Yuri Tarnopolsky ESSAYS
Essay 41. The Morning-after Questions
Essay 41. The Morning-after Questions
After a four year long break I am returning to my Essays at simplicity.
First, I turn to simplicity to counterbalance complexity , which is a look at the world from a distance, with a view of the world from within.
We see a lot from a distance and this is why the picture is complex like an epic novel or a diorama of a major battle. From the inside we see only our immediate surroundings, we care about what we can touch or what can touch us and this is why we believe our bubble world is simple and within our power.
The art of complexification—turning simple into complex—might be useful for a scientific publication, writing a book, defeating an opponent, or submitting a Ph.D. dissertation. The art of simplification is what we need in order to navigate outside the bubble in the world which is always complex.
For a chemist like myself it is habitual to reconcile both arts by understanding a complex structure as a configuration of simpler blocks, as well as by building a complex structure from simpler units and by simple steps. In this sense a child playing with Lego, an architect, and the author of an epic novel are chemists.
In complexity I have been fixated on the subject that usually evades social sciences: the speed of concurrent processes. We all know what can happen. But when? This is the question behind "to be or not to be." The fastest process brings about one of several possible alternatives. What can speed up one process, leaving the rest at the same speed, is called catalyst in chemistry. My main interest has been catalysis in history. If a catchword for the chemical way to look at complexity is needed, here it is: chemplexity.
Complexity is about a few enduring things. Simplicity is about many transient ones. The enduring things need the least of our attention, while we are dealing with the fleeting ones which come and go unannounced.
There is, however, one enduring thing that I am preoccupied with: democracy. It needs participation of voters who must understand complex issues. Until the issues are too complex to understand, democracy is not what it is meant to be. The voting procedure decides the fate of the country not only at the national elections, but also at the Congress, numerous commissions, and at the courts, when the fate of an individual or a group is at stake. Even without a formal procedure, innumerable councils shape decisions just by an exchange of opinions. Remarkably, the scientists whose trade is to understand complex and controversial subjects do not vote on what is right and what is wrong: they believe in truth and its understanding.
I believe that the growing complexity of important subjects is the major threat to the very concept of democracy. From now on, a fabricated simplicity can become the cheerful face of complexity for the major force of democracy: the people who rise their heads from the transient but all-consuming personal problems and pleasures of the day.
The enduring things last long but not forever. We may not be able to change the natural course of evolution, but at least we might be able to understand what we are doing.
Second, I turn to simplicity to look for the simplest reasons for what I perceive as curious, puzzling, or disturbing phenomena and events.
The major and at once curious, puzzling, and disturbing phenomenon of the post-9/11 time has been the presidency of George W. Bush that began in 2001. To call it Bush era or W-era would be a great exaggeration of the President's personal role. I do not believe the President can be personally blamed for everything that happened. For a preliminary guess, see APPENDIX 2.
Depression? War? Confusion? Failure? Loss of prestige? Alienation? Division? Trouble? Mess? Obscurantism? Corruption? Stupidity? None of those words can describe the current period as something that has never happened before.
I prefer to call the W years the Cold Civil War (CCW) because this is where I see its novelty. "CCW" is not my invention, although I came to it independently. The term can be googled on the Web.
For me, with my Russian past, war has a very special and ominous connotation. Since about 1830 and until the collapse of the Russian-Soviet Empire, a succession of outstanding observers of Russia (from the Marquis de Custine to Soviet dissidents) repeatedly described the Russian autocratic way of life as the permanent martial law accompanying the war of the government on its own people.
The question I ask myself is whether the ugly war of two political parties in America is—or may become—a war of the government on a half of its own people. The word revolution (as in Republican Revolution) sounds especially troubling to my Russian ear because the Soviet totalitarian system was the conscious goal and result of the Bolshevik Revolution. When I hear the "war on the middle class" call to arms on TV, or a listener's (without a trace of foreign accent) question "are we already in a totalitarian society?" on the radio, I am unable to take the entire situation lightly and to keep my questions for myself.
In other words, how stable is the American system in the changing world? This is the question that nobody can answer because explanations in history come always post factum.
I ask my questions as a concerned citizen, but I answer them as a chemist. In chemistry the notion of stability is the very essence of chemical prediction. While trying to predict the future of human relationships, we distinguish between good and bad chemistry. The unstable systems and unions fall apart. The stable ones lose stability.
If Austria-Hungary was stable but weak, Russia was strong but unstable. (Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, The Penguin Press, New York, 2006, p.13.)
