Search This Site

Loading

Thursday, May 31, 2007

George Will And The Conservative Bogeyman

The conservative bogeyman: Government.

I have to hand it to George Will for honestly laying out his view of true conservative values.

Conservatism's recovery of its intellectual equilibrium requires a confident explanation of why America has two parties and why the conservative one is preferable.

Indeed. Though I kind of smiled at the phrase "intellectual equilibrium." What the hell does that mean, exactly? I'd guess that it is a reactionary term, counterposing the drunken binge which has been standing in for "conservatism" of late.

Today conservatives tend to favor freedom...

As opposed to what they used to favor? Doesn't much sound like you're "recovering" the "equilibrium" there. Is conservatism "progressing" in some fashion, George?

George has lots to say about what "liberals" are all about. It's important for him to outline this in order to move the argument forward, y'know:

Liberals are more concerned with equality...

Liberals tend, however, to infer unequal opportunities from the fact of unequal outcomes. Hence liberalism's goal of achieving greater equality of condition leads to a larger scope for interventionist government to circumscribe the market's role in allocating wealth and opportunity. Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.

Wow - I had no idea. If I didn't know that Will was much to intellectually honest to construct a straw man to do battle with, I'd think he was constructing a straw man to do battle with.

Steadily enlarging dependence on government accords with liberalism's ethic of common provision, and with the liberal party's interest in pleasing its most powerful faction -- public employees and their unions.

Yea, George, because you know that I lay awake at night contemplating the breathtakingly magnetic qualities of government employees and the sweet agony of their siren song.
Conservatism's rejoinder should be that the argument about whether there ought to be a welfare state is over. Today's proper debate is about the modalities by which entitlements are delivered.

Holy crap, George, are you getting wobbly here? The argument against the welfare state is over? I didn't get that memo. Without that particular straw man to rail against, what is left to debate? Oh... modalities.

Modalities matter, because some encourage and others discourage attributes and attitudes -- a future orientation, self-reliance, individual responsibility for healthy living -- that are essential for dignified living in an economically vibrant society that a welfare state, ravenous for revenue in an aging society, requires.

That would be, um, social engineering, right? Do you have any feet left to shoot?

This reasoning is congruent with conservatism's argument that excessively benevolent government is not a benefactor, and that capitalism does not merely make people better off, it makes them better.

Nothing like cutting your teeth on the social Darwinism of capitalism to make you a better person. After "merely" making you rich, it moves on to saving your soul, too.

Liberalism once argued that large corporate entities of industrial capitalism degraded individuals by breeding dependence, passivity and servility. Conservatism challenges liberalism's blindness about the comparable dangers from the biggest social entity, government.

OK, We can stop there. I'm not quotin' you anymore, Will. That's just a lot of stupid. Comparing "corporate entities" with "the biggest social entity" is a huge error in reasoning, and it reveals the nut of the problem with so-called conservatives. They refuse to accept any possibility of a cohesive social contract amongst us humans, unless of course there is an explanation for it which can be understood by them - that being profit. Any cooperation undertaken which does not involve profit is somehow nefarious, and that is why they are quick to characterize all government as some sort of Other, rather than what it really is: the arena where the people are represented outside of the profit motive.

We are talking here, of course, of the experiment that is the American republic - the latest, strongest attempt to have government of, by, and for the people.

Of course, this is an idealistic description of what government is for - since first formed, it has been under constant assault by those who see that vast pool of public resource used to subsidize grand ventures of profit-making. This misuse of public resources is redeemed in their eyes because, again, profit is good, and the market decides everything.

Look - the "government" is us, the people. More properly, it should be us - all of the levers, mechanisms, charters, procedures, etc., etc. are all in place, designed to be used by us. But the anti-governmental bias, casting it as an Other, opens a space for profit interests to cynically talk about drowning it in a bathtub while the rest of us cheer. Never mind that this is deliberate, and all of the levers, mechanisms, charters, procedures, etc., etc. are still in place, only now our blood and treasure is once again serving social Darwinists who talk about self-reliance out of one side of their mouth while helping themselves, without shame, to their own brand of government "welfare."

The whole reason this sort of conservatism has any traction whatsoever is that too many people attain a kind of cheap intellectualism when they complain about the "government" and its "intrusions" on our space. It's funny, because this is right and just, after all. If we give up our identification with the government, there are others who are more that happy to claim it as their own (all the while deriding it, as we see conservatism doing today). If we, however, recognize its role as our only collective representation, then good things can happen with it.

Unless, of course, you think that money, social Darwinism, and every man for himself is the best model. Then, you're just a pirate, pure and simple.


Update: I left out a few things. BooMan takes care of that.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Iraqupation


Rahm Emmauel:
...we have to have a new direction to Iraq that has accountability, standards that you can measure progress or not...

Aside from the fact that this is all utter bullshit that doesn't deserve a very close reading, I want to see if I understand something correctly.

According to the way this whole funding, accountability, time-line, benchmark and support-the-troop blather is being framed, it is somehow important to "measure progress." To what end? From what I gather, it seems that we are saying that we will find it OK to leave only if there is "progress," whereas I assume that "no progress" (read: failure) means that we simply must stay.

So - this failed occupation, which is being decried precisely because it is a failed operation, cannot be abandoned precisely because it is a failed occupation. Paging Joseph Heller...

(Oops, I mean "war," since there has never been an example of a successful occupation in all of the days of history - I mean, really, what would that look like? Oh, yeah - Colonialism. That worked out really well all around.)

And, by the way, it would have been nice to see the debacle being decried right out of the box for reasons of simple human morals and decency, but I'll take the morally bankrupt and squeamish excuse of "failure" if I have to.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Tolerance, Endorsement, And Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt gave a fascinating and informative talk at the 2007 New Yorker Conference (well caught by Mike's Blog Roundup.) In it, he discussed the moral foundations which animate liberal and conservative worldviews, and offers some prescriptive advice on how the two poles may be better able to comprehend these foundations. There are two main positions from which Professor Haidt proceeds (text from the University of Virginia website - all empheses mine.)

