The Era of Pedantry

The pedantry of our society and media is astounding. Our president was criticized for not making a public statement concerning Easter, while having done so for Jewish and Muslim holidays. First off, he’s our Commander-in-Chief, not our pastor. Secondly, Bush didn’t do it *once* during his entire 8 years as President, nor did many of those before him, such as Regan and Bush Senior. None of them had their loyalties to this country or their  integrities challenged about it. Why would it matter?

In any case, Obama did in fact have a major Easter event, complete with a speech about Christ and his resurrection. But who cares? With everything going on in our country and the world as a whole, people are putting their energy ranting about such trivial things?

And who can forget this obsession with his citizenship. He’s been president for this long and people are still raising it. It’s an embarrassment to the collective intelligence of this country that he had to actually request his long form and release it – again, as he did just a few days ago.

Not that it matters, since it’s not a birth certificate these folks are looking for, but the insistence that the man they didn’t want to win must’ve done something bad to get there. They can’t accept an opponent being preisdent, even after all these years, and they probably never will. These are the same kind of Americans that are so rife with paranoia and distrust that they truly believe the federal government – along with our intelligence agencies and courts – would somehow either overlook his lack of citizenship, or nefariously let it slide. Apparently, local and state governments were in on it too, since Obama has served in office on both levels prior to being president.

The fact is, Obama is our most “foreign” president, in the eyes of many Americans.

His father was non-American and non-Christian, as was the step-father that followed. He was raised for several years in another (non-Christian) country, Indonesia. And he was born in a state that is peripheral in terms of it’s “American-ness” – i.e. not the mainline, quintessentially American states from which nearly all our Presidents were born and lived.

Taken together, it is no wonder a significant number of Americans, prone to xenophobia and distrust as they are, don’t feel any sort of empathy with him (to say the least). Heck, his citizenship was questioned – and the comparison to no less than 5 dictators, made – before he even became president.

Obviously, not all those who oppose Obama are bigoted. But the ones who are this visceral and paranoid about it – such as these birthers – are clearly being influenced by the primal tendency of humans to feel intrinsic uneasiness about those who are different in so many ways, especially if they also come from a different political and partisan position. But what infuriates me the most about all of this is the sheer silliness of it all – it’d normally be difficult to take it so seriously were it not potentially problematic to our ability to get things done in this country.

First, with everything going on in this country, we’re fussing about whether our President, with all that he has to do, should’ve wished us all a collective Happy Easter? We’re nit-picking about whether he wears a lapel pin of the American flag, whether he’s truly a devout Christian (if even Christian at all), and even if he’s some sort of closet Marxist-Islamist (as if that were to make any probably sense)? I have no qualms with people disliking Obama – I’m rather critical of him myself. But if you’re going to judge a president, his administration, and his character, do so based on more profound and ultimately more important things: his actions, politics, and ideology.

Secondly, with all the problems and issues that are befalling us – education, the debt and deficit, the wars in the Mideast, infrastructure, the future of this country (and those are just the domestic ones) – we’re putting all this time and energy spent on trivialities and conspiracy theories? Granted, I know it’s far from all Americans, but it is still a significant number: anywhere from a quarter to even a third, depending on the source and whether you count those who “sympathize” with such views.

It seems as if we’ve entered this era of pedantry, in which we’re focused more on sound bites and shallow qualities and less on what is substantive and practical. With the advent of mass-media comes the proliferation of absurd views and opinions that suddenly become elevated into the mainstream public consciousness.  I sincerely worry about the effect that such a culture of triviality will have on the political and public discourse of society, especially as the younger generation – already so prone to cynicism and apathy – comes of age.

I know I’m probably exaggerating the extent to which this sort of nonsense will affect our society. But it’s an idea I can’t help but entertain more and more, as time goes by and issue go unresolved, all while we fret about conspiracy theories and whether our nation’s leader is an anti-Christ.

