 10,000 years of civilization that proceeded it no discernible progress was made at all!

And one feared result of all this peace, freedom, and prosperity – the fabled population bomb – has fizzled. It turns out that when people are healthier, freer, less fearful, and (maybe most important) better educated they have smaller families. They put more resources into the children they have. They invest in the future.

And that brings me to the point of this post. As Pinker writes, “The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

After World War II, the world in a sense said enough of this. We made warfare illegal. Yes, wars still happen, just as people still rob banks. But international norms and institutions prize peace and work hard to defend borders and pressure all nations into being good actors. By and large, it has worked. Again, if you don’t believe me look at the data.

We set up international trade networks. My leftist friends will hate this, but the fact is that trade works. It creates relationships that prevent violence. Gentle commerce has made the world not only more prosperous, but far more peaceful.

We committed ourselves to eradicating disease, ending hunger, curing poverty and teaching the world to read and write. We’re not there yet, but the trajectory is clear. It’s working.

And this is my point. When I was born in 1968, we didn’t know. The great experiment that followed the horror of World War II was still too new. We couldn’t be sure any of it would work.

Now, fifty years later, we know. The world is getting better. It isn’t an accident. It isn’t luck. It’s because the tenets of liberal democracy – free trade, gentle commerce, democratic institutions that protect not states’ rights nor national rights, but individual human rights – and so many others, are working.

There are still monumental problems – not least of which is how do we keep all this prosperity from destroying the environment. But as David Deutsch tells us, problems are soluble. Everything we try from here on out is an experiment – it’s never worked before. But we are in so much a better place than we were in 1968, because we have a record of what has worked to get us here.

I believe we need to stop making decisions based on ideology. Instead we need to become pragmatic. We need to base decisions on data, on hard numbers and facts. We have the ability to do so. We have the required knowledge to use as our starting point. We have the mathematical tools to analyze data and make decisions based on that analysis. We have the resources to check spurious claims and call them out for what they are.

When someone makes a claim, instead of reacting with a counter-claim that just feels right to you, I urge you instead to ask for data. What evidence do you have that supports your claim? You claim that illegal immigrants are overrunning the country. What is your data? You claim that crime is rampant. Data, please. You claim that free trade is destroying the economy. Let’s look at the numbers.

Beware of those claims you want to believe. Remember the easiest person for you to fool is yourself. Look at the data, question your own beliefs, and remember that, as journalist Sylvia Strumm Bremer wrote in 1950, “A lot of the nostalgia for the “good old days” is just the result of a poor memory.”

We are getting better. Let’s keep it up!


Elections matter. On November 4th, 2014, the Republican Party had a very good night. On that election night, the United States Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican control. Even so, a simple mathematical calculation in which states with two Democratic senators are counted as D, states with two Republican senators are counted as R, and states with 1 of each are counted half each shows that after this election approximately 53% of the country was represented by a Democratic senator, and only 47% represented by a Republican.

On February 13, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Despite warnings from the majority Republicans in the Senate, President Barack Obama switfly nominated a replacement in Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Merrick Garland. As is their right, the Senate declined to approve (or even hold a hearing for) Judge Garland. Note that while there was nothing illegal about this action, it was highly irregular, precedent-setting, and reflected the will of just 47% of the country (as argued above).

On November 8, 2016, The Republican Party had another good night. Despite seeing their Senate majority shrink, the GOP managed to hold on to a slim majority in that body. They also, of course, elected Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Still, with the loss of two more senate seats, the percentage of the country represented in the Senate by a Republican fell from 47% down to 44.4%.

Donald Trump dispensed with the Garland nomination and replaced him with Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch. Holding a majority in the Senate (and having done away with the filibuster rule, thereby preventing Senate Democrats from blocking the nomination), the Senate approved Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (remember, these senators represented less than 45% of the people)

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of President Trump’s travel ban. Associate Justice Gorsuch voted with the court’s majority.

Anyone interested in history and government should read the opinions – majority written by Chief Justice John Roberts and minority written by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. You can find these at the Supreme Court’s website:

Both are fascinating reading.

