Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Further Reading

Below are a few interesting posts I've come across that present a few issues from untraditional viewpoints, but with which I agree with for the most part:
  • When I was in high school and college and was following the events leading toward the construction of the European Union, I was hopeful that old continent would regain its stature as a premier economic powerhouse on par with the U.S. I was naturally rooting for the Euro as a means of reviving my country of birth, France, as a dynamic place to do business. Since those days, beginning with the ratification of the Maastricht treaty of 1993 followed by my own experiences as a student in Germany and France, I've grown a lot more cynical about Europe's prospects. In the back of my mind I was always hoping that a unified European economy would embrace greater deregulation and fiscal flexibility, along with the elimination of punitive taxation. Alas, those reforms never materialized while a common currency was pushed into use anyway, earning considerable resentment among everyday Europeans. And strangely, the imposition of the Euro gave economic liberalization in a bad reputation even as its implementation and the present reality of European economies are nothing of the sort. For someone such as I who tried to hold his faith in the virtues of a European economic union, this article posits that the Euro may have been one of the worse things to have happened to Europe in a long time. The article's description of the reality in Eastern Europe are fascinating, as I lived in one part of it not long after German reunification. Hattip: Instapundit
  • Most architects will tell you that they do not do their jobs for its monetary rewards, since they are traditionally quite meager. It was therefore tough for me following through on my decision to pursue architecture as a career precisely at a time when it seemed everybody else was making lots of money on what seemed to me the shakiest foundations. I was in the middle of my graduate studies in architecture when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was hitting new highs, the term "dotcom" was thrown around ubiquitously, and the concept of the "New Economy" was taking hold in a lot of amateur economic reportage I was reading at the time. There were many times I would ask myself: Why should I forfit the considerable earning potential available in these new internet-based industries for a career notorious for its long hours, low pay and high burnout rate? I was envious of those making out like bandits during those heady times, but in the end I wanted to master a 'trade' of sorts, which was how to conceive and prepared graphic instructions for any kind of building. How old-fashioned, but somehow I couldn't quite make the complete jump into the virtual world of web-design, mass-marketing, and computer generated graphics. I don't regret my decision at all nowadays, but I do wonder whether the mild recession during 2001 put the idea of a New Economy to rest. What's becoming increasingly clear to me is that the mechanisms underlying our national economy are changing rapidly, and a new set of winners and losers are emerging from this new reality. This discussion about the nature of our current econonic reality is explored in detail here, here and here.
  • Having gone to American public schools all my life before going to college as well as belonging to family that briefly received food stamps, I had the chance to get to know people who would be classified as poor. The older I get, the more convinced I am of the view that poverty is character problem that besets people who can't hold on to money. Most of one's monetary donations serves as temporary salve that promises little long-term reform of the impoverished person. The character traits that have typified the poor have always persisted throughout human history. Yet I tend to believe that for much of it, the poor could rely on a stronger social net of family relationships as well as religiously based associations. These social instutions served as a bedrock for character formation, and allowed for the massive rise in wealth for all groups of people who were provided the freedom to thrive. With the breakdown of the traditional family structures, a character vaccum results, often condemning subsequent generations to unbrocken cycles of poverty. This post in Clive Davis's blog describes the phenomena of the contemporary poor so succinctly and yet so true. One of the major privileges in being born in the middle class or above is the comfort in knowing that one can make many bad choices in life and yet still recognize the qualities necessary to achieve one's goals and lead a prosperous life. Such valuable knowledge is tragically lacking among most born into poverty. Sadly, I don't expect things to improve since institutions that function to relieve the poor fail to demand from their recipients any commitment to living with honor and strong character.
  • For a good anecdotal account depicting the moral and spiritual poverty of young kids who are likely to be among the lowest class of Americans in the future, I recommend this post from a young teacher-in-training who I happen to know very well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is the Conservative Movement Turning In On Itself: Modern Powerbrokers Vs. Postmodern Young Republicans

It seems Rush Limbaugh has created a monster. Say whatever you want about him, his influence on the conservative movement is second only to William F. Buckley or even economists like Milton Friedman. While I have no doubt that many 20-something bloggers regard Limbaugh as a relic, it is hard to deny that he was the tipping point for an awful lot of college-aged kids who were confused as to what politics was all about, and who desperately needed someone, anyone, to explain what they felt already: that conservatism was the way to go. Over the years, it seems this generation of Postmoderns has outgrown Rush, and have even begun to question the master himself, most pointedly in the current debate over Rush’s criticism of Glenn Reynold’s “pre-mortem” post on Instapundit.