On how, and why, reason intrudes on and rhetorically shapes moral "gut feelings":
Haidt shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles: 1) Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments; 2) Moral thinking if for social doing, which says that we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us; and 3) Morality binds and builds, which says that morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, which allows humans — but no other primates – to live in large and highly cooperative groups.

Shorter Haidt: We have a gut feeling for morality, we all want to be on the same page, and that is what gives society its cohesiveness. Good stuff.

On how Haidt unironically uses reason to intrude on and rhetorically shape moral "gut feelings":
Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of – and constrained by – a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity.

First, I apologize for the cheap snark regarding Haidt's use of reason - first of all, it was low-hanging fruit and, secondly, I do happen to find his analysis very compelling. Chalk it up to a little deconstructionist humour.

Regarding his first set of principles on how basic moral insight is distorted by the application of reason (when reason is embarked upon persuasion, truth becomes a side issue), I heartily agree. However, while his line of reasoning and tolerance for the underpinnings of conservative morality is reflexively charming to this author's liberal bent, I am here to take it apart a bit, and hopefully succeed in presenting a sharper intellectual contrast on this question. In terms of tolerance and dialogue, this is perhaps counterproductive, but I don't want to fall into the natural trap of sacrificing the truth on the alter of persuation (point 2, in the first U.Va. quote above).

I'd like to point out that Prof. Haidt's five "evolved psychological systems" are presented in a flat manner, with each given equal weight as regards moral primacy:

  • 1. (Mitigating) harm ("liberal" concern)

  • 2. (Manifesting) fairness ("liberal" concern)

  • 3. (Respecting and maintaining) in-group boundaries ("conservative" concern)

  • 4. (Respecting and maintaining) authority structures ("conservative" concern)

  • 5. (Embodying) spiritual purity (allegedly a "conservative" concern)


  • First of all, I want to take number five (spiritual purity) out of the schism of liberalism/conservatism. I think that it is a stretch to say that anyone does not hold spiritual purity as an important value. As the spiritual realm is something that reason cannot easily comment upon, I hold that it is the various appearances of what constitute spiritual purity which are held up to debate and disagreement, not spiritual purity itself. I submit that point five is actually fractured through the prisms of the other four.

    Now, as to the equal weight given the other four points, I'd like to slash through the weediness of that and state that the first two points are of more fundamental pedigree, whilst in-group boundaries and authority are meta-concerns, pure constructs of thought which have no basis outside of their self-referential interest in continuity and security. I do not argue that they do indeed spring from evolutionary impulse - as a matter of fact, I argue that among the four remaining points, points three and four are restricted to evolutionary cultivation, whereas the first two are discoverable outside of the requirements of development over time.

    This is the first return to a palpable and irreconciliable schism between "liberalism" and "conservatism." This is not good news for those of us who wish to Kumbaya our way to the future, but what do you expect from a self-confessed liberal? For that is how Jonathan Haidt describes himself.

    (If you haven't already, please go watch the Professor's talk before proceeding. It is erudite, persuasive and very well thought out. I appreciate his work, it provoked this post, and his arguments deserve to be aired by the Professor himself before absorbing my criticisms and observations.)

    Liberals like Professor Haidt, lovable as they are, are the reason why, when asked, I, rather drily, state that I'm "to the left of Che Gueverra." (While this is just a rhetorical device to give me some intellectual space in the sphere of conventional liberal thinking, the truth is that Che probably would find my thinking dangerously radical.)

    What I see from this distance is that Haidt is doing what every blinkered, well-intentioned liberal constantly strives for: Comprehension of, and tolerance for, the Other (in this case, "conservatives.") On top of this, what with all of the recent denunciation of conservative thinking as being black-and-white, inoculated from the nuance of a more complex worldview, it is a hell of a bone to throw to the "other side" to insinuate that they work from a more complex synthesis of moral systems (five points as opposed to two! Why, they're more on the ball than we've given them credit for!) This is already gaining traction.

    As I said - first of all, I don't find that those "moral systems" all weigh equally on the scale of primacy. There is another factor, however, which muddies the waters of the liberal/conservative debate, and that is the issue of tolerance vs. endorsement. I would like to restate the surviving four points thusly:

  • 1. (Mitigating) harm (a concern of tolerance)

  • 2. (Manifesting) fairness (a concern of tolerance)

  • 3. (Respecting and maintaining) in-group boundaries (a concern of endorsement)

  • 4. (Respecting and maintaining) authority structures (a concern of endorsement)


  • Where there is a bright line separating tolerance and endorsement as distinct concepts, there is also a bright line between the liberal and the conservative argument. Unfortunately, both sides of the argument all-too-often conflate tolerance with endorsement, and this is where the trouble begins. In considering this I would hope to show that, while our approaches to the liberal/conservative schism may differ, Professor Haidt and I both strive for the same destination - an improved dialogue between the ideological combatants. I say this with a nod to his principle, which I find unassailable, that "Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments."

    Always go to the gut-check.

    First, I'd like to indict conservative thought by observing that "in-group boundaries" and "authority structures" are all about what is "endorsed" by the tribe. "Tolerance" is invariably seen as some sort of slippery slope to the endorsement of who-knows-what kind of anti-social madness will invariably evolve from it. In that sense, conservative thought simply cannot countenance tolerance as separate from endorsement.

