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Quotations

  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

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Idle Thoughts

December 05, 2007

Vladimir Putin, as seen by Bill Nichols in USA Today, March 27, 2002

(My commentary on the text in red italic)

If Bill Nichols has correctly read Putin intentions in March of 2002 one might reasonably conclude that the present lack of cooperation between Russia and the West, is mostly our fault. And also that Bush's reading of the man, ten months earlier on June 16 of 2001, was not completely whacky. That is, Bush's words following his first meeting with Putin whem he said that he, Bush, "looked the man in the eye," and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

Perhaps, although I've never believed it until today, what Bush saw was not unreal. In any case by our actions since then we've helped to bury under a renewed and hardened and darkened antagonism whatever light Bush may have seen in the man. Nichols' account makes me think that whatever Putin is today it's in good part because of us. Certainly we're to blame for the crazy idea to install missile defenses in two of the former Republics of the Soviet Union. Whose daft idea was that anyway?

In what follows I cite passages from Bill Nichols profile of Putin done for USA Today on March 27, 2002. Why the Russian translations? Probably that's mostly for me. But we Americans sometimes seem to forget that the Russians do speak another language. English is not yet the world's language, and the Russians, like many others still want to be heard in their own language. Nichols' words are in bold, following by the Russian translation. If you know a little Russian it might be fun to follow along.

Russia's Putin is an enigma to the world
(Путин – загадка для всеро мира)

Bill Nichols'original text is in bold characters,
Followed by a Russian translation in normal text size.

Several weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin confronted an historic choice.
Через несколько недель после нападений террористов на Соединенные Штаты 11 сентября российский президент Владимир Путин встал перед историческим выбором.

His top advisers pushed him to extract concessions from Washington in exchange for Russia's help in the U.S. war on terrorism, officials close to Putin say. His response was startling: No. Instead, the Russian president would offer unconditional cooperation to strengthen bonds with the West.
По свидетельству официальных лиц из ближайшего окружения г-на Путина, его высшие советники подталкивали его к тому, чтобы он выбивал у Вашингтона уступки в обмен на помощь России в войне Америки с терроризмом. Его реакция была поразительной. Нет! Вместо этого российский президент предложил безусловное сотрудничество в целях укрепления связей с Западом.

''He said to this crowd, 'This is not about price lists. This is not about bargaining. This is about something else,' '' says Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader in the Russian Duma, the lower chamber of Parliament.
"Он сказал этим людям 'Тут неуместно заводить разговор о прейскурантах. Мы не собираемся торговаться. Тут речь совсем о другом.'", - вспоминает Григорий Явлинский, один из лидеров Государственной Думы Российской Федерации.

The ''something else'' Putin seeks is a new Russia, a Russia that is regarded as a full partner by the same Western nations that were mortal enemies of the Soviet Union.
То, другое, к которому стремится г-н Путин - это новая Россия, такая Россия, в которой те самые западные страны, что были заклятыми врагами Советского Союза, будут видеть полноправного партнера.

Just as earlier this week our own intelligence services told our government that Iran's nuclear bomb initiative had been on hold since 2003 (meaning that during the time since then our government has not been aware of what was really going on at Iran's nuclear facilities) so reading Nichols' reporting from Moscow, one year earlier, in 2002, makes us painfully aware now of just how much we perhaps missed a golden opportunity to cooperate with Putin and Russia.

Apparently we just as incorrectly read the man Putin, as Bush did Iran. Has 9/11 blinded us to just about everything else that was and is going on in the world, including, perhaps, a more cooperative Russia?

Quick, name one important, beneficial, and well thought out international action that our government has undertaken during the past six years, that is, since 9/11. Can you? I can't.

That this former KGB officer -- who marked the second anniversary of his election on Tuesday -- would try to build such a Russia has shocked diplomats around the world, turned traditional East-West relations upside-down and left global leaders wondering what Putin will do next.
То, что этот бывший офицер Комитета государственной безопасности (КГБ) СССР - который во вторник отметил вторую годовщину своего избрания на пост президента России - намерен попытаться построить такую Россию, шокировало дипломатов во всем мире, перевернуло традиционные отношения Восток-Запад и заставило лидеров нашей планеты гадать, каким будет следующий шаг г-на Путина.

Well, at least some things don't change. The elections in Russia are just over (last Sunday, December 2) with the crushing Putin victory, and now everyone is wondering what Putin is going to do next.

Perhaps nothing surprises Westerners more than Putin's success in turning around his nation's economy, particularly in Moscow, where a once drab and listless communist capital has come alive with glittering streets and vibrant commerce: sushi bars, store windows displaying trendy designer clothes, Manhattan-like traffic jams.
Пожалуй, ничто так не удивляет представителей западных стран, как успехи г-на Путина в деле перестройки экономики страны, особенно заметные в Москве. Когда-то серая и апатичная коммунистическая столица сегодня полна жизни: сверкающие улицы, бурно расцветшая торговля - суши-бары, одежда от модных дизайнеров в витринах магазинов - "пробки" на улицах, как в Манхэттене.

We need to hear this sort of thing more often. The city Moscow is now right up there with Paris and London in regard to glitz and show, and its citizens, no less than those of the other European cities, will surely fight to hold on to what they now have (a material prosperity they never knew during Soviet times). So in spite of the apparent incomprehension between Putin's Russia and the West there will be no return to the closed Soviet society of before.

Russia was on the verge of economic ruin and political anarchy during Boris Yeltsin's last years as president. Now, Putin wants his rejuvenated nation to be at the table with other Western nations.
В последние годы президентства Бориса Ельцина Россия стояла на краю экономической разрухи и политической анархии. И вот теперь г-н Путин хочет, чтобы его обновленная страна была за одним столом с другими западными странами.

The difference between when Nichols was writing and now is that Putin is evidently thoroughly convinced that order and security trump democracy, at least in Russia. And it's hard to quarrel with him in that regard. In 2002, his second year in office, Putin may have felt that a Russian democrat in office was possible, although Yeltsin's example ought to have told him the opposite.

Now he knows there's no place in present day Russia for the democrat. The Russian people are not ready. Putin has become, whether he knows it or not, a disciple of Hobbes, and he's going to make sure that his country has a strong ruler at the helm.

Western leaders, however, aren't sure whether to trust Putin. Many still question whether he is committed to a Russia that embraces capitalism and democracy.

Однако западные лидеры не уверены, стоит ли доверять г-ну Путину. Многие все еще сомневаются, действительно ли он хочет, чтобы в России восторжествовали капитализм и демократия.

Putin, now we know, while he has turned his back on democracy, does embrace a kind of state capitalism. See my earlier piece below, Putin and Kasparov.

