The 2016 Election – A Recap

I am not artistic. I’m not visually creative. I’m not picky about my surroundings. I can live nearly anywhere. I’m not picky about food. I can eat nearly anything. But I’m surrounded by artists and over time, slowly, I’ve come to appreciate how vital art and beauty is. My older sisters are artists, my oldest a writer, my second oldest a painter. I married a musician. Through them, I’ve been able to rise above myself and have come to appreciate and enjoy art, music, good food, good architecture. I’m still too willing to settle, but I’ve improved.

As I visited my sisters, I have experienced with them art in all of its forms, Broadway shows, Shakespeare in a parking lot, fine art at the Whitney or a something more gritty and raw at a small at studio. I met my wife during her masters degree in piano performance. We attended recitals and concerts together, listened to lectures and spent time with her friends who were spending hours at a time trying to eek out small improvements playing music composed centuries earlier.

I say that because through these experiences, I feel like why can’t more people produce art, and the more art that’s produced, the more common it becomes, the more people will have it around them. It’s an insight shared by John Adams long before my time:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

I think for the most part this has born itself out. We are starting to grapple with a world without work, at least not the type of work we’re used to. As technology continues to advance, as the world shrinks and our ability to share goods and services globally improves, as robots are able to do more and more of the work humans previously could do, we no longer need to work to survive. But we still need work to thrive.

What if this sort of stuff could be democratized. Why should all of the best art be concentrated in just a few coastal cities? Why shouldn’t I be able to walk down the street and visit my neighbor playing Bach Etudes? Why can’t every house be custom designed with beautiful gardens. The fact is that we should never really be a world without work. There is always something more that can be done.

And this is why the results of this presidential election feels like a giant step backwards to me. Donald Trump’s primary campaign promise was that he would “Make America Great Again” and the way he would do it, well he didn’t spend a lot of time explaining it. Just trust him that he alone could make it happen. That it would be easy. His policies were shallow and barely explored. When they were explained, they amounted to finger pointing and exclusion – from his plans to deport all 11 million of our illegal immigrants to his proposals to increase the barriers for  legal immigration and his support for stop and frisk. He plans to bring manufacturing jobs back by making it more expensive for foreign countries to trade their goods in our markets and as a result he reflexively opposes trade deals like NAFTA and TPP without really explaining why these deals are bad or why good people may disagree. I’ve never seen him in a thoughtful debate with someone who could defend TPP intelligently. Does he even understand NAFTA or TPP? I have no evidence that he does.

And this is not to say Trump is universally wrong. While watching the Republican debates in particular, I found myself agreeing with Trump at times. I also saw how much freedom he had in these debates especially compared to the other candidates. Trump seemed more authentic and sincere, willing to say it like he saw it. And this passion and freedom could resonate at times – especially when he unflinchingly condemned George W. Bush’s Iraq war, both the decision, the deception and its execution. And many of his favorite topics are worthy of scrutiny, discussion and debate. He goes where no one has gone before and in some cases, we probably should. What should our relationship with Russia be? Is NATO still relevant and if so, in what way? Should America be shouldering the lion-share of the world police responsibilities? Underneath the bluster, there are legitimate questions about our trade and immigration policies, the manner in which we’re dealing with global, radicalized Islam and the war on terror.

The problem isn’t so much that I blatantly disagree with Trump on every policy proposal. The problem has always been his temperament, his approach, his superficiality, his lack of curiosity, his corruption. And so it was in this campaign. It was more about scandal and temperament than it was about policy. It was more about the candidates than it was about their party, their ideology, or their ideas.

With Trump now preparing to take over the most powerful position in the world, I think  Americans should unite. For me, the message I heard most consistently from those around me was dissatisfaction in both candidates. If that is really true, then I look forward to a fairly broad and united Trump skepticism from my friends across the political spectrum. None of what Trump will try to do should be automatically supported, rather it’s on Trump to defend and explain everything he does. There should be bi-partisan skepticism and scrutiny. Trump opposition must be the default. And anything he does that harms America, should be blocked and opposed.

Because the world that Trump describes is a world I just don’t experience. It’s a world with limited and shrinking resources and Trump’s response is to lay claim to it before others can. In his view, it’s America first, and the rest of the world should be left to pick up the scraps of what’s left.

