Both Sides Now — The Value of Data Exploration

Over the last several months I have authored a number of stillborn articles that just did not live up to the standards that I set for this blog site. After all, sometimes we just have nothing important to add to the conversation. In a world dominated by narcissism, it is not necessary to constantly have something to say. Some reflection and consideration are necessary, especially if one is to be as succinct as possible.

A quote ascribed to Woodrow Wilson, which may be apocryphal, though it does appear in two of his biographies, was in response to being lauded by someone for making a number of short, succinct, and informative speeches. When asked how he was able to do this, President Wilson is supposed to have replied:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

An undisciplined mind has a lot to say about nothing in particular with varying degrees of fidelity to fact or truth. When in normal conversation we most often free ourselves from the discipline expected for more rigorous thinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we are saying nothing of consequence and there are gradations, of course. Even the most disciplined mind gets things wrong. We all need editors and fact checkers.

While I am pulling forth possibly apocryphal quotes, the one most applicable that comes to mind is the comment by Hemingway as told by his deckhand in Key West and Cuba, Arnold Samuelson. Hemingway was supposed to have given this advice to the aspiring writer:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.”

Though it deals with fiction, Hemingway’s advice applies to any sort of writing and rhetoric. Dr. Roger Spiller, who more than anyone mentored me as a writer and historian, once told me, “Writing is one of those skills that, with greater knowledge, becomes harder rather than easier.”

As a result of some reflection, over the last few months, I had to revisit the reason for the blog. Thus, this is still its purpose: it is a way to validate ideas and hypotheses with other professionals and interested amateurs in my areas of interest. I try to keep uninformed opinion in check, as all too many blogs turn out to be rants. Thus, a great deal of research goes into each of these posts, most from primary sources and from interactions with practitioners in the field. Opinions and conclusions are my own, and my reasoning for good or bad are exposed for all the world to see and I take responsibility for them.

This being said, part of my recent silence has also been due to my workload in–well–the effort involved in my day job of running a technology company, and in my recent role, since late last summer, as the Managing Editor of the College of Performance Management’s publication known as the Measurable News. Our emphasis in the latter case has been to find new contributions to the literature regarding business analytics and to define the concept of integrated project, program, and portfolio management. Stepping slightly over the line to make a pitch, I recommend anyone interested in contributing to the publication to submit an article. The submission guidelines can be found here.

Both Sides Now: New Perspectives

That out of the way, I recently saw, again on the small screen, the largely underrated movie about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 moon landing, “First Man”, and was struck by this scene:

Unfortunately, the first part of the interview has been edited out of this clip and I cannot find a full scene. When asked “why space” he prefaces his comments by stating that the atmosphere of the earth seems to be so large from the perspective of looking at it from the ground but that, having touched the edge of space previously in his experience as a test pilot of the X15, he learned that it is actually very thin. He then goes on to posit that looking at the earth from space will give us a new perspective. His conclusion to this observation is then provided in the clip.

Armstrong’s words were prophetic in that the space program provided a new perspective and a new way of looking at things that were in front of us the whole time. Our spaceship Earth is a blue dot in a sea of space and, at least for a time, the people of our planet came to understand both our loneliness in space and our interdependence.

Earth from Apollo 8. Photo courtesy of NASA.


The impact of the Apollo program resulted in great strides being made in environmental and planetary sciences, geology, cosmology, biology, meteorology, and in day-to-day technology. The immediate effect was to inspire the environmental and human rights movements, among others. All of these advances taken together represent a new revolution in thought equal to that during the initial Enlightenment, one that is not yet finished despite the headwinds of reaction and recidivism.

It’s Life’s Illusions I Recall: Epistemology–Looking at and Engaging with the World

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett posited that what was “dangerous” about Darwinism is that it acts as a “universal acid” that, when touching other concepts and traditions, transforms them in ways that change our world-view. I have accepted this position by Dennett through the convincing argument he makes and the evidence in front of us, and it is true that Darwinism–the insight in the evolution of species over time through natural selection–has transformed our perspective of the world and left the old ways of looking at things both reconstructed and unrecognizable.

In his work, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Stephen Jay Gould noted that Darwinism is part of one of the three great reconstructions of human thought that, in quoting Sigmund Freud, where “Humanity…has had to endure from the hand of science…outrages upon its naive self-love.” These outrages include the Copernican revolution that removed the Earth from the center of the universe, Darwinism and the origin of species, including the descent of humanity, and what John McPhee, coined as the concept of “deep time.”

