Language In Our Lives

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Category: The Language We Use

Getting Political

Where I come from:

Since I was first introduced to the violence in Syria I have called for intervention. I raised the question to my friends who disagreed, “how many people need to die before America steps in?” I told anyone who felt strongly against intervention that, “The survivors will always remember that we did nothing.” These are common points made to sway the hearts of men and women, and say that the immediate tactical situation is less important than humane ideals.

Where America comes from:

Where does America’s legitimacy to intervene originate? Some answers include from international law and norms, or by the request of many Syrians. But legitimacy starts at home. If we were a monarchy, no such legitimacy could exist for an unrepresentative authoritarian to put people in the armed services. America’s legitimacy comes from it’s republicanism.

What needs to be done:

President Barack Obama should very quickly work with Congress to put forward a reasonable war-making declaration. Any actions taken out of a desire to support high ideals needs to be done through the committed process of our nation’s founding ideals.

And this has to do with language?

The representatives of our government talk about our ideals and principles a lot. There are many to talk about, to recall in times of stress, and to use as rallying calls for a great output of American skill, knowledge, and execution. Our engagement to prevent further mass exterminations, or horrific lack thereof, will reshape the landscape of our vocabulary. It should.

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History

History is our interpretation of past thoughts that happened to be written down or otherwise preserved. We do not really study [historical] causes, but what people at the time thought were the causes. And our aim in retrieving their thoughts is not so much to explain how things happened as to understand how they seemed to have happened. – Niall Ferguson

I could have begun this post with a quote from any historian I liked, instead I chose one of the better quotes from a historian I dislike. Ferguson will be one side of a debate.

Why am I writing about history this week? It is always on my mind. Importantly, I am wondering whether a background in history could benefit American politics, the crisis in Egypt, the stalemated negotiations between Israel and Palestine, the backward slide of Russia liberty, the changes in Chinese economic output and social reform, the increase in military buildup in Japan, the possible detente of Middle East powers versus the Iranian sphere of influence, the nightmare reality of North Korea, and on and on.

A preliminary question: Is history multi-sided, or is there one narrative for the human species? Was Giambattista Vico correct when he wrote:

The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it (emphasis added). Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.

This seems to be a negation of the 1st quote I placed by Ferguson. Vico does not believe the thoughts of the people during a historical (series of) event(s) truly mattered. Instead it is the actual product, the result, that is true.

Looking at current events in Egypt, is it fair to say the mindset of the peoples there matter less than, as Israeli military officials are keen of saying, “the facts on the ground?” Ultimately different groups of people are hoping to make their desires true, to make them a reality, so while those ‘dreams’ are not fulfilled, they are irrelevant to history. This seems categorically false, especially when discussing the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought for decades for a place in Egyptian society, only to gain power and within a year lose it and face repression all over again.

The Egyptian military never succumbed to the Brotherhood. It let Morsi work on a leash, and then cut his chain and hid him from the public. The expression of the people via a democratic vote occurred but the Brotherhood never had ultimate authority.  Maybe Vico was on to something.

Ferguson is one of today’s best historians, and I give him credit for his analysis of why context, here meaning the mindset of people within history, is important. It gives greater understanding, and allows us to see what similar issues were at the core of debates and conflict last year, last decade, last century and beyond, that still mingle in our global lives everyday.

At the time, Vico was more reserved on judging other cultures than Ferguson may be today. For instance:

It’s all very well for us to sit here in the West with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it’s immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don’t rule it out.

I agree with this Ferguson statement, with heavier emphasis on “then don’t rule it out” than Ferguson, still much to the dismay of my liberal friends, and much to the delight of my Bush II-era conservative friends (Note: Odd, isn’t it, for many of us to still think in the language of the Bush administration, now 5 years later). But Vico believed that civilizations develop independently from one another, and cross comparisons were almost irrelevant, because their histories were so different. This, at the high period of colonial activity.

Here the question is put to us again: is there one narrative, or many, to history? A realist may quip, “history is written by the victors.” That is either short-sighted, or a comment on a portion of history that is too large, where any claim can be made to fit. And history is not written by the victors, after all, wasn’t Jesus slain? Where did the Romans go? Christianity rose from the grave of Jesus to be the dominant religion in Europe. Or what about the books by Chinua Achebe? Certainly his stories of African history survive beyond those cultures, and exist in English, French, and African history. History then is written by writers, by the faithful, by the thoughtful. I fear I’m back at Ferguson.