The debate seems to paint Rush in a very Modern corner, that is, a corner that forces him to react like a cat trapped against a pack of dogs. He insists that a Democrat victory in November would mean catastrophe on issues like the War on Terror, tax cuts and the Supreme Court. He is more right than many know-it-all bloggers (like myself) want to give him credit for. But he is the victim, I think, of being perceived as a Modernist thinker in a Postmodern world. What we bloggers cannot forget, even at the peril of becoming the history-forgetting liberals we often deplore, is that Rush continues to have an extremely important seat at the conservative table. His style is often repetitive, and he doesn’t often go to the level of sophistication Gen Yers would like. And his portrayal of Democrats=bad/Republicans=good is limiting, though he is more critical of Republicans than his detractors give him credit for. But for what he does, it is hard to ask for a better expositor of conservatism and capitalism in mass media than Limbaugh.

My level of interest is the bigger sway here, which is that the conservative movement may be turning in on itself. Like a dragon who finally recognizes his own strength, the conservative movement has become exactly what you would expect of conservatives: disloyal, skeptical, and self-critical. Each one of these characteristics is in what defines conservatism:

They are disloyal to central authority, not trusting it and the power they believe will eventually become corrupted. The core conservative understanding of the free market is that it is voluntary, and that information is best disseminated through this process, not through one source from the top. The same is true in the world of ideas.

They are skeptical of one train of thought that is seen as the final arbiter of truth, and even moreso of one person espousing that train of thought. It is this skepticism that fosters a belief in limited government, the free market, etc.

Conservatives, especially Postmodern conservatives, are self-critical. They don’t necessarily even trust each other when it comes to ideas. The reason there is fear of conservatives sitting out the election is because they can debate the major issues of the day, and some even consider a wrong conservative a worse enemy than a liberal.

As far as what to do this term, I tend to agree with Rush on principle that you can’t win by losing. Although everything within me wants Republicans to pay for such a poor showing over the past four years. The person we should be genuinely upset with, however, is Bush. Aside from the War on Terror, he has been Bush the Disappointment, not Bush the Conservative we voted for. His severe lack of leadership has left conservatives in both houses of Congress without direction. Let’s face it: he wasn’t what we thought he was. We were all duped to a large degree. Losing the houses won’t fix it. Neither will nominating McCain. Long term, it seems likely that a conservative third party may be on the horizon, and these growing pain in the conservative movement may be its impetus. Looking back, we may be on the verge of something very big. That’s at least a little exciting.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Can We Create Justice? Or Joy?

A few weeks ago, I sang a hymn called "A Place at the Table." It had powerful themes of justice and inclusion, reiterating the Lutheran dogma that all are indeed welcome at the table, regardless of age, power or wealth (not to mention race, ethnicity or sexuality). However, I couldn't help but notice the lyrics of the refrain, and it gave me pause as I sang them: "And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy."

On the face of it, I suppose the lyric implies that Christians have an obligation to help create a just society, to work on behalf of those who cannot help themselves, and in this way be the light of Christ in the world. Equally, we are to take seriously what Jesus said when he told us that he came so that his joy may remain in us and our joy may be full. When we are a joyful people, no doubt that will help make us creators of joy.

I worry, though, about some of the deeper assumptions, and some of the places this exact language may take us. First, if we are creators of justice, where does this leave God in the mix? Final justice belongs to God alone, does it not? Especially because our own sense of justice is flawed. We are saint and sinner after all. The assumption that God will be ever so happy with the justice that we create seems both arrogant and immature, forgetting the vast amount of human suffering that we have created, sometimes, maybe even often, in the name of justice.