But–and there is a “but”–I would propose that Darwinism and the other great reconstructions noted are but different ingredients of a larger and more broader, though compatible, type of innovation in the way the world is viewed and how it is approached–a more powerful universal acid. That innovation in thought is empiricism.

It is this approach to understanding that eats through the many ills of human existence that lead to self-delusion and folly. Though you may not know it, if you are in the field of information technology or any of the sciences, you are part of this way of viewing and interacting with the world. Married with rational thinking, this epistemology–coming from the perspectives of the astronomical observations of planets and other heavenly bodies by Charles Sanders Peirce, with further refinements by William James and John Dewey, and others have come down to us in what is known as Pragmatism. (Note that the word pragmatism in this context is not the same as the more generally used colloquial form of the word. For this type of reason Peirce preferred the term “pragmaticism”). For an interesting and popular reading of the development of modern thought and the development of Pragmatism written for the general reader I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand.

At the core of this form of empiricism is that the collection of data, that is, recording, observing, and documenting the universe and nature as it is will lead us to an understanding of things that we otherwise would not see. In our more mundane systems, such as business systems and organized efforts applying disciplined project and program management techniques and methods, we also can learn more about these complex adaptive systems through the enhanced collection and translation of data.

I Really Don’t Know Clouds At All: Data, Information, Intelligence, and Knowledge

The term “knowledge discovery in data”, or KDD for short, is an aspirational goal and so, in terms of understanding that goal, is a point of departure from the practice information management and science. I’m taking this stance because the technology industry uses terminology that, as with most language, was originally designed to accurately describe a specific phenomenon or set of methods in order to advance knowledge, only to find that that terminology has been watered down to the point where it obfuscates the issues at hand.

As I traveled to locations across the U.S. over the last three months, I found general agreement among IT professionals who are dealing with the issues of “Big Data”, data integration, and the aforementioned KDD of this state of affairs. In almost every case there is hesitation to use this terminology because it has been absconded and abused by mainstream literature, much as physicists rail against the misuse of the concept of relativity by non-scientific domains.

The impact of this confusion in terminology has caused organizations to make decisions where this terminology is employed to describe a nebulous end-state, without the initiators having an idea of the effort or scope. The danger here, of course, is that for every small innovative company out there, there is also a potential Theranos (probably several). For an in-depth understanding of the psychology and double-speak that has infiltrated our industry I highly recommend the HBO documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.”

The reason why semantics are important (as they always have been despite the fact that you may have had an associate complain about “only semantics”) is that they describe the world in front of us. If we cloud the meanings of words and the use of language, it undermines the basis of common understanding and reveals the (poor) quality of our thinking. As Dr. Spiller noted, the paradox of writing and in gathering knowledge is that the more you know, the more you realize you do not know, and the harder writing and communicating knowledge becomes, though we must make the effort nonetheless.

Thus KDD is oftentimes not quite the discovery of knowledge in the sense that the term was intended to mean. It is, instead, a discovery of associations that may lead us to knowledge. Knowing this distinction is important because the corollary processes of data mining, machine learning, and the early application of AI in which we find ourselves is really the process of finding associations, correlations, trends, patterns, and probabilities in data that is approached in a manner as if all information is flat, thereby obliterating its context. This is not knowledge.

We can measure the information content of any set of data, but the real unlocked potential in that information content will come with the processing of it that leads to knowledge. To do that requires an underlying model of domain knowledge, an understanding of the different lexicons in any given set of domains, and a Rosetta Stone that provides a roadmap that identifies those elements of the lexicon that are describing the same things across them. It also requires capturing and preserving context.

For example, when I use the chat on my iPhone it attempts to anticipate what I want to write. I am given three choices of words to choose if I want to use this shortcut. In most cases, the iPhone guesses wrong, despite presenting three choices and having at its disposal (at least presumptively) a larger vocabulary than the writer. Oftentimes it seems to take control, assuming that I have misspelled or misidentified a word and chooses the wrong one for me, where my message becomes a nonsense message.

If one were to believe the hype surrounding AI, one would think that there is magic there but, as Arthur C. Clarke noted (known as Clarke’s Third Law): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Familiar with the new technologies as we are, we know that there is no magic there, and also that it is consistently wrong a good deal of the time. But many individuals come to rely upon the technology nonetheless.

Despite the gloss of something new, the long-established methods of epistemology, code-breaking, statistics, and Calculus apply–as do standards of establishing fact and truth. Despite a large set of data, the iPhone is wrong because the iPhone does not understand–does not possess knowledge–to know why it is wrong. As an aside, its dictionary is also missing a good many words.

