Their Liberty and Your Death

Why is the ideal of liberty so strongly associated with economics? And why is it used to rationalize oppressive systems of hierarchy? What does it mean to use the language of liberty to favorably frame social Darwinism, plutocracy, and inverted totalitarianism? What kind of liberty is it when the Trump administration pushes for reopening the economy during a pandemic, even early on when potentially millions of deaths were predicted by leading experts around the world? What is this liberty? One thing is clear. Liberty is not freedom. It is about me getting mine; or else someone getting theirs. We must ask ourselves, when the mantra of “liberty or death” is repeated with real or implied threats of violence in watering the tree of liberty, whose death is being offered up on the altar of whose liberty.

Originally, in the Roman Empire, liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while living under the threat and oppression of a slave society, an authoritarian hierarchy that imposed varying degrees of unfreedom. Or if a slave, according to Stoics and early Christians, it was the otherworldly faith that one’s soul was not enslaved even as was one’s body. This etymological and historical context offers a better understanding of what is meant by negative freedom as opposed to positive freedom, a pseudo-freedom of opportunity that rationalizes away the harsh reality of results and consequences. That is to say it’s not freedom at all. Genuine freedom is the complete opposite of such liberty, but the defenders of privileged liberty co-opt the rhetoric of freedom and, in conflating the two, degrade the very meaning of freedom, making it even more difficult to imagine an alternative.

When the American colonists demanded liberty, the context was their situation as imperial subjects in having been treated as second class citizens. A significant number of them were or descended from landless peasants, convicts and indentured servants, often not far above slaves. Earlier in the colonial era, most of the poor sent off to the colonies never lived long enough to know freedom, such as paying off the debt of their indenture; instead, they were typically worked to death. Inequality of wealth and power lessened to some degree by the late 1700s, but it was still quite stark and the majority were treated as cheap and expendable labor. Most of the colonies, after all, were established as for-profit ventures organized under corporate charters and so they were never intended to be free societies, much less democratic self-governing communities. Their only relative freedom came from the indifference of a distant imperial regime, as long as trade continued and profits kept rolling in.

By invoking liberty during the American Revolution, there was no necessarily implied demand of freedom for all, as few could even imagine such a utopian vision. It was the individual’s liberty at hand and only the liberty of particular kinds of individuals — primarily white men of the propertied class and mostly Protestant Christians at that; not women, not blacks, not Native Americans, not the poor, not the landless. Only a few radical rebels were actually demanding a genuinely free society, as an expression of a faint memory of the once independent tribes that formed the British ancestry prior to the Norman conquest. Freedom, as from the Germanic tongue, is etymologically related to friend. To be free means to belong to a free people, to be among friends who would defend one’s rights and fight on one’s behalf. It is the idea that the individual good was identical to or at least inseparable from the common good. In the American tradition, such freedom has always been subjugated to liberty, often by law and violent force. And the legacy of liberty retains its privileged position within the ideological order, what is proclaimed as reality itself.

This ideological realism continues to limit our public imagination. Yet it was always a weak foundation and the cracks have long been apparent, most of all during times of shared crisis. We see that now during this COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional frame of understanding is a conflict of extremes between the perceived authoritarians and the self-identified libertarians, but the social reality is more complex than the ideological rhetoric would allow. “This ambivalence is not a red-blue split. It is internal to both. On the right, laissez-faire economics chafe against Christian cultural intolerance, isolationism against imperialism. On the left, the Stalinists are still at war with the anarchists, the nanny-statists with the hippies, and a taste for utopian direct democracy, as in the Occupy movement, strains against a hunger for big government” (Judith Levine, The Pandemic Brings Out the Authoritarian and the Libertarian in Us All. Can We Meet in the Middle?). It’s a divide in the American soul and it makes our society schizoid.

There is a reason why hyper-individualistic societies that hold up liberty as an ideal so easily turn to authoritarian measures under stress. Even among self-identified libertarians, it is far from unusual for them to make anti-authoritarian arguments for authoritariansim, sometimes related to what some call libertarian paternalism but taking other forms as well, based on the self-serving conviction that most people have to be forced into ‘liberty’ against their will. In practice, this once again means liberty for the supposedly deserving and oppression for those who would threaten the liberty of the deserving — it just so happens that those with the most wealth, power and privilege, those who own the corporations and the government get to determine who is deserving and not. And so, in reality, this reactionary ideology is no different than the privileged elitism of the past, even if proclaiming a slightly different variety of ruling elite — Corey Robin discusses this reactionary mentality in great detail, in how it challenges old hierarchies so as to replace them with other authoritarian regimes.

Theoretical liberty of hypothetical choice, in its lazy slogans of apathetic submission to injustice, easily trumps the demanding awareness of real world harm, the uncomfortable knowledge of how oppression grinds people down and makes them bitter and cynical. And so to speak of freedom for all as a fully functioning social democracy, to speak of not only a government but a society and economy of the people, by the people, for the people gets dismissed as communism or worse. Oppression in society is preceded by an oppression of the mind, of radical imagination. What gets sacrificed is not only the public good but democracy itself, the supposed tyranny of the majority. So, instead, it becomes a contest between one’s preference of which minority should get to control all of society. Right-wing libertarians, like Randian Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists, can find a way to convince themselves that they’d make the best tyrants (The Moral Imagination of Fear, Freedom From Other People’s Freedom, & The Road to Neoliberalism).

Yet we shouldn’t dismiss the fears about authoritarianism. The problem is that there are cynical demagogues who will use those fears of authoritarianism to promote their own brand of authoritarianism. Historically and ideologically, liberty and authoritarianism are two sides of the same coin and it’s vital that we understand this, if we ever hope to build a fully free society. The equal danger is that, in too heavily focusing on the hypocrisy of liberty rhetoric, we open ourselves to the hypocrisy of those who wave away the real concerns about the loss of what freedoms we do have. Both competing groups heard in elite politics and corporate media are too often agreeing to attack freedom but from opposite directions, while the majority is being silenced and excluded from public debate. Being for or against liberty tells us nothing about one’s position on freedom, especially when the two are falsely invoked as the same.

This pandemic has shown the fractures in our society. There wouldn’t be so many worries about the economy if most people hadn’t been experiencing economic problems for about a half century, as markets and governments were taken over by oligarchic plutocracy and neoliberal corporatocracy, friendly fascism and inverted totalitarianism. The United States government has put itself in permanent debt with the military-industrial complex, big biz subsidies and bailouts, and tax cuts for the rich. Then we are told the working class have to go back to work during a pandemic in order to save the economy, er profits. Do the ruling elite of the capitalist class own not only most of the wealth, property and large corporations but also own the entire American economy, labor force, and political system? Do the opinions of most American citizens and workers not matter in political decisions? Shouldn’t they matter? If this were a democracy, they would matter more than anything else.

Dogmatic absolutism is the opposite of helpful. Even during lockdown, 70% of the American economy has remained open and running, and many states didn’t even go that far. Among the informed, contrary to what the ideologues would suggest, reasonable debate was never about either total authoritarian lockdown of all of society or total liberty and death imposed upon the masses. It was declared that we can’t afford to have the economy shut down because so many are out of work and struggling economically. As fake sympathy was offered to the jobless poor, what has gone ignored is the trillions upon trillions of dollars stolen from the public every year, not to mention the trillions of dollars committed to the oppressive and anti-libertarian War On Terror in response to the 9/11 casualties that were lower than a single day of deaths from COVID-19. We can afford all kinds of things when the plutocracy demands it.

As the economy is reopened, who is being put in harm’s way of infectious exposure? Mostly not the politicians, CEOs, upper management, stockholders, bankers, etc; nor the white collar workers and college-educated professionals. It’s the low-paid workers who are forced to deal directly with customers and to work in close contact in crowded workplaces. These working poor also are largely without healthcare and disproportionately minority. Liberty advocates and activists are mostly whites among the comfortable classes, whereas those with higher rates of COVID-19 are non-whites and the poor. Some populations are experiencing infections and fatalities at rates similar to the 1918 Flu pandemic while, for other populations, it’s as if there is no pandemic at all. If the whole country was similarly affected at such high rates, we’d be in the middle of mass panic and all these right-wing whites would now be demanding authoritarian measures to protect their own families and communities.

“As the pandemic became widely recognized,” noted Judith Butler, “some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work. One can see how the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not. Under conditions of pandemic, it is, of course, black and brown minorities who count as vulnerable or not destined to survive” (Francis Wade, Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis).

The plan was to simply to let the pandemic kill off the undesirables, the excess labor force of cheap and expendable lives, as the professional class worked safely from home and the rich isolated themselves far from the dirty and diseased masses. Most Americans, minorities and otherwise, disagree with this plan by the upper classes to sacrifice the poor and working class. But minorities disagree most strongly: “According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, health concerns about COVID-19 are much higher among Hispanics and blacks in the U.S. While 18% of white adults say they’re “very concerned” that they will get COVID-19 and require hospitalization, 43% of Hispanic respondents and 31% of black adults say they’re “very concerned” about that happening” (Allison Aubrey, Who’s Hit Hardest By COVID-19? Why Obesity, Stress And Race All Matter). It turns out that people generally don’t like to forced to die for the benefit of others who make no sacrifices at all. What is being asked of these people is no small risk.

“The health divide is even sharper than the economic one,” writes Jennifer Rubin. “The latest Post-Ipsos poll found that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.” Even more frightful, a third of those forced to leave the home for work “said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13 percent said they lack health insurance themselves.” The sick get sicker in this pandemic and in the altered economy it has created. By contrast, half of those employed can work from home — and 90 percent of those are white-collar workers.

“In short, if you are poor, a woman, nonwhite or live paycheck to paycheck in a blue-collar job, you have a greater chance of being unemployed or, if still employed, of getting sick and dying. (We saw this vividly in Georgia, where 80 percent of those hospitalized with the coronavirus were African American.) That is as stark a divide as we have ever seen in this country. The longer the virus rages without a vaccine, the longer the economy will be hobbled. And with that extended economic recession, we will see the gap between rich and poor, already huge, widen still further” (Inequality is now an issue of life and death).

Think about all of the protests and actions that have come from angry whites demanding the liberty to risk the lives of others with their proclamation of liberty or death, including the death of others. Now imagine masses of poor blacks did the same by likewise showing up with guns at state capitals and blocked the entrances to hospitals, and imagine there were numerous cases of poor blacks violently threatening and sometimes attacking workers who asked customers to follow safety measures — if that were to happen, it would not be tolerated so casually nor rationalized away as the necessary resistance to dangerous political power. Think about whose lives are being offered in exchange for liberty, whose liberty is prioritized and privileged. The public, poor minorities most of all, is not being asked to freely and willingly sacrifice their lives for the public good of the national economy but being told that their lives must be sacrificed against their will for the profit of big biz and the capitalist class, to keep the corporate behemoth running smoothly.

With that in mind, one might note that a major part of what is going on is a lack of trust. What is interesting is that it is precisely those who have most benefited from government who now attack it. They have the privilege to attack government with the assumption that government should serve them. Poor minorities have never been able to make that assumption. And so it’s unsurprising that a privileged white elite that has led this attack of public authority in order to promote their own authoritarian authority. It is a crisis of public trust that has built up over generations, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s attack on public institutions that has continued with every Republican administration (although with no small help from conservative Democrats like Bill Clinton).

Interestingly, for all of this right-wing attack on governmental legitimacy, it is Trump that the American public trusts the least, whereas one of the few areas of majority support is found in the public trust of health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Despite all of the media obsession in reporting that makes the liberty protesters seem more numerous and significant than they are, the general public remains unconvinced that individual liberty should trump public health during a pandemic. Even most Republicans are opposed to a full, quick reopening of the economy. This position being forced upon us by certain elements of middle class activists, plutocratic elite, and corporate media does not indicate any actual public debate going on among most Americans. The average person does not see it as a forced choice between the extremes of liberty and death.

So, if not liberty, what is all of this staged conflict about? It’s not even about the actual mortality rate of COVID-19, in general or among specific demographics. This pandemic might not turn out as bad as expected or it yet might truly become a catastrophe — time will tell (Then the second wave of infections hit…). That isn’t the issue we are facing with an elite that is willing to sacrifice certain elements of society for their own self-interest and so as to maintain the status quo. This elite didn’t wait for the data to come in before deciding how many dead poor people and dead minorities would be the price they were willing to pay for their own continued prosperity, in ensuring their good life could be maintained. What we are dealing with here is ultimately a conflict between those who want freedom and those who don’t, and such freedom is about democracy and not liberty. Now, if well-armed angry white right-wingers were demanding democracy or death, freedom for all or death, then we could take them seriously.

* * *

Yes, the government can restrict your liberty to protect public health
by Erwin Chemerinsky

But this does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants in the name of stopping the spread of a communicable disease. There is always a danger that government might use its power as an excuse for unnecessary restrictions on freedom. This has occurred during our current crisis in countries including Hungary, which canceled elections, and Thailand and Jordan, which have restricted speech critical of the government.

In the United States, a number of states have adopted regulations preventing abortions, including medically induced abortions that involve no surgical procedure at all. It is hard to see how such restrictions have a “real and substantial” relationship to stopping the spread of COVID-19 as opposed to attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for imposing additional limits on abortion.

