Archive for February, 2009

The Failure of Reaganism

It’s difficult for the Republicans these days.   They are on the verge of losing another Senate seat as the Norm Coleman challenge to Franken’s recount victory looks ever more hopeless, and President Obama is riding high after a very successful state of the union speech.  The supposed up and coming GOP superstar Bobby Jindal gave a very boring and even condenscending Republican response, giving me the impression that right now the Republicans are at rock bottom.  They have suffered extensive defeats in the last two elections, and in the fight over the stimulus package they appeared whiney and out of touch with reality, not even acknowledging that it was in part Republican policies that brought us here.   They pointed to the lack of GOP support for the stimulus as proof that President Obama didn’t engage in bi-partisanship.  However, that evidence is just as much proof that the Republicans refused to engage in bi-partisanship.   Those who did — Senators Specter, Collins and Snowe — managed to have a major role in shaping the result, even to the point of angering Democrats in the House.

The good news for the GOP is that when you hit bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.  But to do so, they need to rethink just what their policies and priorities are.   Most importantly, they need to at least privately recognize that this crisis represents the failure of Reaganism.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan became President in the midst of a recession caused in part by Democratic policies.   Indeed, what’s happening the Republicans now is a lot like what happened to the Democrats in 1980 with the “failure of the Great Society.”   Reagan offered a very seductive and apparently pain free solution:  cut taxes, increase spending, and reduce regulations.   Many economists shook their head at this approach, and David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, concluded by 1985 in his book The Triumph of Politics that the Reagan administration had failed — that the Republicans were simply exceeding the Democrats in  both spending and in budget deficits.  Indeed in the 80s the total debt doubled in terms of percentage of GDP, from 30% to 60%.

Yet inflation went down.  Unemployment went down.  The economy grew.  It appeared that Reagan’s policies were effective.  The GOP said budget deficits don’t matter, trade deficits are OK because it means foreigners are investing in the US to finance those deficits, and that deregulation was behind the economic expansion.   Now we see the results of that binge and can clearly point to some hard facts.

First, tax cuts are not the solution.  Tax cuts to the wealthy have been proven to be ineffective in terms of increasing economic production and prosperity.  In the last quarter century increasing tax cuts to the wealthy have led to speculative bubbles, investment abroad, and wasteful consumerism.   It meant we were not effectively investing in the economy, but we were building an unsustainable set of deficits — living beyond our means.

Second, deregulation is not a solution.  The myth that all regulations choke innovation and are unnecessary has been proven absolutely false by the corruption and scandals of the last few years.   Over-regulation is counter productive, but so is under-regulation.   Humans are greedy, and many will do what they can to cheat others or circumvent market mechanisms.    Regulations are necessary for a market to function well, and for people to have reliable information and protection against fraud and abuse.

Third, America’s de-industrialization, beginning with the downfall of the steel industry in that last major recession, was not a shifting of comparative advantages to a more high tech productivity, but rather a dangerous contraction of America’s productive capacity.    This created a kind of  ‘fake economy,’ with people and government running up debt and deficits while speculative bubbles created the illusion of wealth.   Now that this has collapsed, our lack of productive capacity means a structural imbalance that threatens to dramatically weaken America’s role in the world.

Reaganism has failed.   The idea that budget deficits were no big deal, trade deficits were fine, and that tax cuts and deregulation meant a more prosperous and growing economy has been falisified by history just as surely as the communist view that government planning and control would lead to equality and justice has been falsified.   Until the Republicans grasp that, they’ll be floundering.

This happened to the Democrats too.   Their great society view of government as the solution to all problems proved false as well.   While action to help the poorest of the poor did real good, most government programs designed to end poverty and create opportunity failed.  Inner cities remained poor, minority prosperity grew only slowly, and over-regulation created a myriad of red tape and obstacles to innovation.

That’s why we need two healthy, viable parties.   Each party checks the mistakes of the other party.   When one party’s ideas grow stale or ineffective, that creates an opening for the other party.   But the challenge for the GOP now is to figure out how to come up with an alternative to the Reaganist mantra of  “lower taxes and deregulate.”   Moreover, except for certain pockets of the country, the religious right that helped Reagan to power is now weaker and increasingly marginalized.   It has become more of a harm to the GOP image than a aid, especially given the kind of libertarian culture shift we’ve experienced.   Today even born again Christians are increasingly pro-gay rights and oppose the old agenda of the so-called ‘moral majority.’  The Republicans limped into the 2008 election and economic crisis with a message and style crafted in the 1980s.   That doesn’t work anymore.

President Obama vows to cut the deficit in half, develop major health care reform, and address the structural imbalances in our economy.   Voices of fiscal conservatism, skepticism of bureaucracy, and belief in the importance of decentralization of decision making to state and local government need to be heard, and need to be part of shaping how this plays itself out.   The Republicans can come up with these sorts of alternative approaches, and following the lead of the more pragmatic wing of the party, compromise with the Democrats and work towards policies that can have broad support.   In so doing, the GOP can shift from its now failed Reaganism towards a new conservatism, one more pragmatic and less ideological.

But for now the Democrats represent the party with new and bold ideas, and they are in the drivers’ seat.   Barack Obama enjoys tremendous support, and the public is looking for a way out of this mess.   It will take awhile for the Republicans to regroup and recognize the need to change their approach, just as it took awhile for the Democrats to shift their thinking after their loss in 1980.   But that’s the pendulum of politics, and that’s why despite the challenges and crises, our system works, new ideas develop, and problems get solved.

