Mental Pandemic and Ideological Lockdown

“Don’t let anyone arguing to “reopen the economy” get away with “we have to let people work to stay alive.” That’s a rhetorical trick aimed at suckering you into accepting their toxic worldview. The real question is this: how did the richest nation in the world get into a mess like this in the first place?”
~Sam Smith, How Many Dollars Is a Life Worth (and Why Did We Choose This)?

If you’re familiar with low-carbohydrate diet debate, you’d know one of the big names is Ivor Cummins, AKA the Fat Emperor. He isn’t a health professional but a chemical engineer by training. For some reason, several engineers and others in technological fields have become major figures in the alternative health community, especially diet and nutrition along with fasting, sometimes in terms of what is called biohacking. They have the skill set to dig into complex data and analyze systems in a way most doctors aren’t able to do. Cummins runs a health podcast, is active on social media, and has a large following. His popularity is well deserved.

He has been on our radar the past couple of years, but recently, along with Dr. Paul Saladino, he has been at the center of contentious debate about COVID-19 and lockdowns. Besides seeing his active Tweeting, we were reminded of him with some commentary by Chuck Pezeshki, another thoughtful guy we respect (see his post, The Curious Case of the Fat Emperor — or How Not Understanding How to Merge Knowledge is Creating a Culture War). Here is Pezeshki’s description of Cummins: “What is most interesting is that he was not only a systems integrator — someone who floats between the different disciplines churning out various subsystems for complex products. He was a “systems system integrator” — where he was in charge of a team of systems integrators. The first-level integration positions are relatively common. Boeing has a whole employment line dedicated to Liaison Engineering, which they pronounce “Lie – a -zon”. The second tier up — not common at all.” So, not an average bloke, by any means.

We agree with Cummins in sharing his views on the importance of diet and metabolic health. Right from the beginning, we had the suspicion that COVID-19 might never have reached pandemic levels if not for the fact that the majority of people in the industrialized world now have metabolic syndrome — in the US, 88% of the population has some combination of major metabolic issues: obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, liver disease, etc. These conditions are prominently listed as comorbidities of COVID-19, as metabolic health is inseparable from immune system health. Also, we’re in line with his anti-authoritarian attitude. Like Cummins, on principle, we’re certainly not for top-heavy policy measures like lockdowns, unless there is good justification. Yet early on, there was strong justification as a response to emergency conditions and many, including Cummins, initially supported lockdown.

Since then, he has become a strident opponent and, even as his heart seems in the right place, we find his present approach to be grating. He has become ideologically polarized and has fallen into antagonistic behavior, including dismissive name-calling. This doesn’t encourage meaningful public debate. We’re trying to resist being pulled into this polarized mentality in looking at the situation as dispassionately as possible, especially since we have no desire to dismiss Cummins who we otherwise agree with. We’re not even sure we exactly disagree about lockdowns either, as we feel undecided on the issue with a more wait-and-see attitude in anticipating a possible worst second wave if caution is thrown to the wind with a simultaneous ending of lockdown, social distancing, and mask-wearing as is quite likely in the United States. The public attitude tends toward either it’s the Plague or it’s nothing, either everything must be shut down or there should no restrictions at all.

Cummins strength is also his weakness. As an engineer, his focus is on data, not on the messy lived experience of humans. In his recent Tweeting, he is constantly demanding data, but it feels like he is overlooking fundamental issues. Even if there was good enough data available, we only have data for what is measured, not for what is not measured. About lockdowns, the confounding factors in comparing countries are too numerous and there are no controls. But to his engineering mind, data is data and the details of human life that aren’t measured or can’t be measured simply are irrelevant. Engineering is a hard science. But how societies operate as complex systems — that are living and breathing, that have billions of moving parts — can’t be understood the same way as technical systems to be managed in a corporate setting, as is Cummins’ professional expertise. He appears to have no knowledge of sociology, anthropology, psychology, cultural studies, philosophy, history, etc; that is to say he has no larger context in which to place his demands for ‘data’.

The dietitian/nutritionist Adele Hite hit the nail on the head in a response she gave in another Twitter thread: “You know data is never *just* data, right? It comes from somewhere, is collected, displayed & interpreted via some methods & assumptions & not others. […] Take a few science studies courses? maybe some science history? or just read some Bruno Latour & get back to me. It’s not nihilism to recognize that there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere” (the context of her comment, I presume, is here working on a PhD in communication, rhetoric, and digital media that, as she says on her official website’s About page, taught her “to ask questions I couldn’t have even articulated before”). She also points out the importance of listening to scientists and other experts in the specific fields they were educated and trained in, as expertise is not necessarily transferable as demonstrated by the smart idiot effect that disproportionately affects the well-educated.

According to his standard bio found around the web, Cummins “has since spent over 25 years in corporate technical leadership and management positions and was shortlisted in 2015 as one of the top 6 of 500 applicants for “Irish Chartered Engineer of the Year”.” That means he is a guy who was shaped by the corporate world and was highly successful in climbing the corporate career ladder. He then went on to become an entrepreneur as a podcaster, blogger, author, and public speaker. That is to say he is a high-achieving capitalist within the businesses of others and his own business, not to mention an individual having benefited from the status quo of opportunities, privileges and advantages afforded to him. The sticking point with lockdowns is that they don’t fit into the ruling capitalist ideology or at least not its rhetoric, although oligopolistic big biz like Amazon and Walmart does great under lockdown.

Our own biases swing in a different direction. We’ve had working class jobs our entire lives and presently we’re unionized public employees. Opposite of someone like Cummins, we don’t see capitalism as the great salvation of humanity nor do we blame lockdowns for economic decline and failure that preceded the pandemic for generations. All that has changed is that the moral rot and psychopathic depravity of our society has been exposed. That brings us to our main point of contention, that of a typically unquestioned capitalist realism that has been forced to the surface of public awareness with pandemic lockdown, as previously touched upon with the issue of what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs (Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers).

Though lacking a strong view on lockdowns, we do have a strong view of those with strong views on lockdowns. It is hard to ignore the fact that those who are most vocal about reopening the economy are those whose lives are least at risk, those not working in service jobs (Their Liberty and Your Death). One might note that Cummin’s precise demographic profile (a younger, healthier, wealthier, white Westerner) is the complete opposite of the demographics hardest hit by COVID-19 and problems in general (the elderly, the sick, the poor, and minorities); though to his credit, he has spoken about the importance of protecting vulnerable populations, even if his understanding of vulnerability in our kind of society is ideologically and demographically constrained.

