Nationalism and Diversity

Flags of many countries
Nationalism can promote diversity – or not! Brillenstimmer/shutterstock

16 January 2019 – The poster child for rampant nationalism is Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly called the Nazi Party. I say “is” rather than “was” because, while resoundingly defeated by Allies of WW2 in 1945, the Nazi Party still has widespread appeal in Germany, and throughout the world.

These folks give nationalism a bad name, leading to the Oxford Living Dictionary, giving primacy to the following definition of nationalism: “Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” [Emphasis added.]

The Oxford Dictionary also offers a second definition of nationalism: “Advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people.”

This second definition is a lot more benign, and one that I wish were more often used. I certainly prefer it!

Nationalism under the first definition has been used since time immemorial as an excuse to create closed, homogeneous societies. That was probably the biggest flaw of the Nazi state(s). Death camps, ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and most of the other evils of those regimes flowed directly from their attempts to build closed, homogeneous societies.

Under the second definition, however, nationalism can, and should, be used to create a more diverse society.

That’s a good thing, as the example of United States history clearly demonstrates. Most of U.S. success can be traced directly to the country’s ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. The fact that the U.S., with a paltry 5% of the world’s population, now has by far the largest economy; that it dominates the fields of science, technology and the humanities; that its common language (American English) is fast becoming the “lingua franca” of the entire world; and that it effectively leads the world by so many measures is directly attributed to the continual renewal of its population diversity by immigration. In any of these areas, it’s easy to point out major contributions from recent immigrants or other minorities.

This harkens back to a theory of cultural development I worked out in the 1970s. It starts with the observation that all human populations – no matter how large or how small – consist of individuals whose characteristics vary somewhat. When visualized on a multidimensional scatter plot, populations generally consist of a cluster with a dense center and fewer individuals farther out.

Globular cluster image
The Great Hercules Star Cluster.. Albert Barr/Shutterstock

This pattern is similar to the image of a typical globular star cluster in the photo at right. Globular star clusters exhibit this pattern in three dimensions, while human populations exist and can be mapped on a great many dimensions representing different characteristics. Everything from physical characteristics like height, weight and skin color, to non-physical characteristics like ethnicity and political ideology – essentially anything that can be measured – can be plotted as a separate dimension.

The dense center of the pattern consists of individuals whose characteristics don’t stray too far from the norm. Everyone, of course, is a little off average. For example, the average white American female is five-feet, four-inches tall. Nearly everyone in that population, however, is a little taller or shorter than exactly average. Very few are considerably taller or shorter, with more individuals closer to the average than farther out.

The population’s diversity shows up as a widening of the pattern. That is, diversity is a measure of how often individuals appear farther out from the center.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection posits that where the population center is depends on where is most appropriate for it to be depending on conditions. What is average height, for example, depends on a complex interplay of conditions, including nutrition, attractiveness to the opposite sex, and so forth.

Observing that conditions change with time, one expects the ideal center of the population should move about in the multidimensional characteristics space. Better childhood nutrition, for example, should push the population toward increased tallness. And, it does!

One hopes that these changes happen slowly with time, giving the population a chance to follow in response. If the changes happen too fast, however, the population is unable to respond fast enough and it goes extinct. So, wooly mammoths were unable to respond fast enough to a combination of environmental changes and increased predation by humans emigrating into North America after the last Ice Age, so they died out. No more wooly mammoths!

Assuming whatever changes occur happen slowly enough, those individuals in the part of the distribution better adapted to the new conditions do better than those on the opposite side. So, the whole population shifts with time toward characteristics that are better adapted.

Where diversity comes into this dynamic is by providing more individuals in the better-adapted part of the distribution. The faster conditions change, the more individuals you need at the edges of the population to help with the response. For example, if the climate gets warmer, it’s folks who like to wear skimpy outfits who thrive. Folks who insist on covering themselves up in heavy clothing, don’t do so well. That was amply demonstrated when Englishmen tried to wear their heavy Elizabethan outfits in the warmer North American weather conditions. Styles changed practically overnight!

Closed, homogeneous societies of the type the Nazis tried to create have low diversity. They try to suppress folks who differ from the norm. When conditions change, such societies have less of the diversity needed to respond, so they wither and die.

That’s why cultures need diversity, and the more diversity, the better.

We live in a chaotic universe. The most salient characteristic of chaotic systems is constant change. Without diversity, we can’t respond to that change.

That’s why when technological change sped up in the early Twentieth Century, it was the bohemians of the twenties developing into the beatniks of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties that defined the cultures of the seventies and beyond.

Jerry Garcia stamp image

Long live Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream!

Secular and Sectarian

Church and State
The intersection of Church Street and State Street in Champaign, Illinois. Kristopher Kettner/Shutterstock

28 November 2018 – There’s a reason all modern civilized countries, at least all democracies, institutionalize separation of church and state. It’s the most critical part of the “separation of powers” mantra that the U.S. Founding Fathers repeated ad nauseam. It’s also a rant I’ve repeated time and again for at least a decade.