Nutrition, Health, and Gender

Sadly, I don’t have as much time to get into this topic as I’d like (hence my recent lull in posting). But I believe it merits being brought up.

Has anyone else noticed how commercials and ads for healthy food or weight loss products tend to generally target women, whereas those for fast food or processed goods seem to explicitly appeal to men? Anecdotally, I’ve observed people openly regard eating healthy as “feminine” and I’ve had my masculinity challenged because of it. I can’t even so much as eat a salad without getting, at best, some amused inquiries. What does that say about the nature of gender identity and health?  If you want to be masculine, you shouldn’t care about your health, whereas woman should strive more in that regard?

It’s “manly” to eat lots of meat and processed food with no regard for your health? It’s “womanly” to concern yourself about your weight and nutritional intact? The demarcation of health based on one’s sex is completely absurd. It should be in every human’s interest to be eat well and be healthy. What’s interesting is that it’s perfectly acceptable for men to get healthy through exercise, but less so if it’s by dieting (as if that made any sense, considering that the latter matters far more than the former). Women often have the burden of needing to do it both ways, based on their own high standards.

Indeed, I’ve noticed that it’s usually my female cohorts and companions that are more keen on at least discussing their health problems, if not trying to work on them. In contrast, I know few men that I can relate with when it comes to eating and living better. Obviously, I’m not saying women are necessarily healthier than men; rather, it seems that our culture and society frown down upon men worrying about their health. Eating well and exercising is always viewed in the context of body image, rather than the more practical and crucial objective of living a long and happy life. Since men aren’t supposed to be concerned with body image, it’s not properly masculine for them to care about what they eat or how they live (hence the male proclivity for engaging in other risky behavior, such as gambling, bing drinking, and reckless driving – though all that is largely hormonal in nature).

What’s interesting is how men and women alike mutually enforce such codes on one another. Perhaps it is just a confirmation bias, but I’ve personally experienced several women remark on the feminineness of men dieting or eating well; at the same time, men often seem to hold women to a higher standard of being healthy, with women who eat a lot or are overweight being viewed as unattractive. It’s interesting that nutrition has taken such a context.

I would love to spend more time exploring this issue, but as I noted before, time is short. I suppose I’ll leave it to you all to muse on about this. Am I wrong about my perceptions? Are my experiences merely anecdotal and not part of a wider socio-cultural trend? I look forward to some comments on the matter.

Israeli Luminaries Press for a Palestinian State

Well, I’ve been rather busy as of late, so I haven’t had the time to post as much as I’d like (and believe me, I’ve had a lot I’ve been wanting to write about lately). Instead, I thought I’d share this interesting article from the New York Times, which has raised my spirits about the prospect of a resolution for this miserable and intractable conflict.

                                                                                               

By ETHAN BRONNER

Published: April 19, 2011

JERUSALEM — Dozens of Israel’s most honored intellectuals and artists have signed a declaration endorsing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders and asserting that an end to Israel’s occupation “will liberate the two peoples and open the way to a lasting peace.”

The signers plan to announce their position on Thursday from the same spot in Tel Aviv where the Jewish state declared its independence in the spring of 1948. The page-long declaration is expected to be read there by Hanna Maron, one of the country’s best-known actresses and a winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award, which is granted yearly on Independence Day.

Of the more than 60 who had signed the declaration by Tuesday, about 20 were winners of the Israel Prize and a number of others had been awarded the Emet Prize, given by the prime minister for excellence in science, art and culture. Signatures were still being collected on Tuesday.

“The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people where its identity was shaped,” the statement begins. “The land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people where its identity was formed.” It goes on to say that now is the time to live up to the commitment expressed by Israel’s founders in their Declaration of Independence to “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.”

Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the signers, said the group chose this week to issue its declaration because it was Passover, which marks the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery.

