Archive for March, 2011


I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality, which deals with various theories in physics about multiple and parallel universes to ours.   It’s a fascinating book, though I’d recommend reading his previous piece on modern physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos first.  Not only does it provide background information on the science of modern physics that makes The Hidden Reality easier to understand, but it is one of the best lay science books out there.  Still, The Hidden Reality is worth reading.

Rather than write about the book and the various theories within, I want to speculate on what it means to think of humanity not only as not the center of the universe, but perhaps part of a multiverse with unseen dimensions that further makes our little planet seem utterly insignificant.  Yet perhaps not.

I’ve before made my “ant analogy” — just as an ant’s world seems complete and understandable on an ant’s terms, reflecting the very limited mental activity of such a creature, we may be limited in ways just as profound.   Just as the ant can’t comprehend the socio-political dynamics of our world, there may be as much that we can’t comprehend about the world around us.   We think we see it fully, can use logic clearly, and make definitive statements about our universe and its laws, but if what is unseen is fundamental to shaping our reality, our view is inherently limited.

Consider dimensions.  It’s really hard for us to imagine dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we inhabit.   We even get headaches thinking about “space/time” as a single unified entity — space just seems to be the world out there, and time the passage of events.   We know that’s not the case thanks to relativity and quantum theory, but for every day life it’s not something we can practically comprehend.

Subatomic particles like electrons are considered point particles.   That seems one dimensional.   Photons and other particles are considered to be without mass — and photons are pure speed, experiencing no passage of time.  (And paradoxically light is both a particle and a wave at the same time).    So while we can capture, measure and aim photons to use practically, an individual photon will never experience time — it is pure velocity.   Mass itself is a problem — why do particles have mass?   The current theory is that there is a field (the Higgs field) which creates mass (the particle moving in a field meets resistance, which yields mass — that’s imperfect, but the most easy to understand metaphor), but even the fact mass is so problematic is counter to the common sense of life in the world.   Common sense, of course, is often misleading — but when it comes to core aspects of life, that’s a bit spooky!

The paradoxes of quantum mechanics are well documented.   Anyone wanting a clear natural deterministic universe that runs on distinct laws has to be disappointed with where science is taking us!

Yet if there are other dimensions then one can imagine a reason why these apparent contradictions and paradoxes exist.   If we are seeing only three (or four, if you count time) dimensions then we are seeing only a portion of the world.  Particles may exhibit themselves only ‘in part’ in our reality, having some other source or aspect in other dimensions which we can’t fathom.   Gravity seems most likely to move within dimensions, while electromagnetism seems at least to have a dynamic contained in what we can experience and measure.

This also makes the nature of life problematic.  Life as we define it relies on certain attributes within a 3D environment.  It is a biological definition, reflecting how chemicals interact, reproduce and adapt.   Notions of consciousness, spirit, or anything other than seeing humans as extremely complex “natural” robots are inherently controversial and untestable.  Biological intelligence isn’t that much different from artificial intelligence except for its complexity, speed of adaption and pristine functioning.

However, if life exists here because of processes or attributes of other dimensions — things that impact ours but cannot be seen directly — then what we consider to be life is unclear.   Consciousness and spirit may be terms that describe the hidden impact of other realities on our own, while entities that appear “lifeless” in our world may actually be part of a larger ‘conscious’ organism operating beyond our own dimension.   While a good down to earth scientist would dismiss this as pure speculation, it’s speculation built on the fact that we have so many unanswerable questions about existence (what is consciousness, why is there something and not nothing, do we have free will).   Like the ant unable to see beyond a closed clear insect world, we may simply be unable to see what may be obvious to multi-dimensional entities.

Since Copernicus took us off our pedestal of seeing the earth as the center of everything — God’s one creation, the core of existence — we’ve been falling fast.   The sun lost it’s role as the center, then the galaxy, and now there are multiple galaxies, the earth is a tiny planet amongst billions of stars, to the point that there could be an infinite number of alternate universes, and other dimensions that shape our world but can not be seen directly.