A Segue and a Conclusion–I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: Why Data Integration?…and a Proposed Definition of the Bigness of Data

As with the question to Neil Armstrong, so the question on data. And so the answer is the same. When we look at any set of data under a particular structure of a domain, the information we derive provides us with a manner of looking at the world. In economic systems, businesses, and projects that data provides us with a basis for interpretation, but oftentimes falls short of allowing us to effectively describe and understand what is happening.

Capturing interrelated data across domains allows us to look at the phenomena of these human systems from a different perspective, providing us with the opportunity to derive new knowledge. But in order to do this, we have to be open to this possibility. It also calls for us to, as I have hammered home in this blog, reset our definitions of what is being described.

For example, there are guides in project and program management that refer to statistical measures as “predictive analytics.” This further waters down the intent of the phrase. Measures of earned value are not predictive. They note trends and a single-point outcome. Absent further analysis and processing, the statistical fallacy of extrapolation can be baked into our analysis. The same applies to any index of performance.

Furthermore, these indices and indicators–for that is all they are–do not provide knowledge, which requires a means of not only distinguishing between correlation and causation but also applying contextualization. All systems operate in a vector space. When we measure an economic or social system we are really measuring its behavior in the vector space that it inhabits. This vector space includes the way it is manifested in space-time: the equivalent of length, width, depth (that is, its relative position, significance, and size within information space), and time.

This then provides us with a hint of a definition of what often goes by the definition of “big data.” Originally, as noted in previous blogs, big data was first used in NASA in 1997 by Cox and Ellsworth (not as credited to John Mashey on Wikipedia with the dishonest qualifier “popularized”) and was simply a statement meaning “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyze.”

This is a relative term given Moore’s Law. But we can begin to peel back a real definition of the “bigness” of data. It is important to do this because too many approaches to big data assume it is flat and then apply probabilities and pattern recognition to data that undermines both contextualization and knowledge. Thus…

The Bigness of Data (B) is a function (f ) of the entropy expended (S) to transform data into information, or to extract its information content.

Information evolves. It evolves toward greater complexity just as life evolves toward greater complexity. The universe is built on coded bits of information that, taken together and combined in almost unimaginable ways, provides different forms of life and matter. Our limited ability to decode and understand this information–and our interactions in it– are important to us both individually and collectively.

Much entropy is already expended in the creation of the data that describes the activity being performed. Its context is part of its information content. Obliterating the context inherent in that information content causes all previous entropy to be of no value. Thus, in approaching any set of data, the inherent information content must be taken into account in order to avoid the unnecessary (and erroneous) application of data interpretation.

More to follow in future posts.

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…”

Holiday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — W. E. B. Du Bois


”There can be no democracy curtailed by race and poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even peace.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois

This weekend is capped by Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday, so it seems fitting to derive the wisdom from one of the most prominent precursors to Dr. King whose work still influences us to this day.  The photo and quote that begin this post have been on a poster that has followed me in the various I have lived across the United States.  It hung in my office when I taught at the old Navy School in Athens, Georgia.  It hung in my office at the Naval Air Systems Command in Arlington.  It hung in my office at the Pentagon.  And it has hung in my offices since leaving the Navy.

I keep it with me so that I can look at the portrait of the man who penned them, see the quiet desperation in his eyes to be recognized for the man that he is.  I have studied the formality of his clothing and the fastidiousness of his grooming, all outward devices to show:  “look at me, I am a person of accomplishment and intelligence, worthy of acknowledgment and decency.”  I read his words as a reminder of the connection between the two great unresolved issues born into our societal DNA when we were formed as a nation–those of race and class.  We embraced democracy and republicanism, but not so much on these two issues that would threaten the powerful institutions and people that could undermine the whole undertaking.  And so the founders punted them down the road, leaving them to later generations, and to us.

To me, were it not for W. E. B. Du Bois the impact of Martin Luther King’s actions would not have been successful.  King was the embodiment of the emotional and moral urgency behind civil rights.  Du Bois provided the intellectual and ethical foundations upon which King acted.  Political movements often rely on propaganda, but when they only have propaganda and no firm basis in the world of fact to give them foundation, they must either fail or devolve into some great tyranny.  As such, W. E. B. Du Bois was part of the great American Pragmatist line of philosophical thought, which continues to be a powerful force for advancement, progress, and socio-economic change.  All of us owe a great depth of gratitude to W. E. B. Du Bois.