Russia's new prosperity, for example, is limited to Moscow and a few other large cities. Critics at home and abroad say Putin's record is poor on civil liberties, such as press freedom. Rights groups say Russian troops continue to commit atrocities in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Senior U.S. officials here say they question whether Putin believes in democracy at all.
К примеру, новообретенное процветание России пока ограничивается Москвой и несколькими другими крупными городами. Критики дома и за рубежом говорят, что г-н Путин плохо зарекомендовал себя в вопросе о гражданских свободах, например, свободе печати. Правозащитные организации говорят, что российские войска продолжают творить злодеяния в мятежной республике Чечня. Американские высокопоставленные официальные лица здесь, в Москве, говорят, что не уверены, верит ли вообще г-н Путин в демократию.

Most of what Nichols has to say could have been said today, with few changes being necessary. The new Russian prosperity is limited to Moscow and a few large cities. The new found oil wealth has done little to raise a good half of the population out of the depths of poverty. There is little or no press freedom, but, and to the good, people are able to travel abroad, and as far as we know the latest representatives of Putin's own KGB are not torturing and murdering dissidents in the basement of the Lubyanka.

Chechnya is no longer the "breakaway Republic", its people, those that are still alive, having been successfully pacified. Putin has succeeded with the Chechnyans whereas we failed with the Viet Cong, although admittedly the two situations are not comparable. But most of all we didn't have the stomach to do in Vietnam what Putin has done in Chechnya.

Finally, when Nichols wrote Putin watchers weren't sure, but now they are, that Putin is much more the Tsar of a fallen Russian empire trying to hold on to past glories, than the President of a new liberal and democratic Russia reaching out to the West. Helas! But we really couldn't have expected anything else.

Some Russians have the same doubts and question whether he is merely building a new authoritarian system. ''(Putin) has started to restore what we had before, but in an even uglier way,'' says Tatiana Chubrikova, 52, a translator for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. ''He thinks he knows what is good for everyone and then tries to impose it.''
Некоторые россияне испытывают аналогичные сомнения и задаются вопросом, а не выстраивает ли он новую авторитарную систему. "Путин начал восстанавливать то, что у нас было раньше, но в еще более скверном виде, - говорит 52-летняя Татьяна Чубрикова, переводчик Верховного комиссариата Организации Объединенных Наций (ООН) по делам беженцев. - Он думает, что знает, что хорошо для всех, и пытается навязать это людям".

Now six years later Putin no longer thinks, but knows what is good for everyone, and no longer does he try, but simply imposes his own thinking on everyone else. We see this today in the pictures coming out of Russia of the large numbers of Russian youth attending youth camps. They're not yet, thankfully, comparable to the frightening Chinese youth formations of Mao's cultural revolution, but they do remind us of that time in China.

Many Russians, long accustomed to living under a schizophrenic communist system that delivered far less than it promised, say the inscrutable Putin is another enigma for them to unravel. Officials close to the former spymaster say a normal day might find him talking to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a group of his former KGB cronies -- and giving equal weight to each conversation.
Многие россияне, давно приученные жить при шизофренической коммунистической системе, которая делала куда меньше, чем обещала, говорят, что непостижимый г-н Путин является для них еще одной загадкой, которую нужно разгадать. Официальные лица из окружения этого бывшего шпиона говорят, что в любой обычный день он может беседовать с президентом США Бушем-младшим (George W. Bush), с премьер-министром Великобритании Тони Блэром (Tony Blair) и с группой бывших дружков из КГБ - и каждой беседе придавать равноценный вес.

''Putin's very far away from us,'' says Eugin Dashkin, 52, a department manager in a sugar production company. ''It's very difficult to tell the difference between his deeds and his words. It's difficult to feel if it's real or not.''
"Путин от нас очень далек, - говорит Евгений Дашкин, 52-летний менеджер отдела в компании по производству сахара. - Очень трудно делать различие между его поступками и его словами. Трудно понять, реально это или нет".

Few Muscovites doubt that the economic turnaround is real. The economy has improved steadily since Putin, 49, became interim president when Yeltsin retired on New Year's Eve, 1999. Putin was elected three months later.
Немногие москвичи сомневаются в том, что перемены в экономике реальны. Устойчивый рост экономики отмечается с тех пор, как 49-летний Путин стал временно исполнять обязанности президента страны, когда в конце 1999 года, накануне празднования Нового Года, ушел в отставку г-н Ельцин. Через три месяца г-на Путин стал законно избранным президентом.

If you want to read Bill Nichols's full account of Putin's Russia in 2002, which I encourage you to do, go to the USA Today article here.

November 19, 2007

The NEA's "To Read or Not To Read" ought not to have been written

Washington, DC -- Today, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces the release of To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, "a new and comprehensive analysis of reading patterns in the United States."

"To Read or Not To Read gathers statistics from more than 40 studies on the reading habits and skills of children, teenagers, and adults. The compendium reveals recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society."

According the authors the data, without question or ambiguity, prompt three unsettling conclusions:

• Americans are spending less time reading.
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
• These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Now, really, why did it take even one study, let alone the forty of which this report speaks, to come to the conclusion that Americans are spending less time reading? Wasn't it always inevitable that the amount of time given to reading would drop off precipitously with first the advent of film, then television, and now the internet?

Where was time for reading going to be found given the amount of time that we know people were giving to the latter three activities? I assume that the authors themselves are readers, should we then presume that too much reading has resulted in their loss of common sense? Perhaps they should read less, and get out there where people are and understand better what people are doing (instead of what they're not doing).

For how else could the authors have failed to see, that what they are at great pains to conclude by their investigations, just had to be. Common sense ought to have told them well prior to their possessing the results of the surveys and reports, that if one does more of one thing one has no choice but to do less of the other. It can't be any other way.

Their second conclusion is even more inane. "As one reads less one's reading comprehension skills erode." Duh... 

In fact, that may not even be true. It will depend on the meaning one gives to "reading comprehensive skills." My grandson navigates the internet by following (reading) signs and directions. And he does it much quicker than I do because of the amount of time he gives to that sort of thing. If it takes him longer to read, say Dickens, which it does, not to mention Shakespeare, because of his not having read much literature, so what.

My grandson's ability to read great works of literature didn't erode because of the time he spend navigating, and reading, on myriad internet sites. He never even had the skills to read literature that only come from reading literature. If the authors of the great works of literature some day do interest him he will have absolutely no trouble, given all the comparable skills he has learned, acquiring whatever skills are necessary to quickly get up to speed in reading these authors. But until he has that interest it's not important that he does.

The third conclusion, that "these declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications," is pure opinion. This smacks of being out of touch with the real world. By 'serious' I suppose the writer means unfavorable, perhaps destructive, and such can't possibly be shown to be true.

I could just as well say that the time people spend watching films and television, plus surfing on the internet, has serious, this time, however, meaning constructive and positive civic, social, cultural, and economic implications. How is one to determine whether viewing more, and reading less, has destructive or constructive implications?  One can't.

And in fact aren't our civic lives much more positively impacted by our television and internet browsing than by, say, our reading of poetry and novels? One might readily defend the position that the latter are mostly detrimental to any civic involvement at all.