Yet all that complexity and our apparent insignificance is itself questionable.   We only appear insignificant because our limited 3D space-time mentality cannot interpret the notion of other dimensions or universes in any way but one that seems to create worlds outside ourselves and far distant.    Consider a four dimensional equivalent.   Rome is a long ways a way.  I cannot visit the Pantheon or throw a coin in the Trevi fountain.  Two months from now, I’ll be in Rome and those things will be directly accessible to me.   The problem is simply the dimension of time.   In another dimension, it might be possible to transcend time — we simply don’t have access to that part of reality.

The oddities of modern physics may in fact reaffirm our significance, since the notion of being in the center of a 3D geographic world is meaningful only in this limited world.  Expanding that analogy into other dimensions makes no sense.   Perhaps it is in fact meaningful to think that the apparent isolation and uncertainty of life in a space time world is an illusion caused by our limited access to reality.    We don’t know more, we don’t have an answer key to how to live life, what its purpose is, what we should value, etc., because such an answer key is wholly inaccessible in this world.  Uncertainty is a core aspect of this existence.

And that possibility comforts me.   I don’t need to figure it out.  I don’t need to find the “right” philosophy or the “right” religion — it’s utterly impossible to know if I’ve found it, or if one exists.  Instead, I need to make choices and live my life as I truly want to live it.   I’m responsible for it, I determine what it means, and I can explore spiritual and philosophical ideas whether through dreams, logical analysis or prayer and meditation as I see fit.   Daily problems, injustices small and large, battles over ideology and power, even horrors like torture and genocide need to be seen with that perspective.  As bad as it is, we don’t know the true deep meaning and cause, so rather than responding with fear and anger, we simply need to choose how to act ourselves, being true first and foremost to the inner voice it seems each of us possess.    Fear, anxiety, stress, anger, greed, hate…all are things driven by our inability to be at peace with our ignorance of the true meaning of reality.    Once we embrace that ignorance and recognize it’s just a part of this life, things might become much easier.


The Obama Doctrine

President Obama’s speech on March 28, 2011 may go down as one of the historic Presidential speeches as he not only explained and defended a controversial foreign policy decision, but clearly enunciated a foreign policy doctrine.   It also was a forceful, unambiguous speech, resisting efforts to use vague slogans and unclear rhetoric to cover up tough issues.  For the first time in his Presidency Obama has had to show true foreign policy leadership and he has come through.

Rather than look again at Libya, I’m intrigued more by what the Obama doctrine indicates.  He rejects the notion of “Captain America” as world cop, intervening to stop all repression and violence.   Realistically, that’s not possible.  There will be cases where repressive dictators will act against their people, and despite our outrage, it would be contrary to our core interests to act.   In that, he certainly is correct.  US power and wealth are limited and recently under strain.  Interventions that would be costly and without a likelihood of success would do us clear harm.

However, that doesn’t mean we should never act.   The weakest argument against action is to point to other repressive regimes and say “why not intervene there?”   To be sure, that argument was often made against President Bush’s choice to go to war with Iraq.  But while President Bush did not fully answer that, President Obama gave guidelines on when US military power is to be used.

First, the US must have a coalition that supports military action.   The coalition must be broad based and willing to share the burden.  Interestingly he did not say UN Security Council approval was absolutely necessary, leaving open the possibility that at some point the US might act even if China or Russia threatens a veto.   Second, US action should be focused on a clear global interest – shared by us and others – ranging from protecting commerce (presumably including oil flows) to stopping genocide.   Finally, the US will have a limited role, using the unique power and capacity of the American military to support interventions aimed at specific goals (e.g., stopping Gaddafi’s assault on civilians) not for broader goals like regime change.

This backs down considerably from the kind of idealist (or ‘neo-conservative’) approach of spreading democracy that President Bush embraced, but borrows the core elements of Bush’s ideology.  Interestingly, Bush’s thoughts about the need to spread democracy and aid the rising youth in the Mideast are embraced by Obama.   Obama differs on the means to use.   We must not do anything that undercuts our own interests, or lead us down a path of ever growing costs and national trauma.