We should remind ourselves of all the dictators that makes such grandiose promises of justice, only to commit human rights violations and mass murder in the process of achieving that view of justice. The idea that we can create justice is awfully tempting, but it can also become an idol. When we believe fully in our ability to decide what is just, we are in prime position to go down a very slippery slope where the winners win and the losers lose because of how we define justice.

Second, do we, as humans, have a good justice track record? Does our legal system always create perfect justice? Is there even a monolithic understanding of justice among all judges, lawyers and lawmakers? Not even close. Just as ten Lutherans share eleven opinions on justification, ten lawyers also, I'm sure, share eleven opinions on what defines justice. Part of what defines the American legal system is a dogmatic focus on defending the Constitution first, not our own biased understandings of justice. That is why in one courtroom, two lawyers with two equally impressive law degrees, working on the same case, will make two completely different arguments about what justice is as http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifthey understand it in the Constitution. Yet, we are supposed to make God delight in our creation of justice? Perhaps God delights in our attempts. God delighting in the creation is harder for me to imagine.

Finally, this focus on justice seems to neglect a sentiment even more powerful than justice, and even more in our "control": mercy. Mercy picks up where justice leaves off, because justice is so arbitrarily defined. I’ve written more about this here.

Mercy, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more likely goal for us to achieve. Human justice, and therefore social justice, is a highly imperfect art, full of loopholes, prejudices and differences of opinion. Mercy, however, can pick up the slack. I wonder, if we are going to go about the business of pleasing God, what would do it more: to be merciful, or to be just? Or more to the point, which are we more likely and able to achieve?

Addendum: For an amazing commentary on this subject, check out Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One and Many

Note to Readers: The article below continues on the essay, "Freedom and its Discontents"

I ended my last post on a bitter note, questioning the value of a truly free and democratic society when there's so much inherent hardship. Cultural traditions and close-knit communities break apart, uncertainty about the immediate and long term future hangs on everyone's mind in a free state of affairs. To most who have only known a controlled and predictable social environment, the onset of freedom is total chaos. In many newly democratized countries of today, there are still those of especially older generations who share nostalgia for that restrictive existence. Obviously, there has been no turning back to the old ways in those countries, so the benefits of freedom must convincingly outweigh its faults. What drives entire societies to lose so much for a new system of insecurity?

To begin with, almost all major changes of things derive from some sort of discontent. The thought that there must be "another way" from what you've been taught seems to be innate to every person. It's part of how we learn, being taught one way to solve a problem yet always bearing in mind that it is only one way. We are far too aware of multiple numbers in the realm of objects, such as basket of fruit, pounds of meat and billions of stars. Math is a cultural achievement as much as it is an intellectual one, whereas some cultures do not even use mathematics while others worship it. Many primitive tribes, including those in the Amazon region, have a word for zero, one, and many-- there are no distinctions made for whether many means 2, 20, or 2000. The shear amount of diversity that comprises our world programs us to accept multitudes in everything. Because of this reality, anything that is unique, meaning there is only one in all the world is accorded tremendous importance: one God, one Universe, one Planet, one Genius unlike any other and finally, one Truth. This unique Truth is often related to the idea of the "one best way".

But therein lies the irony: although we can describe those things as the only one of its kind, we can not prove it in any objective way. Although we think we live in one universe, many cosmologists believe that there an infinite number of universes existing at the same time or following each other in big-bang cycles. There is no way to prove one or the other. Likewise in determining which specie is extinct, one can never reject the possibility that specie exists beyond anyone's observation. No one paradigm can explain every phenomenon in nature, although some can get frustratingly close.

Much of what describes our confidence in identifying that something is the "only one" is faith. I define faith in this instance as the belief in something to be true that is not provable by any scientific method. Faith is an extremely powerful motivator in people, in that people will do things that are beyond any objective explanation. Unity is a concept that directly follows from a person's belief in 'the one and only". Throughout human history, every culture has sought to achieve unity in its various forms, whether socially or spiritually. We tend to gravitate towards the most singular unit: the atom, the one 'reality', the one perfect state. Utopias are nothing new, nor are the invocations of a culture's glorious epoch long ago. For most of the world's people, achieving a state of nirvana, a oneness with all creation, is an ultimate goal. What explains this quest for unity?

