Archive for category History

Berlin Miracle

Hardly recognizable, this is where I emerged from two hours of waiting to get through customs on July 29, 1989 and enter East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse

I remember the first time I visited Berlin.  It was late July 1989.   The talk in Germany was of change in the USSR, Poland and Hungary.    I had spent the summer interviewing politicians and academics about inter-German relations, and they all agreed: unification would not come soon if at all, and that East Germany would not reform.   Thus when I made my first and only venture into East Berlin, there was no sense that within a month East Germany would be in crisis, and in just over three months the wall would come down.

Unter den Linden is still the sight of massive construction, but one site I remember from 1989 is Aeroflot – the Russian airline still has its building there!

Americans sometimes like to take credit for what happened, but the fall of Communism was driven by internal economics — the system couldn’t work and was in collapse all over the eastern bloc.   It ended the way it did because East Germans and then other East Europeans took to the streets.   You can’t credit Gorbachev, Reagan or Bush — if anything their ability to cooperate made it so the big powers did nothing to halt the collapse.

While traveling Germany that summer I bought a Sony Discman at Kaufhof in Munich for 290 DM.  The CDs I bought to accompany me were Billy Joel Live in the USSR, Jackson Browne’s World in Motion, and Udo Lindenberg’s Gänsehaut.  I had become a fan of Lindenberg since getting his album Odysee the first time I was in Europe, and remember sitting in a West Berlin hotel room and listening to Mädchen aus Ostberlin the night after I visited the east side of the city.   I had never really felt what the division of Germany meant.

Pariser Platz, the east side of the Brandenburg gate. The first time I was here guards were there and a dirty unkept gate was obstructed by the eastern wall. Now it is the symbol of united Berlin!

But on that day, July 29, 1989, I realized how absurd the situation was.  I got off the train at Friedrichstrasse, walked to Unter den Linden and went down to the Brandenburg Gate.   It was blocked by the east side of the wall, unapproachable.  I could see people on a platform in the West looking over into the east the same way I had done the day before.   I turned around and walked to Alexanderplatz, going by the Marx-Engels statue, the television tower and city hall.   A couple of guys tried to convince me to exchange money, offering me a great rate (compared to the official 1 DM = 1 Ostmark), but there was nothing to buy.

On July 28th on the West side I stood at Potsdamer Platz. There was a snack stand, I had followed the wall from the Brandenburg gate. It was quiet. None of the buildings in this picture were there, they were all built after the wall fell.

At Alexanderplatz I got lunch at a cafeteria, bought some ice cream and then went in the central store.   It was the main store of East Berlin meaning it had the best consumer goods East Germany could muster.  It had nothing worth buying.   I roamed the city all day, covering probably 12 to 15 miles on foot, taking in all I could about this “other world” of Communism.   I was awed by the beauty of the historic center of East Berlin, and realized that while it wasn’t a torturous hell hole, it was clearly dying.   “Das kann nicht so weiter gehen,” I thought — it can’t go on like this.   This is absurd.

Lindenberg’s song was about a love affair between a West German and a “girl from East Berlin.”   It was also a metaphor for a country.   “We simply want to be together,” was the plea as the couple — and the German people — were separated due to political machinations beyond their control.   The song was poignant to me having been in the East that day, at some point listening to it a third or forth time and thinking about the division I suddenly had tears running down my cheeks.  Now I felt the division.

The video below has some (very poorly translated) English subtitles, but gives an inside look at the moment the wall opened, how East Berliners pressured the guards who finally gave in – it is a moment where history was made.   It’s ten minutes, but it captures the moment communism broke and freedom expanded:

Walking around Berlin in 2012 is surreal in some ways.   I’ve been back here many times in the last twenty years, watching the city transform itself dramatically.   On this trip students kept asking if they were in the East or West, and wondered how different it had been.    Lacking a camera in 1989 I only have the photos in my head of how things looked, but I walked many of those same stretches and compared now and then, as best I could.

When I was in Berlin for four months in late 1991 it was still obvious who was from the East and who was from the West, the wall’s location was clear, and the early difficulties of bringing the two sides together had become undeniable.   Now the city is whole.   Construction continues, but former West Berlin is getting a facelift, as the Ku’damm pales in comparison to Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz.

As I thought about the changes and my time there in 1989 I came across this:

Udo Lindenberg.   A musical built on his songs tells the story of the the division of Berlin and the coming together of the city in terms of a love affair.     I thought of myself in that hotel room in late July 1989 and wished I could go to the musical.   Alas, the demands of teaching the course and working with the students kept me busy.   I tried to create an image for them of what I experienced in 1989 and even 1991.   But now the everyday of that era is captured in museums like the DDR Museum (a great hands on experience) and the “Berlin Story Museum.”   Still, knowing that Udo Lindenberg’s music is now used to tell that story is satisfying.   Someday I will see that musical.

I have been to Berlin in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2010 and now 2012.   Though I am a foreigner there, the city means a lot to me, it fascinates me, its tradition of tolerance/openness dating back to Friedrich the Great intrigues me, and no visit there seems long enough.   Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin.

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Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station)

Berlin’s new Hauptbahnhof symbolizes the change this city has experienced.