He also was clear to point out the effort to strictly limit military action, noting that regime change even by air power alone would require bombing that would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties.   At the same time Obama distanced himself form the pacifist wing of his party.   He rejected the idea that US military power was useless, immoral or only to be used in national defense.   Instead he argued that in an interdependent and linked world it would be against our interest not to use our power to try to maintain international stability and human rights.

Obama’s core principles differ little from those of Republicans like Reagan or Bush, or Democrats like Carter or Clinton.  In that sense he is clearly an establishment President, not breaking with long held values on how to use American military power.  Yet unlike other Presidents, he refines the conditions in which it will be used, rejecting the kind of unilateralism that has so often defined US foreign policy in the past.

In part this is a pragmatic reaction to historical circumstance.  Just as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had to adopt detente in response to the cost of the Vietnam war and the rise of the USSR to nuclear parity (not to mention Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik), President Obama is dealing with a US rocked by the great recession, divided by partisan bickering, and still wounded from long and not yet complete wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Simply, the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar world of the early post-Cold periods are gone.   The President has to adjust US policy to reflect US capacity.

In doing so he stresses the need for American leadership (weakened though the US may be, no other country has the same military capacity), but leadership of the sort that doesn’t say “do it our way or no way” but builds coalitions and requires international legitimacy.   In that he reflects the ideals of President Bush the Elder, who undertook a similar strategy in Iraq in 1991.  Yet unlike the elder Bush, President Obama situates US policy within a global framework in which the US voice is a leading, but not dominate one.

To some, that may seem weak.   To me it seems prudent.  The US cannot dominate, the Iraq experience shows us what the cost can be if we try.  But leadership can be exercised within the framework of international cooperation and burden sharing within the larger global community.

Time will tell what historical reputation the Obama Doctrine will earn (I’ve not read other reactions to the speech, so I’ll be interested if others will see this as proclaiming a doctrine), nor does this quell the arguments of the hawks and doves, between which Obama has crafted a well defined middle ground.   It has a typically American mix of idealism and realism, with a pragmatic recognition of our limits.  I have to say I’m impressed with both the speech and the policy.   A United States working in concert with allies to promote our interests and principles in a pragmatic and realistic manner may be the best way to navigate these uncertain times.


Libyan End in Site?

As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians?   To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military.   There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf.  Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.

So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent.  Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not.  And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.

That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms.   All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.

This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.    The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.

If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract  claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power.   Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power.   That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.

The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy.  The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public!  With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist.   Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment.   But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power.  Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power.   That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).

This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism.  If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.

The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through.    The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population.   But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes.  In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.

Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails.   And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting.  But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out.   There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.


Confusion on Libya

The pundit class in the US is all over the place on the Libyan intervention.   Some bemoan the fact that there is no exit plan and predict a bloody stalemate that will harm US interests and bring more problems to the region.  Others argue that this is the perfect strategy – a multinational attack to weaken Gaddafi’s forces so that rebels on the ground in Libya have a real chance to overthrow a tyrant.  Still others suggest we are taking sides in a civil war that will be deadlier and longer than if we had simply let Gaddafi do his dirty work.  Violence begets violence.

So who is right?

First, let’s define what this war is all about.   This is a United Nations operation, passed by the Security Council 10-0 (Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil abstaining).   Gaddafi’s rhetoric that “there will be no mercy and no pity” on the residents of Benghazi no doubt helped sway nations to either support or at least not oppose intervention.   The Security Council clearly feared that Gaddafi would perpetrate a blood bath.   Moreover, the US is a reluctant participant.   Although Secretary of State Clinton seemed closer to the hawkish views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Department of Defense (including Defense Secretary Gates, who also served under President Bush) and President Obama worried about adding another military commitment to the US plate.

