The Trust Quandary

I spend a lot of time in airports. If you look around the airport, endless dramas are playing out. People coming, going, hugging, saying goodbye sometimes forever, welcoming home friends and family gone who knows how long. When I look at so many strangers, I often wonder about the ideas that bond and separate us as co-inhabitants of cities, states, and our nation. That often leads me to think about our common ideas of trust.

Why trust at the airport? If you get on as many planes as I do, trust is implicit in the experience. I don’t know the pilots. I don’t know the state of the equipment I’m boarding. I don’t know who else is going to populate that airborne metal tube for the next several hours at 30,000 or more feet above sea level.

A few weeks ago my flight was delayed more than ten hours in a reasonably bad storm. It happened to be Election Day. When they finally let us board, I walked onto the plane and took my seat as quickly as I could. I looked out the window and saw a wet runway and dark sky hurling rain and wind. I didn’t ask to exit. I didn’t ask for reassurance that the crew was rested. I trusted everyone involved in the decision that it was safe to fly.

Since you’re reading this blog post, you can presume that wasn’t a fateful choice on my part. It surely could have been, but somehow trust in people I didn’t know, a company that employs them, and a government division assigned to oversee the activity carried the day. Other than thinking I wanted to write about it, I didn’t think much about it at all.

Is trust a form of absurdity or is some form of it necessary for us to share common spaces?

Perhaps it is both.

It isn’t a coincidence that I write this immediately following an election. Somehow over the past few elections, it has become vogue in certain circles to simply dismiss the reported, monitored, and validated results of an election as fraudulent. If one’s candidate loses an election, especially by a narrow margin, there is no easier way to declare victory than to declare a lack of trust in the voting process. It doesn’t even require evidence to attack the fairness of the vote count. We all can say what we want, and if we want to say our candidate lost because the election was compromised by fraud, we have the freedom to say that.

To summarize: I can trust the strangers controlling the jet airliner I’m going to fly with four hundred other strangers through a storm, but I can’t trust the civil servants whose job it is to count votes accurately. That one seems tough to reconcile.

Some say that democracy itself was on the last ballot, with the outstanding question of whether the tallied results would result in the winning candidates being lawfully seated. Again, just typing that sentence makes my fingers tremble. Democracy has been at the core of my personal values for as long as I can remember. I presume as a citizen of this nation I get to vote along with everyone else and the counted votes will direct an outcome. I don’t think about it any more than getting on the plane in the storm.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want expert monitors overseeing the transportation industry or our voting booths. If I can’t trust either one of those, I can’t fly and I can’t agree to follow laws passed by legislators. When we throw in the towel on trust, our ability to function in shared spaces is dramatically curtailed. Without some presumed notion of trust, I am not sure we can function at all.

Before you write to let me know what a mark I am likely to be for targeted scams, let me assure you my trust is not easily won. If you’ve worked with me, you know this emphatically. If you’ve ever sold me something of substance and been paid cash money for it, you know it even more. Even then I am wildly understating the difficulty to win my personal trust, but it can be won. If it can’t, we can’t do great things together. We can’t do anything at all.

Do I worry trust is abused? More than you can imagine. Baby boomers know a thing or two about trust. We were raised with the Vietnam War. We were raised with Kent State. We were raised with Richard Nixon. One of our most memorable anthems declared, “We won’t get fooled again.”

It sickens me when trust is blatantly abused.

It sickens me that people trusted FTX and its once-celebrated CEO to help them navigate the already shaky world of cryptocurrency. If you trusted FTX as an investment, you likely lost all your money.

It sickens me that people trusted a night out with friends at an LGBTQ dance club in Colorado Springs and five of them didn’t return home, with as many as 25 others injured in the semiautomatic weapon assault. If you were someone who put trust in diversity and acceptance that night, your trust was forever violated.

It sickens me that the federal government offered much-needed financial aid to individuals and small businesses through the CARES act, and billions of these dollars were diverted to fraudulent claims. If you needed Paycheck Protection Program dollars and didn’t get any when they ran out, there’s a good chance you trusted the custodians of these funds to be ahead of con artists, and they weren’t.

Does that mean we going to stop investing, going to clubs, or filing applications for government programs? It can’t, any more than we should consider not flying or accepting the results of certified elections.

