April 2015 Archives

Thoughts on Returning Home



My recent absence from this blog is due to a tour of Central Europe. My wife and I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Over the years we have visited most or lived in a few European nations. Inevitably, I return with a heightened sense of both our own national stories and those of the European world. This time, I was impressed by the history of all three of the places we visited. In particular, all had a very long history with signs of civilization starting just before the advent of the Common Era. All had a long record of being under the thumb of one occupier or another; the latest being the Soviets. I found that the last liberation process has left the people with an optimistic outlook, even as life is still hard and the memories of the last 60 years or so cannot be easily washed away.

Now a few days after returning home, I am trying to recall the vivid images from the trip. The major cities visited, Prague, Bratislava, and, particularly, Budapest, are all filled with grand vestiges of past; wide streets, monumental-scale structures, and great cultural centers. I was surprised by the number of UNESCO world heritage sites we visited. Budapest, which was heavily damaged during WWII, has largely been rebuilt, but not modernized. The central areas have been restored mostly to their original character, but only the structures tell me that I am in a different world from home. Watching the people at work and in their homes, I sense a remarkable similarity with their peers in the US. The dress is indistinguishable. They are hardworking and busy living the same materialistic life we do.

One important difference struck me: the horrors of their recent occupation, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. As we often do when traveling, my wife and I visit synagogues and other signs of Jewish life. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we found synagogues that have been turned into places to visit, but little or no Jews. The large Jewish quarters are abandoned. My wife remarked along the way that Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews has been largely successful in these place. Budapest is a somewhat different story. The Jewish population that once numbered almost a million, before the Holocaust, has dwindled to perhaps 50,000, but had regained a presence in Hungary. There are number of working synagogues, including the largest in all of Europe, and signs of Jewish life seen as we walked through city streets.

Hungarians are slowly accepting responsibility for their role in Hitler’s Final Solution. We visited a very moving memorial in Budapest along the Danube. It was simply a row of bronze shoes embedded in the wall that line the river, recalling the slaughter of many Jews that were forced to remove their shoes before being shot and pushed into the Danube. The perpetrators were not the occupying Nazis, but a group of ultra-fascist Hungarians who, legend has it, outdid their Nazi counterparts in cruelty.

We visited other place where the cruelty of our species was palpably present. The first was the Czech village of Lidice which as obliterated in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi regent of the region. All the men and many children— were shot and the rest deported to labor camps. Every structure was demolished, and bulldozers ran over them until no remnants of habitation remained. The memorial is striking in the absence of structure. There is nothing there except a simply memorial and the rest is just the fields where the town once existed. The emptiness is overcoming, as is the simplicity of the shoes along the Danube. Later, we visited a Soviet forced-labor camp where both criminals and political prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines. The brutality was present even as we saw only lifeless structures. I can’t imagine the feelings of the older Czechs and others who celebrated the coming of their liberators from the Nazis, only to find themselves once again living under a terribly repressive regime. Real freedom came only about 25 years ago.

Maybe it takes a terrible tragedy to wake up to the harsh reality of modernity. Like much of the rest of Europe, these countries have some form of a social democracy. The government is very much present in daily life; health services and education are free to all comers. Most provide a decent pension. Maternity leave is very generous, allowing working mothers several years at home, until their children enter the school system, starting with kindergarten. Family units are much tighter with many more children living at home with their parents. It is very hard to absorb a culture as a visitor with only a short immersion, but I did feel more care present than here at home. The institutions of government certainly express that. Their cities are places of living history where both the high and low points of the past are evident.

Having been visited all too often by the ravages of war, these countries and others are attempting to work together under the aegis of the EU—a very difficult context given the very different origins and history of all the member states. I heard grousing about this and that, but I believe most think the present system is better than the old one that was kept in place by power, domination, and war. I thought a lot about our recent efforts to find a diplomatic solution to our differences with Iran. The alternative expressed by those who oppose entering into a treaty is basically war, an all-too-easy solution for those who have never had their homeland destroyed and occupied. A few moments spent in Lidice would quickly dispel such a notion. A trip through the European monuments, dead and alive, to the realities of war might turn the minds of our politicians away from the deadly technological weapons that they think will solve all our problems. It is increasingly clear that this is a terribly mistakenly vision. War at a distance relieves responsibility for its actuality. That’s the message that lingers as I resettle into my routines, blotting out memories of many glasses of real beer, beautiful cities, medieval villages, love of craftsmanship, and others.

