Archive for August, 2009
I am a political scientist, but often in my spare time I prefer to think about science and philosophy rather than politics. So I’m not an expert on the material I’m writing about today, and welcome any corrections or modifications!
Today, while digging mini-trenches in our never-ending yard project, I tried to get my mind around the question of what makes up the universe. There is a delightful irony in thinking of these things while struggling to shovel rocky dirt in rainy cool weather with an aching back and painful fingers. Because as starkly real as that work and those pains are, reality itself almost seems unreal.
The average distance between the nucleus of an atom and the electrons “orbiting” it is about 100,000 times the diameter of the nucleus. That means that even every day solid objects are almost all comprised of empty space. Moreover, the electrons themselves are tiny point particles, existing as part of a probability wave until detected and forced to occupy a single position.
The nucleus of most large particles (hadrons) is made up of quarks — almost all of reality that we experience consists of up and down quarks, and electrons. Electrons have electrical charge, while quarks have color charge (nothing to do with color, that’s the name given to this ‘strong force’ of nature). Particles are also posited as carrying the force that keeps reality together. For electrons this particle is a photon (which we experience as light), and for quarks it is a gluon. These “force carriers” have the attributes of being both a particle and wave, existing in a field. All the stuff of reality — light, particles, even macro objects like human beings — exist as both a particles and waves.
So the universe is made up of electrons and quarks, and most of what we experience are up and down quarks. There also exists strange, charmed, top and bottom quarks, as well as numerous other particles that are made up of different combination of quarks with different color charge and spin — and every particle has an anti-particle — but that’s not the stuff that makes up most of what we experience. These other particles exist in cosmic rays, perhaps stars, and in tiny amounts in nature (thanks to quantum probabilities everything that can exist or happen does — at the quantum level). Humans have seen the impact of these particles in what is created in particle accelerators, but in general our universe seems composed of very basic particles.
Of course, “particle” may be the wrong term. Certainly things like photons are only ripples in fields. Traveling at the speed of light they have no mass and experience no time. That doesn’t sound like anything “real,” even if we experience photons on our space time. The photon seems to be some kind of particle that we experience in space time, but may also exist outside space-time.
So think about it – space and time is an entity that was created at the big bang (what came before may not be sensical within a space-time framework). When physicists came up with quantum electro dynamics, they did to do so with a method called “renormalization.” They measured the the mass and charge of existing particles, and did the calculations backwards, getting rather absurd starting energies/masses for those particles. They had to incorporate a vast number of vacuum fluctuations in order to account for the predictions of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that now and then for a brief period of time particles will appear out of nowhere. It works in measurements as precise as we can measure, and is universally accepted due to that fact.
Beyond that, to explain the weak force of nature in the same way the strong force was explained (the strong force is through quantum chromo dynamics, analogous to quantum electro dynamics, but involving quarks rather than electrons), a new particle has been theorized (and no science has had more success in correctly predicting new phenomena of nature than particle physics) called the Higgs boson. This particle is essentially thought to be everywhere – it’s really a field, particles are disturbances in fields. The higgs field is what gives particles mass, just as color and electro-magnetic fields give color and charge.
The difficulty in connecting quantum theory with relativity in a complete manner suggests that quantum theory, in all its mathematical complexity, may be hinting at a border between space-time and whatever is outside space-time. The hints seem to be that there is intense energy available to space-time at the quantum level, with reality itself perhaps more ripples in the stream (or disturbances in fields) than solid and absolute. It may well be that the hard and fast nature of space-time that we experience is an illusion based on how our senses operate. Indeed, think of insects who have no clue about the worlds of politics, religion, marriage, social custom, etc, that go on all over their world. That is something outside their capacity to perceive. While their limits may be biological within space-time, ours could be the result of the need to operate effectively in space-time.
So what makes up the universe? Mostly empty space (again, even within the most solid of objects), forces (gravity, the electro-magnetic weak force, and the strong nuclear force), and at a fundamental level, quarks, electrons, photons and gluons. But since these particles are a weird particle/wave mix, they aren’t so much “things” as disturbances in fields. One theory puts forth tiny ‘strings’ with different vibrations as the fundamental stuff of the universe. The forces themselves and the nature of how they interact seems to come from quantum fields and probabilities that require measurement (or consciousness) in order to actualize one of a myriad of probable realities.
Add to that quantum tunneling (the idea particles can be actualized outside the confines of where they should be — the equivalent of a person falling through a solid wall) exists and our sun’s capacity to produce energy requires it, and non-locality (a change in a particle can impact another distant particle immediately, violating the laws of Newtonian physics which would require some kind of communication, which would take time,) and its clear we know little about the true nature of reality. In fact, there are so many paradoxes and apparent contradictions in modern physics that the whole theory might get thrown out as weird and impossible were it not for the reality that these models work in the real world to achieve practical results.
