Friday, September 15, 2017

Cosmos and watching the world burn

I wrote some time ago about mychildren's developing sense of empathy. I wanted to add a postscript. Recently we started watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson'sremake of the Cosmos television miniseries. At some points though my eldest son has to avert his gaze, because the vastness and magnitude of time and space is overwhelming to him. I feel this is a natural consequence of possessing a healthy portion of empathy and curiosity, which in turn leads to humility—if you observe the world enough, you will be confronted occasionally with the knowledge of how small you are and how little you know. This awe and humility are in my eyes a major source of wisdom, Socrates's old adage of knowing how ignorant you in fact are. It is in direct contraposition to a lot of people on the national political scene today, who seem arrogant, resolute, even proud of their ignorance.

It made me think of an article I readabout the current US campaign to undermine European and globalinstitutions. The article made a number of references to the importance of understanding historical context, such as this GK Chesterton quote that "one should never tear something down until one knows why it was built in the first place". But the article also sagely pointed out that many people simply seem to take joy in watching the world burn (I would go so far as to say that some people even want to hasten its burning). I have often observed this tendency in other contexts. The guy in a traffic jam that knows honking won't help the matter, but is nevertheless the first to lean on his horn and set off a chaotic cacophony of honking and ill will. The internet troll who just wants to offend and piss people off because it makes him feel powerful. The maladjusted kid on your block that always wants to cause trouble and suffering. These are all a certain character type that I guess is always going to be present at a low level in any society. But it seems like there are certain moments in history when these base instincts to destroy and drive chaos, which are normally kept at bay by the natural tendency of civilization to preserve itself, gain an upper hand. In such moments the acts that would normally earn someone criticism and censure, become accepted and even celebrated. The maladjusted, violent kid in your Sarajevo neighborhood that everyone used to ignore or even ostracize, becomes a dominant player, even a role model, and whole mobs of people join the cause of destroying, oppressing, and ethnic cleansing. The backwoods wacko who advocated race war and sovereign citizenship becomes more and more mainstream as people entertain extreme ideas that they used to reject out of hand. 

I'll defer to Yeats on this one:
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Unreason in the USA

This is a long-form article that traces the trajectory of anti-rational, magical thinking in the US.  It confirms a lot of my observations of the state of our thought and discourse in the States.

One point that occurs to me after reading the article, and that the article itself doesn't really touch on, is that the rise of magical thinking is perhaps in part due to an increasing disempowerment of many people in many aspects of life.  In a hyper-industrialized and hyper-globalized context like the modern US, most of us don't have a direct connection to or control over the different components of our material reality.  Not just the food we eat and the clothes we wear, but even the houses we inhabit, the cars and other machines we use, the very landscaping surrounding us, are very rarely the result of our own doing.  Our food or clothes have long come from other producers, but in the past most of us knew at least something of gardening, sewing, knitting.  Nowadays I feel like fewer people know how to fix things in their house, repair or maintain their car, prune and care for their yard.  Even those of us who do know are limited in our agency by the industrialized nature of things--being handy these days often just consists in buying a replacement part for something, not necessarily being able to manipulate the faulty part yourself.

I haven't done any exhaustive, rigorous study on this, but I know that a great deal of my own feelings of empowerment in life have come from being able to directly affect things around me.  My yard looks the way it does because I make it that way.  I'm able to identify and pick fruits from trees I cross.  I can fix a toilet or an electrical appliance when needed.  In short, I feel that I understand something about how the world works, and this extends to higher-level, abstract things like policy-making, economics, social organizing.  This is probably in large part because my job requires me to participate with communities and businesses trying to effect economic, political, or social change.  Because I understand the complexities of how this change comes about (or fails to come about), I don't ascribe the workings of the world to mysterious unseen forces and conspiracies.

But I think a lot of people in the US don't enjoy the privileges, autonomy, and empowerment that I do.  If you didn't understand or have any say in how your community and your nation is run, you'd probably be likely to think it's run by an opaque cabal.  If you don't even know how your food gets to your plate, or don't have the knowhow or the agency to fix household items, the world probably looks pretty bewildering.  I think that ultimately magical thinking and conspiracies are a sign of helplessness.

