Archive for August, 2009
Posted by Scott Erb in Science, Science and philosophy on August 30, 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!
In a Alternate Universe…
Posted by Scott Erb in Fiction, History, Iran, Islam and the West on August 28, 2009
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.
Ted Kennedy and the End of an Era
Posted by Scott Erb in Edward Kennedy, US Politics on August 27, 2009
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.
The Strange Summer of 2009
Posted by Scott Erb in Barack Obama, Culture, US Politics, World Affairs on August 24, 2009
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.
Posted by Scott Erb in North Korea, Terrorism, US Politics on August 21, 2009
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.
The End of the Television Era
Posted by Scott Erb in Culture, Life, Media, Television on August 20, 2009
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!
Democrats should get Machiavellian
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election, Barack Obama, Health Care, US Politics on August 19, 2009
This will not be a popular argument for my more conservative and libertarian readers, but in political terms, I think the Democratic party and Barack Obama need to cease their efforts to create bi-partisan health care reform, and instead use their majorities to pass their agenda, and then let the public have a chance to vote them out in 2010 and 2012 if they don’t like it.
Ronald Reagan, the iconic conservative President of the 1980s, made a point of standing on principle, even if it was unpopular. That earned him respect from even Democrats. Barack Obama and the Democratic party made health care reform a fundamental part of their campaign, and it gained them considerable support. Now the Republicans are launching a frontal assault on the plan, with disruption of meetings, false claims of ‘death panels’ and an effort to, as one describes “destroy the Obama Presidency.” The Republicans have declared political war. They don’t want to cooperate or compromise on this issue.
At this point, Obama has to consider his options. He could cave in and drop his efforts to reform health care for now, thereby making it unlikely he’ll get anything passed, and showing himself a weakened President. That would be politically expedient in the short term, but hurt both him and his party in the longer term.
The Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate, and a considerable majority in the house. Given the economy, this may be their only opportunity to push the country in a different direction than it has been going. Obama hoped to unify, but the divisions between the parties remain intense. The only way the GOP will work with Obama is if he makes it clear that fighting him tooth and nail on everything will only get the Republicans cut out of the picture. He has to make it in their interest to cooperate.
Consider: if you’re a Republican, you hope that you can rally opposition to force Obama to back down, make him look weak, grab the high ground, and push against the Democratic agenda. As long as Obama either backs down or is unable to muster the votes in his own party to pass legislation, he looks weak. That will lose him support from moderates who found him inspirational, turn the left in his own party against him, and demoralize the Democrats who had so much hope a year ago.
So the Republicans right now feel like they are in the drivers’ seat, as long as Obama proves to be a weak opponent. And he does appear weak — even Jon Stewart is mocking him for not being able to control the message the way Bush did in the run up to the Iraq war. The Democrats need to decide to stand and govern on principle, pass what they can pass, and let the Republicans rip them while they do it.
Take health care. Obama needs to make a national address showing how the health care system is in a financial crisis, with the current system unsustainable. He should make a strong moral argument about the dangers of letting the market control this, noting the corruption and abuse the financial system underwent when market deregulation occurred. He must point out projections that show that the current system is near collapse, and paint a dire picture of the cost of doing nothing (perhaps seven times higher than the cost of the current system). He needs to put this in the context of the current crisis we’re facing and starkly point out that doing nothing is no option. He needs to then deride the misleading information on the current plans, and say that it is imperative to move forward.
The Democrats can pass a proposal with only 51 Senate votes — if they go to reconciliation, they can avoid a Republican filibuster. The Republicans have said that would be a “declaration of war,” but it appears they are already at war with Obama. Moreover, the public tends not to get too excited by procedural controversies, so this won’t really hurt the Democrats in terms of public opinion.
The GOP will respond by targeting legislators and Senators who may be in vulnerable states or districts. The Democrats need to put on their own information offensive, and hope that time and the fact that their changes are not so odious as right wing claims causes people to shift opinion yet again. Moreover, a truism in politics is that the public has a short memory. Whatever issue is in the spotlight in October 2010 will drive the next election, the fights of 2009 will be quickly forgotten. And, of course, the White House will have a lot of influence over what dominates the news in October 2010.
After health care is passed, Obama should again call for cooperation and compromise on future issues. At first the Republicans may refuse due to anger over losing on health care. But ultimately that emotion will give way to the idea that perhaps by being part of the discussion they can better influence legislation moving forward. If so, Obama should welcome that. The Democrats have the power to pass a lot without Republican cooperation, but the more they do so, the more dangerous it is that it will backfire.
