Saturday, October 29, 2005

What Person Has No Body to Punish, No Soul to Condemn?

Answer: the . That’s not a riddle, but part of a quotation by Alexander Hamilton. Most Americans of his day strongly objected to the power of corporations in England, which controlled trade with the colonies, and resolved to prevent their excessive influence in the United States. Whereas in Europe, directors and were not liable for the debts or damages incurred by their firms, the American laws were not so lenient; if a corporation abused its charter, it would be dissolved. Moreover, the founding fathers allowed corporations to be chartered only for a limited time for the purpose of building the public infrastructure, such as roads. Profit for the shareholders was allowed only as a means to serve the .

Since Civil War days, nevertheless, corporate “” has gradually become institutionalized as a legal status throughout North America and in many other countries, where transnational corporations are expanding.

This clever legal invention has enabled both socially benign and harmful changes to take place. Having just spent two days at an ecological economics conference, the harmful effects are uppermost in my mind, perhaps because one engaging speaker, Ben West, captured my imagination today.

West works for the in Vancouver, which is trying to curb a few of the most egregious examples of harmful corporate power, notably the and industries. Since no one can deny that the health effects of those businesses are overwhelmingly negative, West views them as “low-hanging fruit” for a campaign of .

And reforms are overdue. The law treats a corporation as a person, but it is a peculiar type of person — one that’s shielded from many unpleasant consequences of bad decisions. confers three strange attributes.

First, the corporation can be immortal. It can survive all its owners and managers. This beneficial fact gives great stability to its capital, which can be invested therefore in long term projects.

Second, the corporation has limited liability. An injured party cannot sue its stockholders for more money than the amount they paid for their stock. This relieves the owners from much risk and therefore makes their investments particularly sound bets.

Third, the corporation is obliged to maximize its profits. That is, the directors are not permitted to put other interests — including environmental protection, worker safety, societal health and welfare — ahead of the best interests of their shareholders. This strange rule, which should certainly be overturned in court and by legislation, has a long and curious history. In one case, Henry Ford paid his workers higher wages than were absolutely necessary, on the theory that this would enable them to buy his cars — an approach known as “fordism.” However, one of his shareholders was his brother-in-law, a Mr. , who objected to this business practice and sued the Motor Company for having harmed the firm’s profitability. Dodge won, and used the proceeds of the case to create his own car company.

In recent years, citizens have been attempting to reverse the expectation that profits come first. The shocking revelations about public and personal harm done knowingly by officials of Enron, Ford, and Firestone, to mention only a few, have made people conscious of the danger of this rule. Some municipalities have passed ordinances that reject these corporate rights — though often these are enacted only as symbolic gestures, since there is little prospect of revoking “personhood” from corporations by local action.

In Canada, is a federal statute, now in parliamentary committee, that will require directors of not-for-profit corporations to give primacy to the public interest in their decision-making. This does not cover all the problems with corporations, but it is a step in the right direction.

Additional measures that need to be legislated include the requirement that all corporate activities be made perfectly transparent, and that stakeholders — every group significantly affected by the corporation — should be consulted or even represented officially on the board of directors. At a minimum, this would include employees, consumers, and environmentalists.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge

You probably have a rich imaginative life, whether you notice it or not. One expert, Eric Klinger, estimates that constitute about half of the thousands of thoughts and images we produce in a day. Yet most people feel ashamed of their daydreams. In everyday social life, wise people are assumed to be who keep “their feet on the ground.” You’ve been scolded, no doubt, for indulging in ; you’re not even supposed to speculate much about what might have been. Yet your imagination is an indispensable aspect of realistic, practical thinking, not its antithesis.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” declares Albert on a poster that can be found in thousands of university dormitories. His great breakthrough came from imagining what he might see if he were riding a through the depths of space

Dreams and daydreams sometimes yield practical solutions to empirical problems. Einstein even said that “the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” He was not the only scientist who used fantasy in that way. The brilliance of can be attributed to their ability to play with fantasies and in the back of their minds, yet notice the and bring them up into consciousness, work through the practical implications, and then put the ideas into a form that others can see. Here are three stories about other scientific geniuses whose imaginations gave them the greatest research insight of their lives.

The chemist Friedrich August had been working in 1858 on the structure of organic compounds when he dozed off in front of his fireplace. He imagined atoms in

“long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its , and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.”

This image of a snake biting its own tail revealed to him the structure of the — the basis of all organic chemistry.

Another example is Nikola , one of the greatest inventors of all time, who is best known for discovering alternating current. (See photo of his shocking invention.) Tesla’s fantasy life was extraordinary. In his autobiography, he described that seemed so real that he could not always tell which ones were tangible and which ones not. Yet he was far from being mad, and indeed he put his visualizing capacities to work in the realm of physics. He explained in his autobiography:

“When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop.... When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

And finally, my third example is Elias , who invented the in 1845. He had been attempting to invent such an instrument for years. One night he fell asleep at his workbench and dreamed of being captured by in Africa. They carried him home on a pole and dumped him into a pot, preparing to boil him. Although he managed to loosen the ropes from his hands and tried to climb out of the pot, the cannibals kept poking him down again with their spears, which had holes in the points.

Howe awoke with a shock. “Holes in the points!” he exclaimed. “That's it!” Of course, the solution to his problem was to put the hole in the point of the needle, instead of at the back, as in needles for hand sewing.

So, on the basis of these three stories, I hereby grant permission for you to fantasize all you want — at least in your spare time. Please keep me posted about your forthcoming scientific discoveries.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Bertha von Suttner’s Nobel Peace Prize

can change the world. Consider, for example, the 1888 anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms (Die Waffen Nieder) by Baroness of Austria. This melodrama was the best-selling book of the entire nineteenth century and in 1914 was made into one of the first . Its heroine suffers endless tragedies from the wars of the mid-19th century. The novel ran to more than 35 editions and was translated into more than a dozen languages. In it Suttner described arms races through this verse:

My armaments are defensive,
Your armaments are offensive.
I must arm because you must arm,
Because you arm, I arm.
So we must arm,
We arm more and more

wrote to the author, praising her ability to rally readers to her cause and comparing her to , whose book Uncle Tom’s Cabin had instigated the movement to emancipate American . Suttner had sent the book to II of Russia, who was so impressed that he consulted at length with another pacifist, the Russian writer . In a six-volume work Bloch argued that because of new technologies, including the explosives invented by , no war could be won anymore by either side.

