Category Archives: Politics

The Liberating Value of Reconciliation

Two things amaze me, again and again, about American enthusiasm for rancor in politics.

I. Vengeance welcomes and relishes any opportunities to humiliate or oppress one’s opponents, but shows no foresight of how this creates a precedent—a legal and cultural blueprint for how one could be destroyed by the same methods, once the enemies one has made have similar opportunities.

The ones who now clamor to deny their opponents freedom of political speech, and (for instance) demand putting conservatives on no-fly lists as punishment today seem to have no memory of putting antiwar activists and Muslims on them yesterday (figuratively speaking). They seem to have no imagination for how their own civil liberties could be curtailed in the future by other no-appeal persecutions and exclusions, if the supposedly-abominable category of beliefs were simply adjusted to a different definition, and re-assigned to one’s own group—just as it happened in this case!

And those of us who vividly remember how words like traitor, disloyal, sedition, unpatriotic, pro-terrorist, etc. were used to silence dissent during the post 9-11 administrations (not to mention, during the McCarthyite Cold War and before), have been very unhappy to witness the comeback of these rhetorical bludgeons, which have so often excused official crimes against civil liberties of valuable dissidents and whistleblowers, as well as minorities.

Nothing more enlightened or generous than long-term self-interest is necessary to realize the value of protecting civil liberties of people one doesn’t like, and vehemently disagrees with.

II. But another amazing thing is an evident incomprehension of the famous principle, divide and rule.

It seems the more gullible because we may observe eager divisiveness not only among the political class, but also among those who are essentially almost powerless, without influence, who pick up crumbs left in the jostling of corporatist plutocracy, party oligarchy, and inexorable bureaucracy. It’s not amazing at all that members of the political class and state—which is to say, the ruling class extended broadly beyond politicians and plutocrats to bureaucrats and policy experts, prosecutors, media and pundits, ideologues and activists, and invested enforcers—should deliberately engender rancor, with a stake and some means to profit by conflict. Even petty members of those guilds are at least in a position to gain attention, or status in an aggrieved group, if not other currency.

But of course, the fantasy everyone has is that they become part of the ruling class, because they take political action, or engage in political argument, or feel outraged. This is the fantasy helped along by media incitement and magnification of arguments, but also by the ideology of democracy, in which we are all supposedly included in the “power of the people.” In Grand Illusions, I explained how the fantasy works against any sensible assessment of one’s own power and influence, or rationally assessing the dog one might have in a fight. But it also leads to a strategy that cuts one’s own legs off, in terms of any ability to resist one’s true oppressors, or even to identify the true and implacable enemies of one’s liberty and opportunity to carve out a better life.

To seek understanding of one’s apparent opponents, instead of deliberately obscuring facts in order to score rhetorical points and humiliate them, and to try to find common ground instead of making all political opponents one disagrees with morally untouchable (with invective like “white supremacist” or “communist” or “Nazi” etc.) are both potent weapons against actual oppressors as judged by tangible measures.

Oppressors may comprise a quite different category from outstanding offenders, who attract so much attention by things they say, and essentially performative acts. Oppressors who control the state can continue quietly to appropriate billions or trillions of dollars in all, and subjugate or murder thousands of people. Whole industries fall so they could gain without earning, and whole communities perish at their whims. Meanwhile, it’s quite easy to take offense caused by someone who has caused little to no injury (whether because they were incapable, incompetent, or less malevolent than it seems)—and pay far better attention to that insult. Do not imagine then that the former category have any trouble seeing the value of distractions.

Politically-active Americans, like many who engage in politics around the world, have quite a lot of trouble with this realism. Politics rests on so much myth-making that offense feels more appreciable. Hysteria is easily caused by offense to pride or “desecration” of symbols.

But the truth is that even the most offensive persons who lack power have a great deal of trouble causing even a fraction of the harm done by “good intentions” and the vast power of a bureaucracy. Even outspoken, genuine racists are rendered marginal and trivial without state power, whereas the power of the state, were it sanitized of either true white supremacy or MAGA-style nativism, would continue to be used to oppress, either in favor of dozens of other ideologies and supremacies—nationalism and militarism among them—or simply for age-old self-aggrandizement, the enrichment of cronies and personal greed. The basic corruption of politicians, of the sort that regularly empowers lucrative war or police-state interests and accepts bribes from brutal autocrats, doesn’t harm its victims less than some grandiose goal for the state’s apparatus.

The fear that is sold by fearmongers is of course, Just wait! Destroy them now, or be terrified of what your enemies will do—would do—if you treat them like anything less than anathema. Look how offensive they already are! So called “conservatives” and “right-wingers” are often told they can’t reason with “liberals” and “left-wingers,” and vice versa, because the Other seeks to destroy all they hold dear.

This is the logic that never permits an end to war, and makes the war of politics perpetual.

Those who are not incorrigible suckers should ask themselves: who really profits from such a state of affairs—this Eternal State of antagonism? Well, who profits from a never-ending drug war? Who profits from a never-ending “war on terror”? Who—as a matter of fact—just managed to add a new category to the “terrorists” we must either be against, or with?

The continuing fantasy that we are part of the Good Fight, that we are relevant to a Good Fight, appeals to very basic emotions. These emotions obscure the incredible power disparity of “the state,” which is to say connected people, versus most other people. We haven’t the awesome power of legalized recourse to compulsion and violence, legal favoritism, and access to the “public money” taken from us en masse. Surely we can summon up some of that base resentment and anger instead against being tricked, fooled so miserably, for so very long.

On Ugly Ideas and Intolerance

Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

— Colin Patrick Barth, THE FALL OF THE CULTURE OF MIND

Due to recent events recalling the intolerance of disagreement when it comes to offending and so-called “dangerous” ideas, I want to reproduce here two more excerpts concerned with the ramifications of making this essentialist and moralist philosophical error, which also makes a category error, and an error in logical typing (as the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson might refer to it). Remember always that thinking, at least with what we figuratively term an “open mind,” concerns a process or exercise of improvisation, which leads to many achievable outcomes. It is not some computerized output that given inputs already assure.

The essay I quote from is concerned with becoming capable of the exercise of thought with an open mind, and the social costs of prohibiting “bad ideas” and therefore the exercise of profound disagreement itself.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness. 

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists* are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

* This is the example already introduced in the essay (because of censorship practiced in Europe), but many other examples of derided ideas could be inserted instead—pulled from contemporary accusations made against wild conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, et al., or anybody inaccurately smeared as such.

The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts. 

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong [emphasis added]. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else. 

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament [emphasis added].

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Read the whole essay for more development of the meaning of an open mind, and the importance of a culture of debated ideas. I first published The Fall of the Culture of Mind online in 2007, and included it in the print anthology Rising in Words in 2008.

I’m sure I was thinking in part about the intolerance of debate and social criticism I experienced in America that peaked from 2001–2003, which allowed the state’s wars, police state tactics, and surveilling bureaucracies to expand rapidly with few questions asked, persecution of dissidents, and a generosity towards lies and misinformation that fit media narratives.

Recent years again seem no less unhinged, detached from reality, and disinterested in hearing about it from those who know. Now an expatriate, I wonder what the grave consequences will be.

Consider that a generation will lose every worthwhile piece of civilization that they fail to recreate in their own lives, as virtues: showing tolerance, having courage, making peace, suspending judgment, and performing intellectual work, among them.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained.

Strategy and Clarity about the Police State and Racism, continued

This post is a follow up to my previous post, Knowledge Matters, Too: Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race, which introduced the dispositive role that power plays, specifically the overlapping institutions of the police state and militarism. I suggest you read that post before this post, which supplements it with additional parts.

In the main body which I subtitled “Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America,” I broadly connected the development of an authoritarian bully mentality with racist institutions of law and law enforcement. I must always be dissatisfied by an incomplete case made for an argument that I know can be rendered more sophisticated, and better supported. In this case I necessarily omitted a book’s worth of points supplemental to the argument, and specific correlations between the threads of state violence and racism. Life and death won’t wait for spelling things out as an intellectual might want. That is why I moved on quickly to nominate some tactics, not for protesting itself, but demands that stay on target—before the news cycle forgets and the opportunity is lost.

Ineffective strategy will fail, but even inefficient strategy will cost lives.

But because of those stakes and not in spite of them, in this post I’m going to expand on a few key supportive points I left underdeveloped. I am convinced that to reckon with these factors would make a profound difference to both efficiency and effectiveness.

 

Intro. In this post I pick up from questions of strategy to prevent police brutality and murder in the United States, with the discussion already framed and its purpose clear: results that save lives, and no other mission; not virtue-signaling, fund-raising, organizational prominence, community involvement, self-expression, listening and being heard, or any other cause in itself whether it seems noble or not.

I urge people to keep in mind that clever strategy often doesn’t feel right, or personally fulfilling. It doesn’t often provide an outlet to vent pent-up emotions. (I remind myself, too, because I can get as angry or disgusted as anyone can.) Effective strategy may not follow preconceptions. Pursuing it might not be popular. For example: it was counterintuitive and offensive to many that the realities of legal precedent required that ACLU lawyers should volunteer to defend the First Amendment rights of white supremacists, lest those rights be eroded for valuable protests of—among others—black civil rights activists. Historically, difficult cases on the fringe establish precedent, and the state goes after unsympathetic targets.

The strategic mind must be willing to let go of attachments and inhibitions that get in the way, and strive to be flexible. It aims above all to solve a problem, say, to cure a disease, like a doctor, who must do their job and give their medical opinion even if it isn’t liked. If sociopolitical strategy can be compared to a fight, as activists following the “revolutionary” metaphor often do, it ought to resemble the fight brought by a martial artist with calm bearing, who won’t allow emotions like anger to disrupt focus, and efficient movements.

In fact, perfect clarity about relative priorities would render devising strategy an amoral process to identify just what’s necessary to serve those goals. This was the precept for Sun Tzu‘s teaching, and to some extent Machiavelli’s. It’s possible to appreciate the lesson and apply it to serve quite different values and intentions.

What is necessary to solve a long-term problem is usually not what is already being done. Typical thinking ostensibly either produced the problem, mishandled it, misunderstood it, or distracted from it. That is why, at the risk of offense when I take some decades-old thinking to task for incessant errors, I propose checking it against other angles. Along the way, analysis from other perspectives will make it easier to identify productive tactics, that some protestors are already using (filming police thuggery). And, to see that some campaigners are on the right track with the concept of defunding police (contingent on security-role replacement adopting decentralized non-state services employed by local people, so as not to merely reboot the system).

 

Part I. Most well-intentioned responses fail to make adequate distinction between the dispositions of people in the general (national or regional) population, and the dispositions of:

  1. cops,
  2. the more powerful members of the police state behind them (prosecutors, politicians)
  3. psychopathic cops

So, many of those responses talk collectively about “America” and talk to “America.” This isn’t at all realistic. If it’s collective shorthand, it’s shorthand that has led the discourse astray, as political talk does.

Police throughout the US have, to some degree that probably varies from city to city, become more than a special-interest group, but a separately-associating group, a sub-population, with a lot of overlap between military veteran and cop families. Others grossly underestimate how far this goes. The enforcers keep their own culture, which is insular. Even the old practice of “walking the beat” (and getting to know the neighborhood and people in it) gave way to patrol cars, and nothing in common.

