Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cause and defect

We have long had Lord Acton's wise and oft-confirmed warning that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" to guide our regard for those in power. But I don't think the WMD hoax was the first con job Dubya was ever party to, not by a decade. And I don't think the pattern of fostering conflict-of-interest relationships between business and government and then exploiting them first entered Veep Dick's repetoire after he ascended to the role of eminence grise of the bush league. No, I think we have here pretty much an ongoing demonstration that the relationship between power and corruption is tighter than portrayed by Lord Acton's saying and so I propose a corollary:

The corrupt are drawn to power.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


One of the things that I find precedes a change of mind about an issue or topic is a shift in vocabulary. "Anarchist" meant lawlessness to me, and conjured images of warlords or rioting mobs or hill billys at the dead end of such a long muddy road and so self sufficient that government was happy to ignore them operating as a law unto themselves. Then I encounter Dennis Fox's writing and see that anarchy can also mean decentralized govt on a village scale with great local autonomy and THEREFORE greater participation in govt both because it increases each person's stake and because it is possible for individuals to have their voices heard. So now I think differently about anarchism but I want to file the ideas under a less loaded word, something like human-scaled government or decentralism. Now that I have fuller and more varied bindings for the word Anarchy, I discover I have to read a lot of literature I had dismissed as beyond the pale. Its a lot of work but it opens some new horizons and possibilities to me. I will probably just wind up stirring the good bits into my stew of "what's good for us" ideas but I wouldn't even have that option if I just kept dismissing the whole subject.

I would invite everyone, but especially those who are inclined to instruct the public that "Words mean things." [that's the whole sentence, nothing more to quote, no context to fill in], to frequently check the working others use them...of their loaded words.

If we don't go to the trouble of finding what words mean to other people, then words actually become much less useful than we think and a lot of good thought just gets misfiled.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Stay the curse.

A man whose primary intention is to do right can change his mind about the facts until a way is found and right is done. A man whose primary intention is to be right can change the facts more easily than his mind.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I told you so a phrase for your own enjoyment and not otherwise of much help. Say it under your breath. The Schadenfreude of seeing others screw up highlights the distance and disconnection you too are fostering.

Distance or disengagement from people with whom you have some difference would seem to avoid conflict but mostly it just puts it off.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tart Reform

One of the most enduring undercurrents of nastiness in American humor is the lawyer joke. I used to laugh at them myself but then I got a hunch about what was up with these jokes and they aren't funny for me any more. The essence of the matter is that, even at this late date in the war against our legal system, everyone knows we have been living at a time and in a country where life runs quite firmly under the rule of indifferent law. Its breaches and abuses are only the more shocking and scandalous to us because of how strong our expectation has become that law and justice go together. Those of us who cede much responsibility to the state, those of us who size up most of the problems we encounter in terms of what we could do to make matters better and all of us in between: we all stop at the stop signs and we all pay our taxes because maybe we think its the right thing to do and for sure we know there is a law about it. The priesthood who know the twisty paths of the law is seen as having power to make the law work for their client so they are dreaded as masters of the beast and the agents that finally render the law less than indifferent. It is imperfect but closer to logical and fair than any other system ever implemented.
But just wait. If you knew indifferent, logical and fair workings would never find in your favor, would you admit you were out of step or would you lobby, slander and harrass to narrow the laws to your liking and remove judges who took the liberty to steer the imperfect process through the dry paragraphs of law so each particular case had its best shot at justice? When law can no longer be interpreted and when a lawyer can be called unfit to run for president just because he IS a lawyer...then something else is the beast, on other shoulders the fearful power will have settled. What will we have when we don't live under the rule of law? What will the jokes be about?

Various persons and institutions are held up as the powers that be but it is only true and indifferent power that can cast a shadow on our equinimity and a joke can shine a brief light in that shade.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

individuality: to be or not to be for myself.

