Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for the ‘idealism’ Category

Two months to the Ceremony: Its not too late to earn that Peace Prize

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As far as I can tell, no one has actually accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while they were prosecuting a war, much less two.  Lê Ðức Thọ was offered one while involved in the invasion of / civil war with South Vietnam, but refused to accept the award.

I see three logical possibilities for this year’s prize.   Obama could accept the award while dodging accusations of hypocrisy.  Or he could pull a Lê Ðức Thọ/ Jean-Paul Sartre and refuse it.

But the most intriguing possibility is that Obama could earn his award, and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in time for the ceremony on Dec 10.  While he’s at it, he could sign a pact with the other nuclear powers to destroy all of the world’s weapons.  And veto any renewal of the PATRIOT ACT.

Don’t say it’s politically impossible, Obama has the power to everything except the arms treaty unilaterally, with approval from no one.  But if anyone out there believes he will really end the wars soon, all I ask is that you put your money where your mouth is.  If the wars will be over in two months, you could make a fortune shorting the stock of every publicly traded U.S. defense contractor.  Let me know how that goes!

Written by James Bailey

October 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm

A small step toward a much better world

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The website Wikileaks is currently down.  They recently broke the story of the list of websites banned by the Australian government, and their bandwidth has been overloaded by peoples’ interest.

Wikileaks allows little people to get information indicting powerful organizations in to the view of the larger world.  They protect the anonymity of their sources, and by locating servers in many countries and having extensive legal defense help they can keep stories up despite the opposition of governments.  Almost no case is too big or too small for them to handle.

But they have run out of money.

I can’t think of any other way a small donation could go further toward promoting freedom for individuals and transparency and accountability for institutions.  Freedom isn’t free, but this is your chance to buy it cheap!

Written by James Bailey

March 22, 2009 at 2:33 am

The World Though Einstein-Colored Glasses

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Just read Albert Einstein’s The World As I See It. The book, published in German in 1933 and in English a year later, was Einstein’s first publication directed at a general audience. The first half is devoted to science, both to an explanation of Einstein’s work and a record of his thoughts on the work of others and on the scientific method.

Next follow a series of letters about what it means to be Jewish and about the Zionist cause. Einstein thought highly of the value placed by Jews on learning and on justice. He hoped they would be able to integrate into Western, Christian societies without losing their own traditions and identity, and he saw the Zionist project as a way to bring all Jews together, whether or not they actually went to Palestine. His views are striking today do to the form of Zionism he advocated. He did not envision Israel as a political entity, a national state; he thought it enough that Jews were once again living together in their ancient home. It was not a problem to be living under British or Arab rule. Significantly, Einstein repeatedly states that the Jews and Arabs must be reconciled, so that when someday when the British would leave, then they could still live together in peace and friendship. I imagine that this very sound advice in 1933 was deemed too much of a risk after the experience of the Holocaust; after an experience like that any people must be reluctant to leave their security in the hands of others.

Einstein proceeds to turn his great mind to the problems of peace, war, economics, religion and philosophy. Einstein was an ardent pacifist, and a believer in the human potential for goodness. He earnestly hoped to see disarmament and the end of war in his own lifetime. He went about pursuing this goal every way he knew how, from attending peace conferences to fostering international ties among scientists to giving public speeches to writing prominent political figures.  But he was not a naive idealist.  He realized the collective action problem presented by disarmament, where each nation has an incentive to cheat; so he hoped for simultaneous universal disarmament.  Second-best would be attempts to punish those who start wars, regardless of the short-term interests of the other nations- so at best, every country would fight against an aggressor; or barring that, every country wold forgo potential war profits and put sanctions on the aggressor.  These last options border on the realistic.  Einstein’s foremost peace crusade was to fight against what he saw as the most evil part of war, but at the same time one of the easiest to eliminate: conscription.  He hoped, through changed laws and widespread conscientious objection, to eliminate the draft, and usher in a world where no man was forced to fight against his will.  In this, at least, he has been largely vindicated.

