A Divide in Justice, a Divide in the Mind

I got sidetracked into reading some of Matt Taibbi’s just released new book, The Divide. A review of it in the Wall Street Journal of all places caught my attention. It was a surprisingly good, although short, review by Matt Welch. The reviewer ended with this damning conclusion:

“Though Mr. Taibbi doesn’t couch it in these terms, his warning is all about moral hazard, in two senses of the phrase. When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized, and their potential crimes will be punishable only through negotiated corporate settlements, they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”

If that conclusion is correct and the Wall Street Journal was doing its job, that should have been front page news. Instead, I found it printed in a small corner of a back page of the newspaper. I guess one should be thankful that a review like this gets published at all in the mainstream media, however hidden away it remains.

This hiding in plain sight demonstrates a point made by Taibbi, maybe the central point of the entire book. His conclusion is that wealth disparities are causing unequal and unfair end results in the US justice system. But that is more just the ‘what’ of his argument, the evidence in support of a more probing insight. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is the real issue of concern.

Taibbi speaks of implicit knowledge, that anyone who is paying attention knows all of this and yet it remains in the background. This is the key to understanding his argument. He introduces and emphasizes this perspective of implicit knowledge in his introduction. It appears he offers it as the foundation for building his analysis throughout the rest of the book. It is the sad fact that this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit, that allows and encourages the growth of this divide.

Near the beginning of the introduction, he presents his case and puts it into context (Kindle Locations 67-75):

“The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

“No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans . Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

“And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.”

Taibbi doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight to the tender weak point in American pride by making a comparison to Soviet Russia (Kindle Locations 76-86):

“As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

“So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden , yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

“Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

“Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”

The example of Russia is an apt comparison. Like the Soviet Russia, the United States is in a precarious situation. We have immense power (or rather our government does) while at the same time having a population that is immensely deluded. Many American citizens have become disconnected from certain realities. Most Americans simply aren’t paying attention to what matters or not paying attention at all. But some Americans do notice, as the author acknowledges (Kindle Locations 95-101):

“This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

“But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.”

This systemic and institutionalized injustice has become normal to us. We rarely think to even question it. Even when we do give it more than a passing thought, we typically accept it as the way the world operates, maybe inevitably. There are just those on the bottom of society as there are those at the top.

We see these problems and yet we don’t really see them. We never look at them head on. We never think about them carefully and talk about them openly. We live in social isolation and our minds are trapped within media bubbles. We don’t see the larger view (Kindle Locations 154-160):

“Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

“And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

“This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued . You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”

In our society, there is an implicit knowledge that is rarely ever overtly discussed publicly. I came across this same idea of implicit knowledge in a number of other books (and have written about this previously). The phrasing I kept coming across was to “know and don’t know”, a truth so dangerous that even to acknowledge it is frightening. What are we to do with such information? It makes us uncomfortable because it puts the lie to so many of our shared beliefs and assumptions, our collective self-image.

To know and not know. It is, at a fundamental level, a psychological dissociation, a splitting of the self based on a splintering of awareness. What we know in one context is separate from what we know in another context. We know and yet the full knowledge never gets our full attention, the different truths never quite connecting to help us see a greater truth that threatens our contentment and certainty.

There is a direct link between a disconnection of awareness and the social disparity of justice and wealth. The class and racial divide is part of the divide of ideological rhetoric, of political narrative, of media reporting, of public debate. There is a disconnection between what so many of us know on some level and what gets spoken in public forums and what gets implemented in public policy.

Reading a book like The Divide can be depressing. That was my initial response. The author, however, ends on a note of optimism. The divide was created and so can be changed. Going by the last examples in the book, it appears that changes are happening. “As this book goes to press,” Taibbi writes at the end of his concluding chapter (Kindle Locations 6405-6422),

“the Justice Department is sending signals that it’s beginning to realize its mistakes. Eric Holder is reportedly thinking of nominating a tough prosecutor, Leslie Caldwell, to permanently fill Lanny Breuer’s vacated post. Holder also talked about raising the statute of limitations on Wall Street cases, to give themselves another shot at all the crimes they ignored in the last five years, warning that those who committed crimes are “not out of the woods yet.” Hedge fund villain Stevie Cohen is being put out of business. As this book goes to press, criminal cases are reportedly coming against the megabank Chase for the “London Whale” episode and perhaps other misdeeds, including some related to its status as Bernie Madoff’s banker.

