Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The next history


“History,” which comes from the Latin, historia, meaning “story,” comprises, in the broadest sense, all the stories we have about the universe, starting from a moment ago to, theoretically, the beginning of time.

"History" in this essay refers to human history, the stories the human race has preserved about itself and its world.

The word "story" suggests fiction, but we consider many of the more recent stories in history "true" because we have written confirmations of them. Julius Caesar's assasination is historical fact because his contemporaries wrote that it happened. The veracity of other stories (e.g. Cleopatra died of an asp bite; Socrates said, "I drank what?") is left open.

There is a crossover in history between fiction and non-fiction. Much history is suggested, not proven. Complete stories- with a beginning, middle and end- that are considered suggestive of history although they are largely uncorroborated are called "myths." These are reports of events that happened so long ago that numerous editorial boards have restated the facts, to the point that the original details will never be known. We look for universal or general truths in myths.

From myths we get two types of history: "myths," the stories that we consider and present as uncorroborated, and "scripture," myths that are held to be historically accurate.

The study of myths in the first sense is the study of religions that no one believes any more, such as the ancient Greek religion with its humanoid gods, led by the very male and human Zeus. We have no historical proof of anything alleged in Greek mythology, and we don't need to because no one is supposed to believe the myths. We do, however, find meaning in them, and that may be a form of "belief" (from German, leof, "to find something pleasant"). No one today is pressured to believe that Sisyphus was an ancient king of Corinth, or that he tricked Thanatos, the god of death, capturing him in his own chains, so that no one in the world (especially Sisyphus) could die, or that Zues punished Sisyphus by giving him an eternal life- one in which he forever had to push a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, then push it up again. Though no one believes that something like that happened to a man named Sisyphus, we have adopted the story and use it often to exemplify human futility.

"Scripture" (from Latin: script, "writings"), also called the "Bible" (biblos, "papyrus, scroll" Semitic origin) is a collection of myths most recently assembled and edited by the ancient Jewish people. No one knows the specific origins of the earliest of these myths, but they were reformulated- if necessary- so that the Jewish people were the protagonists and exclusive focus of the Creator. You might call this Phase I of the Judeo/Christian era.

Phase 2 started 2,000 years ago, when a Jewish holy man started a new religion, Christianity, in which the Creator would now accept any person, Jewish or otherwise, who would accept his rule, the status of the holy man as the Creator's son (his mother being mortal) and that he was martyred for this.

In traditional Judeo-Christian teaching, the events described in the Bible are held to have been historical, although there is little or no corroboration. Adherents, especially of Christianity, are directed to accept the stories through "faith" (Latin, fidelitas, "loyalty").

The lack of corroboration is more definitive for the Old Testament, the part the Jews collected or created, which was first put to writing around 1200 BC. There is no corroboration of the stories of Adam and Eve, Moses, Abraham or Isaac. Nevertheless, the stories are so packed with meaning that we often ponder them without wondering if they happened.

The New Testament, the foundational scripture for Christians, covers events well within the historical period. There is some evidence that a man named Jesus existed and had a following for a revolutionary message. The attributions of Jesus' divinity and its bearing on the crucifixion cannot be proven and so are matters of faith, yet historical or not, the image of a man whose mind is connected to the cosmos, tortured to death by fellow humans, is so compelling that we can react to it and find meaning regardless of what religion we "belong" to.

One might say that history is Euclidean, Newtonian and Einsteinian, measuring space and time, while religion is psychological, focussing on symbols and essential meanings.

Humans have preserved their stories going back about 10,000 years (this figure includes a surmised oral tradition in which stories were spoken centuries before they were written down, as with the story of a great flood that may have become the myth of Noah's Ark, or tales of a Trojan War that may or may not have happened). We call this period, “historic." We call most of the previous 300,000 or so years of humanity, “prehistoric.”

There is an earlier and harder to interpret form of history, though we don't call it that, known as "cave art," discovered on the walls of caves where prehistoric humans lived. The oldest site found so far, in Spain, is dated to about 64,000 BC. It consists largely of stenciled human hands which show the outlines of actual hands. This work was done by Neanderthals (meaning, "cave people, some of whose art was discovered near Neandertal, Germany"), a now extinct type of human who had larger brains than ours and apparently invented art. Genetic evidence indicates that modern humans (homo sapiens, Latin for, "wise men") interbred with Neanderthals before squeezing them out of the picture about 40,000 years ago.

Did combining the two dissimilar branches confuse our perspective? As William Blake put it, "The eye sees more than the heart knows."

For 50,000 years after the stencilled hands, cave art portrayed animals, people and forgotten symbols. Though the art is suggestive, it has not given us the prose-like narrative we call history.

From the 250,000 years of people before cave art, we have nothing.

This essay asserts that in our use of history and its absence we have veered into unfounded narcissism with an intense need to conceive of prehistoric humans as less evolved, less intelligent and less "great" than historical humans, and it ponders what gain this has brought us.

Not that we know how "great" prehistoric people may have been. Without even myths to go by, we have no evidence about subjective human existence for 97% of our time on Earth.

Maybe there were elements in our earlier mentality that were not, or could not be translated.

We do know that prehistoric people had strong understandings of and connections to their environments, and they had technologies, such as innovative use of fire and hunting tools, but, as noted, the understandings and the technologies, from our perspective, were not “great." It’s one thing to kill a mastodon and cook it; it’s another to dominate all life on earth.

