Archive for April, 2009

Empathy

I bumped into this disturbing gem of mental sickness via a pandagon post.  To summarize briefly: torturing people by simulating drowning can’t be bad because swimmers immerse themselves in water and have people yelling at them, and they’re fine.  My initial thought was to provide the teeny, tiny, bit of critical thought required to dismantle this argument.   Somebody beat me to it (also linked to in the pandagon post), and had come up with a half-dozen more and better examples than what I was thinking of.

Oddly, not a single person I know is compelled by the water-boarding = swimming-team = not-that-bad argument*.  We understand a very simple and, I think, ironclad truth: when it comes to physically interacting with, controlling, manipulating, modifying or destroying another a human’s body, if consent is not given, a crime is being committed.

I started thinking along these lines with the intention of hitting-the-broad-side-of-the-barn with a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the right-wing position–hey, sometimes I don’t want to think too hard before posting.  Talking it over with my better half lead me to an insight that I had previously lacked.  The red state author wasn’t glossing over the consent vs. non-consent distinction as a rhetorical ploy–he couldn’t face the reality that being in a consensual vs. non-consensual context changes the subjective human experience.

With morality put aside, why is it that so many people equate, say, standing at a music festival for six hours with standing blindfolded in a prison for six hours?  This seemingly absurd position can only be maintained in the mind through a stunning lack of empathy.  Immediately condemning this blindness as backwards and evil, as I did and tend regularly to do, also demonstrates a lack of empathy**.

Only two*** possibilities exist that could lead someone to be so callous to the reality of the human experience.  First, he might have lived a life devoid of non-consensual relationships.  Having no experiences in which his will is overridden by an asymmetrical power relationship, he has no understanding of being in such a position.  Because he was always treated with respect and dignity, he cannot conceive of the alternate subjective experience that results from surrender and obedience .

I believe that, while possible, a human experience devoid of dominance is extremely rare.  The most severe and, often, the longest lasting power disparity is between a child and its parents.  I imagine that a childhood free of dominance, while not providing much experience with non-consensual actions, would probably result in a tremendous ability to empathize with suffering.  I believe that this is the case because asymmetrical power relationships tend first and foremost to remove from the victim empathy for their own situation.

Let’s examine the other possibility that explains our red state author’s amazing inability to empathize.  The second possibility is that he was immersed for his entire life in non-consensual action, in an environment of violent dominance.  To avoid physical and emotional attack, he had to constantly surrender and obey.  As an adult, he lives in a world in which he perceives asymmetrical power relationships as moral necessities that provide order and structure in an otherwise chaotic world.

If this is the case, any glimmer of empathy for a beaten, sleep deprived prisoner is coupled to empathy for his own historical relationship with those who held absolute power over him.  This glimmer, should it ever occur, must be ruthlessly crushed within himself because he probably is still in close contact with his former captors and is, very likely, exercising similar dominance now over his own spouse and children.

I’m not attempting to justify the author’s advocacy of brutality.  It is impossible to compare subjective experiences.  We may dismiss empathetic feelings for any hypothetical suffering experienced by a white male political pundit.  Clearly, there are others who spend their entire lives subject to the violent dominance of others: women foremost among them.  It can be challenging to empathize with those who spend 18 years in prison when others linger there for their entire lives.

Rather, I am interested in the social mechanisms that disallow us from coming, collectively, to understand something as simple as “torture is always wrong.”  Is it possible to make rational arguments that undo the damage done by a lifetime of dominance?  Can we heap the evidence high enough that someone will concede that violent domination of another human being’s will is everywhere and always evil?

Empirically, the answer is “no”.  Rational arguments have been made, the pile of evidence eclipses the sun, and yet the brutality proceeds apace.  I’m not proposing a solution–I don’t have any.  If there is a direction that will lead to a saner world, it involves a radical increase in empathy.  Eventually, this implies empathy one human for another–currently difficult for the best of us, and impossible for most.  It must begin initially where all change begins–we need greater empathy, first and foremost, for ourselves.

* I use the not-a-single-person-I-know argument alot.  I am aware that plenty of people are not people-I-know.  I would like to recommend a policy of not knowing people for whom this argument makes sense after any amount of consideration.

** Meta-empathy?

*** That I can think of.

Moral Clarity

I’m going to go over this very slowly. I am doing this because I believe, purely by association, that you are intellectually capable individuals. I am doing this because I believe, purely by *faith*, that you will at some point in your lives realize that you once stood over a murdered woman’s body and argued about how much she deserved it.**
Violet (from punkassblog.com)

This quote demonstrates beautiful, and rare, moral clarity.  In this post we examine the opposite of moral clarity.  To very briefly recap the relevant evil position responded to above: the position was put forward that disappointed sexual expectations might be a mitigating factor in the extinguishing of a human life.

I wish to proceed with all due respect to the unique qualities of the above story and to the tender political sensibilities common at a time of societal upheaval and the transition of power.  Without comparing the nature of the crimes, here are a couple of situations demonstrating the sort of sick dehumanization that Violet was reacting against–and perhaps illustrating the destination and the source of the involved proto-lawyers and their ilk.

While reiterating his belief that CIA officers who carried out so-called “enhanced interrogations” should not be prosecuted, the President said he wanted the Attorney General to make a determination on how to procede [sic] with “those who formulated those legal decisions.”  — Daily Kos on torture prosecutions

This situation is related as if it were some kind of real ethical dilemma.  How is a college educated adult to know if he is justified torturing an Asian peasant?  Hmmmm.  I guess if he’s told to by his boss, then it must be OK.

Should the guy who ordered him to torture the peasant get in trouble?  Let’s see, if the lawyers (see Violet’s post again for insight into the humanity possessed by lawyers) said it’s alright, we’ll have to check with the Attorney General.

What do you say, AG?  Weeelll, It’s unclear how we should deal with people who set up legal structures authorizing torture.  We’ll have to check into it.

I have an idea, let’s ask a fucking kindergartner if people should torture each other.  It will save alot of time and we’re far more likely to have a morally sane verdict rendered.  Actually, the relevant public school curriculum may have to change to reflect the nature of our shared social code.

“Most schools that engage in strip searches do it because they are acting in good faith,” said Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association. “They are doing it because they feel an intense need to protect the safety of the students.” — Some Asshat defending the strip searching of a 13 year old student thought to possess advil.

Before everyone flees down their pre-programmed mental escape routes, let me state again that I’m am not comparing the severity of these crimes.  We, as a species need to battle through the layers of complicated exceptions, mitigating factors, and fear of apocalyptic outcomes and look at these events for what they are.  If we want to live in a better world, we must call these events, and all such events, by their proper name: crimes against humanity–and perhaps more importantly, crimes against a human.

At some point, if we are ever to evolve beyond the savage barbarism that has been the hallmark of the human experience, we will have to reach a point of moral clarity.  When is it OK to strip search a 13 year old?  Never.  When is it understandable to butcher another human being?  Never.  When can we excuse one individual for torturing or ordering torture of another individual?  Never.

A civilized society, if one is ever to exist, will require a fabric of human dignity and of an expectation of respect for persons.  This needs to replace the current and historic toxic environment of routine abuse, humiliation, degradation and inequality.

Have a lovely weekend.

(crossposted @ punkassblog.com)

Government Failure?

The right wing, and previously the left wing, go on and on about how badly government has failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Government has been an overwhelming success. Trillions of dollars have been stripped from voluntary production for peaceful consumption and shoveled to the politically connected financial aristocracy. Trillions more has been printed up for the same purposes, radically devaluing the few dollars that the poorest workers among us receive.

The military industrial complex gets to provide for the occupation of 100+ countries, 2 endless hot wars, countless bush wars, clandestine operations, and protection of shipping lanes. Military deployments provide employment for the lowest socio-economic classes. Along with section 8 concentration centers, low-cost access to toxic food, and a booming police and prison system, this keeps the masses of the powerless and oppressed from outright revolt.

Pharmaceutical companies get to have tens of thousands of competitors jailed for distributing alternative, low cost medication (yes, I mean weed). Teams of government lawyers and diplomats travel the world shutting down generic competitors for patent infringement saving “big pharma” huge amounts of money at the cost of an equally huge amount of human suffering and death. The ways in which government pillages the 99% of regular citizens–not to mention fer’ners–and enriches the 1% ruling class are boundless.

So why all the nay-sayers claiming that government isn’t doing it’s job? If you talk to them, you’ll quickly discover the crux of the issue: they think that the unassailable and frequently unleashed hurricane of state violence is somehow helping or protecting them. An uninformed observer might wonder how something so precisely opposite of the truth could roll so easily from the tongues of otherwise intelligent people. One answer, of course, is 12+ years of state “education” that, for most working families, is pretty difficult to avoid. Secondarily, the products of this near-universal public education produce the media and cultural artifacts that we are immersed in.