Trust in some shape or form is always going to be violated, which is why we must continue to insist on as many reasonable safeguards against these violations as technical and process engineering can muster. I don’t know anyone in the FAA, but if I don’t trust that agency to do its job, or I don’t support proper legal action to correct its performance should it fail, my time at the airport is done.

If I don’t trust the vast majority of fellow citizens to behave civilly in public, I can no longer go out and presume I am coming home as healthy as I left.

If I don’t trust my doctor to perform a procedure when I am under anesthesia, I can’t have the procedure.

And if we can’t trust the certified results of a routine election, then we can’t have a democracy. We didn’t protest against all the attacks on civil liberties this past half century to give up our democracy. We did it to enhance and preserve this incomparable gift of sharing spaces, agreeing to disagree, and believing that if we didn’t get our choice in the last election, the next one will be coming soon. That next election has to be a certainty or the experiment is over. I’m calling the experiment alive if not perfectly well, but necessary and enduring.

There might be an absurdity underlying the notion of trust. If that kind of trust is what it takes to get me on the next scheduled flight, call me absurd. I’ll see you at the airport and at the ballot box.

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Photo: Pixabay

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Ten Bad Reasons Not to Vote

It’s easy to convince yourself not to vote. While the 2020 presidential election had a record high turnout for the 21st century, that still represented just 66.8% of citizens 18 years and older who participated. Midterm elections tend to yield significantly fewer voters. In many other nations around the globe, people still die for the right to play a role in free and fair elections. If you’ve managed to convince yourself that you needn’t exercise your right to vote, here is a laundry list of bad excuses that might talk you off the bench.

1) My single vote is just that; it hardly matters in a nation of millions.

Well, maybe, but what if the millions feel the same as you? There go the millions. Have a look at how close some of the vote counts have been in a number of highly contested races and you are likely to change your mind. Your vote matters.

2) I’m really busy and I don’t have the time to vote.

Well, maybe, but think about something you could trade for the time that you won’t miss, perhaps an hour of social media scrolling, television reality shows, or arguing with others about their poor election choices.

3) Voting is so inconvenient.

Well, maybe, but if going to a physical voting booth is not your thing, in almost every state there is some form of a mail-in ballot you can fill out anywhere and drop in a mailbox. If you need assistance getting to the polls, there are free or reduced-cost transportation resources available in many municipalities.

4) Most of the candidates fall into two parties and I don’t like either of them.

Well, maybe, but no rule says you have to vote strictly along party lines. Vote for the individual who best aligns with your needs, choices, and values.

5) Those ballot initiatives are too complicated and are meant to trick people.

Well, maybe, but there are plain language summaries of every initiative published online, in local newspapers, and in widely distributed brochures that can help you cut through the foggy language.

6) I don’t trust the election establishment and think fraud is deeply embedded in the system.

Well, maybe, but if you study the research, there is scant evidence of widespread election fraud, and the best way to overcome the possibility of fraud is for elections to be won decisively with huge turnouts.

7) I like identifying as being outside the system and not part of corruption.

Well, maybe, but if you live in the same nation as those who vote and you choose not to vote, the same laws apply to you. Your outsider status doesn’t exclude you from compliance with the laws others make. Letting those who vote elect officials to make laws for those who don’t vote seems like an awful concession. Where voter intimidation is in play, standing up for your right to vote seems more consequential than ever.

8) The candidates are idiots and I don’t want to endorse idiots.

Well, maybe, but even if the candidates aren’t up to your standards, you still might want to offer a stack ranking. Your opinion of relative competence can only be included in outcomes if you submit a ballot.

9) Campaign commercials, lawn signs, and debates are just icky, meaningless rhetoric.

Well, maybe, but choosing not to vote when you’re offended doesn’t give voice to your offense, it just rewards those behind the ickiness by silencing your repulsion.

10) I just don’t feel valued as a voter and don’t think elections matter to my everyday life.

Well, maybe, but if that kind of apathy becomes widespread, it becomes much easier for autocrats to seize control and take away the choices you may someday regret losing.

The right to vote should never be taken for granted. Wars have been fought and lives sacrificed to protect this sacred right. You will be compelled to pay taxes, but you won’t be compelled to vote. They sort of go together, so don’t give up your right willingly. Those who allocate your financial resources will still send you a tax bill whether or not you like how they spend your money.

