25 Reasons Today Is a Great Time to Be Alive

June 22, 2011

Amid all the morose and maudlin whinging about how we are losing our sense of self, our ability to self-moderate, or more generally our minds, merit, and money, today I offer up a list of things to get excited about in 2011.

Here are 25 reasons life (and mine specifically) is better today than it would have been…

250 Years Ago

25. I can reasonably expect to live longer than 33 years.

24. In my life, I’ve visited over 10 countries on 3 continents. And among my friends, I’m not well travelled. In 1761, people rarely left their hometown, let alone the country.

23. Last night I heard superb music by 10 different composers, played by a world-class orchestra, for under $30. (And I waved a Union Flag while doing it! “And did those feet, in ancient time…”) In 1761, only a fraction of the population could hear such music – and not cheaply.

22. Indoor plumbing! Sewers! Need I say more?

21. I can buy a great book for under $5; in 1761 it would have cost the equivalent of about $1000.

100 Years Ago

Hunger Strikes Among Suffragettes

20.  As a woman, I can choose who runs my country/province/ city (at least in theory). And I didn’t have to be jailed and force-fed by a tube in order to have the right to do it – all I had to do was reach majority.

 19. I didn’t die of chickenpox, infection, or the flu when I was a child, as many children did in 1911.

18.  I do laundry by putting a bunch of clothes into a machine, pouring in some liquid, and pressing a few buttons, instead of spending two days with the household staff, soaking it, wringing it out repeatedly, and stirring it around in crazy chemicals with washing bats. It’s like magic.

17. Electricity — in my home! Amazing.

16. In one of my history classes we watched 1900 House, a documentary in which a family of six lived as they would have in 1900 for three months. A memorable take-away? Modern shampoo is a hell of a lot more effective than egg yolk and citrus. “I just smell really, sort of, omlette-y.”

50 Years Ago

15. I did not have to promise to obey my husband when we got married.  In fact, I didn’t even have to get married to get all the legal benefits of a long-term committed relationship.

14. I can wear pants! and shorts! And neither is prohibited by law.

Katharine Hepburn, a pants-blazer and personal heroine

13. I can eat any kind of food I want to, and could probably find somebody from its country of origin to talk to about it. Every day just walking down the street I see a greater degree of diversity than at any other time in history, all in once place, living (relatively) harmoniously together.

12. I can choose whether or not to spawn, with near-certainty that my wishes will be protected by law and the wisdom of modern medicine.

11. A century old saying has it that “horses sweat, men perspire — ladies merely glisten.” But when I go to the gym, I can sweat all I like, and feel healthy doing it. Moreover, certain terrifying Amazonian female athletes step it up a notch by adding a soundtrack.

25 Years Ago

10. I live in the charmingly-labelled “Rainbow Village” area of Toronto, where I can watch men walk down the street holding hands, or carrying impossibly tiny dogs wearing designer hats in large purses.

9. I can find out what’s going on in any part of the world in under 10 seconds, at the click of a button.

8. I feel reasonably secure knowing that many heinous crimes are solved using DNA evidence. Bonus: I can watch any of the fascinating procedural dramas stemming from said advancements in forensic science. Bring it on, Grissom!

7. I can listen to “Tarzan Boy” over and over and over again without having to rewind, ever.

6. It’s exciting that people are taking steps to protect the environment more than at any other time in modern history. Or, at least, they’re aware of how to protect it.

10 Years Ago

5. I can press a button on a machine and be talking to my grandmother, 3500 miles away, in under 10 seconds. For free. (And I feel like God every time I do it. Think about it: your computer is calling someone else’s! This is the kind of thing they dreamed about in SciFi movies 50 years ago.)

4. I can access the Internet everywhere I go. Want to know if the restaurant I’m walking by is any good? I can read reviews. If I’m lost? I can get directions. Wondering if it’s going to rain? I can check the weather. Instantaneously.

3. Buying a home during a recession meant we got an insane deal on our mortgage.

2. I can watch things like this all day if I want to:

1. I have a place to share my latest thoughts, pictures, or links to rambling blog posts with my closest friends, and get feedback from any or all of them, immediately. Communication is more frequent than ever before. I can feel like part of  a community without even having to leave my desk. (Or put on the pants I was so excited about earlier.)

