Sunday, May 20, 2018

Once More Into the Breach!: A bit more about Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson
I didn't think I'd venture into the Jordan Peterson jungle again because I don't have strong feelings about him. I don't find what I've heard him say or what he's written to be offensive. On the other hand, I don't see him especially novel or insightful. My responses to his contentions tend to be "yeah, probably," "that's plausible," and "I knew that" (which comes to my mind far too often, but I'm working on it.). His biology doesn't seem outside accepted cannons, his liberalism is classical (think John Stewart Mill), and his psychology has a marked Jungian flavor. (But if you want to go beyond Jung, I recommend James Hillman.)
But then I saw and started to read a NYT article about Peterson. I have to admit that I didn't finish it out of frustration that it appeared to me to be another hatchet job (like Cathy Newman on Channel 4). I stopped when the reporter argued to Peterson that there are no dragons and witches.
"“May God us keep
From Single vision
and Newton's sleep.”
I would have let it drop there, but then I came across this article, and I found that it identified many issues that concerned me and that David Fuller's article captured most of my thoughts on these topics, saving me from imposing another word storm any unsuspecting reader.
Take away quote from the article:
"As Eric Weinstein, Bret’s brother, and another member of the unofficial ‘intellectual dark web’ said — “bad faith changes everything”. It’s possible to have any kind of discussion with people you disagree with so long as they are approaching it in good faith — as soon as they are not, they’re just looking to boost their position, look good in front of others or advance their career within their tribe — as Peterson alleged Cathy Newman was — then true exchange of ideas is impossible."
P.S. Following this post I'm going to post about an interview of Peterson by Joe Rogan that I listened to after completing this post. Crazy stuff ahead!

Listening that this podcast (see below), I couldn't find any real point of disagreement with Peterson. And that must mean . . . . Oh my goodness! I'm a member of the . . . . radical center!
I'm poised on the knife edge between chaos and order, between openness to experience and satisfaction with the status quo. I value equality and difference, reason and tradition, and I'm a member of more than one tribe. I'm both critical and appreciative of many thinkers and points of view. I put loyalty to what I believe to be true above loyalty to any one tribe. I believe that tribes are necessary and good but that tribalism is poison. I'm an individual embedded in tribes large and small. It's all so complex! How do people deal with all of this ambiguity, this uncertainty!?
And then I remember.
Just look around. We are--among our many human traits--profoundly ill at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty. We often want safety more than we want to explore and change. And when we crave safety, driven by fear, we really make mistakes. We panic. We buy snake oil remedies, we run for "daddy," who will fix everything if we only trust him. And instead, we get Big Brother. America First, the Fatherland, and so on. Different names, same M-O.
No thanks.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

In his latest work, Timothy Snyder sets a high bar for himself: he compares his project to that of Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars. Snyder justifies the comparison by noting that Thucydides, like him, was writing about the events of his lifetime.

Can history be so contemporary? We think of the Peloponnesian Wars as ancient history . . . . Yet their historian Thucydides was describing events that he experienced. He included discussions of the past insofar as this was necessary to clarify the stakes in the present. This work humbly follows that approach. (12)

Snyder also explains his invocation of Thucydides on two additional grounds. First, with Thucydides, "History as a discipline began as a confrontation with war propaganda." Snyder continues,  "Thucydides was careful to make a distinction between leaders' accounts of their actions and the real reasons for their decisions." (10). In the remainder of the book, Snyder endeavors to lift the curtain that seeks to conceal the wizards who are busy pulling levers (or in more contemporary terms, programming content) to beguile their the gullible. Second, Thucydides identified "oligarchy" as "rule by the few," and that term has since found its way into contemporary English via the Russian experience of the 1990s. (I, however, prefer the more old-fashioned American term, "plutocrats," but I concede the point.)

So does Snyder justify his audacious comparison in this book? Yes. I don't know that it will go down into history with the same staying power of Thucydides' classic work, but it certainly meets a similar need in our time.