In 1991 while living briefly in Berlin I received a message to pick up a package at the post office located at “Gelehrter Stadtbahnhof,” the final S-Bahn (light rail transit) in West Berlin before crossing to the East.   I went there and found an old sleepy station with two tracks in a quiet neighborhood.   Alas, all the pictures I took that year, including many rolls of film from old East Berlin (still mostly unchanged a year after unification) were lost when I stupidly shipped home 27 rolls of film because I wanted to develop them more cheaply in the US.   The box went missing and never arrived.   However, I found a photo online of that old station:

That sight is now the home of the Hauptbahnhof.   Lehrter Bahnhof has gone from an old sleep S-Bahn station to a modern marvel.   Most train stations in Europe have a similar design, coming out of the late 19th and early 20th Century.   Because train stations are necessary and can’t be easily relocated like airports (due to track layout), they get refurbished or upgraded, but keep the same basic design.    In Berlin the new territory gained from the wall (which in most places was two walls with a good chunk of space between them) allowed them to design a completely modern train station, with multiple levels, shopping and an open glass theme.

Inside the train station you are in a glass cathedral

The design of the train station is as unique as the city.   Regional traffic departs from the lowest level, while S-bahn trains serving the Berlin area and high speed trains going to destinations all over Europe and Germany depart from the upper level.   Inbetween are three levels of shops, food and services.

Below a regional train gets ready to depart, the station is served by numerous escalators and glass elevators

The Lehrter Stadtbahnhof served the city from 1871 on, originally as a terminal station for traffic from Hamburg and Lehrte, then after World War II simply as an S-bahn stop.     Renaming it Hauptbahnhof was controversial.   There had been a Hauptbahnhof in East Berlin, but that station had no historical claim to the name.  It had only been called that since 1987 and had gone by a number of previous names.   It is now called Ostbahnhof (East train station), the name it during most of the Cold War and is the third largest station in the city.

Most people wanted to keep Lehrter as part of the name, but fearing that would confuse people, it gets referred to simply as the main train station – though the signs do give homage to the past.

The station is perfectly located; it is within a short walk of the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate.

A view of the Hauptbahnhof from the Reichstag dome

The area was sparsely populated because of the wall, and thus building new track connections and expanding the station was no problem.   It is now part of a stretch running to the Potsdamer Platz that demonstrates the core of new Berlin – the Chancellery, Bundestag, Brandenburg gate, and Unter den Linden.

Over the coming days or weeks I’ll be blogging about my recently finished Germany trip, including reflections on other ways Berlin has changed, my view that the sovereign state is becoming obsolete, and how the Euro crisis is going to get solved — and create a stronger, more united Europe.   But to start, I think the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a real symbol of how the city has changed — and the process of transformation continues!

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Adventures in Germany

In 1995 I was lucky to be in Berlin for Christo’s “Wrapped Reichstag” exhibition. Since then the building has been completely renovated.

On Monday I leave for Germany along with 14 students for a two week travel course starting in Munich, moving on to Bonn, and ending in Berlin.   The focus of the course is on Germany twenty years after unification – have East and West come together, or are they still quite different?   Added to that, of course, will be history and culture.

Last year I blogged extensively during a similar travel course to Italy.  I’m not sure if I’ll be as prolific this time.

Germany is special to me.  Besides the fact most of my ancestors are from there (I’m 3/4 German 1/4 Norwegian), I’ve lived a year in Bonn and Berlin, have traveled there frequently and its my area of expertise – German foreign policy and more generally the European Union.   I’m fluent in German, but rusty.  When I lived there all year I was thinking and dreaming in German.

I first visited Germany when WWII and the holocaust was more keenly felt than now.   True, over 35 years had passed, but I’d see elderly folk with missing limbs and realize that the war generation was still there.   I watched the mini-series on “The Holocaust” with young Germans (odd seeing an American series about Germany synched into German).

In those first visits (taking place during breaks from my year studying in Bologna, Italy), I saw Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fall from office when his coalition partners ditched him for Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic party, and a radical new party called “The Greens” entering the Bundestag for the first time.   I was there on March 6, 1983 to witness that election, it was exciting.    At that point German TV had three or maybe four channels.    Trains were efficient, but relatively slow.   Seating was in compartments of six, with smoking cars outnumbering non-smoking ones!

Perhaps one of the most powerful experiences I had was on a train heading north in 1989.   I was heading to the Netherlands from Munich to visit a research partner.   I found an empty compartment, but a ways north a group of elderly women entered.  I was reading Der Spiegel and one of them asked me a question.   “Wie bitte?” I replied (“Excuse me?”)    She repeated it, it was something about the train.  I explained I was an American and didn’t know.

She complimented my German and asked what I was doing in Germany.   I said I was working on research (at that point comparing German and Dutch foreign policy).    At some point we were talking about Germany in the world and they started talking about the war.    It was amazing.   I heard stories how one hid in a haystack to avoid being raped by Russians, another talked about how her brother had been active in the Hitler youth “and never really recovered.”    The talked about difficulties of the war and its aftermath.

One mentioned the holocaust; all shook their heads.   I asked “Did people know what was happening.”   The four chatty women went silent.   One finally said, “no, but it was a choice.   We could have known.   We should have.”   The others agreed, and talked about how Jewish people disappeared.    They heard rumors.   But it was war, it was easy to say we have to support the troops and the fatherland, Germans could never do anything so evil.     The conversation continued until they had to disembark in Dortmund.    One woman grabbed my arm as she left and said “I’ve never talked so frankly about those years with anyone, not even my own children.”   I thanked her and wished her well.

First, at that point I realized that learning a foreign language had been priceless.   I had heard first hand the experiences of people who had lived history – the side we usually don’t hear, from people who usually don’t want to talk about it.    I sometimes think of that as I ride on the 21st century high speed ICE trains where compartments have given way to “airline” seating.

1989 was a dramatic year.   I spent a lot of time that summer interviewing members of political parties including a young upcoming Horst Seehofer, who is now Minister President of Bavaria.   I interviewed academics.   I asked about the possibility of German unification and was told by everyone it would not come fro a long time, if ever.   Maybe after a long period of American-Soviet reconciliation.   The dramatic events that would change the world would begin just weeks later, but no one saw it coming.

