Archive for January, 2011
I was going up the T-bar at Titcomb Mountain, Farmington’s local very family friendly ski mountain on Thursday. It’s not a big mountain, the run down is just a couple minutes, though the views and layout of the trails is superb. As the sun was setting, and the night ski lights came on, I looked at the snow glistening under my skis as I was pulled up the mountain. I found myself filled with exuberance. The beauty of the moment overwhelmed me – clear skies, clean crisp air, the mountains the snow. An amazing world!
At the top I joined a group of second and third grade skiers, including my son. This is a group of seven youngsters, with ten other groups from grades K-3 taking lessons from university students hired to teach. The sound of kids laughing, various lessons taking place, and the activity up and down the hill had a vibrancy that blended with the natural beauty. Here a new kind of beauty emerged — social beauty.
By social beauty I mean simply that this community organizes itself in ways that inspire the same feelings as when I look out over the ski trails at dusk. These lessons — every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30, draw a large number of families who want their youngsters to learn to ski. It’s cheap — only $40 for six weeks — and there is an atmosphere of family and community. Most parents just drop their kids off, but I volunteered to ski with the group, enjoying honing my skills too. Whether it’s kindergartners just learning, or groups like this one of kids who handle themselves well on skis, it’s a real benefit to the community.
Saturday a five year old friend of my five year old son had a birthday party there, and it was great. There’s nothing like riding the t-bar with a five year old between your legs, and then heading down the mountain as he learns to ski. My seven year old, of course, was off on his own — he’s mastered the slopes and has his own friends to ski with.
Earlier Saturday Ryan (the seven year old) got the winning basket in his game in a league for 2nd and 3rd graders. It is competitive in that they have teams that play a season and then a single elimination tournament. But while they play the director/referee is lax in enforcing rules like traveling or double dribbling, instead usually stopping the child, explaining what they did wrong, and then having them start again. Parents cheer both teams, and the purpose is learning and fun, not winning. Yet having a tournament is important because it shows that even though the purpose may be primarily learning and fun, you still try to win, and that’s a good thing. The teams in soccer and basketball have the names of real teams — Ryan’s this year is the Milwaukee Bucks, though when I first told him that he looked at me surprised, “my team is the walking butts?” Saturday’s score: Milwaukee Bucks 13 Orlando Magic 12.
Of course, in fall there is soccer, organized through the Farmington rec department. Every weekend for two months over 150 kids 1st grade through 5th play in teams, followed by a tournament. Again it is competitive in the fact that the tournament is single elimination and the champions win trophies, but it’s not in the sense that adults and coaches see it more for teaching skills and letting the kids have fun than to win. Families watch their kids on the sidelines, chatting with each other as the kids play. Beautiful.
At the university swim lessons are free for beginners (through level two). For pre-schoolers, that can mean two or three years of free swim lessons, thanks to a donation some time ago. It’s also twice a week, and I get the same feeling looking at the parents bringing their kids and towels to the pool, with sometimes dozens of kids (especially the winter sessions) learning to swim. In Maine with all our lakes swimming is a necessary skill! Our seven year old has mastered it, the five year old is still working on it.
The community also has football for third graders and up, dance is big, especially (though not solely) for girls, there’s a very successful t-ball and baseball league, cross country skiing, summer camps, and a variety of things for kids to do. I really oppose over scheduling kids, and most of these are not time intense at the beginning. We made some conscious choices (e.g., he’ll be tired with skiing and Saturday basketball, so no boy scouts, or cross country skiing), and let the kids dictate a lot (Ryan decided he really didn’t like T-ball, so we didn’t continue).
Being in a community with so many activities for kids is really great, and the coming together of people to interact and share the experience is invaluable. Moreover, the social beauty mixes with the natural. On soccer playoff evenings, at twilight as they play the star spangled banner with the sun setting, kids lined up in little soccer jerseys, green well manicured grass and a series of ad hoc (smaller than regulation) soccer fields, the smell of autumn in the air, well, it’s amazing. Or being at the pool as dozens of pre-schoolers prepare for lessons, parent with towels, chatting as the instructors get ready. Or, of course, Mt. Titcomb and the beauty of winter.
When natural and social beauty intersect I get a sense of content satisfaction. Given the state of the world from Moscow to Cairo to inner cities and war zones, I am profoundly thankful that I live in a place that mixes social and natural beauty in such an exquisite manner. At least in terms of community and childrens activities in Farmington, Maine, the state motto “the way life should be” rings true to me.
