(1) Last May in your essay on “the Gathering Storm” you quoted Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” and provided a number of tips for surviving it, including exercising our right to speech, defense, privacy and association. A year has passed. Is there anything you would add or modify today given the possibility that many Americans may not be able to exercise their constitutional rights (not to mention the presumed rights of creditors of the United States) ?
I would add that exercising your rights is not only good for you, it’s fun! This is a time of great uncertainty, and many people are more stressed than ever. But writing blog posts or debating the issues or studying history might help you formulate your thoughts and gain perspective on what’s happening, mastering a martial art or learning to shoot or protecting your privacy might make you feel more secure, associating with likeminded others might give you a stronger sense of community, managing your own investments or growing some of your own food or installing solar panels or whatever might make you more self-sufficient. Many of these activities are quite inexpensive and they give you more power over your life.
Although taking responsibility for your life is rewarding, I’ve discovered that it also takes a lot of time and energy to do things like take charge of your health or your finances, learn various self-defense techniques, and study the past so that you’re not doomed to repeat it.
By the way, I wouldn’t limit individual rights to what’s recognized in the constitution. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution delegates a small number of powers to the central government (Amendment X) and recognizes that individual rights are effectively unlimited (Amendment IX). Over time that founding vision has been almost entirely inverted (government power is unlimited and human rights are limited to what’s in the Bill of Rights), but it is still there for us to rediscover.
(2) You are unusual in combining a technical career with substantial intellectual essays, an online press and various artistic efforts. How did you end up where you are today?
Perhaps I’m unusual not in having diverse interests but in pursuing them so stubbornly.
Since my early teens I’ve been drawn mainly to philosophy, language, music, and technology. After college I bounced around quite a bit, working for business training companies and early website developers. When I started using Linux in the late 1990s I became quite impressed with the fact that so much value had been created for free, so I decided that I want to give back to the open-source community in some way. An opportunity came along in the form of the early Jabber instant messaging project, where my interests in language and technology led me to writing protocol specifications. That’s been my career for the last ten years, but to stay balanced I’ve spent much of my free time writing philosophical essays and books, translating ancient poetry and philosophy, playing guitar, and composing music. More recently, I’ve studied a lot of history, especially the history of civilizations (e.g., Carroll Quigley), the emergence of modernity (e.g., Ernest Gellner), the origins of the industrial revolution (e.g., Jean Gimpel and Robert Lopez), the roots of American exceptionalism (e.g., Alan Macfarlane and David Hackett Fischer), and the impact of deep technological inventions like the printing press (e.g., Elizabeth Eisenstein). There is so much to learn and to do that I like to work on lots of projects in parallel because I find that different disciplines feed into each other in surprising ways. If I didn’t already have too many responsibilities I’d learn a few more languages, become a better coder, immerse myself in a field like evolutionary psychology, or study painting or some another art-form.
(3) In your essay “American Winter” you highlight as problems:
[T]he endless debts incurred over the past twenty to forty years by American businesses, families, and governments alike; the withering away of American productive capacity in favor of mindless consumption; dependence on oil that is produced by sworn enemies of Western civilization; massive fortunes stolen (we cannot say “made”) by those who have been able to manipulate the levers of power, whether Wall Street bankers at the national level (resulting in a reckless debasement of the currency) or real estate developers at the local level (resulting in the subsidized blight of suburban sprawl) or various industries in certain states and especially unions in others (resulting in a complete capture of the political process by government employees in states like California); the never-ending expansion of welfare “entitlements” such as monthly stipends for those who do not work, guaranteed payment of medical care and pharmaceutical products for those who are not healthy, low-priced loans for those who wish to study, grants for those who wish to perform scientific research, and so on; a growing political class whose only means of livelihood is to take more and more from the productive class of those who still create real, independent value; inexorable centralization of national life in the District of Columbia; and a yawning societal and even personal chasm between collectivists and individualists, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, secularists and religionists, technologists and environmentalists, rule makers and rule breakers, controllers and rebels — a conflict of visions that goes far beyond Red States vs. Blue States to engulf politically-connected and personally-entitled “haves” against hardworking but unprivileged “have nots”
Yet you end the essay with an optimistic note. What makes you so confident in America and Americans?
America is full of optimistic, work-focused, religious, sectarian, freedom-loving, immigrant-friendly, patriotic, rebellious, energetic, mobile, adaptable, pragmatic, inventive, individualistic, youth-obsessed, generous, philanthropic, hopeful, innovative, entrepreneurial dreamers. Americans are, essentially, crazy (founded, after all, by crazy Englishmen who crossed the Atlantic in rickety ships to create a new society in a howling wilderness). We don’t always succeed, do the right thing, or live up to our ideals. In fact, we have a lot of problems and we make a lot of mistakes, but we seem to learn from our mistakes better than any other people in history. Although many pundits have forecast American failure, decline, and decay, those who bet instead on England, France, Germany, Japan, or Russia over America were wrong, just I think those now betting on China, India, or Brazil over America will also be wrong.
