Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.

Analyzing the religious right

October 12, 2021

Katherine Stewart is an investigative reporter and author of the book, The Power Worshippers. I attended her talk titled “The dangerous rise of the religious right.”

“Christian nationalism” she said, would be a better descriptor. Central to the ideology is the (historically false) idea of America founded as a Christian nation. But this is actually more about politics than religion. And it’s a vast powerful force, a defining feature of our political landscape; threatening our democracy. January 6 showed that.

This did not originate as some spontaneous movement from the heartland, a reaction to the social changes starting in the ’60s. Instead it was organized from the top down, by people whose real agenda is gaining power for themselves and their ilk. They constructed a huge national advocacy and messaging infrastructure, seeking government support for their movement, through measures that privilege it over other societal actors.

Stewart quoted Supreme Court Justice Scalia (an outspoken Christian), ruling against a religious exemption for peyote use, saying we can’t let everyone decide what laws to obey based on their religious beliefs. Yet, she said, that is actually exactly what the religious right is seeking.

The movement is, again, politically driven. The “culture war” stuff is really secondary; indeed, weaponized tools to serve the political agenda. In particular, the abortion issue did not create the religious right; rather, the issue was created to serve the political aims. When Roe v. Wade was decided, most Christians actually supported abortion law liberalization. But new right leaders nevertheless latched onto abortion as an issue that could be exploited to manipulate a sizable voter base and ignite a hyper-conservative counterrevolution. Stewart argued that these leaders do not actually want to minimize abortions; what they really want is to keep the issue boiling.

It’s a glaring irony that however rabid these people are about protecting human life before birth, they lose all interest in children once they’re born. The states where “right-to-life” is strongest are the states where actual living children are treated worst by public policies.

This movement has always been anti-democratic and authoritarian. Not just another set of voices debating in the public square. Its leaders don’t really imagine they can persuade a voting majority to their point of view. Instead they aim to prevail by flouting democratic processes, having contempt for the idea of the common good. This again was exemplified on January 6. Stewart noted that other authoritarian leaders, like Putin and Erdogan, have similarly exploited religion as a vehicle for political power without democracy.

She also saw the movement as inseparable from racism, though the connection is complex. The voter suppression that is part of its tool-kit for holding power undemocratically targets ethnic minorities. There are notions of “purity” versus impurity, and an emphasis on concepts of identity and appeals to a heritage culture (read: white).

Stewart said that the religious right is far more organized and focused than its opponents. We need a range of voting reforms to stymie undemocratic techniques like gerrymandering and voter suppression. But while the movement fully understands the importance of voting, others are more casual about it. Failing to realize how much is really at stake.

At the end of the day, Stewart opined, the narrow-minded Christian nationalist vision embodies what would be a weak society, not a strong one. I would add that this movement clearly has its head up its butt, all pretense of morality made absurd by their supplanting the worship of Jesus for a cult-like devotion to Trump, the most morally depraved personage in our political history.

What is Love?

September 27, 2021

I enjoy reading “Dear Abby.” Though her answers are often insipid, the letters are a window into human psychology. Not that they’re necessarily representative; but certain themes recur so regularly, they do tell us something.

Marriage and love problems loom large. Inevitable when two people try to mesh together. But what I see, again and again, is one not even trying to mesh with the other. Taking them for granted. Most strongly manifested in “controlling,” a word that comes up a lot. A controlling spouse is assuming the partner is there to be controlled.

Perhaps fortunately, my own dismal romantic history barred such attitudes. Relationships were elusive, and by the time I finally succeeded, at forty, it was the most important thing in the world to me. I once read how the “surprise and delight” newlyweds typically feel about their marriage normally dissipates. But I still feel surprised and delighted after 33 years.

It helps to have the perfect spouse. Well, she does have her idiosyncrasies. As do I. But we’re both very mindful of, and grateful for, the bigger picture of what we mean to each other.