Evidently Bertha von Suttner and Bloch convinced the Tsar, if not all of his courtiers. He issued a peace manifesto in August 1898 calling for an international conference. He concluded that it was his duty to “stop these never ending armaments, and to search for means to stop the evil that threatens the whole world.”

Unfortunately, the idea of ending war was widely regarded as ludicrous and naïve. When Suttner met with the Russian Foreign Minister to propose the creation of a Russian , he did not accept the idea, insisting instead that “the Tsar and the government now themselves are leading the movement.” Indeed, Lay Down Your Arms was forbidden in Russia, and the Tsar’s original manifesto was watered down. Instead of seeking an end to war, the program was changed to merely ban certain explosives and “humanize“ war. Many Europeans were also skeptical about the peaceableness of the Tsar’s intentions, for he was simultaneously russifying and conceivably was only trying to get the other powers to stop arms production so he could afford some heavy military expenses of his own.

Nevertheless, the went ahead, opening in The Hague on the birthday of Nicholas II, May 18, 1899 and concluding on June 29. Twenty-six States from Europe, the United States, Mexico, China, Japan, and Siam participated. There were three commissions: Disarmament, Rules of War, and Arbitration. Nothing came of the disarmament commission. The second commission banned dumdum bullets, gas warfare, and the throwing of bombs from balloons for five years. Soon airplanes were developed, and the five-year moratorium was never extended. The third commission, however, did yield a useful result: a convention on the peaceful of international conflicts.

Before her marriage, Bertha von Suttner had once been employed briefly as a secretary and household manager by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist who became rich from developing dynamite. They had formed an intense friendship that endured throughout their lives, though they met only twice during the next twenty years. They corresponded by post throughout the time when Suttner was becoming famous for her leadership in the peace movement.

Nobel praised her effusive writing highly, though he did not quite believe in her approach. He, too, wanted to put an end to war, but he believed that his own method would be more successful than hers: By making munitions available, he would show the world that these new weapons were too powerful ever to be used, so that States would henceforth call off their battle plans. Bertha von Suttner, on the other hand, called for such measures as arbitration of disputes. Besides writing her famous novel, she became recognized as the main leader of the European peace movement. She founded an Austrian peace organization, participated in countless conferences, lectured widely, and edited the international , Die Waffen Nieder! — the same title as her book.

Throughout this time the two friends debated in their correspondence about the value of peace movement propaganda, but Nobel kept an open mind. He wrote to her, “Inform me, convince me, and then I will do something great for the movement.” As she kept him posted about these activities, he responded by sending generous cheques. She pleaded in a letter for him to endow the movement in some way that would survive his death, and two months later he revised his will, stipulating that the income from most of his estate would fund prizes for achievements in scientific, literary, and peace work. She did not know that he had made such a plan.

Alfred Nobel died in 1896. The first were given in 1901, and in 1905 the Peace Prize was awarded to Baroness Bertha von Suttner. She had not saved the world — that remains for us to do — but she had certainly changed it. Her example shows all of us what a storyteller can accomplish.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Pick the Right Culture War, Please

At the Harbourfront Writers’ Festival last night Bob Rae led a panel discussion with and about their new books. I sat behind Saul’s wife, , who until about two weeks ago was the adroit of Canada. She still is diplomatic to an extreme; although all the speakers joked wittily about various decisions of the , hers were the only shoulders in the room that did not shake with laughter. (I couldn’t see her face, so she may have smiled.)

had been ’s twenty-first premier, but that seems ages ago. So gradually has his formerly platinum blond hair turned white that one can still imagine that he looks boyish. Certainly his rejoinders remain youthfully quick. When someone assured him diplomatically that his political career may not yet be over, he replied, “I’m reformed.” However, although the two new books that were discussed evince different perspectives on the future, Rae did not prompt the authors to contradict each other in their proposed solutions.

John Ralston Saul gave the first presentation, summarizing his argument in The Collapse of Globalism by claiming that is on the way out. By “globalism” he means world-wide trends that are attributed to inexorable economic factors — a theoretical approach that he evidently considers unique. (I wondered why Marxism doesn’t fit that definition.) We had been told, he said, that globalization was unstoppable, and that no decisions made by governments could stay its course. Lately, however, people are recognizing that we do have choices, and fortunately has been leading international initiatives that will tame globalizing trends. He identified the three boldest moves of this kind as: the , the Treaty Against , and this week’s big news — a convention that allows nation states to protect their own cultural products.

This last initiative, which was backed by France, Canada, and Britain, has not made many headlines so I had not recognized its importance and had to Google it this morning. It’s a formal “” convention adopted by member states, approving France’s support of its film and music industries. French culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres complained that 85 percent of the world’s expenditures on movie tickets goes to , but his government already awards subsidies to its own film, music, theatre, and opera industries. France and Canada impose , requiring radio and television to limit the of foreign-made productions. Most of the 191 member states voted for the convention, which will have to be ratified by 30 member states to take effect.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this initiative because I really don’t care about it one way or the other. It doesn’t matter to me what nation state was the origin of a particular movie, book, or play. I would not fight either for this convention or against it. The whole issue seems misplaced, though I certainly do believe that culture is immensely important and must be defended more passionately than now. If not a product’s national origin, then what does count?

Its quality, that’s what. We need cultural products that do the job better than those available on our screens and bookshops. I won’t address the of operas, ballets, or the plastic arts (they may be fine) but I am appalled that we don’t recognize the central role that fiction plays in our society, nor do we criticize for their terrible failure to help save the world.

