Fat Tuesday Interlude — New Orleans and Mardi Gras

If New York is the cultural capital of the United States, and San Francisco its heart, then New Orleans must be its soul. For many visitors, the city of New Orleans is represented by the bars and bohemian nightlife of Bourbon Street and, if they venture out just a bit further, it is the French Quarter.

But New Orleans is a place unique in American culture. It is the city that gave birth to jazz–America’s classical music. It has been the incubator of artists, musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs that have introduced a unique multicultural perspective and flavor to American society. It’s Mississippi River has served to introduce new immigrants to American society and to introduce America’s heartland to a melding of cultures and ethnicity.

The city has its roots in the French culture and legal system that founded it, yet it has been transformed through the years by each new flag and influence under which it has existed: Cajuns, the Spaniards, African slaves, American settlers, indigenous people, Caribbean immigrants, Creoles, Italians, Mexican, Central and South American immigrants, and today, people from all lands. Each group celebrated and celebrates their heritage and, in the process are thrown together in a gumbo of ethnic, cultural, and economic admixture that is uniquely American.

For me, New Orleans is like the beautiful woman who has been abused by those who would dominate her, but who picks herself up and overcomes the challenges thrown in her way. The city’s positioning was problematic from the start, sitting between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, with the Gulf of Mexico looming close by. As the city grew and became the financial and trading capital of the southern states, more and more swampland was drained and built on. Hurricanes and tornadoes have leveled many of her buildings and broken her levies, flooding her streets, costing lives and livelihoods.

But New Orleans has also faced human challenges, especially from those who have resented or devalued her multicultural and other contributions. After the overthrow of Reconstruction, the imposition of Jim Crow imposed itself on its people. It was met by continuous resistance and eventually overthrown, but not before it had its effects on underfunded public schools, great urban wastelands from urban renewal and highway construction, and crumbling neighborhoods.

The Storyville neighborhood–lest the troops and sailors be corrupted by miscegenation–was closed by order of the War Department in 1917 and later leveled–its rich history living on in our music and in our culture, though its physical embodiment long gone.

Its strong roots in Catholicism and its variations, the melding of Native American and African slave culture, and the introduction of other religious traditions from far flung places across the world often made it suspect to the more staid and closed sections of American society.

The reduction of the financial sector, automation and containerization of the its port that reduced high paying jobs, highway construction and resulting suburbanization, redlining, white flight, and Federal neglect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have all represented existential threats to the city.

And yet it goes on. The people of New Orleans–new arrivals and those who returned home after exile in places like Houston–celebrate their heritage and their culture in the New World in New Orleans.

I am not a resident or native of New Orleans, but I have had a lifetime romance with it. I have spent a good deal of time there and I have seen and lived with its changes over the years. When I walk down the sidewalks in the neighborhoods of New Orleans it is almost as if I am greeted from every corner. People smile and wave, though I am a stranger. People share their unique perspectives on things, and trustingly expose their vulnerabilities, wearing fewer masks than I encounter anywhere else–and when they do wear masks it is to celebrate life and living, and even our shared mortality.

As an old Navy hand I am not so deluded as to believe that the city does not have its downsides or its dangers, as most urban–and rural–areas do. I have walked through cities across the world, through many rough seaport and other neighborhoods. Still, we must keep in mind that we live, especially in our own country, during a relatively safe period. Poverty is a disease, not a moral failing.

New Orleans today remains genuine. It has not experienced the billionaire sanitizing that New York underwent during the Bloomberg years. It is not being gentrified and its character smoothed out by high tech as we are seeing in San Francisco. At least, not yet. It’s neighborhoods are rebuilding and it’s people are proud and optimistic.

So to those who read this blog: Happy Mardi Gras!

 

 

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Daniel Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

Daniel_Dennett

“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other. As we shall see, it was the philosophical prejudices of the scientists, more than their lack of scientific evidence, that prevented them from seeing how the theory could actually work, but those philosophical prejudices that had to be overthrown were too deeply entrenched to be dislodged by mere philosophical brilliance. It took an irresistible parade of hard-won scientific facts to force thinkers to take seriously the weird new outlook that Darwin proposed…. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.”

Daniel Dennett (pictured above thanks to Wikipedia) is the Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.  He is also known as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, for his pointed criticism of what he viewed as unnecessary revisions to Darwinian Theory by Stephen Jay Gould, who was also a previous subject of this blog, and others.  In popular culture he has also been numbered among the “Four Horsemen” of the so-called “New Atheism”.  His intellectual and academic achievements are many, and his insights into evolution, social systems, cognition, consciousness, free will, philosophy, and artificial intelligence are extremely influential.

Back in 1995, when I was a newly minted Commander in the United States Navy, I happened across an intriguing book in a Jacksonville, Florida bookshop during a temporary duty assignment.  The book was entitled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  I opened it that afternoon during a gentle early spring Florida day and found myself astounded and my mind liberated, as if chains which I had not previously noticed, but which had bound my mind, had been broken and released me, so great was the influence of the philosophical articulation of this “dangerous idea”.

Here, for the first time, was a book that took what we currently know about the biological sciences and placed them within the context of other scientific domains–and done so in a highly organized, articulate, and readable manner.  The achievement of the book was not so much in deriving new knowledge, but in presenting an exposition of the known state of the science and tracing its significance and impact–no mean achievement given the complexity of the subject matter and the depth and breadth of knowledge being covered.  The subject matter, of course, is highly controversial only because it addresses subjects that engender the most fear: the facts of human origins, development, nature, biological interconnectedness, and the inevitability of mortality.

Dennett divides his thesis into three parts: the method of developing the theory and its empirical proofs, it’s impact on the biological sciences, and the impact on other disciplines, especially regarding consciousness, philosophy, sociology, and morality.  He introduces and develops several concepts, virtually all of which have since become cornerstones in human inquiry, and not only among the biological sciences.

Among these are the concepts of design space, of natural selection behaving as an algorithm, of Darwinism acting as a “universal acid” that transforms the worldview of everything it touches, and of the mental concepts of skyhooks, cranes and “just-so” stories–fallacious and magical ways of thinking that have no underlying empirical foundation to explain natural phenomena.

The concept of the design space has troubled many, though not most evolutionary biologists and physicists, only because Dennett posits a philosophical position in lieu of a mathematical one.  This does not necessarily undermine his thesis, simply because one must usually begin with a description of a thesis before one can determine whether it can be disproven.  Furthermore, Dennett is a philosopher of the analytical school and so the scope of his work is designed from that perspective.

But there are examples that approach the analogue of design space in physics–those that visualize space-time and general relativity as at this site.  It is not a stretch to understand that our reality–the design space that the earth inhabits among many alternative types of design spaces that may exist that relate to biological evolution–can eventually be mathematically formulated.  Given that our knowledge of comparative planetary and biological physics is still largely speculative and relegated to cosmological speculation, the analogy for now is sufficient and understandable.  It also gives a new cast to the concept of adaptation away from the popular (and erroneous) concept of “survival of the fittest”, since fitness is based on the ability to adapt to environmental pressures and to find niches that may exist in that environment.  With our tracing of the effects of climate change on species, we will be witnessing first hand the brutal concept of design space.

