Amigo: The Forgotten Phillipines-American War

Of all the myriad military interventions we’ve been involved in – and there’s quite a lot of them – our conflict in the Phillipines is perhaps one of the bloodiest and most complex. It’s also one of the least known, given brief mention in history textbooks and little to no acknowledgement in popular culture. In fact, very few films, books, or television series have been made about the war, and any knowledge of it’s existence seems limited only to historians and academics. I can attest by personal experience how few people, especially in our generation, realize the depth of our involvement in Phillipines.

Thankfully, a film has finally been made that gives this dark and mysterious chapter of our history some well-needed cinematic attention. Amigo, set in the early years of the war, provides an even-handed account of all the factions involved: American troops, Filipino rebels, collaborators, sympathizers, and all those stuck in the middle of it. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen some excerpts of it, as small films like this don’t make it to very many theaters (it’s an Independent film, go figure). But from what I’ve seen, as well as heard from other accounts, it captures the bleakness, ambiguity, and convolution of a conflict we should have never been involved in (sound familiar?). NPR had a pretty good episode about it, including an interview with the director, on Talk of the Nation.

Comparisons to Vietnam – the same type of warfare, the jungle setting, the moral ambiguity, the lack of popular support – certainly abound, and with the benefit of hindsight, the war seems to be an ominous foreshadowing of the same sort of conflicts we’d later find ourselves in after World War II. The famous struggle between isolationists and so-called internationalists – themselves split from within along numerous philosophies – would start to form, as our Phillipines war would be the turning point marking heavier involvement in global affairs (though some would argue that the Spanish-American War that precipitated it, or even the Monroe Doctrine of decades before, would really be the watershed).

If there is any consolation about this imperialist venture, it’s the push-back and criticism that the war met at home. Though nothing on the scale of what we saw in response to the Vietnam War, and similar conflicts since, the Phillipines intervention saw the beginnings of outspoken pacifistic advocacy, foreign policy scrutiny by citizens, and journalistic criticism that would soon become definitive in later conflicts. Perhaps the most well-known reaction was Mark Twain’s  famous founding of the Anti-Imperialist League, uniting a politically and ideologically diverse number of figures devoted to keeping the US out of such conflicts. He summed up the sentiments of his fellow anti-imperialists rather well in this public declaration:

There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it—perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands—but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

Dishearteningly, the League and other opponents to the conflict were never as influential as they aimed to be. Public opinion was either indifferent or supportive of the conflict, and the men that were coming to power in government were increasingly in favor this and other foreign escapades. Twain and his colleagues came from an older generation rooted in more traditional and romantic notions of American liberty and freedom, the kind that should be defended and allowed to flourish outside the country, not suppressed due to geostrategic and economic interests.

What’s most tragic is that many Americans had no intention of colonizing the country or being mired in some sort of conflict – it was something that escalated quickly, often with the connivance of less-well-intentioned elements, as well as by circumstance, misunderstanding, and confusion. Some saw this as a chance to “enlighten” the Filipino people and provide humanitarian assistance, while others believed it to fulfill America’s rightful Manifest Destiny as a global power. Still others saw riches and an opportunity for prosperity. There were so many overlapping and conflicting goals, interests, and actors. Once again, I see many parallels with contemporary history.

I’d love to get into greater detail about the timeline and nature of the conflict, as well as important events and figures, but as always I remain pressed for time. I’ll leave you all to check out some great source material if you care to do some research about it on your own. As long as people are at least aware that this war happened in the first place, I’ll feel satisfied. Otherwise, here is where you can get more information:

Developing World Rising

The 21st century has been dominated with discussions and concerns about a major paradigm shift in the world: the rise of so-called developing countries. It’s pretty much become accepted that poorer, comparatively under-developed nations – chief among them China, India, Brazil, and maybe Russia – will soon reach a level of wealth and industrialization long characteristic of North America, Western Europe, East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. The modernization and prosperity gap between the developing world and developed countries (as rich nations are called) is quickly narrowing, with vast political, social, cultural, and economic implications for the world.

The Economist recently published a brief but detailed report about this increasing shift in power and fortune for emerging economies (as they’re also called). One version is heavier on the info-graphics – linked here – while the other is more wordy and analytical, and linked to here. For practicality’s sake, I’ll post some of the data here, as it pretty much speaks for itself.

Essentially, developing economies still have some ways to go in terms of attaining the “mature” characteristics of an advanced economy, such as more outward investment, consumer spending, and large companies. But by and large, they’ve not only caught up with the rich world in many ways, but seem poised to surpass it rather quickly. As the Economist article notes:

The combined output of the developing economies accounted for 38% of world GDP (at market exchange rates) in 2010, twice its share in 1990 (see upper chart). On reasonable assumptions, it could exceed the developed world’s within seven years. If GDP is instead measured at purchasing-power parity, which takes account of the fact that lower prices in poorer countries boost real spending power, emerging economies overtook the developed world in 2008 and are likely to reach 54% of world GDP this year. Even more impressive, they accounted for three-quarters of global real GDP growth over the past decade.