Here is the point. You won’t hear many working poor people, especially disadvantaged minorities, demanding to have the right to risk their lives and their family’s lives to work poverty wages, few benefits, and no affordable healthcare to ensure the capitalist ruling elite maintain their high levels of profits. Imagine how frustrating and disheartening it must be to be poor and/or minority as you listen to wealthy white people who are healthy and have great healthcare discuss lockdowns versus reopenings when the infection and mortality rates in your community is several times worse than in the rest of the country (Jared Dewese, Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits; Jeffrey Ostler, Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans).

Think about this: “black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus as white people” (Bill Hathaway, New analysis quantifies risk of COVID-19 to racial, ethnic minorities); now increase that death rate several times higher when comparing poor minorities to wealthier whites, high inequality locations to low inequality locations, et cetera. And it’s even worse for other minorities: “In Arizona, the Indigenous mortality rate is more than five times the rate for all other groups, while in New Mexico, the rate exceeds seven times all other groups” (APM Research Lab, THE COLOR OF CORONAVIRUS: COVID-19 DEATHS BY RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE U.S.). For those important people on the corporate media or the thought leaders on social media, COVID-19 for their own communities really might not be any worse than the common flu. Meanwhile, for disadvantaged populations, COVID-19 could be described as nothing other than a pandemic in the fullest sense. Yet the fate of these disadvantaged is being decided by the very people disconnected from the reality of those who will be most harmed.

Let’s put this in context of a specific example — in the District of Columbia where so many powerful people, mostly whites, live in determining public policy, blacks are only 44% of the population but 80% of the COVID-19 deaths. Many states show immense disparities: “In Kansas, Black residents are 7 times more likely to die than White residents. In Wisconsin and Washington D.C., the rate among Blacks is 6 times as high as it is for Whites, while in Michigan and Missouri, it is 5 times greater. In Arkansas, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Tennessee, Blacks are 3 times more likely to die of the virus than Whites. In many states, the virus is also killing Black residents several multiples more often than Asian and Latino residents” (APM Research Lab).

It’s not only that minorities are more likely to die from COVID-19 but more likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the first place and so this is another multiplier effect as measured in the total death count. This is exaggerated to an even greater extent with poor brown people in some developing countries where COVID-19 is also killing large numbers of the young (Terrence McCoy & Heloísa Traiano, In the developing world, the coronavirus is killing far more young people; Louise Genot, In Brazil, COVID-19 hitting young people harder). COVID-19 may be a disease of the elderly and sick among well-off white Westerners, but to other demographics the entire population is vulnerable. Furthermore, mostly ignored in Western data are poor whites and rural whites or even middle aged whites — all of which, in the United States, have shown increasing mortality rates in recent years. There is no data, as far as we know, with a demographic breakdown of deaths within racial categories. Then there is the issue of pollution, in how it increases vulnerability and maybe in how it could help spread the virus itself by riding on air pollution particles, and of course pollution is concentrated where poverty is found — keep in mind that pollution alone, without pandemic, is linked to 40% of deaths worldwide (Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs; & An Invisible Debt Made Visible); combine that with COVID-19, pollution is then linked to 80% of deaths (Damian Carrington, Air pollution may be ‘key contributor’ to Covid-19 deaths – study). [For more resources on the inequities of COVID-19, see ending section of this post.]

By the way, we appreciated that Chuck Pezeshki did touch upon this kind of issue, if only briefly: “The problem is that because COVID-19 is truly novel, ringing that bell, while it may daylight the various ills of society, it also at the same time obscures responsibility for all the various ills society has manifested on all its various members. I have a whole essay, almost written, on the meatpacking plant fiasco, which is really more of a damning indictment of how we treat people at the bottom of the economic ladder than the COVID-19 crisis. For those that want the short version — we keep them trapped in low wage positions with no geographic mobility, with undocumented status, and poor education so they have no choice but to continue their jobs. COVID-19 is just an afterthought.” It’s too bad such understanding hasn’t been included to a greater extent in public debate and news reporting.

This is a situation about which everyone, of course, has an opinion; still, not all opinions come with equal weight of personal experience and implications. Being forced to potentially risk your health and maybe life while on the frontlines of a pandemic creates a different perspective. We are more fortunate than most in having a decent job with good pay and benefits. But similar to so many other working class folk with multigenerational households, if we get infected in our working with the public, we could become a disease vector for others, including maybe bringing the novel coronavirus home to family such as our elderly parents with compromised immune systems. The working poor forced to work out of desperation have no choice to isolate their vulnerable loved ones in distant vacation homes or highly priced and protected long-term care centers.

Meanwhile, some of the well-off white Westerners dominating public debate are acting cavalier in downplaying the concerns of the vulnerable or downplaying how large a number of people are in that vulnerable space. We’ve even seen Ivor Cummins, an otherwise nice guy, mocking people for not embracing reopenings as if they were being irrational and cowardly — with no acknowledgement of the vast disparities of disadvantaged populations. Imagine trying to have a public debate about government policy in a city or state where the poor and minorities are two to seven times more likely to die. Does anyone honestly think the poor and minorities would be heard and their lives considered equally important? Of course, not. No one is that stupid or naive. Now consider that the disparities of wealth, pollution, sickness, and death is even greater at the national level and still greater yet in international comparisons. At the local level, the poor and minorities might hope to get heard, but they are as if invisible or non-existent within the public debate beyond the local.

Still, that isn’t to say we’re arguing for a permanent lockdown even as we do think the lockdown, if only for lack of needed leadership and preparedness, was probably necessary when the crisis began — from the DataInforms Twitter account: “Not saying it’s the right action if you’ve planned for a Pandemic. Saying it’s the inevitable action to minimize risk, when you haven’t planned for a Pandemic. By not paying attention to 2003 outbreak we brought this on ourselves.” Besides being politically paralyzed with corrupt and incompetent leadership, we Americans are an unhealthy population that is ripe for infectious diseases; and one could easily argue that a public health crisis has been developing for centuries, in particularly these past generations (Dr. Catherine Shanahan On Dietary Epigenetics and Mutations, Health From Generation To Generation, Dietary Health Across Generations, Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration, Malnourished Americans, & The Agricultural Mind). The terrain theory of infection proposes that it is the biological conditions of health that primarily determine the chances of infection and hence, in a situation like this, determine how bad it will get as a public health crisis. As we earlier noted, the 1918 flu also began mildly before becoming fully pandemic later in the year with a second wave (Then the second wave of infections hit…), not that I’m arguing about the probability of such an outcome since our present knowledge about pandemics in the modern industrialized world, the West in particular, is only slightly better than full ignorance (Kevin Kavanagh, Viewpoint: COVID-19 Modeling: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics).

