Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Calling People Nazis II

"Hitler" and "Nazi" have become pretty much all-purpose political insults on the internet. Because the Hitler/Nazi phenomenon was so complex, there are numerous ways in which a person and/or his political views can resemble them. If you have a particular axe to grind, you are likely to grab onto that one aspect of the Nazi phenomenon and ignore other aspects. You can single out Christianity, socialism, fascism, nationalism, authority, obedience to authority, militarism, or racism. Did I miss any? Those who single out fascism tend to ignore the fact that communist regimes put Hitler in the shade when it came to slaughtering people. And those who single out religion tend to ignore that the communist regimes were not religious.

Serious thinkers want to understand why these massive political slaughters happened, and what we can do to make sure they never happen again.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Let's all be socialists - or not.

At dinner last night with extended family, we discussed one person’s experience in New Zealand, a socialist country where most residents seem content with their government. I was informed that 96% of the population loves the country just the way it is. It’s fairly hard to immigrate there. The cops are actually nice to people. Health care – even dental work - is provided to all comers free of charge. And the income tax rate is about 50%. However, I was told that people are generally content with that. I did not try to verify any of this, but just assumed for now that it’s true and let it stew in my brain.

A few days earlier, I’d read a Time Magazine article about the best countries to live in. Interestingly, small, cold, politically neutral, socialist countries came out very much on top. The U.S. was in 11th place.

So what’s stewing in my brain is that socialism is something that a lot of people like and want. It’s something that many Americans are demanding more and more of. And socialism seems to be working for a number of countries. These countries are generally small, homogenous, neutral in geopolitical affairs, and spend most of the taxes they collect on stuff that benefits the people directly. I would note that these countries are not building empires or attempting to police the world. It looks to me like socialism “works” on a small and somewhat consensual basis.

A few days prior to that, at a family reunion, I was discussing what it could mean to be a “libertarian socialist,” which one young member of the family claims to be. Many libertarians would consider this a contradiction in terms, since socialism as we know it has always been a coercive system. But I guessed that this young person tacked “socialist” on there to counter an assumption that many people have about libertarianism – that libertarian necessarily means “every man for himself,” and somehow outlaws cooperation, charity, or any kind of social safety net. Socialism, of course, is entirely compatible with libertarian principles, as long as it’s voluntary, and no one is being forced into “the system” at gunpoint. Obviously, the elements of socialism in American society are part and parcel of our coercive system of government. I’m going out on a limb here, but I really don’t think that Americans object to socialism nearly as much as they object to coercion.

People have an underlying moral feeling that voluntary, contractual relationships are morally superior to forced relationships. Why else would people do mental gymnastics to fabricate a “social contract” within the forced relationship of citizens to government? We constantly hear things like: “you consented to their control when you did X.” And “X” could be when you were born here, when you got into your car, when you got a job, or whatever. But if you didn’t know you were consenting, or to what you were consenting, how could that possibly be valid? How can a person consent to anything by being born? We also hear constantly that we are bound by contracts that were made between other people, long before we were born, such as the U.S. Constitution. Or that we consented to “the way things are” when we voted, or when we didn’t vote!

Why would people so desperately try to find a consensual contract somewhere in there unless they felt that consensual relationships were morally superior to brute force? They are desperate to have us all believe that we consented, even though we didn’t know we did, and even though unknowing consent is no consent at all.

The fact is, none of us natural–born citizens consented to any of this, especially not in any conscious, specific way. I guess people who become citizens actually do take an oath of allegiance to the United States or something like that.

People like to say, “love it or leave it,” whenever we express a desire to change the status quo. Now “love it or leave it,” can be a reasonable choice – in a romantic relationship, perhaps, or your home town, or even a small country like New Zealand. However, to me, it seems unreasonable to say this about the United States, which has swallowed up most of the livable part of North America. People aren’t usually quite cruel enough to tell us to “love or leave” the whole planet – at some level, I think we all know that people have some kind of right to be at least somewhere that life is possible. “If you don’t like oppressive government, move to Antarctica,” does not strike me as reasonable at all. Neither does: “If you don’t like Jim Crow laws, leave the south.” Or, “if you don’t like Nazism, leave Germany.”