Now the organization coming to all these serious conclusions is the National Endowment for the Arts. And me? What am I, not a National Endowment. How can this be, that the National Endowment doesn't know what it is talking about and I do? Am I missing something essential in regard to all this? You tell me.

October 16, 2007

A little of what I'm reading in France this month.

I don’t read a lot of books, but I do read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles. Is it because I can finish an article, but can never seem to finish a book? That may be the reason. Some of the books I don’t finish are the same books I’ve been not finishing all my life, Adam Smith’s, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, and hundreds, no thousands more of similar well established reputation and importance, and for me still unconquered.

These writers ought to have written their books in article length. In my experience it’s a rare book of non-fiction that needs all its pages. In fact the great number of pages in most of these books is the single most important factor in their not being read by more people. The so-named Great Books are probably read by fewer and fewer people, this in spite of the fact that more and more young people are attending liberal arts colleges, the length of these books being the single most important cause of this being so. The length, if not impenetrable prose style, of John Dewey’s book, Democracy and Education, now reverently referred to by his admirers and followers as the philosopher’s definitive work on education, remains an obstacle to the good ideas in that book becoming more widely known and understood.

I stopped reading novels as a young man.  I was then and still am of the opinion that nothing written during the last half century or so compares favorably with the belle epoch of the novel, beginning with Cervantes and ending with Proust, Faulkner, and Joyce. But I do continue to read, as many of my contemporaries, large numbers of thrillers, my favorites being those of John MacDonald, Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child, Robert Parker and the like. Thrillers are not so much novels, or even books, but are more like TV’s Law and Order or the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon film series, having like the tv series and the action movies similarly exciting but ephemeral life spans.

Here in France during the last weeks of September and early October I’ve been reading my usual heavy fare of articles, mostly on the internet (since my retirement my wife and I have decided we can no longer afford to purchase newspapers and magazines, especially given the present euro dollar exchange rate). The articles that I enjoy most, and find particularly significant for whatever reason, I have been foolishly (in that for most of them I have no clear plans to do anything with them and they rapidly become clutter) saving by copying and pasting them into one of the several working journals I keep on my laptop computer.

Probably much more meaningful than the phrase we are what we eat and drink is the phrase we are what we read (and if we don’t read, what we watch and listen to). Perhaps if I analyze my readings say, during these few weeks in France, I may find answers to two interesting questions, what does my reading says about me, much less interesting, and much more interesting what the readings say about the world.

Here the articles taken in the order in which I read and then saved them in one of my laptop journals, not necessarily iin the order in which they were written. For I probably no less than other web devotees am constantly utilizing the greatest advantage of digital as opposed to hard copy, that of being able to easily link up to supporting articles or other relevant materials, either in the past or elsewhere in the present, perhaps even on the other side of the world or in the time of the ancient Sumerians of the now destroyed Iraqi city of Ur.

Books without highlighted links, which by a single mouse click can carry you magically to other places, seem more and more like the horse and buggy, and when was the last time that anyone of you ever moved about in one of those? Actually I never have except vicariously in the Westerns that I still watch and love. So here is a first draft of my list:

Bollinger Defends Columbia’s Treatment of Ahmadinejad
By Colin Moynihan, City Room, in the NYTimes, on 9/26,2007

Picking Up Trash by Hand, and Yearning for Dignity
By AMELIA GENTLEMAN, from her New Delhi Journal, in the Times of 10/27/2007

New Test Asks: What Does ‘American’ Mean?
By JULIA PRESTON in the NYTimes of 10/28/2007

The Entitlement People, an op ed piece by David Brooks in the NYTimes of 9/28/2007

More Deaths in Myanmar, and Defiance
By SETH MYDANS, in NYTimes of 9/28/2007

School district considers banning traditions seen as offensive to Muslims, by Angela Caputa in the Chicago Sun Times, also from 9/28.

Enough Said? Probably Not.
Free-Speech Issues Once Again Testing University President
By Robin Shulman Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007; A06

Jena, O. J. and the Jailing of Black America
By ORLANDO PATTERSON, in the NYTimes of 9/30/2007

In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains
Elite hypocrisy, gangsta culture, and failure in black America
Myron Magnet in City Journal, Summer 2007

also: Compassionate Conservative or Cowboy Capitalist?, and What Use Is Literature?
by Myron Magnet

U.S. leads arms sales to developing countries, by Thom Shanker of the NYTimes of 9/30

Marital Spats, Taken to Heart, by TARA PARKER-POPE in the NYTimes of 10/2/07

Au Coeur de la reaction by Paul Labarique, Voltairenet, 9/15/2004
Why did I go to the Voltairenet to read this? Well because of an argument I had with a young opinionated Frenchman who sent me there to know the truth about the United States (the “Evil Empire”). If you want to know what they’re saying about us go to: http://www.voltairenet.org/en

Myron Magnet (one of Voltairenet’s villains) again. I forget how I stumbled onto this, but it’s Magnet’s review of Mickey Kaus’s book, On the End of Equality (one of those books that could have been an article, and probably was).
Magnet’s review is Rethinking liberalism, from Fortune Magazine of 11/2/1992.
I’ve always had a favorable opinion of Kaus, even when I haven’t agreed with him. Is Magnet correct, however, when he says about Kaus, “how can anyone believe that a well-meaning government, by extending its control further into every nook and cranny of social life, could hope to reestablish the civic realm? The question about the correct role of government in our lives is one that I look to much of my reading for clarification and enlightenment.

Another article by Magnet,
America’s Underclass: What to do? from Fortune Magazine of 5/11/1987
Almost all of my adult life I have been trying to understand, come to grips, learn to live with the so named Underclass. I’m convinced there is one, and that its existence accounts for the appalling accounts of our inner city schools and prison population numbers. Has anything been done to stem its growth. Magnet’s “What to do?”  is also my question.

I followed a link from Magnet, then with Fortune Magazine, to Heather MacDonald at the City Journal, and read her:
How to Straighten Out Ex-Cons, in City Journal of Spring, 2003

In the same City Journal there was this article by Sol Stern, ACORN’s Nutty Regime for Cities. ACORN stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Sol’s point is that although community organizing has a long and honorable tradition, going back to Jane Addams’ Hull House in late 19th century Chicago, ACORN unlike Hull House does not emphasize self-empowerment, but instead “promotes a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism, central planning, victimology, and government handouts to the poor.” Here again that theme of what is the correct or proper role of government in alleviating the problems of the underclass. Sometimes it seems that is the main subject of my reading. Whereas I tend to be on the side of the City Journal, emphasizing the primordial role of the individual in bringing about real social change for the better (or reforms in our schools) I’m not yet prepared to say that the government has no role, for it clearly does.

“If you don't go after the network, you're never going to stop these guys. Never.” by Rick Atkinson, in the Washington Post of 10/3/2007. This about IEDs or roadside bombs.

