Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
In response to a Facebook post wondering at the uncritical commitment to Israel insisted upon by the American far-right, and their insistence that any wavering from that commitment is “anti-Semitic,” I wrote the following essay:
Being critical of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitic,” just as being critical of America is not necessarily “anti-American” (and, for that matter, being critical of any given religious order, movement, or individual, isn’t necessarily an affront to “God”). Israel and America are both nations, more like than unlike others despite the mythologies surrounding them.
Israel and America have had an important strategic relationship, confused and exaggerated by two religious communities that have become overzealously committed to America’s unflagging and unquestioning support of Israel, even to the point of to some extent ceding our own sovereignty to Israel. Those two groups are, of course, the American Jewish community, which has always been overwhelmingly blindly and fanatically pro-Israel (though not without many exceptions, Jews who are first and foremost humanists and are first and foremost concerned with our shared humanity), and, now, conservative evangelicals, who have their own religious reasons for feeling a zealous commitment to Israel (having something to do with their interpretation of the requirements for the Rapture, as I understand it, rather than any sincere love of Israelis) combined with their own ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist leanings.
Israel’s history and pre-history are also both critical threads in a complete understanding of the geopolitical landscape into which it has woven itself, and the moral implications of that choice. The one thing that isn’t relevant to anyone but Israelis themselves is their ancient, religious-based claim to the land: Every parcel of land on the face of the Earth has changed hands –far more often by violently imposed than by peacefully mutual means– many, many times over the ages, and the current legitimate claims of one racial/ethnic/religious group that had been in continuous possession of that parcel for about a thousand years prior to the Israeli colonization and usurpation of that parcel had, up until that point, the far superior claim to legitimate rights over that parcel.
So, one thread in the tapestry to understand is the very legitimate grievance of the Palestinians, whose currently and extant ancestral land was colonized by a group of Europeans who decided to call it their own and create a state explicitly dedicated to their own culture and religion on it, instantly reducing the pre-existing inhabitants to the status of second-class citizens. Another thread of the tapestry is the recognition of the strong and compelling push factors that induced that European population to do so, though the legitimacy of those push factors (i.e., a history of violent oppression, culminating in the Holocaust), as horrific and empathy-inducing as they may be, can’t justify colonizing and oppressing another, unrelated, foreign people. (That injustice experienced by the Palestinians, however, does not justify and excuse their own atrocities committed since the establishment of the state of Israel, a lesson to those who forget their humanity in the midst of their commitment to other abstractions.)
But another fact of our geopolitical history is that it is a story of borders drawn and redrawn, populations placed and displaced, by endless series of combinations of militant initiative and gross injustices, so that once some new formation becomes a fait accompli, the injustice of its formation becomes less relevant than the reality of its existence. No modern nation on Earth can claim not to trace its roots to the military conquest of other peoples and the drawing of lines in the sand based on that conquest (if there are a few tribes scattered about the world, who still have some identity of themselves as a nation, who never occupied land they took from others, they are an exception to the rule defined more by the circumstances they encountered than by some idealized superior moral quality of their own). For that reason, Israel’s right to exist should not be brought into question; the Israelis aren’t going anywhere, and any agenda that insists they do at this point can only become a source of gross inhumanity.
Finally, there is the issue of the Israeli-American relationship and their combined and separate relationships with the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. America quickly recognized Israel’s right to exist, in part to avoid having to absorb millions of European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, in part due to the presence of large numbers of Jews in America who strongly favored supporting Israel, in part due to a sense of the inhumanity that had been inflicted on the Jews in the chapter of world history just preceding the establishment of the state of Israel and some generalized debt of humanity to them that that chapter incurred, and, undoubtedly, in part due to recognition of the strategic value of such an alliance. And America quickly formed a strategic partnership with Israel, becoming Israel’s staunchest and invaluable military and economic supporter in return for having a country-sized base of operations and proxy agent in a region of the Earth very much at the vortex of historical geopolitical struggle and conveniently located near the Eastern Communist Block.
This meant that the hatred of the Arab world toward Israel for colonizing and usurping what had been an Arab country became generalized to the United States as well, and, in some ways, raised to a higher pitch against the United States, whose superior wealth and power and secularity all piqued the jealousies and religious animosities of many in that region of the world. America, the rich, secular, militant supporter of the small power that had ensconced itself on previously Arab land, easily became “The Great Satan” in the popular Arab mind (and, yes, the animosity toward America in the Arab world, while far from universal, is very wide-spread).
Our unfailing support of Israel’s own sometimes overly aggressive reactions to their own perceived insecurity has not helped this modern historical animosity between America and the Arab world. All of this combined with our support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, in order to use them as proxies to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and our choice to leave abruptly once that was accomplished, leaving a tribally-contested power vacuum and a whole lot of very deadly state-of-the-art military hardware and weaponry. As a result of that latter choice, a very bloody civil war ensued in Afghanistan, for whose intensity we were in part correctly blamed, resulting in the establishment of the Taliban, who hated us for all of these reasons involving our relationship with Israel; our secularism, wealth and power; and the deadly and bloody ruin we had set their country up for.
So our support of Israel has come at a high price, a high price that we should have been glad to pay if that relationship really were as morally perfect as some pretend it is. In reality, we incurred the enmity of the Arab world in part by taking a very strong side in a complex regional relationship that required more of an honest broker from what is in fact the global hegemon (The U.S.). (The extent that we failed to be an honest broker can also be exaggerated; our shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has often played a very valuable role in resolving conflicts there, and forging new alliance where enmity had existed, such as between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) This is a difficult error to correct at this point, but one which we should strive to correct by taking a harder line with Israel, not rescinding our alliance, but insisting on more restraint, accountability, and accommodation from those often wayward allies of ours.
(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.
Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).
This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.
“The War of the Woods”:
Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.
There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.
But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.
Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres
Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres
Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”
However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.
So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.
Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.
In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation
Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.
With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.
So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?
If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.
Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres
If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.
Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.
The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.
Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”
But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.
But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”
This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.
Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.
Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.
The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.
But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.
(The following is a response to a letter in the December 31, 2011 Denver Post regarding the error of making comparisons to Nazism: http://blogs.denverpost.com/eletters/2011/12/30/those-making-nazi-references-should-check-history/16103/)
1) The aspect of Nazism most reviled, and the reason why it is held in boundless contempt, is the Holocaust, which was an exercise of ultra-nationalist violence against a perceived “foreigner within” (accompanied by a similar ulta-nationalist violence against perceived inferior peoples without, in the name of “Lebensraum”). It is the expression of, and political implementation of, an extreme in-group/out-group bias that is the defining characteristic of the horror that was Nazism. (This in-group/out-group bias was not just directed against Jews, but also Gypsies, Slavs, Serbs, Homosexuals, the poor, trade unionists, and Communists and Leftists, explicitly and repeatedly, which should settle the non-issue of where on the ideological spectrum Nazism fell.)
