Monday, April 23, 2018

What the Qur'an Meant: And Why It Matters by Garry Wills

Another liberal arts education in a short book
The most recent book by Garry Wills takes off from where he left off with three of his earlier book What Jesus Meant, What the Gospels Meant, and What Paul Meant. Now, he turns his attention to What the Qur'an Meant--And Why It Matters (2017). The first three books draw upon Wills's status as a classicist and as one of the foremost Catholic intellectuals of our time. But so why go into this new arena, and of what value might he bring to his endeavor? He answers the first part of the question--the "why?"--in the first three chapters. As should be apparent to all of us, the Islamic world is one that holds considerable sway for Americans, and our ignorance about the world of Islam is abounding. As to the second issue, about the value of his endeavor, it's true that he's not an Arabist and cannot read the Qur'an in its original text (unlike the Greek and Latin texts of Christianity he's pondered), but he brings the same patient scholarship and care to reading that he brings to the more familiar Christian texts. 

By reading this book, we learn about the meaning of jihad (struggle), shari'ah, and a host of other (sort of) familiar parts of the Qur'an. We learn that jihad is about struggle and that shari'ah refers to the right (straight) path, similar to some familiar Biblical injunctions. Also, we learn about Mohammed's thoughts (or more precisely, those of the Qur'an) about fellow people of the Book (Jews and Christians), who are to be treated with peace and forbearance. That there have been times when such peace and forbearance has not occurred reminds us how often those claiming fidelity to each of the three great monotheisms have fallen below from the intentions of the prophets. Some practices dictated by the Qur'an now seem archaic, if not barbaric. But if these are a mark against Islam, so are many of the actions and directives found in the Talmud and the New Testament, especially about the treatment of women. The wearing of the hijab (veil) is the least of problems: to many Muslim women, wearing some veil serves as a sign of feminism. 

Like each of the many books that Wills has written, one gets a mini-liberal arts education. Wills deftly mixes the problems associated with our contemporary ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam (and the consequent messes in Iraq and Afghanistan that we suffered) with a deep understanding of the Book that gave rise to this extraordinary religion about 1300 years ago. In a short book, I learned a great deal about what guides millions and millions of my fellow humans. It's well worth the time and effort. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

On Fear with Garry Wills

Garry Wills, 83 years-old & still at it. Rejoice!
I've just embarked on reading What the Qur'an Meant: And Why It Matters by Garry Wills (2017).

The first section of the book addresses the awful decision to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, and in particular, he has a chapter entitled "Fearful Ignorance" that resonated with me. I've written before that fear is a wonderful warning system and an awful guidance system. Wills, I think--although much more articulately--says much the same thing. The chapter discusses the fears and attendant decisions of the post 9/11 era and the problems that arose from these fear-based decisions. He also, quite aptly, compares these reactions to the Cold War hysteria about communism. It's not that we needn't have had any fears about Communist subversion during the Cold War or about Islamic terrorism, but that fears become inflated and exploited and become counter-productive. His book (the remainder from this point) explores the Qur'an to learn what it really says and how it is not "the enemy."  

Fear is rarely a good guide. The first impulse when disaster strikes to run around, as the saying goes, like a chicken with its head cut off. Just when the head is most, it is the hardest thing to find. President Roosevelt, struggling for calm during the Great Depression, wisely counseled that " the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." yet even he yielded to fear after Parel Harbor, consigning a hundred thousand loyal Japanese Americans to concentration camps, expropriating their property, and denying them court procedures. (54)

What caused that fear? [Of Islam after 9/11] In a word, war. War, as Clausewitz argued, tends of itself to become total because of a reciprocal "ratcheting-up" (Wechselwirkung) of hostilities. In order to mobilize reaction to war conditions, threats from the foe must be emphasized, stating or overstating the peril-- which prompts any foe, actual or potential, to resond in kind. When hostilities occur, no matter who commits them, they are often attributed to an entire body of adversaries, which may not even have known about them. (58)

