December 4 - Corso e Recorso?
Shoveling snow last night at about 10:30 I was reminded why I would never, ever want to live somewhere down south. Nothing beats a good snowfall - this one a moderate amount, 15 inches or so -- to add some magic to a landscape which two days ago looked bleak and barren as the trees were bare. It's also nice to be in Maine where snow removal is so efficient that on a snow day one can still drive around, take the kids sledding, and really enjoy a true "day off" without too much hassle.
Yet this is really isn't a personal blog, so I'll go into what else I was thinking while shoveling: the ideas of Giambattista Vico. Part of the Italy trip coming up in February are a series of interdisciplinary seminars. In the past I've focused on Machiavelli, Gramsci, Mussolini, Galileo, and recent developments in Italian politics. The idea is to connect past thinkers to both the political history of Italy and their connection to the arts and culture. I decided this time to add Vico and have been spending some time looking into his ideas.
Vico lived from 1688 - 1744, so he worked while philosophy and science were still Christian. His approach to history had a profound impact as he used early enlightenment thought to critique enlightenment developments, and show early on some of the weaknesses of the enlightenment view that some kind of 'correct' read on human nature or history could be developed. He mixes insights from psychology, sociology and political science and weaves a very interesting theory of history (or at least, western history).
Though writing before Darwin's ideas would bring evolutionary thought to the forefront of social science, he has an evolutionary view of history where civilizations rise, fall, and then begin again, at a more advanced state. From the age of Gods we moved to the age of Heroes, and finally are now in the age of man. The age of Gods was based on tradition, reflecting the first separation of humans between those who develop family estates and begin civilization, and those who remain primitive. This separation creates what Marx would call classes -- those who remain 'in the wild' ultimately join civilization late and are the slaves or serfs to those who started civilization early and who became the aristocrats. The whole theory is pretty interesting, but what intrigues me is what he is saying about the "age of man" in the early 18th century.
In essence the enlightenment is humanity shifting from an emphasis on Gods and then heroes (aristocrats and monarchs) to people, or a kind of humanism that rejects the class division in place since the dawn of civilization. But while enlightenment thinkers would say "that's because we have found reason and now we can truly understand the world," Vico sees it only as a step on the path of historical development, part of the corso e recorso, the cyclical development of humankind. Vico rejects the enlightenment desire to find some kind of objective 'first principle' upon which to build a 'true' understanding of the reality in favor of the principle of verum factum, or that we can only know what we make. We can't know the truth of the world, that's arrogant -- but we can examine our own constructions. In that sense he was an early constructivist and, in fact, joins the fidests in truly recognizing the weakness of reason and its (in his view) inevitable descent into what we would now call post-modernism.
The problem again is that of skepticism. No matter how one tries to avoid it, reason ultimately falls victim to the fact that there is nothing grounding it, it's a tool not an answer key. For Vico this means reason would ultimately degenerate into radical skepticism, eating away at the traditions and customs holding society together. Society would become fractured as the very glue that holds it together gets undercut by the use of "reason" which defines this age. While the idea of corso and ricorso seems misguided -- now due to globalization there is a new civilization emerging that incorporates non-western cultures in a way Vico could not have foreseen, how we handle the limits of reason is an interesting issue. Most want to deny it, post-modernists aren't sure what to do with it, and the mass public simply shrugs and enjoys the material benefits society offers, rarely thinking about whether life has meaning or contemplating deeper philosophical issues. Religion and tradition have been replaced by consumerism and leisure. Something's not right here. But we can't undue the enlightenment and bring back old fashioned religion, no matter how much fundamentalists of various sorts and faiths would want to. Enlightenment has freed humans from traditional notions of superior and inferior (master-slave, or aristocrat-peasant) but have constructed new ones (worker-owner, first world-third world).
I'll have to reflect on this question a bit more...
December 5 - Defeat of the Neo-conservatives?
The response to the recent NIE report that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003 and is probably at least a decade from having a nuclear weapon even if it were to start the program again was surprising, given how recently President Bush warned of the possibility of WWIII in the case of a nuclear Iran. In fact, the news has been fall of rumors of war involving Iran, most likely in the form of strikes directed at suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. Hawks have simply assumed Iran has an active program -- much like they assumed Saddam had masses of chemical weapons ready to use as well.
The narrative used to create the "Iranian menace" involved cherry picking a quote from Khamaeni that Iran could survive a nuclear war better than Israel, to suggest they'd pick a fight, cherry pick or even misquote Ahmadinejad to paint him as a Hitler like figure, and create a 'common sense' that Iran is a revolutionary power endangering the system, and only pansy states like France and Germany, or duplicitous states like Russia and China stand in the way of dealing with this imminent and real foe. Right wing blogs and pundits reinforced each other in this view to the point that suggesting Iran may not be a threat could get one called "an appeaser" or at best naive.
