Beauty in Sport

To recapitulate our project, the goal is to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War.  But is there a way to do this without just creating some Frankenstein-like assemblage with none of the strengths of any of its parents?

Instead of cobbling this institutions together, maybe a better approach is to look at ways they already reflect each other at a deeper level.  For that reason, this week’s post has the unusual title of “Beauty in Sport”.

The aesthetic of Sport is found in its purest form not in any hybrid “pretty” sport, but rather in the most “ugly” and bare-knuckled of gladitorial athletic contests –sports such as American football. Beauty in football, for example, is an underrated player on an outmatched team scoring the winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds seemingly without effort, despite the full overwhelming force of the opposing team. That is the moment that football fans live for –at least when it ends in their team’s favor. It is an easy scenario to grasp, and can be generalized as follows: Beauty in Sport is a clean, graceful victory over visibly overwhelming odds.

Given that the goal in every sporting event is a clean victory (meaning one where no one cheats, and everyone plays their best) , the real variable factor here is the level of difficulty, as intensified by things such as being outmatched, losing a key player, or being in the final seconds of the game, and as existing in dynamic tension with the grace of the triumph. A good real-life example is provided by Kerri Strug’s memorable last performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. As an Olympic competition, the level of challenge was already at a peak, but it increased by several orders of magnitude when Strug injured her leg shortly before her final vault. Normally she would have dropped out of contention in favor of letting her leg heal, but her teammates were relying on her final vault to secure their shot at winning the gold medals. When she soldiered through to complete a nearly flawless vault, and then subsequently collapsed in pain, the contrast between the grace of her performance and the obvious difficulty of having achieved it on a bad leg combined to create a moment of memorable athletic Beauty.

Next Week: Beauty in Science

Art + Sport = ?

Sport, Science and Art each have strengths, but none of them has proven capable of replacing War in its natural form. It seems plausible, however, that one could create a true War-class ECS by synthesizing the three together. In other words, we might be able to reverse-engineer the system we need from the parts that we already have.

A good place to start is with some combination of Art and Sport. In imitation of Sport, we need a hierarchical competition format that will provide a consistently high level of challenge to a wide range of participants. In imitation of Art, we need an aesthetics-based approach that will remove our system from the realm of physical dominance and prevent it from being weaponized. As it happens, there are several notable hybrids that already match this recipe. One of the most prominent is the Olympic-class sport of figure skating, which is judged equally on athletic talent and aesthetics. Other Olympic sports where aesthetics play at least some role in the judging include gynmastics, skateboarding and diving.

There are also a number of hybrids on the other side of the Art/Sport line. One of the most influential is “slam poetry,” a dynamic spoken-word art form centered around competitions judged with Olympic-style scores by an ad hoc panel drawn from the audience. Another is the California-based phenomenon of “clown” or “crump dancing” (as chronicled in the documentary Rize) which similarly takes on aspects of Sport while retaining a focus on aesthetics. In addition, talent competitions ranging from the elite Van Cliburn piano competition to televised reality competitions such as American Idol also meld together these basic ingredients of competition and aesthetics.

When, however, it comes time to mix in our third ingredient, the objective legitimacy of Science, none of these hybrids proves suitable. The problem is that aesthetic judgments are generally considered irreduceably subjective, matters of individual taste that can neither be quantified nor made universal. The problem is made especially acute by the fact that no widely endorsed definition of aesthetic value in Art exists. If a thing cannot be defined, it cannot be measured, and if it cannot be consistently measured it might as well, from a scientific point of view, not even exist.

NEXT WEEK: Quantifying the unquantifiable.

what is life ? i am not able to understand the things around me. i am not able to define myself, my position.

In the old days, prior to Individuality, your Identity was entirely a function of what slot your community plugged you into.  You might be the Village Idiot, the Village Chief, the Village Medicine Man, the Village Wise Woman or the Village Whore, but there was no question of you taking on a role outside of the roles predetermined by your village (or tribe or clan, etc.).  The invention of the Individual Self was the great innovation of the Western World, and it provided centuries worth of vitality and interest to a world bored with group Identity.  The shift towards the Individual Self reached its extreme with the philosophical movement of Existentialism, which held freely willed individual choices to be the ultimate foundation upon which everything else rests.  Yet the Individual Self can no more thrive on its own than a head can survive without a body.  This is because the Individual Self exists in a constant, unresolvable state of Tension between its Existence and its Desires.

Your Existence consists of all the mundane facts that uniquely specify you as a individual distinguishable from all other individuals.  Are you male or female?  How old are you?  Where do you live?  Are you in good health?  How tall are you?  What race are you?  What do you look like?  Do you have brothers and sisters?  What language do you speak?  What kind of personality do you have?  What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?  Where are you right now, and what are you doing?

Your Existence makes you who you are, but it comes with challenges.  First, it’s in flux; the “details of you” are always changing.  For example, each day you’re a little older.  If you chop vegetables too recklessly, you might lose a finger and suddenly that becomes a permanent part of your Identity.  Take a class, and you gain a skill.  Get a bump on the head and you lose one.  Even your personality may shift throughout the course of the day, with the passage of a month, with the changing of the seasons, or simply in response to how much sleep you got the night before.

Second, the details of your Individual Existence can –and often do– come into conflict with other major component of your Identity, your Desires.  Your dream is to become a professional basketball player, but you’re 4′ 8″ tall.  You want to have your own biological children, but you’re not sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender.  Being able to drive is an important part of your sense of independence, yet you can no longer see well at night.  In this way, it is not just the facts of our Existences, but also the patterns of our Desires as played out in opposition to those facts, that make us who we are at the Individual level.

