Archive for May, 2008

Paul and Rome

PART 1 in the series: Islam and the West

This series will be done bit by bit, maybe one out of every five or ten posts. For more info about the purpose of the series see “Islam and the West’ under “pages.”

We are in a period of global crisis and transition, one which challenges the West in ways previously unimagined. Whether the challenge comes from Islamic extremism, the dynamics of globalization, climate change or economic dangers, it’s unlikely we’ll emerge from this without having undergone a real cultural transformation. It is impossible to understand and comprehend what that means if one does not have a clear sense of what is meant by The West or Western Civilization.

The term “the West” is bandied around a lot, often in criticisms of the West as a source of militarism, greed, and materialism. Indeed, in academia the West is often distrusted as a hegemonic cultural force, silencing voices and ideas from other cultures and societies. This has led to less emphasis on people learning the history of western culture, and therefore not really understanding who they are, why they think as they do, and why the world around them functions the way it does. Therefore, such people can’t really comprehend the transitions taking place and understanding the threats and potentials. Moreover, this actually works against understanding and dealing with other cultures because by not seeing the West as a culture built over time, people assume our way is the ‘natural way’ and other cultures are strange, primitive, or irrational. I think that kind of error in thinking is one reason so many supported the war in Iraq, believing Iraqis would welcome us and ‘naturally’ adopt western institutions and attitudes.

To begin, my own bias: despite justifiable criticism of actions undertaken by Europeans and Americans, and despite the consumerism and materialism of the modern West, I am a product of that culture, and I believe in basic western values. I disagree with those who want to ignore or discredit the West. There is much to be proud of. Yet it is a culture, with no more claim to being “right” or the “best” culture than any other culture. We need to ditch the notion that somehow the West is superior or represents an inevitable line of progress. Thus I’m not a proponent of uncritical celebration of the West as it is – one of the attributes of this culture is the ability to use critiques to force improvements and solve problems. A line from the song Cut to the Chase by the band “Rush” captures the essence:

“It’s the motor of the western world
Spinning off to every extreme
Pure as a lovers’ desire
Evil as a murderer’s dream”

The first question is When did the West begin? That could be the focus of numerous historical debates, but here’s my succinct answer: the West began with the Roman Republic, and took its basic form when the Roman Empire united Greek philosophical thought and Hebrew religious traditions in its embrace of Christianity. Law and governmental structure in the Roman Empire had distinct western attributes, such as separation of power and checks and balances (Montesquieu, credited with suggesting checks and balances, had been looking back at the Roman Republic). As the Republic expanded in power and militarism, these political institutions failed, creating corruption and ultimately a collapse of the Republic in favor of Empire (is there a lesson for us there?).

At this time a pivotal figure in the development of western culture came on the scene: A Roman citizen and a Jew named Paul. Palestine had been conquered by the Romans, and the Jews were in religious crisis. Conquest by the Babylonians earlier had eradicated the many different religions of the region, where each tribe or people had their own God. The Hebrews had originally been polytheists (the God of Israel was but one of many Gods), but over time it developed into monotheism. By the time of the first century there were competing voices trying to define what it meant to worship the Hebrew God. One of these voices was a pacifist spiritual teacher named Jesus, who apparently went village to village exchanging what we might call ‘faith healing’ for food, and teaching a doctrine of humility and submission. He emerged as a threat to the Jewish authorities who convinced the Romans to crucify him. They expected the story to end there – and it might have, if not for Paul.

Early Christian sects had diverse views on a wide range of subjects, many of which would shock modern Christians. But one debate was especially intense. Should converts to Christianity first become Jewish? After all, God made a covenant with Israel, and if Jesus was the messiah for the God of Israel, wouldn’t gentile converts need to first convert to Judaism in order to lay claim to that covenant? This would mean, of course, following Jewish customs, dietary laws, and more painfully, circumcision for males. Paul, considered a leader in the early Christian church, was asked to decide this issue. If he had said they had to become Jews first, the Christian sect may have died out. Instead, he decided that people were ‘justified through faith’ (looking back to the story of Abraham) and the old Jewish laws, holidays and traditions need not apply. This had two consequences. First, Jews were less drawn to the Christian faith, as it now seemed to be abandoning basic Jewish traditions. Soon it was a sect of primarily gentiles. Second, Christianity was to become a hot religion in the Roman Empire. Women especially converted as it gave them a higher status than traditional Roman life. And though there were persecutions, for the most part Christians were tolerated. Finally, as the Roman Empire started to collapse, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, and it later became the primary religion of the Roman Empire.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, Christians found themselves divided. They had been pacifists, and one of the reasons they were finally embraced by the Empire was that the Empire wanted Christians to fight to defend Rome from the barbarians. But their faith was other worldly – they should be in this world, not of it. Turn the other cheek. Stay pure and holy in this world, suffering what may come, knowing that this is a test to see if you have faith to enter paradise. Should they abandon that and take up arms? But if they don’t, and the Empire perishes, won’t Christianity be wiped out by barbarians with no such teachings or faith?

The answer would come from Augustine, which I’ll discuss in a later blog entry, but note that the dilemma facing early Christians is not dissimilar to that we’re facing in the secular West today. On the one hand you have moral values which argue for treating others ethically, on the other you have fear of the consequences of acting morally in the real, material world.

Paul’s decision has had far reaching implications. Even today our secular culture is a kind of secularized Christianity, as western values – even secular and atheist values – have been strongly influenced by the impact of Christianity on our culture. Second, though Rome would be destroyed, the West would not. The Christian church would retain enough power to keep Roman ideas and traditions alive, even through the so-called dark ages. Thus one can’t understand the West without understanding the teachings and history of the Christian church.

Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)


The awkward exits of Bush and Clinton

The vicious reaction by the White House to former Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s book What Happened seems a bit overblown. Nothing coming out suggests anything we don’t already know — that the Iraq war was sold to the American public through propaganda, President Bush actually believed a lot of the spin, Cheney was forming policy behind the scenes, and domestic initiatives were taken with an eye on the electoral calendar. This isn’t anything previous histories of the White House haven’t put forth.