The reaction of neo-conservative hawks to the latest NIE report suggests they simply aren't going to believe it. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton dismissed the report saying he doesn't build his opinion based "on the intelligence of the day." Of course, that was true in 2002 as well when he and many in the Administration tried to circumvent intelligence reports that didn't go along with their desired policy goals. They wanted a war with Iraq and when the intelligence didn't support their effort they used bureaucratic politics and dubious reports to create a false impression of an Iraqi threat. I suspect they thought that since the victors write the history books, people would ultimately look at the prosperous democratic pro-American Iraq who made peace with Israel and say that any one questioning the war was wrong. Alas, the war didn't go as they intended, it turned out to be a fiasco, and now the Administration has been forced to shift goals completely to find some kind of face saving way to avoid total humiliation.
It appears now that the intelligence community has the capacity to overwhelm even the Vice President's office. The failures of the neo-conservatives in Iraq, especially concerning intelligence, has weakened them, while the bureaucrats, also serving in a time where Congress is Democratic and the President basically a lame duck, are empowered. They will be here after January 20, 2009, after all. Moreover, President Bush seems to have recognized that Iraq has been a failure, and that the kind of thinking that led him to go to war has wrecked havoc with his Presidency and legacy. While the ideologues don't want to let go of their illusions of US power reshaping the Mideast, Bush has taken a more realistic approach. This probably removed any barrier to the NIE being released with the content it has.
Moreoever, the President's harsh words on Iran came after he knew what the NIE report would say. So where are we with US policy and Iran? This does seem to dramatically decrease the likelihood of war or military strikes (which could well lead to a wider war). Combine the intelligence community's assessment with Pentagon reluctance for a military engagement with Iran, and it would be hard to imagine even a popular President with strong public support pulling it off. A lot can change over the next year, to be sure, but this seems to signal that US bluster on Iran is fading -- for better or worse, the issue will be dealt with diplomatically.
Adding to this is the situation in Iraq, where Iranian backed parties and militias still dominate, while the US tries to figure out a way to at least stabilize the country. Any chance that Iraq can have a semblance of normality requires that Iran not be too involved. The US may be making better progress diplomatically with Iran than it appears, and this could be part of a dance that will lead to Iranian-American cooperation to stabilize Iraq in a manner that each can live with. While that's far below the fantasies of the neo-conservatives in 2002/03, it's probably the best possible outcome now. The Neo-conservatives -- hawkish liberals, really, who want to use American power to spread democracy and capitalism -- seem to have lost. Their experiment failed, and realist, pragmatic policies are being used to try to overcome the damage. The NIE report signals that the realists have won the bureaucratic politics war -- at least for now -- and now it's up to the diplomats.
December 6 - Democracy, Russian Style
One of the frustrating aspects of world politics is the way in which people don't seem to comprehend how difficult it is to create and maintain a stable democratic system. Moreover, people want to measure other systems with a metric of how well it would fit our cultural values and norms, with little regard to the context. So the British impose a modern western style democracy on colonies as they became free, and almost all of them collapsed into authoritarianism or civil war. The US invades Iraq thinking people will be overjoyed to have their ordeal with Saddam ended and thus embrace democracy, only to find that we stumbled into a hornet's nest. Partial democracies like those in Venezuela and Iran are demonized, and shock is expressed when the government loses an election (Chavez recently lost a constitutional reform in Venezuela, and the Iranian conservatives were soundly defeated in local elections last year). If they aren't like us, the reasoning goes, they must be doing something wrong.
Reaction to Putin's elections -- called by the Economist "fake elections" is similar. Russia under Yeltsin moved towards a more liberal, western position. Putin, an old KGB operative, now is rekindling authoritarianism -- such is the narrative. Yet Russia under Putin is in much better shape than Russia under Yeltsin. That may be due to the influx of petrodollars, but I doubt one can attribute the improvements across the board in Russian life simply to higher oil prices. Putin is also popular; even if the Kremlin had allowed free elections of the western sort, he probably would have won. So is the criticism of Russia's "fading" democracy legitimate?
Certainly I wouldn't dismiss all criticisms of government actions. Scandals, corruption, even murder have been attributed to government actions. But the 'he's not going our direction so he's going the wrong way' critique is too simplistic. First, Russia, a country of about 150 million people (though the largest in the world in terms of land), was in disarray during the Yeltsin years. Mafia and organized crime gangs controlled large segments of the economy, and preyed on average folk without mercy, doing things like plying them with vodka and then getting them to sign away their rights to their home or apartment. Successful businesses were forced to pay protection money, and often in fact simply taken over by the local thugs. People saw their savings destroyed by hyperinflation, and then their lifestyle plummet, even as they watched the "new Russians" rise in opulence and wealth. People looked to the government to restore order and justice, and the government was passive. The capitalist democratic way is, after all to have a weak government.
