democracy

On The Better Angels of our Nature

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined – by Steven Pinker.

Below are excerpts from this book that I found particularly insightful:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history…No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes. Brutal killings and punishments were also documented among the Israelites, Greeks, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks. Indeed, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished victimless crimes with torture and mutilation.

He then outlined his three conditions for perpetual peace. The first is that states should be democratic. Kant himself preferred the term republican, because he associated the word democracy with mob rule; what he had in mind was a government dedicated to freedom, equality, and the rule of law…Kant’s second condition for perpetual peace was that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States”—a “League of Nations,” as he also called it…The third condition for perpetual peace is “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.”

An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.

The vulnerability to civil war of countries in which control of the government is a winner-take-all jackpot is multiplied when the government controls windfalls like oil, gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals. Far from being a blessing, these bonanzas create the so-called resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty and fool’s gold. Countries with an abundance of nonrenewable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier governments, and more violence.

Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition…Another causal pathway is an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself.

Dangerous ideologies erupt when these faculties fall into toxic combinations. Someone theorizes that infinite good can be attained by eliminating a demonized or dehumanized group. A kernel of like-minded believers spreads the idea by punishing disbelievers. Clusters of people are swayed or intimidated into endorsing it. Skeptics are silenced or isolated. Self-serving rationalizations allow people to carry out the scheme against what should be their better judgment.

On a closing note:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

A highly recommended read in the areas of sociology and psychology.

On Churchill

I recently finished reading Churchill – A Study In Greatness – by Geoffrey Best.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “Churchill did not see himself as an ‘enemy of the people’. He perceived himself as a benevolent friend to the working class, a promoter of social welfare, and the protector of unions’ rights and of everybody’s civil rights; and indeed the record shows that he was all those things. But the record also shows how little he was prepared to see everybody’s civil rights and the security of the state endangered by civil disorder and revolutionary activism. The legend of ‘Tonypandy’ after all had some justice in it, though for the wrong reason. ”

2- “Churchill’s words – ‘Those terrible “ifs” accumulate’ – are only too true. There were numbers of moments when, if events had taken another turn, if advice had been accepted or rejected, or if decisions had been made instead of shelved. history would have been written altogether differently. But one of the most Striking features of the many accounts of the campaign is that each authority seems to choose his own turning-points, and hardly any two are the same.”

3- “Two of his deep-down passions and principles were, first, the rule of law as protector of civil and religious liberty, and of the standards of civilisation; and, secondly, the place and prestige in the world of Great Britain and its Empire, as necessary both for the security of the English-speaking people and for the welfare of its other subjects. In the gap which sometimes opened between them may be glimpsed, not at all surprisingly, prejudices and assumptions which he shared with other men of his age, race, nation and class.”

4- “Men who take up arms against the State must expect at any moment to be fired upon … Men who take up arms unlawfully cannot expect that the troops will wait until they are quite ready to begin the conflict … Armed men are in a category absolutely different from unarmed men … I carefully said that when I used the word ‘armed’ I meant armed with lethal weapons or with firearms This crowd was unarmed. These are simple tests which it is not too much to expect officers in these difficult situations to apply.”

5- “He still held to the belief that he was destined to do great things for the nation he loved, but when, if or how he would ever be able to do them seemed doubtful even to him. War was what especially excited him and brought out what was most original and powerful within him. Aware of the dangers of such a temperament, he was not the bad sort of man who would wish to start a war in order to shine in it, but his early scepticism about the Treaty of Versailles had been borne out by subsequent events. and by now, the early 1930s, he felt more and more sure that what was still universally known as the Great War would sooner or later become called the First World War.”

6- “He was the first British statesman of any note to identify, and to call public attention to, the dangerous twist given to German national aspirations p (which he well understood) by their confluence from 1933 with Nazi ideology and Hitler’s leadership. He correctly sensed before evidence had accumulated to support the charge, how dangerous to the peace of the world Germany would become in Hitler’s hands.”