Einstein praises Americans for many reasons- our technology, our generosity, our freedom.  Much of this praise is still deserved today, to a greater or lesser degree than it formerly was.  But it is sad to see that in his time he placed the highest hope on Americans as the most peaceful large nation and the one most likely to bring about the end of war.  But seventy-five years later, it is the Europeans who have bucked their long history of warmaking, while America still engages in aggressive wars of choice.  I as much as anyone can give many reasons why our continued use of war is a good, or perhaps on balance even a peace-promoting strategy.  But it is sad to realize that a modern-day Einstein’s praise would flow the other way, and that America has given up a part of the moral high ground we long held relative to Europe.

If Einstein’s thoughts on peace do not now seem silly or naive, I thought perhaps he might slip as he waded into economics.  But his thoughts there too seem both wise and intelligent, especially in the desperate era of the Great Depression which left most economists baffled.  He advocated the regulation of monopolies and cartels, a maximum work-week, and a minimum wage.  Most importantly, especially as a German, he recommended the stabilization of the price level, to be achieved by controlling the money supply- Milton Friedman, twenty years early.  He hoped that the economy could be improved through regulation and organization, but recognized the severe inherent limitations of state enterprise:

“It is no accident that capitalism has brought with it progress not merely in production but also in knowledge.  Egoism and competition are, alas, stronger forces than public spirit and sense of duty.  In Russia, they say, it is impossible to get a decent piece of bread…. bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.  I have seen and experienced too many dreadful warnings, even in comparatively model Switzerland…. the state can only be of real use to industry as a limiting and regulating force.”

He saw Soviet communism as a grand experiment; he wondered whether it could work there, or work in a Western nation that would not tolerate such “terror” to enforce it.  But he expresses much skepticism in the project.  All in all, his views pass economic muster today, and are stunningly prescient for 1933.

Finally, Einstein puts forward some views on fundamental questions.  He sees a search for the meaning of life as an absolute necessity.  “The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness and Beauty.  Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, life would have seemed to me empty.”  Yet despite this need for fellowship, he feels “an obstinate sense of detachment” and a “need for solitude”, and is “sharply conscious, without too much regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and sympathy between one’s fellow creatures.”

Einstein sees science as a sort of religion.  He abhors religions based on fear, whether of God or death, and eschews anthropomorphic conceptions of God.  But he believes “a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which our minds seem to reach only in their most elementary forms; it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Einstein really opened his mind and his heart to the world in this book.  He demonstrates that his intelligence is wide-ranging, and in his letters shows himself to be wise, kind, and generous; a truly great man.

To end on a lighter note, and again recall a similarity to Milton Friedman, I quote Einstein’s views on prohibition:

“The prestige of the government has undoubtedly been lowered by the prohibition law.  For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.  It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”

Clearly a wise man!

Written by James Bailey

August 4, 2008 at 11:07 pm

The Future: Like the Past, but cooler

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Making predictions about the future is a notoriously tricky business.  It is often done by extrapolating from past trends.  As often as this method fails us, its hard to imagine a better heuristic than the belief that the future will be like the past, only more so.

Extrapolating current trends in combinations that should be obvious yield conclusions that are, to me at least, surprising and inspiring. Here are two trends:

Recent scientific history, say of the last 60 years, has been filled with major discoveries that appear to have vast explanatory power and with widespread technological applications.

The average expectancy of an American is 78 and continues to increase.

If the past is any guide to the future, me and my generation are likely to witness discoveries of the magnitude of DNA, events like men landing on the moon, new ubiquitous technologies like computers and cell phones.

On top of the science, new developments in the social sciences, in society, and in world politics will be ever interesting if not so distinctly progressive.

All manner of surprises await us, so many before we even consider the real breaks from the past, the “unknown unknowns” that open up entirely new fields of endeavor and ways of thinking.

Here’s to the future!

Written by James Bailey

July 18, 2008 at 5:18 am

The War to End All Wars

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The memory of the Great European War, of millions of young men fighting and dying to win a few yards of shell-pocked mud, was enough to convince many that war was an ugly, irrational, pointless endeavor which civilized nations should have the good sense to avoid in perpetuity.  They hoped that something good could emerge from the mass of suffering, that this worst of all wars would also be the last.

Modern minds, in the knowledge that this war would only be the First to earn the dubious honor of being a “world war”, have looked back on the inter-war idealism as hopelessly naive.  I myself have ridiculed their dream, and still do feel safe predicting that wars will be with us for some time yet.