Our dogma of difference is supported by the sudden eruption in historic times of unprecedented technological prowess, notably in architecture, which developed to support governance of ever larger human communities. To that end, a distinguishing feature of much historic architecture is "greatness," as with the imposing pyramids of ancient Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, constructed starting about 6,000 years into historic time.

The skill of the ancient builders is stunning, though one might wonder if it is more stunning than a bee colony’s ability to build a beehive. Some will say that bees build their hives from instinct, without understanding what they are doing. We don’t have enough evidence to debate that (though admittedly it appears true), but here is another difference between a beehive and the human monuments: While a beehive serves a purpose- the support of the bees' lives and their society- the pyramids and ziggurats, "great" though they were, served no practical purpose for most people (unless you count the oppressive social structure as a service, or occasional additions like the temple prostitutes of Babylon, attested to by Herodotus, sex with whom brought fertility to crops and married couples).

The temples and tombs were designed to reinforce state-sponsored narratives in which cosmic gods endorsed the human elite, sometimes promoting them as demi-gods. The purpose of the monuments was to prop up the ruling class and awe the tribeless thousands, binding them to the state with fantasy, enhanced optics and fear.

Of course, humans have developed powerful technologies in useful fields too, such as medical science, which has had to race to recover from widespread loss of prehistoric knowledge while working against modern life's tendency to kill us, make us sick and drive us crazy.

Our technological advances as they express themselves today are puzzling. We can change our biology. We can fly around the world and into space. We can record our experiences and replay them externally on a screen. We can blow up the world. The question becomes: Since these abilities don't fit any prospective human niche, what are they for?

Living things that succeed on Earth need to evolve to fit a niche (from Latin nest), defined as "a comfortable or suitable position in a specific environment" (American Heritage). Niches are natural features of the Earth. Animals compete over potential niches, evolving as they compete. Many creatures, after evolving to win near monopolies of a niche's bounty, stop evolving when the fit becomes stable. Alligators have thrived on Earth in roughly their present form for about 85 million years. They evolved to swim near the surface in waterways, where many creatures were available to be eaten by something bigger. After alligators evolved into that something bigger, they stopped evolving. Continual change would only have interfered with their stable lives.

Are human abilities inspired by a conception of a future niche? If not, why not?

At only 300,000 years old, humans are children who perhaps can be forgiven for branching out in every direction in search of a niche. But now, when we are destroying the biosphere and ourselves in the course of our search, it seems time to imagine what that niche might be, and plan for it.

Our search might begin with a look backwards into the mystery of our lost niche, when we were "animals." Our nearest relatives, chimpanzees, began in a forest home similar and nearby to ours, but they are still there. Why didn't we stay? Did the chimps drive us out (see, "The future of the Alpha male," below)? Did we destroy our niche?

Consider also the mystery of the 250,000 prehistoric years after we left the animal kingdom, from which no stories have survived. Some of the physical evidence is suggestive. For example, anthropologist Richard Leakey (Origins) tells of two prehistoric villages in Africa that apparently thrived on opposite sides of a lake for 20,000 years, with no indication of trade, travel or any interaction between them over the entire period. What would it be like to live with that sort of stability, in an isolated culture with an entire beautiful world to itself, free from outside influence and "development" for 20,000 years? Do our space programs respresent a desire to find that lost village?

Speaking of space travel, a possible fallout from humanity's destructive search is that, as many science fiction writers have envisioned, there is growing uncertainty about whether the Earth itself can continue to host us. Hopefully we'll figure things out here before turning the rest of the solar system into a toxic dump.

Humans are different kinds of creatures from our colleagues in the biosphere. We're not the only ones capable of aggressive and predatory behavior, but anxiety caused by our lack of a reliable niche has driven us, perhaps, a bit mad, as we continue the ancient practice of reacting to the void with edifices of stone and self-aggrandizing propaganda, designed to mesmerize and enslave others of our kind in a quest to be great- the idea being that we'll be ok without a niche as long as a few humans make it big. Joy (generally shallow and brief) comes to the rare winners in our system, and woe to the many who struggle to stay afloat.

For those who do stay afloat, the reward is a Sisyphean end-game we call a "rat race," a circular track with no accomplishable goal or end (unless you count retirement, from the French retirer, "to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion." We know what that means).

In 1992, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called, “The End of History and the Last Man,” which argued that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 would result in “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” We don’t hear much about this theory anymore, probably because people are less sure that something like “liberal democracy” distinguishes Western society, or that that this liberal democracy is so stable and popular that the whole world will adopt it. However things looked in 1991, Fukuyama’s idea seems far-fetched today.

But the phrase “end of history” lingers on, separate from Fukuyama’s theories. There is a widespread notion that our 10,000 years of stories are about to be forgotten, replaced by new stories that will relegate previously historic humans to a foggy, prehistoric past, where we can join the cave dwellers as exemplars (best forgotten) of the primitive. Much of this expectation comes from advances in biological technology that will enable us to transform our descendants physically, into new types of humans.

Science fiction tends to present a dystopian side to this prospect, featuring a future of worker-humans designed to be undemanding slaves, and an overclass of people designed to be masters, a continuation of the historic set-up.