Let’s go back to the event last night. Ronald Wright read three passages from his book, A Short History of Progress, and then all three men discussed his and Saul’s books. Wright’s argument is precisely the one that has elaborated more recently and more wordily in his recent book, Collapse. In fact, I taught a seminar a decade ago on population and development, making the same point. That is, because of the world-wide expansion of the , compounded by carelessness, we are using up non-renewable at an alarming rate. Wright teaches some basic lessons from historical anthropology — that several other civilizations have outstripped their resources and have collapsed. Sometimes the population vanishes entirely (as on ) and sometimes they survive with a reduced standard of living after their empire falls. In a few cases (China for instance) the civilization continues on for millennia. The real question is: What will be the outcome for humankind, which now has globalized enough to be considered one single civilization?

Bob Rae pointed out the grim future that Wright outlines, referring humorously to a guy wearing a sandwich board that proclaims, “The End is Near.” Indeed, Rae challenged both Saul and Wright to propose solutions to the global crisis that both of them explicitly acknowledge as impending, if not already upon us.

Saul was more sanguine, assuring us that governments do have the power to make decisions. Yes, we have the US to contend with, but that obstacle did not seem insuperable to him. As someone who has flown over the many times, he described the that are melting and falling onto rocks instead of into the sea as icebergs. But he clearly expects governments to handle such problems. It is not clear that Wright, on the other hand, believes governments still have the capacity to solve the problem. His gloom seems deeper.

Rae made an obvious point: It’s not just the government that’s failing to take the necessary actions. It’s people too. Even in a well-run democracy, people may not accept the policies that are required. How true!

Yet neither of the authors accepted this analysis, arguing instead that can, and often do, force their policies (right or wrong) on their citizens. This accounted for the power of the US and UK governments to go to war in Iraq, over the objections of the whole world. A million people marched in New York, for example, to protest against the attack on Iraq, yet they failed to keep the Bush Administration from doing it.

I don’t think that explanation works. The majority of the US electorate accepted the war before it began and, to an amazing degree, even believed that the rest of the world also approved the plan. In March 2003, only 35 percent correctly perceived that the rest of the world opposed the US decision to go to war against Iraq. (In fact, of the 35 countries surveyed, in not a single one did a majority of the population approve of the US’s unilateral action.)

Indeed, according to polls, in October 2005 about 40 percent of the US population still believe that the war was worth its high costs. (This is a recent NBC News, Wall Street Journal poll that asked, "When it comes to the war in Iraq, do you think that removing Saddam Hussein from power was or was not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost of the war?")

These findings about public opinion do not simply indicate that the news media have failed to inform the public properly. To be sure, there are differences between news sources; the print media was the most accurate, whereas Fox most often reported in ways that bolstered Bush’s war policies, incorrectly suggesting for example that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. However, the Americans who supported the war were not poorly informed; their misperceptions were of their own making, evidently to justify their own pre-existing political decisions. Thus, among the Bush supporters who did not follow the news closely at all, only 53 percent supported the war, whereas 86 percent of those Bush supporters who were following the news very closely supported the war. Bush had a political mandate for his actions.

In other words, factual information does not influence in the way that we might expect. I’m not claiming that the press did a good job of covering the run-up to the war, but I am claiming that what was decisive was citizens’ ideology or personal attractions. The public’s pre-existing loyalties took precedence over the information that they received, allowing them to misperceive reality in ways that were fateful for the world.

What are the practical implications of this finding? That emotional affiliation rules. Moreover, it is not just our stupid political enemies who are run by their personal loyalties — you and I do the same thing. We filter the information that we allow in, according to our values, sensibilities, and likes or dislikes.

In short, our rule us, and they are not shaped entirely by cognitive processes. You can give people all the information in the world and they won’t respond if their feelings run along contrary lines. But of course, the information is important, even if it is not sufficient.

Ronald Wright has done a great service to the world by pointing out the terrible course we are on and the likelihood of our own speedy demise as a civilization. Yet Rae alone, among the three panelists, pointed out this terrible truth: that politicians cannot fix the world’s problems unless people support the necessary changes. This observation is crucial and must inform our policies.

To influence people’s motivations you have to get at their , not just their heads. That’s the job of cultural productions, especially dramas and novels. When fiction consumers develop intense empathic bonds toward a presidential candidate or toward a character in a story, they want to help him attain his goals. For that reason, we desperately need the contributions of writers, producers, and actors who will show us lovable characters at work on solving the world’s problems. I can show research that proves my point. Nothing does a better job of motivating people than high-quality about inspiring, credible people who are addressing the problems that we all face as a species.

I am asking everyone to help me promote this as a public policy. I did not have a chance to make the pitch last night to Rae, Wright, or Saul, or to their large and sophisticated audience. But I will keep making it here and wherever else I have a chance. I hope you will join me.

What counts is not the national origin of a cultural production, but its quality and the substance of its message.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Globalized Islam and What To Do About It

was in Toronto today, delivering the second annual Seymour Martin lecture on . As I listened to him I was surprised to find myself in almost complete agreement. He’s a controversial thinker, and I expected to hear some serious disputes during the question period, but it seems that he must have convinced most other people too, for only one questioner took exception to his main argument.

The talk was titled “, , and Liberal Democracy,” but it really dealt almost entirely with the problems arising from the immigration of to Europe and North America. He considers Canada the birthplace of modern “identity politics,” in that this society invented . However, today multiculturalism is a more ominous phenomenon in than in or the .

Fukuyama expressed admiration for the philosopher ’s analysis of identity. He called it a voluntary, internal experience rather than a socially created one. That is, we each have an inner self that is somehow more valid than the external one we assume for the sake of getting along socially. Nevertheless, we do require social recognition for our identity, which is connected in most cases with our membership in various social groups. Thus there arises a dispute over the obligation of the state to recognize “.” This claim can take the form of claims for ethnic communities’ rights, for gay rights, for women’s rights, and so on. For example, the conflict over is about the claim for marriage between homosexuals to be accorded status equal to that of heterosexuals. In the United States, there have been political demands for affirmative action and for as the right of Hispanic Americans. In Canada, it was the Quebecois who first demanded equal rights for their group.