Both Dr. Du Bois and Dr. King came to the conclusion that the attainment of civil rights for African Americans was only one revolution in the chain of American revolutions extending American freedom and the promises inherent in the Declaration and the Preamble of the Constitution.  The first of these revolutions was the original War for Independence which marked the slow undoing of the Divine Right of Kings and the presumptions of lordship and ladyship, which continued with the extension of universal male white suffrage.   The second was the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  The third was the extension of the franchise and civil rights to women, who were chattel up until that time.  The fourth was the completion of the work of emancipation to extend full civil rights to African-Americans and other previously disenfranchised groups.  We still see the work of that revolution working today in the extension of human and civil rights to the LGBT community.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which contained a small free black population for some time.  According to his own autobiographical reminisces in “My Evolving Program For Negro Freedom” published in 1944, his early life and schooling was free of racial prejudice, but he did experience a growing awareness of his own “differentness.”  He demonstrated great intellectual ability and had many friends among the wealthier families of the town. He graduated high school with high honors at the age of 16.  The mother who had nurtured him, however, suddenly died from a stroke.  Finding himself an orphan and with no relative to assist in his desired educational pursuits, the people of the town and his relatives raised the money for him to go to college.  Since he graduated at a relatively young age–and with no financial resources–it was determined by the adults around him that he would work for a season, which he did as a timekeeper for the building of a mansion by the widow of a local millionaire.  There he experienced his first taste of the world of work and labor, and the stratification of society.

Du Bois had selected Harvard as his choice of school but the father of one his friends, the Reverend C. C. Painter, who had worked in the Indian Bureau, had seen the failure of Reconstruction and felt that Du Bois could best apply his intellectual talents to the problem of the American South.  The town thus arranged for him to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from funds donated by his neighbors and the members of the First Congregationalist Church of Great Barrington.  It was during his time in Nashville, from 1885 to 1888, that he experienced southern racism for the first time, institutionally borne of the Black Codes and Jim Crow, and its de facto racism in societal interaction; both enforced by the threat of vigilantism.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at Fisk, he then attended Harvard College back in Massachusetts from 1888 to 1890 by raising funds through his own labor, loans from friends, scholarships, and an inheritance.  He completed a second degree at Harvard in history, graduating cum laude.  It is during this time that he was greatly influenced by the philosopher William James and the historian Albert Bushnell Hart, who were his professors.  It was James who convinced him to change his concentration from philosophy to history in order to make a living.  He pursued additional degrees from Harvard in sociology that was interrupted by some time at the University of Berlin in Germany.

He his first teaching engagement at the African Methodist Episcopal Church-run Wilberforce University in Ohio where, due to his things did not go as well as he had hoped.  According to his interview by Moses Asch in 1961, which informs a good deal of this post, he spent two years there but it was at that point that he received the opportunity that would change both his life and the arch of history.

The Year That Changed History

That year was 1896.  It was the year in which he became the first African-American to receive a PhD. from Harvard with the publication of his thesis entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, which became the first volume of the Harvard Historical Series.  It is still considered to be the definitive work on its subject, so meticulous its research and methodology.  In it Du Bois outlines the southern plantation economy, the role of Northern traders and industrialists in the slave trade, and the efforts to eliminate it.

It was also the year he was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to provide a study on the Philadelphia Negro population of the city’s 7th ward.  Philadelphia was a city with the reputation of being one of the most poorly run and corrupt cities in the country.  Despite this widespread acknowledgment, it was the opinion of many of the city’s politicians and citizens that the actions and living conditions of the Negroes in this slum area was the basis of many of the city’s ills.  While it was widely believed that this was the case, there was no scientific basis for the belief.  The University of Pennsylvania could not offer Du Bois a position to teach on the faculty, so they made him as “Assistant Instructor” of Sociology and gave him great freedom to conduct his study, which was his only assignment.

The result was the first sociological study of African-Americans, later published in 1899 entitled, The Philadelphia NegroAside from the subject matter Du Bois’ methods were revolutionary for the time, applying quantitative methods and statistics to derive his conclusions.  His use of bar graphs and charts, delineation of the population characteristics, and the application of empirical methods to the field of sociology were unique for the time, admired, and used as the analogue for similar studies for many years.  Du Bois’ experience in Philadelphia had its challenges.  He was not entirely welcomed by the African-Americans of the 7th Ward, who viewed him with suspicion.  Despite these frustrations, he was able to objectively and scientifically identify the social conditions of the population and offer suggestions at amelioration through education, and overcoming the effects of slavery and discrimination.  Rather than accepting the deterministic sociology of Spencer, Du Bois refuted this quasi-ideological assertion masquerading as science through the use of empirical methods.

