All posts by Koli Mitra

Passionate Moderate Manifesto

The idea of civilization either “progressing” or “conserving” itself is useless. Sometimes doing what’s “good” for the world and its inhabitants needs something radical. Other times, it requires holding onto something traditional.

Long ago, G.K. Chesterton said:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob.

So don’t commit to being a “Progressive” or a “Conservative.”

Don’t commit to Revolution. Or Counterrevolution. Or Reform. Or Orthodoxy. Take a genuine shot at solving problems and making the world a better, freer place. Commit to THAT. Commit to approaching the world with clear eyes, empirical evidence, rigorous reasoning, intellectual honesty and compassion. Commit to these.

A New Uncertainty Principle: Some Uncertainty In Your Principles Is Good

Looks like we might be in for another economic downturn. We’re inching ever closer to ecological disaster. Instead of looking at the possibilities with some humility, there are people, with real power, raring to push their long-beloved ideologies harder than ever.I want to make a humble plea: stop being so certain about everything.


About fifteen years ago I read a book that is now almost thirty years old, from which I gleaned (apart from very cool bits of information about dynamic systems and other macrophysical phenomena) a very simple lesson.

The book was James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of New A Science. The lesson was that certainty and clarity are not synonymous. Not even close.

I think this is true not only of trajectories and attractors, but also of knowledge itself. In fact, when it comes to knowledge (and the epistemic processes we have to use to know or to make any sense at all of the undifferentiated mass that is our life and our universe), you might go so far as to say that certainty and clarity seem to have an inversely proportional relationship. I made some marginal notes in my copy of Chaos. On page 41, I wrote: “theory makes you see things. Theory makes you miss things.” All abstractions – theory, language, measurement, description – are necessarily approximations and reductions. When you think about that, the expectation that our theories would infallibly fit reality – or worse, that reality would “fit” our theories – is simply ridiculous.

Far greater intellects than mine have acknowledged this conundrum. Albert Einstein said of mathematics (one of our most powerful epistemological tools) “as far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Werner Heisenberg pointed out that our observations are not so much “nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of inquiry.”

Yet, although analysis, abstraction, and theoretical filters destroy the gestaltic reality of things, without those methods we would understand very little about anything. In fact, speaking of Chaos Theory, let’s not forget it was mathematical analysis that revealed the vast descriptive validity of nonlinear patterns, which prior mathematical/theoretical filters had treated as “error.”

It’s scary how many people insist on sticking to their ideological guns in the face of real disaster.  Those who want to continue extracting and burning fuels pretend they can do it for ever. Those who want to take “bold action” will bulldoze ahead without actually considering whether their “solutions” will end up making things much worse and whether it’s wise to ram policies through on a global scale, endowing governments and tech industry giants with limitless power over all of us with no guarantee we can ever back out if/when we realize they got something very wrong or lied to us (both of which governments and corporations do so well).  Maybe there are newer more creative ways to solve problems. Maybe we can get people who disagree to brainstorm together. Whatever the cognitive devices we use to learn about our world, all of our learning stops being useful and may even become dangerous when we forget that our theories are just tools that point to reality, with varying degrees of success, but they are not reality themselves.

Alfred Korzybski said it better: “the map is not the territory.”

[photo by energepic-com from Pexels]

Happy Fourth of July

It’s that day of the year when I get all sappy and red and white and blue and I don’t care who thinks I’m corny or what stranger shushes me when I sing the Star Spangled Banner in public (that actually happened to me once!).

But let’s talk about why we get all gooey over our country. A lot has been said about it lately, in relation to the presidential campaigns; about what patriotism means and who comes up deficient.

But why love and celebrate the nation at all? Patriotism is a remarkably common sentiment found in every part of the world and yet an essential part of the proposition of patriotism is that “my country is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.” I don’t begrudge anyone that sentiment. I just think that in America’s case, it just happens to be true.

That’s why I think insistence on patriotism solely as a “my country right or wrong” idea tragically limits it to that most ordinary brand of patriotism that Americans are in a unique position to transcend. Patriots in each country love it just because it’s theirs. As the word “patriotism” implies, it is similar in character to the conviction that “my Dad is the greatest Dad in the world” (or “my Mom” or “my kid” or “my family” generally).

But I genuinely believe that ours is a country that can make a substantive case that it “is special and uniquely worthy of devotion.”  First of all, it’s the only country in the world founded on an aspiration: “in order to form a more perfect union”  — aspiration is our inheritance.