That's not the Russian way. Lacking the years of rule of law and stable norms developed over decades, it was easy for organized crime to dominate local governments, courts, and bureaucracies. Without a strong hand at the helm, nothing was there to check abuse of power from below. Russians often felt helpless, focusing on their section of the world -- their gardens, jobs, and prospects -- not the large picture. Putin's ascent to power turned much of that around. Law and order were for the most part restored, organized crime is still a major problem, but it isn't untouchable like it seemed to be in the 90s. Infrastructure is being rebuilt, the quality of life is improving, and people finally see a government that is able to provide some stability and order. To do this required Putin be able to operate without being undercut by populist movements, negative press, and other efforts to spread dissent. In the perspective of most Russians, the ends justified the means, a secure, stable country is worth a few violations of individual liberty.
That doesn't mean Putin is on the right track. For me, the question is not "is he doing what we would want done here" -- clearly the answer to that is no (though if we were in the position of most Russians we might think differently). The question is whether he is engaged in creating a real democracy, one that ultimately emphasizes the participation and freedom of its citizens, even if those concepts are understood and practiced in a manner different from our own. If so, one would expect continued efforts to connect with Europe, and integrate the Russian economy into the global economy, and to allow the growth of a true middle class, not beholden to bureaucrats. If so, Putin, even if he remains as Prime Minister, will be less of an autocrat than a deal maker, someone trying to 'get things done' while maintaining order. And if so, Russia's political culture will slowly adopt to a more open, progressive approach to the use of governmental power, as institutions gradually develop to allow stability to be maintained with less overt government control. The result would be democracy Russian style, built in a way that reflects and is consistent with Russian political culture. On that, the jury is still out. There is, however, no need to write Russia off or label Putin simply yet another Russian dictator.
December 7 - History forgotten
I am always amazed at the lack of knowledge of history by most Americans. Usually this involves world affairs. Virtually no one remembers or knows about the Cambodian genocide, especially people under 30. Knowledge of the great wars and ideological battles of the 20th century is meager at best -- a "Cold War" that appears a bit ridiculous to today's youth, and world wars that now seem more to be entertainment for the History Channel than real.
Today is one such day. December 7th is Pearl Harbor day, commemorating a day that for a time was as emotionally powerful as 9-11 is today. There have been movies like Tora, Tora, Tora or more recently Pearl Harbor, a Hollywood blockbuster. But ask around what 'happened on this day', especially to people under 30 and not especially interested in world affairs and you'll often get a blank stare. People do not remember the 'day that will live in infamy.'
I suppose that could be dismissed as no big deal -- forgetting a date doesn't mean one doesn't know what happened, and memorizing dates doesn't lead to real understanding. I disagree -- I have always found the 'don't memorize dates' mantra of some to be misguided, learning dates allows one to create a chronological map in ones head. Knowing that Germany attacked the Soviet Union almost half a year before Pearl Harbor is important to know. Yet I think the problem is deeper, our culture has become so obsessed with the present and the future that the past is seen at best as an interesting story, but not necessarily important.
To be sure, you'll always have 'history buffs,' folk who immerse themselves in history, often focusing on particular eras like the civil war, military history, or Nazi Germany. There's a reason why so many of the popular history books are about war. And a lot of people are truly fascinated by learning of what life was like in the past. To me, knowledge of history gives one a different perspective of life.
For instance, I find myself often thinking, as I drive to work, how this landscape might have looked in the past, imagine it with Indians, early settlers, or even in the recent past. I think about how it might change, and view even my own little corner of the world as a point not only in space, but in time. The more I learn about the past, the more real that is to me. When I'm with travel courses in Italy and can convey the history, Venice, for instance, is more than just a beautiful, romantic tourist trap, but the buildings and layout have meaning, my experience is more intense. When I took a class to Wittenberg, Germany to talk about the impact of the reformation on European politics, being there made a huge difference, students noted it clearly in their journals. Connecting to history is important not just to learn lessons or honor the past, but also to enrich our own appreciation of this life we have. It protects us from falling into the trap of living superficially, so focused on the bills, problems and conflicts of the day that we don't fully appreciate what life means. If we don't live with appreciation of our social-historical context, we are going through life with blinders, focused on a small and usually unsatisfying aspect of this existence.
Most people will bemoan the lack of knowledge of what December 7th means by criticizing the youth for not knowing the importance of the WWII, or understanding the struggle to defeat fascism and Japanese militarism. Most will see it from the standpoint of a 'date all citizens should know.' That is a valid point. But more fundamental: as a culture disconnecting from history, we hurt ourselves on many levels -- including how we appreciate everyday life.
December 10 - A war full of illusions
After the especially bloody period from early 2006 to mid-2007, the recent decrease in news from Iraq -- fewer Americans are being killed, and Iraqi casualties are also down -- has been heartening. Alas, it is unlikely to last. One thing we've seen in this conflict is a series of ebb and flows as insurgents adapt, and extremists -- who have all the time in the world -- operate on a long term rather than short term basis.