In “Strivings of the Negro People,” which appeared in the August 1897 edition of Atlantic Magazine, he outlines the combined weight of slavery and other injustices on African-Americans that came out of his study.  “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home….A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems.”  He goes on later that “while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance.”

In these words Du Bois clearly outlines the desired explanation that is defeated by the facts.  These words also expose the artifice in similar writings in our own time such as the execrable 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Herrnstein and Murray; which attempted to reintroduce the discredited ideas of social Darwinism and racial determinism.  Old playbooks and old cons sometimes find themselves introduced by new cons to a later, less vigilant, generation that has forgotten or never learned about those of the past.

After the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois received an offer from Atlanta University in 1897 for his next teaching assignment.  There he developed a curriculum dedicated to the “history of the American Negro.”  But it is in Georgia, where for many years lynching averaged one a week, that, in his own description, his emphasis changed from that of “knowledge” to one of advocacy with the lynching of a man by the name of Sam Hose.

Thus Du Bois represented a different set of African-American voices than the reassuring one Booker T. Washington provided to racist society.  Under Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” that grew out of his 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, the limitations dictated by Jim Crow would go unopposed in exchange for African-Americans receiving the bare essentials of citizenship–not including the franchise or personal safety, of course.  Instead a very basic definition of the concept of education would be provided, and a modicum of economic opportunity.  Washington himself advocated for such an education for African-Americans restricted to practical disciplines in business, education, agriculture, and the industrial arts.

Washington’s rationale was that taking this position was the only acceptable course of action after the failure of Reconstruction.  He feared that a more aggressive stance in white society would only create a backlash that the African-American minority could not withstand.  This accommodationist stand was a Devil’s bargain, of course, and Du Bois saw it as such.  Instead he advocated full equality, but–unlike what he saw as the full assimilationist position of Frederick Douglass in which black identity is completely obliterated in favor of white European norms–one in which black people maintain their ideals and identity in gaining a seat at the table of American society.  This was not black nationalism or separatism, which he vehemently opposed during his lifetime.  It was, instead, the advocacy that the nation in embracing equality had to accept people simply as they were.

The Souls of Black Folk

Thus this was a very fertile and active time for Du Bois.  In 1903 he published his classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  This treatise consists of a thirteen essays and one work of fiction, sandwiched between a foreword and an afterword.  Some of the essays had been published in periodicals previously, but were revised and expanded for the book.  Each of the chapters is headed by a poem by a white author or a passage from a black folk song which he calls “Sorrow Songs,” that has the effect of showing both similarity and separateness.   This is a theme that is common to all of his writings: the two identities of being black in America–both black and separate but American and the same.  “It is a peculiar sensation,” he writes in Chapter 1, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

The book begins very powerfully in the foreword in which he lays out the thesis of the book which he labels “The Forethought”:

“HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois, Foreword to The Souls of Black Folk

He describes black people as living within the “Veil.”  This Veil is what separates white from black–the perspective of each toward the other borne from the color line and prejudice–which distorts the way in which the world is viewed: its possibilities, its limitations, its fears.  For African-Americans this Veil is both a blessing and a curse because it both limits them but also provides them with comfort and “second sight.”

In the first two chapters he discusses the effects of emancipation on African-Americans, what it meant to them, and its aftermath.  In the third chapter he takes on the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington, carrying on the argument “both within and without the Veil” in the next two chapters regarding education to include the liberal arts in order to create leaders.  This position went on to support his concept of the “Talented Tenth,” the 1 in 10 members of the African-American community that would pursue a classical education in order to write and become active in social change.

The next three chapters concern a historical overview of the slave trade and sociological studies of African-Americans, the negative stereotypes of them that are belied by the facts, and the deleterious effects of segregation, racism, and terrorism from white vigilantism.

He then steps within the Veil and in Chapter X discusses the central and essential role of the black church to African-Americans: it’s organizing principles and characteristics in maintaining black social structure and black hope against overwhelming odds.  He follows this with a heartbreaking autobiographical essay on the untimely death of his small son that explores the meaning of life and death within the Veil and a short biography of Alexander Crumwell, a black Episcopal priest lost in a white world.

