Monday, August 28, 2006

The Many Sides of John Locke

The writings and ideas of John Locke stand as some of the most brilliant in English history. They are marked by, among other things, their variety.

One aspect of Locke's thought is political; he is famous for his significant influence on the Founding Fathers and their creation of the United States Constitution. A different side of Locke is seen in his purely philosophical essays, in which he ponders questions of human consciousness, perception, and knowledge; his formulations of empiricism and the process by which the mind turns sensations into ideas remain influential to this day.

These two facets of Locke are connected by a third and a fourth.

One connection is the legal implication of Locke's empiricism; if each human being is indeed born as a "blank slate", then the legal defense - used by, e.g., a kleptomaniac caught stealing - of "I was born that way" is illegitimate. Locke denies the existence of innate ideas.

A second connection between Locke's politics and his purely philosophical ideas is the implication of religious belief. Locke took great pains to show that the majority (not all) of humans arrive at their religious beliefs rationally, and that, therefore, we can also rely on the majority to vote on laws that are, on average, good laws. Locke said that, because religious beliefs are most central and essential to human thought, then their rationality ensures the rationality of other human thought. He also pointed out that those occasional instances of irrational religious belief are usually due to a lack of information or a lack of study, and can be corrected by exercise of the rational faculties of the mind upon substantial bodies of fact.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The REAL Martin Luther King

It is most appropriate for students in the Humanities to note a national holiday, Martin Luther King's birthday, because Rev. King was a diligent student of the humanities.

Originally born as Michael King, Jr., in 1928 (his father was named Michael King, Sr.), the father and son both changed their names to "Martin Luther" after studying the works of the German Reformer. One can only imagine how profound the impact of Luther's books was, if they caused father and son to change their names. This is truly a gigantic historical leap - from Germany in 1517 to Atlanta, Georgia in the 1940's.

King went on to do graduate research at Boston University. His dissertation, over 200 pages long, was an analysis of the writings of a German philosopher named Paul Tillich. King's research required him to have reading knowledge of German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. King analyzed Tillich's concept of God, and compared it to the way other philosophers viewed God. King was looking for the perfect balance between a "transcendent" view of God and an "immanent" view of God; the transcendent view is more cosmic and eternal, and immanent view is more personal and relational. King believed that a balanced view of God - not moving to either extreme - would improve both individuals and societies.

Too often, the television gives us the impression that King's main activity was giving speeches and marching. In reality, he spent years of his life in libraries. King's ideals of equality and non-violence came from studying texts.

Paul Tillich was a major influence on King. King also read books by Ghandi; Ghandi, in turn, had been educated in England. It was from England that Ghandi brought to his native India ideals of non-violence and equality, and began to criticize India's "caste" system. Ghandi wanted a "Magna Carta" for India. It's ironic that to get from England to America, these ideas went through India. Ghandi wanted to import the British ideas about the dignity and value of every human life, and about civil justice, into India. He probably did not foresee, at least initially, that they would be then exported to other countries, especially to the USA.

King had also read Thoreau and Emmerson, who in turn had been educated in the seminaries of New England, mainly at Harvard, where the Bible was studied in the context of its original Greek and Hebrew grammar, and in the context of rise and fall of the major ancient empires. This mixed approach - a personal commitment to valuing each human life, a geo-political context of major world powers, and the careful examination of text - would be formative.

So we see what a wide range of texts and authors are wrapped up in the influences which enabled King to take his remarkable place in American history. We see, in his words and writings, how a Humanities education can be powerful.

Statistics, Statistics!

Most of us, at one time or another, have heard something like this: "in the Middle Ages, the average life span was shorter than forty years; today, life expectancy often reaches as high as the mid seventies."

Makes us sound pretty cool, right? I mean, with all our modern technology and science, and good medical care, we're much better off!

Well, not really.

Notice the slightly different wordings: "average life span" and "life expectancy". These are, to statisticians, two very different things.

Average life span is simply the arithmetic mean of a group of human beings, for example, those living in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some of them died as small babies, others lived to be 100 years old or more, and most were between those two extremes. Add them up, divide, and you have the average. You learned to do that in some math class.

But "life expectancy" is a little trickier. For example, the generation of Americans who fought World War Two is now over eighty years old. We look around, and see many of them still living; others have died only recently, having made it into their seventies. And so we say that this generation had a pretty good "life expectancy". But their average life span was much shorter. We forget about the hundreds of thousands who actually died in the 1940's, fighting in the Pacific against Japan. When they are factored into the group, we find that the average life span is much shorter than the life expectancy. Remember, many of those soldiers who died were under twenty years of age.

Your life expectancy is defined, roughly, as how long you can expect to live if you have already made it to a certain age, say 20 or 30, and if there are no major unforeseen catastrophes, say like a war or an earthquake.

It's not meaningful to compare a modern life expectancy to a medieval average life span. That's comparing apples to oranges.

Given that the modern life span is shorter than the modern life expectancy, maybe we're not so much better off than those folks in the Middle Ages after all.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Backwards Revolution

Sometimes, revolutions fail to make things better; in 1959, the Cuban Communist revolution rejected American-style democracy, and promised to make things better for the "common working" man. What happened after that?

Many economic and social indicators have declined since the 1959 revolution. Pre-Castro Cuba ranked third in Latin America in per capita food consumption; today, it ranks last. Per capita consumption of cereals, tubers, and meat are today all below 1950's levels. The number of automobiles in Cuba has fallen since the 1950's - the only country in Latin America for which this is the case. The number of telephone lines in Cuba also has been virtually frozen at 1950's levels. Cuba once ranked first in Latin America and fifth in the world in television sets per capita. Today, it barely ranks fourth in Latin America and is well back in the ranks globally.

Cuba's rate of development of electrical power since the 1950’s ranks behind every other country in Latin America except Haiti. Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere for which rice production today is lower than it was four decades ago.

Cuba's infant mortality rate of 32 per 1,000 live births in 1957 was the lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, according to UN data. Cuba ranked ahead of France, Belgium, Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, all of which would eventually pass Cuba in this indicator during the following decades. Cuba's world ranking has fallen from 13th to 24th during the Castro era, according to UN Data.

Japan, with four cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 1958, was far behind Cuba (24) that year, but by 1988, Japan's number had grown to 251, whereas the figure for Cuba remained frozen at its 1958 level. Similar comments could be made for Portugal (increased from fifteen in 1958 to 216 in 1988), Spain (increased from six to 278), and Greece (increased from four to 150). Indeed, Italy's 29 cars per capita was not far ahead of Cuba's 24 in 1958, but by 1988, Italy boasted 440 cars per capita, whereas the figure for Cuba was unchanged from the 1950's.

Today, Cuba has only three telephone lines per 100 people, placing it 14th out of twenty Latin American countries surveyed in 1994 and far behind countries that were less advanced than Cuba in this measure in 1958, such as Argentina (today 14 lines per 100 inhabitants), Costa Rica (13), Panama (11), Chile (11), Venezuela (11), and several others.

During the late 1950's, Cuba ranked second only to Uruguay in Latin America, with 169 radios per 1,000 people. (Worldwide, this put Cuba just ahead of Japan.) At that time, Argentina and Cuba were very similar in terms of this measure. Since then, the number of radios per capita in Argentina has grown three times as fast as in Cuba. Cuba also has been surpassed by Bolivia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, and Brazil in this indicator.

Cuba had 45 television sets per 1,000 inhabitants in 1957, by far the most in Latin America and fifth in the world, behind only Monaco, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In fact, its closest competitor in Latin America was Venezuela, which had only sixteen television sets per 1,000 people. Today, Cuba has 170 televisions per thousand, behind Uruguay (232 per capita), Argentina (220), and Brazil (209). Of these three countries, Uruguay in 1957 had less than one television per 1,000 people, and Argentina and Brazil each had five per 1,000 people.

