The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘fear’


If more people had a grasp of the subtleties of the English language, we might go far toward eliminating some of the misunderstanding which exists between us.  But unfortunately, too many of our citizens communicate with a highly limited vocabulary and a poor understanding of the meaning of the words they employ in their speech.

Much of the conversation circling around the question of the profiling of people whom the police believe are likely candidates to commit crimes has taken place because people don’t understand the difference between two important words – assumptions and conclusions.  Unfortunately, President Obama in speaking on the subject today might have reinforced this confusion.

Simply put, an assumption is a belief or feeling to  which a person holds without having the evidence either to support or reject an opinion.  Some assumptions are undoubtedly based on prejudice – whether it is racial, or not trying a specific food because of the way it looks – if it looks funny it probably tastes bad – that sort of thing.

By making the statement that, “Trayvon Martin might have been he,” the President played to his audience and suggested that those who make assumptions merely based on physical characteristics are dangerous elements in our society.  I believe that he referred, as he has in the past, to law enforcement – and now, of course, to private citizens who might have reacted in the same way that George Zimmerman did.

We’ll get back to the President’s statement later in this post.

Let’s turn our attention to the word conclusion.  A conclusion is an opinion that a person may hold after she or he has looked at data, evaluated the evidence and now has a basis for making a determination.  It is only fair to say that two people viewing the same statistics might reach different conclusions.  But, at the least, there is some objective information on which they relied to form their opinion.

An example of “profiling” that we not only permit but endorse is practiced regularly by TSA.  It tends to single out people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin – and there is reason for this.  It was people of that ethnic background  who we claim were the responsible parties for the events of 9/11.  Based on our experience, they are the most likely people to commit further acts of terrorism.  The sad events at the Boston Marathon support that view.  Is there anyone who fails to see the logic of this or believes that the conclusion to engage in this practice is faulty in its logic or that it is inappropriate?

I recently read some interesting statistics which came from the NYPD.  The city has seen a tremendous reduction in crime since it began profiling individuals and initiating “stop and frisk” measures.  It should be said that more than 90% of those stopped are either black or Latino.  NY Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly makes no bones about his department’s targets for this policy, despite the fact that the Department is being sued over “racial profiling.”

There is a reason that the Department selected this particular demographic to make New York a safer place.  The fact is that, according to the department’s records, 96% of the murder victims in the city are either black or Latino and 97% of the suspects in custody for these murders are either black or Latino.

Those who assume that there is only a racial motivation in these pat downs would probably be right.  But if you look at the statistics, as have the NYPD, do you think it would be productive to pat down 90 year old Mrs. O’Reilly as she returns home from daily Mass?

Much has been written (and this is an excellent example of the faulty logic and the assumptions made by many) about the fact that a disproportionate number of blacks are in jail than their percentage in the general population.  Of course, the assumptive reasoning is that we have an unequal justice system that oppresses our minority black citizens.  What a load of rot.

There are proportionately more blacks in jail because there are proportionately more blacks who commit the crimes that send them there.  And those statistics hold for NY, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit and a host of other cities that will most likely be scenes of rallies for “justice” for Trayvon Martin on Saturday, July 20, 2013.

That young man’s death was tragic – but perhaps it was inevitable that he might have come to this kind of violent end.  And when you, Mr. President say, “It might have been you,” I believe you are correct.  I have seen the commission of crime in the district that first elected you to office and the demographics are not far different than those in New York.

I have been a victim and I have known other victims in that district.  And the perpetrators were young black men – with or without hoodies – high on drugs or merely out for a good time.  Most of those who are violated by these thugs are black men and women – the overwhelming majority of whom are your constituents.

The fear of young black men is real.  It is real among anyone who has been a victim, anyone who knows a victim and among anyone who has done a little research.  This fear shatters all boundaries of race and color and is held as much by blacks as whites – perhaps even more by the former group.  Would you call our elderly black citizens who are fearful of young black males racists – or realists?

If you want to leave a positive legacy for the country, please stop relying on faulty assumptions and take a look at the facts.  If you do that, you will inevitably come to the conclusion that the cancers of illegitimacy and dependence and illiteracy and unemployment are at the core of the black community’s problems.  And if you do that, you will turn from flowery oration to initiating positive action.