The plan seems to be one designed to inspire the Libyans to finish off Gaddafi’s regime.   Once mid-level Libyan elites see that the world community means business, and that even if they survive they’ll never be legitimate, never be able to act in the global economy in a profitable manner and sooner or later will fall victim to the rebels’ wrath, they’ll decide it’s better to switch than fight.   In that scenario Gaddafi loses support until either some kind of internal coup overthrows his regime or, recognizing the futility of his situation, he strikes a deal to go into exile.

Plans that rely on the success of others are always risky.  Gaddafi has been in power for 32 years; you don’t stay that long if you haven’t learned how to protect your back.   Moreover many Libyans around him are implicated in everything from terrorism to torture, and may see no alternative but to stick with the regime.  Finally the rebels themselves are an unknown quantity.  Despite his tyranny, Gaddafi was opposed to al qaeda and helped limit African migration to Europe.  What will the next regime be like?

On the other hand, those who fear the rise of Islamic extremism have to acknowledge that Islamicist voices have been mostly vacant from the rhetoric and face of the rebellion.  No one is holding up al qaeda signs or yelling “death to America.”   A knee jerk fear of the unknown is no more rational than a knee jerk idealist belief that after Gaddafi democracy will flourish.

Moreover, the US does see change sweeping the region.   Yemen is teetering on the brink at this moment, and the revolutions I speculated about back in January seem all too real today.   Both the Europeans and Americans want to be on the ‘right side’ of history, and have an impact on the changes taking place.   They also recall the price of doing nothing.   Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the UN Rwanda mission, early on called for the UN to use force to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.

The United States has also remained purposefully in the political background, even though military capabilities necessitate it being in the foreground of action taken.   President Obama has not been the leading voice calling for intervention, and embraced a limit to military activity.   This stands in marked contrast to the past roles played by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush the Elder, when the US President was front and center in trying to build international support for military action.   While some criticize this as “disengaged lack of leadership,” it is definitely done with purpose.   The US military is overstretched, we cannot afford another engagement that sucks us in deeper and deeper until there seems no way out.   Yet despite the subdued rhetoric, the US is wielding a big stick, hitting Libya hard in the early strikes.

More importantly, the US is signaling acceptance of the new multipolarity, something President Bush worked hard to avoid (and many Republicans and Democrats still refuse to acknowledge).    If military power is to be used to try to enforce human rights and protect civilians then others have to share the burden and be responsible to lead.   In some ways Obama’s policy harkens back to what President Bush the Elder hoped for with his “new world order.”   Even the US has to play by the rules now.

If Gaddafi falls in short order, the policy will be seen as a success and Obama vindicated.  If it turns into a stalemate dragging on and pulling the US in deeper, Obama may be looking for a new residence in two years.   If I had to bet, I’d say a middle ground result is likely, more like Kosovo than Iraq.   After a stalemate is reached, a peace accord between Gaddafi and the rebels will be hammered out, effectively splitting the country.   The rebels would be forced to sign this because if not NATO would withdraw its air cover and military support.    Gaddafi will realize this is the only way to stop the bombs and missiles.   After that support will shift away from Gaddafi, much like Milosevic found his authority in Serbia decline after the Kosovo war.   Either Gaddafi will weaken and ultimately be overthrown or he will die in office (either by natural or unnatural causes) with his son unable to assert authority.   At that point a new national unity government could be proclaimed.

Still, there is confusion.   This is new ground for the US and the international community.  If this is successful, it will demonstrate that the 21st century is more difficult terrain for brutal corrupt dictators.  If it fails, dictators will be emboldened and the West humiliated.   Was this policy a wise move?  I don’t know, I guess I’d say it’s an interesting move.  As a political scientist I find this whole process fascinating to observe.


Latin American Success

President Obama travels to Brazil for the start of his first trip to Latin America, and in so doing he is going to a country that has achieved amazing success in 15 short years.   26 years ago the military gave up its control of Brazil’s politics, and in 1988 a new constitution was put in place.  The new Republic — Brazil’s third — had a slow start.  A massive maldistribution of wealth (a remnant from colonial times and slavery), hyper partisan competition, corruption, and severe inflation made Brazil a country that seemed unable to benefit from its vast resources and land.