Leaving this post saying, “history is too large a topic to cover” won’t happen. I am not trying to grasp history, but the word history. What does the word mean for us?

Politically, not enough. Socially, it balances out. While the Congress in the United States seems to lack 1 historian, the country was fortunate to have a historian in charge at The Federal Reserve during the biggest crisis of a generation.  A look at US history shows that our society is generally trending upward, learning from the mistakes of the past and becoming a better country for it. History means knowing how to treat other citizens properly, it means acknowledging peoples’ heritages, and common goals. History in America is an affirmation of our differences, and what brings up together.

Around the world, including in the United States, history is often used by groups to justify their positions or actions. Too often their ‘history’ is more so a story than reality. Stories and lies have powerful sway over people.

Perhaps using the lenses of history on current events is not as useful as I thought. Too much needs to be assumed. This is a valuable lesson. No matter the prescription of the lenses, where everything is seen clearly, current events are not best understood through understanding history. No event in history duplicates itself in our current events. The lessons of history are at best signposts, saying, “one once did this here.” It is another issue entirely where to go once you see the sign.

Genius

“De rerum natura” – On the nature of things.

In the centuries before the Common Era, little was known about the natural world. Myths regarding creation and the gods, or god, were inescapable. But men like Democritus believed that everything was made of atoms in motion. His life predates the ability to use electronics and lens to see atoms by more than 2,300 years.

Epicurus, a man whose name is a curse in modern Judaism, meaning heretic, believed only in the natural world, and his schools thrived before almost entirely fading in to unremembered history in 300 AD. Such thinkers, for they were hardly scientists by modern definition, were geniuses of their times.

Is Genius merely the ability to understand concepts hereto unknown, or is it a trick of chemicals in the brain, perhaps a heavier brain with more surface area for connections to be made? Maybe yes, but an answer like that is unsatisfying, because it is insincere to put the skills of individuals down to mere fatalism of chemistry, as if Albert Einstein had no choice but to deliver the general theory of relativity to the 20th century.

During the ancient world, in Greece, the term genius was not attached to the individual. The genius was a spirit that came to the individual and delivered through the medium of the person a great work of art or knowledge. I am sure to be oversimplifying it. But genius, even back then, was illusory. It must not have made sense to credit the individual with great ability, when that person could neither demonstrate genius 100% of the time, on all subjects, and conversely could look quite uninformed about subjects never studied previously. Better, surely, to credit a spirit, than give a man an ego too big for his chest.

In current American culture, genius has a few various portrayals. There is the socially-awkward genius, who never plays basketball, kisses a girl, or plays video games. This genius is faulty in everything else but their one gift. Then there is the sick-genius, the “retarded” individual who can calculate the speed of light in his head, and determine new patterns for searching the heavens for black holes. This depiction is rude for many reasons, and it is enough to point it out, without delving deeper. Then there is the idealized genius of everything, from social settings, to mathematics, almost like Tony Stark from the Ironman comic and movies. None of these are accurate. Just this week I saw a Facebook post/article stating that if the news were to claim there is a real life Batman character, it would surely be billionaire, PayPal/Tesla/SpaceEx brilliant millionaire Elon Musk. Okay. Now the latest of American genius stories is that of Steve Jobs. I will come to him in a moment.

Of those three achievements, it is PayPal which has had the greatest impact on people. Tesla is a far second, and while SpaceEx is by far the most extraordinary, it is not at the point where it has critically changed the face of this world (though when it helps change the face of other planets, then I will rank it #1). Genius should be measured on its impact to the rest of the world. There was once a priest in France who kept his community under heavy Catholic rule. Upon his death in the late 18th century, rummaging through his desk people found an entire discourse on the refutation of the Catholic Church,  and of religion, and god. Imagine this: instead of papers on Atheism, the Priest instead had written a discourse on medicine, but kept his findings hidden away, and taught alternative medicine to those people in his care. Now you may not consider Atheism genius, I do not either, but my reasoning on Atheism is not the subject. The point here is that anything powerful enough to change the lives of the masses is deserving of strong language. I do not like genius to be an unapproachable “title.” Nor do I want the word to be used inappropriately. Steve Jobs may be the most recent recipient of the title, in much an undeserving manner. The iPhone and the iPad, were all previously thought of ideas. Marketing Guru? That’s a title I would give the good man. Here is a scene from Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

Samsung is even using the movie and book as evidence in their patent war against Apple, stating that Apple was not the original founder of the concept, therefore Apple cannot sue Samsung to prevent their own line of tablets. I can go through more, but let me rest on this point, and return to the real one: Genius is a difficult term to place.