In a tolerant liberal democracy, such claims can be accepted without much difficulty, says Fukuyama. Both the United States and Canada have made it easy for immigrants to integrate gradually, without much pressure. However, the European case is a little different. Although most Europeans distinctly dislike flag-waving nationalism and share the aspiration to become a unified Europe, in reality everyone knows that his or her main identity is French, German, or Spanish, and so on. Immigrants cannot easily acquire such an identity. Indeed, until five years ago, any foreigner of German ancestry could claim citizenship in that country (even if she did not speak German), whereas a might live most of his life in Germany without ever becoming eligible for citizenship, let alone acquiring German identity. In the Netherlands, the distinct communities are “pillarized,” so that each “” has its own schools, churches, trade unions, and so on. One can live comfortably within one’s own pillar because of the pervasive tolerance of the culture.

But now large numbers of Muslims are present in Europe, and they expect to retain their own group identities and group rights, without extending tolerance toward others. Theirs is a new kind of Islam. Where their parents practiced a religion that was tied to a local community, the new “globalized” Islam is trans-national and rooted nowhere in particular. It is more ideological and, hence, more conducive to extremism.

The source of today is in Europe, not in the Middle East. About 15 percent of Europe now consists of poorly integrated immigrants, and they pose a new challenge. Since the murder of by a fundamentalist Muslim, public opinion in the Netherlands has changed completely, so that there is a new conviction that the integration of immigrants is an urgent necessity. For example, if a Muslim man sends to Pakistan, say, for a bride, she may not immigrate unless she is at least 21 years old, with a high school education and fluency in the Dutch language. Fukuyama sees some of the new regulations as excessive, but on the whole he regards them as necessary and justifiable. For example, he does not oppose the new law in France prohibiting schoolgirls from wearing hijab. The success of assimilation depends on the rate of , he says, but the whole point of wearing the scarf is to identify young Muslim women as out-of-bounds for all males except those of their own community. In a larger sense, then, Europeans must become more pro-active in creating national identities that are inclusive and into which all immigrants will be expected to assimilate.

Fukuyama’s argument makes considerable sense, though it hinges on the assumption that Islamic immigrants are markedly less tolerant or ready to assimilate than earlier waves of immigrants. He did not try hard to prove the point, perhaps because he thought it was too obvious to require proof. And he may be right. After the talk there was a reception and I chatted with a political science graduate student who has been working on a world-wide survey of cultural identity. He told me that Americans and, to a slightly lesser extent, Canadians are the people most likely to claim that they are primarily loyal to the world, rather than to their own country or locality. On the other hand, in the , very few people express identification with their nation or with the whole world; instead, about 80 percent say that their main identity and loyalty are to .

Monday, October 17, 2005

Publish Your Own Dedication Here

A while back I published my own prospective on this blog and invited readers to publish their here too. Not many people accepted my invitation. It was intended as an opportunity to declare one’s own values, which I’ve found to be a useful form of .

Today I have another opportunity to reappraise my own and I’ll share that option with you too. It’s time for me to write the of my book, and I invite you to add a comment to this blog dedicating something that you too are proud to have done.

My book already has an acknowledgments page where I thank seventy-four people who helped the writing process along. But dedicating a work is a different way of expressing gratitude. You can dedicate to someone who has died. Or to someone who never met you and never knowingly helped you. A music-loving friend of mine once dedicated a sociology book to the memory of .

I’m feeling grateful to people who have imagined something wonderful that is not real in the usual sense, and who have shared it with me — or rather, with all of us. Such people gave the product of their , not just to a small intimate circle, but to the whole public. The most generous act possible is to create a virtual world surpassing our own real one, and then to broadcast it. I’m thinking of four people who have done so, in quite different ways.

Take the , for example. He didn’t make up ( did that) but he has demonstrated, in front of the whole world, how to live as a wise Buddhist. His acts of imagination are performed continuously in public. Watching him, we enhance our own imaginations.

Or most of us do; not everyone. Though it’s almost impossible not to see goodness through the eyes of the Dalai Lama, the government officials in China manage to mistrust him. , taken seriously, prompt their believers to filter out alternative world views, and many political leaders are among the most gullible of ideologues. Having adopted a line, they can no longer empathize with a visionary who paints a different kind of world.

Consider ’s predicament, for example. Whereas the other politicians around him continued to defend the old system, he entertained other imaginary possibilities. What a rare, inspired performance he gave, demonstrating how goodness can be expressed through politics! He was defeated in part by reality itself — the practical difficulties of overhauling a huge system — but, even more, by the recalcitrant imaginations of others who were crippled by ideology. Yet even now he continues to serve humankind as the most idealistic politician since — well, since . And his vision is there for everyone to share.

Entertainers create alternative worlds all the time — not unified philosophical visions such as the Dalai Lama’s and Gorbachev’s, but a series of fictive stories. A few entertainers are consistently benign: , for example. To visit his hometown, , is to reacquire the warm sense of that may have been lacking from one’s own daily life.

Yet some entertainers also give us more challenging worlds to explore — worlds of anti-heroes whose characters are undeveloped. To empathize even with a limited personality may temper our own personalities, coaxing us to open up forgivingly. I think of in this connection. He created a cranky young doctor through whose struggle against his own limitations I could vicariously grow.

So I have written this dedication to my book:

With gratitude for the virtual worlds created by:
The fourteenth Dalai Lama
Mikhail Gorbachev
Garrison Keillor
Rob Morrow

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Global Democracy

Lots of Marxists are still around, still talking as if democracy were unimportant, compared to economic equality. But in the world as a whole, the dispute about its value is settled. By popular demand there has been a world-wide spurt of democratization, which is still going on. Governments nowadays have to claim they’re democratic, even if they are not. And those that are democratic fare better in their economic development, disproving the old argument that it’s a choice between freedom and . There’s really nothing left to argue about concerning the value of .

