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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

2009.  An economic crisis that begins to cut very deep, violence in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia flexes its natural gas muscles, hatred in Europe.  The end of eight years of economic, environmental, civic, and martial wrecking under the Bush administration and four decades of conservative irresponsibility and divisiveness. A new American president positioned to change the ethos of the land.  A questioning of the racist and elitist underpinning of conservative political values and economic dogmas — in parts of the West at least.  Doubts as to consumerism, exurbia, and much-touted miracle  trends such as the “flat world” about which the likes of  columnist and author Thomas Friedman cranked out thick volumes.

A few years ago, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org, I posted a New Year’s entry about Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer Louis Davids that contained a link to a humorous and touchingly dated newsreel musical clip he presented for New Years Day 1936.  In the clip, Davids sang an ode to a world stilled scarred by the Great Depression and in which Hitler flexed his muscles, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the tax man hovered menacingly, forecasts of sun yielded rain, and aspirins cured hangovers.  For 2009, I offer (to the very many among you who understand Dutch, know history and have links to interwar Holland!) the very same song and (to all of you regardless of language or fields of interests or ethnic or social ties) its wishes for Well-Being and Blessedness in the year to come.

On Bubkes.Org, I also start the year by turning to the past, taking a few medium-format and 35mm black and white photos I shot more than a decade ago as starting points and as metaphors for considering recent economic and politic trends and their parallels with past events in obscure places.  I begin with a photo of an obscene mural in a Bulgarian housing estate and the lessons it offers for understanding economic crises, individual morality, and the history of western art, and continue with a photograph of a Turkish sidewalk weighing scale operator as an occasion to ask whether small enterprises and ordinary people will some day qualify for bail-outs or “pump-priming” infusions of capital.  The next pieces will consider face-lifts — architectural and politica — and gangsters, graveyard iconography and under-reporting by the New York Times

As to “pump-priming,” the collapse of four-decades of Republic economics and the Republican’s self-serving denigration of the New Deal and “socialism” has brought a resurgence of Keynesian thought and maybe even of Keynesian practice, which did its job well in America during the 1930s as an economic tonic, a symbol of action and unity, and, maybe, as the very last alternative to revolution.

Paul Krugman wrote these words about Keynesian thought and policy as a conclusion to What to Do: The Power of Ideas in the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books:

As readers may have gathered, I believe not only that we’re living in a new era of depression economics, but also that John Maynard Keynes—the economist who made sense of the Great Depression—is now more relevant than ever. Keynes concluded his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, with a famous disquisition on the importance of economic ideas: “Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

We can argue about whether that’s always true, but in times like these, it definitely is. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.

We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.

Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Philosophy, Photography, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Brilliant, Fallible Titans: Günther Grass meets Norman Mailer

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 23, 2007

Anyone who is interested in literature, philosophy, personal responsibility, courage, cowardice, risk taking, men and women, sex, parents and children, violence, aging, serendiipity, the 20th century, totalitarianism, mass communications, food, the responsibilities and failures of societies and governments, Hitler, Stalin, two world wars, hatred and mass murders, post-war Paris, Bush and Iraq, humor, and the sweat, rewards, pains, and deceptions of being an artist — or in anything else for that matter — might want to listen to the recorded version of back-to-back interviews with, and a subsequent discussion between, two of the greatest writers and most monumentally outspoken, courageous, moral, and fallible men of the 20th and nascent 21st centuries: Günther Grass and Norman Mailer.

The interviews and discussion, held in June at the New York Public Library, are given poignancy by Grass’s recent fumbling admission about having been less-than-forthcoming over the years about his three months in the Waffen SS and by Mailer’s announcement that the interview may have been his final appearance in public. (Mailer claims to be hampered by failing hearing and eyesight but his erudition, wisdom, and speech are more profound and compelling than ever). The only jarring notes: The interviewer’s rather out-of-place-at-the-New-York-Public-Library Scottish accent and somewhat pale performance as interlocuter.

