This is the sermon I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin, NC, on Feb. 5
“I settled down for a weekend last month just to try to recall the whole year
So many faces and so many places, I wondered where they all disappeared.
I didn’t ponder the question too long, I was hungry and went out for a bite,
Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum and we wound up drinking all night.”
(Jimmy Buffet, “Changes in Latitude”
I would guess that many of you are by now familiar with my approach to the making of a UU sermon. First come up with a title that is alliterative or perhaps clever, and then try to justify the title with the content. I learned that trick from Jimmy Buffet who once said that the most important element of songwriting was coming up with a clever title. Once you have “Margaritaville” or “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude’,” the rest is pretty simple.
So, butterflies in China. It’s kind of a standard example of unintended and magnified consequence that the flapping of a butterfly wing in China might create a tornado in Kansas or a hurricane in Florida. It might be a weary old saw, but it’s also kind of scary. Because it is entirely true that a tiny cause can have remarkable and profound effects. Think of the electrical short that killed three Apollo astronauts or the missed technical warning that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The tree branch on a wire that triggered the northeast power blackout in 2003. Or in an earlier time, “for want of a nail a shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost” and so on. And also from that heirloom past, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
We generally find some comfort in thinking we know what we are doing. Cake recipes and plane tickets mostly get the results we expect from them. But as I’ve mentioned in at least one previous talk here, the evidence is very strong that we don’t have a clue why we decide to bake a cake or take a trip and careful research has established that we make decisions before we find out about them. Our conscious awareness trails behind our decision making.
I first read about that research about 25 years ago. The author of the book I’d been reading challenged folks to try to determine when they decide to get out of bed. He didn’t ask what your alarm was set for, but when you decided to make the move. Try it. It is approximately impossible. Every time you think you are deciding you realize there is a previous decision point underlying it.
In my case I had been reading the book lying abed on a summer morning with one of my cats, Pomonella, asleep on my chest. A cardinal rule of we who keep companionable company with cats is that we do not unnecessarily rouse a comfortably sleeping cat. It is more than wrong. So as the scene played out I was reading the book, and pausing to contemplate the concept of decision making and getting out of bed, and whether I could determine when I made a decision.
Abruptly the necessity of writing a weekly opinion column with a looming deadline leapt into my head and without a moment’s hesitation I set Pomonella aside and headed for the coffee maker. Sorry Po.
I tried to discern the get out of bed decision point many times after that without success. If you try it I think you’ll find the same sort of infinite regression. When you decide that you have decided to get up you realize that there was a preceding decision to decide, and on and on until you arrive here listening to me suggest that you try the experiment. But did you decide just now? Or a couple of paragraphs ago when I first mentioned it? Or somewhere in between?
But speaking of cats, one of the best butterfly wing stories I’ve gathered in my butterfly collecting career, is the fact that when superstition swept Europe in the years we now call the Dark Ages, a fear of witchcraft was paramount. Cats, long rumored to be the familiars of witches, were exterminated in large numbers. Absent cats, rodent populations blossomed. Rodent fleas carried the Bubonic Plague and half the human population expired. Vikings were smarter and always had shipboard cats to control vermin, with the result that domestic cats were very likely the first permanent European settlers on this continent, left behind when the Vikings abandoned their villages.
That’s an excellent reason to keep cats around the house, but also a stellar example of the unintended consequence of our decisions. The choice to eliminate cats, made for what was then an arguably believable reason, given the paucity of scientific knowledge at the time, created or exacerbated a very real effect on human life.
Why Time Flies is a recently released book by Alan Burdick, which, by the way, I have decided to read, though I haven’t decided whether to buy it or wait for it to land in the library. Time will tell, I suppose. But I learned a fascinating nugget when I heard Burdick interviewed last week.
When you type on a computer keypad there is a tiny delay between the moment your finger touches a key and the letter’s appearance on the screen. That make’s sense because the software and hardware are processing your action. We tend to experience the appearance of the letter as simultaneous with the keystroke.
A researcher meddled with software and so that the time lag between action and appearance gradually increased by several milliseconds. Typists’ brains continued to interpret the appearance as instantaneous. I suppose there is some limit to how long the lag can be. As I said, I’ve yet to read the book. But here’s the really amazing bit. After typists became accustomed to the new, longer delay, and again I don’t know if it took an hour or a few days, but after their brains accepted the new normal, when the software was suddenly switched back, all of the people tested had the very unsettling but very real sensation that the letters were appearing on the screen before their fingers hit the keys.
It is a very clear demonstration of the subjectivity of time, as well as the fact that our brains always try to make sense of the world. A similar demonstration of that sense-making is the experiment in which subjects are given glasses whose lenses flip the world upside down. It doesn’t take long for the brain to adapt and see things right side up again, and then removing the glasses the world is upside down until the brain recalibrates.
