Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Random Thoughts Edition (Daniel Ellsberg, George P. Schultz) (April 2018)

1. Humanity's most damning flaw in the modern information overload era is its over-reliance on sight and visual images. Such over-reliance on a single sense leads to an inability to understand the varied reasons a result has occurred. 

For example, most Americans waste time mocking the current--or any--President when it should be clear his or her views are the culmination of numerous variables and their interplay over the last fifteen years. After all, no four-year data set could justify both 2016 presidential candidates turning so quickly against international trade (e.g., TPP) or immigration while Canada moves in the opposite direction, nor any other "shift" (i.e., globalization and technology have been with humanity as long as it has existed). And yet, almost every single commentator or writer discussing North America's political landscape speaks in short-term tongues. One cannot arrive at an effective solution if one cannot ask the right questions. 

2. A simplistic example of hubris is as follows: a person will argue that Australia is safe because it has strict immigration laws, while another person will argue Australia has been unable to generate Canada's economic gains because of its failure to increase skilled immigration. After a rigorous debate, both sides may agree to increase skilled immigration but with stricter regulations and better-trained staff to sort through each applicant's submission. Both educated participants will walk away satisfied not only that they have resolved the issue, but that others ought to follow their example. 

Neither one will realize the reason Australia can discuss a certain immigration policy is because of its geographic location--in the middle of nowhere, walled off from unwanted intruders by an all-encompassing ocean. Neither one of them will realize that without discussing refugees (as part of a shared international responsibility), illegal immigration (which occurs despite anyone's best efforts), assimilation, and funding (for the immigrants and increased staff to vet application), they have not yet begun to create comprehensive solutions. Finally, neither will realize the roles of interest rates, trade agreements, international investment, and other complex economic issues that affect funding any new immigration staff. In a world more interlinked than ever, "first-world" educational and employment systems sincerely believe in models where experts study only one or two subjects for years (often from educators lacking recent experience even in their subject areas) and where the private sector retains a fragmented approach. 

Humility is the opposite of hubris, and humility comes from knowing every situation is Rashomon-like. Furthermore, even if every angle is understood, one still cannot know all the variables that led to a present-day situation being x instead of y. The tragedy of humanity is that its imagination is its greatest asset but to stay comfortable, the brain's limited nature seeks a specific rationale, which then renders imagining a just-as-likely alternate scenario almost impossible. 

3.  America looks to be firmly on a path to its new role as the USSR, but with new and improved propaganda. Modern history teaches us that an economy driven by military spending will eventually fail. I'm not going to write about the different ways America is emulating the USSR's failed model--the deliberate use of sports rather than art, philosophy, or literature to bring the nation together; a disdain for religion, which often provides non-elites the opportunity to discuss timeless issues; a prosperous mafia or underground economy, which then justifies a larger security state than necessary; executive contempt for checks and balances, including from journalists; and excessive rates of risk-taking and alcoholism--but I urge you to think about why nations that succeed in defeating their enemies often become like them

4. I'll end on a happy note: I met one of my heroes, Daniel Ellsberg, last weekend in San Francisco, California. 
Ellsberg is still going strong at 87 years old, his mind sharper than ever. Before explaining that "miracles are possible by ordinary people taking chances," Ellsberg covered wide ground. He spoke of modern-day nuclear weapons able to wreak unimaginable havoc disrupting the world through environmental and food shortage effects, not just immediate murder; the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo during WWII, a deliberate attack causing the murders of 100,000 civilians, more than Hiroshima; Gorbachev being the most recent Russian leader who would work with the United States (and Reagan) on nuclear de-proliferation; Reagan's proposed plan to shift funding for nukes to missile-defense shields to protect both countries from rogue actors, technology he would then share with Russia (Gorbachev was skeptical about the promise of sharing); his inspiration coming from 5,000 Americans willing to be jailed for their opposition to the Vietnam War; and the CIA's attempt to "terminate [him] with extreme prejudice," to "neutralize," or to "incapacitate [him] totally," a fate he escaped because the CIA assets may have believed they were being set up to take the fall for Nixon. 
How would this American hero want to be remembered? As "part of a movement that ended the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons." Will we honor him and his sacrifices by helping conclude what he started?
Bonus 1: "I firmly believe in sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but I always wear a condom, never take illegal drugs, and can't sing or dance." -- Anonymous 

Bonus 2: at the seminar, I had lunch with Philip Zimbardo and several others, including a now-discharged military enlistee. To give you an idea of the level of conformity in America post-9/11, I'll share the following story: 

Prior to the Iraq invasion, a 2002 meeting was held with George P. Schultz in attendance. (Mr. Schultz is often viewed as the GOP's strongest living intellectual.) After the military enlistee (now an art dealer) raised his hand questioning the invasion, Mr. Schultz accosted him, pointed a finger in his face, and said, "You've been watching too many Gary Cooper movies--we're not going to wait for them to hit us first." The art dealer said he was shocked at the aggressive reaction to his question and now realizes why almost no one questions the prevailing orthodoxy--they don't want to be kicked out of their "tribe." 
"He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides." -- George P. Schultz 
Anyone who doesn't understand power only lasts if it stress-tests itself is unworthy of admiration. 
April 24, 2018
To prevent history from repeating itself, our youth must answer the following question: "How do we create a country that can stress-test its ideas even when its leadership is under severe pressure to take immediate action?

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