Category Archives: Uncategorized

Sea of Sweet: I have no idea what that stuff is but it works

So there is this place in Rancho Cucamonga, CA (yes that is an actual place), where all diets go to die.I would describe it as a middle eastern creperie that specializes in calories. Like, Olympic levels of calories.img_8538

The place looks harmless, like some suburban strip mall afterthought, but do not be fooled. The Nutella double chocolate Twix crepe will send you to a joyful early grave.

But that is just for the average “I want extra helpings of the sugar I know” palate. They have other stuff too. For instance, if you want to overdose in calories derived from things that should otherwise be healthy, you can indulge in any one of their fruit cocktails.img_0134

This thing took ten days to build, not because they are slow, but because the guy behind the counter just kept stuffing things into that glass.

Then there is this stuff I had never heard about called “ashta”. I would describe it as something in between heavy cream and cottage cheese. Apparently it can be turned into ice cream, like a less-sweet vanilla, and then be piled on top of a crepe then sprinkled with rose water, then dusted with pistachio and then drowned in honey, then devoured by me.img_8602

I saw behind the counter they have baklava, and dates, and every combination of phyllo dough stuffed with sweet stuff imaginable and I want all of it.

It is a bad thing that I found this place. Curse you JJ. Curse you.

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The Invisible Hand is White

Adam Smith wrote that the actions of individuals seeking their own self-interest will have an added societal consequence of wealth distributing itself in line with the greatest societal good. This natural wealth distribution has come to be personified in the idea that there is an “invisible hand” controlling the market. This hand steadies, balances, and distributes wealth and resources. This hand is not regulated by any government or body of law, it is natural.dsc02460

Sometimes we believe that in America, this invisible hand is called “meritocracy”. This market force distributes wealth and resources to those who work hard, who are smart, or in other words, to those who have merit. This idea of making our own way or reaping the rewards of our own labor is one of the founding ideals of the American dream.  In America, if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want. I like the idea and I would even say that in large part, at least compared to many places in the world, we (America) do a relatively good job.

But merit is a funny thing. It can be hard to identify, hard to develop, even harder to measure. Quite often merit is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps really, merit matters but not in as much a way as we think, or at least it doesn’t matter most. It is difficult for any individual’s merit to carry them outside their sphere of relationships; hence the adage that success hinges on who you know, not what you know. Who you know matters.

Who you know, or better yet, who knows you, matters because that is often who judges what “is” and “is not” merit, and who possesses it.  In a system where individuals and institutions are free to exchange goods or resources as they see fit, those who have the most resources have the most influence on deciding what constitutes merit. Their biases, preferences, and needs are empowered to move, or at least nudge, this giant invisible hand. Consequentially, opportunity and achievement are often based on proximity, availability, reputation, network, and experience.  Merit may play only a sustaining role as opposed to a driving one. It has been that way for a long time. Take George Washington for example.

By all accounts General Washington was full of merit. He worked hard as a surveyor, proactively took risks as a soldier, and his writing shows a more than respectable measure of learning and brilliance. Thanks in large part to this merit he became one of the richest men in America, and even makes the list of one of the relative wealthiest Americans ever. Yet we could, and I would say should, also consider that the one thing Mr. Washington did that had the most direct influence on his wealth and position, was to marry a rich widow. Before that, George was on track to be Nathaniel Green. Mr. Green is respectable by all accounts but he isn’t carved on Mt. Rushmore, doesn’t have a state named after him, and no currency features his face. Washington is the one we all remember yet, by most all accounts, Green was a better general than Washington.

But George was born and lived in a hugely influential tidewater Virginia, and thanks to both inherited and married wealth, George enjoyed a continual revenue independent of his day to day actions which freed him up  to become George Washington rather than Nathaniel Green. But that was a long time ago, things have changed.

People today have infinitely more means and access to build new networks and accrue merit. Public school, Facebook, college, loans, and internships are everywhere and excepting Facebook, have been around for several generations. One result of such network broadening opportunities are instances like the Supreme Court which currently consisting of 8 people, includes 3 women, a Latina, an African-American, 5 Catholics, and 3 Jews. We have come a long way since George Washington. Yet even still with these 8 people with varying backgrounds they all went to either Harvard or Yale. It is not written that one must attend Harvard or Yale to be a Supreme Court Justice, nor is there a class at either school designed to give a student the specific skills they need to be supreme, yet this remains the path.  How and why it matters leaves plenty of room for argument.