I tend to credit great thinkers with the title, and engineers too. But artists surely are deserving, even in these post-post-modern, post-structuralist times (huh?), of such titles. Where does the line start for genius? Are drug companies hiring geniuses to find the cure for cancer, or are the solutions to cancer a genius fix from the works of intelligent, well-meaning, driven, but ordinary, people?

Should we strive for genius? That is, should we strive for perfection, for being #1? I will not say no, nor yes. This is an individual’s question. But there is always someone, somewhere, to say to you, like in the Michael Jordan commercial, “anything you can do, I can do better.”

That is good. Our smart, most able people are competing to be leaders in progress. This does not require genius. Like any competition, the continuous back-and-forth brings about new additions to the world. But genius, like the mind that thought of communication satellites, transistors, and the like, not only partake in the competition, they frequently revolutionize their fields for a generation, and set the field which the rest of us compete. So now we see genius is not subject to brain chemistry alone. The field of competition sets the stage for the brightest stars to shine, and a far distant point for the competitors to strive for and ultimately surpass, if possible.

Privacy

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. – The 4th Amendment.

To some the 4th Amendment in the Bill of Rights is the beginning of any conversation within the United States about privacy. I should not need to state the obvious that the word privacy was not included in this amendment. Nevertheless, many judges have assumed the right to privacy from this and other amendments.

Let us not approach this topic from an overly legalistic starting point. I rather begin by saying, “I have something to hide.” That is right. I have a lot to hide, including but not limited to my immediate thoughts, developed opinions, the way I handle people and their input, and actions taken in my past that I would be ashamed of admitting to in the public. I am a human being.

Privacy is what protects me, and allows me to present myself as the good individual I aspire to be. Losing my privacy would be like losing my credit. It would impede me on my way to reach the goals I have given myself.

Maybe this is an overstatement. Honesty is paramount, and all honest people can readily admit their faults and be applauded for their self-awareness. Whoever said, “the truth shall set you free” said a phrase that means more than we think. The truth sets people free not because you can now be called an honest person, or be said to have good credit. You are set free because upon admitting your faults, you will see those faults in others. Others too may readily admit their faults, and the ground beneath all of us levels out.

Privacy is what levels out the ground then. It is credit. Maybe it is more. The 4th Amendment after all had nothing to do with interpersonal settings. The purpose was to codify in writing where the limits of government authority stops (in the United States). This is important, and more so now that the United States is again in debate about the reach of government surveillance.

Why worry about government surveillance? After all, there is no secret police in the United States (to the best of my knowledge). Does the 4th Amendment apply to surveillance? This strays to the legal realm, and I am not a lawyer. We know for the most part that our rights are secured by the quality of our democratic/republican ethos, even if in practice our rights are technically broached everyday. Satellites fly over our heads, private companies map our homes from the outside, white pages publishes our information online for everyone to see.

Technology has not outpaced language. Privacy may be an outdated term, but it is not irrelevant. That is, primarily, because those things we wish to hide that would have discarded us of our credit, are slowly losing their powers to do so. My actions toward one end may be viewed entirely apart from other actions in the pursuit of an entirely different goal. Whatever I believe in as the origins of human life or the cosmos, or whoever I vote for in elections, or even who rests on the other side of my bed, is slowly becoming irrelevant to the strengths of good deeds I can perform. This is an heartening thought. One must not now cower for fear of shaming when standing up for what is right. One look at Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the greatest moral crusader in this country, and not care he was also a man who cheated on his wife. His great moral deeds did not extend to every aspect of his life for every hour that he lived.

Privacy, at that point, was a shield. It protected the message of Dr. King from tarnish by actions that could have cost him dearly on his push to make the Kennedy and Johnson administrations take up the civil rights mantle. The fact that communists worked with the great Dr. King, to teach people how to dissent peacefully and force the issue before the public, was a necessary secret.

Today a moral crusader can use technology to his or her advantage. Society is also more forgiving of personal indiscretion, especially from people who otherwise perform good deeds.