What are you excited about in 2011 that you would add to this list?


New Money and How To Buy Things Anonymously

June 16, 2011

The more I read, the more I am determined that privacy/anonymity vs. openness/sharing will be the defining dichotomy of our age. The more web sites start to track pieces of information about what we buy and sell, where we browse, and what we like, the greater the number of calls for regulation and privacy protection. The battle lines between privacy and the power of information have been drawn.

But now there is a way to keep spending private, at least. Bitcoin, a digital currency allegedly created by hacker Satoshi Nakamoto, contains complex encryptions that allow its holders to buy and sell anything, anywhere in the world over the Internet, without revealing their real names or having to pay any kind of exchange fees or taxes. (For an interesting and accessible overview of Bitcoins and their implications, see this article in ars technica.) Bitcoin has all the advantages of cash – anonymity – but without the hassle of having to physically transport it anywhere. It also has all the advantages of a “trust-based electronic currency,” such as credit cards, in that it allows instant, ubiquitous transactions, but without the need for an identity attached to them.

Bitcoin has consequently been embraced by Anonymous, an anarchic online community that first came to mass public attention when it disrupted the sites of PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and others in response to perceived censoring of WikiLeaks last year. It is disrupting them again with Bitcoin, but this time more indirectly.

Normally, when new currencies appear on the scene, they have a hard time with what is termed “adoption and valuation,” that is, getting people to use them, and determining what they are worth compared with other currencies. New currencies are usually the prerogative of federal governments, or supranational ones (as in the case of the Euro), which automatically gives them a head start because citizens need to pay taxes in the new currency and generally use it to make purchases. Even then, as this history of the Euro points out, there are remarkably complex logistical and emotional hurdles to overcome, from swapping the money found in ATMs to choosing the images and words for the notes that so many people identify with to establishing the value of the new currency against other existing ones.

It is very rare for new currencies to spring up without a national backing, and perhaps Bitcoin has only been able to gain attention and adoption of the market because it is digital, and thus doesn’t have the physical/logistical barriers to overcome. But why are people using it? Just like a new national currency, Bitcoin has appeared and boldly declared that it stands for a new order, in a sense. Its users can now engage in economic activity outside of the sphere of government control, or the control of multinational credit corporations, in total privacy.

As an article on BigThink puts it, “You don’t need a banking or trading account to buy and trade Bitcoins – all you need is a laptop. They’re like bearer bonds combined with the uber-privacy of a Swiss bank account, mixed together with a hacker secret sauce that stores them as 1’s and 0’s on your computer.” Bitcoin represents the complete disengagement of the buyer from the seller, the furthest distance yet discovered from bartering or exchanging one good for another. Purchases now require approval from no-one.

Is this radical new territory, or a return to what currency is intended to be? As a means of exchange, currency technically need not have an identity attached to it. It stands as a measure of commensurability; buyers and sellers can rely on the value of the currency as a standard without having to ascertain the value of goods being exchanged every time they buy or sell. And it was only very recently in the trajectory of human history that currency was created with no direct correlation to an existing good like gold (called fiat currency), but with instead the backing of a national government with whose laws and regulations the buying and selling parties tacitly agree to comply. New virtual currencies like Bitcoin are similar to all modern government currencies in that their value is not intrinsic but imposed by decree (and perceived rarity, and a bunch of other factors). But they lack the oversight of institutions and regulators that comes with a national means of exchange.

Whether Bitcoins will remain as seemingly ominous and valuable as they have recently become is questionable. This week, the Bitcoin plot thickened with an apparent heist in which approximately $500 000 worth of Bitcoins were stolen from one veteran user. The theft pointed to the limits of exchange without third-party oversight, whether in the form of government or a corporation to monitor fraud and persecute offenders. Is the anonymity of exchange worth the risk?

It seems as though this has come down to the same “privacy vs.  security” debate that has dominated public discourse since the rise of the Internet (and, of course, September 11). In all likelihood, some third-party institutions will step in to regulate Bitcoin trading with limited liability and criminal activity investigations, as the above-linked article details. But these would decrease the anonymity of the users of the currency, in some ways negating the whole point. Perhaps the main take-away of Bitcoin is  that anonymity, in today’s world, has its trade-offs too, and can never be an absolute good.


Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.


Tiger Moms, Drop-Outs, and Credentialism (oh my!)

May 31, 2011

Now here’s a controversial news item: Peter Thiel, famous for having founded PayPal and investing early in facebook, and now a billionaire, is paying young entrepreneurs to drop out of school. His Thiel Foundation has just named 24 “fellows” under 20 who are recipients of $100 000 and mentoring opportunities with high-powered and successful entrepreneurs in order to launch a profitable initiative. They are all drop-outs (of college or high school), a requirement for the prize.

His logic is that many would-be students of elite schools would be better off going right out into the world to generate “significant wealth,” rather than learn about the theories behind what others have said and done and invented. And while I would never blindly advocate that anyone drop out of school, given the prevailing societal opinion about education and the very real value of exposure to new ways of thinking, his initiative is perhaps a useful antidote to those who do blindly advocate more schooling as the solution to all of society’s ills. Education is a wonderful thing – I would even say that it is the key to solving many of the world’s great scourges, such as intolerance, authoritarianism, and the solid grip of misinformation. In a way, Thiel is saying that it is the ideas and the work behind them to make them successful that counts, not the name of one’s alma mater (or even the existence of one).

Credentialism – in the form of collecting degrees and designations from acclaimed institutions – has become a powerful shorthand for measuring societal status. It is iron-clad in an aura of meritocracy, because in theory only the best are able and would choose to obtain a degree or three at the world’s (and especially America’s) finest educational institutions. But, as with all shorthands, a focus on credentials alone as a stand-in for intellectual or societal worth fails is insufficient and at times unfair.

The education situation in many developed countries is drastic. Every year, millions of the world’s best students vie for a place in one of the mere hundreds of top institutions, trying to best each other in any way possible. A recent issue of the Atlantic explores the phenomenon in depth as part of an extended look at the “tiger mom” debate brought about by the now-infamous book by Amy Chua (there is a good write-up on it here, in case you live under a rock and missed it). Much of the furore over the book was caused by the implicit challenge of Chua’s winner-take-all style of parenting. In refusing to give in to her daughters’ tears, frustration, exhaustion, and in some cases disturbing behaviour (biting the piano?), Chua claims she paved the way to their happiness by allowing them to know what they were capable of.  More recently, her eldest daughter’s acceptance to Harvard has renewed the wave of anxious hang-wringing by “Western” parents who think they aren’t pushing their children hard enough to get into good schools and assure their futures.

But are the hours of heartache, rebellions and tooth marks on family instruments worth it? Is pushing a child to his or her limit, encouraging activities like building orphanages in Africa, chairing the local youth orchestra, and volunteering as an assistant surgeon on weekends in order to secure a spot at the Ivies the key to lifelong success and happiness? Is it even likely to yeild a coveted admission letter? Not really, according to what Caitlin Flanigan writes in response to Chua’s book:

Elite-college admissions offices drive professional-class parents crazy because in many respects they do not operate as meritocracies. Consider, for example, those students admitted via one of the two programs that stand as strange mirror opposites: those that give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni, and those that extend it to the children of unrepresented minorities. The latter practice suggests that generations of injustice and prejudice can be redressed by admission to a fancy college, the former that generations of inclusion and privilege demand their own special prize; the two philosophies would seem to cancel one another out, but each has its place in the larger system.

In fact, when you account for all of the “hooked” seats in the freshman class—spaces specifically set aside for kids who have some kind of recruited talent or family connection or who come from an underrepresented minority group—you accomplish, at the most selective colleges, two things: you fill a large percentage of the class (some researchers believe the figure is as high as 60 percent), and you do so with kids whose average grades and scores are significantly lower than your ideal. Now it’s time to swing a meritocracy into place; the caliber of the class is at stake. All of the unhooked students are now going to be thrown into a hypercompetitive pool, the likes of which the layperson can’t imagine. As daunting as the median grades and test scores of the typical Princeton admittee may appear, those statistics have taken into account all of the legacies and volleyball players and rich people’s children who pushed the averages down.

Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? And what’s more, there is a growing pile of literature that argues it isn’t worth it. These days, people go to university for four main reasons:

  1. To attain practical/vocational knowledge that will tangibly help them get a job.
  2. To attain theoretical or other knowledge that will expand their minds in an area of interest.
  3. To please their parents/society/employers who consider a post-secondary education to be a mandatory status symbol. The better the reputation of the school, the better the status symbol.
  4. To make connections with peers and professors.

The main benefits of a “top-tier” education, as opposed to one from a large public American or Canadian school, lie in the last two, status and connections. Sharing a room with a future Mark Zuckerberg or getting to vacation on the yachts of the rich and famous must be worth the price of admission, right?

William D. Cohan thinks not, writing in the New York Times that getting into an Ivy League school is a “Pyrrhic victory,” with the outcome of having monstrous student debts (from $50 000+ per year fees) and only slight better-than-average job prospects in a glum economy. Many other American schools have astronomical fees, and even relatively cheap Canadian educations place graduates in debt. There is also, as I referred to above, the non-monetary cost of an education at a prestigious school. Whole families are swept up in the hyper-competitive race to the top, where lazy summer vacations and boredom and play are replaced with summer volunteer trips to Kenya, SAT prep courses, and the endless repetition of mastering a musical instrument.

But the saddest part is that it may all be for naught. A sister article in the same Atlantic issue as the above quotation charts the potential life course of many products of tiger-led households:

Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. As we know, in this tundra-like new economy, even medical degrees, and especially law degrees, may translate into $250,000 of unrecoverable higher-education debt and no job prospects, despite any amount of hard work and discipline.

The reality, of course, is that there is life after graduation, and I imagine that a lot of students and parents who sacrifice their lives perfecting their viola performance and polishing their resumes will get there and wonder what the hell happened — and what to do next. The same is true for all graduates who feel lost after school, and who may have underplayed their social and entrepreneurial skills in favour of tailoring their lives to academic pursuits that will not help them once they have their degrees. And so I support Peter Thiel’s initiative because it addresses the fact that it takes more than a few letters from any school to achieve success in life.


What Canada Desperately Needs: Visionary Leadership

April 20, 2011

Many people have been calling Canadians parochial throughout this election. Apparently we’re not comfortable with our leaders having opinions about politics outside our own country (and casting votes to back them up). We are apparently less involved internationally than ever before, especially in leadership roles. As a country, Canada is “retreating in on itself, clinging to the security of its own cultural stereotypes.”

Quite frankly, I think the kind of parochialism described above is but an aspiration at this point. I would love to see nation-wide parochialism. Instead, we have something closer to the real, historical definition of the word: looking no further than one’s own church parish. The campaign has showcased several variations of such limited and narrow outlooks, and the dialogue has largely been confined to pet causes, special interests, and the concerns of small minorities.

The real tragedy of this election is not that we will have spent several hundred thousand dollars to get to about the same place, give or take a few seats. It is that we – led by our fearful leaders – have failed to take the opportunity to engage in dialogue about the path Canada is on, and more importantly, what that path should be. This election has mostly been fought over the past: disrespect for Parliament, carpetbaggery, where money was and wasn’t spent, what was and wasn’t allowed to happen, and generally the same tired policies and pot shots we’ve heard for years.

Thus far, there has been a woeful lack of debate about the real issues that will shape the future, such as youth unemployment and skill development, education, and the role of urban areas. Nobody has yet talked about a solution to the looming crisis in pensions. The critical and contentious issue of technology scored nary a mention at the debates. Overall, there is a chronic lack of an overriding, national vision.

This is why I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how Gilles Duceppe would be the best person to elect. “He’s just sooo charismatic, and such a great speaker.” Indeed. (Especially en français in comparison to the other party leaders whose first language is English, n’est-ce pas?) Let’s not forget that he is running on a platform that, 150 years ago, would likely have been considered treasonous, and continues to act as a catalytic force for ill in Canadian politics.

It is very easy for Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Party colleagues to say whatever is most appealing to Canadians because 1) they know they will never have enough power to actually act on any of their promises; 2) they know they will never have to find any money for their schemes; and 3) since they are at heart a regional party, they need not come up with any coherent vision. They can borrow from the left and the right with no regard for the practicality of their position. As Tasha Kheriddin wrote recently in the National Post:

For federalists, the Bloc continues to represent an immovable force, not only an obstacle to a majority government, but a siphon for political talent and resources which would otherwise be deployed in the other parties, most notably the Tories and the NDP.

