School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 2

Back again for more huh!

Okay so this is part two of last week’s post when we started talking about our education system and about the challenges our kids face with homework and standardized testing. I also talked about technology and outdated methods, and even religion got an (dis)honorable mention in there. No one was safe from it, parents, teachers, politicians… since we are all part of the pie, we all got a slice of it.

Today I’ll talk about the challenges college students face (provided they made it all the way to college) in the classroom, but mainly outside of it. On this post the blame will be almost completely shifted to our policy-makers, corporations, and the universities and colleges themselves so I will not go in-depth about fraternities or the “college experience”, but rather focus more on the financial aspect of higher education and the ripple effect they cause. But, while distancing myself from too much math, I’ll mainly be talking about student debt and we’ll analyze a risk-versus-reward type situation. So if you’re one of these people suffering from studentdebtitis (don’t try to pronounce that), then you will read some facts here that perhaps you didn’t know. Hopefully I can help in some way or another.

Let’s get into it!

 

All In the Numbers

 

Assuming you passed all that required testing we talked about before- SATs, college admission tests, etc.- college is a new and exciting time that is about to begin! No more lectures about being late to class, no more bullshit about cleaning your room, in fact, if you choose to live in a dorm, no more parents for a while. Man is life great! Well for you. For your parents it’s a different story.

For those putting themselves or their kids through college, it’s important to know where they are in terms of payment if they stand a chance. Forget for a second the very confusing college-application lingo, first you have to know if you can even afford it. The pressure of not knowing whether it will be possible to send your kids to college (or put yourself through college) is only part of a reality we live in today’s America where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a good job, and even harder without a college education, an education that while beautiful and necessary is not free.

So with that in mind, let’s check out some important numbers and see how it all ties in with this higher education I talk about.

College Tuition- Since the 1970s, college tuition has been increasing steadily over the years to an unimaginable 1120% (yikes!), and even without inflation we are paying more for higher education now than we have in the past 40 years, or ever actually.

Student debt- American students have an outstanding $1.2 trillion dollars (that’s 1,200,000,000,000) in student loan debt which is significantly more than American credit-card debt which stands at a little under $700 billion. To put it into context, our national GDP is $17 trillion, which means that student debt is roughly 7% of that. Insane!

Number of Americans with college debt- 40 million. For comparison that is roughly the entire population of Argentina.

Average debt per student- Today college graduates are entering the job market with an average of $26,000 in debt.

Interest rate for college loans It floats between 3% and 6% depending on the type of loan you get.

National median income- As of February of this year the median income was roughly $41,000.

Now comes the hard part trying to make sense of it all.

We all pretty much know the ritual. Students go to college, they get jobs, get married, have kids, and they pay for kids’ college. Well, that’s not happening so much anymore. Less parents are now paying for their kids’ education, which means that now more than ever American students are financing their own educations. This is just a side-effect to the increasing college tuition. But it is also due to other causes one of which is the disparity between what parents make and what college tuition amounts to.

According to a report by the Washington Post from March, adjusted for inflation take-home pay only increased by a measly 0.1% in 2014 for middle-class people, and although the unemployment rate is at a little under 6%- the lowest it’s been since the middle of 2008- and 2.6% for college graduates, job outsourcing to other countries has left the middle-class worker with little or no leverage to negotiate higher wages. This leaves college students in a bind. They can either choose to pay for college themselves, take out a bank loan, try their luck with financial aid, or, if they’re not agile enough to get a scholarship, opt out of college altogether. But wait there’s more bad news.

As of last year, interest rates rose again for college students, mind you it’s not an outrageous amount, but it’s not a negligible amount either. I’m sure that there are a thousand fiscal details to work out that have endless ramifications, but the fact of the matter is that middle-class parents cannot afford inflating college costs, especially when interest rates on college loans usually float around between 3% and 6%. And I’m not even including bank loans, credit cards, or any other alternative means of paying for college, simply what the federal government loans out.

Now this is where you might get a little pissed off, the Federal Discount Rate, which is the interest rate at which the Fed loans money out to banks is .75%. True, this is only for very short-term loans, but even regular loans to huge multi-billion dollar banks are disproportionate to what the regular American student borrows. In other words if the regular American student were a corporate bank (with the current interest rate on college loans), it would’ve either dissolved a long time ago, collapsing under its own debt, or it would’ve gone overseas for a better deal. The reason for that is that a bank would never agree to such high borrowing rate as American students now graduate with. The fact is that the interest rate for students is disproportionate to what they and their parents make, and still a heck of a lot more than what the government loans out to banks. And while the whole comparison between students and banks is an apples-and-oranges scenario, it’s actually more of a gala-apples-and-golden-apples situation.

So it seems that pay-raise is not proportionate to the inflating college bubble, so just as we feared, there is no sustainability between what middle-class people make and the college debt accrued by those same people. And if I told you what investor and shareholder pay, corporate assets, and golden parachutes is, you might just go into a passive-aggressive fit of rage and throw your puppy out the window.

Ironically, for a lot of these students- younger and older- the problem is not acquiring the money they need to start their careers (although that is a problem too), rather the problem is actually getting it. And in a cruel twist of fate what many of these students end up in a “beware what you wish for” situation as soon as the first loan clears. And since a college loan is the only financial instrument that allows you to borrow more and more while your interest balloons up, it makes it a very dangerous tool to resort to.

Obviously the details are varied and extensive but this is pretty much a summary of what’s going on.But that’s still leaves us wondering why college tuition keeps going up despite a slow economic growth.

This is a difficult question to answer since it depends on more than one factor including: rising costs for room and board, slower graduation rates [1], budgetary limitations (whatever that means), skyrocketing costs for research institutions (which actually makes sense), government subsidies for grants and loans, and even the rate at which universities recruit can have an impact on these rising costs. There’s no way I can list all the reasons and the figures for each point, but this comprehensive article by the Washington Post from 2013 lists more exact figures for why tuition has been increasing, especially in smaller colleges and universities around the country.

What this all means is that it costs the state and the students more money and energy to pay tuition and to pay off that debt than to actually use the skills they went to school for in the first place. It’s a psychologically discouraging thing to graduate from college with upwards of $50,000 in debt without being ever comfortable in a job that you love, only to work in a job that you need. That is a debt that most likely will take someone the rest of their lives to pay. The true American dream is to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt after you start working, not before.

Some students and alumni are worse off and some are better off, but the harsh reality is that for of those who do owe, most of their financial decisions for the next few years to come (hopefully just a few) will be based around that debt.

 

Where Does It Go?

 

So where does the money go? Let me ask a simpler question, do you sit back with a beer and relax to watch college chemistry competitions; or college advanced math lectures? Unless you’re Ross from Friends, then I’m guessing the answer is no. College football, that’s the thing you watch.

Turns out that in some universities- those whose intercollegiate athletics programs are not self-supporting- a large chunk of what students pay goes to athletics programs that many of those students will never even attend. This also includes the salary for coaches and their assistants which is an obsene amount of money (in the millions) compared to what a regular college professor makes- less than 200K for the most experienced, much less for the majority. According to research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, not only is the cost for these athletic programs increasing- which of course has an impact in rising tuition costs- but also almost 20% of Ohio University students wish there was less funding for these programs.[2] I can’t speak for any other colleges, but I’ll leave it to your discretion to assume what other sutdents around the country think about their own athletics programs.

In no way am I suggesting that we scrap athletics programs, but it seems that colleges are more known for how well their football teams and their glorified players performed than for how academically competent they are. Now it would make a big difference if the money the games brought in were evenly distributed across the board (meaning to cover other university costs other than the athletic departments) or even to compensate the players OR their families, but I am pretty sure that’s not the way it is.

Fortunately, most of the money a university receives from tuition, grants, government and private entities, and other sources, is efficiently utilized to pay mainly for instruction and research, and also for other services that the university provides. And a big part of that money goes towards financial aid which is mainly aimed at working-class students in an effort to get them in school.

But the less that states spend on college-level education, the more that public and private universities will need to make up the shortfall by increasing tuition and making cuts in how much it is spent per student. It’s simple economics and as much as I hate to admit it, colleges and universities are a business (even if educaiton isn’t), and as such it also governed by the same laws of economics as any other business.

 

Noble vs. Practical

 

Today everyone and their grandmothers know that going to college is part of an evolving society and by-and-large a great asset to possess if you want to make it in the real world comfortably. While in college you’ll form a relationship with blah, blah, blah.

The truth is that while there are many reasons why people go to college, they all boil down to two main ones: the noble, either because they find some discipline or art truly intriguing and they want to learn everything about it; or the practical, because they want to make money. These two people are not too different from one another, because they both know that whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, having an accredited higher education stamped on a diploma opens a lot of doors in the real world that are becoming increasingly hard to open without it.

This is a mantra that has been drilled for generations into the minds of children. Not a bad one to have drilled actually, but we’ll get to that. The point is that when people finally realize that everything we have now, from the laptop sitting on their desks to the crowns on their teeth, are the product of an incredible amount of study, perhaps a college education is not a bad thing to back you up.

But this constant reminder, like an alarm clock going off at all hours of the day, that they need to go to college right after high school, that they need to graduate and that they need to start making money right away becomes a tedious affair, one that undoubtedly bores some people. They get it from every angle, their parents, their teachers, their employers, even from banks themselves. Again, not a bad piece of wisdom to be given, but for what purpose?d

The message is clear: make money before you die!

It might sound a bit cynical to say something like that, but it’s a truth crudely reflected in numbers. In a survey taken in 2012 by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, found that 87.9% of first year college students go to college to “get a better job.” [3] This pretty much translates to “because I want more money.”

That answer comes to no surprise to anyone since we are still recovering from a very nasty recession and the housing-bubble burst. And even though that survey was taken three years ago, an article by the Washington Post included data from a more recent survey by the same collaboration that echoes the data from 2012. So basically, yes, most people go to college to make money. Can you blame them?

From the 2014 survey, the second most important reason why people go to college is “to learn things that interest me” at 82.2% as opposed to 86.1% for “…a better job.”

What does this mean for college students?

In the first part of this blog-post I mentioned that schools should do away with unnecessary subjects or at least increase school-time in subjects that will be productive and necessary, like technology and the sciences. But I also mentioned that it is our responsibility to make them think and wonder, and not merely become slaves to themselves.

In this second part, it may seem as if I’m changing my views, but I’m not. The point is quite pragmatic in itself: those skills acquired in more elementary education is partly to prepare them for the college life and/or a life that is more technologically centered. I’m not suggesting we get rid of the sciences, or art, or sports, but rather that while elementary education is important in awakening the mind, college education is supposed to refine it, shape it, and prepare it to send it out productively into the world. It’s not really a change of mind, merely just an evolution of ideas.

