Posts Tagged ‘cuba’

Internal Conflict: Obama, Bloomberg, Google - Whose Side Are You On?

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Exploring the idea of rightness and wrongness in intent and deed.

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama JFK John Kennedy Nikita Khrushchev politics negotiation weak intellectual election Berlin wall cuba bay of pigsNY Times Op-Ed contributers Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins serve up an interesting history of President JFK’s face-off with Nikita Khrushchev. If we accept their account, JFK fared poorly in the exchange because Khrushchev went on the offensive and handily routed the ill-prepared young president in their one-on-one meetings. Thrall and Wilkins indicate that it was during these meetings that Khrushchev formed a critical impression of JFK as an immature and weak leader, an impression that in part lead to his subsequent decisions to build the Berlin wall and establish a missile base in Cuba.

We’re being drawn to review this period of history because Obama has often quoted Kennedy’s view on negotiating with hostile powers, as expressed in his inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” The question being asked — if Obama, also young and arguably less tested than Kennedy, is so taken with Kennedy’s philosophy, would he make the same mistake?

Philosophy blog: gun control michael bloomberg nyc georgia wallace jay Mayor Michael Bloomberg will testify in court during the hearing of the city’s lawsuit against a Georgia gun-shop. The city claims that guns sold in the south too easily make their way into the hands of bad actors (no pun intended) who then use them to inflict harm in New York City. It’s clear from the story that this particular gun shop owner — Jay Wallace — isn’t prepared to give up without a fight and has fashioned his case quite cleverly to present himself as David against Bloomberg’s Goliath.

Philosophy blog: Eric Schmidt Google Yahoo advertising internet on-line revenue anti-trustAnd in the high stakes world of Internet search engines and on-line advertising (ten years ago, who would have thunk it?) Google is set to defend a proposed deal that would have Yahoo! license and use Google’s superior ad technology. (The backdrop being that Yahoo! has resisted Microsoft’s attempts to buy it — this deal with Google would add about $1 billion a year to Yahoo!’s coffers.) There are rumblings that Google’s deal with Yahoo! would be anti-competitive and fall foul of anti-trust legislation. Google claims to have found a way to fashion the deal so that it won’t. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not at all coincidentally, as a Google Ad Sense and Ad Words participant I just received an e-mail from Google telling me that they now place ads from qualified third-parties. Effectively, they’ve started to do for others what they propose that Yahoo! will do for them… Smart strategy for avoiding anti-trust accusations.)

These three stories present internal conflicts for me, and perhaps some intrinsic philosophical conflicts between ideals and reality.

I want to believe that John F. Kennedy was the better man, the better person, I believe he had more good intent that Khrushchev. But in the wiles and wills of international political maneuvering, Khrushchev had him beat hands down. I want to believe that Obama wouldn’t make the same mistake if he sat down with Kim Yung Il or Assad, but I realize that part of Obama’s charm is that he’s not cunning. (I do hope he’s smart enough and strong enough not to sit down until he’s sure that the right ground has been prepared.) I believe that Obama is a better person than Clinton or McCain; hence, my desire to believe he’s better able to run the country.
Philosophy blog: the death of socrates crito debt of cockI want to believe that Bloomberg is fighting the right fight against those who sell guns. I like Bloomberg. He seems to have all around good intentions. But in this situation, maybe he’s misjudged. Maybe Jay Wallace isn’t the right guy to go after, or maybe Jay Wallace is just better at crafting a sympathetic image.

And even though Google has become such an all-dominant behemoth, I can’t help having a soft spot for a company that has the motto — “Do no evil…” I’m rooting for them against the anti-trust watchdogs.

Sadly, life isn’t fair. Bad people do win.

His fellow Greeks trumped up charges against Socrates and he went on his way with a draught of hemlock. His dying words? “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” Now, show me a better man.

Conservative Versus Liberal Philosophy

Friday, March 28th, 2008

On cell phones for Cubans and bailouts for homeowners.

Philosophy blog: talking on cell phone whil crossing streetAs I walked through Manhattan this morning I watched as some buffoon on a cell phone began to cross the street just as the “don’t walk” sign blinked from flashing to solid. He didn’t realize that he was blocking traffic until he was half way across the street. With his phone still glued to his ear he first stopped in his tracks, then loped ahead to the far corner without so much as looking back.

Oh, to live in a world without cell phones! Even Cuba, my last hope of refuge from the cursed devices, has relented to the cell phone tide. Raul Castro — Raul The Reformer, we may as well call him — has declared that ordinary Cubans will be permitted to get cell phone contracts going forward (a privilege previously reserved for key state employees or workers for foreign firms). But since the cell phone contracts will be too expensive for most Cubans, who earn an average of a little less than $20 per month, perhaps it will take a while until cell phones cause traffic accidents in Havana.