Islam, the Marxism of Our Time, by Theodore Dalrymple in the City Journal, Fall, 2007, Islam, and in particular the Islamist threat to the West, one of the several subjects that I’m mostly reading about, along with the underclass and the liberal conservative argument over the proper role of government in our lives. Again, I’m looking for enlightenment, and without finding a lot of that I am becoming more knowledgeable of the arguments on both sides of the questions. Perhaps, not being one of the true believers that’s the best that we can do.

Shelter and the Storm, by Katherine Boo in the New Yorker of 11/28/2005. What led me to this article by Boo? A link from? I’m going to have to go back reread her article to determine just what that link was.

What’s the best hope for the first child of a poor mother? also by Katherine Boo, from the New Yorker of 2/6/2006. The link here was easy. You like a writer and you look for more of her work.

What Makes Kucinich run? by Joshua Scheer, in the Nation of 12/15/2006. Kucinich is one of those on the side of the government’s role in providing rights to security, clean air, water, shelter, food and clothing. And he’s an articulate and  lone proponent of this side of the equation. Although my natural sympathies tend to be on the other side, with the grass roots solutions to our problems, not the central authority, I find myself drawn to Kucinich for his courageous stand. I don’t remember why on the fourth of October I happened to read this article by Joshua Scheer, other than the fact that the Nation is on my favorites list.

The Republican Collapse, by David Brooks in the NYTimes of 10/5/2007. Of all the op ed writers in the Times I find I’m most in agreement with, or at least share his interests and outlook, it’s David Brooks. He reads Edmund Burke, and if you remember that’s one of the books that I read, or rather am always reading and never finishing. In this op ed piece Brooks reminds us that “the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism,” and that these conservatives “hold that moral laws emerge through deliberation and practice.” That is, there are no quick fixes by the executive or legislative branches. It takes time to change things for the better, in health care, in the inner city schools, for example, and that throughout one’s reform efforts one cannot disregard the place of custom, tradition and habit in people’s lives.

How Not to Do It
Nothing works in the omnicompetent state by Theodore Dalrymple, in City Journal, Winter 2007

Health Care Needs an Internet Revolution
By BILL GATES, in the WSJ, of 10/5/2007

Still Pinteresque, by Sarah Lyall, of the NYTimes, of 10/7. This was an interview with Harold Pinter, on the occasion of the remake of Sleuth. But a mention in the Times piece that Pinter was still angry made me go back to read about that anger as expressed in his Nobel address of 2005. And it was that Nobel address that I copied and posted into my journal.

A Prayer for Archimedes. A long-lost text by the ancient Greek mathematician shows that he had begun to discover the principles of calculus. From Science News Online, week of 10/6/2007

Russian Paper Publishing New Details of Journalist’s Killing,
by C. J. CHIVERS, in the NYTimes of 10/7/2007.

Rape has morphed from tool of war into societal epidemic in Congo By Jeffrey Gettleman, in the International Herald Tribune of 10/7/2007
Another major theme of  my reading, and major interest of mine is the collapse of civil society in so many regions of our world today. In the Congo Hobbes was right about “the life of man, being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Why Democracy, by Stanley Fish, in the NYTimes of 10/8/2007. I like what Fish writes about. What interests him most often interests me, and we have very different points of view about his subject matters. For example, I wrote the following comments to his Times piece:
Fish’s definition, that “democracy is a form of government that is not attached to any pre-given political or ideological ends, but allows ends to be chosen by the majority vote of free citizens,” doesn’t correspond to my experience with democracy. For it rarely happens that “ends” are chosen in a popular election. Instead democracy allows political candidates, people (not “ends,” except for the relatively rare referendum) to be chosen by majority vote. And the candidates are in themselves many different people (and probably represent many different ends), and too many times we are surprised by the person our vote has helped to elect, and disillusioned we wait for the chance to elect someone else who at least promises to get behind some of our ends. And of course we will again be disillusioned. Democracy may be the best form of government but the best that it brings us is hope that something better is possible.
Also, fish is wrong about chance or contingency ruling the world. Contingency may be the air we breathe but what rules the world, what brings about change and progress, as well as the destruction of civilizations, are the market exchanges between peoples. Take away those exchanges, as in an all out war, and our world would end. But so far this has never happened, except in piecemeal fashion, and human beings continue to multiply and dominate, by means of the exchanges between and among, them all life forms on this earth.

Thousands of walruses flock to Alaska shore, by the Associated Press, in the International Herald Tribune, 10/7

The U.S. is not a 'Christian nation' By Jon Meacham, in the International Herald Tribune, of 10/8

California's Crisis In Prison Systems A Threat to Public
Longer Sentences and Less Emphasis On Rehabilitation Create Problems by John Pomfret in the Washington Post of 6/11/2006.
Correspondence with Ben Thompson of the Boston based organization, STRIVE, led me to this article. Ben and I are both interested in the ex-offender population, and how we might do better by them with our programs to help.

A refugee from Western Europe, By Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie, in the International Herald Tribune of 10/9/2007
Rushdie remains one of the West’s most elegant voices in the defense of our liberties. I try never to miss an op ed or other piece of his (although I don’t read his novels).

Paris Embraces Plan to Become City of Bikes
By John Ward Anderson, in the Washington Post of 3/24/07
A small civilizing force at work. Put this along side what’s happening in the Congo and it doesn’t seem like much.

Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer, by Doris Lessing, a republication (on 10/13/2007) in the NYTimes of an earlier piece of hers on political correctness on the occasion of her winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. I’d like to find the time to respond, to this piece and the later piece by Stanley Fish, also on political correctness.

An Anarchist’s Progress, by Robert Jay Nock, originally published in the American mercury in 1927, republished on 10/13/2007, on the Ludwig Von Mises pages on the Web. I see the Mises articles daily in my email, and read as many as I can of them. Mises has taught me that my own political sympathies are in good part libertarian.

Political Correctness on Campus, by Stanley Fish, from the NYTimes of 10/15,2007

The Right Books and Big Ideas by Eric Alterman, from The Nation of 11/4/1999. The link to this article came from the article by Paul Labarique, on Voltairenet. I need to investigate how much Voltairenet, the Nation, as well as the Huffington and MoveOn blogs are of the same mind. I need to investigate why is it that the positions people take are often so far apart. The people themselves are pretty much the same.

In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself
By JOSEPH KAHN, in the NYTimes of 10/14

Le Mont-Blanc n’a pas fini sa croissance…
C. M. (lefigaro.fr) avec AFP, le 13 octobre 2007

As I look over my very incomplete list I note that I haven’t even gone to my Evolution, Education, and Political Science journals, where there are additional thousands of articles also saved over the past 10 or15 years on my laptop.
I note that there are perhaps a majority of articles on the above list taken from the NYTimes. And in fact the Times is my start page. But most of the articles I read are from other publications. If the Times is over represented in my journals it is for the good reason that the Times reporters are excellent and write regularly and well about the things that I care most about. Also the Times may come closest to being the newspaper of record for the world. And it is our world that interests me most.

To be continued?

September 13, 2007

Yes, Roger, "Freedom is a Funny Thing."