The need to control.

Control over the things that affect one's life is an inate desire, possibly tied to self-preservation. We human beings, like other animals, must interact with nature in order to survive. Non-sentient species must ensure an abundant food supply by whatever means, as well as protection from the elements. Our human brains can accomplish these tasks to an exceptional degree of sophistication and permit us to consciously alter our own environment. The most primal human activity is to resist the inertia of natural phenomena by conceiving ways in the form of tools to do it. Early humans created weapons to kill animals, built comfortable shelters in caves or in huts, and in time learned to cultivate food in one place. No other animal can put many natural forces on hold and and ensure its survival to such a degree that it can develop a whole new set of concerns beyond self-preservation.

Now, for those natural forces we humans cannot control, such as the weather, earthquakes or volcanoes, fear is our natural response. The sense of mastery over the environment translates into comfort and confidence, in other words, harmony. Fear is its opposite, and feelings of insecurity or inability to control are what we experience when we are scared. Fear can be a good thing, though, because it causes us to imagine ways to solve problems creatively. Technology is a manifestation of our problem-solving impulse, or our way of physically affecting an outcome through our knowledge of the physical world. The more technology we create the fewer problems from uncontrollable forces remain. What humans can't address physically we do so conceptually in our heads. This conceptual realm found in our minds is often called metaphysical, spiritual, or supersticious. History is full of examples in which a supersticious explanation is replaced by science. Traditions of praying to nature Gods lose their 'usefulness' once technologies like dams, irrigation, greenhouses and domestication lessen nature's effect.

Much of early religion is a way of conceiving a system that explains how natural forces predictably happen and the ways in which you can solve it by ritual. Want it to rain? Do a rain dance and the Gods will let it rain. Don't want a terrible flood? It might cost you to sacrifice something dear. What's interesting about early religions and ancient scriptures is how fear determines a believer's relation with a deity. Part of what makes a deity is the inability for mortal humans to affect its behavior. All the mortal can hope for is mercy or compassion from the deity, otherwise his powerlessness instills fear.

Although fear is our default response to the uncontrollable, being on the god's good side is often preferrable. Achieving unity in the metaphysical realm is one way and it requires a person to accept the reality of not being able to control everything. Often giving up all capacity to control the environment is the ideal, which was what ascetics in many eastern religions basically do. Withdrawing oneself from the outside world to focus one's mental energies to come into contact with the god's energy in the form of peace, a person's physical needs are dissolved.

Another means of obtaining the god's favor is by good deeds. This assumes that the god has human qualities and therefore rewards the goods in the same way that mortals do. If a father likes his child to obey him, then a god likes his to be similarly obeyed as well. If a natural catastrophe destroys a community of people because a god was not pleased by one or a few of the members of the community, then it is logical to organize a group's behavior by enforcing rules. Doing so ensures the God will be please and favor the group over others. Likewise, the group's special relationship with the god suggest that its way of life and its rules are unique and special, promising the long sought harmony and freedom from fear. Stability has been achieved through a oneness with nature facilitated by a social code of conduct.

What I have described above is how and why traditional social groups and cultures achieve harmony and peace. The spiritual reality in which these groups live is essential in explaining their way of life, their familial and social structures and their response to events beyond their control. Their understanding of forces usually requires personifying them, eg. giving them human qualities. Critics of these kind of cultures often point out that their personification of the supernatural permits the creation of absurd social rules by using religion as a pretext, a religion that denies the scientific reality of uncontrollable forces. Opponents of religious belief argue that religions are created to empower an elite group of people over others by inscribing myths and stories of gods which determines who the world of humans should be organized. The secularists, or those who doubt the relevance of religion, know that science can explain all things, nothing is imagined, and no arbitrary power relationships between people are condoned. Thus, there is no possibility for secularists to endorse social rules based on religion, so life in such a culture must be free of any kind of strict organization or meaningless ritual, right?

Ironically, secular cultures are prone to enforce as strict a social code as any traditionalist culture, desiring a unity with forces beyond its control by conceiving in their minds a system of why things happen the way they have. They do not imagine gods and associate stories by way of personification since they do the reverse: they appopriate godly qualities to mundane people and processes like for example the scientific method, the march of history or Karl Marx.