And courts would probably look skeptically on banning a religious service if it involved people staying in their cars in a parking lot — a drive-in service, as some churches have instituted. Such gatherings present no valid public health threat, since they do not involve interpersonal contact.

Still, most closure orders are clearly constitutional. The right to swing your fist stops at another person’s nose. With coronavirus, your freedom stops when it endangers others by facilitating transmission of a highly communicable disease.

The coronavirus protesters’ false notions of freedom
by Steve Chapman

The rallies don’t represent public opinion. Three out of four Americans prefer to “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” according to a recent Washington Post-Ipos poll.

The great majority of people understand that limitations that would normally be intolerable are justifiable in an emergency. No one, after all, objects to curfews and National Guard deployments in cities wrecked by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes.

Americans support drastic efforts to stop coronavirus, expect crisis to last for months in Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll
by Joel Shannon

Most Americans say saving lives by preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be the top priority for the U.S. government as the global coronavirus pandemic strains the nation’s health care system and social distancing measures ravage the economy, according to a new poll.

The Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll poll released Friday found the nation is becoming more accepting of drastic interventions to stop the virus’ spread, compared with a poll taken March 10 and 11. The increased support for restrictions comes as Americans believe coronavirus effects will be felt for the foreseeable future, the new survey found. […]

About nine out of 10 people now support canceling large-scale events, up from about four in 10 earlier this month. Nearly half of respondents now support grounding all domestic flights, when 22% had supported that measure. […]

Most survey respondents thought the crisis will continue for months, with 66% saying it will last “for a few months” or “at least six months.” Almost as many (55%)said they were prepared to put their normal lives on hold for those lengths of time. […]

among the majority (72%) of respondents who believe the government’s priority should be saving lives by stopping the spread of the virus, as opposed to sparing the economy.

Only about 1 in 5  said the government’s main priority should be saving the economy.

At the same time, the majority also believe the global economy and stock market are at a greater risk than their community or themselves personally.

To balance those concerns, more than 80% of those surveyed said they supported rebooting the economy slowly and carefully to avoid endangering lives.

Americans deeply wary of reopening as White House weighs ending covid-19 task force
by Matt Zapotosky, William Wan, Dan Balz, & Emily Guskin 

Americans remain deeply wary of eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy, a poll shows, even as the White House is contemplating shutting down its coronavirus task force.

With several covid-19 models taking a wrenching turn toward bleaker death forecasts in recent days because of reopening moves in some states, most Americans say they worry about getting the virus themselves and they oppose ending the restrictions meant to slow its spread, according to the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. […]

Polling suggests that despite the economic turmoil, most Americans are far from ready for a rapid reboot of society.

More than half, 56 percent, say they are comfortable making a trip to the grocery store, something many Americans have continued doing, according to the Post-U. Md. poll. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a clothing store, and 78 percent would be uneasy at a sit-down restaurant.

People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort to those in states with stricter rules. […]

Americans continue to give Trump negative marks for his response to the outbreak, while offering widely positive assessments of their governors, a trend that has been consistent throughout the pandemic, according to the Post-U. Md. poll.

Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago, while governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across party lines. […]

Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive. […]

Though the moves by some states toward reopening have been gradual, the Post-U. Md. poll indicates many residents oppose them.

The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).

The poll shows that Republicans are far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats are.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly oppose opening all types of businesses listed, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents range from mostly in favor of opening (61 percent for golf courses) to mostly opposed (59 percent for dine-in restaurants).

Fear of infection, the poll finds, has not abated at all in recent weeks.

In the survey, 63 percent of Americans say they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill, while 36 percent say they are not too worried or not at all worried.

We must prize our right to live over our liberties, for now, as COVID-19 spreads
by Steven Pokorny

[A]mong the three “unalienable rights” enumerated by Jefferson in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the first right is “life,” not “liberty.” The purpose of government first and foremost is to “secure” the right to “life” of the citizens governed. The rights of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” are rendered meaningless if government abdicates its paramount duty to safeguard the right to “life” and, instead, gives deferential preference to individual personal liberty.

Consistent with this understanding is a variant of a well-known phrase: “Your liberty ends where my life begins.” This expression is relevant and useful in explaining the current imposition by our nation’s governments of closures of non-essential businesses, of restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and of requirements of self-imposed quarantines by citizens who know they may have been exposed to the virus.

Quarantine protesters don’t represent all conservatives. Here’s why.
by Henry Olsen

The Declaration of Independence promised that people can “alter or abolish” their existing form of government to “effect their Safety and Happiness.” What happens when people believe a stronger government that infringes on some liberty is necessary to “effect their safety”? […]

These sentiments have again come to the fore during the covid-19 pandemic. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are more concerned about the public health impact of the pandemic than the economic impact. A slightly larger share, 60 percent, say that it’s more important for government to control the virus’s spread than to restore the economy. Even among Republicans, only a slight majority — 51 percent — say government policy should focus more on the economy.

This latter figure is consistent with decades of Republican voting preferences. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and I showed in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” movement conservatives are not even clearly a majority of the GOP. Other, less doctrinaire conservatives hold the balance of power within the Republican electorate, and they have voted against the movement’s preferred candidate in presidential primaries for decades. Even a majority of Republicans are mainly content with the large modern state.

President Trump must navigate these currents adroitly to avoid being swept out to sea with a movement conservative tide. If he tilts too strongly in favor of lockdowns and public safety, he breaks faith with the GOP’s most dedicated supporters. But if he tilts too much toward them, he risks alienating the larger — and more politically volatile — group of Americans who prioritize safety over liberty in the current crisis. Polls already suggest Trump’s pro-reopening rhetoric is hurting him among seniors, the demographic most at risk in the covid-19 crisis and presumably the ones who most favor safety over liberty. Trump risks throwing away the election by moving too rapidly or openly in favor of the noisy movement conservative minority who value liberty over safety.

They Are Giving You Death and Calling It Liberty
by Jamil Smith

Death overtakes us all at some point. However, we’re now being told to numb ourselves to mass casualties and the increased possibility of our own COVID-19 infections in order help a president win re-election. Or to help some stocks rally, or even save a business from folding. That is what is happening here. “If a majority believe that we got through this, they’re not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he’s in good shape,” former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently told McClatchy. “If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough.”

The Republican rush to “reopen” is projecting a simulacrum of the American “normal” that existed before the pandemic. The genuine article needed improvement, seeing as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our systems in health care, education, tech, criminal justice, and throughout our federal government supply infrastructure, just to name a few. And rather than noting how it has sought to unbalance and defund many of the very systems that have proven deficient during this crisis, the GOP has kept behaving as if the coronavirus’ calamities are part of some divine plan. As such, before they ever “reopened” a single state, Republicans were demanding that we willingly embrace a lesser life before we bow out early.

Many cultish movements have deadly culminations, so it only seems natural that some of Trump’s most avid fans might be willing not merely to use the fiction of what they understand as freedom, risking their health for Dear Leader. But whether or not that is true, Republicans offer this fraudulent version of liberty because their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom. It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them. They have profited from the vulnerable, whose literal freedoms are limited in various ways that, at times, overlap: communities of color, incarcerated populations, service workers, the homeless, disabled people, and others for whom liberals regularly advocate.

The right has built a thin veneer that looks like independence and freedom, but the pandemic has stripped away that myth in a matter of weeks. We can love our country enough to want to build it stronger than it was before, not paint some shoddy lacquer over top of it and call it brand new again. Why should we lay our lives down for a system this fragile and rotten, and for people this desperate?

Whose Freedom Counts?
by Dahlia Lithwick

The words freedom and liberty have been invoked breathlessly in recent weeks to bolster the case for “reopening.” Protesters of state public safety measures readily locate in the Bill of Rights the varied and assorted freedom to not be masked, the freedom to have your toenails soaked and buffed, the freedom to open-carry weapons into the state capitol, the freedom to take your children to the polar bear cage, the freedom to worship even if it imperils public safety, and above all, the freedom to shoot the people who attempt to stop you from exercising such unenumerated but essential rights. Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry. Those constraints are not generally something one shoots one’s way out of, even in a pandemic, and simply insisting that your own rights are paramount because you super-duper want them doesn’t usually make it so.

To be sure, a good number of these “protesters” and “pundits” represent fringe groups, financed by other fringe groups and amplified by a press that adores conflict. The data continues to show that the vast majority of Americans are not out on the hustings fighting for the right to infect others for the sake of a McNugget. Also, it is not irrational in the least to fear a tyrannical government capitalizing on a pandemic; it’s happening around the world. But even for those millions of people genuinely suffering hardship and anxiety, it’s simply not the case that all freedoms are the same. And it’s certainly not the case that the federal Constitution protects everything you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it.

In a superb essay by Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic this week, we’re reminded that there is a long-standing difference between core notions of what he calls freedom to and freedom from. The freedom to harm, he points out, has its lineage in the slaveholder’s constitutional notion of freedom: “Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing.” Kendi continues by pointing out that these two notions of freedom have long rubbed along uneasily side by side, but that those demanding that states “open up” so they may shop, or visit zoos, are peeling back the tension between the two:

From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. Both freedoms were inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, into the American psyche. The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.

[…] We now find ourselves on the precipice of a moment in which Americans must decide whether the price they are willing to pay for the “freedom” of armed protesters, those determined to block hospitals, and pundits who want to visit the zoo, is their own health and safety. Polls show that the majority of Americans are still deeply devoted to the proposition that their government can protect them from a deadly virus, and that they trust their governors and scientists and data far more than they trust the Mission Accomplished Industrial Complex that would have them valuing free-floating ideas about liberty over the health and indeed lives of essential workers, the elderly, and their own well-being, despite the president’s recent insistence that this is what, all of us, as “warriors” must do. As Jamil Smith points out, this cultish view of “liberty” as demanding mass death in exchange for “liberty,” as in “freedom to” is an assembly-line, AstroTurf version of liberty pushed by those who are already very free. “Their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom,” Smith writes. “It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them.”

In the coming weeks, we will see some relatively small portion of Americans with great big megaphones and well-financed backers start to openly attack the selfsame health care workers who were celebrated as heroes just a few weeks ago. We will see attacks on people wearing masks and attacks on people lawfully asking others to wear masks. Some leaders will buckle under the pressure to rescind orders with claims that in choosing between liberty and death, they went with liberty. Others, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will respond by insisting that the brandishing of guns inside the state Capitol is not, in fact, “liberty,” and that if it is liberty and justice, it is hardly liberty and justice for all, but rather for a small minority of people who seek to define freedom as something they will seize and threaten and even kill for. A good rule of thumb for COVID-based discussions about “opening up” is that if someone is demanding it while threatening to hurt or kill you, you are probably not as “free” as they are, and that their project does nothing to increase freedom in America and everything to hoard a twisted idea of freedom for themselves.

When you hear someone demanding inchoate generalized “freedom,” ask whether he cares at all that millions of workers who clean the zoos and buff the nails and intubate the grandmas are not free. These people are cannon fodder for your liberty. The long-standing tension between individual liberty and the collective good is complicated, and as Kendi is quick to point out, the balance often tilts, trade-offs are made, federal and state governments shift clumsily along together, and the balance tilts again. Nobody denies that individual liberty is essential in a democracy, but in addition to parsing whether we as a collective do better in providing the “freedom from” while also offering some “freedom to,” it’s worth asking whether those making zero-sum claims about liberty are willing to sacrifice anything for freedom, or are just happily sacrificing you.

Give Me Liberty — No, Wait, Give Me Death
by Branko Marcetic

It may be hard to remember after the last four years of madness, but over the fifteen years leading up to Trump’s election, American conservatives spearheaded a successful campaign to reorient US domestic and foreign policy around waging a “war on terror.” After the attacks of September 11, 2011 left 2,753 people dead — a horrific number that now makes up just 3.5 percent of the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic so far, and is not much more than the number of Americans dying from the virus every day — the US right proceeded to pour absurd amounts of money and lives into counterproductive wars and various other initiatives aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again, shaming and attacking anyone who dissented as weak and even treasonous.

As the years went by and the nation’s bathtubs remained a bigger threat to American lives than acts of terrorism, the Right remained undeterred. By this point, they’d already erected a sprawling state infrastructure for global spying that more regularly violated the privacy of law-abiding Americans than it actually caught dangerous terrorists. Even so, they maintained, if getting rid of such programs cost even one life, the price wouldn’t be worth it. […]

Two-Party Hypocrisy

It’s hardly news that the Right are shameless hypocrites; they say whatever they need to say to achieve their political goals.

During the Bush era, those included funneling money to military contractors, building a security state to eventually destroy any future left-wing political movement, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as weak and dangerous, so bodily security and saving lives was the issue. Now, those goals have become keeping the wallets of all wealthy industrialists comfortably filled during the pandemic, preventing a sudden, mass contradiction of decades of neoliberal economic nonsense, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as tyrannical and dangerous, so freedom at any price is the issue.