Although Cuba has never been a regional leader in public electricity production per capita, its relative ranking among twenty Latin American countries has fallen from eighth to 11th during the Castro era. In fact, in terms of the rate of growth for this measure, Cuba ranks 19th of twenty countries in the region, with only Haiti showing less accelerated development.

Cuba is the only country in Latin America whose production of rice has fallen since 1958, when it ranked fourth in the region in production of this staple.

Cubans had a choice of 58 daily newspapers during the late 1950's, according to the UN statistical yearbook. Despite its small size, this placed Cuba behind only Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in the region. By 1992, government controls had reduced the number of dailies to only seventeen.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Short Snooze for a Short Emperor: Napoleon's Naps

From the time of his self-appointment to the first consulship in 1799, Napoleon had constructed for himself folding field-bed out of iron. On all campaigns and field manouvers, he took one along: either a small one on the back of a mule, or a larger one on a supply wagon. But even when he slept on something more comfortable, Napoleon slept only a short time. Allegedly, he never remained in bed for any longer than four hours at a time. He didn't like those who slept for long periods of time. Sleep experts celebrate him today as a pioneer of the "power-nap", an energizing short snooze. Accordingly, Napoleon is supposed to have slept briefly several times a day - for example, when commanding. Sometimes even during a battle!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Peace in the Middle East?

The recent "heating up" of military action in the area of Israel and Lebanon has brought the ancient conflicts of the Middle East to the forefront again.

Many American politicians are debating about the best way to make peace - but their debates are founded on the presupposition that peace is possible in this situation, and that is an assumption which we must examine more carefully.

First, let's define peace. If, by that word, we mean merely the absense of violence, the lack of shooting, then, yes, peace in the Middle East is possible. Either by diplomacy or by force, it is possible to create a cease-fire, an uneasy and tenuous truce; this can be done by the involved parties themselves, or by external forces. It has been done before.

But if we mean, by the word peace, something more than an imposed restraint on military action, if we mean, perhaps, the creation of a political stable equalibrium, and the conviction on the parts of all involved parties that an even-handed solution to the underlying conflicts has been reached, then one begins to wonder if "peace" is at all possible in the Middle East.

Remember that this recent round of fighting is simply a continuation of fighting that has been going on since 1948. Remember that the fighting that began in 1948 is merely a continuation of the fighting that has been going on since around 1500 B.C.; indeed, the ancient accounts are shockingly similar to today's headlines: the same towns and countries are mentioned, armies move along the same roads.

For those who want to reduce all Middle Eastern conflict to the Israeli situation, remember that this part of the world has hosted nearly ceaseless conflict over the last fifteen centuries between Arab nations, between Islamic nations, even when there was no Jewish state present, even when the number of ethnic Jews living in the region was insignificant, and even when Europe and America didn't intervene in any way.

This part of the world is used to constant warfare as a way of life. They have fought for centuries. One wonders if any rational articulation of the reasons is at all still possible.

Thus it may be foolish to think that the United Nations, or the United States, can intervene with a "peace plan", and resolve the tensions and create a non-agressive co-existence.

Why has a reasonable and fair peace been possible in Europe following WWII? Europe has enjoyed sixty years of peace, interrupted only by the civil war as Yugoslavia disintegrated into six or seven separate nations. The periodic attacks by Soviet soldiers on unarmed civilians were not military wars, but massacres, and fall into a different category. Why the stability and peace in Europe, but not in the Middle East? For the answer, we must examine the underlying cultures and worldviews.

Tristan and Isolde

The ancient story, and recent film, about Tristan and Isolde is one well worth studying. This narrative has inspired poets, composers, and painters over the centuries, leaving us with many different versions of the same basic plot.

But don't be confused: this is not merely a love story. This is an account of the political upheavals caused by the fall of the Roman Empire, and of the beginnings of English national identity. The effort to unite a handful of independent tribes into what would become England, and the struggle between these collected tribes and the Irish, formed the geo-politics of Europe for several centuries. Understanding this story is understanding what England is, how it arose, and what the authentic English identity was prior to 1066. But 1066 is another story.