The Gathering Storms II: is optimism possible and realistic?

Yascha Mounk of Johns Hopkins and the feature “Persuasion” in the NYT, much younger than I, is discouraged by current events, and is led to accept that

Chauvinism and ethnic pride, demagoguery and the lust for conquest… are thoroughly human potentialities, forever lurking as possible futures…

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine puts to rest the hopeful view of the future which dominated the western world in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The certainties on which we built our worldview have long been morphing into illusions; the missiles which fell around Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv in the early morning of February 24, 2022 confirmed that the metamorphosis is complete.”

I, ever a devotée of Reinhold Niebuhr’s demand that Christians take sin seriously while we plan our futures, am sorry to see a young, very respected, scholar lose his optimism.  Having come through active military service during the Cold War and the wars in Southeast Asia,  and having seen the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the mutual inspection of nuclear forces, the Open Skies treaty, the destruction of nuclear missiles, and the dissolution of the U.S. Strategic Air Command in which I served, I had found reason for optimism.  Growing up during the Eisenhower years when it seemed that a very pleasant new normal had set in, expecting improved welfare for all (I am White, and in those years not fully aware of what life was like for other races) even as we built bomb shelters and maintained massive efforts to contain the Soviet Union and Communism generally, I was prepared to be quite optimistic about the future.  And I have tried to convey that optimism to younger generations.

But I hear what he is saying about certainties gone missing.  I see it also in an older columnist, the highly respected David Brooks

I’ve lost confidence in our ability to predict where history is headed and the idea that as nations “modernize” they develop along some predictable line.  I guess it’s time to open our minds up to the possibility that the future may be very different from anything we expected.

However, a recent Ezra Klein podcast with Tim Snyder reminded me of Snyder’s book (cited in an earlier post) The Road to Unfreedom.  Snyder posits that there is a “politics of inevitability” or “of  eternity,” which assert that some things have always been this way and will persevere.  We look, as Mounk notes, at our recent past’s direction and assume that whatever does not fit into that trajectory is unlikely to affect it or change it:  this is the direction of the future.  Snyder recommends that we abandon this conceit and pull back from it, finding sufficient distance to look at all the events going on, the recent past and the older past, and be careful about the weight we do or don’t give to the outlier events.  The reader will, I am sure, instantly recognize that this strategy risks waiting for too many things to happen before we act, rendering our actions ineffective – if you see a gun being aimed at you, don’t wait to find out whether it will shoot you:  move out of the way.  You may need to find another time to discern why the gun was aimed at you to begin with.  Now you need to make sure that you will not be harmed.  Either disable the shooter, or leave the danger area.  We can’t always wait to see how events unfold. 

Bobby Duffy’s The Generation Myth:  Why When You’re Born Matters Less than You Think, also argues against thinking that things must be the way they are, by examining carefully how cohorts rather than generations have experiences in common which are often built by economic structures, accepted freely by some and suffered by others, but nothing inevitable.

Certainly we are shocked to see a conventional land war in Europe, to see photos and videos of our contemporaries sheltering in subways from areal attacks just a in World War II movie, but more importantly, just as in Syria and Iraq and other countries. So also regarding refugees.  A Canadian friend who was born in Pakistan, is very disturbed about this. Quoting a bit from his writing:

Ukrainians are fleeing their homes to the nearest European destination as their country is under attack by Russia. The plight of these refugees reminds the world of how in the recent past it happened to people from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, and Ethiopia.

The EU has relaxed its rules on the influx of these new refugees from Ukraine as its member states have decided to welcome them with “open arms.” Unlike the refugees from the Middle East whose countries were mercilessly bombed ─ Shock and Awe by the American empire and its allies destroying their historic civilization.

However, what is so disconcerting is the Western media’s portrayal of Ukraine’s suffering as somehow “different” and labelling Ukrainians as more “civilised” compared to those suffering from wars in the Middle East. A brazen reflection of selective empathy and horrific double standards. There is no hierarchy in suffering.  It exposes the deep-seated racist, colonialist and orientalist mindset in the media coverage of the invasion and its impact.

Major mainstream media houses in Europe and North America have described how the people of Ukraine are defending their country by making Molotov cocktails and arming themselves with state-given machine guns has also been celebrated as “heroic” and these people have been called “freedom fighters”. This empathy has not been extended to others like Palestinians who experience an identical crisis yet are labelled “terrorists” when defending their land. Sadly, that characterization includes young stone-throwing children.

There are numerous other factors to consider, for example, crippling sanctions and the censoring of Russian media outlets like RT in Europe have not been consistent with the invasion of Iraq or following the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia which continues to this day.

Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, without censoring his tone or words told the BBC: “I’m sorry. It’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles. We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

Political commentator and media host, Michael Knowles callously tweeted (and later defended): “It just occurred to me that this is the first major war between civilized nations in my lifetime.”

It perpetuates and promotes prejudice towards people of colour and ethnicity. Here, journalists have failed the basic journalistic standards, such as adherence to fairness, balance, sensitivity, and as Ryerson University’s Tariq Amin-Khan has observed, this contradiction reflects “a schizophrenic Orientalist attitude.”

While I am very proud of Canada’s intake of Middle East refugees, although not facing nearly the numbers who have migrated to Europe and other countries near their homeland (as Ukrainians do in Poland, Slovakia, and Moldava), I can see that it appears we are much more concerned about the Ukraine situation than the other refugees.  Yes, Canada has many Ukrainians here already, but Canada has long had many people from the Middle East also.  I understand that our NATO affiliation obligates us to military action, which the Middle East situation does not, so there is perhaps more obvious near-term military risk for Canadians in supporting Ukraine.

Both Ukraine and Russia grow and export significant portions of food needed by the rest of the world, which the war may keep from being harvested and shipped.  While Canada may be able to pick up some of the slack, depending on the weather (our prairies are in drought still, and the west half of the U.S. is still in extreme drought).  There will probably be wildfires yet to come with other forms of extreme weather, further threatening food supplies.  So we can expect food riots all over the world (there are some already).

The European dependence on Russian gas, now being challenged by the sanctions, means that Europe will need to find a replacement source of energy for heating and generating electricity shortly after the off-lining of nuclear power in Germany.  This may prompt other forms of producing energy which will frustrate efforts to reduce GHGs by 2030.

It is difficult to find reasons for optimism, even if our current views were not built on a myth that things have been getting better.

Better thinking?

Perhaps better thinking will help.  This blog has published many posts which examine theories about whether we can truly have informed consent and dissent, or whether our thought processes are driven by externalities and by interior functions of the body. Here are other sources to consider:

Democracy Rules, by Jan-Werner Műller, provides a wonderful, thoughtful, encouraging examination of different concepts of democracies and ways of forming them.  For those who have thought of only one form of democracy, the augmented choices may provide freedom to think differently, sort of get you out of the box.  Dan Jones’ Power and Thrones: a New History of the Middle Ages;  Marie Faverau’s The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World; and Mark Mazower’s The Greek Revolution:  1821 and the Making of Modern Europe, may provide greater scope and context for your thinking.

And then there is Superforecasting:  the Art and Science of Prediction, Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

This is an account of the results of a “tournament” sponsored by IARPA (think DARPA but insert Intelligence – a response to the poor intelligence estimates regarding WMDs in Iraq and other issues).  This book describes the qualities of “superforecasters,” people not experts in particular fields but who can predict geo-political futures, and other futures, better than experts in given fields. 

The research reported in the book provides this model of superforecasters:

In philosophic outlook, they tend to be

CAUTIOUS:  nothing is certain.

HUMBLE:  reality is infinitely complex.

NONDETERMINISTIC:  what happens is not meant to be and does not have to happen.

In their abilities and thinking styles…

ACTIVELY OPEN-MINDED:  Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected.

INTELLIGENT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE, WITH A NEED FOR “COGNITION”:  Intellectually curious, enjoy puzzles and mental challenges.

REFLECTIVE:  introspective and self-critical.

NUMERATIVE:  comfortable with numbers

In their methods of forecasting…

PRAGMATIC: not wedded to any idea or agenda.

ANALYTICAL:  capable of stepping back from the tip-of-your-nose perspective and considering other views.

DRAGONFLY-EYED:  value diverse views and synthesize them into their own.

PROBABILISTIC:  judge using many grades of maybe.

THOUGHTFUL UPDATERS:  when facts change, they change their minds.

GOOD INTUITIVE PSYCHOLOGISTS:  aware of the value of checking thinking for cognitive and emotional biases.

In their work ethic, they tend to have:

A GROWTH MINDSET:  believe it’s possible to get better.

GRIT:  determined to keep at it however long it takes.

The authors also provide a set of ten commandments to guide us in our own efforts to be effective forecasters, if not super forecasters, but the tenth is “do not feel constrained by the commandments,” so I’ll not list them for the reader.

The authors demonstrate that it is not only possible to understand things extremely well and see how they will unfold, but that there are definite ways to do that.  Their book does not claim that just any person can achieve these qualities, but obviously some do.

We can exercise informed consent and dissent

In all these, the various books on thinking I’ve cited over the many posts in this blog, seem to perceive everything as a reaction to internal and external stimuli.  There is never discussion of agency, i.e., the point at which the individual decides, or intends, or plans, or wills, or initiates. In regard to these, I feel more akin to the 19th century physiological psychologists (The Metaphysical Club:  a Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand).  Recent authorities reject the notion of the ghost in the machine, or the homunculus, or the soul.  I just don’t think they have satisfactorily explained personhood.  This blog so far demonstrates my patient reading of much material, and wards off any suggestion that ideas which contradict my own just haven’t been given due consideration.  They have been, and I find them wanting.  I feel confident now in asserting that you and I really do have our own selves which are not altogether the product of all the electrochemical and biological processes described in these posts.  There is a you and an I, although we certainly are influenced by things, events, and other living creatures inside our bodies and outside them.  Each of us really does have the ability and the responsibility to have informed consent and dissent.  There may indeed be a huge number of us who do not think for themselves, but not everyone.

As well, we are helped by those who have gone before, who have provided disciplines to which we can submit our thoughts and emotions for shaping and improving:  culture, family environments, religion, morality, ethics, law, institutions, stories, and convention.  We need not be enslaved by any of these, nor by our bodies, minds, or brains.  And we who are of religious inspiration will believe that there is also divine inspiration and intervention, whether or not predictable or reliable.

We can think independently while accepting help, without dominance, from outside.  This is what we must do.