Here’s a problem that someone from a hot part of the world might have:
I’ve had a terrible time trying to grow salad greens for the kitchen. The few plants that did survive the onslaught of bugs and pests soon floundered in the heat. I am starting to reconsider if it’s even worth trying or perhaps trying something different, or growing in the wet season? The problem is I don’t know where to start and I am unsure of what to try… any ideas? I would just like to grow some edible plants to supplement my diet as part of a healthy lifestyle that I can eat fresh or cooked. Thanks in advance for any suggestions,” Warren
Dr. Kris, the Garden Doctor, responds:
Growing traditional vegetables suited to a temperate climate in the tropics is more than a challenge – akin to a snow-flakes chance in hell!
During the tropical wet/dry seasons the climate is either too hot, or there’s too much rain and humidity or otherwise there’s not enough. And then if you can somehow successfully navigate the climate there are a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bugs and sap suckers to deal with that love this new exotic food you’ve brought into their environment.
Some plants that we would all like to grow such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, or lettuce for example simply won’t withstand the heat. Even growing these in a temperate summer climate would fail and run to seed on the first hot day, meaning all winter season crops are out of consideration here in the tropics.
So then, what about summer season vegetables? Well the heat certainly won’t be a problem. It is possible to grow many types of what we would consider summer vegetables in temperate climes – but for the most part it is possible only in the dry season. Avoid the wet season as the high humidity causes all sorts of problems usually staring with mildew and ending in fungus. Your options are limited to growing traditional summer crops in the dry season only.
Here are some suggestions.
Tomatoes will grow well during the dry season. Personally, I would opt for cherry/grape tomato varieties only. They seem to be the hardiest, most prolific pest resistant tomatoes that I know of. What’s the point of growing your own if you have to spray fungicide and pesticide poison all over the place.
Eggplants, chillies and pepper/capsicums will all grow well no matter how hot it gets. Snake beans grow well too, the local markets are often overflowing with them. Asian greens such as bok choi, pak choi are possible, as well as Chinese cabbage or wombok but will probably benefit from some protection from the hottest part of the day. Some varieties of kale may struggle due to the heat. Don’t even bother with broccoli or traditional cabbage, and hearting lettuce varieties are out too. If you really must try lettuce grow an open leaf variety such as oak leaf.
Radishes will do well, plant from seed and they will germinate in a matter of days, you could be pulling them up within 3-4 weeks. They love the heat, and they are versatile. Radishes are best picked smaller and sooner rather than larger and later. The larger, the more bland they become – they lose their peppery zing. Yet on the other hand if you let them go you can just keep picking the leaves for use in salads and soups, and just forget about the harvesting the root. The leaves have a peppery flavour much like arugula. After a few months unpicked radishes will flower and run to seed at which point you can harvest the seed pods or ‘radish peas’ as I like to call them. They are green and juicy, eat them raw straight off the plant or add to salads for a peppery crunch – tastes just like root yet the novelty of snacking on juicy bite-sized radish peas never wears off.
Beetroot is another root crop that will also perform well in the dry season and just like the radishes you can pick the leaves and add them to salads. Sprinkle some fluffy dandelion seed around the garden and perhaps grow some nasturtium, both of which which will take care of themselves and you now have a good mix of salad greens including the radish and beetroot. Even better they are all hardy, relatively pest resistant, full of vitamins and minerals and will taste just as good if not better than any traditional leafy vegetable once tossed and dressed. Dandelion and nasturtium are usually considered weeds but they’re the types of plants I want to grow, the ones that grow themselves. If you can change your perspective, you will reap the rewards!
Really, the easiest way to grow your own food in the tropics is by growing tropical fruit and vegetable varieties that are suited to the climate – as they say….when in Rome!
Start with tropical edibles that are at home in the heat and humidity. Lemongrass, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, galangal, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint for starters.
Vegetables will take off once the humidity hits. Sweet potato, bitter melon, kangkong/water spinach, amaranth/mustard greens and rocket/arugula all grow well. Starchy tubers grow well in hot and humid summers, think taro or cassava otherwise known locally as ‘singkong’. I often see cassava thriving on dusty roadsides. The cassava leaf or ‘daun singkong’ is a mainstay of ‘nasi padang’ and other curries, just be careful to cook it properly and never eat it raw as it can be toxic if prepared incorrectly.
Chokos/chayote which grows on a vine is another versatile vegetable that goes down well in a curry, the fresh vine shoots can be added to stir fry’s and curries.
Papaya is a tree that you can grow quickly from seed, potentially bearing fruit within a year of planting. Green papaya is popular as a vegetable in salads, or ‘rujak’. Papaya juice is great, the seeds and leaves have multiple medicinal uses when infused as teas or even cooked and eaten. The seeds can even be dried and used as a pepper substitute.
Edible gardeners in the temperate regions lament the fact that they don’t have the climate for growing exciting exotic edible plants such as ginger, galangal, turmeric, sweet potato or papaya but here in the tropics we have this fantastic opportunity! It really makes tomatoes, cabbages and broccoli seem bland and boring, and that’s without even discussing the possibilities with the plethora of fruits trees and vines available – now that’s a topic for another day!
Whatever you decide on, always plant in a free draining soil for best results, kangkong/water spinach being the only exception. Good Luck.
‘Hi, I read about the $289 million court case and the glyphosate Roundup, what are the best ways to kill weeds without weed killer? Seems you just can’t stop the weeds in the tropics, just in the home garden and around the paths. Please help.
Thank you in advance. Lucas, UBUD.’
In August, a US Court ordered global chemical giant Monsanto pay $US 289 million to a former school gardener who is dying of cancer, after a jury in California found Roundup (which contains glyphosate) contributed to his illness. They will be appealing of course.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, the IARC, stated that glyphosate is likely carcinogenic, yet just last year the European Union decided to renew the licence for the official use of glyphosate. In the aftermath of the US court case, Monsanto has maintained that its product was an “effective and safe tool for farmers and others”. Hmmm?
The result of the recent court case and linkages to glyphosate came as no surprise to many.
Unfortunately, many are still in the dark to the undeniable dangers. Scientific evidence has shown that glyphosate can cause or accelerate cancer rates. People are spraying it around the environment and it is all over your food. Despite the fact that the dangers of Roundup are gradually becoming well-known, uncovered and exposed by various segments of the community – it still remains in heavy use around the world.
Many are still unaware of the serious health issues attributed to glyphosate, although it has been banned in many places around the world.
Roundup in conjunction with science has given rise to a global industry of genetically modified food. GM food crops like corn and soybean have been designed with glyphosate resistance in mind. Fields are sprayed, weeds controlled and at the same time the crop is left standing. It simplifies farming and weed control in exchange for food covered with Roundup. People are also wholesale spraying it around the garden, and local governments around their parklands and public green spaces too.
Interestingly, after sitting on the data from its glyphosate tests for more than a year, the FDA recently or rather finally made the results public. Tests found glyphosate on 63 percent of corn samples and 67 percent of soybean samples. As a further note of interest there were no oat or wheat samples, the two main crops where glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest drying agent, resulting in glyphosate contamination of foods.
The reported health risks associated with glyphosate exposure has farmers, groundskeepers and gardeners scrambling to find alternatives. Glyphosate is so widely used that traces of the of it have been found in breast milk, beer, wine (even when made with organic grapes), eggs, oatmeal and non-dairy coffee creamer, among other products.
There are also environmental impacts on groundwater, rivers, streams, and oceans, glyphosate has even been detected in rainfall samples. Then there’s the issue of poisons in the food chain.
For the home gardener the best alternatives are to pull the weeds, or if it’s a larger area dig out the entire garden bed, turn the soil and start again. If you spray Roundup everywhere you’ll still have to pull the dead weeds out in the end anyway. Mulch garden beds regularly or grow creeping groundcovers. Mulch with cardboard, newspaper, leaves, straw, wood chips, pebbles, stones etc. Use a sharp hoe, garden fork, or shovel to hand weed, or go for the more permanent solution of installing a weed suppressant membrane.
Manual removal with a shovel, hoe or other tool is an effective spot treatment for most weeds. They may come back and need to be dug out again. When young weeds are caught early and thoroughly dug out, they won’t be able to re-seed and rapidly reproduce.
Experiment with dense ground covers which can naturally prevent weeds from growing underneath. Get creative and use dense low growing flowers or even herbs as ground cover. Culinary herbs such as parsley, mint, thyme or oregano are useful choices which can effectively form a carpet around the base of plants in sparse garden beds. If you’re battling weeds in your lawn, make sure you use grass varieties appropriate for shade, drought or other difficult areas where a conventional lawn might not grow well.
For weeds growing in pavement and cracks, boiling water poured straight from the kettle usually does the job. For any other general weed killing areas using commercial strength vinegar is a proven effective. Commercial grade would normally come with an acetic acid concentration of 20% strength. Normal household vinegar at 5-10% will usually do the job on smaller weeds, but for an effective job on larger hardier ones you’ll need a commercial grade vinegar at around 20% min.
