Monday, November 10, 2008

Regarding Obama

I often return to the perspective I got from reading Tim Leary... that the gene pool in her wisdom produces a variety of individuals to meet the needs of the species as a whole. Perhaps the species requires a large percentage of individuals who seek to cultivate stability, and a smaller percentage who explore and experiment at the edge. Or a large percentage of individuals who seek peace, and a smaller percentage itching to do battle when necessary. This would mean that different individuals can be driven by widely different perspectives... without anyone being "incorrect."

For instance, when I look at the life of Zen masters in the tradition I follow, they seem to be people of great drive, ambition, and energy. They were "empire builders." These aren't necessarily qualities that I personally aspire to, yet I realize that without these people with these qualities, the tradition would never have remained alive to reach me. Likewise with political animals. They may require outward-directed qualities that are necessary for the species to flourish... and allow the survival of more inner-directed individuals like myself.

I've heard it said that Obama is sincere about his desire to go beyond the us-vs-them dynamic that's split the country since the hippie-vs-establishment conflict of the 60s. Baby boomers (exemplified by Bush and the Clintons) may be forever caught in this mindset, but Obama speaks to a younger generation. (Obama's greatest margin was among under-30 voters; without his 2:1 advantage in this demographic, he would have lost Indiana and North Carolina.)

It's easy to cast Obama in the role of someone who straddles divisions. He's black, and he's white. He's an American, who spent years of his childhood abroad. He's a Christian, brought up by atheist/agnostic parents, he's lived in a Muslim culture, and appeals to secular humanists. He's a liberal, who surrounds himself with capitalist economic advisers. He's a macho basketball player, who can have the aura of an arugula-eating metrosexual.

No doubt that many on the Left want Obama to be the savior that leads their side to crush their enemies. As someone who hopes for less conflict in the world, I'd like to see him emerge instead as someone who can integrate the opposing sides.

9 comments:

Don said...

To me, Obama does come across as someone who'll disappoint the hard-line liberals (is that a contradiction of terms or what?) in his party - the ones you mentioned who wanted the opposition vanquished. Rather than swinging the pendulum to one side or the other, I think his administration will be noted for seeking a balance that stills the pendulum.

Aric said...

"No doubt that many on the Left want Obama to be the savior that leads their side to crush their enemies. As someone who hopes for less conflict in the world, I'd like to see him emerge instead as someone who can integrate the opposing sides."

I'm almost certain that is what he will do. I'll give you a couple of links to support my belief:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/choice2008/obama/harvard.html
Talking about Barak's position as president of the Harvard Law Review.

"Q: Some of the people who are not as happy as others, I think much to their surprise, are some of the African American people who believe that now it's their turn.

A: Absolutely right, absolutely right. I think Barack took 10 times as much grief from those on the left on the Review as from those of us on the right. And the reason was, I think there was an expectation among those editors on the left that he would affirmatively use the modest powers of his position to advance the cause, whatever that was. They thought, you know, finally there's an African American president of the Harvard Law Review; it's our turn, and he should aggressively use this position, and his authority and his bully pulpit to advance the political or philosophical causes that we all believe in.

And Barack was reluctant to do that. It's not that he was out of sympathy with their views, but his first and foremost goal, it always seemed to me, was to put out a first-rate publication. And he was not going to let politics or ideology get in the way of doing that. ..."

(Hat tip to this blog: http://daggatt.blogspot.com/2008/11/obamas-harvard-law-days.html)

Also via http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2008/11/not-perfect.html

Scroll down to the letter "To All SNS Members:"

Aric said...

Since we discussed Dawkins here before I'll comment on the Tim Leary idea. I haven't read any Leary, but Dawkins addressed this view in Selfish Gene.

Variations in a population do not exist for the benefit of the group. Let's say what's best for a group is 5% agitators, 95% peacemakers. We can start with that distribution, but what happens in the future is driven by the benefit/loss of each personality. If the agitators are in general rewarded more than the peacemakers then the number of agitators is going to increase. This could result in the whole society blowing up, or it could reach a stable ratio, say 10/90 and remain there (he calls this an "Evolutionarily Stable Strategy"). But that ratio is determined is not necessarily what is best for group. Dawkins uses mathematical game theory to illustrate this in what was for me a very interesting part of the book.

Stuart said...

Aric said...
I haven't read any Leary, but Dawkins addressed this view in Selfish Gene. Variations in a population do not exist for the benefit of the group.

Leary was a "soft" scientist (a prof of psychology) while Dawkins is more of a "hard" scientist. Leary's writings may well have been made still softer by his massive use of LSD.

In Leary's style, he's prone to anthropomorphizing "the gene pool," as if it were a conscious being that could have "wisdom." Then again, isn't Dawkins anthropomorphizing the "gene" by calling it "selfish"?

In either case, maybe it's just a teaching method, meaning that e.g. the gene functions as if it's selfish. After all, Buddha taught that there's no self. Viewing the gene or the gene pool as a self... is how thinking makes sense of things.

That is... our species couldn't survive if we were 100% peacemakers, nor as 100% agitators. (Just as our body couldn't survive if each cell acted the same way.) Through emergent processes (each individual following his/her/its own algorithm), a balance is reached. We now live in that dynamic balance, and in retrospect, it can seem like a higher wisdom controled the process.

As Aric suggests, when there are species/groups in which this balance isn't reached, the group doesn't survive. Members of the surviving group get to say, "Look at this wonderful balance... a wise power must have intended it to work out like this!" While the groups that disappear unfortunately don't get to vote.