“At the very least, on the federal level, officials seem to recognize the political necessity of saying these things out loud, and this has to be in very large part due to the public outrage over the lack of Wall Street prosecutions. Decisions like the HSBC settlement were blunt bureaucratic calculations , where the risk of losing and/ or disrupting the economy was weighed against the benefit of receiving $ 1.9 billion in settlement money. But these new moves by Holder & Co. show that public outrage sometimes can change the calculus.

Exactly! Public outrage can make a difference. But public outrage requires public awareness. We are at an interesting moment in history that resonates with that moment when Russian society was awakening. With the rise of alternative media, Americans are becoming better informed in a way not seen before in my life.

Also, a large part of this shift comes from books like this written by Taibbi. It isn’t just the general public that is starting to question and doubt. More importantly, comfortably well-off mainstream media types such as Taibbi are beginning to look to new information and perspectives. And Taibbi isn’t alone. Many books like this one have been coming out recently and they are being read by all Americans, all across the economic spectrum:

“At the same time that Eric Holder was experimenting with a public change of mind, a federal judge named Shira Scheindlin handed down a ruling against New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. This was late in the summer of 2013. Scheindlin , among other things, cited a popular new book, The New Jim Crow, in her ruling and noted that since 2004 more blacks and Latinos have been accosted by police than actually live in the city. The ruling came at the end of a long and well-coordinated campaign by groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the NAACP.”

I liked the mention of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That is another important book. It is surprising that Taibbi only mentions it right at the end and doesn’t even include the author’s name.  Alexander’s book goes into great detail about the data of inequality and injustice. The case made in The Divide could have been strengthened by Alexander’s analysis of data.

In his very last thoughts, Taibbi makes clear the power of public pressure and the necessity of more of it:

“Of course, a federal judge striking down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional doesn’t mean the practice will end anytime soon. “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” promised Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But the fact that Bloomberg was put in the position of having to fight back— and that his successor, Bill de Blasio, won in part by running against those tactics— shows that public pressure can work . Just trying to do the right thing legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

That is where the author leaves us.

A book is just a book. A writer can’t cause change merely through the act of being published. The only influence a book has is through those who read it and by what they choose to do with what a book offers. This may just be yet another book or it may be the start of a public discussion that we’ve needed for far too long.

We are on the edge of a historical shift. No one knows where this shift might take us or how it will happen. No one knows precisely when it will happen. But, one way or another, it will happen. We are close to the tipping point. Almost anything might push our society over the edge.

Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind

Another book I picked up from the public library is Identically Different by Tim Spector.

I read the introduction and skimmed the rest of the book. It is about genetic and environmental influences, about the interaction between them, and about heritability and epigenetics. I already have a bunch of books about all of this, and so it is mostly data and ideas I’ve come across before. Still, it is always interesting to read about this subject.

What makes this book somewhat unique is the author himself. He is a research scientist who has been heavily involved in the popularizing of this field. According to the book, he has changed his views in recent years. A revolutionary paradigm shift is happening right now, largely because of new research that is challenging old theories. It’s nice to see that established scientists can and do change their minds, rather than merely old scientists dying and younger scientists replacing them with new perspectives.

Here is from the introduction to this book:

“Until three years ago I was one of the many scientists who took the gene-centric view of the universe for granted. I had spent the last 17 years producing hundreds of twin studies trying to convince a sceptical public and scientific world that virtually every trait and disease had a major genetic influence. My colleagues and I around the world were largely successful in this, and the prospect of finding the genes underlying most diseases looked increasingly certain. But I had a nagging doubt that we were missing something. [ . . . ]

“However, despite the extensive list of successes, a few signs were emerging that the paradigm was wrong. Most of the gene discoveries for common diseases turned out to be interesting in terms of biology, but the more we discovered the less useful each new gene became in accounting for the disease, since each gene is of tiny individual effect. For example, the 30 or so genes discovered for obesity, even when combined, account for only 2 per cent of the disease.

“This was frustrating to all of us working in the field, as it meant that each common disease was contolled not by one gene but by hundreds or even thousands of genes. This would require teams from many countries to combine forces and perform studies of tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of subjects in order to find these tiny effects. Another consequence was that for common diseases (unlike rare monogenic diseases) these gene tests were pretty useless for prediction [ . . . ]

“While hundreds of recent gene discoveries have given us great insights into new disease mechanisms and possible drug targets, the common genes found to date usually account only for less than 5 per cent of the genetic influence. Exactly where the missing 95 per cent comes from is a mystery that is perplexing the field. Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know. [ . . . ]

“There are few if any examples of environmental factors without a genetic component, and conversely genes don’t work alone and are usually dependent on the cells they live in and their environments. So in a world where hundreds of genes are working together to influence a trait or disease, the old distinction between nature and nurture is simply no longer relevant.”

