Saturday, November 11, 2017

On Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day

Today is one of our three great patriotic holidays in the US, and an important one throughout the English-speaking countries. Here it was originally Armistice Day, not Veterans Day, but elsewhere it is Remembrance Day. It seems like a straightforward enough holiday, a day to remember those who sacrificed and served their countries in war, particularly the First World War, but like so much else that is patriotic, there are layers to it, and forgetting those layers, particularly in the present environment, where we are being told it is wrong to criticize generals, ignoring those layers seems as wrong as it would be if we suddenly decided to demonize all veterans, 

To begin with there is the choice of the day. For 98 years now, there have been commemorations of the Armistice. We think of it as the end of World War One, but of course it simply marked the cessation of fighting on the Western Front. The Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Soviets were all already out of the War, while fighting continued for a few more days in Africa. What it did not do was end the War. That ended in June, and it was far from a formality. The Allied blockade continued unmodified until mid-January, was certainly still causing starvation in March, and was not fully lifted until the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. The numbers are unclear, but more than 100,000 Germans starved to death (probably several times that number) and many more were weakened during the worst pandemic of the century. Even after all that, the civil wars, Allied interventions, and smaller international wars in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean continued for a few more years. 

To forget all of that on Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day is something that should not be done. To do so is to engage in a kind of moral sleight of hand with the past.

But that brings us to the other issue we need to consider. While we can all wish our veterans the best and thank them for their service and sacrifice, we cannot let the military (or its associated industrial complex) off the hook. In fact, I would suggest that to let the military  have this as a day of reverence without questioning is a disservice to our fallen, our veterans, and to the very ideals of Anglo-American democracy. It is one thing to look to the individual deeds and privations of veterans and admire them; it is quite different to argue that the wars and actions of the military and the corporations that support it are equally deserving. It is to accept that there have never been atrocities committed by our troops (which also raises the very difficult question of how we should treat those who perpetrated or knew of them but remained silent - a question that troubles me given my grandfather's service in the Philippine Insurrection where many atrocities were committed by US forces), that all of our wars have been just, that the decisions made by our commanders have been good, or that companies have never betrayed the trust of the men and women they equipped with shoddy goods or weapons (shoddy in fact is the name of a material from the US Civil War that some contractors used in supplying uniforms - it was notorious for falling apart in the rain). We cannot and should not let the military off the hook, not even for a single day.

What civilians owe to today's veterans is not a polite "thank you for your service," but constant vigilance to ensure that their needs are met during and after their service, that their equipment is reliable and appropriate, and that the wars and campaigns in which they fight are both necessary and just (or at least legal). What we all owe those who are no longer with us is to understand what they went through in context and to see that their sacrifices are not betrayed today.

So thank you, I hope we will always remember, never forget, and not fail to get watch your back.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Quincentenary

This Tuesday is not just Halloween, it is also the quincentenary of the Reformation, which began with Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses (protesting the sale of indulgences) to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. From the beginning, there was a strong component of German identity bound up in the Reformation, with Luther sometimes being portrayed as a Germanic Hercules defeating pagan and Catholic philosophers and theologians (see: Hans Holbein's print of Hercules Germanicus of 1523), but the real apotheosis of Luther as a national hero, almost as a savior, came on the last centennial of this event, which happened to coincide with the First World War. Philip Jenkins explains in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (2014) that the commemorations of that year were used to emphasize the unique religious, cultural, and historical mission of the German Empire; to argue for the need for resistance to the Allies and America at any cost (just as Luther had stood up to both the Pope and the Emperor); and to identify the German people with a messianic vision, that by the end of the War, it is not an exaggeration to say that many Germans saw no real difference to the hell of starvation and privation (on the home front due to the British blockade, though also due to the short-sited policies of their own, militarized government, as well as on the combat fronts) and their crucified Lord.

When religion and politics combine, the results are powerful. Essentially two belief systems interact and form a stronger product. This is especially true when ethnic or national politics are involved. That is what happened to some extent in all the major powers in WWI. The results were to make some aspects of the War more intense and to make the post-War world less stable, as the enemy was transformed into the Anti-Christ, obscure prophesies were trotted out after Allenby took Jerusalem and won a victory at Armageddon, and religious divides in the Middle East were deepened. 

