70 years and stains

01 October 2019

So China has stained its 70th anniversary with the blood of protesters in Honk Kong. After Xi Jinping vowed to pursue "peaceful reunification", HK police shot a protester, putting him in critical condition. The policeman, of course, claims that he felt that the lives of his colleagues and himself were threatened, but it is not clear why one should trust that story. There does seem to be a wider spread use of petrol bombs today, but it is more likely that this is a deliberate gesture intended to intimidate the protesters.

Celebrations and demonstrations

01 October 2019

Though China's military parade was much more impressive than Trump's feeble 4th of July showing, ultimately it plodded along as a ridiculously boring demonstration of the country's military might. (Who actually gets off on military parades? Maybe just politicians with big buttons?)

Either way, the more important issue is that Xi Jinping reasserted the PRC's commitment to subordinating Hong Kong and Taiwan, just as is has Tibet and Xinjiang. Xi stated that Hong Kong and Taiwan must be peacefully unified with China. He also stated that the Chinese military will "resolutely protect world peace", which---as we know from our experience with late-19th century imperialism and US expansionism---refers to China's vision of world peace and is a way of justifying violent intervention in any sphere that threatens an empire's power. That is to say that China will surely justify violence to bring peace. And true to form, there is a new report suggesting that the supposed "rotation" of PLA forces in August was actually a reinforcement that doubled the size of the PLA's presence in HK.

During the artificially enthusiastic display of patriotism, Joshua Wong, a prominent participant in Hong Kong's fight for democratic practice and rights, tweeted that everyone should "call on [their] government to exert diplomatic pressure on Beijing". Here is the letter I sent to my Congressional representatives.

Dear Senator/Representative,

Today is a momentous day for China and for Hong Kong. At today's 70th anniversary celebration, Xi Jinping has restated the PRC's ultimate commitment to integrating Hong Kong and Taiwan into its authoritarian, anti-democratic political system.

This immediately threatens the human rights of Hongkongers and their freedom to make choices about their own lives. Those bold individuals protesting in Hong Kong are fighting for the same democratic principles and human dignity that are currently under threat throughout much of the world, including our own nation.

I am writing to encourage you to press forward with more active and visible Congressional support for democratic practice in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's fight today may be ours tomorrow.


Hong Kong and heroes

17 September 2019

The protests in Hong Kong should be the 21st century's "shot heard round the world". Just as those first shots fired outside Boston signaled the beginning of almost a decade of fighting for Americans' right to self-determination, the ongoing protests in Hong Kong (both violent and nonviolent) represent the first salvo in our contemporary fight for the freedom to make choices about our own lives.

The 21st century has witnessed attacks on the democratic principles and practices for many citizens of the world. In the US, Trump and his lackeys have worked to turn the justice system into a tool for protecting themselves and for demonizing immigrants and protesters. Conservatives have gerrymandered voting districts and intimidated and purged voters to manipulate electoral outcomes. They have encouraged violence and aggression in both policing and terrorism through their winking support of white nationalism and gun rights. In the UK, Johnson attempted to suspend Parliament and steamroll a no-deal Brexit. But the US and UK are just two members of a gang of increasingly authoritarian states denying their current and potential citizens the power to make their own decisions. In addition to historically authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and so on, Brasil, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and Russia are also full-fledged members, and a host of aspirants seek to join.

The People's Republic of China under Xi Jinping stands as a living example of what is possible for authoritarian states today. Modern technology has facilitated the Communist Party of China's ability to suppress freedom of thought and political participation. The social credit system and online censorship has made it easier for the state to restrict citizens' freedom to travel, their freedom to speak their mind, their freedom to make choices. The plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang represents one possible future of technological totalitarianism. The ubiquitous deployment of facial recognition technology, electronic surveillance, and incessant police stops creates a continuous stream of inmates for the region's “vocational training centers” whose goal is culturalif not actual—genocide of the Islamic Uighur population.

There is little reason to think that the rest of the world is not headed in the same direction. Through the relentless collection of user data, global tech and finance firms have built their own privatized social credit systems that they employ to determine individuals' eligibility for loans and taxis as well as their freedom of speech. Police departments, federal agencies, and now Amazon's Ring continue to deploy the same technologies applied in Xinjiang to manage local dissent and create an \href{}{umbrella of total surveillance}. All of these actions steadily undermine citizens' privacy and freedom.