Fear, no matter how justified initially, slips easily out of any restraints imposed on it. (58-59)

Our enemy in this war [War on Terror} is far less localizable than it was in World War II or the Cold War. It was hard enough to find and defeat an ism like Communism. Terror is a tool, not a country. Declaring a war on it is less like normal warfare, country versus country. It is more like the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs. These have often seemed wars on phantoms, fought with tools randomly or overly used, getting results hyped as promising or intended to encourage further efforts, with strong lunges in wrong directions justified by consolatory gestures, as cash evanesces into the indiscernible. There is no VE Day or VJ day in such wars. (61)

Living with fear is corrosive. It depletes the patience to sort out threats and to calibrate responses. The less we know about the reality of Islam, the more we will fight shadows and false emanations from our own apprehension. Ignorance is the natural ally of fear. It's time to learn about the real Islam, beginning with its source book, the Qur'an. (61) 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman

Published in 2014
In this book, philosopher Susan Neiman examines a simple but provocative question: why grow up?

But as one quickly recognizes, simple questions often don't yield simple answers, and this question provides no exception. What we get then is the answer in a short but enlightening book. And I use the term "enlightening" quite intentionally, for Neiman draws upon some of the most significant names of the Enlightenment to provide some answers to her simple question. Her discussion includes Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume. Along with way, you also encounter Plato, the Stoics, Cicero, Simone De Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, and Paul Goodman. This is a book about growing up, but it's not a book for children. 

The theme underlying this book is that growing up is no treat, and it's not easy adjusting oneself to an imperfect world and our flawed incarnation in it. How should we initiate children into this world? And how should we either accept the requirements of adulthood or attempt to slough them off?

Because this is a short book, I'll keep my review short. But if you're on the path to adulthood or thinking about shepherding in your young ones, this book provides a thoughtful perspective on this challenge. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Unconstitutional War

This article (link below)  makes an absolutely crucial argument: the strike against Syria was UNCONSTITUTIONAL. The author, con law lawyer Garrett Epps, doesn't argue that the strike was immoral (maybe, maybe not; although I think not) or illegal under international law (almost certainly). No, without congressional authorization, even under the War Powers Act, the president cannot order an attack on a sovereign nation as he did here unless that nation has attacked us (it hasn't). Congress could authorize such an attack, but it routinely abrogates its constitutional duties. Most congressional representatives--Democrats and Republicans--don't want to take a stand. Any choice--because there is no "good" choice--will prove unpopular with some segment of voters. And for this, Paul Ryan and others will draw a fat pension.
Let's be clear about this. This isn't about Trump, it isn't about Republicans, it isn't even about Syria--it's about the U.S. Constitution and the blatant disregard of the Constitution.
This needs to stop.
The Constitution still requires congressional authorization for an attack on another country. The requirement is not a formality.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, & American Interests in the Twenty-first Century by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan and his most recent book
Robert D. Kaplan's latest book (2018) is a collection of essays that he's written for publications such as The Atlantic, The American Interest, The National Interest, and the Washington Post. These essays provide an excellent entry into his observations and thinking if you're not already acquainted with his work, and they offer a delightful refresher if you're already acquainted with him, as I am. Kaplan describes himself (no doubt accurately) as a "foreign correspondent." But he's a foreign correspondent steeped in a profound and continuing reading of history and in particular, the history of relations between nations (which includes everything from tribes to empires to nation-states, as well as anarchical situations). This acquaintance with history allows him to achieve exquisite focus on the particulars of the here-and-now around the world (especially Asia, Africa, and Europe). This broad knowledge enables him to pull back from the tight focus to see the big picture of how the world is (and has) worked in the myriad relations between actors on the world stage, from disaffected demographic groups (young Muslim males) to nation-states and empires. 

