Tag Archives: Featured

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.

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 Fundamentals of Terror

During my month-long visit to India, I have noticed the disturbing trend of “Hindu Fundamentalism,” which mirrors the same sort of culture war incited by all reactionary movements.In fact, there is only one Religious Fundamentalism in the world, designed to cultivate a shared sense of righteous rage at some perceived “enemy” among a certain historically identified group. That group is encouraged to internalize a received set of values purportedly derived from some mythical “fundamental” source of the group’s identity.

Like Christian fundamentalists in the US and Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, the new Hindu incarnation (yes, the pun is intended) of Religious Fundamentalism lashes out at an inchoate “liberal” society, allegedly hell bent on destroying their most cherished traditional values.

But what are these values, really? I don’t know very much about Islam, but scholars say that peace and generosity are its cornerstones. You wouldn’t know it from the explosions. At the very heart of Christianity, is the edict that forbids the faithful to judge others (a power that God has reserved for himself alone) and commands them to “love their neighbor.” Yet Christian “fundamentalists” sit in judgment of anyone who violates their interpretation of God’s will and express nothing but scorn for their neighbors who hold a different view.

As far as I know, Hinduism is an organic, flexible, spiritual tradition with no canonical dictates and a rich heritage of strong female deities. Unlike the monotheistic Semitic faiths, Hinduism – the world’s last great pagan religion – has never cast aspersions on sexuality. Sexuality is a deep spiritual phenomenon in the Hindu scriptural tradition (although the practice of the past several centuries has been woefully anti-female and anti-sex). But if you’re going to make claims based on the “fundamentals” of Hinduism, the pro-female, sexually enlightened spiritual tradition is completely at odds with the stance of Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like Sri Ram Sena, whose (male) members recently raided a pub in Mangalore and violently harassed women who happened to be socializing there. They beat them up for socializing in public instead of staying demurely covered and at home, like the Sri Ram Sena thinks good little Hindu women ought to.

In all three of my examples, the “fundamentalists” have taken the most perverted and oppressive social behavior and forcibly endowed them with a religious justification that is the opposite of the truly fundamental tenets of the cited religion.

The real reason behind oppression – all oppression – is the fear of power dilution. Those who have power want to limit access for everyone else. There are a couple of historically tried and true methods of this. 1) intimidate the masses and 2) exploit whatever characteristics you share with a portion of the masses to develop a fear of difference, so that they will focus their energies on hating others, equally as powerless as themselves, and never even realize that the powerful elite egging them on shares with them only some arbitrary and manufactured “values” and some irrelevant demographic characteristics, but none of the power and privilege.

A big tip off that Religious Fundamentalists are really all the same, is that by far the biggest object of condemnation – across the board, for all fundamentalist movements – is cultural liberalism.

Seems odd on the surface. Secular liberalism is no enemy of religion. It may be indifferent to the supernatural beliefs of particular religions, but its “agenda” of tolerance actually helps religions thrive. But, Religious Fundamentalists are right to perceive liberalism as a grave and mortal threat. Because liberalism is the proposition that all individuals should be free to make peaceful choices about their own lives, it becomes a powerful alternative to the narrow ideologies promoted by those who seek to exclude others from gaining resources and influence through a divide and rule strategy.

To anyone who isn’t keyed into the power structure of the society he or she lives in, but has bought into the idea that enforced traditionalism and intimidation form a legitimate and tenable part of his or her religious or cultural “heritage” I say, remember this: your ability to live your own life in accordance with whatever tradition you identify with, without the threat of someone else taking that away once they ascend to power (and let’s be realistic, empires change hands, they have since the dawn of civilization) will be secured by liberalism and only liberalism.

[photo by Pixabay from Pexels]