It’s long overdue.


Gloria and I had lunch Friday at a nice little restaurant in the neighborhood.  It’s a café that has an extensive wine list and, as this was the start of Gloria’s weekend, she decided to have a glass of a Chardonnay which she said was delightful.

Gloria’s in her early sixties and is a blackjack and Pai Gow Poker dealer at one of the local casinos.  That’s how I met her.  We’ve been friends for the last several years.  Her husband passed away and her children are grown and live out of state.  So Gloria, and her cat Essie live together.

My friend is a very thoughtful and intelligent person.  As we finished the salads we had ordered for luncheon, our conversation turned to the Presidential election.  Frankly, I didn’t know whom she was supporting in the race but I expressed my view on the subject.  I looked for her reaction when I said that I was supporting Romney, trying to gage her reaction.  There was no need for that.

Gloria said that she was very depressed by the poor job that President Obama had done, though she had voted for him four years ago.  But she was afraid to vote for Romney because of the thought of the possibility of riots should Obama lose.  I was startled at this statement.

“Who do you think is going to riot?,” I asked her.

“The people who view Obama as a savior and who are afraid that Romney will cut off their benefits,” was her answer.

Sadly, I’ve heard this kind of thing before – so it is certainly not my friend’s unique opinion.  We live in a violent society.  I understand how a single, elderly woman living by herself might be concerned for her personal safety.  And the neighborhood in which Gloria lives has seen an influx of ne’er-do-wells who have been preying on the residents, many of whom have lived there for twenty years or longer and are elderly.  Her concern is not based on her imagination but is an opinion formed by reading the police blotter.

I related to her how I had been mugged while I was in college and how my parents wanted me to move out of the neighborhood to a place that was “safer”.  I remember having a heated discussion over this with Mom and Dad.  I understood their concern for my safety – but I refused to move – perhaps out of youthful arrogance – but I like to think more out of principle.

My argument to my parents was, “There are good and bad people everywhere.  But if all the good people move to a place that is ‘safe’, then that leaves no one behind but the bad people there.  And since the bad people have nothing to steal from each other, they will turn their attention to other more opulent areas where the former residents have moved.”

In other words, as the lyrics of the old gospel song state, “There’s No Hiding Place Down Here.”

What I explained to Gloria was that eventually the rioting which she feared might happen – whoever gets elected President.  The simple reason is that we cannot indefinitely sustain the kind of mindless spending on programs which enslave people by allowing them to live, but only at a level of poverty.  At some point, sooner or later, the spigots will be turned off because there will be nothing more for them to pour.

Based on our conversation I think I made an impression.  She decided that she was going to vote for Romney – and purchase a small weapon to defend herself should the need arise.


When last we met I spoke about the problem so many people had making decisions.  Well, just to prove that you can’t get enough of a bad thing I’d like to follow up my story about my friend Pete with one about serving on my condo board.

I lived in a building that was filled to the rafters with talented and professional people.  There were doctors, businessmen, educators and even the president of a university among our unit owners.  The building could be described as an intellectual hot-spot – or at least one would think so looking at the backgrounds of my neighbors.

I had lived there for about six years and someone suggested I run for the Board.  I thought that I might be able to contribute something so I did and was elected to one of the three openings that fell vacant each year.  The Board consisted of nine members.

During the first two monthly meetings I realized that any time a new item of business was brought up it was never decided at that meeting.  Rather, it would be put off to the next month’s gathering to allow the board members time to contemplate the various ways we might address it.  Generally nothing arose that was critical so the fact that we deferred making a decision was harmless. Nevertheless it was inefficient.  To me it was like starting to make soup – you filled the pot with the right amount of water – and left it sitting on the stove while you decided what veggies you were going to add.

Well, I had now been on the Board for five years when the subject of re-painting the back hallways came up.  We all agreed that it was needed and now we had merely to decide on a choice of color.  The painter whom we were going to use had painted swatches in one of the back hallways so that the board could evaluate them and select one.

