"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Epidemics, Wars, And Human Arrogance–How We Never See Change Coming And Are Always Surprised

The "Trimūrti" ("three forms") is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.

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The cycle of creation and destruction revolves eternally, and the goal of spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved by accepting the its inevitability, by dismissing attempts to find purpose and meaning within it , and by realizing that the wheel will never stop turning.  The world, one of illusion and deceptive notions of progress, will always disappoint.  Only when the spiritual seeker no longer hopes or despairs, sees diminishing rewards in a perpetually recurring cycle, and accepts the universality and finality of God, can such enlightenment be achieved.

This promise of a better world is of course not unique to Hinduism.  Christ taught that the world was nothing but a vale of tears, a proving ground for those who aspire to the real kingdom.  Acceptance of the world as God created it,  a respect for its magnificent design, and the understanding that it was only the beginning of eternal life is at the heart of Christianity.  Buddhism preaches the same doctrine of acceptance and the meaningless nature of a world in perpetual change. 

Despite the profound faith of many who follow these religions, it is still a challenge to really embrace a doctrine of acceptance.  Even if God has a plan, and our salvation is entirely dependent on his grace; and even if we accept a more Eastern view of human futility, we still reject nihilism, refuse to retreat from enterprise and good works, and retain a faith in the importance of human action.

However, while we may accept the belief  in the futility of any human enterprise except that which confirms our faith in God and our eventual redemption and salvation, we are still a nation of joiners, volunteers, activists, and idealists.  The world may proceed according to God’s plan, but we can’t simply sit idly by.

If Hindus truly believed in the illusory nature of life, its meaninglessness, and the futility of trying to bring the cycles of cyclical change to a stop, there would be no economic miracle; no progressive dismantling of the caste system, and no accelerated integration into world affairs.

Most of us have rationalized the discrepancy and have conveniently determined to live on two planes with varying degrees of commitment to either.   Others have opted for one or the other and are either ascetics or hedonists.  The monks in the French alpine Carthusian monastery of La Chartreuse lead a silent, meditative existence, the entire purpose of which is grow closer to God, are on one end of the spiritual scale.  Modern epicureans who have forgotten or dismissed Epictetus’ warnings about excess, are on the other.  There are few true nihilists for whom nothing matters.

Image result for images film into great silence

This configuration, as much as it represents a scheme of belief or disbelief, ignores arrogance – that irrational and often inflamed conviction that human beings can affect or even stop the course of history whether it is cyclical or directional.  Worse still is the very American sentiment that the worst is behind us; or that we have conquered whatever nature, history, or the world has thrown at us; and we eventually will defeat all assaults on our integrity.

Francis Fukuyama infamously wrote about ‘the end of history’, a post-Soviet cold war period where liberal democracy would reign and bring social harmony, benign, responsive political regimes, and a mutual tolerance.  Until the appearance of of AIDS and more recently the outbreaks of Ebola, bird flu, and Zika, most Americans felt that they were standing before the last medical frontier.  A cure for cancer would be forthcoming and there was not telling how far life expectancy could be extended.

Just as the world was ready to settle down to a table of peace and prosperity, the household came apart.  Religious, ethnic, and regional rivalries now threaten both East and West with no resolution in sight.  Respect for national borders and for the principle of liberal democracy itself is eroding.

Just as we were prepared to relax in our confidence that nasty epidemics had been eliminated or kept at bay, three or four new ones have emerged.  The discovery of antibiotics was considered a miracle, and the goal of curing all bacterial infections seemed to be a reality.  Now, it appears, we are down to our very last antibiotic, the only one even partially effective against new virulent pathogens and it shows signs of flagging.  The age of a new human vulnerability seems to be rapidly approaching.

Arrogance is perhaps not quite the right term since there is nothing selfish or mean about the innocent, idealistic belief in human victory over all comers. Arrogance, or extreme self-confidence, is an expression of human nature, the engine of human activity.  In our natural ambition to create a strong, protective perimeter around family, tribe, and nation; and in our incessant drive to expand it, we can be excused for a certain hubris. 