But I think that any “right” to live where we were born conflicts with our desire to form communities with like-minded people. And I think this conflict needs some closer analysis in light of what comes next.

My epiphany was that we actually could have social contracts – real ones, and lots of them. In the past, when I’ve tried to imagine an anarchistic society, I’ve often come up with lots of communities, each with its own rules. Anarchy, to me, is not an absence of rules, but the freedom to choose the rules one lives under. People obviously want social rules, but different people want different ones. And different people want different rules enforced in different ways, and arranged in different hierarchies of moral importance. For instance, in hypothetical community A, two men get married and everyone celebrates with them. In community B, there is quiet but tolerant disapproval. In community C, a gang goes to their house and kills them.

Any gay person with a brain would not choose to live openly in community C. Community B would have to offer compensating benefits to outweigh the disapproval. Community A would win unless other factors made it less desirable. Should community C be “allowed” to exist? Should gays (and others) go there and insist on their right to live there and be tolerated? If gays simply abandoned community C and flourished in communities B and A, would community C mind its own business? Community C might think that community A should not be allowed to exist.

I don’t know the answers to those questions. People would do what people would do. But the United States right now looks to me like hundreds of communities, wanting hundreds of different sets of rules, but all thinking they should have one set, and fighting bitterly over what set that should be. So we have approximately 400 million people hating and trying to change each other, and spending a lot of energy to forcefully impose their values on others who have different values. And if we don’t like all this hating and imposing – well, we should love it or leave it.

So, I propose social contracts – real ones, and lots of them. We can only imagine what this would look like; communities could be pretty big (like a state) or pretty small (like a town). Each community would have an actual contract between its organizers and every single adult resident, with specific rights and obligations on both sides. Each community could decide on an age of consent – how long people who are born there are allowed to live there without signing the contract, and whether or not to tolerate non-signers and on what terms.

If we like the mythology of the social contract, why not make it a reality? Imagine actually knowing what to expect from one’s “government” instead of pinning one’s hopes on campaign promises that a candidate has no obligation to fulfill (and most likely no intention, either). Imagine knowing your rights and obligations up front, instead of things being legal one month and illegal the next, and instead of your “fair share” changing drastically from one year to the next according to the political tides and the self-interest of professional liars.

It’s only natural to wish to impose our most passionately held moral principles on the whole world. Of course some communities would have rules and practices that were abhorrent to others. So what else is new? Abhorrent practices exist right now within the United States and all over the world. And much as I would love to have the whole world live by my values – it doesn’t.

To be quite honest, real social contracts actually would impose a few of my values on the world, and would create a path toward more of my values (if this were not true, I would not propose them, would I?). The value of “live and let live” is at least a start. Honest social contracts are more in line with my values than power-serving mythologies are. And, as I mentioned previously, I don’t think people would remain in places where they’re persecuted, and the sovereignty of the community where they are accepted would not allow persecutors to chase them wherever they go. Do we really care if people sit around hating people who are out of their reach?

I think, for instance, that if antebellum northerners had consistently and sincerely welcomed blacks to the northern states and protected them from pursuit, that the slave states could have been “drained” of slaves and a horrible war could have been avoided. I think this didn’t happen because northerners were racists and authority-worshippers, and had other reasons to conquer the south. Slavery (though not oppression) died in the Civil War, and that was a good thing as far as it went. What was not so good was the death of the idea of peaceful secession. Divorce, after all, can and does prevent murder. (“Is that a hint?” asks my husband.)

But seriously, some means for peaceful separation is an essential part of a voluntary contract. If there is no peaceful way to get out, then violence becomes the only way to respond to oppression (a la Burning Beds and such). The “contracts” we are currently born into willy-nilly have no escape clauses other than leaving our friends, family, and country.

Please tell me what you think!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Religion Dangerous?

