COVID-19: a dress rehearsal for global warming

The historic circumstance raised by COVID-19 and the realization that it’s a circumstance affecting the entire human race puts a lot in perspective about our place in the natural world.  We tend to live under the myth that this, the wisest-of-all human civilizations has risen above and transcended nature — only to be reminded that nature ultimately sets the rules on what we can or cannot do.  The freedom to infect is no freedom.  It is taking license on matters that nature places off bounds.  Now to ponder — this crisis is just a small dress rehearsal for the far more radical demands nature will make of us as our failure to avert global warming looms ever larger.

Irons in the Fire

Productivity issues?  Yes, I have my fair share.  But it is not for want of creative projects to turn to.  It’s more like I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities.

So, here’s a strategy for trying to realize at least some of those possibilities.  I’m adding a new category to assign to blog posts called “Irons in the Fire”.  Each entry under this category will spell out a specific writing project, whether large or small, that I would like to publish in one form or another.  Hopefully the mere act of stating out loud here what I’d like to do can help me realize the creative and original potential I feel and/or know is there.

The Atlantic: The War-Crimes President

I was about to post a blog entitled The War-Crimes President (based on NYT article “Trump’s Intervention in SEALs Case Tests Pentagon’s Tolerance”; but I see that the Atlantic beat me to it.

Trump, Authoritarianism, Demagoguery

Here is a comment I just posted in a small e-mail forum of old college friends that I participate in:

Jim, some thoughts on your observation that Democrats have been trying to get rid of Trump since he was elected: I would number myself among those people but would like to draw some lines. In some respects, this is what happens when any losing party gears up for the next election. And Trump’s depiction of ‘Never-Trumpers’ states the obvious in that respect — but probably also reflects his narcissistic criticism of people who would “dare” oppose him. It’s these latter aspects of Trump – his narcissism, his demand of absolute loyalty, his “I alone can fix it”, his camaraderie with Putin and many other authoritarian leaders, his (out of the paper today) reversal, to the dismay of high brass, military courts punishment of people convicted of murder, conscious lying in which his only concern is to keep his base intact and to divert it from falling for “fake news”.  A few hours after Trump’s inauguration, I posted a blog asking rhetorically “Is a Demagogue in Power?”  Trump is something dangerously out of the ordinary. I find myself in strange agreement with many cable news talking heads from the CIA and FBI who see Trump as a threat to the rule of law. Having lived for three years and carefully observed (reading the newspaper daily) a vicious military dictatorship in Brazil (where a supporter of the dictatorship widely known as “the Trump of the Tropics” is now president), I see in Trump a wanna-be dictator, someone who plays only by his rules and is ready to run rampant over anything and anybody who threatens his power.  One time in Brazil, knowing I was crossing a certain line, I stated to a neighbor with her son, about 10 years old “The military run everything here”.  The son, alarmed, said instantly “Mother, he is against Brazil”.  Trump at his rallies decries that a coup is taking place against him, that his opponents are enemies of “the USA”, etc, classically conflating the head of state with the country (“L’etat, c’est moi”).  And the problem is not just Trump but his sizable base and constituency (itself a part of an international rise of the right) , which is ready to be scared into believing in him.  Maureen Dowd made an interesting observation the other day that Nixon did not have, like Trump now has, a major television network behind him.  Fox is the most watched network of the impeachment inquiry.  And they toss up on the screen one-liners dismissing some of the most important conclusions of the inquiry. So the “fake news” is not going to hamper Trump’s fight against a coup.  And he can keep on screaming at rallies about becoming president for life (as he has, if you missed it).

Anthropocentric Political Science

“What does political science have to say about evolution?” In many years of teaching political science, a student never asked me this question. I imagine that many political scientists responding to such a query would simply say “That’s not my department.” But situating political science within an evolutionary framework is not merely a good question. Political science’s claim to be a science, already on shaky grounds, will become untenable if it cannot provide a systematic way to undertake the challenge posed by this question. As long as political scientists have to defer to some other body of knowledge when confronted with the issue of situating humanity within evolutionary time, it will be trapped in an anthropocentric perspective unable to conceive of politics immersed in the world of nature.

Anthropocentric political science is a view of politics blind to humanity in the natural world. There are at least two respects in which this view has been challenged in relatively recent times, one pioneered by environmental advocates like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, which has forced political science to make ecological issues a core focus and the other, more fundamentally, by an epistemological crisis that highlights the need for the integration of physical and human sciences, or more to the point here, a physically integrated political science.