The highlight was early August.   I had an interview with Dr. Michael Staack at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin.   Should I keep it?   He was (and remains) prestigious, but it cost 50 extra D-Marks to cross through East Germany into East Berlin.  Would it be worth it?   I decided to go.   En route zipping through the East I was at the window the whole time.   I’m seeing real existing communism!   Tiny cars puttering about, houses with antennas, train stations looking a bit run down.   It wasn’t a hell hole, but it clearly wasn’t vibrant.   On the way back it was 95 degrees and we went through the industrial region – Bitterfeld, Wittenberg, etc.   Huge factories belting soot into the sky – towns where people had to wipe soot off the windshields of their cars like we do snow.   The train had no A/C but we closed the windows – stifling heat was better than adding the soot from the air.

I got to walk through East Berlin that trip.   I crossed at Friedrichsstrasse, enduring two and a half hours of lines before getting into the city.   I had gone from the hussle and bustle of vibrant West Germany to a city that seemed like a different world.   The historic buildings were magnificant, but the traffic light, the cars miniscule, and it seemed almost sleepy.   I had lunch at a cafeteria, then a beer, later a bland ice cream sundae.   I went to the central store, which bragged the best merchandise in the East (since it was visited by anyone who crossed to Berlin).   It had nothing worth buying, I got some cheap post cards.

Now a “Kaufhof” stands where the central store used to be, on Alexanderplatz. It’s been completely rebuilt and now has everything a consumer could want.

I walked Unter den Linden, the historic boulevard over to the eastern end of the Brandenburg gate.  I saw people in the West on a platform looking over to the East.   I had been there the day before.   So close, and yet a world away.   It was then I realized how insane the division of Germany was, how painful the Wall was for Berliners, and how Communism was an obvious failure.   “Das ist Wahnsinn,” I muttered, “es muss geaendert werden.”  This is crazy, it has to be changed.

I am so glad I made that trip.   A few months later I had tears running down my cheeks in my Minneapolis apartment as I watched on a small TV the events unfold as the Wall started to come down.   The story of how it happened is amazing too. I’ve visited Berlin many times since then, watching the city transform itself at an unbelievable pace.

Unter den Linden, the famous boulevard in former East Berlin

Hopefully I’ll find time to reflect on that and integrate my past experiences in this blog over the next couple weeks.   Germany is a different country than it was.   United, with hundreds of cable and satellite television channels, an economic and political leader of Europe and one of the stronger economies in the industrialized West.    The best part is that I can share my thoughts, experiences and expertise with students, many of whom will be out of the country for the first time!

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99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.

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The Anachronistic Candidate

 

Hearing Rick Santorum talk about contraception, religion, the separation of church and state, and culture in general I sometimes get the impression he was born in the wrong century.   For all the indignation and anger from women’s groups, gay organizations, and others incensed by his insensitivity, I’m struck by the fact he makes a cogent and logical argument — by 19th Century standards.

I don’t mean that as an insult either.    It’s just he’s fighting a culture war that has already been lost, and there’s not much chance to go back and refight it.    He’s channeling Pope Pius IX, who put forth the “Syllabus of Errors of the Modern World” – “the scourge of liberalism” in 1864.

Consider the following quotes from Santorum, the first threefrom this campaign:

1.   “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life. We have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”

2.  “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

3.  “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American Left who hates Christendom. … What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”

4.  “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to. … What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism.”  (His 2005 book It Takes a Family)

5.  “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. … That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.” (AP 2003)

The worst quote in my opinion is number 3 – defending the crusades.   That’s historically wrong and given the times we’re in politically stupid.    Will he also defend Pope Alexander VI?

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, was a vicious, greedy and promiscuous pontiff

Quote one arouses anger and disdain from most women who can’t imagine the violence of rape followed by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then being responsible for the child after birth.  Even most anti-abortion women don’t think that way.   Yet it makes sense in the traditional Catholic world view about the sanctity of life being paramount.  The “rape baby” is a life, and killing it is wrong in that line of thinking.

Quote two says the only purpose of sex is reproduction (the ‘every sperm is sacred’ creed) and that with contraception immorality and lust abound without consequence.   To most of us that sounds hyper-prudish.    Most people think there isn’t anything really wrong with premarital sex; adultery and cheating are bad less because of the sex and more because of the betrayal and dishonesty.   But before the sexual revolution starting in the 60’s, that kind of moralism was common. People didn’t live to those ideals, but they at least felt they had to pretend to.

Quote four seems horribly sexist.   The idea women should stay home and men go to work reeks of the kind of family oppression women suffered for centuries.  He’s also wrong about his history.  The idea that children should be isolated to grow up with a parent staying in the household is a western invention.  Throughout history villagers, male and female, had to work to survive, and children in the villages were cared for by a group of women/mothers.   Day care is more natural to humans historically than isolation in the family unit.  By the 19th century male dominated society had become the norm, and women were expected to stay home and raise kids – in German Kinder, Kueche und Kirche – children, kitchen and church.    It’s only been in the last fifty years that women have started to achieve real equality in the work place — Santorum’s quote is anachronistic and sexist, yet until recently reflected what most people saw as normal and natural.

Quote five on gay marriage is similar.   Sex not in line with normal social norms was weird, perverse, and scary.   Two men having sex, sex with pigs or chickens, polygamy, that all got lumped together as sexual perversions.   The cultural shift on the issue of homosexual rights and gay marriage has been dramatic over the last fifty years, and very evident if you talk to young people today.   Young conservatives are not as closed on this as their elders – the culture has changed.

