‘To Make Gentle the Life of this World’

Fifty years ago today, on the morning of April 4, 1968, an electric sense of excitement brimmed over in the capacity crowd of 2000 that I had joined in Notre Dame’s Stepan Center. We were waiting for Senator Robert Kennedy to arrive and launch his Indiana presidential primary campaign. There was no hint we were entering into one of the most star-crossed days in the history of the country.

A 21 year old senior at Notre Dame, campaigning for Senator Eugene McCarthy, I was there to check out the opposition. It came as no surprise that Kennedy, in a bid for volunteers, would inaugurate his Indiana campaign before our largely non-voting student audience. A few weeks earlier in New Hampshire, anti-Vietnam war campaigners for McCarthy dramatically demonstrated that voting ineligibility was not necessarily an obstacle to influencing elections. I picked up many of those “veterans” at the Michiana airport, dropping them off at corners all over South Bend and joining them in door-to-door canvassing for McCarthy.

It was clear not only from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd but from Kennedy’s passion that he was a formidable opponent. He spoke movingly about the need to “end poverty and deprivation” and declared we must “bring this agonizing war to a conclusion” [1]. By comparison, McCarthy’s stump speech was studied and without a comparable spark. In a rally I attended, he managed only to fill a small auditorium. I greatly admired McCarthy for his courage in taking an early stand against the war but I felt that morning I was listening to the candidate most likely to succeed.

After Kennedy’s rally, I walked south over the grassy quarter mile stretch that, before a boom in dormitory construction, used to separate the Library from the Stepan Center. I heard cheers. I turned back, watching Kennedy emerge from the Center enveloped by students. He climbed into the back of a waiting open convertible. Students swarmed the vehicle trying to shake his hand. As the car moved out slowly, Kennedy, arm outstretched, obligingly reached out to the students. The sight of the boisterous crowd giving chase with no visible security and a Kennedy in the back seat of a convertible caused me to shudder. As a 12 year old student at nearby St. Joseph’s Grade School, I had obtained the autograph of my hero, that other Senator Kennedy, during another primary season at the back entrance to the North Dining Hall just a few hundred feet from where I was standing at that moment. As a high school senior, I had been unable to bear the pain of watching his funeral on TV.

I watched Robert Kennedy’s car exit Notre Dame down a stretch of Juniper Road that has since disappeared due to development. He was en route to the Michiana Airport and to Muncie where he spoke with another enthusiastic student crowd, and finally to an inner city black neighborhood in Indianapolis where, as he got up to speak, news of Martin Luther King’s assassination arrived. In video recordings of the event, one hears a pained collective gasp rise from crowd as he informs them of the tragedy. He speaks of bitterness, polarization, a desire for revenge and, as he had never publicly done before, about the killing of his brother. Then, calling upon the spirit of Dr. King, he talks of the need for not only for understanding but for justice. “What we need in the United States”, he says, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”.

People heeded Kennedy’s call to return home. He is widely credited with having prevented riots in Indianapolis at a moment when violence was erupting across the country in black communities traumatized by the news of Dr. King’s death. Rising far above the current din of fear-mongering by authoritarians here and elsewhere, Kennedy’s call “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” resonates as never before.

[1] The remarks quoted from RFK’s speech at Notre Dame were reported in the April 5, 1968 edition of Notre Dame’s student newspaper The Observer (http://www.archives.nd.edu/observer/1968-04-05_v02_062.pdf).

Mystery Solved: Identity of Forger of Trump Nobel Peace Prize Nomination Revealed

This morning’s New York Times reported that the Norwegian police are trying to find out who forged Donald Trump’s nomination to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. A large but limited number of people – heads of state, legislators, past recipients, etc. – qualify to make such a nomination. The person who ostensibly made the Trump nomination, when contacted by the Nobel Committee, informed them of the misuse of identity. A lengthy forensic examination is expected by the police.

Before the Norwegian police spend any of their valuable time on this matter, I can with full confidence identity the culprit for them. He is someone who is known, in the 1980s, to have made anonymous phone calls to New York City gossip columnists to fill them in on the latest activities of Donald Trump. He is someone fined 25 million dollars for running the scam Trump University. He is someone for whom the word “shady” would had to have been invented if it did not exist (see The Atlantic, “The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet” by David A. Graham).

Simply put, Donald Trump’s fingerprints are all over this. The Oslo police forensic division should take a breather and move on to cases more challenging than this one.

In the Eye of the Hurricane

I have not been giving this blog the attention it deserves.  One basic oversight: I’ve never explained “In the Eye of the Hurricane”, the blog’s subtitle.  This is a term Immanuel Wallerstein uses to describe the precarious situation we are in due to the effective divorce between the physical and social sciences. That physical and social scientists tend to have no intellectual reasons to communicate with one another has produced an epistemological crisis that he likens to a hurricane.  He writes:

“The modern structures of knowledge, the division of knowledge into two competing epistemological spheres of the sciences and the humanities, is in crisis. We can no longer use them as adequate ways in which to gain knowledge of the world…We are living in the eye of the hurricane” (2004:49-50).