The introduction is worthy of being read on its own. It could easily be read as a stand-alone essay.

The rest of the book deals with specific issues about traits and diseases. It is all standard analysis for this type of book, but it is useful as a fairly recent review of the research as it was published in 2012. The research is constantly changing which means books quickly become less relevant. As the author points out, “Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know.” There are more questions than answers at this point. So, any theory is largely speculation, to varying degrees of probability not easily calculated.

I did have one problem with the book. The author seems to still be trapped within the terminological constraints of the old paradigm of nature versus nurture. He constantly refers to percentages of influences being genetic or environmental. Such claims are meaningless. The author speaks of the problem, but doesn’t get to the core issue.

He argues that the research shows that only a tiny percentage of influence is genetics alone and that only a tiny percentage is environment alone. I suspect, to be most accurate, absolutely zero percent of genetics and environment ever acts alone. They are inseparable. Genetics never exists or acts outside of an environment. And an environment that exists without genetics would be an environment that is irrelevant to human biology and behavior.

As David Shenk explains, in The Genius in All of Us, “heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology.” The larger context of that quote can be found in a previous post of mine, along with quoted material from a bunch of other books. Also, scientific commentary can be found in another of my posts as well.

The paradigm that needs to change isn’t just about data and theory, but also about the terminological and conceptual framework we use to discuss data and theory.

An Upper Working Class British History of the Industrial Revolution

I was at the local public library for no particular reason. It just so happened that I was passing through downtown and stopped in for a brief perusal. When I have the opportunity, I like to check out the new arrivals shelf.

There are always books of interest I can find. On this visit, I grabbed several books, mostly to do with history. The one that I was most interested in was a book by Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. I’m not familiar with the author and I’ve never heard of the title before, but it sounded promising.

Griffin’s focus is on the “working class” and her sources were mostly personal writings. I started reading it last night. I speed read it and finished it today. On top of that, I thoroughly searched the index and I used the search function on Amazon to look for other terms. One could spend more time with it and maybe get more out of it. The book is more than two hundred pages and it is interesting, but not as interesting as I hoped it would be.

The main limitation of the work is that it is surprisingly narrow in focus. The topics considered are mostly mainstream and the interpretation is mostly conventional. I read a lot of alternative histories, what some call revisionist, and this Griffin’s historical account didn’t bring up anything I wasn’t already aware of.

The narrow focus is caused by the source material. As far as I can tell, she entirely relies on British writings. The title was misleading. Her viewpoint was rather parochial, in both senses of the word. She limited herself to a local area of interest, leaving out larger contexts. And, besides personal writings, she relied to a great extent on parish records.

She acknowledged to some degree the limitations of her sources. They were mostly male adults, although I didn’t notice her discuss that the writings she was relying upon probably came from those of the upper working class, those who were successful enough to have the time, money, and opportunity to write. She did turn to other records to try to get at the experiences of women and children, but she never dug down into the experience of the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed of the downtrodden. I know that during early industrialization there were massive numbers of people dying of starvation, malnutrition, and disease in the big cities such as London.

This book wasn’t broadly “A People’s History”. Rather, it was a particular people’s history, the British people. And it was constrained mostly to a particular demographic of that people.

The larger context she ignores includes a wide variety of factors — for example: imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, resource exploitation, native populations, ethnic/racial minorities, the commons and the rights of commoners, enclosure movement, privatization, incarceration, etc.

She doesn’t discuss the English Civil War origins of the religious dissenting tradition. She doesn’t discuss the Levellers and only briefly mentions Quakers a few times. Of course, the influential foreign religious movements such as the German Pietists and the French Huguenots aren’t even referenced, nor do the American Shakers and Harmonists come up. All of these influenced the British experience, in particular for the religious dissenters. It would have been interesting if she had mentioned such things as Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the Manchester mill workers, when the Civil War interrupted trade. What was so interesting about industrialization is that it arose alongside an increasingly globalized and multicultural world.

Also, she only mentions once in passing the terms ‘Luddites’ and ‘Owenite’, but never offers any info about them. Anarchism gets no mention at all while feminism, socialism, communitarianism, and Marxism each get a single mention; plus, one person gets referred to as ‘indentured’; but none of these are given any space for discussion. Democracy and republicanism, the great ideals of the early modern revolutions, don’t even get acknowledged. None of the revolutions are brought up, including the Irish bid for independence. The Irish Potato famine and the London food riots never make an appearance. The Populist movement of the late 1800s doesn’t come up either.