So momentum and recent historical precedent are clearly in the emerging world’s favor. Granted, the future is always a difficult thing to predict, especially when it comes to economics (as we’ve grown painfully aware of these past few years). But barring some gigantic global catastrophe, we can expect to see a lot of new countries join the stagnant ranks of the industrialized world, if not officially, than at least as far as the quantitative measures go. Even another economic crisis might not be too troubling: most of today’s developing nations were among the first to emerge from the punishing global recession, and were far less harmed by it than their richer rivals. As the article poignantly notes:

Two decades ago economic models treated the developing world like a dog’s tail, wagged this way and that by rich countries but too small to affect them. Now the tail wags the dog. Their greater weight and speed mean emerging markets drive global growth, commodity prices and inflation.

These emerging powers will no doubt be more than happy to exercise that sort of influence, which they’ve long had to face from richer nations. However, I don’t want to overstate the implications of any of this. Again, the developing world still has a long way to go, and it will likely take decades for most of them to reach the level of development that we’re accustomed to. Economic growth doesn’t account for political and social progress either: China and Russia may still be corrupt and authoritarian, while India may still contend with ethnic, religious, and political tensions.

There’s a lot to be concerned about regarding the costs to the environment and labor rights: what will a world with billions of new and increasingly demanding consumers be like? Will there be enough resources and land for all of them? Can the world take any more waste and pollution from all the new industries and goods that are proliferating? How much logging, mining, and clearing for farms can our planet take? And what will happen to the vast underclass of workers that will be expected to extract and make all the resources needed?

More people having access to food, shelter, healthcare, and education is a good thing, but how sustainable will it be, and at what costs will it come? I’ts perverse to think that the long-suffering majority of this planet must be questioned in its growing prosperity due to unfortunate timing. But if the rest of the world came to live more like Americans, we’d have a lot of scarcity on our hands, as even current levels of consumption are being increasingly difficult to maintain.

Thus, this “rise of the rest,” as Parag Khanna, an international relations expert puts it, will present vast challenges to a fragile but increasingly dynamic world. One could only hope that the growing clout, wealth, and education levels of these nations could constructively be applied to address these concerns before they bring us all down.

Portraits of the Homeless

As I’ve often lamented in previous posts, it’s not often many of us truly look at the human side of a lot of things. We hear so much about deaths here, or destroyed homes there, and other tragic occurrences that befall humans at every turn, and each time we react with a sort of perfunctory sense of sympathy.  Of course we feel bad, but we don’t truly know or understand the raw depths of these misfortunes. It’s not that we’re bad or selfish creatures, as most human beings are at least nominally moral or ethical (even if they have different standards of those things). There are many reasons for this disconnection from one another, including our limited cognitive and sensory abilities that literally keep us from being able to focus attention on too many sympathetic subjects, especially if they’re distant.

Of course, none of this justifies the level of callousness and even disgust that is often displayed towards the unfortunate. Homeless people are a case in point. It’s often assumed that they’re either crazy or lazy, if not both. Granted, there is a certain kernel of truth to these stereotypes, as with any: certainly, most homeless people, as far as we can tell, suffer from some sort of mental illness or another. And there are always going to be people who suffer misfortune due to their own neglect and irresponsibility. But to look down on all destitute people as vagrants, drug addicts, and wackos is not only a display of lazy, ignorant thinking; it dehumanizes an entire class of people who are every bit the same as us as we “better off” folks are to each other.

Regardless of which narrative you prescribe to, homeless people and other itinerants are pretty much ignored in most societies  (indeed, even in countries where people are predominately poor, you find vast amounts of segregation based on class and income, creating a virtual state within a state in some extreme cases). We go about our everyday lives not consciously aware of them, and even upon a chance encounter with one, we do our best to look away or not really acknowledge their existence. I know there are reasons for this beyond mere callousness, but it still fascinates me nonetheless.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who is curious about all this. A photographer  form the UK named Lee Jefferies has pretty much made a career out of depicting the rawness and depth of the homeless, giving them an intense level of humanity through detailed black-and-white portraits. Most of those pictured are from his native Britain, as well as continental Europe and the US. They all display striking character in their expression and features. Interestingly, many of them appear elderly or close to it.

A link to these images, twenty-five in total, can be found here, with many more available here. The collection is quite large, but the sheer diversity of subjects is captivating. If anyone is interested in looking at more of his excellent work besides that of the homeless, Jefferies  has over a hundred more photos of various other subjects in his Flickr account.

Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by homeless people. I grew up in a relatively well-off, middle-class family. I lived comfortably and satisfied, and the very idea of eking out an existence on the streets or in condemned housing seemed both unimaginably awful and remarkably inspiring. I thought about the lack of a warm bed, good food, personal amenities, and dignity. I thought of what it must be like to live in such a lonely, cold, dirty, and unhealthy environment, with everyone looking down on your or pitying you. You have to take your pick between being a subject of pity, often patronizing as it were, or outright contempt and hostility; you were either a poor, unfortunate wretch, or the scum of society. Either way, you existed in a different world that was shuttered away from most of the more fortunate.

As usual, I’m sure I’m romanticizing all this far more than I should. Reality is usually far more stark and straightforward. But I don’t care. It’s these victims of misfortune and cruel chance that remind me how luck I am to be sitting in the comfort of my room, surrounded by my nice things, writing about them. It’s their plight that has committed me to doing everything I can to make sure as many of them – if even just one of them – can be brought out of such misery and given a chance as possible. Few people deserve such a fate, and fewer still should be forgotten just because it’s befallen them. Anyone of us has as much chance as being in these photos as we do looking at them through our personal computers.