Much more was going on too: the emergence of Fundamentalism, a reinforcement of apocalyptic belief, and the alliance of government, business, and religion against Bolshevism that reinforced for many the idea that Christianity, Capitalism,  and citizenship were deeply linked and intertwined. We are still dealing with much of the fallout, and seem to be living in a new age of emerging religious nationalism and religious racism. We need to pay attention to the history of a hundred years ago and look at what is happening today, as well as where it may lead us tomorrow. We cannot afford to let religious and ethnic nationalism take over or to continue to shape the policy agenda. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Robot Sophia and Misunderstanding Technology

I am really bothered by the amount of attention the android Sophia is getting for dumb publicity stunts. First off, the blatancy of the stunt (making a robot a citizen of a country) is horrendous. So is the idiotic banter with the robot. But really we've had robots (and robotic weapons) for a century-and-a-half. In fact, I would argue that the first real robot was a weapon perfected between 1866 and 1868, the locomotive (or Whitehead) torpedo. In its original form, it was self-propelled and could self-correct its depth (though it could not correct its course for another three decades when gyroscopes were introduced). The first actual (combat) use of it occurred 140 years ago this past May, when the Peruvian rebel ironclad Huascar was unsuccessfully attacked with two torpedos by boats from HMS Shah.

Of course I could argue that the first practical robot was a thermostatically controlled egg incubator around 1620 by Cornelius Drebbel, who is also credited with inventing the first practical submarine. Thermostats really didn't take off until Victorian times,  but the represent the  basic model of a cybernetic control. 

We have to start approaching our technologies from an evolutionary and co-evolutionary perspective and quit freaking out. Although there are some things wrong with it, primarily the author's unstinting optimism and capitalist tendencies, one of the best places to start is Kevin Kelly's 2010 book, What Technology Wants. Kelly makes a good argument (I think) for treating technology as a seventh kingdom of life, as well as sketching out some useful approaches to technology (the Amish Hacker chapter is a must read). Conversely, it is useful to take a look at what cybernetics tells us about ourselves and our minds, which was part of the discussions of the (in)famous Macy's Conferences. To me the most approachable starting point for that remains Gregory Bateson's work in his collection, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and his follow up book, Mind and Nature. He was not trying to argue that living beings are machines, or that machine metaphors are the best way of understanding mind (though he recognized them as useful heuristics), but cybernetics useful for understanding the continuum of mind and the nature of learning. 

That leads me to the second thing I think we need to do: understand how technologies need to be seen as part of a much larger, interconnected web or webs, both in the way technologies interact with each other, but also how they interact with the larger informational space we perceive as the world of living things. I have written before in this blog about the importance of even simple human machine interfaces, but we really need to have an understanding of how complex the interactions  are between machines, between machines and humans, and between machines and nature. That allows us to enter into an ecological view that is very enlightening and useful. If we do not do so, we tend to limit ourselves to simplistic us-versus-them scenarios and replaying the original Star Trek or 2001 in our heads. The latter, of course, does place machines, specifically HAL 9000 and the Alien Monolith in an evolutionary perspective stretching from the Australopithecines to the Star Child. 

So I think the hype and the marketing surrounding Sophia are counter-productive, as they take us only where the PR people, the developers, and the venture capitalists (not necessarily in that order, or even that they want the same things) want us to go. It is vital that we deepen and broaden our thinking about robots, AI, and all of the other technologies enveloping and transforming our lives and worlds. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Betsy Hartmann's America Syndrome

Betsy Hartmann, The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness, 2017.

I don't often find books that impress me this much or challenge my understanding of multiple topics as thoroughly as this one did. It was something I stumbled across and thought might go in an entirely different direction. For some time, actually for most of my life, I've been cognizant that apocalyptic thinking has a big impact on how we live our lives and conduct our politics. In the last year or two, I've been trying to understand what that means in both breadth and depth. The sub-title naturally attracted me. 

Hartmann is an emerita professor of development and a long-time advocate of more diverse and humane approaches to problems development, population, and climate. She eschews simplistic explanations and takes in a broad swath of related ideas and realities, as well as her personal experiences, in framing her narrative. 

I assumed that the book would mostly be about how Puritan and later Protestant speculation on the end of the world had come to pervade American society and hijack our politics. She does do that, but in ways I had never considered.

From the beginning, she shows how American apocalyptic fever dreams got entangled with racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalism. Among other things Hartmann spends time on how the Jeremiad entered American politics, and how it's style, coupled with the urgency induced by belief that the end is near (both in religious and later in scientific circles) controls much of our understanding of the world and limits our political options to dualities.

The second chapter walks us through how all of this entered and destroyed the communal utopian movements of the last two centuries. Through social history and memoir, she sets up the main themes of the rest of the rest of the book and makes the transition from the Second Great Awakening to the Cold War era.