In addition to avoiding work, I’d like to think that our species will take the opportunity of the new technology to redefine itself and move away from the idea of “rulers” and “workers.” Returning to the beehive, there is one bee that we designate the “queen,” and many bees that we designate “workers,” but the meaning for bees is not like the meaning for humans. In human society, a queen (or king) does not have to work (defined here as low status manual labor), while workers do. This is not because the workers want to work, but because kings and queens don’t. The rulers maintain their status with the vocabulary, insignia and paraphernalia of ruling, and by doling out perks to the most violent of the young men to win their loyalty should the workers not like the deal. The workers become, in a real sense, slaves (what happened to the useful term, “wage slave”?).

In a beehive, however, the queen is not a queen in the human sense. She is the egg layer. The workers take care of her because she is their source of renewed life, not because they are her slaves. As far as the “work” done by the “workers,” watch bees alighting on flowers for a while and see of you don't think, as I have, "I want that job!"

Many visionary ideas for humanity involve a tight societal organization with an external uniformity that features an enhanced sense of community and communion, suggesting a beehive. We often call such ideas derogatory names, like "utopian," meaning it can't happen, or we reject hive models because we fear that if everyone thinks alike, we will be mindless drones. Leaving aside the question of whether all bees think alike- as well as the question of whether we're already mindless drones- our 10,000 year slide into high-population hivelike formations seems like a trend, so we might as well try to influence it.

Another reason we should try to influence our species' future is that such an activity would improve our current worrisom mental state. We need something real to be optimistic about- a renewed sense of self-determination- or the pessimism that has been building in us may reach a critical level and by itself do us in.

We can start by creating an alternative to the archaic and highly dangerous nexus of "liberal democratic" politics with its roots in money-making (particularly unfortunate now when apocalpse-related industries pay the highest dividends) and the covertly subservient media that currently rules us.[Update, 6/24/22: The reaction to liberal democratic rule, exemplified in today's Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, is just as bad. Are we going to get a new religion now in which every cell in an organism must reproduce?]. There are well-intentioned people within this nexus, but their organization has become paralyzed to the point that any definitive action risks civil war. The Blue vs Red filter, through which we've been trained to view American politics, cannot rationally process any of our most serious puzzles, whether climate change, gun control, abortion or race relations (See "Science should be political," below). On the contrary, our national debate format is specifically designed to short-circuit any advancment in these areas. It's almost as if our leadership wants the species to collapse in chaos, or at least some of the species. Rational humans looking for solutions may have to wait until the Blues and Reds have had it out and are panting in the dust. Whoever remains will have science and a blank slate for an ideology.

If the above scenario holds, our next history will probably not arrive through a democratic process. In a few generations, the term "democracy" might fall as flat as "divine right of kings." The current seeming reality of democracy in the U.S., when it does seem real, is enabled by our unprecedented riches and surplus. If our riches recede, as they threaten to, democracy will likely evaporate. In support of this view, consider the current strategy of engaging Americans in a war between Russia and Ukraine. If we are preoccupied with World War III, as well as a media-induced civil war, no one will notice if people start laying eggs, an outcome we would probably not have voted for.

On a brighter note, maybe through the crucible of war we will evolve into communities of enlightened hives (we should ensure, though, that the hives are not owned by Amazon, which would seek only enough happiness in worker-bees to circumvent unionization).

It's surreal to be able to write like this- unfettered, unlimited by nearby agendas- when censorship is spreading quickly through the world. While I can, I'd like to make two suggestions for future humanity:

1. I suggest we lose the concept of “greatness.” It has only messed us up. Is a bee on its way to a flower “great”? Who cares? It lives for a while, is happy or not, then dies, like all things. As an attempt to add to this process, "greatness" has not been particularly successfull.

2. Let’s modify religions- making them less about our own psychological needs and more about improving relations with the cosmos- by removing the insistence on the supremacy of one's own god, as opposed to the lesser gods of other religions. This won't jive with people who believe the gods are at war with each other, in a battle called "Armageddon." Personally I think we're the ones at war. The gods are too smart. We should also define the many undefined terms pervading religion that are used, in their undefined states, to warp general social thought, like “saintliness,” “holiness,” and “purity." Such terms, since they mean nothing to biologists or psychologists, mean, probably, nothing.

For those trying to keep track of the future, a useful gauge will be the spectrum of response to currently unfolding wars. Will the network newscasters and political and military rulers be the only voices, the only leaders? Or will other voices and other leaders survive and have an impact?

Conflict and turmoil are coming, but just as interesting little mammals survived the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs, some interesting humans might make it through our troubles, into the next history.


Saturday, April 09, 2022

ISIS: A virtual reality

[This piece is re-posted from 2016. To update, substitute the Ukraine/Russia war for ISIS]

"Virtual" is a difficult term to define, especially in the modern phrase, "virtual reality." Of course, by the time children are in middle school they know what virtual reality is, but ask them to define it. Then ask yourself.  In this essay I assemble what knowledge I can about "virtual reality" and the role the concept plays in modern society.  At the end I relate what I find to our conception of the terrorist group ISIS [with an update on the Ukraine/Russia war].

A good dictionary (in this case American Heritage) covers the basics: "Virtual" is related to the noun, "virtue," which we know to mean, "a morally good quality," like integrity or honesty, from Latin virtus, "merit," "perfection," from vir, "man."  The transition from vir to the rest is a challenging etymological puzzle (while you're at it, consider "woman of virtue"), but my focus here is the equally mystifying modern usage of "virtual."

Back to the dictionary- there are three broad definitions of "virtual":

1: "Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition : the troops stopped at the virtual border."   Virtual borders are not official borders on a map, but de facto borders, determined by use.