Chapter XIII, “Of the Coming of John,” is a fictional work about a black man from Altamaha, Georgia, which lies near the Atlantic coast, who is sent north to be educated and soon begins to become aware of the condition to which he was born.  He returns to his home to work, which he been part of his long term plan, only to find that he is isolated from the world of his people and hated by the white society around him for his education.  A chance encounter with his white playmate from when he was a child, who does not recognize him, results in an act of racial discrimination that hastens his return to Altamaha.  Another encounter in the town with that same childhood friend ends in tragedy.  The last chapter discusses the black music, the Sorrow Songs, which he defends as not simply an artifact from slavery to be discarded, but the only native music of the nation that deserves preservation and continued development.  That this did occur in what today we identify as jazz and blues demonstrates once again the prescience of this powerful mind.

It is amazing to me that Du Bois could, in the space of such a small volume, so effectively sum up the complicated history and sociology of the black condition in America.  It is also a lesson in history that, despite such honest and powerful depictions and arguments, that it would be another 60 years before many of ills about which he writes would not be addressed–and then only with concentrated commitment and persistence, and the additional spilling of blood sacrifice.

From Scholar to Civil Rights Leader

Thus we see the development of a first rate academically-centered mind to someone who is becoming a leading voice of the civil rights movement.  After the publication of The Souls of Black Folk his already sizable reputation blossomed.  He helped to create the Niagara Movement in 1905, which organized to place into action the alternative course from that laid out by Washington.  The next year President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers based on the specious allegations of the racist white citizens of Brownsville, Texas, who resented the presence of black troops.  Later that same year in September, Atlanta was overwhelmed by riots by white males, who hunted down, beat, shot, lynched, and raped black citizens, burning their houses and their businesses over allegations of the rapes of several white women–a charge instigated by competing candidates for governor.

The ramifications from these events had both short-term and long-term effects.  Most immediately, it was viewed by the African-American community as a breach and repudiation of Washington’s accommodationist approach, which placed Du Bois and other more aggressive advocates of civil rights at the forefront.  Roosevelt’s action began the long disassociation of African-Americans from their support of the Republican Party, which they had overwhelmingly supported up to that time due to the actions of Lincoln.  This shift was a swift one, coming as it did with the simultaneous abandonment of the party by the progressives toward Democratic candidates in the north, the farm states, and in the west, presaging their long domination of 20th century American politics, combined with Republican Progressives, that revealed itself briefly with the election of Woodrow Wilson, but which overwhelmingly dominated American politics for more than two generations beginning in 1930.

The flowering of Du Bois during this period cannot be completely summarized without taking note of two additional works that he authored that have since been viewed as groundbreaking.  The first was John Brown, published in 1909, in which he traces the roots of Brown’s antislavery views and actions, countering the “Lost Cause” legend promulgated by southern historians who dominated the period, which characterized Brown as either a dangerous fanatic or madman, or both.  The book was largely ignored by his contemporaries not only for its contrary stance but also because, according to one of his biographers, the editor of The Nation, who was working on his own Brown biography, gave it a scathing review.  But it was influential within the civil rights movement, which saw their work as completing the emancipation project begun by Brown.

Du Bois was the first African-American to be invited to attend the annual convention of the American Historical Association (AHA).  At the December 1909 annual conference he presented his paper, Reconstruction and its Benefits, which would become the magisterial Black Reconstruction, published in 1935.  As with his work on John Brown his research and conclusions went well against the grain of the dominant view at the time, which characterized Reconstruction as proof of the inability of African-Americans to handle full citizenship or to govern.  So controversial was his presentation, that laid the blame for the failure of Reconstruction squarely on the inability of the federal government to effectively support the Freedman’s Bureau, the AHA would not invite another African-American to their conference for another 31 years.  In addition, he pointed out that the state legislatures that came to be dominated by newly elected African-Americans expanded the intent and meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution, expanding democratic participation, instituting public education, and addressing socio-economic ills.  Today, with additional research and scholarship–and the passions of the time long since gone–it is Du Bois’ view that is the dominant one in historical interpretation.

By 1910, Du Bois’ position in Atlanta, due to his criticism of Washington and his strong advocacy for civil rights, was in peril.  He then moved to New York and in attending the National Negro Congress he helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People–the NAACP.  Du Bois specifically the word “colored” in lieu of black to include the hues of all dark skinned disenfranchised groups.  This universal acknowledgement of the civil and human rights of everyone is a theme that was to continue to the remainder of his life, to include his opposition to the European colonial empires.

Beginning that year and for the next 23 years served as the Director of Publicity and Research for the NAACP, which included editing The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the organization.  From there it is very difficult to summarize the life of this man.  So involved was he in effort major issue of the 20th century that one must write about each of those issues in order to fully address the influence and impact that he had on American thought and action.  His giant intellect and amazing perspicacity served not only his cause but the nation as a whole.

