Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page


In Uncategorized on November 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Since coming to Fletcher, I’ve been surprised and bothered by the level of stress students carry around with them. For example, I’ve heard several people describe being unable to sleep because they were worrying about their assignments. (That is, they were too tired to work, but couldn’t sleep for worry.)

Stress is an inherent part of the Fletcher experience, but we shouldn’t just accept unhealthy levels of stress as par for the course. There are a number of proven cures: I can attest to exercise, close relationships, and (particularly) meditation, and I’m sure many people swear by therapy. Each of these things takes time, which we’re pressed for in the first place, but having “no time” to relax and collect ourselves is a falsehood. Obama has time to play basketball, and he’s the president.

Fletcher is rigorous, no doubt, but let’s not think that painful stress levels are normal, or somehow a badge of honor. We can treat ourselves kindly while still achieving our academic and professional goals.

Julian Assange: Supervillain

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

The recent WikiLeaks release of documents from the depths of the State Department’s files, seven times larger than the Iraq dossier, will certainly touch the lives of some Fletcher grads and maybe some current students. Since WikiLeaks’ spokesperson Julian Assange’s coming-out party – the Iraq helicopter video ‘Collateral Murder’ – I’ve kept an eye on him, and now that he is impinging on my sphere, I need to broadcast my theory about him: Assange is the world’s first supervillain.

Some may say that there have been supervillainous dictators and mass murderers in the past. I won’t disagree. I just think that Assange is a James Bond-style supervillain, the first person to challenge the international establishment from the position of a non-state, individual actor, working from behind firewall fortresses with a phalanx of hackers and free-speech politicians. He even has a conception of the common good, a better world, in mind: “Imagine a world where companies and government must keep the public, or their employees, or both, happy with their plans and behavior. That is the world we are striving to create.” None of us think that transparency is a bad thing; most of us probably think that bringing it to the extreme is.

Every supervillian needs a superhero to counter. Who will this be? Does State have some genius anti-hacker hot on the trail of Assange, showing up just two minutes too late at the Icelandic bunker of Assange and his crew of information pirates, digital handcuffs out and State-issued warrant in hand, only to learn that the leakers have left the building? Certainly Adrian Lamo, the journalist who deceived the Afghanistan file-leaking Army Private Bradley Manning into admitting guilt, is no superhero. Are there any hackers in the Fletcher community who will take up the cape and challenge the subversive Assange? Or do others feel that he is the superhero, a voice of reason in an all-too-closed world?

The Future Isn’t Boring (reader response)

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

It’s nice to see the future through rose colored lenses, but I have to “respectfully disagree” that the future may be boring due to our successes at solving world problems. First, I think it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll get anywhere near any of those goals (call me pessimistic). Second, we (and nature) are always coming up with new problems. Think infectious diseases, global warming, overpopulation—there’s always a new crisis to address.

Third, I don’t think most people in the world are mobilized by these issues—or even concerned by them. We at Fletcher are the anomalies—the weirdos who want to focus on solving the world’s problems instead of fulfilling our societal roles, having families, making some money, maybe even buying a boat or ski jet or something. (Okay, I realize a lot of people want to do all of these things. More power to you, let me know when you find the cure for sleep.)

Say we do cure cancer, banish AIDS, unite Muslims, Jews, Christians et al, solve the energy crisis, abandon war, achieve equality between people, regardless of sex, religion or race, and appropriately adjust all the other phenomena that cause pain and suffering in the world. We can always ponder the meaning of life, infinity, and how to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, while watching our children play (non-violently) outside.

Is the Future Boring?

In Uncategorized on November 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Let’s imagine a world (in, say, 2150) that has achieved a rough parity in living standards—the problems of poverty and development are essentially solved. We’ve managed our strain on the environment so that it is no longer an existential threat, we can treat most diseases and epidemics, and religious and national identities and conflicts have greatly diminished with globalization.

What will we do then? Humanity has always been energized by threats to our survival, by national struggles, and by the metaphysical promises of our religions. What will we do if the future holds none of these energizing principles? How will we busy ourselves in a universe that looks more cold, impersonal, and lonely than any philosopher would have guessed?