Pope Pius IX’s argument was that liberalism (at that time that meant democracy and free market capitalism) was destroying cultural norms, traditions, and the moral authority of the Church.   It would bring decadence, perversion, atheism, and nihilism.   Without something strong to believe in, without the moral authority of God through the Church, he argued, the material world and reason can give no sense of moral purpose – anything goes.   That would be chaos, anarchy, and ultimately destruction.

When you look at Santorum’s defense of his statements, it’s clear that’s what he’s seeing.   His world view reflects that of Pius IX, it’s not just petty bigotry against gays and women, but a principled (if misguided) view on the nature of society and morality.

But Pius lost that war.   He was right in some ways, of course.   Without tradition and a strong sense of Church authority  humans have done horrid things — communism, the holocaust, etc.    I myself have been a critic of runaway materialism, consumerism and a sacrifice of the spiritual for a mundane and ultimately dissatisfying materialist notion of the meaning of life.  Pius IX correctly saw the dangers and the potential emptiness that a path of individualism and radical freedom would lead to.

But that’s the path we took.   Most of us don’t want to go back.    Yes, there are real challenges in dealing with uncertainty, no clear guidelines to truth, and the lack of the social cohesion and community that once protected our mental health and self-esteem.   We’ve chosen a path that is psychologically, politically and spiritually very difficult.   We choose the path of freedom and knowledge, we partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and reason.

We can’t go back.   The world of Pius IX and by extension Santorum is gone.   I don’t believe Santorum is psychologically a bigot or homophobe, I think he’s reflecting a set of traditional beliefs that had such things embedded within them.    We had to work to show that those things were wrong and did harm to people, Santorum never learned that lesson.

This has been a weird political year.  There’s something surreal about such an anachronistic yet apparently honest and principled politician making it to this level in the year 2012.   It’s symbolic of the nostalgia that seems to have gripped the Republican party as it realizes the country has undergone radical cultural and demographic shifts in the past decades.   He will fade; he has to.    But what does it say about the state of the GOP that he can rise to such prominence, even with values so contrary to the social progress made in the last century and a half?

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Everything Is About to Change

A 20 year old northern California blogger named Kristen Wolfe had one of her posts noticed by the Huffington Post, which reposted it.  It was entitled “Dear Customer Who Stuck Up for His Little Brother,” and recounted an experience at her place of employment (video game sales) where an athletic elder brother stood up for his younger brother against an aggressive and mean father.   The younger brother wanted to buy a video game with a female character, along with a purple controller.   The father was incensed and tried to get the boy to get a game with guns and violence — something manly.   Anyway, click the link and read the story, it was touching and brought a tear to my eye.

But this blog entry isn’t about that, but how the story spread.   Once reposted on Huffington Post it quickly became one of their most popular stories.  I came about it via Facebook.   A facebook friend named Kristine posted the link.   I read it, was moved by the story and shared it on my facebook page.   Already a number of people have shared my link, and others have shared their links.   Whether its called ‘going viral’ or spreading like wildfire, that’s how a story that 20 years ago would maybe have been told to a few friends becomes a sensation.

This is an example of what is the biggest revolution in human history so far — an information and communications revolution wider in scope and power than even the industrial revolution of Europe or the invention of the printing press.   It is the reason protests arose in Egypt a year ago, why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rocked American politics, and why the world is about to change in profound and fundamental ways.   We are living in an era of history that is blessed or perhaps cursed to be one of the most dramatic and profound.    It’s only just beginning;  everything is about to change.

We’ve seen the first inklings of change as protests swept the Mideast and even Russia.   We’ve seen power shift from states and governments first to businesses and financial institutions and likely next to NGOs and citizen movements.   This will someday spawn a fundamental political restructuring whereby the bureaucratic sovereign state will be replaced by a new political order.   Civil society will be global and connected, sharing information and undercutting local corruption.

Developing countries will be able to redefine development away from the unsustainable neo-liberal dream of constant industrial growth and materialism towards a bottom up sustainable future, connected with the world not as a periphery pawn in the global economic structure but as autonomous citizens and communities.     Markets and big money will be forced to democratize and become transparent, and the current economic crisis will demand a rethinking of the idea that consumption should be ones’ primary life goal even in the industrialized West.

States, companies and even intelligence agencies will find it ever harder to keep anything ‘top secret,’ or any operation truly covert.   The cure to global warming and our environmental crises will be a mix of technology and a new way of thinking.   Once economic growth at all costs is rejected as the primary goal in life, a sustainable future can be imagined and built.

Yes, I know.  That all sounds very utopian.   Historians out there  might point out that every major systemic change breeds war and crisis, in part because people don’t know what change is bringing and thus try desperately to hold on to the anachronistic system they’ve inherited.    I have no doubt that will happen to some extent, this is an era of both crisis and transformation – the world is in motion!

Yet a positive trend is that attitudes are changing at a scope and pace that matches technological change.   I bet if you described that scene in Kristen Wolfe’s blog to a large number of people, you’d find many siding with the father and thinking the sons were out of line.   I also bet that almost everyone who would think that is over 45 years old.    The Facebook generation is more tolerant, open minded and willing to share ideas and information.     How often do parents warn kids about posting on Facebook and decry the idea of having 300 friends and sharing life details?   The fetish for privacy of the older generation is giving way to a new openness.

Whereas my generation – the older one – tends to want a stable protected home and life-space, the younger generation is wired, connected and involved.   My generation had yuppies cocooning in the suburbs, the new generation can’t imagine going a full day without their smart phones.   It’s a new attitude which, combined with the new technology is putting us on the precipice of major cultural, global and technological change.   Enjoy the ride!