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The Importance of Being Silly

At one point, at New York’s JFK airport when uncertainties about making home from Italy on Monday were highest, I suggested we turn this into “Airport: The Musical.”  The crowds of travelers around the airport would start dancing, we’d sing “Well Delta come Through Again?,” and imagined who would play each of us in the musical.  As we were talking about this a heavy set airport lady came out to call people to another flight, “Chicago, Chicago,” she called out.   “Hmpf.  Wrong musical, she thinks she’s Queen Latifah.”

In other words, the more the stress grew, the sillier our humor became and the more we laughed.  That’s the key to traveling, I’ve learned, especially in a group.  Go with what happens and have fun despite the stress.   And usually things manage to work out, like they did for us last night.   I think for some of us the standing in the entry way packed train from Venice to Milan Sunday was the most fun train ride of the trip — we didn’t have seats, but were laughing and having fun the whole way.    Just being silly.

Leaving Italy was a breeze.  Hotel Serena had pastries and juice for us since we had to miss the breakfast, and the Airport bus express from the Milan’s central station to Malpensa airport was excellent.   Then our flight to New York was half full, meaning people could spread out and not be cramped for the nearly nine hour flight.  At JFK we learned our flight to Portland was delayed until after 6:00.  Great.  I e-mailed the van drivers to give them notice, and at about 4:30 got an e-mail that said thanks to a storm that had dumped 28 inches of snow on Farmington, the vans had not been plowed out and we couldn’t get a ride back until morning.

We tried to see if they couldn’t at least get two vans out, and were making calls and e-mails (nice to have my “Eee” along, though after ten days on that my normal computer feels luxurious).   That was still up in the air when we boarded, and the flight didn’t have room for us all.  I was on board with seven students while Sarah and nine others were waiting for tickets.  Then a Delta rep named Rachel came in and said “there is an educational group of ten that need seats, and we only have seven.”  Delta then offered a very nice deal with three people would give up their seats…and three people did!   We all got on, and arrived just as the vans pulled up — they made it too!   In fact, if our flight hadn’t been delayed we’d have needed to wait all those hours for the vans anyway.  The flight attendant, Mike, did a bit of a comedy routine as he gave the usual talk about seatbelts, facemasks, and the like, and our group laughed and applauded — we were traveling and having fun.

Of course, the fun wasn’t done yet.   We got back to the parking lot and found that our cars were covered by three feet of snow (two storms had hit while we were gone) and surrounded by piles of snow.  We hadn’t slept for nearly 24 hours, had on jackets not appropriate for 15 degree weather, and as one student said bluntly, “this ain’t happening tonight.”   We put aside our thoughts of digging ourselves out and the van drivers, who had sacrificed their evenings, graciously took the students to the dorms, and faculty to our respective houses.

Today I did shovel out the car, amazed by the mountains of snow that fell while we were gone.  Ski season should at least last a little longer!

This was a memorable travel group for a number of reasons.   We did a lot together, we had a nice mix of personality types (and a few personality clashes), and people were really curious, engaged, and involved in all the activities.    People were almost always in bed pretty early and up ready to go, a very well behaved group too!  Most importantly, though, we laughed a lot, especially in times where we were tired or things weren’t going right.  That’s when humor is needed, and it’s amazing how much a little laughter can accomplish.

That is something we try to foster in these courses.   The key to travel is to take things in stride, keep a positive attitude, and find ways to laugh even when stress is high or things are going wrong.   Obviously there are some real tragedies where that’s impossible, but 98% of the time travel problems are minor and not worth the stress that people get when they worry and complain.   Yeah, you might miss an important meeting or pay an extra night at an hotel, but what’s better — to miss an important meeting and be miserable, or to miss an important meeting and be cheerful?   If the meeting is going to be missed anyway, then why compound the problem by dwelling on the negative side, find something to laugh about and things get better!

I always say that a person who travels well lives well.  It’s all there in a microcosm — can you take changes in plans, unexpected problems, disappointments, and mistakes made by others that cause you extra stress and yet take them in stride and still be positive?   If you can learn to do that traveling, it’s easier to apply in life, and we work hard in the course to add that little life lesson to the more academic aspects of the class.

And the piece that makes it easy is laughter.  Humor trumps grumpiness, laughter overcomes anger.  It helps one regain perspective, and realize that as serious as something seems now, it’s really just part of the drama and problems of a trip, or of life.   And last night, as we joked about “Airport: the Musical” a student gave me the highest compliment I can get.   “Gee, I always thought you were serious, but you’re really really silly.”

Yup.  That’s the key to staying sane.


Venice Carnivale


To be honest, I was a bit disappointed that the students today could not experience Venice in the way I know and love it — beautiful canals, romantic alleys, finding out of the way small canals and getting lost and following the signs to Ferrovia or San Marco.  Venice was gorgeous today, but it was also packed.  I have never seen so many people fill the city, the police were even directing pedestrian traffic.  It was wild.  That meant that our group had to somehow stay together in massive crowds, a daunting task, and one that kept us moving slow and not really having time to take in the city.   Yet Carnivale in Venice is an event, and at least for seven hours today, we were part of it.   A couple of crowd scenes so you get the picture:

Crowd near train station img_4973

At the Carnivale had clowns, customs, and fun — even our students got into the spirit buying masks:

img_4965  img_49512 img_4959

And, of course, Venice as always has beautiful can als:

img_4945 img_4956 img_4947 img_4992   In all, it was a great time.  The ride home, when we had standing room tickets, was fun.   We were laughing the whole way (we were split up, I was with a group of five students), making silly jokes and really having fun.  A good way to spend the last day in Venice.  And my philosophy is to try to make everything fun, so I was determined  not to make the standing room only experience — something some students were dreading — as a bad three hours.   It was, I believe, a lot better than the trip to Venice when we all had seats.