Note: Only definition #1 clearly references the historic usage of virtue,  retained in our word "virtuous," meaning "exhibiting virtues."  In the example above, virtual borders have the "virtue" of being observed by practice, though not the virtue of being indicated on maps.

2: "In computing, not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to exist, e.g., a virtual doorway;"  In other words, imaginary.

3: "Physics, denoting particles or interactions with extremely short lifetimes and indefinitely great energies, postulated as intermediates in some processes."  That is, particles, or things, that exist for such a brief period of time that their reality as things is questionable.

I would have guessed that virtual reality derived from #3, since it is the most confusing.  Does the length of time that something exists have bearing on the reality of its existence?  In galactic time, humans do not exist very long.   So is ours a lesser existence?  That subject will have to wait for another essay, however, since virtual reality derives from #2, which means, as noted, imaginary.

Under virtual reality we get: "The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors."

The question I ask at this point is, why do we need to conceive of computer-generated simulation as a type of reality?  We never had that need with novels, plays or movies. Those are not types of realities.  They are imaginary.

In modern, media based culture, we do seem to have a need to think, or feel, that we create our reality.  From one point of view it is a sort of honesty.  When we turn on the news and see what is happening in far away places, the news show is constructing reality, so that what we receive is not reality, but a construct based on it. We have "reality shows," in which people behave in stage-managed ways, real only in the sense that the behavior is real on the show. This usage is "honest" in that, unlike past ages when, for example, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various things were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those various things were held to be real, not virtually real.  So our culture, by holding that certain things can be virtually real, as opposed to just real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.

But the extended context is not so hopeful- it suggests that we don't require actual reality from our media, that it is enough to produce simulated, virtual reality, as video games do.

It is in this context that I consider ISIS, which, several years ago, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a man burning to death, realized the predictions of numerous science fiction novels, from the media-mediated wars of George Orwell's 1984 to the blurred lines between war and mass entertainment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.  On the day the ISIS video was released, our national news anchors breathlessly described its "high production values," David Muir of ABC marveling that no Hollywood studio could have done "better," as if he were delivering a movie review.  In a sense he was.

The other day a friend showed me a video from a source on the Internet that purported to be a recording of the transmission from a U.S. drone that was conducting an attack on ISIS ground troops in Syria who were attacking the Peshmerga (Kurdish enemies of ISIS, thus our allies).  It was a nighttime attack, the ground troops glowing white through infrared lenses. The chatter from drone control, which was hundreds or thousands of miles from the scene, was dispassionate though highly engaged, technical, referencing targets and coordinates, ordering rocket and 30mm fire that resulted moments later in white flashes where running forms had been.  It looked exactly like a video game.  I could have been pounding my thumbs blasting aliens or Kazakhs (a favorite game foe for a while).  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game comes to mind, in which hot-shot 9th grade gamers are told by the military that they are trying out a new training video, while they are in fact fighting real aliens (Spoiler alert: Book III reveals that the "invading" aliens were on a peaceful mission).

What do these musings have to do with the real ISIS?  And by the way, my point is not that ISIS is not real, or evil.  It's hard to see how its actions could be faked.  A Jordanian pilot was really burned; people were really beheaded; many European and American cities really were terrorized by fanatics.  I'm talking about the sober thinking behind ISIS, specifically their marketing department, and they clearly have one.  The War of ISIS is packaged for young men the way a video game would be packaged. Consider how you'll be watching a TV show that young people also watch, and suddenly there's a commercial with CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with titles like End of Doom Part III!  Now it's The Return of ISIS, The Reckoning!  

Commentators have wondered where ISIS comes from and what it wants. It is not a country, or associated with one.  It has no past as an established enemy. But its genesis in no secret. ISIS formed in reaction to persecutions of Iraqi Sunnis by U.S. imposed Shia leaders, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. ISIS was in effect born of U.S. policy, continuing the pattern of post-World War II conflicts in which we indulge our need to fight enemies by creating them- as we do with video games.

In other words, ISIS is not entirely real.  Virtually, though, it's real enough. It certainly has no problem with ratings, though ISIS is at heart a transitory organization, dependent on outside support.  On its own it does not have the staying power of a profitable video game.  The best outcome would be to win this war quickly, as well as virtually and really. [Update, 4/23/22: If you do substitute the Ukraine/Russia war for ISIS in this essay, you may wonder how anyone could take the advice above and win this war quickly, and you'd have a good point. We are in much more trouble with the Ukraine/Russia war than we were with ISIS because the game makers have added an insidious element: the victimized party is us, or like us, totally inncocent, attacked without cause. We feel we need to support this war against Russia, even if risking World War III, to save ourselves. Of course the Russian video game makers provide an alternate story: The West is threatening Russia through NATO and ongoing supplies of advanced weaponry. What a brilliant chess game from the technocrats, leading humanity to this new bonfire of the vanities, into which we will obediently throw our lives, cleansing ourselves of excess culture and population, opening wide the doors to a scientific state and our cloned children. For further speculation on this theme, check out my colleague Harry the Human's account of Gregory's Army of the Young at: http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com]

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Ukraine

I
My grandfather left you after you cut his father down.
What do you want now,
why have you come around?


II
He came to New York then Bismarck and sold liquor.
The Sioux and Germans came to buy in World War II
but World War II was quicker.
My dad quit the town, the city slicker,
and then I came, I saw, I begged to differ-
Los Angeles!


