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Them’s Fightin’ Words

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What is a person? What is a statement, a critique, an opinion? What is the value of a very loud and egotistical person screaming about a petty injustice? What is the weight of a modest and self-effacing person’s quiet sober testimony? What is a theory, what is proof? Most of all – what sort of ideas are so powerful and fantastic that they are worth hurting real individual people over?

There was a time, many decades ago now, when I would have confidently said the left understood that extreme thinking was always unfair – because it pretended there was just one single model of human goodness, and all other approaches were heresies, even where well intended – or proven effective. It was also commonly understood that such extreme judgement orthodoxies were unkind, because by narrowing the good to one single model, mediated by a power hierarchy or priesthood, all sorts of bullying and social injustice could be created, and then frozen in place forever. Opportunities awarded only on the basis of team, instead of character and contribution.

Tragically, there is no longer any appetite on the left to stand up for basic respect. The more closely popular thought takes on the persecuting tone of the Spanish Inquisition, probing endlessly for sin, the more the old traditional leftist allies, the hedonists, shake their heads and walk away, and the free spirits too – for reasons of even deeper principle. The left used to be the fun and funny side, welcoming everyone – with a huge advantage in creativity and expression – mostly because artistic work does a rough personality sort on the way in. Imaginators tend not to be overly persnickety.

The thing is – the fundamental philosophies and ideas of the left are suffering now, because they are being associated with people who think the act of criticizing others, makes them more virtuous – another behaviour the left used to ridicule widely. Being good makes you good, being nice makes you nice. Finding fault with other humans and then attacking them for it – mostly makes you crazy.

Should it seem unclear to anyone – I am still a firm believer in ending war, in education dignity and health care for everyone, in breaking up the monopolies which stifle the benefits of genuine market activity, and also in restraining government from any invasive control which is not clearly helpful.

I don’t think business or government are sacred – they are both structures of human organization – the idea is to use each sensibly, for what it can do well – and to end the gravy train of ridiculous subsidies which monopolist corporations have been extracting from citizens for the last century or so. We keep criticizing our politics as if it is what it says it is – perhaps we should really try it just for once – without all the monopolist scams and corruption gumming up the works – before we throw up our hands, declare western civilization a lost cause and burn the whole thing down.

I don’t believe all men are evil, or all white people are evil – and I don’t think that stuff just because I am a white man. People are even more different than ideas – we’ve all noticed and know this. The labels which so many now pretend describe us most importantly, tell me absolutely nothing of any use whatsoever. I mean literally zero, I would know a lot more about a person with a list of their top five favourite books movies and pieces of music. Birth-nation? Colour? Social Class? That’s the external vehicle their spirit is riding around in – but honestly, I’ve always thought cars were super boring – what I’m interested in is the driver.

This is not to say that people don’t ever experience things as groups – they most certainly do – but that isn’t the whole of the story for anyone, and our differences in that category don’t put us miles apart separated by concrete, we’ve been living right next door for years, and the walls are paper.

Long past time for us to put down these high-noon megaphones and begin to whisper-share our midnight dreams instead.

5 Comments

  1. Greatly enjoyed this edition! Some thoughts.

    First, I think a lot of debates today have to do with achievement and meritocracy. Who gets to have what, and why? – What are they likely to do with their opportunities? – How do their achievements intersect with, and perhaps limit, the opportunities and achievements of others? You rightly bring it home to the matter of basic respect for individuals, because individuals who feel so supported do not want more than a reasonable share – and are willing to contribute. Yet the dominant economic model in the world turns this on its head: focus on acquiring only for yourself, as much as you possibly can.

    On the one hand, we want to say that some notion of meritocracy is fundamental to justice, particularly if the alternative is mere nepotistic corruption; yet the recurring question I have about meritocracy is: who dictates the standards / metrics? Without proper justification of this, and even discussion of it (yikes!), it’s just a sneakier form of corruption, all the more insidious for its apparent procedural rationality.

    So yes, to the extent that the left properly appreciates the value of this justificatory discourse, over and above the value of tradition for its own sake, I have long been a leftist. However, today’s world sees many self-identified leftists who actually seem to take that discourse for granted – we’ve already decided what’s right! Now it’s time to take power at any cost! Those who have misgivings just aren’t listening to the right people! But through the whole political spectrum, a strange new prosecutorial voice has become the norm. You described it as paranoid, and it is, but it also strikes me as just a bad approach to dialogue. The adversarial approach is used by some in the western legal system, and that’s fine. But is it necessary, or effective, on social media or the street?

    [As a side note, your points about how the left treats 1) violent offenders and 2) those who do not follow proper procedure in accessing resources, such as illegal migrants, boils down to a kind of meritocratic framework. If said law-breakers are thought to be doing so because they are victims of harm / neglect, “systemic” or otherwise, it stands to reason that they will be “systemically” forgiven for those transgressions – even if, as you say, others have played by the rules and been patient and diligent for a long time.]

    This is what I consider one of the perils of cosmopolitanism – but more specifically, technocratic cosmopolitanism. I’m not condemning anyone here; we’re living through an unprecedented and highly unnatural time of rapid change. But despite the “chaos” of this era, it isn’t an organic chaos – there’s a hypnotic rationality in the air. A distinct disconnection from truth, an alienation from the self that stands to obstruct evolution.

    One thing we can’t disregard or diminish in importance is demographics. (And I can thank the loony left for keeping this issue front and centre in its own ham-fisted way.) Any “advancements” for civil rights and quality-of-life in large western nations like the U.S. have potential ramifications for equality, both domestically and globally. There were huge developments throughout Eurasia that were considered mutually beneficial, in consumer capitalist world economic terms. But it’s the usual story: such rapid development requires not only vast pools of easily-exploitable labour, resource markets, and demand; it requires “political stability”. Another way of saying that you need to prevent people from getting too uppity about their “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Perpetuate the myth of success. Perpetuate the myth of monolithic, totalitarian state power.

    Components of this are 1) actual, credible, achieved equality in a society, and 2) some degree of normalized and accepted inequality. Don’t need democracy per se – that’s a peculiarly western conceit. Quality of life is hard to define, and has a lot to do with both access and identity. What people believe is their lot in life makes a big difference. How they come to have those beliefs is complicated. You have to think it “works” for them, on some level; but it can certainly be a barrier to higher achievement (but not in the sense of achieving what those above them in the social hierarchy value!). So you have to conclude that yes, modern consumerism is a moral failing, for what it turns so many of us into. We think we need to act in an entitled (privileged) way, because, as customers, we’re always right. And as producers, we’re also always right, because we’re always just following orders. It ultimately objectifies us all.

    I will say this. Many societies enjoying great economic advancement have, arguably, greater family and social cohesion than the west. Possibly because of cultural homogeneity. So the west’s cultural heterogeneity (I won’t say “multiculturalism” per se) presents some challenges – which, to our detriment, we shy away from discussing. I’m not talking about Islamic law, arranged marriages or anything like that – those are clearly and, in my view, appropriately, not tolerated in the west. (Although if you’re feeling controversial, try unpacking the tension between modern feminism and the traditional, “patriarchal” ideal of the family.) I’m talking more about the effect of a couple generations of people who just don’t feel they share a common humanity. Don’t talk to their neighbours, maybe because their neighbours don’t speak the same language. Or urban sprawl and car culture – aspects of the post-war economic boom – have cut them off from street-level interaction in, and with, their communities. Combined with consumer capitalism, television addiction and now internet addiction, it’s a recipe for extreme alienation.

    You ask “what is a person?” We tend to assume that the fundamental unit of personhood is biological – it ends where my skin and nerves end, and this meat-sack that encases my “perspective”. But it’s also possible that the unit of personhood can be relational, existing among two or more meat-sacks. Many will be concerned that this rendering entails delusional “collectivism” and a lack of independent thought; but perhaps this is itself an irrational assumption. For some purposes – scientific and legal – the meat-sack model is good; but anyone wanting to actually understand the human condition has to explore questions well beyond those areas.