Now it’s nearing Midnight.  Tomorrow is a flight home.  I’m not done blogging about the trip, but I have to pack and I’m too tired to write much coherent at this point, so I’ll reflect more tomorrow or Tuesday.  I had hoped to get into the Risorgiomento more, talking about Venice, Verdi, and the politics of the mid-19th century.  At lunch we did get into that a bit. But Carnivale really made it impossible to do much but see the main sights.  We couldn’ t even get into San Marco.  Still, it was a good full last day in Italy, in a trip that packed a lot into a short period of time.  I must now pack, I’ll write again when I’m back in Maine.  Thanks for reading!


Politics and Art in Milano

A street protest in Milano, Feb. 21, 2009

Today we reached Milano, and had a full day. We went to our hotel, a nice place called Hotel Serena. It’s sort of a let down after the cozy Abaco in Florence where we had the whole place to ourselves and could congregate in the breakfast area. Here we’re divided here between four floors and it’s more institutional feeling than the 500 year old building kept up so beautifully in Florence. Still, not bad and not too far from the station. We arrived, had lunch, and then headed first to the Duomo. My lunch was great — Foccacia della casa. Pizza crust baked thin, olive oil, covered with ham (proscutto cotto), rucola salad, fresh mozzarella cheese and yummy tomatoes. Oh, so good!

En route we encountered a massive protest which ran the length of the Corso Venezia.   I’m not sure what it was about, but it included communists, labor unions, and groups against racism.  What I liked about it was it was a typical Italian political demonstration.  Everyone was having fun, no violence, the police and the protesters worked together, and it seemed more like a festival than a political protest.    I suspect it was primarily an anti-racism pro-integration rally, though the Left in Europe has been growing stronger because of the financial crisis.  Many believe that capitalism has been shown to be fatally flawed (the most pro-market anti-regulatory countries, Ireland and Iceland, have gone from being models to in or near bankruptcy) and Europe has to veer left.    So far it seems the more radical left has benefited more than the moderate left, but we’ll  see what coming years bring.

Then we got to the Duomo — the third largest church in the world.  Wow!  Such a different style than Florence, very impressive.  The inside was so massive it seemed unreal, I can hardly imagine how it was with just natural light and candles.   They didn’t allow photos inside (even without flash; people were violating that rule and even using flash, but I try to respect the rules in a church), but the outside is impressive:


This photo doesn’t do it justice, from other angles it looks like it’s “drip art” the columns are every where.   Then when we were done walking through the huge gothic church we came out and found that the protest had made it to the Piazza Duomo, and speakers were firing up the crowd.  Kids were having fun, throwing confetti around, and it was a carnival like atmosphere.   Some photos:

Protest on the Duomo Pizza in Milano


Here are a couple of night images of the Duomo:



The night images are from after we visited Maria delle Grazie, where Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” can be viewed.   We thought we had reserved 17 tickets, but they only had 15.   Neither Sarah, who is an Art Historian, nor I had seen the famous painting.  But we have 15 students, so they got the tickets and they were wowed by it (and felt sorry for us for missing it).   I had to be happy looking at the jigsaw puzzle on the wall of the caffe across from the church where we had espresso while the students viewed the huge mural.   We told them to describe it well in their journals, and we will live vicariously through them.

The walk back was grand.  Milano has wide pedestrian zones surrounded with grand old buildings, with large numbers of people roaming the streets, window shopping, having fun, while various street musicians perform.   This is something we lack in the US, the Italians have a flair for enjoying life and taking things  in stride, we have a fast paced high demand culture.   I think a walk out in a place like Milano, in the shadow of the Duomo and other magnificent buildings, is very uplifting and energizing.

So we had some Art History and Political Science today here in Milano.  Protests, Da Vinci, and one of the world’s most impessive Cathedrals.  In the evening I got train tickets for tomorrow’s day trip to Venice.  It’s the last day of the trip, and we’re going to end it in style.   It’s Carnival in Venice, however, so things will be packed.  Also, because the Sunday trains are full, we only got a standing room ticket for the two and a half (if we’re lucky) hour ride back.  But it’ll give the students a glimpse of Venice at Carnival.  I love Venice, but have never been there during Carnival (usually we do Venice on this trip, but it was too expensive this time because of the celebration — Carnival is essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras, though celebrated differently here).

As always as the trip winds down I realize I’ll miss the energy and excitement of Italy, as well as being part of the experience of students learning about a new culture.  At the same time, I miss my family and can’t wait to be back home.  I’ll try to get a blog entry in on Venice tomorrow!

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Travelers not Tourists

On the Ponte Vecchio

On the Ponte Vecchio

Tonight we said goodbye to Florence, going up the Piazzale Michelangelo and getting a great view of the city at sunset.  It was amazing.  But I need a new camera.  I thought I would post a good picture from above the city, but my 2001 early digital model, which seems antique compared to those of the students, did poorly.  This is probably the best I can do:

Florence at sunset

There were a few others that were OK, but this one has the river, and you really need that to get a full sense of the majesty of the city.  I think you’ll just have to make it to Florence yourself, a picture can’t do it justice.

After a day of Santa Croce, the Dante House, Accademia (David) and the science museum, we ended with a nice walk through the city on a glorious night.   I love going through the streets of the city, lit up but yet feeling still a tad medieval due to the brick and stone.   The Piazza della Signora at night is my favorite spot in the city, it’s magical.  

Visiting here so often, and now blogging while doing this course, I really appreciate the importance Florece has for our culture and society.   Capitalism got its nascent start here from the Medicis whose patronage gave us unbelievable art, science and literature.  The geniuses of Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, Plutarch, Boccaccio, Michelangelo and countless others shaped our history.  Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo, was part of the Florentine Camerata, a group of poets fascinated by Greek music and history.   They would invent Opera, which was first performed in October 1600, initiating the Baroque era and shaping western music for centuries.