Going hand-in-hand with design space is the concept that Darwinian evolution through the agent of natural selection is an algorithmic process.  This understanding becomes “universal acid” that, according to Dennett, “eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.”

One can understand the objection of philosophers and practitioners of metaphysics to this concept, which many of them have characterized as nihilistic.  This, of course, is argument from analogy–a fallacious form of rhetoric.  The objection to the book through these arguments, regardless of the speciousness of their basis, is premature and a charge to which Dennett effectively responds through his book Consciousness Explained.  It is in this volume that Dennett addresses the basis for the conscious self, “intentionality”, and the concept of free will (and its limitations)–what in the biological and complexity sciences is described as emergence.

What Dennett has done through describing the universal acid of Darwinian evolution is to describe a phenomenon: the explanatory reason for rapid social change that we have and are witnessing, and the resulting reaction and backlash to it.  For example, the revolution that was engendered from the Human Genome Project not only has confirmed our species’ place in the web of life on Earth and our evolutionary place among primates, but also the interconnections deriving from descent from common ancestors of the entire human species, exploding the concept of race and any claim to inherent superiority or inferiority to any cultural grouping of humans.

One can clearly see the threat this basic truth has to entrenched beliefs deriving from conservative philosophy, cultural tradition, metaphysics, religion, national borders, ethnic identity, and economic self-interest.

For it is apparent to me, given my reading not only of Dennett, but also that of both popularizers and the leading minds in the biological sciences that included Dawkins, Goodall, Margulis, Wilson, Watson, Venter, Crick, Sanger, and Gould; in physics from Hawking, Penrose, Weinberg, Guth, and Krauss, in mathematics from Wiles, Witten, and Diaconis; in astrophysics from Sandage, Sagan, and deGrasse Tyson; in climate science from Hansen and many others; and in the information sciences from Moore, Knuth, and Berners-Lee, that we are in the midst of another intellectual revolution.  This intellectual revolution far outstrips both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as periods of human achievement and advancement, if only because of the widespread availability of education, literacy, healthcare, and technology, as well as human diversity, which both accelerates and expands many times over the impact of each increment in knowledge.

When one realizes that both of those earlier periods of scientific and intellectual advance engendered significant periods of social, political, and economic instability, upheaval, and conflict, then the reasons for many of the conflicts in our own times become clear.  It was apparent to me then–and even more apparent to me now–that there will be a great overturning of the institutional, legal, economic, social, political, and philosophic ideas and structures that now exist as a result.  We are already seeing the strains in many areas.  No doubt there are interests looking to see if they can capitalize on or exploit these new alignments.  But for those overarching power structures that exert control, conflict, backlash, and eventual resolution is inevitable.

In this way Fukuyama was wrong in the most basic sense in his thesis in The End of History and the Last Man to the extent that he misidentified ideologies as the driving force behind the future of human social organization.  What he missed in his social “science” (*) is the shift to the empirical sciences as the nexus of change.  The development of analytical philosophy (especially American Pragmatism) and more scientifically-based modeling in the social sciences are only the start, but one can make the argument that these ideas have been more influential in clearly demonstrating that history, in Fukuyama’s definition, is not over.

Among the first shots over the bow from science into the social sciences have come works from such diverse writers as Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997)) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)).  The next wave will, no doubt, be more intense and drive further resistance and conflict.

The imperative of science informing our other institutions is amply demonstrated by two facts.

  1. On March 11, 2016 an asteroid that was large enough to extinguish a good part of all life on earth came within 19,900 miles of our planet’s center.  This was not as close, however, as the one that passed on February 25 (8,900 miles).  There is no invisible shield or Goldilocks Zone to magically protect us.  The evidence of previous life-ending collisions are more apparent with each new high resolution satellite image of our planet’s surface.  One day we will look up and see our end slowly but inevitably making its way toward us, unless we decide to take measures to prevent such a catastrophe.
  2. Despite the desire to deny that it’s happening, 2015 was the hottest recorded year on record and 2016 thus far is surpassing that, providing further empirical evidence of the validity of Global Warming models.  In fact, the last four consecutive years fall within the four hottest years on record (2014 was the previous hottest year).  The outlier was 2010, another previous high, which is hanging in at number 3 for now.  2013 is at number 4 and 2012 at number 8.  Note the general trend.  As Jared Diamond has convincingly demonstrated–the basis of conflict and societal collapse is usually rooted in population pressures exacerbated by resource scarcity.  We are just about to the point of no return, given the complexity of the systems involved, and can only mitigate the inevitable–but we must act now to do.

What human civilization does not want to be is on the wrong side of history in how to deal with these challenges.  Existing human power structures and interests would like to keep the scientific community within the box of technology–and no doubt there are still scientists that are comfortable to stay within that box.

The fear regarding allowing science to move beyond the box of technology and general knowledge is its misuse and misinterpretation, usually by non-scientists, such as the reprehensible meme of Social Darwinism (which is neither social nor Darwinian).**  This fear is oftentimes transmitted by people with a stake in controlling the agenda or interpreting what science has determined.  Its contingent nature also is a point of fear.  While few major theories are usually completely overturned as new knowledge is uncovered, the very nature of revision and adjustment to theory is frightening to people who depend on, at least, the illusion of continuity and hard truths.  Finally, science puts us in our place within the universe.  If there are millions of planets that can harbor some kind of life, and a sub-set of those that have the design space to allow for some kind of intelligent life (as we understand that concept), are we really so special after all?

But not only within the universe.  Within societies, if all humans have developed from a common set of ancestors, then our basic humanity is a shared one.  If the health and sustainability of an ecology is based on its biodiversity, then the implication for human societies is likewise found in diversity of thought and culture, eschewing tribalism and extreme social stratification.  If the universe is deterministic with only probability determining ultimate cause and effect, then how truly free is free will?  And what does this say about the circumstances in which each of us finds him or herself?

The question now is whether we embrace our fears, manipulated by demagogues and oligarchs, or embrace the future, before the future overwhelms and extinguishes us–and to do so in a manner that is consistent with our humanity and ethical reasoning.

 

Note:  Full disclosure.  As a senior officer concerned with questions of AI, cognition, and complex adaptive systems, I opened a short correspondence with Dr. Dennett about those subjects.  I also addressed what I viewed as his unfair criticism (being Dawkins’ Bulldog) of punctuated equilibrium, spandrels, and other minor concepts advanced by Stephen Jay Gould, offering a way that Gould’s concepts were well within Darwinian Theory, as well as being both interesting and explanatory.  Given that less complex adaptive systems that can be observed do display punctuated periods of rapid development–and also continue to have the vestiges of previous adaptations that no longer have a purpose–it seemed to me that larger systems must also do so, the punctuation being on a different time-scale, and that any adaptation cannot be precise given that biological organisms are imprecise.  He was most accommodating and patient, and this writer learned quite a bit in our short exchange.  My only regret was not to continue the conversation.  I do agree with Dr. Dennett (and others) on their criticism of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as is apparent in this post.

