Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Kenneth Arrow died last week.
Professor Kenneth Joseph Arrow of Stanford, naturally the son of immigrants (in this case Romanian Jewish ones), in his lifetime won the John Bates Clark Medal for best economist under 40, the John von Neumann Theory Prize, and, oh yes, the Nobel Prize for Economics. In fact, he remains the youngest person ever to win that particular award.
Arrow was 95.
I discovered Arrow in college, as so many other did as well. It was hard to study social science, any social science (political in my case), without coming across Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. And for a college sophomore coming across the Theorem for the first time, the idea of it is deeply disturbing, like tremors beneath your feet where you didn’t realize there was ever a fault line.
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem:
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
The Inca Empire, more properly called Tawantinsuyu, had today’s Cusco, Peru as its capital. Designed in the shape of a puma, it stood at the center of the ancient road system known as Qhapaq Nan that connected the whole empire from Chile to Ecuador. After the Conquistadors came, Cusco became the first center in the Americas that taught European painting techniques to native and mestizo artists. In the end it gave birth to a new school of remarkable hybrid religious art that sought to combine, or code-switch between, the Catholic teachings of the missionaries and traditional Incan beliefs.
The missionaries wanted these paintings for didactic purposes, to express Christian doctrines to a native population that mostly could not understand sermons. To make these images acceptable to the native Quechuas, the artists incorporated many ideas already familiar to them.
The figures of warrior angels, for example, became extremely popular because they recalled winged deities in traditional Incan religion. Walking around Cusco even today, you can immediately see this artistic legacy. Seemingly every other storefront has a painting of a Michael or a Gabriel or some other angel on the wall. And they are often depicted in a manner distinct to Cusco, for example as Spanish gentlemen bearing muskets, like in this depiction of Uriel, the guardian of the sun (the sun, Inti, being incidentally a chief god of the Incas).
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
So I recently saw the film Arrival and read the short story it’s based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
At the center of the plot, both in the film and in the story, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the language(s) that one speaks determines or influences the way that one thinks. The film and the story present an extreme version of Sapir-Whorf, wherein one who learns an alien language comes to see time the way the aliens do. But in fact most scholars have rejected the strong version of Sapir-Whorf, which suggests that people aren’t even able to think outside of their linguistic categories.
The weak version, though, seems to me surely true. This is an autobiographical account of how languages have repeatedly predicated my thinking.
In 1960, Communist China successfully tested its first ballistic missile. In 1964, it detonated its first atomic bomb. In 1967, it had a thermonuclear bomb. In 1970, China launched its first artificial satellite. Not too bad for an impoverished nation that, from 1959 to 1961, had gone through a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
And none of it would have happened but for an MIT- and Caltech-educated scientist who returned to China in 1956.
Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien, as his name was spelled when he first arrived in the U.S., was born in Shanghai in 1911 right when the first Chinese Republic overthrew the imperial regime. Ten years before he was born, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the imperial court had agreed to pay reparations to numerous Western powers including the United States. Unlike the other recipients, the U.S., in an earlier and wiser time, had used the money to establish a scholarship to help talented Chinese students pursue advanced studies in America.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."