Chief Justice Roberts makes a very straightforward argument, though by including Trump’s own words about individuals of the Islamic faith, one could argue that Roberts is protecting his own historic legacy and forever damaging Trump’s. While Roberts points to all the discriminatory and inflammatory things Trump has said about Muslims, he finally concludes that it is within the president’s prerogative to make decisions such as this one.

Associate Justice Sotomayor makes a different argument. In forceful tones, Sotomayor argues that the motivation behind the president’s travel ban is unprincipled, based on religious bigotry rather than national security concerns. The Associate Justice cites the similarities between this case and the 1944 executive order imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II. In both executive orders, national security was invoked without evidence to justify discrimination against a non-favored minority.

Sotomayor’s words are powerful and eloquent. I firmly believe that your children and grandchildren will be reading these words in future history classes. I’m proud to share a country with such a judge.

This case is a lovely demonstration of the different judicial philosophy with which we are struggling in this country. What one might call the Gorsuch or Roberts camp is reflected in Roberts’ argument. “The law is the law, what can be done?”

What one might call the Garland or Sotomayor camp asks us instead to look at our fundamental principles of fairness and equality. This is an old story in American history. We have always had high ideals, and we have always struggled to live up to them. All men are created equal. Does that include black men? Freedom of the press. Does that mean the press can criticize the government? Equal protection under the law. Does that mean women can vote? Does it mean gay couples should be allowed to marry? No establishment of religion. Does that mean Muslims and Christians should be treated equally when entering our country?

To its credit, the majority responded to Sotomayor’s citation of Japanese-American internment, saying it was “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” However, nothing the majority has done to curb the excesses of the current chief executive gives me any confidence that any of these five men would have opposed the internment order in 1944. It’s a lot easier to be on the right side of history three quarters of a century hence. What about today?

Finally, I’ll end where I started. Elections matter. If you have any lingering question about whether it matters who is in the White House, who is in the Senate, who is in the House, surely today’s Supreme Court decision has wiped those doubts from your mind. Elections matter. What sort of country do we want? One in which our Supreme Court ignores context, intent, and our deepest ideals, or one in which judges use plain evidence (such as candidate Trump’s call for a “complete and total shutdown” of one particular religion entering the country, in obvious violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause) to help us all live up to those difficult, deep, and precious principles?

We know exactly what sorts of judges each political party will give us. We also know that at least one party will use what can only be described as an unprecedented dirty trick to prevent the will of the other party from being exercised. So what sort of country do we want? Elections matter.

OK, I’m ready now. It took me all this time to get myself to where I could write about the most extraordinary theater experience I’ve ever had. It happened on June 12, 2018, in Stratford, Canada. I saw The Tempest.

If you’ve seen my ranking of Shakespeare’s plays, you know that The Tempest, while quite high on my list, is not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Even so, I’ve always loved it, and I’ve both read it and seen it multiple times. But nothing could prepare me for what I enjoyed on that lovely Tuesday afternoon north of the border.

Some background first. My amazing wife Julie surprised me on my 50th birthday back in January with an invitation to travel to Stratford, Canada to attend their annual Shakespeare festival. We’d always talked about going, and this would be the year. On Monday morning we packed up the car and made the long drive across the border. Canada is a beautiful country, and Julie tells me the PM is quite attractive, as well. But, sad to say, we didn’t run across him on our trip. Maybe next time.

On Tuesday we were to see the play in the Festival Theatre (Canada, you know) at 2:00 pm. As we settled into our seats and examined the playbill, we learned a few interesting things. First, Prospero’s “magic garment” for this production would be a patchwork made from all the other Prospero coats fashioned over the years for the festival. That was a cool touch. Second, Martha Henry, who would be playing Prospero as a woman, had played Miranda at the Festival way back in 1962. This will be important later.

martha henry prospero

Martha Henry as Prospero, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

I was a little reticent going into the play. First, I’d just seen a production of The Tempest last summer at Schiller Park in Columbus. I adore Schiller and love their productions, and while I really enjoyed their Tempest, their anti-colonialist message was heavy. I wondered if Stratford would take a similar approach. While I don’t dislike that message, I think I was hoping for something a little different.

