Posts Tagged ‘ psychology

The Bikecast Episode #54: Whence Bigotry?

The evolutionary psych story about humanity is that war, genocide, and the divisive “-isms” that keep humans in a perpetual state of conflict are inevitable expressions of an “us vs. them” tendency that is simply a part of our biological makeup.

It’s indisputable that people can adopt an identity that is essentially oppositional to another nation, race, religion or ethnic group, but how much of this tendency is nature and how much is nurture?

Only one human trait is truly immutable: adaptability. Children learn very quickly what they need to do to ensure their physical safety. In our dominance based society, a major element of required adaptation is siding with proximal agents in society vs. outsiders, real or–primarily–imagined.

In fact, examining the volume of propaganda that is directed at Americans, from the cradle to the grave it’s unsurprising the kinds bizarre and absurd expressions of xenophobia that crop up whenever the “enemies of America” (or of “real” America) come up in conversation.

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Take, for example, this stream of . . . just really weird comments that popped about on Facebook and Twitter after the last month’s earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan. Citing Pearl Harbor (Pearl Harbor? Seriously?) as the counter-balance in some twisted version of karma is really, really fucked up.

Anti-japanese propaganda from the Second World War
Where did this enmity come from? There can’t be more than a dozen people alive on the planet that participated in the fighting at Pearl Harbor. Japan has been a more than cooperative American colonial forward base in East Asia for over 65 years. There are very few who derived their prejudice against the Japanese from lived experience, but a quick glance at “educational material” and popular culture should give a clue about where the animosity comes from.

The facts, which one has to dig a bit to find, paint a different picture. The popular depiction involves a ruthless and brutal empire[1] that, in an attempt to enslave the entire pacific strikes out at a peaceful merchant republic. This depiction, crafted, as always, by the victors served to put the United States on a war footing. Pearl Harbor was a story meant to ease the resistance to conscription going into the war, and to ease the collective conscience after Japanese cities were incinerated by fire bombings and, finally, annihilated in nuclear blasts.

The truth is less useful. Objectively, two empires, one small and resource starved and the other vast, expanding and reaching the height of its powers met in the western Pacific. A faction of the leadership of the United States, including large parts of the executive branch, wanted to go to war in Europe and intended to do so by drawing Germany’s Pacific ally into a conflict.

This bikecast/post isn’t intended to address this issue in depth. It requires the kind of care and attention to detail that I can’t generally muster. Luckily, the issue has been researched to death by just the kinds of minds by which one wants important issues researched to death. The evidence is overwhelming and the objections, as far as I can find, are few and feeble (and rebutted). This page of links from the Independent Institute has alot of good starting points for the interested.

In any case, the nature of the war, fought thousands of miles from California against an island nation far and away the technological and economic inferior of the United States required an enormous amount of propaganda. In retrospect, as each new generation of Americans confronts the nightmare of history’s only nuclear strikes, the tale requires an arch-enemy so lunatic that no alternative was conceivable but to vaporize hundreds of thousands of people to bring the war to an end.

And that is the legacy that is echoed in the comments about Japan today. Jingoism generated by a ruling class to support their decisions and those of their predecessors three generations ago.

If we have to demonize the Japanese in order to distract from the reality of the war in the Pacific, how much more demonization is required to justify the enslavement of a race?

African Americans

The answer is, “quite a lot”–11 on a scale of 10 and we see the evidence for this in Western bigotry against blacks. This may be especially true in the United States where racial policy has been an political issue for three hundred years.

How does one justify the perpetual enslavement of a people? They have to be animals, unfit for a place in civilization, unable to control their impulses and desires, a danger to advanced society. If abolition is on the table, a strong and reliable political move is to drive into the public consciousness the most gruesome and horrifying stories of what will happen when the black race is freed.