Philosophy blog: Fidel and Raul Castro cell phones now allowed in cubaBut this snippet of communist party friction (Raul’s brother Fidel had held fast to the no cell phone policy for years) got me wondering about whether Raul should be classified as a liberal, allowing for progressive ideas, and Fidel a conservative. And if Fidel is a conservative how does that jive with him being one of the foremost and staunchest communist leaders of all time? Could Fidel Castro and his nemesis George Bush perhaps be sitting on the same side of an ideological fence? And if so, how?

As the current presidential hopefuls put forward their proposals (an odd phenomenon, this, since they’re just running for something, not running something) on fixing or mitigating the mortgage crisis, the stark differences in approach provide a lens through which to examine Democratic ideology versus Republican ideology.

Philosophy blog: liberals conservatives obama clinton mccain differ on bailout of homeownersThis is a subject that fascinates me. For there to be such a clear division along political lines on so many issues, it seems that the roots of these divisions must live in a fundamental philosophical difference of perspective.

With some differences Obama and Clinton endorse proposals that would provide help to homeowners facing forclosure. McCain (and Bush) oppose any plan for homeowner bailout.

To paraphrase the liberal perspective “let’s help people stand on their own two feet.”

To paraphrase the conservative perspective “let people stand on their own two feet.”

As ideologies, both are rational and consistent. Where and why do they differ?

McCain has made it clear that he believes that homeowners deserve some blame if they’ve bought themselves into an unaffordable mortgage. His perspective is founded on personal responsibility, the freedom to succeed comes with the freedom to screw up. You make your choice and live with it. This same perspective underpins the conservative view on all manner of subjects, such as gun ownership and the death penalty (by all means get a gun, but if you shoot someone you shouldn’t you’ll pay for it with your life).

The conservative philosophy rests on the concept that the individual should have more control over his life and that government should not meddle.

The liberal philosophy rests on the concept that for the good of society, and the good of the individual, government should be ready to step in and provide protection or support.

Obama believes that homeowners need protection from banks eager to foreclose to stem their loses, for instance. While some may get help when they don’t deserve it. Many unwitting victims will be spared. And on gun control, a liberal may say that having the right to bear arms is all well and good unless innocent people are getting hurt by that right.

Is this just a difference of perspective without any deeper significance? I think not.

philosophy blog: egyptian sphinx civilization human beings as social creaturesThe roots are evolutionary: As social animals, human beings developed an awareness that while acting for themselves could lead to short term gains, acting for the good of all could lead to long term gains. Sharing your food might make you less well fed in the short term, but when you’re short of food, you’ll be happy for someone to share his food with you.

This is all very rational and common sensical, but even thoughtful people in a well ordered society still feel the pull of self preservation and self-satisfaction. We all experience impulses that lead us to want to act for ourselves, and we all experience impulses that lead us to want to help others. Whether we come out liberal or conservative hinges on the degree to which we believe it’s right and feel the rightness of balancing our own needs with those of others.

(For those who are interested, LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive explores a deeper philosophical basis for this line of reasoning by working from the principles of space and time.)

But what about Fidel and Raul?

Fidel Castro exhibited a deep conflict between his personal feelings about individualism — in which he was a conservative (how could a man who led a revolution and took firm control of a country not be convinced of the power and independence of his individual spirit?) — and his intellectual conviction of the benefits of a collaborative, equalized society, communism after all is liberalism on steroids.

This is perhaps why so many of us have a soft spot for the old guy (Fidel) despite his serious flaws and failings, despite his human rights abuses. We empathize with his internal conflict. We see the numbskull stopping traffic while he gabs on his cell phone and we want him to be delivered a comeuppance not a helping hand. But presented with the intellectual idea of helping those who took on too much mortgage debt (numbskulls, most likely, some of them) we easily fall on the side of assistance.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

The Dangers of Power

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

On the origin and philosophy of power: Fidel Castro’s resignation, Bush’s comments on African genocide, and Jefferson’s internal torment:

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” - Thomas Jefferson

Fidel Castro resigns as President of Cuba brother Raul set to take overIn 1959, Fidel Castro seized power from the dictator Fulgencio Batista so that Cubans could live more freely. Forty-nine years later, having been in power ever since, Castro has finally resigned. “I will not aspire to neither will I accept — I repeat I will not aspire to neither will I accept — the position of President of the Council of State and Commander in chief,” he said in his letter of resignation. The repetition, one thinks, might have been an unnecessary emphasis for anyone but himself. After he’d kicked out Batista, Castro discovered that for a person who likes to lead, and believes himself possessed with the capacity to make good decisions, it’s easier to assume control than to let it go.

Self-awareness provides the only anti-dote to despotism, and it needs to be administered in doses proportional to the power being assumed.

President Bush has been an avid critic of Castro’s and yet Bush himself has assumed ever-more dubious, overreaching powers, relishing his self-portrayal as “the decider.” In Rwanda today, Bush leveled a general criticism at the United Nations for its glacial responsiveness to humanitarian crises. But this was simply a convenient way to set into greater relief his boast of being a fast-acting and independent problem-solver. If Bush had a fraction of Castro’s sense of conviction and vigor, he would have been an even more dangerous and destructive force in the world than he has been. And that’s a sobering thought.