The vinegar will probably be more effective on a hot sunny day. It biodegrades easily, effectively a non-toxic approach to spot killing weeds in opposition to commercial, synthetic and chemical formulas. Vinegar still always needs to be handled with care, so avoid inhaling it or getting it in your eyes. Don’t stand on the wrong side of the wind!
In addition to avoiding toxic sprays, by growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs you will be feeding yourself with the healthiest produce possible free of potential toxins. Buying organic or growing your own is always going to be the best choice when it comes to your food and avoiding toxic chemicals.
Key findings of an Investigative Report into pesticides and produce from EWG (source: www.ewg.org) found that:
The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides a piece.
It was reported in August 2018 that tests commissioned by EWG found glyphosate residues on many popular oat cereals, oatmeal, granola and snack bars. Almost three-fourths of the 45 samples tested had glyphosate levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health within an adequate margin of safety.
All you need to know is that glyphosate has been linked to cancer by California state scientists and the World Health Organization.
In a recent New York Times Opinion piece, environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a group seeking to build clean solutions for the world’s energy needs, notes the possibility and importance of California state legislation.
“The State Senate passed a measure last year that would commit California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, to running on 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Now it is up to the Assembly to provide crucial leadership by passing that legislation, S.B. 100. If any place on earth can handle this transition, it’s California, home to some of the planet’s strongest sunshine and many of its finest clean-tech entrepreneurs.
Already, thanks to strong efforts at efficiency and conservation and the falling price of solar power, the average California household spends almost 50 percent less on energy than the average family in, say, Louisiana. But unless the Assembly passes S.B. 100 before the current session ends, much of that momentum will evaporate. After great organizing (including from my colleagues at 350.org chapters across the state), 72 percent of Californians back the bill; it’s now a test of confidence versus cravenness for members of the Assembly.
The governor, Jerry Brown, has been strangely quiet on S.B. 100, which is odd since it should be the no-brainer capstone to his clean-energy endeavors. After the governor’s years of leading efforts to deal with the demand side of the energy equation, activists are now also demanding he show equal attention to the supply side. His administration routinely grants new permits for oil and gas drilling, leading not only to more carbon emissions but also to drill rigs and derricks next to the houses, schools and hospitals of the state’s poorest residents: From rural Kern County to south-central Los Angeles, nearly 70 percent of the people living near wells are minorities. . . “
American conservatives look back with affection on a time when the “traditional family” assured stability for everyone, but historian Stephanie Coontz reminds us that, like any dream of a golden age, the traditional family evaporates upon close examination. In her recently revised and updated 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Coontz conveys the complex and rapidly changing nature of the family, marriage, and gender relations. It’s often said that people who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but Coontz says, “I’m concerned they think they can repeat the past — which is dangerous.”
Coontz was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington in the 1960s. Instead of pursuing a PhD, she became active in the antiwar and civil-rights movements, serving as a leader in the National Peace Action Coalition. In 1975 she began teaching history and family studies full time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and has also taught in Hawaii and Japan. She is the author of several books, including Marriage: A History and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. In the revised and updated version of The Way We Never Were, published this spring, Coontz examines such topics as same-sex marriage and increasing income inequity. Her website is stephaniecoontz.com.
At the age of seventy-one Coontz is semiretired from her teaching post at Evergreen State but still a fierce advocate for “good history and responsible social policy” as Director of Research and Public Education for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited her work in his majority opinion.
I met Coontz for this interview at her organic farm on the outskirts of Olympia, where she lives with her husband, Will Reissner. Her life was in considerable turmoil: she’d only recently recovered from pneumonia, and her son Kris, a third-year medical resident at Tulane Medical Center in Louisiana, had been badly injured in a hit-and-run accident. I’d given Coontz the option of canceling, but she’d said the interview would provide a needed distraction. When I arrived, she told me, “I’ve been crying a lot, so if I need a break, I’ll let you know.”
We talked for three hours at her dining-room table while Reissner tended to the farm animals outside. Halfway through, Coontz made us lunch with produce from her garden. Even when she showed her frustration with those who disagreed with her, she remained calm and witty. “I don’t like to be too harsh,” she said. “I’m always looking for the kindest way to deliver information.”
Leviton: In The Way We Never Were you identify many myths about marriage, family, and society — a sort of false collective memory that Americans have. What do we get wrong?
Coontz: In this country we are particularly prone to myth-building, perhaps because we built our whole nation on the myth that this was an empty continent, just waiting for us; that we weren’t taking it from anybody.
In the nineteenth century, an emerging market society created the myth of self-reliance. Forgetting the actual experience of settling America, people came to believe that everyone, if they had grit, could pull themselves up alone; they didn’t have to rely on others. Self-reliance was initially seen as a male character trait but later was applied to families in general: families are self-reliant because the men go out and get everything and the women provide the care at home, and the rest of the world can go to hell. The self-reliance myth has now begun to influence women as well.
The “family values” myth is a much more recent development. That phrase wasn’t even familiar to most Americans until 1976. It does not at all describe the kind of moral structures and family relationships that our forefathers and foremothers idealized.
Leviton: What does “family values” mean?
Coontz: That you don’t have sex before marriage, and if you do get married, you stay married if at all possible. Also that marriage is the focus of your obligations, and family is the most important thing in life.
I’ve argued that “family values” are actually antisocial in some ways, because they usually don’t involve connections to other families. I’m always struck by the great difference between the early Americans’ religious beliefs and the current Republican notion of values. The early Americans believed you had responsibilities to the larger community. They didn’t talk about a “Christian family,” because it was too narrow and exclusive. They believed in a Christianity that reached out. Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly rejected the notion that we should have any state sponsorship of one religious faith over another. They wanted to be welcoming to Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. The highest value was to make yourself available to the public.
Leviton: So the conservative idea that men should earn the money and women should stay home and raise the kids was never really traditional?
Coontz: For centuries there was no such thing as a male breadwinner the way most people think of it. Look at medieval paintings, and you’ll see couples running businesses together. Sometimes men would go to sea or take jobs some distance away, and while they were gone, their wives would run the farm or business entirely by themselves.
On a farm the man might plow the fields, but the woman churned the butter — which is a hard job. Believe me, I’ve done it! [Laughs.] Men didn’t “bring home the bacon”; men and women together raised and slaughtered the hogs, and the women took the bacon to market to sell. The man might have been the “head” of the house, because male dominance was the norm, but his wife knew how to do most everything associated with the household and the family business. In the American colonies if a couple ran an inn and the wife died, the authorities would revoke the man’s business license until he remarried; it was obvious he couldn’t run the inn without help.
And men were not uninvolved in social life — quite the opposite. Today, if I invite a male friend to dinner, he often jokes, “Let me have you speak to my social secretary,” meaning his wife. The idea is that women organize dinners, holidays, weddings, funerals, baby showers, and so on. But that wasn’t always true. It was originally men who did that, because social gatherings were a huge source of political and economic power. If you read the diaries of men from hundreds of years ago, you’ll see they were just as interested in throwing parties as the women.
Leviton: As you’ve studied the history of marriage and family, have you ever found what you might call a “natural” set of gender roles?
Coontz: I don’t think so. Women are the ones who bear children, and there are a few fairly constant adaptations to that reality. (I use the word adaptationsbecause I don’t believe these roles are hard-wired into us.) Any society that is small and vulnerable is not going to risk sending its pregnant or nursing mothers on hunting expeditions or to war. Plenty of societies gather food and provisions as a group, though, and women do participate. In many Native American societies some women did join the hunt, either because they were past childbearing age or because they had made a decision not to be mothers. Men have been historically assigned the jobs that require the most physical strength, but women are quite strong; they can work the fields and perform strenuous labor when they aren’t pregnant or nursing.
Leviton: In the U.S. right now highly educated people are more likely to view staying single and having children out of wedlock as OK, but they themselves are more likely to get married and less likely to have children before marriage. If they are so open-minded, why is their behavior so conventional?
Coontz: It’s a good example of how people’s values are poor predictors of what they are going to do, which is why changing someone’s values usually doesn’t cause him or her to behave a certain way. More-educated people tend to recognize there are legitimate reasons why an unmarried woman might have a child. For example, maybe she doesn’t trust her partner to be a good father. But these same more-educated people avoid single parenthood themselves. They would rather get a good education, establish a career, and find a supportive partner first, because they feel confident they can have all that and are willing to wait until they do.
Leviton: My daughter once told me she plans to have a child by the time she turns thirty-two, even if she isn’t married.
Coontz: You might want to tell her that the average age of marriage is trending upward. Even if she reaches forty without a husband, she’s still likely to get married during her lifetime. Also, for a woman in her twenties today, every year she postpones marriage reduces her risk of divorce.
The rules are changing quickly. For the first time in the modern era, the majority of couples are living together before getting married. Not only is cohabitation no longer a threat to marriage, but having an out-of-wedlock baby and then going on to marry no longer puts a couple at a higher risk for divorce. Back in 1990 that would have raised the odds of a couple divorcing by 60 percent. Today it doesn’t raise them at all.
One fascinating thing about studying marriage and families is that these rules are in flux: what worked well in one era doesn’t necessarily work well in another.
Leviton: What are some other examples of how marriage has changed?