All of this puts us in an odd position. We simultaneously agree and disagree with Cummins and many others who support his view. Our main irritation is how the entire ‘debate’ gets framed, in terms of cartoonish portrayal of libertarianism versus authoritarianism. The frame ends up dominating and shutting down any genuine discussion. We noticed this in how, for all the vociferous opinionating about lockdowns, there is still no agreement even about what is a lockdown. When confronted about this, Cummins has repeatedly refused to define his terms, the most basic first step in attempting to analyze the data, in that one has to know what kind of data one needs in knowing what one is hoping to compare. The haziness of his language and the slipperiness of his rhetoric is remarkable considering engineers like him are usually praised for their precision and held up as exemplars in the alternative health community.

We weren’t the only ones to make this observation — Gorgi Kosev asked, “Did you reply to the people who asked to specify what counts as lockdown vs what counts as distancing?” Cummins responded to many other Tweets in that thread but he did not answer this question and appears to not be interested in such a dialogue. To be fair, I did come across one of his Tweets buried deep in another thread, in response to an inquiry by Gregory Travis, where he vaguely clarified what he meant but still did not operationalize his definition in a way that would help us categorize and measure accordingly. When asked for a specific list of what he considered to be lockdowns and not, he would not specify. In attempting to get at what is the issue at debate, Philippa Antell asked him, “Are you comparing lockdown Vs non lockdown ( in which case define those in detail)? Or sensible Vs non sensible lock down rules (again define)?” Cummins did not further respond. A point we and others made to him is that there has been a wide spectrum of government policies — Toshi Clark said that, “This whole thing seems predicated on making a distinction between distancing and lockdown policies. It’s not a binary thing”; and someone simply named Ed said that, “I think one of the problems Ivor is it doesn’t have to be black and white but shades of grey. Lockdown is a terrible term that is unhelpful as there has never been a full lockdown and no measure of each mitigation.”

Such comments were the opportunity to begin debate, rather than in the way Cummins took them as the end of debate. I get that he is probably frustrated, but he is avoiding the very heart of the issue while continuing to demand ‘data’ as if facts could exist separately from any frame of analysis and interpretation. I’m sure he isn’t actually that naive and so, even if his frustration is understandable, it’s unfortunate he won’t get down to the nitty gritty. As such, others understandably feel frustrated with him as well. One of the main points of frustration, as shown above, is clear and yet remains unresolved. In our own Tweeting activity responding to Cummins, we noted that, “It feels like he is trying to force debate into a polarized black/white frame that turns it into a political football, a symbolic proxy for something else entirely.” At this point, it’s no longer really about the data for it has become an ideological battle verging on a full-on culture war, and one of the first victims is the mental flexibility to shift frames as the polarized opponents become ever more locked into their defensive positions — a lockdown of the mind, as it could be described.

Let’s consider a concrete example to show how the ideological lines get drawn in the ideological mind, as opposed to how fuzzy are those lines in reality. In one of his few responses to my seeking to engage, Cummins shared an earlier Twitter thread of his where he compared the ‘social distancing’ of Sweden and the ‘lockdown’ of New Jersey; a bad comparison on multiple levels. Yet when asked what is a lockdown, he still never offered a definition and, even more interesting, he decidedly emphasized that his priority was not the data itself but his principles, values, and beliefs. He was asked point blank that, “Since I showed that there effectively was no implemented and enforced stay at home full lockdown in even some of the worst hit places like NYC, what are we talking about in terms of a lockdown? What is the real issue of debate?” And his answer was, “Civil Liberties and our future freedoms. Principles. And the Scientific Method being respected.” Those principles seem fine, at least in theory assuming they are part of a genuinely free society that sadly is also theoretical at present. The problem comes with his conflating all of science with his libertarian beliefs taken as ideological realism. His libertarian conviction seems to be both his starting assumption and his ending conclusion. It’s not that the facts don’t matter to him, that he is merely posturing, but it is obvious that the data has become secondary in how the debate is being so narrowly constrained as to predetermine what evidence is being sought and which questions allowed or acknowledged.

Our interest was genuine, in seeking to clarify terms and promote discussion. That is why we pointed to the actual details in how it played out in actual implementation. In New York City, there was a supposed full lockdown with a stay at home order, but that didn’t stop New Yorkers from crowding in public places (Stephen Nessen, More New Yorkers Are Crowding Onto Buses And Subways Despite Stay-At-Home Order) since it’s not like there is a Chinese-style authoritarian government to enforce a Wuhan-style lockdown. That is the problem of comparisons. In terms of effective actions taken, the Swedish example involved more restrictions than did what happened in New Jersey and New York City. That is because the Swedish, in their conformist culture of trust, enforced severe restrictions upon themselves without government order and for all practical purposes the Swedish had implemented a greater lockdown than anything seen in the United States. Unless a police officer or soldier is pointing a gun at their head, many Americans will continue on without wearing masks or social distancing. This is a cultural, not a political, difference.

It is bizarre to see libertarian-minded individuals using the example of the anti-libertarian Swedish society as evidence in defense of greater libertarianism in societies that are completely different from Sweden. These are the same people who would normally criticize what they’d deem an oppressive Scandinavian social democracy under non-pandemic conditions, but all of a sudden Sweden is the best country in the world. If we think the Swedish are so awesome, then let’s imitate their success by having the highest rate of individuals living alone in the world as promoted by government policy, a population that does social distancing by default, a cultural willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good, a strong social safety net paid for with high taxes on the rich, and socialist universal healthcare for all (Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism). Once we implement all of those perfect conditions of public preparedness for public health crises in promoting the public good, then and only then can we have a rational and meaningful debate about lockdowns and social distancing.

Otherwise, the critics are being disingenuous or oblivious about the real issues. Such confusion is easy to fall into during an anxiety-inducing crisis as we all struggle to see clearly what is at stake. Cummins is highly intelligent well informed and, most important, he means well. But maybe he has lost his bearings in being pulled into ideological polarization, which is a common malady in Western society even at the best of times — one might call it an ideological pandemic. No one is immune to such ideological mind viruses, which is all the more reason to be highly aware of the risk of memetic contagion and so handle the material with the proper intellectual protective gear, rather than assuming it’s only those other people who are mindless ideologues ignoring the cold hard facts. Obsessing over data can create yet another blindness, specifically when it leads one to seeking the data that confirms what one is looking for. The reality of diverse data, conflicting data, and missing data is far more murky, and the mud really gets stirred up when we are floundering amidst unstated assumptions and undefined terms.