If integration is on the table, the wise move is to tell these stories again. To create and fund “science” that supports racist conclusions, to integrate racism into every possible aspect of society: education, religion, community organizations, etc. The politician willing to do so and support others in doing so can have a long and prosperous career, since no one pays any heed to the wars he starts and the money he shunts to his supporters and allies.

The legacy of nationalized racial policy is what we see around us today. Racism isn’t a biological inevitability. It’s the result of an explicit policy of centuries of fear mongering for political power and financial gain.

The Entire Non-Christian World and The non-English-speaking Americas

Nowadays, our attention is turned to (at least) two new enemies who, we are told, seek to despoil our country. The muslims (or islamo-fascists) and spanish speaking central/south Americans and carribean islanders (aka mexicans or illegals).

Popular stereotypes of these people differ radically between 1900 and today. I go into some hand-waving detail in the podcast about my perception of these changes. Suffice it to say that the fanatical muslim and job-stealing mexican are inventions of the last 40 years. They were created specifically to allow monstrously inhumane treatment of human beings and vast appropriations of stolen money to the military-industrial-prison-security-congressional-complex. The amount of energy and effort being put into the new stereotypes assure us that, in 100 years, people will still be clinging blindly to these beliefs.

And why the energy and effort? Greater fear and anger associated with these groups means more power given to the police, military and surveillance state and votes for anyone who promises protection from these “threats.” Nobody can speak against this most destructive of enemy imagery and hope to be taken seriously by the corporate media much less have any chance at political office.

To sum up, the quantity and ferocity of enemy-making propaganda has to be such that virtuous choices like withdrawing western troops from the middle east, allowing free travel over the southern border (or not going to war in 1941 or not owning black persons before 1865) are unthinkable.

We’re still reeling from the propaganda of the past, and new bullshit is being constantly heaped on top of the old. The perpetrators and agitators are those that benefit from hatred–those whose actual crimes: mass theft, kidnapping and murder, necessitate the creation of unfathomably evil foes. Only by projecting their own wrongdoings onto others can the perpetrators escape from scrutiny. Not only can they commit the most horrific crimes against humanity, they can do so in the name of protection people from the harmful other.

In the podcast, I reference Lloyd DeMause who makes a similar argument with regard to enemy imagery historically directed at children. Here’s a page of his online books. I’ve read much of The Emotional Life of Nations and listened to some of the Origins of War in Child Abuse. Also, here’s a current example ad hoc ratcheting up of enemy imagery in wartime as various minorities are targeted as foreign mercenaries. Oh, and the movie I was trying to think of was Lawrence of Arabia

  1. [1] no argument there, btw

Reasoning in Midstream

“Reasoning in midstream[1]” is a common phenomenon in public discourse that typically starts right around the time that bombs start dropping or legislation starts being penned in response to a “crisis”. It is the monotonous focus on the present state of a problem–a pending genocide, a health or financial emergency, or a security threat–disregarding the history or context in which the event takes place. In addition to discouraging discussion of root causes, reasoning in midstream also allows for attention to be drawn away from parallel dangers that are still in earlier stages.

By way of an analogy, imagine a society whose diet consists of only Snickers and Coke (a-cola, that is). After forty or fifty years, the toothless, diabetic and morbidly obese nature of the elder generation forces the society to examine the ailments of the worst off and explore possible solutions. Radical dentistry, amputation of gangrenous limbs and liposuction are proposed and touted as the only way to address these epidemics which, apparently, arose from nowhere. Perhaps an underemployed nutritionist suggests a change of diet, but the idea is dismissed as ineffective against the immediate problems faced by the older population.

Of course, without a change in diet, however insufficient against some of the immediate dangers facing some of the population, the problem can’t be checked in any meaningful or sustainable way. There’s most likely not much that can be done to help those that have been eating the lethal foodstuffs for 50 years. In this example, it’s plain (for us) to see that efforts would be most profitably invested in changing the diet to avoid the same problems in those that are currently 5, 15, 25, and 35 years old.