Veteran’s Day 2016 and Civic Courage

Robert Gould Shaw memorial

Photo by the author of the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Memorial in Boston

The memorial pictured that sits on Boston Common marks a bit of history that is but an echo of an earlier time to us, it affected me greatly when I actually saw it up close, for it spoke to me.  I felt a kinship over time and space to those men who are represented in bronze and stone and what they might have been thinking as they marched in the cause of equality for all people, of self-government, and of a steady intolerance of extremism, ruthlessness, and violence in defense of a cause, which cause itself was morally repugnant; fear, no doubt, trepidation, hope, pride, and steely resolve to acquit themselves well when the time came for them to do their duty.  It was a time where warfare was very close and personal.

I have some close friends and those I considered to be like family buried in Arlington.  Two died in battle.  Some carried physical and some psychic wounds after their military service was done.  All acquitted themselves well.  There are still those who are alive who are also like family and it will always be so.  Some of these preceded and some that followed me in my own service, and others with whom I served.  They are men and women.  Straight and gay.  Of every religion, belief, ethnic group, and color.  I am the son and the nephew of veterans, and the father of a veteran.  It is this term “service” that binds us together.  Sometimes this bond, among those with similar experiences in very challenging conditions, cannot be put into words, but there is that word.

At one time when someone asked about whether you were in the military you would say “I was in (or am) in the Service.”  Of every bit of writing that I have come across William James comes most closely to describing the meaning of “service” for a democratic people, both in wartime and in peacetime.

James, because of physical infirmities, could not participate in the defense of the union and, with it, to fulfill one of the unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence.  His younger brothers had volunteered as officers in the first black regiments–Wilky to the 54th Massachusetts under Shaw, and Bob in the 55th Massachusetts.  Wilky, in particular, had distinguished himself in battle during the attempt to take Fort Wagner in South Carolina, suffering serious injuries that would affect his the rest of his life.  After the war Bob and he moved to Florida to continue the cause of emancipation through a land company formed to find investors to develop agricultural lands on which freedmen would work.

While Wilky and Bob were the brothers committed to action, William was the thinker and philosopher and learned much from them and their experiences.  In 1897 the memorial pictured was dedicated.  Given the increasingly more destructive and impersonal nature of modern warfare and the arc of where our nation seems to be heading in civil society, I think, for Veteran’s Day, it apropos to read a portion of his address:

“War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends.  War still excels in this prerogative; and whether it be paid in years of service, in treasure, or in life-blood, the war tax is still the only tax that men ungrudgingly will pay.  How could it be otherwise when the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring?  Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us; and military virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection, least in need of orator’s or poet’s help.

What we really need the poet’s and orator’s help to keep alive in us is not, then, the common and gregarious courage which Robert Shaw showed when he marched with you, men of the Seventh Regiment.  It is that more lonely courage which he showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.,,,

Democracy is still upon its trial.  The civic genius of our people is its only bulwark, and neither laws nor monuments, neither battleships nor public libraries, nor great newspapers nor booming stocks; neither mechanical invention nor political adroitness, nor churches nor universities nor civil-service examinations can save us from degeneration if the inner mystery be lost.  That mystery, at once the secret and the glory…consists in nothing but two common habits, two inveterate habits carried into public life—habits so homely that they lend themselves to no rhetorical expression…One of them is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings—it was by breaking from this habit the slave States nearly wrecked our Nation.  The other is that of fierce and merciless resentment toward every man or set of men who break the public peace…”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — The Sustainability Manifesto for Projects

While doing stuff and living life (which seems to take me away from writing) there were a good many interesting things written on project management.  The very insightful Dave Gordon at his blog, The Practicing IT Project Manager, provides a useful weekly list of the latest contributions to the literature that are of note.  If you haven’t checked it out please do so–I recommend it highly.

While I was away Dave posted to an interesting link on the concept of sustainability in project management.  Along those lines three PM professionals have proposed a Sustainability Manifesto for Projects.  As Dave points out in his own post on the topic, it rests on three basic principles:

  • Benefits realization over metrics limited to time, scope, and cost
  • Value for many over value of money
  • The long-term impact of our projects over their immediate results

These are worthy goals and no one needs to have me rain on their parade.  I would like to see these ethical principles, which is what they really are, incorporated into how we all conduct ourselves in business.  But then there is reality–the “is” over the “ought.”

For example, Dave and I have had some correspondence regarding the nature of the marketplace in which we operate through this blog.  Some time ago I wrote a series of posts here, here, and here providing an analysis of the markets in which we operate both in macroeconomic and microeconomic terms.

This came in response to one my colleagues making the counterfactual assertion that we operate in a “free market” based on the concept of “private enterprise.”  Apparently, such just-so stories are lies we have to tell ourselves to make the hypocrisy of daily life bearable.  But, to bring the point home, in talking about the concept of sustainability, what concrete measures will the authors of the manifesto bring to the table to counter the financialization of American business that has occurred of the past 35 years?

For example, the news lately has been replete with stories of companies moving plants from the United States to Mexico.  This despite rising and record corporate profits during a period of stagnating median working class incomes.  Free trade and globalization have been cited as the cause, but this involves more hand waving and the invocation of mantras, rather than analysis.  There has also been the predictable invocations of the Ayn Randian cult and the pseudoscience* of Social Darwinism.  Those on the opposite side of the debate characterize things as a morality play, with the public good versus greed being the main issue.  All of these explanations miss their mark, some more than others.

An article setting aside a few myths was recently published by Jonathan Rothwell at Brookings, which came to me via Mark Thoma’s blog, in the article, “Make elites compete: Why the 1% earn so much and what to do about it”.  Rothwell looks at the relative gains of the market over the last 40 years and finds that corporate profits, while doing well, have not been the driver of inequality that Robert Reich and other economists would have it be.  In looking at another myth that has been promulgated by Greg Mankiw, he finds that the rewards of one’s labors is not related to any special intelligence or skill.  On the contrary, one’s entry into the 1% is actually related to what industry one chooses to enter, regardless of all other factors.  This disparity is known as a “pay premium”.  As expected, petroleum and coal products, financial instruments, financial institutions, and lawyers, are at the top of the pay premium.  What is not, against all expectations of popular culture and popular economic writing, is the IT industry–hardware, software, etc.  Though they are the poster children of new technology, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and others are the exception to the rule in an industry that is marked by a 90% failure rate.  Our most educated and talented people–those in science, engineering, the arts, and academia–are poorly paid–with negative pay premiums associated with their vocations.

The financialization of the economy is not a new or unnoticed phenomenon.  Kevin Phillips, in Wealth and Democracy, which was written in 2003, noted this trend.  There have been others.  What has not happened as a result is a national discussion on what to do about it, particularly in defining the term “sustainability”.

For those of us who have worked in the acquisition community, the practical impact of financialization and de-industrialization have made logistics challenging to say the least.  As a young contract negotiator and Navy Contracting Officer, I was challenged to support the fleet when any kind of fabrication or production was involved, especially in non-stocked machined spares of any significant complexity or size.  Oftentimes my search would find that the company that manufactured the items was out of business, its pieces sold off during Chapter 11, and most of the production work for those items still available done seasonally out of country.  My “out” at the time–during the height of the Cold War–was to take the technical specs, which were paid for and therefore owned by the government, to one of the Navy industrial activities for fabrication and production.  The skillset for such work was still fairly widespread, supported by the quality control provided by a fairly well-unionized and trade-based workforce–especially among machinists and other skilled workers.