The present debate isn’t really about public response to infectious disease. If it was only about that, we could be more fully on board with Cummins since, in terms of health data, we are in his camp. The other component to the ideological conflict is a failure of public trust in countries like the United states, as opposed to the success of public trust elsewhere. In terms of economics and health, the Swedish had comparably similar results as their Nordic neighbors who followed different government policies, which further demonstrates it’s more about culture than anything else. Lockdowns did cut the number of lives lost in those countries, but the greatest protection appears to have been cultural, which is to say how the population behaves under various government policies. Scandinavians have a culture of trust. The United States does not. I can’t speak for other countries that fared less well such as Italy and Spain, although hard-hit Brazil obviously has some public trust issues. Social distancing without any closures and restrictions probably works great in almost any strong culture of trust, whereas a lack of full lockdown could be a catastrophe where public trust is deficient. That would be a more interesting and meaningful debate.

What is it about American and British society, in particular, that soft issues of society and culture are reduced and rationalized away or dismissed and diminished by putting everything into a frame of economics and politics? It used to be that religion in the form of the Christian church was used as the frame to explain everything. But now capitalist realism, both in economics and politics, is the dominant religion. Notice most of the opponents of lockdowns are doing so in defense of capitalism (liberty), not in defense of democracy (freedom). It’s posing a particular kind of politics in opposition to a particular kind of economics. The idea of a genuinely free society is not in the frame, not part of the debate.

This is part of an old ideological conflict in the Western mind. It erupted more fully when the neoliberals took power, as signaled by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that, “there’s no such thing as society.” Karl Polanyi theorized about the rise of a market culture where everything came to be understood through an economic lens. Even politics has been made an extension of capitalist realism. This is more broadly part of a mindset obsessed with numbers. Everything can be measured. Everything can have a price put on it. Not only was religion demoted but all ‘soft’ approaches to understanding humanity and society. This is how we can have a debate in comparing different cultures while few people even bother to mention culture itself, as if culture either does not matter or does not exist. We have no shared frame to understand the deeper crisis we are suffering, of which the perception of pandemic threat and political malaise is merely a symptom.

The sense of conflict we’re experiencing in this pandemic isn’t fundamentally about an infectious virus and governmental response to it. It’s about how many societies, United States most of all, have suffered a crisis in loss of public trust based on destruction of traditional community, authority, self-sacrifice, etc. Libertarianism is inseparable from this cultural failure and simply further exacerbates it. In opposing authoritarianism, libertarianism becomes psychologically and socially dependent on authoritarianism, in the way drug rehab centers are dependent on influx of drug addicts (think of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly). What gets lost is radical envisioning of a society free of ideological addiction of divisive polarization that is used for propagandistic social control. Control the public mind with frame of libertarianism versus authoritarianism and the ruling elite can guarantee freedom is suppressed.

We must understand difference between Latin ‘liberty’ and Germanic ‘freedom’. The former originated from the legal status of not being a slave in slave society; whereas the latter as etymologically related to ‘friend’ originally meant being a member of a free society, as being among friends who would put common good over individual interest. Philip K. Dick liked to say that, “The Empire never ended,” in seeing the Roman Empire as fundamentally identical to our own. Well, the Norman Conquest never ended either. Romanized Norman thought and language still rules our public mind and society, economics and politics. That is the sad part. Even the word freedom has become another way to invoke the liberty worldview of a slave society. This is taken as the unquestioned given of capitalist realism. Negative freedom (Latin liberty) almost entirely replaces positive freedom (Germanic freedom). Another difference between Latin is that it was more abstract than German. So liberty as negative freedom is much more of an ideological abstraction. One can have freedom in theory even while being oppressed in lived reality. Liberty ideology can justify lack of freedom.

Interestingly, this brings us back to an important point that Chuck Pezeshki made in his post where he was looking upon Ivor Cummins with more support and sympathy. One of the reasons,” suggested Pezeshki, “I fervently believe our current society in the U.S. is collapsing is the loss of noblesse oblige — the idea that those of us that are better off in some definable way should help those who are less fortunate. I view my role as a full professor as one where I am supposed to think about complex and complicated things for the common good, just like a rich person is supposed to build housing developments for the poor.” Basically, we agree, even if we take a meandering path and throw out a bunch of side commentary along the way. Noblesse oblige, one might note, was a carryover from feudalism. Like the Commons, it was intentionally destroyed in creating our modern world. We have yet to come to terms with the fallout from that mass annihilation of the public good. There has been nothing to replace what was trampled upon and thrown away.

Such loose human realities can neither be counted in profit nor measured in data. Yet they determine what happens in our society, maybe even determining whether an infectious disease is a momentary inconvenience or turns into a deadly pandemic, determining whether it kills high numbers of the vulnerable or not. The terrain in which a virus can gain purchase is not only biological but environmental and economic, political and cultural. We need to talk not only about physical health for a public health crisis is about the health of the entire society and in this age of interconnectivity with mass trade, mass transportation and mass travel that increasingly includes the larger global society. It’s not only about your own health but the health of everyone else as well, the least among us most of all.

* * *

The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy
by Jason DeParle

Harvard Researchers Find ‘Inequality On Top Of Inequality’ In COVID-19 Deaths
by James Doubek

No Wealth, Poor Health: COVID-19 Has Exposed the Depth of Inequality For Marginalized Communities
by Shelly M. Wagers

Poverty, Tuberculosis, COVID-19 and the Luxury of Health
by Amy Catania

How The Crisis Is Making Racial Inequality Worse
by Greg Rosalsky

Social distancing in Black and white neighborhoods in Detroit: A data-driven look at vulnerable communities
by Makada Henry-Nickie & John Hudak

Poor New York City Neighborhoods Seeing Deaths From Covid at More Than Twice the Rate of Affluent Areas
by Julia Conley

COVID-19 outbreak exposes generations-old racial and economic divide in New York City
The Bronx is home to 1.5 million New Yorkers, many of them essential workers.
by Juju Chang, Emily Taguchi, Jake Lefferman, Deborah Kim, & Allie Yang

Divergent death tolls in New York’s Rockaways show Covid-19’s uneven reach
by Sally Goldenberg & Michelle Bocanegra

Density, poverty keep L.A. struggling against virus
by Brian Melley

In Mississippi, families of COVID-19 victims say poverty and race determine survival
by Candace Smith, Knez Walker, Fatima Curry, Armando Garcia, Cho Park & Anthony Rivas

Poor Health, Poverty and the Challenges of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean
by Samuel Berlinski, Jessica Gagete-Miranda, & Marcos Vera-Hernández