2) The aspect of Nazism that falls on a spectrum with a mixed historical record is that of “corporatism,” not in the modern sense of power concentrated in large private corporations, but in the sense of the nation as corporation. Japan had enormous post-WWII aggregate economic success with this model, and the social democracies of Northwestern Europe have had enormous human welfare success with a more moderate version of it. Conversely, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other failed Totalitarian experiments point to the ways in which it can be a horrible and tragic failure. The challenge is not to paint with overly-broad brush strokes when discussing these lessons of history, but rather to look at details and nuances, and to use our disciplines for studying and understanding the systems involved to inform our analyses and comparisons.
3) When making comparisons with Nazism (generally, really, with the Holocaust), it is certainly important to emphasize the scope and relevance of the comparison being made. Nothing in America, at least since the genocide of the indigenous population, compares in degree, and any comparison should emphasize that fact. But if there are legitimate specific similarities to be pointed out, making the comparisons not with a broad brushstroke but rather with a finely focused analysis, and making it not merely to wield a crude rhetorical weapon, but rather to suggest that there are legitimate areas of concern that should be setting off the alarms that the lessons of history offer, then comparison is not only appropriate, but really quite essential.
4) Mike Godwin himself, the author of “Godwin’s Law,” which predicts that the longer a political debate continues, the more certain it is that a comparison to Nazism will be made, emphasized that his point was not that no such comparisons are ever legitimate or useful, but rather that their overuse blunts their effectiveness when truly appropriate by desensitizing people to the possibility of valid comparisons.
5) Nazism is not unique in the history of the world, but is rather our archetypal example of something that happens in varying degrees and forms repeatedly (and not infrequently) around the world and throughout history. To pretend that this powerful lesson of history about one constant threat-from-within to any society, and to humanity, must be deemed forever irrelevant and off-limits, would be a victory for ignorance and a blow against the growth of human consciousness in service to human liberty and welfare.
6) There are indeed some very potent political ideological trends in America today that bear comparison to Nazism, not in degree (not even close), but in kind. Nazism did not emerge onto the world stage as an agent of genocide, but rather as a more modest expression of xenophobic and bigoted reactions to events which undermined national pride and economic security (the loss in WWI and subsequent economic collapse in pre-WWII Germany paralleled by 9/11 and the Great Recession in America today), and gradually, imperceptibly to many, grew into the horror that we now know it to have been.
We must not blind ourselves to its lessons by refusing to heed them unless and until millions are brutally killed; we must instead be mindful of the real lesson of Nazism: That humanity must come before nationalism, that “foreigners” both within and without must not be reviled for being “foreigners,” and that our best hope for the future is to become less chauvinistic, less bigoted, less xeno-homo-islamo-hispano-phobic, more inclusive and accommodating, more committed to reason and universal goodwill, more aware that the welfare of America and Americans is inextricably linked to the welfare of all people and of the planet itself, and, in short, more sane, more conscious, more compassionate, and more rational.
7) I’ve written some essays drawing these comparisons: Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding and “Sharianity”, to name a couple. It’s up to those among my neighbors and fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) lost to these bigotries and hatreds whether they want to continue down that horrible road, or whether they want to choose to be, instead, the kind of people that never have cause to be reviled around the world and in historical hindsight for any lack of enlightenment or humanity.
I’ve decided to coin a new term, “sharianity,” which is defined as the state of mind implicated in the citing of examples of sharia law being enforced somewhere in the world (or imagined instances of it being enforced somewhere in the United States) to stoke up anti-Muslim hysteria here at home (by arguing, arbitrarily, that sharia law is taking over America, and that, therefore, we must discriminate against all Muslims living in the United States). In two threads (so far) on Facebook, I have taken on this particular hysteria, part of the larger anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping across some factions of this country.
It’s important to emphasize that opposing the exploitation of horrendous acts of violence abroad under the guise of sharia law as a pretext for advocating prejudice and discrimination here at home is in no way a defense of or tolerance of or acceptance of those acts of violence. Just as the opposition to rationalizing any other form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of a given race as a pretext for that racism is not an expression of approval for the crimes committed, so too opposing rationalizing this form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of the given race (or, in this case, religious community) does not in any way imply approval of the crimes committed.
While it may be true that a significant portion of world Muslims support aspects of Sharia law repugnant to Americans, it’s also true that those who exploit that fact most vigorously to condemn all Muslims en masse are precisely those Americans who are most similar to those who endorse and enforce sharia (close-minded, bigoted religious fanatics). Jihad, meet Crusades, brought into the Modern era by remarkably similar throw-backs of two different stripes….
One commenter captured the cornerstone of that fanaticism with the assertion that, since both Islam and Christianity can’t both be right at the same time, to be tolerant of Islam is not enlightened but rather confused. I’ve addressed this error of false absolutism many times (see the essays linked to in the fifth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, plus A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and An Argument for Reason and Humility). To summarize:
1) The world is comprised of groups of people, each defined to a large extent by some set of shared beliefs. Many or most of these hold beliefs that are considered “exclusive absolute truths.” In other words, they hold some ideological conviction (often, though not always, in the form of a religion) that they consider the absolute and indisputable truth, such that they know that their dogmatic certainty is the one correct one, and all others are wrong.
2) Of those that share this characteristic, at most one can be correct (though not necessarily any are).
3) By adhering to these exclusive ideological certainties, all such ideologues guarantee a perpetuation of a world divided by such mutually exclusive ideological absolutisms, often violently so, and, as we see in this case, even when not violently so, at least hatefully so.
4) Exercising the wisdom of humility, knowing that none of us are in possession of the one, final, absolute truth, but rather are mere human beings striving to understand a complex and subtle world and universe, is not the error of “relativism,” as such adherents insist, but rather the recognition that, while there is a single, coherent objective reality, our ability to ascertain it in its entirety is so limited that our various attempts yield these mutually exclusive absolutists ideologies instead.
5) This habit of thought is also the basis of the most robust system of gaining deeper and broader understandings of nature ever yet invented: Scientific methodology, which is based on skepticism rather than faith.