I remain struck by the “non-reality” of reality. Atoms that are 99.999% empty space. The forces that put the world in motion seem to come from nowhere. They include things like photons that experience no time or space, but we experience them in time and space (and they, like neutrinos which zip through our body by the hundreds of trillions every second, have no mass.) Particles and forces that are ripples in probability fields (as Max Born called early quantum field theory) which seem themselves to have no certain form. I mean, if one were inside a video game as a character, this is how it might look. Or, ideas and spirit could be more the stuff of reality than matter. At a fundamental level, we just don’t know those things. That’s what makes learning about and thinking about this kind of question fun!
Imagine an alternate universe where history did not quite unfold the same way as it did for us. In this alternate reality, the Abassid Caliphate continued, there was no Ottoman Empire and its rule of military dictatorship, and Islam maintained and expanded on its tolerant, open approach to people and knowledge, modernizing before Europe. In time, internal conflict weakened the Caliphate, and Persia (present day Iran) emerged as the major world power, with the former Abassid empire maintaining wealth, but losing status. Persian influence spread throughout Southeast Asia, and was the basis of numerous military alliances. After a Cold War with China, Persia became the unipolar power, dominant, with a view of spreading Islamic peace and morality (defined now in a modern sense) to the world.
The Europeans had devolved into a kind of dark ages. Despite the renaissance, internal strife prevented further modernization. After the Hapsburgs put down the protestant political revolt in 1650, they struck a deal with the Roman Catholic church to maintain centralized rule based on a conservative, traditional form of Catholicism. The defeated protestant movement went underground, and became radicalized. Over time Europe’s internal splits and lack of modernization left it vulnerable to Abassid influence, though the Church remained strong enough to prevent domination. European politics, in response to the external threats, veered to military dictatorship, with Christianity used as the rationale for rule. Over time, however, the United States emerged as a new power, meshing radical protestantism with modern technology, and promoting “western, Christian” values. Persia watched the rise of this western power with unease, fearing it could become a threat to the advanced, civilized, Islamic world.
Angered at the hoarding of oil by the industrialized Islamic states, European and American activists accused them of trying to keep the West down. Moderates in the West, emerging finally from centuries of stagnation, hoped to mesh the values of the Islamic secular enlightenment with Christianity to create a peaceful form of modernization that would not be a threat to the Islamic world. But as Islamic values penetrated more deeply into the West, there was a backlash, and radical Christian groups arose, making demands for cheaper oil and less Muslim influence. Complicating all this was a small Sufi colony in southern Greece. Established by a Sufi mystical sect fleeing persecution a hundred years earlier, it developed into a true modern economy in an otherwise backwards Europe. It received military help and cheap oil from the Abassid regime and Persia, but it also emerged as symbolic of the growing hatred of Europeans and Americans for the Islamic world. Greece was, after all, the land of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.
“Reclaim Greece,” was the mantra, and soon radical Christian and western groups engaged in terrorist acts aimed at driving the Sufis out of Greek territory. Persia supported the Sufis, arguing that they had been there for a long time, and had a right to govern that section of Greece. Before they came Athens and the region southward had become impoverished and backwards; the Sufi exiles brought progress and civilization. Because of radical Christian opposition to the very existence of Sufi Greece, some in the Islamic world rejected the idea that Christianity was a religion of peace, saying that the fondness of radical groups for passages in the Old Testament which commanded the Israelites to kill women and children as they devastated a city — verses used by radicals to argue for the violent and uncompromising expansion of Christianity — made the pacifistic verses of the New Testament irrelevant. The prophet had taught a cosmopolitan vision and toleration of other religions, they argued, meaning Jews and Christians in the Islamic world — ones who had modernized — were doing very well, while Christianity was intolerant of both other faiths. Christianity was a religion of conquest, they argued, look at the history of Europe.
The problems reached a climax when a group called “Christian Democracy Now,” headed by a radical named William Jefferson Bush, launched a major terror attack which took down sky scrapers in Tehran using commercial jets. The Islamic world was shocked at the brutality, especially as they saw dancing in the street from members of the Christian minority population in Greece, who were being kept on reservations. They realized the rise of the West was a danger. Then the Americans, while holding on to Christian values and ruled by a radical Protestant regime, started development of a nuclear weapon. The American people were proud that they were standing up finally to Persia; Persia’s nuclear dominance had made it invincible and able to get its way on everything. Moreover, Persian leaders were saying the way to stop terrorism and maintain long term peace was to bring Islam to the West, or, at the very least, mesh Islamic governance with Christian values. This was seen by Americans as raw imperialism and a threat to their identity.