So we are deeply wired to make sense of the world. And of course, that makes sense. Survival depends on having a pretty good idea of how things will work out. Baking a cake is not a life or death project, but eating is. Whether you go to a movie or go to a concert is not a life or death decision, but driving there involves a continuous stream of life or death decisions and actions. Or deciding to step up onto a bus rather than stepping out in front of one.
Decisions we make rely very heavily on past experience and on what we’ve been told, which hinges on other people’s experiences. When a parent tells a child not to eat toadstools it is pretty likely the parent has never eaten one either. But somebody’s parent or child did at some point, with dire consequences, and the information has been passed along for a thousand generations. When we experience something directly, or learn from someone we trust, it builds our expectations and reinforces our sense-making.
That’s why the unexpected can come as such a shock. Can a butterfly in China affect our weather here? Yes, but the chain of causation is so vast that no one can point at one butterfly and one tornado and make a rational connection. It’s hard enough to even detect the tiny bit of turbulence in the immediate vicinity of the butterfly, though we know it exists. So the butterfly story doesn’t have to be evaluated as truth or fiction and what we think of it doesn’t much matter. The unexpected can also be fun, even thrilling, and so figures prominently in fiction and film.
But back to driving. After some years behind the wheel, drivers accumulate a wealth of expectations, eye-hand-foot coordination, familiar routes, favorite short-cuts and so on. We have a fairly high expectation that oncoming drivers will stay in their lanes because they are likely to be as interested in survival as we are. One result of that familiarity which many of us have experienced is arriving home and not being much aware of how we got there.
On a personal level, my steep house lot fronts on two streets that wye a few hundred yards from my door. I generally park my pickup truck near the garden below my house and I generally park my car at the upper level near the front door. I use my car frequently and my truck infrequently. When I do use the truck I often make the habitual right turn that takes me uphill, without thinking, because my mind is on something else. That’s the reason when new stop signs are installed a traffic department also installs warning signs about the new stop sign, and many people still drive right through the intersection until conscious awareness catches up with the new reality.
Our expectations about driving can fool us into making very expensive decisions. It seems to make sense that the best way to reduce traffic congestion, for instance, is to install more lanes on a crowded road. Governments do traffic studies and calculate levels of service that lay out how many cars a given stretch of road can handle, and they calculate how many cars went by a certain point at rush hour in 1970 and 1980 and 2010 and draw a graph that tells them how many cars are going to zoom by in 2030 and insist that we pay for new lanes to handle all that new traffic. Otherwise we will have horrible traffic jams. But in case after case the new lanes end up just as crowded as the former lanes. The phenomenon is referred to as induced traffic, and it happens because drivers change their driving habits in response to the changed conditions. They change the time they leave for work, they change their route, and so forth.
A better plan might be to quit building more lanes and make rush hour driving as unpleasant as possible so people either change their schedules or car pool or take public transportation. A similar logic can apply to parking facilities. When a city builds new parking decks they quickly fill up and have the same parking problem they had at the outset. But raising the cost of parking actually does more to solve the problem than building more slots.
Another area where expectations backfire involves drug use. For over a century the United States has attempted to suppress the use of several substances that some people enjoy, with some becoming addicted. Making the use and sale of those drugs illegal and spending billions of dollars on enforcement efforts seems like it should make a dent in the trade. Most of us don’t want to get arrested, so it makes sense that with a big enough threat most people will comply. But of course most drug users don’t get arrested, and even if arrests were more common, we aren’t very good at personal risk assessment when we are after something we want or enjoy. So we have more kinds of drugs, more quantities of drugs, more potent drugs and lower prices than when the much vaunted War on Drugs began. That’s not to mention a violent shooting war south of the border.
On the other hand, Portugal dropped all criminal penalties for drug possession and use in 2001. Those found guilty are offered optional counseling, which is cheaper than incarceration. Drug use has fallen. Use of counseling and health services has doubled. HIV infections have dropped because addicts aren’t sharing needles. The country now has the lowest level of drug use of any western nation.
When I consider law enforcement, unintended consequences and our innate tendencies to underestimate risk and over rely on expectations, I recall the only really big story I covered in my years as an investigative reporter. I won’t reiterate a tale I’ve previously told here at length, about Buncombe County’s former sheriff who is spending 15 years with Bernie Madoff in Butner federal prison. He was convicted of extortion, running an illegal gambling operation, and mail fraud, but that wasn’t what undid him.