Coontz: High-school-educated couples used to be the most marrying type of all; now their marriage rates are almost as low as the high-school dropouts’. College-educated and high-earning women used to be the least likely to marry; now they are the most likely. The marriage partnership has shifted to favor people with more resources, education, and emotional maturity and fewer sources of stress.
Marriage has become harder, not because people did it better in the past, but because we have higher expectations of what a marriage should be. It’s more based on negotiation and the principle that both members will contribute to the breadwinning and the child-rearing. Marriage takes more work than it used to. If you have a demanding job or are wondering where your next paycheck will come from, maybe you don’t have room for marriage in your life. That kind of anxiety deteriorates relationships rapidly.
Prior to the 1990s, having an egalitarian division of labor decreased the quality of your marriage. In 2013 one long-term study showed that couples who divided housework evenly reported less marital and sexual satisfaction and less sex. The study used data from the early nineties, however, which meant those marriages had been entered into in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when sharing housework was a fairly deviant thing to do. Other researchers went back and studied marriages formed in the nineties and found that the couples who share chores equally now report the highest marital satisfaction and the most sex. A complete turnaround.
For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
Leviton: I grew up in a Jewish home, and my parents expected me to marry another Jew. Do couples who share the same religion or spiritual values have a better chance to stay together?
Coontz: It depends on what exactly they are sharing. People who have shared goals that they act upon, whether they are religious or not, tend to have better marriages. My husband and I are completely secular, but we both care about the labor movement and the environment. We find the same reports infuriating when we read the newspaper and the same stories moving when we watch TV. Those shared values are a huge boost for our marriage.
Couples who belong to churches, temples, or mosques that reach beyond the houses of worship do have a better chance of staying together. But religious belief without membership in a faith organization and shared, meaningful activities doesn’t protect people from divorce at all.
Leviton: You’ve referred to increasing gender equality and increasing economic inequality as two “tectonic plates” pushing against each other under the surface of our culture.
Coontz: Since the 1950s there’s been a large increase in the percentage of people who believe it’s wrong to deny others opportunities or rights based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. This equality revolution is incomplete and uneven and still meets furious resistance, but it’s real.
The growth of economic inequality over the same period, however, has been equally striking. The real wages and benefits of less-educated workers have declined. Middle-income workers experience more economic insecurity. Between 1979 and 2012 the income of families in the top 5 percent increased by 75 percent, while for the bottom 60 percent income has fallen or remained flat. The chance that an individual will experience poverty for at least a year has increased dramatically. The risk of being laid off is pervasive, from high-paying and low-paying jobs alike.
These shifts — which I don’t see abating — are not unrelated to the increase in equality in other areas. For example, more gender equality means fewer women need to be rescued economically by men. Women can say no to marriage and carve out their own lives. And when people do marry, they tend to choose a spouse with roughly equal earnings. A man who’s a doctor or an executive is not looking to marry his nurse or secretary anymore. The doctor wants to marry another doctor. This has tended to exacerbate inequality between social classes even as it promotes equality within the marriage.
Leviton: In your new epilogue to the revised edition of The Way We Never Were, you offer statistical evidence that declining marriage rates in black communities, which right-wing politicians often ascribe to the “poor choices” of their inhabitants, are really a result of economic forces.
Coontz: Economics and persistent racism. I especially respect the work of sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, who has shown that in the military, where blacks have actual equality — meaning access to the same income security, the same medical care, the same child care, the same neighborhoods as whites — their marriage rates are higher than whites’ marriage rates.
Leviton: Your work was cited in Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. Let’s talk about that ruling.
Coontz: Kennedy wrote a beautiful and impassioned opinion about how great marriage is, and if you happen to be in a really good one, it will make you swell with pride to read it. But it is not a description of how marriage has alwaysbeen. He claims marriage conferred honor and well-being on couples throughout history. I’m sorry, but at first it conferred those benefits only on men. As late as the 1970s most states defined rape as a man having forcible intercourse with a woman other than his wife. Legally a husband could not be charged with raping his spouse. That hardly confers honor or well-being on her.
Not to knock marriage — I’m in a good one — but as a historian I find it laughable that a Supreme Court justice would reify marriage as universally good. It certainly did not start out that way. People had to work for a long time to make marriage as an institution good. And marriage cannot work well unless people can leave it.
Justice John Roberts, who wrote the dissent, gave an even more ignorant view of what marriage was like in the past. He claimed that for millennia, in all civilizations, the word marriage meant only one thing: a union of a man and a woman that existed to make sure children were raised “in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
I am always amused when people tell me marriage was invented to give each child a mother and father. Not at all. Every culture with a strong institution of marriage also says that unless a child’s parents are wedded, the child has no claim on the mother or father. Throughout the ages many kids were abandoned because of the institution of marriage, not protected by it.
As for the union of “one man and one woman”: Has Roberts never read the Bible? The first five books are about the historically most preferred form of marriage, which is one man and several women. None of the petitioners challenged him when he claimed there’d never been such a thing as same-sex marriage, but we do know of societies that have it, though it’s rare. There have been many less-common types of marriage in human history. There have been “ghost marriages,” in which two families who have agreed to marry their children also arrange that if one of the intended spouses dies, the remaining partner will marry his or her ghost. There are societies in which there’s no difference between marriage and cohabitation. There are societies like that of the Na, in China’s Yunnan Province, in which marriage is not a significant institution at all. Brothers and sisters live together, jointly raising whatever children the women have. They’ve existed for thousands of years without marriage.
Even when the outward form of marriage might look the same, it’s often different inside. Marriage used to mean a man was the boss of his wife and owned everything she brought to the union. When radicals suggested she be allowed to keep her own jewels or earnings, there was an outcry: “Oh, no! This will destroy marriage!”
Leviton: So if the purpose of marriage isn’t the good of the children or the honor and well-being of the couple, what is it?
Coontz: In many societies it ensures that children will carry on the family name. It has also long been one of the main tools used to make sure that families are not isolated from each other. As I was researching The Way We Never Were, I began to realize that marriage initially had to do with getting in-laws, turning strangers into relatives so you wouldn’t have to fight them, or because it made an advantageous trading alliance. As societies became more stratified, though, marriage became a hotbed of intrigue and scheming. Some kings would kill their spouses when marriages didn’t turn out to be as advantageous as originally thought.
Leviton: Does marriage serve a religious purpose?
Coontz: Marriage was originally a private arrangement between families and not sanctioned by any church. Early Christianity did not put marriage at the center. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.”
For a long time you became married simply by declaring it, or by having your parents agree to the union. Even in early-medieval Europe, when the Catholic Church was beginning to gain authority over many areas of society, weddings were conducted by the bride’s and groom’s fathers. A priest might be asked to give a blessing at the end, but it was really the business of the parents.
As kings and bishops jockeyed for power, however, marriage became a way to legitimize claims on political rule and inheritance, and it had to be clear that a marriage was witnessed and accepted by everyone. Religious authorities assumed the power to decide who was married or not, and whether a marriage would be annulled. If some nobleman was trying to break up a marriage — his own or someone else’s — the Church could come in and say, “No, we consider the couple properly married.”
At the same time, the Christian Church opened the door to the possibility of the “love match.” The Church said that if two people swore they had exchanged “words of consent,” it would accept them as married. I suspect this was one more way of thwarting the political alliances of aristocrats.
Leviton: Some scholars claim that “romantic love” as we know it was invented in the Middle Ages.
Coontz: People certainly had the idea of romantic love before that — they just didn’t accept it as a primary motive for marriage. I’ve heard of a man from the Tatai tribe in Pakistan who had four wives and reportedly married only the fourth “for love.” [Laughs.] For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
The most extreme rejection of married love could be found in the French aristocracy before the 1789 revolution: they held that marriage was a strictly mercenary arrangement, and no true love could exist in it. Only adulterous love was possible.
Even when love in marriage was viewed as a possibility, it was considered more important to make an advantageous match. Seventeenth-century British diarist Samuel Pepys married for love and later lamented his wife’s lack of a dowry and social position. Eventually he disinherited his eldest nephew for making the same type of marriage he had made himself.
Leviton: What about in societies without rigorous class systems and inheritances? Was love considered a reason to get married there?
Coontz: In egalitarian tribal societies the young singles seem to have made connections on their own, even if they were pushed in the right direction by parents. In many villages premarital sex was quite accepted, but if the woman stayed overnight and started cooking a meal in the morning, people would conclude, “Oh, they must be married.” [Laughs.] In European villages, too, you could let somebody fall in love, within reason. But the family was such an important center of production that bakers tended to marry other bakers, and shoemakers other shoemakers. You needed someone to help run your business. Love was more of an add-on.
Whether in an African village or a European peasant community, there was pressure to reject anyone who didn’t have land or local connections. The stakes weren’t as high as in the royal courts, but there was still a strong sense that a marriage had to help the community or the extended family; it had to serve a purpose other than love.
Leviton: How long did it take for the “love match” to become predominant in marriage?