President Obama delivered a very well crafted State of the Union message last night, in which most of his applause lines drew applause from both Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden behind him. The tone was bi-partisan or even non-partisan, the theme was the American dream, and he stated the uncontroversial goal of needing to create a better future. He also made an invitation to the Republicans to work with him, build compromise, and face the challenge of the future together — noting that if they don’t work together, nothing will get done. That is the nature of a divided government. The message was clear: the times require action, inaction will harm the country’s competitiveness in this new era of globalization.
He’s right in all of that, but those are easy words to say. Representative Paul Ryan’s Republican response also correctly pointed out the dangers inherent in high debt and deficits, and the need to fundamentally re-organize how the government operates. Yet he gave few specifics either — criticizing the debt and high deficits is easy. In general, the two sides have a lot of potential common ground. The President’s framing of the problems ahead show four areas where compromise is possible:
1. Investment in the future. Although the Republicans in general dislike such spending, many of them are in districts or regions that could benefit greatly from government support for infrastructure and research and development. Republicans have historically supported such endeavors if they are done in a way that doesn’t seem too intrusive to markets or wasteful. This is an area where they could support some of the programs Obama discussed, but in exchange for compromise on other fronts.
2. Regulatory reform. The Obama Administration has made simplification of the tax code, and cutting regulations a priority. Again, that’s easy to do in theory, but in practice it’s hard to change entrenched bureaucracies and rules crafted with the help of well funded lobbyists. The executive branch can and will make some changes on its own, but significant moves often require Congressional action. This seems an issue the Republicans could grab, creating a “wish list” of regulatory cuts that they can bring into negotiations. Their message: cutting regulations needs to be meaningful, and might hurt Democratic sacred cows.
3. Immigration reform. This is a political winner for the Democrats, as the Latino vote is the largest growing segment of the electorate, and right now GOP rhetoric is giving the Democrats a chance to claim this block as their own. But outside of that issue, there are many reasons to think the GOP should do well with Latinos. If some kind of significant immigration reform deal could be struck, the GOP may find the political weight of the immigration issue lifted from their backs. The tea partiers will be upset, but they’ll get over it (and they may find themselves increasingly marginalized anyway). After all, there was near success on this issue under President Bush in 2007 so they should be able to do something in 2011.
4. Budget cuts and tax increases. President Obama put the Republicans on notice that the tax cut to the richest Americans would be part of the campaign in 2012. Assuming the economy is showing job growth, the argument that “we can’t cut taxes in a recession” would be trumped by “we have to do meaningful things to bring down the debt.”
There should be a lot of room for compromise on cuts in discretionary spending; both sides want to do that. Yet significant reform of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the so-called entitlements — is the only way to fundamentally alter the structure of the budget. Yet Democrats have done well with those issues, criticizing Republican calls to cut or privatize these programs. They have no interest politically in being in league with the GOP to talk about “endangering Social Security.” Republicans as well realize that such suggestions could harm them in 2012, they have usually avoided specifics on entitlement reform.
On the other hand, Americans pay the lowest taxes in the industrialized world. Increasing tax rates would be one way to raise revenue. While some seem to think cutting taxes increases revenue all the time, few serious economists think we’re at a point where tax hikes done right will decrease revenue. Moreover, the economic impact of tax hikes is usually about the same as spending cuts — either way demand is cut.
Republicans have no political reason to compromise here. They have found that an anti-tax message does them as much good as the ‘protect social security’ message does Democrats. Yet there are creative ways they can compromise on taxation. One is to shift new revenues to the states instead of the federal government. At the same time, federal programs could also be moved to the state level, meaning that the federal budget is cut. To be sure, the money given to states must be enough to pay for the programs they would take over, but the Republicans may find it much easier to sell “de-centralizing” bureaucracy than to cut popular programs. States would have minimum standards to maintain, but could experiment at being more efficient. If they could manage programs more efficiently than Washington there would be real savings. Tax increases sent directly to states could be part of a “dismantling” of bureaucratic rule.