An Experiment

As an experiment, adopt the mindset that the purpose of government is to redistribute wealth from the poor, productive classes to a very small group of extremely wealthy people. Imagine that government is designed to shield existing corporations from competition, to grant monopoly privileges, and to prevent new products and services from entering the marketplace. Put yourself in the position of a politically connected oligarch. Would you prefer to cooperate peacefully with foreign merchants, buying raw materials at the price they offer? Or would you collaborate to send the national army to occupy the land and take the resources at a fraction of the price?

I’m not claiming this as bullet-proof evidence, but don’t many of the puzzles and mysteries of government action suddenly evaporate? Doesn’t it make sense that the apparatus that enforced slavery, exterminated the native population, subjugated women and children to male family members, bombed union picket lines, and drafted the poor into endless foreign blood-baths for the enrichment and benefit of themselves and their wealthy friends–doesn’t it make sense that they would continue to do so?

Try it out, if you can, for as long as is manageable and let me know how it feels.

See also

The Big Lie

Panem et Circenses

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
(Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81)

A friend and I were discussing the phrase “Bread and Circus” over (oddly) lunch. It is typically invoked to chide the public classes for abdicating their role as watchdogs of the ruling classes for the trivialities of food and entertainment. In modern times, this analysis of the public is often trotted out to indict both the public and the corporate structures that provide the radical consumer culture in the United States.

The right likes to imagine that, without the distraction of cable TV and McDonalds to distract them, the population would rise against the tyranny of the state and reduce it to its Constitutional bounds. Those on the left believe that workers, stripped of access to Walmart and NASCAR would finally see corporate evil for what it is and seize, or empower some collective to seize, the means of production. In both cases, the consumer is pointed to as thelynch-pin holding together the unjust system.

Meta-Cirucus

The caricature of the idiot consumer is, itself, a convenient misdirection. It cannot be denied that people crave physical comforts and recreation, but most also care about their spouses and children, their neighbors and communities. If that is the full extent of most people’s concerns, so what? Whence the moral obligation to oversee the innumerable laws, statutes and codes created by the modern state? The rulers themselves have no idea what most of the rest of the rulers are doing, how is it reasonable to expect the citizenry to eschew comfort, friends and family to monitor the activities of a cadre of “law makers” protected by lines of soldiers and police?

We are, by our very biology, limited in the scope of people and events we can attend to and care about. This isn’t an indictment of nature, it is irrational to study the workings of distant political structures with an eye to working one’s individual will on the world. Evolution has correctly directed us to be concerned with the people with and places where we interact in the day-to-day. Only the privileged public, with their views of how government should structure society, cannot see that problems are best and most easily solved among neighbors.

And so we can speak of the meta-circus. The misdirection for the self-styled “politically conscious” class. They are pointed towards the masses and told that the people are the problem. All the wars, prisons, ghettos, sickness and poverty are the fault of the politically inactive who would rather watch Jerry Springer than work for real change. All the gross injustices perpetrated by the ruling classes are redirected to an inert public for the anger and scorn of the middle.

The natural tendency of the individual to limit his/her concern to local people and events obviously plays into the hands of distant rulers. But it’s the intellectual mastery of rulers over the privileged-but-not-political (the pribnopols?) that really holds the machine together. The pribnopols must buy into the misdirection of responsibility from the rulers to the masses. Because they do, the politically connected float in a bubble of wealth and power with zero chance of being held accountable or responsible for the misery that they heap on the poor and powerless.

The people are not the problem. Abundant food is not the problem. Creature comfort is not the problem. The problem is that, thousands of miles away, a class of people have appointed themselves war makers, prison wardens, distributors of sustenance and medicine. The problem is not that they distract us with trivialities and thus exist without direction from the people. The problem is that they exist at all.

I’m a punkass.

To my 3 mentally unstable readers:

Thanks for searching far and wide through the internet to find me. Thanks for posting vague and confusing comments. I thought I would let you know that I am now cross-posting my content to punkassblog.com. You should probably go read it there where more people can be disturbed by your chosen nom de comments.

Authority and Social Organization

Authority is a common thread of many of the topics that I am interested in thinking/blogging about. We on the political fringes have an interesting relationship with the concept of authority and I imagine it (and related concepts that I have in mind to bring up later) will provide a nearly endless resource for examination and introspection.

Authority originally meant the legitimate power to achieve a given end. This brings together the physical dominance to impose one’s will and the assent of the dominated that such dominance was just. Modern conceptions also allow for non-dominance based authority. Someone like the pope, for example, cannot (any longer) marshal armies to impose his (god’s?) will on man. And yet, he can bend outcomes to his desire because he is seen by many as a legitimate director of human affairs.

