Remedial reading. April Lawson’s essay on building trust across the political divide.

You’ll want to read her absolutely brilliant and uplifting 2021 article. But first please indulge a bit of LOTRW backstory.

Each year, come January 1, most of the world’s eight billion people share a common aspiration – to make their next 365 days “better” than the last. Definitions of “better” may vary. Some seek happiness. Some desire accomplishment. Some seek peace – whether world peace or simply peace of mind. Given the 2021 we’ve just experienced, a better 2022 seems like a low bar, whatever your aspiration..

Close to home, that’s certainly been true here at LivingontheRealWorld. Take, for example, the last few posts of 2021, which have made reference to stream of consciousness.

(In literary criticism, stream of consciousness is a narrative mode or method that attempts “to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind” of a narrator.)

But those previous posts at LOTRW date no more recently than early November! After ten years and one thousand posts (about one post every four days over the period), the LOTRW stream of consciousness slowed to an intermittent trickle in 2021; now the stream bed seems nothing more than a dry wadi. (What was/is the cause of this? You might argue that I’ve run out of ideas. Think what you want. But like everyone and everything else these days, I prefer to blame the psychological drought on climate change. Everything is drying up.)

But somewhere in the uplands of the watershed, the consciousness precip must have made its return, because the stream is running again. Here’s what it has looked like for me over the past couple of days:

One of the realities of our world of eight billion people and 200 million square miles of surface area, is that a lot happens while our backs are turned. So what do 6 billion smartphone users do? Sometimes idly, sometimes driven by FOMO, we surf the web. My search has yielded oodles of turn-of-the-calendar content. One NYT post that caught my attention mentioned a David Brooks column devoted to his annual “Sidney awards.” I checked it out.

In Mr. Brooks’ own words, “At the end of every year, I pause from the rush of events to offer the Sidney Awards, which I created in honor of the late, great philosopher Sidney Hook. The Sidneys go to some of the year’s best long-form journalism — the essays that touch the deeper human realities. During this shapeless year, waiting endlessly for this pandemic to be over, I’ve found myself drawn to stories of fascinating individuals.”

Unsurprisingly, Brooks’ offerings this year featured a number of somber pieces, plumbing great depths of sorrow and brokenness. At the end Brooks acknowledges this:

OK. Enough grimness. Let’s find some hope. We’ve all read a zillion pieces on political polarization, but April Lawson’s essay “Building Trust Across the Political Divide,” in Comment, is like none other. The secret is that Lawson has actually been working in the field of political bridge-building, and she deftly dissects why so many of those well-intentioned efforts go wrong.”

Wow.

April Lawson’s piece, dating back all the way to the prior January, is an absolute gem. Rather than attempt a summary, I’ll let you discover it for yourselves (or, perhaps you’d already read it, as early as a  year ago?). Her analysis of our polarized predicament is insightful by itself, but learning (however belatedly – remember, we’re talking remedial reading here) about her work at Braver Angels Debate to pave a new way forward is truly energizing. Exhilarating to see that such work is ongoing, and to contemplate the possibilities. I hope you’re able to give it a careful read.

A closing note. That wasn’t the last bend in the stream-of-consciousness. The whole issue of remedial reading – the search for useful information in today’s “noisy” information world (flow) of consciousness and the attraction of chasing around the web hoping to stumble across such gems – reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about for years. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s my statistician dad, Robert Hooke, and a colleague Terry Jeeves were both working at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh. They developed a strategy for direct search for optima in the performance of any physical or chemical system (or in seeking information on the internet?) when analytical methods were of no avail. They published a paper on the technique (Hooke R & Jeeves T A. “Direct search” solution of numerical and statistical problems. J. Ass. Comput. Mach. 8:212-29, 1961). While admitting that “direct search is a crude, brute force method having no mathematical elegance,” Hooke later suggested that the resulting large number of citations to this paper (over 270 by 1980; ballooning to over 5000 to date) hint “there are more [such intractable] problems around than one might think. Among real nonlinear multivariate problems, those that are solvable analytically or by socially acceptable numerical methods seem to constitute a set of measure zero.” Dad used to share his work along these lines with his teenage sons at the dinner table during those years. Nowadays you can find YouTube lectures on the Hooke and Jeeves direct search systems here. If he were alive today, this continuing interest in his work would (a) come as a surprise, and (b)  trigger one of his signature wry smiles…

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