At the Golden Globes this year accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment, Oprah Winfrey told a few stories celebrating what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
We are posting the You Tube clip of her remarks on Our Better Angels, since they express almost perfectly what we stand for. She traced at least three generations of far-reaching leadership from Sidney Poitier, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964 while she watched the Academy Awards ceremony on TV, to all the little girls watching her own speech. Many of those little girls are young enough to be her granddaughters.
On December 29, 2017, the New York Times reported that the 2017 story that garnered the most likes, shares, and comments was not about all the awful, creepy, nasty, really bad stuff that happened over the previous year. It was a story about Harvey and Irma Schluter, a wonderful, civilized, quiet couple who celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversary in Spokane, Washington.
Irma and Harvey are terrific representatives and models for Our Better Angels. At OBA we believe that most people, most of the time, under favorable conditions, are reasonably intelligent, cooperative, and willing to work for people and causes they care about. Psychologists have demonstrated this beyond doubt over the last 75 years, but some folks who hope to manipulate and exploit others through fear, anger, ignorance, or greed make a habit of undermining faith in the human spirit.
Once again on Christmas I thought a little bit about Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. During Jesus’ childhood, Joseph was no doubt considered his father by the people who knew the family, but two millennia of Christians have considered God to be the father of Jesus, which seems to mean that Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather.
Jesus and Mary get most of the attention at Christmas because of Christians’ belief in their direct semi-biological connections to God. I have always thought Joseph deserved more attention than he usually receives, since he was, after all, Jesus’ role model for a good human father, dispenser of encouragement, discipline, guidance, and perhaps even wisdom. Jesus apparently took up carpentry as a trade to follow in his human father’s footsteps.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reality tv is to actual reality as the lightning bug is to actual lightning.
To paraphrase that paraphrase, mere celebrity in our day and age is to real leadership as reality tv is to actual reality.
To paraphrase that second paraphrase, a reality tv audience is to the citizenry of a healthy democracy as a mere celebrity is to a real leader.
To echo my favorite scholars of leadership behavior in the modern world, the two defining dimensions of effective leadership are truth and love. The truth dimension is about reality and it includes the recognition that two plus two will always equal four and that collaboration is ultimately more productive than amoral cutthroat competition. The love dimension is about compassion and it starts with the recognition that we human beings are all – repeat all – in the same boat.
Before delivering big news to human beings, biblical angels always began their announcements with a call to courage: “fear not,” they always said. We should be thanking all the women speaking up about sexual harassment and predation. They are among the best examples of courage nowadays. #FearNot #MeToo #OurBetterAngels
As you walk along that journey of 1,000 miles, each step you take will be roughly two feet long. Thus the whole journey will take roughly 2,640,000 steps. If you take 26,400 steps and cover ten miles each weekday and take every weekend off, your journey will take 20 weeks. If you start on Groundhog Day and persevere in this schedule, you will reach your destination on June 21. You will go from the dead of winter to the first day of summer.
Along the way, of course, the scenery will change – not just every day, but every hour, and sometimes every few minutes. And a change of scenery can trigger a change of mind and a change of course, testing your commitment and your perseverance. Ascending a hill, you mostly see what’s at the top of the hill; as soon as you reach the top, however, you see for miles ahead what is over that hill. On the way up, you may be telling yourself that it’s been all uphill so far (i.e difficult), but will soon be all downhill (i.e. easy). The view from the top of the hill can be inspiring and challenging by opening our eyes to whole new vistas.
Our Better Angels is devoted to education and philanthropy. We aim to help young people understand the mission and functions of nonprofit organizations, charities, and Good Causes of all sorts in our global village. We also aim to help them develop their leadership skills and values in the service of nonprofits, charities, and Good Causes.
Thus we encourage young people and not-so-young people to support the schools and colleges in their own communities and around the world by joining the Better Angels Community, choosing their school or their alma mater as their designated Good Cause, and then inviting at least two other members to join the Better Angels Community. Meanwhile, OBA will support this process through its social media, You Tube clips, Speakers’ Circle, and other channels. And our perpetual reciprocal worldwide crowd-funding system will match the first-year dues of all new members. In other words, when our new Angels pay it forward, we pay them back.
At birth, we are all tiny, ignorant, and helpless. If we’re lucky, we grow, we learn, and we gain independence. If we are really lucky and work hard, we grow stronger, gain wisdom, and live long enough to make a difference in the world.
Universal human experience and piles of psychological research indicate that the unfolding of the life cycle from infancy through childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age typically involves passages through several stages. Abraham Maslow described the stages of human need, from survival to security to belonging to ego expression to integrity and meaning. Several students of moral development have traced the journey from total absorption with self to concern for immediate reference groups like family and tribe to universal empathy and compassion for all people, all animals, and the planetary natural environment. At Our Better Angels, we just call these stages Me, Us, and Everybody.
For generations, American historians and American citizens have agreed that our greatest presidential leader was Abraham Lincoln, aka “Honest Abe.”
George Washington is often considered first runner-up. In a fictional nineteenth-century children’s book, Washington, as a little boy, said “I cannot tell a lie.”
Now we are pondering life in a “post-truth” era, wondering whether truth can keep pace with “fake news,” and slack-jawed over an American president-elect who has repeatedly and flagrantly flunked fact checking. As Mark Twain pointed out, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Perhaps it would be useful to consider one of Honest Abe’s most famous statements: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
So can you really fool all the people some of the time? Only if they don’t care what you are saying and unwilling to check it out. Stuff that really matters is also stuff that some people will surely know about or will take the time to investigate if they suspect someone is trying to fool them.
Who are these people you can fool all the time? In general, they are either intellectually challenged, ignorant of relevant truths, or in thrall to unverifiable beliefs.
Little children are easy to fool because they just don’t know much, so people often delight in fooling them with seemingly innocent stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
People who believe in unverifiable creeds, doctrines, and ideologies are easy to fool simply by pandering to their beliefs. True believers tend to double down on their beliefs when challenged by verifiable evidence. One good example is the belief in trickle-down economics, which claims that tax cuts for rich people benefit people who are not rich, even though this has never happened since money was invented 5,000 years ago.
Most importantly, why can’t you fool all the people all the time? Essentially because, over the millennia, people have been gradually learning how the universe works and how we can function effectively within it. We’ve recognized that mathematics is not a matter of opinion or religious doctrine, so two plus two must always equal four. Physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering are demanding taskmasters, requiring years of study, and they absolutely resist falsification and cheating.
Throughout all of human history, tyrants and dictators have manipulated people through ignorance, fear, and resentment. For centuries, however, many people have recognized that widespread understanding of math, science, history, ethics, economics, and social science allows a community to govern itself. For generations, democratic forms of governance (of, by, and for the people) have thrived on norms of equality, freedom of expression, universal education, and honesty in public discourse.
Professional norms in government, medicine, law, education, business, and journalism are based on deeper norms of truthfulness and responsibility to the larger community. Democratic communities can flourish only if citizens trust that those norms are observed by the fellow citizens who practice those professions. We have wiped out many diseases, doubled the human life span, and improved the human condition significantly since Honest Abe was president.
In the absence of fear and resentment, educated citizens in democratic cultures are pretty hard to fool. After all, if math and science were not reliable, we would have no tall buildings, cars, airplanes, computers, or cell phones. There would be no social media on which to share fake or real news.
Some Americans right now are denying a lot of what trained scientists and educated citizens understand about a range of important issues. Some of those deniers have garnered more than their fair share of political power, essentially by fooling some of the people some of the time. That can’t last. But in the meantime, denying truth can have disastrous consequences.
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