In an op ed piece in today's NYTimes, The Ottoman Swede, Roger Cohen says this about freedom:

"Freedom is a funny thing. Life without it is misery. But a glance at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or now Iraq is a sufficient reminder that distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy."

Of course Cohen is thinking of any one of the innumerable instances of "distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state," Chechnyans and Russians, Serbs and Kosovars, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Iraki Sunnis and Shia. But in each of these instances the member pairs are not comparable. There is a real disconnect between them. The new found liberty, although welcomed by the one, represents for the other the loss of its previously dominant political power.

So in the case of each one of these pairs it's not so much their trying to get free of one another as the one trying to fully realize the newly acquired freedom and the other trying to retain its favored and dominant position.

Are there recent instances of the situation that Cohen describes? That is, two groups formerly under one dictatorial power and then, being free of that power, trying to get free of one another? Perhaps Cyprus? Perhaps Lebanon? Although in each of these instances the freedom obtained through independence was not freedom from a dictatorial power, but from the liberal democracies, England and France.

Perhaps the case of present day Belgium is a better example, although here also we are without the preceding "dictatorial power" in full. In Belgium the efforts of the Flamands to free themselves of the Wallons seems like a reasonable goal, certainly not one that will lead to widespread pain and suffering as in all the above instances.

But Cohen is right, that "freedom is a funny thing." Too bad that our president never realized just how "funny" it was. There is "freedom to" and "freedom from." The latter usually preceding the former. In the Middle East the tribes are so taken up with "freedom from" that they have not yet considered what they might and could do with "freedom to."

September 07, 2007

The digital brain

In a recent article in the Boston Globe Mary Anne Wolf says that, "the reading brain is slowly becoming endangered - the unforeseen consequences of the transition to a digital epoch that is affecting every aspect of our lives, including the intellectual development of each new reader."

Why is the "reading brain" becoming endangered? I live in the digital world, as much or more than anybody, and I don't read any less now than when I was a college student over fifty years ago. I may even read more, because the digital world makes more texts readily available, not to mention the reading that goes into just navigating one's path through this new world....

August 09, 2007

Out of Africa

Some 60,000 years ago the "first humans" left the African continent, moving into Europe and Asia, eventually replacing already established populations such as those of the Neandertals. How many were there? Adam and Eve? And their children? A few thousand? Perhaps as many as 50,000? But there were not 7 billion of them, the present human population of the earth.

It is clear that man has more than survived. From a few thousand to billions of us in just 50,000 years. In fact, if the numbers of us were the only measure, one would have to say that the human species was one great success story.

Those who worry about man's survival are perhaps really worried about the earth's, if not survival, at least its continued ability to support billions and billions of us, especially if those billions were to double during the next fifty years, as they did,  actually more than doubled, during the past fifty years. Those who study these things tell us that this won't happen, and that by 2050 the world's population will have crested at 10 billion.

This is our history. It ought to be a part of the common knowledge of us all. We ought to rejoice in the fact that never before have we known so much about where we have come from, although never before has there been so much that we clearly do not yet know.

But most have resisted the knowledge of our past, that deep history of man's journey so far on this earth, and instead are more and more preoccupied with the immediate past, a shallow history of families and nations. Most go on believing stories of the past that science has clearly shown to be at best myths of our origins and not historical accounts of what came before.

Our being taken up with the immediate past of families and nations prevents us from putting our present problems into an historical context where they might eventually be lessened if not fully resolved.

Education is such a problem. Instead of looking at how past human groups successfully integrated their young into their adult lives we look only to reform if not fix the broken pieces of a system that is more and more failing us and our children.

Immigration is such a problem. Instead of seeing this as a world-wide phenomenon, not merely a local problem, and not essentially different from the movement of Africans into Europe and Asia some 60000 years ago, nations see the problem as one of inadequate barriers placed between them to slow if not stop the flow of their people.

The movement of peoples into more advantageous climes is much more fundamental to man's life on this earth than the separation of peoples into nations. Yet because we don't accept what science has told us about the nature of the human species, about how we are much more all the same than all different, we go on making everything of our differences, which as a rule are only skin or culture deep.

Francis A. Walker, in 1896, at the time president of MIT, had this to say about immigration:  "Within the decade between 1880 and 1890 five and a quarter millions of foreigners entered our ports! No nation in human history ever undertook to deal with such masses of alien population. That man must be a sentimentalist and an optimist beyond all bounds of reason who believes that we can take such a load upon the national stomach without a failure of assimilation, and without great danger to the health and life of the nation. For one, I believe it is time that we should take a rest, and give our social, political, and industrial system some chance to recuperate. The problems which so sternly confront us to-day are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews."  (Atlantic Monthly, June 1896)

Sound familiar? You will agree, it does. And that's a tragedy in itself. For over 100 years later, in June of 2007, politicians of all stripes were saying very similar things about immigration, and thereby blocking what might have become a liberalization of our immigration policies.

There is a difference between now and 100 years ago. We now separate between those who have the right to come here and those who don't, between legals and illegals. It would be interesting to know when immigrants to our country gained the designation illegal. It certainly wasn't in the time of the first settlers to Jamestown and Plymouth. Nor was it during the floods of immigrants from Ireland and Germany during the second half of the 19th. century. I don't think Francis Walker even used the term illegal, that which is the pet of the anti-immigrant talk show host today.

Was the term coined to keep citizens from our close "friend" and neighbor, Mexico, from crossing the Rio Grande? If it was it didn't work, because the Mexicans, no less than the Africans 50000 years ago, needed to move to where there were greater life possibilities, and so they moved, and are still moving and will keep on moving in spite of the nation that would put a barrier in their way.

Why don't we welcome those that want to come here with open arms? It's not as if we are increasing the world's population by taking them in. They only take up one place on the earth there or here. This is the other side of the debate, that many have defended, the side that I am on.

In that same Atlantic publication, but in 1983, 87 years after Francis Walker's "Restricting Immigration" essay, James Fallows suggests that "the reality is in fact the opposite [from what Walker then and Tancredo now supposed] because immigration tends to select for those who are especially resilient, adaptable, and hardworking, immigrants being probably more of a boon to this country than a burden."

If he had been writing 50000 years ago Mr. Fallows would have probably said the same thing about the Africans leaving the continent to bring new life to Europe and Asia.

 

July 05, 2007

"These Boys are Innocent"

Among the plethora of information reaching us from London concerning the eight alleged terrorists, all medical doctors or technicians, we learn that those closest to these young men had no inkling that their children, family members, or just childhood friends, were preparing terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow.

Ii may be that their ignorance of what the men were planning was the result of the special circumstances of their lives in the turbulent and violent Middle East where they lived and where these young men for the most part (three of the group were from Bangalore) grew up. The external pressures on the families living in the Middle East, and perhaps in India also, were and are so great that there is probably little time for friends and families to be together in normal circumstances and get to know one another.

Or it may be that most parents including these parents don’t know their children, let alone their more distant family members and neighbors. It may be that the human heart is so well hidden that even our closest loved ones will on occasion startle us, in this instance overwhelm us, by a totally unexpected action.