We didn’t form that union to glorify a king or some other venerable institution. We did it to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

And by the way, it’s “We the People of the United States” that formed this union. Not a king, not a church, not the memory of great empires or mythological gods, not the standard bearers of a racial or cultural heritage, despite the fact that the founders were Englishmen, clearly building on an English tradition of “freeborn” citizenry. They didn’t form a union as legatees of a shared ancestry, but as participants in a shared vision. That’s why I, an American with no genetic lineage to the founders can rightfully claim them as mine and rightfully talk about them as “we.” That’s not true anywhere else in the world.

On this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, why am I quoting from the Constitution?  Because the Constitution charts the course for making good on the promise we made to ourselves and each other in the Declaration. That promise, of course was to live in freedom, as equals, protected in our inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

And let’s remember the crowning words of  that promise: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

[cover photo by Koli Mitra]

A Gale of Two Cities

There’s a strong force, like a wind, that keeps trying to toss me back and forth between New York and Washington DC.

Anybody in New York who has known me for more than a couple of years knows one thing about me: Koli loves DC. New York was always “a great place to visit” and, after 9/11/01, it was also my great love (you know, the kind of tender, raw, protective intimacy that results from shared trauma, which you strongly suspect is growing dysfunctionally codependent, but you avoid facing it because, you know, what the hell?) and yet, there was a certain amount of pining I kept doing for DC.

I missed the clean, air-conditioned subway stations, the clean, wide sidewalks, the polite neighbors, and the reliable customer-service ethic of people doing business with you. I preferred the effortless multiculturalism of DC to the in-your-face, sometimes hostile “mosaic” of ethnicities in New York. I missed the occasional quiet. I missed being able to go someplace open and green in less than two hours.I guess – to torture the analogy some more – it was like constantly missing your sweet, strong, wholesome mother even as your life is consumed with a mindblowingly erotic and unhealthfully close attachment with someone you’ve fallen for really hard and really fast.

There was an obsessive quality to my early New York experience. I photographed her from every angle. I wrote poems. I basked in the attention of every new guy in my life on her streets, which are laced with an unnamable aphrodisiac. I luxuriated in my heartbreak in the aftermath of each of those guys on the same streets, where the same aphrodisiac had turned inexplicably into a salve – or, more accurately, it remained an aphrodisiac that somehow turned the heartbreak into a breathtaking romance in its own right.

I mourned my recently departed father on ferry boats and across the Brooklyn Bridge, reciting his beloved Walt Whitman poems in my head, especially “Song of Myself” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” newly mesmerized by their reaching-across-time-and-death themes. I ate in every New York restaurant I had time for. I went to the parks and the museums and the opera houses and the dinky little theaters and the seemingly never-ending readings and art openings that pop out of nowhere all over town (all the while complaining how dirty the subway was that took me there). I re-watched Ric Burns’s “New York” several times – sometimes with a box of tissues. I looked sharply away from “ground zero” as I passed, but sneaked a peek up at the sky where the towers had been, every time I zipped by in a ferry. As the waters of the Harbor carried me downtown, my eyes misted, looking at the Statue of Liberty as I almost involuntarily mouthed “The New Colossus.”

In those early years, I often felt that the long hours at the law firm left me with “no life,” but looking back, I must admit that I was developing a “life” in New York, however harried. And after I left the law firm? Well, as they say in New York: foggetaboutit! Everything seemed to turn unequivocally fabulous.

At some point, without either of us knowing it, we healed, New York and I. And I realized it wasn’t just an eros-like obsession. I really did fall in love with her.

I should explain why I, a heterosexual woman with an (unrelated) distaste for the conventional feminization of places (and vessels), keep saying “her” to refer to a geographical love object:

It’s all about the way she healed. The kind of resilience with which we bear our scar tissue, not denying or burying the pain we felt, not shunning any remnant of pleasure that may be proximate to that pain, refusing to calcify, being bigger and more graceful than our tragedies, well, it seems an overwhelmingly – though perhaps not uniquely – feminine strength. So I saw New York, still wounded, gritty as ever, yet tough and shining and full of possibilities. And, somewhere along the way, I got used to the dirty subways, and remembered how much I loved the places they took me to.