Given the new and unique ways judges and lawyers have applied privatized IP law to items financed by the public, such opportunities to support our public institutions and infrastructure, as I was able, have been largely closed out.  Furthermore, the places to send such work, where possible, have also gotten vanishingly smaller.  Perhaps digital printing will be the savior for manufacturing that it is touted to be.  What it will not do is stitch back the social fabric that has been ripped apart in communities hollowed out by the loss of their economic base, which, when replaced, comes with lowered expectations and quality of life–and often shortened lives.

In the end, though, such “fixes” benefit a shrinkingly few individuals at the expense of the democratic enterprise.  Capitalism did not exist when the country was formed, despite the assertion of polemicists to link the economic system to our democratic government.  Smith did not write his pre-modern scientific tract until 1776, and much of what it meant was years off into the future, and its relevance given what we’ve learned over the last 240 years about human nature and our world is up for debate.  What was not part of such a discussion back then–and would not have been understood–was the concept of sustainability.  Sustainability in the study of healthy ecosystems usually involves the maintenance of great diversity and the flourishing of life that denotes health.  This is science.  Economics, despite Keynes and others, is still largely rooted in 18th and 19th century pseudoscience.

I know of no fix or commitment to a sustainability manifesto that includes global, environmental, and social sustainability that makes this possible short of a major intellectual, social or political movement willing to make a long-term commitment to incremental, achievable goals toward that ultimate end.  Otherwise it’s just the mental equivalent to camping out in Zuccotti Park.  The anger we note around us during this election year of 2016 (our year of discontent) is a natural human reaction to the end of an idea, which has outlived its explanatory power and, therefore, its usefulness.  Which way shall we lurch?

The Sustainability Manifesto for Projects, then, is a modest proposal.  It may also simply be a sign of the times, albeit a rational one.  As such, it leaves open a lot of questions, and most of these questions cannot be addressed or determined by the people to which it is targeted: project managers, who are usually simply employees of a larger enterprise.  People behave as they are treated–to the incentives and disincentives presented to them, oftentimes not completely apparent on the conscious level.  Thus, I’m not sure if this manifesto hits its mark or even the right one.

*This term is often misunderstood by non-scientists.  Pseudoscience means non-science, just as alternative medicine means non-medicine.  If any of the various hypotheses of pseudoscience are found true, given proper vetting and methodology, that proposition would simply be called science.  Just as alternative methods of treatment, if found effective and consistent, given proper controls, would simply be called medicine.

Finding Wisdom for Friday — Umberto Eco on Fascism

Blogging has been somewhat sparse of late because of, well, life.  But I seem to be approaching a patch that will allow me to once again explore subjects of interest.

While I was busy the world lost one of its leading lights on February 19th, 2016, as Umberto Eco passed away at the age of 84.  His voice will be sorely missed.  It will be missed in particular because his best writing reflected his main concerns regarding human communication.  As such, he is acknowledged as one of the founders of what has come to be known as interpretive semiotics.  Semiotics is the study of signs and processes in human communication such as analogy, metaphor, symbolism, among other forms.  What separates it from linguistics is that it takes into account all of the means of human interpretation and communications that exist and, in Eco’s synthesis, how each receiver interprets, incorporates, and processes such signs and sign processes.

Aside from his significant academic pursuits, he was best known in our own country for his popular novel The Name of the Rose (1980), which also was made into a very good and popular film.  But in surveying his seven novels, for me his best writing focused on the question of fascism and how it appealed to the people of his native Italy.  His knowledge of the subject was very personal, having been inculcated into the cult of personality centered around Mussolini when he was a youth.  At the age of 10 he describes how he was proud of his young fascist uniform, writing paeans to the fascist cause.  As such, in novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), he reveals to the reader the sub-textual signs that continue to communicate fascist messages in many forms of popular media, life, and culture.

Thus I find his writing, which uses multiple devices to approach obliquely what otherwise was and is a tragic and horrific chapter of Italian and European history, to be very similar to the devices used by the contemporary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro in film.  In the case of del Toro, who was born in 1964–well after the events of his concern–he approaches the subject of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Spanish fascism.  This has only recently been a subject of critical processing in Hispanic society, especially since the death of the Spanish dictator Franco, and the subsequent rejection of other neo-fascist regimes in South America and elsewhere in favor of liberal democracy.  Still, it is a very painful and sensitive subject, and so del Toro uses the devices of fantasy and gothic horror to approach and record the horrors and cruelty of those times in movies such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)–probably two among the best films of our young 21st century.

To Americans, however, fascism is a confusing, esoteric, and fungible political term.  For the generations that lived during the 1920s and 1930s, the meaning was more immediate and its dangers best exemplified in the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935).  But the term has been appropriated over the years, and misused recently, most notably by the fact-challenged Jonah Goldberg, whose silly and frivolous mental gymnastics in Liberal Fascism (2008) contributed greatly to obfuscating the term in uniquely Orwellian ways which, of course, was the book’s intent.

Our times seem to suggest that it is time to end the silliness where it exists in throwing around the name.  So I think it is important to revisit what Eco had to say about the topic.  He had, after all, actually lived life from his most impressionable years as a fascist, embraced it and all that it stood for, articulated its meaning, and then was able–upon liberation–to free himself from its grip, reflect upon it, and identify what it is and its core characteristics.

The article in which he most effectively dealt with this subject was in the June 22, 1995 edition of the New York Review of Books.  Note that many of these characteristics by themselves or in some combination can be found in other political movements, ideologies, and social movements, but none contain all of these characteristics applied quite in the same manner and combination to society.

I have listed the characteristics below, and flesh out one.  Note that fascism as he describes it, and has discussed it, isn’t identified as being on the right or left of what in the modern U.S. is identified as the political spectrum.  Fascism can appropriate many of the agenda items and disguise itself using the raiment of the conventional political parties and ideologies, as well as the more mundane imagery of contemporary life.  They are:

  1. The cult of tradition.  In giving his example Eco points out that the cult of tradition has existed in many forms over the course of human history.  But in attributing this characteristic to fascism he points to its assertion that “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”
  2. Traditionalism implies a rejection of modernism.  According to Eco’s analysis, the Nazis and Fascists embraced technology, but not the modern systems and processes that made it possible.  “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.  In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. Irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.  To the fascist, “thinking is a form of emasculation.”  Action without reflection is valued above all other things.  Anti-intellectualism rules. Where there are fascist intellectuals, their role is to attack modern culture for betraying traditional values.
  4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernity.  Science encourages disagreement to advance learning.  For fascism, disagreement and discerning distinctions are emblematic of treason.
  5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.  Fascism exploits the fear of difference–targeting intruders as the Other.  It is inherently racist.
  6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.  In Italy as in all cases, Fascism appealed to the fears of a frustrated middle class: “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.  Note to Birthers.
  8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.  To fascists, the targeted groups are both weak and easily overcome, but also powerful and sinister, plotting to take away the rights and privileges that is the select group’s birthright.  This contradiction is key to stoking fear and provides motivation for further action.
  9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.  Life is a constant battle against the enemy at every level of society and thought, which will only be resolved with a great final battle.
  10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.  Fascism depends on the belief in, and allegiance to, the strong, especially a strong ruler.  The weak deserve their lot.
  11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.  Fascist societies are obsessed with hero worship, especially in the martial professions and the vanguard of the movement, where the heroic death for the cause is idolized, especially when someone else is doing the dying.
  12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.  Control of sexual mores and procreation is central to fascist movements.  Demonization of non-compliance is essential.
  13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.  Democratic processes are illegitimate and the targeted groups are excluded from participation in the political process.  An effort to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elected leaders and democratic elective processes and republican institutions, even from within, are part and parcel of the fascist cause.
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.  Intentions are obscured by language that is nonsensical or simplistic.  The purpose of Newspeak is to undermine critical thinking and disagreement.

Song for My Father, Those Who Mentored Me, and for the Son who is Father to the Man: Veteran’s Day 2015

Joseph Pisano

My father was Joseph Pisano. He wasn’t a hero to anyone but me and those who loved him, nor did he fight in combat, though it wasn’t for trying. He joined the Navy at the age of 17 against the wishes of his parents in 1944, lying about his age to get into the Second World War. He went through boot camp at the old Naval Training Center at Bainbridge, Maryland, and later was trained to become an aviation mechanic for a squadron of Avengers. After a brief assignment on the USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), he was discharged in the post-war drawdown. A few years as a civilian were interrupted when the Korean War broke out. Though still in the Navy Reserve he found himself drafted into the U.S. Army where, he did his basic training at Ft. Dix in New Jersey, and then combat training at Ft. Benning in Georgia. Though he volunteered for combat in Korea, the Army stationed him in Germany and assigned him to the artillery. He rose to Sergeant First Class before being discharged in 1952. He was admired for his diligence, hard work, and leadership—qualities that he carried with him throughout his life, along with a fiery temperament.

An otherwise unassuming man, he never made more than $20,000 in any one year, but he owned what he had, and lived life on his own terms, even when it meant that he swam against the tide of the times. He was a co-founder of the Toms River, New Jersey Little League, and mentored many a young man and woman over the years. To this day I meet men and women who tell me that my father had a profound and positive influence in their lives. He was loyal to his family, his wife until the day of her passing, the New York Yankees—and to me his only child.

The times my father served in the Service were among the most significant of his life. He impressed upon me the values of hard work and dedicating oneself to something greater than one’s self-interest. His was among the first generation American immigrant experience. As with many people previously disenfranchised and looked down upon by previous arrivals, Italian-Americans felt a need to demonstrate their commitment to a country that promised, though did not always live up to, a measure of human dignity and equality. Here, in the United States, was at least the chance of not bowing to the rich man on the hill, to be told what to think and do, and to owe one’s existence to the whims of the rich’s largesse. Here a man or woman could stand upright and look his or her fellows in the eye, to get one’s rights—or at least to have a fighting chance to get them.

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Nick Rubino

The photo above is of Nick Rubino, my mother’s brother and my namesake. Though I was named for my paternal grandfather Nick, my mother had a special place in her heart for her younger brother. She confided to me one time that she was proud that I shared the same name of the sensitive little boy whom she remembered would cry if someone stepped on an ant. She saw the same characteristics in me.

My Uncle Nick, as I knew him, was a very gentle and quiet man. He was the father of twin girls, my cousins, who were named Tony and Mary. The sisters, children themselves just a few years older than me, watched over me when I was a very small boy. I have many early memories of them dressing up the four year old me and including me in their make-believe worlds. They were very kind to me, as was their father.

Nick Rubino was late when he came of age to serve in the Second World War. He went to basic at Ft. Dix and was sent to jump school where he became part of the 101st Airborne Division. He arrived in France after D-Day and was among the fresh troops in Belgium being positioned in December 1944 prior to the push into Nazi Germany.

My uncle never talked of his service. He didn’t tell sea stories or brag about what he had done. But something took hold of him one day. An old friend had passed away and my uncle began to drink in a way that he had not done in quite a long time, and his memories of the war began to spill out. He opened an old footlocker that he had kept under his bed and took out his medals and insignia, a German helmet with a bullet hole stained with old blood, a Luger sidearm, a bayonet, and other items, laying them on the floor.

He began to tell us in a very quiet voice about what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge and the encirclement of the 101st Airborne in Bastogne, Belgium. He recalled each of his friends and how they had been killed or captured. The Americans had dug themselves in to repulse the German offensives, which for the foot soldier mostly involved combat at close quarters if one survived the artillery and mortar shelling.

His outpost was at the top of a hill outside of the town. The command at Bastogne tried very hard to break out of its encirclement and so they sent my uncle and his comrades down that hill to find a weak spot in the German lines. Three times they attempted to break out and each time were repulsed, and then themselves repulsed German counterattacks. After each battle the number of Americans was diminished.

My uncle described nights of pure fear, and days filled with the most horrible scenes of industrialized murder. When I look back at the things he described, sobbing and pounding the floor with his fists, I can only say that my uncle was momentarily transported back in time in his mind, and that in that moment he had lost his mind, as he must have done living in the horror of that forest in Belgium.

A U.S. tank under the command of Patton’s 4th Armored Division arrived on that hill around the 9th of January 1945. Bastogne had been encircled for three weeks, under constant bombardment and deadly attacks. The tank commander called for the members of the 101st who had been positioned on the hill to come out of their foxholes. The only man left in his Company not killed, severely wounded, or captured was Nick Rubino.

The tank commander who liberated that hill was my father’s brother, William Pisano. They did not meet again until February 1953 when they met at my parents’ wedding rehearsal. In 1945 my parents had not yet met. The Pisanos and Rubinos were not closely associated with one another, though the former lived in what used to be known as lower Weehawken and the latter from Hoboken in New Jersey separated merely by a mile. It was just one of those things.

When night overtook us and the alcohol took its toll on him, my uncle quietly returned the items to the footlocker. He never spoke of the war again, nor did he speak to us about what he described that day that went late into the night.

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William Pisano, the man who I do not have a photo in uniform, was, like my Uncle Nick, a hero by any measure. He joined the war early and joined the tank corps. He participated in Operation Torch in North Africa under the 1st Armored Division where he was involved in many of the earliest direct battles with German forces. At the Battle at the Kasserine Pass his tank was destroyed by Panzer fire. His life was saved by the sole African-American tank crew member who, not fearing for his own life, threw my uncle from the tank just before the man was killed by machine gun fire.  When he returned to the United States he remembered the man who had saved his life and supported the drive for equal rights for all Americans.

The American defensive positions were overrun that day in North Africa, and my uncle was forced to fight his way back to the Allied lines.  Suffering from burns, shrapnel, and multiple bullet wounds, he was sent to England to recuperate. By June 1944 he was found fit for duty and participated in the landing of armored units following the D-Day invasion. Assigned to the 4th Armored Division he continued to be deployed against German forces in battle until the end of the war.

