Monday, April 27, 2009

Mexico’s Swine Flu Crisis: A Time for Literary Reflection amidst Fear and Paranoia

Old Drawing of a Rhinoceros

It is a strange image to see people roaming the streets with their faces covered by masks to protect themselves from this mysterious and ominous influenza outbreak. It seems like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. In 28 Days Later one had to beware of contact with infectious blood; in our case, we are paranoid of each other, no matter if it's a friend or a stranger especially when they start sneezing or coughing. A common cold today equals ostracism in these troublesome days.

Whether the whole level of fuss and panic is really necessary remains to be seen in the near future. Yet that it poses a tangible threat for most of us, especially if you are living in Mexico, is evident in daily life. Schools all across the nation have been suspended for a week; public events, including soccer games, are either canceled or take place behind closed doors to avoid spread of the virus among multitudes of people. The whole country is on its way of turning into a ghost town soon enough.

Various works of cinema and literature come to mind. Although Camus' The Plague is an impressive work that deals with rapidly growing infections and a sense of fear and paranoia, but I think that the situation is rather different from the current outbreak. With the Black Death, people were infected from rats and started sneezing, which many say brought about our regular saying “God bless you,” meaning that only God can help you now that you are fading away.

However, in this particular case, I am more reminded of the absurd theater of Ionesco and his famous play called Rhinoceros. In that work, people start changing, without reason or explanation, into rhinoceroses. Pretty soon most of the town has lost their humanity and is simply rushing from place to place in their rhino shape.

This seems to me more apt to describe the current situation. We are afraid. As simple as that. We know that despite all the technology and medicine, we are still vulnerable, that mankind will never completely shed its Achilles heel. They say that it is time for the next pandemic that will wipe out most of us. It is not a question of if or whether but rather when.

Of course, one option would be to live in constant fear. Terrorism had caught most of our attention, and now all of a sudden it is the swine flu that is making headlines. Swine? Yes, it sounds as absurd as the rhinoceros play. And one can complicate matters and say that Twelve Monkeys exemplifies a testament for the next global bio-terrorist attack. It can happen, and it is not as far-fetched or science fiction as we would like to think.

But I believe we should take a deep breath and decide to adapt to the changing circumstances. We have to recall that we are indeed vulnerable and that nothing is really safe. We are dangling on a tightrope without a safety net, or maybe the tightrope is spread on the ground and we are meant to stumble, as Kafka once put it.

Or we are thrown into the world that contains wonderful and horrible things in equal measure. We can panic or we can embrace our strengths and weaknesses and brace for what is coming ahead and hope, in its true medieval sense, that “God will bless us.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why Empires Crumble : The Downfall of Rome

Sun's rays disappearing behind grey clouds
What causes the downfall of large and invincible-seeming empires like those of the Romans? The Romans had almost the entire world in the palm of their hands. So what happened?

One of the crucial reasons for their downfall has been the lack of political and national unity. On the level of government, the Romans began to break apart when they divided their territory into even parts.

The Second Triumvirate turned out to be a veritable headache for the Romans. Augustus had a deal with Marc Anthony and Lepidus. The latter was stripped from office due to usurping power in Sicily and spent the rest of his life in exile, whereas the ambitious and power-hungry Marc Anthony defied the much younger and less battle-experienced Augustus. From the East, Marc Anthony was causing so much trouble that Augustus decided to fight against him and regain the territory he had allotted to him.

Such intense internal strife, capable Romans against other Romans, is a dangerous undertaking because there were always more pressing problems, for example, the constant “barbarian” threat, as well as the threat from other growing empires such as the Parthians, the Iranians, from the East. It temporarily weakened or distracted the Roman Empire; however, the able Augustus regained absolute power and controlled the rest of the empire with a firm hand for decades to come, decades of peace during which the doors of the temple of Janus remained shut.

The Empire ached again when the territory was divided into equal shares; conspiracies and intrigues abounded; the Romans were at times confused as to who their Caesar was; the many usurping factions and overthrows culminated in an epoch where in some cases the soldiers decided to appoint their own Caesar. A lot of the confusion began when the old established rules were broken, and the senate dissolved, a point I will elaborate later when I deal with growing lawlessness.

Nonetheless, there was another threat underlying unity and this came mostly from within; there were many people who were seen as outcasts, such as slaves and gladiators. In fact, the gladiators revolted under their leader Spartacus, and the Romans managed only with considerable effort to calm them down and to suppress their movement.

The Romans were elitist, and the majority of the people were not accepted as citizens; it undermined feelings of national identity and identification eventually leading to popular national movements in most of Europe. If you exclude most members of your empire, they will obviously grow disenchanted and be prone to revolt.