India COVID-19: The killer virus is still poverty
by C.P. Surendran

Iran COVID-19 Crisis: Poor People Are Victims of Regime’s Criminal Policy of Forcing People Back to Work
by Sedighe Shahrokhi

‘We’re expendable’: black Americans pay the price as states lift lockdowns
by Kenya Evelyn

How air pollution exacerbates Covid-19
by Isabelle Gerretsen

Air pollution has made the COVID-19 pandemic worse
by Ula Chrobak

Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 Symptoms Worse
by Alex Fox

Are you more likely to die of covid-19 if you live in a polluted area?
by Adam Vaughan

COVID-19 severity and air pollution: exploring the connection
from Healthcare In Europe

Can COVID-19 Spread Through Air Pollution?
from Environmental Technology

Air Pollution Is Found to Be Associated with Vulnerability to COVID-19
by Shuting Pomerleau

Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study
by Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, & Francesca Dominici

Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits
by Jared Dewese

One reason why coronavirus is hitting black Americans the hardest
by Ranjani Chakraborty

Covid-19 Flares Up in America’s Polluted ‘Sacrifice Zones’
by Sidney Fussell

Study shows how air pollution makes COVID-19 mortality worse for marginalized populations
from News Medical Life Sciences

Air pollution, racial disparities, and COVID-19 mortality
by Eric B. Brandt, Andrew F. Beck, & Tesfaye B. Mersha

Air Pollution and COVID-19 are worsening existing health inequalities
from European Public Health Alliance

In the Shadows of America’s Smokestacks, Virus Is One More Deadly Risk
by Hiroko Tabuchi

‘I’m Scared’: Study Links Cancer Alley Air Pollution to Higher Death Rates From Covid-19
by Yessenia Funes

The Health Emergency That’s Coming to West Louisville
by John Hans Gilderbloom & Gregory D. Squires

COVID-19, pollution and race: new health concerns for Nicetown
by Nydia Han and Heather Grubola

Philadelphia’s coronavirus numbers show stark racial and income disparities
by Yun Choi

Many cities around the globe saw cleaner air after being shut down for COVID-19. But not Chicago.
by Michael Hawthorne

Pollution rollbacks show a ‘callous disregard’ for communities hard hit by COVID-19
by Justine Calma

COVID-19 Is Not a Reasonable Excuse for Continued Pollution
by Janet McCabe

COVID-19 Cannot Be An Excuse For More Toxic Air
by Amy Hall

How Trump’s EPA Is Making Covid-19 More Deadly
by Michael R. Bloomberg and Gina McCarthy

Dirty air, weak enforcement hurt Arizona during COVID-19
by Sandy Bahr

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

Thrive: Libertarian Wolf in Progressive Clothing

A friend sent me a piece by Foster Gamble, An Encouraging Look Forward. It’s from Gamble’s Thrive blog. As you might recall, Thrive was a popular documentary from a few years back. It garnered a lot of attention at the time, but it didn’t seem to have any long term impact. My friend asked my thoughts about it. I’ve looked into Thrive in the past, although I can’t say I keep up on Gamble’s writings.

I must admit that I couldn’t be bothered to read the blog post beyond a quick skim, once I saw Gamble praising Trump as good and attacking socialism as evil (i.e., Trump saving us from the Democrats, specifically the threat of Sanders). This is someone who simply doesn’t understand what is happening… or worse, does understand. He can offer no hope because he can offer no worthy insight. It’s just another old rich white guy stuck in an old mindset. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that he finds hope in Trump, as both are the products of plutocratic inherited wealth. There is a long history of libertarians (and anarcho-capitalists) supporting authoritarians, from Pinochet to Trump. It has been called authoritarian libertarianism, which basically describes how liberal rhetoric of liberty and freedom can be used for illiberal ends.

Thrive comes across as a standard pseudo-libertarian techno-utopia with echoes of Cold War rhetoric and Bircher fear-mongering. The capitalists will save us if we only could eliminate big gov, progressive taxation, social safety net, legal civil rights, and democracy. He is an anarcho-capitalist, like Stefan Molyneux who is another Trump supporter. It turns out that (along with Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, Ludwig von Mises, etc) he does like to quote Molyneux.

He is no different than the rest of the disconnected elite, but maybe more clever in co-opting progressive rhetoric — similar to how right-wingers co-opted the libertarian label. Interestingly, Trump was elected on progressive rhetoric (by way of Steve Bannon) and that didn’t work out so well. The economic nationalism that Trump promised is the keystone of fascism. Right-wingers like Hitler and Mussolini were able to persuade so many on the political left by their saavy use of progressive rhetoric by glorifying a bright future — and these fascists did rebuild their countries right before sending them back into destruction. It’s highly problematic that Gamble is making many of the same basic arguments that brought the fascists to power earlier last century.

In his blog post, Gamble writes that, “It’s a turn away from globalism toward nationalism and toward localism that will, if allowed, continue until it finds the true unit of human wholeness — which is the individual, not the abstraction of “the group.” Meticulously honoring the intrinsic rights of the individual is what leads to true, voluntary community — which in fact best honors the needs of most people.”

This dogmatic ideology of hyper-individualism has been a mainstay of right-wing politics for this past century. All else is seen as abstractions. Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration).

From the ultra-right perspective of crude libertarianism, love of the supposedly non-ideological and non-abstract Nietszchian individual is the penultimate goal, specifically in the form of a paternalistic meritocracy of the most worthy individuals, a vanguard of enlightened leaders and rulers, even if those superior individuals are aristocrats, monarchs, fascists, or whatever else. As Gamble says that “the group” is an abstraction, Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society. We the public don’t exist, in the fantasy of plutocrats. Anyone who claims otherwise is an enemy, which is why democracy is so viciously attacked.

Beyond the dark right-wing conspiracies, the co-opting of progressive leaders is the most dangerous. Many of those interviewed stated that they were lied to and given false pretenses for why they were being interviewed and what kind of film it was to be. It was built on deception. It’s a propaganda piece produced and funded by right-wing plutocrats. All the fancy production and optimistic spin in the world can’t change that fact.

If you want to understand the worldview of Thrive, read the Rational Wiki entry on the Mises Institute or read some of the Misean defenses of Pinochet to get a flavor, such as General Augusto Pinochet Is Dead and More on Pinochet and Marxism. To Miseans, a social-democrat/democratic-socialist like Allende who was democratically elected, promoted compromise, and killed no one is more dangerous than a fascist like Pinochet who stole power through a coup, eliminated all traces of democracy, and went on a killing spree to subdue the masses. The ends justify the means, no matter how horrific. Capitalism must win at all costs, including human costs. As stated by Gamble’s hero, Mises:

“It cannot be denied that [Italian] Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.”