It would be cool if someone in the future unearthed this, and had an answer. Of course, she might just as easily be reading from a bomb shelter, or from an alien work camp. Thoughts?


In Uncategorized on November 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I wonder at the ability of people in power to accept the enormous consequences of their decisions. Bad leaders sacrifice their humanity for power—simple enough. But what about good and scrupulous people who must make the same decisions?

When Barack Obama decided to run for president, he accepted that he would be the one to make calls that were not merely “hard”—the standard American political euphemism—but actually repugnant. To pick just one example, he continues to authorize drone strikes in Pakistan, with the attendant civilian casualties. As sensible as this decision may be, it’s difficult to understand what process would reconcile a sane person to ordering civilians dead in the real world. And if there’s no process, why isn’t there?

Perhaps good leaders accept this kind of moral responsibility as a sort of martyrdom—the personal cost of improving a hideously imperfect world. But at the end of the day, they’re still signing off on the deaths of innocents, which is not part of a normal martyr’s repertoire. Is this fortitude a component of “greatness” or just callousness, and does the former contain an element of the latter?


In Uncategorized on November 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Because of the financial crisis, many of my friends are having a hard time finding jobs. Some of these friends are young, privileged, and well-adjusted, and their job troubles are the first sustained message of rejection they’ve ever received. Perhaps the exposure of previously sheltered people to rejection is actually one of the crisis’s silver linings: a firm, nonnegotiable “No” is, I think, the most important and accurate message the world can give us.

Human beings are felicitously adapted to our world: we require precisely the kind of food that grows in the earth, we yearn for love and can find like-minded others, and so on. If we are unusually lucky—gifted with intelligence and an environment that rewards it, or with high cheekbones and a flat stomach at a time when those traits signify beauty—we might enjoy immense acceptance for a very long time, with scarcely a “no” message in sight. We might even start to think that fulfillment of our wishes is the law of the land.

This is emphatically not the case. We may fit smoothly into most circumstances, but that is no guarantee that the world will continue to provide those circumstances. (In fact, the guarantee is precisely the opposite.) Rejection is the message that, despite our best efforts, the world is not in the business of providing what we want. In that sense, it is the fundamental message of reality. Sadly, it’s also painful, especially if we persist in viewing it as something out of the ordinary.

Postmodernism and Old Spice

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Postmodernism, as I understand it, is a nonbelief in overarching claims to meaning. For example, if someone claims to have discovered the “one true religion,” a postmodernist would neither agree, or argue in favor of another “one true religion.” Rather, the postmodernist doesn’t believe that there is such a thing: her response (if she felt comfortable responding honestly) would have to do with the meaninglessness of the claim itself. So in postmodernism, the world becomes a kind of void of only arbitrary, personal meanings.

I think it’s really interesting how postmodernism, which seems abstract and academic, is nevertheless an intuitive part of how we look at the world. It’s particularly prevalent in modern (Western) humor, much of which celebrates meaninglessness in a way that older humor does not. Advertising has begun to pick up on this: Old Spice’s line of absurdist ads—basically an imitation of the postmodern ethos expressed in most modern sketch comedy since Monty Python—has dozens of millions of views.

It’s funny to observe how materialism continues to take every philosophical development in stride: whether or not you think the world is imbued with meaning, there’s still deodorant to sell, and people who’ll mimic your mindset in order to sell it to you. In that sense, I wonder if materialism beats postmodernism at its own game. Everybody’s talking about a fundamental departure from meaning, but Old Spice’s advertisers have found a way to profit from it.


In Uncategorized on November 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Anarchy is the foundational assumption of classical (“Realist”) international relations. It basically means that states must fend for themselves, and explains why they periodically find themselves dragged into arms races and wars despite the peaceful intentions of all involved. I’ve never seen anarchy conceptually linked to the economic idea of perfect competition, but the two mean essentially the same thing: a fight for survival, with no structural guarantees that the winners remain winners and no intercession on behalf of the losers. Anarchy leads to world wars in international relations, but to the provision of the highest-value goods and services at the lowest possible cost in (an idealized version of) economics. Why is one so destructive and one so beneficial?