Second, my good friend and Shakespeare mentor Alex had discussed the modern trend of flipping Prospero’s gender. This would be the third production of The Tempest I’d see with that change (Julie Taymor’s movie starring Helen Mirren and the aforementioned production at Schiller were the other two). Alex talked about how making Prospero female changes the dynamic with Miranda in particular, and he didn’t much care for the change. I wasn’t sure – I almost never am when it comes to artistic choices in Shakespeare.

Truth be told, I’m not a sophisticated Shakespeare viewer. I haven’t seen a lot of live performances, and most I’ve seen are local, community-type theater like those put on by Actors Theater at Schiller Park. While I dearly love them, they are not high-end productions. So I’m probably just awed by inexperience. Take this, then, for what it is. From here on out, I will do nothing but gush.

This was, quite simply, the most moving experience I’ve ever had in a theater. I was moved to tears by the end of Act I of Wicked (Defying Gravity) last year on Broadway, so maybe I’m an easy mark. But this production of The Tempest left me utterly unable to formulate a word of English for many minutes afterward. At the end of this extraordinary play I was sobbing, trying my best not to make a complete fool of myself in another country, and failing miserably. I felt like Julia Roberts experiencing opera for the first time in Pretty Woman. I was a mess.

Why? The stage was exquisite. They did so much with lighting, both built-in stage lights and directed lighting from all over the theater, seamlessly turning the stage from a sinking ship to a simple wooden-floored island habitation to an glowing, other-worldly, magical realm where spirits reign. The sound was perfect – I’d read some reviews that said the actors were hard to hear, and while my hearing is about as good as a stone at the end of a runway, I could hear everything without difficulty. The casting was delicious – Stephano (Tom McCanus) and Trinculo (Stephen Oulmette) were hilarious, Ferdinand (Sébastien Heins) was just goofy enough to make his character charming instead of insufferable, Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) was utterly convincing as a fresh and naive 15-year-old girl, and Michael Blake was the most vulnerable and sympathetic Caliban I’ve ever seen. That will be important later, too.

ferdinand, prospero, miranda

Sébastien Heins, Martha Henry, and Mamie Zwettler, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

Ariel (André Morin) was beautiful and powerful, and the harpy that he commands is a special effect worthy of Broadway or Hollywood. I was legitimately terrified.

The actors made the play so approachable. Julie, who is not herself a big Shakespeare fan, afterwards said that she understood this play so well because the actors made it make sense. I agree. Even some of the language was substituted (“fever” for “ague”, for one example) to make the play more modern, without losing any of Shakespeare’s poetry and rhythm.

But those are all ancillary reasons. The biggest selling point by far (and I’m not denigrating anything else, just telling you what made this play so special for me) was Martha Henry as Prospero. She played an old and frail, but wise, loving, and so in-control Prospero that by the last act I was convinced that Shakespeare must have written this part explicitly for her, to be played in exactly this way. How could it ever have been otherwise?

The play was a joy, funny and touching and scary (Sebastian and Antonio almost had me convinced they were really going to kill the sleeping King Alonso), with beautiful music, exquisite costumes, and incredible effects throughout. I was hooked, on the edge of my seat as I probably hadn’t been since seeing Star Wars in its original run as an eight-year-old.

And then. And then came the scenes that quite literally stole my breath, made me dissolve into myself in a way no work of art has ever done to me before. Caliban, as stated earlier, wasn’t in this version the repressed native under the thumb of the colonizer. Instead he was vulnerable, child-like, and a touch sad. His speech about the island’s joys:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

had already brought me to tears earlier. I felt after this speech that Caliban, despite his murderous intent and near-rapist past, was desperate for love. And aren’t we all?

prospero caliban

Martha Henry and Michael Blake, Photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

As the play reaches it climax, Prospero and Caliban have a moment together. “This thing of darkness,” Prospero says of Caliban, “I acknowledge mine.” How would they play this? It was . . . I don’t know if I can find the words. It was . . . freeing. It was Prospero telling Caliban, I know what we’ve become isn’t just you. It’s me, too. It’s both of us, and I want it to be better. And then – and just writing it will make it seem condescending but believe me when I tell you it wasn’t, it was so beautiful – she kissed his forehead. I lost all composure. Even now, thinking about it, I’m in tears.

