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The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror Paperback – June 26, 2007
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"It is hard to deny [Soros'] thorough familiarity with today's profoundly interdependent world." -- The St. Louis Post Dispatch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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First you must get past the jargon of his theory of reflexivity, extreme disequlibrium, and the intersection of cognitive and participatory functions, etc etc. "This fact, that our thinking forms part of what we think about, has far reaching implications both for our thinking and for reality. It sets some insuperable obstacles to understanding reality and it also renders reality different from what we understand it to be. Some aspects of reality permit us to acquire knowledge but others are not amenable to dispationate understanding and reality as a whole belongs to that category." and that is only on page 4.
We live in an uncertain world, and we must make decisions based on less than perfect information. Reality is ever changing and flexibility is essential. In a world of uncertainty good decisions can yield bad results. Results from even the brightest often succeed and fail on randomness. As a very succesful financial trader he knows this better than most.
He is generous in admitting his own failures in assessing some of his foundation work developing open societies (a society that knows that truth is uncertain and unknowable and therefore tolerates multiple views,) but there is a critical difference between the success he has enjoyed in the world of markets and the success he can hope for in global politics.
In the financial markets you can be wrong more than half the time and still win big, if you control your losses and let your winners ride. In the political world you can be right 90% of the time and still lose elections or cause disastrous conflicts.
While Bush's rhetoric may have caused damage and while he certainly may have made mistakes, Soros sinks into quasi conspiracy and sinister theories instead of recognizing actions for what they probably really are: difficult actions based on imperfect information in an uncertain world in the paranoid aftermath of 911.
Yes he can blame Bush for polarizing Muslim factions, but he could have also held the Arab world to some accountability, the Europeans, Russians, Chinese , and Koreans for supplying them, and the UN for doing their bidding.
Short of blaming Bush and the Americans for their 'feel good' society Soros offers little in the way of addressing the growing threat and clear evil of Islamic Fascism. Perhaps the fallibility he should address is that of his own fine intelligence and experience.
The abstract concepts at the start of the book are interesting and, I think, are valid. Also, I do like the manner in which George Soros links his thought to his personal work. I do get the impression that he does walk the talk. He is willing to admit his own fallibility, and this is something I like.
Yet, I don't quite understand how the book is all about the consequences of the war on terror. His ideas around the 'feel good' and 'open' societies are good, and and can be books in themselves. India, for instance, is not really an open society anymore.
However, some more thoughts around the war on terror would have been welcome.
Yet ironically in the open society (the European Union, the United States, et al.) pure reason does not rule, partly because the pure product of the rational mind is unobtainable because of what might be seen as Russell's paradox acting in the human world. Bertrand Russell discovered (after Godel) that self-referencing systems lead eventually to paradox. What Soros is arguing is that because our perception of the world is self-referential to some extent--that is, how we think about the world colors our perception of the world--we can never see the world "as it really is," and so our view is fallible. In fact, in most aspects of life, especially in the social, economic and political spheres, our perception actually changes reality, and so reality is a "moving target" and as such can never be captured. He calls this "reflexivity." He also dubs it the "human uncertainty principle" since our perception of the world, as our perception of quantum events, alters what is being perceived.
Soros goes on to argue that all cultures are built upon what he calls "fertile fallacies." The cultural ideas are false but they are successful (for a while) because of a positive feedback system, similar to the boom and bust phenomenon in financial markets. People believe that tulips have great intrinsic value, ergo, tulips have great intrinsic value and become worth more than gold. For a while. Eventually "reality" kicks in and the bust comes. So it is with cultures. Nazi Germany boomed magnificently (compared to the immediate aftermath of WWI), but soon went bust because it was built on fallacies. Ditto the Soviet Union.
All this Soros explains carefully and at some length. Then comes the important point: open societies can better avoid the boom and bust syndrome because unlike closed societies they are not built on some fallacious idea of eternal truth. Instead, like science they are always open to falsification and change, whereas close societies resist falsification and change.
In all of this I think Soros is making a brilliant argument. As he himself says, the argument is not original with him--he acknowledges a deep debt to Karl Popper the philosopher of science who wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies and was a mentor to Soros. But what I think Soros is doing here that is original is presenting the argument in a compelling political and social context.
There is so much of a non-philosophic nature that I would like to quote from this book. Soros's observations on politics and the current world order are insightful and penetrating. He is one of the deep thinkers of our time and a man who expresses himself fearlessly. Because of his great material success in the world and the activist stance he has taken internationally, he is a man that many people listen to, even those who find his views disagreeable. Here are a few of his thoughts:
"The idea of death is not the same as the fact of death. The idea of death is the denial of consciousness, and the fact of death is not the denial of life but its natural conclusion." (p. 42)
"I set up an Open Society Fund and defined its objectives as follows: to open up closed societies; to make open societies more viable; and to promote a critical mode of thinking." (p. 53)
In Chapter 3 Soros asks the question, "What's Wrong with America?" and comes to the conclusion that it is a failure of leadership which is the result of "a failure of followership," which is a general way of saying that the Bush administration has greatly failed the American people, but also that the electorate has failed because it has elected people like Bush. But in the next chapter, "The Feel-Good Society," he really nails it. Quite simply the American people have become gluttons of consumption who can barely get off their couches, who do about as much critical thinking as cows chewing their cuds. (His expression is less graphic.) He sees the Bush administration's "war on terror" response to 9/11 as "phantasmagoric" (p. 102) in that Bush has us fighting against an abstraction instead of going after the people responsible for 9/11. Soros writes, "Since the war on terror is counterproductive, it is liable to generate more terrorists or insurgents than it can liquidate. As a result, we are facing a permanent state of war and the end of the United States as an open society." (p. 106) (cf., Orwell)
On Afghanistan: "...we formed alliances with warlords, and it is their authority that we helped to establish; in this way, we consolidated an economic and political system based on the illegal cultivation of narcotics." (p. 149) On Iraq, "Iran is the major beneficiary of the invasion, which removed its enemy Saddam Hussein from power, tied up American forces in a task that they are ill-prepared to perform, and tightened the supply of oil" [making Iranian oil more valuable]. (p. 112)
Soros also addresses the problems of energy supply and global warming, which of course are interrelated. He touches on the nuclear threat which he sees as now more menacing than during the Cold War.