    What you say about is-ness (not to be confused with the is-ness of the business) is important. Our attributions / predications say more about what we are than the person or thing we’re predicating something of. We see patterns in the contextual flux. But those patterns are born of that flux and are contingent on it, and not necessarily universalizable. The wise sage Bill Clinton was reminding us that ”is” always has both a referent and a modality. Reminds me also of something you’ve mentioned before, about how the “average” person doesn’t really exist (“is” not), even though we talk and act as if they do.

    You talk about the superficial appearances of change vs. the reality – suggesting that change today requires that we be realistic; but what is realistic, anyway? This reminds me of the “hermeneutic circle” of interpretation, which you can see as history (in its manifested form, which is us) interpreting itself (in its “dead” form, which is the past). History comes alive as soon as we begin to study it, and then speaks to itself through us.

    [Problem is, anything that is also “has been” – having some duration and identity. But we can’t assert the reverse to be true – that what has been “is”, except in an historical sense, which is always contingent on the interpretive “is” of the present moment.]

    Our generalizations are based partly on personal experience, but also what is cast as inter-personal experience – the received wisdom of a whole tradition or community. But we should have an abiding awareness of the dynamic relationship between these. As your points about personal trauma illustrate, sometimes individuals have excellent reasons for holding over-general beliefs; sometimes collectives have bad reasons for having correct focus on particulars. The limitations of theory rather complicate the organized pursuit of justice. (To put it another way, there is a tension between unity and justice.)

    It’s interesting to look at the term “lifestyle” and how it was discussed in the 60’s-80’s. You can boil a lot of this down to, if not “decadence”, then an unhealthy kind of individualism. Combine a heavily achievement-oriented culture with hedonism and lofty moral ideals, and you get interesting new forms of hypocrisy. The predominant actors and attitudes in both ’63 and ‘68 may have been different, but they still had validity, and I’m not sure the context of either maps well onto today. But maybe that’s the problem – maybe I’m missing something about the “lay of the land”. Nevertheless, it does point to an interesting schism-point in a society increasingly defined by the objectifying relations of retail capitalism.

    The internet is a unique type of environment that contains high-exposure self-expression, sometimes made into a high-visibility target. We can be vulnerable and exposed, but also petty and anonymous. We can build impressive networks, which nevertheless prove flimsy and ephemeral as once-reliable connections pursue leads they consider more promising (as, possibly, do we). People need to recognize the limitations of that and proceed with caution, rather than idealism – whether it be of the innocent or cranky variety.

    It bears emphasizing that virtually everyone now uses the expression “the left” overly broadly. This is due directly to its misrepresentation / co-option by actors that are liberal, but not truly left. The bombastic idiocy of many who are left, but nevertheless bombastic idiots, facilitates this confusion – this absence of historical nuance and principled rigor – by discrediting those people and ideas that are good, in what appears to be a desperate attempt to rebuild social capital. This also leads to an unfortunate designation of “right / conservative”, as anyone who feels disgusted by stupid leftism is provided with many caricatures of people they can feel superior to.

    Your emphasis on basic respect for individuals is spot-on, and more nuanced than we are in the habit of believing. Because exactly that respect is what has been slipping away, being taken for granted for the sake of building markets that now, within only a couple generations, pose an existential threat to the species. For people to tackle problems of enormous scale and complexity, they must be properly assured that the sacrifices they are called upon to make are for the good of everyone – that no one is to be sacrificed for a hollow promise of achievement.

    • Hi Ian – thank you sincerely as always for your thoughtful engagement.

      How we model resources duties and rewards (and even how we perceive each of these) are always crucial questions – and oddly, when they are changing more rapidly, as now, many people who aren’t political at all suddenly feel threatened, because the standards they always thought of as “being a good citizen” can be inverted, making all their genuine efforts and sacrifices seem foul by some new measure.

      Like in my recent math post – compassion for the standard being left behind (or even better, an incorporative rather than competitive/exclusionary model) is difficult work, but I think truly helpful in terms of the greater challenge of how to build a durable and flexible popular front – which always comes down to teaching ourselves to grow our respect, and then grow it again.

