During my doctoral coursework, I learned from several truly outstanding (and world famous) professors: Sam Huntington (who would become my dissertation advisor), Seymour Martin Lipset, Louis Hartz, Harvey Mansfield, and Judith Sklar. However, the professor who made the most profound (long-term) impact on me was Daniel Bell. Not because he was a great lecturer (that was Hartz), nor an unusual “mensch” (that was Lipset). What made Bell stand apart was his unbelievable multi-disciplinarity – the man was a polymath.

We’ve all met people who know a lot about a lot. However, what turns such knowledge into something special are the connections made between seemingly non-related fields of endeavor, and the novel insights such associations can engender. Prof. Bell connected the humanities and physical science in ways that were truly thought-provoking – and wildly unexpected – and he was a social science scholar! The clearest example of this, his seminal book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), the first time anyone clearly analyzed (and foresaw) what eventually came to be called “The Information Age”. And then he followed that with his no-less-prescient The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) – a perspicacious (non-Marxian) prediction of the inherent weaknesses within the capitalist value system, or if you will: the psychological underpinning of the 2008 Great Recession.

For the past several millenia, political philosophers, sociology scholars, psychology analysts, ethicists, theologians – just about anyone who deals with the study of humanity – have argued about the foundational question: are humans, at base, individualists or social animals? To put it another way, are we basically people who cherish freedom above all else but need and use social contact with others for self-interested, functional reasons – or, do we first look for psychological comfort in the presence of others and self-identify first and foremost through a group identity, occasionally withdrawing into ourselves for some privacy and freedom from constraints?

There are two general approaches to answering such a question. The first approach: there isn’t a definitive answer, but rather it’s a matter of degree depending on the culture and society in which one is educated and lives. Some societies prioritize the individual (America), others place greater value on the group (most Far Eastern nations). The second approach: human nature is the same everywhere, so that whereas every person has a bit of one or the other (individuality vs sociability), ultimately, we will scientifically discover which of the these two constitute the bedrock of humanity.

Growing up in the U.S. and notwithstanding my strongly Jewish education, I started out not only believing in the second approach but I was convinced that we already had the answer: the individual über alles. After all, hadn’t the individualist ethos turned the U.S. into the greatest power on earth – not only militarily but also culturally, intellectually, scientifically, etc?

But the more I studied and researched politics & society – especially other cultures, historical periods, and social-behavioral patterns – the more I moved into the first camp: human behavior and thought was contextual, situational, and relative to its time. Sure, America the Great was highly individualistic (as perhaps was Greece to a more limited extent) – but the Chinese and also the Mongol Empires were “Great” in their time as well, yet far more group-oriented than individualistic.

So I taught for a few decades (perhaps even pontificating at times). However, as I gradually moved in mid-career from researching politics to studying communications and especially new media – and from there broadening my horizons into technology and science writ large – I have changed my opinion once again. I am convinced that the second approach is correct – a core kernel to human psychology and behavior does exist – but this time it falls on the side of sociality. The reason? Connections. (I am happy that you stuck with me to this point, probably asking yourself: what does all this have to do with the chapter title?)

Let’s start with one of the keywords in the field of sociology as well as new media: networks. It is a banal truism to state that babies need parents and other caretakers to learn and grow up; it is less banal (although to me quite obvious) to state that throughout our entire life we continue to “grow”/change (not to mention survive) by developing and nurturing relationships with other people. Indeed, among other facts that science has uncovered are these two: babies who have little physical or social contact tend to get far sicker and have greater infant mortality than others who are properly nourished socially (even controlling for similar nutrition); the number one “killer” of older people (i.e. dying before their cohort’s life expectancy) is……LONELINESS!!

We are “social” animals by nature. However, society can involve competition or cooperation. Darwin believed that competition was the driving force behind evolution; we now know that cooperation was (and continues to be) at least as important. Indeed, that is what human speech is all about – enabling us to communicate and thus cooperate far more than any animal is capable of. You don’t need speech to kill; you do need it to help others.