On the right, many may want to keep up a war against Obama rather than cooperate and compromise for similar reasons. Many on the left would prefer to just push through as much as possible and not even try to cooperate. But these folks over-estimate the support a hard core message on the left or the right generates. Obama and the Democrats need to make clear they want substantive cooperation and compromise, but if the Republicans refuse, they will use their votes to get legislation passed. If the GOP responds positively, Obama must also not fear real compromise, even if the left wing of his party gets upset.
In 2010 the country will be someplace else. In 2012, when Obama runs for re-election, the issues that dominate will no doubt be quite different than those today, we can only speculate. In 1994 nobody thought Clinton would have a chance at re-election in 1996, but he won easily. In 1982 Reagan looked weak, but he rebounded. Obama and the Democrats can’t let fear of public reaction stop them from doing what they campaigned to do, and what they have the votes to accomplish.
Obama was elected because people wanted change, and he inspired hope. If he thought that good will would last more than a month or so into his Presidency, he was wrong. The Presidency is not a marketing campaign. He needs to lead, even if it means ruffling some feathers or getting people upset. He needs to recognize that his role requires he do what he thinks best for the country, even if it might threaten his re-election in 2012. Obama is being tested. To pass, he needs to lead.
Is There a God, Daddy?
After the bleak post Friday about economic collapse being perhaps inevitable, I got away with the family for three days camping at Lake Rangely in western Maine. That was uplifting and took my mind miles away from our current economic crisis.
Lake Rangely is a huge lake, located in one of the most beautiful parts of Maine, about an hour from where we live. It is near some of the best hiking in the state, and not far from the ski resorts of Sugarloaf and Saddleback. At the park swim beach (which is grass, not sand) the view is simply awesome. You can see numerous mountains in the background, the lake is huge and wide, and there is a sense of serenity that comes from being in such beauty.
There is also something timeless about camping, especially for those of us who still use tents and campfires. The burgers aren’t really any different than the burgers that were eaten 40 years ago, at least not in taste and appearance. The wood posts with campsite numbers seem timeless and universal, as do the well traveled dirt roads around the site. The sounds, the bugs, kids riding bikes, and towels and swim suits on the lines, all part of the camping experience for some time. Then of course is the fire — grilling food, making ‘smores, and smelling the wood burn and watching the plasmic energy from the flames, with sparks shooting out to the sides.
The kids were excited because they were up “later then they’ve ever been,” as we told them. We were going to the beach, time to bring the lanterns. “Are we going swimming,” our three year old asked? No, we’re going to look at the stars. So excited they were by going on a walk in the dark, they didn’t question the idea that looking at the stars could be fun. We treked the short hike to the beach, telling scary stories and got there to find it deserted. We put some towels down and watched the night sky. Early August provides a great meteor shower; once in northern Minnesota I counted upwards of 60 shooting stars over Lake Superior, and once in Vermont my wife and I saw dozens. But it’s a bit late in August, so I hoped we’d at least get a few.
And we did. The kids saw some, the adults saw more. Ryan, our six year old was intrigued by the fact that these were not really stars (he knows stars are far away suns) but big space rocks burning up as they enter our atmosphere. That started the questions — why are there rocks in space, why does the air burn them, what is friction, etc. Ryan, tired from a day of swimming, wanted to go back to the camp site a bit before the rest (my brother in law and his son were there too), so I walked back with him.
Earlier this week he asked me for the truth on the tooth fairy. “What do you think,” I replied. “I think it’s you and mommy sneaking me money.” I asked if he really wanted to know the truth, and he said yes. So I told him, but said he can’t tell his little brother. “I don’t want things flying in my room anyway,” he said, seeming almost relieved. A couple days later he extended that same logic to figuring out that Santa doesn’t exist.
He’s trying to make sense of his world. “Dad, I wished on that shooting star to be a rock star, will I get the wish because I saw the shooting star,” he asked skeptically. “No,” I said, “that’s just a story people came up with because they thought shooting stars were so cool that they must be special. To be a rock star you’ll have to learn a musical instrument, practice, and work hard.”
We got back to the tent, grabbed the toothpaste and some water. “Daddy,” he asked again, “is there a God?” I looked at him and said, “I don’t know.” He seemed surprised by that answer (and I was myself, to some extent.) “But somebody had to make this all,” he said. I nodded. “I think God made all the buildings, and he invented the universe.”