The territory of the British Island is another example where the Romans failed to unite the conquered. The “British”, back then they were simply referred to as “barbarians”, accepted the Roman rule on the surface, but they secretly continued with their own established practices, which is why even after long rule, they never became “Romanized.” In the hour of opportunity, they struck hard and regained their freedom, as if they had never experienced Roman rule.

Another factor that undermined the stronghold of the Roman Empire was the lack of respect for the law. The early Romans had clearly established laws that they followed almost religiously. The Senate, which was initially comprised of the richest and the most skilled, had abundant control over appointing various positions in a democratic fashion.

An interesting fact about the senators was that it was an unpaid position, which is why the senators had to be rich in the first place. It was considered an honorary, almost holy post, reserved for the best and brightest to the benefit of Rome. A lot of those virtuous sentiments have unfortunately been lost in modern-day politics; senators these days earn mounds of money and use their influence mostly to their own personal benefit. I am not claiming that there were no intrigues or corruption in those times, but what is evident is that the body of the senate held considerable power and retained order. When the senate was later dissolved and declared powerless by the emperor, lawlessness and chaos ensued and became uncontrollable.

In Europe, the fractured estates under the feudal system had their own laws, which varied from lord to lord, and therefore, there were no binding universal laws. This had isolated groups from each other, and only later when they united and created nations with economic, cultural, political independence, they developed their own proper laws.

Yet the lack of respect for the law is a relevant issue nowadays. As mentioned earlier, since our political system can turn into a profit-wielding profession, corruption, which is a lack of respect for the norms, develops and grows. The president, the commander-in-chief, would, without remorse, lie to the people and to his/her own senate and congress for personal gain.

More often than not, politicians get away with criminal behavior since they are in a position of power and become immune and untouchable. The same is a problem from the bottom up, when the people do not respect the law. In many countries the citizens reject laws they find inconvenient, or they resolve the issue with bribes.

Often politicians claim a higher status for themselves and, as a result, cannot be touched by the law, something that apart from injustice is a concrete example that not everyone is equal under the eyes of the law. As we can see, if not everyone accepts the rule of commonly shared laws, then any empire or country will not progress or be in peace, which eventually might lead to fragmentation.

A final point is the issue of faith. Apart from mismanagement, lack of trust in the government and unceasing intrigues, faith played a major role in the dissolution of the Roman Empire.

The Romans actually had been rather “open-minded” when it came to religions. They did not reject other religions as false or erroneous from the start, contrary to the tenets of Christianity, which claims that their God is the true and only one. Romans simply assimilated other beliefs and had a pantheistic religion with an abundance of gods, overseen by Jupiter, the Greek Zeus, who, nonetheless, was not all-powerful and also bound to the laws of nature.

How did Christianity influence, change and even destroy the Roman Empire? It was mostly because of the premise of a monotheistic religion that rejected traditional Roman beliefs completely. The Romans might have been tolerant when it comes to religions, yet they were smart enough to recognize the implicit threat that came with Christianity, which is why Christian followers were persecuted heavily and blamed for many of the internal problems of the Empire.

But the Romans lacked a consistent and continuous structure, due to the variable and inconsistent strategies and policies of different emperors. They did not have a continuous line of successors, and as such, the politics kept changing. Some of the Romans were not as diligent in controlling the spread of Christianity, which led to a culminating point when Constantine actually embraced the Christian religion at the expense of previous Roman beliefs.

The Romans were a superstitious people and that included everyone from the slave to Caesar. They would not undertake political actions until they had consulted with oracles and augurs. They also believed in premonition and the significance of dreams. Therefore, when Constantine prayed to the Christian God for the outcome of an important battle, which ended up victorious, he converted to Christianity. The tenets of equality and divine justice replaced what had been a rather elitist government and as such undermined the whole foundation of the Roman Empire.

So why do empires crumble? These are only a few possible factors, and there may be many more. A united group that stands wholeheartedly behind their leader and is ready to even lay down their lives is very difficult to conquer. Many times we see that internal strife in a country becomes suspended when there is a threat from outside, as was the case when the Mongols under Kublai Khan attacked Japanese land. Suddenly, the Japanese became unified, forgot their own resentments among each other and successfully fought off the common enemy.

Respect for the law is vital as well. You want the laws to reflect your society and to ensure that most of the people, if not all, deem their society as essentially just and fair. That might be one of the reasons why dictatorships with their disregard toward the common folk are eventually torn apart.

