This, You’ve Got to Know

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Sadly, I never took a single course from the late William Ker (Sandy) Muir but (not sadly) he absolutely changed my life and how I live it.

Muir was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, when I was an undergraduate. Our paths crossed many times in my several years at Cal; he often met with incoming students when I worked new student orientations and I was mesmerized by him. He walked in on metal crutches, slowly, carefully. He’d had polio, I was told. (Later in life, I understood he used a wheelchair to navigate the hilly Berkeley campus and its labyrinthine halls.) He stood ramrod straight at the lectern, weaving engrossing stories in stylish but spare prose.

He had a sincerely warm manner, blazing smile and inviting personality. New Cal students loved him and I became a fan.

But, you know, I was busy at other matters and never took his classes.

It wasn’t until years later, as a grad student studying negotiation, I came across Police: Streetcorner Politicians, his amazing book that blew my mind. In it, Muir talked about the limitations of coercive power (i.e., force) and how it, paradoxically, puts those who employ violence on behalf of the state at a distinct power disadvantage.

That book got me thinking critically, for the first time, about the limits violence puts on those who employ it, rather than those upon whom it is employed. Many times, Muir shows, by outlining the 4 paradoxes of force (the Paradox of Dispossession, the Paradox of Detachment, the Paradox of Face and the Paradox of Irrationality), that those with the most power can be put at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, those attempting to coerce others into specific actions must use wisdom in addition to threats of violence and physical strength (or weapons), or they will be, at best, ineffective, or, at worst, dominated or dead.

This book completely changed my conception, not only of negotiation strategy, which had been the point of reading it, but also of interpersonal relations. Thanks to Sandy Muir’s brilliant study of the Oakland Police Department, I think very seldom of coercion as a negotiation (or personal) approach and am almost impossible to coerce in negotiations.

(How I wish Muir had been consulted by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al., before they unleashed all holy hell on Iraq – but that’s another story.)

Sadly, Sandy Muir passed away last week; one of his great professional achievements is duly noted and my personal appreciation for him hereby expressed.

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Death? No, thank you.

Here’s the list, the complete list: Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tonga, United States, Vietnam.

These are the world’s countries that still employ the savage practice of capital punishment. Proud of being part of that club?

In California, we have our own long and disgusting history of killing people, which started in 1778 when four native Americans were shot for conspiracy to commit murder after conviction by an all-white jury.

When shooting proved too unreliable and expensive, California adopted the gas chamber.

When gas also proved to be too unreliable and expensive, California adopted lethal injection as our tool of choice for state-sanctioned murder.

Nice. Clean. Clinical.

Albert Pierrepoint was the most famous of England’s official hangmen in the 20th century. During his active career as an executioner, which ran from 1931 to 1956, Pierrepoint was thought to have executed somewhere about 450 people and, later in his life, became quite philosophical about his line of work. In his 1974 autobiography, Pierrepoint wrote:

“I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people.”

In California, we have the opportunity to say no, to say enough, to say we want to join the other global club, the one of civilized countries who decline to use execution as a tool of control. An initiative to ban the use of the death penalty has qualified for the November ballot.

Here’s our chance to re-join civilized people everywhere. Or we can, you know, just continue on in the direction we’re already headed.

Top Five Things You Don’t Want to Hear Your Pilot Say

[Courtesy of Captain Clayton Osbon, JetBlue.]

5. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ while pounding on the other side of the cockpit door.

4. ‘They’re going to take us down! They’re taking us down! They’re going to take us down!’

3. ‘Say the Lord’s prayer! Say the Lord’s prayer!’

2. ‘I’m not responsible for this plane crashing.’

1. Anything to do with al-Qaeda, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or bombs.