The Lure of the Autocrat

These are trying times for democrats. And I do not mean Democrats as opposed to Republicans, I mean democrats v autocrats. It seems the latter have the upper hand in the public imagination, since they have all the efficiency arguments on their side. No pesky opposition, no stalemate in Congress, no hustling for public approval. Putin rules by fiat having a rubber stamp cabinet and Duma, and best of all an overwhelming approval rating. (Hint: freedom of speech is rewarded by beatings and jail time.) And so does the Chinese Communist Party. Regrettably, the latter has all the Ism and zero Commune in its name. It’s all ideology of state power, lest chaos reigns. President and aspiring autocrat Xi praises millennial old monarchs and absolutist rulers, ranting against Western liberalism, branding them Western imports unfit for Chinese culture and minds. Funny how he makes these statements as proud defender of a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, which also is one of these pesky Western ideas imported to China by Chairman Mao. The latter incidentally condemned as decadent and feudal anything cultural and political originating ante 1949. Poor Xi.

My own father expressed sentiments for a benevolent dictator, who would render unnecessary the difficult and ubiquitous decision making and compromising, the hallmark of a vibrant and stable democracy. A benevolent dictator, of course, is expected to always rule the way you prefer decisions to be made. I remember to be shocked by his utterance, because he was also a proud Swiss, as any Swiss is proud of our history of democracy dating back to 1291. Well, it’s a complicated history, a bloody history, and a lopsided history of freedom, as women did not get their full rights as citizens until 1971, half a century after universal suffrage in the USA. Now the Swiss executive branch of government has a majority of women ministers.

Americans too, seem to doubt the value of their democracy as they hate Congress for being inefficient and ineffective, ranting against incumbents, yet reelecting them with utter consistency, despising their president, if he comes from the opposite party. Obama does not fare better than W a few years ago. The sentiment to impose one’s will on all the people is strong, fed by frustration about a complicated and diverse landscape of ideas and moral convictions. It’s hard work to govern as ‘We the People’, but it is work necessary to be done.

Economic goals trump educational outcomes.

The way we search for answers and solutions is by way of defining a problem. If we get the problem wrong, we will never find the correct solution. So it goes with education reform, where the latest measure of success is economic outcome, not educational attainment. The symptoms of failing education by today’s education reform circles, however, are misdiagnosed. When I came to this country some twenty five years ago, the campus buildings were named after famous scientists, educators, civil rights activists and politicians that further democratic liberty and equality. Today, this honor goes to sponsors who pay multimillion dollar premiums to have their names splashed high sky over what is perceived as dismal education. In an age where we callously or naively set impossible goals – 100% proficiency and graduation rates as well as job guarantees (not mere prospects), the adulation of money over knowledge is the biggest threat to education. When people seriously contemplate eliminating algebra for a college education, because it is a stumbling block for degree seekers, where a degree is simply a needed paper for a job, not a testament of learning, then we caved in to the economic primacy over education.

Climate change, invasive species and the Anthropocene

There is only one species that deserves the name invasive: Homo sapiens sapiens.

I have always wondered when I was a kid in school learning about evolution and formation of mountain ranges (the Alps, to be specific) how it all works, that it is a shame that we cannot see it in our short lives. Now, however, change seems to play out everywhere, erosion and sea water level rises are reaching a ‘threshold’. Environmental fears on climate change and species conservation, that carefully balanced ecosystems are threatened by rising temperature, shorter winters, and invasive species, make us panic and some seem convinced that the changes predicted to play out over the next century are now happening within a decade, calling them catastrophic, irreversible, that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. The Anthropocene as the apocalyptic next stage in evolution can only be the brain child of a species infused with religious thought.

Talking about extinction, what ever happened to evolution? Do we really believe Nature is in a perfect equilibrium, where change is bad and the status quo perfect? We would not be here, were it not for the last mass extinction. If climate change and invasive Lion-fish in the Atlantic are problems, they are certainly caused by us, but calling the fish ‘invasive’ puts blame where it does not belong. All our fears of change are economic, a threat to our livelihood. So stop pretending that it is about Nature. It will take care of itself, and lets learn to take responsibility without panic, let’s learn to adapt to change and show humility. We are less powerful than we’d like to believe, for better or for worse.

Obama’s Puzzling Unpopularity

Today the New York Times published a poll that shows Obama’s approval ratings at an all time low hovering around thirty to forty percent. The same poll also shows that Americans approve with a two thirds majority of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, aiding ‘moderate’ Syrian’ militants and not committing ground troops. This just happens to be exactly Obama’s strategy all along, i.e., using military means with utmost caution, yet people do not approve of his foreign policy. This guy has killed more militants than anyone would have expected from a Nobel Peace Prize holder, has killed Osama bin Laden and used deadly drone strikes at every conceivable opportunity. He is winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exactly what most Americans want too. The American public, me thinks, is in a state of utter confusion. We vote with our fears instead of our heads. Pobrecito Obama.