Yet all democratic states have vast room for improvement internally, and even more in their foreign affairs. In fact, some democratic states are the most predatory ones on the planet today, and I need not remind you which ones. (But there have been worse states than these, God knows. A Nazi or Communist superpower would make today’s Uncle Sam look like Santa Claus.)

The human project of creating an ideal democracy is still in its preliminary stage. Yet we already have begun the next stage: the democratization of the international arena. We can stretch our imagination in salutary ways merely by exploring the idea.

The recent attempt to reform the (which basically failed) was one small step toward . Had it succeeded, it would have given greater representation and security to weak nations and defenceless populations without disputing the primacy of the nation state system. Any such approach, which seeks only to equalize the power of existing sovereign states, is a conservative way of democratizing the globe.

A slightly more radical variant of this approach is sometimes discussed hypothetically: to establish a third house at the United Nations — one in which representatives would be elected by direct . Numerous kinds of constituencies have been suggested for directly electing delegates. For example, one way might be for international NGOs to elect delegates whose authority would be comparable to those representing nations in the .

Here, however, I want to consider other means of democratizing the globe that would empower individuals and groups, not just nation states. There are already powerful transnational bodies, of course (e.g. the , , and ), but they are far from democratic. Everyone agrees that they must become more and more , though, by itself, that would not make them more democratic. The rich countries have, and want to keep, most control in these bodies. The best that reformers can hope to accomplish is to increase the representation of weaker states within these transnational bodies’ decision-making structures.

But let’s imagine bolder measures than these. One truly daring idea is to begin democratizing privately owned . That would amount to a genuine revolution, albeit a nonviolent one. A recent book, The Corporation, by British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan, reviews the historical development of this business institution. As Bakan points out, the law gave the same status as persons, yet imposed on their directors only this legal obligation: to try to make money for the stockholders.

Today we are seeing the effects of this law. If a director tries to prevent her company from doing harm, a court may rule that she has wrongly violated her fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders. In ’s opinion, the law requires, in effect, the officers of a corporation to behave as sociopaths.

But, as he reminds us, corporations were invented by human beings and can just as easily be reformed by human beings. We can revise corporate law to constrain the pursuit of profits, so that officers must protect the environment, consumers, workers, and the human rights of everyone whom the company affects.

I personally would be delighted with this legal change — for starters. But I am not convinced that directors would necessarily comply with these new mandates, since they represent the stockholders. I want to go even further. I’d add another requirement: that all corporations must include certain directors who are elected by to represent environmentalists, employees, consumers, and human rights defenders. Such directors will be in a position to monitor the corporation from inside.

That’s what might look like. To get it, we have a long way to travel. But we can take the first step on this journey right now.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Editors and Editees

I’m an and, during the past week, I’ve also been an “editee.” My book manuscript has come back to me, marked up with bright-colored changes, which I’ve been going over and, for the most part, accepting. It’s good for me to have this experience every now and then so I won’t forget that feel violated by my own ministrations.

Supposedly, the job of an editor is to help the writer say better whatever she wants to say. Occasionally that really happens. Take , for example. (See his photo.) He’d write massive quantities of words and send them to , who became famous for turning this lurid (and sometimes gorgeous) prose into novels. Without Perkins, Wolfe would have come to naught. Nowadays people don’t read him much anyway, and don’t admire his narcissistic excess, but at least the stuff is in print, which it wouldn’t have been without Perkins‘s pruning and cajoling. In their partnership they cooperated beautifully toward a common end.

The recipients of editorial suggestions may or may not appreciate the help they are given. And when they don’t, they may or may not express their resentment. Most of Peace Magazine’s contributors seem satisfied with what I have done to their articles when they appear in print, but others must prudently be refraining from complaining. As for my own editor, whose name I don’t even know, I accept at least 98 percent of her suggestions. It’s the remaining 2 percent that are giving me fits — all of which I fully deserve, as a haughty editor and myself.

That gatekeeping function is the real issue, for when certain topics arise the editor may not want to help you say what you mean, but rather to silence you. And the editor has the upper hand. If you don’t like her decisions, next time choose a different publisher or a different magazine. This week, far more often than in an average week, I’ve been on the wrong-side of gatekeepers, which is an infuriating, yet salutary, experience. It makes me realize how often everyday communication is by officious people who lack any idea what we really want to say. And how often they don’t really want to know. And, worse yet, how often we are ourself one of those officious persons.

Consider and , for exzmple. It’s their job to filter out cranks and frivolous callers. That’s a necessary function. Their bosses have to concentrate and focus. Having irrelevant information or questions coming in only distracts from productive work. Hooray for secretaries and assistants — but you’d better plan ahead before you call one of them. Categories are essential to their work. Each receptionist has a mental check-off sheet that you must fit. If your concerns fit neatly into one category, your call will probably be forwarded to, more or less, the right person. But if you have two or three different items of business, or if your one item does not fit the company’s departmental , you’ll disturb and irritate her, which is not the effect you want to achieve.

I’ve been on both ends of this situation too. When I can’t make out what the caller has in mind within fifteen seconds, I may become impatient. But when I’m the caller and can’t articulate my issue in thirty words or less, I take the receptionist’s impatience badly, and usually wind up feeling stupid.

People censor each other all the time. Sometimes we have an ideological interest at stake and simply don’t want to hear alternative opinions. Sometimes we just want clarity and concision. Life requires filtered communication, and we have to decide whether to be open and flexible, hearing whatever poorly shaped messages come along, or and purposive, trashing messages that don’t fit our preconceptions.

I believe that the worst failings of can be attributed to the latter tendency. It isn’t that officials have particularly selfish private interests, or that they want to control others and keep them from expressing themselves. It’s just that efficiency requires them to discard information that would take them off track. We’d never get anything done if we listened to everyone who comes along. And we get the wrong things done because we don’t listen enough.