Before getting to the 'coming bad news,' let's consider what's been done right recently. There are two reasons violence is down. First, the US has stopped trying to defeat the Sunni insurgents, and instead has been essentially forgiving them for past violence (something politically untenable back in 2005 -- a call for amnesty for insurgents who had killed Americans was derided at that time) and working to build a partnership against a common foe: al qaeda in Iraq. This has meant a dramatic decrease in attacks directed at the US, and effectively driven al qaeda out of much of Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle. Second, the US has not made good on threats to go after Shi'ite militias. Despite some symbolic actions, the militias and the US seem to have a deal: if the militias stay quiet, we'll ignore them. Moreover, recent developments with Iran suggest that Iranian-American relations, if still pretty poor, are at least showing the possibility of improvement. Since Iran is a chief supporter and arms supplier of many of these militia groups, less tension between Iran and the US makes it more likely these groups will stay quiet.
However, this decrease in violence shows every sign of being temporary. Unless there is true political reconciliation between Shi'ites and Sunnis -- and by that I mean groups that form the Sunni insurgency and the Shi'ite parties and militias -- then the current situation is less peace than just a cease fire. Since the US is not trying to defeat the Sunnis, who remain armed and may even be receiving arms if they are willing to counter al qaeda, the Sunnis retain the ability to fight the Shi'ites, and cause unrest if dissatisfied with the government remains strong. The Shi'ite militias are also quite potent, and far more cohesive than the Iraqi military (which is riddled with militia informants and extremists). They are bound and determined to assure they decide how Iraq will be governed, not the Americans or moderate/secular leaders.
Beyond that, al qaeda is not defeated and in fact shows signs of regrouping and preparing for another set of offensives. Driven from central Iraq they've moved north, and are setting up shop in Mosul. With the US unable to maintain the surge (that news has been out since the start of this phase of operations), and with Britain now announcing it's all but ending its involvement in Iraq, they've decided to be patient and wait the US out as they re-organization and plan how to adapt to changing circumstances. They know the US has an election coming up, they know the President and this war are very unpopular, and they realize that Iraq remains riddled with corruption and is politically unstable.
For now, it appears that the "surge" has done what I predicted in this blog last January -- created a 'peace with honor moment' but not true peace. In fact, the illusion of progress now is part of a series of illusions about Iraq that have made this on going fiasco almost surreal. First it was WMD, the idea we'd be greeted as liberators, that defeating Saddam was the 'hard part' and reconstruction would go will. Then it was that the insurgency was weak, just small bands of Saddam holdouts that would give in once Saddam and his sons were captured and killed. Then it was that the elections would solve everything, that the Iraqi people voting symbolized a society that was moving forward, with the violence on the margins. The insurgency, it was said, was in its last throes. All those illusions were shot out of the water after the Samarra mosque bombing and the spike in violence last year. The new illusion is that now things are finally getting better -- that going back to pre-2006 conditions mean that Iraq is moving closer to being a success.
Alas, little has changed since 2006. Corruption is as bad as ever, ethnic groups are armed, and there has been no real effort at reconciliation. Although ethnic cleansing has decreased the amount of ethnic murders -- the country has been pretty much divided along ethnic lines in most places -- things could explode at any time with the proper spark. Al qaeda knows that and, far from defeated, is simply waiting the United States out. They are happy to provide a 'peace with honor moment,' if that means they can focus on trying to incite ethnic violence and capitalize on the ensuing chaos. Iranian backed Shi'ite militias want to make sure that doesn't happen. The last thing we're seeing is the rise of a secular pro-American stable democracy.
Don't be surprised if the current illusion that Iraq is improving shatters in another spate of intense violence, perhaps after the US starts major withdrawals, with our population unwilling to get more involved again. Don't be surprised if this causes Iraq to reemerge as a major campaign issue in 2008, with those who have remained critical of the conflict benefiting. Iraq is a war full of illusions, illusions fueled by our lack of knowledge about what's really happening. By focusing on American troop deaths and our own myopic view that Iraqi problems get defined in western terms (democracy vs. tyranny, etc.) we are especially prone to fall for those illusions, especially if buttressed by wishful thinking.
December 13 - Ahmadinejad goes to Mecca
Last year I noted when the Saudis had some tough talk for the Bush Administration's Mideast policies. Since then the Saudis have warmed up to the Iranians, who were invited recently to the Arab summit in Qatar. Now King Abdullah has offered an invitation to Iranian President Ahmadinejad to participate in the Hajj in Mecca, further signaling better relations. This improvement of relations between the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Iran comes at a time when it appeared that the US was trying to engineer an moderate Arab opposition to Iran, perhaps to gain support for possible air strikes. If so, the events of the last couple weeks have been a stinging rebuke to the President.
But perhaps something significant is going on. This invitation comes at a time when the Iraqi government is praising Syria's improved help in supporting Iraqi security, the US releases an intelligence estimate that says Iran has halted its nuclear program in 2003 (though Iran denies ever having one), and the US military says Iranian involvement in Iraqi violence is down considerably. This might be part of a larger diplomatic trend. In short, without overtly saying so, the US seems to have accepted the recommendation by the Baker commission to engage Syria and Iran and through regional diplomacy try to bring stability to Iraq and the region.