So why the visceral reaction? I suspect it’s because an insider has put forth damning evidence that the war was sold through propaganda and spin. President Bush is having an awkward exit from the seat of power. With approval ratings down at historic lows, Iraq continuing as an unpopular and apparently unwinnable war, problems and tensions increasing with Iran, and oil prices skyrocketing, Americans are virtually united that the country is going in the wrong direction. As a lame duck President Bush can do nothing to turn around his reputation, he is leaving office as a failure.

His one hope was that history would vindicate him. He cited President Truman as an example. Truman was disliked because he made a horrendous error in the Korean war, choosing to try to conquer North Korea after quickly liberating the South. That led to three years of needless death and destruction, only to get back in 1953 to where they could have been in 1950. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think that was a major error by the Truman administration — what Irving Janis called a “fiasco,” since they should have known that the Chinese were likely to get involved, but groupthink clouded their judgment. Truman is remembered fondly by many because he was a straight talker and made momentous decisions at the start of the Cold War. Bush’s supporters hope that the Iraq mistakes will be forgiven once this is seen as a long term ‘war on terror’ with Islamic extremists the equivalent of the Soviet Communists as the enemy. The hope is that Bush will be seen as a visionary, despite tactical errors in reaction to an unprecedented terror attack.

McClellan’s revelations — and those likely to come in future memoirs — make it unlikely history can vindicate Bush. Besides the fact I think the analogy with Truman is flawed since the problems in the Mideast are much different and more complex, the idea that Iraq was sold by an administration focused on propaganda and deceit casts a long shadow over any legacy the Bush Administration will have. Rather than leaving office unpopular but clinging to a claim that he was a straight shooter who did what he thought best, with the hope of history judging him more kindly, he’ll leave as an unpopular President whose own insiders admit based decisions on deception and political calculations. The President looks either weak or dishonest, depending on how one interprets the evidence.

The other furor that seems overblown is the continuing effort of the Clinton campaign to win the nomination and seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan. Given that she signed a pledge not to compaign in those states and agreed with the decision that they could not move up their primary, it appears a very cynical move to change her tune only when it became clear this was her one chance to remain credible in the nomination flight. Even then, the math doesn’t add up. At the same time Bill Clinton lashes out at the media, Hillary Clinton peppers superdelegates with a letter full of spin and propaganda, including false claims about what the polls say. Her decision to go easier on Obama seems less one of conviction than recognition that going negative against him would only push the party away. She wants them to suddenly decide she’s the better candidate and choose her over Obama.

Last week I argued Hillary should stay in the race until South Dakota and Montana votes (I grew up in South Dakota, I love the fact it’s getting so much attention now), she brought a lot of energy to the race and I think she’s helped Obama. She deserves respect, and should be allowed to end her run with dignity. The actions of the campaign, however, are not one of a candidate who is planning to give in, but one who still thinks she can win. For its part the Obama campaign has been very generous in not stressing the reasons why Clinton may be unelectable, and has confidently moved into general election mode. So why does she continue to fight?

I think the awkward exits of both President Bush and Senator Clinton (and her husband) are based on a mix of political pride, and a kind of intoxication with power. Clinton is analogous to an active alcoholic who is sitting near a drink locked in a glass case. Told that she can’t have the drink, she can’t resist, it’s right there, almost close enough to touch. The temptation is break the glass and do whatever she can to enjoy the feel of power rushing to her vains. I think both Hillary and Bill look at the White House, the power and connections that they enjoyed for eight years, and believed strongly they would regain, and can’t accept that it’s going to be denied. Addiction clouds ones’ judgment. A return to power is so close!

President Bush has the power. He sits in the Oval Office, he gets the intelligence reports, he knows that despite being a lame duck, he is the President of the US. Thus the idea that he made serious errors, that he may have failed at one of the most important jobs in the world, is something he cannot allow himself to take seriously. Like the drunk who makes excuses for having a drink, noting it’s stress or “I can quit anytime,” he clings to a view that he did make the right decisions, and time will vindicate him.

This also explains why those close to the “power addicts” are so angered by those who try to bring them back to reality. Bill Richardson is a “judas” to James Carville, McClellan is dismissed as disgruntled and accused of betrayal. A deeper lesson here is that power not only corrupts, but is addictive, clouds judgment, and those who have or have had it have a hard time giving it up. President Bush knows that his exit is programmed, and there’s nothing he can do about it. McClellan’s book helps make it a difficult and awkward exit. Hillary and Bill apparently still think she can break the glass and find a way to grab the cup of power for one more gulp. That desire clouds their judgments, and risks making what should be a graceful and proud exit to one as difficult and awkward as the President’s.


Spiritual dehydration

In my entry last week, “Material Saturation” I wrote that we are, as a society, at a point where more material prosperity adds virtually nothing to our happiness and satisfaction. Recently I was involved in a panel discussion about southern Africa where the participants talked about how many of the ideals and values that inspired the quest for change have now given way to raw materialism — the desire for good sun glasses or a second car. I saw the same thing happen in eastern Europe, as the post-communism era saw idealistic efforts to think about how to reform society give way to consumerism and efforts to have more stuff. In teaching about world politics it never ceases to amaze me what greed drives people to do: kidnap girls to use as sex slaves, kill others in order to make money or eliminate competition, devote ones life to the acquisition of material possessions, oblivious to the fact that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t take it with you.’

Meanwhile, despite our material comfort and prosperity, we yearn for more. Rousseau noted this back in the mid 18th century — rather than being satisfied when natural demands are met, we create artificial demands that can never be fully realized. We are not satisfied with a great meal after the hunt, celebrating with family and friends, we want gourmet food, with the best chefs and finest wines. We aren’t happy with shelter from the elements, we want a large house with all the conveniences imaginable. What at one point is a luxury, like a VCR or a microwave, soon becomes perceived as a necessity. And we get locked into a spiral of needing more and better stuff, and then measuring ourselves by comparing ourselves to others in a material sense — does he make more than me, does she look better than I do, why do I drive this beat up old car while he drives a Lexus, etc.