Social and political scientists used to have good reason not to involve physical science in their analyses of human society. The mechanistic paradigm of nature, the so-called clockwork universe that ruled science from the times of Isaac Newton, when applied beyond relatively simple physical realms to analysis of human affairs, could only reduce people to cogs in a machine. The notion that humans could, like physical objects in the Newtonian universe, be subject to mathematically precise, absolutely certain laws lent itself to scientistic and positivist rationales for domination and control. This was and is naturally repugnant to champions of human freedom whether in theory or practice. In this context, principled opposition to “hard science” interpretations of human affairs has not only been understandable but necessary to defend against dehumanizing theories of politics. But this traditional justification for keeping physical science at bay from politics needs to be reassessed in the light of developments that go far beyond the science of simple interactions of material objects to the science of emergent complexity. In this still blossoming view, nature is no longer modeled as a clockwork but as phenomena with both self-organizing and disorganizing, liberating and oppressive potential. In this new light, theorists of politics can no longer depict attempts to integrate the physical and the political as scientistic incursions into politics. Now is the time for political science to take up the challenge, however complex and monumental it may be, of situating politics squarely within physical reality – and making anthropocentric political science history.

Google, now you can record “anthropocentric political science” as a term that exists on the Internet!

Never heard of anthropocentric political science? Neither has Google. Do a search for the exact phrase and Google returns this answer (at least as of today June 13, 2019):

No results found for “anthropocentric political science”.

If you’re reading this after a Google bot has had time to sweep through here, then a Google search of “anthropocentric political science” should land you right back here — and I welcome you to the noosphere’s very first mention of the term.

I just stumbled across this absence while working on another blog entry I hope to post soon dealing with (Google are you listening?) anthropocentric political science.

Edgar Morin: “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (1977).

I have translated the following passage from Edgar Morin’s La Methode: La Nature de la Nature (1977, 112-114). Morin, the pioneer of critical complexity theory, notes that “A system is not only enriching, it is also impoverishing, and the impoverishment can be greater than the enrichment” (p. 114). To account for the latter, we need to acknowledge circumstances under which “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (p. 112), something “very rarely formulated” (p. 112). Now, more than four decades later, this fundamental characteristic of systems continues to be ignored in much of the discourse on complex systems.

B. The constraints: the whole is less than the sum of its parts

As soon as we conceive of a system, the notion of global unity is so strong that it blinds us; the blindness of reductionism (which sees only the constituent elements) gives way to the blindness of “holism”(which sees only the whole). Thus, while it has often been noted that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, the contrary notion — the whole is less than the sum of its parts– is very rarely formulated…

1. The constraints

The whole is less than the sum of its parts: this means that some qualities, some properties belonging to the parts, when considered in isolation, vanish within the system. Such an idea is rarely recognized. Yet, it can be deduced from the idea of ​​organization, and can be conceived much more logically than emergence. Continue reading

Brazil’s Bolsonaro Shuts Down Forensic Investigation of Political Prisoners Likely Murdered During Military Dictatorship

Yesterday I received the following story from a friend in Brazil about a directive issued by President Jair Bolsonaro that shuts down efforts to identify bones found in mass graves of people likely murdered by police and military during the country’s military dictatorship. The news article in Portuguese is at Here is a quick translation:

President Jair Bolsonaro closed the Perus Working Group – MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP

São Paulo – President Jair Bolsonaro’s Decree 9.759, which closes councils and commissions, shut down the Perus Working Group responsible for identifying the bodies of disappeared political [activists] in 1,047 boxes of bones from the common grave in Perus cemetery in western Sao Paulo.

The Group was linked to the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and was responsible for completing the identification of victims of political repression during the military dictatorship, a work begun in 2014 after a Federal Court ruling in a public civil action.

When asked, the ministry did not respond how it intends, and if it intends, to continue the work of identifying the bones. The brief noted only that “it is evaluating, studying and proposing something within the parameters of the decree”. During his time in parliament, Bolsonaro criticized searches for the disappeared. He posed beside a poster about the searches in the region of Araguaia that said: “Only a dog looks for bones “.

“More than burying the disappeared, the government is imploding a whole system aimed at justice. The decree affects not only the Perus Group but also the Araguaia Working Group,” said the regional prosecutor Eugenia Gonzaga. She is the chair of the commission, representing the Federal Public Ministry (MPF).