The meat of the book, the most thought provoking parts for me are contained in the last three chapters (there are five chapters plus a solid introduction). These deal with nuclear threats, population and relate environmental issues, and climate change. 

The nuclear chapter, "Boom and Doom," began as I expected it to, but drove down some byways of the government's manipulation of the public in the nuclear era and of the psychology of nuclear fear that were both familiar (this is the way I felt as kid and the kinds of things I heard) and disturbing. She also spends a bit of time considering how we misrepresent the early Cold War era. As I said, much of this felt familiar, but it was fascinating to me to see it though the eyes of someone exactly a decade older, and of the opposite sex. I know much of the Cold War rhetoric was heavily gendered, and that the nuclear experience of children in the 50s was different from the 60s, but some of the smaller details were eye-opening to me. 

The two chapters that really startled me were, "The Church of Malthus" and "Climate Change: Tip of the Melting." The former documents the basic problems that entered the debate over overpopulation and the environment from the very beginning through the apocalyptic thought of Malthus and his followers, how easily it tipped over into racism and sexism (by imposing forced contraception, sterilization, and family planning on women, particularly of color), eugenics, and even led to what she calls "the greening of hate." By the latter, she means the adoption of environmental agendas by white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups to bolster their arguments, draw in new supporters, and make themselves appear more mainstream and respectable. Throughout she argues for a less dualistic approach, one more diverse and humane, and one divorced from apocalyptic rhetoric. 

Her climate change chapter picks up the threads of dualistic explanations and solutions, racism, and the manipulation of apocalyptic fears for our own security of the two previous chapters. Two of the best points Hartmann drives home are how apocalyptic thought shuts down discussion (and even hope), always canalizing into extreme forms, and how easily the industrial-security complex can exploit that. She devotes a good amount of space to how the military paints the direst scenarios of wars and terrorism driven by climate change, how and why those are mostly not supported by facts, but how they are picked up by journalist and politicians, and how they have driven the securitization (the assumption of normally civilian roles by the military and security apparatus) and privatization of international aid, and the been used to feed the needs and appetites of the Pentagon and its contractors. 

If the book is lacking anything, I suppose that more consideration of the period between 1850 and 1950 would have been in order. To me that is a critical period in the development of our problems, and one which saw the birth of both religious fundamentalism but also the development and flowering of a lot of apocalyptic ideas derived from science. It would also have been nice to have an epilogue to tie everything together, though perhaps it is better to let readers draw together the different strands and form their own judgments. That, after all, accords well with Hartmann's desire to get us all thinking outside the box.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Between One World and Another

As we watch the end of one world order (the one originated at Versailles in 1919 and modified at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Wood, and San Francisco three-quarters-of-a-century ago) unravel and disintegrate, our collective reactions resemble those of bewildered and injured children, focused on their relentless hunger, unwilling or unable to grow up and take responsibility for their own needs. We see this on all sides and everywhere. It is embodied in the current election, in the movements of protest and dissent, from every point of the political compass, that lack an encompassing view of the horizon or an acknowledgement of the deeper interconnections between our present problems and the deepest questions of our existence. Pope Francis, to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, and others have recently tried to make clear the connections in our problems and solutions, each within the limitations of their belief systems and hindered by the reductionist monoculture that has penetrated even the arts, humanities, and religion. They have made some inroads into our collective consciousness and against our institutionalized inertia, though it is too soon to tell if their effects will persist and expand, or wither and die.

The threats we have to face today are much larger and more complex than those with which we struggled in the world wars. Those were horrible enough and existential to one culture or another, but amenable to military solutions. Those we have today go far beyond and require solutions affecting every aspect of life, in fact requiring a contemplation of who and what we are, a worldwide questioning more profound than we or our religions have undertaken previously. They are existential threats to humanity and life itself. In our elections and politics, both here and abroad, we choose too often to ignore them, to focus on lesser issues, dog-whistle issues, in isolation. We focus on petty quarrels between this politician and that one as they struggle for the scraps at the table. The apparent chaos of this election, the violence in our society, the dangerous instability of the international scene, the storms and droughts, are foretastes of what may happen. They are not tokens of the end times envisioned by the Bible or Quran, awaited so expectantly by millions or billions, and which have served so many politicians in the past forty years as an excuse for inaction; they are the harbingers of our new reality, our new normal. We must refocus our attention and our energies. We must come to an understanding of who we are and would be, and we must act on it, or we will not survive - not just the United States, but the world.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Of Fire and Fleas

This article from The Telegraph provides new evidence on the volcanic climate forcing of the 530's and 540’s. I first ran into the idea that the Plague of Justinian was tied to a volcano-induced climate crisis in William Rosen's book, Justinian's Flea.