Coontz: It developed at different rates for different social classes and in different countries. Aristocrats were slower to adopt it than the lower classes. Long after it had been accepted elsewhere, France was still shaking its head over this idea of “marriage by mystification.” Shakespeare wrote about love matches that worked and those that didn’t. In his tragedies, to be in love with the wrong person leads to disaster. In his comedies, Shakespeare allows love matches, but they are mostly arranged by friends or through magic. There’s a sense that love is something you can manipulate people into feeling.
Two hundred years before Shakespeare, Chaucer wrote about a love match in “The Franklin’s Tale,” but most couples in his Canterbury Tales do not marry for love. People thought it was good to have love in a marriage, but their definition of it was far from romantic passion. The best love was a sort of trust that allowed you to work well together.
Then came the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individual. The French and American Revolutions both promoted the rights of the individual and the “pursuit of happiness,” but not everyone agreed. After the American Revolution one man took out an advertisement in a newspaper trying to find his wife, who had run off. It read, “My wife has left me for no better reason than want of love.” [Laughs.] That’s a perfect example of this transitional period: she was leaving because she didn’t love him, and he was thinking, What kind of a reason is that?
Leviton: The 1800s were a time of tremendous change. You’ve said, “In the nineteenth century women turn into strangers to men.” What happened?
Coontz: The love match represented a new kind of freedom for young people, but it was also risky for women. A woman had to worry that if she fell in love, she might end up with someone who couldn’t support her or would abuse her.
Society as a whole was frightened by the emergence of romantic love. If young people married for love, they wouldn’t necessarily marry the “right” people. They might refuse to marry or demand a divorce if the love died.
Afraid that love would undermine marriage, people created the notion that marriage was necessary because men and women were opposites who couldn’t survive without each other. Women were now seen as more sensitive, more nurturing, and more moral than men — but also weaker, less capable of working outside the home, and less sexual. This was contrary to the medieval view of women as the sexier gender. Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” has a big gap between her teeth, which was taken as a sign of lechery. Prior to the late eighteenth century, women were not seen as weaker or less capable than men, just lower in the social hierarchy. There’s a famous sermon Benjamin Wadsworth gave for wives in the American colonies in which he says that even if the wife is smarter, of higher birth, and wealthier than the husband, “God has made him thy head, and set him above thee, and made it thy duty to love and reverence him.”
In the nineteenth century this attitude gave way to the idea that marriage should be based on love, not obedience, and that a woman needed to be protected by her husband. She was no longer seen as a worker who produces goods to be traded in the marketplace; she sustained the family in a moral sense. A woman’s real work was now the work of love.
The Bible says a virtuous woman is one who works all the time. In the early days of the American republic, virtue also referred to people’s work ethic and “valor.” In the late 1800s it became about sex. Women were to be modest, quiet, weak, and in need of teaching. Men were to provide for them and teach them. Men learned to confuse showing off with love, and women learned to confuse intimidation with infatuation. These new ideals became the basis of 150 years of romance novels and are still screwing us up today.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. . . . A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: How did women respond to being characterized as retiring, pure, moral, chaste beings?
Coontz: They often tried to turn it into a different source of pride and power. One thing they did was emphasize their moral strength. Men were interested only in the world of bank notes and commerce, they believed, whereas women championed morality. Women became important members of the temperance movement, the Salvation Army, and efforts to protect factory workers.
For many women this change in attitudes represented a step up. If they were middle-class, they could now be exempted from hard labor and become educated. That in turn created higher aspirations, which eventually led to the feminist movement. Many of the same advantages were not available to poor women, however.
Leviton: If women were to be protected, did this cut down on domestic violence?
Coontz: Given how high domestic-violence rates remained until the 1960s, I don’t think we can say there was a profound change in behavior. Domestic violence did become more shameful for men, but it still went on. In a landmark 1874 case in North Carolina, the right of a husband to beat his wife was rescinded, but the ruling also said, “If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.” How do you think that worked out for women?
Leviton: There was also an important change to courtship. How did that come about?
Coontz: If women were so precious and incapable of taking care of themselves that they couldn’t venture into the world, then society needed a new way to get men and women together. The solution was to invite the men to “come calling” to the family home. Particularly among the American middle class, this was a well-developed institution. Working-class people met in public places and called it “dating,” but the implication was that it was close to prostitution. Today some people make a similar distinction between dating and “hooking up.”
The girl or her parents had to issue an invitation for a man to come calling. It was considered bad etiquette for a man to invite himself, just as fifty years later it became bad form for a woman to ask for a date. Calling was how people policed this dangerous new idea that men and women should be allowed to make their own choices about marriage: the meetings would be monitored in the family home, and the parents would be sure no dashing rake was invited.
Dating started to replace calling in the 1920s. In her history of dating, From Front Porch to Back Seat, Beth Bailey tells the story, taken from a women’s magazine of the time, of a man who comes to call and finds the woman all dressed up. “No,” she says, “this is a date — we’re going out.” The man is crestfallen because he doesn’t have enough money for a date.
This was a big transition. With dating, the man had to spend money on the woman, which led to the question of how the woman paid him back. One way was sexual favors, but another was to hang on his every word and ask the kind of questions that would make him feel good about himself. Women didn’t even think of this necessarily as flattery; it was reciprocity. This is when women began to think: How can I please him?
Leviton: So it’s not an inherent female characteristic to want to satisfy a man’s needs?
Coontz: An awareness of others’ needs is a human trait. Look at the anxiety men have in tribal societies about what kind of gifts to give and how to maintain trading relationships and negotiate obligations. But it gets deformed under some systems. In the early twentieth century dating created a new kind of pressure on women not to obey men as in the old days but to anticipate their needs.
Leviton: You mentioned scrutiny of female “virtue,” which relates to the matter of out-of-wedlock births. How has the idea of illegitimacy changed over the centuries?
Coontz: There were times and places when it wasn’t such a big deal. In peasant cultures nobody thought twice about it. In fact, showing you were fertile before marriage was probably an advantage.
But with this new middle-class morality, it became dangerous for an unmarried woman to sleep with someone. Today women often get pregnant and later go on to marry, but not back then. In nineteenth-century Germany if a woman slept with her fiancé before marriage, he was entitled to break off the engagement. Children born out of wedlock did not have access to any inheritance. As late as 1968 in the U.S. an out-of-wedlock child could not inherit debts owed to the mother, sue for her wrongful death, nor inherit from her parents.
In the U.S., the response to this nineteenth-century ideology was an increase in premarital chastity. Before the American Revolution, something like a third of all brides were pregnant. That stopped. Women got the message that messing around would ruin lives.
Leviton: Which brings us back to how romantic love was based on the assumption of an essential difference between men and women.
Coontz: The idea that men and women were completely different, and you could not have access to the skills and resources of the other sex unless you wed, put pressure on couples to get married and stay married. But there was now a tremendous strangeness in marriage, a strangeness we have eroticized so much it still serves as the basis for bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey. These books portray women as attracted to powerful men who frighten them. I find this dismaying because it stands in the way of the type of egalitarian relationships that most people now find satisfying in the long run.
This nineteenth-century attempt to make gender differences the basis of marriage wasn’t good for couples. Wives were not supposed to want sex anymore. (When the first sexual-advice book for men came out, men said how glad they were for it, because otherwise they would never have attempted to give their wives pleasure for fear of treating them like mistresses.) Women who suffered sleeplessness, anxiety, and irritability could be diagnosed with “hysteria,” which was viewed as a medical condition of the uterus, the treatment for which was for the doctor to manually stimulate the patient to orgasm — only they didn’t call them orgasms: they were “paroxysms.” The vibrator was invented around that time as a labor-saving device for physicians.
Sigmund Freud came along and redefined hysteria as a mental condition arising from past traumatic experiences, but he reinforced the repressive stereotypes that said a woman could be sexually healthy only if she was passive and wanted to be entered. Freud’s followers claimed that a woman’s sexual fulfillment would be impossible if she had any “masculine” qualities. For a woman to want to have a career was a danger sign. Women were encouraged to renounce all ambition beyond the home and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands. And female psychiatrists were often the strongest advocates of this. Helene Deutsch, who wrote the first book specifically about female psychology in 1923, said that the only way for a woman to fulfill her true being was to celebrate her husband’s achievements. The 1947 bestseller Modern Woman: The Lost Sexaccused career women of symbolically castrating their husbands. In the authors’ view the only thing worse than a married career woman was an unmarried one. This is what women faced in the 1950s. It was pretty awful.
Leviton: Some people see the 1950s as a golden era for the American middle-class family and something we need to get back to.
Coontz: There was a lot of pressure on men and women to marry and start families then. A survey from 1957 found that four out of five Americans believed that anyone who preferred to remain single was either sick, neurotic, or immoral. Same-sex friendship was also declining because of a fear of homosexuality and lesbianism. Affection between women, and especially between men, which had formerly enjoyed widespread acceptance, suddenly became a sign of perversion. There was also an emphasis on cutting the “apron strings” that bound men to their mothers. Historian Rebecca Jo Plant has collected letters from the military publication Stars and Stripes in which enlisted men during World War I talk about how much they miss laying their head on their mother’s breast — totally unselfconscious mother veneration. The Freudians set out to break that connection. Men were told to bond to the nuclear family: leave your mother, stop hanging out with your friends, and find a wife.