That does not apply to me because I am not a moral crusader nor political activist. My privacy need not be viewed in such a large scope. I choose to pull the shades down when I dress. I keep quiet about things I do not think others need know. I remove tags of myself from Facebook on photos that do not portray me the way I want to portray myself. This is me. this is my privacy. Your privacy is your own.

Privacy has never been a universal term. It will never be one. Context is too necessary. Privacy is still a means of retaining credit, but that currency has fallen. I would “short” this aspect of privacy, in the jargon of Wall Street. I would go “long” the other side of privacy. Public honesty and consistency in ethics, and/or consistency in action, dissuades people from digging – or caring – about the things we do not make public. Our public personas are what protect our privacy. The single unfortunate fact of this is that you cannot control perception of you. Racism, whether active or passive, tilts perception of public persona. There are many other factors. But we do not win by building up walls of privacy, but by knocking the remaining walls down. That way perception can get as level as possible, and privacy can be whatever we each want it to be. If we can be honest, first.

Revolution

It has been a long time coming! The word I want to focus on is Revolution. Is this a word with a strong meaning? Absolutely, it is.

Across the globe, revolution is viewed by supporters as necessary and by the opposition as treasonous. Bystanders try to justify their opinions on PRINCIPLES. But there are no principles in total warfare. When every day of your life is a live or die fight, you cannot hold on to high-minded ideals (Except if you are a reader of World War Z, and you think that these times are the perfect opportunities to hold to principle, but I humbly disagree, because not every day is a good day to die).

So the bystanders of revolution should ask themselves important questions:

  1. What would my circumstances be in a region undergoing revolution? Can I place myself in the general population and really understand what is going on?
  2. When would I decide to take part?
  3. When would I decide to oppose revolution?
  4. Can I change my mind?

I think Egypt is the best example of active revolution. Who do we in the West support? Do we support? How do we support? Let’s not be CNN or Fox News now. It is time to start from the beginning. Mubarak: he is the known history. It was against his government that the people of Egypt rebelled, not for freedom, but for bread and work. His fall from power hailed in a military leadership, ultimately incapable of meeting public demand. This leads to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader. Then roughly a year after inauguration, millions of Egyptians take to the streets and the military ‘dethrones’ Mr. Morsi.

Here come the choices: If the overthrow of Morsi is seen apart from the overthrow of Mubarak, this revolution looks like a revolution against administrative incompetence from a poorly organized, but LEGAL and moral, government. If you take the long view, and see Mr. Morsi’s rise and fall in terms of the same revolution that overthrew Mubarak, you may take the position that Mr. Morsi was throwing away governmental legitimacy similar to John Adam’s enactment of alien/sedition/espionage/free speech attacks. The United States benefited from a peaceful transition of power. But if it had not? If a gunmen had shot President Jefferson on his way to take the oath of office, would the United States survive? Or what if (Colonel) Alexander Hamilton led an army to arrest Jefferson in the name of saving America from a religious and republican extremist?

It is not a bystander’s part to judge a revolution, but to truly think about when he or she would leave their doorstep and take to the streets. As bystanders, we can judge events and results, but should always remember that our time on this planet is short, and that Revolution may last a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few months, a few years, or even forever. Revolution is always alive, as Fidel Castro might say.

Revolution in America. We talk about social revolutions on race, sexuality and preference, religion, and technology, to name a few.  How can this word work for all these different issues? I think race and sexuality have seen a major transformation, and these have at times felt like revolution. These have been fights for freedom and equality. These revolutions have been more peaceful than most societal changes. I think this is due to the loss of control by the older institutions of religions and their political brokers.

The technological revolution? Let me explode at that one: BOOM! Things are different. But let me put an image in your heads: A line outside of an apple store, with people waiting for 15 hours to walk in and by a new iPhone. On the other side of the building are people wearing white body suits, gloves and masks, also standing in line for 15 hours, to assemble those iPhones. Where is their revolution?

Is one revolution more important than another? Is Syria more vital to the Middle East, or Egypt? There are good arguments both ways, actually, which I don’t want to get in to now. Is the cultural revolution taking place in America – which is almost entirely the result of the 30 and younger crowd – more important for humanity than what a revolution could do in North Korea for the quarter of a million people in concentration camps?

I admit to getting very frustrated at the liberal use of this word, when it is not something easy to know anything about. It take long hours of contemplation, sleepless night, and wit sharpening courage to take the plunge in to Revolution where you will most likely meet your end,