There’ no doubt in my mind that there are lawyers who simply love law, or doctors who are passionate about human anatomy, or architects who are drawn to numbers and design, otherwise how could they live with themselves for all their lives doing something they hate just to make money? However there are those who view college as a business decision rather than an intellectual one. Which brings me to my next point.

You know how most children when asked what they want to be when they grow up choose the most selfless, most noble careers, e.g. firefighters, cops, doctors; but when they do grow up the smartest ones end up being stockbrokers and politicians? Well there’s a reason why that happens.

Every single day we read in the news words like “golden parachute”, “billion-dollar deals,” “Fortune 500 company,” and if you’re like me, you think to yourself, “man, I’m in the wrong business.”

The fact is that the rest of the arts and sciences are being out-competed by the money and the behavior that making money is more important than anything else is being reinforced in practically every aspect of American life. Fortunately, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sciences are on the rise, but we need to build more of that momentum and reward those who make our lives easier (scientists) instead of those who merely make life easier for themselves. That’s where college culture comes into play.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best when he remarked:

 

I’m not here to convince you that money doesn’t get you happiness, believe me it does. However, I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to sacrifice something that you really like for something that makes you money. So in choosing a career, it is better to choose something that satisfies your curiosity, and a career that you’re drawn to (or a variation of it that will get you a bit more money), rather than something you hate that will leave you more money.

Case in point, when I was younger my grandfather knew the benefits of going to college and he urged me to choose a career in medicine or law. I have nothing against doctors or lawyers, but I immediately hated the idea of becoming either one, and I knew that if I ever succeeded at it, it would not only be half-assed, but I would be risking more than my own life in the process. I am now 27 and I finally have an idea of what I want to do with my life, and not one second goes by that I regret that decision. I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I do, and I know that I would have been miserable otherwise.

Life is about happiness, your happiness. Not anyone else’s. And it’s not a race, nobody wins at life, in fact the only way to win is to be the happiest that you can be without hurting anyone else or the world around you.

The issue with student debt has been an efficient political tool for both parties in “the Hill” for quite some time now, and a hot-button issue in Main Street; many even point out that student debt not only affects things here at home, but abroad as well. In this competitive world where countries like Russia, India, and China are fast risers in the global economic food-chain, it is more important than ever for America to invest in the best resource and asset it has to outcompete these nations and become once again a leading nation in education, technology, etc: an army of high-skilled and educated people. But is it possible- or have we lagged too far behind?

Today we discuss the education business in America and the next generation waiting to take the torch.

 

A Solution?

 

Often we read cases about graduates living frugally or doing economically-savvy things to pay off their loan so, and we rejoice when we hear one or two people did extraordinary things and got rid of their debt in a few short years. Honestly, yay for those people. But personally, I find it depressing that we have come to glorify the exceptions to the rule, as if it were a heroic thing to live on instant soup so for years on end just to not live with that debt until the day they die. That’s not how the American dream was sold to our generation. Debt wasn’t supposed to happen until later on in life.

The issue that we have is that with college debt, it’s not only the students and parents are paying the bill, but also you, the taxpayer. And it’s an expensive bill.

President Obama’s loan forgiveness program which he passed in 2013 aims at giving college graduates the opportunity to pay only 10% of what they earn towards their premiums for a period of 10 years, after which time their college debt will have been forgiven. But what happens to the rest of that money? Put simply, we pay for it, college graduate or not, we’re all paying for all 1.3 trillion dollars of student debt. As Jeffrey Dorfman of Forbes appropriately writes in this article, “If government wants to subsidize college education it could simply directly subsidize it rather than making loans that are designed to be forgiven.”

He’s completely right. Why do we keep beating around the bush when it comes to college tuition and loans that hurt financially not just the students and their parents, but also universities, financial institutions, and ultimately the government by loaning money we don’t have to people we know will have a hard time paying? A direct subsidy will save us billions in the long run.

But President Obama has his eye on two fronts, this one and also in his plan to make all two-year community colleges completely free to all students who wish to go- rich and poor. The move is not exactly a novel idea as it has already been implemented in Chicago and Tennessee for high school graduates. But his plan, formulated to cover all students regardless of previous education, is intended to be available across the nation.

By making it possible for students to go to college for free, at least for the first two years, the government would be giving those students a break to save up for their continuing education or to make it easier for them to obtain one, once already in college, basically providing a foothold.

But the program intends to do much more than that. By making it easier for all students to start college, its intent rests also in more socioeconomic integration by raising the number of minorities, and economically disadvantaged students and mixing them with students of higher means. The psychology behind it is very promising as it will undoubtedly boost campus and individual morale, something which can have a good effect in the future of those communities.

But what does that matter?

According to a report by Christina Ciocca and Thomas A. DiPrette of Columbia University- using various statistics and surveys- they found that minorities and economically disadvantaged students are at a higher risk of dropping out of public universities and two-year colleges than white students and middle-class students by several percentage points. Following is an excerpt of their findings:

“The National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder and Dillow 2012: Table 379) reports that while 63 percent of white first-time beginners in four-year institutions receive bachelor’s degrees six years after college entry, only 41 percent of Black students achieve the same. Gaps also exist at the two-year level, with 17 percent of white students and 11 percent of Black students receiving associate’s degrees, and 13 and 5 percent of each group transferring to four-year schools and achieving a bachelor’s degree, respectively.” [4]

The report (which I recommend you read) is very interesting and lists possible reasons as to why that happens not just for black students for also for other minorities.

So it makes sense that anything that can be done to help those drop-out rates, should be in place already. This idea (modeled after a Republican plan) has already been met with skepticism from liberals and conservatives alike, both demanding to know just how exactly are we going to pay for the $60 billion that it will cost over a decade. But fret not, my friends, there’s already a plan in motion for that as well. The government will pay for three quarters of the cost while the states chip in with the rest, obviously the tax-payer will get some of that bill.

But why the hell should we get to pay for college even if we’re not attending? Well, why pay taxes at all unless it’s for my own benefit? That’s basically what you’re saying. And since we’re on that question, why don’t you ask the same about elementary and secondary education, it is basically the same argument.

There is something fundamentally flawed about the education system in America. In my personal opinion, it has been commercialized and treated too much like a business rather than a necessity. Obviously we cannot dismiss certain businesslike aspects of it, especially when it comes to big research universities that depend on grants and also tuition money to continue important research. But if we’re admitting things, then we also have to admit that at its most basic level, higher education in the U.S. is becoming much too expensive to afford, and almost not worth the job that most students will get upon graduating- if they’re lucky enough to get one.

And although admirable, even Ivy League schools like Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale- which provide free education for students and families making less than a certain amount ($125K/yr, $120k/yr, $65k/yr, and $65-$150k/yr respectively) [5]– are the exception, not the rule.

Which brings me to my next question. What, if anything, could take from our European neighbors?

 

Brain-Drain

 

You might have heard that in other industrialized nations, higher education is incredibly more accessible than in the U.S. and in many cases entirely subsidized by the government- I use “subsidized” to not use free, because as it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. These are the countries we’ll use as a model of what an outdated system should turn into and I will try- in my limited knowledge- to explain how they do it (although it’s obvious enough).

Nordic countries, as well as some historically socialist Western European nations, have taken up the noble course of lowering college tuition to- wait for it- NOTHING. I can already feel the seething anger at the mention of “socialist”. But if you can get over it for a second, I will have you know that the word “socialist” here is not strictly implying a socialist political system- at least not in the way that those European nations conduct business. What I mean by socialist rather is the implementation of social programs for the benefit of a society modeled after a socialist framework. This means that the government controls these programs and not private entities.

If you, as a red-white-and-blue blooded American, staunch opponent of Big Brother politics and faithful defender of all things free, believe that America hasn’t been touched by the evil wand of socialism (the political system now) then I’m sorry to tell you that you have not only been fooled, but you have been the recipient of this socialism.

Long story short, these socialist programs created and enforced by the government have in fact made America a better country for it. Among these that have benefited all citizens of this great nation are: emergency services, postal service, transportation, the military, some forms of health care, even ones that you wouldn’t expect like sewer systems and trash collection. And education. All of these programs and many more have been introduced to the American public administration after administration, sometimes with opposition. Can you imagine any of these in the hands of private companies? It’d be disaster. Even without the hand of privately owned enterprise, education in the United States is costing trillions of dollars and not getting much better. Surely some European countries are doing something right if they beat us in: record numbers of college graduates, higher test scores, more productivity, etc.

So where in the world is college education cheaper than in the U.S.? Trick question: everywhere!

Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, and France are among very few European countries that offer free or low-tuition college education, all in their respective populations’ dime. For the first three countries mentioned, foreign students are also welcome to enjoy the same educational benefits as their own citizens- higher education free of charge! In the case of Sweden that law has been rescinded to ban foreign students to study there completely tuition-free; but nevertheless the country has allowed many organizations to help cover the tuition of non-EU students, or other students who wish to study there, which still makes higher education in Sweden an inexpensive option.

But what about the rest of the world?

While many universities around the globe might not offer cheap or free tuition to foreign students, they do still offer those same privileges (incentives rather) to their own students. Some of the countries with the cheapest college education include: Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Brazil.

While these are just some of the countries with low-cost college education, they are by no means the only ones. This site has an interesting composite of information about the aforementioned nations on college costs, as well as other ones around the globe that also offer low-cost higher education. It’s important to note that for some of these countries (as in the case of my native Mexico) low-cost education is only available for state universities and colleges, while private universities will be more expensive.

But where do we rank in terms of higher education in comparison to other countries?

Well, we’re drawing from a different bag there.

According to this independent research judged by top academics from all over the planet, eight of the top ten universities in the world are in the U.S. of A. In fact, the website offers information on the rankings of more than 300 academic institutions and more in-depth information about them.

So being that American universities hold the top positions for education among the most respected in the world, why is it so difficult for Americans to obtain a college education… in America?

While this question is significant, I believe the better question to ask is: why do some of these other countries allow others to come and study- sometimes for free- only to leave, taking the skills they obtained to another country?

Perhaps they believe in the real value of higher education, or maybe they understand that not everyone can afford to go to college. Maybe it just makes good economic sense to allow students to take advantage of a good thing and offer them the opportunity to stay in their country and exploit those newly acquired skills there. It’s not only ethical, it’s practical. Not to mention that making education free makes good political sense.

Let’s form a comparison. In Germany, the state pays for college education for everyone who wants it, even for foreign students. Parents and students do not need to worry about tuition debts and high interest rates that will slow down their education and therefore increase drop-out rates. The snowball effect of leaving college in the middle of a degree is detrimental in large numbers. Therefore, by using pure mathematical logic, we can see that the cost of sending a whole generation of students to acquire high-level skills is minimal compared to the debt accrued if they don’t pay. The latter is essentially betting on the failure of students. And a debt that governments and financial institutions will be forever trying to collect.