Snyder provides a crucial scheme to give shape to his tale. He distinguishes three varieties of politics: the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity, and their mutual alternative, which he doesn't label until the end of the book, but that I'll label the politics of action. (He doesn't explicitly reference the political thought of Hannah Arendt (although he does quote her), but I perceive that his political thinking is very much influenced by Arendt, so I propose the label the "politics of action" in her honor. N.B. In the next to last paragraph of the book he uses the term "the politics of responsibility," I believe the two terms interchangeable from this perspective.) 

What Snyder labels as the politics of inevitability arises from the idea that "the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done." (7). He notes that Soviet Communism held these traits before it morphed into the politics of eternity, but he's most concerned that this type of politics marked American and European thinking at the end of the Cold War, at "the end of history." (Snyder, unlike many other writers on this topic, does not stop to slam Francis Fukuyama at this point, which I find refreshing, given that I believe Fukuyama has been at least in some measure unfairly maligned on this topic. Blog post.)

But when the inevitable doesn't arrive as promised, the politics of inevitability will collapse and "like a ghost from a corpse" (15) the politics of eternity will arise. In contrast to the good times promised by the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity "places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. . . . Progress gives way to doom." (8). Yet despite their competing accounts of the schema of events, these two modes of politics share specific defining characteristics.

Inevitability and eternity translated facts into narratives. Those ways by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history. Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. . They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realize in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama. (8-9). 
Each of these two visions has its own style of propaganda and creating a "political fiction" (9). It is at this point (and undoubtedly others) that the politics of action pushes back. As Snyder notes:

[W]hatever impression propaganda makes at the time, it is not history's final verdict. There is a difference between memory, the impressions we are given; and history, the connections that we work to make--if we wish. (9)
One final point about the distinction between Snyder's two models of misleading politics. Each, he claims, has "no ideas." This true in some sense, but it misses the point that these competing visions are both marked by one big idea (inevitability or eternity) that spin off the rest of (what passes for) for thought in these two regimes. Snyder spends most of a chapter on Ivan Ilyin, an early 20th-century  fascist Russian "thinker" whom Putin and his court adopted to provide a model for the politics of eternity (and whose remains were brought back to Russia for re-internment more than 60 years after his death, with great ceremony). It seems that the politics of eternity does have "ideas," but that it does not entertain any novel ideas that are grounded in historical reality. (Again, we're reminded of Arendt, who emphasized plurality and "beginning" in her work.).

Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man's freedom.
--Hannah Arendt (1951) (p.111) 

Snyder chronicles the descent of the Soviet Union into the politics of eternity, the chaos after the fall of Communist rule, the early Putin years, and then Putin's gradual adoption of the politics of eternity. I found Putin's metamorphosis most interesting: in his first years of rule, he didn't promote the politics of eternity nor excessive hostility toward the West. Snyder suggests (and I have no reason to disagree) that Putin's takedown of the oligarchs as a political threat and resulted in access to their wealth that he took advantage of and that converted his regime into a full-blown kleptocracy (rule by thieves, in essence). In such a scheme, Putin and Russia could not compete with the West, and therefore, drawing upon a long-standing Russian inferiority complex (my term, not Snyder's), he turned to the politics of eternity. Putin and the politics of eternity practice what Snyder labels as "strategic relativism;" in short, if you can't reach up to your rival's level, then pull them down to yours. And this became Putin's operating principle viz. Europe and the U.S.

Snyder also untangles the confusion about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and all the surrounding issues. As a seasoned historian of Eastern Europe (and knowledgeable in several of those languages), he watched events unfold in real time. He provides a coherent account of events as well as explaining how those events fit his rubric of the politics of eternity. Snyder realizes how vital the project of getting the facts straight is. As he notes, "To end factuality is to begin eternity" (160) and "The ink of political fiction is blood."  For just a moment, ponder the meaning of that quote in light of the character--or lack thereof--of the current American president.

The final section of the book deals with America. As Putin moved Russia moved more deeply into the politics of eternity, his government began to take what they term "active measures" to weaken and confound the United States. There best weapon? "Donald Trump, successful businessman," a fiction that Snyder describes as "the payload of a cyberweapon." I will not repeat the details here, but suffice it to say that if I'd read this a few years ago, I would have thought someone was trying to update "The Manchurian Candidate" (again, but don't bother with that one). So now when I read the paper, even earlier today, I'm not surprised. Snyder is as honest, forthright, and meticulous as the House Intelligence [sic] Committee was duplicitous in its claim that the Russians didn't favor Trump. (Thank you, Senator Burr, for some refreshing honesty and candor.) Of course, we Americans must take responsibility for the policies and developments that allowed so many Americans to be exploited by this Russian adversary (not the nation, the regime). We set ourselves up; they played us.