Henry VII might be forgiven for thinking that now that a Tudor was sitting on the throne of England and that the War of the Roses was at end, that he could preside over a peaceful but dominant kingdom.  His successor Henry VIII could also be excused for his arrogance in believing that England’s conquests of the French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish and the Holy Roman Empire meant unquestioned rule.  Roman emperors during the many years of Pax Romana could never even imagine serious challenges to their supremacy.


Yet what other word can better describe that characteristically human belief in conquest?  Even a casual glance at history shows that no kingdom or empire ever lasts; that one epidemic follows another; that minority groups with singular purpose and will rise and threaten the status quo every generation; that one form or another of social dysfunction or pathology infects every country without fail.

There are of course the Doomsday-sayers for whom everything is a sign of the coming Apocalypse.  American progressives conflate every social with the current scourge of Global Warming.  Racism, income inequality, gender bias, corrupt capitalism, hysterical religious fundamentalism all somehow have either a causative role in the coming catastrophe or are a result of those factors leading to it.

Many others are on a playground swing, going back and forth between hyper-optimism and depressive worry.  Few of us, it seems, take it all in stride, revisit the Bible or the Rig Veda, or take a volume of Nietzsche , Schopenhauer, or Tolstoy off the shelf.   Like the insulin swings of a diabetic who cannot control them, none of this can be doing us any good.

So Zika, ISIS, Iran, and a renascent Russia are big players on the world scene.  Surprisingly, many world leaders, especially our own, have been sandbagged by recent events.  Their confusion and strategic disarray are clear signs that they never saw them coming.   The jungle and its wild animals have been repositories of disease for generations, so why are we surprised that a new virus has jumped down from the trees?

Sanity is defined as the ability to accommodate both threats and promises in a reasonable balance.  To be neither overenthusiastic nor overly discouraged, to become neither manic nor depressive. To sort through what matters and what doesn’t and live with the choice.   A good Buddhist in other words. 

Does the social confusion, divisiveness, and acrimony seen in every corner of America mean that we have lost this collective sanity?  Have we been beached by the surf and are floundering ? Have we lost our moral compass? No, but we sure should have seen this chaotic end to American exceptionalism coming. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

The One Percent And A Concentration Of Wealth–What Is So Surprising?

Much has been made recently about income inequality and the concentration of wealth.  The most radical critics would like to break up these monopolies of power and money and distribute their wealth to the have-nots.  Others see the accumulation of wealth as a natural and healthy result of capitalist enterprise. 

Billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg have earned their money through intelligence, creativity, a savvy understanding of the marketplace, and unstoppable ambition – all traits valued in America.  They like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Cranes, Mellons before them, are not simply industrialists and financiers.  The PC, I-Phone, and Facebook are not just inventions, but innovations which have transformed American society. 


Without Standard Oil the remarkable growth of post-Industrial Revolution would never have happened.  Without the  railroads of Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Leland Stanford industrial and commercial development would never have spread so quickly.  Without Andrew Carnegie’s steel, the construction of cities would never have happened so quickly and dramatically.

Cornelius Vanderbilt www.commons.wikimedia.org

Today’s business philanthropists like Bill Gates have set up private foundations through which hundreds of millions of dollars are given away each year for improvements in health, education, and social welfare.  The Gates-supported Global Fund initiative alone, designed to fight AIDS, malaria, and TB, has contributed more to international health than most publically-sponsored programs.  

In the early Twentieth Century Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie set up foundations which, thanks to their original capitalization and successful investments, are still among the country’s most important grant institutions.

During the Progressive Era the United States Government broke up many monopolies, most noticeably Standard Oil, but the Sherman Act could be interpreted widely. In approving the breakup of Standard Oil the Supreme Court added the "rule of reason": not all big companies, and not all monopolies, are evil; and the courts (not the executive branch) are to make that decision. To be harmful, a trust had to somehow damage the economic environment of its competitors. United States Steel Corporation, which was much larger than Standard Oil, won its antitrust suit in 1920 despite never having delivered the benefits to consumers that Standard Oil did. In fact, it lobbied for tariff protection that reduced competition, and so contending that it was one of the "good trusts" that benefited the economy is somewhat doubtful (Wikipedia).