If this society limits itself to reasoning in midstream, however, solutions that aren’t directed at the immediate and spotlighted most critical cases are disregarded entirely. No ultimate causes of the current problem are sought and no thought to preventing future problems of a similar nature is given.

Leaping out of my flimsy analogy and into harsh reality, the most recent example of reasoning in midstream (let’s call it RIM from now on) that I’ve experienced has been around the topic of Libya.

Here, for the first time since Clinton and NATO decimated and subsequently occupied the Balkans, we have a progressive war for progressive goals lead by a progressive administration. This has caused tremendous cognitive dissonance on the left and lead to somber and thoughtful defenses of the necessity of aerial butchery. Where there is hesitation, progressives are plagued by the programmed question: “What possible alternative exists?”

What alternatives indeed? There are no good answers in the moment, because it’s the last 60+ years of malignant foreign policy in the region that have brought us to this terrible, yet easily predicted, outcome. Yet no discussion exists of the historical context of western intervention in North Africa. And so the policy is more of the same–remove the leader and arm some new “legitimate government” that will guarantee the continuity of the status quo.

Whatever happens, say proponents of RIM, don’t let’s think about the other dictators and puppet states, in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Colombia, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Geogria, El Salvador, Djibouti, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc.–I left out the countries that don’t seem to be in immediate peril of revolution–who continue to receive the very same western military aid that has allowed Gadaffi to commit this most recent democide.

The goal of the imperial state and it’s licensed, regulated, and wholly corporately owned mass media is to push aside such radical questions and return us to the case at hand–to RIM. Surely we can’t let this moment pass, this horrible thing happen, surely something must be done . . .

When “something must be done,” we immediately know that we are being asked to support a heaping helping of more of the same upon a people that have had their enemies propped up by western imperialism and their countries and wealth sold out from underneath them to western interests.

Nothing should be done. The violence must end which necessitates not adding to it. The dictators past and future should not be armed by money expropriated from the western working classes. As I discuss in The Winding Up of Violence, places like Libya, and much of the rest of the western controlled world, are like pots of water (two metaphors in one blog post! Noooo!). As long as they are exposed to heat, armaments and violence, from outside the system, they will remain in a turbulent state.

Foreign perturbance must cease, and the region will settle in to a stable state governed by the will of the people living there. This will happen at some point. The amount of harm, destruction and dislocation that will have to be endured is a function of how long it takes for the west to withdraw and cease interference, which is an economic inevitability at this point.

The sooner we cease to reason in midstream, and to see the calls for increased intervention for what they are, the sooner the people of Libya, the Middle East, and the entire world will have an opportunity to craft a peaceful existence for themselves.


  1. [1] Wes Bertrand describes the process more abstractly in the first chapter of his book Complete Liberty

The Bikecast Episode #20: Human Nature Expansion Pack

I’ve gone a long time without saying it–in fact, I’m not sure I ever said it in a podcast that ended up surviving–thanks for the comments and the feedback. I received a couple comments related to episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human behavior and related material.

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It’s heartening that I don’t get push-back when I point out the monstrous war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by government. I didn’t get alot of static from my comparison of communism and fascism and my pairing of the two as very similar forms of totalitarianism. Nobody disagreed substantially with the idea that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. People have some very strong beliefs, however, that violence, obedience, and animal response to base instincts are immutable aspects of human nature.

I’ve found this attitude fairly prevalent within the social circles I travel. Nobody vouches for the virtue of the state, nobody supports the military or the neo-colonial policies of the corporate ruling class. Nobody thinks that justice is being served in the court system or the the prison system is anything but a racist racket for those who build, provision, and staff prisons. The one trait that separates these people from the anarchists I’ve met is their fear of other humans. Take the following email correspondence for example:

I’m not convinced of your points about human nature. I don’t think human nature is some monolithic entity, of course there is a large amount of variation. Some small percentage of people seem to lack empathy (sociopaths), and there seems to be a genetic component (that is, sociopaths are not necessarily created by their environment).

