an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘progress

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think


I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.


S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

why I’m not a conservative

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Probably better to read this highly recommended book than my article, but you’re welcome to do both

There are many ways of answering the above question. I might state the obvious – conservatives tend to be stodgy, boring, backward-facing selfish naysayers with a limited social conscience and little interest in, if not an outright fear of, scientific and technological development.  End of story.

But of course, that can’t be the whole story. We’re not as free to develop our own views as we think. I’m a product of a particular environment, a very working-class environment, though very bookish within the family. The recent Kavanaugh kerfuffle reminds me of my rough and ready high school days, though I was more often a victim than a perp. All through high school I was the smallest and probably lightest kid in my class, male or female, so I was the target of pranks, mostly ‘good-natured’. For example, on two occasions I was held out upside-down by the legs over the first-floor balustrade by my fun-loving schoolmates. Had they lost their collective grip, I suppose I would’ve dropped head-first to probable death. Yet, though I’m sure my heart-rate was well up at the time, I had a pretty strong faith in my friends – all boys of course – and their benign intentions. I never lost any sleep over it afterwards. 

I’m not suggesting this was working-class hijinx – think of Eton and Harrow ragging, etc – but there was more, including stuff I’m far from proud of, as I strove to fit in with the anti-intellectual and often nihilistically violent environment around me. The quality of teaching was pretty poor, our headmaster was an outright fascist, and I was happy to be a high school drop-out at fifteen. I got occasional assembly-line work, and my spare time was spent either failing to ingratiate myself with a gang of local vandals, or reading Jane Austen or encyclopaedia entries on Isaac Newton, etc. Not to mention wanking myself silly to fantasies of any local beauty I happened to clap my eyes on. Another great solace and opening to a wider world was the wordsmith musical artists of the early seventies I obsessed over, such as Dylan, Cohen and Bowie. 

So what has this to do with my politics? Well, the region of my childhood and youth was, and still is, one of the safest Labor electorates in the country (Labor, for international readers, is the party of the left here in Australia, as it is in Britain). I can’t imagine it ever going the way of the conservatives. In Australia, the urban/suburban working-class tend to vote left, while the rural working-class tend to vote right. It’s perhaps different from the USA where the working-class in general tend to vote right (though this seems to happen here in some parts, notably Queensland). This kind of pro-union us-and-them mentality, an atmosphere of both togetherness and despair, was what I breathed in as I wandered lonely as a cloud through the streets of my town. I engaged with others in petty theft and pointless vandalism, got caught and was placed on a bond, and felt self-servingly that the law was the principle weapon of the rich to beat down the poor.

In the early seventies a downturn in the economy hit our region particularly hard, and I felt it in the air of neglect and dilapidation, the family breakdowns, the beginnings of generational unemployment. I saw a neighbourhood of victims, unable to climb out of their situation, as if they’d been sold a pup and didn’t know quite who to blame. 

I didn’t hang around, I moved to a bigger smoke, and a more variegated, bohemian-student world. My problems of ‘fitting in’ didn’t exactly go away, but I was becoming more reconciled to my ‘loner’ identity. And of course I was educating myself more about politics, economics and history. But always I’ve been concerned about the most vulnerable, the least advantaged, those who ‘lucked out’ in our society. This goes with my views on free will, and on nationalism. We don’t get to choose our parentage, or the where and when of our birth. I politely decline to sing songs about how wonderful and unique ‘my’ country is, because I know that if I was born in another country on the other side of the world I’d be pressured to sing songs about its splendour and specialness. I feel lucky to be a citizen of two peaceful and developed countries, just as I feel lucky to have been born a human rather than a mosquito. I feel lucky to be alive when all this new knowledge is being uncovered, in astronomy, in neurology, in palaeontology and so much else, though I feel unlucky to have been born in 1956 rather than 1996, or even later.