“We don’t want to pass over the Palestinian people,” Mr. Ezrahi said. “This is a holiday of freedom and independence.” He added that given the struggle for freedom across the Arab world today and the Palestinians’ plans to seek international recognition of their statehood by September, it was important for Israeli voices to be added to the call.

Two weeks ago, another group of several dozen prominent Israelis, many of them from the fields of security and business, issued what they called the Israeli Peace Initiative, a more detailed but somewhat similar plan for a two-state solution. Both groups say they are upset by their government’s policies in this regard, which they consider insufficient.

The Palestinian leadership says that unless Israel ends the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it will not return to negotiations with it and will instead seek international recognition of Palestinian statehood by September at the United Nations.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the real problem is that the Palestinians refuse to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state. Official recognition of that, it says, would revive negotiations, although there are also clear differences over land and Israel’s security needs.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to announce by the end of May his proposal for moving forward with talks on a two-state solution.

                                                                                        

In the grand scheme of this complex issue, this effort may ultimately not amount to much; but the fact that Israel’s best and brightest are willing to go against the mold and stand for what’s right is a positive reminder that there are still decent, level-headed people on both sides. It reminds me of similar developments in Palestine, in which more Palestinians are going about things in a nonviolent way, led by a generation of tech and business savvy youths who are seeking to peacefully develop  Palestine as much as free it.

There have been many false positives before, and extremists in both lands remain disproportionately more influential and troublesome. But so long as a flicker of decency, integrity, and mutual respect remain, there is always a cause for hope. On that note, I must head to bed. I look forward to discussing this issue are greater length in the future. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend.

Philosophy, Education, and Improving Society

Recently, my online compatriot and astute philosopher James Gray posted a very interesting argument on his excellent blog, Ethical Realism. He makes the case that philosophy should be a part of the standard curriculum in high school and college. He makes a compelling and detailed argument on his own, so I won’t bother reiterating or elaborating.

I will say that I do find philosophy to be one of the most misunderstood, marginalized, and underestimated fields in academia. The very word invokes perceptions of aloofness, elitism, and irrelevance. To most people, philosophy is at best an amusing elective or at worst a waste of time, unsuited for the practical and modern world.  To be sure, there are certainly many philosophical schools of thought – as well as many individual philosophers – that seem to validate that widespread belief. But then again, almost every academic field has “Ivory Tower” elements within it. To write off philosophy as a whole is as wrong as it is unfair.

As one of my friends noted, a Ph.D is a doctorate of philosophy. Every field at some point inevitably overlaps with, and borrows from, philosophy. Indeed, the root word of the term “philo-” is Greek for knowledge or wisdom, and the word as a whole means “love of wisdom.” Being concerned with knowledge in and of itself, namely the problems and dilemmas faced in our everyday existence, means philosophy is intrinsically pertinent to every pursuit imaginable. One cannot separate philosophical considerations from any field, choice, or experience. Medicine, law, politics, science, psychology, business, and economics all inevitably deal with ethical, logical, and reason-based issues.

Our lives will always at some point present us with some sort of philosophical dilemma. It can be something as profound as an existential crisis, or something as seemingly minor – but no less crucial – as making a decision about what to purchase, how to help a friend in need, or how to solve a practical problem. Far from being the purview of cloistered scholars, philosophy is ubiquitous throughout the real world – we simply don’t realize it, because we often take for granted it’s scope and practicality.

Most importantly, we live in a world beset by a myriad of problems, both existential in nature – environmental degradation, climate change, resource scarcity – and practical – political corruption, greed, crime, poverty. All these problems present choices to make and things to consider. Philosophy is fundamentally concerned with solving problems, and with developing the logic, reason, critical thinking, and argumentation that are all vital to finding solutions. Philosophy also helps to develop and cultivate ethical and moral behavior, the importance of which can never be understated. Nearly every conscious action – and inaction – on our part is based in some way on moral and ethical considerations. Many societal problems can be mitigated if more people are living virtuous and considerate lives, or at least trying to.