Many thanks to my good friend Mike for introducing me to these pics and, as always, spurring some deep reflections.

Education and Democracy

It would seem intuitive that the more intelligent someone is, the more likely they’re going to be involved in “high-minded” pursuits of political participation: grassroots activism, citizen journalism, internships in public service, or at least frequent voting. It would make sense that people who are most knowledgeable about the world or the way the political system operates, would therefore have a greater sense of civic duty coupled with the information they need to act on it. Thus, it follows that nations with better education systems and a more educated populace tend to be more developed and democratic.

I must admit that I’ve long held to this truism as well. My main motivation for creating this blog, and similar info-junkie groups elsewhere, is to promote social change and progress through discourse, critical thinking, and knowledge. I’ve always felt that the more people know, the more likely they’ll exercise critical thinking and use that knowledge as a basis for action. You can’t fight poverty or corruption if you don’t know anything about their prevalence; you can’t vote if you don’t know who believes what and which policies are most effective. In retrospect, this thinking is too simplistic, I admit, but I thought it was broadly accurate.

In any case, this connection between levels of intelligence (or at least of formal education) and democracy forms part of the the basis of “modernization theory,” which broadly holds that certain social variables can influence the progress and development of a country. The ostensible contribution that a highly educated populace makes towards democratic functions was strongly advocated by Seymour Lipset, who argued that:

…Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.

As a disclaimer, I understand the difference between being smart and being educated. Though the two are often connected, they’re hardly correlated: plenty of formally educated people are relatively unintelligent, and plenty of intelligent people are without any formal schooling. There’s usually a connection between the two, but not always.

Nevertheless, most of the developed nations of the world – those with high-standards of living, strong economic growth, and freer governments and societies -  also tend to have relatively more robust universities and public school systems. Even the most flawed of educational institutions by rich world standards are comparatively better than in most poor or authoritarian nations. This would further suggest that improving access to schools and the quality of education in un-free areas could sow the seeds of political reform: think of China, which is rapidly improving its education system while trying to maintain a totalitarian regime (it still has a long way to go as far as both quality and access however).

However, a recent article by The Economist challenges this linkage. It argues that correlation doesn’t equal causation: the marks of progress and modernity in a society, such as those I listed above, could easily come from a whole other variable unrelated to each other. There is also a possible casual dilemma: who says an educated society makes for a democratic one? Maybe it’s just that democratic societies promote public schooling and better universities. In fact, education could promote the very opposite of a participatory mentality. As the article linked above noted:

Those who posit that more schooling leads to greater democracy often have specific ideas about how people’s attitudes change as a result of their becoming more educated, arguing that it creates people who are more willing to challenge authority. It is possible, however, that education reinforces authority and the power of ruling elites; indeed, it may often be designed to do precisely this. The study tried to find out which of these competing ideas of the effects of education is more accurate.

The study that is referenced is a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Education as Liberation?” Unfortunately, full access to it restricted by a pay-wall, but the Economist seem to do a good enough job of giving the gist of it. It also provides a very interesting info-graphic that presumably shows the statistical correlation between the two variables. I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for interesting

I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for an interesting analysis. It would seem that being better educated or more knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make you more appreciative or participatory in democracy. Perhaps it’s other factors that do, such as income or socioeconomic status. Or maybe, as the Economist suggested, an education actually has a detrimental effect on democratic attitudes, hollowing out people’s reverence towards democracy or the local political process. The article provides an interesting anecdote in this regard:

…Girls [from Kenya] who benefited from [scholarships] and got more schooling were more independent and less accepting of the traditional sources of authority within the family. But although education seemed in some sense to have “liberated” them in terms of their personal aspirations, it did not seem to have had the broader effects that proponents of the modernisation hypothesis would have expected. In particular, those with more education did not become more favourably inclined towards democracy. In fact, education deepened their sense of identification with their ethnic group and increased their tolerance for political violence. There was little evidence that having more education made them more engaged in civic life or political organisations.

This is not entirely surprising. Education may make people more interested in improving their own lives but they may not necessarily see democracy as the way to do it. Even in established democracies, more education does not always mean either more active political participation or greater faith in democracy. In India, for example, poorer and less educated people vote in larger numbers than their more educated compatriots. Indeed, the latter often express disdain for, and impatience with, the messiness of democracy. Many yearn instead for the kind of government that would execute the corrupt and build highways, railway lines and bridges at the dizzying pace of authoritarian China.

Of course, there are several caveats here. For one thing, the study concerning the young students in Kenya was, obviously, undertaken in a very specific context. Perhaps if it were done in a nation less riven by pervasive ethnic and sectarian rivalries, the results would’ve been different. Maybe in Kenya and some other countries, such identities just happen to be too deep-seated and transcendent to be properly counter-acted against. I would certainly love to see this experiment expanded into other parts of the world, including wealthier countries.