  The subjects in this collection of essays are diverse. Three of them are profiles of foreign affairs thinkers (and actors): Henry Kissinger (whom Kaplan calls "a close friend"); the late Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor and veteran of a couple the Johnson and Carter administrations; and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, the chief proponent of "offensive realism" and a noted commentator about U.S. relations with China. Each of these three thinkers shares the designation of "realist" with Kaplan, although none of them prove to be beyond Kaplan's criticism on some points. All three subjects have been lightening-rods for harsh criticism, so Kaplan's generally sympathetic treatment of each of them provides a useful anecdote the heavy dose of invective that you can find about each of them elsewhere. 

Other essays address such topics as the literature of the Vietnam War and the warrior ethos, the consequences of the fall of North Korea (written in 2006), the wounds of war, and so on. But the most interesting to me were those that examined the relations between states in Asia, developments on the Eurasian continent, and how these developments affect the U.S.  As a part of this, Kaplan discusses the uses of empire and how (at least until the advent of the Trump administration), the U.S. and its support of international institutions, served as an empire to help ease relations in a world of nation-states. His discussion of the Obama administrations actions and attitudes in this regard is insightful and merits careful consideration. 

With President Trump, we have in office a man of woeful ignorance about history and foreign relations. And without leadership from the top, we may not garner a clear picture of how the U.S. will conduct its grand strategy at present. But reading Kaplan, who identifies the fissures and fault lines that will shake us in the future, we know that these threats lie in wait, and we can perhaps only hope for the best. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scott Pruitt, A Good Protection Racket, Science, and Playing By the Rules

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt artistically (and aptly) rendered

One way of looking at government is to see it as a protection racket. Of course, this seems a bit cynical, and I say it with tongue-in-cheek. But, on the other hand, there's some truth in it.

The primary task of governments since we humans first developed governments (which, I suspect, coincides with civilization), has been to protect inhabitants from threats. In the beginning, the most immediate and easily recognized threats came from invaders. Also, governments began to deal with threats from within, such as criminal acts. As civilization progressed and became more complex, so did the threats. For instance, with cities also came epidemic diseases and the need to supply water and waste disposal for masses of people. In response to threats from disease, governments in the 19th century began to provide safe, potable water and sanitary sewers, which addressed a previously unrecognized threat from unseen germs (via Pasteur and Koch's work in the germ theory of disease). And so it goes. The role of government has expanded as people have comes to appreciate sources of threats to our well-being, and as we have developed ways of addressing these threats. (There are other reasons for the growth of government as well, of course.)

So why the "protection racket"? While some threats are open, obvious, and most efficiently addressed by individual action (e.g., look before you cross a busy street), other threats are either less open and obvious and (or) require collective action to mount an effective response.  You may know that Genghis Khan is coming your way, but acting alone--no matter how acute the perception of the risk to your person and how strong your sword arm--is ineffective. And, some threats, like germs, are invisible. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, we now know that contaminants in the air, water, soil, and food supply threaten us, often without our directly perceiving the threat as it presents itself to us. These threats are perhaps even more insidious than more overt threats, like that of violence, because they are less apparent--they are less visible and slower acting, but lethal nevertheless.

So yes, I'm in favor of this "protection racket." I want the government to protect me from covert threats or those that require collective action. I want protection for me, my family, my friends, my fellow human beings, and the world upon which we depend.

In the U.S. and other liberal democracies, we are protected from the threats of contaminations of our air, water, food, and other necessities by laws and regulations. Laws are enacted mostly by our elected representatives (excepting referendums in some jurisdictions). In theory, elected representatives should be acting in accord with the will of the "people," but for a myriad of reasons, some practical and some nefarious, the actions of any legislative body more often reflect the will of special interests rather than the will and best interests of the general public. Also, as a practical matter, a legislative body, such as Congress, can't act effectively to address all of the details needed to protect the public. Some actions require features that are beyond the reach of Congress (or any legislative body). Therefore, Congress and legislatures delegate authority to regulatory agencies.