In short, as Mr. Gray asserts, philosophy won’t solve all the world’s problems. It’s promotion and proliferation is not a panacea. But it would certainly have some effecting on improving society as a whole. Even one more philosophical mind, capable of good and critical thinking, is enough to make a difference. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to try.

Will Americentrism Be Our Undoing?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism - contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?

I began dwelling on this after reading an article in Foreign Policy that touched on the fact that most Americans failed to scrutinize the flaws in their own economic system, or to question the established notion of the superiority of free markets – all except for mostly foreign-born American citizens, such as George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Raghuram Rajan, and Mohamed El-Erian. The author goes on to suggest that the “outside” experiences and values of these thinkers is what allowed them a more clear-eyed perspective on what was really going on in this country.

To be sure, there were non-foreign Americans who also called out the flaws in finance, mortgage lending, and the notion of laissez-faire capitalism as well. And United States continues to be an incubator for many innovative ideas and concepts, attracting the best and brightest from across the world.

However, I am beginning to detect a sense of complacency in this country, a sense that despite all that has gone wrong – and is continuing to go wrong – the American way of doing things remains unquestioningly the best way.

Worse still, anyone who questions this – who raises doubts about our economic or political system, society and it’s values – is not only dead wrong but “un-American.” We’ve developed an informal social policy of shunning and demonizing those who criticize this country, stifling the sort of critical thinking and public debate that could better allow us to adapt to these changing and challenging times.

Look at how those who opposed the Iraq War were framed as traitors, or how those who questioned the abuse of civil liberties or the treatment of terrorist suspects were seen as “soft” on national security. Heaven forbid that one makes any critique of American-style capitalism, which earns you the viscerally applied label of an immoral socialist or communist.

Hell, why should being those things even be so intrinsically evil? Can’t good and well-meaning people, however misguided you may think them to be, think socialism and communism are okay, without having their morality and ethics automatically doubted? Can’t we at least debate these things on their own terms, rather than essentially censoring people from even bringing it up in anyway? I don’t doubt that even writing this is enough for some readers to think I’m some sort of communist pinko.

In any case, I’m somewhat digressing. Going back to my original point, I think we’ve become too entrenched in this chauvinistic notion that the “American way” is the be all, end all, the rest of the world be damned. We’re so convinced that other cultures, countries, political practices, and economic systems are inferior to our own, that we scarcely bother with trying to understand them, let alone attempt to find any merits to them. The average American seems to think that the world outside our borders is decadent, violent, backward, and otherwise inferior to our own.

Granted, in a lot of ways, we Americans do have a lot of wonderful ideas and practices. After all, we wouldn’t be one of the richest, most powerful, most innovative countries in the world for all these decades if we didn’t get something right. And as I’ve argued many times before, the doom-saying about this country’s history  is often quite exaggerated or misplaced. But with all that said, the events of the last decades have shown that this inflated sense of exceptionalism is starting to unwind.

We’re still on top by quite a margin, but we’re teetering. Our economy is sclerotic, with a hollowed out manufacturing base, a relative slowdown in innovation, and a job market mostly resting on relatively low-paying “service sector” occupations. Our healthcare system is not only uniquely “un-universal,” but it still somehow manages to be among the most inefficient and expensive in the world. Our income inequality puts us on par with Russia and Turkey, and is still worsening, while our society continues to become fatter, more indebted, and more educationally stagnant.

In other words, even though things aren’t as bad as a lot of cynics would have it, this country’s accomplishments still remain fragile. Yet despite this, we refuse to question conventional wisdom, or dare to look abroad and study the success of other nations. Ironically, a lot the countries cited as rising powers – China, Brazil, India, Turkey, and so on – credit a lot of their success, in part, to American ideas or to leaders with educated in American universities. These countries saw their domestic problems, and simply looked around for solutions to fix them.

