Tag Archives: Modern Life

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.

Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.

 

 

Can Old Books Teach Us Anything?

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when it comes to ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classic Works’ is whether or not we can actually learn anything from these old books. Has the digital age changed everything to such an extent that we are better off learning Python and Java rather than Latin and Ancient Greek? Does the existence of the Internet and Smart Phones putting all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips mean that we are fundamentally different?

We can store our memories outside of our brains. We can navigate anywhere we can get a satellite signal. We can track and quantify nearly every aspect of our lives. We can connect with people in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Does that fundamentally change the way humans interact? Does it change the way we fundamentally are? If it does, then does that make all the ancient philosophy and literature historical artifacts rather than something that can help us live our lives today?

When it comes to philosophical matters, the only method for evaluating it is living our lives and experimenting. Human relations are a complex topic, but I have recently stumbled across an interesting comparison that I think proves we have something to learn from the writings of the past.

I stumbled across a blog written by a former police officer and self-defense writer named Loren W. Christensen that discussed how an average person should behave in places where there are a lot of street people and the potential for crime. It reminded me of an old book by a Lt. Col. Baron De Berenger in Britain who wrote a book of advice called Helps and Hints on how to Protect Life and Property. After reading it and thinking about the two writings, it seems the two pieces show both how things change and how they stay the same.

When it comes to self-defense, people like to talk about the old masters and secrets handed down through generations. In addition, there has been a revival in people studying European sword fighting and other combat arts. Of course, the growth of Mixed Martial Arts competition has led to people questioning the value of traditional martial arts. This is a microcosm of how, as new things, or old things repackaged as new, come on the scene, people begin to question the value of what has come before.

But there is a lot more to self-defense than just technique. What I want to compare is advice given to people about self-defense from 1835 and 2013.

In advising people about how to conduct themselves on the street where there might be bad people hanging around, there are some similarities between the two time periods. First, let’s look at a bit of technical advice on where to walk.

From 2013:

“Where to Walk
The old advice was to walk along the curb to avoid being grabbed by someone next to a building. The new advice, based on crime studies, suggest it’s a better to walk down the middle of the sidewalk to avoid anyone hiding between parked cars or reaching out from a building doorway. If you see street people loitering at the curb, walk next to the building but be cognizant of doorway insets and corners. If you can see street people on the sidewalk a ways in front of you, cross the street.”

From 1835:

“Avoid at all times, (but in such a case especially,) to pass too closely to gateways, mews, or lanes, or recesses in either; keep plenty of space between you and such places, and between gaps in hedge-rows, lonely barns, outbuildings, or other places from whence assailants, be it singly or in connection with others in the roads, may rush at you. Take the carriage-road, if circumstances will permit, in all hazardous or suspicious situations, and, if compelled to use the causeway, walk as close as possible to the edge nearest the road or gutter; even then it is useful to occasionally cross to the other side of the road to ascertain whether the suspect person will do the same….”

The interesting thing about these two passages is that they show how the technical advice changes to some degree because in 1835, there were not cars parked on the edge of the street. What is interesting, though is the discussion of how to deal with people. Both writers are talking about street people who might be interested in mugging someone.

From 2013:

“Eye Contact
“It was once sage advice not to look an unsavory type in the eye. But we now know that predators look for people who appear lost in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. It’s simply amazing how some soon-to-be-victims can’t see five, filthy, freaky-looking street people gathered on a corner. But it happens all the time.
“Don’t deliberately avoid eye contact because they just might think you aren’t aware of them. If you notice one or more looking at you, make brief eye contact with one or all of them. Some street people tend to avoid someone who looks like they might make a scene or respond assertively. They prefer someone who has the victim look: eyes downcast, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gate. Don’t stare back and don’t assume a defiant attitude. Just give them a quick look, one that communicates that you know they are there and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

From 1835:

“Make it a rule to look firmly, searchingly, and even sternly at the faces of all suspicious characters, especially if you have reason to suspect that their approaching or passing you is under the contemplation of robbery. After this test, the pickpocket, and most of the swell mob, will quit you speedily; but if a fellow on the highway hangs down his head, as if to baulk your scrutiny still to continue about you, prepare yourself instantly to make the most desperate resistance possible, for he not only has determined on attacking you, but he will conclude his robbery with ill-treatment, to continue it perhaps as long as symptoms of life appear…”

There is an earlier part of the same chapter that coincides with Christsen’s advice.

“To keep your antagonist at arm’s length is good, but to keep him at your stick’s length is infinitely better: the middle of the road facilitates both; always taking care to draw a suspected person away from the causweway, in order to prevent his securing what usually is the higher, and therefore the ‘vantage ground.’”

The technical advice is similar, but again for different technical reasons, since most people do not carry walking sticks anymore. But the examples show that even though technical adjustments may need to be made as technology advances, there are things about human nature that remain the same, which means that there is some value in the old philosophy and literature to understanding two of life’s biggest questions: why are we here, and how do we live here.

The blog mentioned can be found here: http://paladin-pressblog.com/2013/08/29/street-people-how-dangerous-are-they/

The book is available on google books and can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=jSiQEVNLMMoC&pg=PR3&dq=Helps+and+Hints+Berenger&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Eq2fU6q1Lre-sQSKz4CYAw&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Helps%20and%20Hints%20Berenger&f=false

Privacy is About More Than Having Something to Hide

Edward Snowden’s release of information about how the National Security Administration is gathering information about people’s communications both in the United States and abroad raised the issue of privacy in the digital age. Unfortunately, the fact that the NSA is listening has become a punch line rather than a call to action.

Of course, the NSA is not the only one that is listening. The private sector is doing its best to gather information on all of us as well. Acxiom, a data mining company, recently has begun inviting people to long on and view what data it has collection on each one of us. Acxiom invites us to correct our data so that we can get ads that are more relevant to us. Every purchase we make with electronic means, every loyalty card we scan, every search we make is gathered and cataloged by people who want to manipulate our behavior.

Some people ask what is the big deal? Who cares that the government or corporations are building profiles on us? The most common refrain is: “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”

But that misses the point. Privacy is not about having anything to hide. It is about our personal sovereignty. We don’t need to give everyone access to levers that make it easier to manipulating our habits. While the upside is that we are supposed to have an easier time finding those things that matter to us, the downside is that helping us find what we want is not necessarily the interested of those collecting the information. Instead, they are more interested in convincing us we want something that they have to sell. That may be something that is not good for us, or something that we don’t need.

There is another reason that privacy is critical for human beings. Privacy is what provides intimacy. Having everything out in the open deprives us of the ability to choose with whom we share things and what we share. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears are all part of make us who we are. And when we limit who we share them with, we get closer to those people. Our relationships have more meanings when we have inside jokes, shared experiences, and more understanding of those close to us than the rest of the world.

If everything is an open book, then we all are diminished in a way to a collection of facts and observations. If we all know everything, then it is harder to have shared experiences that make our shared lives special. These experiences, shared words, and inside jokes are not necessarily sinister or something to hide, but they are something to treasure. One determinant of value is rarity. Keeping things out of the public eye, out of databases, and away from marketing snoops, government snoops, and even the snoops in our personal circles makes those things more valuable.

If you are interested in other ideas about privacy, and why it is not about something to hide, take a look at Professor Daniel J. Solove’s essay “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.”

Additionally, when it comes to the realm of buying things, this article from Forbes Payment Privacy: Are untraceable Purchases Ever Okay? provides some interesting discussion points.

Humanities and Charles Manson’s Real Name

In this blog, I have said that one of the values to studying the humanities is that the study leads people away from following crazy, destructive ideas. Instead, it teaches them to question authority, find better solutions to problems, and recognize their own value as human beings in solving problems.

Dan Bern, a musician with a wry sense of human, wrote a song called ‘Krautmeyer’ that I think points up to a lot of the value of being able to see humans as humans and recognize our own humanity.

Charles Manson doesn’t even know his last name anymore
Charles Manson’s real name was Charles Krautmeyer; he’s forgotten it
Charles Manson had a bunch of people
Who believed his every word
Who followed his directions to cut a bunch of rich people
Would they still have done if they’d known his name was Krautmeyer
I kinda doubt it

http://home.earthlink.net/~usablues/archive/Krautmeyer.html

He talks about Marilyn Manson and how things would be different if he called himself “Marilyn Krautmeyer.”

The value in this song is that it can show us that we should not get sucked in by personalities and manipulators, regardless of their levels. Thinking about the greatest instances of man’s inhumanity to man, they come when people en masse start to follow a leader with crazy ideas. Thinking about our own lives and the way that we sometimes put ourselves in bad positions because of bosses, friends, fads, and so on, it pays to remember, as Dan Bern points out, that these people are often just picking their noses.

I was on a bus the other day, and a guy got on dressed all in black in 90-degree plus heat, with facial piercings. He was attempting to look fierce, or out side of the mainstream, or something. He was wearing a Marilyn Manson tee shirt. All I could think was “his real name is Marilyn Krautmeyer,” which changed the way I viewed him, and brought out his humanity.

The Habit of Reading

Recently, I have discovered that it is easy to fall out of the habit of reading much like any other good habit. It is like exercise, you need to make time for it in your life and stick with it.

Most of my reading has been done on planes lately. I have read some interesting modern stuff and tried to keep up with the Great Books reading, albeit with less success. But after another hiatus, I am back and will be posting more in the future.

The questions of The Classics and the great conversation that continues on throughout the ages among all people is too important to ignore. We need to find ways to continue working on these questions for ourselves and each other, because these are the ways that we learn to live in this world.

There will be more to come, and I welcome any comments that you may have.

A Driving Force Behind Keeping the Classics Relevant

This is an article about Amy Thomas Elder, who runs the Odyssey Project for the Illinois Humanities Council. This program provides college level classes that focus on the humanities for free to low-income people.
When I heard about the Odyssey Project, I wanted to write a freelance article about it. I called and left a message, and I got a call back from Amy. She said “We need volunteers, are you in or out?” Not a lot of fooling around. So, I said “I’m in” and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I learned a lot and hope that I helped others do the same.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/life/ct-tribu-remarkable-elder-20130127,0,4397907.story