6) Faith may be a virtue, when it is pure enough not to conflict with humility, and takes the form not of words and beliefs, but rather of a sensation of being part of a wondrous and awe-inspiring reality. In this form, our religions become wonderful windows onto something that transcends them, and become languages that cease to divide us in violent and hateful ways.
Several commenters on both threads insisted that “they” (i.e., Muslims) have brought this on “themselves” by committing acts of terrorism and violence. This is, not surprisingly, a very popular meme. It’s also a very irrational one. I don’t recall a sudden outcry that white Americans had brought such prejudice on themselves when Timothy McVeigh, acting in the context of a large organized anti-government movement (that is even larger and more vocal today, and has even more paramilitary groups running around in grease paint firing semi-automatic weapons), bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing hundreds, many of which were children in the daycare center in the building). We use that concept of “they” very selectively, to vilify those out-groups we are predisposed to vilify, but to individualize acts of violence committed by members of groups (generally in-groups) we are not predisposed to vilify.
One commenter asked ”Where is your compassion for the young lady (who, according to the story, was executed under sharia law for participating in a beauty pageant) ??????” Again, condemning the hateful bigotry rationalized by means of exploiting that tragic event does not equate to indifference to the tragedy of the event itself. Americans commit crimes all the time, and their victims deserve nothing but compassion, but I doubt that many Americans would find that a convincing argument why generalized hatred toward Americans overseas, rationalized as a reaction to the crimes some Americans commit here (or there), can’t be criticized.
Or perhaps a better analogy is that America is one of the last developed countries to retain the death penalty, considered utterly barbaric by the citizens of most developed countries, and yet these same folks who are indignant over the lack of compassion shown by my criticism of their bigotry would be the quickest to take offense at any similar bigotry directed toward Americans in general by virtue of our continued execution of occasionally innocent convicts.
The trick of finding an atrocity committed by the group toward which you are eager to direct your bigotry is an old one. It was used frequently by people very much like the “sharianists” (those who invoke sharia as a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry) to rationalize their own racism in the past, just as it is being used now to rationalize the popular prejudice of the present. If there had been an internet fifty or sixty years ago, Southern racists would have posted news stories of African Americans committing crimes, using those stories to condemn African Americans in general, just as some are now doing to Muslims.
The problem, of course, is that bigots are always perfectly insulated against any information that might expose to themselves the ignorance and hatefulness of their own bigotry. That’s the beauty of ignorance: Those who suffer it are able by virtue of it to ignore all information and reason that might inconveniently challenge their bigotry. And so the disease of racism, of bigotry, of hatred, “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” (as the very prescient and insightful author Sinclair Lewis said of how Fascism would come to America), marches on, unstoppable. And these new bigots are its foot soldiers.
The concept of “tolerance” popped up, of course, both rejecting and co-opting it at the same time (“those animals don’t deserve to be tolerated, but, if you’re so committed to tolerance, what about tolerating us bigots?”) But tolerance does not mean tolerating specific crimes by specific people; it means tolerating diversity that is not violent or predatory in nature. Being Muslim is not violent or predatory in nature; hating Muslims is.
But there is a degree of tolerance required, even of those who express such bigotries. I believe in the degree of tolerance that recognizes their speech to be protected, and to be opposed not with physical force, or any suggestion of any call to physical force, or any suggestion of any call to the passage of laws prohibiting such positions, but rather just with reason and knowledge and the power of competing speech. But it should not be tolerated in the sense of being disregarded and left unopposed by better reasoned, better informed, and more life affirming ideas and arguments.
Several commenters typically, tried to “rubber-and-glue” me in various ways, suggesting, for instance, that by criticizing them I was committing the same error they were supposedly committing by criticizing Muslims (unsurprisingly unable to distinguish between criticizing specific people for their own specific behaviors and criticizing whole categories of people for behaviors committed by some members of those categories). Two on two different threads bizarrely invoked the “glass house” proverb, suggesting that it was wrong of me to “throw stones” at them for the sin of throwing stones at Muslims in general.
One commenter implied that I must be an anti-Christian “bigot” since I was criticizing these good Christians for hating Muslims, to which I replied that no, I didn’t hold Christians in general responsibility for the viciousness of some. I also referred them to my arguments in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, in which I argued vehemently against such anti-Christian or anti-religion presumptions.
I pointed out to another the questionability of insisting that “Christianity” stands in opposition to “liberalism.” Many great liberals have been Christians. Many liberal civil rights leaders have been men of the cloth, and a whole movement called “liberation theology” was prominent for decades, particularly in Latin America. I pointed out that one of the great ironies cited by many on the left is that the words attributed to Jesus sound much more like words that could be spoken by American liberals today than by American conservatives, with a focus on social justice and compassion and “tolerance” and a commitment to humanity. I pointed out that the commenter did not represent Christianity in its entirety, any more than those murderers in the article represent Islam in its entirety.
Several commenters tried to justify their reporting of the incident as unassailable in and of itself, though it was clear that the purpose was to advocate for discrimination against Muslims here in America. I pointed out that of all the destructive ideologies that exist in the world, when a group of people repeatedly seek out and publish examples of one in particular, plucked from the far side of the planet, to make a specific point about a specific culture that, coincidentally, they have been striving to vilify in general, here at home, for the past decade, that is no longer simply the condemnation of a particular set of violent acts motivated by a particular belligerent ideology. It becomes clearly identifiable as a pretext for an antagonism focused on a particular race or ethnicity.
Present in all of this was another example of one of the great ironies of modern American right-wing ideology: While its adherents claim, on the one hand, to believe in individual responsibility, they also think in very collectivist terms. The incident they cite is not about individuals committing an act of violence, but rather a cause to indict an entire culture, not all of the members of which subscribe to sharia law (and of those that do, not necessarily this more repugnant variety of sharia law).
There are some other great ironies embedded in this ideology. The habitual dismissive disregard for the Constitution espoused by the ideological camp that claims most loudly to be the great champion of the Constitution, for instance, is discussed below.
But a less well-known right-wing hypocricy is the convenient blend of relativism and absolutism. A subjective relativism is invoked to insulate arbitrary opinions, such that no opinion can ever be deemed better informed or reasoned than any other. This is combined with a conveniently invoked absolutism that declares that the set of arbitrary opinions, each of which can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, comprise together the One Exclusive Truth by virtue of the fact that anything else would imply the error of relativistic thinking!