My father and my Uncle Pete, William’s other two brothers, complained that when he returned that my grandparents babied him. But I think that it was because they saw what no one else at the time saw. My Uncle “Chick,” as he was called, never fully recovered from the war. Today we recognize the signs of his behavior as PTSD, but at the time it was simply not fully understood. Eventually the night terrors passed, the screaming in the night, the sleepwalking that caused him to believe that he was surrounded again and had to fight those around him. From time to time he drank too much, lost his temper, and suffered from long bouts of depression.

But, on the whole, he was a good and loving son to his parents, my grandparents, and a good brother, father, and husband. He worked hard throughout his life and provided for his family. He paid his dues. He always treated me with kindness and encouragement. The only descriptive for him that comes to mind is that he was a good man. That’s as good an epitaph as any.

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Ruben Soliman

Ruben Soliman pictured above, who retired from the United States Navy is my best friend.  He was best man at my wedding in Key West and, during challenging times, was a surrogate father to me.  Ruben followed his distinguished Navy career, retiring as a Chief Petty Officer, as the Deputy Material Officer at Naval Air Station, Norfolk.  There I had the pleasure of working with him.  Ruben taught me many life lessons, and has provided much wisdom.  When he was a small boy he survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.  Many people forget that the Philippines was a possession of the United States for almost 50 years.  As such, it was U.S. territory when it was invaded in 1941.  The Filipino people were Americans–and many who inhabit those islands are still Americans in their hearts.  Many of them emigrated to the United States by serving in the U.S. military.  Ruben followed in that tradition, and is the epitome of what it means to be an American.  He is soft-spoken, he does not brag, he is loyal and loving.  He is a natural leader, and in some very challenging situations, he was always level-headed and steel-nerved.  I am proud to call Ruben my friend.  I admire him a great deal.  I aspire to be as good a man as Ruben.

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Tommy Jones

Tommy Jones served in the United States Marine Corps.  He is a big man with a very big heart.  If I ever had a brother, I could only wish that it would be Tommy Jones.  He served his country during a time when serving one’s country in the military was falling out of favor.  As with most veterans, Tommy does not brag about his service, except to state emphatically that he is a Marine, still. I admire Tommy.  He demonstrates kindness, courage, and modesty.  Tommy is Ruben’s brother-in-law and, watching him, I can truly say that to me Tommy epitomizes loyalty and reliability.  When the chips are down, Tommy is the guy who you want to be there.  You can rely on him–put your life in his hands.  I would trust him with mine.

Visiting Ruben and Tommy in Williamsburg 2015

Tommy Jones (purple), Ruben Soliman (red), their families, and me (in blue), 2015.

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Finally, there is John Paul Pisano, my son.  I have a number of photos of him in uniform that have not yet been scanned for this blog.  I will need to rectify that deficiency in the near future.  When my son told me that he was joining the Marine Corps, I must admit that it was with both pride and trepidation.  Pride because I knew that he had to just one-up his U.S. Navy career dad by joining the toughest of all of the Services, bar none.  I have always been able to rely on the Marines with whom I served, that they were true to their country, the Constitution, and to their Creeds.

When Bill Clinton became President of the United States I attended a Dining In shortly after his first inauguration where the senior officers at the head table, confusing their personal ideology with their service and Oath, refused to rise when the toast to the President of the United States was announced.  I raised my glass and looked around.  Only myself, one other Navy Officer, and every other member of the United States Marine Corps who were present rose, and held their glasses high during the playing of “Hail to the Chief.”  The Marine Lt. Colonel in the audience looked around and called “Attention on Deck!”  A number of other Navy officers then rose and toasted, defying the senior officers who dishonored themselves and their commissions that day.

When I was a Supply Officer on a tank landing ship and Boat Group Commander, I had the pleasure of serving with the Marines in both fair and foul operations.  I formed a bond with my fellow officers when engaging in counterterrorism operations in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s.  The Marines with whom I operated made it plain that they would fight anyone who threatened our position, and the safety of the ship–and they had a brief opportunity to prove it.

Thus, when my son decided to join the Marine Corps, I knew that he was joining a Service with a long and proud tradition.  Though there is a great deal of inter-service rivalry, the fact of the matter is that the Navy cannot perform its mission without the Marines.  Nor can the Marines perform theirs without the Navy.  Both have fought and bled together from the beginning of the United States.

But that knowledge also was part of my trepidation.  We live in a time when very few serve their country–are willing to put their lives on the line–where the military experience is understood, and the idea of a shared stake in this democratic experiment is suffering from neglect.  The ideology of self-interest is anathema to our ideals.  Democracy dies without the care and feeding of the people.  Self-interest turns the American people from citizens and persons into interest groups and employees.  The idea of the modern non-partisan foreign policy and non-politicized military has been largely undermined.  Commitment today is often limited to a hashtag, the waving of flags or their flying on cars, and the platitude “thank you for your Service.”

This makes the soldier, sailor, or marine unimportant as human beings.  They have become like the burger flipper in the minds of the political establishment and economic elites, though the difference, of course, couldn’t be greater.  They are seen as there to do a dirty job and then be forgotten, reminded to stay in their place.  After all, they are reminded, you volunteered.  Personnel medical and pension expenses are viewed as if it is corporate America–even within the confines of the E-ring at the Pentagon, and among the senior staff.  Like the protagonist in the book Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by author Ben Fountain, there is nothing for us to do than to support each other, and hold on to one’s ideals.

My son was in Okinawa when the Twin Towers fell.  It wasn’t long before he was sent to combat in Afghanistan during the initial invasion there.  The occasional details he provides of his service while there are that it was a miserable place and the days were mostly boring, punctuated by the proverbial moments of terror.  When he returned home for duty in North Carolina, it was with a great deal of relief and thankfulness.  I was living in western Virginia at the time, and thought I would finally be able to see him from time-to-time.

But there was another invasion to come, this time in Iraq.  During the run to Baghdad he was at the pointy end of the spear.  He wrote occasionally of his experiences, which involved combat and riding in convoy.  He then served in country for the initial occupation, and was returned home with severe physical issues.  For the longest time he wouldn’t talk to anyone, seemed to hold a burning resentment.  The gentle and sensitive boy I had raised had been changed.

I felt a great deal of guilt at this condition.  After all, I had served a charmed life in the service.  I joined at the end of the Vietnam War and retired four years prior to 9-11.  The Cold War was anything but safe, especially in the many years I served in operations at sea and overseas, but there is no comparison in my experience to those of the men and women who have served since 2001.  My anchors in placing all of this in perspective were the men and women who had served in Vietnam, just as they and the Second World War and Korean War vets had been my mentors and anchors when I was first a young enlisted man, and then later when I achieved my commission.

But time and patience have brought my son back to me.  As I sit here and write this post on Veteran’s Day 2015 I am thankful for having him once again, that he went through a trial by fire, and came out stronger and wiser for it.  John Pisano is the bravest man I know.  I couldn’t be prouder to be his father.