DC is a great town. It’s my birthplace. I have a lot of history here. The museums are free. The subway really is cleaner. But guess what? It stops running at midnight and only takes you to a handful of places. Um, yeah, Koli, while you were bitching about the transit system in New York, you forgot to notice how much you LOVED not having to drive.

Paranoia In Shifts

Some people will believe the very worst about others.  Well, not all others, just some others….

People will believe that president Obama would euthanize their grandparents. They will believe that he “hates white people.” They will cry in public and ask for their “America back” — when to most of us America doesn’t look all that different from last year. That is, unless there really is no place in one’s America for a black president — but I don’t honestly believe that’s what that woman was thinking. Even if race played into her fears, I’m pretty sure it was subconscious.

So why is it that people are willing to believe such extreme things about Obama and the Democrats? Why are they willing to believe, not just that they have misguided ideas, but that they have such actively evil intentions? It seems incredible to me.

A friend of mine asked me an interesting question the other day. “Do you think this is how conservatives felt during the Bush years?” She wondered. “That they couldn’t figure out why so many were fearful of the administration’s policies — not just disapproving, but fearful?”

My friend, much like me, is a “liberal” in her values, without being committed to any technocratic or partisan political agenda. We are liberals because we believe in freedom and compassion and fairness. We want things like poverty and discrimination to be eradicated without necessarily being wedded to particular policy approaches. We love the founding fathers and will fight any white supremacist who tries to appropriate them for their own sick visions of “their” America. We are willing to be just as hard on the government under President Obama as we were on the one under President Bush on all the same issues: state secrets doctrine, extraordinary renditions, military tribunals, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, wall street bailouts with practically no strings attached. . . etc.

And yet, we too, are willing to accept that the Obama people aren’t dangerous in ways that maybe we weren’t always absolutely certain about the Bush people. (Although sometimes I do think Tim Geithner is the devil, but that’s a different post).

I will say this, though: the whackos on the left — the ones that used to peddle anti-Bush theories that 9/11 was an “inside job” or that the delay in responding to Katrina was a result of Bush “hating black people” — never really got traction with mainstream or influential liberals. Not one factually unproven conspiracy-type theory about the Bush administration was taken up by anyone prominent enough that I can recall his/her name. Dan Rather doesn’t count — he relied on the wrong documents but his charge, that Bush didn’t fulfill his National Guard duties, was true and substantiated; and even if he does count, that’s just ONE. On the other hand, mainstream, influential conservatives — Bill Kristol, Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity — don’t seem to have any qualms about giving credence to complete fabrications about “death panels” and “Kenyan citizenship.”

I will also say this: for all the conservative accusations of inadequate liberal respect for our erstwhile “commander-in-chief” — no liberal ever actively wanted President Bush to fail as a president. We just wanted him to be a better president. Rush Limbaugh actually said he wanted Obama to fail (and Fred Thompson and Bobby Jindal defended him in this). Can you imagine the Fox News response if someone had said that about Bush? Despite the conservative alarm at liberals not caring about the security of our country, it was a conservative that wanted Osama bin Laden to attack our country.

I will say this, too: I wouldn’t have any reason to be paranoid about President Bush if he didn’t actually lie to us about the reason we went to war with Iraq; if he didn’t try to usurp legislative power with elaborate “signing statements”; if he didn’t have guys like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Bybee, and Yoo working for him (I know, I know, Tim Geithner. . . but he’s kind of a lesser devil, like Phil, The Prince of Insufficient Light).

Nevertheless, I think my friend has a point. What we tend to see as “flawed” rather than “evil” may often be a product of our own invention, at least in part, and this might apply to even the least partisan, most fair-minded and judicious among us. That’s bad enough, but what’s really scary is that so very many of us these days are deliberately, and gleefully partisan with absolutely no intention of being fair-minded or judicious.Maybe it’s “their” turn to be paranoid. So much for the post-political neo-camelot.

Big City, Dim Lights

I was in India this January. I kept “in touch” as much as possible -we live in a small, virtually-wired world. But I completely missed a little regional story that is nothing short of momentous for me, but that went completely under my global-sweep radar on the other side of the world.

The Amato Opera in Manhattan’s East Village is closing. I am devastated.