In the not-so-uncommon event that you have become somehow alienated from your own Individual Self, there are things that you can do in order to regain your personal connection with your own persona.  One time-honored technique is to pay more attention to your dreams and nightmares.  Another is to do what Jungian psychologists call “shadow work,” in order to identify and come to terms with the darker side of your Individual persona, your repressed and rejected Desires.  Yet these techniques, as powerful as they are, can do but so much; and if we just consider the Individual Self, we are forced to stop here, forever trapped between the Scylla of our Existence and the Charybdis of our Desires.

If we widen our field of vision, however, we see that the key determinant of how we actually experience our Identity lies outside the Individual Self.  It is the Relational Self, the Identity formed within the context of every community to which we belong, that determines how our Individual Self will find its means of Expression.  In other words, the life you live will be given shape by the people around you.  It is true, as the Existentialists claim, that no one can take away your freedom to make your own choices.  You alone are in control of the decisions you make at any given moment.  But those choices and decisions will draw their meaning from the shared behavioral vocabulary of your community.

For example, in the highly structured, conformist environment of Japanese primary schools in the nineties, as simple an act as leaving one’s shoelaces untied marked a student as a rebel, a non-conformist and a subversive, gaining her the admiration of peers and the approbation of teachers throughout the school.  Yet during the same era, the same act of leaving one’s shoelaces untied would at most mark a student in the more relaxed environment of a typical American school as careless.  In order for the same Individual, transplanted from Japan to America, to Express the same Desire to rebel, her behavior would need to be augmented to extreme levels.  She would need piercings in her nose, combat boots on her feet and a bomb in her locker in order to garner a comparable level of shock.

We could also consider the imaginary case of a mother who changes neighborhoods and is amazed at the rapid and disturbing changes her child goes through in response. Perhaps he used to be a polite, straight “A” student with an after-school job. Now he is foul-mouthed, rude, and facing charges for drug dealing and murder.   In truth, her son’s underlying personality is still the same. He has always been ambitious and driven. In his old life, he used manners as a way to get people to do what he wanted, pursued money by working an after-school job, and channeled his ambition into his schoolwork. Now, however, he lives in a world where the rules are different, and has adjusted his behavior accordingly. Manners get him nowhere among his new peers, but bad language brings respect. His old job involved long hours for little pay, but drug dealing makes him wealthy. Doing homework used to put him at the head of the class, but becoming head of a gang requires a reputation for deadliness. His transformation from honor student to murderer may seem like a Jekyll and Hyde narrative about two completely different people, but on closer inspection it is the story of one consistent personality manifesting in two contrasting ways in two contrasting social contexts.

Given that your community has such a strong impact on the life you lead, are there ways to improve your Relational Self?  One answer is that which all our mothers did their best to impress upon us –and for good reason –find a better group of friends.  Do your best to integrate yourself into a community that has the values you wish to live into, accomplishes the things you wish to accomplish, and in general, embodies all the traits you most admire.  That said, this may be more difficult than it sounds.  Sometimes the groups that surround us are inescapable.  Sometimes a better group is difficult to find, and sometimes ties of blood, history or loyalty keep us bound to the group we already have.  It may be difficult to judge a group accurately from the outside, and even if you do find your ideal group, it may be impossible to gain entry to it, or to take on your preferred role within that group.  Thus if we go no further than the Relational Self we can be nothing more than the passive product of our environments.
At this point we’ve seen you tormented at an Individual level by the unbridgeable gap between your Existence and Desires, and compelled at a Relational level into the modes of Expression entailed by the community to which you belong.  Is that all there is to life?  It might be, were there not one final self, a self rejected by the Existentialists and debunked by the Empiricists, a self largely forgotten by the modern age –your Universal Self.

It may be easiest to think of this as your Ideal self, the best possible “you” you could be.  This is a you that thinks like you, looks like you, sounds like you and has every facet of your personality, down to its very core, yet without the selfishness, destructiveness, willfulness, greed, envy and other weaknesses of the you that actually manifests within the world.  But is this Universal You just a dream, illusion or fiction (as claimed by both the Existentialists and the Empiricists) or is it somehow latent inside you, waiting to be brought into the world?

Fortunately, there is a simple, effective and reliable method to draw ever closer to your Universal Self, and to do so, moreover, without giving up your Individual Self in the process.  That method is first to identify your unique gifts and talents; second to develop them to their highest extent; and third to put them to work on the behalf of your community.  If you love music, become the best musician you can be, and then play for those around you.  If you are good with your hands, become a builder, and build homes for the homeless.  If you like to be in charge, develop yourself as a leader, and lead people in a positive direction.
If you apply this method consistently and conscientiously; if you are willing to cycle through the process repeatedly; if you keep strictly to positive initiatives, rather than initiatives that primarily act in opposition to someone else; and if you always interpret “your community” as broadly as possible (i.e. as all of humanity rather than narrowly as in just your own friends and family) you cannot help but move progressively closer to your Universal Self.  Furthermore, in doing so, you will find that embodying your Universal Self not only helps you resolve the Tensions inherent in your Individual Self, it will also help you become your best possible Relational Self, by bringing you into your best possible relationship with those around you.

NEXT WEEK:  Back to Art

Art

Fourth in a series on ending war.