III
What a haven from Ukraine you’ve been;
you let everybody float, we think we win.
Oh Ukraine, they even let us sin!


Friday, March 11, 2022

Is China an enemy?

This question has been trending in America for a while, but it gained traction on March 22, 2020 when all U.S. news networks and online platforms headlined in unison that "...the coronavirus may have escaped from a Chinese lab near Wuhan!"  At the time there was no particular evidence that it had, but the seemingly orchestrated announcements triggered the start of then President Trump's struggle against challenger Joe Biden for the title: "Toughest on China."  The results were inconclusive and do not seem to have influenced the election.  All we know for sure is that, without Trump, Biden will have to face China as both Good Cop and Bad Cop.

This essay recounts my own decades-long quest to determine if China is an enemy.

I've been thinking about China since I discovered it in 1953, at the age of seven, when my family, who had arrived in Los Angeles from North Dakota two years earlier, went to Chan's Chinese Restaurant on the Sunset Strip near Laurel Canyon.  I was fascinated by the plastic dragon molds on the walls and ceilings and by crunchy "noodles" that you could float in the egg drop soup.  I liked chop suey because you could slurp it up.  Fortune cookies were a winner.  

My dad introduced us to the owner, Kyle Luke, a Chinese born American actor who played Charlie Chan's "Number One Son" in the popular movie series (later criticized as promoting stereotypes).  As the oldest of three brothers, I wondered what a "number one son" was.  

The public schools I attended had few Chinese kids, so Chan's remained my foundational experience until 1966, when I enrolled at San Francisco State College (now California State University at San Francisco).  I made several Chinese friends, went with them to San Francisco's Chinatown frequently, and learned that chop suey is Cantonese for "left-overs" (it was concocted for unworldly gold miners).  

My best friend was a Chinese fellow who used the English given name David.  His family had lived in Hanoi until they fled from Ho Chi Minh's regime to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and later to the U.S..   I met David one day in French class when we were seated next to each other.  He asked me to help him with something he hadn't heard in the lecture.  He was taking notes on a strange typewriter with giant keys.  The typewriter wrote braille notes because David had gone blind from retinal cancer when he was a toddler. 

We went to the cafeteria after class and I learned a lot about David.  When he was a little boy in North Vietnam an aunt told him that because he was blind he would need to weave baskets and sell them on the street.  David was a mathematics major.  He did most of it in his head.  Several years after I met him he received a Phd in math from UC Berkeley and was later hired by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

My friendship with David grew rapidly because we each needed a friend.  I walked all over San Francisco with him.  He was proficient with his cane, but I often held his arm or he held mine.  Once we were walking in the Mission District and people in a car laughed and shouted at us, "They're really out tonight!"  David understood the intent and scoffed.  He said he hated homosexuality and then asked me if I was a homosexual.  I said, "No," and he replied that if I had said, "Yes," he would never have spoken to me again.  Girls adored David.  Sometimes he would introduce me to a girl he had met and ask me later how attractive she was.  

I got to know David's mom, who worked as a translator, and his sister, who attended Sacramento State.  I would go shopping with them in Chinatown and be entranced by smells (ginger in particular).  David took me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Washington Street, up from Grant, called Sam Woh, which was still in business the last time I visited a few years ago.  David's family spoke Mandarin, but David liked Cantonese food, especially a specialty soup at Sam Woh called now nham fun, a broth of fatty beef chunks and wide fun noodles miraculously flavored with herbs unknown to my Campbell's soup infused childhood.  I quickly became addicted to now nham fun and came to Sam Woh on my own at least once a week to get it.  The dining room was on a crowded second floor, with steam from the downstairs kitchen wafting up.  One time my table was next to the restroom.  A waiter came stumbling out, appearing drunk.  A minute later he brought me my bowl of now nham fun, his thumb sunk a half inch into it.  Such was my addiction that I ate the soup anyway, though I didn't come back for a long time (thirty years).

As noted, the purpose of this reminiscence is to help me develop a picture of China so I can decide if China is an enemy.  To recap: Wonderful soup with thumb in it; awesome brains.  

Partly because of my friendship with David and his family, I changed my major from English to Mandarin, which I studied for two years at San Francisco State, doing well or poorly depending how you look at it.  Mandarin grammar was easier than English or French.  I was good at pronunciation.  Professor Lee, who called me La Xiansheng (roughly "Mr. Lasken") praised me for mastering the four tones.  He was not so taken with the pronunciation of students who were native Cantonese speakers (the majority in Chinatown) who had trouble adapting from Cantonese pronunciation.  

The Cantonese students did not have trouble with the Chinese characters, which they already knew because they are common across dialects, but the characters were my undoing.  Chinese kids begin in kindergarten to learn the world's biggest alphabet- a different character almost for each word, though there are interesting combinations.  For instance, the character for "I" is comprised of the symbol for self and the symbol for a sword.  Professor Lee told us this represents the internal conflict of the self.  Nice, but you need to know about 8,000 separate characters to read a Chinese newspaper.  We had to learn 10 characters a week.  I would pass the Friday quiz but forget all ten characters the following week.

I persisted and worked hard because Professor Lee seemed wise, and I liked his praise.  He told this story in Mandarin and helped us translate it:

The Buddha walked into a town and encountered two men having a heated argument.  He approached them and one of the men said, "Great Buddha, please help us solve this argument!"