Back in the sixties social scientists Henrique Fernando Cardoso (of Brazil) and Enzo Faletto (of Chile) published a book called Dependency and Development in Latin America where they posited an historical-structural approach to explaining why Brazil, despite being blessed with resources and early independence, took a very different path than the United States.  They showed how early advantages allowed American businesses to get a head start.  Using that position of greater relative power and wealth they were able to manipulate Brazil’s economic and even political systems their benefit.   The structure of the relationship between the US (and US corporations) and Latin American states fostered and maintained a dependent relationship.

Brazil’s military government — at the time focused on trying to bring in western investment and not caring much about Brazil’s poor — saw the book as dangerous and Cardoso was sent to exile.  Yet over time the book became a standard (I still have my copy from grad school), explaining how social relations and even national development is shaped by historical and social structures in a manner that isn’t easy to alter.

In 1995 Brazil began down a path that would ultimately alter those relationships.   They elected a center right “neo-liberal” government that determined that Brazil needed to open up its markets and use globalization in its favor.  The government, headed by President Henrique Fernando Cardoso, started a process whereby inflation was tamed (something the Brazilians took awhile to get used to), the economy started to grow, and political stability was achieved.  Cardoso was a darling of the IMF, World Bank and western “neo-liberal” elites, rejecting import substitution policies and “socialist” paths towards development in favor of openness to the markets.     The turn around in the late 90s was dramatic, and Cardoso easily won a second term.

Yes, President Cardoso was the same academic that once criticized the way the international economic system created dependent relations for Latin American countries.   To many his embrace of neo-liberal economic policies smacked of a betrayal of his more radical past thinking.  But Cardoso would have none of it.   He argued that he was doing precisely what was necessary to break out of those dependent relations.  Corporations were no longer “American” any more, but global, and Brazil could use its resources and policies to transform its position in the system.    Globalization has its problems, but it could also be used to help Brazil turn around its fortunes.

Cardoso brought political stability to Brazil, and his pragmatic style of governance avoided the extreme partisanship of the past.  Rather than demonizing the left and waging war on social programs and fights for equality, he embraced the need to alter the unfair distribution of wealth, recognizing that Brazil could never become a normal country unless it cleaned up that residue of its colonial past.   He also brought the issue of race out in the open.   Brazil’s black population is second only to Nigeria’s, yet due to the past practice of slavery — eliminated only in 1889 — inequities and poverty amongst blacks is a huge problem.

Alas, Cardoso’s government, while stabilizing both the economy and the political system, did not do enough to try to fix the socio-economic problems and systemic poverty in much of the country.   So Brazilians in 2003 brought Lula da Silva to power as President.   Known as a radical and a leftist, many feared da Silva would rule Brazil like Hugo Chavez did Venezuela, and wondered if he would undo the accomplishments of Cardoso.

But just as Cardoso was pragmatic on the center-right, da Silva turned out to be a pragmatist on the center left.  His programs to fight poverty and redistribute some of Brazil’s wealth were successful and popular, and did not harm Brazil’s economic development.    In fact, da Silva over time became just as popular among the international business community as Cardoso had been, recognizing the need to mix friendliness to investment and global trade with a strong social conscience at home.

Brazilian Presidents serve up to two terms.   On January 1, 2011 Dilma Rousseff, of da Silva’s Workers Party won the Presidency.   As gravy to the already impressive successes of the past fifteen years, new off shore oil discoveries assure the Brazil’s natural resources will continue to benefit the country.   Already energy independent, thanks to an extensive ethanol program which fuels over half of Brazil’s cars with sugar-cane based ethanol, this suggests that Brazil’s future looks very bright, especially if both left and right can stay pragmatic and assure the bitter and violent partisanship of the past is brushed aside.

President Obama is especially popular in Brazil, in part because Brazil’s black population see in him a potential for themselves — America is modeling how tolerance and opportunity can transform a society.   Not that long ago it would have been unthinkable for the US to have a black President.