Washington was clearly ambivalent about the breakup of wealth.  Then and now electoral politics are ruled by big money, and few lawmakers wanted punitively aggressive action to be taken against large, wealthy, and generous companies. 

More importantly few legislators, other high public figures, and business executives, had the stomach for redistributive economic policies.  While there was no doubt that John D. Rockefeller overstepped many bounds of decency and ethics in his ruthless dealings, not all CEOs were so brutally competitive and should be allowed to use their drive, ambition, savvy, and brains to make money for themselves, shareholders, and the country.

Every so often there is a paroxysm of anger against the concentration of wealth and the practices of those who accumulate it.  Wall Street as an institution has been vilified by the Occupy Wall Street progressives who feel that the buying and selling of companies, stock, and futures amounts to nothing more than paper transfers that enrich the few and force the many into penury.  As in the case of Rockefeller and Standard Oil, some of these powerful investors arrogantly and defiantly broke both laws and rules of ethnics.  Enron, Bernie Madoff, and  Lehman Bros. found themselves in the crosshairs, and many executives were sent to prison.

Wall Street is healthy again, thanks in part to government bailouts; and although efforts have been made to assure greater surveillance of financial activities, to break up questionable partnerships, and to limit monopoly, the investment banking industry is back doing what it does best – finding loopholes in the law and inventing new financial instruments that will be legal for enough time for billions to be made. 

Mitt Romney was criticized during his Presidential campaign for financial marauding – buying up sick companies, tossing workers out the door, making a few cosmetic changes, and selling them at a big profit.   He did all these things, but that is precisely what his firm and others like it was supposed to do.  He made enormous profits for stakeholders and for company executives.


The fact remains that the concentration of wealth is a natural phenomenon whether at the court of Louis IV, Henry VIII, Persian Shahs, Japanese shoguns, or Chinese mandarins.   The pharaohs of Egypt had enormous wealth.  The kings of the Gao, Ghanaian, and Eritrean Empires were fabulously wealthy.  Javanese princes, Thai regents, and Rajput rajahs all had treasuries that outshone that of Croesus. 

How did they acquire such riches?  Territorial expansion added new agricultural land, natural resources, and access to the sea.  Rome could not have done without the granaries of North Africa or Alexandrian timber for its warships.  ‘Exploitation’ – i.e. punitive taxes on citizens – contributed a relatively small part to the wealth of kings.  The Lancasters, Yorks, and Tudors accumulated vast wealth because of their European conquests.  Even the breakup of wealthy Catholic monasteries in England was insignificant compared to English control of French territory.

The heads of the French aristocracy may have rolled during The Terror, but the landed elite never disappeared and soon were restored to legitimacy and wealth if not power.   Radical Reconstruction in the American South was an attempt to emasculate the wealthy plantation owners of the Confederacy, but soon enough they were back in power, reaping as many rewards from fertile Delta land as before the War.  In fact Reconstruction offers valuable lessons on what not to do if you have the intention of breaking up concentrations of wealth.

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Neither Progressive Era antitrust nor the French Revolution nor Reconstruction could blunt the accumulation of great wealth.  It is a social given.  A logical and predictable result of human nature.  Competitiveness, self-interest, territorialism, and the securing of wealth, status, position, and power are familiar aspects of human life.

No king, emperor, pasha, shah, or prince has ever sat on his wealth.  All built gardens, churches, and monuments.  All patronized the arts. 

The Romans used their wealth to build infrastructure throughout their Empire – roads, bridges, aqueducts, and amphitheaters.  The British certainly benefited from the riches of the Indian Raj, but also left an extensive railroad network, a civil service, and a framework of laws.