On the other hand, if the education budget can be restructured properly, the gain from creating generations of high-skilled workers is nothing compared to the subsidizing of education in large scales.

We could bring up monopolistic sentiments about why the American education system is fairly inadequate in comparison to the mysticism that the United States has in the world: a powerful country unrivaled in mostly everything. But the simplest answer is usually the right one- our politicians simply prioritize other things over education.

 

Alternative Education

 

In this day and age there are still plenty of people- even here in America- who still don’t have access to education in their own countries and communities. For that reason, charitable organizations and public and private universities, who believe in the power of education have decided to get together and collaborate on massive projects that aim to change just that.

MOOCs- or Massive Open Online Courses- are exactly that, online courses available to anyone with a computer and internet connection in virtually any part of the world, and completely free or of very low cost to those who wish to take them.  These courses, or rather crash-courses, vary in length and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and some can even last for months at a time, like a regular college class would. They are taught in many languages and you can find just about any subject you want, anything from cooking, to advanced trig, to film critique, to computer programming. Not only are these courses taught by accredited professors from some of the best universities in the world, but they also follow the rigorous online-college course model.

Most universities though do not certify credits accrued from MOOCs however, although there are some that do. But at least those interested in learning something new or in using MOOC services as aid to their actual schoolwork can have the opportunity to do so free and with virtually no restrictions.

MOOCs and other alternative forms of education are a great way to get started on a path for higher education. I, myself, have taken several MOOC courses and am a very big fan of them and I recommend them. So if you’re interested, here‘s a list of several MOOC providers that are for-profit and non-profit. Honestly, I have only used Coursera, but I can tell you that all the courses I’ve ever taken have been free. So feel free to sign up for something interesting to get your mind tickling.

 

Graduation

 

To conclude this, let me tell you that although I believe in the immense power of education, college is not for everyone. Don’t mistake that for “education is not for everyone”, because that would ring false and counter to my beliefs, not to mention detrimental to our society. But employers, teachers, parents, and most of all you, need to understand that true education, true knowledge can only be the product of true curiosity, unhindered by rules and social norms, by restrictions and roadblocks. Forced desire to learn will always yield negative, or at least lukewarm, results. We have to encourage our kids and ourselves to learn, but we also have to provide them with the means to do so.

In the first part of this blog I wrote that America is waging a war against our youth, against education. Let me tell you that it is a false war, an illusion of sorts. Because education transcends all barriers and ideologies, it is one of the few non-partisan issues that we can all make better. But only if we really want to. It is of no consequence what political party you belong to, or nationality, or religion (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic bracket you’re part of- I think we can all appreciate the huge benefits that a well-educated, well-informed generation can bring. And we can make it happen if we work together to make it so.

 

“There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it’s just one, and it’s education.” -Malala Yousafzai

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin

“He who opens a school door closes a prison.” -Victor Hugo

“The highest result of education is tolerance.” -Helen Keller

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Citations

[1] http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/6-reasons-college-costs-are-soaring-3.aspx

[2] http://www.centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Funding_the_Arms_Race.pdf

[3] http://heri.ucla.edu/briefs/TheAmericanFreshman2012-Brief.pdf

[4] http://paa2015.princeton.edu/uploads/152299

[5] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/04/02/3642085/stanford-free-tuition/

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Interesting Reads

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/college-tuition-is-getting-more-expensive-heres-whos-actually-to-blame/

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/corinthian-college-graduates-protest-student-loans-175051741.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/04/fed-data-show-college-isnt-a-good-investment-for-all/

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-13/college-tuition-in-the-u-s-again-rises-faster-than-inflation

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/08/26/how-much-student-loan-debt-is-too-much-2/

http://useconomy.about.com/od/monetarypolicy/a/fed_funds_rate.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/keithweiner/2014/12/22/can-the-fed-raise-interest-rates-2/2/

http://consumerist.com/2015/03/19/legislators-once-again-introduce-bill-that-would-allow-student-loan-refinancing/

http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2015/03/25/take-4-steps-to-understand-student-loan-interest-rates

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-salaries-dont-rise/2015/03/11/38c08cea-c81d-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-12/world-ranking

Government Expenditures

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa/us_deficit/us_deficit.html

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Pew Data

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/10/07/the-changing-profile-of-student-borrowers/st-2014-10-07-student-debtors-03/

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Old Hot Tensions or New Cold War: How World War 3 With Russia Will (Probably) Never Happen

Every now and then my dad and I engage in lively, and sometimes fierce, debate regarding the state of affairs in the world. We discuss our ideas and points of view as if by talking about it we could somehow dissolve the animosity that seems to be so commonplace nowadays. My father not only very knowledgeable but also one of the most interesting people I know, makes those little conversations quite fun and challenging. Most often than not we agree on many things, but every now and then there are inevitable crossroads where neither will make it easy for the other to get his point across. Just as he does, I too try to inform myself about what’s happening in the world when it comes to politics and things of that nature and just like him I am happy to learn new things that I didn’t know before. Some of these talks will stretch on for hours and even continue on in other phone conversations and unfortunately sometimes we will not concede to each other’s points no matter what the other person says. But when we do, we both agree that the other had the better argument.

One of those highly polarizing subjects that we often touch on is U.S.-Russia relations where I will usually side with the U.S. in mostly every aspect and where he always sides with Russia. It comes as no surprise to either one when during the natural course of a phone call the subject will “casually” come up with one or the other asking, “Hey, did you hear about what’s going on in ____?” And that’s when we both know it’s game on.

While the conversations might seem redundant at times, the news (and the growing divide between countries) will always provide new material for us to toss back and forth. My father’s view is usually that America’s “imperialism” and meddling is growing out of control and will eventually start a war that we will not be able to contain- among other things. In calm contrast, mine is that while the U.S. has committed barbaric acts of violence and does meddle in world affairs to a degree, that in many cases Russia is no better, at in most cases is worse. I typically refrain from using the phrase “the better of two evils” because I have such a loathing for it, but I wouldn’t be completely wrong in saying it.

During our exchanges we will both accuse each other of blind allegiance and of only considering information from biased sources; as if a third party was completely impartial and objective- something which is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Among the other charges, he will usually accuse me of either blowing up the subject out of proportion and I of him undermining it, or vice-versa. He will usually say that China and Korea are still Russia’s allies and that in the inevitable war that is to come they will side with the Russians. I, on the other hand, will usually concede the point that while China is still Russia’s biggest ally, before a war breaks out they will do everything earthly possible to avoid one. But our biggest disagreement lies in the assumption that a war between the U.S. and Russia (which is starting to look more and more like the old Soviet state it once was) is not only near but inevitable.

While these debates are lighthearted and many “facts” will be tossed around in the heat of the moment, at times I am left thinking of the very real possibility that it might actually happen. I analyze as many factual things as my limited knowledge permits me and I come to conclusions. Of course I am not 100% sure of my prognosis, and should a war ever break out between the U.S. and Russia, I’ll be the first to apologize provided I’m not ash by that time- not that it would matter any.

But while a war with Russia seems unlikely, it’s worth going into detail about why that is. And more importantly, why the peculiar behavior from Russia’s side if they don’t intend to start a war with the West. China, which would also be a serious contender in a war and a country that has been racking up its military over these past several decades, is even less likely to enter into a war with the U.S., although tensions still run high in that front too. This is not to say that a third world war still couldn’t happen. But I believe our priorities need to match our reality. Before the conflict in Ukraine, there was a considerably higher possibility to enter into a direct armed conflict with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia than there was with Russia. Things change quickly, I know, and although none of these countries possess anywhere near the military power that China and Russia have, some of them do enjoy their support which complicates things a bit. However, I have come up with five reasons of why I believe that a direct war with Russia is nothing more than a dangerous dick-measuring contest between two countries with a historical tendency to fuck with each other.

 

1. The Semblance of Democracy

 

I heard somewhere that even the semblance of democracy is important because that means that a country is ready to embrace it, even if it’s in its most basic form. I really wish I could remember where I heard or read that particular quote because I’m sure the person who said it probably had something else interesting to say, so again I apologize. But it is true that the semblance of democracy is the first step towards a stable community run by the desires of those governed and not who govern.

In the most recent survey by Transparency.org, an organization which measures the index of transparency in countries around the world reported that Russia currently occupies number 136 out of 175 countries in the index of corruption. That’s really bad considering that only 175 countries were surveyed. The United States comes in at 17, Germany at number 12, France at 26, with Ukraine being the most corrupt country in Europe with a rating of 142.  At this, there is still a fundamental disparity between the styles of government between the West and the East, something that no doubt causes waves in geopolitics. It almost seems as if shifting from the reigns of a Communist vanguard, Putin has found in a democratic Russia the room he needed to implement his desired policies with little or no opposition. Whether his aim is to defy the west and reposition Russia to a top place in world politics or to completely turn back to Soviet-style politics is speculation, but there is no doubt that his defiance put us at a very uncomfortable position, that of knowing what we’ve always known, that we’re not the only players around.

I could go into detail about Putin’s puppet government, but in this section we’re just trying to see why even the semblance of democracy in an obviously not-so-democratic nation can help thwart a war between the East and the West.

It makes you wonder what would happen if Putin blatantly announced that Russia would be going back to Communism. Surely a lot of partnerships would collapse, economically, militarily, politically, and even its closest-trading partners in that side of the world would start to get nervous at the prospect, China for one. Having that kind regressive sentiment still carries a lot of stigma. The question then is not how many partners is Russia willing to lose to go head-to-head with the West in a war, but rather who of the partners it’s loosing. There’s no doubt that Putin would be applauded by leftist nations all over the world. The man is already popular with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, but now he’s also warming up to other South American nations that have historically or currently politically have gripes with the United States. Could these nations, plus some Asian and African nations, garner enough support for another Cold War siding with Russia? There is no coincidence here, most of these nations, including some factions in Mexico that were quickly disbanded due to Mexico’s proximity to the U.S., were openly Marxist Socialist or otherwise Communist and sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But could we go as far as saying that a new Cold War would begin? This is an interesting but fearful answer to contemplate.

My honest answer is I don’t know, but I also believe that it would be highly unlikely seeing how the prosperity of this country, and this one and this other one, not to mention Russia’s economy– countries where the Soviet Union had a strong grip- has dramatically improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is highly unlikely that any of those now-sovereign independent states, many of which now enjoy the protection of NATO, would ever support a regression. Let’s go so far as to say that only Russia becomes openly Communist again without invading countries or meddling in the affairs of other nations, it’s possible even its closest allies like China- which whom Russia enjoys a privileged position- would be wary of doing business with them due to the complexity of Communism in politics in today’s world.