      There are some sane arguments for approaching things as individuals or as groups, but there is absolutely no such thing as defending rights except at the individual level. People have guaranteed rights, or absolutely nobody does. This also means respecting those people who colour inside the lines and pay their taxes – perfectly excellent standards of citizenship, and often a kind of personal industry which is of general economic benefit to all (setting aside ecological questions – which are meta and separate anyhow).

      The right to be a good person by being careful and responsible is a thing (this is one of the distinctions most working class people make easily, even about the bourgeoise they usually dislike. Because to them too – hard work and sacrifice has to count for something honourable at the end of the day).

      Now I’m going to stop here and shift rhetorical gears, but only because I think we sometimes get way too theoretical and complex when talking about things which have a basic working-class justice component.

      If a worker is killed by a boss, or a woman by a man, we know right away that something horrible has happened, and the killer must be stopped from ever doing that sort of thing again. But if a poor person robs a store and kills a clerk (female and worker) for fifty bucks, the left says “Systemic” and stuff like that, instead of standing up for someone who they would loudly defend under any other circumstance. This isn’t good enough, and hasn’t ever been. Stupid people like binaries, and use them all the time – intellectuals in particular, should be able to handle integrating two competing ideas at once, without obliterating one of them.

      The justice system in America has been broken for decades – in part deliberately/incompetently, and in part because no plans – even the smartest and most well intended, ever go exactly the way the planners hope – but those who made political hay (and of course profit) from that deliberate coarsening of jurisprudence and assault on the constitution are the ones who deserve to be made to suffer the mortal consequences – not hard working innocents – they aren’t the ones who gained from or did the damage! Like I say – “Normal” simply cannot ever equal odious – to any healthy and functional (non-bourgeoise dominated) left.

      By elevating sloppy concepts like “Systemic” into a religion (instead of using them as tools to better inform broad compassion, individual attention and directly enabling redress), and pretending they explain a whole lot of things which they absolutely do not (way too much contradictory data, as soon as we surrender the binaries and dig into real lives and complexity) some less subtlety-seeking people end up believing they actually have a fundamental right to do violence, and it isn’t even their fault when they do.
      This is profoundly harm-enabling BS – and the refusal to see and deal with the full moral weight of such events drives many who are otherwise sympathetic, away. If we lie and fool ourselves on things this clear, what else are we tribally dishonest about, and how can we be trusted to be fair and even handed in governance in trying times? Should we have more sympathy for people who experienced early difficulty for any and all reasons? Yes we do and should. Does this mean we can give violent people a pass based upon their background? Absolutely not – not ever ever ever – not cops or criminals. Because justifying violence isn’t fair to everyone else. Not just disrespectful and corrosive, but outright contemptuous.
      (Management teaches surprising things, very much the way that parenting can invert your lazy universal bias toward children’s empowerment=justice, hilariously fast) ;o)

      Orwell had a lovely line about how some things were so crazy that only an intellectual could believe in them (applied to excesses in Stalinism esp at the time, I think). I usually use another primary solvent to get under the gunk of obnoxious group-think – which is based upon the well earned and time tested revulsion felt by many working class intellectuals (who don’t fall for that sort of baited lure the same way at all, by dint of superior hands-on experience) for the actively self-convincing and infinitely more death-authorizing variety.

      Anyhow – if you must, then steal bread from a loading dock, armed with shoes and nervous energy. Don’t hurt people – they are PEOPLE! (The argument really doesn’t need to be any more complex than that).

      I think there are a couple of things wrong with a lot ot popular models right now, one is the false idea of a finite window of achievement, and another is the idea that all efforts are roughly equivalent. Great idea – just not so.

      Meritocracy is awfully tricky (sort of reminds me of statistics in the way it can be approaced from so many directions, to seem to say different things).

      I think a much simpler level than that which we don’t talk about is the boundaries in which we can and cannot successfully operate. One of the reasons ‘rule of law’ (philosophically speaking) is of irreplacable value to any civilizational structure, is that we must offer everyone a range for their free expression, where they know they can play safely “within acceptible social limits” (subjective and changeable a thing as those no doubt are).