I do see other good marriages like that, but also some like the “Dear Abby” cases. I think the taking-for-granted syndrome is often key. People seeing their partner as a kind of entitlement, as opposed to “surprise and delight.” As though the partner is an accessory, like a handbag. You don’t have to do anything to satisfy a handbag.

One might suppose that if you love someone, you wouldn’t treat them that way. Certainly true up to a point. But it’s also true that the feelings of romantic love, often intense, that precede marriage, dissipate too, evolving into a different set of emotive operators. Love of another kind. Hopefully. Yet even that mellower kind of love should surely still mean treating a partner, well, lovingly. Not callously.

However, love can also actually turn into hate. Grievances build up and obliterate whatever positive feelings you began with. That’s fatal to a relationship.

But what is “love” anyway? Seemingly it’s in relation to the other person. Yet it’s a fundamental truism of human existence that we live only inside our own skulls. Limited to experiencing only what happens in there. Your brain is the sole mediator of your reality. Of course, the other person does exist, outside that, regardless; but can exist for you only as a construct within your own mind. The matter then becomes one of instantiating your own behavior in such a way as to shape the interplay with the other person so that what consequently obtains in your mind is most conducive to your own sense of well-being.

Sure, if you love her, you want her to be happy too. But again, saying “you want” indicates that it is really all about what’s happening within your mind. You want her to be happy because her happiness, and your wanting it, make you happy. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.

And some people really don’t — as in many of those “Dear Abby” cases. The idea of one’s own happiness being somehow served by the other’s gets lost altogether (if it was ever even there). Their feelings just stop mattering to you. It’s solipsism; a short-sighted selfishness that actually disserves one’s own interests. Obviously, if the other person gets angry and lashes out, creating unpleasantness, that matters to you. It’s not their feelings per se that do. It’s the results.

I think the answer, in any case, is to treat your partner as if you love them. Leave aside the fraught issue of whether you actually love them — and whatever “love” actually does mean. This formulation works even under the paradigm suggested here, wherein “love” is really a matter of what’s conducive to your own sense of well-being. Many of those “Dear Abby” problems would be resolved if the people just treated their partners as if they loved them.

Like with free will. Another very fraught conceptual issue. But our modus vivendi is to operate as if we have free will. That works, and renders irrelevant, for practical purposes, whether or in what sense we truly have it. So too with love. Behaving as if you love the other person makes moot the issue of what love is — and the issue of whether or in what sense you truly do love.

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”


I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

Did 9/11 Change America?

September 14, 2021

September 11 fundamentally changed America — or so we’re told, in a flood of 20th anniversary commentaries. I’m not so sure.

Much is made of 9/11’s moment of extraordinary national unity. And how transient it proved. But that shows 9/11 did not, indeed, fundamentally change the country. It was a blip.

I’m reminded of the insight from psychology that individuals have a personality baseline, governing things like happiness levels. A dramatic event can knock you off your baseline, for a while. But eventually that wears off and the baseline reasserts itself.

Of course no historical events are immaterial. To the contrary, everything impacts everything, and there’s the apocryphal butterfly effect; small causes reverberating into big results. September 11 was a big thing. It did cause wars, and give us TSA security theater. It’s impossible to know how different America might look today absent 9/11. Trump’s presidency might well not have happened, and that too was a very big thing.

Nothing is ever inevitable. History is not some implacable force driving toward pre-ordained ends. Instead it’s highly contingent. Everything depends on what individuals do, the choices made. Like James Comey’s in 2016. And imagine if Oswald’s aim had been off by an inch.

As for 9/11 changing the country, I think the real story is that it fed into trends already shaping an America different from its 20th Century incarnation. The moment of unity was a blip, and in the bigger picture 9/11 wound up not ameliorating but aggravating the politico-cultural divisions that had been building up, even giving us yet more things to be divided over. Like the Iraq War.