But it is not just because of his service.  It is because of what he took from that service–for the caring and thoughtful man he has become.  Just as the unassuming and dedicated men named above were and are caring and thoughtful.  Just like William Pisano, who through his awful experience, learned to see the humanity of everyone despite the separation of skin color that was common in his time.  Just like Nick Rubino who lived a quiet life taking care of his wife, his children and his mother, and who never revealed the many decorations for bravery he earned on that hill outside of Bastogne to his family, who only learned of them at his funeral by a contingent sent by the local VFW.  Just like Ruben Soliman and Tommy Jones who are good family men–and good friends–and have continued to serve their communities is so many ways.  And just like Joseph Pisano, who took so many young people under his wing regardless of their color, creed, and ethnicity, to help them realize their intrinsic worth.

As William James said at the dedication to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry–one of the first African-American military units during the Civil War–in 1897:

“It is hard to end a discourse like this without one word of moralizing; and two things must be distinguished in all events like those we are commemorating–the moral service of them on the one hand, and on the other the physical fortitude which they display.  War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends….It is that more lonely courage which he (Robert Gould Shaw) showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.”

Columbus on Columbus Day — History, Pseudohistory, and Cargo Cult History

Christopher Columbus

As an historian who specialized in the Age of European Seaborne Exploration I find it difficult when I come upon discussions about a national holiday like this one.  It is difficult because, of late, the history of Christopher Columbus (actually Cristoforo Colombo) has been associated in the minds of the non-historian public with agendas and pseudohistorical beliefs not related to the man or the facts of his life.  To people who oppose the holiday associated with Columbus Day, they usually base their objections by laying on one man’s doorstep the depredations that were to come to the existing American cultures and nations when he arrived at Hispaniola.  Such an interpretation and reading of history is not history–it is posturing.

For a good argument on why the Christopher Columbus holiday is still relevant in understanding who we are as a people I recommend this article by William J. Connell in The American Scholar.  The purpose of the holiday, which is different from the history of the man and his life, was intended to include not only new immigrants and the descendants of European settlers, but also first cultures and civilizations.  From the roots of this cross-discovery of a world vastly different than the people at the time conceived, a new concept of democracy and inclusiveness has grown.  I will elaborate on these differences below.  But, needless to say, without the concept and imagination of a “New World”, I think it is very probable that the Enlightenment would not have happened.  We will never know this, but the antecedent events contributing to it would not have unfolded as they did.

As to the man, Cristoforo Colombo was born in the Republic of Genoa in 1451.  Like many boys and young men of his generation who grew up near the Mediterranean Sea during this time in history, he heard many stories of far off lands and riches to be claimed.  He apprenticed on small boats plying the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and the North Atlantic as far as England and, it seems, Iceland.  After a youth of travel and adventure he settled for a while in Portugal.

During this time Portugal had long been the leader in seeking a sea route to the Spice Islands.  The fall of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire had closed off the land routes to Asia and the spice trade.  In the late 14th and 15th centuries Europe began to awaken from the 1,000 year old age of discontinuity and chaos that had been brought on by the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  By the time 1453 rolled around, Europe had reorganized itself politically and socially, inspired by the reintroduction of the long lost Greek writings into centers of learning, that then sparked a new scientific and Humanist movement known as the Renaissance. But Christian Europe saw itself surrounded and under siege by a new enemy–Islam–which stretched from Spain (the remnants of Moorish Al-Andalus), across northern Africa, to Vienna, and then beyond to the borders of the Mogul empires of India and Asia.

Many non-historians today wonder why connecting with the Spice Islands was so important to the Europeans.  The reason was that spices had become essential to the preservation of food, the elimination of many household pests, and key ingredients in medicine.  So precious were spices in Europe that families who could afford them would lock them in special boxes in their homes.  Spices to Europe at the time was as important as oil is today to modern civilization.

Under Henry the Navigator the Portuguese began seeking routes around the Horn of Africa to the Indian Ocean in order to by-pass the Ottoman blockade, setting up trading forts and towns along the coasts where they sought an understanding with the Muslim traders so necessary to commerce.  But Portugal’s closest neighbor, Spain, had a different agenda.

Born in the crucible of a long war in which its various kingdoms, sometimes in league and sometimes alone, sought independence from the Moors under the banner of Catholicism, Spain’s motivations were revolutionary, strongly motivated by Millenarianism.  In 1479 Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, established themselves as the vanguard not only for a united Spain, but in the vanguard of expanding European Catholic influence around the world.  They thus became a competitor to Portugal in the search for a path to the trading posts of Asia.

As an aside, the year 1492 is significant in this history in both tragic and victorious terms depending on one’s point of view: it was the year Columbus landed in the New World (though he didn’t know it at the time, but more on this later), Granada–the last Moorish outpost on the peninsula–fell to Spain, and it was the year of the ordering of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

The rule under the Catholic Monarchs objectively, even for the time, can only be described as constituting a reign of terror.  The closest modern equivalents that compare are probably Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union during the forced collectivization of the farms, and the Cultural Revolution under Mao in China.  Warfare at the time was very personal and close, involving swords, piercing weapons, crushing weapons, and crude explosives.  Enforcement of religious and civil authority was barbaric and these measures, with some variation, existed in just about every major civilization in the world at the time, but the Catholic Monarchs employed these measures with great liberality.

Because Spain saw itself as needing to purify itself from both internal and external enemies, everyone was under suspicion of betrayal to the One True God.  Under the Catholic Orders under the Inquisition children denounced their parents, neighbor condemned neighbor, brother and sister betrayed brother and sister for not being truly devout.  In a world lit only by fire, superstitious beliefs ran rampant.  Belief in witches, demons, and evil spirits infected every facet of daily life.  Punishment for crimes against both society and religion were dealt with cruelly and savagely by modern standards: dunking, the Iron Maiden, flaying, piercing, dislocation of limbs, racking, being drawn and quartered, and other methods were commonplace.  The only limits to such officially sanctioned methods was the imagination of the civil authority.

It was under this backdrop that Columbus approached the Catholic Monarchs with his idea of sailing to the west across the globe in order to reach Asia.  Contrary to the 19th century legend, explorers, navigators, and educated people of the time did not reject his idea because they believed the world was flat and his ships would fall off.  Instead, in order to gain support for his voyage he pitched an idea that the circumference of the earth was much less–about 6,000 to 10,000 miles less–than the 25,000 miles calculated (almost correctly, around the equator the distance is 24,902 miles) by the ancient Greeks.  At first Spain rejected his request.  He then pitched the idea to Portugal and England unsuccessfully.  Finally, seeing that Portugal was about ready to access the Indian Ocean after successfully navigating the Horn, Spain called Columbus back and agreed to fund his expedition.

It is thus one of those great comedies of the human condition that a man who was wrong about just about everything managed to engineer such a history altering achievement.  Even after landing in the New World Columbus did not know that he had not reached “the Indies” as the Asian outer islands became known.  The term “Indian” to describe the first American cultures and civilizations encountered, was based on this misunderstanding.  So convinced was he that he had simply skirted the outer islands of Japan that he returned on subsequent voyages to prove his achievement.  He died thinking that he had proven a western route to Asia.