Hearing the sounds of the city from the window of the hotel I know this was not enough time in Florence, there is so much to see and do.   Alas, tomorrow it’s off to Milano.   There we will see “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci, then catch a flight home.  However, we also will get a day trip to Venice in on Sunday, the day before our return.  I’m not sure if the Milano hotel will have wireless internet — if not, I may not get a chance to blog again before getting home.  Luckily the hotels in Rome and Florence have been internet friendly, and I’ve enjoyed being able to write about this trip.

Ultimately, though, this course is focused not just on helping students learn about Italy, but learn to become travelers rather than tourists.  It gives me a sense of joy to believe that the students are experiencing something that will change them and expand their horizons and outlook.   Most of it isn’t from anything in particular I or my co-instructor Sarah do.   Sarah gives  them a lot of information about Art History, and I talk about the issues I blogged about, plus Italian politics and tomorrow the risorgimento.   We answer questions, plan the schedule, and help them figure out how to operate in Italy.  But most of all it’s simply the opportunity to be in a different culture, combined with the expectation and guidance in truly exploring that culture rather than viewing everything as a tourist.  

There is a difference between a traveler and a tourist.   A tourist takes pictures of famous things, goes to restaurants with easy to understand English language menus, complains about things that aren’t what he or she is used to, and views the experience through his or her own cultural lens, not really trying to get into the culture of the country being visited, except to view it as an interesting or quaint way of doing things.   A traveler wants to learn about a culture, understand it, engage it, and personally grow from each visit to a different place.   A tourist is judgmental and feels entitled.  A traveler is humble and feels privileged.  Our goal in this course is to help students learn to be travelers rather than tourists, and to recognize that it is much more enjoyable and fulfilling to embrace learning a culture rather than just having fun in an exotic location.  If they can take a little bit of that with them after this trip, it will be more than worth it.

So it’s on to Milano!


The First Political Scientist

Santa Croce, where the tombs of Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli are located

Santa Croce, where the tombs of Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli are located

Today we started at the Science museum, disappointed that major rennovations have caused the closing of the two main floors.   It was still interesting, and afterwards we discussed Machiavelli and wet to Santa Croce, pictured above.   Unfortunately Machiavelli’s tomb is behnd scaffolding and I couldn’t snap a picture of it as I had planned.  In many ways Machiavelli is to my field what Galileo was to physics — and early proponent of a new way of thinking about politics.  Unlike Galileo, however, Machiavelli isn’t recalled with respect and reverance.  Calling someone Machiavellian is considered in fact an insult.  However, in the context of his era, one cannot deny Machiavelli’s insights, or the fact that he touches themes and issues that are with us to this day.   The context is the late 15th and early 16th centuries (Machiavelli lived from 1469 to 1527).

By the late 15th century Florence’s renaissance was not all a smooth sailing quest for  rediscovering lost knowledge and promoting humanism.   The dark side of this change — avarice, materialism, wants perceived as needs, and loss of a spiritual center — were noticed very early on.  This helped a Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, gain support and power, railing aganist the growing immorality of the city.   He took over in 1494, turning Florence into something of a democratic republic.   But he ruled with strict morality, making sodomy a capital offense (homosexuality had been tolerated in Florence) and in 1497 ignited the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities.”   Young boys went door to door, collected all objects that suggested moral laxity, and burned them at Piazza della Signora.

The Pope had enough of this upstart and ex-communicated him, ordering his arrest.  The Florentine people had suffered economically during his rule and turned on him.   He was eventually tortured and killed, and for a while Florence had a Republic.  One of the leaders in this Republic was Niccolo Machiavelli, who served as Chancellor (a rather minor role).  The Medicis would come back to power, however, Machivelli would be tortured and removed from his position, and in reflecting on his fate and that of Italy’s, he discovered political science, writing the famous short book,  The Prince.  

Machiavelli was remarkably insightful and a pragmatist.   In his book he notes that others have dreamed of Republics that only exist in the imagination (he was thinking Plato), he was going to deal with the world as it really is.  And the world he saw around him was not doing well.  Italy was divided and weakly governed, suffering countless attacks from Spain, France and the Germans.  Traveling between cities was dangerous, and rule of law was virtually non-existent.   He also thought of an experience he had once while working in Florence, when he was sent to settle a dispute amongst two rival clans in nearby Pistoia.

He quickly realized that the Pistoians were too full of anger and hatred to make peace, and came back and suggested that Florence conquer Pistoia for its own good.  Yet the Florentines balked at such naked aggression, and rejected Machiavelli’s advice.  The result was a blood bath, as people were butchered in the streets as the gangs fought it out for control of Pistoia.   Machiavelli condemned the Florentines, saying that their desire not to be cruel (to attack Pistoia) actually was more cruel than conquest would have been, given the human cost.  He thus concluded that Italy needed leadership that was more in touch with how the world really works.    You can not have a Republic without order and security first, he argued, and until Italy was united under strong leadership it would be subject to attacks and internal conflict.  The Italian people would suffer from this lack of authority.  Therefore he called for a Prince to come, bring order and security, and lay the framework for building a true Republic.

Seen in this light, Machiavelli’s work is brilliant.  He categorizes different kinds of regimes and their strengths and weaknesses, as well as how difficult they might be to conquer and hold.   His analysis rings true today; he would have correctly predicted the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conflicts like those in Bosnia and Rwanda would not have surprised him.   He also seems to have been right about Italy.  Lacking stable governance they fell behind the rest of Europe, and remained divided and weak well into the 19th century.    His work seems very cold.  For instance, Machiavelli argues that it is better to be feared than loved, since people will turn on someone they love in an instant, while fear will keep them in line.   People should aspire for the reputation of honesty, but not be afraid to lie and betray friends if it is necessary for the good of the Prince’s rule.   A Prince should be an effective liar, able to fool the people and not be afraid to use violent repression.