I have a friend who believes that religious ideas are dangerous, and his opinion is shared by many. He points out that colossal amounts of cruelty, destruction, death, and torture have been done in the name of God, while very little (maybe none) has been done "in the name of atheism." While this is technically true, I feel that continuing to rail against the dangers of religion in the 21st century is really beating a dying horse when the cruelty, destruction, death, and torture has pretty much picked itself up and moved into the camp of secular government. Traditional religion is no longer the problem, nor is atheism the answer. While nobody's likely to kill anyone in the name of atheism per se, millions of people have been killed in the name of "godless" communism, fascism, and democracy. Religion has certainly been useful in the past for justifying war and cruelty, but religion is not strictly necessary.

The question that interests me is, what is strictly necessary to justify war and cruelty? My friend says that communism is "like a religion." Like a religion? In what way? Communism is based on an atheistic theory of social development. Is it like a religion only in that it's been used to justify the death, torture, and economic exploitation of some people by other people? My friend seems to want to draw a line between religious and secular ideas, but I think this is the wrong place to draw the line. I want to draw the line between ideas, religious or secular, that allow some people to kill and exploit others and ideas that don't.

My friend condemns religion for man's inhumanity to man, and yet admits that at least some secular philosophies have been used the same way. I would point at something broader than religion: any belief system that gives some people permission to use aggressive violence against others. Religions have certainly done that very nicely throughout mankind's miserable history. And yet, as the grip of theistic, supernatural religions has loosened on people's minds, and science and secularism have come to the fore, secular theories have done a remarkable job of picking up the slack. It seems, then, that God is not necessary to justify exploitation and violence, and therefore atheism is not enough to save us from it.

We can't understand what is dangerous - or not - about religion unless we can define exactly what religion is. Is it dangerous to believe in a god? Is it dangerous to believe in things we can't prove through reason and evidence? Perhaps. Yet I know many, many people who use their religious beliefs to keep them on the path of love and compassion. I am tempted to believe that humans create God in their own image, rather than the other way around. That God is the essence of the way we want to relate to people, whether it is with compassion, understanding, and love, or hatred and condemnation. I am tempted to believe that God is ultimately a way of avoiding responsibility for the goodness or badness of one's own soul, and that faith is ultimately a way of avoiding responsibility for the beliefs that support one's actions.

I believe that this avoidance is ultimately what makes any belief system dangerous. What if we taught our children: before you believe something, check with your own mind - does it make sense to you? Before you do something, or say something - check with your own heart - does it feel kind to you? Perhaps God is nothing more, and nothing less, than the goodness and truth in your own soul. Religions often teach that the human mind and heart are evil. Thus we are taught to distrust our own feelings and our own reasoning, and to place our trust outside of ourselves - in the writings and preachings of some authoritative voice. Once we distrust ourselves, this authoritative voice can have its way with us.

Once we trust authority more than ourselves, we can be exploited and used in whatever way the authority wishes. The religious and political history of mankind can be seen as a competition to hold the reins of authority and control the mind of humanity. Because those who control the mind of humanity, control humanity's productive capacity, and can live at ease on the labor of others.

We can see the primitive origins of human exploitation of humans in the gangs of armed raiders that used violence to plunder the first farming communities. People could not exploit the labor of others until settled communities began producing something in excess of what was needed for survival. Then the excess could be taken without destroying the source. And so some people learned to live by taking what others had produced by threatening them with injury or death. It's not a large step, perhaps, to go from hunting and gathering animals and plants to hunting and gathering from human settlements. Certainly it would be a more thrilling way of life for the strong and brave. Such direct plundering was violent and dangerous, because those being plundered were apt to try to defend themselves and their produce. And some plunderers, perhaps as they got older, wanted a more settled and peaceful life. To get the best of both worlds, and settle into the very communities they were plundering, they had to come up with a rationale for the exploitation. To live off the labor of other humans in ease and comfort, you need to somehow neutralize their defenses.