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The Decembrists!

On December 14, 1825 (or December 26 with the new calendar) a society of military officers led 3000 soldiers in an uprising against the ascension to the throne of Czar Nicholas I, who was replacing his father Czar Alexander I.  They were hoping to bring liberal reforms to Russia, believing their system to be out of date and stagnant.   Czar Nicholas I, who was destined to become a brutal and conservative Czar, put down the revolt, and since the uprising took place in December the upstarts were called ‘the Decembrists.’   (Pssst – if you googled this hoping for something about the band the Decembrists, this isn’t the page for you).

It is now nearly 200 years later and a new group of Decembrists are trying to bring change to Russia — young people angry about the November election which saw United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev win a majority of seats in the State Duma, though with far, far fewer votes than in 2007.  In that election they had 64% of the vote, this time it was officially 49%.   Most are convinced that the actual total was much less.  Medvedev called it proof that Russia was democratic, since they lost so many seats, but many in Russia believe the result was rigged.

Putin and Medvedev - beer drinking buds enjoying soccer

And they have reason to believe that.    As the election was taking place election monitors were suddenly told to leave; they could no longer monitor the election voting and counting.   That’s the equivalent to having student in an exam grab her text book and tell the professor to leave as she finishes the test — it’s tantamount to announcing that you’re going to cheat.

In Russia social media is driving a growing call to go to the streets and force the election to be held again, as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded.   Saturday in Moscow 50,000 people gathered, protesting peacefully.  The police were said to be numerous and friendly — Putin clearly doesn’t want images of Russian police crushing protesters, but it’s also clear that the government doesn’t know what to do.

Putin’s essentially kept the media under control and relies on the fact that Russians historically do not defy authority.  Even the famous Russian revolution of 1917 was actually a coup d’etat, not a true popular uprising.   Protests of opposition leaders and public calls for calm on the day after the election seemed effective; protests were relatively mild — and the pro-United Russia rallies were relatively large.

However, there is a growing discontent and call for action among the Russian youth that suggest that perhaps like so many other movements this year, from Cairo to Wall Street, the dissatisfied may have more support and staying power than the elite anticipate.   To be sure, December is a horrible time to start a mass protest movement in Moscow.  Temperatures already can dip well below zero and it’ll only get colder as time goes on.   If the heat of the Arab desert helps ignite the blood of the protesters there, the Russian winter might cool the enthusiasm in Moscow.

Still, what if?   What if growing protests start to threaten the stability of Putin-Medvedev state?   Where could these protests lead?

Women's rights activists try to join the protest

One thing Moscow’s police will prevent is the occupation of a public place.  One reason the movements in Cairo and elsewhere were so successful is they could occupy 24/7 a public spot to give protests an identity and on going presence. People could join or leave as they saw fit, they didn’t have to organize every event.  That’s unlikely to happen in Moscow and probably in the rest of Russia.

Russian demographics are very different than the youth-centric Arab world.    The median age is 38 and they’re experiencing negative population growth.   On the other hand the youth are well educated, modern and connected.  They are also very angry about what is happening to their country.   Until recently leaving Russia was a goal of many young folk, figuring that the corrupt patronage system of United Russia would simply persist, leaving limited opportunity.

Putin, for his part, claims to want to revitalize and modernize the economy.   But with the money flowing in due to high oil and gas prices, the temptation to give into corruption — corruption that has been a part of Russian politics and life for decades — is high.   Putin had been riding a wave of popularity as Russians were disgusted with the flagrant growth of wealth of the so-called “oligarchs” or “new Russians” in the 90s, when the country suffered poverty and massive disruption as communism fell while oil prices were low.

Putin took them on and they either had to sell their assets back to the state and take a diminished role or, as in the case of  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, end up in prison.  Khodorkovsky was a multi-billionaire determined to take on Putin’s effort to reassert state control.   He is now in jail.

Message: play by Putin's rules or else

The fall of the oligarchs and the rise of oil and gas prices improved life for Russians who saw the chaotic anarchy of the Yeltsin years give way to stability and economic growth.    Even those who realized that high oil and gas prices were the main cause of improved conditions gave Putin the benefit of the doubt.   The oligarchs had acted like the worst caricatures of capitalism and most thought the state needed to get involved to bring the Russian economy into the 21st Century and stabilize democracy.

With Putin’s determination to seek the Presidency for a third term, playing a kind of tag team match with Medvedev, many Russians have had enough.   Especially the youth see oil money being squandered to line the pockets of the elites while Russia’s economy remains under developed and corrupt.

Communism fell twenty years ago this month — on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, nearly to the day 166 years after the Czar Nicholas put down the Decembrists.   The youth now have grown up in a post-Communist era, hearing promises of better times to come as connections and media access to Europe and the West grows.   They realize that their leaders have yet to have grasped the promise of democracy and economic modernism; that the old KGB agent Vladimir Putin is too wedded to the tactics of the past to really guide Russia into a better future.

So now they are taking to the streets.   Czar Nicholas easily disposed of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, so far the collapse of communism in December of 1991 has yet to yield a modern vibrant Russia.   As protesters try to take things into their own hands, defying Russia’s tradition of authrotarian rule and public docility, the world watches to see if the winds of change are going to sweep from the heat of the Arabian dessert to the steppes of the Russian tundra.

Back on January 19 this year I wrote a blog post speculating on whether the Tunisian revolt could possibly spread around the Arab world.   It seemed very unlikely at the time, it went against everything people thought and expected about countries like Egypt and Libya.  But something’s up.   The world is in motion, change is real.   Perhaps the Decembrists of 2011 can start a true Russian transformation.

