Category Archives: Other Thoughts

Who’s Afraid of Big Bad AI?

 

Silver didrachma from Crete depicting Talos, an ancient mythical automaton with artificial intelligence.

“We think, we have consciousness, with our hands and feet, guts and muscles, just as trees “think” with their roots and leaves. To be sure, there is a way to make a machine that is identical to all the functions we have as human beings. The polite term for it is sexual intercourse.”

My latest at Eclectica: http://www.eclectica.org/v24n2/hubschman_salon.html

 

Where I Came In

My latest at Eclectica.org. How we keep expecting the change that never comes and life keeps repeating itself.

“If the film actually did somehow manage to end in a different way from what you had earlier witnessed you might be surprised but probably not shocked as long as the lovers got together and peace and justice again prevailed in the land. Anything was possible once the usher had torn your ticket in half in that popcorn-scented lobby and handed you back the other half as a kind of talisman and three-hour visa into a world of happy endings….”

Read the entire essay.

Not MY President!

I supported Bernie Sanders, but then, like almost everyone else, I assumed Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. I was surprised by the actual outcome but was amazed and then shocked by the strength and quality of the reaction to his election by those who had supported HRC. Like other middle-class “liberals,” I had viewed my side as the more reasonable one, or at least not the one that would descend into vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate, up to and including a hope for his assassination. In 2008 I had watched right-wing Republicans call Obama a foreign-born, Muslim terrorist who only sought the presidency so he could use it to destroy the nation, pledging that they, the opposition, would do everything they could to frustrate him at every turn and make him a failed president. Now I am seeing liberal Democrats behave the same way, calling for immediate impeachment, believing every accusation made about the president-elect, declaring – as had their right-wing counterparts – that he would not be their president. A university education and middle-class income is apparently no match for deep outrage.

I have learned a great deal about my fellow Americans as a result of this election. I have learned perhaps even more about the continuity of human nature across all classes and economic levels of humanity. And, thanks to the history I had been reading previous to and since November 8, 2016, I think I understand better how ordinary people can come to tolerate or even condone the persecution of their neighbors over ideological or religious differences. I see how they can care more about their own prejudices and injured feelings than they do about the future of their nation or their own offspring.

It ain’t pretty.

Secular Sainthood Is a Bad Idea

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. The “I have a dream” speech was played and replayed as if it were on an MP3 player’s endless loop setting. The more adventurous media aired some of his other, more ecumenical orations in opposition to the Vietnam war or the evils of unleashed capitalism. To the best of my knowledge, no miracles were attributed to Dr. King, but his birthday was celebrated in a fashion very much like that of a Christian saint.

I suspect this kind of memorial would displease him greatly. If he was half the man we make him out to be he would be appalled that the result of his life’s work has come to focus so much on him instead of on what he stood and died for. No doubt he had his weaknesses, possibly even one for public adulation, but he cared too much about the goals he had for his nation to want any serious distraction from them in the way of personality cult or hagiography.

But personality, real and imagined, rather than what they said and did, is what we prefer to focus on in our great social and religious figures. How much of Christianity is devoted to worship of the man – or god-man – Jesus rather than to his words? The itinerant rabbi who may or may not have believed he was the Messiah but preached a precious, perennial message of hope and love with deep Jewish roots going back to the prophet Isaiah was turned into a Greek deity through whom and only through whom we must seek to save ourselves from eternal hellfire. Protestants believe they can achieve this by a deep act of faith accepting a still-living Jesus as their personal savior. Roman Catholics believe they can only do so by obeying the precepts and availing themselves of the sacraments of what they consider the one true church.

There seems to be no cognitive dissonance for either Protestants or Catholics to have a deep and abiding faith in this Jesus and then go and behave in ways that would surely have appalled him. Catholic soldiers can receive what they believe to be the flesh of God into their bodies and then slaughter men, women and children not just with impunity but with divine approbation. Protestants, themselves no slouches when it comes to slaughter, can tease out of the gospels assurance that their material prosperity is promised, indeed guaranteed, by those same gospels.

It’s as if we would rather have the vessel than the contents, rather the man or superman constructed out of our own personal desires and imaginations than deal with the truths he espoused and the imperatives that flow from them. Jesus knew enough about human nature to predict we would react this way when he said that few in any generation would hear his message. Dr. King was perhaps more hopeful, or at least he spoke and acted as if he was, insisting we could find justice in this life if we wanted to. But the message was not the man in either King’s or in Jesus’s case. The message is neither enhanced nor diminished by the virtues or foibles of the messenger, though it’s only human nature to see it as being so. And the message is certainly not identical with the man or woman him/herself, especially when a cult of the person results in distraction from the content of the message.

