Sunday, February 01, 2009

Be Smart and Win Fabulous Prizes

Smart use. Smart upgrades. Smart power. Smart people.  The prevalence of the word “smart” is beginning to tug at me.  Hillary Clinton says to her State Dept. staff that in foreign policy the U. S. will wield smart power, reminding staffers that they themselves are at its heart.  “At the heart of smart power are smart people, and you are those people.”

Conservation enthusiasts brand themselves with “smart use,” and recommend smart use of resources like water, gas and electricity.  It means using less, which lowers expenditures and also shows good stewardship of the Earth’s resources serving both the individual and the common good.  Apparently stupid use is for spendthrifts and for the environmentally un-enlightened.

I was pondering whether or not I would blog on smart this and smart that. It seems curmudgeonly, in the Andy Rooney vein, to complain about the emerging prevalence of the term “smart.”  Then, when I saw an ad in the local Sunday morning paper for the Computer Guru, advertising “smart upgrades,” my decision was made for me.  Once is notable and twice is an accident. Although three is not yet the zeitgeist, it’s definitely an emerging pattern.

I live in a town that likes to think it is smart with the highest per capita concentration of PhDs in the U.S.; many of them physicists who work at the national laboratory here in Los Alamos, New Mexico.   But most here would agree that our civic life suffers from analysis paralysis. Decisions are so overwrought, over-analyzed and so frequently revisited and reversed that very little actually happens here, except the random yet seemingly inevitable demise of local small businesses.

The word smart here comes into play.  If Los Alamos is so smart; why can’t we apply this magic elixir called intelligence to civic issues in need of remedies, such as retaining small business, attracting business, and creating decent wage jobs diversified from the gargantuan national laboratory that dominates our local scene?  Most smarties would agree that these are wise goals.

I’m a fairly smart cookie myself, but have made some epic blunders in my life, which might indicate an intelligence vacuum.  In many instances it was the kindness of strangers and of friends that bailed me out, as they gave freely of their emotional momentum to fuel my rebound, with no thought of return.

Such gifts of kindness make me wonder about smart use, smart power, smart people and smart upgrades.  What if kind power, kind people, kind use and kind upgrades motivated effective behaviors targeted to produce beneficial results; however those results would only be for others, and not for oneself?  Are we devoid of the desire to be kind, over the desire to be smart?  Is self-interest implicit in the recent upsurge in usage of the term smart? Consider Obama’s inaugural speech where he mentioned that helping one another by extending economic opportunity to the many isn’t just charitable, but is the “surest route to our common good”.  What kind of chord does that strike in your heart and mind?

Reach back now to freshman Philosophy 101.  Remember John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism?   Free marketeers and the Chicago School of Economics draw from the wellspring of Mr. Mill’s thought.  The pragmatic Chicago law professor Obama is not afraid to draw upon that strain of thought either; especially if it aligns with where our national intellectual sentiment already lies.  Let’s help one another, but not out of liberal guilt over government’s shortcomings for solving social problems.  Let’s help one another, but not out of charity or religious duty.  (Obama included the approximately 12 million American “nonbelievers” too).  Let’s help others out of something we all can agree on, the pragmatism  of self-interest.  Helping others helps us, or so said President Obama as he set the tone for the next four years.  He might be right for the economic realm; but consider, also, the emotional benefits.  As they say to millions of addicts and alcoholics on the road to recovery,  “Service keeps you sober.”  And as we like to say in my home, “Get over it, and help someone with a bigger problem than yours.”

Perhaps being smart about things involves being kind to people, but it doesn’t seem that way, in the word’s latest usage.  Are our highest, most charitable selves smart in the application of our gifts?  Do we give to the deserving and use our smartness to determine who they are?  Or do we give to create benefits that will return to us individually, or to our smartly defined larger group? Is it simply possible to be kind to others, no questions asked, without being considered a fool?  Whatever the answers, it’s appropriate to consider a greater integration of the heart and mind, and of our left and right brains, in our civic life, our leadership, and our daily decisions. 

As neuroscience continues measuring and peering into our brains and nervous systems, localizing behaviors formerly attributed to subjective emotional whims; the “heart” will take the hit.  There is a place for kindness and subjectivity in our daily actions, our civic leadership, and our political economy.  And it’s neither stupid, nor smart, to trust in generosity of spirit.   It's a risk with a return and we can take it or leave it.

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