      The idea that reducing the success of some people will increase the success of others is insane – no one who worked in an environment where critical work was accomplished could think something so foolish – but it remains a popular idea with some who aren’t interested in doing much other than get along and complain, and would like that sloth and ingratitude to be registered as morally equivalent to purposeful and principled action over an arc of years.

      Reducing the gap in pay, reducing the cost of living, reducing the especially vicious stakes for small business people (where all the coolest and most neighborhood relevant jobs are constantly being created), increasing educational and career support, and arts education especially (for it’s spiritual/mental value, as much as for richer culture), and raising the base-standard and decreasing the stigma of poverty – all help plenty. I could even see a future where some opt out of technological benefits for a special allowance, as a way for society to acknowledge the value of and also encourage people to live a life of stepping lightly – being modest in our needs and consumption proudly – instead of enduring a state of painful shame.

      I have encountered excellence in a lot of different fields over the years – teaching, technical repair work, business management and music especially – exactly zero of the fascinating people who had it, got it easily or un-earned – invested work and intention will ultimately get you there, nothing else can. Skill and excellence are not “concepts of oppressor mentality” but practical standards society needs. We don’t want doctors who can’t pass the exams, or lawyers who can’t pass the bar, because one part of work of arguably crucial societal value really is getting over yourself, in order to properly serve others.

      As you have mentioned a few times usefully, expectations are a really complex thing – and while they can indeed be burdensome or even hurtful, their positive potential can transform a span of years otherwise destined to be filled with mind-numbing boredom into the birth of a new genius of art, science or leadership.

      Pretty strong magic for a legacy meme system buried deep in the zone between tradition and evolution, and laughingly scorned by so many mediocre ‘moderns’.

      More on your other points in my next podcast (yet another that must come before the episode about the human potential movement, which is becoming, by sequential delay, something of a motivational confection).

      Love and hugs, man. I am even more impressed by your escape from the easy trap of bitterness than your zeal, intellectual energy and openness – but really fond of both.
      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      • I’m never sure if you’re too busy to read or respond to my posts – do so only as you’re inclined, of course, and as time and patience allow. Since I already had a response to the above mostly typed-up, I figured it’s better to share some reflections. I think I hit on some interesting points here that I hope are both clear and not too theoretical.

        The more I think about the new incarnation of CRT – and I’m well-acquainted with the loony left, but this new cohort goes beyond well-meaning awkwardness and doubles down on totalitarian objectification – the more convinced I am of three things:

        1) Too many people just aren’t informed enough about its extremism, and so don’t appreciate the concerns articulated by its critics in proper context. Rectifying this is, of course, its critics’ responsibility.

        2) Superficially it appears to be, at worst, well-intentioned awkwardness. The sincere overkill of the enthusiastic novice. This actually makes it more endearing to some, since it is taken as proof of their innocence.

        3) It is profoundly corporate in nature. It’s predicated on a particular version of success – one which, self-evidently, requires its particular equity orientation. We’re often taught that success is there for the taking. (You might call this the success “identity”.) But real achievement is more of a giving than a taking. Only what amounts to the shock doctrine in the west could attempt to conflate this with the oppressor.

        I hear many gay people talk about how Gay Pride has become too corporate these days. Some are saying it has gotten co-opted and forgotten its radical roots; others joke about the craven – but entirely understandable – promotional and sponsorship relationships with companies that are, and always have been, mainstream. Of course, I’m thrilled that businesses big and small are part of the process of normalization – and celebration! – of diversity. But those interests are typically intolerant of, if not hostile to, radical protest, favouring the humdrum gradualism and cautious diplomacy of the work-a-day world. Politeness is paramount, as is learning to play nice. It optimizes productivity. It other words, it helps organizations function smoothly and present a human face, regardless of what evil they’re inflicting on the world.

        Politeness is all well and good, but quite different from empathy, co-operative organizing, and solidarity. (How do Pride’s biggest sponsors feel about raising the minimum wage?) Why many intelligent people are failing to see this – that the failure to defend individual rights sets a fatal precedent, marking an endeavour or organization as principle-free – I don’t know. But it is noteworthy that they seem to assume that their excesses only amount to being impolite, when in fact they are being cruel (denying empathy). This allows them to continue to mask their cruelty with politeness. The daily-grind do-gooders garner a kind of respect; but also a treacherous kind of tolerance, when they limit free expression. The last thing of all that should be met with silence.