This disempowerment that is prevalent in an industrialized, globalized society like ours, where most of the material reality around us comes to us as if by magic, is further exacerbated by the rising inequality in the US, both economic inequality and inequality in access to political power. Even in my privileged case, I have to admit that I often feel powerless.  This doesn't lead me personally to resort to magical thinking, but the resignation I feel at times when I see entrenched socioeconomic and power structures perpetuating a problem, does bear some of the same traits as the magical thinking of conspiracy theorists.

I don't have a solution to all this, but I do think that perhaps if people (starting with youth?) became more involved in issues of local governance in their communities, they may start to better understand the complexities of government, of the economy, and of social structures, which would at once empower them and illustrate that the real world is a complex but comprehensible place with no need of magical thinking to explain it.  Granted, there are plenty of delusional people that get involved in local politics in order to push Creationist textbooks or perverse policies like segregation.  But I have to believe that if more people got involved in the running of their own communities, it would bring them a bit more down to earth.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Inca engineering

Here is a 2013 symposium that I have been watching a bit of in my free time.  It's about engineering in the Inca empire, and covers things like bridges, roads, terraces, and urban planning.  It seems that they did another such symposium two years later, in 2015, but I haven't started watching this yet.  In my former life I was tangentially involved in Andean archeology, so this kind of stuff fascinates me, though I haven't been able to keep up with it as much recently.  In the past I linked to a video about a suspension bridge that is still rebuilt in the Inca fashion every year in a small town in Peru.

You can find these videos, as well as many other cool discussions of Native American culture, history, and present, on the National Museum of the American Indian seminar archive site.

Next time I'm in DC I'd love to visit the whole exhibit on Inca engineering, which opened just before I left the city and is luckily open until 2020.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Unwalkable cities

This is an article about Jakarta, Indonesia and how unfriendly it is for pedestrians.  I have been in a few cities myself that are shockingly, even aggressively, anti-pedestrian, with poor sidewalks, gleaming streets, countless overpasses and other structures that facilitate life for drivers and make it harder for walkers.  This type of car-dependent urban planning is troubling anywhere, but at least in the US, where there is widespread car ownership, it can be said to appeal to the masses.  But in developing countries where car ownership is relatively limited, this car-focused development is especially bad, because it represents an explicit opting for the interests of the wealthy few.  Granted, the rest of people adjust to the prevailing conditions, building their lives around motor vehicles (motorcycles for the better-off, buses and shared taxis for the rest), to the point that even the poor come to "prefer" the car-centered way of doing things.  But in the end it's bad for everyone.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

I have mentioned a number of times a book of my dad's from the late 80s called The Rise and Fall of theGreat Powers. It took me a long time to finish, which is I guess why I mentioned it over a long course of time in multiple blog posts.

I finally finished this book, and wanted to share a few final impressions. First off, I was surprised time and again by the analyses and projections at the end of the book, which lay out possible futures for the US, China, Japan, the EU, and the USSR. Many of them were remarkably prescient—the inevitable demographic and political decline of the Soviet Union (and the radicalization that would work at the heart of its Muslim populations in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion), the uncertain future of the EU which could either go really well or really poorly, the meteoric rise of China. Obviously the author didn't precisely predict the fall of the Eastern bloc, and was pessimistic about the possibility of the EU's consolidating a common currency. He underestimated the pace of China's economic growth, and didn't foresee the stagnation of 1990s Japan.

Most striking to me though was the continued relevance of the themes explored in the book thirty years ago. There is a lot of discussion of nuclear war planning, of the rise of ethnic nationalism and totalitarianism in the 20th century around the Second World War, the inevitable tensions between the US and Russia as leading superpowers, the unresolved detente of the Korean War.  I am sad to say that these themes are regaining relevance today.  If I'd read the book ten years ago, I probably would have thought that it was dated, that nuclear war and a renewed Cold War with Russia were a threat that we just didn't have to worry about anymore.  I likewise wouldn't have dwelled too much on the 1980s tensions in the Korean peninsula.  And the appeal of ethnic nationalism to a defeated people would have been an interesting study in German history, but I wouldn't have so tangibly and immediately applied it to my own country, today.  But these themes that I would have glossed over as relics of the past now seem more relevant than ever.