In any case, how does one understand such statements from family and friends as the following, all witness to an apparent ignorance of what was really happening?

“Mrs Zakia Ahmed of Bangalore, the mother of Sabeel Ahmed (the brother of Khalid Ahmed, the driver of the SUV, who was critically burned in the fire at Heathrow Airport), said yesterday: ‘These boys are innocent.’”

And this:

“The father of the suspected terror cell mastermind, Mohammed Jamil Abdelkader Asha, said yesterday that his son's arrest was, 'beyond belief.... my son is incapable of such acts. It's a mistake. The British are going to find it is an error. Mohammed is innocent.’ And Dr. Asha's brother, Ahmed, 31, said his brother was in love with Britain, 'My brother kept forever singing its praises. He is not a Muslim extremist.'”

And finally,

“Sheikh Rehmatullah, a childhood friend of Sabeel Ahmed, insisted in Bangalore: ‘He is not like that. He can't be a terrorist. We have played together since we were young, we used to play cricket together. I have known him for the last 20 years. They are very good people, the whole family, they are very educated.”

“These boys are innocent.” “It’s a mistake.” “He is not like that.” These words ring true. I believe them.  That is I don't think they're lying. I think they believe what they say. Furthermore I see no reason to suppose that we’re not like the speakers, and that we probably don’t know our own children any better.

Is that the way it has to be? That we don't really know one another, even those closest to us? The great writers who write about these things would probably say yes.

If even the closest family members are without suspicion of the true motivations of their children what chance do our counter terrorist agents have of recognizing the terrorist among the millions out there? Especially when he or she holds a respected position in society, as did these eight Moslem doctors and medical technicians?

We need to go after the terrorists, but even more so we need to confront whatever it is that motivates them to hate and destroy themselves along with us. If we don't go after what motivates them what chance do we have of defusing in time the probably endless series of suicide bombers as they come at us fully intent on ending their own lives and ours along with them? We will not always be so lucky as we were at the London and Glasgow airports.

July 04, 2007

Who Owns the Future?

At present there is some talk that China does. Just as in the past in the thirties there was some talk that Russia (the Soviet Union) did. What did Russia do, and what is China doing to stake their claims on the future?

In totalitarian Russia (as in totalitarian China today) human labor was cheap, and could be sacrificed with impunity to the goals of the ruling class. From a distance the West watched Stalin and company transform the Russian people into a blunt instrument for moving the country rapidly into the future.

Most of all Stalin seemed to operate under the assumption that the Soviet Union had to do everything if not better at least bigger than the West, and hence the series of gigantic projects he undertook during the thirties, at least before his country was invaded by the Germans, that which again transformed the country, this time into one vast war machine.

Prime examples of Stalin's huge projects that would take his country into the future were the city of Magnitogorsk and the White Sea Canal. In 1929, Stalin decreed that this city, that didn't yet exist, be built from scratch around Magnitka - an entire mountain of pure iron ore in the southern Ural range, iron being of course the key ingredient of steel, and which, according to Stalin, the man of steel, would determine the future of the Soviet Union.  (My source for this and the following account of the White Sea Canal can be accessed here.)

Magnitogorsk

With expertise provided by Communist sympathizers from the West Magnitogorsk, a ready-made city for 450,000 inhabitants, was constructed in about five years. The costs were kept down by having the heavy lifting done by political prisoners, 30,000 of whom died in the effort. Steel production began in 1934, but shortly after World War II the iron ore ran out and the city’s economy collapsed.

Canalworkers

And there was the White Sea Canal. Ever the optimist, this time Stalin wanted connect the Baltic Sea, with its key port of Leningrad, to the White Sea’s port of Archangelsk. The idea was that he could move the Soviet navy back and forth. So Stalin had more political prisoners sent to work on the canal - there was a seemingly endless supply from the gulags - and after a few brutal years it was completed in 1933.

Disease, poor nutrition, and brutal conditions took a huge toll, though, with as many as 250,000 of the slave laborers dead by the end of it. Of course nothing of lasting benefit came of Stalin's mad schemes, but at the time we marveled at what a nation could do if all its resources could be directed without opposition to its own ends, a new city, a new water way, and later the first man in space.

There were those of us who even wondered if we were on the wrong track. Didn't President Roosevelt's public works projects of the depression years pale in comparison?

The White Sea Canal was completely useless when finished. For most of its length it was too shallow to admit anything larger than a small barge. Later a book of propaganda detailing the biographies of "heroic" workers and engineers, intended for distribution in capitalist countries, had to be recalled because in the meanwhile Stalin had ordered all the main characters shot.

Now it's China that threatens (promises?) to be the future, just as did the Soviet Union in the thirties. And because what we see coming from China is not the same as what we saw in the thirties from Russia we can't readily dismiss what's happening in China as being just more "mad schemes" no less wrong headed as those of Stalin.

Furthermore China is not so much doing things differently from the West, but in some respects both bigger and better. They have taken our production model (and much else besides) and with the benefit of cheap manual labor and borrowed Western ideas, have taken it much further than we ever did, or could.

To look at Chinese workers within a Chinese factory is to make one wonder if this is not the future for all of us. Why? Because it works. Production is way up and people all over the world are purchasing the products from the factory floors. And most important the workers on the factory floor are now sending a portion of their earnings to their families left behind in the villages.

China has taken the factory production model and made it the principal engine of their rapidly growing economy. Hundreds of thousands of people from the country have almost overnight transformed themselves into factory workers in the new cities on the coast.

You can go here to see my sources for the following text and images.

Chnaone

The largest mobile-phone manufacturer in China when this photo was shot, Bird Mobile has since been overtaken. Here, workers complete a manual-assembly portion of the phone-production process.

Chnafive

This is the main processing floor of the Deda chicken processing plant, a Thailand/China joint venture. The factory processes approximately 100 million chickens a year, which are mostly exported because of their superior quality.

Chnaseven_2

 

Workers' uniforms hang outside a dormitory located amid a massive industrial complex. Waste from the complex has turned the river in the foreground completely black.

Chnaeight

Lunch time in the cafeteria of Youngor Textiles, the largest suit maker in China, lasts around 20 minutes.

From these pictures alone wouldn't you have to say that China owns the future?  When people get together, live together, work and eat together, as some 200 million of them seem to be doing in present day China, who could ever stop them, let alone compete with them?

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is taking the best from the West, and trying to do it even better. The Soviet Union of course tried to do things differently from the West and achieved nothing but disastrous results. China is doing some things better than the West, or at least at a much lower cost. And in a market economy, in which China, again unlike the Soviet Union, is now immersed, lowering the costs is doing it better.

Also, China's products have found hundreds of millions of buyers in the West and elsewhere, thus cementing their industry to the body of the world's consumers, that which bodes well for their future (and for ours?). The Soviet Union's products could not even find satisfied buyers within their own country, let alone the rest of the world.

