Sunday, May 15, 2016

Civil Rights Museum and Ferguson

I had a few more postings planned about my trip south - but school interrupted my writing.  I decided to come back to writing about it this weekend.

The pictures may be in black and white, but these photos were taken on April 4, 1968 – only nine years before I was born.  The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is haunting – for many reasons – but mostly because it makes you realize how recently MLK was killed.  The Lorraine Motel has been left the way it was that day.  It’s not some old brick building from the 19th century – it is a motel of the mid-20th century – the sign looking like something out of The Jetsons.  The hotel room had air conditioning and a television.  As a country we seem to want to put paint ourselves as “post-racial” – as if swamp of racism has been drained and all the snakes and alligators that once populated that swamp, have been killed off forever.

The reality, of course, is quite different.  We may have a biracial man in the Oval office, but in the last few years we’ve had some of the most violent uprisings since the summer after King was killed.  We seem to be split – once again – along the lines of race.  Many people mock the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – saying that it is anti-police or anti-white or simply ineffective. 

The above photo is from inside the Civil Rights Museum.  These placards, stating “I AM A MAN” were used by the striking sanitation workers in Memphis – the strike was why Martin Luther King was in Memphis the day he was shot.  I think there is a strong parallel between the slogans “I am a man” and “Black lives matter.”  Both are stating facts that should be obvious, but that the people making them believe are radical statements given the way they are treated in society.
Of course, people who are against BLM for any number of reasons, or White people who don’t want to come to terms with the different way we still treat Black people in our society – have pounced on the idea that this slogan means they think White lives don’t matter.  If we lived in a society where everybody was already treated equally – then they might have a point.  In such a society the “I am a man” placards would be nonsensical – but we don’t live in such a society.
Here are some facts:
·        A 2013 study found that Black men have sentences 20% longer than White men charge for the same crime and with similar criminal histories.
·        While Blacks make up 13% of the US population they make up 65% of prisoners serving life sentences without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses.
·        Blacks and Whites use drugs at the same rates – and yet Black people are put in jail for drug related crimes at 10 times the rate of White people.
This doesn’t even get into disparities of health and education.  In the minds of many Whites these disparities are due to Black people being more violent or lazier – not taking responsibility for their own lives.  As if the Civil Rights Act of 1965 cleaned the slate – and that now we can expect Whites and Blacks to have the same advantages and opportunities, even though we have 400 years of institutionalized racism.
A few more reminders of racist policies that lasted well into the mid-20th century.  The GI bill after WWII was the main way that many lower to middle class whites improved their situation.  The GI bill however was discriminatory – States had power over how money was distributed – and Blacks were usually left out.  Of the 67,000 housing mortgages that were approved through the GI bill only fewer than 100 were granted to non-whites.  100,000 Blacks applied for educational benefits given by the GI bill – and yet only 20,000 were granted – mostly because many Universities in the South did not allow Blacks entry in the 1940’s.
Another policy which stymied Black affluence was discriminatory housing.  Even Blacks who were qualified for loans were not shown homes in White neighborhoods.  In Omaha, where I live now, there were covenants – where the deeds of houses stated that the owners could not sell to a non-white person.  These covenants are still in the “historical” part of deeds – although non-actionable – I can’t imagine what it is like to be a Black person owning a home – where the deed states that you are not wanted here.  The practical effect of these policies was that Blacks were not able to capitalize on their successes as easily as Whites – even 100 years after slavery had been outlawed.
My wife is biracial – she was born in 1975.  Loving vs. the State of Virginia – the Supreme Court case that finally protected Whites and Blacks to intermarry was argued in 1967.  Which means that only 8 years before she was born – my wife’s parents wouldn’t have been able to be legally married in 16 states!  That is incredible to me.

This is the inside of the Church of God in Christ World Headquarters in Memphis.  It is where MLK gave his “Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. 