Art may seem like a odd substitute for War, but there’s reason to not dismiss the idea out of hand.  We already know that Art can be a powerful economic engine, legions of starving artists and musicians notwithstanding.  For proof just look at the movie and music industries.  What may be more of surprise is that Art has played a role on the battlefield as well.  In the days of the Roman Empire –which lasted for well over a thousand years –conquered cultures were kept in thrall to the Empire as much by the superiority of Roman art and culture as by the threat of force.  As much as having Roman overlords may have rankled, few barbarians truly wished to trade in their refined Roman existence for a return to crude tribal living.  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Chinese Empire survived being repeatedly invaded and conquered by barbarian hordes because Chinese art and culture were so advanced that the invaders inevitably assimilated into the host culture instead of the other way around, as the physical conquerors became the culturally conquered.

But how does Art do versus our criteria?

  1. It makes jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits:  The answer here is both yes and no.  No, certainly, with regards to nations –no country faces its greatest challenge in maintaining itself at the cutting edge of artistic advance.   Yes, on occasion, with regards to individuals.  True, a hobbyist painter or casual guitar player isn’t experiencing much of a challenge, but dance and acrobatics challenge the physical limits of the human body, special-effects laden movies challenge the limits of technology, conceptual art challenges the intellect, “diva” songs challenge the human vocal range, and so forth and so on.  Any artist at the top of their field is probably at or near the limits of what is humanly possible in one way or another.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Here we find a deficiency.  There’s no real structure to distribute Art jobs in the way we found in other ECS candidates.  Furthermore, as with Sport, we’ve become segregated into producers and consumers with regards to Art.  Legions of musicians and artists starve while a small handful of celebrity entertainers serve as the primary artists in the lives of millions.  This is a trend that would need to be reversed before Art could actually serve as a legitimate Employment-Creation System (ECS).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful by:
    1. serving as a test of ideologies:  Here art does surprisingly well.  Didactic art, which explicitly promotes a given ideology, is rarely a success, but every piece of art, no matter how innocuous it may seem, presupposes some philosophy, some viewpoint about the world.  The way an artist solves artistic problems actually says a great deal about his or her views on how to solve general problems of life.  In addition, art cannot be as easily alienated as technology.  You can imitate a foreign art form, but you cannot create valid original work in the same vein until you internalize the ideology that gave birth to the artwork in the first place
    2. being definitive:  The killer subclause strikes again.  An artistic triumph cannot be definitive in the same way as a physical triumph, because Art is too subjective.  There is no common standard for Art, and no two observers can be relied upon to agree at all times on the merits of any piece of art.  Each region prefers its own art, yet even two siblings who grew up in the same household can have opposite artistic tastes.

Things seem bleak.  With Art, Science and Sport all striking out as potential substitutes, we are left stuck with War and Consumerism as the dysfunctional institutions that are destroying us, but that we cannot do without.

And so this is the end.  Or is it?  If a natural substitute for War and/or Consumerism existed, it would likely already be in use.  But what about a synthetic substitute?  Each of our candidates was strong in some areas, and weak in others.  Could we add together the best of each, and create a new system capable of getting the job done?

We’ll take a moment next week to explore the nature of identity, and then return in two weeks to see whether or not we can go ahead and construct a synthetic Employment-Creation System capable both of rescuing Capitalism and putting an end to War.

NEXT WEEK:  Identity

Science

Third in a series on ending war.

If Sport can neither take the place of War, nor of Consumerism, then how about Science and Technology?  Together they compose a powerful economic engine, with advances in technology shaping and reshaping the global economy both through the development of new consumable products and through technological advances in the production, distribution and marketing of those products.  And unlike the deliberately trivial consequences of achievements in Sport, achievements in Science have a very real, significant and consequential impact on the world.  But how does it perform against our criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits: Science and Technology do reasonably well on this criteria.  Individuals are certainly challenged by science to their intellectual limits, and scientific achievements such as the construction of supercolliders or the exploration of space can challenge a nation’s resources and capacity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  This criteria is a bit of a cipher.  Science and technology jobs are certainly well-distributed throughout society, but always adjuncts to other organizations.  Scientists and technicians work for governments, for corporations, for universities, and so forth, but we don’t necessarily see the same kind of distributive hierarchy we’ve seen for other Employment-Creation Systems (ECS).  In addition, science and technology jobs tend to be the province of an educated intellectual elite, rather than a general population.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  Science and technology diverge here.  Science and scientific innovation bears a strong imprint of the ideology that creates it, in terms of such things as decisions over what projects should be funded, and what lines of inquiry are worthwhile.  However, technology is nearly useless as a test of ideology, because it can so easily be alienated from its origins.  A computer is a computer, no matter where it is made and what the ideology is of the people who manufactured it.
    2. by being definitive:  Here the same subclause that ruined Sport claims another victim. The test of a science, not in absolute terms, but in terms of its place in human life, is the technology you can create with it, and the test of a technology is the usages to which you can devote it.  In practice, what this means is that Science and Technology cannot take the place of War, because it is too easy and too common to adapt them to the purposes of War.  The pursuit of Science may be an end to itself, but the test of Science devolves into the same old physical battle, except played out in a high-tech manner.

In fact, as it so happens, there is a wonderful historical example of Scientific competition used between nations as a substitute for open aggression –the Cold War.  The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were unwilling to risk the disastrous consequences of an all out War between superpowers, so instead they sublimated their struggle for ideological superiority into a race to achieve clear scientific and technological superiority.  On the plus side, this led to some amazing scientific breakthroughs, most notably the achievement of manned spaceflight and the lunar landing.  In addition, it produced an extended period of relative peace between the two nations.  Finally, it arguably achieved a victory without violence for the United States when the USSR peacefully disbanded.

On the negative side, however, the arms race –the uglier side of scientific progress –led to the invention and stockpiling of “doomsday weapons,” weapons capable of killing vast numbers of people at once, many of which are no longer in secure hands.  In addition, the “peacetime” of the Cold War was in some senses a fiction, since the United States and the USSR were still fighting out their ideological battles in “hot” wars conducted through intermediaries like the Vietnamese and the Koreans.  So we might consider this a partial solution, but one that comes at what is potentially too high a cost.

NEXT WEEK: Art

Sport

Second in a series on ending war.

The most obvious and ancient substitute for War is Sport. The origins of the first athletic game are lost in the mists of history, which means that Sport has been helping individuals and nations release their aggressions for a very long time.  And given the billions of dollars spent on Sport, it stands a proven economic engine. But how does Sport perform against our crucial criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge nations and individuals to their utmost limits:  The answer to this one is both yes and no.  Sport challenges individuals physically to their limits, to the very limits of human possibility.  Arguably Sport can also challenge individuals mentally and emotionally.  But Sport doesn’t challenge nations in the same way that War does, nor does Sport encompass a wide range of arenas-of-challenge, such as technology, in the same way that War does.  True, there are technologies attached to Sport, better running shoes and sports drinks, illegal performance enhancers such as steroids, high performing playing surfaces, split-second cameras, instant-replay television, advanced prosthetics, and so forth.  However, there is a very real sense in which such things must remain peripheral to Sport in order for Sport to maintain its integrity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  In modern life, Sport has divided into increasingly segregated groups of participants and viewers, with there being a relatively small pool of full-time, dedicated athletes versus a relatively large pool of people whose only connection to athletics is through watching it on television.  That, however, is a reflection on the modern condition and not on Sport itself.  Theoretically, everyone can participate in athletics in some capacity.  Like War, corporations and Feudalism, Sport has a pyramidal hierarchy that distributes athletic experiences, but in this case, the nature of the pyramid is quite different.  Instead of a system where orders filter down from the top to the bottom in a chain of command, the Sport hierarchy is based on a League system.  At the top of any major sport is an elite national or international league, whose stars are the best at their sport in the world, who command huge salaries, and whose numbers are quite limited.  At another level down are minor leagues, less prestigious associations of players that often serve as training grounds for the lucky few who make it up to the next level.  Further down are college leagues, amateur leagues, youth leagues and on down to office teams, neighborhood pickup teams, and so forth.  In general, the system guarantees that any given player will have a chance to compete against other players of similar skill level and commitment.  Very few people can play at the top of any league, but very few people can’t play somewhere at the bottom.  In addition to its main hierarchy, Sport also generates a wide host of auxiliary jobs surrounding the athletes –coaches, trainers, athletic gear producers, and so forth.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  This is where it really begins to fall apart for Sport.  Athletic contests are games, and their rules are arbitrary.  This causes two significant problems for us.  First, it raises the issue of picking a sport to serve as the locus of meaning.  In other words, if the United States wants to make American Football the game that decides geopolitical destiny, and Canada wants to make it Hockey, how can that decision possibly be arbitrated?  Second, it reduces the expressive power of Sport in relation to ideology.  In other words, one team may play a completely honest game, the other team may cheat when it can, and such things may offer consequential ideology-based differences between the teams, but both teams basically have to agree to abide by all standard rules in order to play the game in the first place.  That limits the impact an ideology can have on a team’s success, which in turn limits the value of sport as a test of ideologies.
    2. by being definitive:  This is the killer blow for War versus Sport.  War is definitive, and Sport is not.  For example, take a look at the most prestigious, well-respected, universally endorsed athletic competition on the planet, the Olympics.  The Olympics represent a wide range of sports, selected by an international panel, which lessons the issues discussed in regards to subclause “a.”  If any athletic event could stand in the place of War, this would be it.  But when Hitler’s Aryan athletes were humiliated by African-American runner Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics, Hitler didn’t retire from the world stage in disgrace, his racist ideology definitively debunked.  Instead, he invaded Poland.  Sport can never be the last word when it comes to physical conflict in any world in which War still exists. No nation with the power to reshape the world through War is going to settle for having its reputation be established by Sport instead.

Next Week: Science

I grew up in a generation that vowed never again to go to war. And yet here we are, in it up to our eyeballs all over again. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in office, or how many protests there are. When will it ever stop? *

In the previous series of blog posts we explored the question of why unemployment is so high, which led to the ways in which Consumerism is coming to the end of its usefulness as an economic engine.  That in turn led us to evaluate War as alternative manufacturer of employment.  Although War initially seemed to us like an ideal employer, we soon discovered a dark side which not only forced a reevaluation of War’s economic strengths, it further led us to the conclusion that War needs to be eliminated as soon as possible if humanity is to survive.

If you recall, we said that Employment-Creation Systems (ECS) need three characteristics in order to be viable.  They need to (1) create jobs, (2) distribute jobs and (3) make jobs meaningful. But in order for our new ECS to additionally serve as a viable replacement for War, we need to expand on those criteria a bit.  A War-replacing ECS needs to:

  1. Create jobs that challenge nations and individuals to their absolute limits.
  2. Match people with those jobs.
  3. Make jobs meaningful by placing them in a larger context that
    1. Serves as a test of competing ideologies
    2. Offers a definitive answer.

