A Look at Competition from the Safe Perspective of Retirement

How We Got Here: Ignoring Evidence and Confusing Cultural With Political Differences

I took issue in my previous post with those who live by some fixed truths they are unwilling to have questioned. The idea of climate change has certainly not simply been invented but, so far as I know, neither has it been 100 percent proven. To claim one or the other is an example of what I mean by a fixed truth, or a dogma. Similarly, a liberal education is not about spreading around fixed truths like these two. It doesn’t matter if the so-called truth in question is considered politically liberal or politically conservative because being politically liberal is a lot different from being liberally educated. Liberally educated people do not go around asserting either that climate change is 100 percent proven or that it is a hoax, that the nation’s borders ought to be entirely open or entirely closed. These are dogmas that might go viral for a day or two but finally get us nowhere. The only sensible question is what the bulk of the evidence has suggested and for that we need to listen to what the best informed people have concluded. That is the basis on which we make up our minds with due regard for, and fairness to, such opposition as they may have encountered. The liberally educated do not look for truth in shouting matches. It exists not inside but outside ourselves–that is, in the evidence, and must be patiently discovered there.

The liberally educated also attend to the difference between our political and our cultural differences. I was recently told about a church-going Alabama woman who, when she heard some animal invade her cherished bird’s nest, said that she headed straight to her closet to fetch her thirty-eight. Alabama’s gun laws are among the least restrictive in the nation and yet, if this woman were asked to support legislation limiting the access of Alabama children to firearms, I imagine she might do so. In other words, she could think with the culture of her state in rejecting gun control overall, but make an exception in this particular political case. Similarly, hunting is a much loved hobby for several of my neighbors in upstate Pennsylvania. But I’m pretty sure some of them agree with the recent Pennsylvania law that requires those convicted of domestic violence to hand over their guns within 24 hours instead of keeping them for 60 days as used to be the case. The gun culture is one thing, gun control politics is another, and the two don’t necessarily coincide.

Birmingham, Alabama

Like so many other colleges these days, the one I taught at until my retirement several years ago emphasizes its commitment to inclusion and diversity. I agreed with that commitment. I also agree that proven student behavior like scratching anti-Semitic phrases on blackboards or shouting out the N-word should be punished with penalties like suspension. But the terms “inclusion and diversity” have become so exhaustively repeated on campuses, and often preached rather than explained, that they strike some students still ignorant of history as lacking in enforceable meaning. That may be one reason why blatant cases of discrimination persist on campuses.

I remember admiring a former student of mine from Texas. Basing a paper she wrote on the practical experience of her and her family, she had the nerve to question the universal and automatic correctness of “inclusion and diversity.” She had been brought up in a San Antonio school district where social service taxes, which included school taxes, had risen so high that her family, already burdened with huge college expenses, had seriously to consider moving elsewhere. Their politically liberal neighbors insisted that the hidden cause of the family’s discontent was not financial distress, but objection to the nearby overflow of Mexican immigrants, many illegal, for whom newer and larger schools had to be built.

San Antonio, Texas

My student had clearly been troubled by this accusation of prejudice, which was repeated by her classmates in our discussion of her paper. The evidence she gave for her argument, however, had to do not with the local increase in Mexican immigrants, whom she described with unfailing respect, but with the notably excessive tax increase on hard pressed neighborhood families. Her paper far outclassed those of the many other students who relied on tiring invocations of the words “inclusion and diversity,” presumably on the assumption that my grade would indicate how profoundly I would bow before them.

Mexico to San Antonio

In short, my Texas student demonstrated her regard for discovered evidence as opposed to righteous insult, and her good grade reflected that. The students in our class who, along with some of her family’s San Antonio neighbors immediately accused her of prejudice, were preachers of liberal dogma, perhaps more accurately described as liberal cruelty. Ignoring local culture and particular circumstances, these dogmatic, “fixed truth” liberals are the opposites of the extreme political conservatives whose ahistorical dream of restored American greatness hints strongly of white supremacy. Whether the shouting matches between these two groups will remain the norm of American discourse, and the symptom of a divided culture that it now is, remains to be seen. Meanwhile its fury demonstrates the value of the quieter, more reasoned approach to our problems characteristic of a “liberal” education, the kind that now seems pretty close to defunct.

Egypt Since the Uprising: 2011-2019

Mary and I had been home two weeks before we began seeing television accounts of the Egyptian Uprising that began on January 25, 2011. In hindsight the fact of political and social unrest in Egypt should not have come as a great surprise to us. When I asked our tour guide why we had to take a plane ride from Luxor International Airport to Cairo, she frankly admitted that violent extremists made it dangerous for the group to travel any other way. When I asked if a cab was a safe way to get to old Cairo, the site of Coptic churches founded according to tradition by the apostle Saint Mark, she told me not to go there at all because of recent attacks on Coptic Christians by Islamic extremists–attacks that have a long history and continue to this day.

The Egyptian Uprising (also called the Arab Spring) began in Tunisia a few weeks before we arrived in Cairo. A humiliated street vendor whose goods were casually confiscated immolated himself. Similar acts of self-immolation then spread to Egypt and other Arab countries. It is reasonable to assume from the strong impact of these events that the main sources of Arab unrest, aside from government corruption and police brutality under the likes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were as follows: hopelessly high unemployment, hopelessly low wages for those who were employed, and the near impossibility of well educated young people (already ingenious enough to use social media to spread their frustration) to find meaningful work. It was remarkable that this justly discontented group was able to unseat Egypt’s Mubarak in 2011, leading to the failed presidency of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, and the coming to power of the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in 2014. But it was incredibly naive for Westerners to hope for abrupt change from this slow-moving “revolution,” which could produce no president whose roots were not in the military.

