Archive for the ‘enlightenment’ category

Role Playing or Recreating

February 3, 2009


In a recent Op-Ed (NYT, January 27), David Brooks asks us to address a fundamental dichotomy in how to think about life. His column led to a rash of good letters a few days later. Whatever one thinks of the issues and of how Brooks comes down on them, one cannot but respect a columnist who regularly leaves his political bailiwick to address more general moral and political issues.


Brooks contrasts a recent Harvard report on the purpose of education (evidently with emphasis on general humanistic education) with the thesis of a 2008 book “On Thinking Institutionally” by Hugh Heclo. The Harvard report emphasized the value of shaking up the assumptions of the young so that they might think for themselves and discover their own values. Its fundamental values seemed to be individualism and change. To Heclo, by contrast, we are defined by the institutions that we go through as we develop from a child into an adult, and as we grow through the responsibilities of new adult relationships and careers. We might say that Heclo asks us to accept and work within the roles which society foists upon us and Harvard wants us to redefine those roles or invent new ones.


Brooks notes that the people who he has admired the most have been those who took the institutional road, who asked what they could do for society and did their best to fulfill the request. They were not the people who concentrated their questioning on what society could do for them (which seems to miss the point of the Harvard report).


Yes, of course the person who finds himself a parent should try his best to fulfill that role as society expects. Lawyers should treat their clients in the ways that society and their colleagues judge is proper. Priests should serve the flock more than their inclinations. I would imagine that the wheels of society would not run very smoothly unless this were so for most people most of the time. Yet were this all there was to responsible living then human society would be little different from ant society. Roles evolve and should evolve. Parents do not treat their children today the way they did centuries ago, nor do husbands and wives regard their respective roles as the way they once did. This is change, and mostly “progress”.


We also have to deal with the fact that many institutional roles are defined quite differently by most of their current occupants as contrasted with the larger society around them. Policemen are famous for their unwillingness to testify against one another, even when flagrant crimes have been committed. One suspects that similar in-group role definitions infect many, if not most professions. When we ask what society expects of people in such roles are we talking about average behavior norms or theoretical societal norms?


I conclude that most societies honor the many who fit into their roles relatively smoothly, acting as responsibly as they can in terms of their own lights and the judgments of those around them. They move on through life from role to role to the muted cheers of their fellows. Yet I believe that we also need a creative minority within society that asks responsibly whether what has been done before is what they should do in the future, whether or not there is a societal duty to make some changes as they go along. We need institutional players most of the time. But we also need many to be educated as Harvard would have them, people who can reorient both themselves and the roles they find themselves playing, people who can perhaps create new roles and deinstitutionalize roles that have outlived their usefulness.

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A New Era

January 20, 2009

“a new era of responsibility”

Rational Models and Social Science Failures

January 20, 2009


Discussions of the economic collapse of recent months and the apparent inability of economists to predict it, understand it, or devise useful remedies for it have often focused on the inability of the rational model of economic man to explain the complexity of human behavior. Unfortunately, social scientists have not come up with a generally accepted alternative. When I worked at the Hudson Institute in then 1960s, I found that my social science training (Harvard PhD) was largely irrelevant to the military and social policy issues that we were addressing. As a result, when I wrote a book trying to make scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences more available for policy discussion (Social Humanities), I was compelled to use the rational model as the baseline for the social science side of the discussion. Most of social science, I suggested , could best be incorporated through footnotes that examined how the model might be usefully modified in certain instances.


One example might be the discussion of nuclear deterrence, the essential basis for thinking about the “use” of nuclear weapons. Most of the time the rational model evidently works. Anthropology and psychology might suggest how variations on this theme could occur. Unfortunately, their useful caveats can seldom be incorporated in a manner that would make the discussion demonstrably more predictive.


The tragedy of the social sciences is that they have never become sciences in other than a few methodological areas such as polling. They have never put a man on the moon. Until they do metaphorically, they will supply a great deal of information for policy discussion, but not the tools needed to guide individuals or societies to a safe landing.

Scientific Self-Control

September 17, 2008

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (September 12), Brian Greene reassured us that the experiments now taking place in the Large Hadron Collider cannot produce a black hole that will swallow the earth. Apparently, Hawking has a theory that any black holes produced by the experiments will disappear almost instantly. We are reassured, that is, until we read the next-to-last paragraph where we are told “the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations.”

We remember that when the first atomic bomb experiments were carried out in New Mexico some scientists feared that they might set off a conflagration that would burn up the world. It did not happen. But the end result, nevertheless, was the creation of a bomb and the subsequent creation of a larger bomb that when duplicated sufficiently could destroy civilizations, if not all life. Then we and the Russians armed ourselves with the capability to make quite possible a general catastrophe. We still have a sufficient capability to achieve this result, but luckily the probability of a massive use of nuclear weapons has faded into the background.