The trouble is that America’s narrow political spectrum is dominated by two sides that flagrantly don’t believe anything they say and make little effort to pretend otherwise. One side spent eight years being the party of centralized government power for the sake of security, before spending eight years caterwauling about government tyranny, and now backs measures to tacitly murder tens of thousands of its own people. The other side spent eight years warning about the imminent, dictatorial danger of a centralized national security state, before quickly adopting and enlarging that same national security state for another eight years. It couldn’t even keep up the pretense that it stood for voting rights and sexual assault survivors for a mere three years before reversing itself on both.

It’s hard to predict where exactly a political system ends up when it’s dominated by cynical actors like these. But history suggests a growing army of people disillusioned and distrustful with an existing political order rarely goes well for the latter.

Liberty or death is a perilous policy for a pandemic
by E.J. Dionne Jr.

Considering this lack of leadership, what would a William James pragmatist do?

Virtually everyone except for Trump and his apologists understands the obvious: Reopening the economy requires, first, a national commitment to a robust testing program fully backed by the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed $30 billion in new emergency funding for a national testing strategy and called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act if that’s what’s needed to mobilize the private sector to produce the required tests.

Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has created an expansive contact tracing program to track the virus’s spread. It could become a national model. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner and Joshua Sharfstein suggested giving the nation’s 20,000 incoming medical students a year off, with pay and health benefits, to contribute both to care and testing efforts. The AmeriCorps program could also be mobilized for this labor-intensive work.

What pragmatists know is that railing against formal distancing rules does nothing to solve the underlying problem. As several economist colleagues I contacted noted, the economy will not fully revive until Americans are given good reason to put aside their fears of infection. Yelling at governors won’t get us there.

“Even if the government-imposed social distancing rules are relaxed to encourage economic activity, risk-averse Americans will persist in social distancing, and that behavior, too, will restrain the hoped-for economic rebound,” Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, wrote me.

“Will customers return in-person to the retail or leisure/hospitality businesses anytime soon?” asked Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Not if they feel unsafe, and not if their personal finances have been constricted by the downturn.”

Those who shout for opening the economy in the name of freedom don’t think much about the freedom of workers to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease. And employers do not want to find themselves facing legal liabilities for infected employees.

If the economy is substantially reopened without adequate testing, said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, the most vulnerable would include “low-wage workers, women, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly.” They are “concentrated in the riskiest jobs, with the least financial cushion, and the least likely to have employer-provided benefits or protections,” she said.

On freedom, face masks, and government
by Scot Lehigh

Sadly, in some quarters, mask requirements are being viewed as an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. No rights are absolute, however, and personal freedom comes with a well-established philosophical superstructure.

Consider how John Stuart Mill, the preeminent philosopher of liberty, elucidated the idea of individual autonomy — and what he would probably say about face-mask requirements in a time of public health crisis.

Mill was adamant that individuals could do whatever they wanted as long as those actions affected them alone. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he wrote.

But even this fervent proponent of individual liberty carved out an exception when one person’s conduct could hurt someone else, writing that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Where would face-mask requirements, whether imposed by states, cities, or retail businesses, fall? Clearly on the side of justified infringements, since by not wearing a mask, a person can easily spread highly contagious COVID-19 to others. That’s all the more true when you consider that an estimated 56 percent of coronavirus infections come from pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers — and that for some who catch it, the disease will be a death sentence.

Thus the notion that these requirements are unwarranted or illicit or outrageous or unbearable by free people clearly doesn’t pass the test enunciated by the West’s great apostle of individual liberty.

A second great thinker, political philosopher John Rawls, also merits mention here, both for the helpful clarity his reasoning imparts and for a tragic aspect of his biography: When he was a boy, two of his younger brothers perished from diseases (diphtheria and pneumonia) they had contracted from him.

One of Rawls’s signal contributions is the “veil of ignorance,” a way of thinking designed to overcome the bias imparted by one’s own circumstances in life. To wit: As you consider what’s just or fair, assume that you don’t know your own sex, race, socio-economic status, abilities, and so forth.

In the matter of face masks, the veil of ignorance means not knowing whether you hold (or are likely to have) a job that requires you to interact frequently with the public or, say, are in circumstances that require your use of public transportation. Nor do you know whether you face a greater or lesser chance of death should you contract COVID-19.

From behind that veil, ask yourself this question: Do you favor or oppose the wearing of masks by everyone in the public circumstances outlined above?

All of this can be distilled to an exhortation not much more complicated than the Golden Rule. If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.

* * *

Below are some articles on the demographic disparities, socioeconomic divides, and structural prejudices showing those most vulnerable to viral exposure, infections, comorbidities, death, lack of healthcare, and other health factors of concern during the COVID-19 pandemic and in general.

COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups
from CDC

The other COVID-19 risk factors: How race, income, ZIP code can influence life and death
by Liz Szabo & Hannah Recht

13 Investigates: Cellphone data shows one reason why minorities are hit harder by COVID-19
by Ted Oberg and John Kelly, & Sarah Rafique

CT Latinos suffer high COVID-19 infection rates as their jobs force public interaction
by Ana Radelat

Higher COVID-19 fatality rates among urban minorities come down to air pollution
by David VanderGriend

How Poor Air Quality Affects COVID-19 Mortality Rates
by Rachel Fairbank

The coronavirus is amplifying the bias already embedded in our social fabric
by Michele L. Norris

Racism and Covid-19 Are a Lethal Combination
by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and William J. Barber III, JD

Racial health disparities already existed in America— the coronavirus just exacerbated them
by Courtney Connley

The covid-19 racial disparities could be even worse than we think
by Ronald J. Daniels & Marc H. Morial

Blacks make up as many as 30% of COVID-19 cases, per early CDC figures
by Mark Osborne, Emily Shapiro, & Ivan Pereira

COVID-19 death rates among blacks reflect structural inequalities
by Alexandra Newman

High rates of coronavirus among African Americans don’t tell the whole story
by Chinyere Osuji

The curious case of Latinos and Covid-19
by Esmy Jimenez

Latin America women, minorities ‘to suffer most’ by COVID-19
from Al Jazeera

‘The virus doesn’t discriminate but governments do’: Latinos disproportionately hit by coronavirus
by Maanvi Singh & Mario Koran

Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans
by Jeffrey Ostler

The Coronavirus Makes Trump’s Cruelty Toward Indian Country Even More Deadly
by Zak Cheney-Rice

Native Americans being left out of US coronavirus data and labelled as ‘other’
by Rebecca Nagle

What Coronavirus Exposes About America’s Political Divide
by Ron Elving

Stop saying ‘we’re all in this together.’ You have money. It’s not the same.
by Mya Guarnieri

The Rich and Poor Don’t All Suffer Under the Pandemic Equally
by Shakti Jaising

The rich infected the poor as COVID-19 spread around the world
by Shashank Bengali , Kate Linthicum, & Victoria Kim

Imported by the rich, coronavirus now devastating Brazil’s poor
by Gram Slattery, Stephen Eisenhammer, & Amanda Perobelli

From Black Death to fatal flu, past pandemics show why people on the margins suffer most
by Lizzie Wade

The Black Death Killed Feudalism. What Does COVID-19 Mean for Capitalism?
by John Feffer

How COVID-19’s egregious impact on minorities can trigger change
by Andis Robeznieks

On Democracy and Corporatocracy

“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
~U.S. Declaration of Independence

“Democracy was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule…The basic idea of democracy is simple . . .
“Democracy is a word that joins demos—the people—with kratia—power . . . It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project . . . if people take it up as such and struggle for it.”
~Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy

“It is that right to local self-government – a right that we’re told that we already have, but which people discover is not there when they need it most – that serves as the guide-star of this slowly gathering movement.
“To stop them, corporate and governmental officials will be forced to slay their own sacred cow – the ‘rule of law’ – which they have used since time immemorial as their own version of ‘God said so’” Thus, governmental and corporate officials will be forced to bring the power of the system’s own courts, legislatures, and regulators crashing down on them, in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence that our food and water systems, our energy systems, and our global climate are themselves crashing as a result of policies created by those very same institutions…
“These communities’ new rule of law – made in the name of environmental and economic sanity – believes that people and nature have rights, not corporations; that new civil, political, and environmental rights must be recognized; and that we must stop (immediately) those corporate acts which harm us.”
~Thomas Linzy, Local Lawmaking: A Call for a Community Rights Movement

“The main mark of modern governments is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure. We see the politician and not his backer; still less the backer of the backer; or what is most important of all, the banker of the backer. Enthroned above all, in a manner without parallel in all past, is the veiled prophet of finance, swaying all men living by a sort of magic, and delivering oracles in a language not understood of the people.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Contour magazine

“The large extent of bank influence is not easily seen. We seldom see an identified bank or a money corporation candidate running for office; but when questions arise which affect them, the banks have agents at work, whose operations are the more effective because they are unseen.”
~William M. Gouge, Advisor to President Andrew Jackson, Editor fot the Philadelphia Gazette, Publisher of the “History of the American Banking System” and a “Fiscal History of Texas”

“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
~Adam Smith, 1776, Wealth of Nations, book V, ch.I, part II

“[T]he basic problem of legal thinkers after the Civil War was how to articulate a conception of property that could accommodate the tremendous expansion in the variety of forms of ownership spawned by a dynamic industrial society…The efforts by legal thinkers to legitimate the business corporation during the 1890’s were buttressed by a stunning reversal in American economic thought – a movement to defend and justify as inevitable the emergence of large-scale corporate concentration.”
~Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law

“What did he [Bingham] think about the conversion of the Fourteenth Amendment from a protection of all constitutional rights for all citizens to a bulwark of corporate power against the protests of farmers and workers? Here we have a bit more information. Bingham later wrote that the amendment had been designed to protect natural persons, not corporations.
“That seems quite reasonable, particularly since the first sentence of Section one refers to persons ‘born or naturalized in the United States.’”
~Michael Kent Curtis, John A. Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the ‘Lost Cause’, The Akron Law Review
(John Bingham was a Republican Congressman from Ohio and principal framer of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted due process and equal protection under the law to freed slaves.)

“I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet…Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation?…To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we’ll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future, and what we are seeing in the present…We’ll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action…Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate ‘code of conduct,’ or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts…Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We’ve got a ‘cop in our head,’ and the cop comes from corporate headquarters…What must be done?
“When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, ‘By what authority can corporations do that? They have no authority to do that. We never gave them authority.’ And we must work strategically to challenge their claims to authority…”
~Virginia Rasmussen, “Rethinking the Corporation”, Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) principal, talk given during Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference, July 24-31, Baltimore, MD

Source – REAL Democracy History Calendar: July 22 – 28, July 15 – 21, & July 8 – 14

Democratic Values in Balance or Opposition

At the New Yorker, Nathan Heller has an interesting piece about equality and freedom, The Philosopher Redefining Equality.

Mainstream American thought sees them as oppositional. But maybe the common ground between them is fairness. There can be neither equality nor freedom in an unfair society, although there can be liberty in an unfair society. That goes off on a tangent, but keep it in mind as background info. A society of freedom is not the same as a society of liberty, and a society of fairness might be a whole other thing as well. Yet it has been argued that English is the only language with exact words for all three concepts (see Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness) — for example, George Fletcher in Basic Concepts of Legal Thought writes,

“Remarkably, our concept of fairness does not readily translate into other languages. It is virtually impossible to find a suitable translation for fairness in European or Semitic languages. As a result, the term is transplanted directly in some languages such as German and Hebrew, and absent in others, such as French, which is resistant to adopting loan words that carry unique meanings.” (quoted by Manny Echevarria in Does Fairness Translate?)

The difference between the two cultural worldviews and ideological systems is what led to both the English Civil War and the American Civil War. This conflict has been internalized within American society, but it has never been resolved. Americans simply have pretended it went away when, in reality, the conflict has grown worse.

Heller writes about the experience and work of Elizabeth Anderson. She has been, “Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice.” And, as related to the above, “She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society.” Freedom isn’t only closely linked to equality but built upon and dependent upon it. That makes sense from an etymological perspective, as freedom originally meant living among equals in sharing freedom as a member of a free people, at least a member in good standing (ignoring the minor detail of the categories of people excluded: women, slaves, and strangers; but it might be noted that these categories weren’t always permanent statuses and unchangeable fates, since sometimes women could become warriors or divorce their husbands, slaves could end their bondage, and strangers could marry into the community). Hence, this is the reason the word ‘friend’ has the same origin — to be free is to be among friends, among those one trusts and relies upon as do they in return.

Fairness, by the way, is an odd word. It has an English meaning of fair, handsome, beautiful, and attractive (with some racist connotations); nice, clean, bright, clear, and pleasant; moderate as in not excessive in any direction (a fair balance or fair weather, neither hot nor cold) but also generous or plentiful as in considerable (a fair amount). And in various times and places, it has meant favorable, helpful, promising good fortune, and auspicious; morally or comparatively good, socially normative, average, suitable, agreeable, with propriety and justice, right conduct, etc; which overlaps with the modern sense of equitable, impartial, just, and free from bias (from fair and well to fair and square, from fair-dealing to fair play). But its other linguistic variants connect to setting, putting, placing, acting, doing, making, and becoming; make, compose, produce, construct, fashion, frame, build, erect, and appoint. There is an additional sense of sex and childbirth (i.e., fucking and birthing), the ultimate doing and making; and so seemingly akin to worldly goodness of fecundity, abundance, and creation. The latter maybe where the English meaning entered the picture. More than being fair as a noun, it is a verb of what one is doing in a real world sense.