It took hundreds of thousands of years for hominids (our ancient fore-species) to slowly evolve into homo sapiens (thinking Man), but once we developed speech about 100,000 years ago evolution started speeding up, increasingly so. In less than 50,000 years we had developed “culture” (burial sites, cave art), and within another 40,000 years we reached “civilization” – leaving the small, extended family as our main social unit, and developing the village, town, city, city-state, and finally empire – with all their attendant revolutionary inventions and ideas as a result of so many more people coming into contact one with the other.

This is the picture regarding intelligence and creativity, on both the macro level (human race) and meso (individuals). It explains why we have far more inventions in the contemporary age than in the past; indeed, also why almost all truly creative work (artistic, scientific, technological etc) occurs in cities and not in rural areas. The one-word answer: “connections”. Just as we moved millenia ago from extended family (50 people) to city (thousands), in the contemporary age there are far more people in the world (close to 8 billion) than in the past (in 1800 there were only one billion people on Earth). To this we also have to add that the means of communication between these social units are far greater and more efficient. The result: collective “social intelligence” has skyrocketed.

I mentioned above that “individuals” = “meso” (intermediate) level. What, then, is the “micro” plane? Our brain! Once again, we find here the same story. It isn’t the 100 billion neuron (brain cells) that render us intelligent, but rather the fact that each neuron is connected to thousands (!) of other neurons, i.e. we have trillions of connections in one brain!! (Neurobiology studies also show that people with a faster “connection time” between brain cells also happen to be more intelligent; the micro equivalent of the macro-world’s modern media and hyper-fast means of communication.)

That’s “intelligence”. What about “creativity”? (The two are not synonymous; above approximately 120 IQ, there is no correlation between the two. In short, you have to be mildly intelligent in order to be creative, but certainly do not have to be an intellectual genius.) Here too we find that one of the main bases of creativity is the ability to bring together very different types of ideas or concepts into creating a new whole – sort of 1 + 4 + 3 = 13. In other words, the act of creation is a function of making something from many prior somethings; only God can perform Creatio ex Nihilo: creation from nothing.

Which is why I laugh (to myself) and groan (out loud) when my students state: who needs to know all this stuff when we have Wikipedia or Google? My reply: “If you need to know some specific facts, then Wikipedia is great; but if you want to create something new, then those facts have to be already in your head and not simply out there for retrieval, because you won’t even realize that these specific facts constitute the building blocks of the new ideational house that you want to build.”

In most cases, such facts are not from the same field but rather quite distant from each other – it’s the very “incongruity” of these facts that makes their “miscegenation” so productive! One example: George Lucas (of Star Wars directorial fame) received the National Medal of Technology in 2004 and the National Medal of Arts in 2012. One would be hard put to come up with two disciplines – technology and arts – more distant from each other, at least on the face of it. But that’s precisely what made him so “creative”.

Indeed, this explains why most “Eureka” moments occur when we’re not trying to solve a problem / come up with a novel solution. At rest (napping, showering, daydreaming, etc) our brain is furiously making connections between all sorts of disparate “factoids” stored in our memory – the vast majority of such connections being useless and thus immediately discarded by our brain. But once in a while the brain manages to come up with a “worthwhile” connection between ideas, however “distant” from each other – and voila! we have the creative solution.

Interestingly, this does not happen with the same frequency when we are actively trying to solve the problem, because our conscious mind is not aware of the myriad “factoids” stored in our brain. As strange as it might sound, our brain does a better job of problem-solving (connections production) when we are not directing it – similar to a decentralized corporation whose workers come up with more and better solutions through unfettered, horizontal contact between themselves than if upper management directed them how to act and think about the issue. Corporate management would do well to take lessons from neurobiology.

The bottom line of all this is not that we are all ants in a gigantic colony (although they too are an excellent example of the connectivity phenomenon: each ant by himself is as dumb as they get; but put them together, connecting through chemical pheromones, and “miraculously” one gets a highly intelligent animal “society”). Humans are individuals and have specific – and occasionally idiosyncratic – wishes, thoughts and behavior patterns. But in some parts of the world we have taken this concept to its illogical extreme: the individual uber alles. Rather, it’s our connection to others that enables us to truly express our full humanity – and it’s our ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts that is the fount of our intelligence and creativity.