Many believe that the end of civilization will be brought about by too much knowledge instead of too little. Scientists seem quite unable to control their enthusiasm for the new, and governments or private individuals seem more than willing to support their efforts. Ninety percent of our worries about the increase in the numbers and capabilities of robots, or the creation of new pathogens for warfare or to defend against the pathogens others might create, or what will come of pushing back the frontiers of physics and chemistry, or breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and how to enter into its deliberations from the outside (initially for treatment of disease perhaps) and so forth may be foolish imaginings. But I think we have developed faith enough in science to believe that a great deal that we cannot conceive of today will be conceived of in the future — and if conceptualized will eventually be rendered “useful”.

Is it not past time that the scientific community consider conditions under which they would agree to abandon further experiments in the general interest of humanity? These may be physical experiments; they may be biological experiments; they may be robotic experiments. The lead must be taken by prominent scientists involved in research in areas that threaten to move humanity into unknown and dangerous territory. Laymen simply cannot know enough to have anything very useful to say in this regard. They can only point out that there must be territory out there that it is too dangerous for science to invade. It may well be that the Hadron Collider is well within safe boundaries. In order to make this and countless similar decisions in the future, scientists need to develop criteria in physics and other fields that would allow them to decide when a dangerous boundary has been crossed.

What these criteria and limits might be are hard to forsee, and they would probably be different from one scientific field to another. The effort will involve difficult issues in the estimation of risk in relation to danger. It will be a major task, one eventually involving the international community. But it seems reasonable to ask that the effort be undertaken. Science is afire. It will solve so many of our problems. But it is also a tool that must be handled with care, and the more so, the more it progresses.

The “New” Ism

August 5, 2008

When I was chasing my PhD in the 1950s, I chose nationalism as an area of concentration. In those days we were little concerned with the totalitarian nationalism of the 20s and 30s, thinking primarily of nationalism that was affecting the Third World. The next year after I completed my Ph.D. I wrote a small section of the book by Zbigniew Brezezinski on the subject of nationalism. After the defeat of communism, or the seeming defeat of all those states that identified themselves as communist ideologically, I often reflected that in the next few years we would see a new ism arise that would fill the void that had been left by the demise of both fascism and communism. Strangely, it did not occur to me that the new ism would be my old friend, nationalism.

If we consider the powerful states or peoples that offer the greatest challenge to the democratic order that the United States and its allies has been promoting, we find that they are the most highly nationalistic states in the current world. China and Russia are powerful new states that have turned to nationalism while rejecting their recent intellectual past and accepting the capitalist, money-centric culture of the modern world. A different kind of nationalism is suggested by the rise of Islamic extremism. While we may call it religious, the jihadists are actually a nationalist movement with roots in a pre-nationalist view of the world. I once wrote a paper on Kurdish nationalism in the 19th century. One of the main findings was that the nationalist leaders at that time were religious leaders. This should not seem so strange when we recall that in the early books of the Old Testament the Jews and their God were essentially seen as a nationalist movement struggling against the nationalisms that surrounded them.

Iran is a special case. It is torn by contradictions both within and without. The majority of its educated class is fundamentally pro-Western. Its rulers are a class of disputatious religious leaders. But many in both groups consider Iran to have at last arrived back on the world stage. They may or may not want nuclear weapons, but they surely think that the country deserves nuclear weapons, and see obtaining them is a way to emphasize its arrival. So the religious leaders are able to use widespread Iranian aspirations for their place under the sun as a means of strengthening clerical rule over a society that is more secularized and westernized than most of the region.

But let us return to the two great nations, Russia and China, that are trying to deny Fukuyama’s end of history. It is startling to read in a recent New York Times report that the respected Pew Center has found that the people most pleased with the direction in which their country is going are the Chinese, with 86% supporting country’s direction, and the Russians, in third place at 54%. Most of the democracies, including the United States, were struggling along with positive ratings in the 20s.

What this means in the first instance is that controls over communications, whether it be electronic or print, can work fairly well. Peoples who see little more than cheering sections in their media are likely to think that things are going pretty well. In the case of China, it also means that people are inclined to tell pollsters what they think their government wants them to say. But I think it also means that there is a good deal of satisfaction in these countries. People like to see the advances that are occurring in their level of existence and growing national reputation. A large segment of the population of both of these countries are living better than they ever have.

But something else is also going on. The Times describes a new generation of educated Chinese whose blogs are virulently nationalistic and anti-foreign. They deeply resent those of the outside world concerned about the repression of the Tibetan people or the independence of Taiwan. They seem quite unconcerned with the controls the government exerts every day over the media, as well as the imprisonment of anyone who speaks out against government repression, even if this be in defense of the rights of the poor or the displaced. In both countries, people seem to want to forget their repressive pasts and the heroes who struggled so courageously to open up their societies.