Please correct my vocabulary if you know a better word than collectivism to set in opposition to individualism. Though had glowing words for individualism ["virtue"] , it and drew total blanks for an antonym and I conclude that our culture and its language are deficient for carrying on a vital debate. I want words that stake out the two ends of an axis or spectrum on which political animals array themselves, find their spot and then, sometimes, dig in even though the line often moves. Examination of the nature/nurture issues that lead a person to their spot may be an interesting topic... perhaps later. Location on this axis is not exclusively the measure, but to my mind, a good summary of a person's politics. In the US, individualism gets great press. It can be applied to lefty inspirations like H. D. Thoreau despite conservative commentators being sure the concept is in their corner, rooting for every selfish cause they advance. Despite a pall of vilifying rhetoric claiming an unbridgeable gap with monsters on the other side, all you have on the left and right are people. Face to face, you could find out whats eating someone and if you were perceptive, what they are afraid of, what they have thought through and what they are inclined to accept uncritically. You could. But for too many Americans, this axis is not seen as an avenue of intellectual commerce, a space to be explored to the right and to the left. Instead, its chopped up, and the most damage is done by partisan campaigns to put "bridge out" signs where, in truth, they simply fear to get into a dialogue. "Collectivism", per Webster, is not ramified with the awareness of community or other members of the system in which one operates but rather is just written up as the opposite of privatized, as if it only meant to describe farming in Stalinist Russia, a synonym for Bolshevism. So what is the word that is the opposite of individualism? Egolessness?

Sorry Rush, individualism is a broken word. Its not that we aren't each unique in our thinking. I mean, you could pick a church, ashram, mosque, or whatever and carefully question each member in private and come away with the impression that they each had a slightly different religion. The same goes for political parties. Extolling only one end of the spectrum makes for a broken culture in that it fosters a bias against developing awareness of how connected and directly and indirectly interdependent people actually are. Indirectly includes so much: the resources we share, the wall to wall social environment we form for each other just by being on the street or in the much. To stress individualism exclusively is a stuck-in-Reagan's-80's arrested development, egotism enshrined and the inconvenient burden of sharing the world with others deftly cropped out of the world view. Go ahead, take all you can grab. But tell me, for what slaughterer do you fatten yourself? Do you know you drag the rest of us to a slaughter of exhausted resources?

Another way the word is broken is that it has broken into two connotations: "courage to need no crowd behind you when you announce your cause" [positive spin] and "denial of connection to the opinions and resources of others" [a social philosophy based on personal immaturity]. I am out of my league if I try to speak for [which, as electronic and impersonal political discourse has devolved, means against] all conservatives in saying that they operate from the "denial " usage but loudly claim the "courage" usage. Claiming to know the real thoughts of liberals is an industry among conservative commentators so perhaps my assertion puts me in their shabby league.

So its broken and overused and kind of like the idea of faith, subject to suspect claims, always relative yet inviting self assessment in terms of absolutes. The most literal and chest thumping claim of individualism would require a blindness to the country, the community and the many others who played in the life story that brought the claimant to their moment of proclamation. Individualism as the dictionary defines it: "A doctrine holding that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group" is simply one of those cakes you cannot both have and eat. The opposition seen between individual and social group is a false and childish take on the inevitable and necessary fact that we cannot live alone. As I have said elsewhere, group and individual are yin and yang, only defined in terms of each other and meaningless without each other.

To profess that you are a rugged individualist, dependent only on your own wits and resources is delusional unless you are literally a hermit. And to whom does a hermit profess?

Mature apprehension of and constructive discussion of the balance that our survival requires us to strike in integrating personal or subgroup wants and needs with group and societal needs could start with stepping outside the bickering we call politics and seeing the length of the axis.
One of the most succinct yet fruitful expressions of this process of balancing [yes "process"! the world has never stood still and no fixed line or rule would long mark the balance point] the interest of group and individual was set down by Rabbi Hillel around 100 BC and taught to me by my dearest teacher:

If I am not for myself, who will be?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

I think pondering those questions on all scales from personal to global is a healthy exercise. It's led me to a couple of thoughts.

