Category Archives: Change

Guacamole substitute choices

 

green-dip

One night last week, as I was leaving from meeting with some old friends at a bar (while staying entirely sober myself, so as to drive legally) I realized that I didn’t have any milk at home for having with breakfast. As it happened there was a little convenience store of Finland’s K-Market chain just down the street from the bar, so I took a quick buzz over there to pick up a few basics.

By way of cultural background, Finland has two major domestic retailers for foodstuffs and basic household supplies: the K-shop chain and the S-shop chain. In many small towns you have just two competing grocery stores, one representing each conglomerate. In both of the shopping malls close to my apartment there is a section for groceries with a large S-chain supermarket (named Prisma) on one side of the main aisle and a large K-chain supermarket (named Citymarket) on the other side. Between them they don’t quite have a monopoly, but they pretty much dominate the market. For various historical reasons if I have to choose between the two I tend to go with S-shops, but I don’t religiously shop at either, and I don’t hold a “preferred customer card” for either as a matter of principle: When it comes to groceries I’m a registered independent.

In any case, as happens once in a while, I found myself in a little K-Market. I found the milk and sundries that I was looking for easily enough but when it came to addressing the munchies I had developed while sitting in the bar most of what I might have found tempting was either out of stock or way over-priced. That’s when I happened to notice a jar labelled in Finnish simply as “Green Dip Sauce”…

The style of the jar was of the sort which K-markets and S-markets, and all of their smaller competitors, use to sell different varieties of generic imitation Mexican chip dip. Such products tend to come in three basic varieties: tomato-based, cheese substitute-based and imitation avocado-based. In bigger shops you can also find the tomato variety at least in the further variations of mild, medium and hot, though those designations are very relative to the Finnish palate. In fact there’s nothing especially authentic or Mexican about any of them, but as something to dip cheap corn chips in to keep your mouth and fingers busy while studying, driving or watching TV, they sort of work… most of the time.

With that in mind this “Green Dip Sauce” sparked my curiosity. It was clear what it was imitating, but nowhere on the front label did it contain the words “Mexican”, “avocado” or “guacamole,” even with the qualifier of “-style”. As it was moderately priced as such things go, and as I had a pretty bad case of munchies to deal, with I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Let me further confess here that such things are something of a guilty pleasure for me –– though in fact I don’t feel all that guilty about them and I actually don’t get that much pleasure out of them. Even so, I know that they aren’t really “good for me” or all that sustainable as consumer choices. At best they help me procrastinate eating “real food” and perhaps reduce the amount of “real food” I need to consume as part of my daily routines. It’s sort of a “for what it’s worth” question, which for me isn’t that much.

Real guacamole, on the other hand, is a fine “real food” for me to indulge in every now and again. Real guacamole –– the sort “so authentic that Donald Trump would build a wall around it” as that Mexican restaurant in Norway advertises –– should be made up of about half avocado mass, with the rest of its composition being a combination of tomato, onion, dairy products and spices. As long as the things you dip in it or season with it are relatively healthy (i.e. not corn chips) guacamole can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. Once in a great while I take the trouble to mix up a batch of it for myself at home. You can also buy some pricier gourmet varieties of pre-mixed guacamole here, which are pretty close to authentic, but to be honest with you I’m rarely ready to dish out the premium price for such. If I was stricter about eating healthy I would avoid such guacamole substitutes entirely, but I yam what I yam.

Yet the dip that I picked up that evening wasn’t even overtly pretending to be guacamole. Later reading the fine print on the label and comparing it to that on a jar of “Tex Mex Guacamole” from the S-market, I found that whereas the latter had only 6% avocado, this “green dip sauce… containing peppers, onions, cheese and avocado” had an actual avocado percentage of 0.7! At that level my ex-girlfriend, who is mildly allergic to avocado, could probably eat it without having any adverse reactions whatsoever!

At that point I effectively realized, this product was like the Donald Trump of snack foods. Its artificial color came from a completely different side of the spectrum, but other than that, the more I thought about it the stronger the analogy seemed to be. I guess I need to unpack that for you.

The Donald has become one of two products for people to choose between within his particular product group. The fact that there aren’t more choices available is a significant problem unto itself. In both American politics and the Finnish grocery distribution system both of competing operators seem to show little concert for product quality, assuming (for the most part rightly) that consumers can’t really tell the difference between authentic ingredients and cheap by-products used as fillers. But things have now come to the point where the choice is between a product that pretends to be somewhat authentic (Hillary, or the S-markets’ “guacamole”) and a product that is honest enough not even to pretend to be authentic (Donald, or the K-markets’ “green dip sauce”).

What, in terms of this analogy, would the real “avocado” be? In short, the democratic ideal. Democracy is theoretically designed to prevent those who own the most stuff from using their advantage to determine how the less economically advantaged are going to live. When it comes to how the government is run and how the basic rules of society are determined, in theory the rich man’s interests are no more important than the poor man’s interests: everyone’s vote counts equally, and thus no aristocratic minority can tell the less advantaged majority how they are going to live. The concept of a republic in turn stipulates that no royalty or oligarchy ––traditional or newly self-appointed –– is entitled to dominance over their country’s government affairs. Regardless of which word you use, in theory the principle is the same: it is the interest of the majority, organized within constitutional principles of “justice for all”, that determines how a government is to be run.

Well, fairly obviously in the case of American politics these days, neither presidential candidate has much of that sort of “avocado” in them. Ms. Clinton has got richer and built a stronger personal power base through insider favoritism and using the status quo power structures to her personal advantage than any other “public servant” in living memory. No matter how you feel about the good and/or harm she has done during her political career, and how much personal remuneration you feel she is justly entitled to, I don’t think the way she has played the system to her own personal advantage can be denied. It takes far more faith in femininity, or in humanity in general, than I have to believe that she honestly stands for the good of the people above and beyond promoting her own prejudices and selfish interests. If the generic “guacamole” from S-Markets here contains approximately 6% actual avocado, I’d say that could be a fairly accurate estimation of how much authentic public interest Ms. Clinton contains in matters that don’t serve her own personal interests.

It’s easy to see why many would be so passionately opposed to such a person leading the nation that they would choose whatever candidate most powerfully embodies their resentments in this regard. So it should come as no surprise that so many have gravitated towards a candidate whose campaign has been based more on hate-mongering, alpha-male posturing and naked personal ambition than any potential world leader since World War II. (A close second to Trump by those standards would be his soul mate, Vladimir Putin, but that’s beside the point.) Thus the mentality that anything must be better than Clinton has led to her political rivals marketing of a product that contains less than a quarter the minuscule amount of authentic public interest that Ms. Clinton has!

Representing Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election is, to me, as absurd as buying “green dip sauce” because you believe that it is “healthier” and “less artificial” than the competing “guacamole”! There is little credible evidence that he contains more than the smallest possible trace amounts of the sort of public interest we should be looking for in a president. Those who would attribute such interest to him are demonstrating but one thing: Trump is more intelligent than they are.

However the bigger issue is for us to consider is how, in terms of this analogy, we might get the United States onto something which more closely resembles a healthy diet. Given the woeful state of American education in social sciences and basic thinking skills in particular, maybe the country deserves such a completely junk food choice –– though tragically the rest of the world will have to live with this choice as well. Is there something we can do about this?

Going back to matter of green dips, in taking care of my own health it would be better for me not to dip my chips in either of the artificial alternatives available. Neither one offers the health benefits of consuming the “good fats” contained in avocados. If people here were to stop buying both forms of commonly available guacamole substitute, the conglomerates might simply reach the conclusion that people don’t really care for avocado flavored things in general, and they might pull all products representing themselves as avocado-based off of their shelves. But like, so what? I might actually be healthier for it. Likewise when it comes to the choice before American voters, though there is a clear difference between the products, the still greater discrepancy is still between either candidate and the standards that we should ideally be holding our politicians to. In those terms voting for either of the given alternatives seems to do more to condone a system that gives us such pathetic choices than it does to claim responsibility for our health and our future. Maybe we need to refuse to vote for either.

But here the analogy starts to break down a bit. It is pretty much self-evident that we will be force fed one of these two artificial alternatives. Furthermore, if the major political parties see that people aren’t voting in elections the equivalent to “taking the product off the market” for them is not to stop wielding authority, but to stop even pretending to care about the will of the people; pursuing their naked power interests with even greater impunity. Dismissing all pretense that a nation is governed according to the will of its people is the exact recipe for a shift to overt Fascism. We really do not want to see the United States go there!

What if we, by analogy, show the conglomerates that we are willing to defy their power by buying higher quality products from other distributors? In other words what if we vote for third party candidates as a way of sending a message to the big two? Could that work? Perhaps, though this year I’m having my doubts. The closer you look, the harder it is to take either the Libertarian or Green Party candidates as anything resembling healthy alternatives. Yet even so, the more votes which are actually cast this year for those other than the two-party alternatives, the greater the chance is that one or both of these major parties will wake up enough to start adding more genuine public interest into their products. No, I don’t consider that chance to be particularly strong in any case, but perhaps it is worth trying at least.

Given the trace amounts of arsenic that Trump as a candidate has been recently shown to contain (figuratively speaking), in terms of boasting of practicing criminal sexual harassment, it seems more likely that we’ll be faced with Ms. Clinton as part of our political diet for the next few years, though I don’t want to underestimate the stupidity of my countrymen enough to dismiss the risk that Trump could still win. That leaves many of us with a difficult decision: Is it more important to make sure that, in spite of ignorant prejudices of many of our countrymen, a toxic candidate with no redeeming moral values does not inadvertently become president; or is it more important to send a message to the establishment parties that these sorts of candidates with their near complete lack of concern for people’s best interests and the good of the nation, are unacceptable to us as citizens? I don’t really have a good answer on that one.

All that being said, there are three public statements about the race by American jesters of different sorts that I particularly appreciate:

Scott Adams:
“Keep in mind that a big part of Trump’s persuasive genius is a complete disregard for facts and reality.”

Penn Jilette:
“There are two things that I always believed about modern politics:
1. Everyone who had ever run for major office was smarter than me.
2. There was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump.”

Andy Borowitz:
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

So, my dear American friends, please follow your conscience in voting next month, trying to do what you can to help the country, without being entirely stupid about it. And may God save us from what, largely through the influence of my fellow Evangelical Christians, the United States seems to have become.

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Post Script: The empty jar of “guacamole style” dip, containing just 3.7% avocado, that I had at home, which I used for comparison when I started writing this actually did not come from an S-market, but from the Lidl chain. For purpose of the operative analogy  here that would make it something like the Gary Johnson of guacamole substitutes. On more careful examination I found that the S-chain of grocery stores sells a generic product which claims to be actual guacamole, containing 6%  real (Peruvian) avocado according to its content specifications. I have now corrected the above text accordingly. I wish to formally apologize to any representatives of Prisma and/or associated business for exaggerating the artificiality of their product in the previous version of this article.

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Filed under Change, Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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The Balance of Solidarity

This weekend’s entry is sort of a stream of consciousness follow-up on one of the afternoon sessions I attended at the university this week regarding a phrase that carries a very positive connotation in Finnish, but translated into English, especially in with reference to the US political scene, it comes off more as something of a curse these days: “The Welfare State”.