Thomas Jefferson - signing of the Louisiana purchaseAs president, Thomas Jefferson, an ardent critic of the abuse of power by central government, nevertheless found himself making autocratic decisions (the Louisiana purchase, for instance). Jefferson recognized his hypocrisy, understood the ramifications of his actions, but still did what he thought was wisest in the long term, even if it went against his principles of good government in the short term.

Evolution has developed in social species the desire for power and the desire to maintain power. On a biological level, power equates to the survival of one’s genetic code. If we cede power, our genes will soon lose out to more competitive genes. Evolution, therefore, rewards competitiveness.  Ghengis Kahn, for instance, while not a pleasant man, weilded considerable power and through brutal means assured that his genes would be passed on to future generations.

But this kind of social power, on a biological level, relates directly only to influence for the purposes of procreating. But in human beings the desire for power transfers itself to all kinds of conscious and subconscious activity. Unless we consciously moderate our desire for power through self-awareness, we will attempt to exert power indiscriminately.

Fidel Castro President of Cuba resignsThis leads us to be blind to our own flaws and to overestimate our own capabilities.

Castro wasn’t the worst leader Cuba could have had for the past half-century, but he wasn’t the best one either. The persistence and self-belief necessary to make a successful freedom fighter may well have been his achilles heel when it came to leading his country. And, as for Bush, he proves that even a very small aptitude and desire to lead can become hypertrophied given enough power.

For a rational, science-based explanation of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

P.S.: A couple of months ago, I wrote a song inspired by the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul - You can listen to “This Is Our Country” at www.myspace.com/martingwalker and purchase a download copy for just 99 cents from the SnoCap store on this page.

Here are the lyrics…

Raul, brother dear, don’t let me down
Take our country now and lead it to your fullest
Remember, Raul, how we turned out Batista

Oh, the green dawns, oh the midnight raids
We have borne the weight of the revolution
Remember, Raul, these are your people

In Biran, where the cane stands tall and strong
Along the river righting every wrong
This is our country, this is our time

Raul, my brother, do not mourn me
Mourn your Espin, but do not cry for me
Remember, Raul, I am immortal

They could not kill me then and not now either
We have borne the weight of the revolution
This is our country, this is our time

Cuba, Freedom (and freedom)

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

In the third installment of Erroll Morris’s fascinating essay on the history and historical veracity of two photographs taken during the Crimean war, we find this wonderful quote from one of Morris’s interlocutors — “Certainly the more information we get, the higher the level of ignorance seems to be.” I couldn’t agree more. Beyond a certain point, the amount of information available to us becomes overwhelming. We cease to be able to discern what’s imporant.

Fidel and Raul CastroIt’s for this reason that I have a certain nostalgia for the idea of Cuba. I’ve never been there, but it seems that along with his willful limitation of personal and political freedoms Fidel has kept Cuba constrained in a bubble of simplicity. People have less to process. Life takes on an easier pace. People appreciate what they have all the more for what they don’t have. Now that Castro’s rein seems close to an end, and his brother Raul seems set to pick up where Fidel left off, but not exactly, we look on and wonder whether the bubble will burst.

My daughter has been writing a High School paper on whether and how the ideals of the enlightenment have been upheld or betrayed in Cuba over the past thirty years. It’s been fairly straightforward for her to research and list the various freedoms that have been withheld from the Cuban people. But it got me wondering about freedom. I asked her if the history teacher had assigned anyone the task of writing the same essay about the United States. He hadn’t.

Which of the ideals of the enlightenment have been upheld or betrayed in this country over the past thirty years? United States citizens and permanent residents (such as myself) do have certain important rights and freedoms (some of them that squeaked in quite close to that 30 year boundary!!) but in certain important and insidious ways I believe our freedoms are restricted.

If we sit back and think about how the forces of government and economics shape and constrain our lives, we start to feel somewhat less free. We elect a government, but the political parties are increasingly constrained by the forces of economics and political exigency… which are in turn constrained by economics. And we get to choose what we do with our lives, but unless those choices fall into some pretty neat buckets we’re going to have a hard time of it.

I’m not defending Castro’s abuses. But I’m just trying to get to the heart of the idea of freedom. Isn’t a large part of freedom the feeling of ease that one gets when one doesn’t feel beseiged? And in America today aren’t we beseiged by information, by images and expectations, by fears and constraints?

(And I’m not even touching on the encroachments on the right to privacy and right to liberty and right to fair treatment meted out by the Bush administration. Ironic for Bush to lecture Cuba on freedoms. But that’s another story.)

I watched The Age of Innocence last weekend — Martin Scorcese’s rendering of Edith Wharton’s novel of the constraining customs of New York society. As one character points out, she had thought that people came to New York to escape the restrictions of European society, and is surprised to find out that the restrictions, if anything, are subtler but more pronounced.

To sum it up, perhaps, the kind of freedom I’m talking about is that enjoyed at its fullest by the young child who knows nothing of expectations or correctness or obligation. It’s the freedom to take off all your clothes and play with your toy trains while the world around you teeters on in fear and uncertainty.