How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Locke Should Be Read Before Arguing About Government

As the next U.S. presidential election cycle gears up, the country has begun a conversation once again over the role of government in people’s lives. ‘Conversation’ is perhaps an overly polite term and implies informed talkers. In reality though, I’d like to make everyone take some time out to read at least the first couple of chapters of this book.

Most of the debate seems to center around expediency for anyone involved, and it seems that people are not really thinking hard about this. Locke didn’t have television, facebook, or twitter, so I guess he had more time. Maybe if people really took time to think about things we’d not be locked into slogan shouting and could make some real progress.

The first two chapters of “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government” talk about where political power comes from and why we have government. Locke starts from the very beginning going back to the idea of the beginning of time to talk about Adam and about mankind existing in a state of nature.

What he is trying to get at is where does government come from and what does it mean.

“Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death,  and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good.”

“To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and person as they think fit within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Locke is trying to put the pieces together to say even though people should be able to regulate themselves, once we get enough people together, then there needs to be some kind of government to help insure that freedom to live as each person sees fit. The civil government exists to resolve disputes so that things do not always go to the most powerful and so that judgements can be rendered in an objective way.

“But thought this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possession, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”

There are some absolutists who would take issue even with this kind of restriction, but Locke argues that we have a duty to preserve ourselves and to not invade others rights. So what we do, or as Locke says, what God has done,  is create civil governments to “restrain the partiality and violence of men.”

This government is not, as some have argued based on a monopoly of violence on the part of the government, but rather, to use Locke’s words an “agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic; other promised and compact men may make one with another, and yet still be in the state of Nature.”

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the U.S. political conversation is that starting premise. The many sides seem to view one another as enemies, and increasingly forget that the nation was born out of people agreeing to come together in one community, one body politic. We may disagree on what the best path forward is, but I think we need to remember we all agreed on a good starting point.

 

Modern Works: “Back Channel” By Stephen Carter, a Spy Novel and Study in Politics

Back ChannelBack Channel by Stephen L. Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back Channel was one of those books that gave me a new perspective about something that I thought I already understood. The book is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. It has an unlikely protagonist who, through a series of odd events, ends up in the middle of the negotiations around the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

What I had never considered before was that there could be people on both sides who thought that 1962 was the time for a war between the United States and the USSR. As the novel portrays it, there were people on both sides who felt that each country could win the war, so they thought that moment was the time to take the chance.

In a afterward, the author alludes to this possibility without going into details. I will need to do more research to understand it, but as the novel portrays it, it goes beyond the simplistic conspiracy approach to the world of international intrigue and into a setting of calculations around world politics.

The novel itself was entertaining on its own merits, and Stephen Carter is a good writer. I may check out more of his books after this. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in spy novels and cold war history.

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Modern Works: The Martian By Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. In a world where Sci-Fi has become focused on computer hacking and cyberspace, it was fun to come back and read a book about rocket ships and outer space.

What made this book a classic is that our hero, Mark Watney, has gotten stranded on Mars. Only a freak accident and great luck kept him alive through a crisis. Now, after the crisis, he has been stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue for four years — so it is up to his brain to do the rest.

While the circumstances of his survival could lead the reader to think “Gee, this guy his really lucky,” it is soon apparent that luck is a door that swings both ways.

The thing about Mark Watney is that he is smart, but human. He gets sad, frustrated, and full of despair. He gets hurt. But he keeps going and keeps working to figure things out. All the same, it is nice to read the hero say “Just once I’d like something to go as planned, ya know?” It’s nice because then we are there with him, and maybe could be like him.

The book was recommended to me by engineer and scientist friends, so the science in it is good enough to satisfy even the technically minded. If you are, or have ever been a science fiction fan, then you should read this book — especially if you liked authors like Asimov, Ellison, or Heinlein.

If you have ever felt like you have been stuck on a strange world as you move through your life on this one, then you also should read this book. Because the message, delivered by a hero we can relate to is clear:

“Okay, enough self-pit. I’m not doomed. Things will just be harders than planned.”

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Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

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Modern Works: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jennifer Government describes the world that the libertarians in the United States wish we had. It is the kind of world where people are defined almost exclusively by their job, regulations and government interference in business are minimal, and the pursuit of profits is the highest order.

The author trusts his reader to get the symbolism rather than trumpeting explanations about why things are this way. While some of it can seem obvious, when you stop to think about the action, there is nuance to be found.

The book is an easy read, and I think it starts to rush a bit towards the end. That said, though, it was a fun read that occasionally made you stop and think. As someone who grew up near where kids were shooting each other over shoes, the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes near-future speculative fiction.

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Hamlet: A Populist Tragedy

The next reading in the Great Books is the “Tragedy of Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare.

I read a Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Hamlet, which has notes on facing pages of the play’s text. It is likely not what the creators of the Great Books set would like, since they were focused on reader response. That said, the Folger editions are a great way to read Shakespeare because they can help with the language questions.

In reading it again, I think that Hamlet is a populist tragedy. Many of the people killed in the play are not aware of what is happening. Hamlet and Claudius mislead people and they die for it.

Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends. They are brought in with the idea that they are helping their friend. Claudius tricks them into taking Hamlet to England where Hamlet is supposed to be executed. Hamlet finds the sealed letter and rewrites it so that it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are executed. But they have been duped from the beginning. There is no evidence that they knew about the plot of Gertrude and Claudius to take the throne. They certainly would not have ever opened a letter from a king, so how could they know?

Tom Stoppard wrote a play that was also turned into a movie called “Rosencrantz and  Guildenstern are Dead.” On of the critical lines is “We were sent for.” The play in many ways is about a deterministic universe. The movie contains this line, which I think is important for us all:
“There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time. ”

If you read Hamlet you should find this play and watch the movie.

Also, let’s take the case of Polonius, whom Hamlet murders. He also did not know what was going on, and was looking after his kid. With his moral compass, he is not likely to support the murder of the king. He gives the oft-quoted, blowhard speech in Act 1, Scene 3, which includes “to thine own self be true,” which is oft quoted in context of following your dreams. But this is misquoted.

Considering Polonius’s full quote, this really means “don’t lie to yourself,” which is good advice.

“This above all: to thin own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

There is also the famous quote: “Get thee to a nunnery,” in Act 3, Scene 1. In high school, we all liked to tell each other that “nunnery” meant a brothel in the parlance of the time.

But here again, I think we are misreading the play.

“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”

Then he tells Ophelia that even if she does marry that she will not escape calumny even if chaste, so it would be better to go to a nunnery. It is about being chaste and escaping everything that they are going through in Hamlet’s family.

Is ‘Hamlet’ the tragedy of suckers? Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes all end up dead because of Hamlet and his indecision. In Act 4, Hamlet refers to Rosencrantz as an apple int he mouth of an ape. Is that a warning? Is there are point, as Stoppard suggests, where they could have said no and avoided all of this? The play is full of some many critical points, where a different decision would have changed the lives of so many people. Do we face these same decision points? Do we know when we do? Maybe the point of Hamlet is really “to thine own self be true” — don’t lie to ourselves about what our decisions might mean.