But Mormonism provides a refutation of this view. In the Mormon scripture, D&C 104:17, it says:

 17 For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.

This is also my vision of the world. On election day, I happened to be in San Francisco attending a software conference. I love this city, and I get it, the nerds have ruined it. But it’s still teeming with energy. I love walking down the streets soaking it all in. With the election decided I sat in a room surrounded with talent and energy in a city filled with it. And even though you probably could not have fabricated someone in a lab that I would be more opposed, I still felt and still feel optimism.

The world is filled with abundance and this abundance is found in the people everywhere. And America and many other countries around the globe have built up an infrastructure of sharing and collaboration and trade. My hope is that one person will not be able to tear this down no matter how hard he tries. We just can’t let him do it, none of us.

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What Does it Mean that Obedience is the First Law of Heaven

For one thing, the phrase “obedience is the first law of heaven“, is non-sensical as it is circular. You first have to have a law to obey – whether that law exists implicitly in nature or whether it’s imposed by another human being. How then can obedience even be a law let alone the first law of Heaven.

But obedience for obedience sake is tough for another reason. This has been a tough spot for me in my faith journey within Mormonism. Obedience to God’s laws is a central theme to the lived Mormon experience. I get it, I really do. As a kid, I obsessed about obedience, not just to church rules, but to all rules. And it was stressful, especially as I fell short, I had a terrible time cutting myself some slack.

And now as a parent, I also get it.  I don’t want my kids to go around disobeying. I can see the practical utility in compliance. Life is so much easier if those around me have some sense of doing what we ask them to do.

But I think obeying for obedience sake is an early developmental stage, at its best it’s a crutch to be used when we’re still learning to walk on our own. But as we mature, it can act as an impediment to further development. At its worse, it can lead those to obey the wrong person, follow the wrong command, and possibly can cause real harm.

And I think obeying for an implicit desire to be compliant is not the reason most people live good, faithful lives. Most mature adults strive to be good for the reason eBay got off the ground, people are basically good, inherently. I think even when people are driven to make poor choices, they do so despite the deepest strivings we all have within us toward goodness.

Another problem here is that obedience within Mormonism tends to make righteousness transactional. Consider this in D&C 130:20, 21:

20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

And again, I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I just think if we don’t dig into this principle far enough, it may lead us down the wrong path. Simple compliance for superficial reasons  or worse – misunderstandings of God’s laws can keep us from enjoying the rich blessings that come from a close association to both God and others.

To dig deeper, I think this talk about President Uchtdorf on the laws of the harvest is instructive even though he doesn’t quite get to the point I’m trying to make here. In it he describes a woman working for a seed company dealing with customer complaints who don’t seem to understand how seeds work. Rather, they strictly obey the instructions on the seed package and misunderstandings lead to disappointing results. In each example, the customer failed to plant, nourish, water the seed in good soil, provide plenty of sunshine with enough patience to allow the plant to grow according to the laws of biology. The law of the harvest dictates that we “reap what we sow”. I agree. In this example, there was some effort to reap, but not in the way to produce the desired result.

I think I see the same with music. For each of our four children, we’ve enrolled them in music lessons, dragged them each week for instruction, and try to pull consistent practice hours out of them in between lessons. To the degree they’ve complied, they’ve improved, when they haven’t they’ve stagnated.

But there’s something more to this than simple obedience. To really be successful as a gardner requires more effort than simple obedience. It requires a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the result – to learn everything that’s required to know and then to follow all of steps – it requires desire and sufficient knowledge and even still, even the most expert farmers fail to harvest.

To learn to play music well, requires years of patient, consistent practice. But to really do anything well, goes far beyond obedience, it requires love – dedicated, focused love. Musicians who produce beautiful music go beyond a child’s obedience. At some point, they have to learn to love their instrument and the music they are producing. To become good at gardening, one has to love to learn about soil and plants and biology. And in either case, if you don’t have it within you, if you’re not called and gifted with musician’s gift, you still may not achieve all that you may hope to achieve.

And this love, this connectedness to the world we live in, this basic understanding of our role within it, this awareness that is living deep inside each of us. If obedience is the first law of heaven, I don’t think it means it’s the best. It just means it’s the first. It points us in the right direction, it puts us in the room, it puts us near enough to have transcendent experiences. It gives us a glimmer of light in a room of darkness. It shows us the way.

Obedience may be the first law of heaven, but love is the last.