Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Burrowing Into Book - Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

                                                                                                                                          May 8, 2018

“Enlightenment Now”
Steven Pinker

For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death,
 health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want,
 freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering,
and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
                                                                                                            Steven Pinker
                                                                                                            Last sentence
                                                                                                            Enlightenment Now

The Age of Enlightenment extended from the late 17thCentury to the early 19th. It built on the studies and writings of Galileo, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, RenéDescartes and Baruch Spinoza. It encompassed writers, thinkers, scientists and essayists, from Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot and Thomas Jefferson. It inspired revolutions in America and France, and ultimately gave way to the Romantic period of the 19thCentury.

Early in his book, into which he squeezes 75 charts in 23 chapters, Professor Pinker quotes the American columnist Franklin P. Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the ‘good old days’ than a bad memory.” That is his thesis. Despite the horrors of the 20thCentury and the Islamic terrorism we are now experiencing, the world has evolved for the better. And credit is owed to the Enlightenment, which, after thousands of years with little progress, unleashed a cascade of science, reason and humanism. The consequence was a healthier, wealthier and more humane world. Its positive effects Professor Pinker shows through charts that depict the remarkable increase in life expectancy, the decline in undernourishment, the dramatic increase in global GDP per capita and the subsequent reduction in extreme poverty. As well, the Enlightenment brought democracy, greater equality, and improvements in the environment, safety and quality of life. These changes are quantified in a series of easily-readable charts and descriptions.

In Part I of the book, Pinker outlines the ideas of the Enlightenment; in Part II, he shows that they worked. Part III is a defense of those ideas and ideals – that they are as important today as they were when conceived. We should not let them dissipate in political emotionalism. The message is that progress and humanism are based on science and reason, which in turn are products of democracy, freedom, capitalism and affluence.

As in any book of this nature, questions arose: At what point does governmental social welfare spending and the debt it requires impede economic growth? Does government assistance interfere with individual creativity? Is it better to teach people to fish than give them a fish? To that, Pinker would answer, yes. Can an all-encompassing, all-powerful administrative state morph into autocracy? If the world is growing more liberal and more secular, what explains the rise of illiberal Islamic caliphates? Professor Pinker writes of totalitarianism shrinking, but one wonders, is that correct with governments in Russia and China becoming more despotic. What is the future for the people of Venezuela and Nicaragua where Socialism is dying an ugly death? He dismisses religion in a way I found uncomfortable, for, while science has explained many mysteries, it has not explained all. For example, from whence did the energy and matter, which comprised the microscopic particle that produced the “Big Bang,” emerge? Religion, from my understanding, does not require scientific proof and can co-exist with science. Besides, religion, when it is not imposed by the state, serves to comfort those who are fearful, sick, dying or simply feeling hopeless and in need of love’s salvation. 

But my disagreements with the author and his politics that percolate beneath the surface were minor. Professor Pinker’s story is a herculean effort to explain why the present is so much better than the past – that progress has indeed changed our lives for the better, that fond memories of the past belie hardships endured, that a failure to see how far we have come deprives youth cognizance of their fortunate inheritance. And he does so in a readable and enjoyable way. Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist (and best-selling author) at Harvard. Another of his books, Sense and Style, which was published in 2014, is, in my opinion, a book all aspiring writers should keep within arm’s reach. 

Enlightenment Nowcovers a lot of ground. It takes time to digest, but the effort is worthwhile. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"The Month That Was - April 2018"

Sydney M. Williams


“The Month That Was – April 2018”
May 1, 2018

A gush of bird-song, a patter of dew; a cloud and a rainbow’s warning,
Suddenly sunshine and perfect blue – an April day in the morning.”
                                                                                                Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921)
American writer, poet

When in Rome, as the saying goes, do as Romans. Caroline and I spent a few days in Rome during the middle of the month, and one thing Romans don’t do is read a lot of English-language newspapers. I was, however, able to read the New York Times International Editionmost days, but no doubt missed some of the news. For that I apologize.