As America got closer to having a bomb, and as radical groups operating from Macedonia and Albania (supported by the American government) threatened Sufi Greece, Persia had two choices; a) launch a pre-emptive strike against America and its nascent threat in order to reshape the western world to fit Islamic values, or b) accept that America would get nuclear weapons, and that the West had to chart its own course of development.
After much debate they realized that “a” would fail — no military attack could force Christians to give up their faith, and western ideas and western culture would be embraced even more tightly by Americans and Europeans in response to raw Islamic aggression, further radicalizing the Christian terror groups, and bringing more danger to Sufi Greece. So they chose “b,” and instead decreased the level of threat, stopped talking about expanding Islamic values into the West, and worked to support American and European moderates who argued that the philosophies of forgotten thinkers such as Montesquieu and Jefferson provided a blueprint for a modernization of Christianity that was neither radical nor violent. They gave statehood to the Christian minority in Sufi Greece (including control of parts of historic Athens), which at first led to a period of real danger from extremists who wanted the Sufis out completely. Over time that danger diminished as relations improved. America did get the bomb, but contrary to the worst Persian fears, did not try to attack Sufi strongholds in Greece, or threaten the Abassid lands or Persia.
Indeed, Persia had the capacity to annihilate America many times over with its vast arsenal; the Persians realized the idea that Americans would commit suicide just to kill Muslims was far overblown. They accepted that Christians also value life. The Persians realized that the fears of a “World War” or the “end of Islam” from this rising western threat were misplaced. After a couple of tense decades, a modern America started to appear, gradually shedding its radical anti-Islamic/anti-Perisan approach recapturing lost traditions from the Christian and western “enlightenment” past. Soon a modern Western way of thinking emerged, something that many in the Islamic world had thought impossible.
When America and Persia signed a treaty of friendship 25 years after America got the bomb, they noted how close they had gotten to a conflict which would have been disastrous for both worlds. And, ultimately the Sufis and Christians in Greece developed good relations and close economic ties, something which at one point seemed impossible. They realized that the Koran and Bible shared a basic wisdom: making war will only lead to more war and anger. By acting according to the best of their values, they could together build a peaceful future.
Pushed by his father Joesph Kennedy, a political force in his own right, John F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952. He would become President in 1960, beginning an era of politics defined in part by the symbolism and power of the Kennedy clan. Alas, John would be assassinated in 1963, and middle brother Robert, who inspired hope in the midst of the unrest of the civil rights and anti-war movements, would be killed after the California primary in 1968. It would be left to younger brother Edward “Ted” Kennedy to combine symbol with substance in 47 years of Senate service. Few in history can match his legislative efficacy and impact.
Back when I worked in the Senate, Ted Kennedy’s office was a couple floors below the office I worked at. I would occasionally see the Senator in the hall way or leaving the building. He was even then one of the Senate superstars. A few years earlier he had lost his primary challenge to President Carter, and now seemed resigned to the fact he’d never make the White House, and would have to make his mark through Senate activism. He would work with anybody — even political opposites like Jesse Helms — if it would help get legislation passed. And by all reports he was from the old school where political opposition did not mean personal animosity. He got along with everyone, and was respected by his colleagues left and right.
Kennedy, however, had his flaws. There were constant rumors about his personal life. And, of course, if not for the incident at Chappaquiddick, when Kennedy delayed reporting an accident which took the life of his passenger, Kennedy might well have become President in 1976. Of the three Kennedy brothers, Teddy was the best at reading other people, understanding how others think, what they want, and knowing what to say. He was a natural politician, using empathy to build tremendously successful strategies. Many people believe that if Kennedy had been active this summer like he had in the past, the health care bill would be far more likely to pass with much more of what the President wants.
Kennedy’s politics were clearly liberal, but he was a certain kind of liberal. He was not an ideological zealot driven by theory or special interests. What made him special was his empathy. He truly understood and cared for average folk and what they were going through. He saw his role as helping those who lacked power, and could not stand up to large corporate or even governmental interests. He was a true humanist liberal, driven by principle and compassion rather than ideology.
To be sure, one doesn’t have to share Kennedy’s views on politics and government to be an empathetic humanist. His view on life and government led him to define his compassion in terms of promoting governmental programs, such as health care reform. Ironically, his biggest failure may have been his refusal to go along with health care reform in the Nixon era, believing that a better bill would come along later. It never did, and in retrospect many regret the failure to act when it was possible back in the 70s.
There are of course those on the far right who are so used to hating Kennedy that they’ll not recognize how he was motivated by the best of intentions, how he struggled to overcome personal tragedies and flaws, and how widely respected he was by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. They’ll demonize him in death, just as many on the left were unable to let Strom Thurmond live down his early segregationist days. Those people don’t know what being human means, they are too wrapped up in politics and their own biases.