Besides Brazil, President Obama will visit Chile.  Enzo Faletto stayed in academia in Chile and died in 2003, but Chile has also seen a revitalization of its economy in recent years (and signed a free trade agreement with the US in 2004).   Unlike Brazil the leftist government came first, undertaking serious reforms to help reduce Chilean poverty.   The center right government of  Sebastian Piñera has been pragmatic, being open to business while not dismantling the social programs that had proven so effective.   El Salvador, the third state in the President’s trip, is also a success.

President Obama’s trip to Latin America underscores the importance of this Latin American awakening, slowly spreading across the continent.  True, anti-Americanism remains strong (though somewhat muted now that Obama is President), and the US no longer can call the shots like it could a few decades ago.  But that’s good.  It’s showing that the dependent relationship is turning into an interdependent one, and that is more healthy in the long run.

Finally, Republicans critical of Obama traveling while crises linger in Japan and Libya are way off base.   There is nothing the President can do for Japan from Washington that he can’t do from Brasilia.   As for Libya, this helps underscore that the Libyan intervention is a UN affair, not an American led war.  That is important, and helps minimize the chance of an anti-American backlash in the Arab world.  Moreover, with the US overstretched in two other wars, President Obama wants the Europeans to take the lead on this, and that’s a good thing.

Most important, though, is the fact that the President can’t be afraid to act in the interest of the United States just because other difficult situations exist.   And improving and solidifying relations with countries like Brazil and Chile is very much in our national interest!

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Personality and Experience

In reading a couple other blogs I was struck by how in one, a conservative blog, there were some really disparaging remarks about “liberals.”  One person was glad she was not in particular professions because she couldn’t take all the liberals and their ‘political correctness.’   In a left leaning blog there were comments ripping conservatives as “being driven by ignorance and fear.”    Frankly I’ve never seen a correlation between individual character and whether someone is liberal or conservative, but clearly a lot of people see their side as ‘good and reasonable’ and the other side as somehow faulty.  Some of it on blogs is just for fun (like Packer fans saying Viking fans are scum — deep down they all know they’re just football fans, they’re trash talking), but I think many people take it seriously.

That got me thinking about why people have the perspectives they hold.   It may be less about rational analysis of the world and more about personality and experience.   For instance, my personality is such is that I am not judgmental and do not hold grudges.   On the scale between perceiving and judging on the Myers Briggs personality test I’m way off on the ‘perceiving’ side.    Beyond that I think I am constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge or staying mad for more than a few minutes.  I find it pretty easy to forgive and move on.

I think those traits are part of who I am; my ‘wiring’ if you will.   I suspect those personality traits predispose me to being a social and civil libertarian.  They also make me less likely to be a political activist.   Many colleagues and friends I know are very involved in causes from environmentalism to the peace movement.  Often I agree with them about the issues but don’t have a desire to protest or spend time on some campaign to pass or stop some legislative initiative.    Being a ‘perceiver’ I’m more likely to watch and try to figure out what’s going on than to participate (which is why I’m a political scientist not a politician!)   That’s not necessarily good, it’s just who I am.   All of us have personality traits which probably predispose us to particular views about life, as well as how we’ll act.

Second is experience.   I’ve studied social science, traveled a lot in Europe, learned German and developed a set of experiences that lead me to a particular way of looking at the world.   If I had gone to law school and stayed in South Dakota, I might look at politics very differently.    Part of this is personality as well.   When I decided to go to graduate school rather than law school, my mom was dubious.   She told me that as a lawyer I’d be guaranteed a real good income, while graduate school was uncertain.

I shocked her when I said, “if I really wanted money I’m sure I could spend time learning how business and investments work, and then become a millionaire.  But I don’t want to do that, it would be boring.”    OK, forgive my 22 year old arrogance there, but I meant it at the time — I thought that business and high finance was probably not that hard if one really put their heart in it, studied it, and made it the focus of their life.   But yuck.   No material payoff is worth living what to me would have been a boring, even meaningless life.