The new part of criteria one is important, because people and nations both need continue continual challenges in order to stay at their best.  It’s no coincidence that Wars often come at times of peace and plenitude when things seem almost to be going too smoothly and too well.  Criteria two is no different from any ECS, and we’ve already discussed subclause “a” in criteria three.

Subclause “b,” however, turns out to be the real sticking point, the secret to why War has kept its position of primacy in human affairs over the millennia.  War is definitive.  It has clear winners and losers at the end of contests in which nothing has been held back, and both sides are literally fighting for their lives.  War is physical, and immediate, and its results are self-evident.  For any substitute for War to not devolve into an actual War, therefore, it must offer results equally as incontestable and final.

NEXT WEEK: Play ball!

How do you define reality and illusions in life?

From the time I was very young, I worried about the question of whether the true nature of Reality was as we perceive it or not.  And if we could be deluded about the nature of Reality itself, what did that mean in terms of our relationships with others, others who might be mere figments of our imaginations?  These questions troubled me for a good twenty-five years, until the answer came to me, fittingly enough, in a dream.

In that dream I was a student at a large, international boarding school.  The students were all gathered in the spacious courtyard when we received the disturbing announcement that the world was coming to an end.  There was a predictable mix of reactions from the amassed crowd –panic, denial, grief and anger.  There was also a untraceable rumor that began to circulate that there was a select group that would be chosen to survive the dissolution of the universe.  As for myself, I took the news quite calmly, perhaps because of my secret conviction that I was among those who would be saved.

Later in the dream, night had fallen, and the outside gardens were quiet, deserted and already beginning to fade at the edges.  There was no one around as I entered, for the last time, the vast, almost limitless mansion that had housed our beloved school for so many generations.  As I climbed up the wide empty staircase, I passed a group of huge circular machines, patiently cleaning and polishing each surface of the ancient building in preparation for its destruction.  I saw no other living creature until at last I made my way up to the roof.  There the air was suddenly full of light, music and laughter as the teachers of the school gathered to hold a last party for those students who still remained.

I could see the teachers for what they were now, something far older, wiser and more powerful than human beings, something angelic, almost divine.  I sought one of them out, a beloved teacher of my own from when I was very young.  She took me aside to a dark and quiet part of the roof and there we spoke under the starless sky.

As we conversed, I realized the rumor had been wrong.  It was true that I would survive the end of the universe, but there would be no group of the elect that would escape with me.  It would be me and me alone.  I also knew somehow that my teacher was as aware of this fact as I was.  Yet –and this was the amazing thing to me –even knowing this, she viewed me and treated me no differently than any of her other students.  I knew that she loved me, but I also knew that she also loved each one of her other many students in the same way, and with the same depth, even though I would go on living, and they would soon dissolve into nothingness.

“What was this all for?” I asked her.  “What did it all mean?”  I wasn’t asking about the end of the world,
but about everything that had come before –the school, the hard work of educating students, the careful cleaning of a building that was destined for destruction, the party thrown for guests whose time was measured in minutes.  What possible significance, meaning or value could any of it have in the face of the end of everything?  “Was any of it real?”

“Love,” she said.  “Love is real.  Love is meaningful. Love will survive.”

At that very moment, a bell tolled and the world faded away, as I awoke to the realization that it had been the truest dream I ever dreamed.  I had been in another world –the world of my dream –and it was also true that it had had a limited lifespan, and that it had come to an end, and that I alone of all its countless inhabitants had survived its apocalypse to journey into another world –the world of my waking life.

More than that, however, I knew also the last words of my teacher were also true –that Love is Real, that Love is meaningful, that Love survives, and that no action undertaken with Love is ever wasted.  And though I knew that the rational, objective part of my mind could call her nothing but a fiction of my subconscious, I knew that she had achieved a portion of Reality though the depth of her Love.  I could still feel its solidity like an embrace.

The experience resolved a problem that had distressed me since childhood –is this world we live in Real?  Or is it a dream or an illusion?  Are the people, things and places around us as solid as they seem?  Or are they as likely to melt away as snow in the heat of the sun?

What I learned is that the objective Reality of our world doesn’t matter.  We are all, in the largest frame of reference, figments of God’s imagination, characters, as it were, in God’s dreams.  There is still validity and Reality to the way we live and the way we treat others, regardless of any objective reckoning of fact and fiction.  The teacher in my dream was Real because of her values and the way she cared about her students.  The same type of Reality is available to you, and to me, be we disembodied brains in vats, figures in someone other person’s dream, or even fictional characters.  And though it was not a part of my dream, I have also come to understand that the converse must also be true –that giving way to cruelty and hatred renders a person as unreal and as insubstantial as the shadowy wraiths and cardboard monsters who haunt our dreams and are so gratefully forgotten with the approach of morning.

Why War Must End

War has been a feature of human existence throughout all human history.  As each war ends, each generation swears never again to beat the drums of war, and yet like any addict, the human race keeps coming back, over and over again.  And yet, something fundamental has changed, and within our own lifetimes.  This change has made it imperative that War must be ended once and for all, and in the very near future, if humanity is to have any chance of survival.