What you need is a world view and a moral code that makes your exploitation of them right, proper, legitimate, and good. This is the role of religion, the authoritative voice that neutralizes the self interest of the exploited. When goodness consists in obedience to authority, the brute force on which it ultimately rests can be kept in the background as a last resort. Brute force then becomes a righteous thing that happens only to "bad" people. While an independent community might band together to fight off marauders, the mythology of legitimate power brings the community over to the marauders' side, leaving anyone who resists alone against the community and the marauders together. Given that humans are social animals, this technique is extremely effective.

We could say that religion is the mind control and government is the brute force, but it's not quite that simple and divisible. Religion has always been used to legitimize power, to condemn self-defense by the exploited, and give its holy blessing to aggressive violence by authority. Religion promises rewards in heaven for obedience to authority here and now. Religion and government can at times be indistinguishable. But increasingly, over the centuries, power has sought to legitimize itself with more secular ideas, to give itself scientific underpinnings that the modern mind will still accept. This process has produced many power struggles and territorial disputes between religious and secular authorities.

The questing rational mind is always a danger to authority, as the questing rational mind likes nothing better than to knock over old theories and propose new ones, and this includes the ideas that support authority and the exploitation of some humans by others. And so authority has long waged war on the rational mind and sought to freeze ideas where it wants them. This is ultimately an impossible task. So along with trying to suppress thinking, exploiters must come up new and better theories of exploitation, and new and better ways to impress them on people.

I believe that the concept of freedom of religion was a big signal to humanity that theistic religion was no longer needed as the rationale for exploitation. When the supernatural realm was set free from this function of justifying power, it no longer mattered what people believed about it. The Age of Reason had brought forth new rationales for power, new secular mythologies that could be sold to an increasingly secular-thinking populace. Only the dullest witted person could fail to notice that freedom of religion never extends to freedom from exploitation by secular authority. Neither personal nor religious moral codes are ever allowed to interfere with the economic exploitation of the community by those in power. Freedom of religion was the power elite kissing the supernatural world goodbye - people can have whatever fantasies they like on Sundays, as long as they are loyal to the State and pay the tribute it demands. Of course, wherever people still believe in religion, the authorities will use it shamelessly to promote their power, but for those who think themselves too sophisticated for religion, authority now has other philosophical cards to play.

To understand power, community, and morals, it is essential to comprehend the division between people getting along with each other, and people getting along with an exploiting power class. To get along with each other, people must of necessity have rules of conduct and ways to resolve conflicts between them. The magic of society is that when (and only when) certain boundaries are respected, individual interests harmonize and promote the well being of all. We are a social species, and social rules come naturally to most of us, like language. Yet there are always those few who do not internalize social rules, and the rule-abiding people must have ways to defend themselves and the fruits of their labor from these antisocial people.

Authority is all about getting past the defenses of the productive community to get people's stuff without getting hurt.

In the modern age, centralized, monopolistic, official power has been increasingly sold to humanity as a way to protect social boundaries, thus placing the moral rationale for power squarely on society's need for order and peace. This is the central power myth of our age, and yet it is the exact opposite of the truth.

Authority is all about getting past the defenses of the productive community to get people's stuff without getting hurt.

The Social Contract is no more true than the Divine Right of Kings. Far from protecting social rules and boundaries, government-created legislation breaks through those essential boundaries, allowing some people to plunder others without getting hurt. Government is like an insidious virus that attaches itself to our white blood cells, hiding inside our defensive mechanisms so they cannot protect us. We cannot live without our white blood cells, but neither can we thrive when they are turned against us. We cannot live in society without order; but neither can we thrive when that order is turned against us.

The exploiting classes have taken the rules that help society function peacefully, claimed them as its own, and mixed them into the rules that maintain their power. Most of us have a deep-seated respect for society and its rules: we respect the law and take pride in being law abiding. I believe this comes to us naturally and instinctively, and in most people these feelings and instincts are naive and unanalyzed. Those in power would have it this way. If people were educated about law and legislation, they might see the difference. They might begin to see that legislation is not law, but permission for antisocial behavior disguised as law. They might see the difference between the rules of the community and the rules that protect the plunderer.