This is not to say that the concentrations of wealth and power have no downside; and the many popular revolutions that have occurred over the centuries are testament to a balance of power.   Empires come and go, either because of revolution, profligate spending, political stupidity, and a thousand other reasons.  Yet the concentration of wealth while offensive to the many who scraped by for a marginal living, was not wrong per se.  Since all societies accumulate, expand, and protect wealth, how could it be? 

Besides, as in the many cases of kings, queens, Bill Gates, and Henry Ford, much if not most of their money – directly or indirectly – contributes to overall economic progress.  The poor will always suffer in the course of economic progress and never get a big share of the pie; but without the investment of wealth they would be far more worse off.  Much of Africa now is beyond the reach of anyone’s wealth, and the way to a better life is not at all evident.

There will always be an ebb and flow of centers of wealth.  They will grow and diminish, change character, diversify and contract, and be subject to public scrutiny.  Their executives will always invent new ways around legislation and control.

The desire for wealth is at the heart of the American ethos.  In fact we have taken wealth accumulation to new heights.  Our private enterprise, risk-taking, and belief in the mantel of respectability conferred by achievement and money make us capitalists par excellence. It is in our blood.

Which is why the howls from Occupy Wall Street, neo-socialists, progressives, and young people under thirty are no more than chirping in the wind.  They may succeed in some minor reconfiguration of wealth-generating institutions, but it is really just rearranging the patio furniture.

The point is that we all want to be rich, to control vast treasuries of gold, spend like there was no tomorrow and leave fortunes for generations of our families.  No sour grapes allowed, then.  Plutocrats are here to stay.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Impossibility Of Truth - Life In A Post-Objective World

Americans on the Left slam Fox News for its bias, unfair and distorted reporting, and blinkered support of the conservative Right.  Those on the Right levy the same criticisms against the New York Times, MSNBC, and The Nation.

Where, both sides ask, is fair and balanced reporting? Objective treatment of the facts, and broadcasting free from incendiary, self-serving hysteria?

Yet who ever said that there was any such thing as objectivity? It is human nature to distort facts, to be biased, to extract only selective memories to bolster arguments and points of view, and to see only what personality, character, genetic disposition, and upbringing dictate.

It is also human nature to defend one’s territory, expand it where possible, accumulate the greatest stores of resources,  and create indomitable centers of power. The struggles for power among European nations in the 16th century are good examples; but such self-interest is no different for families, communities, or tribes.


The definition of community has been significantly expanded through virtual reality.   Social media have encouraged thousands of electronic friendships, enabled a broad marketplace for opinion and conviction; and in so doing created new virtual territories to defend.  Social, political, religious, cultural, economic, and environmental causes are defended on Facebook no less aggressively than in ‘the real world’.

The combination of the very human tendency to distort, imagine, or recreate past events; and the equally human drive for establishing and expanding territory and arrogating worth and power to oneself within it, is a perfect storm of subjectivity.  Objectivity – if there really is such a thing – can never withstand its winds.

Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon all tell the same story from differing perspectives.  Increasing scientific inquiry into the nature of perception and the infidelity of eye-witness accounts has forced jurists to rethink what evidence should be permissible at trial.  In a recent, well-publicized case, despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.

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Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks.
Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.
In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.
Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

Scholarly research into the nature of memory has shown that the process of reconstructing past events is dependent on many different parts and functions of the brain; and by the time the memory is assembled, it may have little to do with reality.
Memory is never a literal recount of past experiences, rather it is dependent on the constructive processes present at the time of Encoding that are subject to potential errors and distortions. Essentially, the constructive memory process functions by encoding the patterns of physical characteristics that are perceived by the individual, as well as the interpretive conceptual and semantic functions that act in response to the incoming information.
By utilizing multiple interdependent cognitive processes there is never a single location in the brain where a given complete memory trace of an experience is stored. In this manner, the various features of the experience must be joined together to form a coherent representation of the episode and if this binding process fails it can result in source memory failure, where later attempted retrieval of the episode results in fragmented recollection and an inability to consolidate the information into a cohesive narrative of a past experience.
During the recall of Episodic memory, the information that a person remembers is usually limited in scope, ultimately giving an incomplete recollection of an event. By employing reconstructive processes, individuals supplement other aspects of available personal knowledge into the gaps found in episodic memory in order to provide a fuller and more coherent version, albeit one that is often distorted (‘Reconstructive Memory’, Wikipedia)
There are several different types of what are called ‘memory errors’, in which people may inaccurately recall details of events that did not occur, or they may simply misattribute the source of a memory. In other instances, imagination of a certain event can create confidence that such an event actually occurred.