Even when others are not judging us, we get caught up in thinking that others will be looking at our material conditions, and drawing conclusions on our value as a person. People secretly want others to fail in order to reinforce ones’ own sense of self worth, and seek diversion and distraction, anything avoid having to reflect on whether or not ones’ life has enduring value. People throw themselves into following sports, becoming political junkies, or other escapes. All this feeds into a kind of material neurosis, incurable due to material saturation.

I think the way to counter that is to recognize that material saturation is, at least in the case of we in the industrialized West, usually accompanied by a spiritual dehydration. For many, even the idea of something spiritual is suspect — that’s the stuff of religion, superstition, new age silliness, or distraction from the material realty of life — the opiate of the people, as it were. Yet that view of spirit is very limiting, and reflects an enlightenment era error — namely to see understanding reality as a competition between religion/superstition and reason. By fighting religious authority, the believers in reason bracketed out spiritual concerns (though philosophers like Rousseau and the later romantics brought them back in) and dismissed them. This made it easier to embrace the material, it’s objective, and can be measured and quantified.

Yet people yearn and are dissatisfied. Life becomes a treadmill…pay the bills, clean the house, take the kids places, and then shop for a brief respite from the every day routine, a rush of adrenaline as some new items are added to ones’ collection. Soon that becomes old, and the routine goes on, eating away at peoples’ enjoyment of and experience of life. How do we respond to this spiritual dehydration?

For people like me, it’s not to embrace an organized religion or new age mysticism. It’s also not simply to go out and do things with friends; a rich party life can also be very dissatisfying. At base, I think, it has to be seeing oneself as a spiritual being in the world. And I’ll define spiritual in a way that may be odd: spirit reflects the creative force within us, the part of us that wants to explore, learn, create, and experience. It isn’t disconnected from the world because we are in the world. But it’s mastery of the “material”, it’s seeing ourselves as our own rulers, autonomous and creative, taking each moment and doing something with it. Taking responsibility for life, and not wanting the mundane, not wanting to be molded by society. Most importantly, we need to be able to take any moment or situation and do something with it, without needing to measure it’s material worth or compare to others. This doesn’t address the metaphysical questions about spirit or meaning, but rather a pragmatic “how does spirit manifest itself in the world of life” definition. Beyond that, I think such creative energy requires us to recognize the essential connection we have with each other, the human need for that connection, and its importance in sparking creative drive and giving it purpose.

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America in Decline

The US emerged as a super power after WWII, as the former powers in Europe and Japan had been devastated by war. During the Cold War the international system appeared bi-polar, but inherent weaknesses in the Soviet economy meant that while the Soviets could exert raw military power over satellite states and match us with nuclear weaponry, they were in no condition to truly rival American power. As the economy started to displace military power as a primary measure of leadership, the Soviets simply collapsed.

However, looking at historical trends, it’s clear that the US cannot be expected to enjoy true dominance for a long period of time. Rivals always emerge, as evident in the rise of the EU, Japan and more recently China and India. But what does this mean for the United States? For some, especially those whose fetish is to focus on military power, they look at our huge military machine and, despite obvious problems demonstrated in places like Iraq and Kosovo (or even Vietnam farther back), still see us as dominant. Our economy is still the largest in the world, and to many, talk of ‘decline’ is just hyperbolic alarmism reflecting either unnecessary pessimism or perhaps latent anti-Americanism.

However, a broad view of history suggests that not only is relative decline inevitable, but it need not be seen as a danger. In fact, recognizing the reality of a shift away from what Charles Krauthammer called a unipolar moment to one where the US needs to act in concert with others to try to solve global problems is important. Up until now our policy has been primarily to cooperate with others by setting broad policy parameters and building coalitions to go along with our policies. We’ve been less willing to compromise on policy goals and principles, or give up the notion that we are the “leader” of the West, or some kind of guarantor of world stability. Changing that will take swallowing some nationalist pride, but the good news within globalization is that such cooperative ventures are actually good for a country.

So are we in decline? I’ll offer the following argument, you be the judge:

1) Public and private debt started increasing at a massive rate around 1980, with private debt growing quickly from 1990 on. During that time the US went from being the world’s largest creditor nation to being the world’s largest debtor. The US economy shifted from industrialization to service economy, with emerging markets like China and India growing fast, and competing for oil. US Debt went from 30% of GDP in 1980, quickly to 70% of GDP. By some estimates private debt nears 50 trillion;

2) From 1980 to the present the US managed to hide some of the structural problems by enjoying some of the lowest oil prices in history. The private debt increase was due to a credit boom, which fueled two bubbles: the stock bubble and the housing bubble. The latter led to even more debt as people kept the economy going through consumer spending through home equity loans. Those have dried up.

3) The current accounts deficit is unsustainable at 5% of GDP. That means the dollar is overvalued. While the bubbles existed we pulled in enough foreign capital to keep the capital account high, financing the current accounts deficit. Now that the bubbles have collapsed the credit crisis is causing the dollar to lose value fast.

4) The capital account “boom” meant that countries like Japan, China and Saudi Arabia purchased large amounts of American currency, as well as portfolio investment. That gives them a chunk of the economy that is unprecedented — and if the dollar keeps falling, they could add to the woes by pulling out and shifting their investments elsewhere. Or they could hold on to their investments, owning a good chunk of the American economy. This creates an obvious conclusion: the US is in economic decline. Not a radical collapse, just a fall from dominance, and more dependent on others than before.

5) Militarily the us spends half the world’s military budget and has troops stationed all over the globe. This has created a kind of empire, where direct influence has replaced actual control of territory. This unipolarity naturally creates competitors for power, and fosters insecurity in others. China, Russia and others have been working to undercut US influence, and supporting countries like Iran. The EU recognizes that the future is not dependent on the US, and their interest lie in forging closer ties with other states as well. The US is still important, but relative to other states, not as important. Again, a decline in relative power.