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Memories

Kansas City Bomber Raquel Welch

I have a vivid memory of watching the Tonight show as Johnny Carson was interviewing Raquel Welch.   She comes out with a cat that sits on her lap.   She asks Johnny “do you want to pet my pussy?”   He answers “sure, if you move that damn cat.”   In my memory it’s vivid, I can see the picture, hear his reply, the exact intonation and see her response.   I’m sure I saw it.

Or did I?   Not according to Snopes.  They note that the story most often involves Zsa Zsa Gabor, but sometimes involves Raquel Welch or a number of others.   That inconsistency is the mark of an urban legend, they state.    Doing a google search the story most often includes Gabor so I must be wrong.   Or maybe not — in this thread another person remembers it just as I do, with Raquel Welch, and around 1970, when I would have seen it.   This post also has the incident involving Welch in the 70s, which would fit my memory (it even mentions a clip, though I can’t find a clip posted anywhere).

In my mind there is no doubt but that it happened.  The memory is vivid and clear, including a memory of me shocked by hearing that (suggesting it probably was 1972 or a little after) and seeing her reaction.   There is no way my memory could be so detailed about both what I saw, how I felt and what my reaction was without it being true.   That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, that’s what I feel to be true deep down.

But, of course, the evidence is against me.   Who am I to argue with Snopes?   What if as a 12 or 13 year old I heard this urban legend, visualized it in my mind, and somehow over time came to believe I’d seen it.   Having watched Johnny Carson almost every night from age 10 to when I went to college at 18 I know his mannerisms and could easily have concocted a mental image of this exchange.   Over time real memories and stories heard/scenes imagined blur.   Perhaps what was once my imagination of a story I heard became to me a real memory.

Memories are strange things.   In the court of law eye witness accounts used to be given the most weight; now they are if anything more distrusted than objective evidence one can glean from records, videos or other documents not so vulnerable to subjective error.

Part of the problem is that memory is imbued with a strong sense of subjective interpretation.   For instance, let’s say I had an argument with someone in a bar in 1994 — or perhaps an early internet debate back when usenet was new and flame wars common.   I might remember it with me rationally trying to reason with someone who is obstinate, arrogant and even rude.   If that person were to recall the argument he or she would likely have the same memory — but with me the obstinate one.

If one has self-doubts, one may remember things as being more personally insulting and cutting then they were.  Small statements that one is sensitive to may dominate a memory of a conversation where objectively that statement was inconsequential.

I remember seeing John F. Kennedy’s picture in the newspaper in color when I was three years old.   He had just been killed, and a color photo was rare.  I remember learning to walk and wondering why my parents were forcing me to do that, as my dad flashed lights at me.   But there is also a picture of those first steps — is my memory a reconstruction based on that photograph, or real?   Did that photo reinforce a real memory?

One memory I have is at age 2 in the Black Hills going to a zoo.   My dad was enthralled with buffalo on the other side of a ridge, but I couldn’t see them (he had binoculars).   I looked down and saw blankets and sheets floating down a stream, then apparently going under the stream and coming out at the start and flowing down again.  I tried to get my mom and dad to look, but they were just into the buffalo.   There was a picture there too — me looking down, my dad with binoculars.   Once years later I asked my mom about that, and she said, “all I remember is you were really fascinated by a clothes line with sheets on it in the valley below.”

So the memory was real — albeit through the eyes of a two year old whose brain had not yet categorized clothes line perception and thus saw the sheets flowing down the river.  But that shows another limit of memory, our brains interpret and categorize based on experience.   We can’t be sure that our perceptions and interpretations are accurate, only that our brain is doing the best it can within its experiential framework.

Yet within our brain every memory is said to exist.   Brain surgeons sometimes trigger old conversations, or cause patients to hear the past as if it were happening in the present.  For that person the past is the present, the experience of that conversation is suddenly real.

Memories are flawed and biased; one remembers a reality where oneself is more benevolent than was likely the case, with others perhaps more flawed and malevolent.    Memories fit into categorizations and can reinforce conflicts and bias, whether on a personal level or between groups like the Israelis and Palestinians.

Memories are useful, of course.   Remembering how one was swindled makes one less likely to fall for the same ploy; memories of help and friendship can lead to positive action.   The subjectve bias inherent in all memory means simply that we should be open to learning how others may have interpreted a situation differently, recognizing that even if it contradicts what any of us remember, that doesn’t mean the person is lying or dishonest.   We all mold memories to fit our own subjective states.   Recognition of that makes it easier not to carry grudges and to avoid resentment.

Yet I still insist that it was Raquel Welch being interviewed by Johnny Carson, and he delivered that line.   Perhaps he was reprising something he did with Zsa Zsa Gabor earlier.   Perhaps an angry Raquel demanded the tape be destroyed, and since this was pre-VCR and original tapes were often unique, the whole incident could easily have been made to go away.   As long as the two never talked about it all there would be were the stories of people who remember seeing it, but in an era where Youtube provides instant proof for all recent claims, no clip exists.

I remember this 1970 poster...at least I think I do...

There is no way to objectively know if my memory is right or wrong.   There is no evidence for the objective observer to side with me, and as Snopes notes, the evidence suggests this to be an urban legend.   My subjective evidence is still convincing to me, even as I recognize the likelihood of error on my part.   It’s also a reminder that even though we think we objectively and clearly perceive and understand the world, interactions and activities around us, we’re always twisting and interpreting it in ways that are biased towards our beliefs, past experiences and world views.   At the very least, that should lead to humility.

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Building Systems

It started with the mathematicians and the scientists  — Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The idea that the universe could be conceptualized as a system following universal and natural laws created a world view that threw medieval thought and Aristotelian scholasticism in the trash heap of history.   Instead of a world of particulars there were universals, the same laws of physics apply everywhere in our space-time universe.