And it’s not just a matter of issues to argue about. What has taken hold is an ethos of division. The issues themselves being more symptoms than causes. That’s not to say opinions are not deeply felt; people are passionate about, say, the abortion issue. But that’s actually an instructive example, because it originated with religious right leaders casting about for some issue to fire up a flagging movement, and jumping on abortion as the perfect vehicle. The point being, if it weren’t that, it would have been something else. Having the fight mattering more than what the fight is about.

What explains this? There’s a cat’s-cradle of complex factors. Humans evolved in a world where change was slow or nonexistent. Modernity has put it into hyperdrive, discombobulating minds. Triggering a primordial impulse for tribalism as something to cling onto on the roller coaster ride that life has in some ways become. What your tribe stands for is secondary to its being your tribe — standing against enemy tribes.

Propelled by the notion that you’re entitled to believe whatever you want — mainly, what your tribe believes. So if the tribe decides, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, then that’s what you too believe. The whole traditional information ecosystem, that used to provide a common understanding of reality, has crumbled. Part of an even broader loss of faith in and connection to societal institutions generally, with more people feeling they’re on their own. The old information system has been largely supplanted by an internet free-for-all — an information echo-system.

Nine-eleven exacerbated this. People felt threatened now by another tribe, beyond their understanding. Confidence in institutions fell even more. The world suddenly looked darker.

The pathology afflicts the right far more than the left. The right’s messaging makes clear that what gets them boiling is not issues per se but how they provide reasons to hate the other side. Having people to hate and fear is the core of today’s Republicanism. If Democrats reciprocate it, it’s a reaction to Republicans becoming truly scary. As January 6 showed.

It also manifests in what has become a Republican culture of fundamental dishonesty and bad faith. Here again the parties differ greatly. Say what you will about policies espoused by Democrats, at least they actually believe in them as good for the country (or world). Not so with Republicans. Look at their “ballot integrity” crusade. Exploiting the big lie of a stolen election, their true aim is not, as they claim, to make voting more secure (a non-problem), but harder for their opponents. They’re just dishonest about it.

This is what you get with tribal war when one side feels existentially threatened. No holds barred. We may have reached peak tribalism with the vaccine issue. Republicans’ reasons for vaccine resistance are bogus — their “freedom” cries nonsensical — but they need no reasons other than associating vaccination with Democrats. That’s how bad it is, when tribalism even infects what ought to be a straightforward public health matter. Partisanship so crazed that people literally risk their lives. Refusing vaccines that are proven life savers, while instead taking animal de-worming pills. And they’re dying like flies.

Nine-eleven did change America. But it was not the cause of such insanity. The terrorists could never have harmed the country so much. Our biggest threat is not Russia or China. It’s Republicans.

How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

September 10, 2021

It seemed an odd subject for a film: the story of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. But Worth explores the issue of how we value a life.

Keaton as Feinberg

I’ve written about that before, in the context of Covid-19, and how much economic pain we should accept per life saved.* In the case of 9/11, the government feared an avalanche of economically ruinous lawsuits, so set up the fund to give survivors taxpayer money if they’d agree not to sue. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) was named “Special Master” to run the fund. It would become operative only if 80% of eligibles bought in (within a two-year window).

Feinberg constructed a payment formula, with a floor and a cap, heavily based on lost earnings — a commonly used measure in “wrongful death” lawsuits. The cap immediately incurred pushback from lawyer Lee Quinn, representing families of high earners demanding bigger payments. Feinberg’s other nemesis was Charles Wolf (played by an understated Stanley Tucci), who organized a legion of more plebeian folks.

Feinberg as Feinberg

Wolf insisted Feinberg’s approach was all wrong. But in their interactions, Feinberg never simply asked him, “What do you propose?” Which didn’t seem at all clear. During my own career as an administrative law judge (proceedings often in the World Trade Center), contending parties would always offer different explicit plans for resolving issues. Evaluating those competing plans, I’d reach an answer.