American exceptionalism is not jingoism, it is an observable reality. The core differences between America and the rest of the world, and even the rest of the Anglosphere, were plain to Tocqueville in the 1830s and to countless observers before and since. Those differences are not uniformly good, but they are deep seated in American culture. That said, in many ways Americans have lost sight of the basic cultural traits I’ve outlined. We face a lot of hard decisions as individuals and as a nation about crony capitalism, centralized power, foreign intervention, mindless consumerism, excessive debt, irresponsible behavior, dependence on the public trough, and much more. In addition, we are often too busy or myopic or anti-intellectual to think deeply and honestly about the mess we’re in and how to move forward. In that sense, I am far from optimistic. But I also wouldn’t count America out just yet.
Notice that I say “America”, not “the United States”. I am much more confident about the long-term prospects of America as a cultural nation than about the United States as a political entity.
(4) In your essay “Secular vs. Sacred” you describe the modern dilemma:
Historically, the modern codification of the soul-body dichotomy goes back to Descartes and his Faustian deal with the Church, in which Descartes won the metaphysical realm of Body for the investigations of the scientists, but abandoned the realm of Soul to the strictures of religion. While this “peace treaty” between reason and faith brought the West undreamt-of material prosperity and scientific progress, it also led to the spiritual stagnation of the modern West.
A major theme of this website and forums is alternatives to Cartesian modernity. In your opinion what would it take to go “beyond Descartes” and who or what is capable of taking us there?
Wow, you dug deep to find that essay — I wrote it when I was in college for a contest held by The Humanist magazine.
Back then I saw most everything through philosophical lenses, but my more recent readings into history have led me to think that modernity is not Cartesian. Facts precede philosophies and tinkers precede thinkers. You couldn’t have Cartesian mechanism about the biological world or Deistic ideas about God as a watchmaker without first experiencing a long tradition of building machines and watches. Yet that more practical tradition started over 500 years before Descartes, with European inventions like the stirrup, the horse collar, the heavy plow, three-field rotation, the waterwheel, the clock, eyeglasses, oceangoing ships, double-entry bookkeeping, guns and gunpowder, the printing press, the compass, and so many more. All that inventiveness got started because Europeans no longer had slavery to prop them up following the collapse of classical civilization — not because some philosopher pontificated about the importance of productivity. The other great stream of modernity came from the culture of early English society, whose individualism, respect for personal rights and private property, entrepreneurialism, and scientific bent also predate Descartes by hundreds of years, as historian Alan Macfarlane has shown. In essence, those two streams produced what Ernest Gellner called “the exit” from agrarian civilizations into modernity.
Furthermore, just as I would argue that modernity is not Cartesian, so I would argue that Descartes is not modern. Have you ever noticed the similarities between his “cogito ergo sum” and Avicenna’s thought experiment of the “flying man”, who is utterly separated from corporeal existence? To my mind there is a religious quality to modern-day mechanism and reductionism, a baseless belief that we could reliably predict the future course of the universe or this planet or a particular creature if only we could know the position of every atom that is relevant to the object of prediction. Yet what factual foundation has ever been offered for the notion that we could gain such physiochemical omniscience? None whatsoever. It’s taken strictly on faith.
As to moving beyond what is taken to be Cartesian modernity, I think that project is being pursued on many fronts within Western society, in everything from practices like yoga and holistic medicine and networked organizations to the theoretical insights of complexity theory and behavioral economics and the ecological psychology of J.J. Gibson. Another hopeful sign is the accelerating dissolution of what John Taylor Gatto calls the factory model of education. Unfortunately, I think we are still quite far from a more factual, integrated approach to value-laden fields like ethics and politics. I’m working on aspects of the ethical issues through a book I’m writing entitled “The Tao of Roark”, but it’s slow going in part because I have too much to do in my career but mostly because the problems involved are so thorny.
(5) In that same essay you refer to “people power” and human rights as built on a “universal conception of sacredness.” Do you still hold today to your statement about the potential of sacredness and human rights as a unifying principles which can check unwelcome elements of governmental expansion (i.e. totalitarianism)? Do you have any concomitant critiques of contemporary usage of the term “human rights”?
It seems that I indulged in quite a bit of overblown rhetoric back in college! These days I am much more skeptical about claims of universality, mainly because after the 9/11 attacks I took the time to study both Islam and the Anglosphere, which I see as the two primary cultural visions at work in the world today. The rights that we think of as Jeffersonian or Lockean — life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness — were not imposed by governments or invented by philosophers but emerged over many centuries. As John Hasnas explored in his paper “Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights”, rights are evolved solutions to the problem of minimizing violence in society. The solutions we are most familiar with today were codified in English common law, which has done the best job (although far from a perfect job) of preserving and extending them as the modern world has scaled up beyond the smaller societies of earlier times.