7- “Churchill was the most prominent of the few leaders of British opinion who refused to believe that this policy of appeasement, once the British government had unmistakably adopted it, was either honourable or sensible. He understood what Hitler meant by the Versailles grievances but something, probably just brilliant intuition, told him that Hitler had much more in mind than the mere redress of them.”

8- “Churchill was not the man to let this great machine run without constant inspection and interference. His style of management was striking and peculiar, the most remarkable no doubt of any Prime Minister’s, and although it undoubtedly had abrasive and time-wasting aspects, overall and in the long run it did much more good than harm.”

9- “War is a constant struggle and must be waged from day to day. It is only with some difficulty and within limits that provision can be made for the future. Experience shows that forecasts are usually falsified and preparations always in arrears. Nevertheless, there must be a design and theme for bringing the war to a victorious end in a reasonable period…”

10- “An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind … Surely it is vital now to come to an understanding with Russia, or see where we are with her, before we weaken our armies mortally or retire to the zones of occupation.”

11- “As we go forward on our difficult road, we shall always be guided by two main aims of policy. One is to lose no opportunity of convincing the Soviet leaders and, if we can reach them, the Russian people, that the democracies of the West have no aggressive designs on them. The other is to ensure that until that purpose has been achieved we have the strength necessary to deter any aggression by them and to ward it off if it should come. We shall continue at the same time to seek by every means open to us an easement [detente] in international tension and a sure foundation on which the people of the world can live their lives in security and peace.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Churchill

On Profiles In Courage

I recently read Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy.

The central theme of the book is: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues -courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined It. And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles. A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today —and in fact we have forgotten.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “I am not so sure, after nearly ten years of living and working in the midst of “successful democratic politicians,” that they are all insecure and intimidated men.” I am convinced that the complication of public business and the competition for the public’s attention have obscured innumerable acts of political courage—large and small—performed almost daily in the Senate Chamber. I am convinced that the decline— if there has been a decline—has been less in the Senate than he public’s appreciation of the art of politics, of the nature of the Senate as a legislative chamber. And, finally I am convinced that we have criticized those who have followed the crowd—and at the same time criticized those who have defied it—because we have not fully understood the responsibility of a Senator to his constituents or recognized the difficulty facing a politician conscientiously desiring, in Webster’s words, “to push [his] skiff from the shore alone” into a hostile and turbulent sea. Perhaps if the American people more fully comprehended the terrible pressures which discourage acts of political courage, which drive a Senator to abandon or subdue his conscience, then they might be less critical of those who take the easier road—and more appreciative of those still able to follow the path of courage.”

2- “Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all— including his own career—for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest—within the limitations of the law—in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice t their private interests t( permit the national good to progress. In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige and his chosen career on a single issue.”

3- “Fortunately or unfortunately, few follow that urge—but the provocation is there—not only from unreasonable letters and impossible requests, but also from hopelessly inconsistent demands and endlessly unsatisfied grievances.”

4- “Great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage. This country has known no greater crisis than that which culminated in the fratricidal war between North and South in 1861. Thus, without intending to slight other periods of American history, no work of this nature could overlook three acts of outstanding political courage—of vital importance to the eventual maintenance of the Union—which occurred in the fateful decade before the Civil War. In two cases—involving Senators Sam Houston of Texas and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, both of whom had enjoyed political dominion in their states for many years— defeat was their reward. In the third—that involving Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—even death, which came within two years of his great decision, did not halt the calumnies heaped upon him by his enemies who had sadly embittered his last days.”

5- “Webster had written his own epitaph: I shall stand by the Union … with absolute disregard of personal consequences. What are personal consequences … in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country in a crisis like this? … Let the consequences be what they will, I am careless. No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of his country.”

6- “Lamar: If [a Senator] allows himself to be governed by the opinions of his friends at home, however devoted he may be to them or they to him, he throws away all die rich results of a previous preparation and study, and simply becomes a commonplace exponent of those popular sentiments which may change in a few days. . . . Such a course will dwarf any man’s statesmanship and his vote would be simply considered as an echo of current opinion, not the result of mature deliberations.”

7- “Lamar: The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.”