The case of India is pretty interesting. I’m not sure if it holds any weight in our society: are poorer Americans also more likely to vote than richer ones? From what I’ve read, it’s the opposite: more educated and wealthy Americans tend to have higher turn outs in elections, though this may be due more to low-income people having less time, access, and political information to participate than due to any sort of disillusionment (again, these things are hard to measure reliably). It could also be that India’s poor, being far more impoverished compared to our own, are far more desperate to enact social change to better their lives; the wealthier segments of society perhaps see their fortunes detached from whatever goes on in politics.

So I think it might vary by culture, history, region, and numerous other factors. It may even depend on the specific country, as no two societies and political systems are exactly alike, even if they may be quite similar. Pedagogic factors – i.e. the process of teaching – varies too, and certainly plays a big role. In some areas, there is more hierarchy, rigidity, and rote learning, all of which may stifle freethinking, creativity, or the questioning of authority. In other places, students may be given more free reign to challenge their professors, ask questions, or engage in creative writing exercises – perhaps this environment would be conducive to fomenting political and social involvement.

Or perhaps not. Again, it’s hard to say, and unless I’ve missed something, I haven’t seen too much data on the subject. Then again, as I noted before, such things are by their very nature difficult to measure, and we’ll probably never have a clear picture (not that we shouldn’t try anyway – most social sciences deal with the intangible nature of what they study, and that hardly means they should be marginalized or ignored). With that said, I’d love for anyone to share any study, research paper, or data related to this topic.

As for my own reflections about all this, I must confess that despite my aforementioned belief in the power of knowledge, I have nonetheless seen first hand how a lot of smart or educated individuals are disinterested in the process of government. In fact, it seems that the more one knows about politics, philosophy, and social issues, the least likely they’re going to bother getting involved. As conventional wisdom holds, the smarter you are, the more cynical or depressed you are; so the more you see the flaws and problems that bedevil society or politics, the least likely you’ll have hope in being able to change it. Why bother when you see the system for what it is, and realize the odds are against you?

Furthermore, many intelligent people, frankly, perceive most others in society to be far less intelligent than them, and since these same masses are the ones that influence public policy and social norms, it could stand to reason that there’d be no point to trying to promote change if you’re in the beleaguered minority.

This could explain why democracy is supposedly under-appreciated among bright people: they see no merits in a system that rewards the largely misinformed or gullible masses, and leads to misguided policies. If anything, they may think such a system is detrimental to society, because – in theory – it leaves important decisions regarding the well-being of the world in the hands of people who wouldn’t know any better (as a side note, this could be why most intellectuals tend to be relatively more supportive of government and social policies).

Honestly, even I could sympathize with these concerns, and I admit to feeling this way every so often. I don’t think it’s that I or others are opposed to democracy in principle, but rather that we have reservations about the way it functions here in the US: oligarchic influences, partisanship, lack of informed policy-making, and so on. Sometimes, it feels all too hopeless to change the world when you know so much about the overwhelming odds going against you. I readily attest to this sense of confusion and disillusionment, and it explains why I have a difficult time comfortably settling for any particular political ideological position.

Perhaps in some way, that’s a good thing: the challenges of finding a suitable political system worthy of our involvement may force us to think more deeply about what we need to do to improve the system.

World’s Oldest Fossil Recently Discovered

Or so goes the claim made a few days ago by a group of Australian and British geologists. They may have stumbled upon rudimentary lifeforms – single-celled organisms – that are as much as 3.4 billion years old. This would mean that life emerged relatively quickly following Earth’s formation, which may hold vast implications about the origin of life on this planet. It’s simply amazing to think that we’re still stumbling upon things that have remained hidden for an unfathomable amount of time. It’s seems like every year we uncover some new piece of evidence regarding our vast biological origins.

Of course, there will be many disputes regarding the validity of this finding. As the New York Times article I linked to notes:

Microfossils — the cell-like structures found in ancient rocks — have become a highly contentious field, both because of the pitfalls in proving that they are truly biological and because the scientific glory of having found the oldest known fossil has led to pitched battles between rival claimants…Rocks older than 3.5 billion years have been so thoroughly cooked as to destroy all cellular structures, but chemical traces of life can still be detected.

Indeed, the article notes previous conflicts between scientists who claimed to have discovered what were then the most ancient fossils, only to be challenged by colleagues who believed they were mistakenly identifying inorganic mineral pockets. There will no doubt be similar questions raised, and the authors of the scientific report cautiously admit there is no direct evidence of these things being organic lifeforms, just a good amount of circumstantial evidence strongly leading to that conclusion.

Jerry Coyne, a prominent biologist, made an excellent analysis of this discovery in his own blog, Why Evolution Is True (which I’ve subscribed to). Since my time is short, and my expertise nowhere near as great as his, I’ll leave you to check out the post I’ve hyper-linked above for a detailed explanation.

All I know is that I can’t wait for the day when we may very well have a clearer picture of how life developed and evolved on this planet. It’s remarkable how a few specks of organic material could lead to the beautiful and intricate web of life we have today. Through all these billions of years and millions of extinctions, life has continued to prosper and persevere against unimaginable changes. Who would’ve thought a few basic cells could yield such a beautiful narrative?

Images From Tripoli

I know I’ve accorded a disproportionate amount of attention to Libya, and to a lesser extent the Middle-East in general (especially countries affected by the Arab Spring). I suppose I can’t help my romantic attachment to popular revolutions, especially when they seem as close to Manichean as this one is. Take note, however, that I’m well aware of the ambiguity of such things, and of the complex – even potentially devastating - aftermath that follows. But Qaddafi is clearly evil, and the rebels are as close to being the “good guys” as any ragtag alliance of diverse and enigmatic interests can be. I’ll take that for what it’s worth, and hope for the best, whatever my sobering intuition as an IR and Polisci major.

With all that said, here is a brief but captivating slideshow of the aftermath following the rebel takeover of Tripoli, which as of this post remains contested but mostly under the control anti-Qaddafi forces.

End of Days: Photos of Qaddafi’s Last Stand. 

One can only hope it is. The situation is still so precarious. So much could go wrong, and history is full of examples of revolutions being reversed after months of success. Granted, I doubt Qaddafi will ever re-take all of Libya. But it’s still highly probable that the country could be partitioned, or worse still continue in a semi-normal state of steady, intermittent warfare (there are cases of civil wars going on for at least a decade, if not more; pre-secession Sudan was one such example).

But looking at all the joy and excitement that is pouring out of the (mostly) liberated capital, I cannot help but maintain my optimism, however guarded it might be. These pictures show the truly human element of the conflict, one that is all to easy to overlook , since, as in most cases, we see conflict either through facts and figures, or through dehumanizing images of fighters behind masks and uniforms. In these photos, I see people’s faces and expressions; I see a liberation force composed of mostly average, young men tearing down symbols of oppression; i see people making way for a new life, after four decades of stagnation, oppression, and isolation.

I see a lot of hope. If they’re seizing the potential to create a new and free state, however difficult and distant the prospect, then I see a cause for excitement.

Liberals and Conservatives

It often feels that these two sides of the political spectrum are from completely different realities. So great is the disparity between their worldview, and so entrenched are their ideological positions, that many folks on the left and the right have almost reflexively taken to accusing the other of simply being crazy or delusional.

I often wonder where these sorts of views stem from. What exactly makes a person conservative or liberal? What shapes their ideas about the role of government, the morality of abortion, or their affinity towards either assimilation or multiculturalism? Furthermore, what makes a person a centrist, pragmatist, anarchist, or a subscriber to any number of variable or peripheral ideologies? Why have many people, like myself, been prone to changes in our worldview over periods of time, whereas others have remained almost consistently unchanging?

While I do broadly lean left on many issues (albeit with some exceptions and nuances from mainstream leftism), I nonetheless identify myself primarily as pragmatic and centrist. As I established ad nasuem in a previous post, I find such labels unhelpful since they are often subjective and prone to being incorrectly preconceived by others. If I call myself  a liberal, others will subsequently put together what I believe based on their own pre-determined notions of liberalism, and when they realize my views don’t fit this understanding, I’m challenged for really being what I claim. Hence my reluctance to claim any one label definitively .

But I digress. The overall point of this post is to explore the following: what exactly makes someone liberal, conservative, or something in between, and how do these different groups really see the world and determine what is right and wrong? What is the origin of political beliefs? Are their biological, genetic, or neurological factors? Is it life experiences, socioeconomic status, or how we were raised? Is it the form of education, or the substance of it? As it may turn out, there are probably innate and deterministic factors forming our ideological perspectives.

Psychologist Jonathan Haight recently presented a pretty interesting and level-headed approach to tackling these questions on TED Talks (which, like RSA Animate, is a great source for diverse ideas spanning all sorts of topics. The link to his lecture is here, since WordPress is being a bit uncooperative about allowing me to embed the video in my post.

Haight is hardly the first to discuss the nature of this increasingly significant divide, but he does it with far more neutrality and scientific objectivity than most others I’ve seen. His entire point is that every side within the political spectrum has different moral presuppositions about the world, and that moral and political viewpoints emerge from a complex combination of nature and nurture, and different understandings of what constitutes right and wrong.

The video even challenges the commonly held notion of a “blank state” in which we’re all born, and argues that there are indeed innate origins to our view of the world. In addition to the main topic, it deals a lot with the nature of the human brain and morality, which raises all sorts of questions about what makes us who we are or why we do the things we do.

Basically, Haight’s research yielded five universal foundations of morality that form the basis of all belief systems regardless of their differences. They’re as follows.

The first one is harm-care. We’re all mammals here, we all have a lot of neural and hormonal programmingthat makes us really bond with others, care for others,feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable.It gives us very strong feelings about those who cause harm.This moral foundation underlies about 70 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The second foundation is fairness-reciprocity.There’s actually ambiguous evidenceas to whether you find reciprocity in other animals,but the evidence for people could not be clearer.This Norman Rockwell painting is called “The Golden Rule,”and we heard about this from Karen Armstrong, of course,as the foundation of so many religions. That second foundation underlies the other 30 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The third foundation is in-group loyalty.You do find groups in the animal kingdom –you do find cooperative groups –but these groups are always either very small or they’re all siblings.It’s only among humans that you find very large groups of peoplewho are able to cooperate, join together into groups –but in this case, groups that are united to fight other groups.This probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes,we go ahead and make them because it’s fun.(Laughter)Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.We get to exercise some ancient, ancient drives.