"Yes, Buddha, tell us which of us is correct.  I say the sun appears flatter before it sets because it melts as it approaches the horizon."

"But I say," said the other man, "that the sun appears flatter at sunset because it is pressing against the earth.  Great Buddha, which of us is right?"

The Buddha thought for a long time, and finally said, "I don't know."

One day Professor Lee discussed psychoanalysis in America.  My ears perked up because I still corresponded with my high school shrink.  Professor Lee said, "In China, we don't need therapy.  We just work!"  I wasn't sure what to make of that.  I'm still not.

Professor Lee was open in his derision of mainland China.  He was from Taiwan, having arrived there as a fleeing supporter of Chiang Kai-shek.  Chiang had been a revolutionary in terms of Sun Yat-sen's earlier "Nationalist" revolution, but he was a counter-revolutionary in terms of Mao's communist revolution.  I learned that the department was run by people with Professor Lee's background.  For some reason that bothered me.  I liked the idea of revolution at the time.  I still like the idea, but not the thing itself.  Revolution is too messy and self-righteous.  I was also turned off by the constant hawking in Berkeley of Mao's "Little Red Book," one of whose maxims is, "The heavens are in chaos and all is well," a sentiment that is reassuring only in the abstract.

S.F. State's Chinese Department used the "audio-visual" method of language instruction, a feel-good approach I knew from high school French, which turned out to work well if you were in France and someone asked you where your aunt's pen was (La plume de ma tante est sur la table), and although, thanks to David, I can, if the need arises, still say, Wo bu-shr iga da mow-gwey (I am not a foreign devil), I knew the audio-visual method would never bring me fluency.  I heard about an effective Mandarin immersion program offered by the CIA which could lead to patriotic duties not necessarily limited to spying.  A few years later, newly married and looking for a career, I went to a CIA office on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. to apply for the immersion program.  The agent asked me questions about myself.  When it came out that my wife was born in Romania, the interview ended.  Here's the conversation:

Agent: The CIA does not hire people whose families are from communist countries.

Me: But my wife and her family fled communism.   You could not find more anti-communist people than my in-laws.

The agent smiled and looked at me like he was thinking, "You see every type in this job!"  

Back to San Francisco State: One day my Chaucer professor rushed into class and asked if we had heard about protests at Berkeley against the Vietnam War and injustice generally.  He was excited about a young man named Mario Savio who made anti-Vietnam War and anti-university speeches.  Regarding universities, Savio warned that, as extensions of the military/industrial complex, universities are factories and students are their products.  Unless they wake up, he said, graduates will emerge with no agency or self-awareness beyond their function as cogs in the corporate machine.  

I was already against the Vietnam War because I did not think Vietnam was a proper enemy.  Unlike our adversaries in World War II (which was recent enough to provide context for the draftable young), Vietnam was an agrarian country (though, historically, sometimes aggressive towards its neighbors) that had not attacked us and never would.  It was designated a threat (in compliance with enabling theory about the spread of communism) because America required an enemy to maintain its military funding and identity, and because there were many young American men with aggressive energies who might have turned those energies against their own government had they not been diverted elsewhere.  

Regarding the "factory" at U.C. Berkeley, after I transferred there (see below), I wasn't sure that S.F. State and Berkeley were turning me into a cog with no agency, any more than society and K-12 education had already, and I was skeptical that, if I were a cog, protest would help.

David believed that the university represented strength of mind and purpose- his determination not to sell baskets on the street.

Secondary protests broke out at S.F. State.  I stood with a crowd watching rocks crash through windows of the administration building.  Along with an involuntary rush of excitement, I felt despair at the unlikelihood that these acts would produce better American foreign policy.  If they ever did, you couldn't tell.

David and I agreed that breaking school windows was futile and misguided, but we disagreed about protest per se, which David opposed in all cases.  He said that protest destroys a society because it creates disorder.  We argued about that.  I had recently marched with my parents down Market Street to protest the war, so I was not comfortable opposing all protest.  David hated the North Vietnamese regime so he was equally unforgiving towards protesters who did not break windows.

We were proven right that anti-war protest was futile.  The slaughter in Vietnam continued for five more years, stopping only when America lost the war.  

In 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the draft, which allowed Vietnam type wars - that is, wars against countries that had not attacked us- to continue and proliferate, becoming the norm.  Protest ended the draft.  Protest did nothing to end the wars.

China's response to the American invasion of Vietnam was deliberate inaction, an expression, perhaps, of the Confucian principle of Wu Wei, "the power of not responding."  Although the Chinese press denounced U.S. actions, there was no intervention from the Chinese military even when Hanoi, the capital of their ally, two hundred miles from the Chinese border, was bombed.  In retrospect it's clear that the Chinese game was chess, which- often employing Wu Wei- makes calculated, at times understated moves to produce future results, while the American game was poker, where you bomb and bluff for immediate benefit.  The winner in this particular instance was chess.  We may see in the upcoming relationship between President Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping that America has learned some chess and Wu Wei and China some poker.