You’re Incredibly Lucky to be Alive

My parents met in Cuba. My mother Jenny Weinreb was a refugee, escaping Nazi Germany in 1939 (alone on a German boat at age 13!) to Lisbon (where my Aunt Eva was married with two baby twins), and from there to a British refugee camp in Jamaica (1942?), and finally to Cuba in 1944. My father Arthur Wilzig left Poland in 1936 straight to Cuba (where a large expatriate community had established itself in 1926 after widespread Polish pogroms).

They married in 1946 and I was conceived in Cuba in 1948, but born in May 1949 in the U.S. where they had immigrated because “there was no future Jewish life in Cuba”, as my mother explained to me decades later. Thus, I definitely qualified as an “international baby” from several perspectives.

How often have we heard others say that they’re “lucky to be alive” because they just missed being killed in some accident? Indeed, Judaism has a special prayer for someone escaping danger: “gomel”.

But this is missing the main point: EVERYONE in the world is unbelievably lucky to be alive! From several standpoints.

First, although we do not know for sure if there is life anywhere else in the universe, it is clear that the chances of life “evolving” on any one planet are very, very small (but as there are trillions upon trillions of stars and planets in the universe, overall the probability is that there is “life” elsewhere: see “Drake’s Law”). You and I happen to be living on a planet where this did happen – the chance of that is less than winning the national Powerball Lottery. So thank your lucky star (pun intended)!

Second, in many cases the chances of your parents meeting when they did is also quite small (notwithstanding the occasional “marrying one’s high school sweetheart”). In the course of a person’s youth and young adulthood, we will meet – even superficially – a few thousand people, among the hundreds of millions that they could have met, and of them the thousands they reasonably could have married. And if they had met someone else, you wouldn’t be here! Doubly lucky.

Third, and something of a head scratcher, is the most important “lucky event” of them all. In a nutshell, whereas your mother dropped one ovum each month down her fallopian tubes to be (potentially) impregnated, your father’s ejaculate contained close to one hundred million (100,000,000!) sperm. So, think about this: if the specific sperm that impregnated your mom’s egg had been beaten in that swimming race by one other among the “99,999,999” sperm, would YOU be alive at all? Probably not – just someone pretty similar to you (at least, similar to when you were a newborn).

Never thought of that, did you? And that’s the point. Life is largely a matter of attitude and perspective. You can look at your cup that’s missing a few drops on top, or at the cup that’s brimming with life (yours). I am certainly aware that this is not the way people usually think about their life, but that’s my point: as human beings, we are capable of shifting our viewpoint once we look at the mirror straight on, instead of from the side. Some people don’t need to do this – their natural predisposition (what is usually called “attitude”) is to be positive and optimistic. Others are naturally pessimistic, seeing more night than day. And then there’s the broad middle who can go either way, depending…

On what? On their social circle; on their socio-economic status; on their social happiness (quality of marriage; relationship with their kids; etc); and dare I say it? On how they consume media information.

No, I am not about to partake in modernity’s national sport: media-bashing. Actually, the “people” (that’s you and me) are at fault. When was the last time you read this headline (change the country name as you wish): “Yesterday, 8 million Israelis had an Uneventful Day.” Never. Because we, the readers, listeners, and viewers, want to get “bad news” – almost the only kind that we consider “news” at all.

Why? For that we have to go back several hundred thousand years (or even millions). All creatures on earth – and certainly evolving humans who were not particularly strong or fast – had (and have) to be on constant lookout for danger that could annihilate them: back then, tigers and human enemies; today, technology (e.g. cars) and human enemies. Thus, danger-sniffing is planted deeply in our genes. And what constitutes “danger” (socially and not only personally) is not only the usual stuff (plane crashes; war breaking out) but also – even increasingly – unusual stuff that we are not familiar with. Flying machines? (Early 20th century) People changing their sex?? (Mid-20th century) Robots building cars faster than humans can??? (Late 20th century) Designer babies?!?! (21st Century).