In other words, the division of knowledge between the physical and social sciences is compromising the very process of scientific enquiry.  It obscures for researchers fundamental aspects of reality, a point stressed by Edgar Morin when he noted that “The great disconnect between the natural sciences and the human sciences hides at once the physical reality of the latter and the social reality of the former” (1977:11).  The challenge this poses to political scientists is the following: we need to illuminate both the physical reality of politics and the political reality in which the natural sciences are embedded.

Morin, Edgar. 1977.  La Méthode : La Nature de la Nature.  Paris: Éditions de Seuil.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

The Complexity Revolution at the Hairdresser’s

I will soon turn this blog in a new direction.  What I’ve been doing so far is using current events to try to show how a complexity theory of power can help bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.  No theory worth its salt can evade such empirical grounding.  While I will continue to use current events this way on occasion, I’d like to make a case for how complexity theory needs the progressive left and how the progressive left needs complexity theory.  I’m also keeping an eye out for ways that Donald Trump’s far-right, authoritarian impulses could exacerbate “disorganized complexity” nationally and internationally.

But, first, here’s one more “complexity event in the news”.  The event that popped out at me from today’s New York Times (“Salon Workers in Illinois to Train on Signs of Abuse”, December 18, 2016, Page A4) is a new first-of-its kind law in Illinois that adds to the licensing requirement for hairdressers training on how to spot domestic abuse symptoms among their customers.   Continue reading

Political Science is Insufficiently Grounded in Physical Reality

I presented my most complete statement to date on a complexity theory of power at the 2014 International Political Science Association meeting in Montreal.  It is entitled “Grounding Political Science in the Physical World.” Following is the final paragraph of the paper.  To view the entire paper, click here.

A British website called Non-Equilibrium Social Science (2014) is a good indicator of what we can expect to hear more of as complexity science makes inroads into social and political science.  But a nonequilibrium approach will do little good if it does not also get to the roots of how power imposed presses individuals, groups and sometimes entire nations toward a stifling and asphyxiating equilibrium.  If in this century we succeed in building a nonequilibrium political science that illuminates these debilitating effects of power, then I think we will look back and see that 20th century political science was insufficiently grounded in physical reality, that it did not help us understand that the virtual mechanization of human relationships is not only an abuse of power but a physical disorder.  A physically-integrated political science that aligns the human passion for freedom with the indeterminism at the heart of matter can hopefully set us on the path to building genuinely self-organizing social, political and economic structures. In learning how to exercise power with not over others, we can integrate ourselves with the self-organizing pulse of nature.

The Devil and the Demagogue

In the presidential debate on Sunday, Donald Trump charged that Bernie Sanders had sold out to “the devil.”  The devil?!  Oh, yes, of course.  Hillary. “She’s the devil.” That’s how the aspiring exorcist-in-chief put it in a Mechanicsburg, PA rally in August.  And he has reportedly repeated this rant once again on the campaign trail this week.

Trump’s Manichean disposition – his tendency to demonize or dehumanize opponents – has been on such stark display over the past year there’s no need to offer further documentation.  That may be found among the 36,600 hits that a “Manichean Donald Trump” search calls up on Google today.

What is of interest from the complexity perspective advanced by this blog is the reality disconnect in which political Manicheanism is rooted.  It is a phenomenon that Norbert Wiener, writing at the height of McCarthyism, devoted attention to in his still timely and exciting work The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954).  Continue reading

North Korea: Clashing Orders, Clashing Reasons

A New York Times column asks in this morning’s paper “Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?” Its answer is that, far from crazy, it is all too rational  (“North Korea Crazy? Worse. It’s Calculating” by Max Fisher, September 11, 2016, page A6).

The problem with this approach is that it assumes a single rationality shared by North Koreans and everyone else.  In my presentation at the 2014 International Political Science Association conference in Montreal, I called North Korea “exhibit A of currently persisting political closure.”  More to the present point, I argued that political conflicts within authoritarian regimes (like the one I got to know while living in Brazil at the height of its military dictatorship) reflect a clash of orders – or a clash of distinctly different types of rationality.  Authoritarian order is a very real type of order but it is mechanistic.  It tries to mechanize human behavior.  It is based on the absolutist assumption that disorder and uncertainty can be eliminated.  Those who actually acknowledge the existence of uncertainty defy the “reality” of absolute certainty; they must be repressed.  The dissenters also effectively acknowledge a radically different view of reality, one affirmed by 20th century science, namely that disorder and uncertainty can never be eliminated.  They can only be reduced.   Political conflict within North Korea reflects these clashing orders, these diametrically opposed views of rationality.  In its dealings with the world, the North Korean regime is hypersensitive to real or perceived threats and tends to be irrational.  Much of the challenge in dealing with it on the world stage is psychological.  Is it possible that cracks in the absolutism of the regime can develop and that it might pursue more reasonable policies (notably, backing off of capacities for nuclear warfare)?  I know too little to even speculate.  But, for starters, I think we need to acknowledge that a mechanistic vision of order guides the North Korean regime and this also shapes its view of what is and is not rational.