So, it is possible to condemn Muslims for being Muslims and insist that they must be excluded from American society as violators of absolute truth, and condemn those who say that this is bigoted for failing to accept just one more equally valid opinion! Reminiscent of John Calhoun insisting that the liberty of slave owners was threatened by emancipation of slaves (and that the rights of minorities had to be protected by ensuring that the rights of African Americans weren’t), these specimens insist that their right to be different by advocating for the discrimination of others is the one difference that should be respected!
This deftly convenient blend of relativism and absolutism came up repeatedly in the assertion that the commenter’s personal experience and personal perceptions were inviolate, and that therefore any suggestion that any of it might be empirically false or irrational or offensive was just someone else’s opinion, and therefore inadmissible as a response to the commenter’s condemnation of others for their (the others’) beliefs or identity.
There is clearly a convenient inconsistency, as well, in the way in which the selection of what to be indignant about and what not to be indignant about occurs, serving a blind ideology rather than a rational and humane philosophy. There’s no indignation over one of the richest nations on Earth being obstructed (by them) in its efforts to address poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other forms of needless and curable destitution within its own borders, a travesty that is actually within their political power to confront, but there is boundless indignation over the sins of a distant culture operating in a distant land, because that travesty is committed by a foreign enemy that they are eager to vilify.
We are talking about a political and cultural movement in America which blends the worst of all ideological worlds, mixing a form of individualism only invoked as a justification for belligerence and indifference to the neediest in our own society with a form of collectivism only invoked as a justification for belligerence toward all those outside our own society. It is a particular blend of individualism and collectivism selected not to serve humanity, but rather to attack humanity, to hate rather than to help. (See The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.)
Here is one telling comment, that was applauded by others on the thread:
Americans were traumatized by 9/11. And, because of that they will be develop a certain dislike or mistrust of the culture that perpetrated it. That’s understandable. The fact that moderate muslims do not denounce the radical muslims looks like tacit approval of 9/11. The fact that when muslims emigrate to the US and other countries, they remain insular also doesn’t help. Western culture is so different to theirs makes it difficult for them to do so. Having American citizens of muslim descent become terrorists doesn’t help. So I suspect those are probably reasons why we are seeing the intolerance.
While my experience is anecdotal, female friends of mine have had problems with muslim men at work. The men feel strongly that they should not have to work with women and that women should not work at all. Well, this is America and women work outside the home. Furthermore, A muslim man just about knocked me to the curb when I was in London in May. I was in his way. I guess as an infidel and a woman, he felt he could do that. I made it clear that it would be assault if he even touched me. There were muslim-only cafes in London and women were not permitted in some. Wonder if this is what we will see in America if we’re not vigilant? Will we tolerate that sort of discrimination? I never thought I’d see it in London. Should we tolerate that here?
I’m also concerned at the apparent acceptance of sharia law and the apparent small inroads it’s making in the US. IMHO, islam needs a reformation–it’s like it’s operating in a bygone era. Educating the people would help. Once they’re educated, they’re not as dependant on one person’s interpretation of the koran as we see now in some muslim countries.
I’m glad I’m of a certain age. Our children and grandchildren will have quite the challenge on their hands.
Another commenter responded to this by asserting that she is not a bigot for agreeing with it, but rather ”a realist” who “see(s) Islam for what it is.” Ironically, both emphasized that Islam is stuck is Middle Ages, apparently not having a mirror handy to notice the Inquisition and Crusades standing at each of their shoulders.
I responded to the latter’s assertion that these were ”very good examples” by pointing out that they are very good examples of how to rationalize xenophobia, by combining false (and empirically refutable) assumptions with an assumption of being completely justified in an anti-Muslim agenda. I pointed out that a huge number of moderate Muslims have denounced the 9/11 attacks; that their denouncements have been all over the media for the past decade (and I provided some links to inventories of such denouncements by Muslims), and that her twice repeated insistence that no such denouncements occurred was an example of “confirmation bias,” by which one perceives what is most ideologically convenient for them to perceive.
This all, of course, boils down to defining the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and then conveniently looking for all of the reasons to condemn all of those who belong to the out-groups, while blithely disregarding all of the often very similar (and sometimes more egregious) transgressions being committed by those who belong to the in-group. (See Inclusivity & Exclusivity.)
The main argument is that, since there are threats confronting America, any degree of xenophobia is justified. There are real threats and challenges in the world that impact the United States, both within and without its borders. But, while we have laws governing people’s actions within our borders, their freedom of belief, speech, association, and religion are all constitutionally protected. (There are fairly well-defined exceptions to freedom of speech of course: You can’t incite violence, commit slander, etc. Also, freedom of religion stops when a practice claimed to be a religious one violates a law whose purpose is other than to infringe on the religious belief itself.) If someone violates our laws, we prosecute them for doing so. If they don’t violate our laws, then there is no issue.
What we don’t do, what we have learned is the wrong thing to do, is to identify people according to their religion, ethnicity, race, or political ideology, and in some way or another, target them for those things in and of themselves. Being Muslim in America isn’t a crime, must not be perceived to be a crime, and those who treat it as a crime are the ones in error. Gross, horrible, shameful error.
The commenters were adamant that we are not doing enough to nip this threat in the bud, to confront and obstruct the intrusion of Muslim culture into our society. But we have a little thing called the US Constitution, which guarantees all Americans, and all legal residents, freedom of belief, of religion, of assembly, as long as they do not break any Constitutionally permissible laws in the process.
Ironically, once again, the same ideological camp that crows about being the true defenders of the Constitution turns out to be the principal threat to the Constitution, trying to whip up a predisposition to target a particular religious community living within the United States that, to the extent that it is translated into the kinds of policies consistent with that predisposition, would be a frontal assault on both our Constitution and our decency as human beings.
Among the comments were comments about how all of this bigotry is justified by the clash of cultures, somehow exhibiting a complete historical amnesia concerning how discredited that justification is. One of those commenters then insisted that all of these fine people posting on that thread would undoubtedly treat Muslims they encounter with love and respect, to which I pointed out that some of the posts included: “Those Jackasses Muslims (sic)…,” “AND THE GOVERNMENT LEADERS IN AMERICA STILL SAY WE CAN CO-EXIST WITH THESE ANIMALS ?? WAKE UP, PEOPLE !!” I mentioned that maybe that was a form of “love and respect” I just wasn’t familiar with.
There was then an endless going round in circles over the insistence that calling people “jackasses” isn’t bigotry, conveniently disregarding that feeling the need to impugn their entire religious community while doing so is. And no amount of pointing this out had any effect whatsoever.