Is it similar with our own bodies? We survive as bodies due to the emergent phenomena of our cells following their individual algorithms. The rational human mind thinks that it's an individual with the wisdom to run the show, but that may be a delusion.

In any case, a recent Newsweek article on "Why We Believe" made the point that threats to our ancestors were typically other beings (bears, tigers, etc). So it was an evolutionary advantage to be very sensitive to the presence of other beings. This leads to anthropomorphizing -- seeing animals in clouds, Jesus in a pancake, God in natural phenomena.

If the caveman failed to recognize a lion that was really there, it could mean death. But if he occasionally saw a lion in the stars that wasn't really there, the damage was minimal.

Likewise with how we perceive cause and effect. Our sensitivity to recognizing such patterns is vital, so we can learn that people who eat a certain berry end up dead. When this pattern-recognition goes overboard, making us believe that our dancing is causing it to rain... we end up dancing a bit too much, which is a mistake we can live with.

Doug said...

The oft repeated notion that the baby boomers somehow started the "us vs. them" mentality in politics back in their hippy days is typical of self-centeredness that so effectively stereotypes that generation. Bitter, divided politics has been around as long as civilization.

Look back to the founding of this nation. For chrissakes, Allen Burr, a sitting vice president from the nascent Anti-Federalist party shot and killed the former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist-in-chief. Thomas Jefferson pioneered the modern practice of character assassination, spreading false rumors about political opponents through his minions in the press. Half the states in the Union saw fit to renounce it over the issue of slavery (under the Democrat party's control I might add), and a Republican administration beat them back into place at a cost of more American lives than all our other wars combined.

Go back even further, in Britain - the Tories vs. the Whigs, the Wars of the Roses, all monarchs who fought and killed their own relations to gain the throne. Or the Greeks and Romans, replete with wonderfully murderous examples, both democratic and not. Or the Chinese Emperors and the Mandarins. The history of the Muslim world. Or the Africans, or the AmerIndian civilizations.

Mr. Obama might be a real civil chap, but at best I think he'll preside over some feel-good years if he proves to be as skillful as advertised (not to mention very lucky). At worst he'll be another Jimmy Carter. But for him to somehow eliminate the very notion of partisanship would require all the world to fall in lockstep with his ideas and actions. Considering that 46% of the popular vote went to his opponent, and that his voting record in both state and federal legislatures was something like 98% along party lines... well, you can color me a skeptic on the whole "post-partisan" thing.

Furthermore, it's not entirely clear to me that it would be a good thing to "integrate the opposing sides." The hallmark of a truly functional Democracy is the presence of a legitimate opposition, who have a real shot at assuming power in the event that the ruling party needs to be held to account. Without that you don't have democracy, you have anarchic mob rule or oligarchy, both of which lend themselves to excess and abuse.

The Republicans may have earned their banishment to the hinterlands of opposition politics, but that doesn't mean they should give up the ghost. Some of the ideas they stand for (in words at least, if not in actions) are worth fighting for.

Stuart said...

Doug said...
The Republicans may have earned their banishment to the hinterlands of opposition politics, but that doesn't mean they should give up the ghost. Some of the ideas they stand for (in words at least, if not in actions) are worth fighting for.

Didn't Bill Maher once say, "I'd be a Republican, if only the Republicans were"? Or maybe he said it about Christians.

Stuart said...

Doug said...
Furthermore, it's not entirely clear to me that it would be a good thing to "integrate the opposing sides." The hallmark of a truly functional Democracy is the presence of a legitimate opposition, who have a real shot at assuming power in the event that the ruling party needs to be held to account.

I was thinking more of a situation in which we reduce to a minimum those differences which are settled by a ruling party exercising its power. For instance, centuries ago, radical Catholics and radical Protestants each desired to impose their way on the whole society. People in the middle felt the need to join one side or the other, and the side that emerged strong enough to control State power would enforce its will. Then someone had the idea that both sides could be integrated into the same society, with State involvement limitted to keeping one side from forcing its will on the other.

The virtue of "conservatism" is that it's fundamentally a philosophy of "No, Don't, Stop it!" (appologies to George Will). When it comes to issues of force, I find this a good starting point.

In extreme cases, in which you have nearly-universal consensus that a behavior needs to be control, then State force is necessary. But the bar must be set high. I think there's sufficient agreement that the government must use force to punish or prevent stealing, killing, and lying.

There's wide consensus that the State should offer some safety net (e.g., not allowing people to starve to death or die of appendicitis due to poverty), with continuing debate over exactly where the line should be drawn. There's universal agreement that the government should enforce a Right to Life, with continuing debate over exactly how human "life" should be defined.

Still, I think this leaves vast areas of our lives in which the use of force can be reduced. In California, e.g., there's a battle between those who want the government to mandate one definition of marriage, and those who want the government to mandate a different definition. I hold out hope that we can eventually reach a system where different communities can define such things differently, with the contract enforceable only on those who freely choose to enter into it. And State involvement limitted to keeping either side from scaring the horses.

Thomas said...

Hi stu
I agree with this aspect, as you wrote:
"I'd like to see him emerge instead as someone who can integrate the opposing sides."
Tom from Philly

Stuart said...

Thanks for commenting, Tom. If you happen to be the same Tom from Philly whom I knew in the ashram as Atri... then it's great to hear from you, and happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.