Sticking with schools for a moment, when looking at the background of billionaires it is noteworthy that there are groupings of what college these rich people attended. The University of Pennsylvania counts 21 living billionaires among its alumni. Harvard and Yale both have 14. As we move down the list of schools the richest people are largely coming from, or at least passing through, the oldest, richest, and most prestigious universities. Again, is it the curriculum that is creating graduates who go on to such wealth? Do they learn something there that translates to money? Some, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who both dropped out of Harvard, don’t ever graduate so their merit cannot be directly tied to their degrees. Yet still there is that clustering or concentration of wealth and success.

We could easily assume that going to college, marrying rich widows, and becoming a billionaire is all part of our meritocratic country where this invisible hand is scooping all the best and brightest into certain schools, is rewarding suitors who are best suited to manage dowries, and simply rewarding those who do the work and are most deserving. But then what about those who catch a bad break? There are of course many who through no fault of their own, are born in unfortunate situations. How does this hand deal with such? Our lore says this hand simply rewards their merit. Meritocracies allow for individuals to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Abraham Lincoln was uneducated and failed at election time and time again. But Honest Abe worked hard reading books and got back in the race after every defeat. Sure he also benefited from a fortuitous marriage, but we could easily argue that he earned that too (winning Mary Todd’s favor and whatnot). Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt, a great man. I make no argument that he did not earn or deserve his renown and place in history.

So does this mean that this free market invisible hand and meritocracy work? Maybe.

But then there is Abraham’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass.

Mr. Douglass, born a slave, was not only never taught to read, but was legally prevented from doing so. But he did. While Abraham Lincoln might have given out country’s most well-known speech, most every one at that time would have agreed that Douglass was a better orator. Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and become the first free black man to visit the white house when he went to go plead with President Lincoln for the better treatment of black soldiers. Douglass was indeed able to accomplish great things with his merit, yet he isn’t the one carved on Mt. Rushmore.

Mr. Douglass and Lincoln lived in a time where the law of the land dictated that the rewards for a black person’s merit were expected to be delivered to white people. In fact, in many, if not most cases, the merit of black people itself, not just the rewards, were ascribed to their white masters. For instance, when modern visitors tour George Washington’s home, they are told of Mrs. Washington’s prowess in the kitchen, you can even buy her cookbook in the gift shop. But she wasn’t the one who did the cooking. Black people were doing the cooking but their skills, or merit, were attributed to Martha. A visit to the website today further illustrates how the invisible hand of the 1700’s still effects the modern memory. http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/mistress-of-the-household/

But today many Americans see slavery and segregation as unfortunate blips in our ideology or system bearing little effect on our situations today. As if in those days the invisible hand had a finger on the scales of justice, but not anymore. Now the hand is back to balancing markets and allowing merit to be rewarded freely. We have set a new starting point, new zero, called “now” and we just move forward. Is free always fair? Of course not.

I argue a better question is if this modern freedom is just.

If we are living in a true meritocracy then we can assume that those who are rich deserve it, and those who are poor deserve that too. I do not argue that our society believes this specifically, but it does appear that we believe it generally. This belief drives how many of us vote, what we choose to study, and many of the decisions we make in life. It is a foundational idea in the American philosophy. It is part of who we are…

If we are white.

Do black Americans live in a meritocracy? (Do women?)If they do is it the same one as the white men?

For centuries the flow of resources and opportunities were artificially steered away from black individuals. This was not done strictly through laws and regulations but also through ideas. For example, when Thomas Jefferson was writing to persuade the world that a society where all men were created equal and should be free to pursue happiness without being obstructed, he also wrote that this freedom need not apply to black people because they were inferior (Notes on the State of Virginia). Jefferson argued that black people possessed less merit by nature and were incapable of managing resources directly. After reconstruction politicians were quite overt in campaigning on the idea that governing was best done by white people. Many were afraid that black people lacked the necessary skills and intelligence (merit) to govern, or even vote, and that allowing them either would lead to national destruction.Even when laws did not dictate segregation or discrimination, there was an idea that black people were not only less than white people, but were/are also more dangerous. This idea has been rampant and persistent in literature, music, news, business and media since our foundation.  This is not to say that all messages have been so, but these messages have always been in the environment.

This affects our meritocracy not only in that the spheres of influence and opportunity been limited for black people, but also in that the minds of those who determine and measure merit have been marinated in an ideology of white superiority. We as a nation believed that white men naturally possessed more merit.

Most of us are uncomfortable with this idea-that our minds are tainted- so much so that we have re envisioned how we collectively remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. We have honored Rosa Parks and lauded Booker T. Washington. We have worked hard enough to remove this mental poison that many of us now believe ourselves inoculated.  We in, large part, believe our society is free and safe from smallpox, mumps, and racism. Perhaps there may be the odd case or diagnosis, but they do not apply to the public. The meritocracy is safe.

Is this true? Are we a meritocracy?

When neighborhoods and schools are segregated both racially and economically, but laws do not require such, how do we explain or interpret the situation? When there is a disparity between black and white along the lines of wealth, academic achievements, and health, how do we explain that? Why the gap if our meritocracy is sound? Why are black people stopped, arrested, and incarcerated at rates higher than their white peers?

Why?

Are we all just getting what we deserve? Are we all simply rising to the appropriate level with regard to our merit? We have had black doctors, a black president, black secretary of state, black Supreme Court justice, and black billionaire, so there is apparently no strict cap on American black achievement. But yet that gap. These success stories are not the statistical or relative norm.

Why?

Maybe the invisible hand is white.

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The World Has Ended Again!

In 2008 many people I knew and loved were declaring the apocalypse. But every day the sun came up and fire balls did not rain down from the sky. For eight years, this has happened over and over; the sun came up and fire balls did not rain down from the sky.passed-out-subway

This morning I am not declaring the apocalypse and the sun was shining as I drove to campus. I am guessing the same will happen tomorrow.

In a little more than a month, our current president will peacefully leave office and a new one will be sworn in. We have some very real challenges ahead, but this is not new. So much of this right now… really isn’t new.

Sunshine and blue skies are pretty, which can be good or bad depending. Because Sunshine and horror can exist simultaneously. We can be distracted from very real trouble, causing us to ignore it at our own expense, or maybe that sunshine can give us a little bit of hope and comfort while we endure and engage the struggle.

Either way the trouble exists- and the sun comes up. And fire balls do not rain down.

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Even before I was old enough to vote, I thought I was a Republican. It was part of my upbringing. It was my family, it was me, and I thought I was Republican because that party stood for what was right. img_1677Everyone around me was Republican and we all recoiled in horror, but not disbelief, when Bill Clinton’s affair moved past accusation into scientific fact. He, and the excusing of infidelity and immorality that he stood for, was what I stood against. Because that was what I thought a Republican was. And then I moved to Georgia.onknownsoldiers

In Georgia being a Republican meant you wanted the confederate battle flag to be incorporated on the state flag. That was not me. I didn’t want anything to do with that. But there was more to being a Republican than a flag, like spousal fidelity and financial accountability. I was for those things. But the other republicans made it obvious that they weren’t “for” me. Because I am Mormon. We, the other Republicans and I, were aligned politically, except for that flag, but they made it obvious at every turn that I was not only different, but bad. I was going to Hell. I was in a cult. I could not go to their Christian school; I could not be in their club, because Mormonism is bad.

I didn’t take it that hard. I understood. Growing up in Utah I had witnessed non-Mormon Christian kids being told they were bad. They weren’t welcome in homes and in clubs. They were Gentiles. Now it was my turn. I never thought it was right, not as a kid and not when I lived in Georgia, but that had nothing to do with being Republican. It was just an unfortunate overlap. But that flag thing, and everything it stood for, was enough to cause me not to register in the party of my birth. I still voted for W of course, I just wasn’t registered in a party. Then I moved to Philly.Processed with Snapseed.