The afternoon in question featured a PR event for a research project jointly sponsored by an insurance company and the university itself, basically looking at the theme of how the societal values that are of deep cultural importance to the Finns can be protected from the draconian “invisible hand of the market” which, taken from an Americanized perspective, would seem to point to the law of the economic jungle inevitably leading to the ever greater polarization of developed societies into a “financial class” and a separate “service class”. Ironically perhaps, the name of the research initiative is “Masterclass”.

I won’t go into the details of the theories that were being tossed about this week by the business interests, Green Party politicians, left-of-center social theory researchers and professors representing the “ivory tower” academic establishment. Suffice to say, the main topics of discussion related to theories regarding how the private, public and tertiary sectors of the economy should ideally relate to each other. For me this simply led to my mind wandering in a number of interesting directions. Interesting to me at least; it remains to be seen whether anyone else finds the paths my mind started to wander down interesting or not.

The core thought that struck my mind that afternoon was that I would agree with one point that Pope John Paul II kept coming back to throughout his papacy, even though he drifted further and further from it the older he got. It was the motto he chose for himself: “Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity” (from his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39). I’m firmly convinced that he was right about this: the only way for us to have peace is if we find ways to build solidarity with those around us.

Solidarity4The essence of the hope that Finns have in the welfare state is in the idea of the state serving as a mechanism by means of which all citizens come together, in solidarity, to confront the challenges faced by vulnerable individuals or smaller groups within society –– whether it be in terms of the harsh climate and likelihood of famine when dependent on Finnish domestic agriculture for the nation’s basic food supply, or the risks posed by having a long border with a massive country historically governed by unstable megalomaniacs to the east, or the human tragedies of personal and family breakdowns caused by people self-medicating in various ways in reaction to the stresses of day-to-day life. With all these factors taken into consideration, if life is going to work at all in this country it has to work on the basis of people coming together in a sense of solidarity –– no one gets left behind; everyone counts. Nor is this strictly a Finnish dilemma or solution; more and more the same lesson is being seen in other parts of the world as well, even those where life is not as naturally stressful as it is in this little corner of Europe: we either build solidarity or we build internal conflicts that will inevitably destroy us.

Building this kind of solidarity, however, is no simple matter. It involves a number of forms of delicate balance in order to function. The key to a viable society, which is not on its way to becoming a failed state, is for the people to sense that they have a stake in the system of government, which in turn is able to bring people together, in spite of their differences, with the conviction that they have greater enemies to face than each other. This doesn’t mean that all of the people of the country need to feel like one big happy family together, but it does mean that they have a sense of mutual respect in their interactions, and an awareness of their dependence on each other.

I would define requirement this as finding a workable balance between dynamics of competition and cooperation. If people lose all of their competitive drive in the process of performing traditional tasks and coming up with valuable new ideas, their societies will inevitably drift down through mediocrity into irrelevance. But if the competition becomes so cut-throat that they are no longer able to work together to achieve important shared goals, the competitive instinct starts to do far more harm than good. Thus, as I have written earlier here, I’m inclined to consider competitive comparison, when it serves as an end unto itself, to be the lowest basic form of human motivation. Throw it away entirely though and you’re also in very deep trouble. Like I said, balance.

bmp_republicans_support_corporate_greed_bumper_sticker-rf99478b65c83442898c1641ecfe6dab2_v9wht_8byvr_324Related to this is the process of establishing a healthy level of ambition within the society as a whole. To state the matter in negative terms, when it comes to ambition there are two extremes that can destroy the potential for solidarity within a society: greed and laziness. Those who are driven to get every possible form of reward for themselves, hell-bent on domination of all human and material obstacles in their path, cannot learn to treat other people as anything else than stepping stones on their path to ultimate domination. Solidarity will never be possible with such people. Likewise those who cannot be bothered to do make any effort beyond the minimum needed to avoid acute personal pain, who have no interest in improving life for themselves and those they care about in the long run, lazy-democratscan never be trusted or respected as valuable partners within a communal spirit of solidarity. Thus when others are seen as either too greedy or too lazy, solidarity inevitably begins to break down. So in order for solidarity to function, we need to have some sort of limits on the amount of greed and the amount of laziness that we consider to be socially acceptable, and we need to have means by which we limit extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum.

More importantly in this regard though, we need to avoid falling prey to hate-mongering regarding others who wish to demonize those at a different point than they are on the continuum from least ambitious to most ambitious. The extreme of laziness at which a person becomes useless to society is actually quite rare. Likewise the prevalence of abusive psychopaths among the most greedily ambitious leaders in the worlds of politics and business management is probably quite exaggerated. When we find excuses to think of other people as less than human, and either toss them aside by blaming all of their misfortunes on their inherent laziness or demonize all good fortune as a sign of psychopathic greed, solidarity ceases to function no matter how hard those at the bottom and those at the top try to work together with those in the middle. In order to build solidarity we need to resist the temptation to demonize each other in such ways.

This leads to yet another balance factor that needs to be considered in the process of building solidarity: the balance between trust and incentivizing. Solidarity cannot function in a police state where the only form of personal motivation people experience is the fear of getting caught doing less good or more harm than what they are officially allowed. There needs to be a certain level of trust between people for anything resembling solidarity to function. Yet at the same time there need to be some sort of mechanisms in place by which appreciation is regularly shown to those who make significant efforts to accomplish things for the good of all, and sanctions are regularly given to those whose behavior damages the sense of solidarity within the group. Neither complete absence of official control nor dependence on absolute authoritarian control is functional in this regard. There are, however, countless variables regarding cultural norms, individual emotional maturity factors, social adjustment processes, etc. which play roles in determining how much trust and how much incentivizing is needed to enable solidarity to grow within any given society. There are many cases where we just need to take chances on other people, hoping for the best in terms of future solidarity.

expl no smThat leads to one final balance factor required for the solidary society: risk management. For any society to grow and flourish there need to be chances taken with new and different ways of doing things, many of which “break the rules” of traditional ways of doing things; yet at the same time we as a society have strong vested interests in preventing people from taking particular types of risks such as drunk driving, smoking in places where explosives are stored, and (sorry Second Amendment fundamentalists) carrying loaded firearms in crowded public places. Thus, while we need to both allow and encourage some risk taking, we also need to restrict and penalize other risk taking. The best guide we have to go on in terms of which risks should be encouraged and which risks should be prevented is our collective historical experience, but that will never provide us with a completely reliable guideline as to which risks are worth taking and which risks are unjustifiable. And beyond all the risks that are taken on purpose, some of the most fortuitous new discoveries in human history have happened because of risks people never intended to take. What else can we say about such things beyond reciting back to ourselves Alexander Graham Bell’s famous panicked words, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”

In calling attention to all of these balance factors I am quite aware that all I am really doing is offering a contemporary application of the principle of the “Golden Mean” that Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethic. His primary examples, for individual life, were that in order to flourish as a person, every man needs the proper amount of three things in particular: food, wine and sex. Too much or too little of any of those could prevent him from properly flourishing as a satisfied and virtuous person, but the precise optimal amount of any of them is rather impossible to determine by some basic generalized formula. The same balance principle, writ larger, is then in many ways the best starting point for enabling solidarity within a healthy society.

If we are able to work out these factors of solidarity in practice we really have relatively little else to worry about in life these days. When it comes down to it, the greatest risks that each of us face on a day-to-day basis are not those of natural disaster, attack by wild animals or a complete unavailability of the material resources needed to maintain human life. The greatest risks we face are those brought about by conflicts with other human beings and the long-term effects on our environment being caused by other human beings. If we find ways to work those things out, the rest is a piece of cake. But saying that this is our only serious concern is, as an old classmate of mine once said, “like saying that the Titanic’s only problem was ‘too much ice.’” People’s instinctive drive towards solidarity is rather limited at best. Finding ways of building solidarity as a means of enabling peace and sustainability is indeed far easier said than done.

One thing that needs to be remembered in this process, however, is that “laws of economics” are not to be taken overly seriously in this process. Such laws are not “God-given precepts” regarding how human labor and cooperation need to function; they are human inventions and evolving social conventions that we as humans are entirely free to change if and when we find more functional means of incentivizing solidarity on all different levels. If economic structures do more harm than good in terms of enabling solidarity, there is no transcendent natural law out there to prevent us from changing things. The problem is merely that the people who currently have the most power within the system would of course have a vested interest in preventing change, even if it would be massively better for humanity as a whole.

Thus the excuse that “we don’t have enough money” as an excuse not to build greater solidarity within our societies is actually rather abstract at best. Money is nothing more than a means of keeping score of who is willing to do what for whom. Wealth, in concrete terms, is ultimately not based on such value calculating games, but on people’s willingness to work together and contribute to each other’s well-being through their various constructive and cooperative efforts. (While in most matters I strongly disagree with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Joseph Ratzinger, and while they too have very limited areas of ideological agreement, on this point they entirely agree with each other and I agree with both of them.) So when we so that so-and-so has this much money, and that this-and-that is this far in debt, what that actually means is that according to the current mechanisms for enabling cooperation between people, the wealth holder is in the position of justifiably expecting more to be done for her by others in the future and the debtor is in the position of being expected to do more for others in the future in exchange for favors he has already received. That’s really all there is to it. As long as such understandings provide the most reliable means of maintaining and improving human solidarity, we should accept their continuation. When it is clear that they are doing more harm than good, we should start some sort of revolution to change them… before those currently holding the reins of power destroy the possibility of peaceful and sustainable human life on this planet entirely.

There are many other theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological and political arguments I could try to toss out in favor of the points made above, but it’s probably best to leave my rambling thoughts at that for now. As a means of summarizing all of this and tying it all together though, let me just say that in order to protect all that is dear to us we really need to improve out means of building solidarity with each other, and to do that we need to achieve a sense of balance in four basic areas: integration, ambition, trust and risk-taking. Perhaps someday I can arrange those into a catchy acronym that will help people remember them and build on those principle in order to help us save the world from ourselves. For now I’ll just keep doing the best I can to build on the solidarity I’m already experiencing in life.

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Filed under Change, Control, Economics, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Risk taking, Social identity, Sustainability

Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

This week I have begun my autumn studies again, taking an intensive “summer school” course run by the University of Helsinki. Already my cynical and contrary nature has got me into trouble with the lead instructor of the course, but that was sort of to be expected. Also as expected I have met some fascinating individuals and thinkers from a number of different countries, and I have been challenged to expand my frame of reference accordingly.

The essence of the course curriculum thus far has been to reinforce that cynical adage, “Remember, you are entirely unique, just like everyone else.” More specifically, the idea has been to de-essentialize the concept of culture –– to make “culture” something of a dirty word –– to imply that within each given “culture” there is too much variety for the word to have a proper meaning. The focus of the ideological agenda underlying this denial is to completely subjugate acquired statuses to achieved statuses. According to the ideology in question, one’s ethnic heritage, sex, land of birth and genetically determined physical attributes should be considered entirely irrelevant; and one should be assigned status based strictly on ones chosen identity constructs and one’s accomplishments within one’s chosen field: Native born, taller, lighter skinned or more masculine individuals should never automatically have a higher status than immigrants, short people, dark skinned or feminine/effeminate folk; but academics should always have a higher status than manual laborers and “scientific” thinkers should always have a higher status than “less scientific” thinkers. Stereotypes must also be limited to areas of achieved status: the instructor is perfectly comfortable saying that wives who have converted to their husbands’ religion of Islam are all a certain way, but God forbid if anyone say that Finns in general are prone to display particular cultural characteristics.

