Six Months to Live

They say nothing focuses the mind on the here and now like the threat of immanent death. So, in my mindfulness mediation recently, as I have at various times in my life, I imagined having only six months to live and watched to see what emerged as a new or top priority. The first thing that came to mind was to thank my sons for being such good husbands and fathers; what a comfort it would be to face death knowing two good men are replacing me. My next impulse surprised me: I would beg my fellow citizens to recognize the extraordinary value of what they are giving up by abandoning their commitment to democracy.

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Preparing for despair

I’ve long thought hope might be the most potent resource humans possess, that it might account, even more than opposable thumbs, for the stunningly successful evolution of our species. Defined as “an optimistic state of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes,” hope enables us to keep moving forward with trust in a brighter future, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But what would happen if a group of humans or a nation lost hope…for democracy, for a virus free lifestyle, or for in a healthy inhabitable planet?

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When dialogue doesn’t work

I was approached for conversation last weekend by a politically engaged couple who described themselves as committed to open minded political dialogue. My response has left me wondering.

He sounded well read, informed, angry, and opinionated; she seemed quieter, articulate, sad, and inquiring. Both seemed a bit lonely, like they were living their lives as outsiders in a hostile political society. I thought I sensed strongly held opinions even though neither of them initially expressed them. While they spoke in non-partisan language, I felt braced throughout the conversation for an expected flood of intense conservative critique. I kept my comments and opinions centered on my personal experiences, not wanting to start a debate over facts and sources. This, despite her having begun our conversation by saying she thought the avenue to better political dialogue might be to start with agreement on trustworthy sources.

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The miners knew…
When dark dust clogged their pores,
Clouded their minds, and obscured their vision,
And necessity drove them back each day into the dark,
The sensitive canary would warn them of their danger
By being the first to die.

My heart today is aching. My ideals,
Bludgeoned by cynics, and beliefs, battered by lies,
Are choking on the gas of decomposing politics.
The sweet canary’s song is getting louder: “Get Out Now!”

But there is no way out.
Shafts of light are being plugged, one after another; and
The path we came by only goes one way.
We can shout with the last of our breath,
Claw at the rock with our nails, but
Who is there to dig us out?
We were to be our own protectors.

We go to work each day now, picking for peace and digging for justice,
Entering neath the faded sign: “pledged to be more perfect.”
“One for all” we chant as we march to our labors,
While our beautiful canaries are dying.


As a career mediator, I’m shocked to hear myself say this, but I fear our polarized country is facing an impasse leaving us no choice but to choose sides and fight.

My job for 30 years was to help people locked in high stakes conflicts find opportunities for compromise through which each party could realize enough of their objectives that settlement was preferable to the risks of losing or the costs of litigation. On a very good day, creative resolutions could be found that left all parties in a better position than before the litigation started. Every once in a while, however, a case would come along in which one party’s actual goal was to destroy the other, financially or perhaps emotionally. When that became clear, I would have to advise the parties of the fact and send them home. No compromise or problem solving magic can entice a party to agree to be destroyed; they have no choice but to fight it out and hope for the best.

Those who are leading and following the movement to overturn the November elections are not asking for a solution to a disagreement on policy or principle. Whether from a passionate but misinformed belief the election was stolen or from motives more sinister, the President’s followers are refusing to accept the outcomes of Constitutionally sound elections and court decisions upholding them. Their concerns have been addressed through recounts and litigation; the accusations of fraud have been answered and found to be false. There is nothing left to say or offer to those who only want Donald Trump to remain in office. There is no legal or Constitutional way to do so.

The attack on the Capitol and promised future violent action seek to overthrow democratic institutions. They are direct attacks on the nation’s 250 year old democracy. Whether the president who refuses to cede power is crazy or sly; whether his followers are misled and believe they are saving the country or are anarchists, white supremacists, and hoodlums, the position they are creating for the country is the same: either capitulate to their demand that elections be overturned, or oppose them with all force necessary to protect the country’s democratic government.

It seems like a very foolish position for the election challengers to force on the country. Their motives are relevant but of secondary importance. Their goal of destroying the country’s constitutional order, whether deliberate or simply de facto, must and will be vigorously fought. If they lose, they will be known as traitors and treasonists.

To say this is an historical moment is an understatement. There is no room now for compromise or equivocation. Leaders and citizens alike must decide which side of this historical position they will be on. Either defend with our voices, our laws, and our votes the Constitutional order on which we base our liberty, or yield to an extra-constitutional authoritarian power grab.

Deep State—Part 4

The importance of integrity

Government has a great deal of power in any society, probably no less so in a first world democracy than in a dictatorship. It can restrict our freedom and take our property, even take our lives, and its operations are mostly outside our daily purview. Eventually, a government will reflect and enforce the values of whomever controls it; in a democracy, that should be we the people.

After conferring on it extensive rights and power, we hope and expect the government will exercise its authority in accordance with our collective will, for our collective benefit. We ask it, as our agent, to represent and effectuate our national standards and values. In my experience, the vast majority of government employees do just that. In fact, they are required to.

Defense Department employees, for example, take periodic certification training in the practical application of Executive Order 12674, an Order that applies to all federal employees and explicates detailed ethical obligations such as these:

It has never been written into law that the federal government’s CEO, the President, is subject to the same rules as other government workers. Apparently, no one thought it necessary. Presidents are assumed to be the apex representatives of the country and its citizens. They are entrusted to control the executive branch of government for the protection and benefit of the entire country. A president who would deliberately corrupt the capability of the professional government to perform its duties, or undermine its public mission with demands to advance illegitimate interests, would do far wider damage to the country than with any single illicit act.

There are two definitions and two ways to think about government integrity. First is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” qualities to which most of us aspire, have asked of our leaders, and expected our government to represent. But a second relates to “the state of being whole and undivided.” To have integrity, government’s behavior and our expectations must honestly reflect our values.

We can only expect our government to tell us the truth, respect our rights, not waste our tax dollars, and perform their duties with competence and expertise if we as a society respect and embody truth, honesty, and expertise ourselves. Institutional integrity cannot be established by hypocrisy or without personal integrity at the top. 

Winds of political corruption have been blowing strong through our democracy of late, bending norms and institutions that are largely maintained by government bureaucracy. Notably, most of reported corruption is being committed and directed by elected and politically appointed officials, not by career employees. If we the (voting) people have decided that corruption is acceptable, we must anticipate and accept that a corrupt professional government will follow. If we have given up on Democracy, we should be ready for authoritarian control of government’s vast power for a single individual’s purposes. But if you find the thought of an enormous, powerful, corrupt and authoritarian government as frightening as I do, I hope you will stay vigilant and help protect the independence, expertise, and integrity of government employees and their ability to stand strong for the public interest first and always.