Leviton: This places more pressure on the couple’s relationship, which now has to fulfill what used to be fulfilled by other social connections.
Coontz: Yes, it makes marriage a pressure cooker. In the fifties the advice given to women in Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and newspaper columns like “Dear Abby” was to negate every independent aspect of their personality. We’ve got records of psychological counseling in which a woman came in and said she thought her husband might be having an affair, and the counselor’s response was to ask if she’d been keeping up her appearance and figure. Women were told they would be happy and fulfilled only if they gave themselves completely to strong and confident men.
Leviton: During World War II women entered the workforce in large numbers, but in 1946 they were encouraged to go back home and have babies. How did they take this?
Coontz: A lot of them didn’t want to give up their jobs, but they were convinced that the men couldn’t find employment unless the women stepped aside. And there were plenty of carrots luring them to settle down: cheap housing, help with education, and so on. My mother told me she had really liked her wartime job but realized it was time for her to have a child. The drumbeat for women to find themselves through self-sacrifice probably had to do in part with a suspicion that many didn’t want to retreat from the world of work and autonomy. In fact, by the sixties, many women realized that being restricted to homemaking was making them miserable.
Leviton: In your book you refer to one mid-fifties study in which women said they were content with their stay-at-home roles but wanted a different life for their daughters. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Coontz: Although some women in the fifties were desperately unhappy, most were well-off in comparison to what they’d seen their mothers and grandmothers cope with. There were things they didn’t like about their situation, but, by God, they were living in a modern house and didn’t have to chop firewood every day. So they felt guilty when they wanted more for themselves. But they could still envision better lives for their daughters, with more education and opportunities.
Leviton: How were men feeling about marriage in the fifties? Were they, too, enjoying improvements compared to their grandfathers’ lives?
Coontz: Yes, they knew life was better. I think that’s why in the fifties people got married so young. Plenty of men could support a family on a starting salary and depend on it to rise every year.
Leviton: And yet there was an undercurrent of discontent, the suggestion that the breadwinner role was sort of hollow.
Coontz: Yes, particularly in the middle class. For blue-collar workers, who’d never before had a real shot at supporting a family on one income, I think this was a period of increased self-esteem. Even if the tasks in factories were repetitive, the wages were good, and workers were less likely to be killed or hospitalized in an industrial accident. Those showing discontent were in the types of white-collar jobs that women would soon enter. Men had to learn how to get along with other people in the office workplace and be agreeable to bosses. Some men resented this hierarchy, and it made them want to have more power at home. Other men wanted to be free of the pressure to conform. Many fantasized about not having to be breadwinners. Keep in mind, this period also gave us the Beat Generation, which glorified a bohemian lifestyle. But most men were not willing to live like the Beats: they wanted someone to cook their meals.
Leviton: The first issue of Playboy was published in 1953 and represented a kind of protest against puritanism. Its publisher, Hugh Hefner, thought men and women should enjoy sex and not get too attached to each other.
Coontz:Playboy offered a kind of false advocacy for female power. Hefner was a big supporter of abortion rights and birth control, but only because he didn’t want men to be tied down, not because he saw these as tools for women’s liberation.
Leviton: One thing that has changed about marriage since the 1950s is how long people live. Life expectancy has gone way up.
Coontz: “Till death do us part” is a bigger challenge today. Even though we are seeing a decline in divorce rates for people in their prime child-rearing ages, we’ve had a doubling of rates for people over fifty and a tripling for people over sixty-five. Couples have another twenty healthy years of life after the kids have moved out, and some realize that they just don’t want to spend those years with their spouse.
Leviton: What sorts of qualities should men and women look for in partners if they want their marriage to work?
Coontz: I am always leery of giving general advice, because individuals have different temperaments, priorities, and values. What is a great quality in a partner for one person might not be for another. But I can talk about how the predictors of marital success have changed over the decades.
In the 1950s the best predictor of a long marriage was how much each partner adhered to conventional gender roles. Also, because of cultural pressure and economic dependence on men, women tended to do whatever it took to make the marriage work, accommodating themselves to their husbands’ preferences. Today I think you have to know your partner as an individual, not as a gender stereotype, and you have to like him or her in a much more fundamental way. Flexibility is critical in today’s world, where cut-and-dried gender roles, in or out of the home, are no longer desirable to most people and no longer possible in many cases.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. And if your partner needs to change his or her behavior, it’s important to ask for that change without attributing bad motives to the behavior. When you do argue, or when your partner gets angry, look for the soft emotion under the hard one and talk to that. A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: Are there any key signs that a long-term relationship is in trouble?
Coontz: Marriage expert John Gottman says contempt, stonewalling, defensiveness, and generalized criticism (as opposed to raising a specific issue you’d like to address) are major relationship killers. But family researchers are also becoming concerned about low-conflict relationships that just run out of steam because the partners have been too involved in work or parenting to renew and strengthen their ties. This may be a key factor in the rising divorce rate of people over fifty — not fighting so much as leading parallel lives without much interaction.
Leviton: Does not having friendships outside of the marriage cause problems?
Coontz: It can. It’s one thing to have a spouse who’s your closest friend, but it’s another to have a spouse who’s your only friend. That can spell trouble. Sometimes you need other perspectives. If you don’t have them, you may find that you actually have less to offer your spouse.
Leviton: What are the main reasons couples divorce nowadays?
Coontz: The majority of divorces are initiated by women, and among their most frequent complaints are their husband’s lack of commitment or attention — or its opposite, trying to exercise too much control — and unfairness in how responsibilities are divided. Both men and women also cite excessive drinking or drug use, financial irresponsibility, too much fighting, and infidelity. Whether an affair signals the end of a relationship, however, depends on the reason for the affair, the way it is resolved, and the dynamic between the couple. Many couples are able to move beyond such events, painful though they may be.
Leviton: Have the advantages of getting married declined?
Coontz: That’s a trick question. If you’re in a good marriage, the advantages have been increasing, but the automatic advantages of getting married have declined. When a marriage is really working today, it improves your health and wealth, but a bad marriage is actually a health risk, and people who marry and divorce are less happy and often worse off financially than those who never marry.
Some people may seek divorce too fast, but others wait too long. Well-intentioned attempts to slow down the process can backfire, leading to prolonged conflict or contempt that is destructive to children and spouses. When unhappy people stay together, bad behaviors such as infidelity and abuse can escalate, making an amicable parting of ways even harder.
Leviton: If women were paid the same as men for the same job and had the same opportunities in the workplace that men have, do you think fewer women would get married?
Coontz: Women’s economic independence, combined with the growing opportunities for singles to thrive outside marriage, suggests that marriage will never again be as widespread as it was in the past. But I would say that, at this point, the expansion of women’s equality and empowerment is the best hope for marriage and committed heterosexual partnerships to survive at all.
When women first started struggling for equality, it disrupted the social order. The men got defensive; divorce rates increased; women had fewer children, because they weren’t getting the support they needed. In Italy men started staying home with Mom, because their girlfriends and wives wouldn’t treat them as gods anymore. But in countries that have gender equality in combination with male participation in child care — because employment policies make it possible for couples to take equal responsibility — we are seeing lower divorce rates for women who work outside the home compared to homemakers. This hasn’t happened in the U.S. because we don’t have those employment policies, but several studies in England and northern Europe show that if men are willing to pitch in with housework, women are more willing to have a second baby. So people concerned about declining fertility rates in Western democracies might want to stop telling women to give up their careers and start telling men to help out.
Leviton: And we need policies like paid parental leave that provide real support for married couples.
Coontz: Absolutely. Our efforts are going in the wrong direction. People don’t get married because you preach at them; they get married because they are in a good relationship and because their lives are stable enough for them to believe this partnership could work. When wages were raised in Wisconsin, Michigan, and other places, marriage rates rose and divorce rates fell — this after hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent promoting marriage as a way to combat poverty and illegitimacy hadn’t made a dent in the divorce rate or the poverty rate.
We’re not going to get everyone to marry — which is a good thing, because some marriages are bad — but if we want to help those who do marry to stay married, paternity leave should be just as high on the agenda as maternity leave. To say it costs too much money is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
Leviton: You have done a lot of myth-busting in your books, but your work is clearly not done.
Coontz: I have a favorite quote from the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal: “Ignorance is never random.” The things we do not bother to learn are the ones we do not want to know or cannot deal with. If you’re reading a history book, you might skim over the part that’s telling you something you’d rather not take into account.
Conservative politicians are quick to tell us what’s wrong with the black family, or teenagers, or gay marriage, but they have made little effort to learn the facts. Listening to today’s political debates, I’ve been stunned by how many myths are still in circulation. Politicians suggest that if you get an education, get a job, and get married, then you won’t be poor anymore. Yeah, right. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. That sequence is a description of what successful people are able to do, not a recipe for becoming a successful person.
Leviton: Do families receive less government support now than they used to?
Coontz: It depends what kind of support you are talking about. There were no supports for working parents prior to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. So we have more than we used to. Unfortunately that act is now inadequate, because 60 percent of children grow up in homes in which all adults are in the labor force. The U.S. has failed to keep up with the growing need for policies that allow people to combine work and family responsibilities. That’s one reason parents in the U.S. report themselves to be considerably less happy than non-parents, in contrast to countries such as Sweden, where parents are happier than nonparents, because the government supports working parents.