Cops likely hold fast to dramatically different attitudes and preconceptions about authority, themselves, obedience, soldiering, familiarity with violence, racial stereotypes, homeless people, gallows humor, and more, mutually reinforced by their unions and associations, partners, families, and drinking buddies.

The accused are not presumed innocent by cops, for example. That mindset goes even further, and presumes a “duty of the jury to convict” the accused, as though it were a jury’s job, which sounds fascist to non-authoritarians of any skin color. It’s a brotherhood that prioritizes each other, and covers for each other against citizens, by lying in court if necessary, so the state prosecutor can make cases. That’s “part of the job” for many. But it’s certainly far more than a job.

It’s debatable how much talking to the general population about racism will be ignored by this entrenched population. But that—to put it mildly—does not seem as productive or timely as undercutting their means of support and indulgence, which has so far been lavished on them by the state.

We have also to examine and account for the extent to which that separate, tribal culture and population are tolerant and protective of partial psychopaths. We cannot be certain exactly how many of the police officers who behave like thugs are psychopaths attracted to the power of the badge, or have instead been hardened to display a psychopathoid indifference toward lesser people, the ruled subjects of a thugocracy. This is only because the government doesn’t test candidates to exclude psychopathy, though it has objective and testable psychological and physiological criteria. (Known, in part, from studies in prison populations, so hardly new to the criminal justice system.)

Although not as permissive as a combat unit in a war zone, a police career must seem like a pretty good one to a psychopath—comparable to the way that a narcissist fits right into a political career, and is able to earn rewards from a lack of empathy instead of social penalties. Psychopaths are unafraid of the physical danger which might make a job on the streets unappealing. They get civic status and special legal protection, as well as opportunities to bully people in unequal power dynamics—threaten and frighten them, assault them, brutalize (and sodomize) them, if not choke them to death or shoot them and be acquitted, or never even charged.

Psychopaths are the category that best accounts for the infamous repeat offenders of police brutality complaints, because they are motivated by the adrenaline thrill of violence or abuse, and not averse to hurting others by virtue of common empathy.

Psychopaths in uniform don’t necessarily have any particular fixation (like racist ideology) on any one type of victim, just a fixation on bullying victims of opportunity. The thing is that inner-city minorities, immigrants, and the plentiful suspects of minor crimes supply those victims of opportunity with few career repercussions.

NB: Even with repercussions in place, psychopaths are dangerously impulsive, not long-term thinkers, by definition. They can never be trusted with license to use violence (if anyone could). They simply need to be excluded from power.

Further, psychopaths are not averse to transgression of well-understood social norms. They are even attracted to committing moral transgressions, such as sexual violence, because these are exciting. They should not be confused with mere contrarians attracted to devil’s advocacy, or to espousing shock opinions that cause outrage. We should consider that to propound and insist that Racism = Bad does nothing more for the psychopath than flag a transgressive thrill they may actually find inviting—and certainly won’t process as immoral, in the sense that others feel morals keenly. This is a different problem from commitment to racism as an ideological matter. It cannot be solved by confrontation or shaming, which they simply don’t respond to in the same way others do.

Based on an educated guess, I would say the danger posed by the presence of psychopaths in uniform probably exceeds the more-often discussed danger posed by white-nationalist infiltrators, although I do suspect many of those are, more-importantly, psychopaths. Psychopaths need no particular organization or belief to brutalize people; they can be, rather, enabled by these things. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it is consequential to discern these causes and origins, because police could continue to harbor psychopaths even if they shun racists—and perpetuate the problem.

And, psychopaths cannot be convinced not to be racists with moral arguments, or with punishments. They cannot be induced to stop committing violent crimes in uniform, any more than their recidivist counterparts in prison stop after they go through rehabilitation. Their neurology has permanent and recurring effects on behavior, which do not respond to psychological intervention.

 

Part II. Most well-intentioned responses are guided by lack of nuance about prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Most well-intentioned campaigns about racism are therefore diffuse and ineffectual, not on a timescale geared to emergency prevention.

The causation or enabling of violence by prejudice, bigotry, or (specifically) racism, which itself comes in numerous forms, and a range of severities of bias or hatred, is certainly a subject in itself. Evidence lends itself to endless debate over “contributing factors” by subjective viewpoints. The most salient point though, which can be made clear, concerns contrasts that are not being made between what’s universal (prejudice), or debatably-general (bigotry), and a very particular kind of racism indeed.

Combating prejudices presents an eternal challenge for vigilance and self-examination, as well as scientific doubt and questioning. I don’t mean to suggest that any one prejudice in particular (such as prejudice against black people) is natural or inherent rather than a construct of culture. That sort of claim always rests on tendentious pseudoscience and scientism, aping objective methods to justify values and beliefs, and pretend to derive them objectively. It used to be white segregationists, and now it is more likely radical black nationalists who cite pseudoscientific studies claiming that “the races”—left over from debunked eugenic and racialist theories—cannot get along. Actual science found that genetics and inherent behavior don’t break along lines of skin color.

But *forming prejudices* is natural. Human primates are rife with prejudices acquired about appearances and man-made categories, as an evolutionary product of fumbling through managing risk, and problem-solving our personal world with imperfect operational knowledge. Much of that tentative ‘knowledge’ was simply received from some source, not even personally experienced, and not actively questioned. We rely too much on group, primate-level influencer (family, friend, figurehead) cues for approval or disapproval as a means of sorting people and things, and navigating life’s many shoals. Neurotic people undergoing insecure phases might fall back on old prejudices the most, but we all use them.

As a result: We dislike or mistrust many things, hate few, and want exceedingly few if any people dead with our own hands—and few of us want the opportunity to decide, as a career choice.

No, that, we have to say, is different. When it keeps happening, that phenomenon really requires a different explanation and causal chain from vague nationwide “racism,” which includes lesser prejudices and/or bigotry, without distinction from the likes of the Klan. Particularly, when so much of the population reacts negatively to the specter of violent racism, it’s conspicuous that the prejudice, the moralism of the country takes cues against it, far more than for it. (Even sympathies and defenses from the separate population for “one of their own” seem fewer than before.)

But even if all that weren’t so—or, let’s say we discount moral outrage as insincere—it would still be a remarkable abdication of intellectual responsibility not to admit that it’s an extraordinary claim to make, and not a self-evident one at all, to draw an arrow from prejudice, or even bigotry, toward incidents of hands-on murder (by probable psychopaths)—in the ways that abstruse racial academics and college-educated activists habitually do. The formula and its logic are no less fallacious for having caught on.

It’s absurd on the face of it to convince people that re-examining whether they unconsciously hold their purse tighter when a black man walks by, or don’t hire enough qualified black employees, has something to do with kneeling on a black man’s throat for nine minutes. We’re reminded that both types of phenomena stem from a common history—but everything in human society does. This in itself doesn’t mean two things are closely connected, or cause each other. It doesn’t establish an interaction, or causative relationship.

Worse, it squanders precious time and energy to confuse the response this hopelessly during a genuine societal emergency slow-burning for decades, punctuated by avoidable deaths of real people. It no doubt appeals to us to think that the worst events already fall under our personal control, or personal development. It has thousands of well-meaning and influential people urging each other to “do the work.” Meanwhile the power of the police state ratchets event by event, not on some glacial timescale on which eroding all prejudice could be a realistic goal.

The explanatory laziness about accounting for what is happening at the hands of cops suggests to me other agendas from certain campaigners and activists besides focusing on that outstanding problem—whether they really care more for other social-justice issues and want to redirect effort there, have some axe to grind about “capitalism” or “society” in general—or else harbor guilt (so-called “white guilt”?) in search of a reason for taking blame, and therefore prefer a diffuse accusation that includes everyone. A need for mutual confession would fit with certain activists’ (and slackivists‘) preference to talk to each other, and demonstrate to sympathetic quarters, more than confront those who disagree, or do their worst, as activists in the 1960s civil rights movement did.

I can speculate, but the point is that only a precise diagnosis of the systemic problem leads to a timely solution and productive strategy. A great many activists and campaigners unfortunately do not pursue this, stopped by a premature answer: a fundamentally flawed and racist society they envision, that requires mass-penitence and soul-searching, and in effect, must protest itself. That kind of collectivism formed of vague self-image and grand abstraction is useless to real human beings on the ground—to individuals. In this case it will let more individuals get killed, when the killers could be stopped.

“America” needs to be sorted out conceptually instead of blurred, if we want to get serious about solving the problems that occur across that enormous, disparate, and populous land. As I’ve written before, a general population and its power structure are blurred as a matter of institutional interest, hiding how little they have in common behind a “common interest,” and hiding how little control most people really have behind “participation.” Dealing with that ugly secret could be every bit as messy and uncomfortable as cleaning up after a racist past, but unfortunately the work has only earnestly begun on the latter. This isn’t just work ahead of “America,” by the way; it looms over everybody.

Knowledge Matters, Too (Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race)

With all due respect to the intentions behind #blackouttuesday and other online hashtag campaigns, a lot of online activism is most effective at making people feel good for participating, and showing “solidarity.” It’s low in cost (of time and effort) to post a black screen on Instagram, or copy a hashtag or slogan, or even mimic activist-talk about representation or voices.

All of that appeals to both those people who want to show off their participation (virtue signaling), and people who genuinely care, and don’t want to make this about themselves, but don’t know how to do better. In a way it doesn’t matter how much we really care, or are showy moral narcissists. Results obtained can completely diverge from either intentions or emotional investment.

It’s just not enough to care about the problem—no matter how much! We have to know what we’re talking about. That is, if we really want to change things. Others can ride along and wave, in the confidence that things are changing, and they are on board. I believe that is naive; I do not believe it will be enough.

First we have to correctly identify the problem, and then, correctly identify how to solve it. There’s no more room for ignorance, or for making errors in this diagnosis. No amount of sympathy, righteous anger, or passion behind a blank black screen makes up for the fact that—it’s blank. Slogans of sympathy and solidarity are simple—too simple. Information-free, low-cost activism is just not as good as spending a bit of time on understanding

  1. the extent of the problem, and
  2. what *specifically* has to change, so that the protest isn’t vague, it has actionable demands. Abstractions and generalities aren’t enough to be practical, when specific principles, laws, organizations, and institutions are at fault, as well as individual people in official positions who can be forced out, only to be replaced.

Sharing information could be a lot more effective for making a difference than Showing We Care—but only if it’s information worth sharing. It’s better to share information, but not if it’s misinformation, or too simplistic to change anything, or just copied thoughtlessly from the usual media or activist discourses about race, hate, and division.

If this sounds a lot more difficult than low-content activism, or sharing information without learning, that’s because it is. It requires your attention. But as it seems that current events in large American cities have your attention and worry preoccupied anyway, there’s no better time.

The amount I can write in one blog post is a sketch, an impression based upon a couple of decades of interest, research, and writing as a dissident. I hope you find the context useful, especially if you have little experience with critical history and alternative political science, or grew up outside the United States. I urge you to read as far as I will write here, and then to follow up more. Look into what I’m about to say, and think for yourself, but then share it. I have no fear at all that the details of the argument can’t bear up under scrutiny, exploration by research, and open-minded thought.