The change that has taken place in war has to do with technology.  Technology grows in power and reach at an ever increasing rate.  In particular, when it comes to weaponry and other technologies of destruction, the power to kills larger and larger numbers of people in less and less time is placed every year in the hands of a wider and wider circle of people.  With everything from biological warfare to nuclear explosives falling into the hands of terrorists, and with everything from bomb-making equipment to machine guns becoming readily available to average citizens, technology has made our world a very precarious place indeed.  And yet during the same time,  humanity has not experienced any great, worldwide moral leap forward that would allow us to shepherd such technology wisely, safely and with mercy.

“Ever-More Powerful Weapons”  X  “Neither Wiser Nor Better”  = “Inevitable Self-Annihilation”

So is there no solution?  The genie cannot be put back in the bottle, the advance of technology cannot be arrested.  But the direction of technological progress is in our hands.  As long as War remains a key feature of our mutual existence, technologies of destruction will continue to advance.  But if War can be eliminated, the development of new technology may shift towards more positive and peaceful objectives.

Given that we started this series of posts looking at the problem of unemployment, and that we’ve ended, not by solving it, but by taking on another, even more intractable problem, it may seem as though we’ve made no progress.  However, we’ve actually discovered something very important:  War is a wonderful employer, but it is killing us as a species –literally as well as figuratively.  So if can find something that will substitute for war without the downside of war, we will also have found our substitute for Consumerism –and our answer to the problem of unemployment as well.

Next week we’ll take a break to discuss the nature of reality, and then resume in two weeks with a new series on what it will take to solve the problem of war.

The Cake is a Lie

Tenth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

After reading last week’s post you may be thinking that War is such a wonderful thing that we should just forget about peace and just promote nonstop full-time worldwide warfare –and then no one need ever be out of a job ever again.  While this is a strategy that governments have flirted with throughout time, the cold hard fact is that War has reached the very end of its usefulness in human life.  Always possessed of a hideous side beneath the mask of glory,War has become so dysfunctional and destructive that we are fast approaching the point where one of us has to go –either humanity or War.

But what went wrong?  How could such a longstanding relationship have turned so sour?  And what about all the things we just last week claimed make war such an ideal employer?

  1. It creates jobs:  True, but by crippling bodies and destroying infrastructure, it can ruin productivity at the same time.  And War also “cooks the books” so to speak when it comes to lowering unemployment.  Sometimes it does that by creating more jobs –and sometimes it does that by killing off the potentially unemployed.
  2. It matches people with jobs:  True, but the vast majority of wartime jobs are generic “cannon-fodder” positions, base-level soldiers with no particular prior skills, qualifications or future prospects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It is true that War can bring out the finest and highest in human nature, bravery, honor, ingenuity, courage and so forth.  But War also notoriously brings out the worst and the most base in human nature, including rape, torture, murder, and genocide.  And in terms of helping us discover which ideology is better than which other ideology, war is actually a terrible method..  Figuring out which ideology is better by fighting a war is like figuring out which computer is better by using each one to bust open boulders.  The characteristics that lead it to win such a contest have nothing to do with the important aspects of the computer, and even the computer that emerges victorious is likely to be damaged beyond repair by the exercise.

Even with all these nasty characteristics, War presents itself well enough and performs well enough as an economic engine that it has remained a perennial part of the human experience for untold generations.  Yet there has been a fundamental shift in recent times that has made War unsustainable.

NEXT WEEK:  Why War must be stopped.

War, What is it Good For?

Ninth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

I’m a huge hippie pacifist. But with all due respect to those great Motown songwriters, Mr. Whitfield and Mr. Strong, the answer to the above question cannot possibly be “absolutely nothing.”  In every generation, in nations across the world, in human societies since the dawn of recorded time, people have gone to war. We must be getting something out of it. Our species –all evidence to the contrary –just isn’t that stupidly self-destructive to keep on pursuing warfare for no reason whatsoever.

There are multiple answers, but one of them is that war, as awful as it may be, is a highly successful Employment-Creation System, under the criteria we established in past weeks.

  1. It creates jobs:  In addition to the millions of people employed directly on the frontlines as soldiers, war employs many millions more in activities directly or indirectly related to war-efforts: in munitions factories, in agricultural production, and so forth and so on. At the conclusion of wars, new jobs are created in cleaning up and rebuilding after the destructiveness of the battles.
  2. It matches people up with jobs:  There’s a large range of specialty positions in most armies, so recruits can theoretically be matched with positions that suit particular skills, interests and talents, ranging from electronics to cooking, to strategic planning.  There’s also ample numbers of positions available for people who are particularly ambitious, or who have exceptional leadership qualities.  In addition, there are roles in armies for people who would have grave troubles fitting into civilian life –people with a strong desire to kill other human beings, for example.As far as how jobs get assigned, however, we’re back once again to the old Feudal pyramidal hierarchy.  In place of a king, the armed forces have a Commander-in-Chief, in places of Dukes and Barons, the armed forces have Generals and Majors, in place of the lower aristocracy, Sergeants, and in place of the peasants, privates.  Ultimately, the responsibility for creating the jobs goes back to the Commander-in-Chief, who decides what countries to invade, and so forth.  The details of carrying out those orders, where to build a base, where to attack, etcetera, are determined by the military hierarchy, and the orders are carried out somewhere close to the bottom of the pyramid.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Armies tend to use “the carrot” during peacetime (“see the world!”  “get money for college!”  “gain valuable skills”) and “the stick” in more desperate times (enlist or go to jail, you coward!”) but beyond these more superficial motivators is something altogether deeper and more primal.  Summarized neatly by the U.S. Army’s longtime recruiting slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” War does indeed provide the challenges that push humanity to its highest heights, not only as individuals, but also collectively –at least in theory.For nations as well as at the level of each soldier, a major portion of the attraction of war is the concept of being tested to the absolute limits (and of course emerging victorious).  And in the big picture, war isn’t just about national interests and secure borders,  but about field-testing an entire ideology, an entire way of life and belief system.  That’s why nations meet on the field of battle –to find out “are we right, or are they right?”Islam vs. Christianity.  Capitalism vs. Communism.  Catholics vs. Protestants.  Fascism vs. Democracy.  Fight it out and may the best ideology win –and then spread.  That’s the unspoken promise of war.  After all, everyone loves a winner.  Why else would Germany and Japan have re-patterned their societies after the example of the United States after the conclusion of World War II?

