Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Soldier Gods Redux

I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper for three years (2007-2009). One of the most explosively controversial was entitled “Soldier Gods,” inspired by the furor surrounding the ad about “General Betray-us.” 
The online progressive group had placed a full-page ad in the New York Times in advance of General Petraeus’ testimony to Congress about the progress of the troop surge in Iraq. The ad’s headline read “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” The ad accused Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House.” (You can’t find it at anymore, they removed the page after President Obama nominated Petraeus to be the top commander in Afghanistan, but here’s the Wikipedia link.)
In the column I questioned the wisdom of offering such deference to the military. One of the greatest strengths of America, I believe, is our ability to make fun of, satirize, and ridicule anyone and everyone without fear. No one is immune, from the president on down. Oh—wrong—everyone except the military.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Life Goes On

Just recently I saw a Robert Frost quote on a Quote of the Day site: “In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.”

This brought to mind an experience I had a number of years ago when I looked at a genealogy chart of my family. I was going through some trouble in my life (although now I can’t remember what it was!) and as I looked at the names, and their dates of birth and death, I thought, “these people went through crises like I’m going through now. They somehow resolved all the crises of their lives until they reached that final crisis, death, that has only one resolution.”

This realization has given me a lot of comfort ever since. Before, when I was in a crisis I would feel as if I were drowning; it felt like life couldn’t possibly go on because this crisis was too hard to solve. It was like a paralysis.

Now I think: it’s just another one of my crises, one in a series. It too will pass, like all the others, until I reach that final crisis in my life. Then I will pass, and that’s all right too, because that is also part of life going on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Destroy My Enemy by Making him My Friend

When Homo sapiens evolved tens of thousands of years ago, we acquired the powerful skill of cooperation within our group. But a side effect was the belief that our group was special. We were The People (a common translation of group’s names for themselves all across the globe).  Other groups were The Other, and, by definition, less than/and or a threat to The People.  As a result we demonized all other groups and fought them when necessary. Over the millennia we have gotten extremely sophisticated in the arts of demonizing The Other as The Enemy. In addition we believe that our survival and, often, the future of the human race, depends on our vanquishing The Enemy.

As a modern example, what is the purpose of the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen if not to eliminate every single member of Al Qaeda?

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our wisest president, had an enlightened view on the idea of “enemy.” Dr. Scott Atran, an anthropologist who wrote a book called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists in 2010, told this story to Krista Tippett on her show “On Being”:

You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he's describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.

An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln says to the woman, "Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" If you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we're reacting to these young [potential Islamic terrorists] around the world.

Dr. Atran went on to discuss the transformative power of the Internet; how it is breaking down those ancient barriers of group and forging a new global identity.

I see the vast possibilities of this world, of a social brain. Just think about the networking possibilities of knowledge and access to knowledge that people have now. I mean, again, people now in New Guinea can link up with what people in New York are doing and work together with their different experiences and come up with new possibilities for human life. And this is happening at an incredibly fast rate and it's something that I don't think our traditional political establishments are at all capable of dealing with and I think there will be huge upheavals as a result, economic and social.

My favorite example of this transformation: watching a cat video on YouTube and realizing the language being spoken isn’t English…the Iranians and Japanese play with their cats just like we do. We are all members of one family, the human family.

[Krista Tippett, "On Being," “Demonstrations, Hopes and Dreams,” Feb 10, 2011.]

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's 2012 Win Bigger than 2008

I am so relieved this morning that Barack Obama has won re-election. From my perspective this is a bigger win for Obama and the liberals of this country than 2008. In that year the country was suffering from Bush fatigue, with a terrifying collapse of the economy added for good measure. And the Republican nominee for vice-president revealed herself to be absurdly unqualified (If you've forgotten, watch Game Change--it was actually worse than I knew at the time).

This time Obama had plenty of obstacles: high unemployment, a large part of his base were disappointed and ambivalent about voting (myself included), the Republicans were pushing voting rules all across the country that would suppress the liberal vote, and a torrent of dark money unleashed by Citizens United was aimed against him. No president since FDR has won re-election with unemployment so high. 2010 was a rout for the Democrats because disaffected liberals stayed home. 80% of the dark money in this election went to Republicans. And Obama won anyway, and not just in the electoral college. After all the votes are counted he should have a lead of a couple of percentage points in the popular vote. In addition, Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and even one in the House.