In fact, disgraceful dehumanization only goes on for as long as it does in the world because people aren’t looking, really looking into why—even less than they are paying attention in-between those horrible, singular events that grab their attention, which are not singular at all.

 

Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America

A lot of people of all backgrounds are coming to understand that America has a problem with systemic racism. This is reflected in multiple practices of the injustice system. (This should be uncontroversial to those of us who are schooled in civil liberties, while possibly being a revelation to others.) Some are left over from the segregationist era, from unfair enforcement to predatory prosecution and inadequate defense, to unfair sentencing. Some are more recent, like mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenses, which have been used disproportionately to incarcerate unconnected black men. (Especially in major cities, where career-minded prosecutors—future politicians—have interests to work together with police to increase conviction numbers.)

But it’s a mistake to think that a divide over race is The Story to tell in answer to the great question, What’s Wrong With America? which is even asked quite frequently overseas.

The other story, which I predict will largely control what happens with that story, is America’s long descent into fascism and empire. America has a problem with Power.

Fascism often involves racism, and racial and/or national supremacy, but the essence of the system was, and is, the combination of the economic system called corporatism—which prioritizes certain financial interests that are well-connected to politicians and policy (like banking, arms dealing, and selling propaganda)—with authoritarianism. In powerful countries like prosperous America (as opposed to, say, fascist Austria), this was, and is, coupled with the desire for a foreign empire.

(Fascism was nothing unique or even new when Mussolini showed up with his one-party popularization of the term. In substance, he just borrowed from older ideas, like mercantilism, and radicalized them. It’s the modern version of colonial imperialism that Britain had, in which colonies were organized to serve mercantile interests which were indistinguishable from the state, like the British East India Company.)

The American descent into an authoritarian system, with its bully mentality towards stubborn individuals and populations both domestically, and worldwide, happened throughout the same period of time as institutional racism. That is, America has descended into fascism and empire ever since post- Civil War Reconstruction-era reforms and migrations mixed other people with the populations who were once enslaved or occupied.

America has become an Empire occupied and controlled by the military and (later) spy bureaucracies, ever since the government sent the Army occupying the South to take the West from natives after the Civil War, and then conquered the remnants of the Spanish Empire before WWI, and finally inherited the British Empire’s world position after WWII, followed by immense Cold War spending on the military-industrial complex. The politics of US Empire, and its worldwide bases, colonies, and alliances with proxy governments, has been dominated by the interest of funding the military, such as war-mongering, especially where it aligns with well-connected corporate interests. (Not all of the rich people in the country, the so-called 1%, most of whom actually lose relative power under a corporatist system, unless they join it.)

America has a militarism problem, which doesn’t only affect people elsewhere in the world, millions of whom have suffered or died in US wars (and sponsored interventions), all around the world, for the last century. US police occupy American cities using surplus military gear and imitate combat tactics: in SWAT teams, celebrated in Hollywood, against protests and riots, and in infamous no-knock raids, also used in war zones. Since 9-11, local cops also coordinate with the feds and “Homeland Security”—that creepy name— in ‘fusion’ command centers, like occupational forces. Even before 9-11, intelligence from spy surveillance authorized for terrorism was illegally used to bust domestic drug-dealers. Increasingly, the assets and mentalities used in the Empire abroad come home, and integrate with police. In many cases, the very same police officers that commit violent crimes against citizens, once wore a military uniform.

Miamiprotestcop2003

As the eventual result of mindsets that accept, encourage, even embrace expansive authority, America has a police-state problem, which threatens *everyone* without connections. Regionally, no doubt some of this system was assembled to enforce segregationist laws, or out of fear of colored minorities and immigrants in cities, but even that doesn’t account for so much.

Especially since 1982, the Supreme Court and other courts have upheld the doctrine and precedents of so-called “qualified immunity.” In practice this almost always shields cops from any consequences, even for the most egregious behavior, when coupled with the major influence of police unions, which have the power to bully mayors of cities like New York.

In addition, the historic rollback of Bill of Rights protections under many more court decisions—for example, gutting protections against search and seizure without warrants—negatively affected everyone (or rather anyone without the power of the State on their side). Cases and precedents have been extensively documented by civil liberties defenders and Constitutionalists of many different political subscriptions.

There’s also the incredible accretion of the size and budgets of federal agencies, such as the FBI and ATF, in the name of law and order. Almost any citizen finds themselves powerless against executive branch agencies which are uncritically called part of law enforcement or the justice system. The FBI in particular has an infamous history of surveillance and infiltration against black organizations, but also other domestic dissenters, and it’s not alone.

In short, when an unconnected person is picked on by the state, they have scarcely more recourse than a colonized person had, under laws, policies, and legal precedents that aren’t just unequally enforced, but stacked against them. Racism absolutely makes this predicament worse for black people, but it doesn’t explain why it happens to so many thousands of others, too. Critics, dissidents, activists, journalists and whistleblowers become particular targets of persecution if they call attention to abuses of power, yet a great many “minding their own business” also find themselves in harm’s way, on the wrong end of the law, or law enforcement.

That’s enough background to identify the problem(s) for one blog post. Let’s get practical about how to solve them. Let’s start to identify some actionable demands:

There have been initiatives to curb militarization of cops to support, and a bill was recently proposed to end qualified immunityDemand that politicians support that bill to end qualified immunity. Make them end that, and other legal and institutional covers for thugs and psychopaths among police. Don’t allow city, state, and national politicians—of both major parties!— to side with police unions. (Don’t vote for them anyway, if they do!)

Now more than 18,000 “law enforcement” organizations lord it over the American public, stealing their salaries from that public’s earnings, padding their budgets with literal highway robbery (“asset forfeiture” and so forth), and usually protected by “qualified immunity” when they kill.—Thomas Knapp

Demand that politicians support decentralizing cops militarized during the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Demand they stop practices like mass surveillance, and combat tactics, which are used against domestic dissent and people without connections, like black people in inner-city communities. Demand an end to perverse financial and career incentives like asset forfeiture, and rewards for padding arrests or convictions. Demand politicians stop rewarding police bureaucracies with bigger budgets, no matter what they do. (Stop voting for former prosecutors!) Demand an end to federal sentencing minimums and criminalization of drugs, which disproportionately incarcerates black men, but also put 1% of America under the penal system. Demand an end to the “drug war” entirely, which empowers and militarizes cops and feds. Demand an end to US wars abroad, which empower the US state apparatus, dehumanize those who are killed and occupied, and send the mentalities of violence manufactured in wartime (even literally, PTSD) back home.

We all have to demand these things together as human beings. Why?

Power thrives by dividing people. In conflict, scared people follow leaders; in war, they obey leaders no matter how much they hate them. People divided against each other (Black against White, Rich against Poor, Americans against Foreigners) are easier to rule.

It’s not one life at risk from the system I’ve described. It’s not one community at risk. It’s not only one race. It’s not only one class. It’s not even one country. It is everyone. We have to learn to criticize that “authority” together, not as sympathetic observers to someone else’s fight. We have to practice civil disobedience against that authority, the police state, and empire, together, as allies who recognize a mutual interest, as well as human empathy.

If we aren’t divided in our response by buying into a racial divide (or a political divide, or a national divide), we can better resist, and so become freer. If we are free, we cannot be forced down—figuratively or literally—by any old bigot or thug who has a scrap of power that grants “immunity,” or for that matter, “presidential authority.”

Realize that in a free world, the existence of bigots need not trouble the rest of us so much. We could go on with our lives, happily making racism and other bigotries more and more irrelevant by associating peacefully with each other personally and professionally, no matter what we look like or where we were born. In this unfree world, bigots with membership in systemic power or connections to systemic power have the legal or official means to bother us, and kill our friends. They used to pass race-mixing laws; they still discourage non-white immigrants. Worse, the bigots with official means still get away with murders, and protecting murderers—whether it’s on the streets of the Middle East, or on the streets of America.

That’s why the Story of Power in America and abroad, and how America deals with its conflicted problem of power, and national mythology surrounding organized violence—in a nutshell, Americans being ruled while wanting to rule the world, and celebrating it with fly-by jets, even boasting about it—will also finish telling that story of How America Deals With Race that you hear so much of in the media and in activism. One story cannot be told without the other.

 

… continued in next post…

Fear is the Crisis

For many years now, my conviction has been that the great undeveloped area of human education is a suitable understanding and appreciation of human nature, especially commonalities of the mind—the ways in which we habitually think, and what each of these patterns is suited to do, or ill-suited to do.

One consistent challenge is the persistent underestimation of our primate inheritance.

This was assuredly promoted by indoctrinated human exceptionalism. I presume it was exacerbated by entrenched culture that rates the verbal, and the conscious, far above nonverbal and unconscious aspects which come to us from other animals. Consider our silly expectations to rule over more direct sources of habit by mere assertions of intent to change them.

In a nutshell, humans became far too convinced of special status apart from nature—even a power above their own human nature—by virtue of talking. Now, this means more than an appreciation of our having language, which sets us apart. Our talking about things gives us the power to talk at some distance from concrete matters (abstraction), and to talk around things, for we human beings often talk with detachment from phenomena apparent to the senses or the psyche. This has left us—and our ancestors—able to pontificate or freely wish, instead of remaining tethered to phenomenal realities. We “talk our way into” flattering, unlikely, even impossible notions. This is also how our inquisitive ancestors could have missed the obvious about themselves and their origins for so long. It left them able to spin their own rather preposterous stories, talking their way into a divine origin in which we are separate from the mammals and primates we ostensibly resemble in so many respects. Today, talking willfully above the anthropological facts, which are by now carefully-described, allows many people to ignore them, still.

Essentially, all our “human” emotions are shared with primates, as are many other behavioral routines, like political cliques, reading faces and cue-taking within social groups. To start looking for ethological parallels in earnest is to find thousands, and soon realize that the differences comprise exceptions (albeit important ones). Yet the majority of human beings alive on Earth in the 21st century either flout what evolutionary science says about the descent of Man and dispute their relation to the primate mind and brain, or scarcely think of it.

In my view, denial or neglect of our evolutionary mind—the common failure to reckon with the available knowledge, and better explore it—is the incomparable and potentially fatal error of the modern age, which endlessly gets in the way of much else that needs doing. Misunderstanding oneself will wreck every attempt at social change, every time.

Recent hysteria over this year’s coronavirus reminds me of the same lesson that hysteria over “terrorism” did, not so long ago. A strong case can be made for a more specific contention than the above, that the biggest problem of all is not connecting our primate aversion, fear, and panic to our Homo sapiens information-gathering.

In order for those three feelings and deep mental grooves to become useful assets, we must practice feeling them when deserved, and work to maintain perspective. Otherwise they are not only woefully inadequate to navigating in a world more complicated than the environments in which the hominids or hominins evolved, or the Paleolithic in which the genus Homo evolved; they represent active disadvantages instead of adaptive tools of survival.