The media – old (“legacy”) and new (“digital”) – are doing an increasingly better job of ferreting out each and every “potentially dangerous”/ unusual item of information from around the world. And as we absorb more and more of this (with the occasional respite through sports scores and fashion fads), our perception of the world is that things are going to hell in a basket faster than ever. Ah, nostalgia: “when I was growing up, the world was a better place”. Baloney. As a matter of fact, there is less violence in the world today (per capita) than ever before in human history! (Don’t take my word for this; read Steven Pinker’s The Better Nature of Our Angels.)

So we “moderns” are caught in a paradoxical situation: the better things get (objectively), the worse they seem (subjectively). The solution is not to avoid the media (we do want to know what real dangers lie out there). Rather, it is to choose wisely which media to consume – and then understand that 99% of what is happening in the world is positive, precisely what is NOT found in the media (because we don’t want to read “good news”).

Freed from the shackles of informational negativity, we can then more realistically work on developing a more positive and optimistic attitude towards the world – micro (ours personally) and macro (society and the world at large).

Coda: the latest research shows that people with a generally positive attitude have, on average, a lifespan that’s a few years longer than those with ingrained (or acquired) negativity. So not only are the former “lucky to be alive”, but by appreciating that fact they actually live longer – and that’s not a matter of luck.

So here’s my final “you’re really lucky booster”. Remember what I said about your parents’ egg and sperm? Now take that back every generation of your personal forebears! In other words, if any procreation act of any of your grand/grand/grand(etc)parents had a different sperm win that specific impregnation race to the ovum, you would not be here (or anywhere, ever)! So just this one, repeated, “generational” piece of good fortune should be enough to get you to count your blessings every minute of your day. 

Only Politics as News?

I spent half my 40 years or so in academia teaching and researching Politics. The other (second) half was spent doing the same in Communications, mainly Journalism. Scholars tend to focus on rather narrow topics for their research, and I was usually not an exception. But this “reflective memoir” offers me a chance to ask a BIG question.

Imagine an alien coming down to Earth for some “anthropological” study. Among the places it visits is academia, where it finds among the larger universities approximately 40-50 departments, each specializing in a different subject or field of life. One of these is Political Science; perhaps another is International Relations. It then opens the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual reports and discovers year after year that approximately 5% of the work force is employed in government at all levels.

After a hard day’s work, the alien sits down to read a few newspapers (print or screen). “Very strange,” it muses out loud after scanning several of them. “All these news report media seem to spend almost half their time and energy on only one field: politics. I wonder why – after all, far fewer work in politics and even fewer study the subject.”

Indeed! Open any newspaper (not counting the National Enquirer and its ilk) and that’s what you will find: politics, politics, education, politics, sports, politics, science, politics, politics, politics, technology, politics…

Why is this so? One obvious reason is that other than war – itself a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz opined – there is no other area of life with as much “Action & Drama” as the political world. By its very nature it is based on, and suffused with, conflict. And as we are well aware, we are evolutionarily primed to “notice” human conflict as opposed to other forms of human interaction. In short, the news media are simply “playing to the crowd”.

A second reason for the dominance of political news is the influence of politics on our lives: taxes, health policy, environmental regulation, macro-economic policy, etc etc – all obviously have a significant impact on our lives. Moreover, in a democracy the elected leaders are doing what we (supposedly) (s)elected them to do for us. Political news is not just what “they are doing to/for us” but also – or rather – whether they are doing what we agreed that they would do. In short, it is a public mirror of our (un)met desires.

So it is not surprising that politics takes up more space and time on the news than any other field of human endeavor. And yet…

When one looks at what truly affects us, it turns out that a huge amount of influential goings-on aren’t in the political sphere at all. There are almost countless scientific and technological advances reported each day in professional journals and other non-“news” venues that will change our lives down the road: pharmaceuticals & health (new vaccines, drugs, and bio-tech); transportation (drones, flying cars, autonomous vehicles); economics (cyber-currency, cybercrime, online banking, telework); environment (rising sea levels, catastrophic weather, global warming, bio-extinction); and so on. Of course, these are covered by the news, but with a frequency nowhere near the impact that they (will) have on our lives. So what’s the problem?