I can’t claim to have grown up with Tony and Sally Amato’s “tenement opera” that’s been a community fixture for six decades.  I started going there in the late 1990s when I first moved to the area and immediately fell in love.  It’s a microscopic space with cheap champagne and a pre-performance dinner option (e.g. pasta and what tastes like grocery-store bought red sauce) and an absolutely spellbinding charm. It’s a place that has promoted young local talent and given newcomers like me an instant stake in our New Yorker-ness.

I remember my third time. They were performing Manon. Tony Amato spoke of his wife, who had recently died, and mentioned that he had considered retiring. I think he said his decision to continue was influenced by his niece taking over some of the functions. I breathed a sigh of relief. The Amato was one of those hooks that New York dug into me early. I needed to know it was there to feel all was right in the world.

Like Tony and Sally’s families, I was an immigrant to New York and, in some sense an immigrant to America, although I was born here, because the rest of my family had repatriated to their own home country; I have for years felt a strange sense of generalized rootlessness everywhere in the world. That rootlessness is not without its allure, but it sensitizes you to the savor of whatever semblance of a home you encounter in your hydroponic life.

I was in law school. I was poor.  I never paid more than $25 for family circle tickets to experience the grandeur of the Metropolitan Opera House (as awe-inspiring as that is), but I thought nothing of plopping down 120 bucks (a FORTUNE for me at the time) to spend my then-boyfriend’s birthday sitting in a cramped little auditorium with questionable acoustics, sated on Ragu and Brut, surrounded by people who all seemed to know each other and to welcome us into their world. People of all ages, mingling in a way that Americans my age and younger are generally unfamiliar with and the way we imagine came naturally in the time of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Speaking of Our Town, I’ve always thought a big city neighborhood was a lot like a small town. Amato is a great example. Perhaps it could not exist in an actual small town.  Only a bustling metropolis like New York generally has the money – I’m not talking “big money” but multitudes of people with small money – to keep alive this little self-supporting art vendor, entrepreneurial yet noncommercial, traditional yet upstart, unostentatious yet unerringly refined in the art it peddles. And yet, like the corner grocery store clerk who remembers to ask when your mother is coming back from India for her next visit and the bar where everybody knows your name, the Amato is a big-city-neighborhood establishment that makes you feel safely rooted in your surroundings in that way that small town folks always talk about.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town as if celebrating continuity, when it was really mourning its passing, grasping longingly at a vanishing way of life.  All the remaining shows at the Amato, of course, are sold out. Since I now live in Washington, I can’t very well camp out at their door before each remaining performance in the hope of a last minute cancellation. All I can do is look lovingly back and say goodbye.

[Cover photo, of Amato Opera building exterior, was released into the public domain by its creator, Jim Henderson]

Legends Of The Fall

Sometimes the world gets better.

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire partition between itself and Austria. It wasn’t attended by all the fanfare of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later. But it was a quietly heroic start of that gloriously literal, physical dismantling of the Iron Curtain.

We in America like to celebrate it as a matter of national triumph. That feeling is warranted only in the sense that our ideals of democracy and open societies had prevailed. But when we do the revisionist victory dance and buy into the popular cowboy narrative of how we strong-armed the Soviets to surrender, we do a great disservice to history and the truth and ourselves.

First of all, that attitude diminishes the role of the people living inside the countries behind the curtain, who essentially rose up to overthrow their own oppressive governments (many of these, like Solidarity in Poland were labor activists, a fact that gloating neocons like to sweep under the rug).  The truth is, communism failed as an economic structure and authoritarianism failed as a governing principle. They were no longer tenable propositions and historical forces brewing for many years imploded the system from within, in some cases violently (Rumania). As Karl Marx might have recognized if he had actually lived through the era of communism, it was a historical inevitability.

Secondly, keeping alive the fantasy that we defeated the communists through force, denigrates the role of our values – democracy, freedom, and equality – that formed the real impetus for the fall of communism. We were the shining example of a life they wanted. As George Shultz said (criticizing the Jackson-Bannick Act), “telling our friends. . . we are forcing you to do [something] doesn’t work.” What does work, according to him, is to let them see that what we are asking for works to their own benefit.

Most ironically, believing the cowboy myth does a grave disservice to the Cowboy himself. When I emphasize that our values and our example helped end the Cold War, I don’t mean to suggest our foreign policy didn’t. But it wasn’t our tough-talking, deficit-exploding-defense-spending policy that did the trick. It was our diplomacy.