It does not take a divinity or even a saint to speak truth – if Einstein had been a total reprobate, a moral slug, instead of the compassionate man he was, would his Theory of Relativity be less valid? – but it does take an open mind and an open heart to hear that truth and something more as well to act on it.

What’s “Middle” about the Middle Class?

The obvious answer to that question is that they’re the group who are neither rich nor poor but are sandwiched in between those two, a kind of stabilizing alternative to which the poor or “working class” can aspire to rise to and a safety net for those who have lost greater wealth so they need not fall all the way into poverty. We like to believe a middle class is essential to a democracy because it is they who make up the bulk of a prosperous and supposedly well-educated majority capable of making the kinds of decisions a well-ordered republic requires.

But what is the purpose of such a class beyond the maintenance of a national myth of political rule by a rational majority? Other cultures speak of a bourgeoisie, or more properly a petite bourgeoisie. To Marxists the former is likely to be synonymous with “capitalists,” the class we in American associate with the upper class, the latter with our own middle class. But other societies are also more class-conscious than our own, even rigidly so. Our way of ranking our population is much less fixed, open to free movement certainly in the economic sense and to a much larger extent than other societies in the social sense too.

The original idea of who deserves to be in the ruling, i.e. the bulk, of the voting class was seen in a very different way by the framers of our constitution than it is today. Back then it was exclusively free white landholding men. Today it is any citizen, rich or poor or in-between. But has the function of that voting class, mostly middle-class, changed from the one it served for Madison and Hamilton? And what is its function, if it has any beyond just a sociological and economic designation?

I see historical evidence that shows the purpose of a middle class like our own is crucial to maintaining a buffer between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and those who possess very little of it. Without such a class the so-called one percent would have to rely upon brute force to keep in line and protect themselves from the so-called lower classes. With the disintegration of our middle class we can see a tendency toward more and more oppressive rule with the militarization of the police and with incarceration on a scale not practiced by any other nation on earth – a lurch toward a new feudalism.

The fact that the police and other governmental agencies obviously protect the privileges of the middle class does not mean they are not there ultimately to protect the interests of the upper class. It’s a function the middle class has performed wherever it has been constituted and allowed to prosper, not just in America. Consider the situation in the slave states of the Caribbean. Without a substantial white population to rely on to keep the large slave population in line, the ruling class had to resort to creating a middle class out of free blacks to serve as a buffer between themselves and those in chains. This is why West Indians tend to be better educated and more self-confident than our own African Americans. More than two hundred years ago Black West Indian men were already receiving the kinds of educations and professional opportunities we have not yet provided for our own descendants of slavery. Even West Indian women could become solid members of the middle class by opening shops and other small businesses.

A similar effort was made in the South to form a buffer, middle class of European-Americans between landowners and African-American indentured servants after the two had repeatedly combined forces against their owners. Only, promises of freedom, land and “whiteness” made to rebellious European-Americans in exchange for their acting as police to previous comrades of African and mixed descent never fully materialized, consigning them permanently to a landless state of poverty with only their “whiteness” to console them. Even so, they remained faithful to their new “race,” protecting their previous masters’ interests as if those interests were their own.

Almost a century ago Walter Lippmann published a well-thought-out book about the American political scene in which he concludes that public opinion – by which he meant the opinion of those that vote – needed to be carefully manipulated by those with the best understanding of what was best for the nation. The possibility of such manipulation, though not new, was at the time greatly enhanced by the advent of the public relations/advertising industry that had just come into its own during the Wilson WWI administration. “Manufacturing consent” has since became part and parcel of how the powerful elite have co-opted the middle class into accepting their, the elite’s, political agenda. Until recently no oppressive security force was required to effect this control as it has been in other nations. The media does the job virtually without coercion from outside, automatically.

The result has been a perfect pas de deux between upper-class moneyed interests and middle-class willingness to serve their masters as long as they are themselves guaranteed a comfortable living standard and access to unlimited upward mobility. If this requires the impoverishment of one-sixth of the population who typically don’t vote in the same percentages as their betters, that’s a trade-off the guilt for which can be ameliorated by token welfare policies or simply by blaming the victims.

How to Think Like a Nazi (or an American)

But language does not simply write and think for me, it also dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. —Victor Klemperer

That language does our thinking for us is an idea that’s at least 300 years old. But it’s no less true today than it ever was. Of course, what it means is that the words we use to think with already contain the conclusions for the concepts we believe we are examining objectively. We are in effect hemmed in by the fence of the vocabulary which is also the range of our possible ideas, unless we are able and choose to “think outside the box.”

Even a casual reading of authors of other eras than our own, especially of those we don’t place among the great contributers to Western thought, reveals how hidebound they were by the received ideas of their time. Sometimes their naivety is amusing. Our typical reaction to them is, Thank God we have gotten beyond such simplistic notions.