At the time, a lot of people, including myself, were critical of the President for not taking that route. But in hindsight, perhaps we were too quick in that criticism. After all, you can't expect President Bush to go on television and say "I call for open negotiations with Syria and Iran to help us solve our problems." That would be, as Secretary Rice noted at the time, putting ourselves in a position of supplicants. Instead, they seem to have slowly built contacts and supported regional efforts, all while keeping up the rhetorical pressure. Now it seems we've reached a point where the diplomacy is shifting. The rhetorical pressure won't go away, but rather than a kind of Cold War that could turn hot, it's more like detente. Iran is a threat, but it can be contained.
The Israeli government is concerned about all this, to be sure. They aren't so concerned about an Iranian bomb, but rather Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah which, combined with a strengthened Hamas, create a real threat to Israeli security. Ultimately, they prefer to see real pressure put on Iran, and see the emerging Arab-Iranian reconciliation as potentially dangerous. However, the Arabs states, especially Saudi Arabia, may be signaling that any strike on Iran, whether by Israel or the US, would be destabilizing and will not be tolerated by the Arab states. They may not be able to do much about it militarily, but they do have lots of oil.
So something is afoot in Mideast diplomacy. And, as uncertain as all this is, the more they talk and work to reduce tensions, the better.
December 17 - Religion, Politics, and Culture
This winter term I'm teaching a course on Italian politics and history, and in February I'm again part of a group of four professors taking about 40 students to Italy on a travel course. While thinking about the history of the Christian church and the Vatican, and then looking a the role religion is playing in politics both domestically and globally, it becomes painfully obvious that material world conditions have gone beyond what our cultural structures and belief systems can comprehend. The result is a crisis which ultimately cannot be sustained.
The bottom line is that current religions are, at base, not tenable. The idea that any one culture had the "right" god-story with the right cast of characters simply is not credible. Yet, that's what most people believe, usually because they inherited a cultural set of beliefs and understandings based on a non-global notion of identity and meaning: This is our community, and this is what we believe. People are socialized into it from their birth, going to churches, temples or mosques, and their religious beliefs are weaved into a sense of historical and cultural identity which creates a coherent and satisfying notion of what life is all about. It provides a moral framework for living, a comfort in times of crisis or death, and a method to contemplate the spiritual aspects of life.
On the other hand, atheism as a pure, rational form is also not tenable. Reason provides no answers to life's deep meanings, no comfort in times of crisis or stress, no guidance to deep moral/spiritual quandaries, and in fact leads to a point of emptiness -- we exist and act, but there seems no purpose. Post-modernists have shown how reason can twist and tear itself apart, and by simply dismissing all religious notions due to the fundamental weakness of current organized religious thought when confronted with reason, we end up with a world view even less satisfying than that of the religious believer.
Christmas exemplifies this paradox. It is a religious holiday, though it's easy to skate through the season with minimal religious connection -- for someone non-religious snowmen and Santas can easily trump nativity scenes and the manger. In fact, Christmas for a large segment of society is about business. For stores this is the make or break time of the year, and for many people it's a stressful time of buying gifts, making sure the right people are tipped, and dealing with thorny family issues caused by divorce or distance. We keep the religion as a backdrop, but ignore it for most of how we handle the holidays.
In short, we're a society where people don't let go of religion because, frankly, we have nothing with which to replace it. The spiritual barrenness of pure atheism and raw reason goes against our gut feeling about the nature of reality. Moreover, as nihilist as post-modernism may seem, it's ability to completely deconstruct reason-based discourses demonstrates that life has a side beyond reason, that reality cannot be completely reduced to rational, material forces. The idea that we are simply by chance creatures born of molecules that by chance coalesced in a tiny corner of a universe which itself might be a tiny portion of something greater pushes against our common sense. And, while some toughen their hearts and learn to say "yeah, it's all chance, no illusions, nothing but the world we see," that kind of view is itself a leap of faith -- a pessimistic one at that.
Meanwhile, in the Islamic world extremists confront the western world of reason and rationality with a response of horror at where it has led us, and where it could lead them. Their response is to turn more fully to their faith, and in some cases work to undercut, weaken and perhaps destroy the western/rationalist threat to their identity. However, that's doomed to fail -- or if succeeds, it'll end up destroying their faith in the process.
So where do we go from here? How can we explore the real questions of meaning, ethics, faith and life without either resorting to the anachronistic mythologies of the organized religions we've inherited, or the empty, mechanistic and ultimately unbelievable qualities of pure reason, materialism and atheism? How can our cultures and indeed our thought embrace a view of life that transcends this apparent contradiction? Because, like it or not, organized religion holds some truth, interpreted through particular stories and myths, and reason is a powerful tool and has opened the door to understanding the material world. Neither is satisfying on its own, both have to be brought together.
I'll end by setting up a blog I'll write later this week. My 4 year old loves the movie Polar Express. As I finally convinced him to give up the DVD control so I could watch the whole movie (rather than the train on the ice scene over and over and over and over), I realized that the genius of that movie is that it did transcend these contradictions, and in fact some of the most popular films and sentiments of modern culture already are trying to grapple with this issue in a way that may be succeeding. More on that to come...
December 20 - The Polar Express
I noted in the last blog entry how there seems to be a crisis of spirit in the modern world. Organized religions of the past can't stand the scrutiny of logic and reason, while logic and reason can't really give a sense of meaning to life. There seems to be something more, but our modern minds tell us to disregard anything not provable through some kind of logical, evidentiary manner, so we need up having to choose between holding on to traditional religious beliefs, or simply rejecting all that as superstition and embrace materialism and rationality. But since reason can be used to undermine itself (first noticed by the fideists, then perfected by post-modernists) we're left with really nothing to believe.
Believe. That brings me to the movie The Polar Express. Movies move me on various levels. Some, like Hotel Rwanda confront real life human tragedy and cruelty, others deal with emotions and dilemmas. I'm not at all afraid to be teary eyed, I'll willingly throw myself into the experience and wrap myself into the film while it's taking place. The best are ones that move me at a deep, philosophical or even spiritual level. Where I get tears in my eyes not from the emotions or actions on the screen, but from the deep message that gets conveyed. The Polar Express is one of them.
On it's face it's a film about a boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus. He's told his sister all the rational reasons why Santa doesn't exist -- he'd have to fly faster than the speed of light, the size of his sled would be greater than a number of ocean liners, etc. -- and is staying up to test whether or not Santa really comes, listening for the sleigh bells and trying to stay awake. Then suddenly a train whistle blares in his room and the room shakes. A huge train is outside his house. He gets aboard and after a variety of adventures ends up at the North Pole, developing friendships with a few other children and getting strange assistance from a ghostly hobo who disappears as soon as he aids the boy. Through it all he can't hear the sleigh bells other children can. At the end, as he learns the magic of Christmas, he hears them, and is chosen by Santa to get the first gift of the year. He chooses a sleigh bell. He loses it from a hole in his pocket, only to find it the next morning in a gift box from Santa. His parents can't hear it's ring, but he and his sister can. In the end, as the narrator -- an older version of the boy -- notes how over time all his friends and even his sister came to no longer be able to hear the bell. But he still could.
On its face, a nice little story about the magic of Christmas. And perhaps that's all it's intended to be. But I read into it a fable about our modern dilemma. The key word in the film -- the one ultimately punched on the boy's ticket -- is believe. To me the dilemma about Santa Claus faced by the boy is the dilemma we face when thinking about religion or spiritual ideas of life. We want to believe there is more than just this material existence, we want to see the world as somewhat magical and with meaning, yet all the evidence we see points to a flawed human nature, and our lives as wisps of sand thrown about by chance and circumstance. The good often suffer, the bad often prosper, and life seems to have no meaning, other than that which we manage to construct for ourselves in our short dance on this planet. But even that is transient and ultimately meaningless -- and since the sun will go nova and the universe will keep expanding, we confront the fact there is nothing grounding us or providing ultimate meaning.
And what is the magic? Well, the ghostly hobo on the train Santa Claus are played by the same person (Tom Hanks). He is also the conductor of the train who guides the children to the North Pole...and he also is boy (albeit with a voice from someone else). The animation uses real characters as a basis for creating others, so they look difference, though the resemblance is real. The magic comes from friendship -- how the boy stops the train to let another "lonely boy" in, who resists their efforts until he bonds with the boy and a girl who seems to have an intuitive sense of what to do. To me the message ends up being that the magic is real, you simply have to believe. And this doesn't mean believing in a particular God or faith, but in life. To see the power in oneself and the connections to others. That if one believes in life as more than just a dreary material existence, if one avoids getting caught up in politics, sports, and gossip as somehow the essential aspect of life, and looks at the world as a beautiful, magical place full of opportunity, then it becomes that way.
Of course, there are numerous arguments against this. I teach units on the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide, look at third world poverty and famine, and we see wars, children soldiers, and a host of horrors that defy this nice magical picture from a children's movie about Christmas. Yet even in those horrors, we see a sense of greater meaning. Romeo Dallaire and Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda, the experiences of survivors in Cambodia and their actions afterwards, the way in which these horrors touch us inside in a way that shows what happens when we lose sight of the connection we have with others, and cut ourselves off from the beauty of life, only to get lost in the ugliness of hate, ideology, and greed -- an unquenchable greed that destroys those who fall victim to it.
So I find a balance. Confront the horrors and learn from them, but to nonetheless believe. To always believe. To keep strong that part of myself that says that no matter what happens, life is beautiful, there is joy, and every day and minute is an opportunity to discover and experience it. To get lost in worries about the transient trivialities of daily life is a waste of time; we should live, not just exist. So I'll put Polar Express up alongside other favorite movies, such as Mary Poppins and What Dreams May Come. Somehow we need to find a way as a culture to embrace the power of belief, love, and connection without having to at the same time embrace divisive religious structures. We need to find a way to accept the power of the tools of reason and logic without then deriding that which lies beyond reason and evidence as naive, soft, or superstitious. I'm not sure how to do it, we just have to feel it. And a movie like Polar Express allows me to feel it, even if I don't completely understand it.