Ronald Reagan’s contribution in this was significant, though not singular. But the key to his foreign policy success (contrary to every self-styled Reaganite who gives The Gipper practically the entire credit for “ending communism”), was not his unrelenting “show of strength.” It was the opposite of that. (Remember that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had all been as hawkish and as much the anti-communist crusaders that Reagan was, but they all failed. Remember also that the Cold War was not so much “won” as thawed.)

The reason Reagan was able to make any headway was, along with the historical realities I mentioned earlier (and the good fortune to be dealing with Gorbachev, instead of the likes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev) was really his flexibility. He was willing to engage in “constructive dialog,” as Gorbachev explained.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz were on Charlie Rose. They talked about the truly successful aspect of Reagan’s legacy, one that his most vocal disciples NEVER mention, which is one of peacemaking. He came to realize that cooperation works better than bullying. Gorbachev said he witnessed Reagan evolve from a hardliner to a peacemaker. Shultz noted the same evolution of Gorbachev.

Reagan and his foreign policy team took a lot of heat from their hawkish domestic constituency (and some allies) for promoting a ballistic missile ban, and a general, progressive, nuclear weapons reduction plan with the goal of eventual disarmament. Shultz said Margaret Thatcher hit him with her purse over the disarmament proposal at Reykjavík (although I think that may well have been because she wasn’t invited to the Summit).

What Thatcher didn’t get – and her neocon fans in America still don’t get– is that Reagan got somewhere because he met his adversary halfway. Gorbachev recalled a meeting early in their relationship, when he essentially told the president “I’m not your student; if you don’t stop lecturing me, this conversation is over.” Reagan realized being conciliatory (a dirty word to today’s conservatives) might be a better strategy. Unlike our last Republican president, who never liked to admit errors, Reagan actually rescinded the “evil empire” statement. He told a Soviet journalist “I believed it at the time I said it, but I don’t anymore.” How refreshing!

We don’t generally think of Reagan in those terms (because conservatives like to pretend his success validates a diehard conservatism that it really doesn’t and liberals like to disregard his redeeming qualities because they dislike so much else about him).  But Reagan, at his best, did listen to people, and correct himself, and compromise. In fact, his compromises on weapons discussions helped him to negotiate his human rights agenda. There’s something else people don’t seem to remember about Reagan: he cared about human rights! Certainly I (as a shameless liberal) care about a whole of host of human rights issues that Reagan was indifferent to, but one has to respect the fact that the rights that he did care about – like religious freedom – seemed to be important to him in substance, and not merely as lip service to win elections and to justify invasions. Gorbachev remembered that Reagan tried to coax him to talk about the Jewish emigration issue, at EVERY meeting! Shultz recalled a quiet deal worked out between the two leaders whereby the USSR would permit a Pentecostal community to emigrate if the US promised not to “crow” about it.

In America, we take a lot of pleasure in thinking of President Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech as pivotal in communism’s decline. In reality, of course, it was just a great sound bite, like “audacity of hope” – inspirational, to be sure, and I never fail to feel a certain spine-tingling whenever I see archive footage of it. But was it really “pivotal”… in a concrete, history-altering sense?  Come on! It wasn’t like he was sending us off to battle in Gettysburg.


Berlin Wall, 1989. Photo released into public domain by its assumed author.

Gorbachev, who remembers Reagan with great admiration and affection, chuckled at the suggestion that changes in the Soviet foreign policy posture was at all influenced by that speech. “This did not really impress us, as it did you,” he admitted. But he gave Reagan a great deal of credit for the actual work of diplomacy that did influence changes.

There was one more factor to which we do more than a little injustice by claiming Reagan as a latter-day Lincoln, single-handedly liberating the bulk of Eurasia from totalitarian serfdom.  I speak, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev.

First, the warming of international relations was led jointly by the Reagan-Gorbachev team. More importantly, international relations played a small part of the actual fall of the Soviet empire as compared to the internal pressures, as I mentioned before. And Gorbachev must get much of the credit for the way he dealt with that. Although I give the people of Eastern Europe more credit for their own liberation than any politician, it’s obvious that in the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost programs definitely catalyzed the process by liberalizing Soviet society from within. (Ironically, he was trying to save communism by rescuing it from totalitarianism, but it turned out totalitarianism was pretty much the only thing holding it in place!)

Gorbachev says that he was “defeated” in his political career, but, in the final analysis, the liberalization policies he put in place proved successful in principle.   I’d say!