6) The US in Iraq has shown that even as a “hyperpower,” the US military cannot easily shape a weak, decimated country to its demands. Instead, after bluster and bravado, we’ve been forced to define down goals to try to just find a way to have stability, as Iran and Syria each have expanded power.

7) the rise of non-state actors like Hezbollah, al qaeda and others provide threats not easily dealt with by our traditional military. Moreover, the importance of economic factors over military ones make it possible for states or non-state actors to respond to American military power by using oil as a weapon or other economic tools, which can be extremely effective, perhaps doing more damage than bombs. Iran is emboldened by the fact we’ve had such horrific problems with Iraq, and only could find some stability after essentially giving up the desire to “win,” in the manner originally intended.

8 ) The US, by ignoring the UN and other international efforts, pushed the EU and allies towards anti-Americanism in their publics, and distrust of American policy. While the Bush administration has altered its “with us or against us” tone by reaching out and compromising (thanks especially to Rice), it’s clear that the US is no longer the leader of the western alliance, and the Europeans and others will ignore us or work against us if they decide they don’t like our policies.

9) The Iraq war’s cost also demonstrates classic imperial overstretch, and the fact that the globalized world system isn’t easily shaped by raw military power. It is unlikely that American military might is all that useful; economics seem to matter more.

So we’re at a crucial juncture in American history, the post-war period is over and it’s clear there are limits to our economic and political power that Americans are not used to. I think Iraq has been a wake up call, to show us that rhetoric and military power aren’t enough to alter the reality of a globalized and increasing multi-polar world.


Instant Karma?

The actress Sharon Stone said recently, in a rhetorical question, that the Chinese earthquakes could be “karma” for China’s crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. People should be nice to each other, she noted, and the Chinese were not being nice to the Tibetans. Now, normally I’d just file this under “silly things celebrities say” and not note it. It’s like blaming gays for Katrina, America’s ‘moral decay’ for 9-11, or saying that God sent Adolf Hitler as a “hunter” to persecute the Jews and push towards creation an Israeli state. But this one is interesting on a couple of levels; first, karma is an interesting concept; and second, her statement illustrates a fundamental fallacy in our thinking about the world, our ability to abstract individuals into groups.

Consider: the Chinese government orders a crack down on Tibet from Chinese troops. Then an earthquake hits China, killing, making homeless and creating orphans out of hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the decisions on Tibet. Most of these people were ordinary Chinese trying to create a better life for themselves. Why would they pay in karmic terms for the deeds of the government and the Chinese soldiers? Add to that the awkward fact that the earthquake by all reports has created a benefit for the government. People stopped talking about Tibet, and suddenly sympathy for China is immense. China has loosened restrictions covering reporters, and in a very cynical way some Chinese officials could be pleased that this happened, it changed the conversation completely. In a weird way, this hurt the Tibetan protesters, whose story now is yesterday’s news.

This error of collectivism, treating individuals as part of some kind of whole mass, and then rationalizing what happens to them by blaming the larger whole is, indeed, a major cause of atrocities and war. Look at Americans who attack “Islam” or “Muslims.” An Indian man in a turban was attacked shortly after 9-11. “They” attacked us, everyone who is part of “them” is guilty. And, of course, any American who has traveled recently finds that Americans are often insulted for the acts of the US government. Rwandan Hutus justified exterminating Tutsis, the Nazis killed Jews, gays, and gypsies, and in Bosnia Serb and Muslim slavs killed each other, considering the other to be more animal than human. Stone’s comment is typical of an error made across the political spectrum, rationalizing violence against many because of the acts of a few because of ethnicity, religion, or the country of their citizenship. That error is so common and widespread in our thinking that we’ve ceased to recognize it, and it shows in our political debates.

So what about Karma? I’ve always found it a compelling concept, the notion that in some spiritual sense our actions in the world have consequences. Or, being a philosophical (as opposed to political) idealist, our thoughts and ideas all have consequences. Is that possible? If so, it certainly would not be some crude “do something bad or think something bad and you’ll experience something bad.” I doubt very much that fantasizing about using a James Bond like missile to blast a car that just cut you off will cause some tragedy to befall you! In most cases, consequences are probably instant and subjective; you let little things bother you, and you’ll be in a bad mood and maybe not accomplish as much or miss out on opportunities. Bad moods tend not to be pleasant. Anger and irritation hurt oneself more than others.

If there is such a thing as karma which transcends material reality and connects destinies in a kind of synchronous relationship, it’s probably built around mutual learning more than punishment and reward. As anyone with kids knows, sometimes punishment is necessary for learning, and rewards are often useful as a response for good behavior. But what if there are connections between us, what if we aren’t just discrete individuals but connected not within separate ethnic or religious groups, but as humanity? For Karma to be real, that would have to be the case (and indeed those religions who embrace a notion of karma have at base an underlying sense of unity, often even involving what we consider inanimate objects). If that were the case, then you’d have two kinds of karma, a kind of personal karma where conditions in your life exist to foster your own growth and learning (again, not in a crude punishment and reward manner), and a second, more universal kind of karma to which Stone so awkwardly alluded. In that, world dramas might be played out in ways to try to break whole societies and cultures out of counter productive beliefs and values. Suffering would not be punishment of an individual, but an individual’s contribution to some greater lesson.

If that were the case, then in a weird way, Stone’s comments could be salvaged. It wouldn’t be that China was being punished, but some people in China (or Burma) engaged in tremendous sacrifice to try to shock their societies and cultures to change. And, before you throw Candide at me and lump me in with Pangloss, note I’m just speculating, and if one were to go this route, that wouldn’t lead to a Panglossian “all things happen for the best” conclusion. Instead, the key would be how we respond when we see and experience things like that — do we reach out to help, do we question how we have a society where people can suffer so? Do we learn? Of course Karma, like concepts such as heaven, hell, the devil, a hidden Imam, a choosen people of God, etc., may be a bunch of bunk. I am skeptical of all these concepts. Yet their existence and persistence suggests to me that while they may not be literally true, concepts classified and organized into religions in the past might contain kernels of truth we can speculate about, using reason while understanding the limits of reason. So consider this post playful speculation. And now I’m going to go listen to an old John Lennon song.