Those of you who are familiar with my style of thought and interaction might understand then how my responses to such premises might get me into trouble. I’m all for as much equal opportunity and acceptance of idiosyncratic identities as we can possibly socially engineer, but I also believe in accepting human variety and the rich quilts of identity factors that make each of us who we are for what they are. I find denial of the existence of ascribed status factors on ideological grounds to be naively counterproductive at least; a mark of deep social-psychological maladjustment at worst. Anyway…

Donskis in HelsinkiProbably the most valuable academic input I have received from this course thus far has been a reminder of the value of the works of Zygmunt Bauman, and encouragement to read some of his works of the past decade. My last consideration of Bauman was actually back in the 90’s, by way of a philosopher of my own generation (actually 2 weeks younger than me) named Leonidas Donskis. Donskis visited in Helsinki briefly as he was finalizing his doctorate here, and through mutual acquaintances I became his unofficial tour guide for part of that time. Among other things he told me that Bauman would have been his official opponent in his defense of his PhD dissertation, were it not for the fact that Helsinki refused to make an exception to the rules to allow the distinguished professor to smoke within the university’s auditoriums: The chain-smoking Bauman refused to put himself in a position of having to philosophize for over two hours without his pipe!

bauman w pipeI remember enjoying immensely my chats with Donskis about Bauman and other intellectual matters, but since then I hadn’t read any of Bauman’s subsequent works… until this week. After the first day’s summer school lectures I went and raided the B shelf of the sociology section of the university library, to my own deep satisfaction. I have found Bauman’s works thoroughly inspiring again, providing a fresh yet familiar and suitably authoritative perspective on many of the issues which occupy my mind these days. In particular, in the interview-based book On Education, “co-written” by Riccardo Mazzeo last year (2012), he has provided a beautifully elegant explanation for the varying purposes of education, which contains the best argument I have yet to come across as to why philosophy needs to be part of compulsory schooling, especially in “Western” countries in our current era.

Bauman tosses out the analogy of ballistic missiles as a starting point here. The earliest forms for these were cannonballs and artillery shells, where if you knew the weight and aerodynamic properties of the projectile, the positioning of the barrel out of which it was fired, and the explosive force of the gun powder propelling it, you could calculate with little or no error where that sucker was going to land and what sort of damage it would do once it got there. By adjusting the charge, the barrel position and perhaps the flight properties of the projectile, within certain technical limits you could pretty much choose where you wanted it to go and how much damage you wanted it to do… as long as you were shooting at a fixed target. If you wanted to take out a fortified wall, with enough power and persistence you could do it. If you wanted to take out a bunch of soldiers dug into their trenches, the right sort of rocket would do the job. But if you’re shooting at a fast moving rider, or tank, or fighter jet, which can see your missile coming and change course to get out of the missile’s path, the missile’s usefulness becomes much more limited.

ArtilleryEnter “smart bombs”. These weapons are equipped with electronic sensors which either pick up on the heat signature or the magnetic properties of what they are designed to destroy, and to continuously change course while in flight until they make contact with their desired target. They are designed to “think for themselves” somewhat about how to achieve their pre-determined goals. They can still be fooled by some rather basic strategic expedients, but their advance over basic pre-aimed rockets, bullets and artillery shells is obvious.

This sort of military technology could be taken significantly further though: A further robotized missile could, conceivably, be fired into an enemy encampment with programming that would allow it to “choose” the most valuable target that it would be capable of destroying once it got there. So if the missile in question were able to sense and identify a strategic bunker which it would not be able to penetrate, a fighter/bomber jet idle on the runway and a mess tent with two soldiers in it having coffee, its programming could enable it to automatically target the jet rather than the less strategically valuable individual soldiers and the less plausibly destroyable bunker.

These levels of sophistication in military technology correspond, albeit imperfectly, in Bauman’s analysis, with three levels of educational sophistication identified over 50 years ago by Gregory Bateson. At the most basic level you have what has elsewhere been called “mug and jug” education: where the teacher pours information from her ample reserves of such (the “jug”) into the passively receptive student’s intellectual receptacle (the “mug”), with hopes that this information to be uncritically accepted and reliably remembered. This strategy was effective and perfectly workable when the student was expected to follow a preset pattern of performing simple repetitive tasks with relatively few variables involved, yielding reliable results. If the student was to be a factory worker, a farm hand, a plumber or a vending machine maintenance man, having a basic knowledge of mathematics, language, physics and biology which enabled him to perform these routine tasks was really all that was necessary. By analogy it was a simple matter of treating the student like a basic ballistic projectile to be fired at given “fixed targets” of working life.

Education in "the good old days"

Education in “the good old days”

As these targets have become less fixed, however, it has become more necessary to “program” students to track on moving targets, leading to what Bauman describes as Bateson’s “deutero-learning” formulation –– aimed at developing a “cognitive framework” by means of which to absorb and process information, thus allowing for continuous “course corrections” throughout working life. The current vogue for “life-long learning” is based on this sort of premise.

The third level is where the military analogy begins to break down in terms of capturing Bateson’s original formula. It involves the deconstruction of the cognitive frameworks used in the second level of education, thus enabling the learner to critically analyze, reject and/or maybe rebuild the cognitive structures in question. In other words the student can question the prescribed targets of her/his education and choose for herself/himself what is worth “shooting at”. Bateson (according to Bauman) speaks of this as a “counter-educational” phenomenon to be avoided. Bateson saw it as pathological; Bauman sees it as inevitable.

From Bauman’s perspective, given the unpredictability of the future for which we are educating young people, we cannot reliably tell them what challenges they will be facing once they arrive at their “target”. Thus, rather than giving them solid instructions as to “the only right way of doing things” or “the goals of professional life” they should set out to attain, we should be equipping them to “choose their own targets” based on criteria we can help them develop. We need to enable young people to decide for themselves what sorts of goals are worth pursuing once they see what the as yet unknown future looks like. This entails the risk that they will choose entirely different sorts of goals than their parents or teachers had in mind, but it puts them in the position of being equipped to make responsible decisions based on better information than what we can offer them, given the distance at which we stand from their ultimate objectives.

I really couldn’t agree more with the implications of Bauman’s ideas here. Given the uncertainty of the world in which we live, the most important thing we can educate our young people to do is to think for themselves about what is ultimately important to them and how they can best realize the broader goals they set for themselves. This makes some form of education in philosophy absolutely essential at the primary and secondary levels of education –– “Philosophy” being the best name currently available for instruction in the collective skill set needed to evaluate the reliability of information we are basing our decisions on, contemplate the significant variables which lie beyond the scope of currently available information, and consider alternative means of determining the best course of action. School systems ignore and belittle these skills to their own peril. We can do far better in these regards, so let’s get moving on the revolution which enables us to do so!

But meanwhile I must get back to the tasks at hand: hopelessly trying to show some resemblance of sincere respect for the powers that be in the academic contexts in which I find myself. Wish me luck…

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Filed under Change, Education, Individualism, Philosophy, Purpose, Social identity

Catch my Drift?

I began writing this in flight last week, as the new post-South Africa phase of my life officially began. I had just surrendered the keys to my apartment of the previous 10 months the day before, and I was in route back to Finland, where I had arranged to stay with friends until I am “back on my feet.”

It was a strange feeling to be officially homeless just then; not so much frightening as just strange.

Since then I have agreed with my friends to stay on in their guest quarters here behind the garage for the next couple of months, doing yard work and pool repairs and the like to earn my keep, but I still have a limited idea of where life will be leading me from here.

In some ways I feel as though I am living out other people’s fantasy self-image: no long-term commitments to living up to anyone’s day-to-day expectations; and consequently no solid ground under my feet in terms of home, job, family, etc. In some respects I’m in the personal identity equivalent of the freefall stage of a bungee jump. I know that there are mechanisms in place to keep me from smashing onto the rocks below, but that doesn’t keep the feeling of helpless uncertainty from being very real.

As this situation has been taking shape some of my peers and acquaintances –– pretty much all of whom have more stable and anchored life situations than myself –– have been trying to encourage me with optimistic statements of faith that God and/or fate having something wonderful in store for me. Suffice to say, fate and I have a rather uneasy relationship. Yes, on the big scale of things I’ve been luckier than most, but that doesn’t mean that in cases of uncertainty I automatically assume that I’m about to experience some fabulous lucky break. Life hasn’t dependably offered me wonderful things right when I’ve needed them at any particular point along the way. Rather I seem to have batches of unusual, bizarre and painful experiences at times like this. As one fellow recently put it, I often seem to be more “at odds with the universe” than anyone else he knows. So not knowing what is likely to happen next is not a particularly positive experience for me.

I am still what many would call a rather religious person in some regards –– I believe that there is a God out there who fundamentally cares about life on our planet and who even takes a personal interest in funky individuals like myself. I believe that this God has some sort of a plan for my life, and that a lot of what we call “fate” can be more fruitfully considered in these terms. Overall I believe that looking at the world with this sort of optimism makes me a far healthier person, though it also has its risks. I acknowledge that if someone chooses to believe differently than I do in this matter there is little I can do to prove to them that I’m right and they’re wrong. And even if I’m not making a colossal mistake in entertaining such beliefs –– in other words, assuming that I’m essentially right about the idea that there is a God out there who personally cares about us –– that doesn’t necessarily imply that he would have a plan that involves giving me personal importance and/or a sense of bliss in the immediate future. In fact I must admit that trusting my limited understanding of what God might want to do with my life rather than putting a serious effort into practical strategic planning has, in retrospect, led to some of my biggest mistakes in life. In the balance I still think my faith has been a good thing in terms of enriching my day to day life –– believing that there is some sort of divine plan involved in my life has given me the courage to set off on adventures that would have otherwise been too intimidating to even consider –– it just doesn’t give me any immediate assurance that things currently beyond my control are about to work out wonderfully.

And that leads to the tricky question of balance, where I have to decide how tight a grip I must try to keep on things I associate with comfort and familiarity. How much control do I really need? How “in charge” does a person have to be? When is it time to make up our minds about what we want and pursue those goals with tireless determination, and when is it time to just unfurl our sails and see where the wind takes us?

I don’t believe there are general answers to such questions that apply in all circumstances. I must admit that my own process of relating to such things has been largely one of trial and error. Sometimes I’ve been accused of clinging to old ideas and certainties far too tenaciously, and sometimes I’ve been accused of being far too laissez-faire about my own life; oft times by the same people! So what does this tell us? Besides demonstrating once again that one should never take all of the ignorant and incoherent personal critiques that come at you too seriously, perhaps it shows that I have a long way to go before I have my lifestyle experimentation down to a science.

When it comes to taking such risks it’s hard to say which side is better to err on even. On the one hand people who have had long and respectable lives very often reach their end with serious regrets about what they didn’t do than with what they took risks on. On the other hand, the things that get people killed before their time, and which destroy valuable relationships with other people, are when they step out of the role that people expect them to play and set off on particularly crazy adventures without weighing the consequences carefully enough. We all face numerous forks in our lives’ paths; we all puzzle about the roads not taken, and none of us can escape that angst by always going to the left or always going to the right.

But then again it can be argued that the key to putting my situation in perspective might lie in looking beyond my own interests and circumstances, and focusing instead on how I can influence other people’s lives. What I should do to reach out and help those in greater need than myself? As a basic perspective this too has some merit. Rather than looking at how I can improve my own situation I can far better improve my level of satisfaction by putting more of my energy into helping others. Social science research also supports such a theory: the more a person spends time and money on others, the greater their overall satisfaction in life tends to be.

But here too there are some balance factors to be taken into consideration. To start with, just because you are doing unto others as you would ideally have them do unto you doesn’t mean that they, or anyone else, will actually do the sort of things for you that you would like. Being a kind and decent person to others is an entirely separate matter from being part of a kind and decent community. If it isn’t set in law in one way or another you can’t really expect other people to help you out in any way that they can’t see as being in their personal self-interest, and it is to be taken for granted that most people can’t see things as being in their self-interest unless it provides them with short-term physical pleasures or competitive advantages over those around them. In other words when you do things freely for others for that to work in terms of making you happy you really can’t expect anything from them in return. Those who feel cheated because they “freely” helped others but no one helped them in return really don’t have anyone but themselves to blame. If you’re expecting something in return you’re really not giving freely –– naively trustingly, but not freely. To get joy out of giving and helping you can’t really be expecting anything back but the joy of being able to give to and help out others.

And with that in mind it is important not only to be ready to give freely to some, but to give in honest exchange to others. One must have some sort of agreed upon role within the community, or a series of temporary roles, in order to accrue something to be able to give to others and to take responsibility for oneself. Lose track of that and slip below what is necessary for you to safely live on, and you’re in trouble every time.

But before my libertarian individualist friends and relations start jumping on this and thinking that I’ve finally come over to their way of thinking in terms of self-reliance, let me point out that I still consider the healthiest societies to be those which have laws enforcing a basic agreement of solidarity between people. In any traditional society based on self-reliance there still needs to be protections for widows and orphans and other severely disadvantaged folk. There also need to be laws which prevent people from freely and hatefully abusing others who they see as somehow discomforting or intimidating. And ideally there should be some basic understanding in place that assures us that when things get nasty for us there will always be someone there to help. Any society which actively destroys protections for the poor and encourages hate and suspicion towards “outsiders”–– whoever those may be –– is a fundamentally unhealthy society, and in this regard I wish to avoid living in “red” parts of the US in particular until the cultural implosions there have further run their course.

There are other interest groups besides American Libertarians who would like to take this opportunity to point out to me that my approach to life isn’t working so well just now, with hopes that they might convert me to their own religions or ideologies. Is my reluctance to take such invitations seriously a sign of my hanging on too tightly to my old dysfunctional way of thinking? Of course I don’t think so; but I wouldn’t, would I?

Seriously though, I’ve spent a great deal of my life around highly motivated, extremely idealistic and often profoundly intelligent and deeply admirable religious people. I’ve tried to absorb the most functional and admirable elements of each, while not taking for granted the truth of what any of them claimed for themselves. I hope to continue functioning in such a way, receiving from as many admirable influences as I can, but randomly submitting myself to none of those who would hope for such. It would take a far greater argument than I’ve encountered thus far to convert me to some radically new religion or approach to life. If those representing such interests get bitter about my refusal to join them in that sort of way, so be it.

All that being said, my personal drifting process appears to be on-going for the summer. As my dear friends here in Espoo have made this little apartment available to me for the time being, I will be staying here until I wear out my welcome here, or run out of ways to make myself useful, or important new opportunities present themselves. Though I’ve given freely to others whenever it’s been in my power, I don’t feel that I am naturally “entitled” to the hospitality I’m currently receiving, and I am truly grateful for it. Meanwhile I also have to acknowledge that the ugly old low-budget car I just acquired this week may or may not turn out to be dependable in the long run; that’s just part of how these things work. And as far as employment goes, if nothing else becomes available I can still return to a reduced role with my former employer, which could provide me with basic means of keeping body and soul together as they say, but it is no secret that I would prefer to move on. So in all these ways life goes on for me, following its own meandering path.

Or in terms of the previous metaphor, I’ve reached the point where the stretchy rope fastened to my legs starts to take some of my weight –– slowing my fall towards certain death and getting ready to jerk me around for a while. A strange feeling indeed. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others, but I’ll try to keep you up to date on how things pan out.

The novelty sign really says it all.

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Filed under Change, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Purpose, Religion, Social identity, Travel

Integrity

Once again I’m approaching a major transition in life: my academic year spent on leave here in South Africa is sadly coming to a close. Somewhat to my surprise I have not been able to secure the sort of employment here which would enable me to extend my visa and subsist here as a teacher, writer or businessman. Thus I might then be returning with my tail between my legs to my old life in Finland, in somewhat reduced form, or I might be moving on to some entirely new for of adventure in my life; that still remains to be seen.

It’s too early to put this particular adventure into retrospect of course. Some years from now I should be able to say whether this was a colossal mistake or an outstanding opportunity that I can thankfully look back on. At this point I don’t really know. I’m only aware that things haven’t worked out as I had anticipated, but somehow life will go on. But it is important now to stop and consider how this has affected my fundamental sense of who I am.

One of my new perspectives: looking north from the hills above Simon’s Town

Philosophers and religion teachers like myself tend to have more problems with this sort of question than most other people do, even in the most stable and predictable of times. And in times of major stress like this –– largely flying solo and not even knowing what country I’ll be living in three months from now –– I doubt that any profession could provide me with a more secure sense of identity than what I have. But even though I’m really not into this sort of angst for its own sake, perhaps I don’t even want my identity to be all that fixed and predictable.

The essence of the question in philosophical terms is first to determine what essentially makes me me. Am I essentially just a body, or a non-material conscious entity (soul) functioning within this body, or the sum total of my memories, or just a wave on the vast ocean of consciousness and material cause and effect, or something else entirely? And then once I’ve figured out what I am, the next question is what to do about it. On this mater suffice to say I remain a metaphysical dualist of the monotheistic tradition that does not believe in reincarnation. Other aspects of the afterlife and the effect it can have on our current life remain open to speculation in my mind: as with my adventure in South Africa, I recognize that there could be many things in the afterlife that differ from my expectations, and thus I don’t intend to base my actions on the possibility of earning extra points there. My purpose remains to find value in life before death, and to do so with integrity.

This all comes to mind by way of a discussion I was having with a small circle of on-line friends regarding the question of racism. Much to my surprise, I was recently accused, by someone who I thought knew me fairly well, of having racist attitudes and views; this in spite of the fact that tolerance building and anti-bigotry campaigning have been a core element of my personal and professional identity for many years now. I was able to take this accusation in stride, but it surprised me none the less, and I must admit it caused me to bristle a bit. So in discussing this among virtual friends the first question was whether or not my views really were in fact at core racist, and after that –– at the suggestion of a trusted virtual friend –– why such an accusation would cause me to bristle.

It is a well established principle in psychology that when one becomes irritated or angry at some accusation –– or when a joke or a critique touches a nerve –– there is usually an element of truth to it. If it is obviously false it is unlikely to have any emotional effect on its object. So for instance if someone were to accuse me of having homosexual tendencies the jab would miss entirely; not only because I don’t consider gays to be inferior people, but because I am thoroughly and exclusively enough drawn to women where such a claim would really just show the ignorance of the person making it. To be a true homophobe, and to truly resent such accusations, you have to have a certain fear of your own attraction to those of your own gender; I just don’t. The same principle would apply if someone were to accuse me of being emotionally irrational, blindly ethnocentric, uncaring towards children or a dog hater. Whatever else can be said against me, those things are just patently untrue. Anyone who would say such things about me clearly doesn’t know me well enough to pick their insults carefully. (If anything I’m guilty of going a bit overboard to the opposite extreme on all of those issues.) I would thus be far more amused than disturbed at such accusations.

So if I am disturbed at being accused of racism, does that mean that I am at heart more of a racist than I care to admit? I’m willing to accept that as a possibility worthy of self-critical observation, but overall I still believe that not to be the case. What I am defensive about is not my latent tendencies in this regard, but my overall effectiveness in fighting against such things. As combating racism is one of the core elements of my personal and professional identity, any claim that I come across as a racist is not something I worry about in terms of defending what I am like at heart, but in terms of demonstrating my effectiveness at what I do. If I had built my career around animal rights campaigning and someone were to then accuse me of being a closet abuser of animals I might bristle in the same sort of way, not because it would threaten my core identity, but because it would call my professional integrity into question. That in turn is only hurtful to the extent that I am susceptible to self-doubt in those sorts of professional terms; and given that I don’t know what sort of job I will have three months from now, there are good reasons for me to have some uncertainty about my professional identity just now.

Another day, looking back at the vantage point of my previous perspective

But what does “integrity” actually mean to me? What does it mean by and large in English for that matter? Off to dictionary.com:

Noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.

3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

Other sources itemize the same three basic meanings. Two other related words come to mind: integral and integrate. “Integral” is an adjective which describes the sort of elements necessary to achieve integrity: belonging as a part of the wholenecessary to the completeness of the whole, or consisting or composed of parts that together constitute a whole. “Integrate” then is a verb used for the action of making things integral: to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole; to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit. And of course “integrate,” particularly in its noun form of “integration” is commonly used to refer to bringing together people of different races, ethnicities, religions or classes; overcoming segregation. All of these relate to the sense of integrity I am hoping to develop.

Skimming through a book by Tariq Ramadan yesterday, I was struck by his thought (that I have also seen elsewhere in other variations) that there is something profoundly abstract and ultimately dishonest about tolerance and anti-bigotry campaigns which take place within the safety of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous social setting. If you don’t dare to genuinely encounter the “other” on a regular, respectful and equal basis –– without thinking of him/her primarily as a potential convert –– your exercise in overcoming prejudice is self-deceptive. In order to have integrity I need to be ready to integrate “other” elements into my insular little world. I need to confront any fears of difference and assumptions of inherent superiority that I have accidentally built into my sense of self.

But there’s a balance to that necessary as well: I also need to have a sense of self-respect, believing that what I stand for and my own perspectives on what is important in life are just as valid and valuable as those of the groups that would like to convert me to their own ways of thinking. Beyond that I need to recognize some sort of limit in my capacity to integrate. There is such a thing as opposition; as self-destructive tendencies; as evil. I need to be careful not to internalize too many elements that are out to destroy the value that is already within me. And among the elements that are already within me that don’t necessarily agree with each other I need to find ways of prioritizing and rationalizing them so that my identity does not become fractured and unstable as the result of internal conflict. Integrity demands that I become aware of what is most integral to my core identity and what is ultimately superfluous to “the real me.”