I’d also say that the end of the Cold War, Communism, and the Iron Curtain are all related, but they are not the same thing. The Cold War was an arms-race between us and the Soviets. Communism was the economic system of the Easter Bloc. The Iron Curtain was the opaque and tyrannical political conditions within the Bloc. If you look at our interactions in the world today, and indeed our other interactions during the late Cold War years, all these factors aren’t always necessarily related.

Watching Gorby and Shultz chew the fat with Charlie made for one riveting hour. Twenty plus years later, all their nerve-trying diplomatic calculations, all the guarded communications through a political minefield that could prove, at any moment, to become an actual minefield on a planetary scale. . . transmuted into reminiscences of the kind that you might have with an old college debating rival over a decent Beaujolais.

There is a scene in Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” in which a couple of old soldiers – one Union, one Confederate – are talking about the “old days” like brothers in arms. It was like that: surreal and yet exactly right.

[The  cover image is a work of the United States Government and is in the public domain in the United States.]


The Absolute Value of Truth

Some people have so little credibility that even if they happen to say something correct, we are entitled to tell them to shut up. But that doesn’t mean we adopt the opposite posture just because we want to oppose them.Dick Cheney is such a person.  Hillary Clinton is correct that Dick Cheney has no business asking for “transparency” from government in relation to its release of the torture memos. Not only was his administration shrouded in secrecy and given to disclaiming any obligation of public accounting of any kind; but he has also been severe in opposing this particular set of de-classifications.

What’s “transparent” is Mr. Cheney’s deeply principled commitment to the public’s right to know. . . whatever might be exculpatory for him and his peeps. Nobody owes him that.

BUT. . . if there are documents that contextualize the shameful new facts we are learning about the use of torture as an interrogation tool, we really should have that information, irrespective of Cheney’s request.

Notice I said “contextualize” not “mitigate.” Acts that are immoral, unconstitutional, and in violation of our international agreements are still all those things even if they are spectacularly successful in meeting the objectives for which they were designed. Our constitution is replete with prohibitions against wonderfully “effective” things that government could do.

* Suppression of speech and assembly is an excellent prophylactic against insurrection.

* Broad searches and seizures powers are great for prosecuting criminals.

* A government without checks and balances has far less gridlock.

All these barriers on government likely militates against the smoothest possible functioning of government’s otherwise permitted activities.

But our founders chose to provide such inefficiency-inducing mechanisms to avoid abuse of discretion. They put a higher premium on the quality of our lives – as freely determined by us – than on the logistical efficacy of how our government functions.

Plenty of people already think that torture yields useful information. Would it surprise anyone that some memos indicating that view were written by Bush administration advisers? These are the guys who got their people to (1) find strong evidence of WMDs and an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection just in time to drag us into a war they were looking for an excuse to launch, (2) torture — excuse the pun — all reason, tradition, and canons of text-construction to somehow conclude that American laws(!) permitted them to treat detainees in ways worthy of Saddam Hussein, and (3) sign off on the legal theory that the president can unilaterally declare someone an “enemy combatant” and detain him indefinitely without review or appeal.

OF COURSE they had memos extolling the virtues of torture! Let us see the documents. All the documents – you can redact any particular info that compromises national security.

*We are going to take anything the Bush people had to say about torture with a large grain of salt. Trust us.

*We are not going to assume that the morality or legality of torture turns on its effectiveness at gaining intelligence, if that is indeed shown to be true. Trust us.

* Most importantly, even if we do decide that those memos completely exonerate the Bush Administration, that’s kind of our prerogative.  Your job is not to direct our opinions. Your job is to tell us the whole truth. Your job is to TRUST US.

The Properties of Property and the Reality of Reality

I was talking yesterday to a friend about my concerns regarding assertions of absolute private “property rights” over stuff taken out of the public domain. My friend, an architect by training, is vehemently opposed to anything that remotely resembles a restraint on commerce and wealth accumulation. She describes herself as “nearly objectivist.” She says she was “a typical liberal intellectual” when she first started studying architecture some twenty years ago. Then, in the Autumn of 1991, she read a little book about a brilliant fictional architect, that turned her around. (That book, if you haven’t guessed, was Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”).