Studying the secular response to influencing the uncontrollable forces will be the subject of a future post. It is by refuting the fallacies of secular attempts in achieving a unified social order that the universal longing for freedom can be demonstrated as the "one best way".

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Freedom and its Discontents

Note to Readers: I wrote this essay elsewhere over a year and a half ago but I feel it is still relevant today. If you haven't noticed already, I tend to start writing on one topic and then I somehow let the subject wander off towards loosely related insights. I'll publish the follow-up essay soon after. Enjoy!

When reading numerous articles, books and talking to many people, one thing I notice is how the notion of freedom is pretty confusing. I hinted at this in my last post when discussing the difference between peace and stability. In that case I referred to geo-politics, arguing that stability was a shallow goal if it were not accompanied by an expansion of freedom to everyone. Yes, I know it sounds very Second Inauguration Speech of me to echo the President's strategy of expanding freedom around the globe rather than to tolerate brutal regimes as our allies. But having studied the history of American foreign policy since the War for Independence, It appears that for the first time there is an opportunity to weld idealism with realism in America's relations with the world. What is ironic and in my opinion quite sad is that such idealism and faith in the promise of freedom has never been so undervalued as today. A majority of Western governments and its elites in academia and the media have expressed about freedom and its spread.

Are these people who have benefited considerably from the freedom offered to them ungrateful? Are they being selfish basking in freedom while denying it to other societies?

From my point of view yes. From theirs, they are convinced that they see reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. I'm more interested in uncovering why this doubt about the foundation of their livelihoods emerges.

We've all heard it before countless times: far from being the champions of freedom and democracy, the United States is guilty of many crimes throughout history around the world that is anything but symbolic of our most cherished values. In addition to hundreds of years of slavery, the U.S. has practiced gun-boat diplomacy in Asia, colonization of the Philipines and Puerto Rico, military coups in Guatemala and Iran and senseless firebombing of Vietnam. America has backed brutal dictators, strongarmed Colombia to give up Panama to us, forced internment on its own Japanese-American citizens and worst of all was the only country to employ a nuclear weapon against an enemy. All of these things did happen on our behalf, and by themselves constitute a rapsheet no nation would be proud of. Add to that more perverse recent accusations of profiteering and wanton killing in Iraq and Afghanistan lead many to doubt the possibility that America could ever do good in the world. Rarely is it asked whether opposite of these things would have brought about as good a world as we know it today. Yet all of these things were concerned with keeping peace and stability under the circumstances. Few of these events were initiated on the hope that liberal democratic values would naturally spread. But maintaining peace by use of force was the issue here.

Those who judge this record to be purely embarassing reveal a simple moral code that emphasizes peace. Peace in the form of stability must prevail at all costs. They accept that violence will take place around the world, but what is most important is that the armed forces that represent them do not participate. A peaceful, harmonious existence is desired, and any kind of social or cultural movement that espouses these goals are worthy of support. Some civil wars are therefore justified if one of the sides aim for this kind of society. One means of achieving harmony is by empowering an oppressed class or minority group, since the prior circumstance permits unfair social inequalities and thus intelorable social tension. Another is to encourage social movements that promise a restoration of the old order based on early cultural traditions, since modernity has alienated large groups of people and engenders problems like crime, drugs, consumerism, the breakup of family ties. Both methods justify the initial violence as part of a much-needed revolution, as long as peace ensues resulting in the new corrected order. Bear in mind that those who prize peace but excuse violent revolutions demand an end result in which all social and cultural conflicts are resolved, all economic disparities made insignificant, and spiritual unity restored. In simpler terms, these harmonious societies are actually very heavily controlled entities.