Another major theme throughout the book's arc, from the Hapsburg era to the 1980s, is the escalating cost of war and weaponry. In this respect, Kennedy predicts that the US and maybe a few others will remain the only superpowers, since it is so expensive to build up a modern military and weaponry systems. However, this is somehwat challenged by the recent trend toward disruption as opposed to full-on major power confrontation. Even important powers like China and Russia are apparently opting for morevolume of lower-tech weapons, because with low-tech weaponry you can disrupt the dominance of a high-tech superpower at a fraction of the cost of maintaining that dominance.  From a recent Reuters article, "Carriers, ... give Washington’s rivals a cheap opportunity to score big. For the cost of a single carrier, ... a rival can deploy 1,227 anti-carrier missiles".

I will close with a long quote from a long-time employee of the State Department on the occasion of his more or less forced retirement.  I think it does a good job of explaining how the US can, or cannot, succeed in diplomacy.  He says that the only way for us to continue to advance our interests in the long-term is by stressing our values and principles.  If we try to dominate through propaganda and misinformation, we will lose out to Russia; we can't compete with them in that field.  If we try to treat diplomacy as a commercial transaction, we will lose out to China, the master of that approach.  But if we appeal to the hope, liberty, the ideals and principles that we stand for, we can continue to hold the attention and the sympathy and the admiration of the rest of the world.

The United States is the world’s greatest economic power, the world’s greatest military power, and with your vigilance, it always will be.  But the greatest power we project is hope, the promise that people can establish liberty in their own country without leaving it....

If we wall ourselves off from the world, we will extinguish Liberty’s projection, as surely as if, as the Gospel says, we hid our lamp under a bushel basket.  If we do not respect other nations and their citizens, we can not demand respect for our citizens.   If our public statements become indistinguishable from disinformation and propaganda, we will lose our credibility.  If we choose to play our cards that way, we will lose that game to the masters in Moscow.  If our interaction with other countries is only a business transaction, rather than a partnership with Allies and friends, we will lose that game too.  China practically invented transactional diplomacy, and if we choose to play their game, Beijing will run the table.

Business made America great, as it always has been, and business leaders are among our most important partners.  But let’s be clear, despite the similarities.  A dog is not a cat.  Baseball is not football.  And diplomacy is not a business.  Human rights are not a business.  And democracy is, most assuredly, not a business.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ungrateful refugees

This is an article from a woman who came to the US as a child, a refugee from Iran.  She makes the case that refugees should be no more grateful than anyone else, and that the case for accepting refugees is not because they make your country great (because not all of them will, though I personally would argue that countries with more diverse populations are in fact better off), but because it's simply the right thing to do.  These are similar arguments to ones I've expressed, not in relation to refugees but just in terms of providing a decent, dignified life for everyone in a society, not just the lucky few that our supposed meritocracy deems worthy of respect.

In her own, stronger words, Ms. Nayeri explains why she shouldn't be particularly grateful for having been received as a refugee to the US when she was a kid:
what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
I would add, from a non-refugee viewpoint, that my reading (or my twisting) of her argument is that it is not a paean to ingratitude, but rather a call that we should all be grateful, all of us who are alive.  If the US is a great place to live, then the native-born should be just as grateful as the refugee to be there.  And ideally committed to making the entire world a decent place to live, for all of its people.

Despite herself, Ms. Nayeri does end on a note that seems to reiterate the benefit to the receiver country, an argument she explicitly rejects earlier in the essay:
the world is duller without [immigrants] – even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a person’s life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now there’s just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.
The bottom line is that offering sanctuary to those in need is just common decency, and the refugee should only be as grateful to live somewhere as the native-born are to live there.  And in the end, common decency is rewarding to all, because it allows those who are helped to realize their potential in a way they wouldn't have otherwise, which in turn enriches the world for the rest of us..