  1. That government [or lack thereof] implementing a social philosophy that neglects the needs of society [e.g. bush league doctrines] will fail just as that government [or excess thereof] that neglects the needs and aspirations of the individual [Bolsheviks e.g. as opposed to Mensheviks ]. Either will hurt both society and individuals on the way to failure for in the end, society and individual are allied and their joint welfare is all that should be established and protected. Any other purported objective, history has repeatedly shown, degenerates into the establishment and protection of power and the powerful.
  2. It might be that talking up individualism is just safer than coming right out and saying that "society" is a fiction and has no real needs. That idea is a bit more subtle than message machines are good at delivering but, Mr. Limbaugh, Ms. Coulter, Mr. Rove, I will be looking at your words more carefully hence forth. Your great leader is still trying to pronounce words...I'll skip him.

So much for brevity and for being oblivious to particular persons. And no, the executioner does not take himself all that seriously, in fact "The laity doth protest too much, methinks". But he does take the wreck of society by a bumbling captain and pirate crew very seriously. He has to note that he had great fun writing this because he did NOT start by knowing that individualism was Mr. Limbaugh's personal talisman but googled to it while sanity checking his perception of the trashtalking conservatives [there are MANY conservatives who the executioner reads, enjoys and occasionally learns from. No offense meant to all conservative persons as a category, just the mean, the cheap and the unconstructive]. He also found that National Socialism was at heart always racism and that continues today. The executioner does not think that sort of warped view plays in the bush league's politics and whatever bad things fall out along racial lines are just an artifact of socioeconomic stratification not invented, though not helped, by the republicans. To call the bush league Nazis is then a dumb mistake. [Fascist, on the other hand fits better but take care: few audiences will know the difference or pay attention long enough to have the difference explained] In terms of depth of thought and effect on society, Bush is much more like King Louis the XIV, a bumbler who woke up with his finger on the trigger of big guns he inherited and just said whoo hoo and started shooting. [hey! Americans LIKE a guy who's uninhibited and decisive!]

postscript 25 July '05: Little vacations are get a chance to read a bit. A review in TPM Online led me to a book by Kwame Appiah in which the author presents some carefully thought out views about identity. Such analysis requires addressing individuality and its dynamic with social and personal forces that work toward community and the review persuades me the author did careful work there as well. I will have to read the book to be sure but what I think is left out is the deeper analysis often left out of works by authors in the western traditions of thought: the ground of being is a bare consciousness, that can hardly be said to vary or be distinguishable from one person to the next. We all possess this of necessity, but like a diamond in a mud hole, it is lost to us without a very special, focused and patient search.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


In the grand scheme of things, there are no entitlements. Whole species got wiped out, get wiped out, even without the agency of selfish human consumption. Once you ignore all our dopey mythologies, not one of us is born with any guarantee, any signed deal or destiny. Having been born, all that then passes for such deals and destiny is what our parents can provide in shaping us and supporting us with some version of the world they try to engineer. Despite my inability to see or prove that life is really much more than the collection of whatever creatures can manage by hook or by crook to reproduce and survive, there are things about human life that seem quite clear to me. The frightful and wonderful gifts of awareness and language put us in a special position. Our vision can encompass history. We develop society to the point that our species-as-it-lives is now defined by extra-genetic transmission, i.e. science and culture in combination with genes. These two imperfectly used gifts have led us to fashion a fractured and rough scheme within the grand scheme. In this human scheme of things, we clumsily carry out our survival programming, sometimes in horrifically wasteful and finally counterproductive ways.

In this inner scheme, we all know the child did not ask to be brought into the world but is here through the hopes or carelessness of its parents. Just being born, it already has a load of expectations. Of course, it should not grow up to be a danger or a burden but even more, it is expected to carry on the culture and the tribe and so on. If someone has a yoke tossed on them without their consent, then parent, tribe, society and all those who have done the tossing, for reasons more forceful than just fairness, owe the burdened one the best support and preparation they can offer. "Offer" and not "afford" because a nickel and dime approach amounts to saying "let's see if we can afford to have a future".

Helpless, clueless, infinitely malleable and with a vulnerability all but the sickest humans instantly recognize, the infant has entitlement to nourishment, safety and loving instruction.

The human scheme of things, reason tells me, is doomed and hopelessly broken if that entitlement is not upheld at all costs. And my heart tells me so as well.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ideas you wrestle are better than ideas you catch like a cold.

Shokai was helpful in providing a clearer exposition of a complicated and, frankly, for some, an unacceptable concept of identity with which I have been struggling for years. As an odd sort of thank you, I post this to say a bit more about my journey to that concept. And for the two or three PBA readers, I want to illustrate yet another benefit of tolerance: growth. Before there were blogs, there were journals and in one of mine, a few years back, I wrote the following after being particularly struck by the first few chapters of Thoughts Without a Thinker:

The insubstantiality of our lives is far deeper and more damning than the physical frailty and precariousness of our few years. Our greatest hollowness is that the huge stock we tend to put, are tought to put, into the notion of our "soul" or our identity or WHO we are, is misplaced. The great insubstaniality is that the convenient, if universally vague construct "I" around which we spin most of our thinking is in fact a mirage. This insubstantiality is, like its correlate and cousin, death, painful to ponder though liberating once accepted. That pain may be why, great truth that it is and as close to us as our eyebrows, we mostly go about blind to it, letting fleeting glimpses of it slip into the murky pool of things best forgotten. Abetted by every person we speak to and encouraged by all our fears to cling to this fiction, its reality swells from hope to perception to imperative until finally we find ourselves willing to end other lives because they threaten or disagree with the particular way in which we believe our own life to be somehow immortal. The first step of this fateful progression must be forgiven as it is stamped on our infancy and foregone groundwork of our being when we are too young to question. The illusion of unity is lent to us by our bodies. Parents and friends name us and so constantly greet us via a projection of the apparent wholeness of the package onto the presumed contents. We are creatures of speech who construct our worlds with language so having a name, a single label for whatever bubbles within us, has a practicality as forceful and omnipresent as gravity. After consciousness has jelled in that first mold, some escape the progression at one stage or another. The price of their freedom is that the escapees live either as a threat or a challenge to those who have graduated to being fully possessed by the eagerly accepted idea that their pool of mentation will never dry up.

Any idea more readily believed than proven ought to be regarded with suspicion and considered slightly dangerous.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Stuffed Pt 2.

Are your possessions like the peacock's feathers, a token display to convince prospective mates? Are your possessions little tombstones marking the passed pleasure and the moments of glory gone?

Stop. Look inside. See how rich the internal life is and you may let the placebos you accepted in lieu of elusive durability, the imitations of an eternal life, slip from your hand.

Life is not spirit. Life is not flesh. Life is not internal. Life is not external. Life is not going to be. Life is. Life is while the spirit is in the flesh. Life is when the internal balances with the external.

A fixation on having stuff throws the balance off and attenuates awarness of being spirit in flesh. It increases the value of companies but decreases the value of your company.

Note: I am sorry if this is all sounding a bit mystical and opaque. I am fishing for the spiritual mistake at the core of materialism. Materialism, the empty consumption itself, has bad enough consequences but I don't think it is effective to treat that as a root cause when it is perhaps a symptom. Attacking materialism is no more unamerican than H. D. Thoreau: he'd be shaking his head sadly to see how we use our stuff to hide from life. Curing or curtailing materialism is a most arrogant ambition but otherwise, it is curtailing our lives in the long run.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Stuffed, part 1.

Why is it so hard to simplify ones life? Why must possession be piled upon possession, the latest soon losing its charm and needing a replacement? Why do I need a second house or a first car? Who will clean it if I have a living room big enough for 50 to party? Why can't I recycle my college textbooks, unread in 35 years? Have I so thoroughly identified with my own junk? It is as if I feared the memory would vanish without the memento. Is it more a question of who than of what I take to the dump?

Who am I without my sops, toys and tools? Whoever that person is, I should not fear to be him!