But don’t confuse his ideas with the crimes of Hitler and Stalin.  For Machiavelli the killing of innocents and the repression was to be used only in so much as it needed to be to assure order and stability, and no more.   A Prince simply has to recognize that in the real world morality is a path to ruin, despite what the philosophers say.  Instead a leader needs a cold pragmatic sense of how the real world works, and a willingness to do what is necessary to give the people the security and stability they need — he called this virtu, a kind of ‘strong virtue’.   The ends justify the means, and he believes that his approach would help the Italian people far more than trying to rule through moral principles.

His ability to analyze politics and regime types, and think theoretically about the nature of governance makes him one of the most important, and in many ways most troubling, political thinkers.    Do the ends justify the means?   Should we torture or hold dangerous people, some perhaps innocent, in order to, say, protect the US from a terrorist attack?    Machiavelli’s introduction of the “is” vs. “ought” dilemma in political thought touches major political debates to this day.  Machiavelli’s distrust of human nature (he says that if you kill a man’s father don’t take his property, because people will forgive the murder of a father before they’ll forgive taking their wealth) causes numerous debates.  Are humans really greedy and willing to do what they want for gain, or are we primarily good and able to order our own affairs without the aid of a strong authority?

Machiavelli’s pragmatic cynicism is as relevant now and then, as is Savonarola’s condemnation of material decadence.  The dilemmas of the modern world were already evident in late 15th century and early 16th century Florence.   Machiavelli’s thought also shows the rise of humanism and realism in opposition to spiritualism and idealism in renaissance thought.    Politics is less about philosophy, more about science — not about ideals and principles, but what works in the world.

Nonetheless I think Machiavelli describes the culture of renaissance Europe more than any kind of timeless sense of human nature.    Clearly Machiavelli is only calling for leaders to act this way, not for ‘ordinary folk.’   I end up disagreeing with Machiavelli, while respecting his insight and the fact he raises dilemmas troubling to this day.   I believe he neglects what Rousseau would call ‘natural human compassion,’ and a sense of how human nature is mediated by culture and context.  Still, for political science he’s our Galileo, for better or worse.



Gelato from Gelateria Neri (Florence), the best in Italy!

Gelato from Gelateria Neri (Florence), the best in Italy!

A lighter blog entry to end the day after the long bit about Galileo.  Tonight after dinner we indulged in the best gelato in Italy — that at the Gelateria Neri on Via dei Neri, near the Santa Croce cathedral.   However, indulging is something we haven’t done as much of on this trip.

We miss greatly the presence of perhaps the spiritual core of the idea of the multidisciplinary Italy course, Steve Pane.  And we miss our literary muse, Luann Yetter.    In past trips Steve has put the concept of “second breakfast” into common parlance, and we would make multiple stops for espresso and into pastry shops.   Luann has connected literature to the present, and quoted Bob Dylan liberally.  We haven’t gone to one pastry shop yet.  I’m at a loss answering questions about Dante (I know a bit,  but keep trying to remember what Luann said).   Sarah is drinking cafe Americano.  I’m averaging only an espresso a day, and a cappacino in the morning.   We need to be together as a team again!

Steve and I would spend most of our salary for this class on excellent meals — often a good two course meal for lunch and another for dinner.  Now we’re eating cheap, usually with the students, often snack bars or self service places (though in Pisa we found a great pizzeria for a group lunch).   And when we do eat out, it’s not the same.  Neither Sarah nor I can excite students for food the way Steve can.   Without Steve’s restaurant guides, we wander — and the one place I know in Florence is good was full last night.   One thing we are doing that Luann would be proud of is giving students time to write — tonight students are writing in their journals as we got back from gelato at 8:15.

To be sure, it’s a great trip.   We’re small this time (that’s why Steve and Luann aren’t along).  We do almost everything as a group, it seems, and the students are very engaged.  I am spending far less money than other years, and with 15 rather than 40 students I feel like I’m able to spend time with all of them and make connections.  Still, when one asked today “what is a pasticceria,” I realized that if Steve had been here he would not only have answered, but shown her one, bought her a pastry and then repeated the demonstration to make sure the lesson was learned.  In fact, no one would be asking that question by this point!   I just said “it’s a pastry shop, and Italy has great pastries, we need to stop by one later.”  I found one tonight, we’ll get there tomorrow!

Still, my weakness was and remains gelato.  I could make it a meal.   It symbolizes what is so good about Italian food — healthier, creamier, richer, made by humans rather than mass produced, and with a brilliant, intense flavor.  Gelateria Neri is, I’m convinced, the best in Italy, rivaled only by Capo del Nord in Bologna (which, alas, we are not visiting this trip).   Tomorrow is a full day in Florence — David at the Accademia, the Science museum, the Dante house, Santa Croce, Santa Marco, and maybe some others.  Not everyone will do everything, but we plan to spend our last day in Florence getting as much of this great city in as possible.   And since Gelateria Neri is near Santa Croce, I may get another gelato in.   But tomorrow will definitely be pastry and Dante day, in Steve and Luann’s honor!  Buona Notte!