It’s as if someone were speaking through him.  He wasn’t even going to speak that night because he was tired from travel – but when he heard that a large crowd had gathered during a storm – and they had come to hear him – he came anyways.  He spoke for over 40 minutes.  At the end he basically collapsed into the arms of Ralph Abernathy.
BLM is possibly the most important movement for Civil Rights since MLK.  The issues are real.  If we are to “be true to what you said on paper” then we have to make sure that all citizens are given equal opportunities to succeed in our country.  That doesn’t mean handouts – even though handouts wouldn’t be unfair given how much value Blacks have created for this country without being given anything in return – it means giving people a fair shake.  It means acting against our prejudices.  It means those with the power of the police or even neighborhood watch (I won’t even get into the whole George Zimmerman selling the gun he used to kill an unarmed Black boy issue) need to honest with themselves about what they think about Blacks.  In our society the burden of proof seems to be on Black men to prove that they aren’t dangerous – rather than on society to prove that a specific Black man (or even boy) is dangerous.  Technology has allowed us to see videos which show inappropriate force used by police.  This has always happened – civilians just didn’t have the ease in which to capture it.
Yes, we should respect police.  But we should hold them to a high standard of conduct.  On my way back to Omaha I stopped in Ferguson.  There is a plaque in the cement near where Michael Brown was shot.  His father wrote it – his father is not looking for vengeance.  He wasn’t looking for riots.  He wanted justice.  He wanted the life of his son to be valued and respected.  He wanted the police to show contrition.  I was struck by the normality of the street – the balloons on the sign for the apartment complex where he lived.  It was hopeful and optimistic.  The fight for freedom must always have some optimism, because – in order to fight and sacrifice – one must be optimistic enough to think that the world will eventually recognize the justice of your movement.  So while Ferguson and Baltimore did have violence – I think that these were positive developments on the whole.  We still have a long way to go before we reach Dr. King’s “promised land” – but I, for one, believe enough in this country to think that we will eventually get there.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Lesson of Laith

When someone you have known your entire life suddenly sky rockets to fame at the age of 38 - it causes you to reflect.  It's easy to see what's happening to him as proof of some rather cliché phrases - like "never give up!" - "believe in your dreams!" etc . As a culture we have a tendency to take the stories of the "rich and famous" and learn from them - as if by tracing back their path we can somehow also learn how to be as successful as they are.  But I think the lesson of Laith is much deeper - and more importantly, relevant to those of us who will never achieve his level of success and even those of us who wouldn't want the fame and notoriety (even though as Americans it's our duty to all want to be rich and famous ; ).

"Each man had only one genuine vocation - to find the way to himself....His task was to discover his own destiny - not an arbitrary one - and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness." - Herman Hesse

I'm going to sprinkle in a few Herman Hesse quotes in this post - because I think Hesse is awesome - and I think that Laith's life has been more true to the philosophy of Hesse than anybody I know.  Last night I listened to a recording Laith and his band "Blue Vinyl" made in 1994, when he was 16 years old.  Yes, his voice sounded somewhat different, but he had a lot of things in place that is making him successful today.  The growl was even there already - the virtuosic guitar - the songwriting - the arranging etc.  I was there for the transformation from choir boy to rock/blues musician.  It happened quickly - like within 12-18 months.  It's as if something or someone was speaking through Laith.  He worked hard, but it came so naturally to him.  He somehow found his Hesseian self at a young age and has never looked back.

I have had some experiences in the last few years where I had to make some tough choices.  I'm still in the middle of it actually.  At times I've been the only person out of my friends and family who has agreed with my chosen way forward.  My chosen path may or may not lead to success.  However, I have found incredible strength in following my own vision - regardless of what anybody - even the people who care about me think. 

Laith has been like that since he was a teenager.  He has always chosen his own way - regardless of what his family or friends might think.  It wasn't that we didn't have faith in him or his talent - it was that we wanted him to have more stability - a more "comfortable" life.  However, the older I get the more I believe that as humans we are not meant to live in a place of comfort.  We are supposed to be uncomfortable - continuing to push forward for what feels right for ourselves - regardless of what anybody else thinks.  Even now I find myself trying to find some kind of sustainable path for Laith - but the truth is that Laith and only Laith can find his own path.  His choices might lead to the kind of success that we all want for him - or it might lead to an outcome that appears less desirable.  But it's not my place to plan that path for him - it's simply my job to love him - just the way he is - and to be thankful that I have a friend who has always had the courage to live his own way. 

That is the lesson of Laith - the lesson that I hope to take for my own life - to hear "the teachings of my blood pulsing within me" - as Hesse would put it.  The seeker of truth does not look for comfort he realizes that by listening to the voice inside him that is life will not be "sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves."  Laith lives the way he does - not because he necessarily would lead him to huge success (although he seems to be on the precipice of just that) - but because to do otherwise would be to betray his essential nature. 

"a real living human being . . . represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature . . . every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration."

We all have an essential nature - made from our biology and our experiences.  As much as we may want to escape it at times - we cannot.  We usually find that the long path simply comes back around to where we wanted to escape.  We must embrace who we are - live in the way that is most true to our nature without apologizing.  It seems like it is the harder path, but it is much less of a burden than carrying around the artifice required to live the life that would "make others happy."