Before long such thinking was applied to human behavior, yielding both powerful insights and dangerous dogmas.   Giambattista Vico’s theory of history published in Scienza Nouva (1725) is one of the first, yielding a theory of historical evolution and class struggle that influenced diverse thinkers from Karl Marx to James Joyce.   Building systems to explain human behavior created a new way of thinking that would change the world.

Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations"

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher whose 1758 book Theory on Moral Sentiments brought him to prominence, but his system building classic Wealth of Nations changed everything.  It showed both the power, and the potential pitfalls, of system building.

Throughout history merchants knew that if you increased the supply of something while demand stayed steady the price would drop.   The “law of supply and demand” was part of the practical knowledge of doing business throughout history.   Yet Smith took and it formalized it into a law and along with notions like the importance of the specialization or labor created a systemic view of market economics which came to be called capitalism.   He published Wealth of Nations in 1776 and it became a smash hit.   It described the workings of the industrial revolution, and for the first time argued that as individuals pursued their self interest they would inadvertently yet in a very real way be promoting the public good.   The idea that individual self-interest was not bad (greedy, selfish, etc.) but rather good (it allowed the market to create prosperity and adapt) was knock out stuff.

Of course, if you read Smith carefully, you see that the system builder recognized that his system was not self-sustaining and perfect.  Unlike Newton’s mathematically precise world, markets are human constructs and do not operating magically or naturally.   Smith argued that the wealthy can collude and circumvent markets, exploiting labor and using their power to benefit themselves.   Self-interest has limits, if capitalism is to work.   Indeed Smith skewers the wealthy of his day, often with rhetoric that is more fitting for Occupy Wall Street than the University of Chicago.

The problem is clear:  human system building simplifies a myriad of variables into a model that works well, all other things being equal.     Because human behavior is variable across cultures and time, any system that generalizes by definition has limited applicability.   Moreover, due to complexity the simplification is a good starting point for basic principles, not for claims of universal truth.   Smith understood this.

But those who came later made the fatal flaw of turning systemic thinking into ideology.   Theories of how reality work came to be grasped with a religious zeal as being the truth.   That rationalized looking at the world abstractly.   Perhaps the best example is the response of Great Britain to the Irish potato famine of 1846-51.    The Irish were starving in droves (over a million perished) but a libertarian philosophy led them to rely on the market rather than to intervene.   To this day when there are crises people say “individuals can help if they choose.”   That sounds good in theory, but in reality not enough ever choose to do so.

Once you embrace a system as an ideology, you lose the capacity to recognize that the system itself is an imperfect model of reality that doesn’t always work.   One further interprets reality through the system, and finds reality always fits ones’ ideological world view.   With a complex reality that one can interpret in a variety of ways, one can always support ones’ pre-existing view.  If one holds on ideology with a kind of religious fervor, there is never any reason to doubt one is right.

System builder Karl Marx

Karl Marx, writing 50 years after Smith, admired Smith’s work and considered him his “favorite economist.”   Most importantly, Marx (who also admired Vico) tried his hand at system building.   Like Vico he tried to explain the broad flow of history, using the tool of the dialectic borrowed from Georg Hegel, the German Philosopher he had studied.   Hegel’s dialectic was used to examine ideas, Marx used it to examine economic history — historical materialism.   Like Smith Marx used his system to look at how the economy functions, getting an explanation of why capitalism was leading to sweat shops and working class misery rather than prosperity.

Marx’s system suffered all the flaws that Smith’s did, perhaps more so due to the methodology of relying on the dialectic.  Moreover, Marx was not just a theorist like Smith, but a political activist who hated the poverty and misery he saw in the working class.   This led him to make a fundamental error: he extrapolated his system into the future without supporting his vision with evidence.

Marx’s insights on how capitalism function are still used today by people analyzing the political economy.   They’ve been altered and updated, but like Smith, his theory has proven resilient.    Both Smith and Marx – as well as others – have contributed to our capacity to make sense of how the economy functions.   But Marx’s extrapolation into the future imagining a perfect class free society without any exploitation led to horrific abuses of power by revolutionaries determined to achieve this just and utopian future.

System building leading to ideology is dangerous and misguided.    Ideology leading to dreams of utopia and a desire to make that utopia real are dangerous.

Ideology is not the same as having a perspective and a set of beliefs.   Everyone needs perspective and beliefs to make sense of the world, but you don’t need ideology.   Ideology comes from taking a systemic representation or model of reality and using it as the framework through which to interpret reality.

The systems are themselves not bad; they are useful.    In fact, Smith and Marx both provide useful systems that are not in contradiction to each other, even if they focus on different factors as relevant in different contexts.    It is useful to understand, try out and explore the potential and limits of a lot of abstract systems of thought, efforts to model and make sense of reality.   The danger comes when one mistakes the system for a true representation of the actual laws of nature.   The mistake intensifies when the ideology is grasped with a religious fervor so that the holder of the “one true ideological belief system” sees battling the others to be just and necessary, just as the religious soul might believe she must defend the one true faith.

Now is the time to step back from ideological delusions.   Building systems is a good thing, they help us understand, analyze and try out theories about how reality works.   But all systemic thought has limits, and the sophisticated thinker can try out different systems and explore where they lead, not needing to think he or she has the one true world view.   Moreover, humans construct culture and worlds; how the world changes, even human nature, is somewhat malleable in light of those activities.   As we move forward into the 21st Century job one must be to shed ideological dogma and think creatively about the transformations taking place.