Ill-placed fears misdirect resources on a grand scale, and make people easy prey for fearmongers. People fear “terrorists” they will never encounter, while they ignore the politicians and bureaucrats who regularly take their property, or the warmongers who endanger their lives in conflicts fueled by unnecessary hostility. It’s worth remembering, in the context of a pandemic, first that “experts” are human and aren’t immune to feeling fear, and second that appealing to fear can pay off for scientists seeking the lifeblood of their labs and careers: grant money. There are professional incentives for accuracy in science, but there are also incentives for alarmism, particularly in politicized fields that depend on public funding (such as ecology, climate, energy, or pandemic vaccines).

Aversion prohibits seeking advantages because they smell different in some sense, seeming alien or foreign. I would file under this the mistrust of infectious people wearing masks to protect others from coughs and sneezes, a typical, considerate east-Asian practice, widely unaccepted in countries like the United States. But exclusion of people based on aversion towards difference is pervasive and peculiar. During my adult lifetime, I’ve frequently encountered people who were suspicious or hostile towards my wearing black clothing, either because their cultural subgroup wouldn’t, or because of incompetent threat identification based on a hysterical media overreaction to a single incident (the Columbine massacre).

Panic manufactures crises where none exist, or deals with a manageable crisis desperately. Both become more and more dangerous with the accretion of technologies that enable people to do things like communicate hysterical exchanges instantly around the world, or cause accidental nuclear winter if war breaks out between powerful rulers.

A good argument can be made that an ongoing failure to modify our instincts for fear using our capacity for knowledge is the salient cultural immaturity squarely in the way of human potential. I would certainly argue that it’s at least the greatest remaining threat to human beings, who show undeniable ability to navigate and manipulate their external environments, societies, and cultures, except when change requires improved navigation of their inner, psychological environments, also.

Because of the powerful gravity those mental grooves exert, and the general boredom with a modern life characterized by anomie (alienation by mismatched values or lack of values) instead of by participation in life and points of connection, we are drawn to dramatic and apocalyptic conclusions, even if they are illogical or untested.

But if anything kills off the human race, it will almost certainly stem from fear or panic reactions that are uninformed, or do not care about gathering useful information. It won’t come from outside; it will come from inside. The older aspects of mind are more powerful than the newer, and in a perceived crisis, the mind defaults to vertebrate or mammalian routines that predate us by a great many millions of years.

Back to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. I’ve recently observed otherwise-reasonable people who conspicuously lack any knowledge of respiratory disease express shock that the coronavirus is “airborne“, as though every cold or influenza virus does not spread through tiny coughed or sneezed droplets of mucous or saliva in the air. They have no doubt heard this as children, but forget it now. (We have already answered why they forget it.)

No more than casual reading about cold and flu season will also tell them that it’s typical for far more people to die from complications of respiratory infections during a typical season than have so-far succumbed to the recent coronavirus.

Or that the usual pattern of respiratory infections is that elderly people (and those with pre-existing cardiac, lung, and immune risk factors) are the most at-risk of fatality. Yet I have seen expressions of shock and suspicion upon discovering that this coronavirus is doing precisely what one ought to expect, at least one aware of a basic fact of human mortality: old and sick people have frequently been killed by respiratory diseases in history, and continue to be killed disproportionately.

Unfortunately this is normal and natural, not evidence of the end of the world, or a conspiracy theory about the virus, or of mismanagement. If anything, we ought really to be grateful for the unnatural progress made in reducing millions of viral and bacterial pneumonia deaths to thousands, thanks to sanitation, vaccinations, and especially, antibiotics.

I have even seen alarm at hearing that this virus may be “mutating.” Well, yes; viruses normally mutate.

None of this potential application of sense to fear I’ve mentioned so far requires sophisticated understanding of epidemiology, virology, or immunology, but of course that could be beneficial. For example, it’s helpful to know that counting severe cases of respiratory disease tends to inflate estimated fatality ratio, because asymptomatic carriers and those with mild symptoms have no reason to seek medical attention (and be counted).

Another example of specific knowledge: knowing about the much more dangerous phenomenon of a disease causing cytokine storm puts the recent coronavirus into perspective. Cytokine storm turns a healthy immune system against the host, and that means that the young are much more likely to die than from a typical respiratory disease that primarily kills the elderly. This is probably one reason the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, caused by H1N1 influenza, was unusually dangerous to young populations, not just the old or sick (another being soldiers and refugees having been packed together in unsanitary, insalubrious conditions). Greater frequency* of this hyper-inflammatory reaction in cases is also thought to be the reason why the SARS outbreak of 2003 (caused by a different bat coronavirus) was a more dangerous infection to acquire than the coronavirus causing the pandemic of 2020. It would be more reasonable for the healthy people under 50 who are currently afraid of the coronavirus to be afraid of catching a flu more likely* to cause cytokine storm, like the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic that already happened in 2009, or H5N1 (“avian flu”).

The most ludicrous conspiracy theories and accusations out there—those self-contradictory tales of an engineered bioweapon (inexplicably far less deadly than WWII-era bioweapons), of plots to cull humanity so devious they are publicly discussed, of genetic modification to cross coronavirus with HIV fueled by a withdrawn preliminary paper and attempts at antiviral treatment, and the like—are certainly the work of paranoiac mental illnesses. They attract believers already experiencing paranoia and seeking the delusions to fit—the means to rationalize their existing neurogenic experiences—including believers who suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Like superstitions that perform a similar role, paranoid delusions are confirmed by frenzied apophenia and never to be questioned, much less disproven.

But it would miss the larger point to separate the crazy reaction to a perceived threat from the fearful reactions of sane people, as though one were irrational and the other rational. The former is simply the delusional reaction instead of the suggestible. Both routines may resist being challenged by facts or contrary information, and stubbornly resort to hostility in defense of an assertion. Although this is all the more likely in support of a paranoid delusion, it is a defensive reaction, ego- and turf-driven, that we are all familiar with. One kind of reaction represents the deep end of fear instead of the shallow, but both sorts represent fear being rationalized after the fact, instead of being driven by facts. The exaggerated pathology of the mind blurs into a much more common misdirection of mental labors. These belong on a continuum, and are not opposites, due to the universal primate propensity for anxiety with or without cause.

Fear is human, not anomalous. Its origin is internal—psychological—not external to our person, in some “fearful threat” outside ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of reflexive fear by projecting it onto a culprit. We must own it, or we shall be possessed.

 

* Edited 3-21 to clarify this may be a relative distinction, not an absolute distinction. I have now seen some mention in ongoing research suggesting that cytokine storm syndrome might develop in some of the severe COVID-19 cases; previously and at the time of writing, it had seemed there were no cases. If this new picture turns out to be accurate, cytokine storm remains an unusual complication in a subgroup among severe cases, and not a typical immune response. Reactions to virus depend on individual immune systems and are not generic.

 

Excerpt: secrecy versus security; how information protects

Julian Assange WikiLeaks Publisher - The Numbers

It’s early days yet on the following preview excerpt from The Constellation of Man, but I wanted to publish something in support of the world’s greatest political prisoner (if only because the work he began empowers so many other dissidents). He is the founder of WikiLeaks and inventor of the only viable model for a free and independent press I can imagine in today’s world. He saw the need for 1) anonymous and secure submissions by whistleblowers, 2) publishing original source docs (unredacted) “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” 3) actively protecting sources like Edward Snowden, and 4) broad, not beholden fundraising. Julian Assange, already of victim of many years of dirty tricks and concerted attempts at suppression by powerful state agencies and major corporations who fear public disclosures, currently languishes in effective solitary confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. For 63 days now, his internet has been jammed and visitors blocked by the government that agreed to give him asylum and citizenship. Of course he is still targeted, surveilled and surrounded by agents ready to snatch him should he go outside. He is trapped, which has been the case for years. This for the crime of publishing freely and effectively on serious matters (unlike media compromised by financial interests). WikiLeaks thereby informs a public often thankless, or easily led to be vindictive, if they gullibly believe standard smears used in psyops against perceived enemies of states. It’s clear that many remain naive about the systems Assange tries to lay bare, clueless about their likewise precarious position, and even servile in the interests of the powerful who rule them. Despite all his maltreatment—which only vindicates and shows the need for Wikileaks’ mission “We open governments”—Julian has persevered, at appalling personal cost and risk. I doubt that any man living is more deserving of celebration as a popular hero. While I allow him human foibles (especially under such pressure), he is certainly a hero to me for what he has accomplished, speaking as a humanist, dissident, and human being. I have no doubt that a future that civilized people manage to create one day will owe Julian Assange a debt. The following excerpt undertakes to explain why he is correct in his theory of information, and the establishment case for secrecy is profoundly wrong. —CPB


GOVERNMENTS CLOSE, and restrict information in proportion to the factors of their centralization, and dominance.

Instead of an absolute, this describes an intention. The human factors of incompetence to keep secrets or incapacity to control information limit governments to obsessive undertakings. Just as reality has deprived rulers of the absolute power they claimed, when it came to molding the actual world to their desires, even autocratic or totalitarian systems have remained permeable. Certainly, every imperial republic with limited freedom of information and speech has been a sieve. Every breach pokes a hole in the pretense of state omniscience.

Mentality set in motion what incentives and motives perpetuate: the desire for a closed government empowered with secrecy and obfuscation.

The seed mentality for secretive policy was laid down long before any state’s military preeminence over rivals or bureaucratic centralization, because the deceitful rise high in a hierarchy of officials, bureaucrats, or rulers, all those who fancy themselves masters or servants of a public collective.

Their habit is mistrust, befitting those who are never true. They expect similar insincerity, fraudulence, and deception from the world. Remember that a megalomaniac can scarcely infer a mind unlike his or her own. To unscrupulous careerists, all are ambitious, dishonest, and engaged in a slow struggle against the world. Otherwise others must be fools—or relegated to the rank of pawns, among many. Therefore, in their relentless maneuvers they remain wary of shadows and likenesses who cannot be trusted, either. Fearing others’ strength, leery of others’ rise at their expense, they vaunt to mask their own vulnerability, the narcissist’s hollowness which delusions of grandeur and power cannot make replete.

Entrenched, established, they set up concentric rings of mistrust, from their own agitation for aggrandizement versus rivals, further outward, against clique, faction, or party, and further, to unseen enemies abroad, who bear the worst and most exaggerated projections and scapegoating. It is this mindset that sets the tone for an official culture that wishes to hide behind fortress walls, opaque to everyone outside.

The would-be lords of a realm set up means to hoard information like misers, because they seek an advantage over enemies—real or invented, or to hide their own misdeeds from those they claim to safeguard. The ethos of spies and public lies followed as an instrumental necessity of both—and as a consequence of mentality, intensified by fear, hysteria, and obsession echoing within closed halls of power and bastions of bureaucracy.

They claim that secrecy protects—an article of faith. They hold military secrets to be especially sacrosanct, and inviolable on penalty of espionage or treason. Well-trained authoritarian instincts, which become the rule under a domineering state, reflexively proclaim the right and necessity of state security, and cite the exigencies of the military. This obsequious defense answers any doubt.

The logic of public secrecy presupposes that the fates of ruler and ruled are, more than intertwined, a single bloc; as goes the ruling system, so goes the people. Thus “national security,” the security of empire, of imperial interests shared by rulers, is supposed to ensure the security of the people. [In the extremity of this rationale, the doctrine of total war which has been a plank of imperial nationalism, the population form a reserve army of the state, working to supply logistic needs if they do not fight. All share the same destiny or downfall, in this concept. To the contrary, conscripts in a universal army endure much that its commanders do not.]