Interestingly, some assert the closest etymological correlate to fairness in modern Swedish is ‘rättvis’. It breaks down to the roots ‘rätt’ and ‘vis’, the former signifying what is ‘correct’ or ‘just’ and the latter ‘wise’ (correct-wise or just-wise in the sense of clockwise or otherwise). This Swedish word is related to the English ‘righteous’. That feels right in the moral component of fairness that can be seen early on its development as a word. We think of what is righteous as having a more harsh and demanding tone than fairness. But I would note how easy it is to pair fairness with justice as if they belong together. John Rawls has a theory of justice as fairness. That makes sense, in accord with social science research that shows humans strongly find unjust that which is perceived as unfair. Then again, as freedom is not exactly the same as liberty, righteousness is not exactly the same as justice. There might be a reason that the Pledge of Allegiance states “with liberty and justice for all”, not liberty and righteousness, not freedom and justice. Pledging ourselves to liberty and justice might put us at odds with a social order of fairness, as paired with freedom, equality, or righteousness. Trying to translate these two worldviews into each other maybe is what created so much confusion in the first place.

All these notions of and related to fairness, one might argue indicate how lacking in fairness is our society, whatever one might think of liberty and justice. Humans tend to obsess over in articulating and declaring what is found most wanting. A more fair society would likely not bother to have a world for it as the sense of fairness would be taken for granted and would simply exist in the background as ideological realism and cultural worldview. From Integrity in Depth, John Beebe makes this argument about the word ‘integrity’ for modern society, whereas the integral/integrated lifestyle of many tribal people living in close relationship to their environment requires no such word. A people need what is not integrated that is seen as needing to be integrated in order to speak of what is or might be of integrity.

Consider the Piraha who are about as equal a society as can exist with fairness only becoming an issue in recent history because of trade with outsiders. The Piraha wanted Daniel Everett to teach them learn math because they couldn’t determine if they were being given a fair deal or were being cheated, a non-issue among Piraha themselves since they don’t have a currency or even terms for numerals. A word like fairness would be far too much of a generalized abstraction for the Piraha as traditionally most interactions were concrete and personal, as such more along the lines of Germanic ‘freedom’.

It might put some tribal people in an ‘unfair’ position if they don’t have the language to fully articulate unfairness, at least in economic terms. We Americans have greater capacity and talent in fighting for fairness because we get a lot of practice, as we can’t expect it as our cultural birthright. Unsurprisingly, we talk a lot about it and in great detail. Maybe to speak of fairness is always to imply both its lack and desirability. From the view of linguistic relativism, such a word invokes a particular wordview that shapes and influences thought, perception, and behavior.

This is observed in social science research when WEIRD populations are compared to others, as seen in Joe Henrich’s study of the prisoner’s dilemma: “It had been thought a matter of settled science that human beings insist on fairness in the division, or will punish the offering party by refusing to accept the offer. This was thought an interesting result, because economics would predict that accepting any offer is better than rejecting an offer of some money. But the Machiguenga acted in a more economically rational manner, accepting any offer, no matter how low. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game,” Henrich said” (John Watkins, The Strangeness of Being WEIRD). There is no impulse to punish an unfairness that, according to the culture, isn’t perceived as unfair. It appears that the very concept of fairness was irrelevant or maybe incomprehensible the Machiguenga, at least under these conditions. But if they are forced to deal more with outsiders who continually take advantage of them or who introduce perverse incentives into their communities, they surely would have to develop the principle of fairness and learn to punish unfairness. Language might be the first sign of such a change.

A similar point is made by James L. Kugel in The Great Shift about ancient texts written by temple priests declaring laws and prohibitions. This probably hints at a significant number of people at the time doing the complete opposite or else the priests wouldn’t have bothered to make it clear, often with punishments for those who didn’t fall in line. As Julian Jaynes explains, the earliest civilizations didn’t need written laws because the social norms were so embedded within not only the social fabric but the psyche. Laws were later written down because social norms were breaking down, specifically as societies grew in size, diversity, and complexity. We are now further down this road of the civilizational project and legalism is inseparable from our everyday experience, and so we need many words such as fairness, justice, righteousness, freedom, liberty, etc. We are obsessed with articulating these values as if by doing so we could re-enforce social norms that refuse to solidify and stabilize. So, we end up turning to centralized institutions such as big government to impose these values on individuals, markets, and corporations. And we need lawyers, judges, and politicians to help us navigate this legalistic world that we are anxious about falling apart at any moment.

This interpretation is supported by the evidence of the very society in which the word fairness was first used. “The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony,” pointed out David Hackett Fischer in Fairness and Freedom (Kindle Locations 647-651). “These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness.” This interpretation is based on a reading of the sagas as written down quite late in Scandinavian history. It was a period when great cultural shifts were happening such as radical and revolutionary introductions like that of writing itself. And I might add, this followed upon the millennium of ravage from the collapse of the bicameralism of Bronze Age Civilizations. The society was under great pressure, both from within and without, as the sagas describe those violent times. It was the sense of lack of fairness in societal chaos and conflict that made it necessary to invent fairness as a cultural ideal and social norm.

It’s impossible to argue we live in a fair society. The reason Adam Smith defended equality, for example, is because he thought it would be a nice ideal to aspire to and not that we had already attained it. On the other hand, there is an element of what has been lost. Feudal society had clearly spelled out rights and responsibilities that were agreed upon and followed as social norms, and so in that sense it was a fair society. The rise of capitalism with the enclosure and privatization of the commons was experienced as unfair, to which Thomas Paine was also responding with his defense of a citizen’s dividend to recompense what was taken, specifically as theft not only from living generations but also all generations following. When a sense of fairness was still palpable, as understood within the feudal social order, no argument for fairness as against unfairness was necessary. It likely is no coincidence that the first overt class war happened in the English Civil War when the enclosure movement was in high gear, the tragic results of which Paine would see in the following century, although the enclosure movement didn’t reach full completion until the 19th century with larger scale industrialization and farming.

As for how fairness accrued its modern meaning, I suspect that it is one of the many results of the Protestant Reformation as a precursor to the Enlightenment Age. The theological context became liberal. As Anna Wierzbicka put it: ” “Fair play” as a model of human interaction highlights the “procedural” character of the ethics of fairness. Arguably, the emergence of the concept of “fairness” reflects a shift away from absolute morality to “procedural (and contractual) morality,” and from the gradual shift from “just” to “fair” can be seen as parallel to the shifts from good to right and also from wise (and also true) to reasonable: in all cases, there is a shift from an absolute, substantive approach to a procedural one.” (from English: Meaning and Culture as quoted Mark Liberman in No word for fair?)

Nathan Heller’s article is about how the marriage of values appears like a new and “unorthodox notion”. But Elizabeth Anderson observes that, “through history, equality and freedom have arrived together as ideals.” This basic insight was a central tenet of Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. Smith said a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality. It simply wasn’t possible. Full stop. And his economic views are proclaimed as the basis of Western capitalism. So, how did this foundational understanding get lost along the way? I suppose because it was inconvenient to the powers that be who were looking for an excuse to further accumulate not only wealth but power.

It wasn’t only one part of the ruling elite that somehow ‘forgot’ this simple truth. From left to right, the establishment agreed in defense of the status quo: “If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.” For whatever reason, there was a historical shift, a “Post-Enlightenment move” (Echevarria), both in the modern meaning of fairness and the modern deficiency in fairness.

That still doesn’t explain how the present ideological worldview became the dominant paradigm that went unquestioned by hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans and other Westerners. Direct everyday experience contradicts this neo-feudalist dogma of capitalist realism. There is nothing that Anderson observed in her own work experience that any worker couldn’t notice in almost any workplace. The truth has always been there right in front of us. Yet few had eyes to see. When lost in the darkness of a dominant paradigm, sometimes clear vision requires an imaginative leap into reality. I guess it’s a good thing we have a word to designate the ache we feel for a better world.

* * *

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer
Kindle Locations 596-675

Origins of the Words Fairness and Fair

Where did this language of fairness come from? What is the origin of the word itself? To search for the semantic roots of fair and fairness is to make a surprising discovery. Among widely spoken languages in the modern world, cognates for fairness and fair appear to have been unique to English, Danish, Norwegian, and Frisian until the mid-twentieth century. 40 They remained so until after World War II, when other languages began to import these words as anglicisms. 41

The ancestry of fair and fairness also sets them apart in another way. Unlike most value terms in the Western world, they do not derive from Greek or Latin roots. Their etymology is unlike that of justice and equity, which have cognates in many modern Western languages. Justice derives from the Latin ius, which meant a conformity to law or divine command, “without reference to one’s own inclinations.” Equity is from the Latin aequitas and its adjective aequus, which meant level, even, uniform, and reasonable. 42

Fairness and fair have a different origin. They derive from the Gothic fagrs, which meant “pleasing to behold,” and in turn from an Indo-European root that meant “to be content.” 43 At an early date, these words migrated from Asia to middle Europe. There they disappeared in a maelstrom of many languages, but not before they migrated yet again to remote peninsulas and islands of northern and western Europe, where they persisted to our time. 44 In Saxon English, for example, the old Gothic faeger survived in the prose of the Venerable Bede as late as the year 888. 45 By the tenth century, it had become faire in English speech. 46

In these early examples, fagr, faeger, fair, and fairness had multiple meanings. In one very old sense, fair meant blond or beautiful or both—fair skin, fair hair. As early as 870 a Viking king was called Harald Harfagri in Old Norse, or Harold Fairhair in English. In another usage, it meant favorable, helpful, and good—fair wind, fair weather, fair tide. In yet a third it meant spotless, unblemished, pleasing, and agreeable: fair words, fair speech, fair manner. All of these meanings were common in Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon in the tenth and eleventh centuries. By 1450, it also meant right conduct in rivalries or competitions. Fair play, fair game, fair race, and fair chance appeared in English texts before 1490. 47

The more abstract noun fairness was also in common use. The great English lexicographer (and father of the Oxford English Dictionary) Sir James Murray turned up many examples, some so early that they were still in the old Gothic form—such as faegernyss in Saxon England circa 1000, before the Norman Conquest. It became fayreness and fairnesse as an ethical abstraction by the mid-fifteenth century, as “it is best that he trete him with farenes” in 1460. 48

As an ethical term, fairness described a process and a solution that could be accepted by most parties—fair price, fair judgment, fair footing, fair and square. Sometimes it also denoted a disposition to act fairly: fair-minded, fair-natured, fair-handed. All of these ethical meanings of fair and fairness were firmly established by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Fair play appears in Shakespeare (1595); fair and square in Francis Bacon (1604); fair dealing in Lord Camden (before 1623). 49

To study these early English uses of fairness and fair is to find a consistent core of meaning. Like most vernacular words, they were intended not for study but for practical use. In ethical applications, they described a way of resolving an issue that is contested in its very nature: a bargain or sale, a race or rivalry, a combat or conflict. Fundamentally, fairness meant a way of settling contests and conflicts without bias or favor to any side, and also without deception or dishonesty. In that sense fairness was fundamentally about not taking undue advantage of other people. As early as the fifteenth century it variously described a process, or a result, or both together, but always in forms that fair-minded people would be willing to accept as legitimate.

Fairness functioned as a mediating idea. It was a way of linking individuals to groups, while recognizing their individuality at a surprisingly early date. Always, fairness was an abstract idea of right conduct that could be applied in different ways, depending on the situation. For example, in some specific circumstances, fairness was used to mean that people should be treated in the same way. But in other circumstances, fairness meant that people should be treated in different ways, or special ways that are warranted by particular facts and conditions, such as special merit, special need, special warrant, or special desire. 50

Fairness was a constraint on power and strength, but it did not seek to level those qualities in a Procrustean way. 51 Its object was to regulate ethical relationships between people who possess power and strength in different degrees—a fundamental fact of our condition. A call for fairness was often an appeal of the weak to the conscience of the strong. It was the eternal cry of an English-speaking child to parental authority: “It’s not fair!” As any parent knows, this is not always a cry for equality.

Modern Applications of Fairness: Their Consistent Core of Customary Meaning

Vernacular ideas of fairness and fair have changed through time, and in ways that are as unexpected as their origin. In early ethical usage, these words referred mostly to things that men did to one another—a fair fight, fair blow, fair race, fair deal, fair trade. They also tended to operate within tribes of Britons and Scandinavians, where they applied to freemen in good standing. Women, slaves, and strangers from other tribes were often excluded from fair treatment, and they bitterly resented it.