His detractors and those who tried to slime him as a radical and Communist, especially on the right during the McCarthy years and under the psychopathy of J. Edgar Hoover, fall away before the achievements and humanity that he demonstrated, his commitment to education and the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads, to human rights, to peace, to democracy, to human dignity.  He passed away on August 27, 1963, in Ghana working on his “history of the Negro,” one year before the Civil Rights Act would achieve his life’s work.

“Where Do We Go From Here”

But the work is not over, which will go against the grain of the many self-congratulatory speeches and editorials that have come to mark this day.  Not simply because of the issues of societal separateness that we still see among the ethnic groups within our own society in places like Sanford, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri; and New York City–and the fear that these differences apparently spawns; but also the tremendous issues of economic inequality that the latest economic revolution–the Information Revolution–has created.

Both Du Bois and King saw the strong linkage between the enjoyment of civil rights once attained and the ability to exercise and enjoy those rights in the economic system.  Thus, we are back to the issue of class, after race.  The fact that recidivist and reactionary groups–using the money power, police power, the surveillance power, and the war power–would turn the clock back, provides sufficient evidence that the democratic experiment and its series of revolutions that have expanded human rights and dignity, must continue to move forward into the economic realm.  Only then can human conflict deriving from the instincts of fear borne of self-preservation and survival be overcome.

To me, just as Lincoln observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand…permanently half slave, and half free,” so too the contradiction between a political system founded on democratic processes and republican institutions, and an economic system based on a command system build under the presumptive oligarchy of money and power.  It is left to this generation to grapple with this contradiction–all under the shadow of the existential threat of global warming, which has a direct link as well to that issue.  These are the overriding problems of the 21st century.

Sunday Web blogging on Tuesday — Finding Wisdom — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Our televisions are alight with a new and updated version of the series Cosmos.  In the relatively short span of time since the airing of that original series, humankind’s knowledge about the universe has increased many fold.  What has not advanced as quickly is our ability to use that knowledge in healthy and productive ways that advance human flourishing.  The world is careening between extremes, of most importance at the moment, with Russia in a Back to the Future Soviet Union moment.


Carl Sagan was not only a popularizer of science, mainly in the realm of astronomy, but also a first rate astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist in his own right.  I first came upon him in 1967, as an eager 12 year old with a sometimes overpowering hunger for scientific knowledge, especially in the areas of astronomy, geology, and biology.  The book that sparked my lifetime interest and occasional formal education in the sciences, was Intelligent Life in the Universe, which he co-authored with I. S. Shklovskii.  What Dr. Sagan instilled in me from this one book was not to be afraid to ask questions–even those that on the surface may seem obvious or outlandish–and to imagine the possible alternatives elsewhere to the type of life found here on earth, given an extremely old and expansive universe that, despite the then popular TV program, Star Trek, would ensure that we would never be able to travel the stars to completely confirm our speculations, warp drive and all.  (At least, sadly, not in my lifetime).  The subtext to his message to a voraciously curious 12 year old was not to be afraid; that intellectual honesty and integrity is more important than societal acceptance of what are proper questions and knowledge, that sometimes asking those questions and then pursuing them will actually lead to real answers.

Writer Ann Druyan is also worthy of mention here because, probably more than anyone else, she contributed to making Carl Sagan the popularizer that he became. One of three writers for the first Cosmos series, she later married Sagan and became his associate, helping him write several books on the subject of the scientific method and critical thinking.  Most prominent of the works that she assisted in bringing to print is The Varieties of Scientific Experience. which consists of an edited version of a series of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures given in 1985.

The Gifford Lectures were established in the U.K. in 1888, and consist of the selection of a prominent thinkers to promote the study of what was called “natural theology” and are held at various Scottish universities. Over the years the lectures have hosted some of the most prominent scientists and thinkers of the time, including such notaries as Hannah Arendt, Freeman Dyson, William James, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Niels Bohr, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Roger Penrose, and many others.

“Natural theology” is a philosophical approach to theology that is very old.  It is the concept that, as opposed to “revealed” theology, that the best way to understand the nature of the creator is through reason and experience.  In the 19th century it became the hope of many individuals that the steady advance of scientific knowledge could be reconciled with theological belief.  Over time, especially in the lectures, it has become apparent that such a reconciliation is becoming less and less likely, unless the various revealed theological definitions of “god” is changed as a result of our knowledge.