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The Language of God

The tower of Pisa

The tower of Pisa

…is Mathematics.  So thought Galileo Galilei, a devout  Catholic who nonetheless earned the wrath of the Church to which he was so loyal, and which would ultimately apologize in the year 2000 for its trial and persecution of Galileo.  Yet no man symbolized the movement from the age of faith to the age of reason more than this Tuscan mathematician.    Today we went on a day trip to Pisa, visitig the tower (but not paying the 15 Euro to climb it), and saw a guy parachute down from the top successfully, and I believe he eluded the police.  The class took pictures and we had a nice group lunch.  Pisa isn’t a cultural or artistic center of the import of Siena or Lucca, and it was only because of intense  pressure from the students that we went there.  However, for me it provided an excellent segue to tomorrow’s visit to the Science Museum in Florence by allowing a focus on Galileo, who first lived and worked in Pisa, but ended up in Florence.  

Galileo is an amazing individual, a man whose work and life fascinate me.   I apologize that this blog entry is long (and I cut out a bunch of stuff about his daughter and other life tidbits).    The class seemed a tad amused by my enthusiasm for Galileo’s story, both in terms of his scientific brilliance and political ineptness.  I can’t help but write about it in my blog as well.

After Thomas Aquinas convinced the church of the legitimacy of integrating reason and faith, bringing Aristotle’s logic and teachings into church doctrine, it was probably inevitable that someone like Galileo would come along and use reason to challenge the Church.   The Church tried to maintain control by insisting that Aristotle was an authority who should not be questioned, and using reason in the form of Aristotelean scholasticism, which honored time tested knowledge and distrusted new ideas or critical thought.   However, Aristotle  had been an experimenter who challenged tradition and, as Galileo would himself note, Galileo’s behavior was true to Aristotle’s teachings.

From the tower of Pisa, Galileo first irritated authorities and his fellow faculty by dropping differently weighted and sized materials and noting that they fell at the same speed.  This went against Aristotle, and soon he moved north to Padua, where the atmosphere was more tolerant.  Challenges to Aristotelean scholasticism had already emerged in northern Europe, and the protestant reformation was in full swing.   If Galileo had remained in Padua, closer to more secular Venice, he probably could have avoided arrest.

The students today had a traditional view of Galileo’s problem: that he thought the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth, and that the church therefore considered this heretical and demanded he recant.  Galileo did, but he and the church were enemies, he was fighting for science against superstition.  This traditional view is off base; the reality is much more complex.  Galileo was and remained a devout Catholic, he just thought the church leaders were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.   He also knew the Pope personally and many high level church officials.  Most of them actually believed that Galileo’s view of cosmology was correct, and knew that the Aristotelean approach was wrong.  Their reasons for silencing Galileo were political rather than scientific.  So what happened?

Galileo was in Padua (near Venice) for 18 years where he became convinced that mathematics allows us to understand the underlying order of the universe, thus uncovering the mind and language of God.  That wasn’t itself a challenge to the Church, so long as he didn’t go against established Church doctrines.   Galileo first moved in a direction that would create problems after he heard of an invention from the Netherlands. Hans Lippershey of Middleburg invented lenses that allowed one to see distant objects as if they were nearer.   Galileo was also a lensmaker, and when he heard of this discovery, he wasted no time in developing and improving his own telescope. This was popular with the business people of Venice (who could use it to see arriving ships before their competitors could), but Galileo’s troubles started when he pointed it skyward. In 1610, he noticed that Jupiter had its own satellites, something Aristotelean thought considered impossible.

Galileo wrote Sidereus Nunicus or “Starry messenger,” which he dedicated to Count Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He called the moons of Jupiter “Medician Stars.” He was then given an honorary Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa, something which irritated his former foes there.  There were a number of efforts to deny Galileo’s claims, calling the satellites illusions or the result of flaws in his telescope. But he also discovered the phases of Venus, and sunspots, the latter proving that the celestial realm was not immutable (contrary to Aristotle’s claims).   Galileo would move down to Florence to work under the protection of the powerful Medici family — which unfortunately also brought him closer to Rome and within reach of the Church.

Galileo came to champion the ideas of Nikolai Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, born on February 19, 1473 in Thorn, Poland. Copernicus studied law, math and astronomy at The University of Bologna in Italy, and then in 1514 took on a task given by Pope Leo, aimed at figuring out how best to determine the ecclesiastical calendar. He did this by moving the sun to the center of the universe, and having earth as a planet that circles the sun. Though this was considered heretical, Copernicus put this forth only as an hypothesis or a model that could help solve problems involving the calendar. Officially, the earth was still considered the center of the universe.

Galileo said that his telescope and observations made it quite obvious that Aristotle and the official church view was wrong.   In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina he wrote that if scripture and human experience contradict each other, then our interpretation of scripture must be wrong.   That view, not his belief in the Copernican universe, led to Galileo’s undoing.   Politically, the Church could not tolerate such a message coming from not only within the faith, but from someone living so close to Rome.

The Church was, after all, under attack. In England King James was making Catholics take loyalty oaths. In Germany the reformation was in full swing, and the Church had already enacted the counter-reformation coming out of the Council of Trent. In 1618 the Thirty Years war began, which would decimate much of Europe, and lead to the downfall of the Church as dominant political force in Europe.   The essence of the protestant reformation in Europe was that Luther claimed that each individual had a personal  relationship with God, and that the meaning of scripture is therefore personal, not mediated by the Church. This was the most significant challenge of the protestant revolt, and Galileo seemed to be veering in that direction.  He was saying that through his experiments he, a lay individual, could prove that scripture was falsely interpreted, and that the Church should follow him.   Church leaders tried to convince Galileo that he should give them time to initiate the change in interpretation.   Galileo was a man of principle and not politics, and pushed forward nonetheless.   Galileo argued that nature and Scripture cannot be in contradiction. If the Bible says that God commanded the sun to stop in the sky, and we know from observation that the earth rotates around the sun, then it’s clear that Scripture is not wrong, but our understanding of scripture is off; clearly it is not a scientific truth that scripture gives, but common parlance, not meant to be taken as science.