Leviton: Are you optimistic that civil rights and gender equality will continue to expand?
Coontz: In some ways I am. Most people today are convinced that it’s wrong to deny rights on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. The problem is that some now want to deny the extent to which discrimination still exists in society. To be “colorblind” or “genderblind” means losing sight of the way that discrimination has been institutionalized and can continue to operate even without specific intent. And in fact, despite progress for middle-class minorities and women, we’ve barely made a dent in the concentrated poverty in which many blacks and Latinos are trapped. We’ve actually seen reproductive rights rolled back for poor people, with some fairly disastrous results. Self-induced abortions are going up in places like Texas. We know that women who are denied abortions are much more likely to become depressed and be victims of domestic violence than comparable women who are able to get them. If we don’t look at what’s happening to low-income women and just keep believing that women already have equality, the situation could get even worse. We can’t be like those people who think that, because we have a black president, racism is over, and any black person who doesn’t climb the economic ladder must have a personal problem.
Leviton: Is there a year in our history you would want to return us to?
Coontz: No, there’s no golden age. You can cherry-pick one aspect of the past you’d like to have back, but, sorry, that’s not the way the world works. You’d have to take the package deal. A return to the late nineteenth century could put a child in the arms of a loving, middle-class mother whose husband didn’t abuse her, or in an abusive home from which there was no escape, or in a sweatshop. They all existed at the same time.
We know that the income gap is growing in the U.S. More and more people are having to work two or three jobs just to break even each month. If you miss one payment on our credit card, your interest can jump to 23% or more (as young people we know have found out). Before the previous U.S. government regulations stopped it, Wells Fargo, for instance, was allowed to charge 300% interest! Now the the current U.S. administration is proposing to let banks return to giving high interest small loans. We talk about the 1% in the U.S. who have most of the money – and we want them to change, to be compassionate, to be fair.
But what if we (yes, I’m including you – and me – who have time to read this instead of working an extra job) were part of the problem? What if we are in the 9.9% who keep the other 90% down? The article, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy” by Matthew Stewart in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic, makes me reflect on the unearned benefits in my life. Awareness is the first step toward change. Read this article and see what you think – and consider what you can do.
Instead of just blaming the 1%, we could be doing more – much more – to promote justice and equality.
FILE – In this Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011, file photo, Occupy Wall Street protesters join a labor union rally in Foley Square before marching on Zuccotti Park in New York’s Financial District. The richest Americans got richer during the first two years of the economic recovery while average net worth declined for the other 93 percent of U.S. households, says a report released Tuesday, April 23, 2013. The report is the latest to point up financial inequality that has been growing among Americans for decades, a development that helped fuel the Occupy Wall Street protests. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)Image from: https://www.theatlantic.com/membership/archive/2018/06/the-masthead-discusses-a-new-american-aristocracy/562760/
Not only was his great-grandfather Oscar Mayer, of hot-dog fame, and thus Chuck Collins had four generations of stable wealth in his family, but Collins also came to realize as a white male American born into a family in the wealthiest 1 percent, he had great privileges while his neighbors in Detroit dealt with grave racial and economic and societal challenges and inequities.
Among other ideas, Collins sees, “The wealthy need to care about other people’s kids, too. If your kid is getting a debt-free college education because of your family’s wealth, then you should fight like hell for every other kid to have the same opportunity. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle of inequality” (10).
In the following interview with Megan Wildhood, published in The Sun, (February 2018, Issue 506, p. 6-14), Collins shares why we must recognize that we are all completely intertwined in ways we haven’t even begun to understand – and take personal action to support equality and justice – in nature , in community, with other sentient beings.
Please read the following link for Chuck Collins insights and good ideas:
Also, the most recent issue of Yes magazine focuses on affordable housing. It’s a fabulous collection of examples of what is actually being done. Included is Collins’ commentary: “Make Them Pay: The Global Wealth-Hiding, Ultra-Rich Elites”
Recently, New Philosopher magazine published an article by Massimo Pigliucci that we think you’ll find interesting – and useful for your own life:
“People think that philosophy is about pondering, and ideally answering, questions like the following ones: Does life have meaning? What is a life worth living? How can we best deal with the negative moments in life? But if you walk into a typical modern philosophy university department, seeking a professor to help you out with those queries, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, you will be offered training in formal logic (which doesn’t hurt, for sure), a bit of history of philosophy (mostly dead white men, but increasingly less so of late), and a lot of thought experiments based on absurdly unlikely situations – such as a trolley bearing down a track and about to kill five people, unless you push a fat man (sorry, a corpulent individual) off a bridge, thus trading one innocent life for five others.
That’s too bad, as philosophy used to be eminently practical. Indeed, in ancient Athens and Rome the questions above were precisely the ones you would ask Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Diogenes of Sinope, Cicero, Epictetus, or countless others who spent their lives trying to help people figure out the best way to navigate existence. So, despite being myself an academic philosopher (specialty: philosophy of science), I will endeavour to answer those three questions from a particular perspective, that of the Hellenistic philosophy known as Stoicism, of which I try to be a decent practitioner.
Let’s start with the first one on the list: Does life have meaning? The Stoics were materialists, believers in universal cause and effect. They were also very much into science (as we would call it today), and understood that human beings are a particular kind of animal, with two distinctive characteristics: we are highly social, and we are capable of reason. It follows that we should, as they put it, live life “according to nature”, meaning human nature. And this translates to the notion that our purpose in life is to use our intellect to help others, to make society a better place for everyone to live in. As Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, wrote: “As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.”
Well that was easy, wasn’t it? OK, on to the second question: What is a life worth living? Here the Stoics had an immediate and unflinching answer: a life of virtue, specifically one in which we practise the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate morally complex situations in the best possible way); courage (to stand up and do the right thing); justice (knowing what is the right thing to do); and temperance (acting in right measure – not too much, not too little).
The reason for this emphasis on virtue, and therefore on the development of one’s character, is eminently Socratic. Socrates argued in the Euthydemus that wisdom (of which the four virtues are different aspects) is the only thing that is always good, because it can never be used to do bad. Everything else, including wealth, health, education, and all the other externals, are morally neutral: they can be deployed for a good or a bad use, depending on the character of the individual. The life worth living, then, is one by the end of which you can look back and think, yes, that was a good thing. As Epictetus tells his students, that judgement isn’t going to depend on whether you’ll be rich, or famous, or whatever, but only on who you are as a person, and hence on your relationships with others:
The following are non sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’
The last question that remains to be addressed is: How can we best deal with the negative moments in life? The temptation is to play on the common stereotype of Stoics as people who go through life with a stiff upper lip and respond, “well, life is tough, deal with it”. But the actual Stoic take is more sophisticated. It is centred on what is known as the dichotomy of control, which Epictetus famously summarises at the beginning of the Enchiridion:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.
If this sounds familiar it is because the same sentiment is found in 8th century Buddhism, 11th century Judaism, and – of course – in the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer adopted by 12-step organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is to make a sharp distinction between what is completely under our control, what actually defines us, and everything else, whether it is entirely outside of our control (like, say, the weather) or if we can influence it but ultimately do not control it. That is why Epictetus puts in the second class things like our body, reputation, and career. Sure, I can influence my body by going to the gym regularly and sticking to a healthy diet, but disease could strike at any moment, through no doing of my own. Yes, I can influence my reputation, or make career choices, but the outcomes are not entirely in my hands.
This implies, according to the Stoics, that we should aim at internalising our goals, while at the same time developing an attitude of equanimity towards whatever the universe throws our way. This is most definitely not a counsel for passive acceptance: we ought to do our best in whatever it is to which we apply our mind. But we also need to enjoy (without glee or arrogance) when things go our way, and accept (without resentment or self pity) when they do not. Why? Because that is the way the world works, and a sure recipe for unhappiness is to constantly assume that the world isn’t the way it actually is.
If we succeed in internalising the dichotomy of control, Epictetus promises us that we “will never be subject to force or hindrance, [we] will never blame or criticise anyone, and everything [we] do will be done willingly.” Now that’s a recipe for a life worth living!”
“Imagine you open the faucet of your kitchen sink expecting water and instead out comes cash. Now imagine that it comes out at the rate of $1 million a minute. You call your plumber, who thinks you’re crazy. To get you off the phone, he opines that it is your sink and therefore must be your money. So you spend it wildly. Then you realize that the money wasn’t yours and you owe it back.
Now imagine that this happens every minute of every day for the next three years. At the end of the three years, you owe back more than $6 trillion. So you borrow $6 trillion to pay back the $6 trillion you owe.
Is this unending spigot of cash reality or fantasy?I am not speaking of Amazon or Google or Exxon Mobil or Apple. They deliver products that appeal to consumers and investors. They deal in copious amounts of money because they sell what hundreds of millions of people want to purchase and they do it so efficiently that hundreds of thousands want to invest in them. If they fail to persuade consumers to purchase their products and investors to purchase their financial instruments, they will go out of business.My analogy about all that cash in your kitchen sink that just keeps coming is not about voluntary commercial transactions, which you are free to accept or reject. It is about the government’s spending what it doesn’t have, the consequences of which you are not free to reject.