This is good for the rest of the world, because even if Russia doesn’t truly belong in the circles that the West has created for itself, it belongs to that trading partnership and is welcome to receive its benefits. A war with Russia will never start as long as it enjoys the strong concessions provided by democracy, or by Brittish-American-style Capitalism. Does that mean that trying to improve its influential position, especially in the case of Ukraine, will not lead it to start a war? No, it doesn’t mean that, but again, Soviet-style imperialism is hard to hide nowadays.

 

2. Economics: China’s Growing Influence

 

Today, Russia and China enjoy a cozy relationship that was almost non-existent in the last years of Communism in Russia during the Sino-Soviet split. However, it seems that through calculated partnerships and strategic alliances, China’s sphere of influence has spread to cover now much of Asia and even the Latin American world as well. Here in the United States the insatiable craze for  Chinese trade that we have- which is also starting to wear thin- has allowed our country as well as theirs to prosper through mutual agreements and indeed also disagreements.

At the beginning of last century and during the start of the Cold War, Russian-style Communism was the perfect blend of social, political and economic elements to create the perfect alternative to the capitalistic democracy of the United States and similar sociopolitical systems of Europe. But as the years and leaders came and went and that romantic spirit of revolution waned, an almost antagonistic sentiment began to settle not just within the Politburo but also in the population of the Soviet Union itself. It was then that China took the torch and became the new model to follow. Chairman Mao Zedong and his “Cultural Revolution“, which was a brutal revival of the Chinese revolutionary sentiment that rebranded Communism and begun a new era of industrialism in the Eastern world. China quickly changed from being just a satellite state for the Soviet Union to becoming a top player in its own right.

Of course we know now that China is not the Communist nation that a young- or even an old- Mao aspired to build, but that in essence it is sort of like a hermit crab, a Capitalist hermit crab wearing a Communist shell. During the massive economic expansion that China went through in the 70s and 80s by opening up more to the West (something that Russia missed out on for obvious reasons), the Chinese grew their economy exponentially by more than 20% in some cases, quickly turning the country into a military and economic power.

USA and China.

Obvious disparities between the U.S. and China still exist, many based on culture differences, historical events, current alliances, economic models and, indeed, show of force; but overall, the business partnership that has allowed China to quickly become the second largest economy in the world after the U.S. while keeping the stability of the region fairly calm, has allowed both countries (China and us) to assert a major influence in that side of the world. This complex business partnership that begun some decades ago allowed a somewhat disenfranchised Asia to gravitate more towards China’s sphere of influence rather than Russia’s. And while the Western world seemed, for the most part, united against Eastern Communism, the East began to appear fractured as many Communist factions started to implement their own versions of the socio-economic and political system. In a word, China became somewhat of a good friend to the U.S., which was of course what the United States wanted and needed.

By the 1980s it was becoming more and more apparent that the partnership between China and the West would give the U.S. an important foothold in the East. Today, although tensions grow and diminish in Asia, China is still a good mediator between Western powers and hostile states such as North Korea and at times even between Russia and the United States. Even though the American dollar still dominates world markets, something that China’s powerful economy is working hard to change, with trillions of dollars at stake, it seems both countries would rather trade money than bullets. It’s also important to note that the massive purchase of American debt by China binds them in a strange way to us- if we can only hope they don’t ask for all their money all at once. There are problems that arise from this sort of mildly dangerous trade, one of those being that China might see the rift between U.S.-Russia relations as an opportunity for economic supremacy in a vie of military conquest towards eradicating the West. This is a real possibility, but until now it hasn’t had significant gravity to warrant hostile action on our part.

But to be honest, it is hard to imagine which side China would take if a war between the U.S. and Russia were to break out, after all China has been Russia’s trading partner for much longer than it has been America’s and what’s more, they share a border. We should also consider the recent developments in geopolitical events mainly the island disputes between China and Japan, of which the U.S. is a staunch ally. But I believe that if tensions start becoming unmanageable, China will use every resource available to resolve whatever differences diplomatically rather than militarily.

 

3. Isolationism

 

Think of the world as it is today. With the invention, or rather commercialization, of the internet, the world is now more connected than it has ever been before. I wouldn’t be surprised if a study produced results pointing out that the world is a little bit more peaceful, in part, to this collective thing that humanity has invented for itself. Today the power to speak to any human being on the planet (or even outside of it) in real time can be handled by any six year old with a mobile device and connection to the internet. The planet is quickly and willingly becoming more connected in mostly every aspect and the old policies of self-isolationism can no longer protect countries from the influence of the outside world. Take for example self-isolated countries such as Cuba and North Korea. These countries probably have the natural resources to survive independently of any other nation, unfortunately for them they only posses these resources and none other. In times of distress they can only depend on their own ingenuity to resolve their own problems and when those natural resources they depend on diminish, they have no outside help.

This wouldn’t be so bad of course if the leadership guiding these nations was disinterested in power and wealth. Unfortunately that’s not the case and as a result, their populations suffer immensely, in most cases lacking even basic human resources. It’s evident then that in this modern age we live in, isolationism for any country, whether self-imposed or as punishment by the conglomerate of nations that surround it (speaking in a political context), is in effect the kiss of death. In fact, no country in the world can now survive without the help of another. At this moment, Cuba is aided by many nations around the world and with the policy change under President Obama, the old embargo is expected to be fully lifted and a new partnership will begin between Cuba and the United States. But even North Korea, also known as the “Hermit Kingdom” for its aggressive self-imposed isolation, enjoys a military and economic alliance from one of its biggest sponsors- China.

Berlin Wall Credit: "Berlinermauer" by Noir at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Berlinermauer.jpg

Berlin Wall
Credit: “Berlinermauer” by Noir at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Berlinermauer.jpg

During the years of the Cold War when no trade agreements were allowed between Western countries (mostly Capitalist) and Eastern countries (mostly Communist), even isolated Russia traded with its satellite states and other neutral countries. There are many here in the United States that call for the self-isolation of our country and to stop meddling in other nations’ affairs. While I partially agree with the second part, I don’t think the first is a realistic goal at all.

According to our Republican politicians, and Conservatives throughout, Putin has made all the right moves in this political chess game being played at the global level. But as near-history has proven, Obama’s bloodless policy has not only worked better than military action, but it has repaired the somewhat damaged relationship between the U.S. and Germany over allegations that the N.S.A. had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. This is a very good thing since Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are some of our closer allies in that side of the world, and the people who are willing to stick our their necks so close to the Middle East and to Russia for us.

This strengthening relationship with the Europeans means that we are united against Putin’s shenanigans where it pertains to Ukraine and Georgia. It almost seems like deja vu what’s happening in Ukraine after the events of 2008 when Russia invaded another sovereign country in its backyard, Georgia. But the NATO alliance of which the U.S. and several European countries are members of, will not allow another invasion to go unresolved. But rather than fighting the Russians with conventional wars in their own turf (of which even a united Europe is incapable of doing), instead they turn to economics as way of fighting the Russians.

Last year, the meeting of the G7, formerly the G8, rejected to be held in Russia as a protest for the blatant act of invasion on Ukraine. And just a month ago Angela Merkel said with confidence that if Russia continues on this path with Ukraine, it will not be invited to the next G7 summit hosted by the German chancellor.  Take into account that the G8, now the G7, is not your typical college club. The G7 is a group of the seven most powerful nations in the world in terms of economy, military, and influence, and being shunned by the group can not only cost a country a lot of money, but also influence. When all G7 countries forcibly removed Russia from membership, that act sent a message that they will not tolerate one of their industrialized partners to behave like bullies.

With an already shrinking economy, the combination of sanctions imposed on Russia by Europe and the U.S. and the low price of oil will further drive down their economy, and with no way for foreign investors to take a stake in Russian goods, the Russians are quickly being isolated from the world stage. There’s only so much a country can do by itself. Even the very charitable IMF (International Monetary Fund) could not rescue Russian banks from the economic crisis of last year. These effects are being felt by the Russian people who, while at first supported the campaign in Crimea, now support instead a balance in Russian economics, and more importantly a drop in food prices.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has retreated into a capitalism-style economy that is self supporting. But this strategy is not free. There is already an ongoing effort that’s gaining momentum to curb Russia’s energy supplies on Eastern Europe. The natural gas demands are to be supplanted by American natural gas reserves as a counter-measure to Russia’s Gazprom, the company that supplies Ukraine at steep prices that the current government is unable to pay up front.

By reading this you might think that it is a dangerous thing to bully Russia into isolation, but an isolated Russia, although still powerful and influential, is less likely to start a war with the United States- and NATO for that matter- without first having the support of more powerful allies. Agreed, economics alone perhaps will not stop Russia from starting a war, but it certainly does help. Hopefully, Russia will choose to go the diplomatic route instead of going to blows with the world.

 

4. Global Terrorism

 

After the Cold War ended, conventional wars quickly become obsolete in light that there were very few worthy contenders to fight with. Even the American military campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan were little more than invasions. While one could make the case that these military campaigns were nothing more than an oil-grab or legitimate defensible invasions to depose a dictator, is up for individual debate. What we can be sure of is that global terrorism has changed the way the world conducts military operations, and the renewed involvement of intelligence services is reminiscent to the age of espionage during the Cold War.

Aided by one side or another (the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Russians, or the North Vietnamese to fight the Americans), these groups, some of which are now players in today’s conflicts, mainly in the Middle East, now wage a different type of war against the West; this is not a war of allegiances or for territory, it is a war of ideas- holy war. Jihad, or holy war, against the “West”- a term not indicative of a region of the globe but an umbrella word to cover all of the oppressors of the Middle East and basically anyone who is an infidel, or an enemy of Islam- is indiscriminate of anyone. Even Muslims fall prey to the brutal tactics now in full effect by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. And unlike the conventional enemies of before, up until a couple of years ago the enemy was invisible.

If we remember Russian imperialism during the Cold War, there is no way we can dismiss the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s. Could it be that the freedom fighters of yesterday (or the terrorists of today) realized that Soviet Russia was just America’s counterpart in the East? Perhaps. What we know for sure is that in this fight no one is safe, least of all civilians.

A few weeks ago, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, a pair of Japanese journalists were captured by the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL) and were executed after the group failed to collect a hefty ransom that in all probability they knew they wouldn’t get. Now, Japan is considering amending their constitution, which expressly forbids Japan from building an offensive military, to aid in the “war against terror.” In similar situations other civilians of different nationalities have also been captured by the terrorist group and executed violently.