 

RATHER, the flow of information protects people from their rulers, who occupy an immediate position to do them harm. 

Transparency opens governments to wider criticism, of which they are intolerant, of cruelty, brutality, officiousness, rapacious corruption, and indifference, and of the double standards which the powerful and their enforcers enjoy, such as effective immunity from prosecution under the same laws they use against others.

Official secrecy and privileged access keep the confidence of the furtive state, hiding personal misdeeds and policy failures under the unquestioned protections of classified information. Imbued with seriousness, this works effectively, together with public fear—fear of punishment for knowing, and the vaguer fear of “the wrong hands” to have information. Yet knowledge of the wrong hands who are already in power, already unworthy of the one-sided trust placed in them, would be quite specific and not so speculative.

Knowledge would be a means to gain insight into the nature of those who seek to rule others, instead of governing themselves. To know rulers with sufficient knowledge is to dispute their fitness to rule. Therefore, ruling systems employ misinformation and propaganda systematically to exclude “their own people” from inside knowledge, more than an enemy. 

Even insiders isolate themselves from [contradictory] knowledge and self-knowledge; for they are too closed in, and too comfortable with loyal falsehoods. An indoctrinated propagandist does not have the clear, cynical awareness of fooling other people, despite keenness to say (and half-believe) whatever serves their cause. Rulers themselves believe in their own mythology. Note that it is very possible for those with no aptitude for truthfulness, and no reinforcement of telling the truth at a personal cost, to believe in specific lies they tell. They will bow to a mandatory correction of transparency if they must, just as matter-of-factly as they will tell uncorrected lies when they are allowed.

 

OPENNESS additionally provides strategic protection at a broad scale, precisely the security that institutions modeled on comprehensive secrecy are supposed to provide for a society, by bracing for conflict across territorial or factional lines. 

The flow of information protects all people, whether they fall under the designation of “ally” or “enemy,” from dangerous uncertainty over military intent and relative power, which is caused by keeping secrets. It is they who will be the casualties of wars sought out of grave miscalculation. In the history of militarized states, the greatest defeats and mutual disasters of all have demonstrably happened from miscommunications of intent, and poor estimates of strength, not from clearer and freer knowledge. Ultimately, the flow of information protects people from accidental extinction through military miscalculation, the foolish end which may easily befall a group, or the species, until the de-militarization of human society.

Even in decentralized society, it is knowing the threat posed by an individual or organization that saves others from harm, and those who seek to do harm with impunity will try to keep secrets for the purpose. A murderer tries to keep his intent secret. One with malicious intent can be overwhelmed by many. Imagine also a scenario of local people relying on themselves, instead of a state. A gang among them who sought to dominate their pacific neighbors by force would surely make use of conspiracy, knowing they would likely be thwarted if there were warning to form a defensive league against their plans.

Much the same applies to large-scale society broken up by states, each with rulers proposed as “government.” In conditions in which intentions and capacities are more likely known far and wide, instead of walled off elaborately, they are more likely to find balance in mutual security, because those who are threatened have the ability to collaborate with alacrity. Identification of aggressors is more possible with knowledge of the intentions of rulers, and the relative capacities of state militaries. Combined defense against aggressors is more likely possible. Those who cannot defend themselves are more likely to know whom they must accommodate in order to survive. Futile wars happen out of ignorance.

The degree of centralization under a hierarchy is a societal flaw and strategic liability that obstructs the corrective network of information-sharing, and undermines the available distributed means for security, which include mutual collaboration, and awareness of genuine threats. At the same time, leaders’ infectious mindfulness of insecurity and concomitant pursuit of military dominance jeopardize peace through the provocation, or creation of enemies. Military antagonism demands secrecy, and an organization better able to constrain information, through centralization. The combination builds dangerously, like a runaway mechanism. Imperial states are the most unsafe, cursed with both (top-heavy bureaucratized states, and supreme, blundering military ambitions). About empires, the most tumultuous history has been written.

The logic that secrecy protects must be turned on its head. The advantage conferred by secret tactics in the field should not be mistaken for a comprehensive policy which is strategic for a society’s way of life. The same strategy of espousing communication that opens cloistered and controlled societies to commerce, trade, and prosperity also contributes to literal survival.

Global and regional security is not a game played by opponents, who must deceive each other. That is a lesson of conquerors and political rivals, brutes and paranoiacs, and the world they made. For people who are not concerned with their own power, mutual security is put at risk by the very presumption of opposition, instead of the construction of mutual interests in peace—through trade, communication, and other means to facilitate interaction and familiarity.

A universal society of people espousing shared information works to include more people, and de-emphasizes enmity. A closed society defending distinctions and lines with secrets and lies exacerbates it.

Excerpt: Grand Illusions

Another preview from The Constellation of Man, in Vol. III. —CPB


THERE IS A TALE of a shipwrecked man who washed ashore on an island naked and bereft, whom the islanders discovered, and proclaimed king. At first taken aback by his fortune, he soon accepted his new life as usual, and enjoyed his privileges. At the end of a year, however, it was the custom of the island to strip the king of his power. This they did every year, only to crown another castaway upon their shore.

DesolateIslandWorldTales

Illustration by George Underwood in World Tales, 1979.

If an unremarkable clerk went to bed thinking himself unimportant, and woke up a king, or president, the same man might think very highly of himself by lunchtime. Not long after, he would think of capitalizing on his days in office, or on the throne. He would approve of the accretion of his own power, seek the adoration of “the people” or “his people,” and fear any hint of falling from grace. He would speak of “the nation” as casually as he once filled in forms, convinced that no one else could shepherd it so well.

Take away his titles, and it might be possible to restore the man to sanity regarding his own powers. It might become clear to him that fate had treated him capriciously not because he deserved it, but on the say-so of thousands of others convinced that he represented something beyond himself.

A grand illusion had taken him up, and let him go—the same illusion persisting still, without him. Thus he had been plagued by an illusion of grandiosity.

This is far easier to make clear than the corresponding possession of the commoner by myths and words and feelings. His lifelong following-along, his faith in the importance of imagined things, his schooling in belonging and obedience, remain invisible to him.

In another land and time, the following-along takes a different course, with different names and pretenses. That kind too seems entirely natural to those caught in the grip of madness, as an observer might say. It is equally clear to the Aztec attending a festive sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli, and the tsarist cheering the monarchs of Imperial Russia, and the American democrat on voting day, that one can do nothing else, and nothing better. Emperors, tsars, politicians, voters, and victims each believe in their role’s essential importance to the structure of the world.

In every place and time, each role-player following along in their grand illusion harbors the feeling that they live in the exceptional place in all the world. They live in the exceptional society, special among all other peoples, and enjoy god-given favor or natural advantages. History tells how many have believed in incomparable rectitude, in inborn virtues, or inherent superiority. History tells how many come to believe in a great mission. They cannot fail as others failed. They cannot suffer what others have suffered. They tell tales of the greatness that will not end, and each has a part in it. Theirs is some manifest destiny to lead, rule, conquer, civilize, liberate. Thus the chosen people always deserved special permissions to act, or to be entrusted with things others would only abuse. History tells of the infamy of exceptions. So many nominate themselves the people of a great name, rise to fame, and as empires, bring the world they know to ruin.

getting2bto2bhold2bthe2bflag2bfor2bthe2bpledge2bof2ballegiance252c2bca-2b1950s

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, loyalty oath to the United States of America taken by children. Photo circa 1950s.

A VISITOR TO A LAND, like Astolphe de Custine in Russia, or Alexis de Tocqueville in America, can observe with unfamiliarity and perhaps clearer eyes than the inhabitant who calls himself a citizen or a subject, who has never once since juvenile inculcation regarded its native customs and political system as foreign to himself.

In turn, whoever leaves the exceptional place, the world traveler, the expatriate, or the exile, has a chance to regain realism about their place of origin by gaining distance and perspective, and the foreignness able to make familiar things strange again. As does the outsider to habits of mind, though he takes himself nowhere, and possibly changes little around him. For in the exercise of making himself an exception to the ways others live, he also begins to make a thinker.

An insider to a culture of public mythology, such as politics or religion, has been conditioned to respond to slight alterations (in absolute terms) as though they mark the extremities of two poles.

He fears reversals of fortune from rearrangements of the pieces in a great game. The game draws him in to play as though everything depends on white or black winning or losing. It does not occur to him that many options would open up from refusing to play the same game by following the same rules.

The native or acculturated believer in a political system places hopes in a different king, a certain president, a legal or policy change, a new party in the voting, a selection of judges, a new mayor, a bold proclamation or a new program, and this is the scope of his imagination.

Of course a modest adjustment to institution of a system could transform prospects for personal advantage, albeit probably for far fewer than believe it will. Yet only the outsider can see that the scaffold does not change because anyone clinging to it is allowed to climb to a higher rung on a ladder. If the insider has dreams and ambitions, they narrow to fit the framework.

Only the outsider to this mentality, an outsider in mind if not in place of origin, can conceive of any genuine transformation or revolution.

The insider’s idea of innovations and reforms upon which he rests his hopes, upon which his world appears to turn, turn out to be subtleties, technicalities, or rhetorical changes. Someone less invested or accustomed perceives variations on a theme. Underlying presumptions go on, unperturbed, and have consequences.

The outsider finds it eerie and disappointing to observe the care and concern given to contentious trivialities, and to rituals. Insiders hang on arcane signs, lend significance to details and meaning to public performances, without an inkling these could be of no intrinsic interest, and have no definite effect.

As a result the outsider has surreal moments, as though surrounded by tribesmen who inexplicably have practical expectations from adding a different feather on the headdress of the chief. It is obvious that no sensible objection he makes to them could change their mind; that would mean dismissing what they consider serious matters. And if they had been attuned to putting their fixations in perspective in the first place, they would have given him no cause to speak. Should he try, insiders would make it clear they like to hear nothing against their custom.

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The Rotunda, Decorated with Tapestries, which Greeted Guests on their Arrival at Notre-Dame for the Coronation of Napoleon as Emperor by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, 1804.

THE PUBLIC AND OFFICIAL MYSTERY clouds thinking about people, material, and relationships which would otherwise not be deceived. A sort of alchemy transmutes the sense of things completely. A monumental weight lends gravity to implausible notions, as though an edifice looms over everyone who looks up, and its architecture supports overwrought ornaments and festoons, all in seriousness. A religious air pervades also, and suffices to endorse absurdity. It almost requires affected trappings, like peculiar costumes and stilted language, to signify that a state of majesty obtains, which lies beyond the mundane, and is not subject to common sense. Jargon, like that of theologians or legal experts, indicates separate subjects which cannot be understood by normal means, or unschooled people.

Official terms with special meanings are not meant to suggest that their real-life substance bears careful thought, but rather to invite no consideration by ordinary people. When rulers of a powerful modern-era state order and implement an embargo of trade and travel that causes hardship, if not starvation, an outbreak of disease, and infant mortality, they call it sanctions. Just this particle of jargon makes a special category for punishing a wayward “regime” that exculpates other rulers who impose a blockade of goods, and implies no cruelty to poor and powerless people unable to escape and desperate to survive. Formality, euphemism, and propriety hide the substance of things.