And finally, if the people have faith in an otherworldly being and are united by a common shared belief and religious practices, they will fight and protect their ideals. In such cases, death becomes meaningless since one's eyes are cast on the promise of eternal afterlife.

The Romans lasted a long time, and for the most part they had managed their vast empire very well. But if the talented and war-experienced Romans were to be worn away by time, who would be able to build a greater and longer-lasting empire?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Meditations on God’s Nature and Existence and the Origins of the Universe

Drawing of planets in the universe

In two previous posts “God's Omnipotence and the Rules of the Game of Existence” and “Nothing can come out of nothing - or can it?” I attempted to tackle questions on apparent contradictions of God's nature and powers. Now I shall try to elaborate on these issues, however under a different set of circumstances and with the aid of the French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes.

First of all, we humans are firmly situated in both time and space and are not fully aware of the consequences of our actions at any given time. For example, we have certain wills (or desires, needs), but the results are usually separated in space and time. I will (or have a sensation) that I am hungry; depending on the level of hunger, my response can happen quickly or can be delayed, at least for a while. Nonetheless, it is absolutely necessary to satisfy this need for survival, and the outcome will have to be food at some point of time. The question is not whether or not I am going to eat, but when.

On the other hand, I may will (or have the intention) to go to Europe. In this case, there are various additional factors involved with this decision. I would have to contemplate it more precisely and look at it from different angles, and it can possibly be negated without my own survival at peril. I would need to go to a travel agent (or two), reserve the ticket, make adjustments at work and personal life, and so on. Because I cannot clearly foresee what the results of my actions are going to be, I need to carefully plan and schedule this trip.

But at anytime I might come to the conclusion that I do not want to or rather should not go to Europe and replace the initial will with a more convenient or appropriate one, going to South America instead. I might even justify this new decision of mine on rational or economic grounds. In fact, I would not regard it as a contradiction since I merely decided to change my mind about the subject.

However, when it comes to God's existence the rules and circumstances are quite different. First of all, I must agree with Boethius' conception that God exists “outside of time.” It is generally assumed that before the Big Bang, there was neither time nor space. If God were to exist in time and space like us humans, then He would not have been able to exist before the Big Bang, and as a result, not be the creator of the universe.

But there is another reason why the laws of physics would not apply to God. C. S. Lewis claims that God Himself has created those laws, but He would be bound to them equally as we are. We could, for example, not expect God to act in illogical or inconsistent ways. Even He could not act on illogical propositions, such as creating a rock that not even He himself could carry.

However, I disagree slightly with his phrasing and shall try to arrive at the same conclusion via a different path. Let us return to our initial question and relationship of will and action. As humans are limited in their perspective, they need to change their mind due to new incoming information. But should God do so, it would be a fundamental inherent contradiction to His nature and powers. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, He could not simply change His mind or be surprised at the outcome of certain events. He simply would have known or foreseen it or rather nobody else could have been the Author of those particular events. For example, God not being rooted in linear time, He must have known at Genesis what would take place thereafter and even “planned” the Great Flood and the death of Jesus in advance.

When it comes to will and action, I would like to resort to one of Descartes' observations that the will and action of God are the same event and happen simultaneously. God, unlike us, does not reflect and then decide; God's idea is the action itself in the same manner that the action is already embedded in the idea.

At the beginning of the existence of the universe, God simply uttered “Let there be light.” His Word was enough for the universe to be created, and all has been set in motion thereafter. He would have created the laws of physics as both Descartes and Lewis claim. However, it would not be a limitation on God's part. He would be able to suspend the laws of physics if He wanted to.

Yet that would be in return a contradiction of His own Essence. In fact, miracles would either not exist or be premeditated, and hence already be part of His will in the first place. In such a conception of God, it would become illogical for Him to change His mind, to intervene and create a miracle because that would imply an admission of error.

As such, we can see that God would have to exist outside of time, where linear time (past, present and future) would not apply to Him. His actions (and probably to a certain degree ours) would be determined either by Him in advance, or it would be the result of complex interactions within an elaborate system of forces, yet all already foreseen by Him. Whether we have free will or not is beyond the scope here, and I reserve that idea for a future discussion.

I am aware that such concepts as explained above may be in open conflict with the notions of a Christian God. In fact, He could be seen as the prime motor of Aristotle or the perfect engineer of the scientific age. Nietzsche might also be validated with his term that “God is dead” and that He may have left us with a cold, impersonal, unfeeling universe since God's hands would be bound so-to-speak from acting within this world. Personally, I believe that it would be wise to strip away anthropomorphic descriptions of God, where He would be prey to aspects of human emotions, such as anger and pride.