Although in one sense these rights are natural and universal because they are traditionally honored even in the absence of government, that potential universality is overridden and obscured by the actuality of too many philosophies, religions, autocracies, bureaucracies, and systems of government. To my mind, perhaps the greatest corruption has been the inflation of the concept of rights from those solved problems of human interaction to positive dispensations like a comfortable retirement, a convenient commute, pleasant vacations, inexpensive access to medical services and pharmaceutical products, affordable housing, and all the rest. Those things are good, but when the state provides them by taking from some people to give to others, we don’t solve problems, we cause them: tearing apart human goodwill, turning people from peaceful trade and production to legalized plunder, reducing the sense of personal responsibility and increasing the sense of dependence, and piling up debts and obligations that are simply unsustainable. That’s the hole in which many nations find themselves now, and the path forward is made much more difficult by intellectual confusion and false expectations regarding the proper solutions to problems of human interaction.
(6) In your essay “The Individualism of the Poet-Musician” you refer to ancient lyric poetry, the Medieval troubadour ethos and near-contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. However, if there is a positive side to the troubadour ethos and nomadic lifestyle which to some degree characterize America do they not also inhibit “greatness” and facilitate other things that you disparage (like Suburban sprawl) ? Is there any way to reconcile these impulses?
You are right that historically Americans have been more mobile than people elsewhere, although statistics indicate that the rate of moving has slowed down lately. American mobility is no great surprise when you think about it: almost all of our ancestors moved here from somewhere else, we continue to attract a large number of immigrants, we have a wide range of physical, social, and economic climates to choose from, a relatively small percentage of us have careers that are tied to a particular place, etc. Here again the mere fact that American society is exceptionally mobile and dynamic compared to other societies is not all good or all bad; we can be quick about building new cities and industries and the like, but we also tend to have a disposable attitude toward almost everything.
The kind of nomadism that hurts us more is our lack of focus on the long-term consequences of our policies and decisions. For instance, U.S. politicians regularly send American troops to meddle in foreign nations; the citizenry initially approves of the intention to spread democracy or rid the world of some two-bit dictator, but doesn’t think about the pernicious influence of such interventionism on the national soul, if you will. The same goes for our endless “wars” on drugs, poverty, hunger, crime, obesity, immigration, and so on.
At the individual level, excellence or greatness in any field of endeavor does require diligence, focus, dedication, practice, and countless hours of hard work. However, too often we take that as an excuse for excessive specialization. I suppose that I still admire the ideal of a liberal education and see great value in general knowledge — whether it’s the science of climatology, the economics of national debt, the sociology of immigration, the statistics of demographic change, the psychology of investing, or the history of civilizations. Learning about these topics is not only inherently interesting, but I’ve found that it gives me greater perspective on current controversies, not to mention greater skepticism about our self-appointed elites.
(7) Many of your essays address Objectivist Philosophy as articulated by Ayn Rand, including the chasm between engineers and art (1 2 3). Are there any indications in technical or artistic fields that this gap will be diminished in the future? If so, what stands out as a positive example?
Yes, as a teenager I was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, and it’s taken me a long time to work out my thoughts about her. In fact Rand perceived a great affinity between engineers and artists: she saw engineering as a creative act and recognized the technical discipline necessary to make works of art. For example, the architect Howard Roark in her novel The Fountainhead designed buildings that were not only beautiful but founded in good engineering. In my experience, most scientists and engineers have an aesthetic sense of what makes for an elegant solution to a technical problem in their field, and most artists are deeply immersed in the technical details of their craft.
Despite those similarities, there is an unavoidable gap between art and engineering because they serve different purposes: a product of technology is a practical tool for improving human existence, whereas a work of art organically symbolizes some conception of what’s important in life. The aesthetic aspects of technologies like cars and computers are a matter of good design, not truly artistic creation; similarly, the technical aspects of the arts are a matter of underlying craft and does not imply that art is useful in the sense that technology is. Howard Roark was an anomaly because he worked in the field of architecture, which straddles the fence between art and engineering; her novel would not have worked as well if she had written it about a composer or a sculptor.
I worry less about the chasm between technology and art than about the impact of the digital revolution on the economics of artistic practice. Simply put, the copyright era is coming to an end, first for musicians, next for writers, and eventually for visual artists as well. Anyone who makes art will need to adjust to that new reality. Personally I’ve put all of my writings and music into the public domain, but I can afford to do so because I work full-time as a technologist. Real artists will need to apply even more of their energy to making a living and finding new economic models for creative activity, which means the rest of us might have less new art to experience. Although that sounds pessimistic, humans were creating art for thousands of years before the copyright era and I think they’ll be doing so for thousands of years into the future.