In choosing the title of the book, Ann Druyan meant to harken back to William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, based on his own Gifford Lectures given in the years 1901 and 1902 at Edinburgh.  To James, the psychological study of religion and the religious experience was an important aspect in understanding human nature.  Religion in his definition included “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  Thus James’ definition is more expansive than that of a particular set of religious beliefs or dogma.  In our own time we would define James’ definition as “spirituality.” 

At the time that he gave his lectures, not unlike our own, the world was divided by dogmatic religious interpretations of “god” and those who considered such beliefs to be a type of psychological defect.  James proposed a different path, positing that the act of faith and revelation–whatever its basis–was an artifact of human nature that warranted study.  He thus advocated for a tolerant attitude to these beliefs, regardless of the fact that the originators may have been unhinged in some way, given that oftentimes a positive effect resulted.  The danger, of course, is as George Santayana wrote, that taking James’ approach too far leads to a “tendency to disintegrate the idea of truth, to recommend belief without reason and to encourage superstition.”  I think this critique goes too far in its misunderstanding of James’ American pragmatist views.  To James, these beliefs were of utility only so far as they advanced a good, which he would define as the health of the individual and society.

Thus we come to Sagan’s work.  Ann Druyan in the introduction to her husband’s book states: “My variation on James’s title is intended to convey that science opens the way to levels of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible to us; that, contrary to our cultural bias, the only gratification that science denies to us is deception.”  The intent here is to extend and inform James’ work and to incorporate Santayana’s warning; that it is still possible to feel wonder and connectedness to creation while eschewing deception.  Among our contemporaries, the neuroscientist Sam Harris has followed this path of inquiry.  But, I think, Sagan’s lectures go farther in their intent and it is the same message that he conveyed to me as a curious 12 year old:  that there are no taboo questions, that all aspects of human experience are open to inquiry.  James opens us to this same line of inquiry from an earlier foundation in a form of language that is obscure to us today: that this includes all forms of human expression.  The recent work of Daniel Dennett has also explored this territory.

Sagan opens his lectures with the following passage:

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach.
By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right….

He then explores the fear that lies at the root of most of our hopes that there is something more than ourselves; our mortality:

All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe. There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the cosmos if there is a great deal of life….and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe. Well, that is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well-being of intelligent creatures. It’s a very different sort of conclusion that modern astronomy suggests. There is a passage from Tennyson that comes to mind: “I found Him in the shining of the stars, / I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields.” So far pretty ordinary. “But,” Tennyson goes on, “in His ways with men I find Him not…. Why is all around us here / As if some lesser god had made the world, / but had not force to shape it as he would…?”



Taking the reality of the universe into account, he then leads to a new view of what constitutes spirituality by leading with the observations of Thomas Paine:

“From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer?”
Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe…. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship.

In the final lecture Sagan then explains clearly why there are no bad questions that seek understanding:

If Newton were restricted, in working through the theory of gravitation, to apples and forbidden to look at the motion of the Moon or the Earth, it is clear he would not have made much progress. It is precisely being able to look at the effects down here, look at the effects up there, comparing the two, which permits, encourages, the development of a broad and general theory. If we are stuck on one planet, if we know only this planet, then we are extremely limited in our understanding even of this planet. If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life. If we know only one kind of intelligence, we are extremely limited in knowing even that kind of intelligence. But seeking out our counterparts elsewhere, broadening our perspective, even if we do not find what we are looking for, gives us a framework in which to understand ourselves far better.
I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.



Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — William James Edition

Several years ago I came across Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found and was immediately inspired to continue to search for similar examples of wisdom in art, literature, poetry, and other forms of human discourse.  As a result, when I ran across the address of Dr. James at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897 I knew I had found one such example.  Shaw, of course, was the Commanding Officer of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment–the first black regiment organized in Massachusetts for the Union cause–and the subject of the 1989 movie Glory.

Robert Gould Shaw memorial

Being a career military professional, I was most impressed by James’ insight into human nature and his ability to overcome his own feelings of inadequacy and guilt from his inability to have participated in the war to abolish slavery.  His brother Wilky James was an officer in the 54th Massachusetts and participated in the Quixotic–and poorly planned–direct charge on Fort Wagner in which half the regiment was decimated.  Wilky suffered terrible injuries from the battle, which foreshortened his life.  But William seemed to have taken some lessons from his brother’s experience and shared them on that day.

Here, then, is today’s wisdom from an excerpt of William James’ oration:

“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.  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.”