As Snyder's prologue was a call to question and understand, his epilogue is a call to action, the politics of action (or "responsibility," as he describes it below). 

To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.  
To see our moment is to step away from the stories supplied for our stupefaction, myths of inevitability and eternity, progress and doom. Life is elsewhere. Inevitability and eternity are not history but ideas within history, ways of experiencing our time that accelerates its trends while slowing our thoughts. To see, we must set aside the dark glass, and see as we are seen, ideas for what they are, history as what we make. 
. . . .
If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity; ad exit the road to unfreedom. We being a politics of responsibility.  
To take part in its creation is to see a world for a second time. Students of the virtues that history reveals, we become the makers of a renewal that no one can foresee. 

This is a brilliant history, meditation, and call to action. I heartily recommend it.  

Timothy Snyder on History

Timothy Snyder, American historian & political Cassandra. Will we heed him? 

One of my abiding interests is the study and use of history. History not just as a discipline, but as a way of knowing the world. And one of my other abiding interests concerns political thought and action. Every once in a while I come across an insightful piece of writing about one or other of these topics, but here I get a twofer from Timothy Snyder in his recently published book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America. In the prologue, Snyder writes:

History is and must be political thought, in the sense  that it opens a aperture between inevitability and eternity, preventing us from drifting from the one to the other, helping us see the moment when we might make a difference. 
As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair. Erosion reveals what resists, what can be reinforced, what can be reconstructed, and what must be reconcieved. Because understanding is empowerment, this book's chapter titles are framed as alternatives: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Succession or Failure; Integration or Empire; Novelty or Eternity; Truth or Lies; Equality or Oligarchy. Thus individuality, endurance, cooperation , novelty , honesty , and justice figure as political virtues. These qualities are not mere platitudes or preferences, but facts of history, not less than material forces might be. Virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish. 
An institution might cultivate certain ideas of the good, and it also depend upon them. If institutions are to flourish, they need virtues; if virtues are to be cultivated, they need institutions. The moral questions of what is good and evil in public life can never be separated from the historical investigation of structure. It is the politics of inevitability and eternity that make virtues seem irrelevant or even laughable: inevitably by promising that the good is what already exists and must predictably expand, eternity by assuring that the evil is always external and that we are forever its innocent victims. 
If we wish to have a better account of good and evil, we will have to resuscitate history.  
 The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America (2018) 12-13. 

P.S. My review to follow soon.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Explaining the "Jordan Peterson"

The infamous Jordan Peterson

No one ever accused me of being cutting edge; the closest I ever came was when my daughter said I was "stealthy hip," which was, I think, more an attempt alleviate my sense of dismay about my 
inability to keep up with contemporary trends. But like almost anyone who reads on the internet, earlier this year I came across Jordan Peterson. David Brooks wrote a column about him, and I investigated further. Brooks was generally complimentary, but when I looked into him further, I found Peterson had generated some controversy. I looked deeper. Pankaj Mishra (more or less) labeled Peterson a fascist in the NYRB. On the other hand, I listened to Peterson in discussion with feminist author Camille Paglia, and instead of a brawl, I found it a love-in. Hmm, quite a contrast from Mishra's screed. I listened to Peterson in an enlightening discussion with Iain McGilchrist, of The Master and His Emissary fame (one of the most exceptional books that I've read in recent years). I listened to Peterson interviewed by Russ Roberts on his podcast EconTalk. (Roberts also posted a piece post interview here on Medium.) I watched some videos. I watched the interview with BBC  that was a train wreck of the interviewer's making; Peterson was more composed than I think I would have been under such an attack (ineffective and off-putting as it was). I listened to him discuss his "12 Rules" (I haven't read the book). On the whole, I found him reasonable and persuasive. He is neither the second coming nor the devil incarnate. However, I did learn that he was (as he describes himself) " a classic British liberal" (think John Stuart Mill's On Liberty).  This breed, becoming all too rare, is hard to find these days, having become the target of hunters on both the Right and the Left. Also, Peterson resisted compelled speech. He did not purvey any "hate speech," he simply refused to acquiesce to a requirement to use new pronouns for those who claim no "binary gender."