My conclusion about Gamble is beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’ve seen this game played far too often. My tolerance for bullshit is approximately zero, at this point. It’s because of plutocrats like Gamble that we are in this mess. I don’t care about his proposed solutions. If we are to gain genuine progress, it will be without the likes of him.

For all my criticism, I must acknowledge the brilliance of using progressive rhetoric to frame an anti-progressive agenda. This is high quality propaganda. Who wouldn’t want the world to thrive with free energy, rainbows, and butterflies? But who exactly will be thriving, the plutocrats or the public? And what kind of freedom are we talking about that requires the snuffing out of democratic process, democratic representation, and democratic rights?

* * *

Deconstructing Libertarianism: A Critique Prompted by the film Thrive

Thrive : Deconstructing the Film

Gamble admits to being “profoundly influenced by Ludwig von Mises,” founding member of the libertarian Austrian School of Economics. As an author, von Mises is celebrated by right-wing presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who claims, “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises.”

If I thought the film was libertarian propaganda, it was nothing compared to what I found on the Thrive website. The “Liberty” paper (under the Solutions section) is a real shocker. Peppered with quotes from Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, and Stefan Molyneux, there is even an attack on democracy! Gamble lumps democracy in with bigotry, imperialism, socialism, and fascism and says they all — including democracy! — violate the “intrinsic freedom of others.”

Thrive – The Conspiracy Movie

On April 10, 2012, that nine of the people interviewed in the film had signed a letter repudiating it and claiming that Foster Gamble misrepresented the film to them. These people were John Robbins, Amy Goodman, Deepak Chopra, Paul Hawken, Edgar Mitchell, Vandana Shiva, John Perkins, Elisabet Sahtouris, Duane Elgin and Adam Trombly. In the letter Robbins noted: “When I wrote Foster Gamble to voice my disappointment with many of the ideas in the film and website, he wrote back, encouraging me among other things to study the works of David Icke, Eustace Mullins, Stanley Monteith and G. Edward Griffin. These are among the people he repeatedly refers to in the movie as his “sources.” It is in these people’s worldviews that Thrive has its roots. I find this deeply disturbing. Here’s why…”

The Hidden Right-Wing Agenda at the Heart of ‘Thrive’

In case anyone misses the point—that the state must wither so that man can be free—Gamble shares von Mises’ opinion that like Communism, fascism and socialism, “democracy wrongly assumes the rights of the collective, or the group, over the rights of the individual.”

But wait a minute. Wasn’t that Paul Hawken on the screen a little while ago? How did we get from Paul Hawken to a thinly veiled anti-democracy rant and Ludwig von Mises?

Paul Hawken happens to be one of my personal heroes. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Hawken founded a couple of successful companies in the 1970s, and then went on to became the world’s leading environmentalist/economist with the publication of The Ecology of Commerce in 1993.

In Thrive, he delivers a passionate speech drawn from ideas in his latest book, the marvelous Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.

“If you look at the people who are involved with restoring the earth and stopping the damage, and reversing the depredation, and nurturing change, and reimagining what it means to he human, and you don’t feel optimistic, then maybe you need to have your heart examined,” he says in the film. “Because there is an extraordinary, gorgeous, beautiful, fierce group of people in this world who are taking this on.”

Now, that’s what I’m talking about! Enough of this conspiracy hogwash—let’s do some positive-minded politics! (For a local example, see this week’s cover story about the awesome work being done at Save Our Shores.html.)

In addition to being an admired economic thinker, Paul Hawken is a successful businessman and is nowhere near a socialist. Furthermore, Hawken was among the many sane people who championed the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, which Foster Gamble claims was an Illuminati/New World Order effort to create a global currency and destroy America’s sovereignty.

So—what’s Paul Hawken doing in this movie? I emailed him to find out. He replied he was just surprised as I was to find out he’s in the film.

“I did that interview many years prior under false pretenses,” Hawken replied. “I had no idea I was being interviewed for such a movie. Having said that, I have only seen the trailer [and] don’t really want to see the film, having read about it. I do not agree with the science or the philosophy.

“I do feel used, no question, as do others. It’s a lesson in signing releases.”

Similarly, In an email Thursday, Elisabet Sahtouris said that when she was interviewed for the film, she understood it was to be a very different kind of movie, and is “dismayed” at some of what she saw in the final cut. “I loved the footage shot of me and my colleagues; I deplore the context in which it was used.

“To put the individual above community is simply misguided; without community we do not exist, and community is about creating relationships of mutual benefit; it does not just happen with flowers and rainbows…  and no taxes.”

It appears that Hawken and Sahtouris aren’t the only people who regret having appeared in Thrive. In a scathing review on the Huffington Post, Georgia Kelly of the Praxis Peace Center reports that she has heard from several of other interviewees, none of whom had any idea they were helping to make a libertarian propaganda film.

Film review: Why ‘Thrive’ is best avoided

Ah, so that’s what ‘Thrive’ is all about …

Then, at the end of the film, we finally get into Thrive’s manifesto, it’s vision for the future and how we might get there.  There is lots in there that I wouldn’t disagree with, more local food, renewable energy, local banking, local shopping and so on, apart from free energy being thrown into the mix too.  But now, it is in this final section of ‘Thrive’ that the dark side of the film emerges.  One of the things put forward, alongside local food, renewables and so on, is “little or no taxes”.  Eh?  Where did that come from?!  Ah, now we get into the real agenda of the film, a kind of New Age libertarianism, a sort of cosmic Tea Party, and it all starts to get deeply alarming.

Gamble sets out his 3 stages to get to humanity’s being able to thrive.  Firstly, he argues, we need to hugely scale back the defence industry and the Federal Reserve.  Well I could go along with that, but then the second is “shrink government’s role in order to protect individual liberty”, and the third is then, because we are now freer, with “no involuntary tax and no involuntary governance” and with “rules but no rules” (?), we can all now thrive.  OK, whoa, let’s pause here for a moment.  Indeed the film’s website goes further, describing ‘involuntary taxation’ as “plunder” and ‘involuntary governance’ as “tyranny”.

In her review, Georgia Kelly quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying “taxes are what we pay for a civilised society”.  In spite of all it’s cosmic graphics and pictures of forests from the air, it is in essence a kind of New Age Tea Party promo film, arguing for a society with no government, no taxes, no laws, alongside “interplanetary exploration”, which somehow combine to create a world that respects the rights of all.  Apparently, this would lead to a world where “everyone would have the opportunity to thrive”.  In reality, it would lead to a world in which the wealthy would thrive, but the rest of us would lose healthcare, social welfare, libraries, public transport, pension entitlement, social housing etc etc.  Sounds more like a surefire route to the kind of Dickensian world that led to the creation of a welfare state in the first place.