“Is God a he,” I asked. Ryan said “no, a she, right?” I smiled.
“What does it mean to believe something,” I asked?
“I believe you when you tell me something,” he responded. “I think you’re right.” I asked if he knew I was right, or just believed it. “You’re always right, so I know you’re right,” was his response. I suspect he won’t be saying that ten years from now. I then asked if that were true even when I told him about the tooth fairy when he was younger. I finally convinced him that just believing me was not the same as knowing for himself.
“I believe there is a God,” I told him. “I believe God isn’t he or she, or anything like a person, I think God is the spirit of life that makes the universe work, and I think we can feel God when we feel love, or happiness with others. I believe that.”
“But you don’t know it?” No, I said, it’s belief. He asked awhile back why we don’t go to church (ironically after watching the Simpsons go to church). “Don’t you love God or Jesus?” I told him that people had different ideas of God in their heads and tended to fight about whose idea is right. I reminded him of that and said, “if I just believe and don’t know, then I won’t fight about it because I know I might be wrong.”
“What do you think God is,” he asked, “In the Simpsons he’s a giant man with a white beard. Bart said God could be a happy God or a vengeful (he first pronounced it ‘vengitable’) God who gets mad and makes you have wars and breaks stuff.” (Note to self: start teaching him about world religions, despite the genius of the Simpsons, he shouldn’t get all his theology there).
“I think God is just love, and everywhere we feel love. God isn’t a person or anything we can understand.”
“What happens when we die, do we go to the heavens?” (He cutely calls heaven ‘the heavens.’)
“Maybe,” I replied, as we watched the fire, with the others still at the lake. “We probably come back here and live other lives. Who knows, you might be my grandpa later on. ” He responded to that with a look that said “no way!”
“Do we remember our old lives?” I responded by asking if he remembered any other lives. “No,” he said.
I continued, “I think we forget them and then only remember them after we die. I don’t know; but do you really think its possible that you will ever not be?” He was tired now, and the conversation was getting complicated. “I wish I could remember my old lives. Will I remember them in the heavens?”
“I think so, I believe so,” I replied. “But we can talk about all this sometime when we have more time. This is a really interesting world we find ourselves in.” Before I said good night I had to add one more thing, “but this is all belief. I don’t know. None of us know until we die. So it’s important to live while we’re here and try to be good in this world — to have fun and learn stuff!” He smiled and soon fell asleep.
Posted by Scott Erb in Consumerism, Culture, Economy, US Politics on August 14, 2009
I made the three hour plus trek to Deer Isle, a beautiful section along the coast of Maine, to hear Chris Hedges speak on Thursday. I also was able to have him sign a copy of his just published book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. His talk was hard hitting and to the point. The US is on the verge of a complete breakdown thanks to the way in which corporations have taken over our political and cultural realms. We have socialism already, but it’s a corporate socialism whereby the government bails out companies, allows big money to write legislation, and pours billions into a pointless war machine that engages in violence and aggression across the globe. Not only is this contrary to American values, but it has created an unsustainable economic situation where collapse is all but inevitable.
He had harsh words for Democrats like Obama and Clinton, as well as Republicans like Bush. It’s clear he had nothing but disdain for the Christian right — a group that he called ‘Christian fascists’ — though he publically has debated Hitchens and Dawkins, arguing that radical atheism is just as bad. (That was in an answer to a question from the audience, in that answer he ridiculed meme theory, which caused me to want to stand up right there and applaud!) Politics has become spectacle, our culture has become a corporately manipulated consumer pseudo culture.
Hedges used Michael Jackson’s death as symbolic of who we have become. Jackson was literally driven insane by the way he was exploited in life — his childhood was robbed, he could not distentangle his public and private life, he mutilated his body out of self-loathing, yet was kept in a guilded cage where he seemed to have anything he wanted. The public treated his tragic and bizarre life as entertainment, a celebrity reality show. His funeral was watched by over 30 million, a glitzy entermainment special, the final installment of the Michael Jackson show.