In exchange, the Democrats can support entitlement reform. These do not have to be major, and clearly privatization is not the way to go. But what if incentives were made to further increase the retirement age? One could statistically determine how much the system would save if one retired at 75, 78, 80 or 82. As long as one didn’t draw into the account until a certain age, one would gain more monthly. The game could be structured to be a significant net savings for the system, but many individuals might opt not to pull money out until a later time, either because they enjoy their work, or they’re gambling they’ll live especially long and want more steady income late in life. There are likely numerous ways to save money if the two sides share ideas and are willing to compromise.
Tweaks to health care reform will likely remain elusive for now. The GOP plans to run on “repeal and replace” in 2012. Chances are great that they’ll fail, and only then will they be content to tweak the system for improvements. Making the safe assumption that Obama wins in 2012 and the GOP holds the House, that could be an impetus for some restructuring of the reform passed last year.
The key questions at this point are political and ideological. Ideologically, can each group accept something less than what they want without falling into the trap of believing they are somehow “compromising principles.” Politically, can they decide its more important to solve problems then generate arguments and ammo for the next election cycle?
A compromise is usually something neither party really likes. Pragmatists focus on what they accomplished, the idealists obsess on what they had to give up. With Obama’s approval ratings up, Republicans have lost some of the wind in their sails, they can’t just coast on public anger over what happened in 2009 or 2010. The transformation many on the left hoped the 2008 election would bring also isn’t going to happen, the American public remains cautious and centrist. In our system, change is slow.
But perhaps the two sides can move from spectacle to problem solving. That seems to be what the voters want.
Not long ago Republicans were salivating over the prospect of making Obama a one term President. Hoping to stir up controversy within the Democratic party, some conservatives openly speculated that the Democrats would need Hillary Clinton to rescue them from Obama’s unpopularity. Just before the Midterms the Rasmussen daily tracking poll had Obama’s approval ratings below 45%, with disapproval above 55%. Worse for the President, the “strongly disapprove” was over 20 points higher than strongly approve. Obama, it appeared, had lost the magic.
On Monday Rasmussen’s poll showed Obama with 52% approval and 47% disapproving. Strongly disapprove still leads strongly approve, but only by 4 points. Other polls show Obama’s approval up near 55%, and where a month ago it was hard to find approval out polling disapproval in any poll, now all point in Obama’s direction. Many speculated that a successful State of the Union address would allow Obama to start on the road to regaining his popularity; that journey appears to have started even before tomorrow’s address.
To be sure, some of it had to do with his stellar performance in the wake of the Giffords shooting. His speech was praised by both the right and left as hitting the right, non-partisan tone. That fed into approval numbers which had been improving for the President steadily since November. Some of it can be attributed to Democrats “coming back” to the President. His low numbers were never a massive shift of opinion to the GOP; many liberal Democrats gave him failing marks for falling short of their expectations of a more partisan President. Repealing DADT, passing the new START and accomplishing quite a bit in the lame duck legislative session helped convince many that the President was bringing real change. But the shift is also due to independents giving Obama another chance. So does this mean he’s going to follow in the footsteps of Reagan and Clinton — go from a near death experience early in his first term to a cake walk re-election?
Obviously, it’s too early to tell. If the economy does not improve, if scandal erupts, or things start going really bad in Afghanistan and Iraq, the President could suffer. Yet there are reasons to think that the worst is over for Obama, at least in his first term.
One big reason is that for the next two years Obama can avoid controversy and appear “above the partisan fray” much of the time. The Republicans have the House, so there is no pressure for the Democrats to move forward on the progressive agenda. The President will not take on any more issues like health care or an economic stimulus that will create a partisan firestorm. Yet the President won’t have to actively use the veto power to stop the Republicans, since Democrats in the Senate can block anything that the President doesn’t want to deal with. The President can instead focus on what is popular with the American people, trying to “change the tone” and create compromise. If the Republicans refuse, nothing will happen, and he can say “I’m trying.”
In essence, the President can focus less on trying to bring change in policy to focusing on change in tone. He can fulfill the symbolic role of the Presidency in a manner designed to play to his positives and appear Presidential. This pushes off any chance for opposition in the primaries, and can set the Obama campaign machine up for a strong run in 2012. No campaign has ever had the success of the Obama team in 2008; it would be foolish to expect anything less than a massive and effective campaign in 2012.
The Republicans have one shot at Obama, but it’s a very risky one. They could refuse to pass a budget that doesn’t conform to their demands of fiscal responsibility. That is what the Republicans tried to do to President Clinton in 1995, and it backfired. The resulting government shutdown appeared the work of Republicans unwilling to compromise or negotiate with the President in good faith. While conservatives will disagree that the shut down was really their fault, that’s how it was perceived.
