Profiles in Courage

Auto Date Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

In June, I attended the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland, OR. I try to go to these as often as I can because I always come away personally inspired by the people I meet and the stories they tell.

As always, there were many good stories. This year, in a joint appearance, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Mike Gravel and the Rev. Robert West told a great one. Ellsberg, of course, was the man who, in 1971, copied and released thousands of pages of classified information describing the activities of the United States in Vietnam before and during the Vietnam war. These became known as the Pentagon Papers. Mike Gravel was a U.S. Senator from Alaska who agreed to read the papers into the Congressional Record as part of a filibuster. Robert West was the president of Beacon Press which is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association and which was the only publisher willing to agree to publish the papers. The three of them told of their roles in the release and publication of the papers. The stories were personal, sometimes very funny and, even after all this time, suspenseful.

Ellsberg was an analyst with the Rand Corp. who became a part of the group which wrote the Pentagon Papers. He was one of the very few people authorized to read the entire study. He believed that the lying and fatal decision making described in these papers would not change, but that informing the public and the congress of this history of government deception might work to end the war. He also believed that if he released the classified papers he would likely go to prison for the rest of his life.

In 1968 he had met Janaki Tschannerl, a professor and peace activist who encouraged him to learn more about non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. He spent a year reading the works of Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King and then sought to meet non-violent activists face to face. In 1969 he met two draft resisters, Bob Eaton and Randy Kehler, who had decided to go to prison rather than support an immoral war. Their words and especially their actions led Ellsberg to feel that he too should be willing to risk prison in order to do what was right. He began the 22 month process of photocopying the 7000 page study. He would need to draw on his courage regularly from then on because it became very difficult to find courageous partners who would help him get the papers in front of the congress and the public.

He gave the documents to Senator William Fulbright and offered them to a number of other Senators so that they could put them into the Congressional Record, but none of them would out of fear of reprisal from the Nixon Whitehouse or fear of looking foolish. Only Senator Mike Gravel, who as Ellsberg said, was “not afraid of looking foolish” would agree to put them into the record and did so. Gravel’s account of that process was both moving and amusing.

Ellsberg gave the papers to the New York Times, but they never told him whether they would publish them or not. He approached a number of publishers, none of whom would accept responsibility for publishing until Beacon Press agreed to. That decision led to two and a half years of government harassment and legal suits of both Beacon Press and the UUA as a whole. Robert West described the details of that ordeal.

Eventually of course, Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy and espionage. However, because of serious government misconduct (the White House broke into his psychiatrist’s office) all charges were dropped.

Ellsberg finished by making the same plea he’s been making while speaking around the country. “I rue every day that I kept silent from 1964 to 1969. There are a hundred people who could have done what I did not do in 1963 or 1964.” He continued “Sen. Wayne Morse once told me that if I had released the papers then, and not in 1971, there would have been no Gulf of Tonkin resolution and thus no Vietnam War. We need people to go public now. Here’s what I would say to them. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the war has started, until the engine of war is unstoppable. Take the risk BEFORE the action starts. Obey your oath to the Constitution, which every one of you took, not to your superiors, or the Commander-in-Chief, but to the Constitution’!”

But how many of us are willing to risk years in prison for what we believe?

Useful Links

You can read more about this event and watch the presentations on streaming video at these links. Both Democracy Now and the UUA offer DVDs of the event as well.

Book Review: Made to Stick

Auto Date Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Made to Stick CoverI just finished Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It didn’t take long to read, but like some important small books (e.g. The Elements of Style) it is all the more valuable for its simplicity.

Made to Stick is an answer to the question “Why are some ideas sticky while others slide in to, and then out of, our minds as if they were made of Teflon?” The authors point out what it is about persistent urban legends such as the story of the poisoned Halloween candy, or the story of the kidney stealing gangs (both false) that keeps them going. They also provide a collection of successful case stories of the development of true and useful sticky ideas.

This isn’t just an academic study. It’s a how-to guide to crafting your own message so it will be stickier. They identify six key attributes of sticky ideas using the acronym SUCCES. Yes, it’s corny, but now I have no trouble saying “Sticky ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and provide a Story.”

Each of six chapters explains the idea, illustrates it with examples and counter examples and warns of pitfalls in implementing it. The examples are interesting and inspiring in their own right. The story of how Dan Syrek crafted a wildly successful anti-littering message which targeted young, pickup driving, sports loving Texas males is amazing. (A 72% drop in visible litter and an 81% drop in the number of cans along the road.) The authors have a deep understanding of the concepts they are explaining. For example, they don’t just tell us that stories are important, but why they work. (They actually allow us to simulate the message in our brains which reinforces the ideas, builds skills and helps make places for the idea to stick.)

Halfway through the book I stopped, realizing that I wanted to have a summary of the best illustrations for each of the six chapters, and went back to take more systematic notes. I needn’t have bothered because the authors have included a five page easy reference guide to jog your memory.

That guide is now on six index cards stuck over my desk when I write.

If any part of your life involves communicating ideas to others, you really need to spend an afternoon or two reading this book. The techniques are simple and useful and the case studies provide excellent benchmarks to judge your own writing against.

Book Review: Stumbling On Happiness

Auto Date Thursday, December 28th, 2006

StumblingOnHappiness-coverLast summer I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert I can’t say it changed my life; I think my life was already changing. But it did significantly change the way I think about the events that impact my life and the decisions I have to make to cope with them.

In the foreword to the book, the author invites us to view our future selves (ten minutes from now or ten years from now) as our children and to consider that the things we do now, such as buy an ice cream cone or put money into our retirement account, are for their benefit. And he reminds us that, like our children, our future selves are rarely as grateful for our efforts as we would expect. He spends much of the rest of the book addressing the question “Why are we so bad at predicting what will make us happy and what will make us unhappy?” His answer is carefully constructed, with details and supporting evidence provided by a variety of psychological studies.

Now you might be worried that a Harvard professor equipped with studies and evidence could easily make even the subject of happiness dry and uninteresting. Fear not. Stumbling on Happiness reached the New York Times best seller list because it is both edifying and entertaining as well as educational. (And not because people thought it was a self-help book, which it most certainly is not.) Gilbert writes as well or better than the best of our recent bestselling non fiction writers. (Think of Steven Levitt or Malcom Gladwell, both of whom enthusiastically endorse the book on the front of the current edition’s dust cover.)

If you want an idea of how engaging Gilbert can be, before you read this book, I recommend that you spend twenty minutes watching a video of his presentation at the 2005 TED conference (http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/index.cfm?flashEnabled=1 ). It’s a perfect example of how a person who knows how important entertainment is to teaching, and who has had lots of practice, can present scientific arguments, backed up by lots of data, and hold your attention for as long as he needs it. If you don’t want to watch it on your computer, download the audio to your mp3 player and listen to it while walking; he doesn’t depend on visuals to succeed.

I won’t tell you about the book’s answer to the question “Why are we so bad at knowing what makes us happy or unhappy?”. Gilbert doesn’t think we can (or will) get better at that anyway. But I’ll tell you the punch line of the TED talk which is this: If we human beings were aware of how consistently we overestimate how happy good things will make us, or how unhappy bad things will makes us, we would be better, more moral people. We wouldn’t react with an exaggerated fear of bad consequences nor would we be overly motivated by greed (or lust or envy). And we wouldn’t saddle our future selves with shame or embarrassment (or jail time) because of decisions we made while reacting to our poorly informed estimates of our future happiness.

If you know this, it helps you to make decisions without fear of making the wrong decision (you’ll be happy anyway) and allows you to face an unexpected and unpleasant change in your life (e.g. the loss of your job) without a complete sense of panic.