The fourth foundation is authority-respect.Here you see submissive gestures from two members of very closely related species –but authority in humans is not so closely based on power and brutality,as it is in other primates. It’s based on more voluntary deference,and even elements of love, at times.

The fifth foundation is purity-sanctity. This painting is called “The Allegory Of Chastity,”but purity’s not just about suppressing female sexuality. It’s about any kind of ideology, any kind of ideathat tells you that you can attain virtueby controlling what you do with your body,by controlling what you put into your body. And while the political right may moralize sex much more,the political left is really doing a lot of it with food. Food is becoming extremely moralized nowadays,and a lot of it is ideas about purity,about what you’re willing to touch or put into your body.

If you watch the whole video, you’ll find how studies found that conservatives and liberals give different priorities to different moral foundations in this list. In other words, much of the conflict between political and ideological positions stem from a disagreement about which is most important to the well-being of the individual and society. We’re coming from different sides, but not as much as we may think. What’s most illuminating is what Haight takes away from all this:

And now we get to the crux of the disagreementbetween liberals and conservatives. Because liberals reject three of these foundations: they say “No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.”They say, “Let’s question authority.”And they say, “Keep your laws off my body.

Liberals have very noble motives for doing this.Traditional authority, traditional morality, can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don’t fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.This guy’s shirt says, “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” If you’re high in openness to experience, revolution is good, it’s change, it’s fun.

Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose. So as Edmund Burke said, “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” This was after the chaos of the French revolution. So once you see this — once you see that liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, that they form a balance on change versus stability – then I think the way is open to step outside the moral matrix.

In other words, both sides in a sense complement each other. A government or society that operates based on just one of these positions neglect crucial moral and ethical considerations that would otherwise be provided by the other. As the excerpt shows, liberals and conservatives can easily be blinded to the serious flaws of their ideology by absolutism, which will in turn open up abusive and detrimental consequences. Hence, ideally, both sides keep one another’s extreme proclivities in check and temper the more ideological factions within each worldview.

I find this conclusion is empirically validated too. When one looks at nations that have become the most successful in terms of freedom, good governance, high living standards, and well-developed legal and economic systems, they tend to be those somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. One would be hard-pressed to find a successful country that could be broadly categorized as either far-left or far-right. Freer societies, by definition, allow all sorts of views and positions to be put on the table – a marketplace  of ideas as it’s known. In doing so, the best and most proven combinations end up shaping society and government for the better, albeit through long and difficult slogs of trial and error.

It’s for this reason that I consider myself to be pragmatic. The more I read about politics, philosophy, social theory, the more I find myself exposed to so many different and seemingly valid concepts from all over the place. As a result, I’ve resigned myself to tying to base my ideological positions on what seems logically, ethically, and empirical more compelling. It’s easier said than done, but I personally find it to be satisfying, especially as it allows me to reach all sorts of truths I’d otherwise be oblivious too if I were more close-minded.

Needless to say, all this has big ramifications for this country at this moment. Politics and public discourse is at it’s most tribal and polarized in some time (some argue more so than ever). We’re being paralyzed by our lack of empathy and understanding of the other side, parochialism and partisanship, and by  a lack of constructive, dialectical dialogue between different ideological and political groups. Without having one another at the table to temper and challenge our extreme inclinations or factions, we run the serious risk of blindly pursuing narrow policies that don’t account for all moral and social considerations.

Granted, I’m not going to suggest that every idea deserves equal weight and consideration. Certain beliefs are clearly wrong or immoral based on established evidence, reason, or research (Nazism, killing people for infidelity, absolute monarchy, etc) . And not every side deserves the legitimacy of an equal voice if it’s prescriptions are found to violate ethics or reason – we shouldn’t give equal time and respect to people who think homosexuals are demons or segregation should be reinstated).

I also refuse to make any false equivalences between different factions with respect to who is most responsible for factionalism, misinformation, or polarization. Some groups are demonstrably more guilty in this regard than others, and it’s far less fair to accord equal blame in this regard than to identify who’s responsible – and to do so with constructive intention of engaging with this issue, rather than to just scapegoat.

In short, this all comes down to the central tenets of this blog, and my life for that matter: that we must establish empathy and open-dialogue with those who may be different in their persuasions but nonetheless well-intentioned, sincere, and rational. In doing so, we create a proper exchange of ideas and perspectives that may be valuable in attaining truth, determining what is best and most effective for societal well-being, and implementing the proper policies in question.

Of course, this requires an appreciation for science, logic, reason, and philosophy, which raises all sorts of issues about our literacy in these subjects. Pursuing this sort of high-minded dialogue is also far easier said than done, and I have no delusions about the ignorance and stubbornness that pervades our society (and my own tendencies to display those qualities too).  But at the very least, the well-meaning and level-headed of us must at least try. The world is full of problems that will never be solved otherwise.

The Secret Powers of Time

Since today has been busier and more hectic than expected, I’ve decided to keep this post brief but no less interesting (I hope).

RSA Animate, one of my favorite sources for discussions on scientific, ethical, and philosophical topics, recently produced a fascinating lecture on the nature of time and our perceptions of it (I came across it courtesy of an old friend, so many thanks to you if you’re reading this). As some of you might have gleaned from my previous post concerning time, I’m extremely interested in the way humans behave and operate in relation to the passage of time, which itself is largely a human construct (as far as measurements and a sense for temporal changes are concerned).