The study published in Nature argues for a short period of cooling caused by North American volcanos erupting in 536, followed by an eruption ten-percent larger than the 1815 eruption of Tambora, somewhere in the tropics in 539-540. This would have been similar to the one-two punch of the Great Unknown Eruption of 1809/10 (documented from ice cores as somewhere in the tropics, and about half the size of the Tambora event) followed by the huge eruption of Tambora in 1815. Those led to extreme weather, famine, and epidemics lasting a few years. The evidence is that the 540’s climate event was longer lasting and was followed thirty-five years later by another massive eruption and cooling event.

The Nature article also summarizes evidence for other instances of volcanic forcing back as far as 426 BC. Historians are slowly beginning to weave climate into their understanding, so this kind of research, able to pin these events down to a year or two, and the ability to compare the effects of recent episodes of volcanic climate forcing with the fragments we have in written records, is vital. Every year our understanding get a bit better and the cumulative results are starting to become significant.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Knopf, 2014).

Fields of Blood is a frustratingly good book. Karen Armstrong knows her material and has reflected on it with rare perspicuity, but it seems to me that she fails to address much that is vital.  Her thesis is that true religious violence is rare or non-existent, yet he fails to ever explain what religion is. Armstrong objects strenuously to the post-Reformation and Enlightenment tendency to place religion in a little box by itself, which was done in large part to limit what were perceived as religious wars. It seems that she knows religion when she sees it, and anything that has been tainted by politics is not religion. She also picks and choose her coverage of wars. She is able to show that the European Wars of Religion were mostly political in nature, though she also fails to explain away the extent to which they were viewed as religious in nature at the time they were fought as well as in later years. On the other hand, she skates over the two world wars, which allows her to avoid a deep discussion of how religion can abet and facilitate warfare. This was certainly the case with the First World War (see Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, Harper One, 2014). If it was somewhat less the case the second time around, one must still deal with the very messy question of how modern Shintoism was so deeply imbedded in every aspect of the Japanese war effort.

Having said that, Armstrong raises a lot of vital points about the history of violence and religion, as well as throwing a strong light on many points that plague us today.  Examining the Warring States period in ancient China how the military commanders and authors such as Sun-tzu "regarded themselves as sages and saw their warfare as a species of religion," while others took the same mythical and religious doctrines in completely different directions. Her point being that the same belief systems can lead away from war as easily as too it.  (Armstrong, 93.)

This is a fairly simple statement on the surface, but it is actually a fundamental principle in dealing with war and religion. It is not so much the case that religion breeds war, but that religion interacts with war. The nature of this interaction is crucial: can you truly have war without the support of myth and religion, or analogs thereof? My answer is that it cannot. While religion is not necessarily the cause of wars or violence, it usually has been used to justify violence and all too often has amplified it. One must admit though, that when religion breaks down, as it did in Russia in 1917, the results can be equally appalling. In such cases, ideologies with some aspects of religion play the same role.

Where Armstrong shines is in her discussions of the roles of ancient religion in war and of the complex relationship of fundamentalisms to war and violence. She argues persuasively that fundamentalism is a reaction to war and oppression, noting that American Protestant fundamentalism was a reaction to the Civil War and was intensified by the First World War. Its attitudes towards war and violence have changed over the decades as it perceives external threats, but it has rarely turned towards civil violence. (She fails to consider the role of the fundamentalist or evangelical religious beliefs of the neocons and how those may have shaped our recent wars and foreign policy.) In her final chapters, Armstrong traces how Islamic fundamentalism followed a trajectory from an emphasis on social justice to horrific violence in the face of failed colonial and post-colonial regimes. The book's treatment of Islam is as anuanced as its discussion of Christian fundamentalism.

We need more books of this sort, histories that challenge assumptions, grapple with complexity, and which continue to occupy and engage the mind long after the reader turns the last page. I found myself wanting to argue with almost every page in many chapters, and found something with which to take exception in almost every chapter, but Armstrong succeeded in making me revise some long-held opinions, in leaving some matters in question (always a good sign), struggling to integrate new and old insights. It is an important book for anyone interested in history, but also for anyone trying to wrap their mind around current events.