Kennedy was a good man, a great politician, and a fallible human being whose life was defined by triumph and tragedy. His two brothers were assassinated, and at one point many seemed certain Ted would be too. (To bad for all those Nostradamus enthusiasts who claimed as a ‘true’ prediction a claim that three brothers in America would all be assassinated). He was iconic, seemed larger than life near the end, and his early 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama helped assure Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Preisdential nomination.
One gets that sense that Kennedy got to see the “liberal promised land” in being able to witness the election of Barack Obama, the first black President. When Kennedy first joined the Senate in 1962, the civil rights movement was young, and the idea of a black President virtually unthinkable. When Irving Wallace wrote The Man in 1972, he had to create a wild set of circumstances whereby a black Senate pro tempore would become the President in a succession crisis. Kennedy witnessed the voting rights act and civil rights movement achieving its greatest advance. He also saw a new generation of youth activism and liberalism in the support generated for Obama in 2008. Sure, it may not last — but for Kennedy his last memories would be of Democratic optimism and a sense of change for the future. Even if it doesn’t come to pass, Kennedy no doubt died believing it would.
There are few politicians of Kennedy’s stature left on either side of the aisle these days. He was a fierce partisans who didn’t take politics personally or believe the opposition to be evil. Kennedy could rail against the Iraq war without making it seem like he hated President Bush or Vice President Cheney. He symbolized respectful opposition.
There is much being written about his accomplishments, stories about his life, the tragedies, the controversies, and his strength. To me, Kennedy will always represent the traditional liberal notion of government being there to help the average person deal with problems made difficult by poverty, powerful corporate actors, or social injustice. That traditional notion has been questioned in recent years. Does government help actually create dependencies that hurt people? Do bureaucratic costs override the good being done? Those are legitimate questions. But, whether one judges Kennedy’s politics right or wrong, few can doubt that he believed that he was fighting to help real people solve real problems.
A legend has passed away, ending an era that spanned John F. Kennedy’s rise in the fifties to Ted’s consequential endorsement of Obama. There are others from the Kennedy family in politics, playing often influential roles. But the Kennedy brothers are akin to political mythology, so potent and symbolic are their stories and lives, as well as the frailties in their personal affairs. And, of course, many wonder what would have happened if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been killed during his Presidential campaign — how would history have been different?
Adieu, Senator Kennedy. You have left your mark, and perhaps helped make the world a better place. You will be missed.
As August winds down, the summer of ’09 is about to finish and it was a strange one. Here in the Northeast it was an unusually cool and wet summer, while out West they had record heat, as the oddities of global climate change start showing themselves. While there is still a week to go before school starts (for me a better measure of summer’s end than the vernal equinox), I have some reflections on the summer of 2009.
Here in the US it was a “letdown summer.” Perhaps inevitably, the hope garnered by electing a new, charismatic and exciting President gave way to the recognition that the problems we face as a nation are huge, and the President may be inspiring, but is not magic. President Obama himself is learning the difference between a campaign and governing. The former is built on ambition and ideas, the latter on results. But results are hard to come by, and the opposition fights tough.
Although Obama’s approval ratings remain good, they’ve come back to earth, and the country is worried about the on going budget problems and recession. Even as Japan and many European countries are starting to see positive growth numbers, the US finds itself still mired in bad news. This is not likely to change. The US started from a high point built on trade deficits and a consumer economy driven by easy credit and cheap foreign goods. The Europeans and Japanese never went that route; even with high governmental debt they maintained stricter credit regimes and avoided high trade deficits. In the heady times earlier this decade this made them appear behind the US in economic health, but in actuality it has meant a less severe recession.
The crisis is global, however, and no one is out of the woods. Americans are starting to realize this will take more than a new President to solve, and that this isn’t just another economic cycle. Obama can recover — Reagan and Clinton each dipped farther their first term — but he’s confronting the nitty gritty of real world governance, as the public confronts the resilience of real world problems.
Other aspects of the summer just seemed weird. With the first black President and fears of assassination, Republican activists started coming to Presidential events armed. In town hall meetings those opposed to health care reform came out aggressively, often with strange accusations of “death panels” (referring to something begun in the Bush Administration, ironically). The impetus for change seemed to wane by late August. But strange political scandals also were also brewing. Governor Sanford of South Carolina disappeared for a weekend, claiming at first that he had been hiking the Appalachian trail, then ultimately admitting he was with his Argentinian soul mate mistress. Another affair by Sen. Ensign (with weird money exchanges), and the strange resignation of Alaska’s Governor Palin all assured that political spectacle would trump political discourse.