Regulatory agencies (such as the EPA, discussed in the article below), are governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, adopted by Congress in 1946, to allow Congress to delegate rule-making authority to agencies based on Congressional mandates. Most states have similar laws. The APA creates a system for rule-making and rule-enforcement that his a hybrid of judicial and legislative procedures. Due process, open hearings, notice, and so on are the hallmarks of the APA and its state off-spring. Indeed, given the obvious and egregious pitfalls of the political system, the administrative rule-making and rule-enforcing systems come across as refreshingly rational.

Thus, for instance, when it comes to keeping us safe from impurities in our air, water, and soil (food safety is under the FDA), the EPA is given a mandate by law along with authority to work out the details. In doing so, the agency must follow strict procedures. In fact, once Congres has approved a law that says (in effect), "Keep our air, water, and soil safe for all Americans," it really should become a matter of exploring the limits. What do I mean by "exploring the limits"?

To explore the limits means to move beyond the obvious. For instance, no one (sane) wants to breathe dense smoke day all day (set aside addicted smokers for a moment). No one wants to experience a stream that's treated as an open sewer running along their backyard, and so on. The tougher questions, the limits questions, are where reasonable minds may differ based on value judgments and imperfect knowledge:

1. The nature and seriousness of some threats are not apparent. Deciding "how much" of any contaminant is "too much" is often difficult to determine (causation is not easily identified and isolated). And if we spend money reducing "x," we'll have less money to reduce "y." 
2. Even if we agree on a threat, the best way to minimize the threat may not be easily identified. Should we adopt strict prohibitions? Tax polluters? Require escrow funds? This issue dovetails with the issue of "who pays?" The polluter? The consumer? The taxpayer? The current generation or future generations?

Just these two broad criteria of disagreement allow us to realize how we may disagree. But on the other hand, if we act with rational and scientific prudence and without unwarranted preference in favor of any limited group, we should be able to confine our disagreements within an arena that would allow a fully informed, neutral decision-maker to arrive at a reasoned decision. To enable this, we need access to uninhibited scientific evidence, and we need to allow debate about the underlying scientific assumptions and processes. We would need to have information from all perspectives (stakeholders) rationally presented and without binding preconceptions by a decision-maker. All evidence and arguments should be subject to cross-examination and debate. We must follow the path of science. We must--in some reasonable measure--learn to doubt our doubt, lest we act like contemporaries who mocked Copernicus and Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein--the list could go on almost endlessly. Of course, at some point, we must reach a conclusion sufficient to act (or to justify inaction.  (But note this: absolute certainty is a chimera and quite often a decoy to assure inaction). Openness, large-mindedness, and commitment to a process of testing and renewal are imperative.

I offer all of the above reflection in response the article below, where I find that Mr. Pruitt seems to be flaunting most of the propositions that I argue in favor of. I disapprove of this whole course of conduct. (I'm also sad to note that Mr.Pruitt is a lawyer, for whom the propositions and values stated above should be apparent.)

For a more in-depth consideration of what Mr. Pruitt is up to, read this profile from The New Yorker
A proposed policy would bar the E.P.A. from considering research that doesn't release its raw data for review, blocking some significant work.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Tim Snyder on Ivan Ilyin: Some Notes

This article (below) by Timothy Snyder captured and rewarded my interest in several ways.

1. It's by Timothy Snyder, a preeminent historian of 19th and 20th century Eastern Europe and Russia and an outspoken voice warning of the dangers facing contemporary America and seeking to defend American values (e.g., democracy, the rule of law, equality, free speech, etc.). Snyder has a new book forthcoming in April, THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM: RUSSIA, EUROPE, & AMERICA, which I'm looking forward to.