I think that there are a few explanations. First – as Tevya the Milkman once said: “tradition”. Newspapers, as we broadly understand the term, commenced about 400 years ago; the profession of journalism started about 200 years ago (earlier than that the publisher/printer doubled as “reporter”). Back then, “politics” was just about all that was happening! Modern science was barely getting started; there were almost no macro-economics to talk about (or understand, until Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations); the lives of common folk interested no one (most couldn’t even afford to buy a newspaper); not even team sports existed to fill news space!

In that news black hole, politics – war, diplomacy, rulers’ machinations – was all there was to report on (other than announcing which ship just docked with what imports for local sale). This “tradition” then self-reproduced itself even when more non-politics did emerge in the 1900s, and continues to this day. In fact, there is a general term for the generational continuation of an original practice: “path dependence”.

The most famous example of this is the QWERTY keyboard – completely illogical, as its layout has no connection whatsoever to the frequency of letters typed or even letter contiguity in the English language. How, then, did that get started? The first typewriters had an “arm” for each letter that struck the ink ribbon on top of the blank paper. But as that early typewriter was quite primitive, if one typed too fast the arms would get stuck together – so the keyboard was designed to make typing MORE difficult (and slower)!!! By the time this physical problem was fixed on ensuing versions the secretaries had already learned “touch-typing” on that QWERTY keyboard and refused to change to a more sensible layout. So look at your advanced computer keyboard – still back in the mid-19th century!

One can add to the “tradition” of political journalism the fact that reporters and editors are like almost all other humans – they follow the herd. Indeed, one could argue that news is merely “I herd it through the grapevine”, with each journalist reporting on those matters that other reporters are covering. What about their constant quest for the “scoop”? That’s new news within the same general subject area, i.e. politics!

A second (or third, if the “herd” counts as separate) factor turns the mirror from journalists to each of us, the news consumer. Human beings are invariably “here and now” creatures. From an evolutionary standpoint (until the modern age), there were too many present obstacles and dangers to contend with; thinking about “the future” was a luxury that almost none could afford (which is why Pharaoh was so taken aback by, and taken with, Joseph’s highly unusual plan to save grain for 7-14 years hence). And on top of that, predicting the future was such an “iffy” affair that other than professional “predictors” (oracles, prophets, seers etc), no one even tried it.

Given this built-in human myopia, it is hardly surprising that journalists too would focus on the immediate present – not only because most understand the “iffiness” of future prognostication, but because their readers, listeners, and viewers just can’t get too worked up over the “future”. A perfect example: it has taken decades for journalism to really start focusing on global warming and other serious environmental issues – in large part due to the “ho-hum” response of its audience to bad things that will take place “decades from now”. When did the “environment” finally get serious public and journalistic traction? When the politicians started fighting over it!

In short, getting journalists to consistently focus on any serious or significant topic is a lost cause – unless someone (economists, scientists, pressure groups etc) can turn it into a “political issue”. This “topic myopia” is certainly short-sighted (by definition), but it’s what we – journalists and public alike – have been trained and accustomed to.

I guess by focusing most of my academic work on political science and mass communications I made the correct professional decision – which doesn’t mean that in practice, combining the two should be the be-all and end-all of our news production and consumption practices.


My father Arthur Wilzig was born in 1910 in the tiny Polish-German (the nationality depended on the era) town Krojanke; my mother Jenny Weinreb (1925), in Hamburg, Germany, moving to Berlin at age 2. From there the “wandering Jew” syndrome took over for both: he moved to Cuba in 1936 (where there was a large Polish-Jewish expat community, fleeing the Polish pogroms in the mid-20’s), and she escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 to Lisbon, and from there to a British-run refugee camp in Jamaica, and from there to Cuba in 1944, where she met my father who by then was Vice Chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, greeting Jewish refugees in his official capacity. They married in 1946 and I was conceived in Cuba in late 1948, when they immigrated to the U.S. with me in utero – making me a truly “international baby” (1949). No surprise, then, that 28 years later I too moved halfway round the world to Israel. But more on all this later… 

This is not a memoir. I might have lived a fairly interesting life – interesting, that is, to me and perhaps a few loved ones – but certainly not enough to entice a wider audience than that. Rather, I am using certain aspects of my life as a diving board to jump into some deeper ruminative waters that I trust will be of interest to many people. Each “chapter” starts with (or includes) a short personal event or happenstance – and from there I delve into what I believe is the “larger, more universal meaning” that others can learn from these. Thus, you need not read these in order – it’s altogether fine to cherry-pick the ones whose title and topic catch your fancy.