In my 2011 novel Vengeance is Mine! I wrote the following dialog between two people discussing what to do about a Middle-Eastern dictator from whom they’d just rescued a kidnapped woman:

Even in Medieval Europe,” Doc grew professorial, “you had military dictatorships with secular power competing with the Catholic Church, which had enormous sectarian power.

Modern regimes all have similar checks and balances – with separation of church and state the most important one. It’s why I get antsy when I see scientific organizations getting too cozy with governments, and why everyone gets nervous about weakness in religious organizations.

No matter what your creed, we have to have organized religion of some kind to balance the secular power of governments.

Islam was founded as a theocracy – both sectarian and secular power concentrated together in one or a few individuals. At the time, nobody understood the need to separate them. Most thinkers have since grown up to embrace the separation concept, realizing that the dynamic tension is needed to keep the whole culture centered, and able to respond to changing conditions.

Fundamentalist Islam, however, has steadfastly refused to modernize. That’s why psychopaths like your Emir are able to achieve high office, with its accompanying state protection, in some Islamic countries. The only way to touch him is to topple his government, and the Manchek family isn’t going to do that.

Unfortunately, radical Islam now seems to be gaining adherents, like Communism a hundred years ago. Eventually, Communist governments became so radicalized that they became inefficient, and collapsed under their own weight.”

You’re comparing Islam to Communism?” Red questioned.

Well,” Doc replied, “they may be at opposite ends of the spectrum doctrinaire-wise, but they share the same flaw.

Communism was (and still is) an atheistic doctrine. Its answer to the question of religion is to deny the validity of religion. That kicks the pins out from under the competition.

Since people need some sort of ethical, moral guide, they appealed to the Communist dogma. That blows the separation of church and state, again.

There’s nobody to say, ‘naughty, naughty.’ Abuses go unchecked. Psychopaths find happy homes, and so forth. Witness Stalin.

The problem isn’t what philosophy you have, it’s the inability to correct abuses because there aren’t separate, competing authorities.

The strength of the American system is that there’s no absolute authority. The checks and balances are built in. Abuses happen, and can persist for a while, but eventually they get slapped down because there’s somebody around to slap them down.

The weakness is that it’s difficult to get anything done.

The strength is that it’s difficult to get anything done.”

In the novel, their final solution was to publicly humiliate the “Emir” in front of the “Saudi Sheik,” who then approved the Emir’s assassination.

Does that sound familiar?

The final edit of that novel was completed in 2011. Fast forward seven years and we’re now watching the aftermath of similar behavior by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s interesting that authoritarian behavior is so predictable that real events so closely mimic the fiction of years before.

In a parallel development, the Republican Party today is suffering a moral implosion. Over the past two years, long-time Republicans, from senior Senators to loyal voters, have been jumping the Republican ship in droves on moral grounds.

I submit that this decline can be traced, at least in part, to the early 1980s when conservative elements of the Party forgot the meaning of “political conservatism,” and started courting the support of certain elements among Evangelical Christians. That led to adding religiously based planks (such as anti-abortion) to the Republican platform.

The elements among Evangelical Christians who responded were, of course, those who had no truck with the secular/sectarian-separation ideal. Unable to convince any but their most subservient followers of their moral rectitude (frankly because they didn’t have any, but that’s a rant for another day), those elements jumped at the chance to have the Federal Government codify their religious dogma into law.

By the way, it was an identical dynamic that led a delegation of Rabbinical Jews to talk Pontius Pilate into ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. In the end, Pilate was so disgusted by the whole proceeding that he suffered a bout of manic hand washing.

That points out the relative sophistication of the Roman culture of 2,000 years ago. Yes, the Roman emperors insisted that every Roman citizen acknowledge them to be a “god.” Unlike the Hebrew god, however, the Roman emperor was not a “jealous god.” He was perfectly willing to let his subjects worship any other god or gods they wanted to. All he required was lip-service fealty to him. And taxes. We can’t forget the taxes!

By the First Century CE, Greco-Roman civilization had been playing around with democratically based government off and on for five hundred years. They’d come to embrace religious tolerance as a good working principle that they honored in action, if not in word.

Pilate went slightly nuts over breaking the taboo against government-enforced religion because he knew it would not play well at home (in Rome). He was right. Lucius Vitellius Veteris, then Governor of Syria, deposed Pilate soon afterward, and sent him home in disgrace.

Pilate was not specifically disgraced over his handling of Jesus’ crucifixion, but more generally over his handling of the internecine conflicts between competing Jewish sects of the time. One surmises that he meddled too much, taking sides when he should have remained neutral in squabbles between two-bit religious sects in a far off desert outpost.

The take-home lesson of this blog posting is that it makes no difference what religious creed you espouse, what’s important from a governance point of view is that every citizen have some moral guide separate from secular law by which to judge the actions of their political leaders.

There are, of course, some elements required of that moral guide. For example, society cannot put up with a religion that condones murder. The Thugee Cult of British-Colonial India is such an example. Nor can society allow cults that encourage behaviors that threaten general order or rule of law, such as organized crime or corruption.