If God does exist (and I am proposing here that He does) He would exist not on our terms, but on His own; our limited human perspective, endlessly bound to time and space and cause and effect, would make our own views rather blurry and undefined when it comes to questions about God's existence.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

How a baby can change your life: six months later

Photo of happy father with his baby son

It is a definite and undeniable fact that the birth of my son has changed my life. Although there are great abundant joys, there is also constant fear and anguish. Anything, from the slightest inconvenience and pain on his part, let alone the frequent visits to get needed vaccinations, causes stress in each of us. There is a certain feeling of helplessness as if we were dangling without security net in the webs of fate.

However, there are also psychological changes, especially concerning one's personality and outlook on life. First of all, as a man, I must say that I have gotten "softer" and much more emotional. It is not something completely out of the blue because emotions have always been important to me, but they have become more diverse and all-embracing. Particularly tales or movies about children or father-son relationships move me much more these days. I can relate to them on a deeper level, and when parents suffer, I can understand their pain.

In a similar vein, I am beginning to understand much better the pain and suffering that my parents must have gone through raising three sons, and I respect them much more now. Having to deal with sickness or even surgery of your son seems to me almost unbearably difficult. Also, for those who have lost a baby in a miscarriage, I have nothing but sympathy and compassion since my wife's pregnancy was complex, difficult, and stressful. And of course, I will always give my seat to pregnant women as the stages of pregnancy are not easy to deal with.

There are definitely positive changes that remind us of our dormant humanity. It is something that cannot be taught nor really understood until one reaches the particular stage. It is a cycle. I am afraid that my own son will be part of it; one day he will rebel against me, reject me and possibly not have respect for me during the troublesome teenage period and perhaps even early adulthood. Until he too shall be blessed with the enormous gift and responsibility of having to deal with his own children …

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Worker’s Alienation and the Desolate, Lonesome Greed on Wall Street

A view from above a glass elevator
I have been following some of the latest developments on the current global crisis out of necessity. Although economics is not my favorite field, I must say that understanding some of the basic principles is paramount for survival in our modern capitalist world. Economics affects all of us, and almost every part of our lives is influenced by economic decisions; at the same, it also powers a feeling of helplessness and alienation.

One becomes a pawn in a complex and confusing game, where only few profit, and the rest of us simply have to suffer. Seeing the market plunge or the cost of basic products rise, I cannot do anything but accept those facts, though I feel completely left out and alienated from the process. It seems that I, and that includes probably most of us, am just a plaything caught up in a capricious whirlwind of economic disaster.

Marx, building on Hegel's concept, claims that modern labor has an alienating effect on each worker for various reasons, especially when it comes to the worker's relationship with the product. First of all, the worker does not feel any particular identification with the finished product as they have been involved in only part of the process. Specialization in one area and the use of technology usually limit us to see the product as our own creation. In today's auto industry few people can claim “authorship” of the manufacturing process, since the workers are often used in the same way as the machinery, as commodity.

Furthermore, few of us are our own bosses, so our work is “owned” by others who use and dispose of them at their own caprice and will. In other words, we turn over all the “copyrights” to the owner, and all we get in return is a salary as a form of compensation. Yet often enough this salary is low so that it does not seem like a fair deal; we have not only put work and effort into the production but also used up precious time.

“Time is money” has been the motto of several people in the modern world. Yet it seems that we are not the owners of our own time since its principal value represents making money; this activity is not emotionally or spiritually fulfilling although we claim and often insist that it will bring us happiness.

I am using terms of creative writing because I think that as a writer the relationship to one's work is the best manner for me to explain the concept of alienation. When I write a story that I believe reflects my own creativity, feelings, philosophical convictions, I see it not only as an extension of myself, but also as my mirror image. If it is written as an honest, intellectual and artistic endeavor, as opposed to commercial writing where the end is making money, then my work is worthy of the person I am and becomes a true representation of who I am. Often this kind of identification would fill the artist with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Something that I believe Karl Marx must have felt after finishing up his Das Kapital or James Joyce with his masterpiece Finnegan's Wake that had almost two decades in the making.

So far I have looked at alienation in terms of the ordinary worker, but it also applies to the capital-owning people. In particular, I am thinking of Wall Street brokers whose principal objective is to make money off money and whose only “work” is the act of buying and selling stocks. How could they consider themselves productive at all? What would they possibly contribute to society? Perhaps one day all the money they have made will not console them for the void in their lives and all the time spent looking for something that eventually would alienate them not only from society, but worse, from themselves.