There was the suggestion that I should be criticizing those Muslims who enforce sharia law overseas rather rather than those criticizing them here, to which I responded that 1) they are not mutually exclusive, and when I enter into conversations with Muslims in which they take positions that I find offensive, I have no hesitation to take them to task for it; and 2) having said that, there is a difference between criticizing remote others with whom I am not engaged in any process of shared self-governance and over whom I have little or no influence, and criticizing fellow citizens advocating an attitude and a policy for our nation that I find offensive and reprehensible.
There were comments about “birds of a feather,” and invoking the name of Danny Pearl as justification for the bigotry. I responded to these with:
2) The existence of categorical identities is certainly a staple of human history. Whether we will always have them or not is not something my crystal ball can tell me, but they have always existed and do exist today. But what we do with them has certainly been variable, ranging from genocide to amicable co-existence. The question isn’t whether those identities exist, but rather when the focus upon them serves no purpose other than as a vehicle for inter-racial or inter-sectarian hatreds. The former may be inevitable; the latter is not.
4) To use individual acts of violence as an excuse for sectarian hatred may seem rational and defensible to you, but it is the same thing you are condemning; it is what killed Danny Pearl, not what will save the Danny Pearls of the future; it is the problem, not the solution. It is bigotry.
To assertions that the anti-Muslim hysteria is justified by terrorism, I responded:
5) Since a significant portion of Muslims do not support sharia law, and do not condone the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in general cannot be held responsible for either; only those Muslims who support sharia law or condone the 9/11 attacks can be held responsible, among Muslims, for supporting sharia law or condoning the 9/11 attacks.
6) This is especially true since there is no centralized decision-making authority embracing all of Islam, and certainly no pan-Islamic democratic mechanisms by which Muslims in general can be held responsible for particular factional “policies” of Islam.
7) The criticism isn’t directed at any one who object to sharia, or object to terrorism, or discuss either in the context of Islam, but rather precisely and specifically at those who exploit the existence of sharia, and of the terrorist attacks, to foment hostility toward members of a particular religious community IN GENERAL.
8) Cultivating antagonism toward such an ethnic community, en masse, rationalized by factually less-than-accurate assertions that Muslims have a monopoly or near-monopoly on terrorism, by means of the absurd assertion that America is under threat of being overtaken by sharia law as evidenced by its patchwork existence in distant lands, is, indeed, an expression of xenophobia, not of a well reasoned and defensible reaction to real circumstances.
9) Terrorism comes in many forms. We normally use it to refer to the weapons of the weak, fighting against stronger powers by the only means they have, which is to attack the most vulnerable. And I am 100% in agreement that such attacks are reprehensible, but I am not in agreement that they are significantly less reprehensible than killing or being responsible for the killing of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of “collateral damage” inflicted by larger military powers just as eager to exert their influence forcefully in the world, but able to do so without targeting civilians specifically. The point is that many things escalate reactionary cycles of violence, and it is very common for those culpable in one way to only perceive the culpability of those who have inflicted violence on them, rather than include awareness of the violence they’ve inflicted on others.
10) Even terrorism more narrowly defined is hardly limited to Islam. It has been exhibited in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, in sub-Saharan Africa, and even by right-wing anti-government fanatics in the United States (remember Oklahoma City?).
11) There are always ready rationalizations for stoking the fires of tribalistic and religious hatred, such as those you’ve cited. Those you condemn for their violence committed their acts of violence in the heat of a very similar mania, and the repetition of it here and now is likely to feed, directly and indirectly, into acts of violence committed in its name. The anti-government extremists who stoked up that rhetoric in the years leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing I’m sure feel no responsibility for that act of violence either, but without them, it would never have occurred.
12) The fact that violence exists, that some of it is perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and that people have suffered horribly at its hands, does not justify or legitimate stoking a frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment directed toward peaceful and law-abiding Muslim citizens and residents of our own country.
14) If the concern is over terrorist attacks, then stoking those fires of reactionary tribalistic hatreds is not a very wise strategy for reducing the frequency or risk. In fact, the bigotry I am addressing increases rather than decreases our vulnerability in a multitude of ways, by cultivating more hatred directed toward us in reaction to it, by reducing cooperation of those best positioned to provide information that would help avert such attacks, by, in general, pushing people deeper into antagonistic camps, including people who never would have been antagonistic to us otherwise. You don’t address the threat of terrorism by starting with rationalizations for racial or religious hatred, but rather by asking yourself first and foremost “what set of policies would best and most effectively reduce this risk?” The answer to that latter question is complex and multifaceted, but included within its matrix is “the reduction of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States today.”
There are many possible ideologies regarding the relationship of the individual to society (see for instance, Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, and the essays linked to therein, for discussions of this relationship). Among them are the notions that the individual exists independently of the society, and the society is a mere vehicle in service to the individual (what we’ll call “individualism”), and the notion that individuals have no identity other than their identity as members of a discrete and exclusive society, with members and non-members sharply distinguished (what we’ll call “nationalism”). At a glance, one might imagine these two ideologies to be mutually incompatible, and that would be good, since both are brutally deficient, each in its own way, particularly in their more extreme forms (i.e., when individualism is so extreme that equity and fairness cease to be valued within the society, and when nationalism is so extreme that compassion and humanity cease to be valued without). But, remarkably enough, it is possible for them to coexist within a single ideological package, a package which manages to combine the worst of both worlds. First, let’s examine the worst of each world.
Though revisionists abound, the characteristic that marks the Nazi movement of 1930s Germany as a movement to be reviled for all time was its ultra-nationalism, which blossomed into racism and genocide. “Ultra-nationalism” is not the same as “collectivism” or “socialism,” but is rather a sharp distinction being drawn between those identified as members of the nation, and those identified as foreigners. Ultra-nationalism is ugly enough when “foreigners” are identified as those residents of other nations, regarded as of less importance or value than the residents of one’s own nation, leading to aggressions such as “lebensraum,” Hitler’s policy of expanding into Eastern Europe in service to German “superiority.” But it is particularly ugly when directed against those identified as “the foreigner within,” authoring domestic policies of rounding people up, throwing them into detention centers, and removing them in one way or another, that should revolt all decent human beings. (I will return to this in more detail in an up-coming post, and to the speeches and testimonies at the Familias Unidas event yesterday, on June 25, at Bruce Randolph School in Northeast Denver).
America has long flirted with its own version of Ultra-Nationalism. “Patriotism,” which is almost universally lauded in America as a virtuous affection and respect for one’s nation, is a relatively benign form of nationalism, but the line between it and nationalism’s more malignant incarnations is fuzzy and frequently crossed. Not surprisingly, many of those most ostentatious in their demonstrations of patriotism are also most inclined to indulge a demeaning and even belligerent attitude toward foreigners, more often implicit than explicit, but erupting into the latter at the slightest provocation.