To someone else, of course, that kind of life is the essence of our society, producing investments, expanding the market and creating jobs.   My desire to study European politics and teach at a university might seem lazy or unambitious (though at age 22 I had no clue where I was going — I just wanted to go to Johns Hopkins for an MA because I’d  live in Bologna, Italy my first year!).    If I had stayed in DC working in the Senate at age 25 instead of deciding to leave I also would have had a very different set of experiences.

Each person has their own life world, a set of experiences that shapes how they look at things.   Each person’s life world is inherently limited by those experiences.  Just as someone might dismiss academia as “ivory towered out of touch with reality,” another might dismiss military life as structured around hierarchies and orders.   Another might dismiss high finance as a narrow focus on money and investments without regard to culture and how society works.   Nobody can truly claim that their experience is privileged.  Each person’s experience brings a unique perspective to life.   The academic, athlete, journalist, preacher, mechanic, lawyer, doctor, janitor…each has a life perspective shaped by personality and experience.

Here’s where it gets tricky.   When we debate our beliefs (shaped by experience and personality) we tend to make the mistake of thinking that our own belief is self-evidently the right one because to each of us it seems so obvious.   Anyone with that personality and set of experiences would come to the same conclusion, after all!  When others have very different world views, the knee jerk response is “I’m right, they’re wrong!”   And since we fool ourselves into thinking we hold our perspective out of a kind of impartial, unbiased analysis, it’s soon easy to think there must be something wrong with those people who think differently.  Why don’t they see clearly what seems so clearly to me?

But if we recognize that personality and experience trump ‘unbiased reason’ in shaping our world views, then it’s possible to look at it differently.  Rather than one of us being right and the others wrong, we’re really just experiencing reality from different perspectives.   We are like the blind men and the elephant, where one felt the elephant’s trunk, another the leg, another the ear, etc., and each had a very different idea of what the creature was like.   The construction worker, teacher, cop, florist, writer, and waitress all are experiencing life and politics from a different angle.   I study social science, the priest studies philosophy and Christian theology; those experiences lead to different conclusions.   And if that’s the case, it’s not a leap to say that the truth probably can’t be captured by any one person’s perspective, no matter how certain they are that the world clearly is how they interpret it to be.   Only by learning from each other and recognizing other perspectives as legitimate and valuable can we get a more realistic sense of how the world is and address political issues.

This reminds me of Walter Lippmann’s argument that for democracy to function, we must not only tolerate each other’s right to speak, but actually listen to and learn from each other.   While we try to convince and persuade others, we shouldn’t close our minds to their efforts to convince and persuade us.  And maybe we’ll realize that the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian and the socialist all have something important to contribute to the public debate.   If our perspective is shaped mostly by personality and experience, then the best way to approach politics is not to try to eliminate political differences and “win,” but to embrace diverse views as a source of strength.



As my children, two boys, slowly grow up — one is about to turn 8, the other turned 5 in December, an interesting question is how do you teach young children about morality and ethics.

The easy way, of course, is just to invoke rules.   To the inevitable “why” that is asked the response is “just because,” or “because I told you so,” or “because that’s the right thing to do.”   I avoid this approach like the plague.  It’s OK if the boys are out playing and it’s time to come in – “because I told you so” is a fine reason in response to open defiance – but not when it reflects a genuine puzzlement about why a person should behave a certain way.

We live in a culture that values the simple.   People prefer their explanations to be straight forward and easy to understand.   President Bush disliked ‘nuance.’   Whether in food or politics, people embrace what is easy.   Complexity is distrusted, as if it is used when someone is trying to fool you.   And, of course, complexity can serve to obfuscate what should be transparent.    But overall this is a very dangerous tendency in our culture because the world is a complicated place, and often what seems clear and obvious — and thus embraced as ‘common sense’ — is simply wrong.    Understanding how the world operates actually takes some time and work — indeed, the lessons keep getting learned and refined until we leave this world.