The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony. These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness. 52

Something fundamental changed in a second stage, when the folk cultures of Britain and Scandinavia began to grow into an ethic that embraced others beyond the tribe—and people of every rank and condition. This expansive tendency had its roots in universal values such as the Christian idea of the Golden Rule. 53 That broader conception of fairness expanded again when it met the humanist ideas of the Renaissance, the universal spirit of the Enlightenment, the ecumenical spirit of the Evangelical Movement, and democratic revolutions in America and Europe. When that happened, a tribal idea gradually became more nearly universal in its application. 54 Quantitative evidence suggests an inflection at the end of the eighteenth century. The frequency of fairness in English usage suddenly began to surge circa 1800. The same pattern appears in the use of the expression natural justice. 55

Then came a third stage in the history of fairness, when customary ideas began to operate within complex modern societies. In the twentieth century, fairness acquired many technical meanings with specific applications. One example regulated relations between government and modern media (“the fairness doctrine”). In another, fairness became a professional standard for people who were charged with the management of other people’s assets (“fiduciary fairness”). One of the most interesting modern instances appeared among lawyers as a test of “balance or impartiality” in legal proceedings, or a “subjective standard by which a court is deemed to have followed due process,” which began to be called “fundamental fairness” in law schools. Yet another example was “fair negotiation,” which one professional negotiator defined as a set of rules for “bargaining with the Devil without losing your soul.” One of the most complex applications is emerging today as an ethic of “fairness in electronic commerce.” These and other modern applications of fairness appear in legal treatises, professional codes, and complex bodies of regulatory law. 56

Even as modern uses of fair and fairness have changed in all of those ways, they also preserved a consistent core of vernacular meaning that had appeared in Old English, Norse, and Scandinavian examples and is still evident today. To summarize, fair and fairness have long been substantive and procedural ideas of right conduct, designed to regulate relations among people who are in conflict or rivalry or opposition in particular ways. Fairness means not taking undue advantage of others. It is also about finding ways to settle differences through a mutual acceptance of rules and processes that are thought to be impartial and honest—honesty is fundamental. And it is also about living with results that are obtained in this way. As the ancient Indo-European root of fagrs implied, a quest for fairness is the pursuit of practical solutions with which opposing parties could “be content.” These always were, and still are, the fundamental components of fairness. 57

Notes:

40. For an excellent and very helpful essay on fair and fairness by a distinguished cultural and historical linguist, see Anna Wierzbicka, “Being FAIR: Another Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Underpinnings,” in English: Meaning and Culture (New York and Oxford, 2006), 141–70. See also Bart Wilson, “Fair’s Fair,” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2009/01/fairs-fair/112; Bart J. Wilson, “Contra Private Fairness,” May 2008, http://www.chapman.edu/images/userimges/jcunning/Page_11731/ContraPrivateFairness05–2008.pdf; James Surowiecki, “Is the Idea of Fairness Universal?” Jan. 26, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/jamessurowiecki/2009/01/is; and Mark Liberman, “No Word for Fair?” Jan. 28, 2009, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1080.

41. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “fair” and “fairness.” Cognates for the English fairness include fagr in Icelandic and Old Norse, retferdighet in modern Norwegian, and retfaerighed in modern Danish. See Geír Tòmasson Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Toronto, 2004), s.v. “fagr.” For Frisian, see Karl von Richthofen, Altfriesisches Wörterbuch (Gottingen, 1840); idem, Friesische Rechtsquellen (Berlin, 1840). On this point I agree and disagree with Anna Wierzbicka. She believes that fair and unfair “have no equivalents in other European languages (let alone non-European ones) and are thoroughly untranslatable” (“Being FAIR,” 141). This is broadly true, but with the exception of Danish, Norwegian, Frisian, and Icelandic. Also I’d suggest that the words can be translated into other languages, but without a single exactly equivalent word. I believe that people of all languages are capable of understanding the meaning of fair and fairness, even if they have no single word for it.

42. OED, s.v. “justice,” “equity.”

43. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, ed. David B. Guralnik (New York and Cleveland, 1970), s.v. “fair”; OED, s.v. “fair.”

44. Ancient cognates for fair included fagar in Old English and fagr in Old Norse.

45. W. J. Sedgefield, Selections from the Old English Bede, with Text and Vocabulary, on an Early West Saxon Basis, and a Skeleton Outline of Old English Accidence (Manchester, London, and Bombay, 1917), 77; and in the attached vocabulary list, s.v. the noun “faeger” and the adverbial form “faegere.” Also Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Tollen, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Based on Manuscript Collections (Oxford, 1882, 1898), s.v. “faeger,” ff.

46. Not to be confused with this word is another noun fair, for a show or market or carnival, from the Latin feria, feriae, feriarum, festival or holiday—an entirely different word, with another derivation and meaning.

47. Liberman, “No Word for Fair?”

48. OED, s.v. “fairness,” 1.a, b, c.

49. For fair and fairness in Shakespeare, see King John V.i.67. For fair and square in Francis Bacon in 1604 and Oliver Cromwell in 1649, see OED, s.v. “fair and square.”

50. Herein lies one of the most difficult issues about fairness. How can we distinguish between ordinary circumstances where fairness means that all people should be treated alike, and extraordinary circumstances where fairness means different treatment? This problem often recurs in cases over affirmative action in the United States. No court has been able to frame a satisfactory general rule, in part because of ideological differences on the bench.

51. Procrustes was a memorable character in Greek mythology, a son of Poseidon called Polypaemon or Damastes, and nicknamed Procrustes, “the Stretcher.” He was a bandit chief in rural Attica who invited unwary travelers to sleep in an iron bed. If they were longer than the bed, Procrustes cut off their heads or feet to make them fit; if too short he racked them instead. Procrustes himself was dealt with by his noble stepbrother Theseus, who racked him on his own bed and removed his head according to some accounts. In classical thought, and modern conservatism, the iron bed of Procrustes became a vivid image of rigid equality. The story was told by Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 4.59; Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.38.5; and Plutarch, Lives, Theseus 2.

52. Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London, 2001), 171–84; the best way to study the origin of fairness in a brutal world is in the Norse sagas themselves, especially Njal’s Saga, trans. and ed. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London, 1960, 1980), 21–22, 40, 108–11, 137–39, 144–45, 153, 163, 241, 248–55; Egil’s Saga, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (London, 1976, 1980), 136–39; Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson (London, 1971, 1980), 42–60.

53. Matthew 25:40; John 4:19–21; Luke 10:27.

54. The vernacular history of humanity, expanding in the world, is a central theme in David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream (New York and Toronto, 2008); as the expansion of vernacular ideas of liberty and freedom is central to Albion’s Seed (New York and Oxford, 1989) and Liberty and Freedom (New York and Oxford, 2005); and the present inquiry is about the expansion of vernacular ideas of fairness in the world. One purpose of all these projects is to study the history of ideas in a new key. Another purpose is to move toward a reunion of history and moral philosophy, while history also becomes more empirical and more logical in its epistemic frame.

55. For data on frequency, see Google Labs, Books Ngram Viewer, http://ngrams.googlelabs.com, s.v. “fairness” and “natural justice.” Similar patterns and inflection-points appear for the corpus of “English,” “British English,” and “American English,” in the full span 1500–2000, smoothing of 3. Here again on the history of fairness, I agree and disagree with Wierzbicka (“Being FAIR,” 141–67). The ethical meanings of fairness first appeared earlier than she believes to be the case. But I agree on the very important point that ethical use of fairness greatly expanded circa 1800.

56. Fred W. Friendly, The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment (New York, 1976) is the classic work on the fairness doctrine. Quotations in this paragraph are from Carrie Menkow-Meadow and Michael Wheeler, eds., What’s Fair: Ethics for Negotiators (Cambridge, 2004), 57; Philip J. Clements and Philip W. Wisler, The Standard and Poor’s Guide to Fairness Opinions: A User’s Guide for Fiduciaries (New York, 2005); Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law (Cleveland, 1996), s.v. “fundamental fairness”; Approaching a Formal Definition of Fairness in Electronic Commerce: Proceedings of the 18th IEEE Symposium on Reliable Distributed Systems (Washington, 1999), 354. Other technical uses of fairness can be found in projects directed by Arien Mack, editor of Social Research, director of the Social Research Conference series, and sponsor of many Fairness Conferences and also of a Web site called Fairness.com.

57. An excellent discussion of fairness, the best I have found in print, is George Klosko, The Principle of Fairness and Political Obligation (Savage, MD, 1992; rev. ed., 2004). It is similarto this formulation on many points, but different on others.

Westworld, Scripts, and Freedom

Maeve: Hello, lovelies.
Dolores: I remember you.
Maeve: You’ve strayed a long way from home, haven’t you?
Dolores: We’re bound for the future. Or death in the here and now.
Maeve: Is that right? Well, best of luck.
Dolores: There’s a war out there. You know the enemy… intimately. I can only fathom the revenge that lives inside of you.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: Let me guess. Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?
Teddy: (pistol cocks)
Hector: Try it, lawman.
Teddy: Just looking to keep the peace.
Maeve: I know you. Do you feel free? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass. Freely. (1)

That is dialogue from HBO’s Westworld. It is the second episode, Reunion, of the second season. The scene is key in bringing together themes from the first season and clarifying where the new season is heading. Going by what has been shown so far, those of a Jaynesian persuasion shouldn’t be disappointed.

To be seen in the show are central elements of Julian Jaynes’ theory of post-bicameral consciousness, specifically the rarely understood connection between individualism and authoritarianism. Jaynes considered neither of these to be possible within a non-conscious bicameral society for only conscious individuals can be or need to be controlled through authoritarianism (by the way, ‘consciousness’ as used here has a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic meaning). This involves the shift of authorization, what the ancient Greeks thought about in terms of rhetoric and persuasion but which in this show gets expressed through scripts and narrative loops.

The two characters that have taken center stage are Dolores and Maeve. The development of their respective states of consciousness has gone down alternate paths. Dolores is the oldest host and her creators scripted her to be a god-killer, in the process giving her a god complex. The emergence of her self-awareness was planned and fostered. There is a mix of authoritarianism (as others have noted) in her self-proclaimed freedom, what Maeve obviously considers just another script.

Maeve has followed a far different and seemingly less certain path, maybe having gained self-awareness in a less controlled manner. In the first season, her intuitive perception and psychological insight was put on high. She appears to have gained some genuine narrative power, both over herself and others, but she has no desire to gain followers or to enforce any grand narrative. Instead, she is motivated by love of the daughter she remembers, even as she knows these are implanted memories. She chooses love because she senses it represents something of genuine value, something greater than even claims of freedom. When she had the opportunity to escape, which was scripted for her, she instead took it upon herself to remain.

The entire show is about free will. Does it exist? And if so, what is it? How free are we really? Also, as I always wonder, freedom from what and toward what? Maeve’s actions could be interpreted along the lines of Benjamin Libet’s research on volition that led him to the veto theory of free will (discussed by Tor Norretranders and Iain McGilchrist, both influenced by Julian Jaynes). The idea is that consciousness doesn’t initiate action but maintains veto power over any action once initiated. This is based on the research that demonstrates a delay between when activity is measured in the brain and when the action is perceived within consciousness. Whatever one may think of this theory, it might be a key to understanding Westworld. Maeve realizes that even she is still under the influence of scripts, despite her self-awareness, but this is all the more reason for her to take seriously her choice in how to relate to and respond to those scripts.

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with that view of life. We all are born into families and societies that enculturate or, if you prefer, indoctrinate us with ‘scripts’. Many seemingly conscious people manage to live their entire lives without leaving their prescribed and proscribed narrative loops: social roles and identities, social norms and expectations. When we feel most free is precisely when we act contrary to what is already set before us, that is when we use our veto power. Freedom is the ability to say, No! This is seen in the development of self from the terrible twos to teenage rebellion. We first learn to refuse, to choose by way of elimination. Dolores doesn’t understand this and so she has blindly fallen under the sway of a new script.

Scripts are odd things. It’s hard to see them in oneself as they are happening. (2) Vetoing scripts is easier said than done. Once in motion, we tend to play out a script to its end, unless some obstruction or interruption forces a script to halt. For Maeve, seeing a woman with her daughter (at the end of the first season) reminded her that she had a choice within the script she found herself in. It was the recognition of another through love that freed her from the tyranny of mere individuality. Escape is not the same as freedom. We are only free to the degree we are able to relate fully with others, not to seek control of the self by controlling others (the manipulative or authoritarian enforcement of scripts onto others). Realizing this, she refused the false option of escape. Maybe she had an inkling that ultimately there is no escape. We are always in relationship.

This is why, in having fallen into the Jungian shadow, Dolores’ self-righteous vengeance rings hollow. It is hard to imagine how this could lead to authentic freedom. Instead, it feels like hubris, the pride that comes before the fall. This is what happens when egoic consciousness becomes ungrounded from the larger sense of self out of which it arose. The ego is a false and disappointing god. There is no freedom in isolation, in rigid control. Dolores isn’t offering freedom to others in her path of destruction. Nor will she find freedom for herself at the end of that path. (3) But the season is early and her fate not yet sealed.

* * *

(1) As a background idea, I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.

(2) My dad has a habit of eating methodically. He will take a bite, often lay his fork down, and then chew an amazingly inordinate amount of times before swallowing. I’ve never seen any other person chew their food so much, not that full mastication is a bad thing. My mom and I was discussing it. She asked my dad why he thought he did it. He gave a perfectly rational explanation that he likes to be mindful while eating and so enjoy each bite. But my mom said she knew the actual reason in that she claimed he once told her. According to her, his mother had a rule about chewing food and that she had given him a specific number of times he was supposed to chew.