8- “George Norris: It happens very often that one tries to do something and fails. He feels discouraged, and yet he may discover years afterward that the very effort he made was the reason why somebody else took it up and succeeded. I really believe that whatever use I have been to progressive civilization has been accomplished in the things I failed to do rather than in the things I actually did do.”

9- “Columnist: The fact that thousands disagree with him, and that it is politically embarrassing to other Republicans, probably did not bother Taft at all. He has for years been accustomed to making up his mind, regardless of whether it hurts him or anyone else. Taft surely must have known that his remarks would be twisted and misconstrued and that his timing would raise the devil in the current campaign. But it is characteristic of him that he went ahead anyway.”

10- “This has been a book about courage and politics. Politics furnished the situations, courage provided the theme. Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all—but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics. For not a single one of the men whose stories appear in the preceding pages offers a simple, clear-cut picture of motivation and accomplishment. In each of them complexities, inconsistencies and doubts arise to plague us. However detailed may have been our study of his life, each man remains something of an enigma. He However clear the effect of his courage, the cause is shadowed by a veil which cannot be torn away. We may confidently state the reasons why—yet something always seems to elude us. We think we hold die answer in our hands—^yet somehow it slips through our fingers.”

11- “Of course, the acts of courage described in this book: would be more inspiring and would shine more with the tradition. luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot wholly about himself in his dedication to higher principles. But it may be that President John Adams, surely as disinterested as well as wise a public servant as we ever had, came much nearer to the truth when he wrote in his Defense of ^the Constitutions of the United States: “It is not true, in fact, that any people ever existed who love the public better than themselves.””

12- “John C. Calhoun: I never know what South Carolina thinks of a measure. I never consult her. I act to the best of my judgment and according to my conscience. If she approves, well a and good. If she does not and wishes anyone to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.”

13- “These stories are the stories of such a democracy. Indeed, there would be no such stories had this nation not,t maintained its heritage of free speech and dissent, had it not fostered honest conflicts of opinion, had it not encouraged tolerance for unpopular views. Cynics may point to our inability to provide a happy ending for each chapter. But I am certain that these stories will not be looked upon as warnings to beware of being courageous. For the continued political success of many of those who withstood the pressures of public opinion, and the ultimate vindication of the rest, enables us to maintain our faith in the long-run judgment of the people.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Profiles In Courage

On The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr

I recently finished reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Cars.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one-tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines—obey no Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flout the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot.t buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.”

2- “Above all, I see the preaching ministry as a dual process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocate of the social gospel.”

3- “Admittedly, nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient at the moment; nonviolence is ultimately a way of life that men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim. But even granting this, the willingness to use nonviolence as a technique is a step forward. For he who goes this far is more likely to adopt nonviolence later as a way of life.”

4- “Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. Freedom is never given to anybody. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.”

5- “I am often reminded of the statement made by Nkrumah: “I prefer self-government with danger to servitude with tranquility.” I think that’s a great statement. They were willing to face the dangers and difficulties, but I thought that Ghana would be able to profit by the mistakes of other nations that had existed over so many years and develop into a great nation.”

6- “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ”Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.””

7- “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically. economically, and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”

8- “The reason I can’t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everybody blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion.”

9- “Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.”

10- “We were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick simulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views. This may explain the cascading grief that flooded the country in late November. We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.”

11- “I think there is a lesson that we can all learn from this: that violence is impractical and that now, more than ever before, we must pursue the course of nonviolence to achieve a reign of justice and a rule of love in our society, and that hatred and violence must be cast into the unending limbo if we are to survive.”

12- “We also come here today to affirm that we will no longer sit idly by in agonizing deprivation and wait on others to provide “our freedom We will be sadly mistaken if we think freedom is some lavish dish that the federal government and the white man will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.”