December 21 - The Spirit of Christmas
Despite all the commercialization, the issues involving religion, belief and reason which I've discussed earlier this week, and the materialism, the spirit of Christmas seems to me, ultimately, to encompass keys to successful living. And, while Christians may claim that this is because the Christian faith contains those keys, I believe they can be found at the core of almost all religious belief, and in fact transcend individual religious traditions. These keys are:
Ethics: I'm convinced that one cannot be happy or have a successful life if one is not guided primarily by a sense of ethics. In other words, if one's life is composed of trying to hurt others, cut others down in order to get ahead, or trying to use others in order to achieve personal gain, I think that renders it impossible to achieve the things that make up a successful life. This starts with forgiveness.
Forgiveness: Life is easier if you forgive others, drop grudges, and recognize that all humans, every one of us, have flaws and weaknesses. Not only is nobody perfect, everyone does stupid things, is mean or petty sometimes, and often completely insensitive to how others experience their actions. Let it go. Forgive. Completely. Don't just forgive on the surface and be nice, holding resentments inside. One might feel virtuous doing that -- I'm being nice to him despite his actions -- but to get the benefit in life of the power of forgiveness, it has to be real. That doesn't come easy, but when one starts truly forgiving others, then pretty soon the power of that act on ones' own happiness becomes apparent. And, of course, foremost in being able to do this is to forgive oneself. All the time. Every day. For everything. Yet, again, if one knows that ones' intent was cruel or manipulative, and one knows this will be repeated, that it's the way one lives, one can't forgiven oneself. The very idea would seem to suggest naive weakness. Without the attempt at ethical living, real forgiveness becomes impossible. And if one can't forgive oneself, one not only can't forgive others, but one can't love oneself.
Love: There are few words used in as many ways as the word "love." To me true love has two components. The first is that one can't really love others if one does not love oneself. I don't mean a kind of vain narcissism, but a real deep belief that, yes, I'm a good person, doing my best in the world, desiring to live a good life. If I screw up, do stupid or even mean things, that's not the essence of who I am, that's my human weakness coming forth. I can forgive that and still love myself as an essentially good person. Now, this component is the hardest part of love to achieve. Most people don't achieve it because they are wracked with guilt over the stupid or mean things they have done, or they can't love themselves because they know they are not doing their best and trying to live an ethical life. If they are purposefully out to undercut or hurt others, they cannot look themselves honestly in the eye and say "I'm a good person." Rather, such a person actually starts hating himself or herself, creating a spiral of bitterness and resentment.
If one does truly love oneself, then the next component -- to see others as valuable just like oneself, with a sense of love just like oneself -- becomes natural, almost unavoidable. One is driven to love others, even enemies, as one loves oneself (sound familiar?) That doesn't mean going out and trying to save the world; it just means making choices that take into account the reality that others are, at base, not essentially different than oneself. They may be locked in a self-destructive set of unethical behaviors, making one not want to be with that person, but one sees that person more with a sense of pity and a desire to help than with anger and animosity. But most of the time this gets expressed not as grad gestures, but simple acts of kindness. You treat others with kindness and respect because of love. It's a more impersonal love of humanity than individual romantic or familial love, but in a sense that is the deepest kind of love. And finally:
Magic: Life is magical. I find when I live it with that sense of magic, with miracles a part of the nature of reality, it becomes easier to stay focused and not lose the desire to live ethically and treat others well, even when things seem to be going wrong. Somehow, it all comes together. And don't let the ugliness of the world - the genocides, murders, rapes, and cruelty - lead you to doubt the magic. It defies understanding, but the deep questions about the nature of life are all outside our ability to truly understand.
So love, forgiveness, ethics, and magic...those things seem to exemplify why Christmas is so special even to non-Christians, at this time of the year we celebrate these traits in our music, films, television shows, and our interaction with friends and family. Indeed, friendships and family bonds are probably the most obvious manifestation of these attributes. So Merry Christmas!
December 26 - The new multipolarity
I've noted in a few blogs this year how Vladimir Putin has emerged in Russia as a leader in the image of the old Czarist reformers -- progressive and authoritarian (see A Czar by Any Other Name on October 2nd, or Tsar Vladimir on February 22nd. Time magazine has noted this as well, choosing Putin as their "person of the year" for 2007, noting how effectively Vladimir Putin has, with the help of petrodollars, restored stability and moved to rebuild Russia's standing in the world, undoing some of the damage done by the more democratic but less competent Yeltsin regime of the 1990s.
What intrigued me about Time's report was less the focus on Yeltsin's internal politics, but the pragmatic realism of his foreign policy. This is potentially a very promising development for the United States and the West, so long as we give up the neo-conservative idealism of thinking we can use American power to shape the 21st century in our image. Iraq seems to have shown that kind of thinking to be built on two false assumptions: a) that American power can be projected without great cost and can successfully reshape global politics; and b) that the international system is one where military power is a major determinant of national strength. In a global era where markets dominate and where military threats to advanced industrialized states are not other armies but subversive terror organizations, a huge military is virtually irrelevant -- and as Iraq demonstrates, relatively impotent.
