Beyond Occupy Wall Street

30 10 2011

I’ve been patiently awaiting the revolution for some years now. It’s inevitable that it was coming. The only question was when. And in what form.

It seems it’s arrived, at least in its embryonic guise, in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But is this really the revolution? Is this movement – without goals, without leaders, without a guiding ideology – fit to call itself a revolution?

Not yet.

But it’s a start. The first step in enacting change is to identify that there’s a problem. That’s fundamentally what OWS is today: it’s a broad protest movement making an unambiguous expression that we (maybe not 99% of us, but a lot) are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

If I could sum up the Occupy Wall Street movement to date in one line, it’d be this: the system is broken and it’s not going to fix itself.

I’ve heard the Occupiers voice this notion in many disparate, fragmented ways. But I have yet to hear or read any Occupier articulate precisely what the problem with the system is. Or, more poignantly: how to fix it.

But to me, the malaise is clear. I’ve been watching it brew for many years. The sickness in the Western capitalist system has many diverse manifestations, but the underlying causes are actually few and simple.

I’m adamant that if OWS is to have any lasting impact, it urgently needs to move beyond being merely a protest movement before people tire of it (or the weather sends it indoors, at least in the northern hemisphere), and move to embrace some positive ideology, one that might genuinely enact change in the world. One that might genuinely be called a revolution.

In the next several posts I’m going to outline my diagnosis of the three core problems with ‘the system’ – the problems that fundamentally underlie the grievances of the Occupy movement – and then offer three solutions as to where the movement could go next if it wants to change the system for the better.

I’ll update this post as a single landing page with links to the others:

Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

19 04 2011

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.

The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

14 06 2010

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.

American History Through the Conservative Lens

4 04 2010

Noted American Historian, Eric Foner – noted as much for his scholarship as for his vilification by radical conservatives – has written a wonderful analysis of the new social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. Foner leans left himself, but he’s an esteemed historian and expert on American history, unlike the members of the Board of Education.

Eric Foner

His summary of the new curriculum shows it as being an exemplar of the conservative world view. It stresses the values of individual enterprise, self discipline, group conformity, religious obedience, in-group favouritism; and explicitly dodges issues of racism, secularisation, criticisms of capitalism and any values that promote communitarianism, pluralism of values or multiculturalism.

While I acknowledge the value of some aspects of conservatism and I’m critical of some aspects of (particularly post-modern) liberalism, the history class is not the place to have these issues fight their battle – not that there’s even a fight going on here now the Board has had its say along party lines.

History is a tricky subject to arbitrate; there’s arguably an infinite amount that can be said of history, not just covering the facts of events but interpreting their significance. But the crucial aspect is to provide the facts about historical events in as impartial a way as possible while acknowledging the various frames and influences on the interpretation of these historical events and then to engage in debate over the significance and the lessons learned. Neither should we be viewing history through the lens of conservatism as we should through the lens of radical liberalism.