I think the answer has to do with the basis on which businesses and states compete. A business competes by offering a value-adding good or service, so the byproduct of intense economic competition is enormous value added. The basis on which states compete is less clear. If they perceive this basis as principally security—protecting their citizens from existential threats—then the byproduct of their competition benefits no one (since security is merely freedom from something and is not really enjoyed in its own right) and defeats itself (since security is a purely relative measure, and erodes as competitors attain it). This is a bit like a corporation thinking its main mission is to purchase excellent antivirus software for its own computers: no one benefits, except the IT department.

This seems to point to a (Constructivist) take on improving the international system: if we can change the basis on which states think they’re competing, then international competition might, by happy accident, actually begin to improve the lot of the bystanders. Indeed, this is probably already happening: most states currently seem to think they’re competing not on military but on economic terms—and the result has been unprecedented worldwide economic development, albeit with all the destructive gamesmanship one would expect from a struggle to the death. In an idyllic world, perhaps states would see themselves as competing on a quality of life basis in order to attract productive, happy citizens—something like US cities.

Fear, Populism, and Empathy

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Here’s an exercise in empathy. Please take a few minutes to browse the far-right American news website WorldNetDaily. Resist the urge to write the site off as self-parody, and ask, What’s going on here? I think the basic answer (identified by many cultural commentators) is fear: the site is steeped in less educated and less powerful Americans’ fear of social, economic, and political forces they don’t understand.

Is this fear irrational? The WorldNetDaily writers are clearly grasping at straws (the TSA, rigged home energy meters), but their readership’s wide-ranging mistrust seems harder to dismiss. At present, millions of Americans are without jobs, and some are without homes, because of the complexities of the domestic and global financial system. As these people struggle to carve out a secure and comprehensible life, perhaps some have misidentified the threats they face, but are the real threats not equally arbitrary and monolithic?

In general, how much of our amusement at American right-wing populism is actually amusement at the vulnerability of people whose exposure to the risks of spiraling complexity far oughtweighs their understanding of it? Will our condescension help this feeling of powerlessness, or inflame it? When we graduate and take up roles in the national and international system, how will we think of the people whose lives we affect? Will we prove populist fears wrong, or right?

Bush and the Lauer Interview

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Former president George W. Bush recently gave a wide-ranging interview with Matt Lauer in support of his book, Decision Points. The interview is an unusual opportunity to get a fresh look at Bush, and I’d recommend you watch it in full before reading my take on it. My take: I came away with a reinforced understanding of Bush as a good man, tragically unequipped to be president in part because of a fundamental innocence and susceptibility to manipulation.

The interview yields a clear picture of Bush as a man with strong visceral experiences: he repeatedly describes—or actually demonstrates—nearly being overwhelmed by strong emotions. Then he recounts how at one point Dick Cheney asked him, about Saddam Hussein, “Are you gonna take care of this guy or not?” Bush describes his relationship with Cheney as “very frank,” and says Cheney’s urgings “didn’t matter” because “I am the guy who makes the decisions.” But it seems clear that Cheney was not simply “frankly” expressing a view: he was in fact manipulating Bush with a carefully phrased emotional appeal. The decision to invade Iraq was Bush’s, but Cheney knew exactly what buttons to push to influence that decision. Similarly, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would emblazon White House military reports with bellicose Bible quotes. Bush still does not appear to understand the degree to which his advisors shaped his behavior during his time in office, or the methods they used.

The day after his interview with Matt Lauer aired, Bush sat down with Rush Limbaugh. In the interview, Bush repeatedly indicates his wish to avoid seeming divisive; but by the end, he appears to accede to Rush’s view that “the Democrats simply want… to register [illegal immigrants] as new Democrat voters.” Again, Bush seems not to understand the game being played. Such a sad story. Let us pray for the souls of innocents in power, of the people they govern, and (perhaps especially) of the people who manipulate them.