Ironically, those Americans who are most strident about the evils of a government used as an active agent of public will tend to be blithely indifferent -or, more, subscribers- to the ultranationalism laced through the American psyche. They are not opposed to our government kidnapping foreign citizens off of foreign streets, holding them indefinitely, sometimes in secret installations, and either torturing them or rendering them to other governments to be tortured, all on wisps of frequently manufactured evidence that wouldn’t even rise to the level of “probable cause” in America (a policy in place throughout the Bush administration, as part of our “war on terror”).
Nor are they in any way outraged by the fact that their own government rounds up people from their homes and jobs in America and places them in detention centers, marking them for removal from the country, people who go to church and commit no crimes and contribute to the economy, mothers and fathers and respected and beloved members of our communities. They support this policy, indeed, demand that it be ramped up manifold, because they define some as members of the nation, and some as foreigners living among us, and by virtue of this definition feel no debt of decency, no recognition of de facto membership in our society, no compassion for the children left fatherless or motherless or the communities left with holes in them, no unease at the brutality or inhumanity of it….
I already wrote of the limited but still horrifying similarities between our current attitudes and policies toward undocumented residents of our nation and that infamous previous chapter of human history in which a population within the nation defined as “foreign” was rounded up and marked for removal (see Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). And I have discussed the observation that one of the most fundamental distinguishing frames between the right and left in America today is the frame of “in-groups and out-groups” versus the frame of inclusiveness (see Inclusivity & Exclusivity), part of a larger defining distinction regarding the perceived relationship of the individual and society (see. e.g., Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, Liberty & Society, Liberty & Interdependence).
But American conservatism is built on another pillar as well, one which should be antithetical to ultranationalism, but is somehow amalgamated with it into the worst of all worlds. That second pillar is “extreme individualism,” the belief that the state (i.e., federal government) can never be used as an agent of the polity, serving the interests of the citizens of the nation and of humanity in general. By means of this combination, our government is prohibited from performing any positive or life-affirming function, either for its own members of for others (declaring the former to be an infringement on individual liberty, and the latter to be irrelevant), but is charged with acting aggressively against certain categories of outgroup members (e.g., non-citizens, suspected criminals, etc.), or refusing to protect other categories of outgroup members (e.g., gays, the poor, etc.), in service to a narrowly conceived and largely erroneous national interest divorced from any sense of humanity either to its own citizenry or to “foreigners.”
This marriage of extreme individualism and ultra-nationalism is perhaps the most inhumane and predatory ideological concoction imaginable. It informs an attitude which, on the one hand, preserves unlimited social injustice by simply defining it out of existence and, on the other, promotes unlimited belligerence toward all those defined as non-members of the nation (whether they reside within the national boundaries, or beyond them). It preserves the implicit racism of disregarding the legacies of a racist history, using a perverse definition of “liberty” to prohibit addressing those legacies of racism. It sets America up as a fortress from which we can exercise our military and political power in whatever ways we choose, tempered only by our own interests (and not by any concern for humanity). And, perhaps most unsettling of all, it rationalizes (and clamors for an increase in) domestic policies that bear an uncanny resemblance to Gestapo agents rounding up Jews and Gypsies during the Holocaust.
As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
It is particularly telling that, despite the current right-wing revisionism that defines fascism as a left-wing movement, this famous quote, if only you replace “Jews” with “Hispanics,” perfectly describes right-wing America’s current and traditional out-group targets.
The extreme individualism rationalizes the preservation of existing inequalities and injustices, identifying them as something that we cannot address as a nation, because to use our agent of collective action (i.e., our government) to do so would supposedly infringe on the individual liberties of those who are at least tolerably untouched by those current inequalities and injustices. But the ultra-nationalism adds to passive indifference to injustice and suffering an active aggression in service to in-group members and antagonistic to out-group members, permitting limitless crimes against humanity, as long as the humanity against whom the crimes are being committed are not members of their in-group.
The history of Americans using the concept of “liberty” to justify exploitation and oppression is an old and well established one. The famous antebellum southern statesman John C. Calhoun, in his tome Liberty and Union, perversely argued that the “liberty” of southern slave owners to own slaves could only be preserved by protecting the “minority” (i.e., southern states) against the majority (i.e., northern states). The “states’ rights” doctrine was born and thrived as a preservation of slavery doctrine, and I have seen comments by some modern Tea Partiers that continue in precisely that same vein (one insisting that the Union prosecution of The Civil War was a crime against the southern states) .
This tradition continued after The Civil War and emancipation, in the form of Jim Crow. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, many racist southerners saw the attempt to impose civil rights protections on southern states as an infringement on their liberties. Rand Paul, a Tea Party icon, voiced his own reservations about The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he admitted he would not have been able to support at the time. After all, his brand of “freedom” means the freedom to deprive others of theirs, or the right to deprive others of their rights. This is the true meaning of Tea Party individual liberty, an old and discredited concept that has a long and sordid history in this country.
It is a movement which dismisses and continues to trample upon those already trampled upon by our history, and which justifies dismissing and trampling upon those that are not defined as a part of our history. And it is a movement that we as a people must confront and challenge and extricate from our national politics and our national psyche with all of the force of reason and human decency we are capable of mustering, because we are sliding deeper and deeper into a national identity that will condemn us to being reviled and disdained by future generations around the world, as one of the examples of a nation that came to embody belligerence and irrationality and inhumanity.
This is not who and what we are. This is not who and what we should choose to be.
(See A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread for a reaction to the aspects of this ideology which facilitate the accelerating concentration of wealth and opportunity in America.)
Which party is really committed to fiscal responsibility?The debate over the proposal by President Obama’s blue-ribbon commission on how to cut the deficit is revealing of something most rational people of goodwill already knew: Reason has fled the Republican Party completely, and a combination of fanatical ideology and rampant hypocrisy is all that now defines it. Though Republicans made their recent electoral gains by pretending to be responsible fiscal conservatives, the Republican rank-and-file is, ironically, less willing than Democrats to support the commission’s proposals, which rely mostly on spending cuts and secondarily on tax hikes, due to their ideological refusal to acknowledge that fiscal responsibility includes any responsibility to actually pay for a functioning government (I’ve been unable to find the poll; I believe I saw it on The Chris Mathews Show today, 12/4/10).