What are the most general factors of stability in the fate of the nations? This is the question I am most interested in as a chemist looking at a larger world.
Asking myself this and other similar questions, I realize that there is no science that could answer them. The good hard grant-earning science deals with what was true last year (only we did not know about it) and will be true next year (and now we know). We, however, are seeking answers that made no sense the day before yesterday and will be out of date the day after tomorrow. Those are the morning-after questions. Unless an action is taken while the question is still reverberating, the answer will be of no importance.
What we can do without the Pill for the impregnated history is to ask the questions again and again and just believe in understanding that may come one day—and elude us the day after.
I am dividing this Essay into two sections. I intend to write the second one after the next elections, in 2008 or later, giving myself at least two years to think it all over and to see what happens next, if anything at all.
[NOTE. November 9, 2006. See APPENDIX 5]
1. This is June-July, 2006, the year of the FIFA World Soccer Cup. Modern soccer, like modern history, is global, runs without time-outs, and is about speed and waiting, long-distance interaction and close range struggle, quick thinking and automatism, fine technique and crude willpower. Like history, it splits into episodes ending in triumph, failure, or, most of the time, nothing at all. Hannah Arendt's remark about the "frailty of human affairs" (The Human Condition) came to my mind while I was watching the games. I thought about the difference between soccer and political life. Both have the same "futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome" that Hannah Arendt attributed to action, but US politics is a game played, like chess, by a political machine against another such machine, while soccer is still played by men against men. We, wired far apart, entrenched behind firewalls, are today the opposite of the Greek polis, which was the point of reference for Hannah Arendt. If there is anything still connecting us with the time when history was played by humans against humans, it is soccer, with its minimal gear, average physique, and constrained commercials on TV. What could remain after the games is that, in Hannah Arendt's words, "the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made 'products,' the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable." By the standards of the supermarket, of course.
2. What is Arendt's "boundlessness?"
Thus action and reaction among men never move in a closed circle and can never be reliably confined to two partners. This boundlessness is characteristic not of political action alone, in the narrower sense of the word, as though the boundlessness of human interrelatedness were only the result of the boundless multitude of people involved, which could be escaped by resigning oneself to action within a limited, graspable framework of circumstances; the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation. (Hannah Arendt, On Human Condition, Chapter 27, The Frailty of Human Affairs).
It is remarkable how a very small circle of people can involve the whole world into a dramatic conflict. The Islamic terrorist revolution was initiated by a small group with little resources. The tragic aspect of the American response was that a small and secretive group of people with huge resources and little imagination was in charge of the counteraction. The enthusiasm of a very small group of smart people with little money but big imagination had initiated the revolution that brought to power the small and secretive group... but let us think more on all of that.
3. Henry Kissinger (politics) and Jeffrey Toobin (law), who are among the most intelligent men of our time, are soccer fans.
4. See FIFA 2002 World Cup in Essay 38, On Football . Of course, by football I mean soccer.
5. I am adding this after the midterm elections of 2006. The fall of the Republicans, which, as Katrina vanden Heuvel (Editor, The Nation) said, saved the constitutional foundations of American democracy, is a great relief from the long dark night of the Republican Revolution. I still have to wait until 2008 to summarize. Meanwhile, I ask myself some new morning-after questions.
5-1. Are the constitutional foundations of American democracy safe if they need to be saved?
5-2. During the Republican night America did economically pretty well within its border. Do we need to worry so much about who is the pilot if there seems to be a kind of autopilot?
The autopilot of popular vote was OK when America was riding horses and even trains and automobiles, but at the high speed of electronic postmodernity the equine or gasoline autopilot may not be fast enough.
Meanwhile, I have made a discovery.
Throughout history nations used to conquer and expropriate other nations. The most original and heretic idea that Marx brought into this world was expropriation of the rich of the native country. That was a terrible aberration of thought! Instead, the rich could be used to support the de facto one-party system that Lenin launched after the Russian Revolution. Alas, after the revolution there were no rich anymore and the de jure one-party system was maintained by the only remaining means: terror. It seems to me that in both modern China and Russia—two giant survivors of extreme red fever—the cliques of people in power who had studied Marxism at school made the same discovery.
Ideas do not know borders and do not die. The next Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman are probably still in the elementary school. The Next George W. Bush is contemplating the Harvard Business School. But the question remains: how stable are the one-party and the two-party systems? And how strong are they?
Postscript (June 10, 2009) . I intended to return to the Grand Elections of 2008. Now they are behind me and have not a slightest desire to come back to them.
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