January 2017 Archives

Conservative Doesn’t Mean Mindless


Instead of my usual opening image, I will start today with an aphorism. I chose it because of the obvious irony. I am into irony these days. It helps me through the days.

It is better to be be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie. (Russian proverb)

It is very difficult, even I would say impossible, to get where you are going by using only the rear view mirror. That’s true unless you are heading to a distant past. This may be the right destination following some sort of collapse or serious setback, but hardly the right one to head for when everything seems to be working reasonably well. Especially in contrast to times in the past. Today I am going to comment on a development where the present plans would seem to take us back to times when we struggled to move forward.

Conservatism, like liberalism, means many things to many people, but I cannot find any arguments that it refers to going backwards. The classic case is to stick with what you have instead of trying out new, unproven ideas. In the real, complex world, this never made sense and it doesn’t today. We live in a world with many flaws in the fabric of our ideals. They are there because the explanatory models and structures built on them fail to match the reality of the world. Unlike scientific facts that do a good job of matching the parts of that world, our beliefs and institutional facts, which may have come close to reality sometime in the past, have become obsolete and mismatched to the present world.

Complexity demands a certain level of humility, a willingness to accept the virtual certainty that anything we say about the world can only approximate, at best, what is going on out there. Even science struggles when it comes to explaining the real, complex world. The best, perhaps the only, way to deal with complexity is via pragmatism. Pragmatism is a way toward understanding complexity. The better we understand how any complex system, like the real world, writ large or small, works, the more likely our attempts to guide it towards our desires will be effective. In changing times, the very reason to try new and different approaches is that the old ways no longer fit the world, and in fact created many of the problems to be addressed.

With this short preface, let me connect it to what has been going on. The last time human societies attempted to operate without facts was the Dark Ages. We owe almost everything we would argue is “good” for us from the marvelous realization in the Enlightenment that facts matter. Life until that time had been ruled by articles of faith coming from two sources. One, obviously, is religion whose dogma was largely responsible for the darkness of the Dark Ages.

The second is what emerged in the early times of the Enlightenment as scientific facts. I write “as scientific facts” because they are not what we would call such facts today. They were pronouncements of philosophers, like Descartes, Hobbes, or Smith, about eternal truths that were picked up and used to build the early modern world we still live within. But they are not scientific facts at all. Today, we accept as scientific facts only those that have emerged from the rigorous application of the scientific method, which ironically was an idea of Descartes. The facts produced by the early Enlightenment thinkers are what have been called institutional facts, social constructs, legal fictions, even imagined realities. They take on the power of true facts about the world simply because they become heard as such, usually because the first person to utter them has some sort of authoritarian legitimacy.

John Searle, the philosopher, offers another category of facts he call “brute facts.” They are simply truths about the world that speak for themselves. I am a male is an example. I am composing this blog on an iMac is another. So is the size of the Inauguration crowd a brute fact. Occasionally there may be good reasons to argue over brute facts, but not usually in a society of shared meaning about the physical nature of the world. The concept of “alternate [brute] facts” is nonsense. It is simply a denial of reality that comes with a great loss.

Denying brute facts destroys trust in the speaker very quickly. Without trust, new institutional facts, the critical kind necessary for any form of social existence from families to nations, even to the whole planet, will not be accepted as true or valid. If and when this happens, the fundamental underlying principle of American democracy, governing with the consent of the governed, is broken. I understand our American society is built on a network of principles and rules, but if this one goes, nothing else matters.

A substantial number of Americans have already made this judgment that the government cannot be trusted. Supposedly that fact was a major factor in Trump’s victory. Now, that number is being rapidly magnified by those who have already losing or have lost trust in the new government. Not by any past act, but by the blatant, deliberate lying since the election. This distortion of the truth in not the same as the argument George Lakoff makes about the framing of issues. He points to the power of context to guide the way we think and act, but always within the bounds of fact.

If this were not enough to wonder about the path ahead, the new Administration is showing an utter disregard for science. I guess that is because science has been legitimized as the best source of facts about the world we can trust, not because they are true in the sense of brute facts, but because they enable us to construct material and institutional structures that generally work the way we want. They also point out changes in the world that threaten those structures and the norms/ideals they stand for. The consequences of this disregard for both scientific and brute facts include one obvious, but chilling, outcome: a return to the Dark Ages. Not the Dark Ages of pre-Enlightenment times, but one of our own making.