Government produces no products that consumers are willing to pay for voluntarily, and it doesn’t sell shares of stock in its assets. It doesn’t generate wealth; it seizes it. And when it can no longer politically get away with seizing, it borrows. It borrows a great deal of money — money that it rolls over, by borrowing trillions to pay back trillions to prior lenders, and thus its debt never goes away.
Last week, after eight years of publicly complaining that then-President Barack Obama was borrowing more than $1 trillion a year to fund the government — borrowing that the Republicans silently consented to — congressional Republicans, now in control of Congress and with a friend in the Oval Office, voted to spend and hence borrow between $5 trillion and $6 trillion more than tax revenue will produce in the next three years; that’s a few trillion more than they complained about in the Obama years.
That’s borrowing $1 million a minute.
Obviously, no business or household or bank can survive very long by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Yet the federal government, no matter which party controls Congress or the presidency, engages in staggering borrowing — borrowing that will cripple future generations by forcing them to pay for goods and services that were consumed before they were born.
The government has often borrowed to meet critical emergency needs, typically during wartime. Indeed, the country was born in debt when Alexander Hamilton, the father of big government, offered the idea that the new federal government created by the Constitution could purchase the fidelity of the states by assuming their Revolutionary War debts.But those debts were paid back using inflation, gold and tax dollars, and the country enjoyed sporadic periods of nearly debt-free government. Then three unhappy events coincided about 100 years ago: Woodrow Wilson — the father of modern-day big government — was elected president, and he brought us into the useless battle over national borders among old European royalty called the Great War, and he financed American participation in that first World War using the new printing presses owned by the new Federal Reserve System.The $30 billion President Wilson borrowed from the Federal Reserve and others has been rolled over and over and has never been repaid. The federal government still owes the $30 billion principal, and for that it has paid more than $15 billion in interest. Who in his right mind would pay 50 percent interest on a 100-year-old debt? Only the government.
Wilson’s $30 billion debt 100 years ago has ballooned to $20.6 trillion today. At the end of President Donald Trump’s present term — because of the Republican budget signed into law — the government’s debt will be about $27 trillion.
That amount is a debt bomb waiting to explode. Here’s why. Every year, the federal government collects about $2.5 trillion in revenue and spends it all. It borrows another $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion and spends it all. To avoid paying back any of the $27 trillion it will owes, the federal government will need to spend about $1 trillion a year in interest payments.
That $1 trillion is 40 percent of the revenue collected by the federal government; that’s 40 cents on every dollar in tax revenue going to interest on old debts — interest payments that are legally unavoidable by taxpayers and voters.
Will the taxpaying public tolerate this much longer? What would happen if taxpayers stopped paying taxes because 40 percent of what they’ve been paying has produced nothing for them? Would investors stop lending money to the government because of fear that the government could not pay them back? The Constitution requires the government to pay its debts. Would the government’s creditors acquire control of the government’s fiscal policy in order to pay themselves back? The government’s biggest creditor is one of its biggest menaces — the government of China. Borrowing money at $1 million a minute is digging a hole out of which we will never peacefully climb. President Obama’s and President Trump’s own military and intelligence chiefs have argued that the national debt — not the Russians or the Islamic State group or the North Koreans — is the greatest threat to freedom and security that we face today. Why are Congress and President Trump not listening?” [my emphasis]By – * Andrew Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel.
“On The Brink,” written by The New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos (9/18/17, p. 34-53) is the best piece I’ve found to explain the history and the dynamics of the situation in North Korean and the reasons for tensions with the U.S. now.
“A military officer at the D.M.Z. This summer, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea, the most hermetic power on the globe, entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War.
Photograph by Max Pinckers for The New Yorker
1. The Madman Theory
The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so there is no embassy in Washington, but for years the two countries have relied on the “New York channel,” an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to handle the unavoidable parts of our nonexistent relationship. The office has, among other things, negotiated the release of prisoners and held informal talks about nuclear tensions. In April, I contacted the New York channel and requested permission to visit Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. . . .
Americans are accustomed to eruptions of hostility with North Korea, but in the past six months the enmity has reached a level rarely seen since the end of the Korean War, in 1953. The crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides. In the six years since Kim Jong Un assumed power, at the age of twenty-seven, he has tested eighty-four missiles—more than double the number that his father and grandfather tested. Just before Donald Trump took office, in January, he expressed a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea, a prospect that previous Presidents dismissed because it would risk an enormous loss of life. Trump has said that in his one meeting with Barack Obama, during the transition, Obama predicted that North Korea, more than any other foreign-policy challenge, would test Trump. In private, Trump has told aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.”
On the Fourth of July, North Korea passed a major threshold: it launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach the mainland United States. In response, on July 21st, authorities in Hawaii announced that they would revive a network of Cold War-era sirens, to alert the public in the event of a nuclear strike. Trump said that he hopes to boost spending on missile defense by “many billions of dollars.” On September 3rd, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon far larger than any it had revealed before—seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, warned that a threat to America or its allies would trigger a “massive military response.”
A few days after the July 4th missile test, Pak told me that I could book a flight to Pyongyang. I submitted a list of people I wanted to interview, including diplomats and Kim Jong Un himself. About the latter, Pak only laughed. (Kim has never given an interview.) After Pak stopped laughing, he said I could talk to other officials. I wanted to understand how North Koreans think about the kind of violence that their country so often threatens. Were the threats serious, or mere posturing? How did they imagine that a war would unfold? Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States.
Outside the Administration, the more people I talked to, the more I heard a strong case for some level of diplomatic contact. When Obama dispatched James Clapper to Pyongyang, in 2014, to negotiate the release of two prisoners, Clapper discovered that North Korea had misread the purpose of the trip. The government had presumed that he was coming in part to open a new phase in the relationship. “They were bitterly disappointed,” he said. Clapper’s visit convinced him that the absence of diplomatic contact is creating a dangerous gulf of misperception. “I was blown away by the siege mentality—the paranoia—that prevails among the leadership of North Korea. When we sabre-rattle, when we fly B-1s accompanied by jet escorts from the Republic of Korea and Japan, it makes us feel good, it reassures the allies, but what we don’t factor in is the impact on the North Koreans.”
Clapper went on, “I think that what we should do is consider seriously, in consultation with South Korea, establishing an interest section in Pyongyang much like we had in Havana for decades, to deal with a government that we didn’t recognize. If we had a permanent presence in Pyongyang, I wonder whether the outcome of the tragedy of Otto Warmbier might have been avoided. Secondly, it would provide on-scene insight into what is actually going on in North Korea—intelligence.”
It is a measure of how impoverished America’s contact with North Korea has become that one of the best-known conduits is Dennis Rodman, a.k.a. the Worm, the bad boy of the nineties-era Chicago Bulls. Rodman’s agent, Chris Volo, a hulking former mixed-martial-arts fighter, told me recently, “I’ve been there four times in four years. I’m in the Korean Sea, and I’m saying to myself, ‘No one would believe that I’m alone right now, riding Sea-Doos with Kim Jong Un.’ ” Rodman’s strange bond with Kim began in 2013, when Vice Media, aware of Kim’s love of the Bulls, offered to fly American basketball players to North Korea. Vice tried to contact Michael Jordan but got nowhere. Rodman, who was working the night-club autograph circuit, was happy to go. He joined three members of the Harlem Globetrotters for a game in Pyongyang. Kim made a surprise appearance, invited Rodman to dinner, and asked him to return to North Korea for a week at his private beach resort in Wonsan, which Rodman later described as “Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there.” . . .
Ultimately, the Trump Administration must decide if it can live with North Korea as a nuclear state. During the Cold War, the United States used deterrence, arms control, and diplomacy to coexist with a hostile, untrustworthy adversary. At its height, the Soviet Union had fifty-five thousand nuclear weapons. According to the RAND Corporation, the North Koreans are on track to have between fifty and a hundred by 2020; that would be less than half the size of Great Britain’s arsenal.
Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s national-security adviser, argued, in a Times Op-Ed last month, that the U.S. can “rely on traditional deterrence” to blunt North Korea’s threat. But McMaster is skeptical that the Soviet model can be applied to Pyongyang. He told me, “There are reasons why this situation is different from the one we were in with the Soviets. The North Koreans have shown, through their words and actions, their intention to blackmail the United States into abandoning our South Korean ally, potentially clearing the path for a second Korean War.”
If the Administration were to choose a preventive war, one option is “decapitation,” an effort to kill senior leaders with a conventional or even a nuclear attack, though most analysts consider the risks unacceptable. Such a strike could rally the population around the regime and cause a surviving commander to respond with a nuclear weapon. Another option is akin to Israel’s 1981 stealth attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor, the linchpin of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons development, which set back Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by at least a decade. “That’s a textbook case of a preventive war,” the senior Administration official told me.