Pope Urban VIII, a former supporter of Galileo, suggested he write a book giving both arguments and then conclude that it’s best to follow the Church’s lead.  Galileo did so, but in a way that made the supporter of the church position — Simplice — appear an idiot, while the supporter of Galileo’s position won every argument easily.  In a Dialogue On The Great World Systems Galileo infuriated Urban VIII, who felt personally insulted.  Galileo was summoned to Rome for trial, and only under threat of torture did he recant, being sent back to Florence  to finish his life, banned from writing anything more.   He ignored the ban and one of his most important works came out after his trial, but he remained under house arrest in Florence until he died in 1642, the very year Isaac Newton was born. 

While Newton gets the credit for developing classical physics, Galilaeo really started the efforts and set up the kind of thinking that would make Newton possible.  He is the figure personifying the move from the age of Faith to the age of Reason.   He  was a man of reason who was devout in his faith; he remained angry at Urban VIII and other Church leaders, but never doubted his faith.   He was angry at men, after all — not God or the Church!   If he had been politically more adept he would have realized that with the protestant reformation in full force he was presenting a challenge that cut to the core of Church legitimacy.   He may have been more diplomatic, and avoided the trial and punishment, giving the Church time to initiate on its own the change in Biblical interpretation.    Would that have lessened his accomplishments or his place in history?    He still would be known as a great scientific innovator, but not have come to symbolize the idea of science as a challenge to faith.  And, given that he was absolutley convinced that science and faith are completely compatible, he probably would have preferred that legacy.   On the other hand, he did not believe truth should be silenced simply because of tradition.

Sitting here in Florence, listening to the Vespas and traffic out the window, I can’t help thinking about how the renaissance gave way to the Baroque (something Galileo’s father, a musician named Vincenzio, was very much a part of) and science pushed us towards the modern.  We in the West are very much shaped by the history of this beautiful and vibrant Tuscan city.    The students went to the market during a break, I spent the time typing this blog entry.  Time for dinner!


Art and Wine

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

A gloriously beautiful and sunny, if also chilly, day in Florence.   We climbed the Duomo to the top of the dome.   That itself is an adventure, it’s like climbing 35 stories, at times in between the inner and outer dome.  It was the largest dome structure in the world until the late 20th century; when Brunelleschi first planned to build it, he didn’t know how he’d pull it off.   Part of the climb includes a walk on the inside of the church, hundreds of feet above the people below, next to the giant ceiling frescoe (one of the largest in the world) depicting the last judgment of Christ.  The detail close up is amazing, and the view of Florence and the Tuscan countryside is superb.   Today was so clear one could see snow covered mountains in the distance.

Then the Uffizi, Florence’s grand museum with a renaissance collection surpassed by no one.  Officially opened in 1765, the gallery has been around since the mid 16th century and could be viewed by request.  The Medici family designed a palace here, with administrative offices (hence the term Uffizi) in a building with two long corridors.   In that sense it was the first modern museum, systematically collecting artwork for public viewing.   In summer there are long lines, sometimes waits of well over an hour.  In February, you walk right in.

One sees the development of renaissance art as well, starting with Giotto and late medieval/early renaissance painting, moving away from the flat, lifeless abstract images towards dimension, emotion and what we call humanism.   A favorite of everyones is, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,  though it’s likely this is really the arrival of Venus to Cyprus, being pushed by the winds Zephyrus and Aura.  To me this captures the 15th century ideal that faith and reason, or spirit and matter, can be reconciled, there is a balance that is truly inspirational.  I examined that painting for well over 15 minutes.

In the next room was one I liked even better, and looked at just as long, by Leonardo di Vinci, “Annunciation.”   I walked back and forth between rooms to compare the two, and marvel at these timeless works of art.    Da Vinci’s intrigued me.   The Angel telling Mary that she would have a child from God is facing slightly down, but her eyes are looking up, straight into Mary’s.  Mary looks serene, as if she understands and accepts her role.   She’s reading something, the letters look vaguely Greek.  In the background there are boats, a city, and mountains.  The angel is sitting on grass and flowers, dark as if a mix of typical ground plants.    Mary is on a floor, with some kind of trunk or dresser box in front of her.  Behind her you can see her bedroom at the edge of the painting. 

Back at the hotel I found out that Andrea M., also on the trip, had also focused on the same painting.   She started pointing out aspects of it by pointing to the copy of the painting in my room on the wall next to my bed, as another student used my computer to send messages home.   In other words, I have been in this room almost two days, was intrigued by that painting at the Uffizi, and until Andrea pointed it out I didn’t realize it was right here in my room.   Those who know me are nodding knowingly now — I tend not to notice details!   The picture above is of the painting in my room — the copy is partially cut off so you can’t  see Mary’s bed at the edge.  I still can’t believe I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out to me. 

I lack knowledge about art (though Sarah’s mini-lectures help a lot) and after awhile I felt overwhelmed by the museum.   I did notice that all the paintings seemed to be either sponsored by or at some point acquired by someone in the Medici family.  That makes sense, given the origin of the museum, but also shows just how active the Medicis were in supporting the arts.   This also clearly shows that the arts aren’t just a luxury — political, social and cultural progress begin with art.   Be it painting, music, literature, theater or some other form of expression, without creativity there is stagnation.   That’s one reason fascism and communism could not last, they attacked  the creative spirit of individuals and tried to replace it with a forced collectivism.