It is, to a certain degree, understandable why IS would have a deep hatred for the U.S., but to vow the destruction of Japan is something that falls a bit off the realm of reason. Not only is Japan a peaceful nation, but it doesn’t even have an offensive military. This just comes to show that the irrationality of these terrorist factions, not just Islamic but all terrorist factions around the world, is causing the world to unite against them. The effectiveness of these groups is rooted in three things: one is that they are totally and completely devoted to their beliefs and they are incredibly organized to carry them out; the second reason of why they are effective at what they do is that they take advantage of the goodwill of democratic nations and their tolerance; and the third thing is that they take advantage of the disagreements between these nations.

Russia must be united in this goal to eradicate global terrorism so that conventional wars with serious adversaries can resume. I obviously joke in that last part. But what is true is that it is easier to divide and conquer than to conquer. Of this I am obviously speaking of the visible divide that exists between industrialized nations such as the U.S. and Russia which makes it easier for these other players to take advantage of the situation and benefit from it for their own purposes. A divided world is exactly what they want.

The political games played for the supremacy of the region could be an indication as to what sort of plans one country or another has for that region of the world. I speak of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the arming of Syria and the support to Iraq by Russia, the thousand alliances that are made and broken in the region and the million of details that go with them. Let’s not forget that although the Middle East is a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, it’s also a gold mine with  seemingly inexhaustible oil reserves that the world wants a part of. Again, nothing in this life is free. With that oil comes something even more polluting, a slew of complications that are born out of the interests of all these different groups vying for what little natural resources this tiny part of the world has.

These tensions arising from warnings between the two powers exacerbate the dire situation that we find ourselves in. Where Russia doesn’t belong, perhaps the U.S. doesn’t belong either. But in protecting the interests of the United States (I will not say “protecting democracy or the free peoples or the Middle East” or any other such nonsense), it is unlikely that the U.S. will leave the region alone anytime soon. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that just because U.S. boots are on the ground close to Russia that the Russians will just walk away. It’s not gonna happen. But is that enough to spark a war between the two countries? I am very skeptical that it will. Russia, like the United States, will protect its interests wherever it sees fit, interests that everyday are threatened more and more with the looming shadow of the Islamic State. If Russia vows to drive away these terrorists, you can be sure that its actions will also turn it into a target for ISIS, just like anyone else.

Although the situation that we find ourselves in is infinitely more complex than it was during the Cold War, I believe that through cooperation the enemy can be defeated. I do not forget that Russian authorities warned the F.B.I. about Tamerlan Tsarnaev (one of the Boston Marathon bombers) before he entered the U.S.- and the United States and its allies shouldn’t forget either. Admittedly, we dropped the ball on that one and civilians were murdered. But the cooperation was there.

If there’s anything that we should be thankful for now is that ISIS has grown to be big enough to spot. However, as big and mighty as the U.S. military is, if we want to deal effectively with global terrorism we will need all the help we can get. That’s a little hard to do when you are fighting wars all over with the people having the same problem as you. Not only must we appear united against terrorism but we must actually be united.

 

5. Common Sense: The Worst Is Over

 

Back in the 60s, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and Russia to the brink of destruction. The world watched nail-bitingly as President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev faced off in the highest tensions the world had seen since the Iron Curtain came down over Europe.

Before the United States unveiled humanity’s deadliest weapon by dropping it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus evaporating more than 200,000 people, the world was a bit more ballsy, going in and out of conflicts without much care for the people that fought them. But when the mushroom cloud rose high in the sky, it was obvious that this new weapon was a game changer in many ways. The Russians feared that the delicate balance of power had shifted dramatically and they worked arduously to produce an atom bomb of their own to counter the threat that they faced from the West.

By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis came around nearly 20 years after the invention of the atom bomb, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. were siting on a pile of about 20,000 nuclear and hydrogen bombs (an even more powerful weapon) and ICBMs*. [1] Although more than 18,000 of those were owned by the U.S., the other 2,000 that Soviet Russia owned was still a large enough stockpile to pulverize everything on the planet.

Fortunately for mankind none of those nukes were ever launched. It was then that humanity realized that the huge boulder hanging over their heads was held by nothing more than a thin thread with two men holding the scissors. During these early years of the Cold War, there was a very serious probability that by the end of the decade the world would be in ashes. Even after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the proliferation of nuclear weapons continued to massive levels peaking at 62,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the entire planet many times over.

The scary thing is that while the C.M.C. was probably the closest we ever came to annihilation, it was not the only close call. There are at least five others, not one but two of them involving serious computer malfunctions that nearly caused us to bomb the shit out of each other, situations only averted by the good reasoning of soldiers from both sides that no doubt did not wish their two countries go to war. This mutual sentiment of coexistence surely contributed to the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the beginning of cooperation between the two countries with programs like SALT, after a tired and scared world counted the days until one leader or the other decided to end countless lives and kill every living thing at the push of a button.

To many it might seem like an ironic and dark twist of fate that during the Cold War the world was probably due to the very delicate balance of power protected by nuclear deterrence from both sides. However, this illusion of balance was maintained solely through fear. The M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) protocol dictated as much, and both countries were well aware of the kind of mayhem that they would be causing should a real war between them would ever happen. Although proxy wars of more conventional fare were fought and many people did die, at the very least we can say that the world did not disappear in the blink of an eye.

Even before the end of the Cold War, both the Americans and the Soviets began making progress to reduce the amount of W.M.D.s each possessed and continued working together well after it. One of the strongest indications that peace between the two countries will remain, at least at the non-nuclear level, is that we’ve been through it before and both nations know of each other’s capabilities to wage a war with the capacity to destroy everything and everyone on the planet.

Today many protocols and organizations exist solely to avoid the doomsday clock from ever reaching midnight. For fear that the 20,000 nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia still have might spark a nuclear war that most likely will drag most other countries in, these organizations and even the leaderships of our countries, I believe will work to eliminate every option before going to blows with each other.

 

The Importance of ‘Probably’

 

Although the Ruso-Ukrainian situation is severely hindering any effort for Russia to regain its seat as part of the G8, and exacerbating a terrible situation that is starting to turn our worst nightmares into realities, I believe there is still hope that a war can be averted.

This past Sunday a ceasefire devised by Germany’s Merkel and France’s Hollande and agreed upon by Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Poroshenko began between the Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. Until now the truce has held sporadically, and some fighting still continues, some say at the behest of Putin who doesn’t seem to be all that serious about keeping the truce. Where the West is concerned, most of Ukraine would rather belong to the European union rather than form part of the Russian bloc that seems to be resurging. The Russians are well aware of this, but fearing that Ukraine will join NATO, Putin seems to be utterly prepared to hold the country at ransom to prevent that from ever happening. Crimea and now other parts of Ukraine under the control of the separatists are that leverage.

ukraine russia and europe

 

This all sounds very grave, but it seems that neither side is 100% ready to officially christen the follow-up to the first Cold War by starting a proxy war. If my dad were to tell me that he believes that another Cold War already broke out, to a certain degree I would feel inclined to agree with him, all the symptoms are there after all. But just as the United States feels that arming Kiev, secretly or openly, is the first step to a war, Russia also knows the consequences of arming the rebels. And each knows that what both are doing is just pushing that clock closer and closer to midnight.

While I base my opinion on what I observe, my entire argument also rests on something that is completely beyond my control, on the hope that both countries maintain some sort of civility and clear headedness through every step that as nations of power have to forcibly and inevitably engage in to resolve this.

To bet against this is stupid to the point of irrationality. People need to remember just how incredibly frail is this relative peace we have today, and how much we have to work to improve it. You must make the effort to see the reasons I’ve listed as the only barriers against global war and be alarmed at the fact that these things are what’s keeping the world “safe”, as if we had nothing else to base peace on but threats. It’s shameful that it is a sad reality to consider the new normal. Again.

Reality proves that there are those who are more right than others, but the United States as well as Russia need to engage in honest, purposeful diplomatic conversation to avert another major political and military disaster a mere 15 years into this new century.

Hopefully, the next time I talk with my dad, this reality I speak of will not be so grim.  Hopefully the talk will remain hypothetical and nothing else. Hopefully neither one will ever have to find out which side would win because make no mistake, no one will win, least of all the people who have little or no say in their country’s policy. Hopefully “probably” is enough to stop the world from tearing itself apart. Hopefully.

 

Bibliography

 

[1] “Historical Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles and Nuclear Tests By Country.” Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified 8 January 2015, at 11:26. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_nuclear_weapons_stockpiles_and_nuclear_tests_by_country. Accessed 18 February, 2015.

 

Definitions

 

*Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles allows for a cross-continent payload delivery, which is a missile with several warheads that has the capacity to reach targets across the world.

**G7- The group of seven allied economic powers which include the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Japan.

*** North Korea’s official name is DPRK or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

 

Interesting Articles to Read

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/dec/16/falling-rouble-all-you-need-to-know

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/13/world/europe/imf-approves-17-5-billion-bailout-for-ukraine.html?_r=0

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/71413/s-walter-washington/mexican-resistance-to-communism

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/peace-agreement-proves-putin-lying-221700335.html

http://www.thecommonsenseshow.com/2014/03/21/will-china-choose-russia-or-america-in-the-coming-war/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_arms_race

http://www.historytoday.com/vladimir-batyuk/end-cold-war-russian-view

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/03/timeline-ukraine-political-crisis-201431143722854652.html

http://news.yahoo.com/cold-war-us-russia-fight-191709484.html

http://news.yahoo.com/rebels-ukrainian-forces-agree-humanitarian-corridor-082121426.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpeck/2014/03/05/7-reasons-why-america-will-never-go-to-war-over-ukraine/

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/02/16/ukraines-military-is-stronger-than-believed-heres-what-it-needs-to-win/?utm_source=Facebook

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 2

Churches and religions pride themselves in having compiled in volumes all the rules by which humanity is supposed to live by and what our roles in society should be. However, what little morality can be found in the Quran can also be found in the cheapest crime novel you can find at your local gas station. The rest of it can be derived simply from common sense and from the connection people form with their fellow human beings. Unless a serious mental illness is preventing someone from acting rationally, there is no way to miss simple moral acts that enrich human experience, i.e. being kind to others, helping those in need, minding others’ fears and feelings, etc. Why? Because we can relate to all these things solely by our own experience of being alive.

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t see it this way and for them, their own interpretation of things is the only interpretation. Belief, based on these interpretations, becomes a dangerous tool to wield. Ideas can be molded into anything, and detrimentally to everyone, in the minds of those whom religion already provides a preemptive answer to everything, interpretation is not born out of logic of differentiating patterns, but rather it is the mental equivalent of muscle memory, a learned behavior with only one intended consequence- hegemony.