Actually China produces not so much for its own people, who have little or no purchasing power of their own, but for us Americans, and to a lesser extent because of tariff barriers, the Europeans.

In China the production of goods of all kinds is not hindered by concerns for individual or employee rights. Their only concern is to make at the lowest possible cost exactly what their customers will most want to buy. And in fact hardly a day goes when the American consumer is not buying a product made in China.

Could this be a model for China's future, our future, and the future of the world? In any case the free market will always seek out regions for the production of its goods where the costs of production are lowest, and, for the time being anyway, this region is China.

I end this discussion of China's ownership of the future on a sour but important note, another opinion regarding in this case the not so bright future of the Asian giant.

I refer you to Guy Sorman's article, The Empire of Lies, in the City Journal, Spring, 2007.  Sorman clearly implies that it's not China who owns the future. China has enormous up until now un-addressed, let alone unresolved, problems stemming from its unchecked economic growth. Furthermore, I think if I asked Sorman who did own the future he would say it's still America, and maybe just a little bit Europe and his own country, France, under its new anti-anti-American president Nicholas Sarkozy.

 

June 25, 2007

Truths the presidential candidates are not telling. Part One

1)    It’s very costly to provide adequately and properly for a child’s upbringing. And so far, aside from affluent families for the benefit of their own children, no one is willing to foot the bill. The public schools continue to try to do it on the cheap, and of course many, if not most of them do not succeed, the extent of their failure varying directly with the child’s unmet needs, the greater those needs the greater their failure.

2)    The United States is not yet a Democracy. Whether it’s closer to being one today than at the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 is very much an open question. Today, powerful politicians and probably even more powerful corporate CEOs are the de facto Heads of government.
Democracy probably has little to do with how our decisions are made, let alone with how many people vote. Even more important our democracy has almost nothing to do with rule by consensus, stemming in turn from the deliberations of an informed people.

3)    People want mostly strength and warmth in their political candidates. Well actually Drew Western made this point in a Huffington Post piece of June 25. Losing democratic presidential candidates since the end of WWII, including Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, all lacked either strength or warmth, or both, although all were better supplied with knowledge and intelligence than their winning Republican opponents.

4)    Medical doctors are no longer within easy reach, sometimes any reach at all, of those in need of help. And that’s probably an understatement. House calls as well as unscheduled visits to the doctor are things of the past. The family physician is no more. What happened that lawyers, even garage mechanics, although less so, and grounds keepers and baby sitters are everywhere, whereas doctors, and now nurses, are nowhere?  Here it’s a question of supply and demand and unlike earlier periods in our country’s history today’s heavy imposition of government regulations keep the availability if not the supply of doctors and nurses at a minimum.

5)    Governments, not immigrants, have made the altogether natural and healthy movement of men and women across national boundaries illegal. This was not always the case. There were no significant barriers to immigration during the period of our country’s founding, nor during the great territorial and industrial expansion of the country in the 19th century. In fact, waves of immigrants have always been the main source of this country’s growth, and wealth. And we would bring this most beneficial process to a halt! People come here to do things, not to take things, and by working and doing thereby grow our  national wealth. We would stop them?

6)    In a world where the enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots is more and more apparent the terrorists will find an almost endless supply of  people willing to blow themselves up thereby lessening the poverty and powerlessness of their lives. We refuse, however, to address the present distribution of wealth in the world as being the principal culprit behind the threats and ravages of terrorism.
Terrorists, we’re told, come from the upper echelons of society, not from the world’s poor and excluded classes. That’s true. And it’s also true that terrorism has always been with us, if by that word we mean that that some people love death more than they love life. And we can’t root this out.
But we can do something about the large numbers of people who now seem ready to answer the terrorist’s call to single destructive action. Not terrorism, but diminishing the supply of terrorists should be the principal goal of the war. We need to become like Hamas and Herzbollah, close to the have-nots, but replacing their religious extremism with a moderate, secular and compassionate humanism. Although it's an open question whether we are still in possession of the latter.

June 18, 2007

Stanley Fish and the Three Atheists

Stanley Fish has recently written two op-ed pieces for the NYTimes, the “Three Atheists,” and “Atheism and Religion,” commenting on the books of Sam Harris. “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).

Here I’m posting the second of these pieces, Atheists and Religion, interspersed with my comments, in red italic type face, on what Fish is saying. Go to this link in order to read the first of his two pieces, The Three Atheists.

Here is Fish:

“Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins’s words) that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world” and that “if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”

In reply, believers, like the scientist Francis S. Collins (”The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic explanation of that?

And my commentary:

But why does Fish zero in on the lack of a satisfactory explanation for morality? This is not the main thrust of the three books. In any case, why can’t the universal presence of moral impulses be simply a given part of the nature of homo sapiens, why does its presence have to lead to hypothesizing a God?

I see impulses within myself that one might call moral, love of a partner, willingness to sacrifice for my children, a strongly felt friendship, and of course all the virtuous acts as they may or not appear in my life, illustrating  courage, loyalty, compassion, tolerance etc.

There are even aspects of my dog’s behavior that I might call virtuous, but again why does this behavior need a God explanation? The “three atheists” in as much as they tried to explain moral behavior by Darwinian science did go beyond the theory’s present adequacy to the task.

But again, Fish makes too much of this, neglecting to comment on the much more important and well documented account of the terrible actions and multiple errors of religion that the authors present in these books and instead dwells on science’s up until now inability to satisfactorily explain moral behavior.

The weight of these writers’ criticism of religion falls not on the weakness of the believers’ arguments for the existence of God. It falls rather on the long series of atrocities committed by men on men in the name of religion. That is the main subject of these works, what seem to be the terrible failings of religion. Hypothesizing a rational or scientific explanation for morality is not what these books are mostly about.

In any case there is so far no completely rational, or naturalistic explanation for our so called moral, or ethical behavior, nor for our love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Why can’t we simply accept this fact about ourselves? Why can’t we simply believe that this is what we are, without feeling that we are required to come up with an explanation as to how it came about that we are this way? Isn't it enough just to be?

Fish is too much taken up with this issue, and pays little or not attention to the evil that religions have and still do inflict on man, the main subject of these books. The most interesting question of all, what it is that keeps man from doing evil, is not the subject of these books, nor of Fish's commentary.

For me God seems a much less satisfactory answer to this question than simply my own sense of right and wrong, wherever that may have sprung from. In my case I don’t think my sense of right and wrong came from my parents, from my church, and here I would agree with Fish that it certainly doesn’t come from current Darwinian theory.

Why can’t, just as between the Left and the Right, there be a middle ground where we are most comfortable, one that we might very well call humanism? And why need there be a link from this middle ground to God, unless by God we mean absolutes such as truth and beauty and justice and the like?

Fish’s biggest mistake is to overemphasize the opposition between believers and non-believers, in order to belabor the obvious point that in important respects the non-believers have no more “reason” on their side than do the believers. He doesn’t mention the middle ground, the ground where most of us are, and probably should be.