[Update, 6/24/22: The propaganda formats on all sides of the Russia/Ukraine conflict suggests that the interested parties, after bitter experience with poker, are gravitating towards chess, especially regarding expressions and images designed for domestic consumption. The U.S. in particular has learned the hard way that setting the stage is critical. Significant numbers of Americans resisted our involvements in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan because there was little effort to ensure a compelling backstory. For example, in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to justify the American invasion of North Vietnam, the opening shot came from a U.S. warship that, patrolling in Vietnamese waters, had mistaken the sound of its own propellor for an incoming North Vietnamese torpedo. "60 Minutes" revealed the facts after the war, but even if the U.S. warship had been fired on, many people might shrug. What would happen, they'd ponder, to a North Vietnamese warship that sat in Santa Monica Bay with guns loaded? With the Ukraine/Russia conflict, however, care has been taken to ensure that Americans identify with Ukrainians and adopt their point of view. This war is dangerous because it's credible.]

Back to the question of whether China is an enemy: the word  "enemy" is from Latin "inimicus," not a friend.  The question becomes, can you play chess and poker with a friend?  

David and I transferred at the same time to Berkeley, where I majored in English and Mandarin.  The turmoil was ongoing, but beyond the anti-Vietnam War element I saw little point to it.  Savio's movement included a call for free speech that was presented as freedom to use "bad words."  I was unmoved because I could already say "fuck" and "shit" if I wanted to.  [Update, 3/26/22: In subsequent decades cable TV took up the battle on behalf of capitalism.  Today, popular TV hosts like John Oliver and Bill Maher are told by producers to meet usage quotas of "fuck" and "shit" or risk losing the young demographic.]

One night I was on Telegraph Avenue when large crowds of protestors ran down the street smelling of tear gas.  The conflict involved a plot of land termed People's Park, which the protestors believed had been appropriated by people who were not The People.  

David hated the protesters.  He said the entire math department hated them.

These recollections do not, I know, add up to any conclusions about China.  I'm just trying to fill in what blanks I can.

Certainly there's rivalry with the rest of the world in China, which calls itself Jung-gwo, Middle Country, meaning that China is the center of the world.  Early Chinese maps show a massive China flanked by a tiny India and a dwarfed Russia that ends in a scrawny Europe. China agressively supported trade with surrounding societies through the Silk Road, starting about 2,000 years ago, addicting the west to imports so that when the Silk Road was disrupted by the Ottoman Empire, Europe had to gratify its habit by trying to find the Silk Road over the Atlantic. In this way China created the modern world.   

The U.S. calls out China today for the forced "assimilation" of the Uighurs (i.e. the destruction or near destruction of their culture), a group estimated to number 11 million in an area of about 600,000 square miles in northwest China.  From all accounts, this "assimilation" is encompassing and brutal, but while we protest, we conveniently forget that the U.S. gave the same treatment to its Native American population on a much larger scale, both geographically- covering the entire American territory of about 3 million square miles- and in numbers- of an estimated 18 million pre-Columbian Native Americans, all either died or were "assimilated" (in the above sense).  Any non-Native American living today anywhere in America is on stolen land.  Our history weakens the impact of our protest against other sinners.

China's relations with the West became hostile in 1842 when Great Britain attacked and defeated China in the First Opium War, the outcome of which was that China agreed to an influx of British goods, especially opium, opened five additional ports to Western trade and ceded Hong Kong to Britain.  The Second Opium War, ending in 1860, resulted in more forced openings of China.  The humiliation of China from the Opium Wars is vividly remembered in China today, maybe especially today, and sheds light on China's lack of empathy for the protesting youth of Hong Kong after it reverted to Chinese control in 1997.  The protestors are seen as "Westernized," in the sense that Western tradition has (so far) embraced expressions of thought outside the confines of nationalism.    

In 1888, America held an exhibition in Beijing showcasing the light bulb, recently invented in America and beginning to illuminate American cities.  Chinese newspapers scoffed at the "stupid idea" and reported that Chinese visitors laughed at it.

China is very much in the running as far as inventions go, having invented gunpowder, paper and domesticated cannabis, among other staples of the West.

The phrase Chinese people, or often, Han Chinese, oversimplifies the diversity of people commonly identified as Chinese.  The label Han, for instance, encompasses both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, though the two languages are mutually unintelligible and each group contains diverse sub-groups.  Nevertheless there is a racial solidarity in China that is lacking in America, where we flirt with civil war over the question of who an American is.  Our conflict is racial and tribal, and young.  We have had only a few hundred years to figure out our contradictionsChina has been working on its contradictions for at least 4,000 years.  

China's enforced racial solidarity gives it strategic advantages, for instance regarding the structure of the Chinese Internet, which enjoys an enabling environment for de facto nationalization and weaponization of Chinese Internet companies, while Google, Facebook et al struggle to maintain an existence rooted in global business, not nationalism.  Intrusive use of internet technology by the Chinese state, such as its reported ability to identify and fine people who use too much toilet paper in public restrooms, in the context of the monitoring of everything else a Chinese citizen is doing at any time, is made more acceptable by the sense of racial solidarity.  

It may be a losing battle for the American companies if China is perceived as winning an Internet arms race.

It is not entirely irrational for Americans to be concerned about China's successes, but does that make China an enemy?   Good luck finding a country that isn't obsessed with its standing in the world and constantly angling for advantage.  An enemy may merely be a country that's good at it.

I never had a chance to see how my friendship with David would progress because he died of cancer a few years after college.  

I didn't have another close Chinese friend after him, but as a public school teacher I've had many Chinese students.  They tend to be smart.  Is that a racist, outrageous thing to say?  I've wondered that since one of my Chinese students wrote an essay criticizing Western stereotypes that depict Asians as good in math.  I commented that the world's highest secondary math scores are recorded in Singapore by ethnic Chinese students (though beatings with bamboo canes for underachievers are apparently a factor).  She responded, "Using a stereotype shows bias whether the stereotype is true or not," an intelligent response that reaffirmed my bias that Chinese students tend to be smart.