    With liberal thought, it gets a little more complicated (surprise.) While liberal thought can intellectually see the difference between tolerance and endorsement, all-too-often in practice they are conflated. They are conflated when the liberal becomes reactionary to the conservative complaint. What, you don't like gays? Well, let's turn up the volume and have a lusty and lascivious parade and engage in all sorts of PDAs to stick it in your intolerant face. Uncomfortable with unfettered free speech? Well, I'm gonna burn your favorite flag and show you. In this reactionary vein, liberals tread dangerously close to conflating tolerance with endorsement themselves, and play to the fears of conservatives, further inflaming the dialogue.

    This is a classic case of being correct without being right. One really should display compassion for the foibles of our fellows, not contempt. For there are good reasons why conservatives are the way they are, and fear and insecurity play a big part in it (when one has artificial constructs to protect - groups and authority - this is unavoidable.) Validating fear is very counterproductive in the task of awakening liberal insight, which requires comfort and in-the-skin security.

    The tolerance/endorsement conflation is seen in our drug policies. Too many people instinctively think that a favorable legal environment for marijuana use, for example, is tantamount to some kind of endorsement for marijuana use. This is natural for those who look to the tribe and its authorities for direction. A truly liberal thinker is baffled by this. I can in all good conscience, for example, council my children to remain substance-free for whatever reasons I might have, and at the same time not persecute the "demons" around me who "un-wisely" choose drug use. From a conservative view, however, if it is at all manifest, then it is an endorsement and a threat to my ability to guide my children, and therefore needs to be addressed... by the tribe and its authorities. Simple as that.

    I wish to thank the Professor for his shiny new intellectual object. It has been a delight. However, I find Professor Haidt's intellectual gymnastics to be, however well-intentioned, a bit too much of a reaching-out to the psychology of fear which is embodied in conservative thought. While an admirably liberal exercise, I, with not a little melancholy, here re-anchor the debate in reality.

    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    Progressive Patriots Fund

    Join Russ Feingold to help end the war
    Yea, I'm pissed about the latest war occupation funding bill, too - but help ol' Russ out.

    Regarding the bill, as I posted last month:
    ...I hope that thousands more will not die so that one party [*cough* Dems *cough*] can gain some electoral votes in 2008 by keeping their rivals branded as the "party of incompetence" by taking half-hearted measures which only pretend to end the occupation, thus keeping it fresh in the minds of voters, come ballot time.

    And this seems to be exactly what is happening. Despicable. Hillary, Obama - I cast my wary eye on you...

    Does This New GOP Strategy Have Legs?

    The best tool Republicans seem to have is to pick a Republican, preferably a beltway insider, and trash him (Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, via Cliff Schecter via Crooks and Liars):
    According to the Washington Post, McCain has missed 43 votes, nearly 50 percent of the current Congress' votes. In comparison, Hillary Clinton has missed less than 2 percent of votes and Barack Obama has missed 6.4 percent, according to the Post.

    "We need a senator," [State Rep. Russell] Pearce said. "I think if McCain wants to be a full-time candidate and not be at the Senate, he ought to consider resigning."

    Asked if he would prefer a Napolitano appointee over McCain, Pearce said: "Even poor representation is better than
    no representation."

    Dang, they're sounding like progressives now, with the temerity to criticize their own. Good to see that the goose-stepping has gone into disarray. Will they have enough self-awareness to realize that the Democrats' evident lack of "unity" serves a purpose in honest policy debate?

    No, I don't think so, either. The difference is that liberal "disunity" is in their DNA and will never go away - naval-gazing, while easily mocked rhetorically, is an essential part of thinking. Whereas this blip of self-awareness that the right is experiencing is merely expedient politics, emerging only when the party machine is on its heels. The minute they can back off from actually thinking about policy and all of that hard stuff, such self-reflection will vanish as quickly as Treasury money before Halliburton.

    Sunday, May 20, 2007

    Another American Hero

    I hope Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Diaz does his six months in the brig with pride. His conviction should be worn as a badge of honor. (h/t Nicole at Crooks and Liars.)

    He joins Stephen Heller and Thomas B. Reed in my little pantheon of courage.

    Fascist America?

    Fascism in America
    [Image courtesy of The Old Hippie's Groovy Blog]

    Naomi Wolf published an essay in the Guardian outlining what she sees are the "ten easy steps" towards fascism in America. I posted those steps here, but go read the original article.

    Her essay has understandably provoked some debate, and here is a great back-and-forth with Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, author of Does American Democracy Still Work? The first posted comment on round 2 of the debate from commenter KevinM:
    ...it's starting to seem that the US public is done rolling over for the thugs currently in charge of the country. Bush and Cheney's poll numbers suggest as much; I read somewhere that Cheney's popularity is something like 19%, below even that of Stalin, who's at something like 20%. So, by all means, let's keep this debate going, but let's not panic, at least not yet!

    I, too, feel a bit of sunshine and fresh breeze, so I would agree that full-blown panic time may have passed - but I say just barely. While Prof. Wolfe may be right that our democracy may have self-corrected already (may have), I do not hold that this was inevitably so, as he seems to:
    If our democracy is as broken as you suggest, and in particular if it is rigged against fair elections, how could we possibly get a new law through? On the other hand, if you believe that a new law can make the system fairer, shouldn't we conclude that it is not in such horrible shape to begin with?

    Naomi rightly responds with this:
    ...I am sorry to say that the presence of legislative activity is by no means necessarily a sign of the health of a democracy or the absence of a fascist trend. On the contrary: parliamentary processes were central to both Mussolini's and Hitler's accession to power. Both leaders, of course, came to power legally. These two fascists overtook modern democratic societies by making direct and explicit use of the law, and of parliamentary processes to pervert and eventually subvert the law.

    Remember, Weimar Germany had a Constitution. Its own politicians weakened its own Constitution, making it much easier for the Nazis to come to power.