The presentation is hosted by Phillip Zimbardo, a psychologist better known for the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, which studied human behavior in positions of power (namely between guards and prisoners). It’s conclusions raised many crucial issues about human psychology and behavior, and I recommend looking into this further if any of you have a chance (though I’ll certainly be blogging about it in the future). Here’s the video “The Secret Powers of Time:”

Needless to say, the implications of this are fascinating. We rarely stop to consider how relative our perceptions of time are to one another, and how this could subsequently have larger impacts on society as a whole. We often joke about things such as “Cuban” time and how people perceive it’s passage differently. But the idea that entire nations and cultures could be shaped by their sense of time and their relationship to it is remarkable, and raises questions about how we manage our individual lives, our institutions, and our pursuit of certain activities, such as work and education.

It also raises questions about determinism, since it appears that many people and civilizations are being shaped by forces that are difficult, if not impossible, to control. It’s remarkable, if not potentially disconcerting, to imagine progress being contingent upon externalities we don’t really understand.

But the more we learn about the root nature of our mind and it’s relation to the world, the more we could (hopefully) be able to alter the way society operates – though overcoming tradition and conventional wisdom will certainly take generations, especially given the complex and interconnected systems that define modern civilization. It’s also interesting that the study of psychology, which is often  stereotypically considered to be more applicable to individuals, could in fact be utilized in the aggregate to understand the social order. I think it’s another example of why our public policies and various social organizations should be predicated on developments in science and reason as much as anything else.

But that is a topic for another day and another post. In the meantime, I’ll no doubt be looking very differently at the disparity between myself and others when it comes to perceptions of time (to say nothing of my usual reflections about my own relationship to time).

Slideshow of the Former USSR

Just one day after my post about Soviet Propaganda, and the confession of my innate Russophilia, I find myself once again drawn to the country – and this time it’s former domains too (I wasn’t kidding about my strange fascination with the region). Foreign Policy is once again the culprit, with an excellent photo essay of slice-of-life images from across the former Soviet Republics (minus Azerbaijan and Moldova, which are oddly omitted without explanation).

Most of these pictures also include an introduction to the country, and various facts, figures, and updates concerning their former and present status. It’s definitely recommended for those of you not familiar with the region but nonetheless interested.

Russia’s Big Backyard

This is one of my favorite photos (it’s #4 from Tajikistan), as it captures the plight of impoverished but persistent denizens from one of the world’s most obscure countries. I also like the simplicity but humanity of it.

A child of migrant laborers looks out the door of her family home on Oct. 1, 2007 in the town of Gharm. Thousands of Tajik men leave their homes each year to find work abroad with the hope of sending remittances home to their families. Many of these workers find new partners overseas, however, and leave their wives as sole providers back home in Tajikistan. Migrant workers’ wives are also among the highest risk group for contracting HIV/AIDS due to the levels of infidelity among the workers.

The tremendous amount of history, diversity, and culture yielded by Russia and it’s near-abroad is as stunning as it’s geographical and natural beauty. An area of the world that is generally neglected as corrupt, impoverished, and decadent – largely forgotten since the collapse of the Soviet Union -  is vibrant with rich traditions and customs; complex political dynamics; and the untold human drama of millions of hard-working, proud, and savvy individuals spanning a myriad of languages, cultures, ethnic groups, and faiths. Perhaps I’m guilty of overly romanticizing the region and it’s people, but I can’t help but be awed by the larger world world around me. I have a feeling I’d be saying this about pretty much every other part of this large, beautiful world of ours.

Despite all the associations with instability, ethnic tensions, and tyranny, most of the countries in the region – even in spite of their dire circumstances – have come a long way. As the caption from the very last image in the essay rightly noted:

While Russia and the other former Soviet states face environmental disasters, political upheaval, ethnic tensions, and economic distress, as David Hoffman wrote in the July/August 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, when it comes to the fall of the Soviet Union, “It’s also worth remembering what didn’t go wrong. After the Soviet implosion, it could have been so much worse.”

In any case, I hope you all enjoy all this as much I did. I’ve always dreamed of traveling through this part of the world, even if much of it is sadly mired in political corruption and authoritarianism. I still think it’d  be a rewarding experience, if not a not a challenging one.

Atheists Among Us

Rick Wingrove of the group Beltway Atheists wrote a brief but but poignant article in the Washington Post about one of America’s fastest growing minorities. Though it’s a month, the details of it remain relevant. Since it’s rather concise, I figure I’ll just share it all here:

You know that guy down the street? Nice guy, about 50, IT consultant, first guy on the block to clear his walks and mailbox after every snow, fought in Desert Storm, keeps his yard immaculate, put two daughters through college, donates for breast cancer research and puts up a flag every Fourth? That guy?

Well, that guy is an atheist. Not a communist, never been in jail and doesn’t eat babies. Just an atheist. A 21st-century atheist in America has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union. Nor is he any more likely to end up in prison than anyone else.

The new atheists bear no resemblance to the villainous monster the churches have warned us about for the past 1,500 years. Although a lot of political resistance and faith-based bigotry still exist, atheists are no longer social pariahs. But it took the advent of the Internet for nonbelievers to find each other and their voice.

