Category Archives: Current Affairs

The Art of War

The other day I was having lunch with a couple of friends of mine. They are both very successful businessmen, but they both come from a very different background. We went to the restaurant around three in the afternoon, as we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and we suspected, well my two friends suspected, that they were going to get into a long discussion. Not only do they have completely different business backgrounds, but also they have different beliefs in business and even their political views are at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

After we made our small talk, catching up on our personal lives, it appeared as though they were going to get into it. There has been a lot of political activity lately, as I’m sure you’re well aware, and I was expecting a long protracted discussion on at least one of the major issues. It’s interesting the way my friends argue. They argue verbally like guys fight in those old martial arts movies. When the two enemies see each other from across the room, they slowly approach each other, and circle each other, trying to judge the other’s potential strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want to attack too soon, because if you put all your energy into the opening move, you risk exposing yourself if it doesn’t turn out well.

Of course many football coaches would disagree with me. There are several very famous football coaches that have built their reputation on a strong, up the middle, running game. Football games like this are pure muscle versus muscle. Some people find these games incredibly exciting, especially when a running back breaks through and gains several yards on one carry.

Other forms of conflict are more strategic. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese Military strategist who wrote “The Art of War,” but many of his techniques are based on using the enemy’s weakness against him.

This is generally how my friend will get into an argument. It usually starts out with one person letting slip an opinion, and the other person noticing that it is one they’d like to argue with. But the trick is to not let on that you disagree with it. The trick is to say something like “Oh, really? How do you mean?” with sincere interest in the others opinion. Then through causal conversation, lead the other person out enough so that they reveal sufficient information upon which to base your argument.

Of course both of them, having known each other for quite some time, both are very adept at this strategy, so often they use all kinds of strategy that would make a CIA interrogator proud. They let slip some information, hoping to bait the other person into responding. It becomes a rather beautiful conversational chess game to watch. It definitely takes a lot of focus and concentration to keep up with the conversation, because there is always a lot of subtlety going on below the surface. You never really know what is the surface structure of the argument and what is the underlying deep structure of what they are really trying to say.

But just like watching a highly anticipated boxing match, after watching a few rounds where the fighters are feeling each other out, you can’t help but start to really want to see some heavy combinations thrown. Personally, I think one of the greatest artists in this regard, at least in the boxing ring, was Sugar Ray Leonard. Watching him fight was like watching an artist create release a beautiful sculpture that has been trapped inside a stone for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, when watching a protracted intellectual discussion, it’s difficult to know when “it’s on like Donkey Kong.” You have to really pay attention to things to know who is getting the upper hand and who has overextended their argument beyond the realm of logical support and into the realm of pure, unsubstantiated opinion. It would certainly help if people like my friends would take breaks every now and then and some scorekeeper would let me know who was ahead on points.

Sometimes they’ll be talking about the merits of one political candidate, and because I know my friends respective political leanings, I kind of have an idea of who is on the offensive and who is on the defensive, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. They’ll be talking about the Supreme Court, and then a few minutes later they’ll be talking about bond derivatives or something else completely baffling to me. Sometimes I don’t know who won until we all get up to leave. The “loser” usually has an expression of “you got me today, but I’ll get you next time” as he pays the bill.

Watching people like that speak sure is an education. Both in patience and in subtle communication skills. Bruce Lee would be proud.

How Can You Free Your Mind For Democracy?

The other day I was sitting at a restaurant reading a book. It’s something I do quite often. I usually go around two or so in the afternoon, as I like to avoid the rush. I usually sit at my table for at least an hour, and read whatever it is I brought to read. Sometimes I bring a notebook and a pen and just write whatever comes to mind as I’m sitting there. One of the reasons I usually go in the afternoon is because I feel a little uncomfortable taking up a big table for a long time when the restaurant is really crowded. I can’t really justify the meager profit the shop is making off of my one lunch special for the hour or so I sit there when there are plenty of other people waiting to use the space more profitably.

Some restaurants close around three, which is just perfect. By the time roll in there the restaurant is nearly empty. Which gives me ample time to relax, and sometimes get to know the waitresses. I’ve made several friendships this way.

But the other day was different, as there were two businessmen in the restaurant. I don’t really know if they were businessmen, but they were dressed in really nice suits and it was an off lunch hour, and neither one of them seemed to be in a hurry to leave. I don’t think I saw either of them look at their watch once the whole time I was there. Maybe they were salesmen or politicians. Whoever they were, they started having a fairly heated discussion, one that I couldn’t help but overhear. Much as I tried to read my book on metaphysics, I couldn’t help but to watch as my concentration drifted on its own over to their conversation.