    Once empowered, the Nazis actually made using legislation to crush the German people into an art form. The law was a prime mover that drove Nazi goals from a point at which there could have been a 'turning back' - if citizens had recognized the disaster as it unfolded and if parliament had refused to legislate away its own powers - to the point of no return. The Enabling Act was legislation passed by a working parliament in the wake of the Reichstag fire: it disemboweled civil liberties and thus made it far more difficult for civil society to rouse itself effectively as the danger escalated. Members of parliament passed that law with scarcely any debate, because they did not wish to seem unpatriotic.

    [snip]

    It does not progress like a diagonal line going straight across a chart; it progresses in a buildup of many acts assaulting democracy simultaneously that then form a critical mass, that suddenly erupts the nation into a different kind of reality; the nation `stablizes'; then this process begins again at that elevated level of suppression; and eventually there is no turning back. It is more like a series of `tipping point' progressions than an arithmetic one. If you mapped it on a chart it would look more like a series of steps.

    Her point, if I may be so bold as to distill it for her, is that a faux democracy is useful to fascism, a mollifying Kabuki dance to reassure the public and give them enough of a semblance of people's rule to go along. Within the framework of lawmaking, a lot of mischief can be done, as we are seeing today.

    What's interesting about the debate is that the two Wolves really aren't disagreeing all that much on substance. To me, that is a high signal that some of us tinfoil-hatters who've been sputtering about the fascist leanings of Corporate America have been absolutely right, and we have no reason to be invoking nonsense like "Godwin's law" and such. Naomi again:
    We all have to talk about what those tactics look like. As the (Jewish) writer Hannah Arendt explained in her book on totalitarianism, it's our task as civilised people who cherish the rule of law to ask of such times in history: "What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened?"

    I agree with Alan Wolfe in that I think the push-back has begun, but I'm not sure it was as much as a predictable response of our democracy as he seems to feel. One very strong reason the public has been alerted to the misdeeds of this administration is the administration's own breathtaking incompetence. While I feel that an entrenched, "successful" fascist takeover will always decay into incompetence (the cronyism and paranoia of such an arrangement guarantees it), these clowns began tumbling off the bus before even successfully following through on their putsch. Thank goodness, but that was their doing, not the American public's (or the media's). The administration is, ironically, the one leading their own bringdown - the press & the public are merely following. This is not something to be proud about as American citizens.

    In any case, I am glad to see that this is up for serious discussion - it is that very fact which makes me inclined to think that the second serious fascist putsch (the first here) in America is over, and it's now cleanup time.

    Boy, I hope I'm not wrong about that. I saw some ugly stuff coming down the pike...

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Dickwatch

    Yea, this'll work:
    The lawyers said any conversations Cheney and the officials had about Plame with one another or with reporters were part of their normal duties because they were discussing foreign policy and engaging in an appropriate "policy dispute." Cheney's attorney went further, arguing that Cheney is legally akin to the president because of his unique government role and has absolute immunity from any lawsuit.

    U.S. District Judge John D. Bates asked: "So you're arguing there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- these officials could have said to reporters that would have been beyond the scope of their employment," whether the statements were true or false?

    Yep, that's what they're arguing. Now I know we have been living a Kafkaesque nightmare of late, but I just don't see the judicial branch going for this crap anymore, especially on the heels of the naked attempts to politicize the Department of Justice. Law enforcement is stinging from the humiliation, and it's payback time. Big Dick is not a popular man, and there will be not a peep of protest from any corner if he is taken down.

    You listening, Legislative Branch? Don't you want summadat? Impeach the Dick.

    Tick, tick...

    Al Gore Throws Hat In

    OK, not really. But he has a new book out, boldly titled The Assault On Reason. From the editors at Amazon.com:
    A visionary analysis of how the politics of fear, secrecy, cronyism, and blind faith has combined with the degration of the public sphere to create an environment dangerously hostile to reason

    [snip]

    We live in an age when the thirty-second television spot is the most powerful force shaping the electorate's thinking, and America is in the hands of an administration less interested than any previous administration in sharing the truth with the citizenry...

    [snip]

    How did we get here? How much damage has been done to the functioning of our democracy and its role as steward of our security? Never has there been a worse time for us to lose the capacity to face the reality of our long-term challenges, from national security to the economy, from issues of health and social welfare to the environment. As
    The Assault on Reason shows us, we have precious little time to waste.

    Gore's larger goal in this book is to explain how the public sphere itself has evolved into a place hospitable to reason's enemies, to make us more aware of the forces at work on our own minds, and to lead us to an understanding of what we can do, individually and collectively, to restore the rule of reason and safeguard our future... Al Gore has written a farsighted and powerful manifesto for clear thinking.

    A "farsighted and powerful manifesto?" From Al Gore? Whodathunkit? Personally, I'd have gone for Reason in the Balance as a title, but he's the one making the big bucks.

    Seriously, though - Al's just come off of a giddy year, successfully educating a huge swath of the public on our eco-crisis, culminating in the film based on his lectures garnering an Acadamy Award. Now he's most certainly going on a book tour, where he gets to espouse on another key danger - misinformation to the public. A danger which is probably even a bigger legacy of this Corporate Presidency than even the evil Iraqupation (which arguably could not have happened without the boosterism of corporate media.)

    If Mr. Gore successfully cuts through the inevitable fog of smears (h/t Mike's Blog Roundup, once again) that will inevitably follow, and if the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination continue to insist on triangulating to the imaginary center, how attractive would a "leftie" Al Gore be for the ticket? Maybe pretty damned attractive, and Al's a smart cookie, as the anti-intellecual right constantly reminds us all.

    Yes, let's see how brightly Gore's star is shining after a summer of discussion over his book. Let's see Al throw his hat in somewhere between September-November.

    As of this writing, the newly-released book stands at #2990 in sales over at Amazon.com. Let's pump that number up.


    Update:It is now less than six hours after this post, and the book has shot to #18. It had to be this post that did it. It couldn't, after all, be Crooks and Liars, could it?