“…suddenly sunshine and perfect blue…” After a cold and wet April, some sunshine appeared in the past week, at least here in the northeast. As well, the month provided signs of optimism – perhaps only visible to those of a cheerful disposition. And, this despite on-going concerns: the Islamization of European nations like Belgium and France; the threat to liberty that comes from an expanding, unaccountable European government in Brussel; the risk of protectionism; the confluence of expanding government debt and rising interest rates; and the threat to democracy from those who persist in using all means possible – including nasty innuendos and circumventing civil liberties – to end, or at least stymie, the Trump Presidency.

Kim Jung-un, in preparation for a June summit with President Trump (and I suspect under orders from Beijing), agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and shut down the site of the last half dozen tests under Mount Mantap – a location many scientists suspect is in danger of collapse. Mr. Kim crossed the border into South Korea – the first North Korean leader to do so since 1953 – to meet with President Moon Jae-in. Also, leaders of the world’s largest countries met: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping. After 59 years of rule, the last Castro left office, though it is uncertain that Miguel Diaz-Canel will serve the people any better. Jobless claims fell during the month. Unemployment is at 4.1% and work-force participation is rising. After years of stagnation, there was a modest increase in hourly earnings of 0.3%. Even the stock market, following two months of declines, rose modestly. Following publication of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, op-eds appeared by Jonah Goldberg in National Reviewand Daniel Finkelstein of The London Timesnoting what every student of history should know: The world has never been richer, healthier, more democratic or fairer – a consequence of the Enlightenment: western values, self-determination, democracy, rule of law, market-driven economies, humanism, reason and science. Something to keep in mind, when we find ourselves in a funk.

In a Nashville Waffle House, James Shaw pushed back against what has become a social norm of non-interference: where fear of offending allows bad people to do harm, where universities bow to students’ unreasonable demands, and where children freely disobey parents and teachers without consequence. Mr. Shaw rushed the shooter Travis Reinking, preventing him from killing more than he had. Individuals across the political spectrum praised him, as they did Barbara Bush, suggesting that traditional values do still abound. Mrs. Bush, the wife on one President and the mother of another, was a woman of high moral character who put her family above all else. She did not have to join #MeToo to justify her independence and sense of self. Had she been born at a different time, she might have become a chief executive, but she never regretted her role. Like Mr. Shaw has become, she was an inspiration to millions of Americans, who struggle to find a moral compass in the mishmash of today’s multicultural morass.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban won a third term, gaining a two-thirds parliamentary majority. He is a concern to Brussels, who fear right-wing authoritarians rising in eastern European nations like Poland, Romania and Slovakia. It is true that these countries are governed by nationalists and that they are net monetary beneficiaries of the EU’s largesse, but they are also subject to laws made in Brussels over which they have little sway, including those that control immigration. Perhaps today’s nationalism is but a backlash against an intrusive EU? Self-examination would be useful for bureaucrats in Brussels. As well, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism throughout the EU, but especially in western Europe. This is not a re-birth of Nazism and Fascism; it is the Middle East come to Europe. France today has twelve times as many Muslims as Jews. Germany has thirty-five times more Muslims than Jews. 

Before he was confirmed as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea to prepare for the proposed meeting – possibly in June – between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un. Joined by Great Britain and France, the United States struck chemical facilities in Syria, in retaliation for a gas attack President Assad made on his own people. When red lines are crossed, push-back is critical. Emmanuel Macron visited Washington. Mr. Trump and the first lady hosted the French President and his wife at Mount Vernon. The next evening, they were given a state dinner, the first of Mr. Trump’s Presidency. M. Macron’s purpose was to dissuade Mr. Trump from walking away from the Iran deal and urging him not to abandon the Paris Agreement. Instead, he suggested both could (and should) be improved. As to whether his goals were achieved remains unknown at this point, but good feelings between the two leaders were obvious. Angela Merkel, a lame-duck in Germany, arrived a day later with the same message. Earlier in the month, to little fanfare or press coverage, Japan’s President Shinzo Abe visited Mr. Trump at his home in Palm Beach.