Marx’s compatriot, Engels, does get some attention, although just in the beginning of the text. Some other things that do come up a bit is the co-operative movement and the reform movement. She does go a bit into radicalism, but mostly just to dismiss it from her analysis. It is made clear that her focus is elsewhere.

Her preferred focus is more on the personal realm of experience, of how people lived their lives and the work they did.

As one reviewer explained (S. J. Snyder):

It’s true that the working class’s lot may have risen compared to its past. But, Griffin dodges a couple of issues.

First, directly related to that, she doesn’t address whether or not income inequality rose during the IR, if so, how much, and whether we shouldn’t weigh that in the balance against the reported benefits.

Second, per stereotypes of dirty London and its coal-driven smog, she ignores environmental issues related to the IR, and how much more those affected the working class than the upper class. As part of that failure, she doesn’t address life expectancy issues. (My bits of Googling tell me that child mortality in Britain declined throughout the 1700s, but adult mortality remained unchanged. I can’t find any breakouts by economic class, at least with a brief search.)

The lack of data issue cuts other ways, too. Griffin indicates that the IR seemed to give the working class more money. But, again, we’re not given any data. I don’t know how much is available, but there has to be some.

In other words, it’s a good anecdotal people’s history. But, it’s not more than that.

This isn’t to say she didn’t cover other important topics. She goes into a fair amount of detail about all kinds of things that did interest me: child labour of various sorts, sexual violence and prostitution, single mothers and illegitimate children, courtship and marriage, underemployment and unemployment, rural and urban differences, education opportunities for children and adults, etc.

If you’re fine with the limited scope, it is a useful history for what includes.  The meat of the text probably could be condensed into a short essay. The majority of the book is filled with lots of concrete examples, which is good for those who want more detail. So, for anyone who shares the author’s focus, there might not be any other book that cover the same territory using this particular set of material. It would be a great book for doing research.

As a good source of information, I might go as high as four stars. As an engaging and accessible read, I’d give it an average rating of three stars. But I must detract a bit for all that was left out. It could have been so much more interesting of a book, if it had lived up to its title. Over all, from the perspective of someone with a casual interest in the topic, I’ll give it a solid three stars. It is good for what it is, not great but still a worthy read.

To Serve Truth or Power

“Evolution is a lie”

That is what a sign said that was next to a group of people I passed on the campus of the University of Iowa. They were obviously creationists. I wondered what was their purpose, what they hoped to accomplish. It isn’t as if they are going to change anyone’s mind.

My more gut response was that a lie is a lie. These creationists don’t care about the truth. What they care about is belief. What they believe in is God (or rather their version of God) and God’s power. They believe creationism is true because they believe God said so, and they believe God said so because they believed it when some preacher said God said so. The circular reasoning of faith.

To doubt God and to doubt those who claim to speak for God is to be damned to Hell. It is God’s power and wrath that they fear. This worldview is based on claims of truth that serve power, rather than power that serves truth-seeking.

I’ve never understood that. It is such a cynical worldview of authoritarian power, even if only imaginary. It might be correct that one can’t serve two master’s. If that is the case, I’ll serve truth.

 

A Disconnection Projected

There is an overlap between those who demand immigrants assimilate to mainstream American culture and those who resist having their children assimilate to mainstream American culture by either homeschooling them or sending them to private schools.

I’m not sure how many people fit into this overlap. I suspect it is a significant number. Whatever their numbers, they seem to be a disproportionately vocal demographic.

Their view appears hypocritical, but maybe there is a hidden consistency based on a false belief. These kind of people seem to think their minority culture, typically of right-wing fundamentalism, often of the rural South Bible Belt, is mainstream American culture.

They are so disconnected that they don’t realize they are disconnected. Instead, they project their disconnection onto others and seek to scapegoat them. In reality, most immigrants tend to be more demanding about their children assimilating than are native-born parents and also tend to take the American Dream more seriously.

If everyone home-schooled their children or sent them to private schools, then and only then would American-style assimilation fail. Public schools are the backbone of our shared culture and they have been for a very long time.

It is strange how people forget history. Right-wing fundamentalists were the biggest supporters who originally pushed for public schools, and a major reason they gave was to help the children of immigrants to assimilate. This same group now attacks public schools.

Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.

An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.

The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.

This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.

These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.

That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.

It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.

We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?

Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.

There Are Always Reasons

“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”

Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.

My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.

A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.

 * * * *

I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.

There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.

The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?

* * * *

The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.

Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.

It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.

Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.

* * * *

As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.

No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.

Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.

Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.

Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.

Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.

* * * *

Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.

No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.

Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?

Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.

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