I haven't been to China except for six hours in the Beijing airport waiting for a connecting flight home from a teaching job in South Korea.  This was while the MERS infection was spreading.  In a taste of things to come, stern medics wearing face masks pointed remote thermometers at passengers as we got off the plane from South Korea.  It was unnerving to be a suspected pathogen smuggler.  The airport terminal was one gigantic room big enough to park space shuttles in, hermetically sealed from a China that seemed hypothetical.

Ok, enough with the temps perdu.   Let's move on to science fiction, namely the 1982 movie Blade Runner, from the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, about Los Angeles in 2019, when intelligent robots rebel against humans.   The scenes of L.A. feature giant images on the sides of buildings of beautiful Chinese women speaking Chinese, and there are numerous Asian roles.  Minus the premature robot revolution, the movie was spot-on.  Los Angeles is increasingly a hub of the world, maybe even destined (if D.C. doesn't get its act together) to become a city-state.   Some kind of international role is coming to the region.  A large section of downtown Los Angeles is owned by Chinese investors, who also underwrite much of Hollywood.  No one objects because the ideology of Los Angeles is capitalism.  Money is the language and the only enemy is someone who costs you money.

Again, the musings in this essay do not constitute a basis for a view of China as either a friend or enemy.  I don't aim to prove the case either way, only to contribute to further exploration.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

"We like the clarity of big wars"

According to Nicholas Schmidle, New Yorker Magazine staff writer (Trump's Pentagon tries to move on from the war on terror, Jan. 19, 2018), U.S. foreign policy advisors expressed a new alarm in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Ukrainian territory.  The problem, as described by Phillip Breedlove, then the "top U.S. general in Europe," was that, "All eyes were on ISIS all the time."  

According to Breedlove and other Pentagon policy-makers, since 9/11 the U.S. has to some extent wasted time concentrating on terrorism while the nation-state system has been chugging along, so that now superpower nation-states are challenging us as in days of old.

We learn that U.S. military policy is changing in response.  The latest National Defense Strategy report asserts: "Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security," with China and Russia "principal priorities."  Schmidle quotes an official who describes the current Pentagon view as, "Real men fight real wars.  We like the clarity of big wars."

Leaving aside the question of what kind of wars real women fight, we can only wonder what "clarity" to expect.  

Will it be the clarity of chess, in which one knows who the enemy is and where (s)he lives, or the clarity of an emotional state that focuses all hate, love, fear, desire, uncertainty, panic and despair on one state or people?  We're screwed either way.

I close with a short essay on World War I: 

What caused World War I?

On a clear summer day, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arrived in Sarajevo.  Waiting for him was Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six assassins, members of the Serbian Black Hand Society, which sought independence from the Empire.

At the same time, throughout Europe and the Americas, people were desperately lonely.  They could not relate to each other by talking or having sex or cooperating in the workplace.  Of course, talking and sex and working together took place, but people felt an emotional vacuum during the activities.

When the Archduke was assassinated, newspapers called for revenge and honor.  The empty place inside people yearned for this conflict because no one has time to be lonely when they are busy killing and being killed.  Male loneliness in particular might be assuaged because, as numerous vets have testified, camaraderie in battle surpasses any other.

When
 the lonely people were sold on the idea that there would be no more loneliness during a major war, they showered support on their governments and young men enlisted.  Four years later, 18 million people were dead and, presumably, no longer lonely.    

Further reading: 

Point Counter Point, 
by Aldous Huxley.  

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, 
by Nicholson Baker 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it.  I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, when I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District's board.   I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V.  I talked to newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck.  Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign.  I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging.  I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company.  The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front with a cashier's check.  Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth).  Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people.  For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, told me, in reference to the signs, that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky.  The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant Los Angeles Unified School District (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup.  The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor.  Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades.  This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of state Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support.  Newspaper editors (in particular L.A. Times opinion editor Jack Miles, author of "God, a Biography") liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times and others on bilingual education.  The pieces in the L.A. Times appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization.  They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice.  I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates.  The effect of "1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu mayoral race).  Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off.  The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary.  Something sank inside me.  The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind.  I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why.  I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it.  I'm going to try again now: Politicians can't say, "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think.  Well "Duh,"you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate for such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc.  Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children.  I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary.  It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores.  My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign.  No sign comes.  Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes.  Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores.  I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result.  After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few higher scores; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities.  How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school?  How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end?  Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training.  There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics.  These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in a meaningful sense.  In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students.  If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia.  Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now.  It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not?  Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete.  Standards are important, and logical instruction is important.  But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores.  Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth.  What would I have said?  I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure."  The standard reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it.  But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer.  The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting.  Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers.  We have nothing effective to counter this.  We have not figured out a modern motivation for students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool.  We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes.  Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties.  They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit.  There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, even menial ones.  The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs.  Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist.  Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait.  It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market.  The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: So...you would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me (after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career.  Even an answer like, "We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over three hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know."  Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work.  Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition.  We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something.  If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror.  Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot, to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind.  Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

The next history

“History,” which comes from the Latin, historia , meaning “story,” comprises, in the broadest sense, all the stories we have about the u...