It is not difficult to see how these tools might be employed in an all too easily imagined apocalyptic future. If people and governments fail to avert climate change, we will come to live in a hostile world of extreme weather patterns, including more destructive hurricanes and typhoons, higher temperatures, and flooding, all of which will take the lives of those unable to afford to live and work in secure buildings. If we fail to alter our consumption patterns, we will deplete resources and generate a toxic environment that will poison those unable to afford the technologies currently being developed for future trips to Mars. And the majority of the world's population will be precisely those more vulnerable to climate extremes and poisoned resources. Artificial intelligence and roboticization will have eliminated any need for the masses to work, leaving the 1% securely ensconced in their Wall-E-style bunkers and the rest of us scrambling for potable water. Resistance will be managed with the tools of technological authoritarianism.

Protestors in Hong Kong offer a vision of a different yet possible future where people are empowered to make decisions about their own lives. Recently protesters have been holding out their hands with each finger representing one of their five demands. These demands fundamentally push for democracy and the rule of law. Hong Kong's citizens are demanding their right to democratically elect their own chief executive rather than live under one chosen in Beijing. Demands for the withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent inquiry into police violence, and the release of protestors are calls for accountability under the rule of law. They are insisting on holding the powerful to the same standards they are expected to accept. Quite simply, Hongkongers are fighting for the fundamental right to self-determination.

Hong Kong citizens' commitment to a better future and their actions to realize that future should serve as an inspiration to those living in deteriorating democracies. Their struggles are the most courageous example of fighting against the creeping authoritarianism that threatens all of us today. Hong Kong citizens are fighting the first major battle in the 21st century's War of Independence, in our War of Independence.

Borders and bullies

22 July 2019

It's odd. Nothing has changed. I'm not doing anything illegal. I'm still an American citizen. I'm again about to make my annual summer migration to visit my parents. But for the first time I worry about crossing the border into my own country. In previous years, crossing the border has mainly been one of tedious and impatient waiting in line after a long haul on the plane. Of course, it was always attended by the moment of self-conscious tension when you come face-to-face with authority. But that tension was almost always dissolved in the warm patriotic glow engendered by the immigration official's "Welcome home."

I don't feel the same this year. I don't anticipate any problems. And there's no reason there should be any problems crossing the border. But under the current regime, in the current climate, I no longer have confidence that things will go smoothly. Between the capriciousness of the President and the complicity of Congress and Wall Street, between the crowding and poor treatment at the border's concentration camps and my family's own negative border experience two years ago, between chants to "Send her back" and Civil Rights Era calls to "Go back home", the border no longer feels like a bureaucratic hurdle. The border now feels like a barbed wire fence.

Maybe Trump got his wall after all.

Historic and legendary

1 July 2019

In the press conference following Trump's unprecedented stroll into the North Korean side of the DMZ, Trump himself described the event as "historic" several times and even labeled it "legendary". I'm not sure Trump understands what "historic" means. Organizing an international summit by Tweet with just 24 hours notice may be historic. But the mere fact that he was the first US president to set foot in North Korea is not historic. To be historic, the event itself must reflect and symbolize deeper changes. The underlying transformation is the truly historic component. Its significance simply gets compressed into a single event.

In this case there appears to be no meaningful underlying historical process. The outcome of Sunday's publicity stunt is simply that working talks are being restarted. As Michael Fuchs points out, this places us right back at the beginning. Okay, maybe not the "Rocketman" beginning, but certainly the beginning of talks. The only possible positive spin may be that the leaders' date in the DMZ may have kept up a relationship that could serve as the basis for future cooperation. Progress will not be made without some measure of trust building.

The event is not "historic", but it may be "legendary". "Legendary" only requires that an event be larger than life. And arranging a date through Twitter for an empty photo op may indeed be Trump's ego.

Please note that the argument informing my notion of "historic" was originally inspired by a talk by Marshall Sahlins that I once attended and whose contents are contained in this article. I may also have been inspired by my recent reading Walter Benjamin's On the concept of history.

Bodies and immigration

27 June 2019

This article and photo is disturbing. And it should be. It depicts the tragedy of a Salvadoran father and his two-year-old daughter who drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to the US. The pointless loss is tragic in and of itself, but the photo of the two face down in the water by the bank of the river is doubly poignant because of the clear bond between the two. The father has tucked his daughter inside his shirt to ensure that she stays with him. And the daughter's arm is still flung around her father's neck, as if she were still clinging to him to keep her safe.

The story should trigger deeper reflection on the human toll of the US's currently inhumane and murderous immigration policies.

Presenting and entertaining

31 May 2019

A friend of mine was just asked to replace the speaker for this talk on survival skills that will take place in NYC this week. He tells awesome stories, but he doesn't tell them in formal circumstances like this and wrote that it's time for him to become an entertainer. I decided to offer some unsolicited advice for presenting, since I am procrastinating to avoid reading student theses! Since this is presentation season at my university, I thought it might be useful more broadly. This is most of what I wrote (edited for clarity).

Welcome to my life. As a professor I am an entertainer on a daily basis. You probably know of the following suggestions for giving presentations and teaching, but even if they are just a reminder:

  1. If you're nervous, just say so. It helps you relax.
  2. If you think you'll be nervous, memorize the first minute or so. It gives your system time to relax.
  3. "Never" look at the projection screen. If you need to see the presentation, look at the computer. You don't want to turn your back on people. Doing so is subconsciously interpreted as rude and, more importantly, it muffles your voice.
  4. Move around. Movement stimulates people's brain and keeps their attention. Staying at the podium doesn't work. But be warned that it makes you feel more vulnerable at first.
  5. People love stories. They are not appropriate for every topic, but they personalize you and build a stronger bond between you and the participants.

Actually, I think this would be my main suggestion: Think-pair-share. The teaching technique world says that people don't focus well after ten minutes or so, so if you break your talk up into little pieces and then do an interactive activity, you win. So you want to get people doing something. Plus people learn more when they think than when they listen. So what I typically do when I ask a question is ask it and then say "talk to your neighbor for a couple of minutes and come up with an answer". Then discuss it as a group. After that break from just listening, people are a bit refreshed and more people are willing to talk and try to answer your question. When discussing answers, be sure to recognize any good ideas your didn't think of or that are not your focus. There are almost always one or two.

Here's a link to a risk communication video by Bonner that actually has some cynically decent tips for presenting.

Hope this helps some of you.

Trump and sanity

24 May 2019

I've long had a theory that Trump has had a brilliant fundamental strategy for undermining the legitimacy of his opponents and deflecting attention from his own faults. He simply accuses others of things he is guilty of. So it comes as some dismay that after his supposed meltdown in front of Democrat representatives over funding infrastructure he has said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "She's mess...she's disintegrating. I've been watching her for a long time. She's not the same person. She's lost it."

Maybe he does need a break from running the country.

Weber and rationality

23 May 2019

In the weekly book club I am involved in with some of our students, we are reading John Dewey's The Public & Its Problems but in trying to understand Dewey's idea of how science should work confusion arose over Weber's concept of rationality. It drove me nuts through the night. Although I've read it a dozen times (maybe), instrumental and value rationality were not settling down together comfortably. So I went back to Economy and Society once again. My brief reconnaissance produces the following observations. They are surely incomplete, but I'm throwing them out here because there does seem to be a small core of value. If anyone wants to correct or educate me further, please email me.

I have not found a clear definition of rationality in the book. It may be there, but I haven't found it. Instead, rationality appears to be a process of deliberate, conscious analysis (and decision making). He breaks it down into two broad types: formal and substantive. Formal rationality involves clear quantitative calculations (though it also seems to include rigid structures, like government bureaucracies). Substantive rationality involves conscious decision-making based on ultimate values.

These are then connected to corresponding types of social action. Instrumentally rational (zweckrational) action is associated with formal rationality and calculates expectations about the behavior of others and the environment to pursue rationally determined ends. Note that the rationally determined ends could be predominantly formal or substantive, so you can pursue values in a consciously rational way. Value-rational (wertrational) action is associated with substantive rationality and is determined by a conscious belief in some value, regardless of you chances of succeeding. It seems that these types of social action are characterized by the source of their ends. The fucky thing is that instrumental rationality seems to be considered both a means and an end (as far as I can tell). Weber seems to be a bit sloppy here, but he is unequivocal. He states, "Action is instrumentally ration (zweckrational) when the ends, the means, and the secondary results are all rationally taken into account and weighed." But value-rational only seems to refer to the ends. Weber does not discuss any means other than instrumental.

He also adds two non-rational types of action. The first is affectual, which refers to action driven from emotion. The other is traditional, which refers to action done out of habit or custom (pragmatism again!).

Intelligence and wealth

19 May 2019

The notion that intelligence is a personal endowment or personal attainment is the great conceit of the intellectual class, as that of the commercial class is that wealth is something which they personally have wrought and possess.

--- John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, 1927, p. 211.