We had decided (after two meetings) on a color – and now we were going to determine the tone with a 10% of color choice (the lightest); 25% of color (medium); 50% of color (the darkest).  Truthfully, of the board members this choice affected me more than the others.  I had to use the back hallways several times a day since people with companion dogs had to take them in and out using the service elevators.  Other people only went in the back hallway to empty their garbage in the large receptacles which were placed there.

As I walked Tristan and Josh I looked at the swatches of paint and decided that the medium shade appeared fine and that would be my choice at the board meeting a few days later.  It seemed simple enough to me and I was looking forward to seeing how the newly refreshed hallways would improve the halls’ appearance.

As usual on the night of the meeting I came home from work, walked and fed the puppies and deferred eating my own dinner until what usually was a three hour meeting had concluded.  I went down to the board room and the rest of the members filed in.  We took care of the usual business and turned our attention to the hallway paint.

The President asked if we had all had an opportunity to take a look at the swatches.  We all said we had.  So he decided to poll us to see if there was a consensus of choice.

He asked the first member to his left what she thought.  (This lady was an esteemed psychiatrist – and no I’m not making this up – any of it ).

“Well,” she said.  “The lightest shade is very lovely.  The back hallways are not all that wide so if we did use the light shade it would really open them up and make them look a lot bigger.”

“So, you’re voting for the lightest shade then?”

She went on, “But the medium shade is also very lovely.  While it wouldn’t open up the hallways as much as the light shade – still it would be a lot more inviting and welcoming that what we have now.”

“So, you’re voting for the medium shade?”

“But the dark shade is also quite attractive.  It would provide a very intimate atmosphere to the hallways.”

I began to think, are we going to be having communal orgies and candlelight dinners in the back hallways?

My turn came and I said, “Medium.”  At that point, as I was the seventh member to be asked, I was holding a large tuft of hair in my right hand that I had pulled from my head while listening to the other Board members dissemble about the color choice. (I am making that up).

The polling of the board concluded and we had recorded 16 different opinions coming out of only nine people.  As usual, we tabled the decision until the next Board meeting over my objection that, “Between now and next month the colors aren’t going to change.  Let’s just decide on one now and be done with it.”

It actually took us two more meetings to decide on the ultimate color choice.  It was the medium option.

A number of years later I became President of the Board.  I realized why this esteemed group had so much trouble making decisions.  They didn’t want to be held accountable should something turn out badly.  They enjoyed the “prestige” of being able to say they were a Board member – but didn’t want to take any flak for serving in the position.  They wanted to be sure that they were voting with the majority – and it had to be a solid majority – before they would commit themselves.

Mostly out of self-serving reasons – specifically, I didn’t enjoy eating dinner at 10:30 on the night of the Board meetings – I took the Board in a different direction.  I would speak with the building manager about any new projects or repair jobs which would come up at the next meeting.

I would make sure that all bids were received prior to the meeting and would review those and decide on a contractor to use.  I would write a brief summary of why we should undertake the project and why I had selected this particular contractor from among the three who had submitted bids.  I would provide each member with a handout with this summary and give them an appropriate few minutes to review this.  Then I would call for a vote on approving the contractor I had selected.  Since the decision had essentially been made for them, they had no problem voting as I suggested – 100% of the time.

I was President of the association for twelve years – and in all that time not one single monthly meeting lasted over an hour and fifteen minutes and most took less than sixty minutes.

Fortunately, I had the best interests of all my neighbors in the building at heart.  That, and being able to eat dinner at a reasonable hour, were my motivations.  But the story does point out that people can easily be directed in their actions if someone is clever enough to figure out what motivates them.

If we have a position in which we believe, it is our absolute responsibility to hold fast to it, despite the objections that may come from the world around us.  We can be a majority of one.  Otherwise, we can seek the “safer path” of holding to the consensus of opinion and be as the lemmings.

But we all know what happens to them.


I have a very dear friend whose name is Pete.  We’ve known each other for twenty-five years.  He is a kind, caring and charming man.  He also drives me crazy.  Pete is perhaps the most indecisive person walking the face of the planet.