Those who believe that freedom matters above all else don't necessarily have peace as their objective. Rather they value the potential that chaos brings. The problem in promoting freedom to other places that have not experienced it is that it promises nothing specific. Freedom is open-ended, defined by an endless number of possibilities. There is no built-in stability and no guarantee as to what the settled order might look like. It is dynamic, with various social, economic and cultural forces intersecting and always in state of flux. Inequalities are inherent in a free society which causes to everyone within compete with one another based on their innate and acquired advantages. Achieving a sense of societal wholeness is irrelevant, as the goal in a free society is the opposite: to maximize the realization of the self. Obligations to family, class or to 'the cause' matters relatively little in a free society. Trust, therefore, substitutes obligation and is essential in encouraging people to cooperate towards common goals. It is often, however, more tenous than traditional duties. Betrayal is a constant fear among people in societies that have not lived long with high levels of trust. They have instead become so comfortable to a life where one did not choose to deal with another, one rather was obliged to do so.

Free will complicates everything. One can no longer depend on the help of another because it is expected, now that one has to to persuade the other that it is in his or her self-interest to help. This is a task most people would like to do without most of the time. Many of us prefer the security in knowing what to expect from others over the uncertainty of waiting if the other takes an interest in you. We prefer that things function with regularity, disinterest and a dedication to common social purposes. The time-worn phrase "because it has always been done this way" is another way of saying that one does things regardless of private choice or personal agenda at a single point in time. It's less a rejection of the merits of a better idea than it is a warning that the new idea threatens to destabilize an established tradition. Repetition, predictability, participating in something that is older and therefore greater than yourself, the relief from angst inherent in constantly making choices: that's what keeps tradition alive, and in many societies, dominant.

It is one of the most common observations of countries that experience democratic capitalist rule for the first time: a short-lived sense of euphoria followed by an unending mood of depression and disappointment. Before, freedom was distant, but somehow it was always associated with abundance and pleasure. After, freedom is everywhere, but life then is anything but abundant and pleasurable as one now has to work hard to acquire anything, and generosity is rare. People who adjust to their new freedoms come face to face with added responsibilities which were at one time insignificant. One's place in society is under freedom uncertain and their future even more so. His sense of purpose becomes a big question mark and his loyalties to people and to ideas are confused. In conclusion, as you take on more freedom, you take on more choices which demand more responsibility. A free life becomes a complicated life, and endlessly stressful.

My experience in the former East Germany in the early Nineties reminded me all the time the disappointments of a liberated population. Somehow they felt that a free life was worry-free. Risks were not perceived as a major part of economic life. What they really believed was that a capitalist democracy would free the from the shackles of communist control. The key here is 'freedom from'. Rarely was it ever described as the freedom to do something, since that entailed making a risk-filled decision that only brings about more worry. The reunification of Germany was a traumatic event for many people in the East, as it signified a permanent loss of livelihood through unemployment, of community and political solidarity. Much of what they invested their lives with in education, finances and careers were gone. The old dream of "freedom" had become a chaotic nightmare of factory closings, disintegrating savings, and envious neighbors.

With such a list of intractable problems, why promote freedom around the world? Isn't a peaceful security the better choice?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Prison No Longer: Getting Fat at Camp Gitmo

Boy, if this is torture, then sign me up. It’s probably safe to declare that never in the history of detaining enemy combatants have captives been so pampered. Does detainee abuse involve being offered a wide assortment of food consisting of halal meat and desserts prepared in accordance to religious celebrations? Is regular getting more regular health and medical care than most Americans evidence of the U.S.' continuing unjust policies in its war on terror? Is it an egregious human rights violation to be allowed to a minimum of 2 hours of physical exercise everyday? That’s a lot more than I can manage. I can’t help but wonder whether such generous treatment only promotes more violent behavior against jail guards, since maintaining a threatening stance infers an intention to do harm against Americans, which in turn motivates American interrogators to continue retaining these detainees indefinitely. The constant abuse of the detainees’ caretakers is likely the result of captives knowing they have little to lose in being as belligerent as possible. Between blowing oneself up for martyrdom and pigging out on 4200 calories a day on a tropical island, choosing the latter is all too easy.

But really, the torture supposedly taking place in Guantanamo has really become a non-issue. The real issue is the perverse degree to which media organizations and NGO’s have exaggerated the unproven mistreatment of detainees. The mistreatment of guards who are simply volunteering to protect the lives of fellow Americans is the real story here. Since when did the captor subject itself to worse conditions than the captive?