Causes of such memory errors may be due to certain cognitive factors, such as spreading activation, or to physiological factors, including brain damage, age or emotional factors.  Some researchers have suggested that up to 90 percent of memories are ‘fill-ins’.  Although we may remember an accurate fragment of a past event, other people’s recollections of it and/or environmental influences (old photographs, movies, literature) our eventual recall and retelling of the event.  In other words it is really a composite of many irrelevant additions.

Considerable psycho-social and cognitive research has gone on in the past few decades to explain the persistent and seemingly growing phenomenon of conspiracy theories.  Ordinarily reasonable and logical people discard reason and objectivity in favor of a subjectivity which suits their own ends or agendas.

Why, then, do people go off the logical rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.
Image result for images richard hofstadter
Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors.  How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.
A more persuasive argument is that “conspiracy theories afford adherents a means of maintaining self-esteem, coping with persecution, reasserting individualism, or expressing negative feelings”; and an even more persuasive one suggests that “conspiracy theories emerged because of ‘an irrational need to explain big and important events with proportionately big and important causes’”

In other words, 9/11 is simply too big an even and too world-altering to be explained only by citing the various social-economic, religious, and political factors that led up to it.  There simply had to be radical, supra-global causes to explain it.  When combined with the theory of powerlessness – the total insignificance of the individual in this Armageddon-like event – plus Hofstadter’s psychopathology (extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism), this makes total sense.

There is no such thing as an objective, neutral media source.

Even that most respected institution, the BBC World Service is run by human directors.  News items are chosen by human editors; and reporting is done by very human presenters.  The overall philosophy of the corporation, the selection of news items to be included in broadcasting, and the take on the news by presenters is biased. 

The New York Times for decades was published under the banner “All the news that’s fit to print”.  It was considered for years as the American paper of record.  It was commended for its separation of editorial policy and objective news reporting.  But this separation is fictitious, for the editor and publisher must choose what of the news is fit to print.

Give human nature and the impossibility of neutrality and objectivity, why not drop all claims to them?  Let Fox News be as blatantly and hysterically conservative as ever; and let MSNBC, Bill Maher, and the editors of The Nation do their own arrogant, sarcastic, and sanctimonious liberal rants.

The American justice system is a good model.  Jurisprudence does not rely on a truth, but only on which truth the jury believes.  The confrontational, dialectic, and argumentative legal process has always been considered the fairest means of dispensing justice of any.

The job of voters is not to determine the truth in what politicians say, but which version of it most coincides with theirs. 

The conviction that there is in fact such a thing as the truth leads to intolerance, divisiveness, and acrimony.  True believers pollute reasonable colloquy and debate more than anyone.  Those who hide behind “I-disagree-with-what-you-say-but-defend-your-right-to-say-it” but find it impossible to say, “You might be right” are the biggest factors contributing to divisiveness.

Disinterest and nihilism are two different things.  One can drop one’s insistence on truth and objectivity without falling into the chasm of meaninglessness. A perceptually iffy world is not necessarily one without God or purpose. 

The Presidential campaign of 2016 was one of the best yet because the most popular candidate was a vaudevillian, a carny barker, a clown, a snake-oil salesman, and one canny, savvy operator.  Donald Trump is so American.  We have taken image, virtuality, fantasy and subjectivity to an entirely new level.   We are already in a post-objective phase of reality.