I think people who hate and fear theistic religion have missed a few centuries. Democracy is the religion of America now. We kill and torture in the name of democracy now. We indoctrinate our children in the myths of democracy. Democracy does not promise us rewards in the afterlife, but more cynically, promises us all a chance to plunder our neighbors.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Earth Day statement

Well, it's Earth Day. A day for lots of people to say lots of silly things about Our Mother, The Planet. Like how good she is to us and how we should be kind to her and "save" her, and so on.

Mother Earth does not love the human race. Nor does she hate us. She has no feelings about us at all. She was here long before we evolved to scamper around on her surface, and she will likely be here long after we're gone. We, on the other hand, depend completely upon her for life and everything that makes life enjoyable. Mother Earth is a stunningly beautiful, dreadfully abusive, and unforgiving mother from whom there is no escape.

Humans are not capable of destroying the planet, or even life on the planet. But from a completely humanocentric perspective, it is important to preserve the planet's capacity to sustain our lives. And beyond that, most of us want much more than just a life; we want a life that is enjoyable, comfortable, and interesting.

Now I will stop speaking for others, and just say that an enjoyable, comfortable, and interesting life, for me, includes lots of other species, large areas of wilderness, clean air and water, lots of energy and technology, peace, and freedom to pursue my individual interests. Furthermore, I don't just want all that for myself. I won't be really satisfied until every human being on the planet has an enjoyable, comfortable, and interesting life as well. Their specific requirements for that may be somewhat different from mine, but I suspect that much of what I mentioned is basic to all of us. And I'm not done yet. I also want to accomplish all this in a way that will be sustainable for many future generations.

Why does that feel like an impossible dream? If we all want these things, in various degrees, what is getting in the way of their achievement? It seems to me that our current numbers are too large for all of us to have a really good life. I would rather see four billion people well-fed, happy, and free, than 12 billion with many of them hopelessly starving, miserable, and/or enslaved. Watching nature shows, it does rather look like it's in the nature of every species to expand its population to the point where survival becomes increasingly difficult for many. That difficulty, of course, is caused by all the other species doing the same thing. And as people grow more numerous, the pressure on those other species, and the wild, humanity-free places where many of them thrive, grows greater.

But I wonder if humans are even capable of reducing their own population voluntarily, and I wonder if there are as yet undiscovered ways to make all of us comfortable here. Perhaps what is needed is more ingenuity. More smart people. Or more freedom for smart people to accomplish things.

Human beings spend a tremendous amount of energy killing, torturing, enslaving, and imprisoning each other; and a great deal of ingenuity figuring out new ways to do these things. This is something I have never really understood. Isn't our gigantic, abusive, inescapable Mother Earth a big enough adversary for us? Shouldn't we be using all our combined intelligence and strength figuring out ways to deal with the disasters and diseases she throws at us? Why do Earth's children insist on fighting all the time instead of cooperating to make their lives better?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I regret that I cannot publish comments in Chinese

I'm not an English-only fascist, but despite my best efforts, I cannot read Chinese, and I don't want to publish comments when I don't know what they say. Write in Spanish, and I might have a fighting chance!

Imagine there's no government ...

It's very easy to listen to government advocates tell you what they're going to provide for you and just believe it. They paint a picture, and you don't have to use your imagination at all. This is especially appealing if you've been raised by television and school, and actually have no imagination.

Schools for everyone - health care for everyone - roads and bridges and dams - national parks and clean water - protection from criminals, and so on. You just obey, and cough up a lot of money, and a bunch of people called "government" will provide all of these good things for you. It takes a bit of imagination to picture what could be there if these people called "government" didn't take your money, didn't demand your obedience, didn't provide anything - and instead left us in freedom to use our own resources and come up with our own solutions. Why do so many people assume that we'd have nothing -- that we'd just sit on our hands, lamenting that we have no education, no doctors, and no roads to drive on? The assumption is that problems can't be solved unless someone is holding a gun to someone else's head - either to get the funding for something or to make sure that the something gets done.

Why so much faith in the power of violence? Why so little faith in the power of cooperation?