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Intellectuals and Ideology

It is no secret that nation wide intellectuals — the class of people who are either in academia, think tanks, or high bureaucratic/technocratic positions — are by and large far more left leaning ideologically than business elites or even working class folk. In fact, the higher you go in academia, the more likely one is to be ideologically on the left; the most radical voices in academia also come from the most prestigious institutes and universities. Why is this? Is this a self-selection bias, are those who tend to have values that lend themselves to a leftist ideology more likely to seek academic careers? Does this reflect a selection bias in that academics tend to hire people who think like them, pushing aside conservatives or moderates? I think the answer to each is no, it’s a bit more complex.

My dad once told me that he had decided back in the late fifties that he would be Democratic until he earned over $20,000 (quite a bit at that time), and then he’d switch to voting Republican. He was a JFK supporter in 1960, by 1968 he wanted Nixon (and his income had risen). He simply followed his self-interest. This probably happens in ways that aren’t so overt or explicit. Ideologies on the left tend to favor more governmental action, and the intellectual elite benefit from that. Moreover, the left tends to be more open to radical and unconventional ideas, something that the intellectual class finds appealing. When social programs are implemented, they are designed by and implemented by intellectual elites, which shifts real power away from business or the private sector. Hence the GOP bases its support on the business and private sector groups, while the Democrats get more support from professionals and so-called intellectuals.

Of course it could also be that the intellectuals are right — they’re better educated and thus may have a more reasonable and well thought out ideological perspective. The fact they have such widespread agreement on the ideology of left could be a sign that it is indeed the more reasonable and accurate way to look at the world. That is extremely unlikely. It does seem that in terms of social critique intellectuals do much better than others. They are less likely to be homophobic, racist, or driven by nationalism or ethnic pride. They are more likely to be open minded, critical of social structures, and understanding of cultural factors that shape societal outcomes. This ability to provide superior social critique then leads to an over confidence in terms of their belief in their ideological perspective. Ideology is different than basic social critique, it extends to explaining why things are as they are, and what should be done. Social critique slides into these questions and for a lot of people the line between the critique and the explanation/prescription becomes blurred. The certainty that it is unfair for society to have mass poverty alongside wealth extends then to the prescription and explanation: there is exploitation and government must act to prevent or remedy that. Yet that explanation and prescription is independent from the social critique, and certainly not the only or even necessarily the most reasonable conclusion.

That kind of ideology also fits the interest of the intellectual elite: if there is an exploited class, and their condition must be improved by governmental action, then the educated elite acts as the force for change, taking power from the business or private sector actors. The private sector has their own self-interested reaction to the social critique, they simply assert equal opportunity and individual responsibility for material outcomes, and develop their own self-serving ideology. While they are often disinterested in the kind of social critique intellectuals are good at, they are very good at production of value and the creation of wealth, and these material benefits are seen by this class as far superior than the kind of ‘ivory tower theorizing’ or bureaucratic rule making of the intellectual elite. Thus the general ideological divisions are not really between contradictory ideologies, where one is right and the other wrong, but represent two perspectives (social critique vs. material production) and then a self-interested response to explaining and prescribing action (ideology). Each become convinced they are right, and thus there is ideological competition.

Being skeptical of ideology, I find it important that the intellectual elite be humble when they move from social critique to explanation and prescription. More government programs and progressive political agendas is a knee jerk reaction to the social critique, one that is self-interested. In the extreme this can lead to totalitarianism, as vanguard parties try to bring about change. That’s not likely in the industrialized world because the power of the intellectual elite is limited, but they do appeal to the masses to get them to support their goals. Hillary Clinton is a prime example; her alternate personalities in speaking in rural Appalachia reflects a member of the intellectual elite appealing to the working class with populist rhetoric to gain support for her program. Likewise, the business class or material production elite if you will, needs to be more humble in simply dismissing social critiques from the intellectuals, dismissal of such critiques can hide real problems. Ideology should not drive them to accept huge maldistributions of wealth as OK since the “market” somehow can’t be wrong. Pragmatism works both ways.

Rather than competing ideologies, there could be conversation about different perspectives and problems. Poverty is a good example. Poverty is a problem, but who really is best to give a solution — those focused on critiquing society, or those whose focus is wealth creation? Looked at from this perspective the business class might be in a better position to give a solution, but they are often pushed by the ideological conflict to simply deny there is a problem, or assert that the free market can handle it completely. The left then dismisses them as being the problem, rather than able to provide the solution.

Ultimately the ideological conflict makes it harder to solve problems and understand different perspectives than it need be. A pragmatic approach resulting from conversations between people from the different “classes” to identify problems and think creatively about solutions would yield a far better result than ideological conflict. That’s a hard sell in academia (though easier in small working class places like where I work than in the ivy league elite schools) and in politics the ideologues have a bit too much authority. Perhaps that’s why people like McCain and Obama capture the peoples’ imagination, they seem at least to be more pragmatic, and they stress unity over division.

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Material saturation

Perhaps symbolic of our age is how willing we are to simply discard things. Last year I bought an Onyx stereo receiver for $199. I could finally hook up my turntable, CD player, and two sets of speakers (one for the basement, one for upstairs) and fill the house with music. Alas, I didn’t buy the warranty (usually those things aren’t worth it) and after about a year it stopped working. I realized the “safety” had come on, which seems like must have been a minor repair. Circuit City, however, said that since it wasn’t under warranty they couldn’t even touch it. Repair estimates seemed to be around $100 at a minimum, with no guarantee that the problem wasn’t systemic. Ultimately, I found a similar Sony at Best Buy on sale for $130, so I bought it. What to do with the Onyx — throw it out? (I ended up donating it to the university, where the technical folk fixed it and I believe are using it in the fitness center).