But the implications of this matter of luck seem to me enormous, and they’re essential to my political views. For example, they largely define my views on education, health, welfare, immigration and the justice system. To me, one of the major roles of a political state is to do its best to mitigate, for its members, the destructive effects of bad luck. 

Broadly speaking, the history of politics has ever been the battle between the left and the right – patricians v plebeians, socialists v libertarians, progressives v traditionalists, Labor v Conservative, Republicans v Democrats, with independents ranged across the political spectrum. Those who want to do more for their people v those who want to let people do for themselves, and various other polarities. Of course, not all these categories are the same on each side of the v sign, which raises all sorts of questions. Where does business and capitalism fit in? What about the environmental movement? What about globalism and its detractors? 

My views on many of these matters aren’t well-formulated – or I should say, in a more self-boosting way, they’re not hard and fast. However, the application of a basic rule of thumb – ‘try to reduce the effect of bad luck’, is, I think, a useful starting point. For example, a taxation system that tries to reduce disadvantage in terms of education and healthcare is important, but one that heavily reduces incentives for businesses and entrepreneurs may ultimately affect productivity and the wealth from which taxation can be drawn. At the same time it’s dangerous to fall for the line of the ‘haves’, that tax breaks for the ‘deserving rich’ will ultimately benefit all through greater employment and opportunity. The rich, I’ve noticed, like very much to keep it in the ‘family’ – gated communities being the most in-your-face symbol of the trickle-across effect. 

Governing isn’t easy, especially under the constant scrutiny of vested interests – and that means everyone. One of the major difficulties I’ve noticed is that some scrutineers, e.g. the Rupert Murdochs of this world – are vastly mote powerful than others, so money and influence are always at play – and those in most need are always those who have least influence. It’s easy to lose sight of that – though many conservatives aren’t worried about that, they often see their rich supporters as a natural elite, and the strengthening of that elite as their natural duty in government.

I know this is a bitsy sort of essay – I don’t have an ideology as such, but I do have some strong views, against ideology and for pragmatism, against adversarialism and for collaboration, against realpolitik and nationalism and for the more voiceless and lucked out members of our species – often the victims of realpolitik. I’m also for the progress of science and technology against the fearful or dismissive or wilfully ignorant naysayers. I know I’ve just contradicted myself, seemingly, in speaking for  collaboration and then couching issues in for/against terms, but of course you must have core beliefs to bring to a negotiation, which you can present for consideration while considering and questioning the views of the opposition, as they question yours. And those who aren’t prepared to listen – and I can name quite a few – shouldn’t be allowed at the table. 

I like the approach of Aristotle – first you work out your ethics (the particular or individual) then apply it to politics, the general. Of course, the first thing to note, as you try to work out what you should do, is that it must be in relation to others, the general. Without that ‘general’, which is life itself, not just humanity, as natural selection has taught us, we individuals wouldn’t be here. So the relationship between the individual and the general is necessarily dialectical, but it starts off with that personal question. And there is always that tension, for progressives – those who believe in pushing forward not yearning backward – between that forward movement and responsibility for the luckless strugglers, those so easily left behind. It makes for a very difficult task for those well-meaning politicians I admire. Scientific, technological and intellectual progress is happening at a more rapid clip than ever before, but it’s spreading the spectrum ever wider, not just between the haves and have nots, but between attitudes towards and against that progress, between adoring enthusiasm and hate-filled fear. 

So. I’m not a conservative. I want to embrace the future, to help make it happen. I want it to improve the lot of the majority, especially of those whose lot needs most improving, so that they can share in enthusiasm for the future. I want women to rule the majority of the world, because I believe this would improve humanity, and the world. I want to avoid warfare as much as humanly possible, because the costs are always borne by those who can least afford them. I want to challenge the power of self-serving elites, and to shake their complacency. I want people to think about and recognise the consequences of their actions – especially those with power over others. The future will happen, and we can choose to face forward, and put our hands to those shaky and complicated controls, or to look away and pretend it’s not happening. It’s not much of a choice really. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm