Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

20 OCTOBER, 2014

Happy Birthday, John Dewey: On War, the Future of Pacifism, and Our Individual Role in Peace

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“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.”

Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. His enduring insight on the true purpose of education and the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity resonates today with growing relevance amid our struggle to cultivate wisdom in the age of information. But nowhere was Dewey more prescient than in his reflections on conflict, war, and what is required of us if we are to live up to our hopes for a peaceful world — reflections urgently relevant today, as we face a swelling tide of violence along the vast spectrum from bullying to beheadings.

On July 28, 1917 — exactly 67 years before I was born, and exactly three years after the start of World War I — The New Republic published a poignant piece by Dewey titled “The Future of Pacifism.” The essay is now included in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — that fantastic “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought marking the 100th anniversary of The New Republic, which also gave us George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself. Dewey’s perceptive insight may well have been written about modern attitudes toward war — particularly America’s — and his impassioned case for peace reminds us that conflict is not merely something inflicted between governments but something in which we all, as individuals, are implicit in the small, seemingly imperceptible choices we make daily, the macro-beliefs we subscribe to in our private lives and the micro-actions we take in public.

He writes:

There is no paradox in the fact that the American people is profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists.

He considers “the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance”:

It takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two.

Lamenting the misguided belief that that pacifism is merely a form of “futile gesturing,” Dewey admonishes against the prevalent perception that those who don’t support the war must be pro-enemy at heart. (Nearly a century later, a certain American president would repeatedly suggest that not supporting the war in Iraq — a war his administration started — was not only pro-enemy but also anti-American.) Dewey points to the pioneering American social worker, peace activist, and suffragist Jane Addams as the finest example of doing the pacifist position justice:

She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”

That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion needs not be doubted.

And yet Dewey, never one to oversimplify the complexity of things, is far from advocating for “the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be.” Such preventative methods, he argues, are a matter of “treating symptoms and ignoring the disease.” He writes:

All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air… To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.

To put an end to war and violence, Dewey argues, is not a matter of passive and theoretical protest. (One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s epidemic of online petitions.) It is a matter of acting, here and now:

I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency.

More than that, our individual responsibility is to use whatever “influence” we have — whatever reach, whatever voice, whatever share of the cultural conversation — in dispelling the propaganda of war:

The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.

Illustration from 'The Ancient Book of Myth and War,' a Pixar side project. Click image for more.

This task of wedging a stick in the myth-making machinery of war propaganda is undoubtedly of greater — graver, even — importance today. But while the machinery of the media may have become manyfold more industrious since Dewey’s day and a merciless economic driver of commercial culture, it also pays to remember that in many ways, we — you and I and all the unique private individuals of whom the faceless public of citizenry is composed — are the media today. As Sally Kohn elegantly put it, “clicking is a public act” — what is being written determines what we read and what we come to believe, but today more than ever, what we read also very much determines what is being written. We are no longer the passive consumers of those catchwords of which Dewey admonishes but also their propagators, their perpetrators. Seen in this light, Dewey’s closing remarks ring with extraordinary poignancy:

One might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world. The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them… Too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.

Complement with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence on war, peace, and human nature, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s letters on violence and the truth of the human spirit, Mark Twain’s The War Prayer animated, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams on how our choices shape our world.

The whole of Insurrections of the Mind is a trove of timeless, timely thought, featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Andrew Sullivan.

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16 OCTOBER, 2014

The History Manifesto: How to Eradicate the Epidemic of Short-Termism and Harness Our Past in Creating a Flourishing Future

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A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.