In 2011 that strategy is a long shot. First, Obama still has the Senate riding interference. Obama could start by proposing a budget to Congress that contains deficit reduction. The Republicans would say that it doesn’t go far enough, and demand greater cuts. In a show of “good cop/bad cop,” the Senate could balk, demanding that the House adhere more closely to the President’s budget request. The President himself could intervene and offer compromises that appear to be siding with the GOP House, going farther to meet the Republicans “half way” than the Senate — while reminding the GOP and the country that holding only one house, the Republicans can’t demand it be their way or no way. If the Presidents approval numbers stay reasonably high — if he remains popular — the GOP will have a hard time saying that 2010 was a mandate for them to hold firm.
This would leave the Republicans with a difficult choice. They could decide to fight this out, shutting down government, and creating a crisis which they hope will get the country on their side. But if they do that, they will find themselves risking seats in Congress and the Senate, even if it satisfies their base. They could decide to do as they did in the lame duck session and reach a compromise. That would probably be benefit the President, even if the base of the Democratic party would be upset (as would the GOP base). Finally, they could choose not to go the mattresses on this, but instead give in, saying that they will bring the issue to the public in 2012. That might be the best strategy, though if Obama has momentum, it won’t be a game changer.
The Republicans also have rifts in their party wider than those in the Democratic party. Feuding between “tea partiers” and “establishment Republicans” would only serve to weaken their message (or make it incomprehensible). The goal could ultimately be to hang on to the House and try to make inroads in the Senate rather than getting the White House in 2012. Moreover, Republican leaders have to consider that the 2016 climate within the country and the GOP might call for a far different message than it did in 2010 — and if they can guess where that will be, smart ones can position themselves well in 2012.
Simply, just as the political waves shifted towards the GOP in 2009, there are signs that 2011 is seeing a shift towards Obama and the Democrats. It likely won’t be enough to win the Democrats back the House, but the triumph felt by the GOP in November may give way to the same kind of reality check that the Democratic optimism of 2008 had to endure. The wild card, of course, is the economy. If growth and jobs start coming back, Obama will benefit greatly. If the country falls back into recession or job growth stays stagnant, Republicans will have a golden opportunity if they can field the right candidate. But right now Obama appears in the drivers’ seat, having weathered a political storm in 2010. Yet as we know, political winds can shift on a dime.
One of the well known paradoxes of quantum mechanics is that light is both a particle and a wave. On its face this appears to be contradictory. In one state light appears to have its energy spread out, creating interference patterns if waves intersect. In another state, particles act, hitting things like sensors which allow us to operate remote controls for TVs and garage doors. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to conceptualize light as being both at the same time. It’s not like the particles form a wave in the way water molecules form ocean waves. Rather, the essential nature of light is that it is both a wave and a particle at the same time. This is still unnerving to many, despite the physicist Nils Bohrs notion of complimentarity: these states are not contradictory but complementary, as you need both to describe reality.
I was thinking about this in light of recent discussions about whether or not social phenomena are simply the product of individuals making choices, or if humans are best seen as part of a larger whole, a society. There are some who view this distinction much the same way one is tempted to view the particle/wave issue. One can see the world is made up of discrete human identities making choices and, through their actions, producing some kind of social reality. As complex as that reality may be, it can be broken down to the individual actions, and explained at the individual level of analysis.
Others see the individual as being the product of social forces and cultural heritage. You are born into a particular circumstance, and depending on your position in society and your cultural and family environment, you develop in particular ways. The idea of being truly an individual is illusory; yes, we have identity, but who we are in this world reflects the forces acting upon us as much if not more than our own individual capacities.
Pondering these different views, I realized that it’s wrong to posit the question as if we had to choose between two positions – humans are individuals simply making choices and thus producing reality on the one hand, or society is a barrage of forces producing and empowering/constraining human identity on the other. That is to view these as contradictory. What if we saw them as complimentary?
In quantum physics, you see light as a wave or as a particle depending on what you are looking for. If you seek to measure its wave like properties, that is what you’ll find. The data won’t give you much information explaining how light functions as particles. It does tell you something though — you know that near the peak of the wave you’ve got a higher probability of finding a particle. As the wave spreads out, the probability goes down (this also opens the door to phenomena like quantum tunneling — atoms can appear on the other side of a barrier, as if one could suddenly walk through a wall. That is really strange, but if it didn’t happen we wouldn’t have our sun!) If you look to measure the particle functions of light, you’ll find a photon, but you won’t know much about the wave behavior.