In religion, mainly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, when a bad idea is sanctioned by the text from which it comes from, it is standard procedure not to question it or its origin, but rather accept it and love it as having providence in the mysteriousness of a deity almost as obscure and unknown as the people who claim to have been the messengers of it. When does it become inconvenient for us to question it or outright reject it? How far must things go before we realize that the things we are made to believe really cause pain to people? Certainly not far enough if people truly believe in this day and age that the actions of Abraham were appropriate and warranted simply because it was god’s word. How far can we go if people will be made to believe that subservience is the way to heaven? After all, not more than half a century ago people still believed that the separation between races was divinely mandated. This is an example of how diluted our common sense can become when we are made to believe things that many generations before us could not concretely explain. Must we destroy the entire world before we start to question things?

Christianity has “evolved” over thousands of years from a small insignificant rebellion to the leading form of organized “consciousness” (for lack of a better word in this context) that humanity has ever participated in. It is essentially the most deadly self-imposed psychological experiment that in one way or another has changed the world, sometimes for the worse. In its infancy Christianity was harmless, just another cult, but as its numbers inflated violently for the very first centuries, Christians were known as terrorists, rebels, and racially inferior beings (sound familiar?). They were despised, persecuted, tortured and executed. It should be funny to note that during those first centuries, the desperation of pagans seeing their gods being replaced by a foreign one must have been quite a culture shock.

Following the Constantine decree that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cult then sought to infect nations and radicalize them either by “the word” or by the sword. Early Christians experienced a sort of either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude and committed atrocities in the name of unreason. Of course I can’t say this is exclusive to Christians, for earlier religions much did the same, imposing their own mythologies onto other groups of people. This new mythical thing of incredible proportions became faith. Faith then turned out to be the invisible lighthouse in the shores of reason, a place where all sailors wanted to be drawn to but that clad in obscurity it took an enormous amount of effort to find. Not surprisingly, over the centuries many ships have capsized in this place.

Star and crescent icon

Much in the same way that Christianity spread its message by blood, and occasionally by peace, Islam and radicalized Muslims do the same today. Historically speaking, the spread of Islamism was much quicker and much more brutal than Christianity ever was, at least in the first centuries of its creation. Compared within the same time period, no doubt Islam would have been far more effective at indoctrinating the masses. But that is only possible admitting that Islam was born out of the sword of an illiterate warlord who sought to conquer over his oppressors come what may.

The thought that Islam under the caliphates was at one point the better of all evils, and that it advanced mathematical and scientific advancement, is one of the most recycled untruths (not lies) that we tell ourselves during our time. It is no more true than saying that we now have a deep knowledge of the universe because of Christianity. People of science and logic can be found anywhere and everywhere, it only takes the right incentive to provoke them to share their curiosity with the world. However, I cannot overlook the fact that indeed thinkers under ancient Islam were not as restricted under the banner as Christians were under Christianity. Sadly, I can’t say that about “modern” Islam. The brutality with which purely Muslim governments enforce Shari’a Law is the same with which Inquisitors enforced the canon of the Catholic church, and as a result what we have is a new inquisition period, the new Dark Ages. What’s so surprising is that heads are still rolling for imaginary crimes in an age when we can peer into the darkest spots of the known universe. Seeing the events unfold, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and each other, “How can this possibly still be going on?”

Under the current modus operandi of Islamic nations it seems that the Quran is not taken out of context, as some might believe, but something much worse, it is understood by the most literal interpretation it can be given. If at some point we thought it was a hypocritical thing to cherry-pick the Bible to find passages that conveniently suited our moral needs, then I suggest we go back to that and try to convince our Muslim brethren to do the same. At our demise, the phrase “Beware what you wish for” comes to mind. Then again wishing that it wasn’t so is basically the secular equivalent to praying it wasn’t so.

Islam it seems has inherited the proverbial scepter of unreason. But let me clarify before I start receiving hate-mail. It is not Islam that I have a problem with, but rather literal Islam that I hate. Before we begin to convince ourselves of the fairy-tale illusion that there are many moral passages in the Quran to constitute a moral rule-book to follow, let me tell you that often in the same passages of the hadith where a moral passage can be found, an equally immoral one can also be found. The greatest problem we come across it seems is recognizing what is moral?

As if it wasn’t enough to see women clad in black and knowing that they have been genitally mutilated as children (prominent practice in some Muslim countries and also in some Christian ones), it has become the job of some cynics to declare that the people doing this sort of thing are just radicals and misunderstand and twist the word of the Quran and the Bible. What they continually fail to realize is that these “radicals” are not a band of illiterate sheepherders as they sued to be, or warriors as Mohammad himself was, but rather people of broad-reaching influence such as heads of state and religious leaders. It is not the ignorant who dictate policy, it is the learned. The radicals that we mention command armies and lead nations, these are not gangs, these are people who truly believe every word they read down to the last punctuation mark and they use it to maintain a strict control upon their populations. Whether or not this oppression exists solely for the purpose of near-total hegemonic social control, such as in the case of societies like Saudi Arabia, is something that changes from country to country, from tribe to tribe, and even within the same religion (i.e. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.) The fear that we have is not with moderate Muslims, although we should be cautious of their beliefs much in the same way that we are cautious of the beliefs of others such as Christians, Jews, and indeed my fellow atheists- our fear should be grounded in the radicalizing of these moderates as ISIL and other warring factions have effectively managed to do by spreading propaganda with the message that to wage holy war against infidels (everyone who is not a Muslim) is glorious. And what’s more, that to die is immensely better than to live. This is a highly dangerous position to take and defend. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has said, “These people love death more than we love life.”

 

And if none of this convinces you of the severity of the problem then perhaps you will be more sympathetic when you realize that ISIS tortures and kills children, and all we can do is impotently watch in our computer and television screens as it happens. Does any reasonable person dare say that this is not the work of Muslims but rather the work of psychopaths misled to think this is the path to heaven?

This oppression that exists, not only of the body but mainly of the mind then becomes like a poison that kills the fertile ground of thought, and lets nothing grow. The most passive verses of the Quran are continually ignored while those which spell out in detail how to punish and control people are followed to the letter, and they work very effectively. If you thought Communism was bad, theocracy is much worse. Children are brought up thinking that this sort of behavior should be tolerated, celebrated, and repeated. In consequence we have generations upon generations and waves upon waves of faith-fighters willing to die as martyrs in defense of their twisted ideals. Teaching kids that infidels are only good for killing, or that the opinion of a woman is only half of that of a man, does not make children moral, it makes them immoral, or if anything it makes them amoral. To push the envelope a little bit further (perhaps not exaggerating), whole generations are being indoctrinated and groomed as reserves for some future holy war that some are praying, and praying hard, that will one day come. How can we hope to win a war against those who willingly walk to their deaths to defend nothing more than the right to die gloriously as we fight to defend life? It seems almost impossible. Within those circles, the interpretation that is given for men to follow has perpetuated an endless war with the perfect breed of warriors willing to die happily.

Much like the Roman Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, these Muslim theocracies appear to be highly organized even in the face of auto-radicalism. Is there a shred of doubt that they would all wish to see Israel, or the U.S., or the E.U. in ashes rather than form a peaceful world? Of course not. And it seems that money is basically the only thing keeping some of these societies at bay from erupting into war. But how long will this strategy of showering these countries with gold last? When the oil dries up and there is nothing more to sell, what will happen then? If greed fails, what other cards do we have to play?

Even within our nations it seems that the squalling within misinformed liberal groups is giving the enemy the advantage of ideological warfare. While we question what constitutes criticism of religion and indeed freedom of speech, radical Muslims have no problem using social platforms created by Western countries such as Facebook and Twitter to shamelessly (and cowardly) recruit among our own populations. For now it seems their strength lies solely in pushing propaganda, not in their numbers or even in the hope to fight established nation. But for how long? Can we allow this to change? These are questions that must be asked now.

Morality is a tricky thing sometimes. Occasionally it’s difficult to assert correctly what is moral, after all not all moral decisions are good and not all good decisions are moral. But in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a society where its citizens are happy, the freedom to speak one’s mind is paramount to the contribution of that happiness and the cornerstone in building that type of nation. Although I believe that morality is rooted in what we find pleasurable and good without the need to affect others, I also believe that it is corruptible. Some moral things that were considered good and moral before are not any longer and so we have to be able to make that distinction correctly. In that sense, morality has to derive at least in part to the freedom to let your mind be known, for only then can people be aware of other people’s true intentions. And when that right is infringed upon, it creates a domino effect that is very hard to get away from unscathed.

Before the European Enlightenment brought reason back into the minds of people, awakening them from a long slumber, nations had to fight each other for ideological supremacy but also for freedom from oppression which they themselves created. History became a vicious cycle hard to break away from, and men perpetuated this cycle by fueling it with ideas that did not benefit the group en masse, but that only satisfied their own desires. It would be unfair to say that collective reason was completely absent during these times, for even during the Dark Ages there were people who dared to think. If that sounds surprising to read it’s because it is. Yet, from the heap of garbage that myth and unreason originate, sometimes we can find something of great value there.

But while we waste our time looking for these scattered moral passages, ISIL (or ISIS or IS) will have already executed several thousand people, most of them innocent, most of them Muslim, and some of them foreign nationals. ISIS will have also brutally  killed thousands of children and tortured many more people for crimes that should only be judged in an Inquisition court. All of it done in the name of Islam and to defend the honor of a “prophet” long gone. We can go on and on how Islam is a religion of peace, but until we get our hands dirty and dig into these passages ourselves will we know just what exactly is being taken out, or read into, context. And if you are religious, I urge that you do not make comparisons between your religion and Islam, for if taken literally, the Bible is just as violent and damaging as the Quran, and perhaps even more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.  photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.
photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

It is true enough that we must not blame the wrong people for these atrocities, and it is equally true that only those who commit these crimes must be held accountable. I believe we can all understand that no person wants to be blamed for the crimes of another- even if they subscribe to remotely the same beliefs. But what is imperative for us to realize is that these crimes are not perpetuated in defense of reasons that are beyond their control (race, nationality), instead they are the deliberate result of manufactured beliefs that unfortunately are also shared by those whom are affected most by them, innocent people who also read the Quran or the Bible whose innate morality leads them to reject the obvious immoral passages of these books. The most effective way for moderate Muslims to distance themselves from those who use their religion as a scaffold to greater crimes is simply to weed them out. I admit, it is only simple in theory. The responsibility falls on the moderates to reform Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared, or to edit the Koran itself to reflect 21st century views. Muslims should not fear for that portion of history to be lost, like the Magna Carta- another very important ancient text, and one of the many documents from which the Constitution is based on- the original Quran will never be lost, but it can be updated.

And it is the job of reasonable people to collectively denounce injustice wherever we see it. We should speak out the truth in defense of reason and common sense and be fearless in our resolute goal of condemning censorship of any kind. Admittedly, there will be times when there is little we can do in the adversity, but when we prove to them and ourselves that we are united in this goal, we can surely make some kind of change, even if it’s in our own communities.