Offices, rituals, and positions sanctify acts normally understood quite differently. Different names and words deceive. Emotions deceive, charged by longstanding bonds to grand illusions. Culture normalizes. Hardly a man really believes himself guilty of great crimes when he assumes a grand role and takes part in great acts, under the public absolution of sin, and indulgence granted for great works.

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The Oath by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, 1804.

The main remedy is to endeavor to view a phenomenon, a happening of politics or society, as though it were not public, official, or large in scale. This effectively dissipates the illusion.

By taking the humble prospect of “great men” and appointed officers, and by down-to-earth judgment of individuals’ actions and material effects, one recognizes people effecting their own benefit, or behaving with themselves in mind. Over time, one sees they lack foresight also, when their gain or preoccupation in the shorter term costs themselves along with others in the future—although many do not pay personally for rapacity, and despite incompetence, many fail their way upwards. One watches them causing problems or crises, only to demand trust, obedience, and resources to solve them by forced measures, which cause further problems and crises. One is no longer blind to their starting trouble by turning people against each other, yelling across both subtle distinctions of identity and arbitrary lines of division.

One sees through the brittle posturing of bellicose rhetoric. One learns that literal wars on enemy governments or insurgents, and figurative wars—on intoxicants, on poverty, on crime, on immigrants—will all assault people, destroy property, induce needless suffering, instill violent and desperate mentalities, ruin lives, and disrupt peaceful association for fellowship and commerce, which has no need of such “protection,” despite strident warnings and fearmongering.

One witnesses the epitome of hysteria, fomented by the alchemy of words, over each “invasion” of job-seeking migrants, or refugees. These are nothing other than the journeys made by unemployed people to reach available opportunities, or unsafe people to reach safety and reestablish constructive lives, who are not transformed into threats by crossing the line on a map or violating a statute. And only a bigoted calculus would ascribe to refugees the kind of militancy that drove them out. Immigration makes a preposterous target for attack—therefore most instructive to our suspicions. For it entails not even the harm of injudicious but consensual drug use (albeit far less harmful than a “war on drugs”), but instead a wholly preferable condition; more productive than vacant jobs or a shortage of talent, and much more salutary for refugees than remaining in danger or squalid camps. Immigration presents a solution to economic problems and a resolution to crises caused by wars, not a problem or crisis in itself. Blocking movement by force, unprovoked arrests, laws barring employment without permission, and policies withholding it, not only obstruct amelioration, but further diminish freedom.

Lend no special category and no special credence to the public and official “campaigns,” and it becomes possible to deconstruct what is happening, beyond leveling accusations of scapegoating, bigotry, or misbegotten execution. If one imagines that the world’s largest syndicates of protection racketeers were long legitimized by custom, eminence, and well-meaning attempts to humanize a parasitical institution, their ostensible rationales are no longer mystified (and competence or incompetence must be gauged quite differently, by them). It would make sense for the grand racketeers to want to hobble competition from other syndicates, which erupts in wars over turf. But to fabricate legitimacy, they would also require the regular drum-beat appearance of bravely confronting one dire threat after another, over and over again, and patter on about it to anyone who will listen. The insider media furnish sympathetic interviewers paid to listen solemnly and seriously, and ask hard questions only about doing more.

A military policy judged solely by evidence—living people hurt, killed, chased away, taken as captives, homes destroyed—loses its pretend dignity. One can see the provocation and aggression in acts of defense and national security, no longer blind to occupation, seizures, physical brutality, and the vilest permissions of state and uniform. The undertaking that employs soldiers and enriches arms merchants loses ill-gotten pride, and it can no longer even seem regrettable but necessary.

The permissive credence given to armed policing is likewise clouded by impersonal illusions, like “justice,” and special license for official acts. Police assault, kidnapping, theft, and murder simply acquire different names, and as a rule, evade prosecution, while lesser offenses against police attract the severest treatment. Such is the local cloud of authority obfuscating phenomena, not unlike the clouded deeds called military, which happen also under the fog of scale, and in the haze of faraway places.

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The Defeated, Requiem by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1879.

By taking the humbling and down-to-earth view, one sees that violations of typical mores are allowed and not called crimes, at the scale of the state. For those proclaimed “leaders,” statistical murders or vast seizures of wealth are rather marks of greatness and bold intention.

Robbed of public and official airs, the gross expenses and excesses of government or Church seem wasteful and vain as any conspicuous consumption or tasteless opulence.

As they welcome the applause of those paying attention to grand illusions instead, those holding profitable positions in the respectable monopolies—on making law, and enforcing it—collude to cartelize other business by a thousand methods, on slim pretexts of doing good for “the economy” or “the country.” In exchange, they receive bribes before, and rewards afterward. They legitimize venality by the alchemy of entirely different words, and the custom of the practice.

The whole grand kleptocracy of the modern-era state seems a triumph of ambitious maneuvers congratulated as public service, and of conniving personal greed, lauded for altruism in doling out funds to encourage support, after rulers, allies, associates, administrators, enforcers, publicists and sycophants have gotten a cut.

In short, by endeavoring to view each happening of politics or society as though it were not public, official, or large in scale, one can see through the conventional and normal to the egregious, were it seen small, and see smallness in those who wish to appear extraordinary.

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An allegory of the state, presented as an effigy of the body politic composed of citizens under sovereign power, from the frontispiece by Abraham Bosse in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, 1651.

THE POLITICALLY-ACTIVE CITIZEN for his or her small part believes in a right to impact other people through “democratically” sharing the power of government, and most have faith in a net advantage to be gained through wielding it.

No matter his modern-era belief in majority rule, each citizen has been granted self-rule, self-government, or autonomy solely in metaphorical terms, which incorporate a collective self out of thousands or millions of people. Contemporary elections may certify select political leaders, among many more unelected leaders, but this practice does not invert the inflexible direction given by hierarchy. That legacy social principle inherited from military aristocracy and theocracy remains the default of government.

Once a leader has acquired status, no matter how, now the leader makes decisions and gives orders. No subject of rule may dictate to leaders as the leaders dictate, which of course defines them as the rulers and not the ruled. “Rule by the people” presupposes the opposite of its implication that people will make their own decisions. Any subject is instead supposed to accept restriction of some decision-making, as in all rule. Under the power of the state, he is obliged to yield to superiors, to be governed by others’ decisions, and accede to official demands. The so-called “consent of the governed,” and many other terms, euphemize the age-old supersession of self-direction as it would emerge from personal desires and needs. More liberal governments attenuate obedience. All expect it.

Remember that ruling is not only a metaphor, and it does not happen in the abstract—but to a person. What does this power of the state entail? Since it is meaningless if anyone may disobey the hierarchy of people giving orders downward, their ruling other people actually entails armed employees, arrests, legal charges, courts, fines, prison cells, or worse punishments for those who disobey. These are only formal ordeals, while harassment, smears, blackmail, threats, extortion, bullying, beatings, torture, and execution occur unofficially, as well as through formal process and institutional decree.

Modern-era democratic states are not exceptions. Policy initiatives meant to sound positive and generous are no less compulsory. The appointed do force the unwilling to contribute and collaborate with government organizations and programs, ultimately by punitive methods.

It is simply that the modern art of ruling respectably, relying less on instilling fear and advertising decisive brutality than former empires and lords, has become more concerned to camouflage the rough points of contact with the ruled, or excuse them. They have not become aberrational means, in the way that anyone might fall back on using force for personal self-defense. People called governments force other people to do things, not as a rare exception, but as a routine.

If enforcers do not routinely repress demonstrators in the streets, or put down rebellions, they act against dissidents and the defiant ones who have been singled out, often finding legal or bureaucratic cover, and set precedent by attacking unpopular minorities or marginalized malcontents. Then, it is easier to claim only backward, undemocratic states and enemies repress their citizens. The same governments can employ more violent means abroad, against those without a vote, and have little concern for appearances.

Those who cannot imagine any other routine recourses in human society are inclined to defend the modus operandi, or reconcile themselves to it, or pretend it does not happen often. As a practical matter they avoid personal contact with the trouble they ignore as much as they can, chiefly by obeying.

Who would not prefer to keep the ordeals of coercion or punishment abstract—felt only by someone else, at some distance—well aware that ordeals do not befall anyone in the abstract or “in theory”? Few even need to be told Obey or this can happen to you. If they never have cause to think on it, it is because they conform compulsively.

It could happen anyway: a case of mistaken identity, a raid on the wrong house, or by walking along with the wrong color skin. It happens in order to catch quotas of offenders, or make convictions. It happens because legally-empowered armed agents have little to restrain them from enforcement of their own whims as well as laws. Few people who would willingly accept the role of enforcer would also abstain from this abuse of the power to abuse.

The citizen has been taught that the good citizen owes obedience, in any case. Therefore he does not find the practices that compel it inherently offensive, especially in formality, and when they “follow the rules.” When the citizen finds out that police, military, or covert agents have used violent expedients like torture, assault, or execution unofficially, he is perhaps most shocked they did not follow the rules, and most placated by apparent discipline.

To the inculcated citizen, disobedience is the egregious behavior; trouble or punishment for it are only to be expected. The disobedient are suspect to begin with, and conflated with blameworthy criminals or even enemies, if their motives are not also marred by perversion or insanity. If a response to them seems excessive, the initial feeling and principle remains that anyone defying authority has brought trouble upon themselves.

But the citizen believes the finest of participation in popular government; and the citizen holds that its failures stem from apathy. He wants more governance, not less, and to stick his head further into it. He believes that others should too, for the abstract “health” of the system, though at the same time he expects that his own ideas should prevail in the “healthy democracy” he envisions, where everyone votes. He wishes to use the power of the state, at least to his benefit, probably to harness it for his good causes. He believes in his democratic right to have an impact on others—however the government does—wishful and delicately abstract about consequences.

Rarely does a citizen have any part of enforcement—the actual means of rule, in the prison, in the court, on the bureaucrat’s desk, in the back alley—except to suffer from it, and hardly ever to control it.

If he is outraged against injustices, he falls back on outlets as incongruous as holding up a protest sign during a burglary, or promising to vote against an assault. The typical citizen’s objections muster all the weight of a sternly-worded letter.

The overruled subject has, least of all, means to restrain obedient enforcers set upon him; even less than in proceedings against him. To escape their reach presents almost as much difficulty.

He has not even the power—the right or the capability—to take exception, stand apart, take nothing and give nothing, and be left alone. He cannot be entrusted with his responsibility. To be sure he is probably not trusted, not by those watchers who may know how to trust no one. But more than this, he is needed and he is required to play his part. For rulers need the ruled, as badly as demagogues need the crowd, and crusading moralists need contrite sinners; not only to obtain material gain and labor in their causes, but for the fanciful conviction that crowns some creatures of the species above others.

Nevertheless the citizen, an insider hopelessly immersed in his culture, rituals, and beliefs, fancies themselves a participant, against factuality.

An outsider to this mentality, this exceptional society might think: “this proud subject has a more disproportionate sense of importance and a more unrealistic fantasy of control than a ruler. In this he is no doubt encouraged by having a vote, and a voice.”