They seemed to be arguing over the merits of the merits of the American political system. One guy seemed to have the idea that it would be better to get rid of congress altogether and install a pure democracy, where everybody voted for every single issue. His main point seemed to be that with the Internet, everybody has access to enough information to make an informed decision. He explained that the system we have now was devised over two hundred years ago when fewer people were educated, and had very little access to information. It made sense to elect representatives to vote for a large number of people on certain issues. But he argued that today, everybody can read about the issues, and read pros and cons for each decision, and then vote accordingly. He argue that of course people would have to pass a tests on a regular basis, even before each vote to demonstrate that they had sufficient knowledge to be able to have their vote counted.

The other guy thought this was absolute nonsense. He was saying that the current American system of government is the best on ever created, and that to change it would lead to certain disaster for the country. He likened government by majority rule to no better than being ruled by an emotional despot. He argued that crowds can be too easily swayed one direction or the other, and that giving people the controls would be tantamount to anarchy.

Then their argument kind of shifted into the old “is man better free or ruled” argument. One side argued that most people are incapable of ruling their own lives, and must have a rigid set of guidelines to govern their thoughts and behaviors. Like humans will turn into “Lord of the Flies” if we are left too long on our own without any form of rules and enforcement of those rules. The other guy seemed to claim that the rules were really only for the small minority of lawbreakers, and not for most law-abiding citizens like you or me. (Even though I’m pretty sure this guy has never met you or me.)

Personally, I’m not so sure what side I fall on, but I don’t think government rule by a pure majority is a good idea. I just see too many problems with it. I also feel that one person making a decision for a bunch of other people on a regular basis has its drawbacks as well. I suppose the current system that we have is OK, as long as people don’t abuse their power. Which I suppose is the way our system is now. It would be nice, though, to make our representatives more responsible to the people they are supposedly representing. I suppose that falls on the shoulders of the represented. It’s up to us to kick them out of power if they misbehave.

It was an interesting conversation, one of those things that come along when you are least expecting it. It’s amazing what happens when you open up your mind to the opinion of others.

Sotomayor – For or Against – Why it Doesn’t Matter, Really

Many people have been talking back and forth recently about Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court. Some say that Sotomayor is clearly a racially motivated choice. For them the main reason she was selected was because she is female and Hispanic. While I don’t know exactly if President Obama chose her himself, or she was the best choice presented to him by his advisors, the choice is out there nonetheless. Of course, the two main criticisms against her from the right are the case she ruled for the city against the white fire fighters in a reverse discrimination case, and statements she made suggesting her race and gender somehow made her better equipped to make legal decisions. Her supporters argue that in the case of the reverse discrimination, she was actually upholding the law, and any beef people have with the decision is with the law she was upholding, and not with her. And for her statement regarding the relationship between gender/race and decision making ability, I think most will safely agree that at the very least, that statement was taken out of context.

We live in a sound bite, thirty-second society. Most people don’t have the time or the patience to sort through several layers of meaning and context to get to the intent behind the delivered message. Recently Will Smith said something about Hitler, and it didn’t take very long for a reporter to take one or two sentences out of a spoken paragraph which was surrounded by content and context and put a spin on it. All to sell newspapers. Luckily, when most people saw context of the statement, it was clear that the reporter was attempting to put a spin on it, and Mr. Smith’s reputation wasn’t adversely effected.

With so much spin and out of context quotations, and ten-second attention seeking news headlines, it’s no wonder that it can be extremely difficult for someone in Obama’s position to choose an appropriate candidate for such a powerful appointment of authority. It’s not like Sotomayor can be kicked off the bench if people don’t like her opinions.

This kind of thinking makes sense on a large scale, choosing your position wisely when there is no chance of going back if it doesn’t work out. That is why a selection for the Supreme Court is such a long, public, lengthy process. We can’t afford any mistakes. I think it is obvious that the original architects of the United States put quite a lot of effort into designing a system that was fairly difficult to corrupt (despite many instances of the contrary).

Whether your think Sotomayor will be a great Justice of a terrible one, you’ve got to have some appreciation for the process through which she will be scrutinized to the nth degree. It is an example that despite however many corrupt and unscrupulous politicians find themselves in power, it is difficult to out navigate a system that has been in place for so long. One can only hope it stays that way for a while.

For my part, given the facts of the structure and operational guidelines of the supreme court, and the enormous amount of seriousness that justices must feel when they make decisions, and that Sotomayor, if she is eventually selected (which I’m pretty sure she will be) is replacing someone with similar political leanings and beliefs, I don’t think there is anything to worry about.

When you take a step back and look at the big picture, despite all of the problems of the United States, we’ve got a pretty good system and set of rules in place to make sure we stay free and profitable for many years to come.