But in some sense, the dreamers and pacifists were right.  World War One did not instantly bring perpetual peace.  But it was the beginning of the end for European war.

In the ninety years since World War One, only a single inter-state war has erupted in Western or Central Europe, and the prospect of another seems quite unlikely.  The length of the peace and the current absence of plausible threats to it marks a major departure from millenia of European history, a history often remembered as one war after another.

There remained only one detour on the road to peace.  World War Two would wrest from the First World War the grim title of deadliest war of all time.  New technology and extreme mobility meant that the Second World War would be fought very differently.  But while the how of the war was very different, the why was largely the same.  The unification of Germany fundamentally changed the geopolitical balance of Europe.  The Germans thought that their newfound strength deserved recognition.  The spirit of the age was one of imperialism and social Darwinism.  German philosophers had spent a century glorifying the will to power and dismissing morality as born of slavery and meant for the weak.

Before each World War, the geopolitical situation of a rising Germany able to dominate its neighbors combined with a philosophical and ideological situation which made Germans willing to invade their neighbors.  Just as with previous attempts by the Hapsburgs and the French to establish European hegemony, Germany’s naked desire to dominate the Continent inspired her neighbors, individually less powerful that her, to form coalitions able to defeat her.  Geopolitics functioned as always.  Fundamental change came not when the European map was redrawn for the thousandth time, but when the hearts and minds of Europeans were realigned.

Human beings are naturally aggressive, and tend to cluster into groups distrustful of outsiders.  A disposition toward war is bred into our very beings.  It is there in babies jealous for food, there in children fighting in streets and in playgrounds.  This tendency from our nature requires a strong dose of “nurture” if it is to be overcome.  Instead many children of the time learned from parents and teachers that war was honorable and glorious and that other countries were untrustworthy and must be taught respect.  Nurture, rather than fighting the worst tendencies of nature, reinforced them.

World War One drove people to deeply question the beliefs that allowed such a war to take place.  Germany had sent a generation to die on French soil and gained nothing.  Germans questioned their beliefs, but in the end elected a man who give their beliefs one more try, saying in essence- we had the right idea, we just didn’t try hard enough.  So they did try harder, they even succeeded in conquering France.  But a second defeat, this time with Germany not only bled dry but also bombed out and occupied, finally convinced them.  They didn’t need to fight harder, or come up with a better plan of invasion; they needed a total gestalt shift.  They needed to look at their neighbors and see people like themselves, people who could be lived with.

You put you hand into a fire and it gets burned.  You might wonder if your technique of fire-touching was incorrect.  The more scientifically minded way wonder if fire caused pain or was only sometimes correlated with it.  But if you get burned again, and worse than the first time, you learn your lesson, and stop touching the flame, lest it consume you.  It took two World Wars, but Germany and Europe along with them learned their lesson.  The next geopolitical imbalance, pitting the U.S. and Western Europe against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, lasted forty years, but saw no no major war.  The Americans and the Russians had learned along with Europe, and saw major wars in Europe as a very last resort.  Gone were the days when a European nation would dare to, or even desire to invade their neighbor.

Written by James Bailey

July 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm

Professional World Savers

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The Washington Post details their travails in trying to be normal middle class adults.

I think we got the point after watching the Incredibles, the Spiderman movies… really the whole World-Saving genre is one long way of saying, as Five for Fighting’s Superman did, “It’s not easy to be me.”

Get rich first, save the world later seems to be the most effective may to make a difference- if you don’t forget what you’re about.  Although some economists would say that getting rich indicates you are doing something good/useful for the world, and it is a tragedy that Bill Gates has quit making Microsoft better (something he’s good at) to building a charity (not so much).

If I do choose the save-the-world-first strategy, please, give me a good slap on the nose if I complain about it.

Written by James Bailey

November 7, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Posted in cash, idealism

Yes, I Believe

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Saw it today, my brother was in it. It’s a great musical for high-school age kids to do; good music and good theology. Its big themes are the Gospel and what friendship should look like. The kids took it on tour and made a bunch of money for Kupenda.

What struck me most was the incredible enthusiasm and idealism, enough to make any cynicism seems baffling, pitiable.

It made me think of the epistle of Ben:

I want to take you far from the cynics in this town… and start a brand new colony, where everything will change.

Written by James Bailey

July 1, 2007 at 7:05 pm