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Fairness Doctrine, Again

    I have no idea how many people bother reading this new blog of mine, but a post on the Fairness Doctrine actually generated some interest from some National Association of Broadcaster sympathizers. They raised the canard that they the Doctrine constituted "government regulation" over content, like that was a bad thing. "Government" regulation being, actually, "public" regulation over an asset owned by the public, as opposed to having the airwaves serve corporate profit and the interests therein. So we had a cordial back-and-forth over the matter, and he wisely went away.

    I bring this up only because there is an excellent post on the subject over at The Existentialist Cowboy, and I wanted to add my meager link to a subject which is near and dear to my heart.

    Liquidating Empire

    Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (the third installment of his Blowback Trilogy), takes the bold and sobering position that the United States is doomed to inevitable collapse if steps are not taken to liquidate the manifestations of her empire (via TomDispatch.com):
    I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic -- becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force.

    I have written about the problems of complex societies here and here, and it has been my position that civilization always precipitates collapse. This is, I believe, a fact not only borne out by historical observation, but also through the analysis of the intrinsic attributes of civilization. It is always pleasant to entertain the idea that there is indeed a way to avoid collapse, depressing as it is that the remedies, as Chalmers notes, appear to be too utopian as to be viable:
    Normally, a proposed list of reforms like this would simply be rejected as utopian. I understand this reaction. I do want to stress, however, that failure to undertake such reforms would mean condemning the United States to the fate that befell the Roman Republic and all other empires since then. That is why I gave my book Nemesis the subtitle "The Last Days of the American Republic."

    While Chalmers Johnson and I seem to be talking about two different things (Empire and complex societies, respectively), I would submit that the aspiration for Empire is an inevitable symptom of collapse, and that the only complex societies which are not aspiring to Empire are those who are too busy dealing with other, more powerful, societies around them. In essence, it is the presence of other "worse actors" which puts the inflammation of the disease of complexity into temporary remission.

    Johnson cites the "voluntary" dismantling of the British Empire as an example of avoiding the fate of Empire:
    ...It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire...

    I submit that it was not a voluntary undertaking at all, but merely the inevitable response to having a larger power emerge after the war. Empire is the spearhead of collapse, and whoever has the means and the delusionary will to take that spear up will find that other societies, after some contest of strength if necessary, will stand down and allow the "big dog" his run.

    (I was once in Bombay twenty years ago, in a posh hotel lobby, the sole American among about five crusty British pilots. Besides my apoplexy over their insisting upon referring to our servers as "coolies" - perhaps precisely just to tweak the Yankee - I was repeatedly verbally browbeaten over the fact that the "Americans" were the new world Empire. And they were not happy about the fact that we weren't exercising our "prerogatives," as such, with full muscularity. Heh. I'd love to ask them what they think of us now.)

    As meager the hope that Johnson's proposed remedies brings - or rather, the hope that they could actually be carried out, I have doubts of a higher order. (Go on, read it - selling back some 700 out of 737 military bases worldwide, eschewing Security Council exceptionalism in the U.N. - specifically veto power, defanging the National Security Act from most covert action and including the Senate for oversight for what is left, adopting cooperative rather than protectionist trade policies - I swear, if the U.S. did even one of those things I would be gobsmacked.) The reason is that I consider the pursuit of Empire a symptom of the disease of complex society, not a disease in and of itself. This is not to say that the treatment of the symptoms would not be palliative, but it will only put off the inevitable collapse.

    For it is Tainter's position, however tentative, that Man is not naturally pre-disposed to complex society. I share that view. Civilization is not alive - it is merely a vestment of existence, a manner of living. Man, who is actually alive, continues whether he is "civilized" or not. We in the West have so romanticized the "civilized" man as being of a higher order that we can barely shake the idea that it would be an utter disaster if our civilization collapsed like the "failures" of history.

    I applaud Chalmers Johnson's analysis of the hubris and appalling excesses of the United States government in its modern incarnation, and I would very much like a level of awareness to emerge that would avoid the horrid violence which accompanies the involuntary collapse of Empire. However, unless we begin to see the folly of centralization, specialization and other attributes of "civilized" complex societies, then we will not be able to avoid the anguish attendant the cognitive dissonance which will result from its collapse.

    Again, please review my other posts on complex societies here and here.

    Monday, May 14, 2007

    Ban Leaf Blowers



    It's not just the noise - although I had two right outside my open window this morning at 6:50 AM (the clip above was taken a little after 9:00 AM, since I stubbornly dozed through the noise anyway.) No, it's not just the noise, but that's a huge part of it, and certainly the part that has the most traction in the "Ban Leaf Blowers" movement. Since the leaf blowers themselves throatily declaim on this quite convincingly themselves, I can turn to other points.

    Air pollution. These things are nasty. About 15 minutes after the duet-of-the-blowers departed from outside my apartment, the intoxicating odor of internal combustion engines at work filled the room. Go electric, you say? That solves noise and pollution, right? I'll give you noise, but pollution? Not so much. One of the things that cracks me up about electric engines is that people assume that there are no consequences for generating electricity. Where do you think it comes from? Let's look at what the Energy Information Administration has to say (report released last week, data as of February 2007):

  • Coal: 50.2%

  • Nuclear: 20.6%

  • Natural gas: 17.4%

  • Hydropower: 6.7%

  • Other (Geothermal, Wind, Solar, Fuel Cells, but mostly Biomass): 3%

  • Oil: 2.2%

  • As you can see, the classically toxin-free options (hydropower and the "Others") only account for less than 10% of electricity generation in the US. Even if you count nuclear as one of the clean sources (and I don't - I consider the toxic waste a serious environmental threat which will only increase if/when we adopt more nuclear energy), fossil fuels still account for a whopping 70% of power generation. And since it takes power to transmit electricity to the consumer's destination, you just might, ironically, be producing less pollution by burning the gasoline on the spot.