Created by federal law, the commission cannot be affected by the decree, but, according to her, the working groups and technical teams of experts needed to do the work were disbanded by the Bolsonaro decree. “Although there is a projected budget and judicial backing for getting the work done, there is no one today who can sign a document or hire anyone to carry out the work.”

These facts have been conveyed to federal judge Eurico Maiolino, of the Federal Regional Court of the 3rd Region, which ensures compliance with the judicial decision requiring the Union to identify the bones. Currently, four experts still work on the 1,047 cases because their contracts were signed before the decree. The number, however, is insufficient – the group has had 10 experts to analyze the bones.

The Perus grave was discovered in 1990. In the 1970s, police and the military, using false names, buried assassinated political prisoners there. It is suspected that up to 40 of them were in the grave – six of them had already been located there and another seven in unidentified graves in the cemetery.

After being handed over to USP and Unicamp [university] coroners – who were accused of neglecting the identification of the bones – work on the 1,047 boxes began through an agreement signed between the federal government and the City of São Paulo, which also involves the Center for Anthropology and Forensic Archeology (CAAF) at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Already 750 bone samples have been collected – 500 have already been sent to the laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) – first in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and now in The Hague, Holland. Specialized in DNA analysis of degraded bones, the ICMP laboratory was responsible for the identification of Dimas Casemiro, a militant of the Tiradentes Revolutionary Movement (MRT), and the lawyer Aluísio Palhano, leader of the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard (VPR).

Casemiro died from gunshots and Palhano under torture by men from the 2nd Army Information Operations Detachment (DOI) in 1971 under the command of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. A new shipment of 250 bone samples is going to The Hague in early May – the paperwork on it had already been signed before the Bolsonaro decree. Not yet analyzed is the content of about 30% of the boxes, where bones of more than one individual were detected. “We have to extend the work to analyze the remaining bones,” Eugenia said.

“The decision ending the groups is consistent with the honors that Bolsonaro gives Colonel Ustra. Instead of clarifying the past, this government is interested in glorifying it,” said journalist Ivan Seixas. He was 16 when he was arrested in 1971 by DOI in the company of his father, Joaquim Alencar Seixas. Both were militants of the MRT.

“I saw my father tortured and killed at DOI under Ustra, and I was imprisoned for six years.” Two of Seixas’s companions were in the Perus grave. They are Denis Casemiro, murdered under torture by police officers of the Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS), of the Civil Police of São Paulo, and Dimas Casemiro.

Bolsonaro’s Orwellian Celebration of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

In true Orwellian fashion, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has called upon the country’s military to celebrate the anniversary of the dictatorship it inaugurated against constitutional democracy on March 31, 1964, imposing military rule for over two decades.  Contributing to the air of surreality surrounding Bolsonaro’s idea of “celebration” was the lavish praise Bolsonaro received from Donald Trump in a state visit to the White House a week ago. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Bolsonaro’s outrageous positions on the civil rights of women, homosexuals and blacks, Trump boasted that one of Bolsonaro’s monikers is “the Trump of the tropics”.

There is a deeper, darker historical significance to the Bolsonaro-Trump love fest.  The military rule imposed on Brazil from 1964 to 1985 reflected currents of authoritarianism not only in Brazil but in the United States.  The Brazilian dictatorship would never have lasted and probably would not even have occurred without an American authoritarian foreign policy toward Brazil and many other countries from the 1960s through the 1980s.  A Manichean cold war logic intolerant of the electoral success of leftists or democratic socialists overtook the U.S. State Department, equating it with Soviet-style communism.  Support for dictatorships, provided they were anti-communist, became the norm. In Bolsonaro and Trump these horrifying ghosts from the past have been resurrected.  Vigilance of the highest order is called for in order to assure they do not turn the clock back on self-government.

P.S.  The following blog about the Brazilian and Chilean dictatorships is an excerpt from my recently published essay “A Complexity Theory of Power”.

A Complexity Theory of Power (full text of journal essay)

Here is “A Complexity Theory of Power” as it appears in the Fall 2018 issue of the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems.  It took a little while to discover how to display the PDF of the article here without having to upgrade to a WordPress Business Plan but, when I asked, WordPress informed me about the free Scribd option deployed here.  While there doesn’t appear to be a way to download the PDF below, it is possible to download it directly from the journal or through ResearchGate here.

This is a provocative piece in a variety of ways I intend to make more explicit in coming blog entries.