I have a very ambivalent relationship to authority. This ambivalence plagues the left-half of the political spectrum. The right has no problem legitimizing the unleashing of any amount of violence on anyone who opposes the United States government–an extension of the legitimacy accorded to the unleashing of violence on women who oppose the will of men, children who oppose the will of parents, and other “traditional” relationships based on dominance.

The natural tendency, then, is to eschew authority all-together. This may be the best, albeit utopian, alternative. In a given real-world, situation, however, I am beginning to find authority of the non-violent kind to be constructive and emotionally comforting. The essential requirement for ‘good’ authority, if such a thing exists, is that it must accord with my subjectively experienced self-interest.

The Dinner Party

The other night, 15 or so friends and acquaintances gathered together to make a spectacular dinner. Nobody had access to “old-school” authority–nobody would have stood for someone physically threatening somebody else to perform some task. If this had been a family dinner, the social dynamic may have allowed for such things, but in this setting, it wouldn’t have even entered anyone’s mind to do so.

And yet, authorities emerged. The chefs, whom everyone recognized as the only people who knew how to make the dishes, handed out tasks, gave directions and provided feedback. No one challenged their status as those whose will we collectively sought to realize. The host provided authority over other matters, which tools should be used, where work areas to use, how to deal with waste, and so forth. I “authorized” them to lead me because I knew that their aim was to create food and an enjoyable environment in which to eat. I am especially grateful for their authority in the matter because I have no idea what I’m doing in a kitchen.

Of course, this is exactly the organic, self-organizing and non-violent social structure that like to imagine organizing education, health, security and so forth. But I don’t want to mentally derail the post reader with these thoughts–at least not entirely.

I have had enough experience with dominance-based authority that, at one point, any hint of hierarchy would cause an immediate emotional and physical reaction. By surrounding myself with good people, as much as possible, I am learning about new ways to relate to those who need my help to manifest their will in the world. Even something as simple (actually, it wasn’t that simple) as making dinner allowed me to experience a different emotional and physical circumstance with respect to social organization. I am grateful to my friends for the experience.

Die Grosse Luege (The Big Lie)

… in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; Even though the facts . . . may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world . . .

—Adolf Hitler , Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X[1]

The big lie may be the most successful stand-alone propaganda technique in history.  We swim everyday in a sea of such lies and yet we rarely, if ever, notice them.  Like an optical illusion, we focus our entire attention on it while it jumps and squirms and evades our ability to bring it fully before our senses.  And so we must bring reason to bear in addition to our senses to detect the big lie.  What to do with one once we’ve found it, we’ll leave for another time.

Protection from Islamo-facism

Since the big lie is as difficult to pin down in the abstract as it is to detect in reality, let’s start with an example.  I choose this example because it’s the easiest for us anti-imperialists to grasp.  The lie is that we need a large and powerful globe-spanning military to protect us from rabid, suicidal foes who want nothing more than to kill us and take our stuff.  We’re told that our freedom will end the minute we stop razing villages, imprisoning farmers and shepherds, overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments, and supplying firepower to brutal dictators.  Reality, in this case, is available to anyone with a few hours of research and some very basic critical thinking skills.  In reality, the U.S. military has spent the last 100 years, conservatively, creating an army of rabid, suicidal foes bent on revenge.  It has swelled the number of those willing to fight by starving, torturing and killing legions of mothers, sons, brothers, daughters, sisters, fathers, and friends.

As we see from the above example, the big lie is not simply not true.  It is the opposite of the truth made difficult to detect by its over-the-top audacity.  Even now, having stated what is real, my mind wanders in search of scenarios in which an Army-less America is overrun by . . . somebody from somewhere.  These are the ‘traces’ of the big lie, the result of imperfect deprogramming after dozens of years of propaganda.

Just Say “No”

Let’s look at the big lie around drug prohibition–anti-imperialists are also frequently opposed to jailing people who’ve committed no crime.  The big lie is that the war on drugs exists to decrease drug dependency, drug related crimes and the violence of the drug trade.  The staying power of the big lie is illustrated by the drug war.  Even with a prison system overflowing with non-violent drug users, hundreds of thousands of bodies littering Central and South America and billions of dollars “up in smoke,” this choice piece of propaganda persists.  Even those who would legalize marijuana can’t understand that society would not erupt into madness if “hard” drugs were legalized.  The primary effect, guaranteed by iron-clad laws of economics, would be to radically decrease the price of drugs.  The 99% markup that allows for the marketing of drugs to kids, the arming of the most violent criminals, and the need to steal and trick to get a fix would vanish.  And with it, the distinction between legal and illegal drugs–so crystal clear to the propagandized mind–would dissolve  away.