Tucci as Wolf

Nevertheless Feinberg, after a rocky start, in which he seemed pretty clueless toward the complex human feelings at play, gets his consciousness raised, and winds up more or less satisfying Wolf by (my interpretation) junking his formulas and deciding payouts based on impressionistic evaluations of individual circumstances. Also, Feinberg tells Quinn to get lost. And while fund buy-ins lagged ominously until near the deadline, they finally did flood in, blowing past the 80% requirement.

I understood why a formulaic approach was inadequate, with some flexibility imperative. A human individual’s “value” is only tenuously connected to their earnings; indeed, the value of one’s life is mainly to oneself, which counters basing it on income. Which of course leaves the conundrum of how to price that self-value in dollars. Unfortunately the film was fuzzy about how Feinberg’s revised method actually worked, giving no concrete examples. I’m dubious that an impressionistic approach based on someone’s unfettered judgment would produce results fairer than some thoughtfully crafted formula. As Feinberg himself suggested near the film’s beginning, fairness in a situation like this is probably an impossible chimera.

Michael Keaton did a pretty accurate Ken Feinberg, based on my own recollection of my law school classmate. (A reason I wanted to see the film; I can’t recall another portraying someone I personally knew.) Even back then Feinberg was a compelling personage. I particularly recall his announcing to me, in his standard stentorian voice, “I gave you a bullet vote.” It was a Faculty-Student Committee election, at the height of 1960s “student power” agitation. With two seats up for ballot, I ran against a pair of activist types, and my candidate statement said I didn’t believe in student power; that students didn’t know enough to run the university. I surely didn’t. And never imagined winning (especially given my introverted lonerism). Yet oddly enough I was elected — thanks in part to that Feinberg bullet vote.


“The Stranger” — does anything matter?

September 2, 2021

“Mother died today.”

That’s the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. When I started reading it, my own mother had died a few days before.

His mother’s death doesn’t matter, is Meursault’s basic stance. Nothing does. This narrator in the novel is seemingly a quite ordinary person, but hollow, resembling a zombie. Yet not exactly; he does have feelings. But only, almost literally, mere bodily sensations. His feelings about his mother’s funeral concern only the heat, his discomfort, his fatigue, food, etc.

His girlfriend suggests marriage, and he casually agrees to it, but when she says it’s an important decision, he answers, “No.” He really does feel that nothing matters.

I was reminded of a repeated refrain in my own novel, Children of the Dragon — “Everything is nothing.” An expression of nihilism. It was faux profundity, a throwaway line, not a deeply considered philosophic stance when I wrote it in my callow twenties.

Nor is it a deep philosophy for Meursault. It’s just the way he is. Not even his nihilistic perspective matters.

Raymond is not really a friend; just a fellow who drags him into his own drama, Meursault merely along for the ride. A moment comes when Raymond may shoot a man, or not. It doesn’t matter, thinks Meursault. Raymond doesn’t shoot. But later on, Meursault himself does — five times, killing the man. Why? No reason. It doesn’t matter.

What does mattering mean? In the great scheme of things — a cosmos of billions of years, trillions of stars — Meursault is right — nothing about our little lives can matter. If the cosmos were conscious, we wouldn’t even register with that monumental consciousness. But that’s not the case. The only sentience is our own. Individually. At every moment of existence we have feelings either positive or negative. And that matters to each of us. Meursault’s sweltering or shivering does matter to him. He says so. And it seems such sensations are all that matter to him.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, argues that all human feelings do resolve down to just physical bodily sensations. That physical pain and mental pain are not ultimately different because the latter is only “felt” in the form of bodily sensations. Thus Meursault is a very Hararian character. But I think Harari actually had it backwards. Indeed, all physical sensations are mediated by the mind; it tells you how to feel about them. Even pain is only painful because the mind deems it so.