NEXT WEEK:  The horrible downside of war.

Back to the Future

Eighth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

It may seem odd to look back at Feudalism, universally considered one of the most unpleasant and backwards economic systems ever invented, as the first stop on the quest to replace Consumerism.  However, in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you’ve been. Consumerism’s ways of meeting the employment-creation criteria may seem like the most natural and obvious ways possible, but a lot of that comes from the fact that we are already immersed in a Consumerist system.  Feudalism actually meets the same criteria, but in a much more primal way.

  1. It creates jobs:  Unlike the “franchise” model of Consumerism, where everyone works together to create jobs, in Feudalism the ultimate responsibility for creating jobs falls on one person, the King.  The King sets the agenda for the overall big projects of the nation, typically invading other kingdoms, or building mighty works like castles or cathedrals or –if you have a extraordinarily enlightened King –kingdom infrastructure.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Feudalism’s model for job distribution is extremely simple, yet in its own way, elegant.  If you’re a Duke or equivalent aristocrat, you work directly for the King.  You send men for his armies, food for his table and his court, and money to pay for his projects.  Each of the Dukes is surrounded by a host of minor lords, who support the Duke in the same way the Duke supports the King.  And each of those minor lords has a small team of servants and larger assembly of slave-like peasants who work like dogs to keep him and his family in what passes for a lifestyle of local luxury (and to generate the thin margin of excess that gets passed upwards).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It doesn’t seem like much of a booby prize for a modern observer, but even the work of a peasant in a Feudal system is ultimately the work of the nation as a whole.  Each person’s individual labor goes not only to support and sustain his or her own life, but also in support of all the King’s grand projects.  This is why a King who demands too much of his subjects is ultimately a more successful King than one who demands too little.

It may seem like so much ancient history, but actually Feudalism never completely went away.  A modern multinational corporation is nothing but a Feudal society dressed up in a nice shirt and tie.  The CEO is the King, the Vice Presidents are the Dukes, the middle managers are the minor aristocrats, the entry-level white collar workers are the servants, and the factory workers are the peasants.  Instead of invading other kingdoms, they take over markets.  However, unlike in Feudalism, there is at least some social mobility in corporate life.  It may be rare, but people do occasionally travel from somewhere near the bottom to somewhere near the top.

At any rate, the purpose of looking at Feudalism is not to posit it as an actual improvement over what we have now, but to see how very possible it is to meet the same employment-creation criteria in very different ways.

NEXT WEEK: War

The Downside to Consumerism

Last week we looked at the upside of Consumerism, the ways in which it functions well as an employment-creation system.  This week we’ll look at the darker side of our trusty economic engine.  Seventh in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

The question of course, is this:  If Consumerism works so well, why are people out of work?  Who turned off the jobs spigot?  As it turns out when we take a closer look at how well Consumerism meets our criteria for a great employment-creation system, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as we painted it last week.  Let’s take a look at the criteria again.

  1. It creates jobs:  An unlimited supply, right?  Not really.  Theoretically the kinds and quantities of consumer goods that can be produced (and thus the number of jobs producing those goods) are only limited by people’s imaginations.  But in reality, there’s an actual limit to how much people want to acquire.  Most people in the First World already have far more consumer goods than they need to live a comfortable –one might even say luxurious –life.  This leads to the problem we discussed in week three (“The Global Pyramid Scheme“) of markets drying up.There are a number of ways in which consumerism compensates for this effect, but they all have problems attached to them.  One way is by making cheaper, more disposable products that wear out faster (such as blenders that break on the third usage) –which is wasteful.  Another way is to stimulate people’s desires for new and different products –which involves making them unhappy with what they already have (as in the case of cell phones that are already out of date a month after being sold) .  A third way is to promote ostentatious excesses (such as the purchase of giant gas-guzzling automobiles).  In addition to making our lives unhappy and filled with cheap crap, these techniques also accelerate the depletion and pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.  Consumerism is a driving force behind impending shortages of such vital and irreplaceable resources such as clean water, oil, fish populations, trees, and unpolluted air, a trend pushing us in the direction of an ever-accelerating environmental disaster.One cutting edge “solution” to the problem is the invention of “virtual” consumer goods, simulated objects that are bought, sold, coveted and “gifted” on various websites and in various virtual reality environments around the internet, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to World of Warcraft and Second Life.  These objects don’t draw a lot of resources, they don’t take up any physical space, and people love them.  It’s a perfect solution, except for the fact that people are now spending huge portions of their lives in the pursuit of shiny objects that don’t, strictly speaking, even exist.  Plato would be horrified.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Apparently not as well as it once did, but that’s more of a symptom of jobs drying up than the cause.  A more serious concern is Consumerism’s poor prioritization of projects, since it elevates trivial industries (say, the marketing of soda pop) to positions of central importance, while letting projects vital to the future of humanity (such as preventing mass extinctions) languish.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where we run into real problems.  As you recall, Consumerism makes jobs meaningful through the money you earn from working those jobs, and money is meaningful, not just for its raw purchasing power, but because it allows us to each measure our own self-worth against that of those around us.  But reducing everything to money has its downside as well.  It’s nearly always possible to increase your profit margins (at least in the short term) by doing some bad or immoral thing such as clear-cutting the forest primeval, farming out your labor to five-year-old workers in a Third World country, or putting sawdust in the chicken nuggets.