I’m not saying we need to emulate the entire world without question, or give up everything we have and start from scratch. But we need to follow their example of open-minded pragmatism, borrowing or adopting the ideas floating around the larger world beyond our borders; at the very least, we should do more to study them, instead of treating any such “internationalist” outlook as being in conflict with American values.

In a globalized world such as ours, ideas – and even the thinkers and institutions that produce them – transcend nationality or culture. We must make the most of what’s out there, and stop staking our collective egos on believing that doing so is somehow weak or even damaging. After all, what is America today but a historical melting pot of values, inventions, ideas, and people from all across the world?  Why abandon the formula for success that has, in part, made us what we are?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism - contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?

 

 

The Pure and Clean Facade

“I said to Life, I would hear Death speak. And Life raised her voice a little higher and said, You hear him now.”

-Khalil Gibran

An old friend of mine, Moises, passed away a few months ago. He was one of the first friends I met when I first started at FIU. Unfortunately, as tends to happen, we lost touch once he had graduated and I had become caught up in my life in general. We still managed to keep contact through Facebook, mostly through “likes” and small talk on our wall posts. Morbidly, I attempted to check up on him just a day after he passed. I feel bad having never had the chance to catch up.

In fact, he was one of my first supporters back when I first began writing notes. He remained one of my most avid readers and commentators, and even went as far as to share my writings with others to show support and bring attention. He really elevated my confidence with his support, and I owe a lot to him. I’m happy we were able to remain friends despite never truly hanging out. We truly was an exceptionally kind and warm person, and it goes without saying that he will be missed.

Not long after losing one long distance friend, would I come to lose another. My friend Justine, who I met and interacted with exclusively online, also died some months ago.  I didn’t find out until much later, and in a rather awkward fashion: when I posted a message on her wall wondering how she had been, I noticed several condolences written throughout her profile. As with Moises, losing her felt strange: while we had grown apart, and never met in person,  I still nonetheless knew her quite well, and would converse for hours over the years that we were friends.

She was yet another example of someone that I could connect with despite otherwise being peripheral in my everyday life. Our physical distance, combined with having lost touch her, did indeed make her loss easier to bear than it otherwise would’ve been. But it still felt strange knowing I would never again have the chance to get back in touch with her. I still bear a good amount of regret for not having made the most of our time. Maybe if I hadn’t been as busy and caught up with my own life, maybe if I took at least an hour a day to sign on and chat, I would’ve been able to help her (she had committed suicide).

As always, the death of someone I knew, regardless of how well, always puts me in a reflective mood. It always reminds me of the ubiquitousness of death, it’s inevitability and omnipotence. It takes a death being closer to home to remind me that such a fate even exists. Sure, we know all about it through media, and I’ve certainly been exposed to it through the nature of my major. But no amount of knowledge of death can supersede the pure and clean facade that we maintain in our society, one in which death is distant, out of the way, and abstract.

Our civilization is completely aloof death – or at least it tries to be. Most of us have never experienced death, or seen it’s affects. It’s a topic that pervades every belief system, culture, and society, yet in many cases remains taboo to discuss openly. We don’t consider the grim details of the process, or dare to acknowledge the reality that some day we, and everyone we know, will die. A lot of us have it cross our minds briefly, but we certainly don’t dwell on it. What would be the point of musing about the inevitable?

It fascinates me, the idea that the same fate awaits us yet no one really talks about it openly. We all have this unspoken understanding that it’s coming one way or another, and could come at any moment. But we’d rather move on with our lives and not worry about it. And therein lies the beauty of it – with death comes an appreciation of life. Far too often we take our lives for granted. We forget how unique and miraculous it is that we are alive, even though many others are not; that we survive while others perish. We don’t comprehend the tenuousness of our time on Earth. Much of this is likely because we’re so separated from the whole ordeal that we rarely take notice, let alone appreciate the implication.