Compulsory Schooling

Here’s a hard one we might not have noticed.  We who believe that human beings are all valuable understand that denying someone an education is the surest way to limit their potential for self-fulfillment.  Literacy is key to economic freedom and human progress, and we look back with shame at the times when society attempted to deny this ability to women, slaves, and various immigrant groups.

Our genuine and honorable feelings about the value of education pave the way for a big lie: without public education, the poor would be uneducated.  Non-labor jobs would be the domain of the males of the dominant ethnic group.  Illiteracy and the resulting stratification of society would lead to massive injustice as the poor languished, the rich thrived and the middle class desperately sought some way to scrimp and save in order to educate their kids.

Of course, government schools do not educate the poor.  They do guarantee that white men dominate the non-labor workforce.  They result it the highest illiteracy rates in the history of this continent.  The rich thrive in carefully gerrymandered school districts or private schools.  The poor endure 12+ years of boring, degrading and brutal  “child” care, and the middle class scramble to locate themselves in the districts of the wealthy or budget for private school.

The very circumstances we fear above all others–those we are told to fear by “experts”–are precisely the outcomes of the government remedies we are told we must accept.  Financial chaos, lack of  healthcare, oppressed minorities, suffering of the elderly; whenever we’re told to be afraid and that only the coercive might of the state can protect us from a dismal outcome, we must attempt to escape our programming and look for the big lie.

Framework of Fear

Banking provides an archetypal example of a system held in place through fear.  I find banking especially interesting because of the amount of propaganda required to conceal its nature.  War is easy to justify with appeals to nationalism, patriotism, racism, and religion.  Stockpiling wealth by annihilating foreign populations is considered admirable by many (twisted ass-hats) in our society.  Banking, however, requires much more misdirection because nobody, not even an ass-hat, wants to be robbed to fill the vaults of institutional wealth.

The four-actor framework I (made up and) outline below works for a number of fear-based institutions and issues: war, health-care, criminal justice, education, etc.   While it applies to any violence based public crime, I’ve filled-in-the-blanks according to a banking based example with the aggregated groups in order from largest to smallest.

1.  Victims: the usual cast of fixed-income folks, the working (and non-working) poor, elderly, and disabled.  The list is now joined by large swaths of the middle class who tried to get something–a lot of something–for nothing via “investment.”  They had their money herded into the coffers of the wealthy by tax protection schemes such as the 401K and by corporate leaders who promised never-ending profits to workers who put all their money into company stock.  The victims were encouraged by every conceivable government and media outlet to invest.  The victims are now looking at having their remaining assets devalued by trillions of “new” dollars that are flowing directly into the pockets of the richest and most politically connected group of people on the planet (see “beneficiaries” below).

2.  Propagandists: rivaling the victims in size are the propagandists.  The propagandist just needs a few catch phrases and pseudo-historical instances that will strike terror in the carefully conditioned soul of the listener.  In the case of banking “bailouts”, their job is easy.  Two acceptable solutions to the banking problem exist: giving the ruling economic class everything they want immediately, or reorganizing the banks and insurers in some way to give the ruling economic class everything they want in the future.  Anything else will result in “financial collapse.”

A few hundred high-level propagandists can be identified.  But most are victims serving double-duty.  Whenever someone parrots the “financial collapse” line without any idea what that means or why, he or she qualifies as a propagandist.  If someone gets really upset when it is pointed out that he/she has no idea what that means or why, he/she is exhibiting the behavior that keeps alive all things evil in our world–smile and nod politely and then get the fuck away from them.

3.  Enforcers: there’s a long and complex tale about how the banks and the government worked out the current financial system.   Your friendly neighborhood libertarian or anarchist will be all too happy to regale you with this tale.  It suffices to say that people have been arrested and have had their customers’ assets stolen for attempting to provide competing banking services.  This doesn’t include those (actual) criminals arrested for creating counterfeit currency–something that only politically connected banks are authorized to do.  It sounds trite, but it’s true (trite and true?), professions that allow an individual to become, or remain, inconceivably wealthy cannot exist when others are not threatened with violence for competing.
4.  Beneficiaries: with all the levels of misdirection, it is difficult if not impossible to be clear who is benefiting from this mess–hence the large and growing reactionary punditry claiming this or that shadowy organization or traditionally scape-goated race is ‘running’ the entire scam.  I don’t think that greed requires much internal organization to thrive.  It requires sufficient propagandists to keep the population terrified of not shoveling wealth to the wealthy and sufficiently brutal enforcement to keep the remainder in line and producing.  The beneficiaries’ numbers are dwarfed by the victims, which has much to do with their extreme wealth–a few tens of thousands of dollars from a few hundred million people adds up quickly.