Gary Lachman, trusted guide

But I've gotten ahead of myself, especially in the last couple of sentences. Until just recently, I hadn't gotten a real hold on what all of the fuss was about. (Mishra's piece was on whole uninformative; he doesn't like Peterson.) So when I saw that Gary Lachman had written a  review of Peterson, I was delighted, and I immediately read it (popping for the magazine price). Lachman has consistently displayed a patient, careful, and sensitive attitude toward ideas that are often esoteric and sometimes downright occult in addition to his consideration of more mainstream intellectual trends. My anticipation was justified. From Lachman's careful review of the circumstances, I've come to the conclusion that Peterson's notoriety, at least among his critics, comes from his critique of postmodernism. And here's where I fear I show my age.

I completed my formal education in 1979--before the wave of European postmodern thought had fully reached American shores. Of course, I've encountered it since then, but only by way of those who have provided what I've found to be devastating critiques. Several works by Ken Wilber and historian Richard Evans's In Defense of History come to mind. Not that postmodernism doesn't have some worthwhile insights but taken to extremes (as its adherents seem intent to do), it collapses under the weight of performative contradictions. As a successor to a more traditional Marxism, it looks weak and shallow, almost trite. Off-springs of postmodern thought, like "cultural appropriation," "identity politics," and "political correctness," each of which might have some validity in some circumstances, are taken to ridiculous extremes. As Lachman explains, Peterson's challenge to some of this, more than the substance of his thought, seems to be the lightning rod for most of the criticism leveled against him. As a classic liberal (a firm belief in free speech), he and those like him are caught between howling (online) mobs from both the left and the right. (Some on the alt-right seem to celebrate him, but it appears that this doesn't come from an understanding of his thought but from the desire poke the postmodern left in the eye.)

Free speech, including (but not limited to) rights under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, presents a vexing set of issues. Anyone who's read judicial opinions about 1st Amendment free speech issues knows how complicated these issues can be. And most speech is not governed by the 1st Amendment (it's not regulated by the government), but standards are a matter of norms; that is, the everyday decisions and actions that we exhibit toward any speech. In fact, all of us are prone to intolerance; free speech and an attendant openness to ideas--even really crappy ideas not to mention worthwhile, consequential ideas--is something that we have to intentionally cultivate. We don't like attacks on our beliefs. Change comes about only slowly and grudgingly. Given half-a-chance, we'll backslide. But the struggle is worth the prize. Sometimes we have to suffer nonsense, and perhaps even vile, to assure that we have the freedom to pursue the truth, challenging as that always is.

So if Peterson is wrong about his psychology, philosophy, or his interpretation of texts, by all means, criticize him. And so if you believe him wrong about his choice of pronouns or even why he's wrong to resist compelled speech, say so, but do it on the merits (if any), not by name-calling, ad hominem attacks, or dismissive branding. As he might say, stand-up straight, pull back your shoulders, and argue your point.

Friday, April 27, 2018

We at the Center of the Universe by John Lukacs

Published in 2017, Lukacs's 93rd year
The publication of a book of essays by John Lukacs certainly gives us something to celebrate and ponder. "Celebrate" because Lukacs notes in a couple of these essays that they're written in his 92nd and 93rd years of life. "Ponder" because Lukacs says that he doesn't expect to publish more. I hope that he's wrong, but he has left of a treasure trove of works that contemplate not only significant events in history but that ponder everything from his unique life to our place "at the center of the universe." He ranges from the microcosm to the macrocosm, turning his careful eye to a wide variety of situations, including those of our own lives and those of our ancestors. Celebrate, ponder, and rejoice in the legacy he has provided us.