2. This article examines an otherwise obscure (at least to me) early 20th-century Russian thinker whose thought has been resurrected by Putin in defense of Putin's regime. Putin's promotion of this otherwise forgotten figure raises an interesting question: why? Putin, whom, like the current American president, seems to have little interest in ideas or a deeply held sense of any guiding ideology other than grasping and maintaining power. So what motivated him to identify this obscure fascist writer and to bring back into the public eye? To what extent (if any) is Putin or any within his inner circle guided by this thinker (or any thinker)?
What makes humans so fascinating (and vexing) is that we are motivated by such a wide array of factors, from the bodily to the unconscious to the vaguely expressed ideas of groups (cultures, religions, classes, families) to carefully articulated public ideas. It seems that if even the most basely motivated of men [sic] (those focused on wealth and power) want a patina of legitimation upon their actions, even if only a rationalization (after-thought). Some, of course, are guided by beliefs, such as those found in religion (traditional and unorthodox, not to mention esoteric and occult) and political ideologies that are little different from religion in mythic structures (Marxism), or ideas that are modern (Enlightenment liberalism) and that seek to avoid religious or metaphysical foundations. We can take someone like Putin and run up and down Maslow's hierarchy of needs to identify motivating deficiencies and desires. Or we can talk about interests, emotions, and beliefs (how we model the world). Whatever rubric we use, our maps have a hard time capturing human complexity and identifying the primary motivating factors guiding any particular actor.

3. How did a person like Ilyin, grounded in Russian Orthodoxy, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl become a raging fascist bent on violence and a unique national (i.e., Russian) calling? The inputs (listed) don't predict the outputs. (The same problem applies famously to Martin Heidegger and his romance with Nazism.) But while I'm new to Ilyin, there were many others in 20th century Europe who preached the fascist path as well as that of totalitarian Marxism (Soviet ideology). How do we explain this development of this path of thought? (Julius Evola is another example of a thinker who went helter-skelter down the road of fascism.) The messianic and utopian train of Marxist thought with its attendant lack of a political theory is easier to grasp because collective action and a reduction of class conflict were widely identified as positive goods, unlike the less attractive visions of violence and domination promoted by fascists and National Socialists.

4. For those interested in the ideas that swirl around current authoritarian regimes (and wannabes), keep an eye our of Gary Lachman's "Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump," which is scheduled for release on 29 May, and which I anticipate will provide an account of the more subterranean influences (and justifications) that authoritarians and radicals draw upon in addition the more obvious sources, such as bare-knuckle capitalism, kleptocracy, white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiments, etc.

A closing quote from Snyder:

"Ilyin meant to be the prophet of our age, the post-Soviet age, and perhaps he is. His disbelief in this world allows politics to take place in a fictional one. He made of lawlessness a virtue so pure as to be invisible, and so absolute as to demand the destruction of the West. He shows us how fragile masculinity generates enemies, how perverted Christianity rejects Jesus, how economic inequality imitates innocence, and how fascist ideas flow into the postmodern. This is no longer just Russian philosophy. It is now American life."
Writing for White Russian émigrés in the 1920s and 1930s, Ivan Ilyin provided a metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism, which he expressed in practical outlines for a fascist state. But his ideas have now been revived and…

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Economyths by David Orrell

When I first took a course in Economics in college as a sophomore, 6E:1 “Introduction to Microeconomics,” I was quite taken with the subject. Unlike my major subjects, history and political science, it was so neat, so tidy. You could plot supply and demand curves and arrive at a price. Of course, there were monopolies and externalities and the like, but those were flies in the ointment of economic rationality. Of course, macro got messier, and by the time I took my third course, Public Finance, I lost my infatuation with the subject. All of what at first seemed so neat and clean now appeared rather messy, not at all tidy. (And I didn’t get as good a grade). As it turns out, the neat and tidy represented a degree of unreality while the messy and frustrating was much closer to reality.

I’ve known and thought for some time that economics, once hailed as the king of the social sciences, was an emperor with no clothes. Okay, that’s unfair, but I will say that it is arrayed in tattered rags rather than regal robes. Over the years, my innate, naïve disenchantment with economics has been articulated by persons more qualified than me to articulate and identify the problems. The “Nobel” prize for economics has implicitly recognized flaws in the discipline by presenting its awards of late to a political scientist (Elinor Ostrom), a psychologist (Daniel Kahneman), and to two behavioral economists, Robert Schiller and Richard Thaler, among other less mainstream, math-oriented recipients.