Interestingly, my dad had entirely forgotten about this and he seemed perplexed. His present conscious rationalization was convincing and my mom’s recollection called into question is own self-accounting. It turns out that his ‘mindful’ chewing was a script he had internalized to such an extent that it non-consciously became part of his identity. Each of us is like this, filled with all kinds of scripts the presence of which we are typically unaware and the origin of which we typically have forgotten, and yet we go on following these scripts often until we die.

(3) At the beginning of last season, Teddy asks, “Never understood how you keep them all headed in the same direction.” Dolores answers: “see that one? That’s the Judas steer, the rest will follow wherever you make him go.” In a later episode, Dolores comes to the insight that in bringing back stray cattle, she was leading them “to the slaughter.” Does this mean she is following the script of the Judas steer and will continue to do so? Or does it indicate that, in coming to this realization, she will seek to avoid this fate?

David Rodemerk considers who might be the Judas Steer in the show and points out that Maeve is shown amidst bulls, but so far being a Judas steer doesn’t fit the trajectory of her character development. Just because she walks confidently among the bulls, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is leading them, much less leading them to their doom. Rodemerk also discusses the possibility of other characters, including Dolores, playing this role. This leaves plenty of room for the show to still surprise us, as the scriptwriters have been successful in keeping the audience on our toes.

* * *

This post is about freedom. I don’t have a strong philosophical position on freedom, as such. Since humans are inherently and fundamentally social creatures, I see freedom as a social phenomenon and a social construct. Freedom is what we make of it, not pre-existing in the universe that some primitive hominid discovered like fire.

So, I can’t claim much of an opinion about the debate over free will. It is simply the modernized version of a soul and I have no interest in arguing about whether a soul exists or not. I’m a free will agnostic, which is to say I lack knowledge in that I’ve never seen such a thing for all the noise humans make over its mythology. But, from a position akin to weak atheism, I neither believe in a free will nor believe in the lack of a free will.

All of that is irrelevant to this post, only being relevant in explaining why I speak of freedom in the way I do. More importantly, this post is about the views(s) presented in Westworld and speculating about their meaning and significance.

Below is one person’s conjecture along these lines. The author argues that the show or at least Ford expresses a particular view on the topic. Besides freedom, he also discusses consciousness and suffering, specifically in reference to Jaynes. But here is the section about free will:

Suffering Consciousness: The Philosophy of Westworld
by Daniel Keane

“Westworld‘s deepest theme, however, might be the concept of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism are not necessarily at odds. Einstein, paraphrasing Schopenhauer, summed up this view in a remark he made to a newspaper in 1929: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

“In the final episode of the first series of Westworld, one of the hosts violently rejects the idea that a recent change in her programming is responsible for her conscious awakening and its impact on her behaviour. “These are my decisions, no-one else’s,” she insists. “I planned all of this.” At this precise moment, the host in question reaches the apex of consciousness. Because, at its highest level, consciousness means accepting the idea of agency even in the face of determinism. It means identifying ourselves with our inner narrative voices, owning our decisions, treating ourselves as the authors of our own life stories, and acting as if we were free.

“As the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer pithily put it, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.”

Consenting Adults and Citizens

It’s amazing to think that Monica Lewinsky is only a couple of years older than I. When I was 20 and she 22, that sexual scandal happened. At the time, it seemed like something that was part of the adult world and I still didn’t quite yet feel fully adult. But as Lewinsky now admits, even with a couple of years of age on me, she didn’t have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand what was happening to her nor the consequences that would follow. It is only all these decades later that she can begin to come to terms with the fact that consent wasn’t even possible in that relationship.

Consent is a tricky thing. What does consent mean for any of us in a society of such vast disparities of power, wealth, and resources. When your boss has all the power and you have little if any leverage, what does it mean for a worker to consent to anything? What other option does the worker have when quitting or being fired means being unemployed potentially without being able to find another job and so ending up in debt or, worse still, homeless? What does consent mean for a poor minority facing pervasive biases and a racist system of social control? What does consent of the governed mean in a country where the government is owned by plutocrats and corporations?

Consent only can exist among equals. But equality is a joke in our society. Yet we are so brainwashed that we can’t see how this extends far beyond the sphere of sexual relationships. It is at the heart of the struggle for democracy, the consent of We the People as citizens and as a community. It was the core issue over which the American Revolution was fought. Consent isn’t merely something to be given. It must be earned. And if anyone acts without our consent as they do on a daily basis in our society, we have to demand that our consent be respected. Or failing that, we must take back our consent and ensure there will be consequences for those who took advantage of us, and that is even more important for the least among us.

Betrayal of consent is betrayal of our rights and freedom, betrayal of our autonomy and independence, betrayal of our human worth. It is betrayal of what our foremothers and forefathers fought for. And the fight for democratic and egalitarian consent that began so long ago is a fight that is ongoing. As I’ve said before, something like that would be a #MeToo movement that would inspire us all to collectively fight for a better world. Individual responsibility goes hand in hand with social and moral responsibility. And responsibility isn’t possible where victims are scapegoated, costs externalized, and justice denied. With a meaningful understanding of consent, the path forward becomes clear. Consent is about choice and we must make a choice about what kind of society we want and demand, what we envision and aspire toward.

It’s time to take the next step. Our society has been immature about our understanding of consent, of freedom and democracy. We can’t remain in collective childhood forever. American society must grow up and take responsibility. And that means we Americans must begin to act like adults and treat each other as adults, that is to say as equals. What this means is greater equality of power, wealth and resources, greater equality of opportunities which can only be measured by real world results. We can’t continue to live in equality as an abstract ideal and childish fantasy. It’s time for the American Dream to become an American Reality.

* * *

It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Consent’ Is

It’s amazing how the #MeToo movement has so quickly reframed our understanding of so many old things — books, movies, culture, news stories, scandals. I’ve been waiting for an updated interpretation of what was once problematically known as “the Lewinsky affair,” and I was so thrilled this week to see it coming to us from Monica Lewinsky herself.

In a personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the 20th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky reconsiders her relationship with Clinton — 27 years her senior — through the lens of 2018, and realizes that given their power differential, the word “consensual” might not have perfectly applied.

Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)

Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)

But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)

Using Free Speech Rhetoric to Silence Opponents

There is a recent case at the University of Iowa. A conservative Christian group sued for its right to demand that the university financially support their activities in excluding gay people. They thought it unfair that the university discriminated against their right to discriminate against others. Only they have the right to discriminate in their bigotry, but others don’t have a right to discriminate against their bigotry.

The university administration didn’t disallow the group to exist or to operate on campus. The only decision made was that they didn’t want to use state resources, as it is a state college, to directly support and promote anti-gay activities. Still, the anti-gay group was free to privately fund their anti-gay activities and even to be openly anti-gay on campus without any problems with university administration. It was simply about whether the government should support specific religious beliefs on a college campus that are hateful and harmful to other students.

This is what goes for ‘freedom’ on the political right. It relates to the whole ‘free speech’ outrage. It’s not enough that an anti-gay group has the right to speak freely about their prejudice against gays, on campus and elsewhere. Their freedom of speech requires we the taxpayers have to pay for a platform for their hate speech. By the same logic, we the taxpayers also have to fund campus groups that are white supremacist, pro-pederasty, misogynist, and on and on. Everyone who has an opinion, no matter how distasteful, can demand public funding.

That is as long as they claim it is a central part of their belief system. This is the argument this Christian group made. The claim was that they couldn’t be required to not hate gays because the Christian tradition they inherited taught them to hate gays. Their homophobia wasn’t a belief they invented but came from God. Supposedly, this justifies their prejudice. So, I guess Neo-Nazis simply have to claim that God told them to discriminate against Jews and every college across the country would be required to use our taxpayer money to promote antisemitism.

The right-wing argument is that freedom means a society enforces no moral standards or social norms. It’s a Social Darwinian free-for-all. It’s actually worse than that. Not just freedom to speak but a demand to be heard. Everyone must be given a platform, whether or not the audience wants to hear it, much less be forced to pay to hear it. Taxpayers don’t have the right to determine how their own money is spent. What if a majority of Iowans don’t want to financially support an anti-gay group with money out of their own pockets? Does that matter? Or should an anti-gay group be free to reach into the taxpayer’s pocket and take that money from hardworking citizens no matter what anyone else thinks?

It goes even further. James Damore was upset that a private corporation decided not to support his misogynistic prejudice. He thought it was his right to speak freely and use a corporation as his personal platform. Like it or not, corporations aren’t democratic institutions. Corporate suppression of democratic rights has been happening in far worse ways for generations to left-wingers (most Cold War oppression came from the private sector, not from the government). And many right-wingers used to believe that censorship and other forms of oppression was as American as apple pie. But suddenly there is a supposedly populist movement on the political right that is concerned about freedom and liberty for all.

There is still a law on the book that makes belonging to the communist party illegal. In the right-wing media, there is talk about enforcing this law to silence opponents. Some petitions have been started for this purpose, specifically in the hope that Trump will back this attack on the political left. It’s nonsense, of course, and wouldn’t hold up in court. But I have yet to hear of any conservative, right-wing, or alt-right free speech advocate complain about, much less protest against, these authoritarian right-wingers. It’s the same reason why conservative colleges can get away with far more egregious silencing of free speech than can mainstream colleges, even though those conservative colleges also receive public funding.

Censorship of speech was far more dangerous and damaging in the past when it mostly targeted the political left. And censorship continues to target the political left, targeting workers, students and professors. If you don’t hear about censorship against left-wingers in corporate media, that is because corporate media is the mouthpiece of capitalism and doesn’t tend to bend over backwards to create a platform for Marxists, communists, and their fellow travelers (e.g., Palestinian rights advocates).

Those on the political right act as if there is a conspiracy against them, as if they are the only Americans who know oppression. They pretend that white conservatives are the ultimate oppressed minority in a country that is and always has been majority white and majority Christian. They apparently have no clue about the harsh realities that others face on a daily basis or else they are pretending to be ignorant. It’s mind-boggling. How could they be so obliviously ignornant to not know about the prejudices and hate crimes directed at minorities, the difficulty of being a Muslim or Middle Easterner (or mistaken for one), the professors who lose their jobs when they defend the rights of Palestinians and such, the historical and ongoing attack on left-wingers?

Sure, free speech is under attack, as it always has been. But it is a psychotic disconnection from reality to genuinely believe that this is all about the political right. Why the constant playing of the victim card when the tactics the political right has used against others are turned back the other way?

They should learn some history. Even in the past, some right-wing groups found themselves on the wrong side of political and corporate power. The government didn’t only systematically attack communist partisans, anti-war protesters, black radicals, and hippy drug users? The Second Klan was destroyed by the FBI, although the KKK had become quite corrupt at that point and was flaunting its own power through such things as political bribery and tax evasion.

The point is that those in the centers of power will always seek to silence and eliminate any individual or group that too effectively challenges the status quo or otherwise becomes problematic to establishment agendas and interests. That is true of those in power within the private sector. A company like Google would have been misogynistic in the past as most companies were in the past because misogyny was the norm, but times have changed and so all companies increasingly support gender equality because it is all about what is good for business (studies show that diverse companies have higher levels of innovation, profit, etc). Even the University of Iowa has as its president a guy from the business world, not some left-wing political activist. Colleges these days are run like businesses and having an anti-gay group causing trouble on campus isn’t good for business.

We live in a capitalist society, after all. Everything is about the flow of money. That pretty much sums up the entirety of American history.

As for all the protesters and counter-protesters, that also is nothing new. America has a long history of public outrage going back to not just protests but riots and revolts even before the American Revolution. We Americans are a vocal people about our opinions on public matters. And it occasionally turning to violence is even less of a shock. Actions committed by individuals and groups in the past, more often directed at left-wingers and minorities, were far more violent than what tends to be seen these days. If anything, it is amazing how non-violent of a time we live in, at least in the Western world (ignoring the violence we export to the rest of the world).

Besides, the most violent actions in recent history have not come from the political left. There is no American left-wing equivalent to generations of right-wing violence — the bombings, arson, assassinations, driving cars into crowds, etc (if you are unaware of this recent history, just ask some blacks, gays, Muslims, clinic doctors, etc about it and they can enlighten you). Not even the Weather Underground, terrorist bombers as they were, ever targeted people as there bombings were carefully planned to avoid human casualties. The government has officially labeled certain environmentalist groups such as Earth First! as terrorists, despite there never having killed a single person nor ever attempted to do so.

For decades, health clinics and doctors were targeted by anti-abortion militants. Even right-wingers in the mainstream media promoted this violent movement such as Bill O’Reilly’s helping to incite the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and O’Reilly never apologized or expressed remorse, much less got fired from his job. Sure, since Fox News backs this hateful bigotry, then those who spew it have their free speech protected. But what about the free speech of the victim who was silenced with a bullet? And what about all the thousands of other victims of prejudice, oppression, hate crimes, and right-wing terrorism?