The outsider would see ritual futility in the former, the vote; statistically-trivial in a great population, only periodic, and as a rule confined to nominated choices of rulers, but campaigned with farcical intensity. The argumentative frenzy at election time he would surely regard with puzzlement, and rising alienation.

In the latter, the voice of the people, he would hear a babble; “it is the citizen talking or shouting at once with thousands or millions of others, who also lack the fame or high position to be listened to! Surely an indication of desperation, or derangement,” he would exclaim.

The outsider would hear and read citizens talking about what needs to be done and what ought to be done as if their advice had been solicited sincerely. He would further realize that the citizens also feel they are “democratically” exercising their share in the power of government, along with the rest of the public, through “political action” and “civic participation.”

It is hardly conceivable that the iconic foreigner—were there anyone from a land or a time so different—would listen for the first time to some citizen earnestly pay obeisance to these vaporous notions without a bit of the trepidation he might feel near a psychotic. “Yes, of course. Very nice,” the foreigner would carefully reply.

The citizen’s implied approval of institutional violence-by-proxy would even strike a traveler from a past culture ruled without qualms as ludicrous, in its pretense of agency. To the pragmatist of history, this is the peasant believing he is the lord or the king, because he has theoretical strength in numbers.

And a foreigner with an outsider’s mind would at least know it for an alien custom too menacing and mercenary to pass as whimsical.

For citizens have not only the hope but the expectation to gain from political involvement. They expect to get their way to some extent—although this makes demands upon others, and even when it makes inordinate demands upon others they scarcely mind—and they experience disappointment and frustration when they do not get their way. Thus, citizens make mutually exclusive demands upon each other, and most are destined to be frustrated. For their lot, they blame the people with contrary designs, and not the impossible, irreconcilable, and divisive system under which they are ruled and encouraged to think they are rulers, they who lack the means of rule, and exercise none.

A visitor to this land might record “plebeian delusions of grandeur, of unreconcilable ambition, busybody intention, and oftentimes greed.”

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The Mockers by Arthur Boyd, 1945.

TALKING IN ABSTRACTIONS allows thoughts to skirt substance, like phantoms gliding over ground. Talk can play out a pure wish, reproduce a platitude serving sanctimony, or erect a hobbyhorse subject to old spleen, and incur no obvious consequence or cost for never touching on concrete and corporeal matters.

Heady and hallowed words—like power, war, glory, justice, health, democracy—will later play out in visible effects, in tangible consequences, and immediate situations to deal with, as well as feelings visceral to us. So will maligned and infamous abstractions—also free to reference like a well-known reality, as close as a familiar, as evident as an incarnation—lead only later to an unforeseen concrete outcome. When the first consequences are only felt in expressions and reactions, the talker need not confront what those ghosts of ideas they follow will likely make manifest later. Those most liable to be satisfied by words lack imagination to foresee, and knowledge enough to predict.

The most persuasive language may have the least to do with substance, like the rhetoric of demagogues who have frightened, browbeaten, and cajoled captivated crowds. It is true that figurative language can exaggerate more freely, a device which propaganda never neglects in its storytelling. That does not suffice for the puppeteer’s purpose. The puppeteer learned how puppets work before plucking strings in a live performance. Before the demagogue opened their mouth, they knew the listener was in thrall to their attachments to certain metaphors, as well as inducible to mimic the emotions of a crowd.

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The Orator (Der Volksredner) by Magnus Zeller, circa 1920.

These are sweeping metaphors of belonging and loyalty and kinship; decency, nobility, and hope; and objects of existential fears, fury, and loathing. Their points of contact with reality are emotional and primal phenomena, neurogenic, and not concrete.

To manipulate these unreasoning attachments, one talks for instance of “the country,” all the diverse inhabitants who live between borders, as one—one family (thus fatherland or motherland) with a family home (the homeland). Or one speaks of “the nation” as one body that must watch its health, or purify its blood, protect its heart, or care for its soul. Each trope can serve many different masters and agendas: admonish us to care for “public health”; or “racial hygiene”; or remind us that civic participation is the “health of a democracy.”

Affected tripe no more artful than this gets in the head of a listener. Many who hear metaphors dutifully repeat them like unforgettable doggerel. Initially listeners might have taken for granted that rhetoric is not literal, and therefore they did not hold figures of speech to realism. Circulation goes on until the absurdity of figurative expressions wears off. They are accepted quite normally and even seriously, the original reason for their coinage long forgotten.

By now the public language of society is riddled with pandering metaphors dated to years or centuries ago, no longer guided by an immediate purpose but driving forward blindly. Forceful pack animals bear the gravitas and sentiment of yesteryears, ready to be drafted into the service of any base mobilization. On the backs of these ponderous metaphors, unsuspecting men and women are carried away.

Many of the usual contrivances subsume disparate people and places into collective figments, which are infused with group belonging and mutual purpose. Though a fanciful grouping fails to match the group at all, few fault or dismiss the fiction, and instead try to realize the fiction. This is because discrepant denotation matters less to its meaning than emotional tenor, which rings true, true to a need.

 

STRIP AWAY THE MAKE-BELIEVE, and one finally has the same chances to understand the motives of men—at least as we imagine them in cases without lofty camouflage, in the selling, dealing, bartering, begging, and bragging of the marketplace, no less usual in the halls of power. The thoroughly-confused remark upon just a few types and occasions, and call them “corruption.”

To begin to decipher the personal interests in a grandiose interest, follow the legal maxim remembered by Cicero: cui bono? Good for whom? The detective also asks, “who benefits from the crime?” as an indicator of motive.

Suspect the motives of those with financial incentives, those courting fame and importance, seeking access to power, or those eager at the prospect of secure employment. One knows that publicly professing concern over “the nation,” “the country,” or “the economy” is not out of feeling for some unlikely bloc, or nonsensical monolith, but a cover for selective interests. Very likely, producers, financiers, or workers engaged in an industry that stands to profit or decline found common cause with professional courtiers, or ideologues craving relevance.

Those urge, “We must do this,” or “We can’t afford not to.” They pretend that everyone in their “we” acts together, and will all succeed or fail together. Every unwitting investor and volunteer is welcome on the team or behind the cause. Far fewer leaders and eventual beneficiaries will be allowed.

Invoking public benefit or necessity is the way for those with ventures or investments to convince many more with nothing to gain to lobby rulers on their behalf. Official support allows investors to unload risk onto everyone included in their common spirit. Subsidy increases short-term profits, at general expense. And if watershed events they have positioned to exploit can be engineered, they could make fantastic sums. They have no intention of sharing gains, or taking on the same risks they demand of others.

To suspect is never to say decisively why events have been set in motion, or to infer planning and responsibility by motive alone. Even a conspiracy of interests can make an event opportune without engineering it.

Nevertheless, groups who promote policy do not lack material or ideological motives which others do not share in. They advocate and lobby out of some special interest, making an investment of sorts, while the individual inhabitant, citizen, worker, or consumer cannot profit by such expenses. Individuals outside of politics lack a sensible interest in the capital except to demand let me alone, and the repeal of what has already been done to them. It is the function of promotional groups and coalitions with agendas to portray their special interests as the common interest—national security, economic development, public health—especially when, latent facts would tell, they do not coincide with the interests of most consumers, workers, citizens, or inhabitants.

Warmongers in particular advocate a policy materially costly, dangerous, or counterproductive to most others, and that is the point of appeals to abstractions. The warmonger relies on faithful citizens’ emotional sympathies felt toward grand illusions. At first giving in to passions of a warlike crowd does feel good; these sympathies thrill, and reassure, and give meaning. Great profits do not land in every pocket, however, but in few at the expense of many. Nor does the civilian share in war’s great accretion of official powers by entrusting the newly-important politicians, the bureaucrats, the spies, and the generals.

Fearing for their safety, obedient citizens endanger themselves by acceding to attacks on faraway targets in their name. Abroad, hostilities kill, destroy cities and homes, and embitter. Making war does not make peace, but risks making future enemies. Civilians are lucky to survive, poorer, less safe and less free; soldiers, to return home with nightmares and intact limbs; refugees, to find a home.

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Destruction during the Passchendaele campaign (third battle of Ypres), 1917.

THE GRAND ILLUSION is not merely produced out of distraction from phenomena and facts by officialdom’s mandates, or created by abstractions, possessive metaphors and other demagogic rhetoric, but engineered by sheer scale that pulls away from obtrusive realities, whereas features in front of our face must be reconciled, and sooner than distant concatenations of events.

The close-up ethnic violence of splitting communities comes of identification with an artificial scale—like “forging a new, independent nation”—not contempt between familiar faces.

To take a train ride across the border between former “enemies” India and Pakistan and visit similar streets, similar homes, similar people, is all that is necessary to dispel anxiety that descended from the time when Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim Punjabis were expelled from their homes, fled, or were murdered, after the Indian subcontinent was “partitioned” by drawing a line on a map between eastern and western Punjab.

People more readily learn to fear or hate a far-away threat for little or no reason. In contrast, an aversion felt toward a neighbor might soon be revealed as paranoia or bigotry, difficult to maintain in the face of familiarity. The feuds that neighbors escalate are more likely spurred by contemptible dealings with each other than baseless, and therefore, if the grudges are not self-limiting, they may be amenable to making peace by mending those relations.

Consider a different effect of scale. An inflated story does not seem so overblown when it tells a tale of the unseen, imagined to extend beyond the horizon, rather than things one can see. It captivates many of those who would doubt it on the smaller stage before their eyes.

Grandiose myths about national production and lifestyle would fizzle at the personal scale, at which business rarely “booms.” Entitlement to the American Dream would sound ironic amidst talk of stockroom paychecks and personal budgets, and similar means of saving to buy a house. In personal finance, boasts of unmeasured success belong to a bumptious character. Even at the relative peak of prosperity, it is difficult to imagine that places seen every day and things done daily stimulated the belief of living in “the greatest country on Earth.”

The soaring scope of disconnection from places and people permits both contemptuous and romantic idealizations that would have drawn ridicule otherwise, if they were conceivable at all.

Even the sentiment of German-speaking families toward fields owned and plowed for generations could not cultivate the effusive propaganda of Blut und Boden among the people of some hamlet living on the local terrain. That slogan of agrarian nationalists, and then National Socialists, needed alienated populations living in industrial towns and cities to idealize the country in the distance; and it was the contrast to degenerate “asphalt culture” of cities (and urbane Jews) that flattered the “peasant” virtues of the countryside and gained popularity among traditionalists. Identity rooted in folklore actually required anticipation of size, numbers, and distances—not locality or community, familiar from experience. Size, number, and distance instill unfamiliarity.

Without having to pay attention to any farmer in particular, völkisch writers could extol eugenics and rustic integrity to purify an incorporeal folk “blood” that courses through no one’s body, and yearn for an idealized race that no one has met. It would not be believed of just one’s own neighbors.

The utopian myth would hardly drive a small town “back to the land” on a patch of nearby country; it required a “nation” to animate. Looking beyond the horizon, to Deutschland, one could talk of redemption through working the “soil,” without having to believe this of some familiar plot of dirt.

By its grand and impersonal size, not subject to any sense, the nation could rise, faraway and eternal, yet present in the imagination.

Oedipus in Egypt, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867–1868.

