Oct 18, 2007

From a State of Nature to an Enlightened Society: Democracy Won't Survive if the People Aren't Involved. Let's Put our Ideas into Good Use!

part 2/2

Ideas are very powerful because they help form beliefs and motivate people to action. So, it's not a fruitless exercise to think, re-think, revise, and learn by observation. It's good and necessary! However, this activity takes a bit of courage since it may uncover truths that could make you uncomfortable. Once I asked myself whether my need to know is greater than my fears. The answer was, if there's something I should know, then I do want to know. Granted, we often don't have all the facts, but that's life. We make decisions using the best available data and by employing logic. How good our data and our logic are impacts the outcome. But that's why it's very important to keep the dialogue going. A strong theory is one that leaves room for amendment. Closed, de-facto, divine, or absolute theories are just baseless opinions, and not theories in the scientific sense.

Our world is a complex one, fast-moving, and ever-changing. Change for the sake of change is a foolish thing, but progressive change is necessary. A true conservative is a traditionalist who prefers the "true & tried" to the unknown. The resistance to the pace of modernity may be due to his inability to make sense of the new quickly enough. The sense of identity rooted in the past is being challenged by modernity and, yes, cosmopolitanism. Being "special" means to have some kind of exclusivity, and thus humans have shun others--especially those who believe in other gods, dress, speak, behave differently. Traditional culture to a great extend is repetition. Nationalism is similar to providing exclusivity and special status. An offshoot of this is nativism--which has been present as long as immigration to this country.

Liberals tend to be persons who welcome and can cope with change. They're more likely to be risk-takers, more tolerant, inquisitive, to explore what's beyond the horizon, and use a rational approach. Progressives always looks to improve society. We accept the scientific inquiry and the scientific method. Most of us like the ideas of Locke, Kant, Mill, et al, but we don't accept dogma and absolutism. In present-day US politics, we have to be partisan as the Republican party with its neo-cons, prudes, religious fanatics, authoritarians, anti-science (and proud of) views, power-grabbers, and non-democrats, is beyond hope.

A liberal democracy offers th
e best chance for the individual to reach self-fulfillment because of the rights it confers upon every person and for the opportunities if affords. Democracy cannot exist without the demos (the people) and without opportunity! Regrettably, we are in danger of losing our grasp on the political system that has made our country great. When others were struggling with authoritarian, backward systems, the US was pushing ahead. We had the best of the three Tees! Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. We're not as good as we used to be, at least not in relative terms vis-a-vi the rest of the world.

The Gilded Age has return and the income (wealth) inequality is as great as it was some 100 years ago. The stock market is going up but real wages have stagnated since the 1970s. We have to ask, what's the benefit of having such a huge economy that produces so much wealth if the distribution of wealth is absurd! Wealth is being accumulated by the very tiny elite at the very top. I think this is not healthy for a society, nor do I think it's good business. We know that power & wealth are closely related.

If the American middle class doesn't receive most of the wealth, power will also accumulate to the very top of the economic elites. And, all socio-economic elites want more and use their means to that effect. This situation is not good for us. Unless we act today, it may be too late tomorrow, or, it we may have to go through a traumatic shock.

Being rewarded for one's efforts is a moral
thing--I agree with Adam Smith on this. But, no one achieves everything by himself. He usually stands on the shoulders of others. The self-made successful business people depend on the resources & the conditions that exist. They do not operate in the vacuum of space! Public transportation, educated work force, police, fire, EMT, the armed forces, and the law that secures their property are some of the benefits this country provides.

What should the benefits be for being a member of such a rich country? Is health care, for example, a right or a privilege? And--if I may push it a bit further--we can't analyze everything on a profit basis. Certain things aren't supposed to be profitable, like public libraries, national parks, etc. But, they are necessary for the quality of our lives.

Unless the majority of Americans start to pay more attention to what's going on, and are willing to participate in the affairs of our country, then the situation is going to get worse. This is an investment all of us should make. I think many Americans haven't realized this as yet. They sense that it's a good thing to live in this country--and it i
s! But, this is not enough, nor it's the result of divine order. It took many years of effort and leadership. The genius of the Founders was this: to create a system that allowed popular participation, minority rights, separation of church-state, economic opportunity, and it provided a way to amend it as the country moved through the centuries.

I don't believe our democracy will continue to function if we're to rest upon the achievements of the past and the occasional wise leadership that may come along. I think people's participation is necessary today more than ever. But, the people have to know enough to make reasonable decisions. We can't afford leaders like Bush any more--not in the highest leadership offices of the land anyway. We don't have another grace period; we have to hit the ground running.

I'm an optimist, but also a realist. I know that for all the hoopla, the necessity for reversing the present disastrous course, and the excitement of electing the next leader of the free world, etc, only a small percentage of US citizens will show up to vote in the months to come. How small you ask? Well, in our first contest in Iowa, only 6 to 10% of eligible voters will vote!

Americans may dislike their politics, they may find the political process unappealing, and definitely complicated. On the other hand, they still believe that "we're number one!" In the past, we looked around the world and we compared favorably. But, look how the world has changed since. Even totally destroyed countries (Germany, Japan) have rebounded.

I think the dissatisfaction hasn't reached the tipping point yet. It may come sooner than later and it may produce another wave that will bring a new New Deal. The "great middle"--the middle class ever so important to a stability of a country--is not gaining as much as the corporations. Now the latter are not only getting exceedingly preferential treatment but are increasingly capturing our government! Public services--once thought to be a main reason to have a government--are disappearing, being outsourced to corporations whose main concern (and obligation) is to make money, often by denying services! [such as the case with the health insurance companies]

We're privatizing our own government. Profit is good. Wealth is desirable. However, we have to create & maintain conditions for a good life; to keep a country where a progressive culture of life prevails. Creating wealth has to be done smartly not with savagery. For example, if you're in the business of logging in a competitive unregulated environment, then you cut down the last remaining tree standing! In the end, you're out of business (if rich) and all of us suffer. There's got to be a sane, more practical way than this approach.

Who's to care for the commonwealth then? If not the citizens, who? There's no one else but us.... Benevolent dictators are no more; hopefully, we've matured
enough to assume responsibility for ourselves; to confer high offices to capable leaders who won't stroke our passions but motivate us to make the world a better place to live in. We cannot afford not to be people of the Enlightenment.

Oct 11, 2007

An Obscure Question: Is this an Age of Englightment, or an Enlightning Age? [or, are philosophical meanderings totally boring & impractical?]

Part 1

Yes, I know, most of the visitors to this blog today just said, "I'll be back later," after reading this post's title! it's OK, I still want to talk about ideas and their practical necessity in our world. Certainly, it's a good exercise to ponder ideas, to think in the abstract and connect the imaginary dots. On the other hand, I find that the world of ideas (hence, philosophy) is a very powerful one. Haven't humans done beautiful and horrible acts alike because of ideas? Often, it doesn't matter if an impression or an idea is based on fact or fiction, it gives a reason for action. It justifies, pacifies, soothes, excites, and provides a sense of identity.

The clash between the ancient religion and Christianity was inevitable [photo from the Agora in Athens with a byzantine church in the foreground]

The values we hold are based on ideas too! Culture evolved because of certain concepts about life and the perceived necessary conditions for human survival. God originated as an idea, and religion was the result of what people thought [most people were told and believed as de facto] of the practical application of the divine.

Faith provided a path to salvation and physical immortality. Unfortunately, religious ideas haven't been very compatible with each other and frequently they operated in a zero-sum game, where it was believed that the survival of one meant the death of the other. So, for much of human history religion played an important role in war and the reasons for going to war.

I'm not concerned with the supernatural [not today in this post anyway] but with how a range of philosophical observations help explain and challenge human behavior. Philosophy becomes very real and applicable when an empirical approach is used. You observe, analyze, form conclusions & theories, and revise as necessary. It's a rather scientific approach. I like that. It's a great medium for humans to evolve upon. The challenging part is also very important, because it can provide fresh ideas and methods of improvement. But, I think only enlightened persons who value inquiry and are brave enough to face reality are comfortable with such a challenge.

The good news is that this elite club doesn't have membership fees, nor other requirements except an open, skeptical, deliberate mind--oh, and probably an interest for such exercises of the mind. With all the amenities and the benefits of a modern society, life isn't always easy, time & energy are limited, and our focus can wane into the trivial.

Jeremy Bentham a "philosophical radical" [radical during his time] said that humans have two masters: pleasure and pain, and, therefore, behave accordingly. These two "masters" can be used as a guideline for human interaction and for deciding on the role of government. He said, government should have the purpose of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Although, there are those who seek pain either for ..satisfaction or as a required means to an end, most people do prefer pleasure. Thus, a logical question would be, what is pleasure?

One of my favorite philosophers, John Stuart Mill, said it should be the individual who decides what constitutes pleasure; the same individual should be free to construct his own path to personal fulfillment. Mill put forth the Harm principle--which is very useful in deciding matters of privacy and public interest. The only acceptable reason for society to control individual behavior is to prevent harm to others. The individual's own good--either moral or physical--is not a sufficient warrant! This, of course, applies to people who are mature adults, not to children or to ..barbarians. In short, there's a personal definition of pleasure! In order to have that, rights of privacy are imperative.

We are who we are because of the environment we grow up in, our own effor
ts to enrich ourselves, accidental circumstances (luck), and availability of time & space to be ourselves. If the conditions of freedom and privacy change, then human character changes. I believe a liberal democracy offers the best possible conditions for the individual to fulfill his own potential. If this country is about property rights, let's not forget that you should own & be in charge of yourself.

But, shouldn't the light of reason prevail? As Immanuel Kant once asked, is this an age of enlightenment or an enlightening age? It's probably the latter. If we are to look around the world today many humans are hell-bent on total annihilation and destruction of reason and anything else that stands between them and their utopias. For a species, we are young and still primitive--although we have taken huge leaps of progress and we do have the greatest potential. If we allow ourselves to evolve that is.