We are not the first to face the possibility that our acceptance of a pack of lies or alternate facts has led to the very loss of freedoms we feared or never even knew they were available. I have lived through times when many souls lived and died under the heels of authoritarian leaders who survived largely by suppressing truth. I will finish this blog with a few quotes of one of my heroes who clearly saw the need for truth and the consequences of losing access to it, Vaclav Havel. Havel led the Czechs out of darkness by forcing the truth of their world on them and by that process, empowering the powerless. Here are just a few of my favorites.

There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.

A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action.

What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.

Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.

Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment. The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility.

Turning the Corner on My Book


inauthentic face

Well, I did it! I have sent my new book manuscript to a publisher in hopes they will accept and publish it. A long time coming, but finally off my computer screen. Now what? Some patient waiting before I hear from the publisher, and a lot more time available for other activities. Some goes to the reading and preparation for my last ME’AH semester, which covers the modern period of Jewish history. I should hear any day if I got my courses at HILR, my retiree learning center. Maybe a foot high pile of New Yorkers and other reading that sits waiting to be opened. Long overdue mundane household chores that I could justify postponing because of the importance of getting the book finished.

With Inauguration Day just a few days past, I expect to be spending some time following the new Administration. I wonder if we will see any changes in Trump’s behavior once he has been sworn in and, perhaps tones down his insecurity index. I can’t go quite as far as Ronald Reagan did in his stance on dealing with the Russians, ironically invoking an old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” The original is in the form of a short rhyme, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai). Suspicious source, but I doubt that Reagan had any ties to Moscow. Update after 3 days: the answer is no.

The verify half of this is very important, but I expect will be difficult because of the shortage of reliable information, a condition that will probably get worse before, if ever, it gets better. The trust half doesn’t apply for me. The election process left me devoid of whatever leeway I normally have in observing what goes for politics lately. The transition process has moved my bullshit detector even closer to the redline. Update: We can expect to be fed a stream of ‘alternate facts.” I will be on the lookout for all sorts of apples rising from the trees.

Meanwhile, flourishing got a push from the United Nations recently. I got a note from a friend telling me of a meeting at the UN to work on a project that had been started a few years ago. To provide some context I quote from the document that was the focus of this meeting.

In reflecting in depth on the 2030 Development Agenda, in October 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) convened a dialogue around the question: “ What deep human and organizational transformation is required to support the goals of sustainable development, and how might such transformation arise in human beings who have experienced suffering and trauma?” Around the table were respected policy experts, psychologists, neuroscientists, academics, ethicists, journalists, spiritual leaders and those who work in the field delivering UN programs. Their collective interest was to consider the question of human flourishing and sustainability with attention to an increasingly global, inter-spiritual and multicultural convergence on the “interconnectedness” of the world’s seven billion people. The main conclusion was that sustainable development requires a “spiritual transformation” of ourselves and the organizations we are linked with that actively extends to the societal, global, and ecological levels. (My emphasis)

I do not have any details of the meeting, but believe it was devoted to this idea of ‘spiritual transformation.” The document clearly, in my reading, argues that sustainable development taken in the economic sense alone is insufficient to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

I am not sure I would have chosen the word spiritual to contain the program being developed, but, in any case, the arguments are very close to those I make. The document stresses interconnectedness and what I call caring actions. I cannot say much more now because I was not at this recent meeting.

I am surprised and a bit embarrassed that I had not heard of this initiative at the UN. I am very impressed with the way they speak about “sustainable development as a transformative spiritual phenomenon,” clearly making the goal distinct. The most intriguing part of this document is the reference to authenticity. It is hard to find this idea mentioned anywhere, but in a bureaucratic document from the UN. It is clear to me that the framers of this do understand that the kind of acts they argue are necessary can come only from a very special kind of care, care I call authentic. Such care shows up only when the actor sees acknowledges the legitimate needs of the target of action. I call this an act of love; so does the UN document.

An elevation in the experience of oneness, conscience, and unconditional love that is necessary for human progress is imperative if we are to respond fully to the suffering caused by inequalities, violence, natural disasters, wars, and displacements and post-conflicts that have become chronic for individuals and entire communities around the world. Many people everywhere now are searching for ways to pull hearts together based on the consciousness of oneness. They are turning toward many perennial forms of spiritual practice where the authentic self can shine through into a life of inner peace and love

Wow! I am looking to see how to get involved. This effort is a ray of light for me in a sea of gloom.

The Inaugural Address Trump Didn't Give


I went to a performance of “Thurgood” tonight. Wonderful moving performance. The synchronicity with current events was palpable. The closing lines come from a poem by Langston Hughes. The irony with the winning slogan of the President-elect is extraordinary. Here is the whole poem.

Let America Be America Again (1935)

Langston Hughes, 1902 - 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!