Instead of allowing federal politics to develop on a left-right continuum, as in the Rest of Canada, the Bloc continues to perpetuate the federalist-separatist dichotomy, and run an effective extortion scheme to boot.

Basically, the Bloc constitutes a wedge between voters in Quebec and national policies enacted by widely-supported national parties.

I don’t mean to vilify the Bloc above all others, as there are several parties at fault here. I have heard the Green Party criticized for similar reasons, namely being a single-issue party. I can certainly see the merits of that argument, given that the Green party’s platform is neither particularly left- nor right-wing, but mixes and matches policies to suit its “Green” foundation. (It also siphons votes and resources away from other parties, ones that could perhaps be more usefully employed formulating policies within mainstream parties that have a hope of being elected in numbers.)

I personally disagree and think the Green Party is coherent in its vision of offering policies undergirded by a focus on sustainability, in the same way the Tories offer policies broadly based on the principles of personal accountability and small government, and Liberals’ policies are broadly based on the idea of equality of opportunity and greater state involvement. What differentiates the national parties from the Bloc is that their policies (for the most part) allow Canada to work together without demanding rights and special privileges for some and not all.

To be clear, I don’t believe that parties should stick strictly to where their political forebears have trod. But political parties are important because they organize political thought and allow voters to make decisions based on what they imagine will be consistent ideologies. No election campaign can cover every possible scenario, so we want those we elect to act along predictable lines when something unexpected occurs. Those who elected George W. Bush in 2000 should not have been surprised that he reacted to the September 11 attacks as a conservative Republican would; this was the blueprint he ran on. With some exceptions, right-wing American politicians have often shown less regard for multilateral institutions like the UN than their left-wing counterparts. It is part of their ideology.

The American comparison is useful because it also shows us what a visionary candidate for a nation’s leader looks like. Vision is a mandatory quality for American presidents. They need to be able to energize vast numbers of voters into believing in their vision of the future. George W. Bush had a vision, that of “compassionate conservatism.” Obama certainly had a vision – of hope, change, empowerment of communities and international bodies, and support for social programs. Some might argue that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price for enacting his vision of an America in partnership with other nations around the globe in such a short time after taking office.

The last Canadian PM to win a Nobel Peace Prize was Lester Pearson. During his minority government, he implemented what are now seen as the signature Canadian social programs and icons, including universal healthcare, the CPP, and our current national flag.

Do any of our current potential national leaders have that kind of vision? Please, someone, convince me – my vote is up for grabs.


ANARCHY! (or, Why the State Does Too Much And Yet Not Enough)

April 15, 2011

Nations are ever-present structures in our lives. Their appearance as political entities and actors around the nineteenth century marked an inflection point in how we think about groups of individuals and how power is aggregated. I have outlined before why nations are perennially important, and the enduring popularity of my post on A Hierarchy of National Needs among search engine indices attests to the currency nationalism has in the public sphere.

But I’ve been reading some fascinating criticisms of nationalism (in the form of national structures and governments) lately, which attack nations as ineffective from an ideological standpoint. The attacks come both from below – the position in which I would classify libertarian thinking, in that it desires less state control over aspects of individuals’ lives – and above – those who believe more multi-national or supra-national organizations are necessary to create global solutions to global problems.

(At this point I’ll remark that the root of both of the preceding words is “nation.” If people are going to start thinking differently about the base controlling structures in our lives, they must stop referring to them as, essentially, collections of nations, or at the level above nations.)

Criticisms from Below

A feature on the Pileus political science blog recently discussed Habermas and one of his critics, Hayek, on the issue of public discourse in the nation state. For those unfamiliar with recent political philosophy, Habermas stands as a giant in the area, perhaps most famous for his ideas about the creation of a culture of public interaction within societies in the early eighteenth century, which he termed the “public sphere.” He asserted that humans have the ability to make society more equal and just through rational communication (I can’t help but imagine that he would love erudite and insightful blogs with intelligent commentators for this very reason).