Only, we haven’t. Our own thinking is just as constrained as theirs was, perhaps more so thanks to the influence of mass media. In America we believe we have absolute freedom to think about anything we want in any way we like and then to express those thoughts as publicly as we wish. And that’s true, but we rarely do think anything outside the framework our media and our educations invisibly draw for us. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about race or gay rights or any other issue, but we, most of us, accept the concepts of “race” and “gay” unthinkingly. Even those of us who want to go beyond the confines imposed by those words find it next to impossible to do so and still go on referring to “mixed race” or “bi-racial” children, even if we know the word race has no valid meaning and is entirely a creation of social and economic forces….

Read the rest of the essay.

Human, All Too Human

(From my Salon piece in the October/November issue of Eclectica)

I’ve remarked more than once in print and in personal conversation that maybe our societies should be run by primatologists. I can’t remember ever getting a response to this remark. Presumably it’s taken as a joke or at least as a dismissible apesexaggeration. When I verbalize the idea in person it inevitably draws a blank stare.

I wonder sometimes what those reactions, or lack thereof, imply. Is my suggestion, always expressed in the context of a discussion of human behavior and the restraints we expect ourselves to exert over it, just not taken seriously? Is it beyond the pale of permissible thought that we who share so much with other primates genetically, socially and, if the recent science is any indication, cognitively, ought to investigate ourselves with the same objectivity we study chimpanzees?…

Read more.

Gray Matters

I still marvel at how my mind-brain works. I’m convinced each brain is different and that there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. But you would think after so many years my own would at least be familiar to me.

Not so. It still perplexes, sometimes seems downright alien. The difference in my more mature years (my mother said Hubschman men mature late, but this is ridiculous), is that I do marvelNIA_human_brain_drawing or at least am bemused rather than angered or depressed by its fickleness.

What I’m talking about is the way I seem to experience one kind of mind for a period of time – a few days or a week – and then pass on, quite unexpectedly, to a different one with all the appetites and aversions a new mentality involves.

It’s tempting to say what I experience is a matter of one side of my brain taking over for a while, then losing interest and yielding to the other side. What puzzles me is why this happens. Why am I enthusiastic for a new piece of writing I’ve just started, thinking about it the last thing before I go to sleep and the first thing after I wake up in the morning, and then suddenly become apathetic about it? How can I spend a day busily taken up with that new project and wake to find it may as well be something someone else is writing and about a topic in which I have no particular interest?

What do I do when this happens? Well, apart from the self-recriminations I used to plague myself with, what I did in my younger years was listen to music. And not just listen, but listen. I would find my mind as eager, as hungry for musical sounds as it had been for the written word. I devoured one symphony after another.  I found pleasure in jazz performances that used to leave me cold.

This would go on for a few days, and then something would switch off in my gray matter and the next day another part of that organ would switch on. I’d be back to making sentences, or at least rewriting them, and taking pleasure once again in reading someone else’s.

The difference is that nowadays, since I’ve taken up the piano, instead of just listening to other people’s performances I make music myself – sort of. I experience that delicious feeling thathuman brainresults from hearing Chopin or Brahms come out of the tips of my fingers and then reach deep inside and massage my soul the way nothing else can. Then, in a few days, I’m back to making sentences again.

Does my right (or is left?) brain just get tired of words, overdose on them, and turn off in favor of the left side the way it yields up consciousness to a different state when it has had enough of the real world for while? And then does the left side feel glutted and switch off in favor of its other half?

These alternating brain functions obviously have a restorative function. Ideas for a story work themselves through even as my pencil (virtual or otherwise) lies dormant and I worry it will never rise again. And despite the old saw about the need to practice every day, I find after a couple days away from the piano (also virtual) I not only remember better the few pieces I can play than if I had taken no time off, I play them with more understanding and deeper feeling.

I know, of course, there’s nothing unique to me about any of this. I have friends whose habits are not as up-and-down as my own, who do the same work each day without any loss of will  as far as I can see. And I know almost everyone has their ups and downs, their periods of enthusiasm and despondency. My own alternations simply occur in areas of activity that are easily identifiable and open to theorizing (in words, of course).

To put a positive spin on it,  my brain may just belong to a subset typical of artists. No doubt it served a function in the evolution of the species, as has the brain of my neighbor whose apartment is never clean enough or clutter-free enough to suit him.

Hopefully, it still does.

Tears in the Morning, Clearing by Afternoon, Some Wisdom Possible Before Sunset

Tears in the Morning, Clearing by Afternoon, Some Wisdom Possible Before Sunset

Thoughts on the heightened sensitivity that comes with age.  My latest, in the new issue of Eclectica.

Wearing the Black Star

America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them “black” ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from “dark-skinned” Africans), to entirely take it off.

Read my essay in the current Eclectica. Let me know what you think.