Tag Archives: change

E/F – The glass of history

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“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind …  History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”

This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself.  It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw.  But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.

Notes and Credits:  Burke and history and quotations

This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.

Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments.  As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian.  With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.

In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism.  Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown.  (Note:  George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)

A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here.  As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing.  As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state:  “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.”  If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.

In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:

I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .

Notes and Credits:  The teacup

The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea.  It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting.  The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.”  She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin.  She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.

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Teacup, with cap

The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers.  Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.

In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere.  Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here.  She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”

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... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island

Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.  A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973.  After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.

In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island.  Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram.  The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others).  The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors.  In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.

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The truth and change, 1: From Perfection to Dystopia

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime.  In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives:  progress, dystopia, or annihilation.  Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.

Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions.  So it is with the future.  It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different.  The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.

This is the first of three posts on The truth and change.  The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already.  The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.

From perfection to dystopia

The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment.  For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were.  Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past.  Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.  [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]

Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.”  The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.”  In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion.  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.

As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun.  For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.”  In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”  Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others.  The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.

New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn.  People were, in a word, perfectible.  Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989.  One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.

These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings.  He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations.  In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.”  In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.

Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor.  Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become.  The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …

This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”  Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong.  The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated.  The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses).  To wit:  In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.

Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism.  Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.

Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow.  The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it.  Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all.  These were our choices by the time I was growing up:  Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.

The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way.  The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller.  Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found.  They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.

Notes and Credits

The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.

Jefferson’s statement setting aside Qoheleth is cited by Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 199.  Overall, this book is a real treat that shows a rare and impressive achievement of lateral thinking.  To extend your thinking, visit Johnson’s blog, where he is further ruminating on ecosystems, technology, and change.

My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302.  Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.

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