Thus, with some background in the flaws of economics, and appreciating its importance, I read David Orrell’s Economyths: How the Science of Complex Systems is Transforming Economic Thought (2010). Like many of the most trenchant critics of the economics discipline, Orrell didn't train as an economist. He is a Ph.D. mathematician. Orrell argues that economics is (still) primarily built on an outdated conception based on 19th-century physics and its equilibrium-based mathematics.  Economics became the royalty of the social sciences because of its mathematical models, which often worked well—but not very well if you’re in a pinch. And in fact, we’re almost always in a pinch.

Reviewing the field from a variety of perspectives (equity, happiness, gender, stability, etc.), Orrell finds that the prevailing models of economics don’t mesh well with economic realities. Of course, writing in 2010, he needn’t direct his reader any further back than the crash of 2008 to find an enormous and consequential gap between the prevailing theories of economics and the reality that we all faced. Put simply; economic models depend upon rationality and equilibrium (and therefore) a stability that does not—cannot—exist. Human societies, human economies, especially those in the contemporary world, are dynamic and fluctuating and varied in ways that no simple math of equilibrium or postulates of (presumed) human rationality can capture. Of course, everything is fine on a sunny day, but the theories failed when the storms hit. We now have models for complex systems that can deal more realistically with all of the inherent turbulence of a vast economic system, although not at all perfectly when it comes to prediction. (We need to adjust our understanding and expectations.) We need to deploy these models.

Orrell writes quite well. And while quite sophisticated in his mathematical ability, even a math simpleton like me could follow him. He doesn’t overwhelm us with complexity and math. He writes in a manner that any interested layperson can follow. Orrell’s project follows a path laid down by Eric Beinhocker in The Origin of Wealth (2005) (which Orrell cites and that I’m now going to complete). And Orrell's perspective is also well-represented by writings found at the Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics Blog, directed by David Sloan Wilson, a biologist turned economics student. These fellows, among many others, from outside of the formal economics community, are pointing the way to a more sophisticated understanding of economics, one that recognizes the contexts of ecology, sociology, and politics in which the economy is embedded.

By the way, I came to know of Orrell through an essay that he published in Aeon entitled “Economics is Quantum,” which I found quite instructive. He has a book along the same lines coming out early this fall. The article is an excellent place to start if you just want to dip your toe into his project.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

James Hillman on "Prestige" Apropos of Some Figures Today

Hillman refers to "masks" below, and I just couldn't resist
Here are some quotes from the chapter on "Prestige" taken from James Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses (1997). Its just seems apropos today, but read for yourself to decide if this is so.

When the idea of office loses its foundation in service, we are left with office seekers who want the external trappings of office for the power they bestow: prestige. And office seekers are a raging hungry pack.

Prestige in psychological language is the vanity of narcissism— to be admired and therewith to shore up one’s shaky sense of worth. Notice that prestige is not to be worthy of admiration or to earn it, but simply to be assured of personal worth by external approbation given by the office.

Recognition from others is part of communal feedback. In part, we always are as others see us. A great reward of power comes from outside ourselves. Prestige, however, wants only to impress, neither to influence, to dominate, to control, nor to have agency of any sort unless it adds to the impression one makes. In fact, the risks entailed by doing something and failing at it may cost prestige and may keep the person who is intent on prestige from doing much at all. When prestige is the motive, the less you actually do, the more likely success. For you have risked nothing that might detract from your prestige. To maintain prestige, job performance is measured mainly in terms of being present among the important players in important situations.

Again we find that the word gives away this secret. Prestige comes from praestigia, delusion, illusion like a juggler’s trick, leading to the meanings of deception and imposture. We have the illusion of power without substance; not charismatic magic but manipulation. So to uncover where prestige is ruling, look for juggling, deception, pomp and trappings, a desperate fervor to seize and hold office, and not much real risk. But it’s power all the same.