Anyway, she was irritated by my suggestion that any such thing as a “public domain” existed. I tried to press her to consider whether perhaps some things could be considered “commons” (the rivers, the airwaves, the last of the old growth forests, some designated public spaces. . .).“There is no such thing as ‘commons,’” she snapped. “Things don’t exist just because you say they do.”It’s not the first time I have heard statements in this vein. And she’s right to assert that “commons” is purely a construct. It’s nothing more than a proposition I am considering. It was made up by humans who think it might be a useful way to organize our relationship to the world.

But what struck me about my friend’s reaction is her utter failure – or refusal – to recognize that there is also no such thing as “private property” EXCEPT THAT WE SAY THERE IS! It’s fine to argue that “private property” is a more useful or desirable construct than “commons” but to pretend that one is a fabrication and the other is something “natural” is absolutely baseless.

Ultimately, what’s more important in property theory (a) that we all – really and substantively – have the ability to prosper as best as our talents and efforts will allow us without hindering someone else’s ability to do the same or (b) that we have a philosophically pure fantasy of limitless acquisition, even as in reality wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?

Keep in mind, that it is modern capitalism, with all its built in public oversight and limits, that has made more people prosperous than any economic system in the history of civilization. In fact, the longest period of sustained economic robustness characterized by wealth proliferation (rather than concentration) was in postwar, post-New Deal United States. By contrast, the objectivist dream was lived out in the 19th Century, when staggering amounts of wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few Robber Barons.

Just to clarify:
*I’m not arguing against private property. For the record, I do think private property and many aspects of capitalism are useful. I just think that, like most human-made systems, they are flawed, and should be evaluated pragmatically, and modified as necessary.

* To the extent that I would entertain the idea of limiting private property rights it would only be with respect to the world’s finite natural resources, air, water, land. . . . frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. . . NOT property rights in stuff you create yourself (although, most things you create require some natural resources; but that’s beyond the scope of this post).

* Even though I like the idea of “commons” – I like it only in a limited sense, and even then, I don’t claim to know where the lines should be drawn. I am just interested in exploring the idea.

* I understand that even if we figure out the perfect balance between private property and the public commons, there will always be a question as to who gets to administer “public” resources. Governments theoretically represent the public interest, but I think we all know better.

Before you dismiss the entire line of inquiry as either “basic” or “radical” I urge you to consider this: no one has ever made great – or even particularly interesting – leaps in knowledge without going back to first principles. I’m not saying generally accepted first principles have to be abandoned before you can have any insight. I’m saying there has to be a willingness to question them. No matter how good a theory has been in describing the world, as evidence of its weakness starts to pile up, you have to be willing to revisit it. Even Newtonian physics had to make way when Einstein came along with a theory that explained things better at a more complex level. And Newtonian physics gave a much, much better description of real-world phenomena than does classical free-market economic theories.

One or other economic system is not a “natural” order just because it makes use of some recognizable facts about human behavior (any more than basketball is a natural order just because the athletes’ movements and the trajectory of the ball follow certain laws of physics). It’s a game we made up to serve our own purposes. It’s inane to place the rules of a game we invented beyond our own ability to revise and correct when it no longer serves our purpose as well as it could.

There are significant gaps in our understanding of human nature and how best to order our economic relationships. We routinely treat our theories (private property, money, present-value-discounting, etc.) as gospel truth, and we sometimes treat the world’s refusal to comply with our models as an irrational failing on the part of world, instead of as a failing on the part of our economic theologies! As I said in another recent post, our conceptions of reality should always be recognized as such and never taken for reality itself. Reality will always be complex beyond our full comprehension. Our approach toward it will always be asymptotic.

What we can do, as Jacob Bronowski suggested many years ago, is to get at incrementally better and better approximations of some aspect of reality and with each step, open up vast new frontiers of reality about which we know absolutely nothing.

News Banner

Evening news, Monday, March 9, 2009

Something utterly generic about the global economy is being reported as the main story right now. I won’t remember it tomorrow. But I will remember the banner of summary headlines running at the bottom of the screen: Robert Mugabe speaks out against violence at the funeral of Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife; 33 people killed in a bomb attack on reconciliation talks in Iraq; a suicide bomb targets a mosque in Sri Lanka; the militaries of China and US are in a public spat over whether one of them violated international law (either by encroaching on sovereign waters or by harassing a vessel in international waters).

It’s a common claim that the world is full of paradoxes. Philosophers and Zen masters and even quantum physicists have long told us that. Except this time, I’m really, really missing the poetry of it.