Last year I read a newspaper article about a guy who teaches you how to get onto the show. He gives you a fortune cookie. You’re to write on the back of your fortune whatever message you want to broadcast. What a great discipline! Unfortunately, there’s a lot of meaning that won’t fit on such a small paper. And with all the that’s going around, we can’t stop to listen. So we edit each other, not to help others say what they want to convey, but just to manage our own time, and that of our readers and co-workers.

There’s no point in complaining about this. It’s part of the human condition in 2005 CE. Probably it has always been this way to some degree. The danger is increasing, though, that we’ll filter out some vital information because it isn’t what we were looking for. And, Lord knows, we’re filtered out ourselves all too often, for the worthy purpose of efficiency.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Kerfuffles over This Year’s Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Committee has awarded the to , 63, and the ( ), which he has headed for eight years. As always, some observers are happier about it than others. What is different this time, though, is the fact that the proponents and critics don’t line up in the usual way.

The Nobel Committee no doubt intended to strengthen the hand of the IAEA, which certainly needs more clout for dealing with States aspiring to nuclear status, such as and (still probably) North Korea — not to mention the known nuclear weapons States, which defer to no one.

We may assume that the especially dislikes the Nobel committee’s choice of ElBaradei — or even regards it as a deliberate affront. The IAEA had been responsible for inspecting Iraq, searching for weapons of mass destruction ( s) when still ran the country. They reported that no such weapons had been found, and were skeptical that any even existed, though they promised to continue the investigations.

At that point, however, Bush ordered the invasion of , having insisted that the country did possess WMDs. Afterward, of course, the US itself was unable to find any such weapons. Awarding the prize to ElBaradei can be seen as another attempt to humiliate Bush, who has also violated other agreements that aimed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Thus the recent review conference of the ended in total failure, and the summit in September was also prevented from reaching substantial agreements to improve the . Both of these debacles can be attributed to the influence of the US government.

Still, the only person in the Bush Administration who has reacted to this news was Secretary of State , who extended her polite congratulations and promised to cooperate with the IAEA.

On the other hand, some peace activists are conspicuously refraining from celebrating the occasion. A few feel that the award should have been divided between ElBaradei and his predecessor, , who had also staunchly defended the nuclear non-proliferation regime from the undermining attempts of the US government. However, that is a minor point.

A more important reason for questioning the Nobel committee’s decision reflects anxiety over the policies of the IAEA, and of course its leaders. Their purpose is not just to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons but also actively to foster the spread of peaceful nuclear technology. Insofar as the organization promotes such peaceful uses, it may actually cause future disasters.

There are compelling reasons to worry about “the peaceful atom.” The generation of electricity by nuclear reactors inevitably creates , which is potentially of great use to terrorists, besides being inherently dangerous, even in the absence of . All nuclear facilities are sources of nuclear contamination which harms the health of the population in the surrounding area. (See the reports of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, Maryland. .) Officials are doing the world no favor by promoting nuclear technology of any kind.

That critique is completely justifiable, as I read the evidence, which is abundant. Unquestionably, the harm done by “peaceful nuclear technology” has vastly surpassed its benefits. Yet I cannot fault Mohamed ElBaradei for this problem. It is not up to him to change the international agreements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty explicitly offers the non-nuclear States access to for peaceful purposes, on condition that they not acquire weapons. By now, it is clear that this was a bad bargain — both because the nuclear States have not kept their side of the bargain by disarming their , and because the “peaceful” uses of nuclear technology do every country more harm than good. The NPT was a mixed blessing; we don’t want to junk it because it has served to inhibit the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet it entrenches the right of all signatory States to acquire this “peaceful” technology, which had turned out to be so deleterious.

It’s not ElBaradei’s fault that we face this dilemma. It’s our own problem. We need a whole new regime for managing the world”s nuclear installations. Unfortunately, the impending energy shortage will make it even harder to negotiate such changes — yet it must be done. So let’s add that little item to this week’s to-do list.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ethical Showbiz

Nowadays people are about criticizing fiction on . On the one hand, everyone agrees that learn bad attitudes and behavior from watching anti-social programming. But the truth is, adults do too — or at least some adults do. Groups that campaign to clean up television restrict their suggestions, pretty much, to children. Grown-ups have the right to choose whatever they want to see without restrictions, though in fact we know that truly disturbed people tend to choose shows that prompt them to behave in dangerous ways. There’s not going to be any in Western societies; you can count on that. Indeed, filmmakers like to “push the envelope” by becoming ever more daring in the content of their productions. There’s sort of an esthetic competition to see which director can shock us most. Gradually the public does get used to and depravity, and there are sometimes real messages in shows that make the ones worth the distress they cause us. The produced tragic dramas in the confidence that they were imparting wisdom and morality to the audiences, and sometimes even today that is the outcome. I don’t regret having seen Schindler’s List, for example, though it was tough to take. And there’s another painful film still being shown in certain theatres — Brothers— which offers insights important enough to repay one for enduring its brutal imagery.

Let’s leave the sick personalities such as out of this discussion and stick to normal audiences. Lepine, of course, watched and violent videos every day, and then killed fourteen women engineering students. Definitely people with mental disorders are harmed by the gross products that they tend to seek out. But disturbed people are not the only ones who can suffer from the effects of anti-social drama.

The question then is: How do we know when a play, film, or television drama is psychologically useful and when it is harmful to ordinary citizens? Dramatists nowadays do not ordinarily formulate these problems as ethical ones, though I believe they should. They can harm or help society enormously, and the choice between the two is an ethical choice. Writers have as much moral responsibility as anyone whose activities affect other human beings.