Especially helpful to governments are religions whose teachings promote obedience to rule of law, such as Catholicism. Democracies especially like various Protestant sects that promote individual responsibility.

Zen Buddhism, which combines Buddhist introspection with the Taoist inclusive world view, is another good foil for a democratic government. Its fundamental goal of minimizing suffering plays well with democratic ideals as well.

There are plenty of organized (as well as disorganized) religious guides out there. It’s important to keep in mind that the Founding Fathers were not trying to create an atheistic state. Separation of church and state implies the existence of both church and state, not one without the other.

The Mad Hatter’s Riddle

Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” turns out to have a simple solution after all! Shutterstock

27 June 2018 – In 1865 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which his Mad Hatter character posed the riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Somewhat later in the story Alice gave up trying to guess the riddle and challenged the Mad Hatter to provide the answer. When he couldn’t, nor could anyone else at the story’s tea party, Alice dismissed the whole thing by saying: “I think you could do something better with the time . . . than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

Since then, it has generally been believed that the riddle has, in actuality, no answer.

Modern Western thought has progressed a lot since the mid-nineteenth century, however. Specifically, two modes of thinking have gained currency that directly lead to solving this riddle: Zen and Surrealism.

I’m not going to try to give even sketchy pictures of Zen or Surrealist doctrine here. There isn’t anywhere near enough space to do either subject justice. I will, however, allude to those parts that bear on solving the Hatter’s riddle.

I’m also not going to credit Dodson with having surreptitiously known the answer, then hiding it from the World. There is no chance that he could have read Andre Breton‘s The Surrealist Manifesto, which was published twenty-six years after Dodson’s death. And, I’ve not been able to find a scrap of evidence that the Anglican-deacon Dodson ever seriously studied Taoism or its better-known offshoot, Zen. I’m firmly convinced that the religiously conservative Dodson really did pen the riddle as an example of a nonsense question. He seemed fond of nonsense.

No, I’m trying to make the case that in the surreal world of imagination, there is no such thing as nonsense. There is always a viewpoint from which the absurd and seemingly illogical comes into sharp focus as something obvious.

As Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Return of the Jedi: “From a certain point of view.”

Surrealism sought to explore the alternate universe of dreams. From that point of view, Alice is a classic surrealist work. It explicitly recounts a dream Alice had while napping on a summery hillside with her head cradled in her big sister’s lap. The surrealists, reading Alice three quarters of a century later, recognized this link, and acknowledged the mastery with which Dodson evoked the dream world.

Unlike the mid-nineteenth-century Anglicans, however, the surrealists of the early twentieth century viewed that dream world as having as much, if not more, validity as the waking world of so-called “reality.”

Chinese Taoism informs our thinking through the melding of all forms of reality (along with everything else) into one unified whole. When allied with Indian Buddhism to form the Chinese Ch’an, or Japanese Zen, it provides a method that frees the mind to explore possible answers to, among other things, riddles like the Hatter’s, and find just the right viewpoint where the solution comes into sharp relief. This method, which is called a koan, is an exercise wherein a master provides riddles to his (or her) students to help guide them along their paths to enlightenment.

Ultimately, the solution to the Hatter’s riddle, as I revealed in my 2016 novella Lilith, is as follows:

Question: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Answer: They’re both not made of bauxite.

According to Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition, bauxite is “a white, red, yellow, or brown amorphous claylike substance comprising aluminium oxides and hydroxides, often with such impurities as iron oxides. It is the chief ore of aluminium and has the general formula: Al2O3 nH2O.”

As a claylike mineral substance, bauxite is clearly exactly the wrong material from which to make a raven. Ravens are complex, highly organized hydrocarbon-based life forms. In its hydrated form, one could form an amazingly lifelike statue of a raven. It wouldn’t, however, even be the right color. Certainly it would never exhibit the behaviors we normally expect of actual, real, live ravens.

Similarly, bauxite could be used to form an amazingly lifelike statue of a writing desk. The bauxite statue of a writing desk might even have a believable color!

Why one would want to produce a statue of a writing desk, instead of making an actual writing desk, is a question outside the scope of this blog posting.

Real writing desks, however, are best made of wood, although other materials, such as steel, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP), and marble, have been used successfully. What makes wood such a perfect material for writing desks is its mechanically superior composite structure.

Being made of long cellulose fibers held in place by a lignin matrix, wood has wonderful anisotropic mechanical properties. It’s easy to cut and shape with the grain, while providing prodigious yield strength when stressed against the grain. Its amazing toughness when placed under tension or bending loads makes assembling wood into the kind of structure ideal for a writing desk almost too easy.

Try making that out of bauxite!

Alice was unable to divine the answer the Hatter’s riddle because she “thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing desks.” That is exactly the kind of mistake we might expect a conservative Anglican deacon to make as well.

It is only by using Zen methods of turning the problem inside out and surrealist imagination’s ability to look at it as a question, not of what ravens and writing desks are, but what they are not, that the riddle’s solution becomes obvious.