    A word on the so-called "clean" energy sources. First of all, I don't consider biomass clean - it is still a carbon-based fuel. And its renewability is limited to the amount of energy the sun deigns to provide, and how much of that energy we wish to divert from normal ecological input, such as food production and normal weather patterns. How much impact would we have if we diverted enough solar, hydro, and geothermal energy to provide us with 100% of our current levels of usage? Remember, that energy is going somewhere now.

    Dust pollution. I live in Phoenix, and we have a dust problem, to put it mildly. We're just coming off of spring, and I am putting off cranking on the air conditioning for as long as possible. That means fans and open windows. I can personally attest to the amount of dust which is already in the air. Phoenix is less breezy than most other cities, which helps keep the dust down but, in turn, ever ready to be stirred. Enter leaf blower. On the way to herding stray leaves into a pile, much dust mayhem ensues.

    Labor multiplier. Many people would put this as a positive, but I'm not going to. If businesses and homeowners associations want to look all shiny and leaf-free, let them pay for the man-hours to properly rake them up. Subjecting one poor schmuck to the noise, dust and stink of the infernal machine is just a way to cut labor costs. I don't know how many more landscaping laborers would have employment if the machine was gone, nor how many places would elect to tolerate some stray leaves on their property rather than pay the price, and I'm not going to venture to do those calculations, but I don't think the Earth would stop turning on its axis.

    There are plenty of sites discussing banning leaf blowers (though mostly for noise reasons only.) Google™ around to see if anything's up in your community.


    At 6:50 this morning some dust was kicked up, and my dander as well.

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Björk Gets It - Volta



    I can't buy much music anymore due to financial hardship, but I cannot resist Björk. (Indeed, after a listen and a rip, I have offered it up for sale. Update: Damn, that was fast - sold before I finished this post.) I don't intend to turn this blog into a critic's column, but I have to give a shout-out to her fantastic record - especially the first two tracks. Sonically, it is beautiful, and a return to earlier form (I personally like all of her work, but I understand how her experimentalism sometimes exasperates fans.) Once again, however, it is her lyrics and how she shapes her emphatics and syllables that reveal the heart of her creative messages.

    Björk gets it, and she is very, very frustrated with the rest of us. Listening to her, one can almost feel her emerging from a primordial ooze, Mother Nature tut-tutting us with the voice of an angel - an angel who is very beautiful when she is angry:
    metallic carnage
    ferocity
    feel the speed!

    we are the earth intruders
    we are the earth intruders
    flock of parashooters
    necessary voodoo

    - from
    earth intruders

    And, from wanderlust:
    lust for comfort
    suffocates the soul
    this relentless restlessness
    liberates me
    i feel at home whenever
    the unknown surrounds me
    i receive its embrace
    aboard my floating house

    What she said. What a beautifully poetic way to express the necessary agony of the insecurity of life.

    The penultimate track, declare independence, reminds me of some of John Lennon's great avant-punk protest music. It is simple, and it is in your face. And, in another desperate attempt to lash the two artists together, I note that she ends the record with a melancholy paean to parenthood, my juvenile, something that Lennon did on side one of Double Fantasy.

    The woman is a deadly mix of creativity and awareness. Listen to her. She can make you understand.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    The Woes Of Complex Societies II

    In a previous post, I discussed some of the woes of complex societies, and in light of the current wheat/melamine scandals, it is time to discuss another glaring problem which I neglected in that post. It is food production, and there are some interesting facets to this issue. I will turn to the tainted wheat issue in a bit, but I want to explore this question in some depth first.

    When I use the phrase "food production," I am talking about the manufacturing of food. And I am talking about making food down to the family farm level, down to the "kitchen garden." As a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, we have to eat, right? Yes, of course we have to eat, but do we have to make food?

    Anyone taking seriously what I am implying here will understandably suffer a little cognitive dissonance, as the wholesome idea of growing food to eat is practically in our genes. What could possibly be seen to be wrong with the rituals of seasonal sowing, reaping, food storage and surplus, and, well, general prosperity and growth of our communities?

    Even the "radical" movements which advocate "eating local" are implicitly agreeing that if we decentralized our food supplies, we would still be engaged in food production. While we would be helping things immensely, I am questioning this. I think we are kidding ourselves if we think we can have a natural, organic and healthy relationship with the world while we are artificially boosting the food supply in ways that the animals cannot. Once we move away from the natural hunter/gatherer model and proceed into agriculture, we are making trouble.

    How? First of all, look at population. The current glut of human beings which are stressing the planet's ecosystem can fairly be blamed on our cavalier use of millions of years of stored, ancient sunlight. This will stop when the oil becomes too expensive to convert into food (if we don't choke the Earth to death first), but there will always be pressure to find other sources of stored sunlight to boost food supply. These include enriched topsoil, which is a byproduct of the decay of organic beings of all kinds, which are little "sun batteries" themselves. All human activities in this direction are, in fact, an assault on the natural order of things.

    But I do not want to focus on the insult to Mother Nature here, for that is too much for some people to wrap their minds around, and I have complete sympathy for that. We are so indoctrinated with the idea that the planet is here to serve Man's needs that suggestions otherwise tend to shut off the opportunity for meaningful discussion. Rather, let's focus on the consequences of having "too much" food.

    To put it simply, taking energy which is above and beyond what is naturally provided out of a particular region creates unnatural population growth. Unnatural population growth means that when an upper limit of energy extraction (food production) is reached, the population expands outwards into other regions to produce even more food. And the beat goes on. It goes on to the point where we have huge populations which cannot properly feed themselves and, rather than accept a natural limit on just how many people the Earth is naturally capable of feeding, we. Just. Take. More.