Humans can be viewed the same way. If I want to examine the psychology of crowds or mass behavior, analyze statistical trends, and treat humans as something that can be studied as an aggregate collective entity, I can do that. Indeed, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and others have very convincing powerful theories that need no information about individual psychology or action. Highway engineers can study traffic patterns without having to figure out the psychology of the individual drivers. You can extrapolate downward (if crowd psychology works a certain way, than individuals must be reacting in particular ways) but you don’t need to.
If you want to study human psychology and behavior, you can do that too. You might be able to explain a lot about what a few individuals do, though it won’t be enough to explain the broad trends of history. It may give clues, but for most larger issues you have to go above the individual level of analysis to the cultural, governmental or even systemic.
Often these are seen as contradictory, and the battles between “methodological individualism” on the one hand, and “structuralism and social constructivism” on the other can be intense. In international relations theory this is known as the agent-structure problem. And like in quantum mechanics, there is a complementarity principle called constructivism. Humans are agents acting to reproduce or transform social structures, but individual actions are not enough unless they are part of a larger social or cultural movement.
So the issue of whether or not humans should be looked at as individuals only or as part of a social structure only is wrong headed. We are both, we cannot be understood as separate from our society and culture, but society and culture cannot exist without individuals. We are both particle and wave.
That last sentence is true on a couple of levels. Just as light is both particle and wave, so is matter. That means that all of us share that trait with light — we have wave lengths, and we have particles. We’re so big that the particle aspects (matter) of what we are become obvious, but every particle that makes up our bodies is both wave and particle. Paradox is the essence of reality.
A nation is usually defined as a group of people who identify with each other due to a common bond. To be politically relevant, this bond has to innately connected to identity, such as ethnicity or language. A nation is, as Benedict Anderson put it, an “imagined community.” It isn’t based on personal interactions, a choice of who to align oneself with, or a clear objective rationale. Rather, people for whatever reason identify with a particular trait or idea, and then see themselves as part of a community.
Nations are therefore historical and social constructs, existing only because people have chosen to define themselves as unified by a particular label. Moreover, nations emerged in Europe with the rise of modernism, as groups started to differentiate themselves on the basis of language and perceived ethnic identity. Before nations, the primary source of European identity was the Church. All Europeans were Christians, members of the holy Catholic Church, unified in Christ. A French speaking peasant and a German speaking peasant didn’t feel a sense of being French or German — they’d probably never meet each other, and the language they used or where they lived didn’t factor much into identity. France might exist on a map, but it was abstract.
Napoleon Bonaparte changed all that. After the French revolution France descended into chaos, as the revolutionaries realized that reason and rational thought, while very useful in criticizing the old order, didn’t give them a clear set of principles for how to govern. Napoleon took power, and soon turned to the imagery of the France to create a new form of identity.
The French tricolor, once a battle flag, became a sacred symbol of the state. We feel the impact of Napoleon’s efforts today, when you look at controversies that arise over the American flag. There is nothing truly sacred about a flag, but it becomes a focal point of that imagined common identity. The power of nationalism was obvious as a country that went from bankruptcy to revolution to chaotic weakness came together to conquer Europe.
Nationalism replaced religion as the primary mode of identity in the modern era. The idea that Christians were slaughtering Christians in World Wars I and II was irrelevant; what mattered was that Germans, French, British and Russians were fighting. To be sure, Christians had fought Christians during the reformation, but those fights were about religion — each side felt the other had the “wrong” interpretation of the faith. By the modern era, it simply didn’t matter, nation trumped faith. The power of nationalism is intense, because it joins people together in a common, collective identity, often able to be manipulated by skillful political leaders.
In an era of globalization, these modern notions of national identity are breaking down, especially with young people. Not that nationalism is disappearing. Indeed, while nations themselves may be imagined communities, they do attest to something more fundamental about humans — we are social creatures whose identity cannot be determined through purely individual means. At one level this is obvious — every attribute, description, and label I give myself comes mediated through a language. By definition humans are products of culture and history, if any of us were born in a different time or place we’d be fundamentally different people.