Everyone I worked with in Philly was a Republican. It was a corporate job and we pushed a lot of money around. We were hard working, responsible, and deserved the associated rewards. Everyone else thought part of the rewards they deserved included strip clubs and debauchery. Not me. They were mostly married. It didn’t matter. It was just grown up fun and had nothing to do with politics. Democrats were the devil because they wanted to steal our wages, extort us with unions, and get fat on hand outs funded from our pockets. “Screw the religious right” they would say. “Stay out of my bedroom and my pocket,” they would say. “Besides, priests are messing with little boys and deserve to be fried. Democrats don’t believe in frying people and if anyone deserves it, it’s those priests.”

In Philadelphia I also got to know hard working poor people. They lived in violent neighborhoods with bad schools and toiled for every penny they got. Just pennies. Now not everyone worked hard, some had given up. Some were dragging themselves from hovel to handout, hating every minute of it, but seeing no alternative. They bought chips and candy with their EBT card, and paid their rent under the table in apartments where the plumbing didn’t work. It was hard for me to figure out. I never really did, but I learned to call a lot of these people my friends. My coworkers just called them lazy people looking for hand outs.

One day I was waiting to present a new product to one of my larger accounts. It was a family owned company in Southern New Jersey and they took pride in their history. Dad built the company up from the ground, Mom kept the books, and the two boys were running the day to day preparing themselves to take the wheel. It was election season and everyone was complaining about what the Democrats were doing to their property taxes. It was a solidly Republican room and I was waiting my turn. When the big boss, Dad, showed up, he got things under way, “Alright guys get it together. Watch your language because we have our Mormon boy rep here to go over a new product.” Everyone laughed. No problem. I have been to enough happy hours, drunk enough Shirley Temples with these guys to be used to the ribbing. Then there was that one guy. “Oh yeah, the Mormon guy. I know all about Mormons. I see them all the time in their white shirts on bikes. Supposed to be religious but all they do is cruise around North Philly screwin’ black chicks. That’s where you live right?”

I was a caught off guard. Not by his comment exactly, I was used to both crassness and ribbing, but I was more surprised by the complete lack of reaction in the room. The Dad, the Mom, the whole business, no one batted an eye, corrected the guy, nothing. This man had just made a comment designed to mock a specific set of ideals and beliefs that I hold sacred and central to who I am. It was no big deal. No one cared because there was business to attend to and everyone just looked at me, waiting for me to present this great new money making opportunity. These were the Republicans.

I eventually left that job and found myself enrolled in a university program where liberalism was baked into everything. If there were any Republicans there, they were hiding. Conversely, homosexuality and socialists were welcomed; in a way that would make my Republican roots shudder. I was happy to be in such an environment but I was unsure if I would be welcomed the same way.  I stood up the first day of orientation, in front of my classmates and all the professors, and announced my Mormonism. No one cared. Well, not no one, there was this one professor, but they, the rest of them, did invite me out for drinks. Upon realizing their faux-pa, they insisted I still come to the bar. It wasn’t a strip club kind of bar- because they thought those were bad. Ya know, because those places exploit women, promote debauchery and all that.occupypink

I am not a Democrat.  There are things in the platform I just won’t sign my name to. But since I left home, as I’ve grown, as I’ve lived, I have learned that the Democratic Party is not what I was taught it was- there is so much good there. I have learned that the Republican Party is not what I was taught it was- there is something dark and rotten. It does not stand for what I was taught it stands for and it has given a home to something to which I thought we were opposed. And so I am left politically adrift. I do not hate Republicans just like I don’t hate poor people. I do not demonize Democrats just like I don’t demonize Christianity. I am in the middle not because I lack convictions or ideology, but rather because I feel I am bound by them.

I will not give home and shelter to racism. I am devout in my religious convictions. And I stand in the middle and am surprised at the manner in which I find myself isolated. I am surprised because there are plenty of us in the middle, but most of us have gotten here mostly by a disgust at our own. We, or sort of they, are disgruntled with our one party or the other, yet still view the other party, the one opposed to the one from which they originated, as demonic. We have lost the Pollyannaish view of “our own” while also holding fast to what we assume the “others” are. And we have to assume because we venture into the middle but never look honestly all the way over into the other side.

So now I don’t know what I am and it frustrates me. It frustrates me because I have no desire to withdraw into seclusion or inaction. I have a compulsion to participate in public life, be part of society, to do good and make things better, but where is my vehicle? Where is the apparatus for me or anyone like me? I cannot go back to my roots- that party is too deep into something I abhor. I cannot be a Democrat- there is a non-negotiable technicality.