Secrecy in International Diplmacy is a Vital Ingredient.There are many situations in which shedding some sunshine on political maneuvers that have been hidden from public view serves the public interest, but, as is so often the case, revealing all secrets is not a universal and absolute good. JFK negotiated a peaceful end to The Cuban Missile Crisis in part by making a secret promise to remove American missiles (equally threatening to Russia as Cuban missiles were to America) from Turkish soil. The nuances, subtleties, and practicalities of international negotiations sometimes require a level of candor among our agents than complete and universal transparency allows. The traditional press, though always (for the last half-century or so, at least) far more inclined toward public disclosure than toward helping government keep secrets, has exercised a bit of self-restraint when a good case could be made for the maintenance of some secrets in service to the public interest. Some are offended by such a notion, but I argue that such a reduction of all things to plebiscite would be crippling to international relations. We formed a representative democracy for a reason; their are functions that require agents to be able to act with some latitude on behalf of their principal, and if we strip all of our agents of all such latitude, we will collectively suffer for it. The difficult challenge of holding our agents accountable to our interests, while empowering them to act with some independent (and even occasionally secretive) latitude, is not a trivial one, and errors will be made of both too much and too little public vigilance, too much and too little government empowerment and authorization. But the worst error almost always is the embrace of an extreme and inflexible absolute rather than some acknowledgement of the demands of nuance and subtlety to strike a well-reasoned balance.
While the decentralization of information production and access is, overall, a very powerful tool for human progress, it also poses some serious challenges to our collective welfare on a variety of fronts. One such front is reliability; a great deal of very unreliable information flows very rapidly along virtual networks. Another front involves striking the balance between complete public transparency and some enclaves of confidentiality, a challenge which involves dimensions other than international diplomacy (e.g., decreased confidentiality of personal information of various kinds is another, very different, dimension of this same problem). While some might make a bright line distinction between “public” and “private” information, the more useful distinction is between productive and counterproductive secrecy.
Several developing events on the world stage point to the importance of cultivating and maintaining strong international diplomatic partnerships, built on mutual trust and cooperation.
North Korea, arguably the most militant rogue totalitarian state in the world, is building a nuclear reactor. Despite the blithe but information-deprived popular belief (in some right-wing quarters) to the contrary, bombing North Korea into oblivion would not solve the problem, because any military strike to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear program would create more, and more dangerous, global instability than it resolves, as well as entangle us in another materially and morally enervating military quagmire. However, improved American cooperation with China, for instance, would create more leverage, since China is an vital patron of North Korea.
American soldiers in Afghanistan are trying to convince Afghans that it is the Taliban, not the Americans, who are killing civilians. It’s an object lesson in what is sown by killing civilians (which we had done plenty of, and still do some of). In many wars, even within the morally exceptional context of military objectives, “it’s more important to avoid killing civilians than to succeed in killing the enemy,” as an ABC news correspondent put it. The battles we are fighting now on the international stage (nuclear non-proliferation and anti-terrorism, for instance) depend more on goodwill than on successfully implemented mass violence.
The START II treaty, which the Republican leadership is obstructing (in the form of Jon Kyl, almost certainly at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s direction; http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026673.php), would provide the U.S. once again with the means to secure and verify Russian compliance with nuclear non-proliferation, after a year of a lapse in this cooperative regime due to the sunsetting of START I. Not ratifying it imposes only costs and no benefits, and undermines a gradually improving relationship with a still-militant Russia (which cooperated with the U.S. in Afghanistan, by allowing troops and materials to pass through Russian territory, for instance).
The Cholera outbreak in Haiti points to the humanitarian dimensions of international cooperation, or its absence. Many epidemics don’t respect national borders (e.g., Swine Flu and Avian Flu, harking back to the Global Flu epidemic in the immediate wake of World War II, which killed more people globally than the war did). In fact, the particularly virulent strain of Cholera that broke out in Haiti has now shown up in the United States.
Americans think in insular terms, but live in a world characterized by interdependence, both within our nation, and among nations. Throughout the 20th century, amidst the worst outbreaks of international violence, fledgling but promising seeds of global cooperation emerged, the first (The League of Nations) sabatoged by our isolationist Congress, and the second (The United Nations) sabatoged by our imperialistic tendencies. The United States is, without a doubt, still the world’s hegemon, still the locus of greater international political and military power than any other single nation. It’s time we took that responsibility seriously again.
Some events are better than others. At a reception preceding a presentation by Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security) yesterday evening, I enjoyed a series of chats with Frederico Peña (former Denver mayor), Su Ryden (current Colorado state representative), Pilar Ingargiola (apparently a co-founder of the small policy LLC for which I currently do frequent short term research contracts), a bunch of guys from Iowa, and Aaron Harber (Denver talk show host).
Then the speeches began (for the smaller crowd invited to the reception; there would be another round for the full audience gathered upstairs in the auditorium where Secretary Napolitano was to speak). Larry Mizel of the CELL (Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab) introduced Michael Bennet (Junior U.S. Senator from Colorado), who had two endearingly spontaneous human moments during his speech: 1) He paused at one point during his introduction of John Hickenlooper (Denver Mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate) to say “God, I’m tired,” and 2) after saying that neither John Hickenlooper nor Larry Mizel would take credit for the CELL, nor would either of them give full credit to the other, Hick gestured from the side that he would give full credit to Larry, to which Michael said, “Well, John will give full credit, because he’s…,” quickly checking himself before saying “a candidate” or “running for office.” The audience filled in the blank and chuckled appreciatively.
After the speeches, we went up a back staircase to the auditorium, where the first few rows were reserved for us. Larry and John gave two more short speeches, and then Secretary Napolitano took the stage. Her presentation struck several chords with me, the underlying theme resonating with themes that I have been developing on this blog, and, in fact, with themes that are woven through my novel.
Secretary Napolitano referred to “the threat landscape,” a phrase that parallels my frequently used phrase “the social institutional landscape.” They are, indeed, two aspects of the same landscape, one a destabilizing, chaos-producing aspect, and one the ordering and re-ordering aspect. This was a major theme in my novel (An epic mythology): The interplay of chaos and order, and the ways in which the disorganizing influences (personified in my novel by mischievous imps, the Loci, who I considered to be, in effect, magical terrorists), lead to more subtle and complex, increasingly organic, re-orderings.
Indeed, that was precisely what Secretary Napolitano was describing. Homeland Security recognizes that the best counterterrorism network would be an all-inclusive one, informing and mobilizing up and down through social institutional layers from the Department of Homeland Security to individual citizens, and creating channels for individual citizens (and others up and down the hierarchy) to inform those more charged with acting on that information.