There is much that is troubling in his behavior when he came across the civilizations he encountered.  By modern standards these actions are seen as barbaric, though many of them are used to conflate subsequent actions by others.  Furthermore, entire portions get their history wrong, like this article that typify the genre.  Once again, it is necessary to bring some fact and historical context into the times.  Slavery was a common practice, particularly since the Portuguese began to engage in trade after their contact with the Azores and Africa.  The depredations visited on the average person once considered to be part of a conquered people were completely arbitrary.  Women and girls were raped, men when not killed, were used as beasts of burden.  It must be mentioned here, however, that later it was also the Catholic countries in Europe that first acted against the slave trade, though only particular aspects of it.  Pope Paul III first forbade the practice of enslaving the first people found in new lands in 1537.  Spain, under tremendous pressure from Rome, and thanks largely to the efforts of Bartolome De Las Casas and others, passed laws forbidding the enslavement of the “Indians.”  Unfortunately, these laws allowed for labor to be supplemented by the African Slave Trade.

One must keep in mind that sea voyages in the 15th century were extremely dangerous.  Crews were often impressed into service, oftentimes taken from prisons in order to rid the country of its criminal population.  Conditions on ship were unsanitary and dangerous.  Being well before the age of the disease theory of illness or any understanding of bacterial or viral infections, attrition at sea was staggering.  Some ships lost 95% of their crews on voyages.  Many voyages ended in shipwreck or mutiny.  The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria were not built for the open sea.  They were trading vessels meant for the confines of the Mediterranean.  Their lengths are estimated to have been from 50 to 58 feet.  After a few days onboard ship both food and water went bad.  Both human- and ship-born vermin was the norm.

Thus, Columbus had to possess outstanding qualities of leadership and discipline in order to make such a voyage, and contemporaneous accounts attest to these traits.  Furthermore, using his knowledge of trade currents and winds, Columbus managed to cross the ocean without the benefit of charts or knowing what lay ahead.  That he did this in three small ships or large boats makes his voyage significant both for its singular achievement, but also because he extended human knowledge of the earth and human existence on it.

Much has been made about the tragedy of the first American civilizations in succumbing to what are believed to have been diseases introduced by Columbus or his men.  While tragic in very real terms, one cannot objectively attribute this to intentional human agency on the part of Columbus.  Nor were Columbus and his men the only Europeans in contact with those cultures after the results of the voyage were known.

Even in what was thought to be more recent and traceable actions, there is even a great deal of reasonable doubt regarding the more modern charge that the U.S. Calvary distributed smallpox tainted blankets in North Dakota in 1837.  What we do know is that when isolated civilizations come in contact with each other disease oftentimes follows, perhaps because of differences in exposure to a greater and wider number of pathogens.  Even in more modern times, the catastrophe of the First World War was followed by the flu epidemic of 1918-19.  So virulent was the outbreak that it probably contributed to the defeat of Germany in the war more so than the entry of U.S. troops.

So in introducing previously isolated civilizations and peoples to each other, and contributing to human geographical knowledge, Columbus is rightly honored for his achievements.  Furthermore, history has also documented his actions which, by modern standards, are seen as cruel and questionable at best.  That he did so as a matter of fact speaks more to the barbaric norms of his times than they do to any special failing on his part.

But history, like any area of learning in seeking truth, is always open to revision and reinterpretation.  But in discussing Columbus this revision and reinterpretation oftentimes is based on factors other than those allowed by the discipline of history, falling into the category of ideology, pseudohistory, or what I am calling cargo cult history.  Science is a field in which uncertainty is a given.  The same is the case with history.  We can prove certain things as near as they can be proven to be true.  But those wishing to deal in absolutes need to restrict themselves to logic or mathematics.

The basis for advancing human knowledge is not limited to the schoolbook version of the scientific method, where a hypothesis, test, and control is used to determine validity or falsity of the hypothesis.  Life is not that simple, nor is science that tidy.

In the words of Michael Shermer, science is a collection of methods aimed at building “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.”  But our knowledge through this method is always contingent, given new evidence.  Of course, there comes a time when the preponderance of the facts and data is so overwhelming that it is highly improbable that the conclusion will be overturned.  When new observations or tests are made, the fact that they confirm the strong hypothesis adds additional credibility, leading us closer to what we can call a fact.  But what can be proven must also be able to be proven false.  There has to be a test that determines falsity, since you cannot prove true what you cannot prove false.

In the words of evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in the book Faith vs. Fact, “I see science, conceived broadly, as any endeavor that tries to find the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation, and experiment.  Archaeologists use science when they date and study ancient civilizations.  Linguists use science when they reconstruct the historical relationships between languages.  Historians use science when they try to discover how many people died in the Holocaust, or refute the claims of Holocaust deniers.”

In history we are dealing, sometimes, with events that occurred some time ago.  Oftentimes physical evidence has been lost, altered by time, or is inconclusive.  We also deal with human weakness and frailty.  People are often dishonest, even with themselves, or their perspectives are colored by unintended filters or by being overwhelmed by the events being experienced.  Witnesses to the same event oftentimes record different details.  This is a common phenomena documented by several controlled studies which has become known as the Rashomon effect.

In the end we must avoid fooling ourselves through preferred explanations, ideology, or emotion.  If we begin with a belief and then collect evidence to prove that belief, excluding all contradictory information, then we are not practicing either science or history.  We are practicing propaganda or self-deception, or some variation in between.  This is what I mean by the term pseudohistory.

Along these same lines, but slightly different, in referring to cargo cult history, I am borrowing from the late physicist Richard Feynman in which he uses the term “cargo cult science.”  We are engaged in cargo cult history if we rely solely or overwhelmingly on secondary sources for our knowledge, without either independently verifying those sources, nor augmenting them with primary sources or original research.

For example, in the probable apocryphal story of smallpox blankets of 1837, all too many scholars and historians have repeated the charge without verifying the veracity of the original story.  There is, however, direct evidence of smallpox being used as a weapon (or, at least, an attempt to do so) against a tribe during the French and Indian War.  In the last two cases it is possible that the earlier story, whether the attempt was successful or not, became a legend regarding measures used against the North American tribes, leading to conclusions that any outbreak of smallpox was attributed to human intent.  Thus, both pseudohistory and cargo cult history oftentimes are self-reinforcing.

In the end we honor Columbus with a holiday not for everything he did–both Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders after all–but for the opening of the concept of a New World which eventually allowed for the development of the idea of a government based on the consent of the governed, of the rule of law, against arbitrary and cruel punishment, and inclusive of all people regardless of ethnicity, religious or non-religious observance, gender, and national origins.  We still have a way to go in achieving many of our stated ideals–and in righting past wrongs, especially as it relates to the first civilizations and cultures, who were early immigrants themselves–but that’s why this holiday, for me at least, is still relevant.  It highlights the truth, stupidity, and tragedy of human history–both its negative and positive aspects–as it relates to the Americas, without the need to sink into cultural posturing or pseudohistory.

Note:  The final version of this post has been modified to correct for one big chronological error (such is the consequence of blogging on the fly sometimes), and for clarity.