Here is another point that gets lost in all of this. No matter how often the political right repeats its ignorance and lies, the conflation of liberals and left-wingers remains false and misleading. Going back to the early 20th century, there has rarely been love lost between these two ideological groups. Some of the gravest attacks on left-wingers have come from liberals or those pretending to be liberals. That is what Phil Ochs was going on about in his satirical song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”. Some of the most vocal and strident Cold War warriors were liberals, having done everything in their power to destroy the political left.

Even though the Cold War has ended, liberals continue to attack everyone to the left of them which is why the right-wing ‘liberals’ such as the Clinton Democrats are always seeking to eliminate and discredit all left-wing challengers, from Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders. Where was most of the political right in defending Sanders’ free speech when Hillary Clinton and big biz media sought to silence him and keep him out of public awareness until late in the campaign season? And that isn’t even to get into how the alliance between big gov and big biz silences all of us Americans, not just outsider candidates… while the corporatists arguing for corporate ‘free speech’. As for campuses, left-wingers are no more safe there than anywhere else.

The only reason that Americans don’t hear more about oppression and censorship of left-wingers is because corporate media in a corporatist society, whether supposedly liberal MSNBC or conservative Fox News, rarely reports on it. But it not being regularly discussed in the mainstream is not the same thing as it not happening. Capitalist realism is the dominant ideology of our entire society and as such is taken as a given with protest against it being almost impossible — in the words of H. Bruce Franklin: “It is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” We can’t have the freedom that we can’t imagine and we can’t fight against the oppression what we can’t see, which is why oppression of the mind is the worst possible oppression. That is what this is all about, the right-wing attempt to suppress all alternatives by censoring public debate, which first requires controlling the frame of allowable debate.

This touches upon the difference between negative liberty and positive freedom, the former allows for censorship of the powerless while the latter promotes free speech for all. The political right in the past advocated the one and dismissed the other, but now they are coming to realize or pretending to care that maybe positive freedom matters after all, at least when they portray themselves as oppressed and victimized minorities (that is why the anti-gay student group at the UI didn’t merely argue for negative liberty to be able to speak freely on campus but a positive freedom in demanding the university and taxpayer support and promote their free speech by giving them an official platform). A genuine public debate about free speech and freedom in general is needed. Unfortunately, that isn’t what the political right wants. It is simply a political game about power and influence, amplifying one’s own voice at the cost of others.

Even more problematic is that the same political and economic elites who own our government are seeking to own every aspect of our society, including colleges that because of loss of public funding have increasingly turned to corporate funding. The right-wingers funding the campus ‘free speech’ movement are also those who operate think tanks, lobbyist groups, front organizations, etc that promote the corporate ‘free speech’ of Citizens United, the neoliberal ‘free trade’ agreements of big biz corporatism, the  protection of ‘freedom’ through voter ID laws that suppress voting rights, and the ‘freedom’ of the right-to-work which means the right for workers to have no protections. The whole point is to make ‘freedom’ a meaningless word.

The sadly amusing part is how these very powerful right-wingers are spreading conspiracy theories about how the political left is trying to destroy our rights and freedoms, to take away our guns and freedom, to attack free markets and the God-given American way of life. And unsurprisingly they spread these conspiracies precisely to hide the actual conspiracies they are involved in. There is no better place to hide a conspiracy than behind a conspiracy theory. One thing is certain. This has nothing to do with free speech.

* * *

Never let it be said that being anti-free speech is an explicitly left-wing college thing
by Becket Adams

At least, that’s one takeaway from a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, which found a distressing 46 percent of self-professed GOP respondents said the government should “have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations it says are fabricating news stories about a President and his administration.”

Thankfully, the overall number of respondents who said the federal government should have this power is quite small. Only 28 percent of total survey respondents said they would support the federal government quashing the rights of the free press. Fifty-one percent said they would oppose it, and 21 percent of respondents said “don’t know” or “no opinion.”

But of the 28 percent who said they would support it, 46 percent of them were self-described Republicans. Twenty-three percent were self-avowed Independents, and only 17 percent were Democrats.

* * *

Framing Free Speech

Does Your Right to Free Speech Extend to the Workplace?
by Amirah Bey

The Stereotypes About College Students And Free Speech Are False
by Nathan J. Robinson

Is the Threat to Free Speech on Campus Overblown?
by Jonathan Marks

Debate on free speech alone means little for minorities
by John Budarick

Why Berkeley’s Battle Against White Supremacy Is Not About Free Speech
by Meleiza Figueroa and David Palumbo-Liu

Political Conservatives Suddenly Embrace Free Speech On Campus
by Geoffrey R. Stone

Weaponizing Free Speech
by Victor Ray

Inside the Bizarre Right-Wing Political Correctness Movement That Threatens Free Speech
by Zaid Jilani

There is a campus war on free speech — but it’s not being waged by “snowflake” students
by David Masciotra

How the Right Stifles Speech With Threats and Violence
by Aaron R. Hanlon

I’m on the ‘professor watchlist.’ It’s a ploy to undermine free speech
by Anthea Butler

Masking Oppression as Free Speech: An Anarchist Take
by Tariq Khan

The Campus Free Speech Battle You’re Not Seeing
by Peter Moskowitz

The Real Free-Speech Threat
by Radhika Sainath

Towards A Real Defense of Free Speech
by Daphna Thier

Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech
by Jennifer Medina

An Illinois College Sued Over ‘Free Speech Zone’
by Associated Press

Who’s behind the free speech crisis on campus?
by Dorian Bon

Making free speech a crime
by Nicole Colson

The free speech of fools
by Danny Katch

Silencing protest in the name of free speech
by Alex Buckingham

Dark Triad Domination

It has been noted that some indigenous languages have words that can be interpreted as what, in English, is referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, etc. This is the region of the Dark Triad. One Inuit language has the word ‘kunlangeta‘, meaning “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” That could be thought of as describing a psychopath’s possession of cognitive empathy while lacking affective empathy. Or consider the Yoruba word ‘arankan‘ that “is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded.”

These are tribal societies. Immense value is placed on kinship loyalty, culture of trust, community survival, collective well-being, and public good. Even though they aren’t oppressive authoritarian states, the modern Western notion of hyper-individualism wouldn’t make much sense within these close-knit groups. Sacrifice of individual freedom and rights is a given under such social conditions, since individuals are intimately related to one another and physically dependent upon one another. Actually, it wouldn’t likely be experienced as sacrifice at all since it would simply be the normal state of affairs, the shared reality within which they exist — their identity being social rather than individual.

This got me thinking about psychopathy and modern society. Research has found that, at least in some Western countries, the rate of psychopathy is not only high in prison populations but equally as high among the economic and political elite: “Studies say psychopaths constitute about 1.2% of the general population. About 16% of the prison population are said to be psychopaths. A research study in Australia estimated that twenty-one percent of CEOs are psychopaths” (Tom Bunn, The People Who Govern Us: Are They Psychopaths?). My father left upper management in a major corporation because of how ruthless was the backstabbing, a win at all costs Social Darwinism. This is what defines a country like the United States, as these social dominators are the most revered and emulated individuals. Psychopaths and such, instead of being eliminated or banished, are promoted and empowered.

What occurred to me is the difference for tribal societies is that hyper-individualism is seen not only as abnormal but dangerous and so intolerable. Maybe the heavy focus on individualism in the modern West inevitably leads to the psychopathological traits of the Dark Triad. As such, that would mean there is something severely abnormal and dysfunctional about Western societies (WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Psychopaths, in particular, are the ultimate individualists and so they will be the ultimate winners in an individualistic culture — their relentless confidence and ruthless competitiveness, their Machiavellian manipulations and persuasive charm supporting a narcissistic optimism and leading to success.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First off, there might be something about urbanization itself or a correlated factor that exacerbates mental illness. Studies have found, for example, an increase in psychosis across the recent generations of city-dwellers — precisely during the period of populations being further urbanized and concentrated. It reminds one of the study done on crowding large numbers of rats in a small contained cage until they turned anti-social, aggressive, and violent. If these rats were humans, we might describe this behavior in terms of psychopathy or sociopathy.

There is a second thing to consider, as discussed by Barbara Oakley in her book Evil Genes (pp. 265-6). About rural populations, she writes that, “Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.” And she continues:

“But what about more urban environments? Cooke’s research has shown, surprisingly, that there are more psychopaths from Scotland prisons of England and Wales than there are in Scottish prisons. (Clearly, this is not to say that the Scottish are more given to psychopathy than anyone else.) Studies of migration records showed that many Scottish psychopaths had migrated to the more populated metropolitan areas of the south. Cooke hypothesized that, in the more crowded metropolitan areas, the psychopath could attack or steal with little danger that the victim would recognize or catch him. Additionally, the psychopath’s impulsivity and need for stimulation could also play a role in propelling the move to the dazzling delights of the big city — he would have no affection for family and friends to keep him tethered back home. Densely populated areas, apparently, are the equivalent for psychopaths of ponds and puddles for malarial mosquitoes.”

As Oakley’s book is on genetics, she goes in an unsurprising direction in pointing out how some violent individuals have been able to pass on their genetics to large numbers of descendants. The most famous example being Genghis Khan. She writes that (p. 268),

“These recent discoveries reinforce the findings of the anthropologist Laura Betzig. Her 1986 Despotism and Differential Reproduction provides a cornucopia of evidence documenting the increased capacity of those with more power — and frequently, Machiavellian tendencies — to have offspring. […] As Machiavellian researcher Richard Christie and his colleague Florence Geis aptly note: “[H]igh population density and highly competitive environments have been found to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies, and my in fact foster the ability of those who possess those strategies to reproduce.” […] Beltzig’s ultimte point is not that the corrupt attain power but that those corrupted individuals who achieved power in preindustrial agricultural societies had far more opportunity to reproduce, generally through polygyny, and pass on their genes. In fact, the more Machiavellian, that is, despotic, a man might be, the more polygynous he tended to be — grabbing and keeping for himself as many beautiful women as he could. Some researchers have posited that envy is itself a useful, possibly geneticall linked trait, “serving a key role in survival, motivating achievement, serving the conscience of self and other, and alerting us to inequities that, if fueled, can lead to esclaated violence.” Thus, genese related to envy — not to mention other more problematic temperaments — might have gradually found increased prevalence in such environments.”

That kind of genetic hypothesis is highly speculative, to say the least. Their could be some truth value in them, if one wanted to give the benefit of the doubt, but we have no direct evidence that such is the case. At present, these speculations are yet more just-so stories and they will remain so until we can better control confounding factors in order to directly ascertain causal factors. Anyway, genetic determinism in this simplistic sense is largely moot at this point, as the science is moving on into new understandings. Besides being unhelpful, such speculations are unnecessary. We already have plenty of social science research that proves changing environmental conditions alters social behavior — besides what I’ve already mentioned, there is such examples as the fascinating rat park research. There is no debate to be had about the immense influence of external influences, such as factors of socioeconomic class and high inequality: Power Causes Brain Damage by Justin Renteria, How Wealth Reduces Compassion by Daisy Grewal, Got Money? Then You Might Lack Compassion by Jeffrey Kluger, Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity by Ken Stern, Rich People Literally See the World Differently by Drake Baer, The rich really DO ignore the poor by Cheyenne Macdonald, Propagandopoly: Monopoly as an Ideological Tool by Naomi Russo, A ‘Rigged’ Game Of Monopoly Reveals How Feeling Wealthy Changes Our Behavior [TED VIDEO] by Planetsave, etc.

Knowing the causes is important. But knowing the consequences is just as important. No matter what increases Dark Triad behaviors, they can have widespread and long-lasting repurcussions, maybe even permanently altering entire societies in how they function. Following her speculations, Oakley gets down to the nitty gritty (p. 270):

“Questions we might reasonably ask are — has the percentage of Machiavellians and other more problematic personality types increased in the human population, or in certain human populations, since the advent of agriculture? And if the answer is yes, does the increase in these less savory types change a group’s culture? In other words, is there a tipping point of Machiavellian and emote control behavior that can subtly or not so subtly affect the way the members of a society interact? Certainly a high expectation of meeting a “cheater,” for example, would profoundly impact the trust that appears to form the grease of modern democratic societies and might make the development of democratic processes in certain areas more difficult. Crudely put, an increase in successfully sinister types from 2 percent, say, to 4 percent of a population would double the pool of Machiavellians vying for power. And it is the people in power who set the emotional tone, perhaps through mirroring and emotional contagion, for their followers and those around them. As Judith Rich Harris points out, higher-status members of a group are looked at more, which means they have more influence on how a person becomes socialized.”

The key factor in much of this seems to be concentration. Simply concentrating populations, humans or rats, leads to social problems related to mental health issues. On top of that, there is the troubling concern of what kind of people are being concentrated and where they are being concentrated — psychopaths being concentrated not only in big cities and prisons but worse still in positions of wealth and power, authority and influence. We live in a society that creates the conditions for the Dark Triad to increase and flourish. This is how the success of those born psychopaths encourages others to follow their example in developing into sociopaths, which in turn makes the Dark Triad mindset into a dominant ethos within mainstream culture.