The upshot of all of this is that Consumerism is faltering.  People are no longer in tune with its devil-may-care, spendthrift ethos, and the loss of confidence in the Consumerist philosophy is having a very real effect on global markets.  Furthermore, the stopgap measures that gave Consumerism an extra century or so of viability have run their course.  Now like the snake eating it’s own tail, Consumerism has begun to consume itself –one reason, perhaps, for current pop-culture’s tendency to endlessly regurgitate and redigest it’s own recent past.

The problem, of course, is that Consumerism is what is keeping Capitalism afloat, and when it comes to Capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is nothing else.  Competing systems, such as Communism, have been much worse.  But is Consumerism the only possible employment-creation system that can rescue Capitalism, or are there other options?

NEXT WEEK – Feudalism

Spend ’till you drop

Sixth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Let’s take a good hard look at our old friend Consumerism, the dominant Employment-Creation System (ECS) in the modern world.  In many ways it works quite well, and it fits all the criteria we outlined last week.

  1. It creates jobs:  Consumerism creates what has always seemed to be an unlimited supply of jobs, all revolving around the manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution of consumer goods –the famous fabulous prizes of Capitalism.  Blenders, cars, t-shirts, posters, paperweights, computers, microwaves, gold teeth, embroidered wall-hangings –the list goes on, and on, and on.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Consumerism distributes jobs via what might be called the “franchise” method.  Anyone can buy into Consumerism at any point in time –just create a product and put it on the market.  You’ve just manufactured your own job, and if you’re successful enough, you’ll create jobs for other people as well.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where the true brilliance of Consumerism comes into play.  Many, perhaps most, of the jobs in a Consumerist system are not intrinsically meaningful.  With notable exceptions, consumer products aren’t saving lives or making the world a more beautiful place.  However, each and every job in the Consumerist framework has a quantitative value attached to it –that value being the amount of money you get for performing it.  The amount of money for a Consumerist job is related to the amount of money earned by selling the consumer products that generate the job.  The amount of money earned by selling the product is in turn based on the price of the object.  The crucial part of the whole thing, the part that makes it all work, is that the prices are quasi-objective.  No one person or government sets the prices, they are all assigned automatically by the actions of people buying and selling on the open market. In other words, we all set prices collectively, by establishing through buying and selling what we are willing to pay for things.The utility of this system of evaluation is that it gives us all a way to measure our own self-worth, i.e. in terms of dollars and cents.  In our society, under the Consumerist system, your status, your value as a person in society, is roughly equated with your purchasing power, your accumulated wealth.  The day you first get a job, you secure entry into a global system that allows you to compare yourself –quantitatively –to every other person in the system at any given time.

    This in turn provides the motivation that keeps people working.  True, for people at the very low end of the income scale (a vast number of people, largely invisible to the those above them), the primary motivation is survival, the need to purchase the essentials of life, food, shelter and clothing.  For everyone else, however, no matter how it may be disguised, the goal is status, the getting ahead in the system represented by accumulating more money and more goods.

NEXT WEEK – The Downside of Consumerism

The Bright Side of Unemployment

Fifth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Don’t jump off any tall buildings yet.  Despite the abundant Direness, things are less bleak than they appear.  The problem may present as though we’ve run out of a scarce resource –namely jobs, particularly meaningful ones –but viewed from the proper perspective, it becomes clear that we are in fact suffering from an overabundance of a different resource –namely human labor.  And an overabundance is a better kind of problem to deal with than scarcity.

It may seem hard to believe that this could be a problem at all.  After all, the imagination is staggered by the sheer volume of worthy projects in need of more workers.  Desert reclamation, space travel, teaching in the inner city, bridge building, planting trees, the list goes on and on.  Yet the things that need done rarely seem to get matched up with the people who need things to do.

You can’t just throw the people and the projects into a jar and shake it up to see what settles out.  You need a system –a system with the following characteristics:

  1. It creates jobs:  Your Employment-Creation System (ECS) must have a deep (ideally endless) supply of projects that need to be completed.
  2. It distributes jobs: Your system needs a way to match people with projects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Most importantly, your system must provide a unified larger context for its workers that motivates them to complete their assigned tasks.

For those readers with an economics background, it may seem like there are some important things missing from this list:  Supply and demand, channels of distribution,  methods of production, and so forth and so on.  But what I’m describing here is not a economic system, but rather an Employment-Creation System.  For example, here in the United States, our economic system is Capitalism, but our employment-creation system is Consumerism.  Capitalism provides the overall system, but Consumerism generates the majority of the jobs.

NEXT WEEK:  A closer look at Consumerism.