Saturday, June 28, 2014

Fukuyama - The Origins of Political Order.

Today's book review:
I have been a fan of Francis Fukuyama since reading The End of History and the Last Man. This book will be, for me, equally memorable. The End of History asks the question "is the human race figuring out how to better govern itself?" The Origins of Political Order traces the history of that noble endeavor from prehistory to the French Revolution. Why did some countries move further along the trajectory to liberal democracy than others?
I learned a great deal of political history. Like most of my (Vietnam) generation my formal history education made it from the Greeks to England and America with little or no consideration of the rise of other civilizations. In addition to supporting Dr. Fukuyama's thesis of political order this book would make a great senior high school text for whatever "history" and "government" courses are called these days.
I said "exhausting" as there is a lot of material covered. In support of his thesis we get more than an overview. Rather we get a detailed account of the political rise of many civilizations. I found on occasion that I just had to put the book down for a day or two to catch my breath. Those who need the "Cliff's Notes" version can skip to the final section "Toward a Theory of Political Development," It is a great summary of the premise. It opens with an echo of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (which I also recommend) in its characterization of fundamental human nature. Those who are invested in Rousseau's pacific ignorance or to a lesser degree Hobbes anarchic violence as the basis of human behavior may find this section troubling.
Troubling to me was the identification of political decay as a prime mover in history. Why do countries fall into dark ages in their quest for better models of governance? I could not but be struck hard by the similarities of the histories of previous political decay and what I observe happening in the United States today. Why are some of the most egalitarian impulses not only doomed to failure but prevalent in today's American society and political order? Are we destined to destroy our own political progress by our ill-conceived humanitarian impulses? With approval of Congress in single digits, the majority of Americans believing the country is on the wrong track, the second President in a row with approval ratings below 50%, and unemployment, underemployment, and a large number of potential workers who have just given up are we in fact in a period of political decay? Legitimacy of the “State” is a core element in political order yet the American government has never been perceived by such a large majority as having less legitimacy in my lifetime. Add that war has always been a primary source of change in political order and consider the world today - the Russian invasion of Crimea, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Liberia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea etc. I am more concerned for the future today than I was growing up during the Cold War.
I find that scary problem an interesting foreshadowing of the second volume of this series - the history from the French Revolution to the Present. Maybe there is a way out. I certainly hope so! I look forward to its publication.
Remember, "Its turtles all the way down."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

One advantage of being able to do nothing is the ability to read... My most recent review...

Since the Enlightenment philosophers have asked the question "what is the basic nature of man?" (Unfortunately back in those days women didn't count for much.) Unequiped with the modern tools of inquiry thinkers such as Hobbs (anarchic violence) and Rousseau (pacific ignorance) speculated and wrote on this question. What is the base state of the human character? What is "Nature" and what is "Nurture?" Even suggesting that "Nature" (genetic inheritance) plays a major role has gotten authors pillored - consider the reaction to The Bell Curve by the "correct" thinkers of the current age.
We have learned a lot since the days of Hobbs and Rousseau (and Marx, Lenin and Mao!) Steven Pinker's thesis is that the intellectual children of the Enlightenment have left us with three incorrect models of human nature: "The Blank Slate", "The Noble Savage", and "The Ghost in the Machine." He explodes all three. He also explodes the myth that males and females are identical except for the plumbing.
Many people will find this book uncomfortable as it challenges their basic beliefs. Those who see themselves as paragons of egalitarianism and "human" virtue will be hardest hit. Their cherished notions and solutions for what ails society are exposed as wishful thinking with little or no chance of success. Occasional even a blind squirrel finds a nut. Perhaps on occasion the right solutions come from the wrong motivations. But it is a well know fact that the best way to solve problems it is first to understand them. Otherwise one is shooting in the dark. Mr. Pinker goes a long way in providing illumination.
Given the previous paragraph I need point out that this book is not political. Ones perspective: left, right, liberal, conservative, religious, atheist will not be justified. Rather this book should give one insight into why the unexpected consequences that have become apparent outcomes of "social engineering" should not have been unexpected at all.

Fair winds and following seas:)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fort Monroe

Yup, you should not go there
For Memorial Day I tried to visit Yorktown, VA. Well, the traffic was terrible but I finally got there. It was swamped with tourists. There was nowhere to park so I decided it was a trip I would take another day. On the way back to Little Creek I stopped at Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort. The marina at Fort Monroe has been used for years by boaters coming up the Elizabeth River or heading down to the Intracoastal Waterway. I have never been there so I decided I would do the shore side evaluation of the facility. It is quite well protected as a place for fuel and a pump out. There are no other facilities near as it is still in the middle of the fort. (BTW the marina is now public.)

Freedom's Fortress
While there I discovered that Fort Monroe has a history from the Civil War. It was here that slaves trying to escape the South could find sanctuary and freedom. Quite a history.

Battery Irwin
A major problem for the Hampton Roads area is the size of the entrance channel. Consider that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is 20 miles long and crosses the entrance to the Roads. We didn't have guns that could fire 10 miles much less 20. So the only way to blockade the channel was with a combination of ships and shore emplacements to prevent enemy ships from having access to the Chesapeake Bay (and thus the Potomac River and Washington DC.) Also important was the entrance of the Elizabeth River with access to Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Yorktown. Hence the shore batteries at Fort Monore.

Fair winds and following seas :)