But the comparison between Osirak and North Korea is limited. In 1981, Iraq had yet to make a bomb, and it had just one major nuclear target, which was isolated in the desert and relatively easy to eliminate. North Korea already has dozens of usable nuclear warheads, distributed across an unknown number of facilities, many of them hidden underground. Even destroying their missiles on the launch pad has become much harder, because the North has developed mobile launchers and solid-fuel missiles, which can be rolled out and fired with far less advance notice than older liquid-fuel missiles.
The Obama Administration studied the potential costs and benefits of a preventive war intended to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Its conclusion, according to Rice, in the Times, was that it would be “lunacy,” resulting in “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casualties.” North Korea likely would retaliate with an attack on Seoul. The North has positioned thousands of artillery cannons and rocket launchers in range of the South Korean capital, which has a population of ten million, and other densely populated areas. (Despite domestic pressure to avoid confrontation, South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, has accepted the installation of an American missile-defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.)
Some two hundred thousand Americans live in South Korea. (Forty thousand U.S. military personnel are stationed in Japan, which would also be vulnerable.) A 2012 study of the risks of a North Korean attack on Seoul, by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, estimates that sixty-five thousand civilians would die on the first day, and tens of thousands more in the days that followed. If Kim used his stockpiles of sarin gas and biological weapons, the toll would reach the millions. U.S. and South Korean forces could eventually overwhelm the North Korean military, but, by any measure, the conflict would yield one of the worst mass killings in the modern age.
In dozens of conversations this summer, in the United States and Asia, experts from across the political spectrum predicted that, despite the threats from Trump and McMaster, the U.S. most likely will accept the reality of North Korea as a nuclear state, and then try to convince Kim Jong Un that using—or selling—those weapons would bring about its annihilation. John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul, said, “If, one day, an American President comes along—maybe Trump—who understands the problem is the hostile relationship, and takes steps to improve it, then the slow train to denuclearization could leave the station.”
Managing a nuclear North Korea will not be cheap. It will require stronger missile defenses in South Korea, Japan, Alaska, and Hawaii, and more investment in intelligence to track the locations of North Korea’s weapons, to insure that we pose a credible threat of destroying them. Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “I think we’re going to end up in a situation where we live with a nuclear-capable North Korea, but it will be a situation that is incredibly dangerous. Because, at that point, any unexplained move that looks like it could involve preparations for a nuclear strike could precipitate an American preëmptive response.” Even that risk, by almost all accounts, is better than a war. . . .
IV. “We’re Not Going to Die Alone . . .
Jo wrapped up with a grand farewell. “I know that The New Yorker is very influential and I’ve received good feelings through our dialogue today,” the translator said. “I’d be grateful if you just write articles which are conducive to the improved bilateral relations between the D.P.R.K. and the U.S.”
. . .
I had wondered what it must be like to experience the United States through the fog of Twitter. It turned out that it wasn’t much different from Americans trying to make sense of North Korea through its propaganda.
After breakfast one morning, Mr. Pak drove me to a subway station in downtown Pyongyang, and announced, “This is for the nuclear war.”
By now, I was accustomed to his chipper declarations about an imminent cataclysm, but this one baffled me. He explained, “Everything here has a dual-use purpose.” He pointed to an underpass, beneath an intersection, which he said can serve as a shelter. In the back yards of apartment blocks, residents can take cover in storage cellars. Surrounded by commuters, we boarded an escalator, heading down to the station.
Built in the seventies, with Russian help, the Pyongyang Metro lies a hundred metres underground, nearly twice as far as the deepest platform in the New York City subway. Pyongyang stations are equipped with large blast doors. “During the Korean War, we were threatened by nukes,” Pak said. In 1950, President Truman raised the possibility of using the atomic bomb in Korea. “It touched our people’s minds,” he said, adding, “We don’t want that to happen again. And now we’ve got nukes and we can comfortably say, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
In the event of a nuclear war, American strategists assume that North Korea would first launch a nuclear or chemical weapon at an American military base in Japan or Guam, in the belief that the U.S. would then hold its fire, rather than risk a strike on its mainland. I mentioned that to Pak, but he countered with a different view. “The point of nuclear war is to give total destruction to another party,” he said. “There are no moves, no maneuvers. That’s a conventional war.”
When we reached the subway platform, we were treated to patriotic orchestral music playing on the loudspeaker. Broadsheet newspaper pages were hung behind glass for people to read while they waited for the train. The scene reminded me of thirty-year-old photos I’ve seen of Beijing. We rode the train awhile, and then got on the escalator for the long ascent to the surface.
I was glad to be back in the open air. We got in the Toyota, and Pak said, “If the U.S. puts sanctions and sanctions and sanctions and sanctions, if they drive us to the edge of the cliff, we will attack. That’s how the world wars have started.” He thought awhile and then said, “Don’t push us too hard, because you’re going to start a war. And we should say, we’re not going to die alone.”
This was a familiar refrain. Some of the American officials in Washington who are immersed in the problem of North Korea frequently mention the old Korean saying “Nuh jukgo, nah jukja!” It means “You die, I die!” It’s the expression you hear in a barroom fight, or from an exasperated spouse—the notion that one party will go over the cliff if it will take the other down, too. Krys Lee, a Korean-American author and translator, said, “My mother also used it on me!” Lee finds that it’s hard for Americans and Koreans to gauge each other’s precise emotions, because Koreans tend to use “more abstract, dramatic, and sentimental language.” . . .
. . .
The mythology was no surprise, but one exhibit contained a stark implication for the current crisis. Beside the museum, we boarded the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Navy spy ship that was captured in January, 1968, long after the end of the Korean War. The seizure—during a surge of hostilities not unlike the present—was an audacious gamble on North Korea’s part. One American crew member was killed and eighty-two were detained. Lyndon Johnson considered retaliating with a naval blockade or even a nuclear strike. But he was consumed by the war in Vietnam, and, in the end, he did not retaliate. After eleven months, the U.S. apologized for spying and won the release of the prisoners.
The Pueblo incident nearly started a war, but Kim Il Sung drew a powerful, and potentially misleading, lesson from it. In a private conversation in 1971, Kim told Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian President, that the Pueblo and other standoffs had convinced him that Washington backs down. “The Americans don’t want to continue this fight,” he said, according to documents in Romania’s state archives. “They let us know it’s not their intention to fight the Koreans again.”
Van Jackson, a scholar of international relations who served in the Pentagon from 2009 to 2014, spent years analyzing the Kim family’s handling of crises, including the seizure of the Pueblo. The grandfather’s theory of victory still drives North Korea toward provocation, he said, but the regime also knows its limits; to survive, it chooses violence but avoids escalation. “When South Korea blares giant propaganda speakers at the North from the D.M.Z., North Korea fires warning shots nearby but doesn’t dare attack the speakers themselves,” he said. “When South Korean N.G.O.s send propaganda leaflets into North Korea using hot-air balloons—which really pisses them off—North Korea threatens to attack the N.G.O.s but instead just fires at the unmanned balloons.” In Jackson’s view, North Korea is not irrational, but it very much wants America to think that it is.
Jackson believes that the Trump Administration’s threat to launch a preventive war begins a new phase. “Trump may abandon the one thing that has prevented war in the past: U.S. restraint,” he told me. In embracing new rhetoric and rationale, the U.S. risks a spiral of hostility in which neither side intends to start a war but threats and intimidation lead to ever more aggressive behavior. Trump and Kim may goad each other into the very conflict that they are both trying to avoid.
In 1966, Thomas Schelling, the deterrence expert, wrote that brinkmanship hinges, above all, on “beliefs and expectations.” Our grasp of North Korea’s beliefs and expectations is not much better than its grasp of ours. To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear moment is to be struck, most of all, by how little the two understand each other. In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks. We simply don’t know how Kim Jong Un really regards the use of his country’s nuclear arsenal, or how much North Korea’s seclusion and mythology has distorted its understanding of American resolve. We don’t know whether Kim Jong Un is taking ever-greater risks because he is determined to fulfill his family’s dream of retaking South Korea, or because he is afraid of ending up like Qaddafi.
To some in the Trump Administration, the gaps in our knowledge of North Korea represent an argument against deterrence; they are unwilling to assume that Pyongyang will be constrained by the prospect of mutually assured destruction. But, if the alternative is a war with catastrophic costs, then gaps in our knowledge should make a different case. Iraq taught us the cost of going to war against an adversary that we do not fully understand. Before we take a radical step into Asia, we should be sure that we’re not making that mistake again. ♦
Reporting and photography for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
"Shanghai Street Stories" by Sue Anne Tay
Originally from Singapore, Sue Anne Tay has lived in the U.S., England, and now China. She is a talented street photographer who gets the stories behind her photos. You are likely to love her posts.
Check out the terrific programs for sustainable living. Go experience living on a kibbutz for a week or more.
Pick Up Americad bl
This is an old blog, but it is an example of what one person can do with a good idea. On the road for 24 months, Davey Rogner and friends have walked across the U.S. picking up litter and making people more conscious.
She and her husband Danny taught at ZAFU last year and are now at Xiamen University. Ruth records their experiences.
Where was Johnny and how is Captain Rob doing?
Check out Captain Rob’s sail blog. He and Johnny were in the Solomon Islands (famous for JFK’s PT boat & previously cannibalism; now the islands are known for their beautiful coral reefs and great surfing)