25 June 2024

I read a fascinating article from October 26, 1929 which is an interview with Einstein about his work, society, religion and life in general.

Check it out, you know you want to:

Click to access what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf

Einstein was 50 at the time and it was written before World War II but it’s almost prophetic the way he talks about the U.S. and some of the problems and dangers that the future (i.e. our present) might hold. I hope you actually do read the article so you can draw your own conclusions but  it truly seems like society in the U.S. has taken a wrong turn somewhere in the 85 years since the article got published and I’d argue that some of his worries actually turned into a reality.
But you be the judge.

America entered the war for idealistic reasons, in spite of the fact that material interests were exerting the utmost pressure in the same direction.
Let’s remember that he was talking about WWI in this case. In his eyes the U.S. entered WWI for idealistic reasons even though there was very good reasons for the country to join the war merely for material gain. But when we consider all the wars that the U.S. has engaged in since then (except for maybe WWII), it seems like there was a change in ideology at some point. I highly doubt the U.S. truly goes to war for idealistic reasons anymore. It might be said that the country is entering for idealistic reasons (i.e. terrorism, democracy, etc) but there always seems to be a higher material gain (e.g. oil) and it seems like the military sticks around for a lot longer than they should.  It’s no secret that the U.S. today spends way more money on military than a lot of other places combined, so perhaps that was the change that eventually brought up today’s society that is obsessed with money, money, money.
War is no longer based on an ideal, it’s a business, and without war, all the money invested into military is bad business and therefore there has to be some sort of military movement to keep the money being invested into it (I am not a conspiracy theorist, I just think there is too much money being wasted to “defend the country” especially when everyone we are “defending ourselves from” has so little money and the ones that have money are all allies).
Even if there were idealistic reasons to go to war, I just don’t see how a country halfway around the world can enter a war on the other side and assume that they have the right ideals/morals/values as the people they are trying to help.

Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers.  This is a  cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves. It is not true that the dollar is an American fetish. The American student is not interested in dollars, not even in success as such, but in his task, the object of the search.
I really wish this were true, but honestly I just don’t see it. Maybe dollar-chasing wasn’t the case then, but it surely seems like it is now, and that’s a very sad and discouraging thing. In this quote he talks about the American student not being interested in dollars and him/her being interested in knowledge instead, but how many people do you know today that go to college because they just want to learn? Not many, I bet.  A lot of the people who truly want to learn end up doing that away from school because college has gotten so damn expensive and learning shouldn’t be. Some of us show up to college wanting to learn something without knowing what, but the fact is that a lot of the people go to college go merely as a default; they go because they’re supposed to go or because they “can’t get a job without a degree.” And even those of us who show up actually wanting to learn run a risk of never finding our passion because we are so much more worried about the grade than the actual learning.
Furthermore it actually seems like going to college is sometimes a worst-case scenario, a fall-back plan. If young people had it their way, they would be rich and famous singing, acting, or playing professional sports, but when they realize that can’t, they end up going to college instead so they can get a 9-5 job because ‘that’s life and that’s what normal people do’. American culture has become so obsessed with making money that we have put a lot of other things aside in the pursuit of that. We idolize the people that ‘make bank’ and aspire to be like them instead of trying to be ourselves and finding our strengths and passions.
I hope I am not overreacting, but the culture certainly seems to have gone all the way into the dollar-chasing scheme instead of focusing on the task or the search that Einstein referred to.

I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.
In the age of ACT, SAT, GRE, LSAT, etc it seems like standardization is the only way to make it in the U.S. (unless you are stellar at something and you manage to capitalize on this or develop your skills before you enter the academic system). Forgive me for being overly critical of the U.S. but one of the reasons why I only applied to grad schools in Europe was for the very fact that I felt like I could be treated as a person instead of a number. Over here in the U.S., a bad GRE score will kill your chances of getting into some schools, unless you have huge compensating factors, whereas in other places around the world if you send your GRE they’ll send you back a W.T.F.?! (sadly, a lot of other countries are starting to adopt this tragic GRE-using practice). So here was Einstein saying that standardization is a great peril that threatens America, and lo and behold that’s actually the norm today. [Practically] Everyone gets judged by the same standard, everyone has to fit into the same mold, and the best way for students to get a “great” education [and money for it] is by standardizing themselves and doing well on a test that determines who is “good enough” to go to a certain college and who isn’t. And don’t get me started on the education bubble that some economists/scholars think will be much worse than the housing bubble from 2007. Let’s just end this with: The education system today is a business and money is it’s object, not education. Some outstanding professors care about you and want to help you develop a love of learning, but most universities just want to sell you a piece of paper for thousands of dollars.

All of this talk about students not being interested in dollars and about standardization reminds me of one of the best TED talks I’ve seen. And I love the drawings that the YouTube RSA channel made for the talk because if you’re a visual person, like I am, then this Sir Ken Robinson talk really hits home.