IN THE GRAND ILLUSIONS OF PUBLIC AND POLITICS, one is forever trying to hide that nothing grand is at work.

Grandeur of rhetoric, monumental scale, and popular fervency hide nothing other, nothing greater than each creature, animated in his or her pursuits and instincts. The society comprises nothing other than all of them together. Never does any part, any faction of organisms, any single organism, cease to be animated in its own causes because of invoking something else. No thing larger than persons and things requires their sacrifice. No nation is standing above them all. No majority decides. No value rules over men. Invoking a grandiose principle does not make the grandiose principle real.

These are consensual pretenses for all those who cannot stand the naked knowledge that they, and those much like them, lack clear mutual purpose and belonging. It would be in error to assume that everyone wishes to see through illusion. Those who want for faith prefer to revel in grandeur, and they resent an indication of its falsehood.

State and Church, which encouraged punitive fearfulness for institutional purposes, were not responsible for fear’s origination. Fear of what diverges from the mainstream clamors for an object. The incisive who see through grand illusions will automatically meet the same fate in fearful society as the outsider who merely dresses or intoxicates differently: to incur suspicion in a relatively tolerant variant of fearful society, and persecution, under illiberal treatment.

The participant in grand illusions joins in for many reasons, not only conformism: his own entertainment; his own fear of irrelevance; his own need of richer sensations than he knows how to provide. One makes unimpeachable heroes of realer men because one needs them, and for the same reason, one subscribes to impersonal figments never to be pierced by sharp senses.

The unmasking of status and scale is a lesson for the perspicacious, who wish to see past themselves, and see through illusions. In the midst of contrary reinforcement, it promises an unrelenting mission.

It promises more, also, than liberation from servitude and suffering. Their reward for making themselves unwelcome foreigners in a world of fabrication is to be that finally, a grandeur of the soul genuinely felt, demonstrated in society by appreciable works, can become sufficient and resilient, and depend no longer on fragile pretenses and hypocrisy. It can be found in the exceptional place awaiting mankind, and not a part of it.

Man, and not entitlement or affectation, can realize aspirations and find belonging.

Dispel the grand illusions of nations, borders, titles, hierarchies, and do not fear that without them, Man would lack company, protection, significance, or access to any grand purpose.

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To Be Governed…

To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. And to think that there are democrats among us who pretend that there is any good in government

— Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, John Beverly Robinson’s 1923 translation of Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle

A well known quote in anarchist circles (in various translations), but more than that, a sentiment familiar to many in history with experience to know better than many people right now.

I worry about anyone naive enough, or brief enough in their momentary span of historical (and cultural and geographical) awareness, that they would believe one recent election could make all the difference. Only now does it perhaps begin to occur to them that political power was not centralized in the state just for their benefit. Only now do they look with any real suspicion at the exercise of it.

The institution of the state is not some new problem for people who have suffered under bureaucracy, or the whims of political leaders, or the systematic and recurring uses of power at their expense for the advantage of one agenda or special interest or another.

For example, the troubles of an immigrant coming to America certainly did not begin with the Trump administration, as many young protesters seem to think. It would doubtless surprise most of them to learn that the Obama administration deported more people than any other administration (and all others before 2000), and pushed other enforcement policies such as criminalization, internment, and border militarization.

The abuse of power concomitant with power itself is not a partisan problem but an institutional one. It’s noticing the evidence of the problem (or failing to notice, and rationalizing) that turns partisan, and biased according to party, faction, and animosity.

The original monopoly of “the state” or “government” (on which all other attempted monopolies depend) is that of an exclusive claim to legitimate force, to compulsion—a claim to deserve obedience but also the right to compel it. This remains the essential formula of a hierarchy of political power to this very day.

Those who believe they and their agenda rule, believe power is rendered fine and respectable as long as they rule, and only feel it is corrupted and dangerous when they lose power. It’s a strange alchemy, and a secular faith.

If only it would occur to more people that any state powerful enough to give them things they demand, or dream of—if indeed their wants and dreams can truly be delivered and sustained by demands on other people—has to be powerful enough to take away what they hold dear, also.

Excerpt: excuses and criticisms for electing inferiors

Sometimes I accidentally write political science, in the context of trying to write more compelling literature. I say that only half-flippantly. Experience tires of what it knows too familiarly, you see. Besides, politics skips over many things I consider essential preliminaries, in order to arrive at loud, thoughtless disagreement that much more efficiently.

NB: Not written about current events specifically, but germane, and therefore I am posting it. I do not write about current events, per se. Current events tend to come back to the same things, again and again. I do write about those things.

Without further ado, an excerpt from work in progress:

When it became fairly apparent (to others) that in time, manifest inferiors would rule democratic republics instead of the best men (in any usual sense, moral or able)—as so often happens in present day, in the calculus of voting machines, mass media, party and political machines—they made excuses. Rationalizations, critiques, and theories proliferated, and they have ever since. Most have blamed technicalities of constitutional procedure, or electoral process, for these “wrong” results. Many have blamed an uneducated citizenry. Partisans blame opponents.

All these critiques come from ideological agreement, from those convinced of the rightness of democracy, or at least taking it for granted (a tenet without alternative), often from insiders in the political class.

They would never conclude, for instance, that corrupt bargains for influence promoting oligarchs and plutocrats among the political class describes an equilibrium of theoretical popular governance, no matter its design.

Insiders in particular would never interpret lack of intellectual competence among bureaucrats and politicians of the state as [suitable] avoidance of misspent, frustrated careers by competent people who have other ambitions and serve other masters. And the more enormous the bureaucracy, the more immune its unelected mediocrity to change by election of very few supervising officials, and their direct appointees.

An unusual critique from outside the consensus lamented a perversion of the natural order by the weakening effect of misguided egalitarian doctrines, from democratic, Judeo-Christian, and socialist origins, promoted with the effect, if not also the intention, that diminutive, weak men could overcome their superiors. Men had become sheeplike, or overly tamed.

This critique happened to agree with neo-aristocrats, oligarchs, and republicans alike that the many, especially the uneducated mob, were not to be trusted with the reins of government. Inferior men could climb up on their backs, to loud applause. Voting was a godsend to the ambitious political creatures whose talents lay in demagoguery, empty promises, fear-mongering, and other unscrupulous means.

But to the traditional mistrust of demagogues, this critique added the [interesting] charge that the potential quality of men had been corrupted, not only by lacking education but also by excess of rote, mass education in uniformity, agreement, and passivity—in the name of equality and good citizens, instead of serving the more venerable, selective educational goal of cultivating a remarkable elite.

Other outsiders critiqued democratic principle not for its foundation upon the many, but for sanctioning and legalizing the might of the many—called mob rule in its informal guise—as though numbers excused or ennobled the exercise of power, and in this case alone, might makes right.

They saw no reason for surprise whenever democratic republics failed. For democratic institutions remained systems for assigning compulsory powers, not fundamentally unlike any ancient state for having devised representation, imagined “good government,” and forgotten the origins of governance in oppression by conquerors, caste, or class.

They summarized that history has always reflected a generally conflicted (if not inverse) relationship between attracting the best men and offering them power. Power to enforce one’s will instead, unsurprisingly, attracts those who cannot exercise any consistent restraint, or corrupts those who have power, including those born into it. Exercise of power for aggrandizement is rarely tempered, with difficulty, only temporarily, and somewhat against the natural tendency.

In fact the founders of modern constitutional republics were not unaware of this critique. Among them, skeptics of democracy as a positive good admitted they could not answer it, and feared it would prove correct. They were not naive enough to believe that men who acquired might would somehow cease to crown themselves right. They hoped that individual rights could find protection for a time, despite tyrants, oligarchs, mobs and demagogues.

Now, the context for generating this digression was: writing about right and might (the famous debate in Thucydides over the fate of the poor island of Melos crops up) as an unusual, applied way of writing about a distinction between the “neutral” descriptive function of idealized science, and the prescriptive, normative, or persuasive functions of value-driven fields such as ethics, or applied science (medicine, psychiatry, engineering), arts, or religion. In a nutshell, saying what happens is importantly, quite different from saying what should happen.

Talking about how those two purposes can either corrupt, or assist each other, is very important to the philosophy of science, to argumentation, to psychology, and to pretty much any subject that people have positions about, or try to understand. Half of political discourse is really about trying to blur the two. (The Athenians certainly do in Thucydides.)

So actually, this is a representative selection in a sense, not for its specific subject material, but because it came about from the larger goal of teaching and reconsidering fundamentals through novel illustrations. In this case, philosophy of science through the lens of political science, in particular, all the thinking surrounding right and might, might makes right, etc. I went off on the tangent above (it happens), broke off that piece, and here you are.

Trump: Fascist in style, as well as substance

Dave Weigel reports:

“Sal Russo, the longtime Republican strategist who co-founded the Tea Party Express PAC in 2009, came to Nevada to back Cruz. He used some downtime to attend Trump’s Monday night rally on the Strip, which packed nearly 10,000 people into an arena, eight times more than had ever attended a Cruz rally in the state. “I’ve been to a lot of rallies,” said Russo. “I’ve never seen anything like this one. He would say something — ‘punch that guy in the face!’ — and the veins would be popping out of people’s necks.”

Victory for Trump in Nevada: one more step (three in a row now) to electing a fascist in style, as well as substance.

(The substance of fascism has already been building up to some kind of crescendo, if you’re knowledgable about fascism in policy—ratcheting since the era of Mussolini and FDR actually, not just since 9-11. I would argue that the style of fascism has been building since 9-11, too.)

Trump continues to lead dramatically in polls, and shows the ability to draw voters from every standard polling demographic. Unless something strange occurs, he will be the nominee at this rate. So a celebrity billionaire may be the exception that proves the rule, that an outsider with grassroots support usually cannot break through firewalls of party rules, cheats, and intended hurdles set up by the establishment to crush alternatives they view as insurgencies, like the candidacy of Jeffersonian Ron Paul.

If Trump continues to be able to attract throngs at this rate, in fact, he can become President, by motivating angry people to vote who hadn’t necessarily before. And then of course, he will wield the great and terrible discretionary powers that have been assembled over many years by politicians who fancied themselves in charge, and not a loudmouth real estate mogul populist. Obama’s executive order precedents, for example, will be a way for Trump to get around Congress.

It does not help that his likely establishment opponent in the other party is a thuggish operator, a conniving but incompetent criminal, a warmonger bought off by warmongers, and thoroughly corrupt—the first female gangster in the White House, if you will. Hillary Clinton is unpopular with many civilized people outside the usual party-machine voting blocks, and unlikely to motivate great numbers in her own right.

Proponents of democracy as a positive good in itself are going to have trouble accepting this, but the mob (most voters) love a strongman, as long as they think he is “theirs.” They always have. That’s where successful dictators come from; not from some unpopular military junta, but from genuine popularity, like Caesar or Napoleon or Hitler. The usual historical outcome of democratic institutions within a powerful (centralized) state is that “the people” entrust their futures to a strongman who suggests he will overturn the elites they hate.

My fellow dissidents in America, it’s time to follow the wise example of Robert Higgs and give serious, pragmatic thought to an exit strategy. (Dr. Higgs, among the greatest living intellectual critics of the state and an expert on American authoritarianism, has already moved to Mexico.)