    This planet created us and fed us long before we learned how to "cheat" and extract extra energy (food) from her. We consider it an evolutionary advance that we have the cleverness to feed ourselves like this, but we are in complete denial about the negative consequences of this. It is considered a radical idea, indeed, to put forth the proposition that we are not supposed to work for food. Not supposed to make it, especially not supposed to convert it into non-foods, whether it be by trading a chicken for a rocking chair or, as done in today's absolutely amoral agribusiness, to make money from it.

    Food is free. It is provided. It is provided at just the level that our numbers are permitted. Natural food production, that not done by the hand of Man, is the natural governor on our population. Thwart that governor and, well, I think you take my point, whether or not you agree.

    I want to drive home the point that food is free. We are forced into treating it as a commodity for a number of intersecting reasons, the main one being the "ownership" of land. Nobody owns land - that is a fraud. All deeds are byproducts of past acts of violence and illicit stakes of claim, and we are all complicit in this criminal activity because we all trade on the "inviolability" of property rights. Thomas Jefferson even made this concept a linchpin of liberty, but it is not. Landed gentry cannot be expected to have a clear, disinterested eye on this question, after all.

    While Man was (un)organized in sometimes nomadic, purely hunting/gathering (HG) societies, he spent far less time "working" than he does today. Any farmer can tell you what kind of work is required to sustain a viable farm. What is seen as "work" by HGs, is ironically considered recreation in complex societies - hunting, fishing, gathering berries, etc. Why have we forced upon ourselves the toil of the plow and harvester when we stand in the midst of a natural garden of plenty - plentiful, of course only in relation to the properly governor-ed population and the free access to the lands. Why have we put up fences, and created gatekeepers to the plenty of the Earth?

    Why do you and I have to work to get money so that we can barter for what is already ours? Hell, we've so bought into this nefarious system that we are moving towards privatized water supplies and paying money for bottled water, for fuck's sake. Could we be any more self-destructive?

    Before going any further here, I want to stress that I am not lobbying for change here. That is a at best a pointless exercise, and at worst an incitement to violence, and I am interested in neither. What I am shooting for is worldview change, one person at a time. I don't care if it takes generations for us to wake up, wake up we will. The catastrophic consequences of our system are nigh, and those who survive it will do well to take some lessons from it, and it would be nice if they dropped the folly of food production.

    Anyway, natural human greed dictates that in a money-for-food system, food production becomes more and more centralized, and we have what we see today - massive, centralized food production and distribution. Which leads us to melamine.

    While the melamine scandal is clearly a product of big-business greed (in China this time), there is another aspect of centralized food production in a complex society: The numbers of people who are affected by single problem. While I have maligned food production as a whole, if we indeed "ate locally" (and that is a worthy thing to be shooting for), then a problem like the tainted wheat would not have such global consequences.

    What we are seeing with these food-supply problems (e.g., mad cow disease, etc.) is another signal of the collapse of our complex society.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2007

    Accountability And The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy



    Man, I loves me some FireDogLake.com. Three posts over the last week are proving that the firepups are committed to hold the Democrats' feet to the fire. I'd like to start with Jane's post on Sean Hannity's paranoid meltdown, in which he gets personal and accuses Jane by name as being part of an evil plot to radicalize the Democratic party (video above or at the post.) First of all, she starts with one of my favorite quotes (which I used to have over my desk when I had a job, which did little to endear me to my masters):
    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." — Gandhi

    Go read Jane's post, in which she engages in righteous Shadenfreude.
    I can't remember a more rewarding moment then opening up the above clip to find Sean Hannity spending ten minutes on his television show attacking me, the Democrats and MoveOn. The fantasy he embroiders whereby the Democratic Party is being overrun by an elaborate left-wing conspiracy funded by George Soros is a bit of a hoot, but he does get one thing right when he quotes Eli Pariser - "It's our Party. We bought it, we own it and we're going to take it back." And I like to believe that thought is what's keeping Sean regular today.

    Personally, watching the clip, I think Hannity's nailed it. It's not our fault that the truth frightens him into tinfoil hat shrillness.

    Then, about a week later, she posts again about lefties banging on the Democratic representatives to keep them honest.
    Antiwar Groups Use New Clout to Influence Democrats on Iraq

    WASHINGTON, May 4 — Every morning, representatives from a cluster of antiwar groups gather for a conference call with Democratic leadership staff members in the House and the Senate.

    Shortly after, in a cramped meeting room here, they convene for a call with organizers across the country. They hash out plans for rallies. They sketch out talking points for “rapid response” news conferences. They discuss polls they have conducted in several dozen crucial Congressional districts and states across the country.

    Over the last four months, the Iraq deliberations in Congress have lurched from a purely symbolic resolution rebuking the president’s strategy to timetables for the withdrawal of American troops. Behind the scenes, an elaborate political operation, organized by a coalition of antiwar groups and fine-tuned to wrestle members of Congress into place one by one, has helped nudge the debate forward.

    Ouch - eh, Hannity?

    And finally, Howie Klein has made the command decision to out the first non-performing Blue America candidate today:

    We don't expect the men and women we support to necessarily support the same position we do on every single vote. But even in the short time Chris Carney has been in Congress, he has moved further and further away from all the other Blue America endorsees who won seats.

    In terms of supporting progressive issues in general, he has established himself at the bottom of the barrel among the freshmen, along with candidates we chose not to endorse, like Jason Altmire (PA), Rahm Emanuel's Heath Shuler (NC), Nick Lampson (TX) and Brad Ellsworth (IN). Some of us were disappointed but none of the writers at DownWithTyranny, Firedoglake or Crooks & Liars chose to castigate Carney. And then something happened that has made us decide to speak up. We realized Chris Carney lied to us.

    This is great stuff. Finally, real pressure from the people who supported the candidates with money and time and votes, rather than having them in their sealed deal-making bubble. I hope this keeps up.

    Sunday, May 6, 2007

    The Future?


