It’s really about alienation

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“Study for “The Dream – Paolo and Francesca”, Umberto Boccioni, 1910, The MET

“Go back to Ben Franklin—his descriptions about how the Iroquois Nations lived and worked together. Compare that to America today. I think that, when you look at veterans coming out of the wars, they’re more and more just slapped in the face by that isolation, and they’re used to something better. They think it’s P.T.S.D.—which it can be—but it’s really about alienation. If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow-man?”

—James Mattis, in The New Yorker, “The Warrior Monk” by Dexter Filkins

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Thank God for the Reflexive Contrarians

“I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who always vote third party, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on whitehouse.gov because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the people who say “well, actually…” all the time, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to other people on the same side who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to Nazism”, I think that we’ve erred in the right direction.”

—Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Eichmann In Jerusalem” on Slate Star Codex

Everything Isn’t Always OK

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I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

Trump is a Chaos Monkey (or Why I’m Not Afraid of Trump)

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As the media machine ramps up outrage for every small wind that blows from Trump’s mouth, I’ve found myself growing increasingly zen about it all.

Yeah, there’s a slight possibility that Trump may win. So what?

Here’s why I’m OK with the possibility and why you won’t hear me whine about moving to Canada:

  1. It means that many Americans voted for him. Remember that whole thing, voting?We still live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect our public representatives. We can then thank all those young idealists that either failed to vote or voted for a 3rd party candidate. Maybe they’ll get an inkling of how politics works from that experience.
  2. Trump is surfacing the toxins of our society.  If many Americans are truly angry racist xenophobic zealots, then it’s probably about time we saw one another for what we really are.
  3. If Trump doesn’t destroy our democratic republic, then he will make it stronger. We’re supposed to have a system that balances power. Like a chaos monkey, Trump will test this system through impulsive, bull-headed, shortsighted and selfish decisions. If our system then fails, then that means we need to build a better one. If it doesn’t fail, then it will adapt and react to his incursions like an immune system fighting off a viral invader. And so our political system shall evolve and continue.

Today, when the next headline crosses your radar manufactured to make your conscientious, caring, and progressive self get upset, calm yourself by considering that Trump may well be the Chaos Monkey of the gods. We shall overcome.

The Federalist #15: Government and Human Nature

Cover of "The Federalist (Barnes & Noble ...
Cover via Amazon

We’ve explored James Madison’s exposition on a democratic republic and the regulation of faction through the mechanism of representation in Federalist #10. I’d like to now move on to some interesting insight provided by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15 on the use of power and sanction by government, and on the self-interest of human nature:

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.

One thing this passage demonstrates is that our founding fathers did not have the rose-tinted glasses that many of us moderns seem to possess when we consider the role of government. Stating the role of government in such stark terms probably rubs our politically-correct sensibilities the wrong way. Recall that Hamilton is referring explicitly to the context of political and economic disarray due to the Articles of Confederation. He knew what it looks like when governance is weak and based on mutual promises of goodwill and intent, rather than backed by an authoritative power to enforce laws.

There is an interesting parallel here in the manner that many people today view public schools. They seem to think that if we simply create a nurturing and caring environment, student behavior will take care of itself (just a quick note: I do believe that environments can be created that will do much to address misbehavior. See my other blog for more on this). This is patently ridiculous to anyone who has taught children. Children naturally take advantage of any opportunity to gain attention and status amongst their peers. Without the ability to enforce transparent and fair codes of expected behavior, a teacher and a school’s administration are toothless. Children know when there are no consequences.

That doesn’t mean a suspension for every child who steps out of line. A consequence may just mean a long conversation with the child and their parent, with a contract drawn up or some other such embarrassing formalized thing. But there must be clear and fair penalties given. Children expect and demand this, and lose all respect for an adult when no such actions are taken (watch and observe children with their parents out in public for further demonstrations of this principle).

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?

What’s interesting here is the somewhat cynical but pragmatic view that Hamilton displays on human nature. Optimists may disagree, believing that without government, mankind will better self-govern through community-based efforts and individual self-interest. Such optimists are also known as “anarchists.” On the other side of this, however, we can also see that authoritative constraint can produce its own set of dysfunction when it is not implemented in a manner that gains the trust and respect of those so constrained. Americans are renowned for their distrust of their own government. Some of this distrust is well-earned, while some is steeped in provincial conspiracy and superstition. /Begin tangent. Currently, the discovery that the NSA has untrammeled access to almost all corners of our online communications has made many otherwise complacent Estadounidenses awaken to the reality that a healthy mistrust of their government can be warranted, especially when that government has demonstrated that it is fomenting dastardly plans in secret. If our government was more transparent about its surveillance methods and the purposes for that surveillance, I don’t think people would be so taken aback. After all, we willingly hand over wads of our personal information to retailers, credit card companies, and other organizations on a daily basis. /End tangent.

. . .in every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate or inferior orbs, by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common centre. This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged.

Hamilton is making it clear here that this natural tendency for subordinate states to desire greater power requires the execution of federal power through law.

In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. . . .The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the States have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. . . 

Hmmm. Our federal government brought to an “awful stand” because of extremism. . . Sure sounds painfully familiar. McDonnell, anybody?

The greater deficiencies of some States furnished the pretext of example and the temptation of interest to the complying, or to the least delinquent States. Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? These were suggestions which human selfishness could not withstand. . . Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.

Again, Hamilton’s pessimistic view of human nature is demonstrated here. It is the selfishness intrinsic to mankind that explains the behavior of the states. Yet this very selfishness is what we see demonstrated when we come up against the greatest challenges to our nation and to our species, such as the depletion of fish from our oceans, the degradation of top soils and water sources, and general environmental volatility across the world. Nations, just like states, just like individuals, act in accordance with self-interest. It is only via the mechanisms of constraint through legislation and justice that this self-interest can be managed for the greater and equitable interest of a collective.

Omens

That’s why Bostrom hopes the Curiosity rover fails. ‘Any discovery of life that didn’t originate on Earth makes it less likely the great filter is in our past, and more likely it’s in our future,’ he told me. If life is a cosmic fluke, then we’ve already beaten the odds, and our future is undetermined — the galaxy is there for the taking. If we discover that life arises everywhere, we lose a prime suspect in our hunt for the great filter. The more advanced life we find, the worse the implications. If Curiosity spots a vertebrate fossil embedded in Martian rock, it would mean that a Cambrian explosion occurred twice in the same solar system. It would give us reason to suspect that nature is very good at knitting atoms into complex animal life, but very bad at nurturing star-hopping civilisations. It would make it less likely that humans have already slipped through the trap whose jaws keep our skies lifeless. It would be an omen. http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/ross-andersen-human-extinction/