Yet humans are also individuals. This dual nature explains so much political acrimony, as people tend to emphasize one over the other, rather than think critically about how they intersect. We have individual identities connected to collective identities. That is what makes nationalism such a potent force, if leaders can manipulate our sense of identity and command loyalty, they can unleash collective power, often in destructive ways that damage individual liberty and autonomy.
Nationalism in that traditional sense may be fading, if what I said about the obsolescence of the centralized bureaucratic state is accurate. If central states are less dominant, then national identity will lose its centrality. In that sense it will go the path of religious identity, remaining important, often powerful, but not central.
Consider Facebook. I have about 200 facebook friends, though most of them are people I would otherwise have no contact with. Some are old friends from college or grad school, some are colleagues, and some are actual family and “real” friends. This list includes students who were on various travel courses I was part of, and we friended each other primarily to share pictures. Now I read about their job hunts, new children, and other life events, knowing what is happening in a way I otherwise could not. Unlike some faculty members, I have no problem being ‘facebook friends’ with students.
People also organize political campaigns or promote causes, comment on each others’ status, and it as entertaining way to feel part of other peoples’ lives, some of whom I wouldn’t recognize if they greeted me on the street. As I glance through this, I wonder what this says about identity and connections in the future. I get amused by folk of my generation who find facebook almost scandalous due to its lack of privacy. “What these kids share! Don’t they realize this is out there forever,” one colleague murmured. Yes, they do. And they don’t care. It’s a different world.
Facebook now has 500 million members, and is growing strong. Its mode of communication, lay out, and little controversies are common to most of its users, as are popular posts and links. It generates discussion, debate and can spread knowledge about both important major events or about how many times a new parent had to get up to change diapers last night.
In a sense it’s like a nation — a post-modern nation where collective identity is diffuse and diverse. Unlike ethnic nations with strict rules on language and “blood,” Facebook Nation is defined by whatever the users want to identify with. The connections are loose, yet powerful. Students admit to spending too much time on facebook, and there is a sense of community in keeping up with what others are doing, or sharing a thought or idea, knowing that it’ll at show up on a couple hundred screens. In that sense, it commands loyalty and respect, even if there is no central power pulling the strings or manipulating the users.
If so, that’s a good thing. Facebook Nation will launch no wars, operate no sweat shops, and force no one to join who does not want to be there. It is a new kind of collective identity, one which seems to exercise little power over the politics and social conflicts of the day, but a lot of power over how people spend their time. And given the damage done by state-centric modern nationalism, a decentralized post-modern facebook nation is a welcome change. It isn’t itself the “face” of the future, but it may be an indication of where we as a society are heading, thanks to the technology driven information revolution we’re experiencing.
In a surprising experiment, it appears that DNA molecules can “teleport” from one place to another, meaning that they don’t move through space but simply “leap” there, much like the transporter effect on Star Trek. The mechanism is not human made, but based on the effects of quantum mechanics. Here’s an interesting tidbit from the article:
“It could be that the propagation of life is able to make use of the quantum nature of reality to project itself in subtle ways, as has been hinted at in previous experiments. Alternatively, it could be that life itself is a complex projection of these quantum phenomena and utterly depends on them in ways not yet understood because they are incredibly hard to detect.
Speculatively, (and Montagnier doesn’t directly suggest anything so unsubstantiated), it could also be the little-understood quantum properties of the water molecule and not just its more obvious chemical bonding properties that gives it such a central role in the bio-engineering of life-forms. Water might be a good medium in which DNA can copy itself using processes that hint at quantum entanglement and ‘teleportation’ (our term).”
It never ceases to amaze me how little people think seriously about the implications of quantum mechanics and recent experimentation in sub atomic particles on philosophy. We cling to a Newtonian materialist “objective” view of reality, when science is increasingly showing a strange world with properties outside of what are capable of understanding at this point in our intellectual development.
We have no clue what exactly life is, or why it exists. We speculate. Some thinks that life is simply a product of nature, and there are rules within nature that we should conform to in order to live moral, productive lives. Others think life is an accident, and that we can make up our own rules as we go, morality is our invention. Some are convinced that there is a God, and that God gave messages to humans through prophets or even sent his son. They try to interpret and understand holy books to give them a sense of how to live. Some believe in particular new age spiritual ideas, using methods of meditation and spiritual connection to try to harness unseen energies and potentials. Others believe that the mystery surrounding our existence is far greater than that which we know and understand, and remain open to diverse ideas, but unwilling to embrace any dogma.