How can power reside in shallow, self-centered caution? How can someone without inner integrity be honored with prestige? Answer: by means of the trappings of office, the role of leadership, the stance of authority—that is, by wearing the mask of power prestige employs the power of the mask.

Early cave paintings, aboriginal facial markings, Greek and Japanese drama each show that the mask retains and emanates effective agency. Surrounding the hollow personality of the prestige-driven person lies the archetypal aura of the mask. By means of the mask something more than human is present, a higher drama is being played and greater powers are being invoked. These powers come through the stance and voice and advice of its wearer, enlarging his stature and bestowing importance. Inside this persona there may be no one at home, or only a weak comedian playing the Wizard of Oz; even if seen into and seen through, the person retains a position of power acquired only by prestige.

The main method for acquiring prestige is not the imitation of leadership or authority, but rather having a keen nose for what and who is important. Someone with prestige gathers followers simply by following what’s in the wind, which way it blows, when to trim sails, shift weight, reverse course, take cover. Since they are inwardly empty, they are utterly under the influence of outer forces. Therefore they can sense immediately the matter of importance in the air. His conversation will drop names; hers will remark on events others missed. All along they will indicate how well “up” on things they are and where the “major moves” are taking place.

Hillman, James. Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 1332-1339). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Original publication 1997. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

India & the U.S.: Shared Experiences at the Founding

One of the many enjoyable aspects of our two years living in India was the opportunity it provided me to learn more about Indian history. Like all history, Indian history is endlessly fascinating and puzzling, both obscured and revealed by time, and it's the subject of endless debate and more than occasional attempts of kidnapping. History is the neverending story (unless we really muck things up).

Of special interest to me was the movement for Indian independence. I first read a biography of Gandhi in high school after seeing the end of a film about him (no, not the Ben Kinsley-Richard Attenborough bio-pic--I way older than that). Moving to Jaipur that first year allowed me to learn more about Gandhi, Nehru, and the less well-known but quite important Dr. Ambedkar. All three of these leaders were lawyers, and all were educated and trained in Great Britain. Nehru received his education at Harrow, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple; Gandhi trained as a barrister in London; and Ambedkar received Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in New York (I hear it's a good school) and the London School of Economics, and he trained as a barrister at Gray's Inn. In short, all received extensive educations abroad.

Does this make them somehow less Indian? I think not. In fact, if anything it makes them more Indian, for India is an amazing agglomeration of religions, cultures, languages, and traditions that developed through centuries of intercourse with the wider world, both influencing and being influenced through its long history. As an American, I'm keenly aware of the model that Gandhi's non-violent resistance movement provided to Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement, which was marked by non-violent resistance. Both men drew on a variety of influences: Gandhi on his native Hindu tradition as well as a deep knowledge of Islam and Christianity, the common law tradition, Ruskin, and Tolstoy; King on his native Christian tradition, Gandhi's movement, Thoreau, and the American Constitution.

Indeed, I can't help but note similarities between the founders of democratic, independent India and the founders of the American republic. Both groups were amazingly cosmopolitan in their learning and outlook. While the Americans received less of their education in Britain than their Indian counterparts (travel then was much more arduous), they were unquestionably educated in the British tradition and held significant cultural ties to Britain. Indeed, during the early period of unrest, their desire was for their rights as Englishmen. Both groups turned the highest ideals of the British back upon themselves. Of course, neither group was without fault. Certainly, the legacies of slavery in the U.S. and caste in India create problems yet today. The Indian founders (especially Ambedkar) attempted to deal with issues of caste more forthrightly than the American leaders did with slavery, but the residuals of these evils still create a distorting force field within their respective polities that each nation must continue to work to overcome.