Nationalism in the United States does not assume such disagreeable forms as in Europe. This may be due partly because your country is so immense that you do not think in terms of narrow borders.
I think this is another aspect that has changed. American lifestyle is so consumed in itself that people throw the phrase “best country in the world” as if they’d actually done some research. Don’t get me started on a philosophical argument about how the word “best” is always a subjective argument that isn’t going to lead anywhere, my point is simply that “America is the best country in the world” gets used as an objective fact, which is beyond ridiculous and ignorant. I understand that the U.S. has a lot of advantages over other countries, but there are a lot of other places that do some things much much better than the U.S. (If you’re feeling nerdy, you should check this out. Among other things, it shows that “a country can have a highly concentrated wealth distribution and still have a more equal distribution of income due to high taxes on top income earners and/or high minimum wages — both Switzerland and Sweden follow this pattern. So one thing that’s distinctive about the U.S. compared to other industrialized democracies is that both its wealth and income distributions are highly concentrated.” –  aka, the U.S. is a master of inequality, which you might say is a result of  ‘freedom’ but it’s actually a hindrance to it because of lack of opportunities)

So when people say “America is the best country in the world” and they cite equality or freedom, my answer is: Really?!  My brother and I watched this video one time and first of all we laughed, but then we got into a long discussion [where we both agreed] about just how ignorant some people are simply because it’s convenient for them. Sure, that speech is from a TV show, but a lot of it is actually pretty accurate. As I said, it’s impossible to settle the argument of “best country in the world” objectively because each person has their preferences, but even subjectively the U.S. has a lot of problems, and nationalism is one of them. (There’s also a difference between nationalism and patriotism, although I’m not a fan of either).

Interviewer: Do you look upon yourself as a German or as a Jew?
Einstein: “I think it is quite possible to be both. I look upon myself as a man. Nationalism is an infantile disease, it is the measles of mankind
This last part is a famous quote by Einstein (and now you have the source, so you know it’s legit), and it has probably been one of my 1,000 mottos since the day I read it, but it’s by far one of my favorites. I’ve been asked before if I consider myself a Mexican or an American (I lived in each of them 12 years). I never had an answer, so this resonates with me because for years I have never identified myself with a country. At all. Only my closes friends have heard me say this, but I am the least patriotic person ever. People once looked at me funny in a philosophy class when I said I didn’t care if China took over the U.S. and suddenly we were all forced to call ourselves Chinese. “AhaTerrorist!” …Actually, no. If you think about it, what’s the big deal? This has always happened throughout history. Why aren’t Italians still Romans? [At the time of writing this] what do the people in Crimea call themselves? Why does being an ‘American’ even exist if they were all British people who took this land from natives? Countries change, political systems evolve, but it’s the people that matter, so I’ve never cared what ‘nationality’ you want to call me. Who should I be patriotic to anyway? I was born and raised in one place but I did a lot of my growing up in another. So I don’t believe in patriotism. I believe in people. People are my allegiance, and I don’t care where you are from: if you are a caring/loving/moral person, you are one of mine. I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in fighting other countries; they are full of people who are probably a lot like I am but with different and fascinating life experiences. My family has suffered too much bullshit just because we were born in a different country, so forgive me if I don’t identify myself with any country. A friend of mine tried to argue that all humans have ‘ingroups’ and it’s a legitimate psychological finding, but it is a terrible and fatal mistake to assume that my ‘ingroups’ are even remotely based on nationality.

But what are the solutions? How should people identify themselves? This is actually discussed a little bit by Einstein in the article. In his opinion, it seems like a lot of the quick answers are not going to work, so it’s hard to come up with a peaceful solution for how humans should define their ingroups.

Assimilation? – “Even in the modern civilization, the Jew is most happy if he remains a Jew
I am not sure how much this is true today and perhaps I am dropping this issue too quickly by claiming that our generation is generally more open to the idea of assimilation than people were in 1929 when Einstein said this. I’ll definitely have to look into this more though.
Race? – “All modern people are the conglomeration of so many ethnic mixtures that no pure race remains.
The beauty of this is that it also implies an end to racism because, as he mentions, people have intermixed for thousands of years and there’s really no pure race even if we like to think there is one.

I think the best point gets made when Einstein gets asked about whether religion is holding Israel together.

I do not think,” Einstein replied thoughtfully, ” that religion is the most important element. We are held together rather by a body of tradition, handed down from father to son, which the child imbibes with his mother’s milk. The atmosphere of our infancy predetermines our idiosyncrasies and predilections. When I met you, I knew I could talk to you freely without the inhibitions which make the contact with others so difficult. I looked upon you not as a German nor as an American but as a Jew.

The interviewer then goes on to reveal that he is not a Jew.

Einstein defends his claim by saying that the interviewer has the  ‘psychic adaptability’ of a Jew. He says “You have the psychic adaptability of the Jew. There is something in your psychology which makes it possible for me to talk to you without barrier.” I think that’s where Einstein is missing one little detail that makes a world of difference (or perhaps it’s his subtle way of pointing it out). Einstein saw him as another Jew even though he wasn’t one. By doing that, Einstein was seeing himself in the other man and that’s what made it so easy for Einstein to talk freely with him. He tries to attribute it to the other man’s psychology, but in reality the whole reason why Einstein was able to talk to him freely and without inhibitions is because Einstein got over his own mental barrier. By [mentally] treating the other man as a Jew, he saw himself in the other guy and that’s why he was able to relate to him and talk to him so easily.
Maybe I’m just crazy.
But I think that’s the main reason why I am not patriotic and why I am a pacifist. I have gotten really good at seeing myself in others regardless of where they are from or what side of a fight they find themselves in. That’s what makes it so easy for me to talk to them. I honestly believe that the best way to be peaceful and avoid/stop conflict is by truly being able to not only put yourself in the other person’s shoes, but by actually seeing yourself in the other person (which can be incredibly hard when someone is “completely different”). This should at least work with people who are mentally healthy because few of us truly want to hurt ourselves, so it’s hard to hurt others when we see ourselves in them.

Either way, this article made for an interesting read because it provides a lot of food for thought, and it gives the impression of actually being in a room with Einstein and seeing what he was actually like in person instead of idolizing him as the epitome of genius.
Most of us hear about Einstein and we think Genius, but this article shows that there are a lot of other words to describe the way he was and the way he lived: Poor, Jew, Socialist, Pacifist, Internationalist.

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