Responding to any of the truly global issues, such as climate change (which ‘Thrive’ clearly dismisses as part of the conspiracy), would no longer happen due to intergovernmental co-operation presumably being interpreted as steps towards a ‘one world government’. The film presents its suggestions in complete isolation from any notions of ‘society’ and community, presenting a vision of the future where the entire global population is living the same lifestyle as Gamble, the resources to enable this presumably being imported from other planets, or perhaps created afresh using magic?

Nowhere in the film do you hear the words ‘less’, or anything about reduced consumption in the West.  Just as free energy and cures for cancer are our birthright, so, presumably, is the right to consume as much as we like – to think otherwise is to lapse into a ‘scarcity’ mindset.  What I find most alarming about ‘Thrive’ is that most of the people who have asked me “have you seen Thrive?” are under 20, and they seem genuinely excited by it.  Perhaps it is the simplicity of the message that appeals, the “all we need to do is” clarity of its ask.  But having to discuss why free energy machines are impossible and the shortcomings of conspiracy theories with otherwise educated young people who are inheriting a warming world with its many deep and complex challenges is deeply depressing.

On Infrastructure and Injustice

There is the issue of public infrastructure and who pays for it. My dad brought it up to me and it led to an argument. He couldn’t understand why there was a national discussion about fixing infrastructure. And he seemed to assume that it was citizens and local leaders demanding this. But I’m not sure why he made that assumption.

First, this ignores that it is being talked about because the Republican president made it a main point of his proclaimed agenda. Trump campaigned on progressive-sounding rhetoric, including a promise for a New New Deal program for rebuilding infrastructure. He and those representing him repeated this promise many times. So, considering Trump is now president, all of this is coming from a federal level. The kind of infrastructure being discussed is such things as bridges, the kind of thing that politicians like to focus on. But most people don’t sit around thinking about bridges.

That brings me to a second point. The kind of infrastructure that concerns people is much more basic. They want a paved road so that they can more easily get to work and more quickly get back home after work to take care of their family. They worry about affording basic healthcare for easily treatable diseases and having clean water so that their children don’t get brain damage from lead toxicity. They would like reliable access to electricity, phone lines, etc. These were the priorities of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. These are fairly basic things that we expect in a modern industrialized society, the prerequisite for a functioning social democracy for all citizens.

The people most effected with infrastructure problems are the poor. This leads to multiple problems in solving these problems. Many poor people live in poor communities, oftentimes because of a history of racial segregation. Poor communities have poorly funded governments. But more importantly, it’s not just poverty. It is how that poverty is created.

The government regularly gives away trillions of dollars of public wealth to corporations, not just subsidies and bailouts but even more through cheap access to natural resources on public lands, which is to say from the commons that belongs as much to future generations (not to mention the money spent help corporations on the international market, including using military force to ensure they also have cheap access to natural resources on foreign public lands). By the way, the infrastructure to access those publicly-owned natural resources is typically built by government for free, for the sole purpose of the benefit of wealthy private interests who just so happen to donate lots of money to key campaigns and political organizations. The poverty we have in the US is enforced by those in power, not natural or God-given.

People don’t have a right to demand that their government serves their interests, that is the argument my dad makes. It’s obviously an insincere argument. What he means is that he doesn’t believe a government should serve anyone’s interests but the privileged, the worthy and deserving, ya know, people like him. Everyone else should solve their own  problems or else suffer. But that is mind-boggling ignorance. Civil Rights leaders attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but were met with resistance and oppression. Residents in poor communities dealing with lead toxicity have attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but officials and governments have ignored them. It usually takes decades or generations of local struggle before higher levels of government ever take notice, assuming their is a large enough protest movement or legal case to force them to take notice.

The thing is my dad acts like we have a functioning democracy, even as he knows we don’t. Besides, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want a functioning democracy. His argument against federal government being involved in local affairs is an argument that the federal government should not be democratic, should not represent the public nor serve the public good, should not be of the people, by the people, for the people. But he can’t admit it, not even to himself, because his actual beliefs are so morally horrendous.

It isn’t just about federal government. The same argument applies at the state level and even further down. Why should state taxpayers help with the problems at the level of communities? As far as that goes, why should the taxpayers in urban areas of a county pay for the infrastructure of rural areas of the same county? Heck, why should the wealthy people in one neighborhood help the poor people in the same city have access to basic utilities? Why have public goods at all? Why not make every all infrastructure privately owned? Why have any government at all since, as the right-wingers claim, taxation is theft and government isn’t possible without such supposed theft? Why not instead have a world of individuals where it is a constant war of one against all? As Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society.”

If you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere, drink clean water, or go on living — who is paying for that air you’re breathing, you pneumatic welfare queen! That is the principled libertarian solution. How dare those who suffer and struggle demand a basic response of human decency and compassion! It’s not the privileged controlling the government and the economy who are authoritarians. No, it’s the poor people crying out in desperation who are the real oppressors.

My dad (and people like him) don’t understand and don’t want to understand the very system he benefits from. But on some level, I know he understands. That is the thing that bothers me. My dad is not ignorant, even when he pretends to not know something. I know what he knows because of past discussions we’ve had. Yet each new discussion begins from a point of feigned ignorance, with a denial of what had been previously discussed. It’s frustrating.

If my dad didn’t have his privilege, if he and his family were being racially oppressed, economically segregated, and slowly poisoned by the only water they have access to, if he and his neighbors were politically suppressed and if the government refused to even acknowledge his existence other than to hire more police to keep him in his place, if there had been a long history of political failure at the local level, if wealthy and powerful interests almost always got their way no matter the harm to local residents, would my dad honestly resign himself with libertarian moral righteousness that it was all his fault and that he must be punished for his suffering because his poverty is proof of his inferiority? Would he watch his loved ones suffer and do nothing? Would he just lay down and die? No, he wouldn’t.

It’s not just conservatives such as my dad. I see the same thing with disconnected liberals, in their attitude toward poor people when they vote the wrong way or when a homeless camp appears in a nearby park, and then all the good liberal intentions quickly disappear. I see how easy people are turned against each other, no matter their ideology. And I see how easy ideology becomes rationalization. It reminds one of how quickly an authoritarian government can emerge.