To listen to the event go to this page on the website of the NYPL and click on the appropriate links to parts one and two. For recordings of other NYPL events, click here.

Posted in History, Identity, Libraries, Literature, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

“Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 9, 2007

Over at my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, I recently posted an entry centered on a photo I took in 1994 of a group of young people standing in front of a Mennonite church in New York’s Harlem. The church had been founded by a group of Korean War era conscientious objectors and, so, the weblog entry jumped to my own response to the specter of military service in Vietnam and my Vietnam-War-Civil-Rights-Movement-era years of part-time study at a small Quaker school in the American south. During those years, I was often at loggerheads with what I saw as the caution and conservatism of local Quakers in the face of the issues and conflicts of the time. It was only years later that I realized that Quakers had also taught me lessons that illuminated my work and personal lives both.

Sense of the Streets

Growing up in Lower Manhattan I learned that discourse was argument, something to be won. One could win by being “smarter” or more humorous than others, by playing facts like trump cards, by talking louder or faster, or by being more insulting or better with one’s fists. Or, if one was in a more peaceful or democratic mood, one could settle debates or decide on courses of action by gangıng-up and enforcing “majority rule.”

Sense of the Meeting

In the company of Quakers I learned a different approach. Discourse was a way to higher truths and to commonalities that could unite people linked together by commitment or even by mere circumstance. Agreement was never beyond the reach of people dedicating to achieving it. In their worship and worldly gatherings, Quakers achieved unanimity of action by perceiving and subscribing to the “sense of the meeting.” Similar to the way Socrates sought truth through dialogue, Quakers felt that receptivity to silence and to open expression at meetings could lead to consensus acceptable to all present and well worth putting aside one’s individual reservations in the face of.

Consensus, Communications, and Organizational Change

Oddly, I first realized the value of the “sense of the meeting” in a commercial context. In the years in which I made my living writing for business and governmental clients, I came to understand that if I interviewed enough people within a fractious organization I could articulate what that organization was about and wanted to achieve in a manner that all parties could assent to and buy into. Later, when I consulted on proposals for major industrial and service-related projects I found I could pre-envision and articulate many projects in manners equally compelling to buyer and seller alike. When I worked in interim management and organizational change, I found it was possible to gain commitment and motivate people by openly articulating where organizations stood and were migrating to, why and how.

Sense of the Blogosphere

In a PBS broadcast some months ago (link unavailable) veteran journalists Bill Moyers and Bob Edwards discussed why the Knight-Ridder chain of newspaper had reported more penetratingly and accurately on the build-up to and consequences of Bush & Co.’s Iraq War. The main reason was that the star reporters at the “papers of record” such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were far too close to the White House to gain perspective or far too vain to avoid being seduced by the center of power. Knight-Ridder reporters, on the other hand, gathered their facts and opinions from middle-ranking bureaucrats and members of the military, people with a focus on realities rather than on “spin” and the selling of an ill-conceived war.

The work that the Knight-Ridder papers have done in recent years – or of the type of pioneering investigative reporting that the Washington Post allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do following the Watergate burglary – is a long-lead-time, costly task requiring weighty expense budgets and full-time research and fact-checking staff. In the early days of webloging, enthusiastic bloggers sometimes exclaimed that weblogs would soon replace newspapers – but most blogs are one-person affairs without the funding or staff or business models to sustain news gathering or investigative reporting. As a result, blogging has emerged more as a vehicle for opinion and comment. At first, the tone was intentionally brash and self-promoting, not unlike the Lower Manhattan model of discourse described above. As time goes on and the numbers of blogs grow into the tens of millions, the blogosphere brings with it the possibility of being a cyberspace-wide virtual equivalent of a Quaker meeting that in its silences and testimonies reveals patterns of commonalities and generates consensuses that can unite people into actions worthy of their beliefs and needs.

Posted in Articulation, Change, Commentary, Communications, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Marx, Philosophy | 3 Comments »