So where does that leave Russia? Clearly Putin seems to recognize that Russia can't regain a Soviet style empire, and that Russian national interest is indeed Russian, and relates to Russia's status and role in the world. That means that we do not need to fear that Russia will become an expansive imperial power the way people feared Communism. That said, Russia has strategic interests in parts of the world important to the United States, most notably Iran, the Mideast, Europe and China. In Iran and the Mideast, Russia seems to be not only directly challenging the US, but doing so effectively, undercutting American efforts to isolate Iran, and forging better ties with states like Syria. This is one reason why neo-conservatism has become unviable -- Russia has proven not only to resist our efforts, but to be effective at countering them. At the same time, Russia has successfully done what the Soviet Union failed to do -- decouple America and Europe. To be sure, President Bush made Putin's job easier by going to war in Iraq and letting Secretary Rumsfeld make derisive comments about the "old Europe," leading to dramatic summits with Chirac, Schroeder and Putin in 2002 and 2003, but even as the US has repaired transatlantic ties, Russia remains a major partner to Europe and supplier of natural gas.
In essence, the Europeans realize that in the post-Cold War world their choice isn't between the US and Russia, but involves relations with both. Russia is on the EU's border, and a growing Russia is a lucrative market. China, of course, is also in the mix, and playing a similar game of pragmatic politics with both the EU and Russia. The United States, slowly recognizing that the unipolar moment is over, is having to adjust to its limited ability to call the shots. No longer leading the West, but certainly still the world's largest military and economic power, the US is trying to adjust to a multipolar reality that at first blush seems to threaten the US in ways that were unimaginable ten or fifteen years ago. In this new order with limited military fungibility, America's economic vulnerabilities (which are greater than a lot of people imagine) are exacerbated, and the US ability to shape global affairs weakened. Yet while that may seem to be bad news, especially to idealists who dreamed about US power reshaping the globe with fantasies of a pax americana, it is in reality good news.
Pax Americana was never feasible in an era of globalization and with the main threat terrorism rather than war. But the other major actors, China, Russia and the EU are all pragmatic. They are focused on their own interests, defined more by economic factors than anything else. None of them have desires to expand or fundamentally alter the system, and all are willing to work with each other on points of common interest. All have an interest to help prevent Islamic extremism from posing a real threat to the system, all will be hurt badly if there is a sharp downturn in the world economy. Not since the concert of Europe have the world's powers been on a pragmatic same page like this, and at this time no one seems ready to play the role of a rising imperial Germany to break that apart. Like all moments in world politics, this one won't last forever. But it does create the possibility that the emerging multipolar world order might be able to handle the challenges of the 21st century through acting together on mutual interests. That is good -- not only for the world, but for Americans as well.
December 31 - 2007 in history
On December 1, 2006, I wrote that the 90s had been a decade of illusions, as we thought we were wealthier, more powerful, and more independent as a country than we really were. 2007 is the year in which almost all of those illusions have finally fallen to the wayside.
As noted last week, we've come to embrace the fact that we're in a true multipolar world, something even Defense Secretary Gates notes. The idea of "with us or against us" or the "cowboy diplomacy" is over. Iraq has taught us the limits of our military power, and the fantasy of reshaping the Mideast has given way to a cold, realist policy designed to work with regional powers and scale back our plans in order to simply avoid chaos. Even that likely won't work completely, but the neo-conservatives have been shown to have erred.
On global warming just about everyone has come around to the belief that it exists, and that humans are at least partially responsible. Even President Bush has shifted towards international cooperation on this issue, after originally trying to deny there was enough evidence. The illusion that one could simply deny global warming or say human's aren't involved has been shattered.
The economy now looks to be set for anything from a mild recession to a severe crisis. The bursting of the housing bubble combined with immense debt has created a situation that no one quite knows what to expect (I've obviously blogged my rather pessimistic analysis here a few times). High oil prices add to that -- predictions about what this means run all over the place, but it's virtually impossible to deny that there are real problems, and that these problems are global and riddled with interdependencies.
In short, we're looking at the world more realistically at the end of 2007 than we were earlier, reality has shattered many of the post-Cold War illusions. Moving ahead to 2008 that gives us a challenge.
Can we understand the new world we're moving into? Can we fathom what globalization really means, the challenges it poses to sovereignty and democracy, and the dangers of high debt? Can we deal with our dependence on oil and resources from other states, as well as the environmental problems that are taking root as the world economy continues to expand? My short answer is: it'll take a lot of work, and creative thinking. The world is not the same as it was, and we can't think about it in the same way. We need to question our conventional wisdoms, come up with new ideas, and recognize that cooperation and collaboration are necessary - and that means dealing with a wide variety of different perspectives. But for now we can at least take comfort in the fact that people are starting to understand reality for what it is, not what an ideological lens or wishful thinking make them want it to be. It's not clear, however, that we are capable of doing what it takes to handle these changes successfully. 2008 will be a very telling year in that regard. Happy New Year!