Another important balance element in integrity is the degree of flexibility or plasticity it entails. Like the ship’s hull or the empire mentioned in the later definitions quoted above, one’s honesty and moral character cannot be so rigid that it either shatters on impact or destroys all else in its path. It has to be able to flex and absorb a certain amount of opposing force; and in some regards the greater its ability to do so, the greater its overall integrity. Yet at the same time it cannot be so flexible as to consist of formless jelly. Integrity requires a specific form and shape to which its object returns after flexing to its limit, which is capable of withstanding pressure and bearing weight when necessary.

In order to maintain its political integrity a nation needs to be able to allow for emigration and immigration, for legislative and even constitutional reform, for the annexation and liberation of territories, and for major economic transitions from generation to generation. Any nation which lacks these capacities has a fundamental lack of integrity. Likewise any individual person who cannot recognize his own continuous processes of growing and dying, learning and forgetting, loving and letting go, cannot have integrity in relation to others either. One must maintain some sense of identifying form, but one must allow that form to follow its inevitable temporal progressions. If we deceive ourselves into believing that we can become eternal by denying the changes taking place within us and around us, we do ourselves no favors.

Whatever else can be said about my South African adventure then, it has given me an interesting collection of new experiences by way of which to re-evaluate and hopefully strengthen my personal integrity. It has given me a stronger awareness of what new possibilities there may be for integration, and a fresh perspective on what is and isn’t integral for me. As President Obama said after the 2010 elections, I would hope that others could learn the same sorts of lessons I have without having to take the same sort of “shellacking,” but that is not mine to determine. And in fact, even though the best laid plans of mice and men have once again gone the way they generally do in my case, objectively speaking I really haven’t suffered all that big a loss here. Above all, as Popeye would say, I still “yam what I yam.”

Like the shirt says…

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Filed under Change, Freedom, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Purpose, Racism, Risk taking, Spirituality, Travel

Hope, Confidence & Cultural Self-Belief

One of my major questions regarding my possible future connections with this country (South Africa) has to do with the whole matter of what I can teach, write, say or innovate here without raising the sensitive question of “why couldn’t a local person do that?” Or more pointedly and specifically, “what’s wrong with our own knowledge and abilities that we have to have another white foreigner come in and teach us stuff?”

One of my surprises here has been the political and social sensitivity of this issue. In particular this seems to stem from a history of the oppression of those with darker skin taking the form of not only physical and political violence, but psychological violence as well. The powers of the former status quo essentially claimed that there are genetic reasons for assuming that a person’s intellectual capacity would be inversely proportionate to the melanin content in their skin. Darker skinned people are not meant to think, just to perform the basic tasks for which greater physical strength and lesser intelligence are required. As self-evident as the fallacy of this claim would seem, for some there is still an ongoing struggle to displace such a myth, which in turn creates its own collection of Catch 22 situations.

I don’t know if addressing the myth itself is even worth our time here. Anyone who believes that some resemblance of the scientific method –– involving forming a hypothesis and then conducting experiments and/or observations to see if such a hypothesis might be proven wrong –– can be used in relation to general principles of human behavior should already know that racial profiling of intelligence or even types of intelligence has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false. Such theories of racial difference in mental capacity go a long way towards making phrenology and astrology look like respectable sciences. If someone needs actual confirmation on this, write to me and I’ll provide the references.

The question really isn’t demonstrating that black people are capable of deeper intellectual thought then; that is self-evident. The question is how to break through the remnants of racist thinking on the subject in the minds of both blacks and whites (and those of colors in between) in Africa in particular, and in different post-colonial countries around the world. In this regard I’ve stopped to take a serious look at the writings and biographies of Steve Biko (from the collection I Write what I Like, 2004 edition, published by Picador Africa).

Biko was one of the black leaders of the 1960s who was able to combine personal charisma with deep analytical intelligence. He was a uniquely capable leader, but as long as projects he was committed to were going forward he didn’t seem to mind being out of the spotlight. Many church figures, Desmond Tutu included, have endorsed Biko posthumously. It is unclear whether he would have returned the favor if he were with us still today. He was unapologetically Marxist but in many ways ambivalent towards the form of revolution necessary in his country, the role of non-blacks in his vision for a truly post-colonial world, and the role of Christianity in particular in the lives of his people. Overall Biko seems to have been most concerned with restoring his people’s sense of self-confidence and capability of fending for themselves, not only through his political and rhetorical initiatives, but through practical endeavors such as community health clinics and social service organizations as well.

Would he have lived it seems self-evident that Biko would have eventually become president of South Africa. Biko continues to enjoy far more public support and respect than any of the living politicians of the post-Mandela generation. It is also clear that he has been extremely useful as a martyr for the cause of black dignity and the will to be free from oppression. Whether or not he would have been able to do as much good as a leader as he has done as a martyr is one of those hypothetical historical questions about which we will never know for sure.

More relevant though is the question of which way Steve would see as “forward” in the current situation. From what I have read, Biko was not a conservative in the sense of wishing to return to the certainties of a particular mythical version of the past –– in his case a pre-colonized Africa. His interest was merely in pointing out that the myth of black inferiority needed to be thoroughly buried, that the communal ethic aspect of African traditional religion needed to be revived and the absurdly unjust means of protecting the privileges of the colonizers’ descendents (Apartheid) needed to be brought to an end. As things now stand, officially all of those goals have been realized, at least for the most part. This is not to say that things have been fully corrected. There are many attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors on all sides that perpetuate injustices and inequalities here. But whatever else can be said about South Africa’s post-Apartheid adjustment processes, the black population now has the lion’s share of political power, and Mandela’s legacy is that no one is saying that a return to the injustices of the past is pragmatically justifiable. The rich whites have realized (very grudgingly in places) that to maintain any resemblance of life as they knew it they must now work together with the black majority. So would Biko be satisfied enough to move on to the next phase which he spoke about?

As we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites. (p. 108)

It seems that the jury is still out on that one. Perhaps Biko’s “reconstructive” perspective is best summed up in the following sentence:

We knew he [the generalized white man] had no right to be there; we wanted to remove him from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he liked (p. 75).

Yet in practice the process of “redecorating the table” was never going to happen along the lines that whites would be physically removed from the environs, nor that the new “African style” would be four centuries retro so as to be free of all European influences. The point was to establish that black Africans are fully capable of thinking and acting for themselves, without needing white advice or approval in order for their lives to have value. Once that issue would be perfectly clear to everyone –– once riding in the bed of the white man’s pickup (or “bakkie” as it is known locally) is no longer taken for granted as the black man’s natural place –– then cooperation based on mutual respect for each other’s competence and humanity was self-evident path forward. So in many regards the current question for black South Africans is, are we still trying to win the war, or is it time to start winning the peace?

In the event that this latter phase is to be acknowledged, as I believe Biko would now be doing, the key to moving forward would be education. Those of all skin colors need to be taught that the others as well are worthy of full human respect. They need to be provided with the skills necessary to provide services of value to the lives of others so as to play a positive role in the local, national and global economy. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be encouraged to consider what constitutes “quality of life” for each of them individually, for their families and for their communities. They need to have enough information and confidence be free to choose whether or not they will buy into the culture promoted by multinational fast food, fashion and entertainment industries. They need to be able to make informed decisions as to which treats and toys will actually make them happier and more fulfilled as human beings.

The big question from here though is, who can you trust to provide such an education for young people? And as a key sub-question here, must young people be trained by educators as much like themselves and their parents as possible so as to enable them to maintain respect for their own cultural identities? Both of these matters are extremely complicated questions of balance and judgment. Parents, ancestors and cultural identities need to be respected without being uncritically revered. Teachers need to be able to pass on some form of recognized expertise and they need to be held accountable for the level of competence they are able to instill in children without being enforcement agents for some form of cultural imperialism or neo-colonial control. But the above two sentences are just my personal perspectives on what is right and wrong and desirable for education systems in transition, and no one has died and left me boss here. On what basis can I, as a white American representing predominantly northern European values, claim that my perspectives are the ones Africa needs to follow?

Essentially this comes back to the fundamental question of postmodernism: What knowledge, if any, has a greater validity as objective truth than merely as a means of exercising control over the “less knowledgeable”? Is there any truly objective and unchanging truth out there, and if so how broadly can it be discovered and applied to the messy business of human life as we know it?

Rather than trying to answer these questions, perhaps I should just leave them open for the time being. These days I identify myself more as a philosopher than as a scientist or a theologian, and one of the big differences is that whereas theologians and scientists are not comfortable leaving any question unanswered, philosophers are not comfortable leaving any answer unquestioned. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the value of answers; it means that I believe even more strongly in the value of questions, particularly in challenging learners to look for their own answers rather than accepting the standardized ones at face value.

Again, that isn’t to say that all answers are of equal truth value. For example scientifically informed sex education, condoms and anti-retroviral drugs are of far more value as answers to the AIDS crisis than moralistic preaching, hygienic practices and diet treatments for the disease; and it is rather disturbing that the Vatican, for instance, still refuses to recognize this. But rather than solving this problem with more dogmatic defenses of given beliefs, I believe this matter is best solved by allowing learners of all ages the chance to ask the basic question, “How do you know?” and from there providing them with the most honest and complete answers possible. Not everyone will be smart enough to get it, but there is more to be gained by trusting the learners’ intellectual capacity and honesty than there is in forcing them to believe standardized answers for the sake of maintaining standardized answers.

So the next open question for me here is, will there be any faction of the education system here which will be interested in having me involved in teaching their children to ask more difficult questions of their other teachers? And if so, will that be because of or in spite of my cultural background? I’ll leave you to guess what my hopes are and what the eventual answers might turn out to be.

 

 

 

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Filed under Change, Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Respectability, Tolerance

My Take on the Post-Colonial

I recently received some correspondence from a virtual friend here in South Africa that I haven’t had a chance to meet yet, asking me my perspectives on the “rainbow nation”, etc. I’m still quite new here, and thus quite hesitant regarding offering my own answers to this nation’s challenges, but I suppose it’s time to put some of my thoughts about this matter into essay form, in part to see for myself what I think.

What are the responsibilities of the living for the injustices perpetrated by previous generations? What form of justice should be determinant over matters of private property when much of the original property claims for certain families and companies stem from fortunes made through theft and immoral abuse of other human beings? What claims to ancestral homeland and thereby priority in governmental affairs can be accorded to various groups on the basis of skin color in particular? How much should religious beliefs be taken as markers of ethnic identity and loyalty, and thereby indicators of one’s “proper place” within the social power structure? How far can societies play “what if” games regarding the sorts of cultures they would have had were it not for colonialist atrocities? To what extent do education systems need to be “de-colonialized” in order to take into account the interests and needs of those who have been historically oppressed? And perhaps most importantly, what practical measures can be implemented which might serve not to take revenge on the descendents of the oppressors, but to genuinely empower the descendents of the oppressed?

As such things can never be discussed from a position of absolute objectivity, I should start by laying my cards on the table, so to speak. I cannot deny that my perspectives relate to the fact that I am a white male Protestant Christian, nor that I am from lower middle class roots, that I am relatively highly educated, that I have spent most of my life as an expatriate, and that my academic specialty has been “values subjects” within the humanities. For those that don’t know me I should unpack these factors just a bit further.