As a result, America’s religious makeup is rapidly changing. TheAmerican Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows the country is trending away from Christianity, falling from 86 percent of the population in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008.

Seventy-five million Americans, or one in four, are not Christians. More than 50 million of those claim no religious affiliation. ARIS refers to them as the “Nones.” So, how, exactly, is “atheist” defined? Technically, an atheist is someone who does not believe the ancient deities are real. That describes 12 to 15 percent of Americans, although only 1 to 2 percent refer to themselves as atheists.

The Nones (including non-believers and the unaffiliated) are the third-largest group in the survey, outnumbering Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Southern Baptists combined. In the District, the percentage of Nones jumped from 7 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2008; in Maryland, from 8 percent to 13 percent; and in Virginia, 7 percent to 15 percent.

The average atheist in America is invisible. Many choose silence because for most of the past 2,000 years, it was highly lethal to speak out.

But, atheists are everywhere. They are your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, police officers, doctors, businessmen, celebrities and the guy who fixes your computer. And they are happy to fly under the radar of the professional evangelizers. So, when you say you don’t know any atheists, what you are saying is you don’t know who they are.

Note that the figures mentioned in the article don’t take into account those who identify as Christians but in practice are deistic or only “culturally” such. I can attest to knowing many self-described Christians who nonetheless maintain an anticlerical, non-denominational, and stripped-down version of their faith. Many of these people end up gradually deconstructing their religion until they become atheist or agnostic; other times, they remain functionally and theologically secular but still maintain their Christian identity (as I did for some time).

Of course, it is not the point of my post or this quoted article to gloat about the growing numbers of the irreligious. I really don’t think it’s anything to brag about, and I don’t prescribe to some asinine competitive notion of whose view of the universe is “winning’ or something.

Rather, my objective it to make it very clear that non-religious people do make up a significant and increasing percentage of Americans, particularly among the younger people that will soon inherit this country. We’re normal, everyday people like anyone else.

We’re not the evil boogeymen that are preached about in Churches or the nefarious “secular elites” rallied against by presumably pious politicians, who accuse us of “de-moralizing” America with our Godless agenda. We’re not immoral, unethical, nihilistic, or bitter, nor are we anymore likely to commit crimes or engage in acts of depravity (in fact, statistically speaking, secular people are less likely to go to prison, support war, or believe in capital punishment). We’re not analogues to Stalin, Hitler, or Mao, nor are we tyrannical communists or misanthropic terrorists.

The irreligious – especially self-identified atheists – are far too often the victims of this sort of dehumanization, treated with visceral disregard at best, and bigoted hostility at worst. Indeed, we’re given an almost supernatural quality in this country, framed as some sort of “other” that seeks to bring down all that is good in the world; if not that, then at the very least we’re looked down on with a degree of pity or condescension for being faithless (and, the assumption goes, subsequently being miserable and cynical).

While some of you may accuse me of arguing against a straw man or exaggerating the prejudice towards the faithless, I assure you this isn’t the case. I acknowledge, as the article also noted, that atheists and their ilk are certainly nowhere near as ostracized as they once were. Relatively speaking, there is a considerable amount of acceptance and “normality” about being non-religious.

But one doesn’t have to look too hard to see the innate resentment our society still has towards the secular-minded, or to come across the various rumors and ad hominems I listed above. Several polls show atheists to be dead last – behind Muslims and even homosexuals – as someone the public would be willing to vote into public office. And many politicians and public figures continue to jump on the bandwagon of scapegoating secular people for all that is wrong with America.

The fact is that the non-religious are just like anyone else. Sure, there are rotten examples of them, some of which even fit the stereotypes listed above. But does anyone really believe that there aren’t immoral or nasty theists out there? Are people unaware that religious politicians also get caught up in corruption scandals and acts of infidelity, or that the overwhelming majority of people in our prison system are religious? Are largely secular countries like Sweden, South Korea, Japan, and Australia falling into moral and societal decay?

Though I don’t identify as an atheist – I find the term is too limiting and negative, so I prefer the more descriptive “Freethinker” - in practice I pretty much am, as are most of those that take the friendlier moniker of “agnostic” (as I once did). Regardless, we’re as well-meaning, honest, and hardworking as any other person from any other belief system. We have our rotten eggs like any other group, but we should not be reflexively condemned just because we don’t share your faith. We still have the same needs, wants, fears, and concerns as the rest of you. We still have our dogmatists, liberals, conservatives, cynics, optimists, idealists, and any other diverse number of ideological persuasions.

I’m not secular because I want to spite or offend people, or because I’m trying to be counter-cultural. It’s because I simply cannot sincerely bring myself to believe in any particular brand of faith. That doesn’t make me less of a person than you. It doesn’t make me morally depraved or more likely to be a bad person. It just makes me non-religious and willing to be honest about it rather than hide it away and be something I am not. We are all complex human beings, and we can never really understand what we believe or who we are without getting to know each other first (and even then, it may take a lot of time and trust). We should be given the benefit of the doubt and have our presence acknowledged.

Most of all, we should set aside these bitter differences and petty attacks and realize that there is far more to worry about in our society – and the world at large for that matter – than whether we prescribe to your particular view of the universe.