        That said, I do sometimes get carried away with theoretical conjecture – a habit which, however gratifying, does not necessarily add clarity to the world. As you rightly point out, the potential for rhetoric to shape outcomes is tied directly to how escalatory it is. And most of the time it is due directly to people who don’t actually face its true consequences. Justifying violence tends to be escalatory / inflammatory (I’ll say these are the same, although “escalatory” actually points to a chosen direction when there are de-escalatory options available). Solidarity goes out the window – fear and resentment fester.

        Restorative justice takes great responsibility for the individual – in small community settings, the cost-benefit analysis of putting love before fear is much more of a no-brainer – compared to the monolithic judgement of the penitentiary system. Actually, I think that is the best definition of “systemic” in the pejorative sense: monolithic in its dealings with individuals, who are thereby denied care.

        Justice entails both empowerment and responsibility. This puts retribution at quite a distance from it, and is why I favour restorative justice and community approaches to policing. (Public safety is paramount; then you can discuss more focused rehabilitation and long-term treatments – or better still: address root causes from the outset. It’s so twisted that we repeatedly refuse to address root causes, then gallantly rescue the public from itself. This actually puts us on the defensive, and enforces dependency.)

        I seem to always get surprising push-back whenever I advance sound criticism of naively idealistic hopes – particularly if those hopes are tied to a system that promotes individual achievement. Likewise, those already enjoying a high level of achievement / status within that system tend to become apologists for its excesses. I’m not saying that people are inherently selfish; just that they don’t recognize these conflicts of interest for what they are, and their superficial grasp of individual rights tends to exacerbate that blindness. Once again, the “equity” ideology currently in ascendance is about inoculating the public against criticism of the global capitalist system.

        It is important to distinguish between the real world, and the more individually-focused world of formal education. In the classroom, things are going to be treated comparatively abstractly. That’s both the advantage and the liability of that rarified environment. And yes, the semi-segregated character of many social contexts entails that “colour-blindness” is itself an overly-abstract ideal. But something like it is still a goal. MLK talked about content of character, Gandhi about “being the change”. The fact that the education systems of the west are capitulating to brainwashing indicates a more insidious influence than simple naive white guilt or moral busybodies. It’s the cold hands of corporatism closing around our children’s necks.

        I’ve been told by actual contemporary teachers of anti-oppressive / critical race theory that individual rights don’t do enough to enable a more just system – that in fact the expectation of them can tend to exacerbate injustices / inequities. And the urgency of equity is such a non-negotiable goal that they are willing to dispense with attending to individual rights. It’s sort of like a social contract: we can assume that anyone in this social location is willing to make this sacrifice, to correct an obviously unjustifiable inequity – sacrifices demanded of those who also had no choice. This is not how I view sacrifice, because it isn’t voluntary and doesn’t come from a position of integrity. It comes from a corporate mentality that strives for socially engineered outcomes, rather than the full flourishing of, and respect for, each individual. This must be called what it is, condemned for its noxious precedent, and have every last one of its anchor-points in cognitive dissonance drawn and quartered in the public square.

        • Sorry to be so very slow responding, Ian.

          Just finishing up the next episode, and I haven’t had the capacity to give your interesting thoughts and witness proper attention and consideration.

          Funny thing occurs to me – the combination of writing drive, and how long it takes until my back-in-chair pain threshold is reached, is rather like Kilowatt hours in basic form.

          Word-flow times tension times time.

          More sune, promise (next episode is scripted and in the rock tumbler now, for that final glossy polish my faithful guttersnipes have come to expect).
          ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Oh, and here’s something incredibly weird but real, which is so far outside of ALL the narratives right now, it sort of boggles the mind. Not at all my preferred mode of address (armed, unless you count pens), and yet – the line “All rights for all people all the time” is almost as sweet to hear as the chant “White supremacy sucks!”

      Interesting times indeed. ;o)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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