Nowhere is that more important than in the realm of morality and ethics.   The problem with trying to just teach kids rules is that if they don’t believe the rules are necessary (they don’t understand why the rules exist) then there is nothing wrong with breaking the rules.   Most college kids who plagiarize don’t really see it as wrong; in their eyes they’re harming no one and just finding a way to get a good grade.   The only question is “can I get away with it?”   Morality becomes something people adhere to only out of fear of the consequences of their action, not because it is the “right thing to do.”   Given that my kids are already smart, creative and independent beings, I know they won’t simply follow a rule because they are told to.   They are too much like their rebellious and independent father!

This leads to some interesting conversations.    When my (nearly) eight year old used the “F word” the other day,  I was surprised and responded, “Ryan, don’t say that word.”      (For the record, I almost never swear so I know he’s getting it from somewhere else!)

“Why not, it’s just a word.   I’m not using it against anyone else, I’m just mad.”

I was going to respond, but I realized that he was absolutely right.   There is nothing wrong with the F word.   If you doubt me, check out George Carlin’s irrefutable analysis of the seven words you can’t say on TV.   (If you click the link you’ll have to verify you’re 18 to continue!)  I didn’t want to say “it’s a bad word” because he’s smart enough to know that would be a stupid argument.

“I know,” I replied, “it’s just a word.  I don’t use it because some people really don’t like hearing that word.”

“Why?”  His face made it clear he was genuinely puzzled.   “Why would people let a word bother them?”

Yikes.  He’s right.  “There are a lot of silly rules in the world,” I confided.  “Rules that really don’t make sense….”  I stopped.  What next?   I didn’t want to resort to “just do as you’re told” and leave him thinking that I’m simply commanding him to follow senseless rules.   But sometimes following “silly rules” is absolutely necessary in daily life.  Luckily as a teacher I have a tactic to use when I’m in this kind of bind — turn the question around.

“That’s a good question.  I don’t use those words because they bother people, but you’re right — it is pretty silly to let a word bother you.  Do you think we should use those words anyway?”

Ryan thought.  “I guess if we know it’ll bother someone we shouldn’t,” he said without enthusiasm.  “But you said it doesn’t bother you, so why can’t I use it at home?”

That was easier.  “Because you get into habits and say the same things without thinking.  If you get used to saying the word it’ll come out when you don’t want it to.”    He accepted that but still was a bit dissatisfied.  “I still don’t see why people let words bother them.”

“Why did you use that word?”   I asked.

“I was angry about the legos,” he said, his voice showing that the frustration was still there.

“I think a lot of people have been shouted at by angry people who use those words since words like that are most often used when someone is upset.   It’s sort of like how I don’t want you to call your brother an idiot.   It hurts his feelings.   If people have had their feelings hurt by people using angry words they’ll remember that when they hear a word again.”

OK, I thought, that’s probably the best I can do at this stage of his development.

“Then maybe we shouldn’t use angry words and just talk calmly.”   Yes!   Ryan’s tendency to explode and get angry is something we’ve been working on for years.

“Exactly.  Try to really work on that.  I think that it’s even more important to try to stay calm and be nice to others even when you’re mad than what word you use.”

“So if I calmly say ‘damn it’ that’s better than being angry and not using any bad words?”   (Hmmm, I thought, he’s the one who brought up the concept of  ‘bad words.’)

“You got it kiddo!”

“Why do people not want you to say ‘Jesus Christ.’   I thought some people think he’s a God, why is that bad?”

Sigh.  “Yes, but people who think he’s a God really don’t want you yelling his name when you’re angry.   Also, God is supposed to be a very good, important entity — there are some people who get angry if you even try to draw a picture of their God.”

I knew his frustrated look.   “People get bothered by strange things,” I shrugged.   “People take things far too seriously in this world, life would be easier if people didn’t let things get to them.   So I guess we shouldn’t be bothered by the fact some people get bothered easily!”

He laughed a bit.  He went back to his legos, I went back to preparing a lecture on Iranian politics.   Somehow I think this is just part of a conversation covering a variety of themes that will recur and grow in complexity over the coming years.