I recall one episode (with a girlfriend) when mental anguish did entail literal physical pain. That was an extreme case. But even there it was the mental part — my conceptualization of the situation — that was the most unpleasant part of the experience. The physical sensations paled in significance. This reflects our having minds that think, producing a sense of self — one indeed so powerful that it’s upon that platform, of the immaterial sense of self, that we truly experience our joys and sorrows.

As the book concludes, Meursault is facing execution, and his indifference to everything actually finds its rationale: in the end, we all die, and everything is wiped away. I too am profoundly cognizant of that reality. But to me it makes everything we do, before dying, supremely meaningful. There is nothing else.

Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism

August 29, 2021

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”


If civilization goes out

August 26, 2021

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.

Black holes and humanity

August 22, 2021

The force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with distance. When a star dies, there’s a lot of mass in a pretty small space, and no more force pushing outward against the gravity. So the star crushes down, becoming even smaller and denser, further concentrating the gravitational force pulling toward the center. With enough mass it condenses into a tiny nubbin, with gravitation so great that nothing, not even light, can escape. That’s a black hole.

With a ratio of mass to volume virtually infinite, the normal laws of physics cease to apply, which is called a “singularity.” Many formerly doubted this could occur in reality. Now we know it does. There may be a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Meantime, black holes’ weirdness captured popular imagination. Gravity so strong it sucks in anything getting near, while nothing gets out. “Black hole” became a useful metaphor (especially in 2017-21).

When we discovered the Universe is expanding, running that film backwards gets you to something that also has vast mass concentrated into virtually zero space — again a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This has led to speculation that the “Big Bang” and black holes are connected — that a black hole could detonate big bangs — perhaps answering the conundrum of seemingly getting something from nothing. With new universes being birthed all the time out of black holes.

You may have seen in 2019 our first photo of a black hole. We watched a great Netflix film about the scientists working on what was a massive photography project. A big problem was that a black hole is, well, literally black, no light escaping. But it does produce “Hawking radiation” in the surrounding space.

Still, getting a photo was a huge challenge because so few photons reach us across the cosmic vastness. The film illustrated this vividly by first showing a grid of squares, with one small square containing our solar system. Then it zoomed out to show that whole grid as just one square in a far bigger grid. Then it did it again. And again and again and again. I lost count, before we finally saw a grid big enough to contain both our solar system and the black hole.

That was one of two the team targeted. The other was a thousand times bigger — and a thousand times farther away.

The paucity of photons reaching us meant an ordinary telescopic photo would be, like, one or two pixels. Hardly helpful. To get a decent meaningful image would have required a camera the size of the Earth. So that’s what they built — by coordinating a whole slew of telescopes all across the planet. Each making images simultaneously. Having good visibility conditions at all of them, simultaneously, was a problem too. Somehow they succeeded. The result was an immense amount of data shipped on hardware from all those locations to a central clearinghouse where computers could put together the pieces of this stupendous jigsaw puzzle. Revealing the picture of a black hole.

Meanwhile . . . the film also focused on a group of theoreticians working with the late Stephen Hawking, he of “Hawking radiation,” the leading thinker on black holes who practically invented them. The main concern was with what they called the “information paradox.” “Information” here means more than its common parlance; it refers to what’s encoded in the structure of any physical object. In that sense, your body, for example, entails many trillions (or quintillions?) of bits of information. Throw it into a black hole and that information seemingly disappears. That bothered the theoreticians, a lot, contravening their intuition for how the Universe should operate. (This is about as well as I could manage to understand the matter.)

So they banged their heads against the mathematics. I didn’t begin to grasp the interplay between the very complex mathematics and the physical phenomena. But finally, it seemed, they did get the sums to work out such that information sucked into a black hole is not truly annihilated but is conserved in some manner.

But here is what struck me viewing this film. All the numerous people involved in these enterprises, especially the photography effort, exemplify what I see as our great human project. To understand — everything. And to use that understanding to imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment. With nothing given to us but what we seek and find ourselves. Everything else pales beside the immensity of that great human project. Membership in this species fills me with pride.