Like Christianity, Islam will eventually be reformed. One should hope that it happens by “the word” and not by “the sword,” as religions have done to spread their message. But that, it seems, for now at least, that is our of our control.

Personal interpretation based on our own understanding of the contents of whatever it is we’re reading sometimes is not much more dangerous than blindly following someone else’s interpretation of it. But it is a good place to start. It’s possible we will never rid the world of unreason, of violence and fear, of injustice. But if we shake the foundations of everything we know- or rather everything we think we know- perhaps we can make this one world we have a better place. To question everything should be a mantra to follow.

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In Memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of radicalism.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/fgm_reinfibulation_central_Sudan/en/

http://nation.com.pk/blogs/28-Dec-2014/jack-in-a-box

http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 1

It’s very possible I might be murdered over this post, after all, freedom of expression- as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo- is not a bullet-proof blanket that can protect everyone from the injustice and evilness of others. It’s a fragile intangible thing that under severe pressure can have the potential to become as dispersed as ash or as hard as diamond. It is the intangible nature of ideas, and to some degree also of afforded freedoms, that they are at the mercy of the wielder to shape them at his pleasure.

Interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, is perhaps one of the most effective killers in human history. From an evolutionary and behavioral point of view, the way we interpret things can have huge advantages, but interpreted wrong it can also have dire consequences for ourselves, for the people close to us and indeed for the world as a whole, and consequence is not something the universe seems to be lacking, in fact just quite the opposite, it thrives on consequence and it moves forward because of it. How we interpret things can either save our lives or drive us to our own dooms. From a psychological standpoint, interpretation is the recognition of patterns to suit a certain framework in our minds; it is the meaning we give things. And of course, emotional need is one of the driving forces behind how we come to interpret something and what context best to use for it.

But due to the fact that interpretation is a personal thing, not bound by anything other than our own understanding of the input we are receiving, it mostly always lacks a solid base and it is for its lack of rigidity and concreteness that ideas prone to a myriad of meanings are certainly doom to fail one way or another.

To better illustrate how interpretation can have a great impact in our world I will use two different historical documents in comparison to one another and then use different comparisons for the same document.

United States Documents

The Constitution of the United States was written nearly 240 years ago. It is one of the best composed communal documents in the history of mankind put together by philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, religious men, rebels. It is nearly flawless in its dictation of the law that covers not just the rights and freedoms of Americans but comprehensible laws that should be extended to every human. It is the first of its kind to make a clear separation between the church and the government, and in its account of the law is fairly straightforward with little room for interpretation. Yet, being a lawyer in the United States and elsewhere, and perhaps especially a Constitutional lawyer, is one of the most lucrative and competitive careers to graduate from today. It is simply so because even though the laws were written in a manner that is concise and easy to understand, they still depend on the best judgment of those who read them. And sometimes even that is not enough.

In the United States there is still pending litigation over what most people would consider trivial matters simply because there wasn’t a broad enough definition of some specific law. Thousands of lawsuits will arise because different interpretations of the law- at times even by lawmakers- were used in different contexts. Perhaps the most famous example would be the interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which dictates that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The law seems to be straightforward in this regard, and yet an interpretation of the language used has caused more than a fair amount of controversy regarding what exactly the framers had in mind. As explicit and direct as the law is, there is simply no way to know for sure what exactly the different parts of the amendment mean as it applies to today’s society (i.e. “being necessary,” “Security of a free state,” “shall not be infringed”).

Laws such as this last one are substantial throughout the Constitution and the way these laws are interpreted can sometimes lead to what it may seem as different versions of one single document.

Now imagine documents that precede the Constitution that contain language that is no longer used today or historical details that we may find impossible to corroborate. Imagine trying to make sense of documents written by obscure characters from which we know absolutely nothing about and thus have no basis on how to judge them based on their prejudices, unreliable documents such as the Quran or the Bible before it. These books- or rather a collection of books- that have amassed great power and influence over the centuries have, for so long, been given carte blanche over a great many human elements such as how to live, how to behave, what to eat, what to think, how to act towards others, and certainly over the morality that we are supposed to uphold and pass on to future generations, a morality that has been instilled in us and forced upon us from birth. These documents owe their mysticism to fantastical stories retold over several generations from original versions that were doubtless not as fantastical or as mystical- or indeed as interesting- as the versions we know today. It has been the job of of the ghostwriters of history (some of them illiterate as in the case of Mohammad) to add colorful elements to chapters of known history and compile them into volumes, again, long after the culmination of the actual events- if they happened at all. But the documents that we so venerate nowadays seem to have been inscribed metaphorically, or have been given a varied interpretation that is difficult to discern today; or at least one hopes they are, otherwise only a psychopath could believe half of the things that have been written on them.

A good example of this is in the case of the Biblical story of the virgin Mary. As the writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins mentions in his book “The God Delusion”, and from discussions with historical scholars before Dawkins’ time, the word used in the Greek translation of the Bible “almah” literally means “young woman,” not “virgin” as it is usually believed. Provided that this was indeed a clerical mistake, then it seems the “young woman” that gave birth to Jesus was indeed not a virgin but simply a young woman. I don’t need to point out that over thousands of years, people have been mistaken to believe that Jesus was born out of a virgin when in fact it is not so for obvious reasons, not to mention that first-century Christians probably did not even believe that themselves.

Now, that is not such a grave mistake. It is indeed stupid of anyone to think that parthenogenesis could actually happen with human beings, stupid but not of grave consequence. From believing such a thing, it appears the only thing people have sacrificed here is their common sense- or at least one would hope. However, there are passages of much graver importance in the Bible and in the Quran that through a mistranslation, misunderstanding or misinterpretation (from the many they have received) have incited conflict among individuals, groups and countries that at one point of another have had severe consequences for the human race sometimes thrusting whole nations into endless wars.

There is an arrogance here to recognize. This arrogance from blind believers to think they perfectly understand the supposed creator of the universe when most of the time they have a difficult time understanding half of the things their politicians tell them, is not only part of the problem, it is the problem. Blind belief it seems is anything but innocuous, in fact it is more like a grenade without a pin, burning in our hands while we happily go about our lives believing its a water balloon, harmless and even beneficial. At no other point in our lives would we trust blind belief to carry us through any process, why then would we trust it to hold the reigns of the most important part of our lives, morality. One wonders why it was that this obviously bipolar, and apparently misanthropic, creator chose such confusing language to dictate his/her laws to humanity? Why do we hold on this arrogance that we know better than the god we have created?

The question begs, if people still have difficulty avoiding the pitfalls of a near-perfect document such as the Constitution of the United States, then what hope could we have of interpreting books that were conceived centuries ago by men whom we know very little about, and what little we know of them cannot be confirmed by anything other than each other’s account of the “events”?

The comparison between these two documents reflects the gap between understanding and interpretation. It is there that we arrive at the logical conclusion that we cannot, and should not, trust with certainty any interpretation. Does it mean that we should disregard them? No, we shouldn’t. But we should look at them with a skeptical eye, indeed a much much more skeptical eye. We should reject illogical arguments, illogical statements, and illogical ideals and embrace what we know in our science to be true, simply because we haven’t seen any different.

Let’s do a small thought-experiment. Imagine you are playing the telephone game with just one rule to follow, and that is that whatever the person before you says, you have to act out. For example if the game begins with “I like to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles” then that’s what you should do. That’s it, you and the people playing the game simply have to act out what they hear. Now, let the experiment run over thousands of years, over several generations, with dozens of languages, and all across the world. You don’t necessarily have to have psychopaths in the game- or be one yourself- for it to go horribly wrong, the law of probability dictates that it just will.

I admit, it’s a bit hard to believe that an instruction as simple as “Eat grilled cheese sandwich with a pickle” can go wrong, even over thousands of years, but if you factor in people’s prejudices, people’s histories, people’s educations, interpretations, fears, and understandings of what a grilled cheese sandwich is, while they add their own personal twist to the story, it wouldn’t be surprising to see people eating other people, if they are in fact still eating.

This is the same game that we have been playing for centuries only the instructions are a bit more sinister and have perpetuated some of the most heinous crimes humanity has unleashed upon itself (slavery, infanticide, genital mutilation, torture, war, racial extermination, etc.); and what’s more, the texts from which these instructions come from have allowed us to look at ourselves in the mirror remorseless.

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute. photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute.
photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

From the text alone we can infer as to the frame of mind of these ancient peoples or to their way of life. Written instructions on how to maintain, train, and trade your slave- or your daughter for that matter; how to subjugate your wife while claiming that she’s your equal and getting her to believe it; how to become submissive yourself to another human or to a invisible deity- all these instructions were written to guide these ancient societies and to offer some sort of explanation to the way the world was at the time and to offer a theory (although not written as such) of how the world worked. We could very well say that these people were simply speaking in a metaphorical context reflecting on the views of their times, and perhaps that actually is the way it is. But two problems swiftly arise. First, the alternative is much scarier to contemplate. What if- as history strongly suggests- these were actual instructions on how to live a first-century life, much in the way that modern magazines (loosely) portray the our way of living today. I’m sure that one or two centuries from now our magazines will become absolutely irrelevant to the way future Earthlings live their lives. The second problem we come across is that people in religious nations (principally the United States and those in the Middle East) are happily running to the mouth of the mouth of the lion, trying to follow first century rules, 22 centuries later. I cannot much call that progress. The question is simple, why are people so eager to accommodate their modern lives to the way people lived 2000 years ago?

I could see the case that some people might make by saying that these ancient texts provide some very good moral advice, and they’re right, they do. But the moral advice they provide is no more assertive than what humanity has come up with over time. We should strive to create the best moral framework there is, in part by getting rid of old moral rules that are no longer necessary. It is like writing computer code, in order to have an optimal program that always works as it should the code needs to be updated and bad lines of code have to be deleted.  Unfortunately, books like the Bible or the Quran also offer some terrible advise that is still being taken into account today. It is a good thing then that common sense is not entirely lost and that the majority of people can see the obvious distinction between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Five easy steps on how to train your slave”, but there are always those that don’t, or wish not to. Even worse, there are some who not just blur that distinction but that make dangerous conjectures of their own based on these somewhat-direct-somewhat-abstract rules. Of course killing is bad. I’m sure that early homo-sapiens and even Neanderthals (just a couple among many species of bipedals) realized that going around killing one another was a bad thing to do. Let’s remember that these ancient tribes were nomads and started no bigger than your average small family. Imagine if all they did was kill and rape one another because it was simply a fun activity to engage in. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that they would’ve perished very quickly under their own irresponsibility. We should find it insulting to believe that humanity knew nothing of morality before first century sheep-herders decided to concoct fantastical tales from divine providence to say that killing is wrong and stealing is bad. Has it never occurred to us to think that perhaps early humans understood that killing each other was bad for the tribe, as the number of hunter/gatherers or providers would decrease leaving the tribe to fend for itself? Has it never crossed our minds to think that they too understood emotional and physical pain, or that perhaps they were capable of abstract thought and that they understood morality at least at a basic level? Like Christopher Hitchens once remarked, “…I don’t think humanity would’ve made it that far if they hadn’t known that.” We give ourselves much more undeserved credit by unabashedly believing that because we invented written language that nothing existed before us. This type of Orwellian thinking insults our species and spreads misinformation about our origins, indeed there is more to us than that.