’s little book, The Poetics, was probably intended primarily as an ethical primer for tragic playwrights. Probably writers accept his advice mostly because they would have intuitively understood what not to do, even without being told. The important thing is not to demoralize your audience by suggesting that immorality pays off handsomely, or that good will go unrecognized and unrewarded in the end. If you are writing a tragic story, the perpetrator must be neither very likeable nor completely despicable, for he must come to a bad end (receive his ) and we must accept his fate as justifiable. If we like him too much, we will feel that life is unfair. If we hate him too much, we will gloat in pleasure over his downfall. What we’re supposed to get from the play is a sense of , but not a conviction that life is unjust. We see the tragic figure as flawed and we know he must suffer, but we feel sorry for him anyhow. That pity is a more elevated emotion than the contempt we might otherwise feel. Indeed, the whole point of a tragedy is to give us the healing, spiritually cleansing experience of pity mixed with acceptance.

Aristotle thought of , and so should we. It can teach us great insights. However, I don’t entirely agree with his notion about what audiences can tolerate and what is to us. I think we can accept the downfall of a character whom we love and who is imperfect, but not villainous. We can accept his hard luck. Bad things can happen to the people we without destroying our morale. But there are some things that a writer should not do. He should never leave the character’s good or bad qualities unrecognized in the end. And he should not force us to break with a character who starts off being lovable but changes into a heel along the way. We can lose our loved ones, yet come away emotionally healthy. But we cannot stand to lose love itself. If our loved one becomes evil, we must eventually stop identifying with him and even begin to wish for him to fail. That emotional rupture is distressing for an audience. Writers produce such plots very rarely, and when they do, the audience hates the show. Aristotle did not spell this out, but I want to add this principle to the advice that he did give.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Floors, Ceilings, and Health

On the car radio today I was listening to an American doctor giving a lecture someplace. I couldn’t stay to hear the whole thing, but what I did hear was interesting, though now I sure wish I’d found out who he is.

He was trying to explain the poor of the , comparing it to other countries (especially rich ones) and to its own relative ranking in earlier periods. He said that the US is now the unhealthiest of all the affluent . (Maybe he gave figures and numbers earlier in the show but if so, I missed them. But I’ve seen data before and know that his generalizations are correct.)

His explanation was . Not only is inequality highest in any the US, compared to other affluent countries, but there is much greater inequality in the US than a generation or two ago — and the healthiness of the population has declined accordingly. He says that are healthier and even that are as healthy as Americans, despite their relative poverty. The degree of inequality is far less in Cuba, and whatever money the government can scrape together is spent on health care and .

The healthiest society on earth is , he says, but they were not so healthy at the end of World War II. It was who made them healthy, he said, by capping the income that anyone could receive. That’s one way of creating greater equality in society, of course, and probably this doctor is right in his basic argument: that equality is a great determinant of health in the society. However, I was a bit surprised at the method that he described MacArthur as employing: to put a ceiling on the income of the highly-paid businessmen. That’s not the approach I’d use. Personally, I favor floors instead of ceilings.

In fact, I think it’s not the best approach to make equality a goal in itself. There have been lots of societies that made equality the main objective and even achieved it, but with unfortunate results. Socialist countries, for example, narrowed the gap between the richest quintile of the population and the poorest — but the results were not satisfactory. Whenever a culture endorses an ethic of invidious comparison, in which one pursues one’s own well-being by trying to , the outcome is often that people lose any sense of their own true needs and give themselves over to or vainglorious pride.

When MacArthur capped the income levels of the rich in Japan, he assumed that their wealth would go instead to the poorest segments of the population — and it probably did, with good effects on their health. Indeed, I have no reason to suppose that the Japanese are particularly oriented toward comparative status rankings. However, I do know that the countries experienced deleterious effects, overall, by the overemphasis on equality. Often it was considered better to keep everyone equally poor rather than let anyone become more prosperous.

The doctor on the car radio mentioned the changing ratio over time and among countries between the income of the top executives and the average worker. The US has definitely become more unequal over time and in comparison to other societies. And the effects are harmful, by and large. Equality makes populations healthier – including even the rich within each society. So my goal, too, is to make societal distribution .

However, I wouldn’t go about it the way MacArthur did. Instead of lowering the ceiling to limit the income of the rich, I’d raise the floor, to make sure that the poor all receive a decent standard of living.

And actually, that is politically more palatable anyhow. A few years ago Ed , the great Canadian social democrat who led the New Democratic Party for many years, argued in a book that it will always be a hard sell for politicians to equalize the standard of living in society by taxing the rich and distributing the money directly to the poor. Instead, he suggests that it is much more acceptable to the rich to offer services to the entire population equally, which would benefit the affluent as well as the poor. Improve the access to health care, education, parks, day care for infants, good transportation systems, and the like. The poor will benefit proportionately more from these cheap than the rich, but the changes will not rankle so much. To promote that approach, however, requires us to change the rhetoric and even the standards by which judgments of well-being are made. Instead of demanding equality, we expect that everyone in the society be afforded a decent minimum, simply because that is the civilized thing to do. If human needs are met all around, I don’t care how rich the wealthiest people become. Make your pile, if that’s what you enjoy doing. But let us all care for the most disadvantaged, whether we like them or not, and whether we even consider them .

Sunday, October 02, 2005

My Sins and My Palm Pilot

I told two yesterday and avoided disclosing one significant truth to my assistant, which is almost the same thing. Now I wake up at 4:00 a.m. and ruminate about it. I decide to follow my train of thoughts, which initially seem disconnected, but which actually circle around one theme: This is going to be hard to manage. We’re all going to a lot unless they improve the design of our . tonight is keeping me awake, keeping my muscles taut as I recognize that my uneasiness (what used to be called “sin”) is mostly a combination of and . Those bad feelings bear some examination. Why, exactly, did I lie? And how should I manage my resentment and guilt?

I won’t go to this morning. I’ve not been getting much out of it lately. The terminology doesn’t relate to my condition. When we say, “ as we forgive those who sin against us,” I scrounge around in my recent memory looking for sins to repent, but I can’t find any. I haven’t stolen or abused anyone lately. If instead of “sins” they use the biblical translation that refers to “,” I can dredge up even fewer offenses that require . But I heard a song on the radio yesterday that said something like, “forgive us our as we forgive the unsatisfactoriness of others.” That comes closer.