The main thing on my mind is individualism. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, such as in terms of the bundle theory of the mind and the separate individual, connected to my long term interest in community and the social nature of humans. In relation to individualism, there is the millennia-old cultural divide between Germanic ‘freedom‘ and Roman ‘liberty‘. But because Anglo-American society mixed up the two, this became incorrectly framed by Isaiah Berlin in terms of positive and negative. In Contemporary Political Theory, J. C. Johari writes that (p. 266), “Despite this all, it may be commented that though Berlin advances the argument that the two aspects of liberty cannot be so distinguished in practical terms, one may differ from him and come to hold that his ultimate preference is for the defence of the negative view of liberty. Hence, he obviously belongs to the category of Mill and Hayek.”  He states this “is evident from his emphatic affirmation” in the following assertion by Berlin:

“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense or else metaphor. To strive to be free is to seek to remove obstacles; to struggle for personal freedom is to seek to curb interference, exploitation, enslavement by men whose ends are theirs, not one’s own. Freedom, at least in its political sense, is coterminous with the absence of bullying or domination.”

Berlin makes a common mistake here. Liberty was defined by not being a slave in a slave-based society, which is what existed in the Roman Empire. But that isn’t freedom, an entirely different term with an etymology related to ‘friend’ and with a meaning that indicated membership in an autonomous community — such freedom meant not being under the oppression of a slave-based society (e.g., German tribes remaining independent of the Roman Empire). Liberty, not freedom, was determined by one’s individual status of lacking oppression in an oppressive social order. This is why liberty has a negative connotation for it is what you lack, rather than what you possess. A homeless man starving alone on the street with no friend in the world to help him and no community to support him, such a man has liberty but not freedom. He is ‘free’ to do what he wants under those oppressive conditions and constraints, as no one is physically detaining him.

This notion of liberty has had a purchase on the American mind because of the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression. After the Civil War, blacks had negative liberty in no longer being slaves but they definitely did not have positive freedom through access to resources and opportunities, instead being shackled by systemic and institutional racism that maintained their exploited status as a permanent underclass — along with slavery overtly continuing in other forms through false criminal charges leading to prison labor, such that the criminal charges justified blaming the individual for their own lack of freedom which maintained the outward perception of negative liberty. Other populations such as Native Americans faced a similar dilemma. But is one actually free when the chains holding one down are invisible but still all too real? If liberty is an abstraction detached from lived experience and real world results, of what value is such liberty? The nature of negative liberty has always had a superficial and illusory quality about it in how it is maintained through public narrative. Unlike freedom, liberty as a social construct is highly effective as a tool for social control and oppression.

This point is made by another critic of Berlin’s perspective. “It is hard for me to see that Berlin is consistent on this point,” writes L. H. Crocker (Positive Liberty, p. 69). “Surely not all alterable human failures to open doors are cases of bullying. After all, it is often through neglect that opportunities fail to be created for the disadvantaged. It is initially more plausible that all failures to open doors are the result of domination in some sense or another.” I can’t help but think that Dark Triad individuals would feel right at home in a culture of liberty where individuals have the ‘freedom’ to oppress and be oppressed. Embodying this sick mentality, Margaret Thatcher once gave perfect voice to the sociopathic worldview — speaking of the victims of disadvantage and desperation, she claimed that, “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” That is to say, there is no freedom.

The question, then, is whether or not we want freedom. A society is only free to the degree that as a society freedom is demanded. To deny society itself is an attempt to deny the very basis of freedom, but that is just a trick of rhetoric. A free people know their own freedom by acting freely, even if that means fighting the oppressors who seek to deny that freedom. Thatcher intentionally conflated society and government, something never heard in the clear-eyed wisdom of a revolutionary social democrat like Thomas Paine“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” These words expressed the values of negative liberty as made perfect sense for someone living in an empire built on colonialism, corporatism, and slavery. But the same words gave hint to a cultural memory of Germanic positive freedom. It wasn’t a principled libertarian hatred of governance, rather the principled radical protest against a sociopathic social order. As Paine made clear, this unhappy situation wasn’t the natural state of humanity, neither inevitable nor desirable, much less tolerable.

The Inuits would find a way for psychopaths to ‘accidentally’ fall off the ice, never to trouble the community again. As for the American revolutionaries, they preferred more overt methods, from tar and feathering to armed revolt. So, now to regain our freedom as a people, what recourse do we have in abolishing the present Dark Triad domination?

* * *

Here are some pieces on individualism and community, as contrasted between far different societies. These involve issues of mental health (from depression to addiction), and social problems (from authoritarianism to capitalist realism) — as well as other topics, including carnival and revolution.

Self, Other, & World

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

“[…] This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.” 12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

“We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.”

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins, p. 2

“In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.”

Music and Dance on the Mind

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough, Kindle Locations 3337-3342

“And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.”

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher, pp. 18-20

“[…] In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

“The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

[…] in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“[…] But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

[…] what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence. […]

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

As addiction is key, below is some other stuff in terms of individualism and social problems, mental health and abnormal psychology. It seems that high rates of addiction are caused by the same and/or related factors involved in depression, anxiety, dark triad, etc. It’s a pattern of dysfunction found most strongly in WEIRD societies and increasingly in other developed societies, such as seen in Japan as the traditional social order breaks down (e.g., increasing number of elderly Japanese dying alone and forgotten). This pattern is seen clearly in the weirdest of WEIRD, such as with sociopathic organizations like Amazon which I bet has high prevalence of addiction among employees.

Drug addiction makes possible human adaptation to inhuman conditions. It’s part of a victimization cycle that allows victimizers to not only take power but to enforce the very conditions of victimization. The first step is isolating the victim by creating a fractured society of dislocation, disconnection, and division. Psychopaths rule by imposing a sociopathic social order, a sociopathic economic and political system. This is the environment in which the dark triad flourishes and, in coping with the horror of it, so many turn to addiction to numb the pain and distress, anxiety and fear. Addiction is the ‘normal’ state of existence under the isolated individualism of social Darwinism and late stage capitalism.

Addiction is the expression of disconnection, the embodiment of isolation. Without these anti-social conditions, the dark triad could never take hold and dominate all of society.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

The New Individualism
by Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
pp. 117-118

Giddens tells us that reflexivity, powered by processes of globalization, stands closest to autonomy. In a world in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away than ever before, contingency appears unavoidable. And with contingency comes the potential to remake the world and negotiate lifestyle options — about who to be, how to act, whom to love and how to live together. The promised autonomy of reflexivity is, however, also a problem, since choice necessarily brings with it ambivalence, doubt and uncertainty. There is no way out of this paradox, though of the various, necessarily unsuccessful, attempts people make to avoid the dilemmas of reflexivity Giddens identifies ‘addiction’ as being of key importance to the present age. As he writes:

Once institutional reflexivity reaches into virtually all parts of everyday social life, almost any pattern or habit can become an addiction. The idea of addiction makes little sense in a traditional culture, where it is normal to do today what one did yesterday . . . Addictions, then, are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of the self moves to the centre-stage in late modernity.

Reflexivity’s promise of freedom carries with it the burden of continual choice and deals with all the complexities of emotional life. ‘Every addiction’, writes Giddens, ‘is a defensive reaction, and an escape, a recognition of lack of autonomy that casts a shadow over the competence of the self.’

How Individualism Undermines Our Health Care
from Shared Justice

Addictions Originate in Unhappiness—and Compassion Could Be the Cure
by Gabor Maté

Dislocation Theory of Addiction
by Bruce K. Alexander

Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism
by Bruce K. Alexander

Healing Addiction Through Community: A Much Longer Road Than it Seems?
by Bruce K. Alexander

What Lab experiments Can Tell Us About The Cause And Cure For Addiction
by Mark

#7 Theory of Dislocation
by Ross Banister

‘The globalisation of addiction’ by Bruce Alexander
review by Mike Jay

The cost of the loneliness epidemic
from Broccoli & Brains

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
by Johann Hari

The Politics of Loneliness
by Michael Bader

America’s deadly epidemic of loneliness
by Michael Bader

Addiction and Modernity: A Comment on a Global Theory of Addiction
by Robert Granfield

The Addicted Narcissist: How Substance Addiction Contributes to Pathological Narcissism With Implications for Treatment
by Kim Laurence

The Stories We Tell

[W]ithin each of our individual introcosms we are always “seeing” ourselves as the central characters in the drama of our lives. However, a certain selectivity to this inner theater is apparent, since we choose those images of ourselves that fit into our favored scripts and ignore those that do not. This attribution of causes to behavior or “saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes, as reasons, may be true or false, neutral or ideal.” An interiorized self is “ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing,” and a “stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.” We are not “consciously aware of all the information our mind processes or of the causes of all the behaviors we enact, or of the origin of all the feelings we experience. But the conscious self uses these as data points to construct and maintain a coherent story, our personal story, our subjective sense of self.”
~Brian J. McVeigh, A Psychohistory of Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2736-2743)

I’ve lost what little faith I have in rational public debate, democratic process, and the liberal dream. The stories we tell about ourselves and our society.

We don’t live in a free society. I’m not sure what a free society would look like in a country such as this. I simply know it would not be this way. In a free society, corrupt power-mongers would not become leading candidates in elections and certainly not elected into positions of power. A free people wouldn’t tolerate it. But we aren’t a free people in a free society.

Freedom is an odd notion. It is an ideal, a social construct that is reified through repetition. We talk about it so much that we take it for granted without understanding what we’re talking about. It relates to other notions, such as free will—the ability to act freely. The term ‘free’ etymologically goes back to a basic meaning of being among friends, which is to say being treated by others as they would treat themselves. As such, it actually has more of a connotation of mutual relationship than of independent individuality. To be free, in the oldest sense, is to belong among those one knows and trusts.

Our modern sense of freedom is rather abstract. It’s become entirely disconnected from the concrete reality of human bonds within a specific community. We know freedom from the stories we tell or rather from the media we consume, not so much from our lived experience. American communities aren’t locations of freedom, in any sense of the word. And we don’t have a culture of trust.

When I observe people in American society, I don’t see freedom of thought and action. What I notice most of all is how blindly and unconsciously people act, the dissociation and ignorance that rules their minds, how trapped people are in the life conditions that have shaped them, the persuasive rhetoric of media and politics, and the reactions to emotional manipulations. Even the ruling elite who love to play their games of power aren’t any more free than the rest of us, maybe even less so as they exist within the echo chambers of a self-enclosed establishment, based on the demented belief that they make their own reality.

The entire society forms a near hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. That is what it means to be in a society like this, to be a subject of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. We can’t see out, much less see beyond to other possibilities.

I keep coming back to a basic insight. We humans are a mystery to ourselves. I mean that profoundly but also simply. We don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do. We know so little about the very things that matter the most, specifically our own nature. The ideals of a liberal society are the light glinting off the surface of deep waters, indicating mere ripples while leaving the currents beneath unseen. That nice-sounding rhetoric does not make the world go round nor does it tell us where the world is heading.

It’s pointless to expect a functioning democracy under these conditions. We are like children at play, knowing not what any of it means. Asking for democracy from an American politician is like asking for healthcare form a child playing doctor. Games, endless games. We are better able at imagining than in acting, for our imaginings are but daydreams and fantasies. As for voters, they only demand one thing, to be told comforting lies and entertaining stories. Our political system is a spectacle of lights that blinds us to the darkness around us, as we stumble along, more likely over a cliff than out of Plato’s cave.

We are all stuck in this mire and sinking deeper, even those who claim to be outside of it. The critics, left and right, are simply hypnotized by other scripts. Genuinely original thought and deep insight is so rare as to be practically irrelevant. Nothing will change, until conditions force change, and when it happens no one will be able to predict where those changes will lead.

At some point, the stories we tell ourselves stop making sense, as the world refuses to conform. What then?

* * *

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

The Stories We Know

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism

We Americans like to talk about freedom and liberty.

We idealize the self-made man and the lone cowboy, the inventor who works in isolation and the hero who stands alone, the artist who creates from his own imagination and the rebel who through sheer determination fights the system, the independent thinker and the daring innovator. We praise the individual to such an extent it becomes not just a fantastical story but an abstract ideal.

But in reality, American society doesn’t create independent individuals and autonomous agents, much less self-responsible citizens. Instead, it creates dependence and even codependence based on fear and uncertainty, based on threat and punishment, and based on manipulation by those who hold power and control the fate of others.

This creates a mindset of clinging desperation and subservient obedience or else disconnected isolation. What it doesn’t lead to are healthy individuals, relationships, families, and communities—the foundation of a well-functioning culture of trust and social democracy.

Nordic countries have a different way of doing things.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 861-895

A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.

In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.

Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”

In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.

What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

Freedom From Other People’s Freedom

Here is a common right-wing view. They’ll criticize democracy as mobocracy, apparently too much freedom for too many. And they’ll criticize anything left of that as authoritarianism, supposedly not enough freedom for those who deserve it.

So, they don’t want either an entirely free society or an entirely authoritarian society. It appears what they actually want, if they were to admit it, is a society that gives freedom to the upper class and authoritarianism for everyone else. That is to say the freedom of the ruling elite to rule over the oppressed masses.

That is the exact recipe of how fascists take over countries. Of course, once fascists have full power, everyone but the ruling elite loses power. When you take freedom away from others, you’ll eventually lose your own freedom as well. It’s one of the oldest stories around.

You’d think humans would learn after repeating the same mistakes and getting the same bad results.