I am in the last category, though I believe that there is for lack of a better word a spiritual dimension to life that is far more important and powerful than the crude materialist cause and effect we experience in our everyday life. Why do I think that way? What is it about my personality or experience that cause me to choose a certain way to interpret reality, while others choose differently? I don’t know.
All through life I’ve been filled with a sense of magic. From chance meetings to lucky breaks and problems that turned into gifts, it seems that coincidence has been a strong ally of mine, and that seems (for lack of a better word) magical.
It can be the time in Italy when Steve (another faculty member on the trip) and I went to buy groceries for a group picnic, planning to meet the 40+ others at 7:00 at Piazza Michelangelo overlooking Florence. A cab got us to a grocery store in an unfamiliar part of town. We grabbed food as quickly as we could, not thinking of how much we were buying. We paid and realized we didn’t know where we were, no cabs were close by, and we had only 20 minutes until we were to meet the others. After a few minutes of ‘gallows humor,’ I said, “well, let’s just get on a bus, it’ll take us somewhere.” It got us to Piazza Michelangelo at 6:59. Our group was right there. We had bought the perfect amount of food.
Yesterday I was planning for this year’s Italy trip, and tried to buy a ticket for a student who was going to return separate from the group. My credit card was rejected. Frustrated, I also tried to open a document for the group deposit. It wouldn’t open (though I’d opened it before). Just before the offices closed I called down and found out that a new credit card with a new expiration date had arrived. I ran over and got it. I realized that my efforts to pay a hotel deposit and the travel deposit (the document that wouldn’t have opened) would have failed with the old card. Moreover, I found a much better, cheaper ticket for the student than the one I had been trying to purchase. Tiny events, but it still felt like a bit of magic.
Coincidences pile up and bring situations that I never could plan for, but are what I need (not always what I think I want). I’ve learned to go with this. I try to avoid being upset when things go wrong, because I figure they’re going wrong for a reason. I try to be open to new opportunities, figuring that if something presents itself, there might be something to gain. It may be a work opportunity, people in my life, research or whatever.
The more I feel like I’m living “magically,” the easier life seems to be. It could just be my own psychological ploy. Perhaps there is no magic, but my perspective diminishes stress, which in and of itself makes life easier. By taking life as it comes rather than trying to plan and push for a particular future, I don’t get upset when things don’t go as planned; I am quite comfortable knowing that I’m not in control. By seeing coincidence as a powerful force to be welcomed, I become adaptable and willing to change. Not professing any certainty in what life is all about helps me not to be judgmental or upset when people don’t do things the way I would. Even if there is no magic and the material world just unfolds according to its own laws, my perspective makes my life easier.
But maybe life is magical. Maybe the quantum properties we don’t understand guide us gently, offering possibilities and potentials that we can choose to follow, ignore or fight against. Maybe our identity in his world is just one aspect of who we are, just as my hand is only one part of my body. My intuition senses a kind of unity of existence, even as my senses perceive distinct material objects. But modern physics already tells us that our senses are not very good at perceiving the intricate workings of nature; there is no reason to think that they give me the information necessary to understand the nature of reality. They give me the capacity to navigate this reality.
So what is life? I’m not sure, but I choose to embrace the sense of magic and synchronicity that seems evident in my every day life. That doesn’t explain the pain of this world, the tragedies, or the problems. But I don’t think we can improve things if we focus on the negative. In fact, maybe if more of us saw magic in our daily routines we’d take a step towards having the capacity to make the world a better place.
As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa. In Egypt half the population is under 24. In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25, 22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26. For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.
And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children. The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.
For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa. After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy). He is currently grooming his son to take his place. Egypt is more like North Korea than the US. The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq. Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.
If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights. Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council. The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq. Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.
The reason is obvious. The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship. To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine. To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.
This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches. In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire. When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t. It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.
The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family. It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom. It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.
However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt. The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power. After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.
These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever. They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom. It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm. In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.
What will this mean? Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern. He’s trying to fight against change. Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought. For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.
Most young Arabs don’t think that way. A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world. The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.
There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line. If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust. Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.
We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world. One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.
President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq. The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish. He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes. But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be. Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.
Because change is coming. There will be revolutions of some sort. The current order cannot last. Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt. Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy. If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.