Voting may seem bothersome, abstract, or elusive in representing your point of view, but it always matters and can never be surrendered. Rational and heartfelt thinking are the main hopes we have for transforming bad behavior into good behavior. Listening and learning are all part of the process of bringing positive change. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t make a statement, it avoids one. If it doesn’t go your way this time around, there’s always next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Never give up hope. Protect your right by exercising it every time you can. Please, get out the vote.

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Photo: Pexels

Are You Smarter Than Elon Musk?

I’ve written before about Elon Musk. He’s impressive on many levels, but he needs a bit of humbling on behalf of his peer group. He knows what he knows. He doesn’t know more.

I don’t need Elon Musk to teach me about free speech. He doesn’t have the credentials.

I also don’t need Mark Zuckerberg to teach me about community, openness, or how we’re going to live in the meta future. He’s a guy who sells online ads. He’s not a futurist.

The opinions of these people outside their realms of expertise aren’t just conflicted; they are arrogant, self-serving, naive, and potentially dangerous.

Wisdom is not fungible. Insight is not fungible. A person can be really good at something and nothing else. They just don’t know it, or perhaps they choose to embrace a platform of pretension. Self-aggrandizement is often a spoil of war.

A thought leader with demonstrable success in one category has no de facto claim to distant adjacencies. A celebrity, even a business celebrity, doesn’t become a subject matter expert beyond their recognized success simply by claiming the public microphone and turning up the volume.

Knowledge is not transferable by sheer force of will or cult of personality. An ego like Musk would have you believe he can layer meaning where none exists. An agenda is not the same as a common belief set, or even a clearly defensible philosophy.

Your opinion of what constitutes the normal social limits or lack thereof around free speech is every bit as valid as that of Musk. He can spend billions and buy anything he wants, but that does not make him right, only influential. He can call himself a free speech absolutist, but he made that up. It’s a pithy expression meant to draw attention to himself, but consider Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik’s extrapolation of Musk’s mandate in a more chaotic application of the extreme unleashed:

“If that means that users will be able to post anything they wish on Twitter, no matter how redolent they are of ‘sexual harassment, group harassment, insults or name-calling, posting private info, threatening to expose private info, violent event denial, violent threats, celebration of violent acts’ or any of the other violations of Twitter rules that currently allow the platform to shut down an account, that would be bad.”

You may agree or disagree. You may say Musk has agreed to abide by the law, but his interpretation of the law may not be yours. Musk is a contrarian who finds delight in arguing against laws and has no trouble surfacing the means to challenge high court opinions in endless adjudications. As long as there remains an appeal to be had, Musk can prevail with his opinions despite the collateral damage of their impact. None of that makes him correct in the abstract, but too often the power of holding today’s authority is confused with ethical vindication.

Your point of view matters on the issue, because you have the same foundation and standing to express your own point of view. What you likely don’t have are the resources at his disposal or the same hidden agenda he is not going to publicly express. What you probably do have is a touch of measured humility, balanced perspective, and everyday graciousness for those around you.

You’re also likely not putting on a show. Healthy policy debate deserves better than purchased amplification.

Proclamations can be noise alone, or they can have severe implications. We get fooled all the time by the loudest voices in the room claiming an ask that is more than what it appears.

Rich is fine. Successful is fine. Neither offers someone transitive intellect.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ”When you’re rich, they think you really know.” He wrestles with the irony of his dream. He wants to be sought by his fellow villagers as an all-wise sage and would gladly play that celebrated role in his community. Yet he knows from his deep faith he’s an ordinary man with or without money, not an inspired prophet.

We all have claim to an opinion. The validity of that opinion stands or falls on the credibility of its supporting argument and disciplined construct, not on the bank account or unaffiliated resume of its speaker.

If you think you know more about free speech than Elon Musk, it’s entirely possible you do. That would make you smarter than Elon Musk. I’m not sure it’s a compliment, but hold it in reserve should the foolishness you hear each day give you reason to stand up for your own well-considered belief system.

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Photo: Pixabay

My Will Smith Reflection

So much has been written about “the slap heard ’round the world” in such a short time that it already seems a tired target. It is all of that, but I would feel I missed a moment if I didn’t share my own reaction.