I recently read of someone who said he wanted to buy battery replacements for a cordless drill, only to find a new drill with new bits were half the price of the replacement battery. In today’s world of cheap textiles, how many people still mend clothing, darn socks (does the younger generation even know what it means to ‘darn a sock’), or replace the soles on their shoes? With electronics so cheap, and repair so expensive, how many DVD players or small electronics will ever be repaired once something goes wrong? (And I wonder if anyone will be able to get my old Betamax working so I can watch my old betamax format VCRs?)

When I was visiting Russia I was impressed by the knowledge people had of how to improvise. No stereo in the car? No problem, wire up a portable radio to the car’s battery. Something goes wrong, figure out a way to fix it, usually with speed and innovation. They had to do that, they didn’t have the same access to cheap replacements and convenience. They learned to problem solve and improvise. Increasingly we don’t have that skill. Something goes wrong, all we need to do is drive to the local big box store and buy a new one. Rip my pants at a conference and instead of getting out a sewing kit to mend them, I zip over to the clothing store and replace them. If and when times get tough, we’ll have to relearn a lot of skills we’ve lost, thanks to the convenience of cheap products.

Add to that the waste. Immense amounts of stuff are either incinerated and put into landfills daily, even while much of the world lacks basic necessities. When our fast food gets a bit old before being sold it’s discarded. Others don’t have food. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a sign that we have reached a kind of material saturation. There are, at least for most of the industrialized West, no more material wants to satisfy. We can create more perceived wants through marketing and new technologies, disposing an old cell phone to one that takes pictures, or trading in a perfectly good car for one with a navigation system and more luxury. But after awhile there is no net material gain, once the newness wears off someone is no happier with a state of the art high definition plasma TV now than they would have been after purchasing a brand new color TV in 1968.

This isn’t just the wealthy, but most in the West are materially saturated, even if they are yearning for the kind of stuff the wealthy have. That yearning is artificial, created by marketers and the human desire to get what someone else has. But most in the West have reached a point where more ‘stuff’ cannot translate into more happiness. That’s material saturation. So we end up with anxieties, eating disorders, depression, neuroses, and other psychological difficulties, seeking some kind of fulfillment from something that no longer can add to our true well being. More stuff doesn’t mean much of anything.

To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. If we can get a handle on the need for a multidimensional life and not to focus on the material (money, work, career, stuff) and instead aspire to higher ends (friendship, community, family, art, music, learning) that material saturation can be part of an immensely satisfying and fulfilling life. Increasingly people are discovering that, there is a reason why people love music, travel, read, and learn. In those areas we’re not even close to “saturation,” there is much happiness to be gained by sharing an evening with a drink and friend, visiting a museum, or learning about something new. Travel is especially rewarding, as one can learn new cultures and ways of seeing the world. Community gives a strong sense of satisfaction, something that those without all the material stuff recognize. Still, as a society we’re often addicted to the material, and find it hard to break out, that’s where the pressures are — bills, career demands, television commercials, and a quick rush after shopping for something new. And if people can’t break that addiction and truly embrace what can add happiness to their lives, all the material wealth we have can be more of a curse than a blessing.


Iraq myths and realities

When things were especially violent a few weeks ago, the anti-war side of the political spectrum complained that the media was ignoring Iraq, playing more attention to the political horse race at home. Now, when things seem a bit calmer, the pro-war side claims that the media is ignoring ‘success’ in Iraq because it doesn’t fit their narrative. The truth, of course, is that the country is suffering from Iraq fatigue, and absent some kind of breakthrough, the conventional wisdom remains that the war was a bad idea, but we’re still not sure how to bring this to closure.

So what is one to make of headlines out of Iraq? Just scanning today, there remains stories of corruption (latest: $15 billion of US aid unaccounted for), civilian deaths are mounting (today a story on how the US is increasing the use of air power, something the US also did in the latter days of the Vietnam war, thus bringing more civilians and children in danger), the cease fires in Basra and Sadr City remain tense, and the government is not undertaking any serious effort to disarm or disable the Mahdi army, and US ire increasingly is on Iran, who as noted last week really is coming out of this ahead. Interestingly as Barak Obama is criticized for being willing to negotiate with enemies, Israel has started serious negotiations with Syria looking to deal with the problems in Lebanon and with the Palestinians. Perhaps it would be easiest to whittle it down into some ‘myths’ and ‘realities’:


1. Any claim that the Iraq war can be a success is false. That ship has sailed. Even if Iraq became stable tomorrow, by any policy metric this policy has failed to achieve it’s goals, and the costs have been enormous. And, of course, nobody expects it to end any time soon, let alone tomorrow. So if you hear the word “success” used to describe US actions in Iraq, success has been defined so far down so far that the term is all but meaningless. The real goal now: find a way out of this that minimizes the costs and creates the possibility of stability.

2. Recent actions in Basra and Sadr city show that the Iraqi army is “standing up.” That is also a myth. This has been cosmetic, Iraqi forces have had intense help from the US, and have undertaken limited operations. Moreover in Basra most of the fighting was down by the Badr brigade (a militia with heavy Iranian backing), incorporated into the Iraqi army, but not truly integrated. Iraq’s fighting force is improving very, very slowly – and still infiltrated by Iran, the Mahdi army, different militias, and still subject to infighting and sectarian differences.

3. The Iraqi government is increasing its ability to govern. That’s another myth. The reality is that the Kurds are essentially self-governing, Sunni tribes run the Sunni regions, and Shi’ite power is divided, with the government effectively controlling only parts of Shi’ite Iraq. Power is fragmented.


1. There does seem to be improvement in oil revenues due to high oil prices and more effective efforts to stop sabotage – though sabotage is on going.

2. While it’s easy to distrust the Bush Administration, they are right that Iran is doing all it can to undercut American efforts in Iraq. Moreover, there isn’t a lot the US can do about it, which has complicated the exist strategy. We could leave Iraq relatively stable now, but Iran would be the power broker.