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Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

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In part two I will delve briefly and broadly into the “evolution” of Christianity and the threat that radical Islamism poses our world today, as well as our fears of what the future might hold for humanity and for reason.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_Nazi_Germany

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/07/08/there-are-states-where-you-technically-cant-hold-public-office-if-youre-an-atheist/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/08/19/an-incredible-interactive-chart-of-biblical-contradictions/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/16/in-graphic-videos-and-on-twitter-isis-members-record-and-tout-executions-of-gay-men.html?via=desktop&source=facebook

 

The Crusaders of Reason (?)

 As you may remember, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck had a little spat on Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher denounced Islam for its anti-progressive, sometimes brutal, nature and where Affleck got all 5-year-old on Maher for being- as he (in)famously put it- a racist. Now, there was a player in there that most people (who are not atheists) don’t recognize but who has for some time been making some serious waves in the public discourse about why we need a more secular America, and indeed a more secular world for that matter, and that man was the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

During the debate, which you have probably already seen on YouTube, Harris sides with Maher and denounces Islam as basically a modern 14th Century Christianity, in reference to the ways the Catholic Church brutally and greedily maintained the status quo and wanted to convert  everyone to the faith Inquisition style. During the debate, Harris makes some pretty incendiary, but true, claims about Islam and about Muslims  who cowardly hide behind the Koran and its texts to justify bloodbaths and acts of terrorism. As it went on, Harris remained completely cool and collected while he talked about the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries, the treatment of women and homosexuals, and the overall thinking of the majority of Muslims outside the Middle Age… East. Outside the Middle East, excuse me.

For the most part, the other invited guests, contributed little to the discussion although they made one or two good points worth remembering but not worth mentioning here. The whole exchange was mostly between Affleck and Harris, where Mr. Harris said something along the lines of Islam is bad for women, progressives and people wanting to leave the religion and where Affleck usually cut him off or sneered at him without contributing much of weight to the conversation beyond calling him a racist or a bigot. I’m sure that Affleck was speaking out of the kindness of his heart having never heard of Sam and his extensive work and history on the eternal battle between reason and religion. And if you are also not familiar with Harris’ work then maybe it is also reasonable to you take the position Affleck took, after all, outside of context, what Sam Harris and Bill Maher were saying does sound a bit bigoted. But again, put in context what they were advocating was that Liberals have not taken enough responsibility to denounce Islam for its failures as they have done with other religions like Christianity and Judaism.

This is all old-news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting. In the aftermath of the debate, weird things in the political circle started happening. Many News shows, some of them Fox “news” programs- came to the aid of Harris and Maher, known secularists and liberals whom Conservatives and its subsidiaries (Fox) often view with untrusting eyes.

Panelist Greg Gufeld- a self-described agnostic and Libertarian- and part of the the Fox News chain program “The Five” said during a recent airing of the show, “What you see is the crises that takes hold when liberal orthodoxy faces off with real attacks on liberal orthodoxy.” Which I find odd, since it is hardly liberal orthodoxy to want a society that is reasonable and devoid of bad ideas. He goes on to say, “Yes, we get that it’s wrong to stereotype but then we study the facts…” He then ends his segment with a rather funny and contemptuous remark about Maher saying, “…and in a shock to even himself, Maher becomes the sanest man in the room, how’s that?”

Bill O’Reilly in his own Fox News Show “The O’Reilly Factor” also remarked Islam’s isolated ideology, but not because of the dangerous  influence a literal interpretation can cause but rather because he still holds an outdated, crusade mentality that Christianity is the right answer in this whole conflict. “Islam is  a destructive force in the world…”, he says without offering a better alternative other than his own religion. Surprisingly, O’Reilly turns a bit more objective and logical even though the evangelist message, although subtle, continues to be implied.

Not only did all these guys side with Harris, but they went so far to denounce Affleck- a known liberal- as stupid or as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. It was hilarious for me to see that because in virtually NO other context but to denounce Islam as a religion for which war and death is the path to eternal salvation would they have sided with Harris on that matter. And while the debate between the movie star and the scholar was clearly lopsided in the direction of Harris, it was entertaining and informative to see the way that secularists think about the different angles of religious freedom not just here in the U.S. but abroad, and especially in the Middle East.

While Affleck is a smart guy and very knowledgeable and entitled to his opinion- as Sam Harris himself put it in an essay he wrote days after the exchange- he is no authority or an expert on religious fundamentalism, freedom of religion, or rather lack of, especially regarding Islam and Islamophobia and the history and rise of militarized Islam and its influence on the modern world. It seems Affleck sees the argument through the eyes of a romantic defending a bunch of misled young boys. He was obviously not interested with anything Harris had to say or even familiar with his work which, I’m sure, he would have agreed with a lot of it had he given it a page-through.

But this is exactly where the fabric of time seems to disintegrate as logic dissolves. If you know anything about Sam Harris, he is one of the men some Christians call one of the “Four Horsemen”, this of course in reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The brilliant Christopher Hitchens famously mocked the eponym by saying they were in fact “The Four Horsemen of the non-apocalypse.” Harris, as was Hitchens, is a man who is an atheist to his very core going so far as to even hating the word itself for its presumption that to be anti something, it must exist.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Over the years, Dr. Harris has written many books about the uselessness of religion in today’s society and other philosophical concepts. He has also debated with dozens of religious apologists from different religions and various politicians from either side, using honest and verifiable rebuttals, while also making his point. But it’s not all Dr. Harris has managed to do since he wrote the New York Time’s Best Seller “The End of Faith”, in his books he not only takes the path of the rank atheist, he steps up the game and proposes alternatives to religious doctrine, something which many before him wouldn’t do. Sam Harris has openly declared that the way towards true equality is not religion, but reason. This is where Fox, Republicans and most serious Christians come in.

The Republican Party- that’s the guys with the elephant- is, as you know, a political organization (1 of 2) that has a very strong Christian base. Ironically, the Republicans want a smaller government in theory but in reality they expand the government  more than Democrats have done, logically from their close attachment to corporations and corporate interests (which tend to favor big government), most staunchly decline the idea of man-induced global warming- or global warming itself- and they are big on weapon rights. I say this is ironic, because according to Christian principles, these do not align with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. But among their many accomplishments, they have successfully re-branded Christianity over a generation to fit their own agendas. In a sense, they use the name of Christianity and the Bible, sometimes illegally, to justify injustice at the grandest scales to fit an outdated way of thinking. It’s not about traditional American values, it’s about slowing down progress. I’m not saying that Democrats don’t go down the same road also, but statistically speaking, not in the record numbers that Republicans do.

The psychology of the Republican party is led by the status quo. Which is why progress in areas like gay marriage and gay rights, immigration, the integration of minorities into the political scene, global healthcare coverage and the environment, among others- is rather slow.Republican elephant over bright background

America, being the melting pot that it is with its thousands of religions, thousands of languages, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, is, in a sense, no place for Republicans. For example, more than freedom itself, most Republicans wish that America was an officially Christian country, which is kind of like saying, “You can have freedom of religion as long as it’s Christianity.” Most also wish to make English the official language of the U.S., and limit the inflow of immigration. And while I am inclined to agree with some of what they propose in these and other areas, most I think should be rejected outright. It is, I think, safe to say that most Republican voters would support a bill to amend the part of the Constitution that grants us all, not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. I think you can see where this is leading.

So in one corner, we have Sam Harris, a man of reason and science, and in the other we have the Republican Party, staunch defenders of the faith.

I believe that we as Americans, and within a smaller circle we as atheists, are placing the emphasis on the wrong argument. It shouldn’t be whether Affleck or Harris were right, I think the bigger question is whether Harris or the Republicans are right. Ben Affleck is indeed a hothead, but for all practical purposes, partially correct about the things he says. I believe that given all the information, he can be persuaded about this issue, or at least he would reasonably admire its assertive points. But the Reps on the other hand only agree with Harris because the flawless Christian nation they want this country to be should have nothing to do with Islam. In other words, the crusaders in Armani suits wouldn’t really be so against the idea of waging holy war in the name of Christianity. The-enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends sort of thing.

The Republican party is not really in the side of reason, they just hate Islam more than they hate Harris. And in the off-chance that one of ’em rascals reads this blog, I write it with the utmost sincerity, and anybody who is willing to dispute that claim they can certainly make a case for it.

Eventually, the debate will blow over in the political spectrum and something else will take its place. But what we can take from it, is that this has opened the debate among atheists, and people of all faiths, about just how far we are willing to go to protect bad ideas. While you may think that the current form of Islam is just another religion taking its course and that it has been hijacked by psychopaths, I am willing to bet that the Islam from a thousand years ago was in many ways much more tolerant and progressive, while the Christianity from the same era was brutal and imposing. It seems the roles have changed.

This brings us to ask the question of just how tolerant we are willing to be about a religion that advocates mass murder, misogyny, and illiteracy? And no I’m not talking about Christianity, although the shoe also fits. This forces us to ask among ourselves, just how long we are going to tolerate many bad ideas that are comfortable for a few good ones that are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, but is it more difficult than human suffering and injustice?

Maybe one day, Islam will go the way of Christianity and reform itself without the help of the rest of the world. Maybe Christianity one day will become as thousands of religions have become before it, simply an interesting myth. Maybe Ben Affleck will one day read the works of Harris and understand that while it sounds pretty bad to denounce an entire population for their beliefs, it is in fact their beliefs we are criticizing. After all, no, we don’t have to respect everyone’s beliefs. I would not be willing to accept anyone’s personal beliefs that racism is a good thing or that women are not equal to men. This type of acceptance is dangerous for a population. But more than anything, I hope that maybe one day, politicians can take this all in and understand that beliefs are not mere political tools, but actual instruments of liberation or repression used by the sane and the psychotic alike in a dangerous game of chess where people die when nations go to war because of them.

 

 

If you would like to know more about Sam Harris and his website, Project Reason, and his blog, here are the following links to both, respectively.

http://www.project-reason.org/

http://www.samharris.org/blog