One important act of maturity--or, in the process of getting there--is acting. Yes, observing and experiencing life can have a maturing effect, but taking the initiative and making choices is vital. A person should be an actor, not just part of a passive audience. That's why the conditions that foster freedom must be maintained, for freedom in this sense is a practical necessity!

We are creatures of convenience. Why not! But, there are a few things worth spending some time & effort on. Right? Convenience and laziness aren't identical. Thinking--critical and deliberate--is one worthwhile activity I reckon. Making decisions and assuming responsibility is hard too. At times we all want to regress to being children so we don't have to deal with life's adversities and demands. This is not a mature approach though. Sadly, too many modern humans are quite happy to remain in perpetual immaturity and let others make the decisions for them; it's much easier that way they reckon.

Those who have a choice, (usually those who live in a liberal democracy), have to answer a couple very important questions: Is it a worthwhile activity to lead an examined life? And, is it important to contribute a little bit to the conditions that foster human enlightenment?

[to be continued]

Oct 2, 2007

Is Impeaching Bush & Cheney the Best Way to Prevent Another War Against Iran?

Lately, there’s much talk about the possibility of Bush ordering a strike on Iran. People close to the president and other conservatives (some of those ‘geniuses’ also give advice to the White House) have been mulling the option of “limited air strikes” against Iran’s weapons of mass destruction. Conservative shills in the media are repeating the same rhetoric of few years ago—they’re just substituting the “q” for an “n” today.

The New Yorker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has a very interesting article on this very topic, titled, Shifting Targets.
Hersh notes:

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.

As to the lack of popular support for another war against Iran, well, this is a problem, although not an insurmountable one. For starters, it’s not beyond this administration’s modus operati to manufacture an “incident” and/or “evidence” pointing to Iran; an agressive action that poses an imminent danger to us. The baiting game has already started. But, I don’t think this is even necessary. For leaders like Bush who have lost almost all political credibility there’s one last hurrah that they think might help them. After all, they’re not running for re-election, and, if the current Republican presidential field remains in a morose state—with a predictable outcome in the 2008 elections—then one more restraining element from Bush’s options will be removed.

President Bush will go down as a very bad president (possibly the worst); and, he’s aware of this, despite telling us that history will eventually vindicate him. Now, what’s left for him (and leaders in similar predicaments) but to remain stubborn and maintain a fa├žade of principled conviction? Actually, there’s this other option, a last-chance for turning things around. That is, to bet everything he’s got left hoping the roulette of war will be kind to him. That’s why the possibility of another serious conflict is a good possibility. In a perverted sense, only something extraordinarily spectacular may save his legacy. Obviously I don't think there's such a chance, but delusional persons think differently. Of course, a war with Iran will be another very bad choice. But, bad choices and incompetence is a trademark of this administration.

The war in Iraq has indeed produced winners, namely Iran and AlQeda. Everything the neocons and several airheads in the so-called liberal media told us about Iraq was wrong, wrong, wrong! At which point, I wonder, the experts should stop being ..experts when all their predictions are wrong? [check the sidebar for a video clip about such predictions] Are we suffering from a short-memory syndrome?

Iran has a very reactionary, Old Regime-type leadership, but as a country has a rather progressive populace as compared to the rest of the countries in that region. Iran has a very young population, the majority under 30 years old, who doesn’t like the regime of the mullahs. Tehran was the only place in the Near/Middle East where there was a public demonstration in sympathy to the victims of 9-11. Did you notice something similar elsewhere over there? On the contrary!
Yet, the moment there’s an American boot on Iranian soil or a bomb falls there, all bets are off for political transformation. The radicalization will be immense; the ayatollahs will remain in power for another generation, and terrorism will get a boost. Read more on this in a article by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the Nation (on line).

Thus, the question is what to do here. My suggestion is that the Democrats attack this problem at its root. Expose Bush for what he’s thinking of doing and the reasons for such foolish action. De-funding the war [already the majority of Americans are either for partial or complete defunding] in Iraq is a good starting point. Congress has to assume a bigger role. The American people now understand that this administration is incapable of a liability. Fool or ignorant, equally dangerous.

I was not in favor of impeachment, because I thought it’d be a distraction, would require too much time & energy while, with the present composition in the US Senate, it would never succeed. However, I’m beginning to change my mind. Not because impeaching Bush & Cheney would succeed in removing them from office, but if this is going to prevent them from further damaging our country by attacking Iran, then it’s worth it. Keep a tight leash on these two. Our constitution provides for such checks. I hope Congress is up for it, though not holding my breath on this one. It takes political courage to be a leader, but courage without prudence is rather ineffective.

Let’s not forget that this is a very critical moment in our history. I’m not evaluating this from a sentimental view of how history will judge us. Reality check: high death toll, bloodshed, pain & suffering, spending insane amount of money. This is what's been happening in the last few years. We can’t afford to allow Bush to make another huge mistake, compound our problems, and possibly dig such a big hole that we won't be able to climb out of it.