China right now is trying hard to bask in its Olympic games. The cost of thousands of people that have been uprooted and the stricter controls have been placed on everyone, including foreigners, are swept under the rug. To most Chinese, even those we thought to be the most modernized and Western influenced, the important thing is the glory of China and the success of China rather than the persistent failure of the country to respect human rights either at home or abroad.

The attitude in Russia is less extreme, but comparable. Putin is seen as the marvelous ruler that has brought Russia back from the post-communist period of disgrace, in spite of the fact that the growth is largely attributable to its gas and oil reserves, and has been accompanied by the destruction of many of the gains for freedom and democracy that had been achieved in the 1990s.

So nationalism is a new ideology that threatens to reverse the movement toward higher levels of democracy and human rights within advanced and developing countries. It is not an ideological nationalism, but rather an authoritarian nationalism that emphasizes control and economic well-being and competitive laurels on a variety of world stages. Whether this will be transformed into more ideological forms such as characterized fascist countries in the recent past is unclear. But my judgment is that the trend is dangerous already, and certainly a block to human progress.

Meaning and Time

July 18, 2008

Looking through a set of space photographs, with back-dated times of estimated existence set at anything from a few light years to many million, and thinking of the estimated time before even our sun burns out, makes one think again of the role of time and one’s own life span. The lesson is that all events and all existences are temporary. Since they are temporary, meaning must be discovered in the passing moments of life. This was the message of Omar Khayyam. His solution was to find a shady tree, a beautiful girl, and a jug of wine. But this is not the only way to deal with these well-known, although generally ignored facts. The essential message of existentialism is that we must find meaning in the moment. Idealistically, we can search for ways to achieve tiny victories over the insensitivty and cruelty that we see around us. We could, understanding that the United States is unlikely to last more than a few hundred years, put our puny efforts into making our country a better society, one that could once again be a model for others. This will help future generations, perhaps several generations. The fact that the benefit will eventually be dispersed, dwindling away to nothing among the waves of change that are sure to occur, does not mean that we will not have accomplished something of value. All accomplishments are temporary. We cannot change that. It is simply the medium in which we work.

Torture and Irresponsibility

April 4, 2008

The end result of the Abu Ghraib scandal was the singling out for punishment a few low level American soldiers at the prison, with little or no punishment for those with command responsibility, and certainly none for the higher ups in the military, the defense department, or the CIA whose actions and inactions clearly laid the groundwork for the mistreatment. In many ways, this shifting of responsibility is the most serious crime in the sordid story; it is this crime which we most urgently need to rectify. It is a particularly ugly reflection that those who claim to honor most highly the sacrifice of our soldiers in Iraq are quickest to dishonor them when it serves their personal and corporate interest.

The March 24 New Yorker had a detailed discussion of the Abu Ghraib scandal from the point of view of those subsequently indicted and now serving time, particularly Sabrina Harman, the young lady who took most of the famous pictures. What emerges is that both for the prisoners and their wardens lived in the midst of a demoralizing horror show for months. The unit assigned to look after the prisoners had no training in their responsibilities and had hardly heard of the Geneva Conventions. During their time at Abu Ghraib they were not enlightened. Indeed, they were told that they need not worry about such things, for these were not prisoners of war. They were repeatedly told by “military intelligence” officers that they were doing a great job, where “job” was defined as making the prisoners as miserable as possible to “soften them up”. Many of those in direct contact with the prisoners did not understand what was happening and worried about the situation, even as they participated. Those above them seemed simply not to care, or if they did care, they were shoved aside.

Sabrina’s pictures have been used against her as evidence of her warped personality. One cannot deny that the pictures revealed unfortunate traits that her situation brought to the fore. But the fact is that long before arriving at Abu Ghraib, Sabrina had become enamored with photography. She simply took pictures of everything. In retrospect, the world owes her a debt of gratitude, for without her pictures, the persistent mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib would have been simply swept under the rug, as it seems to have been at the Bagram facility in Afghanistan, and many smaller facilities with some of the same problems.

In the end, the event was swept as far as possible under the rug by concentrating the investigation and the punishment on the “front line” soldiers which were, of course those associated with the photographs.

One can only hope that the next administration will start the process of walking back from the insane claim that in an emergency a government can do anything to prisoners it wishes, and hold prisoners for long periods of time for no reason at all. It should also mount investigations up to the highest level of who was responsible for the egregious miscarriage of justice the wake of Abu Ghraib, both in regard to the prisoners and their wardens. This is not just a matter of improving our image in the world. It is also a questions of improving the image of those in executive or command positions throughout the American establishment. In the cavalier administrative environment of the current administration, actions are taken without regard to consequences, responsibility, or concern for truth and reality. The “buck” should no longer stop at the bottom of a command structure, but at points progressively higher in the structure as evidence of responsibility becomes clearer.