My Dutch roots on both sides of my family come from people who left their homeland with basically the clothes on their backs and perhaps just a little bit of money to buy some cheap homesteading land in the United States. The only non-white, non-Christian people they knew before emigrating were Jews who were starting to move into the small towns they came from, and Gypsies who passed through on occasion. They were all basic laborers; not capitalist power brokers, industrialists, major land owners or slave keepers of any sort. Their greatest sin, if it can be taken as such, was gross ignorance and some consequent prejudice regarding the exotic peoples from outside their realm of experience. Their main concerns were to maintain the honor of the cultural and religious values which they had been taught and to keep their children alive, both with limited success. Over the course of the next four generations these families went from not being able to speak any English when the census takers came around to their descendents not being able to speak anything but English. Something was probably lost in that process, but no one can be sure what.

Christianity of various sorts has been an important part of my family history. When children died of disease or were left orphaned because their parents died young of disease the church played a major role in providing the comfort that kept the family going. Then in my own immediate family, when the crisis of divorce hit, it was to a different branch of Christianity that my mother in particular was able to turn for help. Thus while I regret many of the power struggles and abuses of power committed in the name of Christianity, from my own personal perspective the more important matter is appreciating the message of God’s mercy, and passing that forward to others. And for that reason I continue to identify myself as a believing Christian.

But some of these aspects of identity run fairly thin for me in many senses, in that I’ve spent much of my life isolated from the culture that I grew up in. Instead I’ve learned to marginally blend in wherever in the world I find myself. An important part of that experience was the years I spent as a foreign student in the University of Helsinki, serving as part of the local support organizations for foreign students. Then from there this cosmopolitan identity was further reinforced by my becoming a teacher in some of Finland’s finest international schools. Rather than seeing questions of “us vs. them” as absolutes to do our bargaining on the basis of, I have come to see these social boundaries as indications of what sorts of spice of life I can hope to gain from the various types of individuals I encounter. I have taken it as part of my mission from there to help students and immigrants –– both of which I find myself perpetually identified as –– to overcome cultural misunderstandings and prejudices as much as possible, without feeling as though they are betraying their personal identities or ancestral heritage in the process.Workers on a large South African farm

That’s me, in very broad brush strokes. So how does that make me feel about the “rainbow nation” I now find myself in? I guess I should say both uneasy and optimistic. I see many levels of social disparity that I am not entirely comfortable with, some attitudes that seem impossible to fix and some people still being treated as disposable; yet I also see young people caring about education, artists and writers digging deep into questions of core human values, and people stopping to be friendly to each other and to strangers regardless of skin color. I don’t want to pretend that problems here don’t exist, or pretend that I can see easy solutions to them, but I firmly believe that a “liberal” perspective can continue to move this country forward. This puts me somewhat in opposition to my “black conscious” academic virtual friend, who has quoted Steve Biko’s rejection of white liberalism to me:

The problem is white racism and rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realize this, the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. (From page 72 of the Biko anthology, “I Write What I Like”)

As much as I respect the intellectual courage and integrity that Biko was willing to die for, I disagree with this perspective on a number of grounds. The most important aspect of the quote itself, and the intent of students quoting it these days, is to look to the past, as though restoring some ideal state of affairs in some mythical golden age –– before the onset of some current perversion of the natural order of things –– would be the means by which to put an end to all of the ills and sufferings of the present. In this sense Biko’s modern day disciples and other black consciousness advocates seem to share the same self-defeating mentalities as the American “Tea Party” movement, the various incarnations of Al Qaeda, militant Zionism and a host of other problematic forms of conservativism. In the case of the black consciousness movement this means trying to restore African culture to a pre-colonial state of affairs, as though the world was a paradise here 500 years ago, and if only we could return things to the way they were in that time period everything would be OK for all of the poor abused black Africans.

In taking liberal opposition to such a perspective I by no means want to deny the reality of historical injustices nor sweep them under the carpet. My hope for the future would rather lie in A) looking for forward-looking rather than nostalgic, backward-looking solutions to the problems that face our societies; B) not resorting to dehumanizing other people, regardless of their parties’ historic guilt or debts to others; and C) operating on the assumption that regardless of a person’s gender or racial, cultural or religious background that person should not be stereotyped with regard to personality, capabilities or competence –– believing that all people are capable of learning to cope and relate to each other in better, more functional ways, regardless of how badly their tribes have screwed up in the past.

Besides the impracticality and naiveté implied in an attempt to turn the clock back, there are a few things about the black consciousness movement as it has been presented to me that I find problematic either morally or philosophically. To start with there is the rejection of “colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism and settler minority regimes.” Aside from the fact that those phrases are rather loosely defined to encompass anything or anyone that disadvantaged black folk could be encouraged to blame their problems on (sometimes justifiably, other times less so), this comes across as a recipe for racial scapegoating and economic isolationism. The last thing Africa in general and South Africa in particular needs at this point in history is to be cut off from the rest of the world economically. It was the pressure of economic sanctions from the West that effectively brought the Apartheid system to its knees; and if the old elite power structure could not survive without economic cooperation with the rest of the world, there is really no way that an experimental all-black neo-Marxist regime might. For that matter South Africa’s current dependence on trade with the West is really no more sinister than the United States’ current dependence on trade with the Far East. But perhaps most troubling is the way that cries of “Africa for its indigenous peoples only!” echoes the neo-Nazi cries of “Germany for the German folk!” or “Russia for the Russians!” As I have blogged before, I am deeply opposed to hate-mongering in all its forms, regardless of how many historical grievances can be called up to justify it.

In addition to this we have the same problems here that we find associated with any proposed program of repatriation –– with examples ranging from movements for sending all of the former American slaves back to Africa, to those demanding the removal of all Protestant families of Scots descent from Northern Ireland. After 3 or 4 generations you really can’t meaningfully talk about these people having any other homeland. And this is to say nothing of the problems entailed in trying to apply such a program to those of mixed parentage, or those whose ancestors were hauled into the territory against their will centuries ago. In short, there are many types of non-indigenous South Africans, and making blanket condemnations and restrictions against all of them, as the black consciousness movement calls for, is both impractical and unjustifiable.

After that there are the concepts of forming a union between all indigenous Africans of all tribes and languages, and for these peoples together to enact “the complete socialist transformation of society.” This comes across as the most naïve form of utopian idealism possible. To start with, emphasizing tribal autonomy would seem to be a recipe for the Balkanization of existing African nations. On the assumption that mutual hatred for all non-indigenous folks could bring people of all tribes and indigenous cultures together, and they could succeed in removing all such “outsiders” from their traditional homelands, what would be left to hold them together after that? With all of the allegations and evidence of corruption among even the best of African governments, how could there possibly be enough trust to keep such a federation from dissolving into a bloody civil war? And attempting to organize the socialization of natural resources and infrastructure –– while attempting to be the first Marx-inspired government in history to have a genuine respect for individual human rights –– would compound these problems and risks exponentially.

Then there is the question of eliminating “colonialism in education”: assuming that the languages, religious/moral views and philosophical approaches to establishing factual “truth value” which were brought in by the former conquerors need to be expunged from the education system. To that I say, while there is certainly room to improve the respect accorded to traditional African wisdom and while academics should be working to preserve an understanding of and build an appreciation for traditional languages and ways of life, there also needs to be more to the education system than that. The highest priority should be to empower young people to take active and autonomous roles in the global economy and in global culture. That requires both practical skills –– learned in part from former imperial cultures –– and cross-cultural understanding for interacting as fruitfully as possible with those from outside of the students’ cultural backgrounds. In these respects an “anti-colonial” revolution in South Africa’s education system could do far more harm than good. One need go no further back than the “debate” over AIDS in this country 10 years ago, when the political elite rejected the “imperial” scientific view in favor of an embarrassing cocktail of traditional medical beliefs. Please, God, let that sort of debacle not be repeated here in the immediate future!

I could go on for many more pages responding to the texts I have been sent on this matter, but let me try to draw this to a close with some comments regarding what seems to be the black conscious take on Christianity. Christianity, in its early Renaissance form, was clearly part of the problem with European colonialism –– on that there is no question –– but there is something of a question of distinguishing “baby” from “bathwater” here that remains to be addressed. Writing about the views of the former president of Ghana and pan-African political hero Kwame Nkrumah, my friend comments on how Nkrumah turned from Catholicism to Marxism, and how a background in Christian teaching seems to be a shared factor among the vast majority of powerful indigenous political voices in Africa. In his political speeches Nkrumah made indirect reference to the Gospel’s admonitions regarding “the kingdom of God”, and in providing a background understanding on that –– quoting from unnamed sources –– my friend Ndumiso actually puts together a very agreeable account of the message of Jesus in this regard. According to his research then the “kingdom of God” referred to in the Bible,

… is the imperative to face the challenge to change human relations here on earth in such a radical manner that new human relations devoid of all the consequences of sin emerge. […] “Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men, the breach of friendship with God and with other men, and, therefore, and interior personal fracture. …Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”

If we accept this as the definitive Christian understanding of mankind’s basic problem to be overcome (as I am quite willing to do) and if we take working towards the realization of the kingdom of God as the task of all Christian believers, this leads to two inescapable conclusions: 1) The European colonial project had nothing to do with the true message of Christianity. 2) The realization of the social ideal of “the kingdom of God” ––overcoming “the consequences of sin” –– is as noble a goal as any defender of Africa’s poor could possibly promote.

This is not to say that Christianity has been practiced as a European tradition in anything like the terms presented here. Those in greatest need of the Christian message may well be those who have used some warped version of it to promote their own selfish and ethno-centric agendas. Many who have claimed to be Christians seem to have adhered far more closely to the teachings of Machiavelli than to the teachings of Jesus. This sinfulness continues to be evident here every day, in the form of all of the white “bakkies” (or pickups, as I still think of them) going down the streets with white drivers in front and a load of poor black laborers and their tools in the rear. Quite obviously “brotherhood and love in relationships” has a long way to go before it reaches a point where we can speak of it as having been restored. All I am saying is that Christianity –– practiced as its founder intended –– should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The European conquistadors of the Renaissance period got as far as they did by borrowing sea faring technology from the Vikings and Arabs, philosophical ideas from the Greeks, military tactics from the ancient Romans, explosives from the Chinese, and monotheistic religious practices from a former Jewish sect. They adapted all of these to their own needs, keeping none of these skills in the same form in which they inherited them. This made them technically but not morally superior to those they conquered, but that distinction was lost on most of them. It would be many centuries before they started to realize that the old doctrine of “might makes right” really wasn’t sustainable. Many still haven’t realized that this to this day… but in all fairness, neither have most non-Western indigenous peoples. So rather than having piles of pots and kettles calling each other black (and please excuse the analogy’s problem of blackness being a seen as a bad thing), we need to have come together and find better bases for recognizing our basic brotherhood, regardless of all of our little differences. That may be the Christian way, but it is still the right way.

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Filed under Change, Control, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

Current Adjustments

Greetings friends and other readers.