Amazon Strikes Another Blow



The cause for flourishing just took another hit with the unveiling of Amazon’s new “Dash.” Dash, a device to make ordering from Amazon both effortless and mindless has two parts. The hand-held Dash will automatically place orders for household goods by scanning barcodes or by recognizing your spoken commands. The second, related part is called Dash Button. a smaller device that sticks to whatever cabinet you store your household goods that allows you to order replacements with the mere touch of a button. Here what Amazon says:

Place it. Press it. Get it.

Dash Button comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.

I see this as only a step toward implanting some sort of device in your brain that intercepts the stimulus that would have actuated the Dash Button or clicked the Dash’s bar code scanner, then and sends the intended order directly to Amazon. Why bother with more gadgets lying around the house? It can all happen without them. This is truly mindless consumption, or close to it. Each of us becomes nothing more than a cog in Amazon’s provisioning machine. No conscious thinking needed; no agonizing choice between All® and Era®. What could come any closer to making us the perfectly rational, optimizing, hyper-efficient human machine that makes markets hum?

The on-line New Yorker had a story about this that I cannot help generously cribbing from. Thanks to Ian Crouch for “The Horror of Amazon’s New Dash Button.” He begins with comments about the promotional video that Amazon used to introduce the Dash Button.

There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.

Most of the article was devoted to a theme I have been harping on for years, mindless, addictive consumption. The ubiquity of advertising has dulled our ability to make meaningful choices. The fundamental notion that the market works best when buyers have all the information needed to make rational choices has been buried for years. There is no way that anyone can determine which brand is better or whether the product being considered has hidden costs that outweigh or offset the apparent benefits. But Dash goes too far as the next quote from the article suggests.

And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

Crouch picks up on my theme by asking, “But what if there is actual value in running out of things?” Amazon is trying to make shopping completely transparent, that is, an action we take without conscious reflection. Heidegger saw this kind of action as fundamental to humans. So does modern neuroscience. Our brains learn to do routine tasks without thinking as long as the tools we need for them are “ready-to-hand.” That clumsy phrase, also from Heidegger, means simply that the necessary tools are easily available to us. If it were true that effortless consumption was purely beneficial, then it might be a good idea to make it easier. It would become just another action like walking or talking, both of which actions we perform without conscious thinking.

But consumption is clearly not without a dark side. It is the medium through which human economic life despoils the Earth. It is the medium that blinds us to the relationships we have with the world by the very readiness-to-hand nature of consumption, as Amazon would like to have it. So, by the way, would most neoclassical economists. Human life has progressed (if you would call it that) only when the transparency of action ceases. It is only then that we become conscious of the world before us that we use our real smarts to solve our problems. The world, again, according to Heidegger, becomes present-at-hand, and humans enter a different mode of thinking, reflecting on the scene. Almost all other animals lack this capability. It would be a terrible shame to lose it or to injure that talent. The Skinner box referred to in the last quote is a system where the animal (including humans) inside operates only by a transparent stimulus-response behavioral pattern. No ‘thinking” is involved.

The ability to think critically or reflectively is being neglected today. Teaching to tests is a thinly disguised form of Skinnerism. Humanities which teach such critical skills are being pushed aside by the drive towards complete professionalism in higher education. With only a little simplification, professionalism is a form of ready-to-hand behavior. One learns how to address many kinds of problems, transparently, with the tools one acquires in school and through experience. The appearance of many societal ills can be traced to the failure of professionals to cope with the present-at-hand, that is the real world. Even though Dash might appear to be an almost trivial player in a technological world where mindlessness is already the key, it is another ominous sign that what makes us human is taking another hit.

The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Most of my readers are far too young to remember, Fantasia, one of Disney’s very early animated films consisting of fantastic scenes set to classical music. One of them tells the tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the music of the same name by Paul Dukas. In it the Apprentice (Mickey Mouse), trying to emulate his master, performs what he believes is the correct incantations and spells to turn on a broom to become a water carrier to perform Mickey’s own chores. But the scheme goes awry, and the broom continues until the place is inundated. Mickey is powerless to stop the action until the master returns, turns the broom off, and gives Mickey the boot. I see Amazon as the sorcerer and me as Mickey. I am given the magic wand, Dash, and the ability to turn it on, but not the secret to turn it off. I can envision my house overflowing with toilet paper and Mac’n Cheese, but I cannot imagine the Sorcerer, Amazon, ever showing up to turn off the spigot.

This is not even the end of the story. It’s the last line in the following quote that conjured up images of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Crouch ends with:

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.


The recent news has been full of stories about the passage of laws to protect religious freedom. One question that seems always to accompany these stories relates to the discriminatory nature of such laws. Is it right to pass laws that arguably increase the freedom of someone, but at the cost of discriminating against another? This question is posed as very important, as if there is an alternative. But there is not, a fact generally overlooked. It is impossible to increase one’s [negative] freedom without reducing someone else’s. This is always true, no matter what the issue involved.