Another topic of conversation today was wine.   In Italy you need not be 21 to drink, if you’re over 16 it’s no problem to order wine or beer with your meal, or even at a snack bar (all of which serve alcohol and are ubiquitious on the streets).   Yet it seems to be the Americans who overindulge.  The joke Steve Pane tells is that the American who shakes his head at the Italian drinking wine at lunch is the same American the Italian has to help home after he overindulges at night.  In part, the US law makes no sense — we send people who are 18 to kill and die in war, we allow them to vote, they can get married, but they dare not order a glass of wine with their meal.  That’s utter absurdity.

More importantly, though, this weird message sent that “alcohol is bad” only reinforces and magnifies negative aspects of alcohol use.  Yeah, there are people that overindulge everywhere, but in Europe people tend to learn that alcohol is to be used in moderation as a part of a larger social activity, the idea of going out to “get drunk” is uncool.  In the US, because alcohol gets this status as the “forbidden fruit,” college kids abuse it and don’t learn effective and responsible drinking.  The result is the anti-alcohol messages lead to the very thing they wish to avoid.   Its like how when parents overshelter their children in high school, they’re more likely to be unable to exercise their freedom responsibly when they go off to college.  You have to learn that life is not a series of rules to follow or break, but judgments to be made considering the consequences of actions taken.  In our culture, we don’t deal with alcohol well on those terms, and hence people  see it as a recreational drug rather than a compliment to social activity.

Americans like to think they are more free than Europeans because our taxes are lower; however, in many ways there seems to be a greater sense of freedom and personal responsibility in Europe.  People aren’t as litigious so they don’t sue each other over little accidents.   For instance, some of the towers one claims have stairways hat are rather dangerous, and would be closed down in the US out of fear of a law suit.   Here they’re OK with the idea that it’s up to the person visiting the site to decide if they want to risk the climb.   You also don’t have to make everything handicap accessible, that’s ridiculous.  Do as well as you can and help as much as possible, but handicaps are handicaps, people deal with them.    The US has gotten caught up in a culture of rules and laws, and has forgotten common sense.  Our laws on drinking show just how absurd, and how counter-productive such efforts are.

These two topics — art at the Uffizi, and alcohol consumption by young people — seem very disconnected.  Yet this trip fosters learning both by looking at the past, and comparing cultures and behaviors in the present.  We’ve also talked about health care (Americans are pretty clueless about European health care, thanks to scare tactics from US insurance companies), political thought, and the impact of Obama’s election on Italian perspectives on Americans.   The beauty of a course like this is that every conversation is meaningful (though sometimes we’re just being silly — we laugh a lot here), and we have a chance to explore both the past and comparisons between cultures in the present.    And we avoid any temptation for students to go out and overindulge by keeping them so active that by the end of the night they are too tired to go out! 

Tomorrow is Pisa for at least part of the day, with lots of info on Galileo (and probably a visit to the Science museum on Friday).   One way we keep students from overindulging is to keep them so active they’re too tired at the end of the day to go out.   And I’m tired too!  Buona Notte!


A Revolution in Accounting

Florence from atop the Duomo

Florence from atop the Duomo

One student asked a very pertinent question as we were explaining how the renaissance changed Europe and the West:  Why Florence?   Why of all places would this Tuscan city be  the take off point for cultural change.   Why does Florence give us Plutarch, Boccocio, Dante and Galileo (who, to be sure, was originally from Pisa)?   One answer could be a revolution in accounting.  Accounting, that method of keeping books and balancing budgets, is usually not thought to be the driving force of change.  Yet the Medici family developed a clever use of what we now call double entry book keeping, and their use of share holding  allowed them to build a banking empire while avoiding usuary laws.  Their wealth financed the arts and of course made Florence more worldly — what good is massive wealth if one is not concerned with material affairs? 

The renaissance did not take place in a vacuum, however.  The more advanced civilization, the Muslim world, had knowledge that would be key to the European awakening.   Frederick II of Sicily, closest to the Islamic world, first challenged the church and started to use reason to rule.   Then, after the defeat of the Muslims in Spain,  information started to flow into Italy as Muslim texts were translated and spread.  Universities arose, and by the mid-13th century the Neopolitan Thomas Aquinas, who ultimately would teach in Paris, learned of Aristotle through the texts of Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.  Aristotle argued for logic, realism, and concern about the world — ideas that inevitably would lead to humanism and rationalism.  The Church embraced these ideas.  Why would God put us in a material world with problems to solve if the material world was meaningless?   Instead of faith alone, it would now be reason and faith together, with Aristotle the authority.

Then in 1300s came the black death, the take off point of the humanistic writings of Boccacio in the Decameron.  This further leveled society as workers became scarce, and old traditions gave way to the need to survive.  Dante’s Inferno, written in Italian rather than Latin, showed this fascinating mix of Christian faith and humanistic impulses.   Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was part of the wave of Florentines who were determined to rediscover the old knowledge of Rome, and apply it in their world.  The wealth and stability provided by the Medicis provided the resources to do so; their dominance politically meant a degree of independence from the Church, as humanist ideas overtook art, literature and archetecture. 

So why Florence?   Of all the revolutions in thought and art of the era, the revolution in accounting that gave us the Medicis allowed Florence to move further and faster than the rest of Europe.  Moreover, the Medicis, who provided many Popes and whose worldly materialism would contribute to the growing corruption of the church, helped put the material above the spiritual amongst church leaders.  Patrons of the arts?   Corrupt money lenders?   Probably both.   And this also shows the complicated nature of the renaissance.   Roman knowledge and philosophy was rediscovered, opening up the minds of Europe to progress, critical thought, and exquisite art and literature.  It also led to materialism, corruption, and the vices of our system such as a reliance on credit and consumption.   Florence is a testament to all of that, thanks not only to the creativity of Dante and Florence native Michelangelo, but also the creativity of the unknown accountants working for the Medicis.  And as such, it stands as a jewel today.