What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.

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His Turban Was Magnificent

His turban was magnificent, a rich bluish purple. He came into my wife’s room and introduced himself.

“I am a neurologist,” he said, “and I would be happy to treat your wife, if it weren’t for the pregnancy.”

She had just recovered from a seizure less than an hour before. She had the worst headache anyone could ever imagine. She was nauseated and her vision and hearing were impaired. We didn’t fully know what was wrong yet, but something clearly was.

And our second child was at risk. Her pregnancy was only 33 weeks along, but the seizures were a threat to the growing baby.

I’d rushed to the hospital, seen the seizure, knew it was a complicated situation. Neurology was not something I had anticipated needing. Someone had to make a decision, and had to make it fast.

“It’s just that…since you are pregnant…I think it would be better to transfer to you a facility with more experience,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to feel in the moment. His warmth and composure was reassuring; his recommendation that she be moved made logical sense but was unsettling.

My wife said “My head is killing me; if you are going to make a decision, make it quick.”

It was done then. The neonatal team would perform an emergency C-section. My wife, still sedated, would be flown by med-evac helicopter to Baltimore, a city I knew almost nothing about.

The ICU doctor–also Indian–would give me a warm hug and tell me it would be alright in the end. And I got in the car with a friend and drove into the night.

He was right, the ICU physician. Things are alright, 16 years later.

But I never saw the neurologist with the turban again.

Measuring Life Dollar by Dollar

I saw the young man sitting on the bench. He looked scruffy, with uncut hair, tattoos and piercings. He looked like hadn’t slept well in a while.

To get where I was heading, I had to walk down the narrow passage between the two buildings and past the bench. It was unavoidable.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat,” he said to me.

I made eye contact, so I had to stop. I briefly hesitated, then pulled out my wallet. The moment where I could have made a graceful exit had passed.

My wallet had no ones. The smallest bill was a five. I pulled it out and handed it to him. “You’re in luck,” was all I could think of saying.

“Thanks man. I really appreciate it,” he said.

Giving away money is uncomfortable.

I do it often enough–last year I claimed over $1,000 in tax-deductible contributions to charities–but these face-to-face encounters still leave me with a weird feeling: I have money and you don’t; you are asking me to give you money, perhaps embarrassed for doing so. I have the power to decide to hand over some cash and whether to ask for something in return, perhaps wondering how it would be if roles were reversed. It is a transaction, and not really a person talking with another person at all.

We give large sums of money unconditionally to family. We give small sums of money unconditionally to strangers. Everything in between is weighted with social awkwardness. How much are you asking for? What do you want the money for, and why do you think I can give it to you? Are you a blood relative? How well do I really know you? Is this a grant or do I expect repayment? If I give you this money, do I expect you to do something  in return?

Money talks, as the saying goes, and it can say both good things and bad. My mother has told me more than once that she gave “a large amount” of money to my sister, and that she expects it to be paid back. My guess is that it is in the several thousands of dollars. My sister’s past history warrants a cautious approach to money lending. She defaulted on a loan for which my dad was a co-signer, for instance, something he still feels stung by. She accepted gifts of money and stuff over the years that is now gone: spent, lost, stolen, sold for cash, or just destroyed.

So my mother has some justification. But we give large sums of money unconditionally to family, right? Perhaps not, after family has burned you once too often. I may still be naïve about such things; I hope I am never in the position to have to make that choice.

My mother doesn’t really need the money–it is on principle that she is asking for repayment. My sister doesn’t have it to repay.

It is a stalemate.

Meanwhile, I go to my job and give of my time; my company pays me in return. I give to charity, I give to panhandlers. I intend to ensure my children’s college is paid for. I worry about having enough money for retirement. Life is measured by a series of transactions.

We Are All In This Together

John Glenn. Alan Shepard. Gus Grissom. Wally Schirra.

We all know these names. They were the first Americans in space. They were astronauts and they were heroes.

But getting them into space required the dedication and effort of thousands of people.

Robert Gilruth–does anyone know who he was?

Not me. But today I saw the movie Hidden Figures and started looking into the character of Al Harrison. Obviously, I didn’t know about the three women whose lives are the main focus of the movie–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. But according to NASA, there were so many people involved in getting the Mercury astronauts into space that even the white, Anglo-Saxon men are obscure to us today.

Only the names of the heroes have survived.

Yet, for every hero celebrated in the popular imagination, there are the scores and scores of unsung people without whom those acts of heroism would never have happened.

Sir Edmund Hillary had all those Sherpas getting him to the top of Everest.

Jacques Cousteau had all those workers to run the Calypso and keep tabs on things topside when he was underwater.

All the men and women who ever served in the armed forces have to thank the designers and builders of every single ship, aircraft, armored vehicle and piece of weaponry they’ve used from the beginning of history. When the call goes out to celebrate the troops, do we ever hear about those unsung people who’ve made it all happen?

No.

The next time you hear the currently popular rhetoric about how everyone who has served in uniform is automatically a hero, I challenge you to think about the entire community that supports those troops–the supply chains, the families, the employees who pick up the slack when the soldiers deploy.

Because it is time to set aside the rock star mentality and realize that, to be a nation, to be a community, we are all in this together.

To Be Young and Smart and Opposed to Driverless Cars

My 15-year-old son, like most boys his age, is growing interested in getting his driver’s license. So I asked him the other day what he thought about self-driving cars.

He thought they were a bad idea because, if everything were automated, “there would be no challenges left in life.”

See? Even kids know that the research into and development of driverless cars is a waste of time and money.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

It continues to be unclear to me what problem the developers of automated vehicles are seeking to solve–just as it is unclear to my kids and to most Americans.

One of the arguments put forward is that if you don’t have to pay attention to driving, it will allow you to do other things while traveling. This assumes that all driving is a form of drudgery that we desire to be freed from by robots.

But not all driving is drudgery. In fact, driving a sporty car along country roads on cool, sunny days with the wind in your hair is a hell of a lot of fun. Only commuter driving–where your time is sucked to oblivion by the traffic jams–is drudgery. And there are already solutions to that. It’s called public transportation.

Besides, what we want at the end of the day is to feel in control. We harbor fears of airline crashes because we are at the mercy of the pilot and the aircraft. At the same time, we discount the risk of automobiles precisely because we feel we are doing something while at the wheel.

But my son also was touching on a deeper point, one that has been discussed in an engaging way by the author Sebastian Junger. “Life in modern society,” writes Junger, “is designed to eliminate as many unforeseen events as possible, and as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” He goes on to argue that everything in human history leading up to this point has made us want more out of life than just having everything done for us, by robots or otherwise. Having some risk and excitement is healthy.

The automated car cartel is not talking only about safety. (There really is a cartel — click on the link. Really.) The Googles and Ubers of the world say they are pursuing innovation. My son pointed out that we could innovate in other, more useful ways that do not involve autonomous cars and still improve safety and provide other benefits.

For instance, a smart driver’s license could prevent a car from operating if you were drunk or if your license was suspended, two of the biggest safety hazards on the road today. I think this is a great idea, and it’s coming coming from a 15-year-old. Why has this not been done already?

And yet the driverless car proponents continue to live in their own echo chamber, pouring money into technology nobody really wants, and thinking they are improving the world for future generations.

Unfortunately, it is a world that my son has no interest living in.

Updated Oct. 21, 2016, at 11:05 a.m.