One last quote from Hesse that seems relevant to Laith - "I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell."  I think he would approve of Laith's music.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Oracle?

Raphael's "School of Athens" - Socrates and Plato are the two men in the center of the painting.

Although I will agree it is satisfyingly alliterative, I would like to take exception with the accuracy of Omaha's most famous citizen's nickname.  After doing some reading on the historical oracles - I don't think the name fits.  First of all, oracles were always women.  Ancient Greece was a very paternalistic society, however the oracle - the only human voice of the gods were always female.

The Oracle of Delphi was the most famous of these women.  Socrates happened to be a contemporary of The Oracle of Delphi.  At his trial he recounted how his friend, Chaerepho, visited the Oracle and asked her whether there was anyone more wise than Socrates.  The Oracle answered no, that Socrates was the wisest man alive.  When Chaerepho communicated the news to Socrates he was dumbfounded.  He believed that the Oracle spoke for the Apollo - and he knew that she was infallible - but he did not think he possessed any special knowledge unavailable to other men.

So, he decided to ask all the great men of Athens about their knowledge.  He found that their main weakness was not their ignorance (or all humans are ignorant) it was their inability to come to terms with their own ignorance.  Therefore the reason that he was most wise is that he is the only one who knows he knows nothing.

The same can be said for Warren Buffett (age 85) and his side kick Charlie Munger (age 92).  Although they answered technical questions with incredible knowledge and detail - both of them quick witted and eloquent - what I came away with from watching them answer questions from financial journalists and shareholders - was that they know that they know nothing.  Ok "nothing" is probably an exaggeration - but they know that their knowledge is limited.

Buffett said that "investing takes no real knowledge or special skill" it is more about temperament.  One of the stockholders asked him about why they don't have teams doing due diligence.  The answer was that he didn't think all that extra work meant anything.  He talked about buying See's Candies in the 1970's.  He said that of course they enjoy analyzing the stores - looking at growth in year 1, year 2 etc - but what is most important to him is how the CEO is "going to behave" after he buys the company.  The human factor is much more important to him than the numbers.  The numbers can lead you astray - because you think you know more than you actually know.

There are a few things that stand out about Buffett after hearing him speak for several hours.  First of all, he is funny - sometimes it felt like it was a comedy show.  At the beginning he said - "My youngest great-grandchild is here today.  If you hear him crying it's only because his mother is explaining my philosophy of inherited wealth to him."  They talked about how they have had to change philosophies as the company grew.  Now that they are larger they have to invest in companies that require more capital.  Munger said that they actually have come to prefer that strategy - Buffett added with a wry smile "when something is forced on you it is helpful to prefer it."

The other is how humble he is - how much credit he gives to the managers of his companies.  There is very little ego.  He understands that he is only one person.  He feels that his job is to free the leaders of the companies he buys to do what they do best and not have to worry about spending all their time in front of investors.  He appears to be a very hands off leader.

Going to the annual stockholders meeting for Berkshire Hathaway feels like going into the belly of the beast of capitalism.  He is undeniably the most successful capitalist in the history of capitalism.  And yet he almost as liberal as I am on many issues.  I have to say that listening to him for several hours was inspirational - because it showed that you don't have to be a jerk to get ahead in this world.  Don't get me wrong - I'm sure that many of his competitors would say that he can be ruthless at times - but it is impossible to come away from hearing him speak without being struck by his humanity.

This shouldn't be surprising - business is all about humans - we may attempt to use statistics and numbers to make our decisions for us - but the most successful people understand that the most important skill that they have is their ability to read people.  Buffett often talks about how he is incredibly lucky to have been born at the time and place where he was.  He says that if he were born at a time when athletic prowess were required to stay alive he probably would be bear food.  But I disagree.  Listening to him speak it's apparent that he has a way with words and is an incredible leader.  He is very rational and yet not so devoid from emotion that he pretends it doesn't exist.  He doesn't take himself too seriously - he allows others to make jokes about him.  The meeting itself is a microcosm of his philosophy.  At 85 years old he doesn't need to be up there answering questions from journalists and shareholders.  He could have retired long ago to an island and told the world to leave him alone.  But instead he keeps doing what he loves.  He keeps engaging - even with those who disagree with him.  So to me - we should change his nickname from Oracle of Omaha to Socrates of the Savanna.  What do you think?