So where now? Am I alone?

 

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Philly Skyline: a new addition

It felt like going home. I didn’t grow up there, I don’t live there now, but it still feels like my home.

Philadelphia has a new spire in its skyline and the weekend I spent there recently was one of the more “Philly” sorts of weekends I could have imagined.

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It was full old friends, old buildings, new buildings, and new restaurants. But mostly it was that one new building.

Processed with Snapseed.

What once required a lot of car pooling and a three hour drive to DC is now a subway trip for them… and an all day flight for me.img_7283

it was worth the trip.

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Emigration Longboards

Somehow I found myself at the summit of Emigration Canyon at 9pm, prepared to ride a skateboard down a lightless winter road. I had planned to spend the evening watching TV but there I was with sweaty palms and shaky knees, all because I didn’t know the guys who invited me up there well enough to say no. Brooks and Daniel had knocked on the door of my dorm room and said “hey, we need a third. Wanna come?” I had no idea what they meant by a “third” so of course I said yes.longboard

Riding in their Volkswagen bus up the canyon they explained to me that the idea is that two of us would ride the longboards down the canyon road, and the third would drive the van behind the skaters, to both give them light as well as block the way of any traffic that may be coming down the road. I assumed I was to be the driver. “Naw man. You can drive the next run. You are doing us a favor so you should get to go first. Besides, Sophia gets kinda nervous without me in the car.” Sophia was the two year old girl smiling at us from her car seat. This was Utah after all and it is not uncommon for an undergrad to be married with a two year old named Sophia.

“Uh. Cool. Thanks. Uh… I have never ridden a longboard before. Maybe I shouldn’t go first.”

“What? No way! Don’t worry bro, we have never ridden the canyon before either so we are like even. No worries bro.”

I was a very good student so this made perfect sense.

It was explained to me that longboarding is nearly the same as snowboarding, which I had plenty of experience with, except for the whole stopping business. Since you can’t really stop a longboard they told me that the key is in checking your speed with weaving turns, and when that doesn’t slow you down enough, you simply jump off the board before you get going too fast. I asked how fast is too fast and they just chuckled and responded that it would depend on how fast you can run as you jump off onto your feet. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that concept but I was already in the car. It was too late.bowboardtreescopy

So there I was. The headlights of the van cast our shadows down in front of us and Daniel just smiled and said, “Here we go,” and pushed off. He was a good ten yards out ahead when I did the same. I could feel the rumble of rough pavement travel through the wheels, past my feet, and into my knees. I made a couple of awkward turns and leapt off the board landing on my feet. The board just rumbled into a snowbank. Daniel had done the same up ahead and looking back shouted “This ain’t so bad is it?” We both pushed off again. As we made our way down the dark canyon road I started to get the hang of it. I was cautious at first, jumping off at the slightest hint of discomfort, but I began to sprout some courage. Perhaps it wasn’t real courage but more a mix of adrenaline and embarrassment. I started pushing myself a little more than before.skater

I started leaning into the turns and holding on instead of bailing. I shifted my weight to the front foot and with my back foot I slid the tail of the board out making turn after turn. I felt fear slip away replaced by fun. I started to like it. I liked the winter wind biting my face, the blur of the yellow dashes as they sped past my feet, and the rhythmic sway of carving turns down the road. Yes. I liked this. But then a shaky turn snapped me out of it. My wheels caught just a little and as I regained my balance I regained my senses. I was going just a little too fast. Daniel was behind me now and the headlights were behind even more. I was right at the edge of controlling the board, but unfortunately going much faster than I could run. I turned by leaning back on my heels- an awkward angle from which to jump. I tuned the other way leaning on my toes- not as awkward but twice as fast. Stuck. Stuck riding a plank projectile. I began eying the snowbanks on the side of the road, planning, or timing, my last hope of escape. Not that one, there is a ditch between me and the bank. Not this one, I’m not quite ready. Too afraid. Going faster. It has to be the next one. I have to hit the next snow bank. I prepare to eject.

And as I leaned into the turn aiming at the snowbank, the glow of the snow disappeared, replaced by the dull grey of a guardrail.