Pete has a background in library science.  Given a task, finding references and cross-correlating them, Pete’s the man for your job.  He is thorough and efficient and confident and seeks out all the potential material for the individual making the request of him.  Obviously, he has capability within his chosen field of expertise.  Why is he unable to extend this to other aspects of his life?

Several years ago Pete’s position was being eliminated.  He was understandably concerned about his future and, as he was in his early 60’s, was worried about being able to find a new position.  However, he did find a new spot with a large firm in their library.  This position was only for a six month period – but it had the potential of continuing beyond that time – depending on the economy and how well the firm did.

It was at this point in his life that Pete finally started paying attention to his financial situation.  He had previously entertained a “live for today” philosophy and had done little to provide for his personal financial well-being.  He had relied on the fact that he would one day collect Social Security and his far less than flamboyant life-style could continue un-interrupted.

Faced with the facts of financial-mortality, Pete suddenly felt panicked.  As I was doing financial planning for wealthy individuals at the time, Pete called me for help.  I was happy to provide it.

I reviewed Pete’s financial situation.  (This is always a bit uncomfortable for me when I’m dealing with someone who is a friend.)  But since I cared about Pete, I laid out a plan for him.  I explained that he needed to make some sacrifices – and to start on a dedicated program of saving for his future.  He would have to save a greater percentage of his income  than a person who was younger because he had less time to accumulate a nest egg.

After I laid out a suggested program and explained the mechanics and mathematics of it, he nodded in agreement.  I was quite sure that I had boiled down all the material in a way which he would be able to comprehend.  I always try to reduce all the complex verbiage that so many in the financial service industry like to use down to terms that any person can readily understand.  Pete and I went out to dinner together and I left it up to him to take the steps I had outlined.

Several weeks went by before Pete and I chatted again.  Pete called me at home.  I had just finished dinner and was sitting down to start a new book that I had purchased, but I was happy to hear from him.

Pete began the conversation by saying, “You know – I think you’re right.  I need to do something to insure that I’m going to be able to make it financially.”

I was pleased at that.

He went on, “I ran your plan by some other people I know and they agreed with you.”  Of course, I didn’t know that.

I asked, “With whom did you consult?”

The list amazed me.  Pete had spoken with his barber, his two sisters, the man who worked in the produce section of his favorite store, the newspaper vendor from whom he purchased the Chicago Tribune, a lady who worked in the sock section at Marshall Field’s, two of his co-workers, his dentist and another friend who had just declared bankruptcy.

When he enumerated this list, I was truly floored – but grateful that all of these people who had at best a limited knowledge of financial planning, had agreed with me.

Well, the good news is that Pete did start, and more importantly, continue on a solid financial plan that provided him with far more additional security than if he had done nothing.  But this episode caused me to think about how people process information and reality.

Making a decision is always risky.  If your decision proves to be a poor one there is always the potential for failure and embarrassment.  No one likes either of those.

Perhaps it is for that reason so many of us retreat to what we believe is the safety of inertia – doing nothing.  We adopt the Sartrian philosophy that, “Les jeux sont faits.”  “The die is cast.”  If we are the victims of fate we cannot be held accountable for the outcome that has been pre-destined for us.  Sadly, trusting ourselves to fate, while it might leave us faultless, seldom provides the outcome that most of us would desire.

On the other hand, actively making choices exposes us to the potential of failure.  Failure is embarrassing and no fun at all.  But it is only with the acceptance of the possibility of failure that we can achieve anything of worth.  We expose ourselves to the ridicule of others and our own sense of self-doubt – but can grow in the process if we realize that failure is not an end but a beginning.

I have been fortunate that in my life I have achieved many failures.  Those have been my greatest learning experiences – and ones from which I ultimately greatly profited.  I hope to experience more – though not the same ones I previously encountered.  I try to learn from my mistakes – not repeat them.

For those of us who are hung up by the iron mistress of indecision and are afraid to make a mistake, please remember that in failing to decide you have indeed decided.  Take a chance.  Life’s too short to have it be ruled by fear and the fate that you have no reason to believe will favor you.

Decide to decide.


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