Again I must apologize to any who’ve been looking here for regular inspiration, stimulation or information about yours truly. Allow me to sum up the last month a bit. Following my return to Finland from the United States I jumped straight into the process of settling my affairs in there to free myself to move on to South Africa. Without going into too many details about that process I can just say that I managed to get an extended multiple entry visa, sell my car, find a new home for my dog, secure my sabbatical pay for the academic year and sell, give away, throw away or temporarily store all but the 60-some kilograms of personal belongings that I was able to take with me. No mean feat, believe me!

The final emptying out of my apartment and settling of accounts with my landlord was the last thing that was left hanging. Since the former colleague who verbally agreed back in May to take over my lease this summer reneged on his promise in the end of July, I was rather left hanging. Curses on that individual aside, I had to leave my largest pieces of furniture in the house waiting for the people from the recycling center to come fetch them. My younger son who had shared the apartment with me thus inherited the job of letting them in and showing them what to take. As it turned out though, they refused to take most of my furniture even as donations, and poor Kris had to recruit some friends and rent a van to take most of it to the dump! Talk about adding insult to injury…

But with all of that said and done, as of August 5th, I have now arrived in South Africa and set up camp for myself in Cape Town, or more specifically on the False Bay side on the peninsula just south of the Cape Flats. Life here is sweet in many respects, but there are still many things that will take me months to adjust to properly: driving on the opposite side of the road, shadows moving counter-clockwise, a variety of local accents with entirely different vowel sounds than what I’ve learned to recognize thus far, and a heightened sense of security awareness necessary to prevent baboons (yes, real live, human-sized hairy creatures that I’d never seen in the wild before) and extremely poor people from attacking one’s belongings.

Somewhat complicating the process of adjusting to those matters is an entirely different adjustment: Ramadan. As many of my contacts here are from the Cape Malay Muslim community, I have chosen to join them in observing their sacred month of fasting from dusk until sundown each day. As it is now winter in South Africa, this is not a major physical hardship, but it does put some added stress and limitations on my mind and body. It has also involved its own learning curve for me in terms of what is and isn’t allowed, what works for keeping one’s blood sugar and mental energy at sustainable levels, and what is traditionally expected in terms of rituals to start the fast each morning and break the fast each evening. I’m not complaining; I’m more just providing explanations / making excuses for how little I’ve been able to observe and write about in the past few weeks.

Truth being told, I have at least 3 half-written or mostly written blog entries on file here. I still haven’t provided my personal perspectives on the philosophy teaching conference I was at in June, I still haven’t commented about the recent Norwegian tragedy, and I still haven’t given a retrospective on the half of my life (thus far) that I spent in Finland. (And to answer the obvious question: I’m officially scheduled to return to Espoo next year as my career default setting, but I’m not at all sure I will do so. Watch this space for further information as it develops.) But with my contemplations on each of those issues still somewhat “in process” I thought it the proper thing to do to at least provide this scrap of personal information for those who wish to know where my subjective perspectives are coming from.

As to the whole Ramadan thing in itself, it is important for me not to pretend that I entirely get it, but I can say a thing or two about what it has meant to me. To start with I feel there is a certain value to restraining ones appetites on purpose for a certain period of time every now and again, regardless of what religious or secular motivations one has in doing so. On other blog forums I have mentioned how giving up certain things for Lent has been a positive experience for me, even if I don’t necessarily believe that it brings me closer to God in the process. I can merely appreciate being able to overcome my own silly habits and mild addictions for such a time. Some people, however, are not so prone to do follow “suggestions” on temporary lifestyle limitations. It takes a pretty strong religious compulsion for them to inconvenience themselves in such a way. So if an absolute religious mandate is what it takes, that may well be the best thing in the world for them. Thank God some of them have Ramadan.

But beyond the individual experience of controlling one’s appetites, Ramadan also gives Muslims a sense of solidarity in their shared feelings of hunger. As I see it, the balance between a personal, individual sense of spirituality and a shared communal experience of worship is one of the key issues in any religion. Both aspects are entirely necessary, and emphasizing one at the expense of the other is inevitably problematic. Knowing that my own brand of Christianity probably errs a bit on the side of the individualized then, I can at least respect the practices of another faith which enforce a shared experience. Of course I see risks in going too far in the collective direction as well, but I’m not going to pretend that I know enough to judge my Muslim friends on such matters. For now I’m just trying to respectfully follow along with this aspect of their communal experience for its own sake, even though I’m not really part of their religious community.

To me it is obvious that the biggest reason for the difference between where my Muslim friends are at and where I am at is that we were born into different traditions and cultural customs. The fact that every human tradition has some gross human problems associated with it also goes without saying here. Mutual respect will be necessary regardless of the practical shortcomings of those on “the other side”, which are far too many to itemize here. As one old friend of mine who was a Baptist minister in northern England once told me that a wise old Imam once said to him, I don’t think we know each other well enough to argue yet. I very seriously doubt that they will convert me or that I will convert them, but that is not the point. The point, for me at least, is to understand each other in terms of the value we find in our respective traditions, and to eliminate as much of the ignorant and irrational hatred between our groups as possible. For me that has to begin with my making a sincere effort to understand and appreciate their teachings and rituals for what they are. In that I’m only in the very early stages, so it is no surprise that when it comes to the deeper spiritual meaning of this month for Muslims, beyond just the state of mind brought on by shared voluntary self-deprivation, I really can’t get it, yet.

Is it just crap luck or a good thing that this year Ramadan happens to fall right on my first month in a new country, where I am trying to build contacts with people of as many different backgrounds as possible? That I can’t say, other than it just is what it is. The bright sides of it include a certain element of taking things slow as I get started here, and a possibility to build some mutual respect through my voluntary participation, even if I am rather clumsy about it.

So in short there is a bit of mea culpa here, as usual, combined with a renewed claim that things are just getting interesting, so stay tuned. And until next time, for all of my friends and other readers –– non-theists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or from points in between –– I wish you a sincere “as-salamu alaykum”: peace and blessings be with you –– hoping that a bit of such good will bounces back at me.

 

 

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Filed under Change, Empathy, Holidays, Religion, Tolerance, Travel

Ups and Downs

In case you’ve been wondering what has happened to the past three weeks’ entries here, I’ve just returned to Finland from 2 weeks and change in the US: Attending a conference on the teaching of philosophy in American schools,PLATO conference opener exploring the haunts of my childhood with my new “significant other”, making contact with each of my parents (and their spouses) with to personally congratulate them on turning 70 this year, Mom's employer from the mid 70sand exploring what has changed and what has remained the same in the land of my citizenship and early socialization. Dad and Fadia as seen enjoying Gordon's Mustang convertibleI’ll write an entry here on each of those aspects of the trip in the coming days, but for now I just wanted to let everyone here who might care about such things know that I’ve made it back to Finland for now in one piece and I’ve found things here on the east side of the pond at least roughly as I expected.

In the past 5 days I have taken off and landed in commercial airliners a total of seven times. Since waking up at 6:00 a.m. EDT in Gun Lake, Michigan yesterday morning I believe I have slept approximately three to four hours. The time from checking in my suitcase in Grand Rapids to checking it back out in Helsinki was approximately 26 hours. The time from walking out the door of the house I was visiting until walking in the door of my own apartment was approximately 31 hours, including fetching the car and the dog and attending to the needs of each.

There was a slight delay in takeoff yesterday morning on account of an electrical storm blowing through which kept the plane from refueling on schedule. It was a fairly impressive little storm to watch at that.Clouds, from both sides... Coincidentally, when we came into Helsinki-Vantaa there were some impressive sized thunderheads drifting around, and when I finally got out of the terminal there was the edge of a very localized shower passing over the bus stop area, and the distinct smell of ozone in the air. Then as I drove out into the Finnish countryside to pick up the dog I passed through an area where rain was coming down in sheets, followed by the most spectacular rainbow I’ve seen this year.Mac's rainbow

Needless to say, all of this dramatic weather made for some rather bouncy flying conditions in places –– even more ups and downs. At no point was I seriously close to tossing my cookies from motion sickness, but there were plenty of times in which reading was out of the question. A couple times the normal coffee service in flight was either postponed or cancelled for safety reasons as well. But none of the connections were missed due to these weather challenges.

I had to leave my dear Fadia in a part of New York that was less than ideal, but I’m not worried about her in the slightest. Growing up on the “wrong side” of Apartheid as she did, and having run a successful business since, she knows how to handle herself in challenging urban settings. Nor is the ethnic mix in Queens Village anything for her to be afraid of. Even so, some of the signs of the cheapness in the neighborhood were rather disturbing.Cheap hotel But that being said, there was a certain Dutch satisfaction at least, after paying over $10 each to get to her hotel by mass transit, in figuring out how to get back to the airport for only $2.25 each.

We also had a chance to get a nice fried seafood combo plate from a local fish market, and then to take turns freshening up a bit in her room before I continued my journey. That turned out to be fairly significant: twice while being frisked by security agents after that I had occasion to say, “Good thing I had a chance to put of fresh underwear.”

And of course none of this has jack to do with philosophy, per se. If you think of some ways it might be relevant to the subject areas, do please tell me. But like I said, if you’ve been wondering what’s been keeping me from writing lately… now you sort of know.

More coming soon.

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On Tunnels, Pink Bathrooms and Increasing Light

It occurs to me that I should write something of a follow-up to my piece about candles in the Nordic darkness about 4 months ago already. Seasons change, and the literal and figurative darkness that I myself and people around me where struggling with back then has become a far less daunting enemy. Here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere we’re on the winning side of equinox already. The snow is gradually starting to melt off, thoughfar too gradually for many people’s taste. In some ways that makes for a suitable metaphor for other areas of life as I know it this season: clear experiences of improvement, and clear hope of still better things to come, but many leftover manifestations of the cold dark period we’re coming out of.

Another apt metaphor is traveling by car, bus or train along a route that has a series of tunnels blasted through hillsides. You know the sun is out, you know that you are getting where you have to go, but sometimes there are these passing periods of darkness that you go through. Sometimes these tunnels have openings in their sides or ceilings through which shafts of daylight are able to pass, where you can see the light in a more distant sort of way. But the point is not to get too freaked out by the darkness that you’re passing through. When it comes down to it, 5 minutes of darkness here and there in the course of an otherwise beautiful trip on a cheery spring day mean nothing.

This late winter / early spring for me has been characterized by such moments of daylight interspersed with tunnels along the way, metaphorically speaking. I hesitate to share too many details of my private life here, for obvious reasons, but for those who have followed my references to change here without knowing enough about me to read between the lines I guess I should explain a bit. This winter I have come to the end of a nearly 6 year long co-habiting relationship. Some may be scandalized to think that I could call myself a Christian and live with a woman for so long without getting married. Others may be scandalized that I would let go of a relationship that had gone on for so long without more of a fight to save it. Such is life; scandals come and scandals go. If that gives someone grounds for ad hominem dismissal of my thoughts in moral philosophy, I’ll just have to live with that.