But wait. There’s more. Caliban is on his way off stage and Miranda catches his eye. They pause. No words, just a pause. It’s “We shared this island, we talked together, we lived together, we saw each other’s worst. And yet, you are you and I am me and we meant something to one another, and I will remember you.” And then Caliban is gone and the rest are gone and it is just Prospero.

I’d been wondering how they’d handle the epilogue. I love this epilogue and still remember it from the first time I saw the play at Schiller many years ago. To me it and the other great Prospero speeches at the end of The Tempest are Shakespeare telling us what writing plays has meant to him, and how he is tired now and wants a rest. But in Martha Henry’s hands, in her voice, in her action, it is also her career as an actor, from Miranda in 1962 to today, all the characters she’s brought to life, all the stories she’s told, all the magic she has spun, and it’s all the other Prosperos, all the other actors who’ve worn that coat, now buried deep under the island in another of the myriad astonishing special effects in this production.

And then Prospero finishes her speech, and she turns, and the lights on the stage lead into the sky. Prospero, more frail and fragile than ever and yet now of strong will and determined mind, reaches into the sky, into those lights, toward the hand of her freed spirit Ariel, who reaches down to lift Prospero into the heavens. And all goes black.

And I sob. I can’t speak. I’m on my feet applauding the moment the theater is dark, and I’m still applauding as the cast take their bows and Prospero/Martha bids us all once more to set her free.

I will never read this play the same way again. This performance touched me in a way I still can’t really fathom, and my life is so much richer for it.

That’s a pretty good 50th birthday present, don’t you think?

One of my summer projects is to work my way through a lecture series by Pamela Radcliff of UC San Diego called “Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy”. There is so much relevant information and so many deep ideas here, but I wanted to share one that touched me today.

In Lecture 18, Professor Radcliff discusses the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi and his efforts in India. In particular, I was struck by the concept of satyagraha. It means “the search for truth” and became the label for the passive resistance Gandhi urged on his followers. This is where it gets interesting.

The goal of satyagraha, according to Professor Radcliff, is to “change the heart of the enemy.” It includes “the commitment not to hurt anyone else in the pursuit of truth.” But this goes much further than you might initially think.

“Gandhi means non-violence in the broadest sense of the term,” Professor Radcliff says, “not just physical non-violence but emotional non-violence, as well. It assumes in a sense that there are no enemies, only wrong positions, and that the purpose of satyagraha is to really open the minds of the enemy to their wrong positions, not to beat or humiliate those enemies as people. So an ideal act of satyagraha touches the heart of the enemy, and brings him to see the light. It doesn’t bully or intimidate, or humiliate.”

Radcliff quotes Gandhi in his account of a mill strike, “With the mill owners, I could only plead; to fast against them would amount to coercion.” Even an act of self-violence would have amounted to coercion, and that’s not what Gandhi wanted. He wanted their hearts and their minds, not their defeat by any sort of force.

Naive? Maybe. But this really struck a chord with me, fitting with my primary philosophy – a philosophy that I must remind myself of daily. Teach. Gently. We are all teachers. We are all learners. Change is slow, sometimes painful, often all but invisible. But when I reflect on the progress our society has made – in civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights – just in my lifetime (I was born in 1968), I am impressed by human beings’ abilities to change their minds for the better. But it takes time.

Of course this isn’t a new idea. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” This is why that sentiment makes so much sense. Going high is aspirational. It is paving a path that might change hearts and minds. It is satyagraha.

So I don’t know the answer. I don’t know how we change hearts and minds so entrenched by fear and xenophobia. But I do know that when this horrible period of our history is over we will need to find a way to live together. I personally will try to practice satyagraha. I will try to remember that people are not my enemy, their wrong positions are. Maybe it won’t work at all, or maybe it will work – slowly, silently, changing one mind, one heart, one person at a time. I will try.

Of course, as always I might be wrong. What do you think?

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
June 2018
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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