3. Corruption is immense, and that alone makes a stable democracy unlikely any time soon. Unless corruption is brought under control, power will continue to be sought so that one can benefit ones’ own clan or sectarian group. This will undercut any efforts the US makes to create what we’d consider a viable democracy, and make it easier for outside forces to play various factions off against each other.

4. Al qaeda in Iraq is weak. The “surge” was effective against al qaeda, but al qaeda was never a major problem in Iraq. When Senator McCain said leaving Iraq would allow al qaeda to take over, he was demonstrating a real lack of understanding of the situation (or a cynical belief that since Americans don’t pay attention to the details, they’d just believe him). And this leads to:

5. The war in Iraq is not about terrorism, but about regional stability and oil. The US really doesn’t fear that leaving Iraq will help terrorists, and the rhetoric that they will be “inspired” or “energized” by the US leaving is just silly – our being there helps them by giving them photos and stories of dead Muslims. But there is a fear that a more powerful Iran would create the danger of a regional Sunni-Shi’ite or Persian-Arab conflict (probably that would be averted) or, more likely, that the powers in the region will be more willing than ever to make China and the growing Asian companies top customers, risking oil shortages in the West.

Taking these myths and truths into account, it’s hard to see how the US can really find a way out of Iraq without either simply “declaring victory and leaving,” which is a real option, or working on regional arrangements which require intense negotiations with all parties, especially Iran. In terms of our national interest, the latter is more viable than the former. Finally, it’s unlikely that Iraq will spash itself on the news often in the coming months. Iraq is unlikely to explode into complete anarchy again, but is even more unlikely to become a stable effective government. Expect more of the same.

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Fearing Sharia?

When the Archbishop of Canterbury shocked Brits by saying that Sharia law might be used for Muslims in Great Britain — why not have different laws for different groups in society — a new wave of fear spread that the West would sacrifice its values in the name of either PC multiculturalism or fear of Islamic revenge. The specter of Europeans simply giving in to Islam, with Mosques replacing cathedrals and veils replacing topless beaches is portrayed as the threat of Islam finally doing what it couldn’t do a few centuries ago: conquer Europe. Rather than soldiers, it will be immigrants doing the dirty work. And Europe, already de-Christianized at least in terms of the actual beliefs of the public, will simply give in to avoid violence. Evidence for this view is given in the forms of numerous examples of decisions or statements from European officials, or from controversies like that over Dutch cartoons about Muhammad published a few years ago.

There is a threat of cultural transformation, but I think it’s the Islamic fundamentalists who need to worry. For all the examples given of silly PC decisions, or statements made by clerics or politicians, the reality is that the West has proven over and over that freedom and material prosperity have an allure that cause people to give up their traditions and religious beliefs to partake in the opportunities. Christianity survived enlightenment materialism primarily by moving from being a faith that was supposed to define all aspects of life and politics to one that filled a spiritual niche. In Europe the church going population is down to one in five. In Italy back in the 70s the Catholic population ignored the Church and voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. Few people really take their religious principles into the business, political and social world — love your enemy, be kind to those who hurt you, turn the other cheek, the meek will inherit the earth…well, those are fine slogans for Sunday morning, but not in the boardroom or on the campaign trail!

I think western secular materialism will ultimately have a similar effect on Islam. To be sure, Islam is more like Judaism in that it is a praxis oriented rather than faith oriented religion. This suggests that the European countries can and should do everything possible to help Muslims follow the practices and traditions of their faith — allow time for prayer, make Ramadan easier to celebrate as a community, make exceptions to rules that allow the peaceful practice of various rituals. This is done for Jews as well, and shows a respect for another faith that conveys a powerful message. I’m convinced, however, that all of the compromises made for Muslims by the West will be more than offset by compromises made within the Islamic community as a response to being in the modern, secular West. Indeed, despite pockets of fundamentalism, European and American Muslims are the most modern and secular Muslims in the world, and as their population grows, they can have a positive impact on the post-Ottoman cultures that still haven’t emerged from authoritarianism and corruption.

It’s easy to fear something unknown, and immigration — whether Muslims to Europe or Mexicans to the US — always creates a sense of concern as people see the face of the land they know change. Yet over-reacting can help the fundamentalists by making Muslims feel that they are unwelcome and treated as strange and different. Rather than integrate, they will separate, and the extremists will have more luck convincing the youth that they need to reject western ideals. The challenge for Europeans is not to somehow fight against the Islamic influence, but actually accept it and accommodate it as much as possible, trusting in the values of individual freedom, market economies and democracy to convince young Muslims that the old traditions are out of date, and can be joined with western society in the same way the Christian church made its compromises.

Yet, perhaps there is also something the West can learn from the Islamic critique of western thought. We are overly materialist and secular, we seem to distrust any idea of spirit or sentiment. That is a weakness in our culture, it skews us to think that all that matters are observable, measurable entities and hypotheses we can test. The world for us is material and rational, anything else is superstition and fuzzy. Yet ethics, meaning, the reason for existence, and our motivation in life comes as much from the heart as from the head, and there is no rational reason to deny the possibility that nature may be spiritual as well as material. If embracing the West means denying the possibility of having a soul and accepting the mysteries of the ‘other side of reality,’ then Muslims (and Christians) are right to distrust and critique such a move. Perhaps as a way to strengthen the West and make it easier for different faiths to co-exist we need to think critically ourselves about our faith in reason and materialism. Because when you get right down to it, secular faith is still faith.

Of course, if the concerns about oil shortages and energy crises are true (see blog entries “Oil Denial” and “Oil Uncertainties,” then all bets are off. We might be done in by our own material excesses.


Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age

Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, coined the term ‘Achsenzeit’ or axial age to describe the period from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE when, among other things, the human as an individual emerged. It is the time when the discipline of philosophy comes in to being, and major world religions are founded; humans across the planet seem to have undergone a revolution in thinking.