While the Left claims that Mr. Trump has abandoned global responsibilities and retreated behind borders, his actions suggest otherwise. The truth is that he has asked more of those with whom we share values – denied the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of authoritarian and terrorist nations; created a coalition of Arab military forces to replace (some) U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq; increased the contributions from European nations to NATO, as Putin flexes his muscles in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Baltic States, and got Japan to recognize its responsibility to help defend Asian seas against a resurgent China.

A caravan of Honduran refugees – possibly including gang members of Barrio 18 and/or MS 13 – crossed Mexico and arrived in Tijuana, which abuts San Diego. President Trump, following in the footsteps of his two predecessors, sent troops to the border; though California’s Governor Jerry Brown, taking a leaf from the Confederacy, wants to declare his state a sanctuary – independent of U.S. federal law. Nicaragua, just south of Honduras and led by Leftist Daniel Ortega, is, like Venezuela, disintegrating into social and economic chaos. Violent protests broke out when the state approved a resolution that would increase contributions by workers and employers into the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security, while reducing payouts by five percent. Center-left candidate Carlos Alvarado won Costa Rica’s presidential election.

Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan announced his retirement from the Congress, something more members of Congress should consider. After a series of dubious (and vile) accusations, Dr. Ronnie Jackson withdrew his name as nominee to head the VA. Bob Mueller said Mr. Trump was not a target. However, the DNC, wanting to ensure the investigation remains on the front pages and adding new meaning to legal frivolity, filed a lawsuit against the Russians and the Trump campaign. Scott Pruitt, EPA chief who through deregulatory decisions has played a major role in speeded-up GDP growth, became a target of an ethically-challenged Left. Teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma, following the lead of West Virginia, protested cuts to pay, benefits and school funding. The real problem is growth granted unions and a lack of fiscal stewardship on the part of legislators. Many teachers are underpaid and are consigned to over-crowded classrooms. But public-school enrollments are lower than twenty-five years ago, yet the number of administrators has increased. In the meantime, states’ debts are increasing, interest costs are rising, and budgets are unbalanced.

Preliminary first quarter GDP numbers were reported at plus 2.3% percent, slightly above the Conference Board’s estimate of 1.9 percent. The stock market, as measured by the DJIA, was up less than one percent. FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google), which, over the past two months, had led markets lower, rose in April. Bond prices were lower, with the yield on the 10-Year exceeding 3% for the first time in four years. The question for consumers, investors, policy makers and business: Does this represent a hiccup in a continuing long slide in rates, or have bond markets turned? While no one knows for sure, my guess is that we are witnessing an extended topping in bond prices. Interest-rate moves are long cycles. Rates gradually rose from the end of World War II – passing through 5% in December 1965 – to reach a high on the 10-Year in September 1981 of 15.8 percent.  The low was 1.5%, in August 2016. The U.S. Dollar rose during the month. Bitcoin prices continued their volatile ways, rising 33% for the month. Incidentally (and amusingly) Bloomberg reported that two British economists, Richard Jackman of the LSE and Savvas Savouri of a London-based hedge fund, over a two-bottles-of-wine dinner concluded that the value of a Bitcoin was between $20.00 and $800,000.00 – naming their finding the Côtes du Rhône Theory.

Elsewhere, Finland announced they would halt their trial with “universal basic income,” something Socialist Bernie Sanders wants for the U.S. The Malaysian Prime Minister dissolved Parliament, paving way for a general election on May 9. The U.S. levied sanctions against three dozen Russian oligarchs and entities. At his annual Boao Forum for Asia, held on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, President Xi Jinping promoted openness, but attendees were unable to use Google, log on to Facebook or post to Twitter. The Soar Chapel, in the English farming community of Breton, now has one member, 85-year-old Evan Thomas Jones, who is determined not to let the doors close. A bus carrying members of Canada’s junior hockey team crashed, killing fifteen. In Toronto, ten people were killed, and fifteen injured, when a crazed individual drove his van down a crowded sidewalk. In the good news category, John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth (England) reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthat an enzyme had been discovered that breaks down and dissolves polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its original chemical chains. PET is a common plastic, which pollutes the world’s oceans.

Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. The 80-year-old could spend the rest of his life in prison. “The Avengers: Infinity War,” which cost Disney $300 million to produce, set a global record its first weekend, taking in $630 million. Roseanne Barr, on the re-opening of her show “Roseanne,” told her audience: “Trump supporters are human.” The Left was incensed. The New York Times: “Roseanne just ends up normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies.” James Comey, following other public officials who have used public service to garner private profits, released his memoir, with its officious and self-serving title, A Higher Loyalty. I am a reader but will never buy or read his book.

In basketball, Notre Dame won the women’s NCAA title, while Villanova won the men’s. American Patrick Reed won the Masters Tournament at Augusta.

Death claimed, as mentioned above, Barbara Bush, “the adult in the room,” as John Podhoretz wrote. Winnie Mandela died at 82, and Lois Wheeler Snow, wife of C.P. Snow, died at 97. Linda Brown, whose name became synonymous with desegregation died at 75. Olympic U.S. ski coach Bob Beattie died at 85. Two-year-old Alfie Evans, the center of a tug-of-war between his parents and the NHS, died at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. And I lost a good friend, Harry Sedgwick, a classmate and associate of Robert Kennedy and remembered for his smile, love of people and twinkling eyes. He died at age 90.

We move on to May, the merry month whose first few days look to finally usher in Spring.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dear Reader of Thought of the Day

Sydney M. Williams

                                                                                                                                         April 4, 2018

Dear Reader of Thought of the Day,

Due to time constraints associated with a book to be published in early 2019, I must suspend my Thoughts of the Day, at least for two to three months. I am sorry for this and will miss the opportunity to put my spin on people and events. I will, however, continue to write “The Month That Was” and the short, monthly essays on readings I have enjoyed. But this new book takes precedence.

It will be titled “Dear Mary: Letters from (and to) Italy, January 1945-July !945. It will be published by Bauhan Publishing of Peterborough, New Hampshire, who published my previous essays: “One Man’s Family” (2014) and “Notes from Old Lyme” (2016). The new book will consist of about 100 letters, written by my father and mother along with a few from his parents and his siblings. The letters cover the months my father was in Italy with the 10thMountain Division, better known as the Ski Troops. It will include an introduction and commentary, added color and context to the story the letters tell.

The War was the defining experience for people of my parents’ generation and letters were the means by which they communicated. My mother and father had been married for six years and had three children, with a fourth on the way, when he was drafted in March 1944. At 33, he was older than most draftees and older than most junior officers. Age was an advantage, though, in terms of perspective and in staying alive.

While much has been written of the horrors experienced by those who served in combat, less has been written about those left behind – the loneliness and anxiety; the dread of a telegram, phone call or visit by the military; the need for stoicism; the importance of a happy face for the sake of children who could not comprehend what was happening. These letters represent but a sliver of what happened to millions of people in similar circumstances, but the story they tell is universal. Most every adult had someone – a son, brother, father, uncle, daughter, sister, niece – who served during the War. The population in 1940 was 132 million, about half were under 18 or over 45. Nineteen million served in the military including 350,000 women – almost 30% of the available population. There are myriad stories, but the love, fear and doubt expressed by my parents, as well as their faith and trust in God and in their families were common to all.

My job is to go through those letters, ensuring they have been transcribed accurately. The letters must be sequenced; so that it appears, at least to the extent possible, that my mother and father are speaking to one another – raising and answering questions. Introductions and commentary must be written, to ensure that people, places and events mentioned are explained and made clear. 

I have no idea how much time this will take, but the writing of essays, which take only a moment to read, take hours to compose – about twenty on average. I also do not want to ignore my wife or miss seeing my children and grandchildren. Something had to give. Sadly, it was the TOTDs, but I should be back in harness by summer. Next Tuesday, Caroline and I leave for nine days in Europe – six in Rome where we will meet up with one son, his wife and children – and then three blissful days in London. 

Best regards,