I spend a significant amount of time on ideas at the intersection of the timeless and the timely, something I find to be of growing urgency in a culture such as ours, where the tyrannical reverse-chronology of newsfeeds implies that the latest, being literally at the top, is also of the greatest importance and meaning. We often lump the thinkers of the past under the grab-bag term “history” — a term that has come to be increasingly dismissive as irrelevant amid our novelty-fetishism. And yet some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, who have been dead for decades or centuries or millennia, have explored with remarkable prescience and insight issues of intense importance today — be it Seneca on busyness two thousand years before our present cult of productivity or Susan Sontag on the dynamics of visual culture online decades before the modern social web existed or Kierkegaard on the psychology of bullying and cybertrolling in 1847 or Tolstoy and Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. Asking the eternal questions — about happiness, about justice, about how to live a meaningful life — is an immutable part of the human experience. To presume that we and we alone, perched atop our tiny slice of history, have the most valid answers is to cheat ourselves of the rich and ennobling record of human experience upon which our civilization is founded.

That’s precisely what Brown University history professor Jo Guldi and Harvard historian David Armitage explore in The History Manifesto (public library) — a beautifully argued case for why we need to eradicate the present epidemic of short-termism, a disease that “has many practitioners but few defenders,” and shift to long-view narratives that ensure not only the survival but also the creative, intellectual, political, environmental, and spiritual flourishing of our civilization. (Although the manifesto may celebrate the value of the past, it isn’t beholden to yesteryear’s baggage — the book is also available as a free digital text under a Creative Commons license.)

Guldi and Armitage open unambiguously:

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term.

We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking… Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings. It can hardly seem worthwhile to raise questions of the long term at all.

'The Histomap' by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

They cite legendary futurist Steward Brand’s founding statement for The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a proud supporter:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries.

A proper relationship with the past, Guldi and Armitage argue, empowers the essential elasticity of time that is so central to free will and to our ability to make sound decisions, in business and in life:

Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities… Regardless of age or security of income, we are all in the business of making sense of a changing world. In all cases, understanding the nexus of past and future is crucial to acting upon what comes next.

Educational institutions, they argue, are both uniquely situated as bastions of long-term thinking and particularly vulnerable to the epidemic of short-termism. Nalanda University in India, founded as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago, may still be a hearth of learning, but it also must exist in a culture where the average lifespan of a modern corporation is a mere 75 years and the vast majority of startups don’t survive past their fifth year. That universities are increasingly subjected to the expectations of businesses, Guldi and Armitage suggest, is of enormous cultural peril:

Universities … are the carriers of traditions, the guardians of deep knowledge. They should be the centers of innovation where research takes place without regard to profit or immediate application.

[...]

The peculiar capacity of the university to foster disinterested inquiries into the long term may be as endangered as long-term thinking itself… As the medieval university mutated into the modern research university, and as private foundations become subject to public control and funding, the goals of the humanities were increasingly tested and contested. For at least the last century, wherever the humanities have been taught or studied there has been debate about their “relevance” and their “value.” Crucial to the defense of the humanities has been their mission to transmit questions about value — and to question values — over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Any search for antidotes to short-termism must begin with them.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic (1780) from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

In the third chapter, titled “The Proliferation of Mythology,” Guldi and Armitage point to one particularly perilous aspect of our cultural narrative — that of reductionist and misleading myths. (The great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably captured the power of myth in 1962, calling it “at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man” and a “ready-made means of externalizing human plight.”) The authors write:

The abundance of false stories in our time is one of the major reasons that we are in a crisis of short-term thinking. In an era of simplistic solutions to problems with rising sea-levels, governance, or inequality, few people can talk authoritatively about the big picture. The proliferation of reductionist stories about the past has a history, like anything else. Nightmare scenarios and fundamentalist mythologies about climate, governance, and inequality began to proliferate around the same time that historians began to retreat to shorter and shorter time scales.

As the Short Past came to dictate conversations about history, longue-durée understanding began to look, by contrast, like an antique mode of story-telling, something performed only by patriarchs or amateurs, unsuited to a modern student adept at using evidence or argument. This led to the charge that social history had abandoned all interest in politics, power, and ideology, leading its practitioners instead to “sit somewhere in the stratosphere, unrooted in reality.” Increasingly, the Short Past was defined as not only one way to look at history, but the only way to look at history.