But at this point, I have to share one disappointment. When I learned the title of the book and of its impending publication, I thought it would surely include or expand upon an essay that Lukacs had written and published in The American Scholar (200) entitled "Putting Man Before Descartes."  The lead essay in this book, "At the Center of the Universe" serves as a coda to the earlier, lengthier essay. It would have been much better if the publisher would have (or could have?) included that essay, which to my knowledge has not been published outside of its original inclusion in The American Scholar. The earlier essay and this essay reflect upon the issue of the knower and the known, which allows Lukacs to display his formidable speculative and philosophical side. As in his Historical Consciousness, he draws upon the earlier practitioners of quantum physics and the English thinker Owen Barfield to explore our place in the universe and how we perceive it. Barfield, beginning in the 1920s, and then after a long hiatus, beginning again in the 1950s, developed a participatory epistemology that is too little appreciated. But Lukacs appreciates it, and he became familiar with Barfield and Barfield's work. This, too, is apparent in the "Putting Man Before Descartes" essay as well as here. Like Barfield, Lukacs is acutely concerned with humankind and our place in this universe in a way that stands outside--but not wholly outside--much of popular scientific thought. History serves as a way of knowing ourselves. 

For those interested, the essay "Putting Man Before Descartes" is cited in my earlier blog post, and you can find many quotes taken from the essay there. I highly commend it. 

The remaining essays in this brief book cover a variety of topics that Lukacs has written about before, but each one provides a welcome further exploration or consideration of what might otherwise be tired topics. Churchill, Stalin, the 1920s, and Madame Bovary are among the subjects that Lukacs considers, carefully examining and judging each topic as if it was a long-lost artifact that held untold secrets for us to tease out. As with almost all of his writing, I get the sense that I'm listening to a master discourse to his students as he ponders a topic. Lukacs's writing style always gives me the feeling that I'm listening to his thinking, not eavesdropping, but that I'm invited in to share his discoveries as he's writing them. It is a joy, and one that I hope doesn't stop with this book, but if it does, I have a shelf-full of his books that I can (and have) gone back to time and again to re-discover and savor this brilliant writer. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Ethics of Serving a Corrupt Leader

Some reflections on the two articles linked below. The first paragraph is based on the Rosenstein article, and the rest (starting with Seneca) goes to the McMaster article. For a rundown on Seneca and his relationship with Nero, read this summary of a book about it: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

One thing that every lawyer has to pay attention to--even if he or she doesn't care about it--is ethics. (Very few don't care & most don't violate, but your cynical comments may be shared below). And, as I will illustrate by another post, the U.S. military (thank goodness) has a strong ethos of service and political neutrality. But how does one negotiate situations when one has to deal with a corrupt client? For lawyers, this is a common enough problem: some of my clients were violent criminals and some were slimy creeps (and the two sets didn't necessarily overlap). It's tough. But what if your client (or boss, in any event) is the president of the United States? How do you serve your country and yet avoid the taint that someone you serve is compared to mob bosses he's prosecuted by the former top law enforcement officer in the U.S. government (FBI Director)? Do you resign & "save your soul"? Or do you serve, knowing that you will become identified with any wrongdoing and likely get stabbed in the back for your efforts? Another post will follow, this one about a military officer who served in the #45 administration.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca served the Roman emperor Nero (of fiddle fame). For his trouble, Seneca was allowed to commit suicide after Nero turned on him. But he served while he could. So it is that some are called who feel duty-bound to serve, such as General McMaster. What should he have done? As he did? Ditto with General (ret.) Mattis, perhaps the last "adult" left to try to check #45's impulses? I feel for McMaster--he didn't even last in the job long enough for this piece about his work to be published! Again: what are the ethics requirements of those who would serve a corrupt figure, even if he is the lawful president of the U.S.?
Also, on a side note, the beginning of the article delves into the fact that the president is (essentially) a functional illiterate. That is (and these are my words) not to say that he can't read, but that he doesn't, for whatever reason, choose to read. That he is a "visual learner" or "better at listening" (that's a good one!) are so much BS. But in any event, he chooses not to read and in the end, I don't see that's functionally different from being unable to read. Shouldn't our president read? Aren't there important things that are conveyed by the written word that he should know about? I think so, but perhaps I'm just old-fashioned.
Can a national-security adviser retain his integrity if the President has none?
Sometimes the best way to do justice is to compromise with those who would deny it.

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.