    The Unapologetic Mexican:
    What happens if we begin showing up at peaceful assemblies with padding under our clothes? Or football facemasks? Will they then outlaw football facemasks? Or would they then fire real bullets? I think you know my guess.

    And how did this happen again? because of what, again? What caused platoons of police in riot gear to begin making war on people in public American streets and parks?

    The Brown™ dared take the Constitution literally, as if it applied to us. The average person dared think they were safe from American police tyranny in 2007 in a public place exercising Constitutional rights. That was the first mistake.

    What made the cops think they could get away with it? Because they know the American Media very well. And they remember all the times they get away with police brutality.

    They are concerned with this, these days. Because they have big plans, you know. And they don't know at what point it will be, but they know at some point, instinct will kick in and Americans will resist.

    Add up the recent years, the unreported Halliburton prisons, the way they habituate the public to mass arrests and detentions, the police actions like this and the RNC mass arrests, the troops on the ground in Katrina, the loss of the Posse Comatitus protection, the Decider making clear his philosophy and hunger. Keep telling yourself they are isolated incidents. Keep thinking small. You may, one day, need to economize your range of motion.

    I have nothing to add.

    Dickwatch

    A link.

    Update: Crooks and Liars' May Book Of The Month: VICE: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency [emphesis, etc. mine]:
    "Dick Cheney exercises all the power of the Presidency. That has never happened. Ever." Says former U.S. assistant attorney general Bruce Fein.

    This book, "Vice," explains how he did it and why nobody has stopped him.

    Two hard nosed veteran reporters, Lou Dubose (“Shrub,” “Bushwacked,” “The Hammer”) and Jake Bernstein have brought us the book that is a must read for anyone who wants to know why
    Cheney is being impeached [delish!] (and also why it should have happened sooner). It’s timing couldn’t be better. Read this book before it’s too late!

    [snip]

    What... we see repeated just recently in the Valerie Plame case is that power trumps ideology. This fact is the hardest for some to wrap their minds around. The secret war waged by the Reagan administration was a battle of wills with Congress and the Democrats. When caught violating the law, the administration simply turned around and raised money for their illegal war by selling arms to another enemy of the United States - the Iranians.

    The end justified the means.

    Power trumped ideology.

    That’s also why the Plame affair was so baffling. To get even with former Ambassador Joe Wilson for having the courage to speak truth to power and to cover his own tracks, Cheney went as far as committing treason and outed Wilson’s wife as a covert CIA operative (If his wife wasn’t a CIA operative and could have been smeared for having an affair with a neighbor that probably would have sufficed). The fact that she was actually involved in nuclear proliferation prevention was meaningless to Cheney because in the end, power trumps ideology.

    This may be hard to comprehend as Cheney and his gang are perceived to be right wing ideologues and the Bush crowd is perceived to be hard right Christian ideologues. Both perceptions are wrong. And that might be why many Reaganites, true conservatives and indeed true Christians have been left scratching their collective heads.

    It seems that these phony adopted belief systems have revealed themselves to be mere smokescreens for their true goals – power for the sake of power.

    Go on over and read Mark Groubert's remarkably frank post. That book must be quite a read.

    Saturday, May 5, 2007

    Kucinich

    I had sent an email to Dennis' campaign, supporting is efforts to impeach the Dick, and they were kind enough to reply. I quote the email here, especially to publish the links they provided.
    Hello Mike,

    Thank you so very much for your help and support.

    Impeachment is a very serious process not to be taken lightly. Congressman Kucinich has approached this issue with serious concern and deep respect for all people. He has taken the first step by introducing Articles of Impeachment against Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Now the members of congress must read the Articles (H. Res. 333) and decide if they will support this effort.

    We at the Kucinich for President 2008 Campaign would like to thank you for your support throughout the first part of this process. Congressman Kucinich asked for your views and you generously responded.

    Please continue to help our campaign for peace and progressive issues. Spread the word about Congressman Kucinich in your own communities. Word-of-mouth continues
    to be the most effective form of advertising.

    Please encourage others to participate in our website:

    Website Registration
    Campaign Issues
    Downloads
    Kucinich Video
    Events Calendar
    Volunteer Sign Up
    Volunteers' Map
    Discussion Forum
    Campaign Store
    Contribute

    In hope and peace,

    Gail Heyn
    Volunteer
    Kucinich for President 2008

    As I've said before, I find Dennis Kucinich's worldview the healthiest of the lot, and also that there is no liability in supporting a long shot like Dennis during the primaries. Even if the corporate media makes it impossible for him to gain traction in the general public's mind (and they will), an outpouring of support could inspire the other candidates to more courageous platforms.

    "Iraq For Sale" Producer Before Congress

    I got this message in my inbox today:
    Dear Iraq for Sale contributors,

    I got the message on voice mail and played it back twice -- I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. It was an invitation to come to D.C. and testify about outsourcing to the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee this coming Thursday, May 10th. Amazing! How far IRAQ FOR SALE has come!

    To all of you who contributed to make this possible, I want to share our pleasure and excitement at Brave New Films at this chance to reach further into the ranks of the elected officials and public. Who would have thought just one year ago when we sent the letter, not sure if the film would or could happen...and now... Congress here we come!

    I will have the chance to distribute 5 minutes of the film to all the committee members. Please help me figure out which clips to use, and if you have any other ideas or suggestions for my testimony, send them... quick!

    I wish each and everyone of you could come with me, but we will post reports on my blog.

    Robert Greenwald

    This is awesome, and it's personal for me because I jumped in early on the "Iraq For Sale" project. Congratulations to Robert and the whole Brave New Films gang. Thanks for helping me feel like I make a difference.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007

    Krishnamurti


    Beaucoup clips of the late philosopher over at YouTube.com. Just type "Krishnamurti" in the search. Do yourself a favor and go spend some quality time with him...