Michael Jackson’s death, of course, was the big news. Fitting that in a strange summer the bizarre death of one of the strangest celebrities of our era would take center stage. In a way he symbolizes some of the cultural ills that brought us to this crisis: he was so addicted to material wealth that he lost sight of what gives life meaning. He tried to change himself, seek weird external satisfactions, and ultimately drowned himself in drugs and escapism. He had it all, success, fame and wealth, but it wasn’t enough.
On the international scene things have been relatively quiet, but disquieting. Afghanistan spirals into deeper tumult, threatening to become Obama’s Vietnam. It doesn’t appear the US can win without a massive increase in force levels (and even then nothing’s guaranteed), but the public both does not want another major military venture, nor does it want to see the Taliban come back to power. In Iraq the US has withdrawn from center stage, but violence remains intense and things could explode at any time.
In terms of the economy, politics, world events, and the weather, one gets the feeling that the strange and somewhat uneventful summer of 2009 represents the world on edge. As the hope for change fades with the harsh light of reality, there is real fear that the economy will spiral further downward, and the foreign conflicts Obama inherited will become his undoing. Though he inherited them, they are his now, and he is responsible for the choices moving forward.
For me personally, it was a summer full of work. I taught two summer courses (with the honors course especially engaging and enjoyable), as well as summer experience. We are still in the midst of our never ending yard project, which has entailed a clearing in the back, a drainage system, and attempts now to get soil to stay down and grass to grow. On top of that, course preparation, starting a research project, and meetings have meant that except for a few weekend days or evenings, the summer has been one of constant work. Yet I don’t feel worn out by it. The physical work on projects was actually refreshing, and I like the results. Also, I needed the teaching work to pay for the summer projects. It was also a strange summer in that we had guests for over two months, disrupting the routine, but yet contributing greatly to the success of the summer projects.
So as the strange summer of 2009 ends, I have a sense of foreboding. Is inflation, stagflation or even hyperinflation just around the corner? What will happen with Afghanistan and Iraq? The situation between Israel and Iran seems to have been pushed from the limelight, but that could change at any time. Is al qaeda really subdued, or are they planning a return to center stage? Will Obama be able to follow through on changes he promised, or will the weight of budget deficits and political gridlock tie him down? I’m hoping for a good autumn, but I feel like we’re in the Hitchcock film The Birds, and the birds are all sitting on the wires and ledges, getting ready to pounce.
Despite that, I’m reading for the fall. I love the start of a new semester, am excited about my classes and hoping these ominous vibes of late summer are just the after effect of having no real time off.
Yet I’ve saved the strangest tidbit for last. In yesterday’s paper there was a picture so bizarre and previously unimaginable that I thought the universe must be going through some kind of major transition. Are the magnetic poles shifting? Are we nearing the end of the Mayan calendar? Because there, in a color photo, wearing Viking Purple and Gold was Brett Favre, Quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. It doesn’t get any stranger than that.
Yesterday I heard the news about a seven year old girl being washed off the rocks at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. Though she and a few others were rescued, she died at the hospital, a victim of the surf from Hurricane Bill. In the paper today was a story about a local man who is pleading guilty to manslaughter. Apparently he was watching an 11 month old and, driven crazy by her screaming, hit her in the stomach hard enough to kill her. He then tried to cover it up by claiming she fell down the stairs. Also, he seems to be devastated by the event, and allegedly has contemplated suicide.
When I heard the news about the seven year old, I closed my mind and made a picture of a young girl, about Ryan’s age, excited to see the high waves at one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. Her family was likely in vacation mode, relaxed, and not even considering that there could be danger at this usually serene park. I imagined what it was like for the parents now, trying to cope, the girl’s shock, fear and pain as she was mortally wounded, and the emotions of the rescue workers and doctors as they tried to save her. Did she have siblings, are her parents still together? I don’t know, but I imagined what they might be experiencing. As I did that, I made no effort to prevent my emotions from feeling that pain, or tears from coming into my eyes.
I can shut off emotions. I’ve learned that if I think abstractly, remind myself of statistics, and put things in a different perspective, I could hear a story like that and think “oh well, that’s life. People die in accidents every day.” I mean, I teach about the Rwandan genocide which killed nearly a million in 100 days, Stalin’s gulags with 20 million dead, or Mao’s industrialization plan for China that lead to a famine which killed 30 million. People are starving daily, children are orphaned thanks to AIDS throughout Africa, children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and in war zones children face death and injury daily.
So if I think in those terms, I can completely avoid any tears or sorrow over a news story about one seven year old. Yet I do not. I choose to let the emotions come forward, feel them, examine them, think about what I would do if something happened to my child, and let the tragedy affect me. Long ago I made a conscious choice not to shut off my empathy in cases like this.