Hayek’s criticism, expanded on Pileus by Mark Pennington (who has just written a book on the subject), is that discussion in a free and protected public sphere is not enough. The actions of individuals can in many cases be better proof than simply the airing of ideas or theories, particularly if such actions are brought about by acting in opposition to the prevailing belief system of the times. As Pennington writes:

The spread of knowledge in markets, the arts and science does not typically proceed via collective deliberation, but advances best when individuals and groups have a ‘private sphere’ that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, incrementally, through a process of emulation the prevailing wisdom may change over time. It is not sufficient for people to be able to talk about their ideas. Rather, they must have scope to act on those ideas – and this requires ‘property rights’, not ‘speech rights’.

In a way, this argument can be summed up as advocating free market principles across the board, the ability of people to “vote with their feet” and come to agreement with popular action as well as discussion. Pennington also notes that the independently wealthy have an important role to play as “trail-blazers for new values and ideas.” I think of such individuals as venture capitalists for ideas.

In essence, I see this argument as, broadly, a repeat of one of the key arguments against socialism/communism, which is that it restricts choices and enforces conformity. Pileus clearly has free market, libertarian leanings, and seeks to decrease the role of the state in favour of individual accountability (much like David Cameron does). It’s fascinating to read a defence of this viewpoint from the perspective of the public sphere/political economy.

Shakespeare at the Supranational Level

And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, I see criticisms that the state is not powerful enough. In a discussion from Big Think’s series this month on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance, Kenji Yoshino notes the relationship between the plot of Titus Andronicus and modern statecraft:

Titus is about what happens when the revenge cycles spin out of control. Revenge tragedies represent something that happens when the state is very weak and so the Elizabethans had a very weak state where there wasn’t a standing army.  There wasn’t an effective police force and so when something happened that was horrible like someone kills a member of your family, you had to choose whether to rely on a very weak state that was basically going to do nothing or to take justice into your own hands. It strikes me that we’re at the international level where the Elizabethans were at the national level because we’re stepping onto an international theater in the way that you described and there isn’t a centralized authority that’s going to step in and quash the revenge cycle. So if terrorists fly planes into our buildings what are we going to do, go hat in hand to the UN?  No, we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to engage in vigilante justice, right, but we all know how those stories end.

What a fantastic concept – nations as vigilante justice-inflicting thugs. It speaks eloquently of the toothless nature of the supranational power structures in our world today. One excellent comment on a post I wrote about nations emphasizes the often unworkable nature of supranational bodies: in essence, they are made up of groups of nations that have wildly varying amounts of power, wealth, and desire to change the existing global power structures. The vested interests have no reason to want to give up their advantage – and why would they? The comparison to an early modern land with no police state is apt. Why would a powerful, wealthy family used to settling its own scores want to give up that privilege and pay into a communal system of policing that would essentially render them equal under a higher law to those who would seek to do them ill?

Moreover, surpanational institutions are much more difficult to hold accountable for their actions, because who will hold them to account? Democracy functions well (usually) at the national level because there is always the threat of voters punishing the incumbents for abuse of power or poor decision-making. Such is not the case at the supranational level, where even democratic bodes (such as the EU parliament) are subject to the whims of national leaders and their fears for re-election, which always take precedence.

Considering that empathy is a theme I’ve been working with lately, I can paint this as a picture of its limits, too: while there are certainly many characteristics and loyalties and ideas that are shared among all humans, mostof us can only extend our feelings of “sameness” and empathy so far. Those outside of our national community (or, also quite commonly, race/ethnicity, which often amounts to the same thing as a national community) are easier to ignore because they are not like us. They don’t share our histories, or national institutions, or language, so they are harder to comprehend.

In the longer term, I believe nations will fizzle out, gradually ceasing to hold the importance they do now. With pressure – both practical and ideological – from above and below, power cannot continue to function effectively at the national level forever. The anarchy in the title, however, refers more to the absence of a coherent and consistent “publicly recognized government or enforced political authority,” as Wikipedia puts it, at one level. Perhaps we have a future of shifting loyalties (local, national, supranational) and power brokers vying for our attention as voters and citizens. Sounds like a party.