I voted because I thought the Republican Party needed to be punished for their obstructionism in the last four years and their attempts to prevent people from voting. Early reports seem to indicate that voting turnout was higher this year than in 2008, and I think this is because there were plenty of liberals like me who felt the right-wing could not be rewarded for their unpatriotic actions. I don't think the Republicans and FOX News were prepared for this liberal voter surge--they thought their base was more fired up.

I wrote an optimistic blog post in September saying that the American people were rejecting conservative ideology. After Obama's first debate performance and Romney's October surge I was afraid I had been wrong in my assessment. This morning I feel like I was vindicated in my optimism.

This country has changed. One look at the two campaign headquarters last night reflected another reason why the Democrats are winning. It was just like the conventions: the Chicago crowd was multicultural and young, while the Boston crowd was white and old. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post writes about the 1% crowd allowed in to Romney headquarters.

This isn't just a win for Obama. This is a huge win for our country.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Disasters Reveal Cooperation is Part of Human Nature

Whenever a natural disaster hits, like last week’s Hurricane Sandy, reporters love to find heart-warming stories of people helping strangers to balance out the heartbreak of loss. The reporters always speak as if this is an unusual form of human behavior brought out by special circumstances; the unspoken assumption is that ordinary human behavior is completely selfish.

For centuries now Western societies have believed that humans were basically evil: first the Christian dogma of original sin held sway, and for the last few hundred years philosophers and biologists have argued that the natural order, humans included, is all selfish competition: Nature is “red in tooth and claw” (from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem).

This gloomy appraisal of nature is now being upended by scientists across a number of specialties. Biologists are discovering that cooperation and symbiotic relationships are common features of the natural order (watch an interview I did with a biologist discovering a symbiotic relationship between spiders and carnivorous pitcher plants).

E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, presents the idea that the reason humans have become the dominant animal on the planet is because we learned to cooperate.

Dr. Wilson is a specialist in ants, and he argues that the creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. Among creatures larger than microorganisms and roundworms, eusocial insects are the little things that run the terrestrial world.”

At some point in the evolution of human beings, after we split off from chimpanzees, hominids started cooperating, as I wrote in an earlier post. Unlike ants, humans are not genetically identical within a colony. This means we have two opposing tendencies in our nature: selfish competition to ensure our genes survive combined with altruistic cooperation to ensure our group survives. The tension between these two tendencies creates what we call “human nature.” Dr. Wilson writes, “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature.” But this conflict is what has made us so successful in our evolution.

Dr. Wilson cites research by Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) that points out “that the primary difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions. The human specialty is intentionality, fashioned from an extremely large working memory.” We not only express our own intentions, we can read other’s intentions relatively easily. “From infancy we are predisposed to read the intention of others, and quick to cooperate if there is even a trace of shared interest. In one revealing experiment, children were shown how to open the door to a container. When adults tried to open the door but pretended not to know how, the children stopped what they were doing and crossed the room to help. Chimpanzees put in the same circumstance, but far less advanced in cooperative awareness, made no such effort.”
Dr. Tomasello concludes in this essay on his book Why We Cooperate, “It seems that Rousseau, not Hobbes, was right in the first place: humans are born helpful, or at least they become so very early in development before much active socialization and teaching has taken place.”
American culture is built on the idea of the self-sufficient individual—the pioneer family making it on their own, the cowboy riding the range alone. What would our culture look like if we celebrated our cooperative nature as much as our competitive nature? I found an essay online that spoke very well to this idea:

We don't talk about a desire to do a thing well for its own sake.  We don't talk about the incentives of achievement.  For example, would a manufacturer work to make a better product if there were public awards for such craftsmanship?  Would there be an incentive if the competition were non-destructive. . . if the goal were to make the best and be recognized rather than to make the better and kill the competitor's business?  We don't talk about how well the public can be served by unified objectives, where all work toward a common goal and divide labor in a sane manner.  Within companies, teams are brought together with planning to get to a single goal, and this works very well.  Why can't this happen between businesses?  It worked well for the Apollo project. 

Humans learned to overcome the deeply embedded instinct of selfishness over a hundred thousand years ago. I think we are up to the challenge of changing our culture today.