[submitted to Carival of the Un-Capitalists]

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Be Positive: its not just a blood type

If you define yourself by what you are against, victory means defeat.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Poison the hood: drive-by shoutings

I have no idea. I may not be able to write another entry after this one because I see I am as tangled in the vile communication habits of our era as anyone. I was so tempted to title this post "Bubblegum Mind".

OK, I have a wispy little string of an idea. But it holds for me because I can see it at work everywhere from the boondocks of Nevada to the burbs of Boston. It's a tad McLuhanesque but originality is not much of a goal. Basically, I see that the "mechanization" of communication and the depersonalization of it have ushered in a deterioration of the tolerant and civil attitudes that are the sina qua non of meaningful dialogs.

I suspect the phenomenon is just an outgrowth of our natures because analogous coarsening of interaction takes place in other spheres of activity. When we walk or bike to our destinations and the ways aren't too crowded, a little courtesy is a common thing and most of us can muster it easily when face-to-face with the other wayfarers. Even in cars, driving a deserted dusty farm lane in some outback an hour's distance from any real town, you will wave a greeting to the guy in the oncoming pickup even though you barely know him and suspect he is a closet white supremacist. But once there are a few too many people and a few too many miles for you deal directly, once you need motors and electronics to move you or your messages, the other person ceases to register as a person on your disposition. In transportation, the last step in the progression of depersonalization is road rage. [And whether you consider acts of road rage explicable or despicable, do you know any that got people where they were going any better than patience does?]

In communication, broadcasting, blogging and to a lesser degree print, the lack of face-to-face presence of the subject, [especially a class or group of persons: there generalizations are almost always more lie than truth], of whom and to whom you are speaking gets many of us into bad habits of hyperbole, dismissiveness and sarcasm. The last step in the progression of depersonalization is something like Ann Coulter. In her June 1 posting where she excoriates the Republicans who brokered the filibuster compromise she says "the Democrats — a minority party whose reign of terror controlled the U.S. House for over 40 years". She writes that without any qualifying ameliorations in comparing the Democrats to the Sunnis in Iraq. This woman wants you to buy her book "How to talk to a liberal". If I talked that way, I couldn't talk to a Labrador retriever without getting bitten. Does she really not know of any sacrifices liberals have made for this country in war or peace?

Divisive? Sure. But even worse, its an unpersuasive technique: its just cheer leading with an unwholesome mix of glee and gore. I take her and others, of any political hue, who work in the same fashion to task for breaking and coarsening the communication, the vital dialog that should help the country function. We have problems enough without throwing up offensive verbal barricades. The extreme statements designed to cast a bad light on parties at the other extreme only hide the basic political landscape in smoke: the heavy lifting is always done by the voters and taxpayers in the middle.

Why does it go on? Why do we not exercise restraint? I have less than an idea here.

Once we have drawn a little blood, we do not pull back from our mistake, for then we see that we have also drawn a crowd.

I got far and away the most traffic to this paltry blog when one of the pack of right wing attack dogs, "liberal larry" did a put-on of and linked to a posting of mine that was on the topic of this post. He put words in my mouth I would never say and so lied about what liberals think but did so behind a cover of humor and can't be called to account for his slandering. The meanness and sloppiness of my own writing in that post, implying that the distortions and depersonalization of groups on the left is a handmaiden of fascism [which, read your history folks, IT IS], got the nasty response. The strange thing I must report is that the vigor of that response was if I had actually stung them where they are touchy. The traffic and the smell of blood are seductive. In the end, that little exercise showed I can't take my own advice though it actually underscored the validity of the advice. "They started it" is cheap ticket to this fight.

You can't turn away from an insult. But you can't make any political progress with an insult either.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Advantages of the long view, #1

An irrational world is one where the short term benefits of dishonesty do outweigh the long term benefits of honesty. Whether you feel you live in a crazy world or a sane world then becomes a matter of scale, of the span of time you can watch for justice to manifest and work itself out.

But if you are not an optimist or you are not passive, you might bring justice sooner but it will be according to you particular judgement. The utmost restraint is needed then: little guarantees that swift justice will be rational.

It has been my good fortune to encounter the world as mostly rational.