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On a Roller Coaster

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

In our honors course we discussed a few intriguing minds over the last week.   Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza and Blaise Pascal were to of the most fascinating, each dealing with the power of the unleashing of human reason in the 1600s alongside the loss of authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Baruch "Benedict" Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza (1632-77) was a determinist and philosophical monist, who died when he was only 45.   Pascal (1623 – 1662)  was a fideist and Jansenist who gave up his amazing scientific career at a young age to devout himself to religion.  He died when he was only 39.   They both lost their mothers when they were young, both lived in ill health, both were on the margins of their religion (Spinoza rejected by the Jewish community while Pascal’s Jansenism was ultimately branded heretical by the Pope).

Though each were responding to the Meditations of Rene Descartes, they went in different directions.   Spinoza maintained a strong rationalism, even while rejecting Descartes dualism of mind and spirit.  Pascal was the ultimate skeptic, noting that even contradiction did not prove something untrue (nor did lack of contradiction indicate truth).

Pascal without a doubt had the more impressive intellect.   His early scientific discoveries are amazing.   He is said to have invented the first computer, pioneered work in probability (he lived in a community where gambling was very popular), and once when we had an energy audit at our house the auditor measured air pressure in “Pascals” — a remnant from his early work on barometrics.  There is even a computer language named in his honor.

Ultimately he sacrificed his scientific career to use his intellect to use reason to destroy reason.   He was one of the first who understood that reason itself cannot be a path to truth and that ultimately it could undercut any argument.   He seemed to sense that Christianity’s embrace of reason might come to haunt it later.    He took Descartes skepticism but, while Descartes escaped it through his “first principle” (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am), Pascal was unconvinced.   Overwhelmed by the absurdity of life, the superstition and pettiness of human nature, he decided that the only way to truth was through the heart.

Consider his rejection of the principle of contradiction.   That seems straight forward, if two things are in contradiction one of the two cannot be true.  I cannot be both human and not-human.  But Pascal’s skepticism extended to even the observations and logic that allows such linguistic constructions to be built.   You can never know through reason, reason devours itself.   But, he argued, through God’s grace you can know in your heart God’s love, and that will give one the perspective and understanding to live in an absurd world.   The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.  Fideism was faith, and faith alone, with a commitment to an Augustinian notion of grace.

Spinoza, on the other hand, rejected the notion that there was anything different about mind/spirit and body, and saw reality as being all the same stuff, positing a deterministic world decades before Newton’s physics provided the clockwork universe (though keeping with Descartes’ view on universal laws.)    Perhaps an atheist or maybe a pantheist, Spinoza saw of all reality reflecting God’s will unfolding by necessity in a path already perfect and predetermined.   Free will is an illusion; reality is.

Good and evil become relative for Spinoza, something is only good or bad relative to your experience of it; as part of the whole neither good nor evil exist, all is perfection.   Humans can drive themselves crazy worrying about what will happen next, what their life has in store, or fretting over some mistake or threat.   But all of that is pointless, nothing can be changed.   Perhaps the only thing one can do is train oneself not to be shaken or disquieted by how reality is unfolding; one must just accept it with the knowledge that it is as it must be.

It strikes me that the two very different philosophies have one thing in common: they want to make the ride of life more bearable.   For each, life is like a roller coaster.   For Spinoza it’s a ride that you cannot alter.  After you’re strapped in and the roller coaster starts going up the first hill, there is no way you can change your experience.   Every curve, dip and loop is pre-determined, you cannot stand, move or do anything until the ride stops.   What you can do is enjoy the ride, scream, be scared, hate the ride, be mad, or whatever — all that you control is how you respond.   For Spinoza life is like that, to experience life to the fullest one must accept it is as it must be.

Pascal sees the absurdity of human existence in the tumultuous 1600s, as well as the roller coaster ride of reason.   Reason can prove anything, given the right assumption and definition.   Yet it can destroy any proposition, no truth claim can be made in the abstract through reason; all empirical claims can be questioned.   Skepticism may annoy philosophers, but it’s powerful, especially if one extends it to being skeptical of even skepticism itself!

So absurd, humans using this tool “reason” to try to figure life out, yearning for the “right answer,” or a “first principle” upon which to build some edifice of knowledge.   Doomed to fail or be locked in delusion, the absurdity of the whole effort overwhelms Pascal who decided that faith alone is the key.   God’s grace saves us from this trap, the heart can understand clearly what the head cannot comprehend.   Faith provides meaning where reason is helpless.

It’s easy to dismiss these brilliant thinkers now.   Quantum mechanics throws Spinoza’s determinism for a loop (though it creates a capacity for free will to exist within Spinoza’s framework — we may be playing out one path in a pre-determined set of possible paths).    Pascal’s faith in God can be seen as seeking emotional solace.   Moreover Pascal’s famous wager (a metaphor used because of all the gamblers of his era) is thrown a curve by the existence of many potential Gods to believe in.

Yet the roller coaster ride is still here.   Pascal criticized the way people lived through distractions, afraid of asking the question “who am I” and “why am I here.”   He certainly would recognize the same tendency in our modern hectic consumer society where distraction is a way of life.    Looking beyond the distractions and asking those questions leads many to the same kind of solution Pascal embraced: faith.   It may not always be Christian faith, but its a belief in the heart that life matters.

It’s a shame that we so rarely take the time to think about our intellectual history and how philosophers and thinkers handled the changes that have been sweeping western civilization for a millennium, and which now confront other cultures and peoples.  Understanding Pascal and Spinoza — and others — gives us insight on core dilemmas we still face, and how people worked through them in the past.  It won’t answer the timeless questions, but will help us get insight into various ways the nature of our world can be understood.  It is enriching and enlightening.

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