Laws and other restrictions like this are directed at negative liberty, an idea discussed in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin. He argues that liberty comes in two flavors, positive and negative. Positive liberty determines one’s possibilities to act in any way one chooses. It has to do with one’s life choices in matters of religion, expression, profession, marriage and so on. One should be able to choose without established barriers, but that is not always possible without the authority of some societal institution to crush the restraining power of institutions, like the Church held over the English citizens who fled to the New World to escape them. Such form of liberty did not always exist. Until the advent of the Enlightenment, individuals existed, but caught up in a system of authoritative beliefs that fixed them in a web established by religious orders or societal orders, like medieval feudalism.

Negative liberty is a mundane consequence of positive liberty. Put in a systems framework, unlimited possibility (positive) is possible only if one is alone in the world, living amidst natural beings with no similar rights. The second part was deemed to be the case, as modernity, which brought this kind human of freedom, also relegated the world itself, save for humans, as fodder for our mills, having no such libertarian rights. Perhaps there was a time with only one human being, but genetically that would have been the end of us. As soon as two human beings lived in communicative proximity, natural problems with freedom must have arisen, even if early humans had no words to express their sense of encroachment. So negative freedom, the right to do exactly what I choose, must have accompanied its positive relative, more or less, from the advent of humans on Earth. As the global population grew, human settlements spread into the unsettled frontier where more negative freedom could be found, but such frontiers are all but gone in the industrialized world.

Discrimination is the ability to act in a way to prevent the involvement of some other human being. It is a form of negative liberty and is inseparable from it. One cannot have one without the other, a point that seems missing in almost everything I have been reading about these recent 
“religious freedom” laws. To find some legalistic ground to separate the two is impossible in a systems sense. Looking at the same system, the finite Planet, it is impossible to have positive freedom for any one individual with encroaching on the freedom of another. No law protective of property or some other immaterial right can undo this knot. If there is to be any resolution, it must come from some systemic solution that accepts the finiteness and interconnectedness of everybody.

The closest such concept that comes to my mind is that of “tolerance.” Tolerance is a way of interacting with other beings that accepts the reality of being part of the same system; it is a systemic notion. It has become a moralistic term as something that ought to be practiced as a “good.” But such “goods” are always arguable because they have little or no real grounds, but tolerance can be derived simply from its systemic origins. If I want to be able to exercise my positive freedom, I need freedom from the inhibitory powers of others. I would like them to do their best to allow me my freedom; best in the systems sense in that such allowance must always be judged by some systems-wide criteria. I have no choice but to do the same for them. I cannot, a priori, determine what such criteria should be used because the real world is complex and not amenable to any theoretical optimizing calculus. But I can affirm that no finite laws will be able to produce th systemic result that would be seen to be optimum for all.

We have not followed such a systemic path, passing law after law that defines classes that one can or cannot discriminate against, that is, prevent them from entering one’s sphere of possible activities. The intent of such actions may be meritorious, but the outcomes cannot be because of the failures of systems thinking I have just outlined. If we, as a society, seek to get the most of our real existence, we must begin to practice tolerance seriously. We must question every act taken that consciously excludes another human being for whatever reason we assign. Ask ourselves how deeply does excluding anyone increase my freedom deep down inside? I believe that it is possible to value positive freedom and possibility, but not negative freedom, in the same way that it is not possible to prove a negative. The process of discovering our possibilities, our true freedom, is very difficult and requires a reflective process that enables us to get beneath the rules we have adopted simply because there are out there and have been labeled good.

There is much here that fits my writings on flourishing. Flourishing is, like tolerance, a systemic notion. One cannot observe tolerance until the system shows it. Individuals can act tolerantly, but discrimination will still be the overall outcome until some point where the system will flip into a new tolerant regime. Tolerance can take us part way to flourishing by mitigating or eliminating negative behaviors. Flourishing requires a more positive attitude, one of caring. It is not enough not to consider the needs of others, one needs to positively take care. A moments thought, using a systems focus, should paint a picture of a world where everyone is realizing their human possibilities, not because they are free from the encroachment of others, but because they being pushed toward those possibilities by everyone else.

Such a world is possible, but exceedingly difficult to foresee as real. One strong reason for our blindness lies in our idea of negative freedom, an idea that is consistent with our modern view of the world as made up by individual isolated, disengaged human beings. It’s time to stop tinkering with this idea and start to think systemically. We will have to create the process as we go because we haven’t bothered to do it for many centuries. One important first step is to accept that negative liberty and discrimination are but two sides of the same coin, If we want one, we must get the other, but there is a way to avoid both.