Humans are capable of horrible, unspeakable things. My point in episode #17 was that those are the result of mental and physical trauma during early development. The science around this topic is, as far as I’m aware, entirely conclusive. Sociopaths suffered some subset of a very well understood suite of supremely sub-optimal developmental conditions. This isn’t to say that no genetic pre-disposition exists, but it won’t be expressed without a traumatic developmental environment. I think the next bikecast will elaborate on this a bit further.

Hobbes famously described life in his hypothetical state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short”, which is why we come together to create society.

The social “we.” It’s awfully convenient for the wealthy and privileged that “we” came together to subsidize their industries, fight to maintain control of minerals and supply lines, and replenish their riches when they suffer losses. Hobbes and the other enlightenment political thinkers depended for their very lives on the ruling class. From the enlightenment onward, it became increasingly clear that decreases the power of the aristocracy and the lessening of the oppression of the peasant and merchant classes lead to far less bloodshed and even the beginnings of prosperity. Because of their situation, they were in no position to follow their logic to its conclusion.

This isn’t to discount the novelty or value of their thinking, but Hobbes, for example, existed in a time in which the scientific method was in its infancy. He had no understanding of anthropology, sociology, psychology or child development. He and his intellectual peers provide an interesting look at the modes of belief in their day, but their opinions as to the necessity of Leviathan based on human nature, I feel safe discounting in the face of modern discoveries and understanding.

I think you are a bit quick to dismiss any dissenting evidence. For one thing you seem to focus on individual human nature – but as we know, individuals in groups behave differently than individuals alone. There was a famous case of a brutal rape in NYC in the 80’s in which at least 50 neighbors heard what was going on but nobody intervened or called the police – they all assumed that someone else would help.

I am interested in dissenting evidence, but I think this is another non-example of said evidence. I agree that people behave differently in groups–that’s been clearly demonstrated in both the laboratory and in history. I maintain however that this instance and many similar instances in which even more thoroughly evil activities are participated in by otherwise “normal” people are examples of broken people with broken minds acting in groups. The group may amplify the individual lack of human connection to a person being raped and beaten in earshot, but it’s fairly far fetched to imagine that happening in a crowd of self-aware, empathetic and emotionally healthy human beings.

In a related facebook post of this video,

I got the following comment:

I have to question this idealistic principle of global empathy. I find it difficult to empathize with the Haitians and I attribute that kind of phenomenon to the fact that I can only manage care for a limited set of other individuals at one time. I read in some book years ago that the average group size of primates (don’t remember if it was bonobo or chimp) is around 200. And to me it seems likely that it hasn’t been that long since 200 was a large number of contacts for humans as well. However, within a few hundred years, we are expecting ourselves to be able to really grasp caring for 6.8 billion people? Maybe I am just being contrary, but I think it’s asking a bit much.

Then again, it’s not people like me who care for a small group that is the main problem–it’s those who regardless of their environment tend toward narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive behaviors, right? Or perhaps this man is implying that those traits are completely a response to our societal structure??

Here’s my reply:

. . . I think that understanding that it sucks to lose one’s family to aerial carpet bombing, or to be so poor that one lives in a plywood shack on a hill on a seismic fault line is really all that’s necessary. We *should*, if we are mentally healthy, be able to understand that those things are painful and to be avoided–even if we don’t experience it at the same level that we would experience *our* family being murdered or *our* hovel falling to an earthquake.

The speaker sort of skips that part and pretends like people generally do feel that level of empathy. I don’t think that they do. He wants to expand people’s empathy, I think that the issue is developing that empathy in the first place.

The narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive people among us are damaged humans, not examples of human nature. I think that’s the most important part of the piece . . .

I’m entirely convinced, after considerable, albeit amateur, research that it is the case that the damaged sociopaths among us are products of horrific childhoods. The contrapositive, of which I’m also convinced, is that loving, nurturing developmental conditions leads to healthy, social adults.

Even if I’m wrong, the anarchist position on the optimal social structure still stands. I’m straw-manning a bit here, since neither commenter outright claimed that their views of human nature necessitate a state. If sociopathy is an immutable aspect of human nature, then the very worst mechanism on which to found societal organization is violence. Sociopaths can dispense violence without concern for the victims or lingering regret. They are natural authoritarians, both as physical enforcers and as social engineers who can indulge their intellects by experimenting on human societies.

It makes intuitive sense and is amply borne out by the facts that social structures based on violence select against empathy, cooperation, and participants seeking win-win solutions to problems. It selects for narcissism, materialism, aggression, and a disregard for the health and well-being of others.

Instead of shielding society from the activities of sociopaths, the current system gives them weapons, badges, uniforms, legislative power, armies, prisons, and nuclear arsenals.

In either case regarding the nature of humanity, statelessness is optimal. In the one case, it’s inevitable, without a culture of violence, the state is impossible. In the other, it is essential: if violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition regardless of upbringing, then the state must not exist if the species is to have any hope of long term survival.


I make reference to The Project for a New American Century in the bikecast as an example of policy promotion that assumes the necessity of a violent management structure for all of humanity. It may not be the best example, but it’s what I thought of at the time, so here’s the link.

The Bikecast Episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human Behavior

Last week, the secretary of state was in asia threatening North Korea. The proximate reason for this round of threats is the sinking of a South Korean ship six miles off the N. Korean coast. This is a true gem of political theater: a country that is actually in a declared war with it’s adversary sinks a military vessel closer to it’s shoreline than I am from work and it’s up for international reprimand. The country delivering the reprimand has murdered, maimed, tortured, imprisoned, and destroyed the lives of tens of millions of non-combatants thousands of miles away from any conceivable “national” interest.  I am in no way defending the North Korean attack, but the obvious hypocrisy of the U.S. condemnation renders them morally impotent.

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There is an interesting parallel between the language in the international missive and the threats and promises made to a child in order to “make them behave.” This is the purpose of the language. When we hear it, even in a 2 minute propaganda piece, it immediately registers with us. The schema is the irrational child who could be playing with friends and enjoying goodies but is choosing to behave badly despite increasingly harsh punishment from a just authority.

This narrative has two purposes, the first is to turn the rebellious nation, group, or person into an irrational actor who we should be angry with for not knowing what’s best for them. The entity or person who is punishing/promising rewards is always in the right and always has the disobedient entity/persons best interest at heart.

The second purpose is to make us afraid. We smart, obedient people should always remember that there are bad/crazy/evil people out there and they just won’t listen to reason! The only thing standing between them and us are the various agencies of state security.

It is important to the power structure that we believe that this unpredictable, dangerous element is essential to human nature. Its eternal presence requires eternal vigilance on the part of our brave and ever expanding defense forces. This narrative is critical and must be told as many times per day as possible in order to counter-balance the obvious cataclysmic failure of the state in all aspects of social management.

In conversations with “very smart people,” I find that we can quickly dispense with the formalities of demonstrating the the state is a vile, murderous institution. They get it, but they fear a greater state of chaos that lies in the uncontrolled interactions of their fellow humans. Most of the people I’m talking with aren’t mystics or nationalists, or any other kind of fantasy dwellers. They’re skeptical and accept reason and evidence as the ultimate arbiters of truth . . . unless the claim is that humans are, ceterus paribus, social, cooperative animals. A claim supported by any number of studies as well as classical economics and modern game theory.

The existence of numerous genocides, wars and conflicts around the world do not represent a refutation of the premise that the natural state of human society is cooperative. Rather they provide instances that we can examine in order to determine what factors lead to the exceptional case of violence and the disintegration of civilized society.

The statist will attempt to indicate the strong, central authority as the structure around which peaceful societies grow, and claim that weak central authority or statelessness leads to the tragic human conflict we find around the world today.

This is a classic piece of “Big Lie” propaganda. States are directly involved in every modern conflict and, in fact, the most powerful states are implicated–directly and indirectly–in the most heinous genocides.

What is the difference between societies, or segments of societies, that follow the default human condition of peaceful cooperation and those that disintegrate into self-destructive chaos?

The difference is how children develop and is another aspect of the genius of evolution in creating a hyper-adaptive programmable organism. A child born to a mother who is relaxed and cared for by his/her community; a child who is nurtured and cared for, loved and interacted with; a child who sees empathy modeled by the other members of its society, will grow up to be a thoughtful, peaceful, empathetic and intelligent adult. What the society needs and communicates through the conditions of childhood, the biological organism will seek to provide in order that it and its species survive and prosper.

Meanwhile a child whose mother is exposed to malnourishment and stressers (such as the type encountered in a warzone or as a refugee) while in the womb; who’s starved and neglected in early childhood; who grows up surrounded by brutality and violence; will not develop empathy, gentleness or reason. The survival of this individual and his/her society requires an unquestioning killer, an unthinking brute. Where generation upon generation are born, grow up and die in this manner of human strife, the sociopathic behavior will deviate increasingly widely from the norm to the point of demonic barbarism.

Recovering from such a state–a state such as existed in Europe during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries–take many generations. Hundreds of years later, we’re just beginning to emerge into the light. The children of today, are pioneering a realm of peace, self-awareness and mental health yet unexperienced in the history of humankind. A small number of them will have a tremendous influence on the trajectory of humanity in the world.

When discussing this topic, the opposition usually ignores the reams of behavioral, psychological, and economic science on the matter and refers instead to the realm of fiction: The Lord of the Flies, The Heart of Darkness, episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone to support their position of an essential darkness in human nature. They also misapply “the prisoner’s dilemma” and the “tragedy of the commons” in an attempt to lend some legitimacy to their claim that the state, despite it’s obviously monstrous and anti-human nature, must exist in order than we may avoid chaos.

I’m always optimistic in situations like this because it’s not really a matter of opinion anymore. The beauty of the truth is that it will out-wait any malformed opposition. Going forward, I believe an increasing number of people will acknowledge the evidence and the logic of the situation. They will do so, I believe, via an empathetic connection to the reality of the harm being wrought which will force a dispelling of propagandistic narratives and a reexamination of the evidence.

I hope we reach a critical mass of enlightened humanity before too many more millions of innocent people have to die.

Following Orders from things that Don’t Exist has Negative Results

Thank you Pew Research Center for doing the legwork to confirm things that we already knew: in this case, the inverse relationship between human decency and church attendance.

The survey asked: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

Apparently, “Hey dumbass, torture isn’t used to gain ‘important information,’ it’s used to force false confessions to justify state violence.” wasn’t an option.

One other interesting note: 25% said it was never justified, which means 1 in 4 Americans is not stone-cold evil!  That’s a start.

It might seem surprising, on the face of it, that religious cults founded on the teachings of Jesus would be such hotbeds of inhumanity.  By that I mean you might be surprised if you were from another planet and had never encountered an evangelical.

In fact, the beauty of Christianity, from the perspective of enslaving one’s fellow humans, is that any message or commandment imaginable can be supported or refuted within it’s framework.  You don’t even have to use the bible.  If you’re too lazy to read it over and find where it matches your vision of what others should do for you, you can simply have a chat with God and write down what s/he says: Mohammad/Joseph Smith style.

The larger pattern of leading others around by the nose is this: 1.  make up an abstract concept; 2. designate serving it the highest moral good; 3. claim to have a unique understanding of or ability to communicate with the concept; 4. profit.

God is the classic abstract concept for this purpose.  Everyone’s already been taught by their parents that s/he’s perfect and morally flawless.  Plus God never interacts with anyone possessing an ounce of sanity.  If you can convince enough people that you can hear clear messages from God, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.  If you can convince enough people that you can, through devotion and scholarship, reasonably interpret the will of God, you only have to work Sunday mornings.  Either way, it’s a great racket.