I do so for two reasons. First, I want to know myself and my emotions. If I keep them bottled up, and abstract away chances to really think through the emotional meaning of an event, then I will hide a part of myself from myself. I realized that if I did that abstraction thing, after awhile it would become second nature. I’d never really feel emotion over something like the death of one stranger; at a logical rational level it’s meaningless. At least she had a good life (I assume) for seven years, unlike seven year olds butchered in third world war zones. Soon, though, it would be natural to turn off all empathy — I could abstract away every circumstance and event, and coldly yet rationally accept “that’s the way the world is,” or “their choices brought about the consequence.” I might even fool myself that such an ability was “strength” and that those who felt emotion were being “weak.”
Yet that abstraction is the easy way. It’s also dangerous. If you hide your own emotions from yourself, then you may not understand what’s happening when a tragedy in ones’ own life forces unexplored emotions to the surface. One time after my first son was born, I thought about what would happen if he were abducted or killed in an accident. I went through it in a way that literally had tears running down my face (and hoping my wife wouldn’t wake up and wonder what the hell I was crying about). Few people put themselves through that kind of experience, but I felt it necessary to explore how I would react and think. Of course, I knew that it hadn’t happened, but oddly enough in the emotion of that kind of exercise reality isn’t always as strong as imagination. To break out of it, I had to force myself back to reality. I think, though, I know myself better because I don’t always shut down emotion. If I’m in public I’ll do the rationalizing/abstracting thing quite often to avoid embarrassment, but otherwise I let myself feel.
Another reason is that I think it has an impact on how I look at ethics and choices in the world. Take war. For many people war is often chosen as a reaction to an evil leader, or a threat from a strange civilization or ideology. The emotion there is fear, and war is abstracted into simply an act of providing security or implementing justice. Yet for me, my first thought is the emotion of the people who will be killed, the human tragedy that war entails — especially in an era when 80% of the casualties are innocent civilians. This causes me to view such things differently than I otherwise would, and makes me prone to oppose war and look at human ethics before abstract interest.
Of course, one could accuse me of mushy thinking — consideration of the suffering of innocents might blind me from seeing the stark reality that war is a necessity in this dangerous world and not fighting when necessary might cause even more suffering. Yet my thinking isn’t mushy. I understand the arguments about war, I have been studying and teaching that material for 20 years! When I talk about, say, the Iraq war in class, I spend 20 minutes making the most persuasive case possible for the war, to show students why it could have been seen as logical, even necessary. So my thinking is very clear on the arguments and logic. In fact, one reason I choose to put the human ethic first is because from my knowledge of war and history, it’s rare that conflicts actually improve things. The only time they seem to fix things is when they so utterly destroy a system so that the survivors have to start over from scratch.
In all political debates I try to take this notion of ethics as being connected to how we emotionally understand the predicament of others seriously. This pushes me in diverse directions. Sometimes towards what might be called socialism, sometimes towards libertarian views. Ideologies are intellectual abstractions, they don’t connect well with taking the subjective human experience seriously. The choice I’ve made on how to view the world seems to me to be emotionally and intellectually more robust and tenable than either pure emotion or pure abstraction. Yet it creates calls I have to make based on purely subjective criteria — and, of course, there is no reason for others to adopt my criteria.
It’s also why I have mixed feelings about the second case. If the killer really did simply lose control in a moment of rage, and is devastated by the result, how much vengeance is appropriate? The family of the dead child may want the killer to pay severely, but does that do anything to bring back the child? Does it just waste two lives, when perhaps it’s possible for the killer to learn, change, and do good? Abstracting the case makes it easier — one can say “he killed her, he should pay,” or conversely “it was a rage crime, he can be rehabilitated.” To think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment, and what’s best is a case with no clear solution. Tragedies are like that.
There is this tendency in politics for people to become very concerned about the subjective feelings of their opponents. They do not want an enemy or often someone they disagree with to “feel good” or (a weird phrase) “to be emboldened” by having anything good happen to them. This leads to downright anger of something that might briefly make an enemy “feel” better, often rationalized by claiming it’s ‘legitimizing’ someone (what on earth does that mean in any practical sense?) or has some unspecified political ramifications.
The latest examples of this silly rage come from Libya and North Korea. Yesterday Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted of being part of the terror attack which brought down a jet airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989, killing 270 people, was released. He has three months to live, and the judge decided he could go back to Libya and end his life there.
OK, one can disagree with that decision. Should a convicted terrorist who killed hundreds be allowed to die at home, or should he be forced to die in jail? We can debate that, I’m not sure what the right answer is, but the Judge who had the power to make that decision chose to let him go home. Once he arrived he was given a hero’s welcome by his country folk. OK, I would never give the guy a hero’s welcome, but I’m sure some kind of warped nationalism was in play there.