But as it happens, dark as this time of life was in many respects, my need to find new housing corresponded with my younger son’s need to find new housing, and so nowadays for the first time in his life he and I officially live at the same address. This opportunity, together with a set of highly encouraging future prospects elsewhere, have provided me with some much needed “sunlight” during this time when the days have been getting longer otherwise. Our tiny little shared “bachelor pad” is far from perfect, but it allows for some bonding opportunities that I’ve been waiting for for over 18 years.

Even so, among the little details of this apartment that are almost comically inappropriate is it’s bathroom. In one sense it is ingeniously compact: I can’t imagine how any mobile home could squeeze as many functions into as few cubic meters of space as this does. In another sense though it is pathetically claustrophobic. Directly in front of the toilet there is nearly a half meter of leg room, but other than that, with our little washing machine installed, there is no direction in which there is more than 30 cm of open space. Basic washing routines involve taking turns doing the shimmy and the stretch over the 70 cm high ledge into the sit-down bathtub. This is pretty much functional as long as my son and I both remain relatively thin and agile, but only God knows how someone who is obese, pregnant, arthritic or otherwise physically limited could manage with such an arrangement.

And to make it that much more comical, it was apparently a single mother who rented this place before us and who made the decorating decision to paint this bathroom the brightest possible carnation pink. I really cannot imagine a less suitable color for a men’s bathroom.

Like a still more thorough spring cleaning (in terms of giving or throwing away things that no longer are needed and no longer fit into my life) stripping down that bathroom of cabinets, mirrors and appliances and re-painting it to some more neutral, functional color remains one of the top 10 items on my “when I get around to it” list. Will I ever get that done? We’ll see. No matter what we do, next year the whole bathroom will be torn apart to replace the building’s aging plumbing; so in some ways the idea of bothering to repaint feels like bothering to mow the grass at the end of the summer, or bothering to plow the last of the snow as the spring thaw begins.

This too provides a bit of a metaphor: how much energy do I really want to devote to “taking charge” of the irritating little details of my life, or how much do I just want to “go with the flow,” in a Taoist sort of way, towards the seasonal changes that are inevitably coming regardless? And regardless of my efforts, or lack thereof, in some of these silly details of life, things really are getting better. Literally and figuratively speaking, seasons are changing and spring is coming.

So the yard is still full of snow and slush and ice. What of it? Inevitably the sun will take care of that. There’s no point in going out and trying to chop the ice out of the ponds or shoveling the snow off the flower beds. Those things will take care of themselves in their own time. The balance factor is just that, when the time is right, farmers and gardeners need to be ready to spring into action and start planting.

As discouraging as pink walls and April snow storms can be then, it’s important to remember that they are temporary states of affairs. This isn’t about self-hypnosis or self-fulfilling prophecies and all that. This is about drawing strength and keeping ourselves going by recognizing that some things really aren’t worth worrying about, and other things really are worth believing in. Spring really is coming. When you drive through a tunnel it really isn’t worth panicking about the moment of darkness.

But even so, I do still have to decide what is worth doing about those damned pink bathroom walls.

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Reorganizing

I’m making this a much shorter entry than usual this weekend, on account of some major tasks and transitions that I need to get taken care of just now. I don’t feel like making any public statements about everything happening in my life just now, other than that as part of the whole situation I need to empty out my home office, which is approximately 15 cubic meters of scattered papers from the past 2 years of teaching and writing, with under-lying sub-strata of papers going back to the mid-90s. Then there are my dead computers and accessories, and under all that are my most functional and least aesthetic items of furniture. That has to be emptied out and dealt with now.

So rather than lecturing about philosophical concepts or social principles, I leave you with the questions that I have to confront in digging through that office space: What makes things worth holding onto? When should we give up on fixing things? What materials that we cling to with hopes of them playing a role in our future happiness are worth saving… even if those future scenarios never actually play out? How do we really draw the line between our private areas of chaos and our responsible public personae? At what point does the clutter of one’s (mental and physical) world become a health and fire hazard?

I’ll be sorting through those things in both literal physical and figurative emotional senses this weekend, and over the coming week. If anyone has some profound insights that you feel might be applicable, please do not hesitate to share.

(And BTW, the same principles will need to be applied to the poor microbus in the picture later this spring.)

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Filed under Change, Happiness, Insanity

Old Clichés and New Beginnings

New Year’s Day. Every time this silly little ball of rock we stand on completes another trip around its star we stop to think of how the last round went and we take stock of what we got done and how close to or far from our hopes and dreams that puts us. Then we consider whether this next round could really bring us any closer, and what we might have to do to get there. Most of the time we make some trivial promises to ourselves to do the sort of things our parents and teachers would have wanted us to do, with some vague sort of hope that God in heaven will see our goodness and reward us for it; or that by behaving ourselves better we increase our chances of having a long and happy life, even if we rationally know better. So we start trying to exercise more, or we try to indulge in certain foods less, or we go for some time without drinking or smoking, or we try to focus on reading things that are “good for us,” or God knows what all else. Then at some point we lose faith either in ourselves or in the usefulness of these self-discipline programs, and we cynically go back into our old patterns of life. And then the next year we come back to the same evaluation point, and we try for the same old new beginning, just in slightly varied form.

How far should we dare to stray from such a pattern? What can or should we do, besides all of these “sensible resolutions” to bring our hopes and dreams closer to the reality we life in? What about really big changes in our lives? What stops us from making them? What should stop us from making them? What tragically keeps us from making them? What is it that enables us to make truly major changes in our lives in spite of ourselves… sometimes?

In discussing such matters one word that comes up very often is commitment. We don’t change things because we have a certain commitment to keeping things the way they are. Sometimes this is a commitment to other people; sometimes a commitment to a particular set of values or cultural norms. Sometimes we assume that this is part of loving, and indeed it can be. Sometimes, however, “commitment” seems to be nothing more than a noble sounding label to place on our fear of change.

We are all a bit loss-averse: we’re prone to take risks in terms of trying to get greater gain from a turn of the card or the like, but we’re not ready to take the same sorts of risks in terms of losing something we already have. There’s a recent study showing how it works the same with monkeys as well: Faced with a choice of taking a payout for what it is or playing double or nothing, monkeys––like people––are prone to play double or nothing a fair amount of the time; but if it’s a matter of losing something, they’re more likely to agree to a readily predictable loss than to gamble on a bigger loss or none at all (http://www.ted.com/talks/laurie_santos.html).

So it is with us in our everyday life situations: we have far less than what we truly want, but we prefer to hold onto what we have, taking minimal losses at it along the way, rather than to risk greater loss in the interest of finding what we’re really most hoping for and dreaming of. It’s not about the odds; it’s about the fear of losing something that we think belongs to us already. Kris Kristofferson wrote, and Janis Joplin made famous, the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the above sense there’s a certain amount of truth to that. The more we have that we are afraid of losing, the less free we are.

But that being said, we all have things we should not want to lose, the gift of life itself chief among them. We have people we care about, causes we believe in… perhaps even physical treasures we long to preserve for what they may symbolize to us. Are these things worth being committed to? At times, I’m sure they are. Things that make our lives meaningful can’t really do so if we don’t have the emotional strength and maturity to hold onto them. But that’s a whole different matter from not wanting to lose anything (more than necessary) because of some idea that losing is always bad, thus being imprisoned by a fear of loss.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about all of the different forms of harmony that I would hope that religion could help us achieve. In some ways my ideas of what would be worthy things to commit ourselves to would follow the same lines: commitment to live at peace and harmony with nature, as much as we are able; commitment to be true to ourselves, as much as we can discover about who those selves really are; commitment to be loyal to our family, friends, neighbors and others on whom we are directly mutually dependent, as much as we are able to do so without sacrificing important parts of ourselves in the process; commitment to “our own people” in a broader ethnic or national sense, to the extent that this does not lead to the all too common atrocities that ethnocentrism and nationalism are prone to generate; commitment to our brothers and sisters in faith, to the extent that this does not lead to the de-humanizing of those of other faiths and beliefs; and commitment to seeking fellowship with God, to the extent that we can be sure that this is not a means of dogmatizing some system or another of random hatred and prejudice.

But commitment to some status quo, for its own sake… is something I really can’t believe in. I mean there’s something to be said for having a certain flywheel effect for our emotions: sticking with something that we overall feel like doing even when we happen to feel a bit less excited about it, but that only works when the overall sense is that we really do want what we are committed to. Thus those who really want to develop their athletic abilities go to team practices even when they’re tired and stressed about other things. But should we be forcing ourselves to remain part of things that serve no greater purpose than themselves, that make our lives poorer rather than richer in the long run, just as a matter of “building character” or “commitment”? This is something that I tend to see as a personal tragedy for many people. It’s something I’ve seen drilled into children by parents, not as a means of helping them balance a present orientation with a future orientation, nor as a means of increasing their sense of empathy and personal connection with others––both of which I deeply respect––but as a means of stifling their individuality and interest in exploring less traditional options in life. “You’re going to those lessons because I’ve paid for them and I say you’re going: end of discussion!” No guilt trips for parents intended here, but as I see it that’s just not right.

So what of those that do leap out and make major changes in their lives; who dare to rock the proverbial boat with their own wild initiatives? For some we have more respect than for others in the long run. We look at Socrates, Siddhartha and the biblical Jeremiah as heroic champions of ideals over social respectability. We look at Vincent van Gogh, James Morrison and Chris McCandless as tragically impractical and self-destructive romantic dreamers. We look at the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche and Timothy Leary as examples of the absurd and repulsive state to which people can sink when they reject social respectability. As one considers the possibilities of taking a new year, each time one comes, and doing something totally radical with it, all of these heroic and cautionary tales come flooding back to mind. Thus most people stick to making safe resolutions. But the fact that we still keep getting new tales of radical adventure into our cultural mythologies says that not everyone plays it so safe.

The biggest single reason for taking risks and doing radical things with one’s life would have to be the contemplation of death. Life has its limits, and whatever we’re going to do with our lives have to be within those limits. When we stop to realize just how tight those limits can be––when we become aware that we won’t live for ever, and what we’re going to do in this life, we sort of have to get moving on doing––factors of respectability and social commitment become considerably less important.

Not that commitment and respectability are always bad things though. The best life has to offer, and the most important thing we can do with our lives is to genuinely love and be loved for whom we are, and anything that deserves to be called love must involve some level of commitment. I cannot claim to love someone if there isn’t a certain stability to my feelings for them, and a genuine intention to continue caring and wanting the best for that person long-term. So commitment can be a vitally important means of achieving something worth achieving in life. It just isn’t an end unto itself. The same might be said of respectability: in some cases it enables us to accomplish things that enrich our own lives and those of people around us. There’s nothing wrong with having people respect you, and having earned that respect. It’s just not a particularly worthy purpose to live for unto itself.

I’m not a believer in the Mayan calendar apocalypse predictions for next year, nor do I take other end of the world scenarios particularly seriously. The world is changing incredibly fast; that much is obvious. But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about the end of life as I know it right away. But even so, as I start out into this new year, I’m struck with a sense that, for myself and many people around me, this could be a year of more than cliché resolutions, but profound, meaningful changes, risking much of our old bases for security and in the process maybe getting just a little closer to our hopes and dreams. Hopefully you, dear reader, are one of us.

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