Nearly 50 % of Egyptians live in poverty. They lack the interest in, and means to, effect significant government change. Historically what has helped them most has been the technology that, through the building of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, has irrigated the desert to make consistent farming possible, moved water traffic via the Lock at Edfu (see my earlier posts on these subjects) and currently, with El-Sisi’s major expansion of the Suez Canal, promised to double the number of ships passing through that waterway and so vastly increase international trade with India, China and Southeast Asia for all participating countries.

Whether the economic advantages of this expansion will seep down to the ordinary Egyptian remains to be seen given the brutality of the early stages of El-Sisi’s hold on power. (At the recent G7 Summit President Trump reportedly referred to El-Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”)

I am ending this series on Egypt from 2011 to 2019 with photos we took of 5 Egyptians whom we hope, no doubt naively, will benefit from El-Sisi’s initiatives.

Egypt 2011: Alexandria

Alexandria existed in my imagination long before I ever got to see the place. It rained miserably the whole day when I finally did get there, but the sogginess didn’t matter to me as much, perhaps, as it should have. When Mary and I got off the bus from Cairo, there sat Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt looking pretty much like my imagined Alexandria, which was way too distant from the facts of history to be what the city undoubtedly was, namely Egyptian. My Alexandria was Greek. Its air was that of my youthful reading–of the Homeric epics, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Medea along with the wisdom of Socrates who, in a line that makes little sense in today’s White House, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.

A mere 9 years before my 2011 arrival in Alexandria, a new library was built there, replacing, but my no means equaling, the one probably built by Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt from about 283 to 246 BCE. That library was rich in the scrolls of Greek culture, but it was also a gathering place for scholars worldwide. It may have been partially burnt, but most likely it just declined over time as a result of the wholesale scorn often visited on impractical “intellectuals” whose so-called expertise it has recently become so fashionable to scorn. (Alexandria, it should be noted, helped give rise to the highly significant 3rd century AD philosophical school of Neoplatonism, which included the likes of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and eventually such early fathers of the Christian Church as Origen and Saint Augustine.)

The New Library of Alexandria, impressive for its developing system of Supercomputing

The question Alexandria made me finally face up to was how my college training in the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome stood up against the nearly universal educational emphasis these days on preparation for the technological demands of society in the world of today and tomorrow. The obvious answer for most is that Huawei, the Chinese company with an apparent solution for every technological problem you could ever have simply must, fortunately or unfortunately, replace Plato and Aristotle, to say nothing of Plotinus and Proclus, on the typical college syllabus.

You may think I will now proceed to a stout defense of the liberal arts over mere trade school advancement, however sophisticated. It certainly looks like I will from my choice of a classical amphitheater for two of my last Alexandrian photos.

But I remain fixated on the photo below of the child laborer, who must be almost 20 by now, looking back at me as I snapped my camera at him. As long as there are youngsters like him growing up all over Africa, the Middle East, and the world for that matter, how can we say that as a country we are becoming “great again” and not be found laughable. A slogan is one thing but surely “greatness,” for a country as rich in resources as ours, is another. And if skill in locating algorithms is what it takes to help this young man or his sister along, so be it.

Where is he now?

Egypt 2011: Ramses II

Ramses II (1304-1213 BCE) was pharaoh during a comparatively peaceful period in Egyptian history. His was a time of construction, though Ramses also lead major military expeditions, not all of them entirely successful. Ramses had many wives and many children, the tomb of his wife Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens near Luxor being especially famous for its elegant art work. Ramses II’s mummified remains may be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, though images of him are visible (as below) all over Egypt. Ramses II is the pharaoh that the 19th-century poet Percy Shelley’s refers to in the short poem Ozymandias for those of you remember reading that poem in college. Below you may see how readily the name of Ramases is used to advertise even the least impressive Egyptian tourist bazaar.

Ramses looking pleased with himself
Note the little girl’s apparent fascination with the big fellow
Mary braving the big guy’s formidable arm

Egypt 2011: The Valley of the Kings and the Approach to the Pyramids of Giza

The Valley of the Kings is an archaeologist’s dream but was something of a disappointment to us in 2011. It is a collection of tombs that a number of Pharaohs had constructed for themselves in the hope of guaranteeing their survival into the afterlife. The god Osiris had a lot to do with this because Osiris, according to Egyptian myth, was resurrected from the dead and the Pharaohs thought this divinity was the source of their own enormous power. So they devised various means of having themselves buried, including leaving their treasures and artifacts in their tombs. thereby carrying them from this world to the next (they could take it with them, or so they thought). Inevitably these tombs were robbed even by some of those who built them, a tradition that apparently continues to this day.

All this happened during the so-called New Kingdom, a period roughly from 1500-1300 BCE when Egypt, whose power then extended all the way to the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq, was for the most part at peace. A good many of the artifacts to be seen in these tombs were not available to us because they were closed or the archaeologists were working in them.

We left the Valley of the Kings for the international airport at Luxor for a return flight to Cairo, where our first tourist stop was Giza and the Pyramids. What impresses most about the Pyramids is their age. As far as we are from the time of Jesus, that’s how far in time Jesus was from the Pyramids.

Our first sight of the Pyramids
Closer Up
Even Closer Up

The first photo of the next post will be the gathering of the camels, followed by photos of guess-who riding one. If you think it was me, you’re wrong. I was too scared..