Impotent to do anything about it, President Obama harshly condemns the decision to release the prisoner or treat him like a hero, and family members express anger and shock about the events. Pundits both left and right get on the soap box to stir up emotions attacking this action. Yet it is a meaningless and ridiculous anger.
First, this guy is all but dead anyway. So he gets a bit of a chance to enjoy life at the end by being treated as a hero. That may not be fair, but it’s not really anything of consequence. Libya’s political position has moved so far from the days of the Lockerbie attack that this is irrelevant to the politics of the day. Nothing brings back the 270 dead, and in reality this is by far one of the most meaningless stories of the day in terms of any practical consequence. No matter, it can stoke emotions, and thus the pundits all converge, and the President feels compelled express his outrage. I yawn.
Last week it was President Clinton’s actions to secure the release of two American journalists who strayed over into North Korea. The pundits on Fox were especially angry, saying that somehow this “legitimated” Kim Jong-il, and gave him “undeserved recognition.” In other words, this bad guy Kim Jong-il had a moment of feeling good. The fox pundits didn’t like that.
Kim Jong-il’s policies, plans and nuclear programs are not impacted at all by this. He still has his cases of cognac and beautiful female playthings to occupy his time. (I used playthings rather than playmates because I’m sure to him they are just objects). This has no practical impact on North Korea’s situation, policies, or its leader’s options.
But it did get two women freed who had been condemned to 12 years of hard labor. Fox’s Dick Morris poo-poo’d their release saying they should “face the consequences of their actions.” Oddly, in his haste to condemn his former boss’s work to free the two, he treated as legitimate the idea they were arrested and sent to hard labor for just crossing the border. I guess that is a real example of legitimation of the dictatorship — from the mouth of Dick Morris!
Again, the pundits were all aflutter (this time primarily from the right) about how this was a bad thing for the US, and somehow was a favor to North Korea. It could be a politically driven effort to try to downplay the success of President Clinton, a man the right still loves to hate, but I think they may truly be caught up in the idea that the goal of policy is to make sure your enemies do not get anything that might make them feel good.
The psychology of it is simple, politics is reduced to a morality play of good vs. evil, and experienced on an emotional level. Moreover, it is political spectacle, where image is all. Thus the real good done by freeing two young female journalists is irrelevant — they are neither the enemy, nor are they on the side of the pundits. What matters is that Kim Jong-Il is smiling and might even have nice things said about him. That means evil is feeling good about itself, which can only mean that good (in the minds of these pundits, that means the US) somehow is being denigrated. Policy doesn’t matter and the impact on real world issues is irrelevant, it’s all about how the bad guy feels.
Given how much real support the US has given dictatorial regimes over the years, including helping coup d’etats which more than once replaced democracy with dictatorship, the idea that somehow we should be in a huff over a meaningless symbolic act that might make an enemy feel good is ridiculous and hypocritical. Both of these cases did no practical or real harm to the US, nor did they help North Korea or Libya. The freed terrorist is still less than three months from death.
Caught up in politics as emotion, observers simply enjoy righteous rage as the day’s distraction, or a chance to pontificate, attack those they dislike, and sound strong and tough. These stories are symbolic of how the spectacle of politics helps distract us from thinking about and discussing the important issues of the day. Instead it’s emotion, sport, and meaningless rage.
Thanks to a post from Mookie, I’ve been thinking about TV and how it has changed. (And Mookie’s a young guy, he probably doesn’t even remember the launching of MTV in 1981!)
Back when I was young I was told in a high school psychology class that most people dream in Black and White. I thought that was an odd thing for the teacher to claim, since I was pretty sure I dreamed in color. When I next had a vividly colored dream I reported it to the teacher, wondering if perhaps I had a special sort of mind that broke through the color barrier. Turns out that my Psych teacher was part of a unique generation — the black and white TV generation. People born in the early era of TV somehow learned to dream in black and white, like TV shows.
On a morning in 1968, I was spared that fate. The telephone rang and my Grandma told me and my sister to go down to the TV room. That room (which later that year would become my bedroom after my second sister was born) was where we got together as a family to watch shows like Batman, Lost in Space, or a movie like PT109 (about JFK in WWII). It was a Saturday morning, cartoon time, so we wasted no time running downstairs. I still remember stopping as my jaw dropped in amazement as the cartoon version of “The Lone Ranger” was on. IN COLOR! My Grandma had bought us a color TV.
