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.
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.
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.
Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a Fascist politician’s rise to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here, are now bestsellers. Indeed, Amazon has sold out of both.
But another book ought to be on your reading list as well: The Confidence Game by the science journalist Maria Konnikova.
A study of the art of the con artist and the psychology that leads victims to fall for scams, the book was written and published before most of us thought Trump had any chance of victory, and it was not meant to be political. Yet it reads like a history of his rise.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
So World War III may start with Russian encroachment into the Baltics. That reminds me of the Battle on the Ice of 1242 A.D. This, too, had been a battle between Russia and the West. It, too, had taken place in the Baltics. And it holds lessons on how Russia sees itself, or even how Putin sees himself, even today.
The “ice” was the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, the body of water straddling the modern border between Estonia and Russia. As a part of the so-called “northern Crusade,” an army led by the Teutonic Knights attacked the Russian state of Novgorod. Whereas the more familiar Crusade had as its aim the conquest of the Holy Land, the northern Crusade was directed against the Eastern Orthodox Slavs and their pagan neighbors. Christianity having split into two halves, the Western Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in the Great Schism of 1054, Catholic Europe now would have the Easterners convert to their version of the religion.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
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."