Humans who believe that God is the highest moral authority can be relied on to accept as “good” or “evil” whatever their flavor of clergy so designate.  If the lunatic behind the pulpit says God wants the United States to be safe at all costs and that the president is the righteous tool of the lord, then torture is on.

Combine this with the fun wingnut fact* that most churches are organized as 501c3 tax-exempt religious organizations, and the sick really gets rolling.  Now clergy, who speak for a non-existent god cannot speak in a partisan manner.  God must always be in non-partisan support of the state and its activities.  This church-state connection is much less pronounced in the current political environment compared to, say, the Crusades or the 100 years war.  But the fact that God loves America and America loves God has a profound effect on the evil shit that the agents of the state can perpetrate in this world.

It’s easy to beat up on religion–it’s so old.  Let’s take a look at other abstract concepts that serve a similar morality-reversing purpose and the asshats who claim spokespersonship for them.

The Race is another oldie that can be relied on to command people.  What does it mean to take action in the best interest of the race?  In reality, it means nothing, race doesn’t exist–it’s an abstract concept with as much to do with reality as god.  Acting for the good of the race means doing what some fuckwit, often in a military uniform, says to do.

Do it for your nation!  It’s like the race, but bigger and more progressive.  Who knows what’s good for the nation?  Nobody.  Nations do not exist.  They’re just lines on maps that assholes with armies have agreed to after having sent kids to kill and die to push the line a few miles one way or the other.  The nation is a concept.  It can’t be good or evil.  It has no interests.  If X wants something “for the national interest,” it probably benefits X in some way.  In this case, again, X is often a violent jerk in a uniform, though in many instances s/he may be wearing a suit.

Fighting in solidarity with your class was my favorite.  What should the good class-conscious warrior do?  Throw off his/her chains, seize the means of production, relinquish control of said means to a violent jerk in a military uniform (fewer suits among komeraden), and show up for work the next day–unless there’s a war on, in which case, fight to liberate your class brethren/sistren in other lands–often without bullets because centrally planned war machines break down alot.

The public good/greater good is the abstract concept most in vogue at the moment.  Class and race are pretty much done for now, though I’m sure they’ll cycle back through since we’ve not learned those lessons yet.  Many people are pretty sure that the National interest is bullshit too, but that could be revitalized given further economic turmoil or a sufficiently traumatizing “national” emergency.

Right now, the public good is where it’s at.  If you know what’s good for the public, and can make a case to the suits and uniforms (hint: cut them in on the loot your plan generates), you have a profitable future in the public sector.  What constitutes the public good?  Nuclear power?  Clean coal?  Increased/decreased regulation of the financial sector? Assurances that Iran or N. Korea will denuclearize?

Altogether now: “Nobody knows–the public good doesn’t exist except as an abstract concept.”  Each individual has millions of needs prioritized in a way that s/he may not even be fully conscious of.  The idea that anybody, even a smart guy with a really cool computer simulation, has access to any insight about the collective subjective wants, desires and needs of 300, much less 300 million people is hubris on par with claiming to know the will of of an omnipotent God.

And so we come full circle.  The native human understanding which attends being raised in non-abusive circumstances is that “good” means respecting other people and accepting their equality to yourself.  It takes some true warping of a mind–typically over a dozen or so years–to teach the supremacy of abstract concepts in defining right and wrong.  Once that task is accomplished, however, any variety of human nightmares can be unleashed.

Next week’s Pew Research Center poll result: Swine flu fears vary proportionally with the number of years you lived in your parent’s basement.

* Wingnuts, for all their wingnuttiness, do a remarkable amount of research, reading, Freedom of Information Act requests etc.  While their conclusions are often suspect (in this case, that 501c3s incorrectly put one non-existent abstract concept’s will over another ) they can be entertaining and sometimes informative sources.


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.