For me, it has almost nothing to do with Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, the Academy Awards, or any of the specific elements that surrounded that night. I stopped watching the Oscars years ago, mostly because I love the craft of storytelling far too much to see it devolve into a compromised, increasingly irrelevant dress up pageant.

My take is more personal, a series of artifacts stored deeply in my mind that have molded me over the decades.

I began my career in entertainment, both as a writer and on the business side. I was even in the legendary William Morris mailroom for an abbreviated sequence of heartbeats.

Here’s what I discovered in the entertainment business: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.

Most of my observations of high-ranking talent—creative or executive—encompassed abysmally bad behavior. There were exceptions of course, but most of what I encountered involved arrogance, rude backbiting, uncontrolled spending of other people’s money, and a tone of disdain fearing ordinary competition might unseat an incumbent player.

I discovered the novel phone etiquette of “Please hold for so and so … ” when someone calls you, where that someone is rolling calls and can’t be bothered to dial. On my very first round of job interviews out of college, I asked a producer at the top of his game for his business card; he laughed at me and told me everyone knew who he was, he hadn’t had a business card in 20 years (his name wouldn’t even make a good Jeopardy question now).

I saw a celebrity at the top of her game order a bottle of Dom Perignon at a lunch meeting, take one sip from her glass, and the rest went untouched. I had a stapler thrown at me, not because of anything I did but because I was in the room when a big deal went south.

Small stuff? Sure, but the message was clear. They weren’t like us. They were different.

Later came Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and MeToo. But it didn’t really come later. It was happening all along.

I migrated my career to technology, which was an open door in those days. I figured as an emerging platform it would be more egalitarian, a level playing field, and I was sort of right, that a piranha-filled moat was not yet evident in the entrepreneurial community. Multiple times I called the CEOs of newly public companies and thought I would get their assistants, only they had no assistants and actually picked up the phone.

That was before I met the financial community that surrounded technology.

Here’s what I discovered in high tech: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.

I was invited to a backyard party in Silicon Valley, then called to be told I was uninvited because there were too many other more important people coming, then called the day of the party and invited again when apparently not enough people showed up. I was told my wife was not invited to a dinner, because the money people involved didn’t want to get too close to me or know much about my family in case I didn’t work out and they had to dump me.

I was invited by multiple blue-chip funds to pitch for backing, left in the waiting room for 45 minutes of my scheduled hour, then given 8 minutes to run my deck to people staring at mobile phone screens. I was promised substantial equity financing and told to move ahead with major hiring plans, only it never emerged and I had to let go most of the people I had hired.

What does all of this have to do with Will Smith?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently observed: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

He was right. The consistent theme I have observed is that somehow, some way, when too many people get to a certain level of reward (note that I say reward, not necessarily accomplishment), something in their thought patterns is altered. Outlandish acts that would never occur to normal people—you know, like walking on a stage during a global broadcast of a once glamorous awards show and smacking a presenter speaking into the camera—somehow even for a millisecond sound survivable. Of course they almost immediately regret it if they are at all partially sane, but the momentary lapse of reason is not curbed in real-time by the same filters that are applied to the rest of us.

Do the same rules apply to everyone? It would be naive of me to say yes when we observe so much to the contrary. Only on some occasions is bad behavior of the elite so bad that the consequences are unavoidable. We see the edge cases where hubris is called to the carpet, but that remains a fraction of the enforcement necessary to remind us that civility in public discourse is not an elective, it is expected for unsupervised social engagement to be a constant.

Very early in my career, one of my wisest and most conflicted mentors said to me: “Be careful with what you think you are achieving; if you live long enough, you might become what you most fear.” I barely had a clue what he meant at the time, but I never forgot it, and each year that has gone by it has meant more to me.

What do I take away from the Will Smith fiasco?

None of us are very important in the broad scope of things. Should you disagree, have a look at the obituaries of the most successful among us published even 30 days ago and try to recall most of their names.

Delusions are most famously reversed at the most inopportune times.

If you wish to maintain your admiration for a celebrity, try very hard not to meet them in person.

Life is too short and precious to let success of any kind go to your head and reshape your humanity into something you as a child would have abhorred.

Humility is a choice.

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Photo: Pixabay