It was fairly common knowledge that the sheriff was crooked but no one seemed able to pin him down. But to use that heirloom aphorism: he missed a stitch and nine others unraveled. What happened was that his son tied his girlfriend to a bed and beat her for a week. When I got an anonymous tip and phoned the sheriff and identified myself, the first words out of his mouth were, “Now don’t go after my boy.” I hadn’t mentioned a boy. Had he enforced the law, charged his son with battery, kidnapping, whatever would apply, he might very well be a free man today. But he was so accustomed to getting away with crimes, so self-assured about his power, that he felt certain he could get away with a cover-up. He blamed her injuries on an auto accident, paid her to keep quiet, and threatened her life.
But the stitches had started popping. When my story about the cover-up appeared in the newspaper I suddenly heard from deputies who decided they could trust me to keep their names out of it … but did I know about the pay-offs? The sale of guns from the evidence room? The other deputy whose only job was collecting cash from the extorted shop owners?
It was a cover-up that undid Richard Nixon in much the same way and for exactly the same reasons. A few years after Nixon resigned he told interviewer David Frost, “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” When Sheriff Medford was on the witness stand and the federal judge said “Didn’t you know that was illegal?” he turned to the judge and said, “I was the Sheriff.”
The Nixon example is particularly germane this week, following the new president’s firing of an acting attorney general which put many people in mind of Nixon’s firing of his attorney general who was similarly uncooperative.
Taking a very different tack, I am reminded of the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. This is lately in the news because an interview has revealed that the woman who accused Till of sexual assault has finally recanted all these decades later. She lied to her family and community. She lied on the witness stand, claiming that a 14 year old boy had assaulted her, and it is hard to imagine how she lived with herself during the ensuing years. But the men who tortured and killed Emmett Till thought they were striking a blow for white supremacy.
Little did they know what would ensue. When Till’s body was exhibited in an open casket funeral in Chicago as many as 250,000 people attended the viewing. The murder created an international firestorm, it inflamed U.S./Soviet relations, and fueled the already potent Civil Rights movement. A generation of black Americans were enraged by the incident and determined to make change. They became the leaders who pushed for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and spun off into the feminist and environmental movements. Emmett Till’s death struck a match that lit a fuse that resulted in an explosion of social justice work.
When Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to give up her seat on a bus she said she was thinking of Emmett Till and decided she would not move. Julian Bond, John Lewis and their cohort even referred to themselves as the Emmett Till generation.
I believe we often fail to imagine or recognize the potential positive outcome of our current national malaise.
Government scientists stored terabits of data concerning the global climate on Canadian servers between election day and the inauguration. That data is safe from policy changes.
National Park employees have gone rogue, creating anonymous accounts on Twitter and other social media to release climate change data banned by the White House.
Over 1,000 State Department employees have signed a letter protesting the current president’s policy pronouncement on immigration.
There were 10,000 people marching in Asheville on Jan. 21, and 20 or 30,000 in Raleigh, and 500, 000 in Washington DC and 750,000 in Los Angeles, with other protests on every continent including Antarctica. Within hours of the president’s immigration ban there were thousands protesting around the world. Major cities across the country are declaring themselves as sanctuaries. Governments around the globe are reconsidering relations with the U.S. Major corporations are taking positions against the president’s plans and rethinking investment options, suddenly preferring foreign investment to expansion stateside.
Some fear that this new administration is headed down the same path as Germany in the 1920s, but there are significant differences. Perhaps the most critical is the nature of communication. In the 1920s the spread of information was relatively slow and control of the media was relatively easy. Writing and distributing newspapers and radio stories required news gathering, preparation and editing, typesetting and recording. Today a tweet from the White House first reaches tens of thousands and then reactions to the tweet quickly reach millions. There is no information wall.
In the week after the 2012 election, donations to the American Civil Liberties Union ran into the tens of thousands. In the week after the 2016 election donations to the ACLU ran above $7 million.
At the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and its international investigative arm, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, individual donations are up about 70 percent compared to the same period last year. Planned Parenthood received 40 times its usual number of donations after the election.
Our Revolution, the follow-up to the Bernie Sanders campaign has established hundreds of chapters across the country, all dedicated to moving the Democratic Party in a progressive direction.
And California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that if the new administration starts shutting down climate research satellites California would start its own space program. In addition he observed that some people won’t quit smoking until after they have a heart attack. Maybe, he suggested, we just had our national heart attack.
More ominously we learned this week that the new president takes a prescription drug that prevents male pattern baldness. Side effects of finasteride include sexual disfunction and shrinkage of male body parts, though the literature doesn’t mention tiny hands. But more seriously for the country – confusion is a frequent major side effect.
Aristotle famously suggested that with a sufficient lever and a fulcrum on which to rest it he could move the world. But little things can move the world as well, and these days it may be as tiny as a presidential tweet. Or a tiny … pill.