The “see something, say something” campaign is one aspect of this attempt to mobilize and organize the populace in a decentralized system of cooperative vigilance, utilizing diffuse observation and information to create a counterterrorism network comprised of everyone, with eyes everywhere, far more comprehensive than anything that could be accomplished in any other way. Indeed, it is another example of activating “the genius of the many,” a theme I have discussed in my series of essays on the evolutionary ecology of our own social institutions and technologies (The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), as well as my post on “wikinomics” (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed) and “crowdfunding” (Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”).
The system is far more involved than just recommending that people report suspicious behavior. It involves a network of “fusion centers,” basically information way stations and processing centers, through which information is channeled upward and downward. In other words, Homeland Security is consciously trying to create a centralized system of upward and downward flows of information, of utilization and implementation of decentralized effort and in-put. This is the increasingly organic model of human social organization that I have long been discussing as our inevitable path of development.
To be sure, one model of such decentralization, with, in many respects, little need for a centralizing agent, is the market economy itself. But the market economy, while able to exist almost independently of governments, does so only in a crude, inefficient, and failure-laden form. Refining that organic system into the robust market economy of today required the development of government backed currency and clearly defined and enforced property rights. It has since benefited from the development of a complex regulatory structure that ensures that market actors aren’t able to exploit information asymmetries to their own advantage and at the public expense. And it will benefit in the future from increasingly sophisticated Political Market Instruments (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year) which both internalize externalities, and bring a variety of public goods and public bads under the umbrella of market dynamics.
But markets are just one social institutional material among several (A Framework for Political Analysis). Our development of a more organic, robust, sustainable, and fair social institutional and technological landscape does not benefit from monomania, but rather from a commitment to develop all of the social institutional materials we have in productive, integrated, and decentralized but coherent ways.
Despite the decentralization of the counterterrorism regime that Secretary Napolitano was describing, it was a return to a sense of communal effort, and away from our growing extreme individualism. It is a “neighborhood watch” writ large, a community of people watching one another’s back, addressing a collective need, nationwide. One of its benefits is that it helps move us back in the direction of recognizing that we are inherently in a collective enterprise, whether we are satisfying collective needs through markets, or hierarchies, or normative rules of conduct, or values and beliefs which motivate us to do so. We are not just a collection of disconnected individuals, neither in the production of wealth, in the production of human welfare, in the coping with life’s challenges, or in the vigilance against the violence of others. We are inherently interdependent, and need to cultivate the cultural and social institutional acknowledgement that we are, so that we are not constantly fighting to disregard the demand to meet the needs posed by that interdependence.
In terms of counterterrorism, there are other subtleties to incorporate besides the upward and downward flow of information, and the upward and downward flow of its utilization and implementation. There are also privacy concerns, which Secretary Napolitano addresses by having experts in privacy law at her headquarters, involved in the design of our counterterrorism architecture from beginning to end. There is the challenge to create an informed and activated society without creating a more fearful one (something accomplished by the sense of empowerment that participating, and knowing that most others are participating, in our shared vigilance against terrorism). And there is the emphasis on suspicious behaviors rather than suspicious ethnic membership, discouraging the ethnic profiling that is so corrosive to our coexistence in a diverse society, though completely avoiding the noise of prejudice in a decentralized system will undoubtedly prove to be impossible.
Nor will our ability to prevent all terrorist attacks. But the rise of this decentralized and very dangerous form of warfare, benefiting from modern communications and information technologies much as other decentralized enterprises do, increases the demand for intentional and coordinated development of decentralized and organic systems of response. Even terrorists contribute to the evolution of the human ecosystem, albeit at too high a price.
Vincent Carroll, one of several conservative Denver Post columnists that get paid not only to be profoundly clueless, but to help others to be so as well. In his latest display of having missed the boat to the 20th century (never mind the 21st), Carroll waxes indignant that members of the audience in a Bennet-Buck debate hissed when Buck referred to Afghans as “backward” (http://www.denverpost.com/carroll/ci_16350199). Yes, the hissing leaves something to be desired, but not only was Carroll’s civilized sensitivity offended by the hissing, but also by the notion that there is anything wrong with an American senatorial candidate referring to the citizens of a sovereign nation in an unstable and volatile region as “backward.” The irony, of course, is that Carroll is defending a far more expansive and dangerous form of “hissing” himself, a far more offensive and dangerous kind of elitism than that of the intelligentsia daring to recognize that the ethnocentric arrogance of the United States is neither helpful nor accurate.
It seems like just yesterday when we had finally, as a nation and a civilization, come to the realization that our dismissive disdain for cultures different, and, yes, less politically, economically, and technologically developed than our own was a shameful chapter of the past, one whose disdain had conveniently justified enslavement, slaughter, displacement, and, generally, an attitude of moral superiority while acting with distinct moral inferiority. But the Regressives have made headway in turning back the clock, making it okay again to speak with dismissive self-satisfaction that we, who recently condoned and used torture techniques on people kidnapped off foreign streets on mere wisps of evidence of association to terrorism, are superior to those violent heathens, some of whom commit pretty much the same crimes against humanity that we do, only less efficiently. (And let’s never forget the model of nationalistic chauvinism, fueled by a sense of racial superiority, achieving “laudable” heights of efficiency in the commission of their own crimes against humanity, and remember that it’s nothing to aspire toward).
It is precisely those like Carroll, beating their chests while claiming that others who dress differently while beating their own are inferior for doing so, who are proof of just how dramatically wrong they are. But they are not the only proof. History offers plenty of its own.
Trace backward from the present, and find an endless succession of conflicts that “couldn’t be resolved” because the factions involved had been “killing each other for centuries,” that were, alas, resolved after all. Note all of the cultures that were too backward to ever join the modern world, many of which have since joined the modern world. Carroll’s archaic belief in our own cultural superiority is not only the nearly universal folly of the past that is the true measure of “backwardness,” but is is also completely ahistorical.
Of course Afghanistan is a mess; no one’s denying that. Of course their political, economic, and technological level of development is not currently conducive to a sudden leap into a western-style political economy. No one’s debating that. But people less backward than Carroll understant that depicting the variable conditions under which people live, for complex world historical reasons, as proof of inferiority and superiority, is mere cultural narcicism, egomania on a societal scale, and one of the major causes of the wars that humanity continues to propagate on scales large and small.
Vince, go to the bank, withdraw all of your money, and go buy yourself a clue.