Jackson’s life is an exaggerated symbol of who we have become as a people. As more money gets sucked up into the pockets of the elite, the number of working poor expand, and the stability of the middle class deteriorates. We got deep into debt to try to keep the illusion alive, relying on the largesse of countries like China and the Arab world for our capacity to do so. At some point they will stop buying our bonds and currency, the dollar will collapse, and the public will be ill prepared for the depravation and hard times that will be forced upon us. It’ll happen as baby boomers retire, making unfulfillable demands on federal coffers for social security and medicare, bankrupting the country (or causing those programs to collapse). It will be another Great Depression, and the bile now ridiculed as just entertainment — the Limbaughs, Hannitys and Becks — will become the rallying cry of a new right wing fascism designed to reimpose the moral order and blame others (liberals, internationalists, socialists, whatever) for the collapse of the American system. In short, Hedges believes we’re in for a crisis of historical proportions.
He also talked about the dangers of global warming, and how now in northern Russia methane gas is shooting up from the once frozen seas, going into the atmosphere with 25 times the strength of carbon dioxide as a green house gas. Our oil and debt addicted shallow materialist consumer culture created an illusion we could party without consequence, consume without producing, and live in the spectacle of the moment, distracted from the massive corruption and theft being perpetrated by the elite. Obama, he says, isn’t changing this a bit — he’s still in Iraq and Afghanistan, still pouring money into the military machine, and is allowing corporations to control the writing of any health care reform being considered. We simply allow this because, thanks to debt and spectacle, we are living in our own guilded cages.
Heavy stuff. Yet it’s hard to find a flaw in his analysis. Debt the size of our GDP, unsustainable current account deficits, and a record high gap between the rich and poor are signs of an economy on the verge of destruction. The higher deficits and programs undertaken by Obama may hold off the inevitable, but reality cannot be denied. We’re totally unprepared because anyone under 65 (and not already part of the poverty stricken subculture) has lived a life where comfort was considered an American birthright, believing the myth that somehow the free market handles everything well. The market is not, however, free — again, Hedges notes, correctly I think, the strong corporate socialism. Moreover the myth of the magical market allows people to rationalize amoral behavior, including consumption of goods produced through exploitation, the de-industrialization of the country (as workers suffer or move to unproductive service sector jobs), and consumption without consideration of consequence. He noted that if you count people who are out of work but given up looking, and those working poorly paid part time work, our unemployment rate would be at 20%, a fifth of the workforce.
As readers of this blog note, all of this resonates with me because I’ve been exploring similar themes (check my posts on the economy, and on consumerism, by clicking the links to the right for a listing of those posts). With young children ages 6 and 3, I worry that the future will be nothing like the opulant, easy life we’ve grown accustomed to. But what can be done?
Hedges argued there is still time to take back the country. Rather than respond to the crisis with arrogance and blame, we need to learn humility and reject American imperialism and corporate socialism. We need again to put the worker first, focus on production, and see real, average people as more important than ideologies and elites. Yet no one can win an election without massive amounts of money, and the people, rendered numb by non-political spectacle, or seduced into embracing the corporate socialist state through talk radio and emotion driven politics, seem to have no desire to take control. We have been manipulated into submission.
Hedges calls for a kind of ‘Democratic Socialism,’ using Switzerland and Scandinavia as examples of countries where despite high taxes they have excellent quality of life and all are assured basic standards of care. Here, I think Hedges may be a bit off the mark. Not only is American culture pre-disposed to distrust that style of governmental organization, but we are so much larger than the Scandinavian states that a centralized welfare system could be choked by a morass of bureaucracy. Yet his mention of Switzerland saves his idea, I think.
Switzerland is not considered socialist. Yet it reflects the communitarian values Hedges articulates. I’d argue that the “left” needs to get out of bed with corporate America and call the current system what Hedges labels it, and what it is: corporate socialism. The socialists have already taken over, and their defenders are the Hannitys who claim to be defending market capitalism. The defenders are the so-called ‘neo-libertarians’ who support massive military spending and American imperialism. The first order of business is to take apart this corporate socialism, help infuse real productive capacity at home, and bring down the debt.
Second, we need a de-centralized communitarian approach, building on local, county and state actions, not on a large government bureaucracy. This is impossible now, but as the collapse unfolds, the weakness of the current government vis-a-vis corporate America (really the reach is global now) will become obvious. The only way for people to re-assert control is to be active locally, focusing on everything from food to sustainable energy. Communities have to come together, the guilded cage in which we’ve been living has supported a disconnect between the individual and his or her community. Individuals are autonomous consumers, community has become simply a location on a map.
Next week I’ll blog about Hedges’ answer to a question I asked, and I’ll give my thoughts as I read through the book. Needless to say, it was a powerful and thought provoking talk — the auditorium (Reach Auditorium at Deer Isle) was packed with hundreds, and Hedges received a sustained standing ovation.