Obviously, I have no pretensions to completeness or comprehensiveness. A person can live only a very small number of the life possibilities afforded by modern society. But within that circumscribed life, each of us comes up against many of the same problems, issues, dilemmas, and other choices that make living in our era so challenging (and interesting). It is to these aspects that I devote my attention here – indirectly suggesting some of what made, and makes, me who I (S)am.

Which leads to my first warning: I love puns, and am known in my circle of friends as being a real groan-up. I’ll try not to overdo it here, but as I really do not have any addictions, let this be my worst vice.

Indeed, if you didn’t notice, the title of this series is a pun (I just did this twice: the first and also the last time I explain a pun of mine). As suggested earlier, I am trying to do two things here: reflect on life in general through specific mirror reflections of things that I have done or that happened to me. These are not necessarily the most important things in my life, but rather events that set me thinking about important issues of living in general.

The reader will very quickly discover that I have very wide-ranging knowledge in quite a number of disparate disciplines. To use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, I am not a hedgehog (digging deep in one field) but rather a fox (moving hither and thither to gather food – for thought, in my case – among several fields).

“Wide-ranging knowledge”? Doesn’t that sound somewhat conceited? Forthrightly, I have tried my very best in this book to be completely honest about myself for better and for worse. You will read about several of my “accomplishments” but also discover a not inconsiderable number of “failures”. Temperamentally, I am very averse to telling anyone what I really think about them; but I have no problem doing the same about myself. As we grow older, we prefer less and less to look at the mirror image of our physical visage, understandably so; however, maturity demands of us to metaphorically look into the mirror about who we really are. If I have succeeded in anything, it is this willingness to see my character warts and try to smooth them over, if not eliminate them altogether. Why and how – I leave that for later elucidation.

And now for a few “apologies”:

1) Everything here will be the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. We all have “dark secrets” – some very significant and evil, others minor and simply non-normative. Although “letting it all hang out” seems to be the new zeitgeist in our social-network-driven world, I come from the old school believing that there should be clear limits to self-baring selfies. Indeed, it would be better if we spelled the word “sell-fees” because in trying to sell ourselves there is usually a heavy price to pay down the road.

Moreover, many things in our life involve others – spouse, children etc – so that their privacy and feelings have to be taken into account, even if the memoirist was willing to “bare all”. This is not a “bug” of any (auto)biography but rather part of the code. Just as a newspaper editor will not let the reporter write a 5000-word description of yesterday’s event that includes every minute detail (and even some, not so minute), so too the (auto)biographer has to be selective in what to display. But again, this book is not an autobiography in the classic sense; rather, it’s a vehicle for significant life ruminations based on selected elements of my far less significant life.

2) Some people tell me I have an annoying habit of writing with too many parenthetical asides (the ones inside parentheses, just like this one). This could be annoying, but there are two good reasons for this.

a- I have been trained to think “associatively” (or maybe I was simply born that way?), and coupled with my wide range of knowledge, I see (too?) many connections between seemingly disparate facts and phenomena. I could put these into footnotes – but as an academic I have had more than my fill of that!

b- Details, details: too often readers misconstrue or misunderstand (or are simply confused by) a comment without sufficient context or explanation; I prefer to err on the side of “over-explanation” so that you don’t err in understanding what I write.

3) As an academic, I know full well the importance of “sourcing”: where does this fact come from? who said it or verified it? is it speculative or proven? On the other hand, as a reader of much academic work I am also aware of how all this can complicate and even undermine comprehension, especially for (even highly educated) lay readers. So I shall forego citations, sourcing and other academic paraphernalia. In the age of Prof. Google (Scholar), it is quite easy to find relevant sources for any idea, argument, theory, factoid and the like. If any idea among my ruminations strikes your curiosity bone, feel free to do some intellectual detective work by yourself. What I reflect, you are welcome to refract….