Understanding that our lives have a deadline should be enough motivation to get us doing something with ourselves. I feel that were it not for my fascination with death, I’d likely not be so keen on trying to keep going and make the most of my life. Were it not for realizing that everything I know and love will some day cease to be (as far I know), I might not try so hard to enjoy them all, to ensure good relations and no regret with everyone.

However morbid and depressing this reality is, it’s actually in some ways a case for being optimistic, for appreciate every single moment and cherish every experience, interaction, thought, and life process. The sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels. The good times and the bad times that made those good ones seem better. It makes us all equal in our susceptibility and in our fear. Most of all, I think it predicates the most common human characteristic: the questioning of why we’re even alive to begin with, and how best to better that existence.

 

How Bashing China Won’t Make Any Difference

With politics being as polarized as they are, it always nice to see a rare bit of bipartisanship in Congress. It’s just a shame that what unites the two parties is often ill-conceived and populist in nature, and nothing meets both criteria so well as China bashing.

There is no doubt that, lately, China has become a byword for American decline and economic insecurity. From our politicians to public interest groups, the consensus among policymakers seems to be that China is either a direct cause for all this country’s ills or a rapidly rising competitor whose gain is automatically our loss. This sentiment however, like the tariffs and China bashing that it predicates, is at worst dangerously distracting, and at the very least unhelpful.

Prior to adjourning for the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at retaliating against China for undervaluing its currency. This would’ve likely translated into higher tariffs on Chinese exports, though last I checked, the bill has remained stalled in the Senate.

In any case, the House was hardly alone in its concerns on China. Timothy Geithner, the United States Secretary of the Treasury, pressured the International Monetary Fund, which oversees the global financial system, to urge China to take on a “more flexible, more market-oriented exchange-rate management” system. This is basically a fancy way of telling China to stop keeping its currency so cheap.

In these past mid-terms elections, many candidates ran ads attacking opponents for allowing jobs to be shipped to China, or for otherwise being too soft on the Chinese. Citizens Against Government Waste, a self-described government watchdog, ran an ad depicting a future where China is basically running the US.

The idea is that if Chinese exports become more expensive, domestic producers of similar goods could finally compete in an even playing field, providing jobs and invigorating the economy. If only it was that simple (economics rarely is).

To be sure, China isn’t innocent. Its government does indeed keep the cost of its currency artificially low, so as to keep its vital exports cheap and it’s economy globally competitive. From a national-interest and strategic perspective, this actions makes sense, whatever harm it may do to other manufacturers. Certainly, such cheap exports do cause some damage to domestic production – up to a point. There is no denying that manufacturing has declined precipitously in this country. And it’s certainly true that most of what we once made is nowadays being built in China.

But Chinese dominance in manufacturing is a by-product of our decline, not the cause of it. After all, manufacturing has been weak for decades, long before China’s rise began in the 1990s; they merely sped up the process. Forcing the Chinese to make their goods more expensive or slapping on tariffs to that effect, won’t suddenly revitalize our economy.  At best, it will just shift the problem somewhere else. Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and a slew of other nations all have plenty of cheap labor and even cheaper currency.

We should also take a lesson from history. Back when Japan was in China’s place and US manufacturing was beginning to peak, we pressured them to raise their cheap currency too, for the same reasons (and with the same expectations).  Obviously, it didn’t work, since industrial activity remains in decline to this day.

At the end of the day, the problem with manufacturing is a domestic issue that requires a domestic solution. It’s unrealistic and unfeasible to expect other countries to change their ways for our sake. Like it or not, globalization is a reality that must be adapted to, not fought against.  We should focus less on foreign scapegoats and more on supporting polices that will strengthen industry at home –more investment in infrastructure and green technology, support for job training programs, and incentives for companies to keep jobs in the US, to name a few ideas.

We need to tap into the innovation that has long made us the world’s most dynamic economy, rather than distract ourselves with petty trade wars. Too bad that, as with most things, that’s far easier said than done. How to become more innovative and competitive is a discussion for a whole other post.