Unsatisfactoriness and do require forgiveness and the intention to change. I can think of lots of my unsatisfactory deeds that I’d like to forgive, on behalf of the human beings in my life. And yes, I’ll forgive them too, and try to stop griping about how they treat me — which has been pretty damn unsatisfactory lately, to tell the truth. I have plenty of , but it’s better to keep them to myself, since it makes others feel bad if I point out their failings, and then I’d feel guilty about doing that.

was right: Hell is other people. But that epigram needs to be teased apart to get at its meaning. If “sin” is unsatisfactoriness, it’s really the failure to meet the requirements of other people. I doubt that they will point that out in church this morning, but I need to think about it so as to deal with yesterday’s lies.

Once I took a three-month trip around the world by myself and never felt a moment’s guilt or frustration. I was completely at peace. If I missed a plane, that was okay. I’d spend another day in Singapore and catch a plane tomorrow. I thought I had discovered the secret of happiness, but I hadn’t. It was just that nobody was expecting anything of me. When I returned home and resumed my social relationships, I began feeling pressure again, and guilt for letting other people down.

Today’s two lies were both contrived to hide my failure to carry out major obligations. The truth that I withheld from my assistant was that he had done a favor for me that had been unnecessary in the end. I preferred to let him feel good about having been helpful. That was a minor, benign deception, but the two out-and-out lies were different.

I don’t lie all the time about my failings. Usually I just , but today I had completely forgotten some really important obligations. Everyone would have questioned whether something was wrong with me, and I wondered too. My memory isn’t what it used to be, yet I dread being considered unreliable or half-. So I lied. I tried to minimize the magnitude of the lie by not concocting a huge, elaborate falsehood. Still, I’m awake now, feeling guilty over having let other people down and over having lied to cover it up. (Don’t ask for more details, please.)

I have other things to regret as well. Eight e-mails from Burmese refugees are unread in my in-box. I had promised to help them organize a conference but I’ve been busy, so I haven’t opened the messages, since I can’t address that particular unsatisfactoriness right now. Maybe tomorrow.

But my guilt is mixed with resentment about the unsatisfactoriness of others. At least a dozen of them have not been answering my e-mails and I feel frustrated. Four of them are among my dearest loved ones and I find myself taking their neglect personally, considering it an index of the waning of our friendship. I wonder: Does this mean they care about me less than before? (Nonsense. I forget to return their calls sometimes, yet I love them as much as ever.)

Dissatisfaction and unsatisfactory performance mostly reflect, not intentional neglect, but merely the mismanagement of . In fact, I remember now why I missed one of today’s major obligations. My Palm Pilot’s date book program is so inconvenient that I had postponed entering that appointment, especially since I believed it was so important that I wouldn’t forget. If my Palm Pilot were easier to use, I’d have avoided the failure that I lied to cover up. I could blame my moral unsatisfactoriness on technological unsatisfactoriness.

But I don’t. Such an excuse sounds absurd. Besides, blaming doesn’t solve problems and it poisons relationships.

Take my relationship with my publisher, for example, which is the other reason for my tonight. To complete my own to-do list, I needed some information from him. But I never got my issues onto his to-do list, though they were gnawing at me. Now time is so short that some photos may have to be left out of the book. Who’s to blame: him or me? That’s not a helpful question. Unwisely, I griped and now he’s feeling bad. Dissatisfaction and unsatisfactoriness are a reciprocal pair of sins, usually yielding resentment and guilt respectively. Spiritually, both are corrosive. At worst, they even lead to lying.

Yet unsatisfactoriness is inevitable. Everything we do in this world takes time, energy, matter, space, and information. The first four of these are conserved. We cannot violate the first law of thermodynamics, the . Whenever we fulfill one obligation, we have less resources for fulfilling others. We have to choose between possible actions, leaving some people dissatisfied. is a little different. It’s not conserved. If I give you my information, I still have it and you will have it too. But to use it, we may need a perfect memory (which 74-year-olds lack) plus time and energy.

Life is unsatisfactory; that’s the Buddha’s . Bearing in mind my recent unsatisfactoriness, I can forgive some of the people whose unsatisfactoriness I have resented. And finally go back to .

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Virtual Worlds Conquer Reality

Story-tellers, social theorists, and theologians all create — narratives — that we inhabit through our .

Such imaginary worlds interact with the . They give you and phantoms that affect you physiologically, causing your hair to stand on end, or your tears to flow, or your to mellow you up. There are and ethical consequences as well. The characters in a story show you how to live, or sometimes how not to live, though you may not necessarily draw the message that the creator intended.

Real and imaginary worlds affect each other. To get into a story we have to “” by going along with some plots that may violate common sense. Thus for the moment we may accept the premise that can fly and that sucks human blood and is terrified of garlic.

We may also accept implausible narratives in a deeper sense, developing the conviction for example that water has been turned into wine or that workers can seize control of factories and transform them into idyllic regimes of efficiency and freedom. The relaxing of everyday standards of may allow us to revise our lives and surmount hardship with perfect faith. We carry selected stories around with us, drawing upon them to restore our flagging spirits as each new need arises. is the enduring suspension of disbelief.

Yet there are limits. No psychologist has, to my knowledge, studied the principles by which we decide whether to go along with a story or slam the book shut in disgust. Certainly, however, our decision must depend on whether the plot jibes with our deeper values, at least when we are uncertain whether to suspend disbelief in a serious way. To accept stories about the or is only playful and need not be integrated with our everyday working theories. But if a serious story’s protagonist behaves immorally, we experience an inner conflict: Shall I go along with the character and give him a chance to straighten out, or shall I reject the whole plot as indecent? Our empathy for a character somehow depends on our approval of him. But the relationship between morality and empathy is reciprocal. It is through empathizing that our own views of reality and our own ethical standards undergo change.

Stories do influence us, for good or ill, when the author wins us over, persuading us to with his character and suspend disbelief. If the disbelief remains suspended permanently our world view is changed. The transformation reveals the power, both magical and the insidious, of virtual worlds to alter real ones.