13- “Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

14- “Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. If every Negro in the United States turns to violence, 1 will choose to be that one lone voice preaching that this is the wrong way…I cannot make myself believe that God wanted me to hate. I’m tired of violence, I’ve seen too much of it. I’ve seen such hate on the faces of too many sheriffs in the South. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. Our oppressors have used violence. Our oppressors have used hatred. Our oppressors have used rifles and guns. I’m not going to stoop down to their level. I want to rise to a higher level. We have a power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Martin Luther King, Jr

On The Closing of The American Mind

I just finished reading The Closing of The American Mind by Allan Bloom. As the author best puts it this is a book on “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students”. This book offers a thorough historical lesson of our education echo-system and how it came to where it currently is.

Allan structure the book into three main sections. Students, where he describes the current state of students – particularly those getting ready to enroll in university – the books they read, the music they listen to and the relationships they engage in. The second section is “Nihilism, American Style” where the author discusses current culture (or lack there of), values and creativity to name a few themes. There is a strong focus in that section on Continental Europe and its thinkers –  and their influence on America. The last and final section “The University”  discusses the current role of this education centerpiece, and the back-warding it has gone through in terms of achieving its mission. Allan calls for a “revolution” of its role and a reversion to the roots of embracing classical liberal art and the early work of the Greek Philosophers.

A unique piece of literary work – based on years of research and experience from an educator. If one was to read one book on the evolution of education, this would definitely be a top contender. One that would make you think, and reconsider your views. The only criticism I have is with regards to the structure of the book which is sometimes hard to follow. That being said, the author does a good job of recapping the main point towards the end. To that effect it may be wise to re-read the book at a later point again, given the global understanding acquired from the first reading.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the souls of the young accounts for the difference between the students I knew at the beginning of my teaching career and those I face now. The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind’s eye that permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the assistance of literature in the grand style.”

2- “Thus, the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.”

3- “Values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them, to find the truth or the good life.”

4- “Good and evil are what made it possible for men to live and act. The character of their judgments of good and evil shows what they are.”

5- “Since values are not rational and not grounded in the natures of those subject to them, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect. Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values. .. Commitment values the values and makes them valuable. Not love of truth but intellectual honesty characterizes the proper state of mind. Since there is no truth in the values, and what truth there is about life is not lovable, the hallmark of the authentic self is consulting one’s oracle while facing up to what one is and what one experiences. Decisions, not deliberations, are the movers of deed. One cannot know or plan the future. One must will it.”

6- “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear. That is what tragic literature is about. It articulates all the noble things men want and perhaps need and shows how unbearable it is when it appears that they cannot coexist harmoniously. ”

7- “Many will say that my reports of the decisive influence of Continental, particularly German, philosophy on us are false or exaggerated and that, even if it were true that all this language comes from the source to which I attribute it, language does not have such effects. But the language is all around us. Its sources are also undeniable, as is the thought that produced the language.  We know how the language was popularized.”

8- “Men (in democracies) are actually on their own in comparison to what they were in other regimes and with respect to the usual sources of opinion. This promotes a measure of reason. However, since very few people school themselves in the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest encouraged by the regime, they need help on a vast number of issues – in fact, all issues, inasmuch as everything is opened up to fresh and independent judgement – for the consideration of which they have neither time nor capacity. Even the self-interest about which they calculate- the end – may become doubtful. Some kind of authority is often necessary for most men and is necessary, at least sometimes, for all men. In the absence of anything else to which to turn, the common beliefs of most men are almost always what will determine judgement. This is just where tradition used to be most valuable. ..tradition does provide a counterpoise to and a repair from the merely current, and contains the petrified remains of old wisdom.”

9- “To sum up, there is one simple rule for the university’s activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences tahat are available in democratic society. They will have them in any events.”

10- “It turned out that natural science had nothing to say about human things, about the uses of science for life or about the scientist. When a poet writes about a poet, he does so as a poet. When a scientist talks about scientists, he does not do so as a scientist. It he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science.”

11- “What happened to the universities in Germany in the thirties is what has happened and is happening everywhere. The essence of it all is not social, political, psychological or economic, but philosophic. And, for those who wish to see, contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task. This is properly an academic task.”

12- “And one cannot jump on and off the tradition like a train. Once broken, our link with it is hard to renew. The instinctive heads of scholars, are list.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind