Archive for the ‘responsibility’ 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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Basic Principles for Foreign and Military Policy

January 21, 2009

President Obama’s inaugeral address presented a cogent summary of how the United States should act in the world. One can only hope that our foreign and military policy will come to reflect the principles outlined in the excerpt below.

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers … our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

“We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

“As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

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.

Georgia and American Triumphalism

September 8, 2008

We can all agree that Russia was wrong in trying to subdue Georgia, in spite of Georgia’s foolish attacks beginning it all. But we should also reflect that events in Georgia are due in part to American attempts to extend its reach into areas that Russia rightly considers to be in its historical sphere of influence. In trying to assert itself in Georgia, Russia is striking back against what it considers an attempt by the United States to surround and diminish its presence in the world.  After the collapse of the USSR, the United States in a spirit of triumphalism developed close relations with all the former parts of the Soviet Union that it could contact.  In recent years, it has continuedto urge the eventual inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO and is moving to set up missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. Regardless of the arguments that may be made for such measures, we should take seriously th fact that they are seen asdirect affronts by Moscow.

I am reminded of the rollback strategy of Secretary Dulles that led to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Without taking seriously the implications of our talk, we had embarked on a rhetorical offensive that led the Hungarians to rebel against the Soviets in the mistaken belief that we would come to their assistance. The result was a bloody suppression of the rebellion and the postponement of real freedom in Hungary for many years.  On Russia’s periphery we have once again been indulging in a rhetorical offensive that we cannot and should not back up with action.  By implicitly encouraging Saakashvili to move against South Ossetia, we gave Russia the excuse that it had been waiting for to reassert its influence over this and other former Soviet and Russian peoples. Brash statements by Rice and Cheney and Biden and the announcement of a one billion dollar aid package underline our weakness more than demonstrate resolve. If, as with Hungary in 1956, we actually had the power and the public support for an effectiveintervention in Georgia and neighboring states, then our policy might make sense.  But with the present attitude of our people and our presentweakened economic and military condition, we should rethink our policy along the borders of Russia to make sure that we don’t again endanger either the peoples involved or the world with our feckless ambition. Only in this way will we have a chance of once again making Russia a working partner.

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.

Making Nuclear Weapon Sense

July 18, 2008

It was heartening to read in the New York Times the appreciation of the recent proposals of Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and associates (Editorial Observer, Robbins “Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons” June 30) to move decisively in the next administration toward a world without nuclear weapons. It has always been a dangerous anomaly that the United States tries to compel other nations to give up their plans to develop nuclear weapons while we have remained unwilling to make decisive steps toward freeing the world of our own nuclear weapons and the policy
alternatives they imply.

For a full version of the Nunn approach read “The Mountaintop: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, a speech he gave in Oslo on February 27 of this year.

Such an initiative would be more convincing if we could at the same time as we talk of reducing weapons also change the way in which we talk about them. We have continued to threaten the absolute destruction of opponents should they use nuclear weapons. This commitment has only been reinforced by the public statements of the political contestants in our upcoming elections when they speak of obliterating Iran should it attempt at some future point to use nuclear weapons. The United States, and perhaps the United States alone, has the capability to take the lead in abandoning this way of speaking about nuclear weapons. In many situations, particularly against countries such as Iran, we could with the conventional forces at our disposal make a decisive and effective response without the use of nuclear weapons.

Only after we renounce the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, will we be able to make a convincing case against their development by others.