The rightness of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens's books stems from the fact that in man’s history up until now religion has probably accounted for more of man’s cruelty to man than non-religion, although in the 20th. century the secular “isms” may have overtaken religion in this regard. Today the Islamists may be returning us to the more usual situation in history when religious fundamentalists are the main obstacle in the way of efforts to further social justice, bolster human rights, and strengthen mankind's natural penchant to live and let live.

Easy, say Dawkins and Harris. (Hitchens doesn’t seem to have a dog in this hunt.) It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Too much of Fish’s commentary addresses the atheists’ predictions of the future. This is an easy target to hit. For example, he cites Harris who says probably without justification that, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Much more important, however, to the arguments of these books, are the real accomplishments of Darwinian science and the real failures of religion to enable us to understand the way we are and thereby improve the quality of our lives together. It should be added, however, that neither science nor religion is yet a fully satisfactory explanation in these respects.

Fish confuses the “truths” of literature, such as those that we find in the poem by George Herbert, in Milton’s epic and Bunyon’s morality tale, those of with religion. These great works of literature are achievements of man, and should not be attributed to God or religion.

What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence? Not, as it turns out, a record of progress. He acknowledges that, to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

But we will , if we are patient. The field of “the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition” (a real mouthful) is young, and “it is clearly too early to draw any strong conclusions from this research.”

Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in. No, says Harris, the reason for our small knowledge in this area is the undue influence of – you guessed it – religion: “Most of our religions have been no more supportive of genuine moral inquiry than of scientific inquiry generally.”

Fish is too much interested in pointing to the unsubstantiated claims of Harris in regard to the promise of natural science of one day reducing morality to physical processes.  It's too easy to point out that Harris was probably wrong to make too much of this “promise.”

But again, Fish avoids taking up the really important issues raised by these three books. He doesn't confront the reasonableness of the Darwinian explanation, nor does he address the unreasonableness of the various stories of the origin of man that stem from religion. There is such a thing as “evidence” in science, which is qualitatively different from “evidence” in belief systems or religion. Fish ignores this.

Thiese are the sorts of things Fish ought to have been writing about. It seems, however, that it was just too easy to take pot shots at the atheist’s “beliefs” about the future, although it's probably true that both Harris and Dawkins would have been better served to have rested with what we are and what we know, here in the present. I agree with Fish that when they speak of what natural science might accomplish in the future they are on very shaky ground.

It's right here and now in the present that the moral underpinings of our lives, which we recognize and are there, ought to receive our attention, regardless of whether the ultimate explanation for our moral being is to be found in God or natural science. As of yet there is no ultimate explanation (for anything, let alone morality) and we ought not to live as if there were.

In this regard one might be justifiably critical of Dawkins and Harris, less so of Hitchens who is mostly taken up by the harm that true believers inflict on the rest of us, and not by Dawkins and Harris's conceit that natural science will provide an explanation for it all.

This is a remarkable sequence. A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.

Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

Too often Fish simply goes too far in his criticism of Richard Dawkins. For example, he cites Dawkins who declares, “I believe in evolution because the evidence supports it.” In response to this Fish says (incredibly, I think) that “the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.”

Here Fish is clearly mistaken. The situation he describes is no different from my saying that I believe that the earth goes around the sun because the evidence supports it, and his then replying that my evidence is only evidence because I’m seeing with Copernican-directed eyes.

This is not the situation. The evidence of Darwin’s theory, as well as that for a sun centered solar system, no longer needs Darwinian or Copernican directed eyes. The evidence is now there for us all to see. Darwin may have been the first one to point to it, but he didn’t make it up. It’s out there and Darwin is not longer necessary for us to see it.

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Again further on in his op-ed piece Fish, says that Dawkins is not less dependent on his faith in the promise of science than are the true Christian and probably other believers whose definition of faith is that of Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

That may be so (I’ve always liked that definition from Hebrews), but to say that Dawkins is guilty of the same mistaken logic as those who believe in the Biblical explanations for things is not to say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is no more substantial than the evidence for the existence of God.

Fish doesn’t address at all, and this is the major weakness in everything he has to say about these three books, the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Rather he goes on taking the easy pot shots, especially at Dawkins’ and Harris’ penchants for telling the future, where, of course, they stand on the shaky ground.

What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look. Bunyan glosses the scene in which the townspeople mock Christian as he flees toward a light he can barely discern and they do not discern at all: “They that fly from the wrath to come are a gazing stock to the world.” Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 2 that to the man “without the Spirit” the things of the Spirit are “foolishness”; he simply “cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.

Here Fish declares that “science requires faith too before it can have reasons.” In this he is just wrong. What was the faith that Charles Darwin had to have had before he could offer his explanation for the different beaks of the Galapados finches? The relation between faith and reason is just the opposite of this. Darwin’s belief in the origin of species came from the evidence of the finches, from his powers of reasoning about that evidence. His belief follows satisfactory explanation. He didn’t begin with that belief. In fact he even resisted “believing” in his theory for some thirty or more years, before the overwhelming accumulation of evidence gave him no choice but to “believe.”

But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.

Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.

It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.

Most of all Fish betrays clearly that he is not a scientist, and probably has had no scientific training. Otherwise, for example, he could never have said this: “It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.”

The “faith” of the scientist is not the “faith” of the believer. Fish speaks as if the two “faiths” were the same. Mostly this shows an ignorance on his part, or a failure, an unwillingness to engage the position of the scientist on his own ground.

Fish thereby oversimplifies, reducing science to just another belief system. Although it may be in some senses a belief system, it’s not “just another belief system,” and  it’s not a religion. And Fish never seems to acknowledge this.

Mine is not a leveling argument; it does not say that everything is the same (that is the atheists’ claim); it says only that whatever differences there are between religious and scientific thinking, one difference that will not mark the boundary setting one off from the other is the difference between faith and reason.

This does not mean either that the case for God and religion has been confirmed or that the case against God and religion has been discredited. (Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.) My point is only that some of the arguments against faith and religion – the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens most rely on – are just not good arguments. The three atheists needn’t give up the ghost, but they might think about going back to the drawing board.

His is a leveling argument. And finally, and disingenuously, he says: “I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.”

Well of course he is taking a position. To have written what he has written he has to be a believer, although probably more in the camp of Herbert, Milton, and John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, than that of any established religion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But again science is not a belief system like religion. It’s something else. And it has since its modern beginnings in the 17th century transformed our lives in ways totally different from the ways of religion in the past. Science is something else again and it ought to be looked at differently from the way we look at religion.

Perhaps Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens should not have published their attacks on religion in the way they did, speaking as if they knew more about man’s future than those who were not scientists. Perhaps they ought to have confined their critical commentary to the truly horrible things that religion has inflicted on mankind, with a view to putting a stop to this same sort of thing happening in the future. For these atrocities do seem to be happening right now in the present as Islam confronts within itself an extreme fundamentalist, Jihadist current that if left to its own devices would take us all back with it into a cruel and thoroughly inhuman past.