A Communism of Pain

April 10, 2011

When I was younger I thought often about the idea of a communism of pain.  If all humans were somehow linked to the extent that pain could spread itself out among many, what would be the net effect at the individual level? How much pain – in terms of an impossible-to-quantify objective amount – is out there in the world? Would the extreme suffering of the few spread out to a chronic, if manageable, level of pain for the rest of us? Or would it, distributed amongst the billions of humans on the planet, amount to almost nothing in a single one?

Of course, I understand that pain is a biological imperative, our bodies’ way of telling us that something is wrong and that we should stop whatever we are doing that is causing it. But from a purely sociological (or maybe political) perspective, what would be the result of averaging it out? Perhaps equal distribution wouldn’t be optimal – after all, communism in theory espouses taking from each according to his ability, and giving to each according to his need. Varying pain thresholds might in some way be taken into account. Or perhaps those most in a position to inflict pain could be those who felt it most deeply. (No pain, no gain, as it were.)

Actual sharing of pain through embedded receptors or similar technological enhancements is more in the realm of science fiction or post/transhumanism than reality at present. But empathetic pain-sharing does in fact exist. Recent research has indicated that the same areas of the brain are activated in those observing someone in pain as the actual sufferer. In both cases, our anterior insular cortex, the area that monitors how we feel about things inside our bodies, and the anterior singular cortex, the part of the brain that processes emotions and attention, are engaged. Moreover, the empathetic response is greater the higher the level of affection for, or perceived identification with, the sufferer.

Pain expert Sean Mackey theorizes that pain empathy played a role in mammalian evolution by signalling those in distress so a pack could stick together, heal together, and prosper. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal would agree. He studies bonobos, the great apes scientists now believe are as closely related to humans as chimpanzees. He has concluded, after studying bonobos extensively, that empathy is a much more basic instinct than many consider it to be, and much less intellectual. Instead of a fairness rationalization, or a sense that one can imagine himself in another’s position, he believes that empathy is much deeper, and less complex. His theory explains why infants show empathetic responses to fellow children crying, but only learn theory of mind, or the more intellectual basis for understanding others, around age four. Incidentally, a physical basis for empathy also explains the contagious nature of yawning, as he has explored in other research.

Communist bonobo

A communist bonobo (picture slightly adapted) - does he feel our pain?

Bonobos are also noted for their very sexy way of solving all kinds of problems, and for generally displaying much more cooperative and less competitive behaviour than that of chimpanzees. This is significant because the narrative of competition has coloured much of the modern period’s image of itself, and its image of the way early humans lived – nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes once wrote. De Waal locates the competitiveness myth around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as a necessary backbone for the proto-capitalist system that was then forming, and which has now come to dominate global economics and politics.

The political bent of the concept might be significant. A growing number of studies has pointed to those on the more liberal left end of the political spectrum being more open-minded and thus more empathetic than their more conservative counterparts. Tolerance, inclusiveness, and a passion for social justice have recently been linked with both political liberalism and high levels of empathy. (One might ask if this implies that communism is a political representation of empathy, which could set off hours of debate, I’m sure.)

Given the general trend toward a more liberal way of thinking and behaving over the past hundred or so years, and the ever-expanding list of encounters with “others” that telecommunications, air travel, and globalization has allowed us, is it possible that humans are in fact more empathetic today than they were, say, when Victoria ruled England? Or when Arthur did? Would the apparent recent setback of declining empathy and rising conservatism then be a blip, or a reversal?

And if we are more empathetic now, does that mean we inflict less pain on others than in the past?  Sadly, I believe conflicts arising out of urbanization, a skyrocketing global population, and scarce resources – coupled with the arrival every year of new ways to maim and torture others – would signal otherwise. After all, it appears that humans also share enjoyment of schadenfreude, the pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune (apparently as much as a good meal). Similar to the way being in a group can magnify feelings of competitiveness, it can also augment satisfaction in seeing rivals fail. This enjoyment also carries a political twist: in one study, Democrats were found to be secretly happy when reading about the recession, thinking it might benefit the party at the next election. And the stronger the political identification, the stronger the sense of schadenfreude.

It seems, then, that we are hardwired both for empathy towards those in pain, and a delicious satisfaction with seeing it. Perhaps a communism of pain would therefore make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, but all the more likely to enjoy it.

(Note: Almost all of the articles linked to in this post were fascinating to read; I’d highly recommend perusing the ones on primates and schadenfreude in particular.)