Finally, in addition to their cosmopolitan outlooks and education, the founders of both nations were patriots. Their learning and cosmopolitan outlooks made them aspire to the highest standards for their respective nations. Their love of country--the defining aspect of patriotism--was without parallel. Compare this to the tawdry nationalism--the antithesis of patriotism--that plagues both nations today. Article author Aatish Taseer aptly quotes Nehru: " “Nationalism . . . is essentially an anti-feeling, and it feeds and fattens on hatred against other national groups, and especially against the foreign rulers of a subject country.” Neither nation is now in the grips of a foreign power, at least not a foreign state, but each of our nations is plagued by those who would deny their many varied citizens their rightful share in their highest ideals that these nations have embodied. Whatever the faults and shortcomings of our respective founders, each set has provided us, Indians and Americans, with models of probity, decency, freedom, and justice that we ignore at the risk of our lasting loss.
Bravo @AatishTaseer for a long overdue reassessment of #Nehru, a figure educated by Theosophists & someone who could be viewed as India's Obama: a complex intellectual who fit in nowhere, and a man we desperately need today. His portrait hangs in our home.

I used to think India’s first prime minister was embarrassingly westernized. Now I see that he was one of our great thinkers.

On Trump & Reading: The Cave Man Speaks, or, Hucksters Don't Read Memos

Joe Scarborough's conjecture about whether 45 can read is an interesting issue to ponder. Consider: 45 has an MBA from Wharton if I recall correctly. He also writes an amazing number of Tweets for a man of such a high position. (These are not, so far as I can tell, ghost-written, unlike his books. See Tony Schwartz about the ghost-writing one of 45's books.) So, what has happened to 45's presumed ability to read? On one hand, it could be a lack of capability. That is, his mental illness--whatever we may label it (and yes, I'm presuming his "diagnosable")-- may include some organic components that limit his ability to focus sufficiently to read anything of any substance. Bad.
But the other possibility, perhaps in tandem with the organic theory, is that 45 doesn't believe that he needs to read. He already knows it all. And for all his failings, as one friend of mine described him, he is a "man of low cunning." Perhaps for a long time now in his career, he's gotten by strictly with the spoken word. He is a cave man not only in demeanor but in language as well. His lack of knowledge and sophistication are traits that he's cultivated to his advantage thus far in his life. He didn't expect to become president, he only expected to gain publicity for what was--and continues to be in his mind--a publicity stunt. He has been astonished that someone would want him to master new information when all he wants to do is practice his art (one-off salesmanship). A con artist doesn't need to read memos, he needs to talk it up. He doesn't need to learn what other thinks, he need only talk the mark into doing his bidding.
Of course, we've had presidents before who were not mental giants. But 45 takes us into completely uncharted territory. He is a cultural regression from the era of the written word back to the time before writing. For Trump, literacy is of limited value and orality is king. (What what would Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan say about all of this?) Of course, 45's orality is only partial because he does Tweet, and he can read a text prepared for him. But in crucial ways, he represents a fundamental regression and a path back into the darkness for those who would follow his lead.
Beware, my friends.
Author Michael Wolff paints a harrowing portrait of Donald Trump.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Placing Bets: Gary Taubes on Diet

This is another article  by Gary Taubes. I've read a couple of his books ("Good Calories, Bad Calories" & "How We Get Fat and Why"; I will read "The Case Against Sugar"), and I read most of his articles that I can find. Why? As a science journalist, he exhibits two traits that I find crucial: he explores and understands the history of science (a human endeavor), and he cares by the means of science, which includes both what we might call "the philosophy of science" (e.g., Popper and falsification) & the protocols for obtaining scientific knowledge (e.g., observation, hypothesis testing, statistical analysis, etc.). In short, this means that he's very careful about reaching conclusions. But he also has to eat, and he has to make--as all of us a do--a choice about what to eat. In this article, he explains what bets he places and why. He doesn't claim to know the outcome of his bet, but I find his reasoning quite persuasive, and I will (to the limits of my fallible self) follow his betting pattern. Anyway, it's food for thought.