In Greece Socrates, Plato and Aristotle head a list of philosophers who, along with poets and playwrights, develop the first inklings of what we would now call humanism, and move beyond simple adherence to myth and tradition, instead asking questions and developing creative and revolutionary answers. In India the Buddha begins his teaching. At the same time the Upanishads transform Vedic traditions into classical Hinduism, asking similar sorts of questions as the Greeks, trying to figure out the human place in creation. In China Confucianism emerges and provides systematic thought on issues of the human condition. In Persia Zoroaster provides a bridge from polytheism to monotheism, addressing the same issues about the place of the human in the universe. In Israel the prophets were also expanding Hebrew traditions from their original polytheism (the God of Israel was their God, but early on not the only God) towards the traditions we now see defining Judaism. And, though Christianity and Islam came later, they built on the Hebrew traditions, and were strongly impacted by Zoroastrianism and Greek thought. Indeed, Augustine’s theology, so influential in the development of Christian thought, brought in Platonic ideas mostly from neo-Platonist philosophers like Plotinus. Plotinus spiritual philosophy showed a blend of ideas that traversed the axial age, and shows the influence of Upanishads and Zoroaster as well as Plato. In essence, our world views and religious traditions emerged from this era. It was, in some ways, the awakening of the human mind to contemplate its place in the world.

To be sure, Jaspers may have overstated it — clearly all of these traditions built on ideas in the past, and we don’t know how sophisticated earlier traditions were. But it does seem that in that era human thinking took a pivotal leap, and from China to India to the Mideast, Northern Africa and Europe, began a trajectory to where we are today. Why did such a radical change occur, and why was it so widespread? I suspect it had to do with the expansion of trade and technology. Technology at that time was making cities possible, improving agricultural production, and in some places led to things such as indoor plumbing (which even the old Indus valley civilization had) and writing. Technology changes conditions, which can lead people to think about things differently. Moreover, trade forces one to recognize that the traditions of his or her society are not the only ones, and aren’t simply natural, ‘the way things are.’ Others think and do things differently. This recognition naturally leads to introspection, and often imports ideas and questions which challenge old beliefs and bring up new issues. The rise of cities, empires, trade, and communication necessitated a move from a very traditional mythical world view to one that could incorporate the existence of others and find a place for ones’ own culture. It created an introspection on what it meant to be human; ritual and tradition couldn’t provide every answer needed in that new era.

Jumping ahead to 2008, I believe it could well be that we are in need of another pivotal period or ‘axial age.’ In part, we need to confront those old questions: what does it mean to be human, what is the nature of the universe, how should humans act towards other humans, and where is our place in the universe? The last axial age produced religions which connected universal spiritual beliefs to particular traditions, rituals and notions of identity. They dealt with the questions raised by the rise of cities and trade, but those questions remained primarily local. It was less about how to integrate with different cultures — trade rarely meant any kind of mass contact with others — and more about how to define local identity in new conditions. As such religions often became dogmatic and exceptionalist. Only those who believe in Jesus, or follow the Koran, or are devoted to the way of wisdom or devotion can either be saved to experience paradise, or perhaps escape the futile and painful wanderings of Samsara.

Now we are confronting the need to address these questions anew, experiencing new technology and globalization which causes people to have to interact and live interdependent lives. The old ways of thinking lead to competition and rivalry, especially involving exclusivist religions such as Christianity and Islam. We need to develop a way of thinking that does what was done in the axial age: build on past traditions, but also give society an intellectual and spiritual means to comprehend and contemplate human existence. This doesn’t mean old religions have to disappear, but somehow they have to address the questions in a way that moves beyond the simplistic ‘here’s how you get to heaven.’ Most importantly, they have to move to an inclusive view, whereby other religions are seen as legitimate and potentially effective, even if they are not ones’ own. This is already true within much of Hinduism, where some Hindus worship different gods, celebrate different feasts, and have many different traditions than other Hindus. This has to be more than that kind of sectarian tolerance (Lutherans and Catholics getting along would be similar), but a real ability to move beyond the exclusivist “we are the one true faith” view that religions like Islam and Christianity espouse.

The modern era started this process. The enlightenment took up the questions of humanism anew, and religious developments like natural religion, Deism and even atheism tried to address these issues. In fact, for atheists like Diderot, atheism was an ethical as well as rational perspective on life. The problem with the enlightenment is that its focus on reason and rationality over spirit and sentiment only addresses one side of the human essence. We are rational thinkers, yes. We are also spiritual and emotive creatures, and rational analysis is devoid of personal meaning without that spiritual/emotional connection. No one dispassionately examines their needs and decides it is in their interest to buy a red bike. There’s desire, an emotional will, a sense of excitement, something beyond pure reason. If there are not ways to express this within the cultural norms of a society, it can breed radicalism, extremism, and fanaticism, and people look for some way to find release of that part of their existence. Violence and warfare may be horrid, but it can provide a sense of meaning for life.

At this point our spiritual development is stuck with the old religions, which find it easier to arouse passions by stressing exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Our reason leads many to denigrate and try to even eliminate the importance of spirit, dismissing emotions as mere psychological phenomena. That reinforces the sense of hopelessness and despair that drive people to fanaticism, and also risks creating a cold rationalism that loses itself in ideological faith. When this happens (and it first happened with Robespierre after the French revolution) the ideology fills peoples’ spiritual and emotional needs, but they fool themselves into thinking it is based on reason and that they have the right way of understanding the world. This becomes a secular religion (and if you haven’t seen the power of secular religion, talk with a committed Marxist or a devotee of Ayn Rand). Exclusive secularist ideology is as dangerous as religion, and just as much in need of a jolt of new thinking.

So we as a world community are at a crossroads. We’re entering a new era, and while we’ve developed technologies and our facilities of reason and rational thought, we have yet to truly address the questions of meaning and humanity. Reason alone leads to post-modernism, skepticism and nihilism, and that is no answer. We have the scientists, we need the poets and visionaries unafraid to think about the nature of humanity in spiritual as well as material terms.