'A New Chart of History' by Joseph Priestley (1769) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Particularly since the 1970s, Guldi and Armitage argue, such short-termism has resulted in nothing short of a moral crisis, blinding us to alternative futures and producing “habits of microscopic attention that culminated in a sense of practical irrelevance” and that caused the mutual abandonment of the humanities (which are, after all, what makes us human) and the public.

As somebody particularly drawn to mid-twentieth-century thinkers like Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Alan Watts, I find particularly pause-giving Guldi and Armitage’s observation that during that period, historians and intellectuals played an active role in the public sphere — something that undoubtedly not only benefited public life, but also enriched these thinkers’ ideas to make them precisely as enduring as they are. Today, the notion of a “public intellectual” is, outside of a small coterie, practically paradoxical. Our idols are not scholars and people who think for a living but performers and entrepreneurs, people who do for a living, and do at a rapid pace, with productive immediacy. No wonder short-termism is the monoculture of our time.

Guldi and Armitage advocate for a new breed of historians and history-minded thinkers who are concerned with “restoring the tight-woven cloak of stories that helps to shelter a culture with a sophisticated understanding of its past” and who use the past to illuminate the future and speak truth to present power:

The new historians of the longue durée should be inspired to use history to criticize the institutions around us and to return history to its mission as a critical social science. History can provide the basis for a rejection of anachronisms founded on deference to longevity alone. Thinking with history — but only with long stretches of that history — may help us to choose which institutions to bury as dead and which we might want to keep alive.

[...]

History, with its rich, material understanding of human experience and institutions and its apprehension of multiple causality, is reentering the arena of long-term discussions of time where evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and economists have long been the only protagonists. Today, we desperately need an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilizations. History as a discipline can be that referee.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

In the final section, Guldi and Armitage capture precisely what is at stake and why the role of history in shaping the future is so full of promise and possibility:

Responding to the call for a public future demands some rethinking the way we look at the past… Answering the call for a public future also means writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared.

They outline the three things essential for writing such future-forward history:

  1. A need for new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts
  2. An emphasis on visualization and digital tools
  3. A fusion between the big and the small, the “micro” and the “macro,” that harnesses the best of archival work on the one hand and big-picture work about issues of common concern on the other

Seven decades after Vannevar Bush presaged the rise of “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Guldi and Armitage write:

History’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted… [This] requires the services of scholars trained in looking at the past, who can explain where things came from, who can examine the precise evidence of the Short Past and the broader picture of big data and the longue durée, and who are dedicated to serve the public through responsible thinking about the nexus of past, present, and future.

Illustration from the graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for details.

But rather than nihilistic criticism of contemporary culture, the book is above all a clarion call for taking action, for our era is uniquely positioned to cultivate a sound and nourishing relationship with the past:

An era defined by a crisis of short-termism may be a particularly good time to start rethinking attitudes towards the past. Many histories have been written with the express purpose of offering a window into the future, and some — especially long-term histories of capitalism and the environment — are very clear about what they offer.

This, Guldi and Armitage argue, would require the dedication of people “unafraid of generating and circulating digestible narratives” — for, lest we forget, the disseminators of ideas are the unsung heroes of innovation and progress — who would respond to “a public need to make sense of our common past.” These people, they point out, need not be professional historians — we ought to, as legendary humanist John Franklin Jameson put it in 1912, think of history “not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.”

The History Manifesto is excellent and urgently necessary in its totality. Complement it with Judith Butler’s fantastic commencement address on the value of the humanities.

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

Karl Marx’s Life and Legacy, in a Comic

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From the opium of the masses to the downfall of capitalism, by way of love and revolution.

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

One of the final pages, reflecting on communism’s rise to power in Russia, Eastern Europe and China in the twentieth century, captures the dimensionality of Marx’s legacy in elegantly simple form. “Some very good things came out of it, but some very bad ones, too,” writes Maier as Marx’s ghost is depicted walking off, muttering to himself, “My ideal of freedom was betrayed.”

Complement Marx with other fantastic graphic biographies — Salvador Dalí, Richard Feynman, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs — then revisit Nobrow’s wonderful graphic novel about the brain.

Images courtesy of Nobrow Press

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