-redacted word-

Time stood still in my mind as I floated in air above the pavement. I moved my legs as if to run, hoping that when my feet finally touched down I might, somehow, stay upright. I did not. My legs were moving at the speed of me and the ground was moving at the speed of light. When feet hit ground they slowed, but torso head and arms did not. I tucked my head as I rolled bottom over top and put my arms out in front before I did tumble number two. The board clanked off the rail and ricochet back into a ditch on the other side of the road. I, having caught myself in push-up position, stood upright and stared at nothing. “Duuuuuuuuuude!” Daniel shouted as he came bounding up beside me. Startled back out of my slow motion daze I grinned and sauntered off to reclaim the board. “You cool?” Daniel asked. “Yeah. That scared the crap out of me. We are almost to the bottom, let’s finish up.” “Hecks yeah,” he agreed.

I tried to push off but couldn’t stand on the board. My legs had obtained this uncontrollable wobble that I didn’t notice till I tried to stand on the board. Two legs were fine, but when I lifted one foot up to stand on the board I was all Jell-o from the waist down. I was done. I expressed my unfortunate failure to Daniel and he compassionately replied, “Well broham, looks you got the wheel for the rest of the night.”

Back up at the top of the canyon Brooks stepped on the emergency brake and hopped out. I jumped over into the driver seat, smiled back at the kid in the car seat, and tried to grab the wheel. It wasn’t till I gripped the wheel that I realized that where I once had palms, I now had a mixture of flesh, gravel, and gore. Hamburger is great on a grill but gross on your hands and I figured the polite thing to do would be to simply drive with my finger tips.

HANDS

When I got back to married student housing my wife was sitting on the couch. I said “Hey babe,” nonchalantly and she mumbled “hey,” staring at the television. I went right to the bathroom, normal behavior, but once inside I didn’t pee but rather flushed the toilet with my foot as my hands were in the sink trying to rinse away gravel and blood. I walked back into the other room and flopped onto the open end of the couch.

“What’s on?”

“Scrubs. Where ya been?”

“So funny thing. Brooks and Daniel came by and invited me to go longboarding with them.  I had never been before. It was cool.”

She looked at me sideways in the way she always did when I talk about, or do things, that she did not understand or have any desire to understand; which was normal and often.

“”Oh. Cool.” Was all she said. It was at about this point, the two of us quietly looking at the screen, when she instinctively reached over to hold my hand. Her fingers brushed my palm and my hand involuntarily jerked away. It startled her. She looked at me. Looked at my hand. She looked at me. Then without a word she just shook her head and turned back to the television.

On my next birthday she bought me a longboard of my own.

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Soap Box: but just a small one.

As I observe the world it sometimes feels as if there is me, and then everyone else. So let me just say this:

Dear world,

 

Without having to take a stance on any sort of “should” related value statement, please remember, or learn, that outside of the situation where one is a victim of rape, NOT having sex is always an option. Always.IMG_7732

 

Human genius is not a recent occurrence. Smart people have existed as long as humans have existed. (I do realize that many who espouse a belief in continuing human evolution may think this a dumb statement. I accept this with the rebuttal that there is within such theories a debate as to when what I am calling “humans” began their existence. Consider my statement applying to that point in time/evolution). Just note that you, all of you, are not by nature smarter than everyone who came before you, no matter how long before you it is that they came. Also, please know that there are smart, and even good, humans who disagree with you.

note- this also means stupidity is not excusable simply because it was in the past.

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Violence is always bad. Before you respond with some “defense of family and the innocent”, keep in mind that such defense would be unnecessary if there wasn’t some other initial violence. Stop glorifying violence. Strive to end the initial violence. There are occasions where it is excusable or forgivable, which forgiveness or excusing is only needed because it is bad.

 

Justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive nor should they be just plain exclusive.

 

There are surely such things as bad ideas but ideas themselves are not bad. We should only be afraid of the idea of having ideas when there is only one idea to choose from or if all ideas are coming from a singular source. Many bad ideas are easier to identify when they are placed in line with other ideas, no matter the quality of those accompanying ideas. This also means that good ideas, even if there is for some reason only one source for all the good ideas, are best identified and most appreciated, when standing in contrast to bad, or just plain less good, ideas.waterbuffalo

 

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