My Grandma lived in Mankato, MN, in an apartment over a men’s clothing store. She worked at a store called Buttreys as a manager, and we thought she had the best of all worlds. A cool downtown apartment (with a great metal staircase going up the side of the building), lots of nice neighbors who would give us ice cream, and a color TV. When we visited, we’d rush to watch whatever was on, often Johnny Carson late at night. I still recall the jingle for Channel 11 out of Minneapolis “Metromedia television, 11, 11, 11….” In those days the color shows had a “C” in the TV Guide next to them. My Grandma also had something rare — cable television. Rural areas were experimenting with ways to expand the number of stations received, and Mankato happened to have an early cable system in the mid-sixties (she got about nine stations, I believe).
It was in Mankato where I saw Johnny Carson have Raquel Welch as a guest. She came out with a cat, and she said, “would you like to pet my pussy,” and he replied, “sure, if you move that damn cat.” Google this incident and it’s listed as an urban legend that didn’t happen. There are no tapes from many of those episodes, what was on live dissipated as soon as the image flashed on the screen, there is no record. As far as history is concerned, Carson and Welch managed to get that scene categorized as “never having happened.” But I saw it. I know. I also remember when Heidi, a movie about a Swiss girl, interrupted an exciting football playoff game — you know that wouldn’t happen now.
Sioux Falls didn’t get cable until 1974, but we enjoyed having a real color TV. After school I’d watch shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hogan’s Heroes. The TV moved to our basement rec room after the TV room became my bedroom. I had the only downstairs bedroom, though, so I could sneak out and watch shows like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, the Twilight Zone, and Johnny Carson. And, of course, with only a few stations, everyone watched the same shows. All the school kids watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer the one night it was on, or my favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. By high school we were talking every Monday about 60 Minutes, and the way they caught some corrupt person red handed.
Television changed the country. I recall watching All in the Family from the start in 1970, and despite being so young, appreciating that it was a new kind of sitcom — reflecting the times. Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and that great sitcom with Valerie Bertenelli (mom and two daughters, handman Schneider…can’t recall the name of the show, MacKenzie Phillips was the other daughter). After I got over my crush on Marcia from The Brady Bunch, I was in love with Valerie. Television was our pop culture, it reflected changing values, especially as my all time favorite show, MASH pushed the boundaries of how to deal with issues like war and patriotism. But perhaps my favorite were the mystery movies — Columbo, Banacek, Macmillan and Wife. Banacek (George Peppard) was really cool, he had a phone in his car!
The 80s saw a continuation of the TV era…St. Elsewhere, Hillstreet Blues, Cheers, The Cosby Show (Thursday night was the original Must See TV on NBC)…but yet, change was afoot. Suddenly the cable systems were offering 50 or more channels, with a “cable box” (since TVs only went to channel 13). A 24 hour news station, CNN, was introduced, with swift and surprising success. MTV came out when I was 21, and I soon found myself addicted to watching that cool new art form, the music video. For a brief time, this fragmentation co-existed with a solid core of heavily watched network TV.
By the 90s cable was into the hundreds of stations. People had been buying satellite dishes — huge expensive pieces of equipment to tap into satellites. For awhile, this brought the few who could afford such a thing a massive amount of TV — until stations started to scramble their signals. Soon mini-dishes with services like Dishnet and Direct TV took over. Now with DVRs, programming is so fragmented that TV rarely offers that cultural window that it did in the past. It is to the current generation what radio was to mine — useful at times, but not primary.
It was the internet, combining with massive fragmentation, that altered television forever. The era of television ended sometime in the mid-nineties, as the internet started to take over. The “Tuesday Night Movie” that might be watched by a good chunk of the country — a TV release of last year’s theater favorite — became irrelevant as DVD rentals and now video on demand via computer allowed one to watch films uncensored for TV, and without commercials. The Saturday morning cartoon ritual became replaced by multiple cartoon stations repeating the same shows over and over, all day long. Even young kids are shifting from TV to the internet.
I enjoyed the television era. From the classic commercials (“I Can’t Believe I ate the whole thing…”) to 80% of the country tuning in to Walter Cronkite to get the thirty minutes of evening news, it was a charming and culturally significant part of Americana. Of course television, like radio before, isn’t going to disappear. Radio found its niches — music, talk radio, sports, morning weather reports, etc. — and television will continue to have its niche appeal. Parents won’t worry about kids watching too much TV, they’ll monitor internet time. Kids will watch old shows at time for fun, laughing at of Star Trek episodes, so politically incorrect according to today’s sensibilities, but groundbreakingly progressive in the mid-sixties.
Robert Plant’s 1980s song “Little by Little, everything changes” jumps in my head a lot these days. Back in the 80s it seemed that TV would be the entertainment mode of the future, and all technological advances would go via the television. Now, it has been pushed aside by a digital mass media age that changes everything about how people entertain themselves, network, communicate and interact. And, while it’s tempting to decry the change, I remember days in high school, bored at home at night…watching TV, writing stories, reading…what I wouldn’t have given to be able to go on line and connect!