As the desperate unsurprisingly act desperate, the upper classes will demand a response and it won’t be to help alleviate that desperation. It will be a demand for law and order, by violent force if necessary. Put them down and put them in their place. Put them in prisons, ghettos, internment camps, or maybe even concentration camps. Just make them go away or somehow make them invisible and silenced.

The line of thought my dad is following down can only lead to one place, increasing authoritarianism. Without a functioning democracy, there is nowhere else for our society to go. Either that or eventually revolution. So, apparently my dad is hoping for an authoritarian government so oppressive that it effectively stops both democracy and revolution, forcing local people to deal with their own problems in misery and despair. That is the world that good citizens and good Christians, the good people like my dad, are helping to create.

What happens when those who could have done something to stop the horror finally see the world they have chosen, their beliefs and values made manifest?

But Then It Was Too Late

They Thought They Were Free
by Milton Mayer
ch. 13

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.

* * *

Later on, I was able to have a more fruitful conversation with my dad. That emphasizes what was so frustrating in that argument earlier. I know he is capable of understanding the point I was making. But something about it so often triggers him. It’s so easy for social conservatives to fall back on such things as Social Darwinism, as almost a default mode.

It’s not like I’m a great defender of big government. Most people aren’t for big government on principle. Few would turn to a government any larger than is necessary. The first response the average person has is to seek what solutions might be had nearby. They only turn elsewhere when all immediate possibilities are frustrated or denied. This isn’t about big versus small government. It’s simply about government that functions democratically, on any and all levels.

So, I finally found a way to communicate this to my dad. But it is always a struggle. If I don’t frame it in the exact right way, he reacts with right-wing ideology. I have to put it into conservative terms of community and social fabric.

I find that a shame because the framing I’d prefer is simple honest concern for other humans, as if they mattered. I don’t want to live in a society where I have to carefully frame every argument in order to not accidentally elicit knee-jerk prejudices. I wish we were beyond that point. I wish we could have discussions that went straight to the problems themselves, instead having to first somehow prove that those suffering are worthy of our compassion.

I did apologize to my dad for getting so upset with him and lashing out at him. It’s not what I want. But these debates aren’t academic. It’s real people suffering, millions of Americans. These people don’t care if it is local or national government that helps them solve problems. They just want a better life for themselves and their children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. I have no apology for caring.

Interestingly, one way I got my dad’s mind onto a new track of thinking is by sharing a passage from a book. It was something I had read yesterday, about old school progressives. For some reason, maybe because of the framing of religious moral reform, the following passage was able to shift our dialogue.

American Character
by Colin Woodard
pp. 134-135

When another terrible depression shook the country in 1893, reform movements sprang up across its northern tiers. Like the Massachusetts Brahmins, these turn-of-the-century Progressives weren’t opposed to free-market capitalism or Lockean individualism, but they did believe that laissez-faire was destroying both. Their philosophical mentor was the sociologist Lester Ward, the son of old New Englanders who had settled in the Yankee north of Illinois, and who became the greatest foe of Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists. “How can . . . true individualism be secured and complete freedom of individual action be vouchsafed?” Ward asked in 1893. “Herein lies a social paradox . . . that individual freedom can only come through social regulation.” He elaborated a theory of collective action to maintain the conditions required to keep individuals free:

Such a powerful weapon as reason is unsafe in the hands of one individual when wielded against another. It is still more dangerous in the hands of corporations, which proverbially have no souls. It is most baneful of all in the hands of compound corporations which seek to control the wealth of the world. It is only safe when employed by the social ego, emanating from the collective brain of society, and directed toward securing the common interests of the social organism.

It was in essence the approach Massachusetts had been taking for decades, which would now be adopted by insurgents in other parts of Yankeedom (Jane Addams in northern Illinois, Charles Evans Hughes in upstate New York, and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin), the Midlands (William Jennings Bryan in eastern Nebraska), and New Netherland (where Herbert Croly helped found the New Republic in 1914 and from whence came the movement’s greatest figures, Al Smith and Theodore Roosevelt).

Teddy Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, broke up Standard Oil, Northern Securities (which controlled both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways), the American Tobacco Company, and other great corporate trusts; intervened in a major mining strike to secure a solution beneficial to workers; and founded the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service. He presided over the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Hepburn Act, which regulated railroad fares. His goal, he told a rapt audience at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1907, was to restore the spirit of the early Puritans, who yoked the individualistic Protestant work ethic to communitarian goals and institutions. “The Puritan owed his extraordinary success in subduing this continent and making it the foundation for a social life of ordered liberty primarily to the fact that he combined in a very remarkable degree both the power of individual initiative, of individual self-help, and the power of acting in combination with his fellows,” he said. “He could combine with others whenever it became necessary to do a job which could not be as well done by any one man individually. . . . The spirit of the Puritan . . . never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and it is this spirit which we must show today whenever it is necessary.”

 

Dreams of Anarchism

There is a debate between Larken Rose and Mark Skousen. It is amusing, if not enlightening. It is an argument between two radical right-wingers.

Larken Rose is an anarchist and not the pacifist live-and-let-live kind. He seems to be a hardcore anarcho-capitalist, where capitalists instead of government rules the world. He also argues for shooting cops when one feels their rights infringed, a rather subjective standard. This is the kind of guy who fantasizes about violent revolution and overthrow of all authority.

Mark Skousen is related to the even more infamous W. Cleon Skousen. That other Skousen is his uncle, a crazy right-wing Mormon who is a favorite of Glenn Beck. Theoretically, Mark Skousen is a libertarian, but I suspect of the authoritarian variety—i.e., a pseudo-libertarian. Maybe he is an aspiring theocrat like his uncle. Whatever he is, he doesn’t exude the principled dogmatism and righteous outrage seen with Rose. But both believe in violence in resolving conflict—see Skousen’s honor culture attitude.

I don’t normally bother with such things. But I do get curious in exploring worldviews outside of the mainstream. What got me thinking was something said by Rose in the debate:

The best attempt ever in the history of the world at creating a country based on ‘limited government’ created the largest authoritarian empire in the history of the world, with the largest war machine in the history of the world, and the most intrusive extortion racket in the history of the world.

Invariably minarchists, at this point, pull a page out of the communist handbook and say “Well the theory works, if just wasn’t done right!”

I have a tip for you, if every SINGLE time your theory is applied to the real world it FAILS COMPLETELY, maybe your theory SUCKS.

At this point, this could be said pretty much of every political theory. Maybe political theory is not the answer. I’ve always thought the least anarchist thing one could ever do is to turn anarchism into an ideology to worship and bow down to. But I have some fondness for what might be called epistemological anarchism, a whole other creature. The kind of anarchist I prefer is Robert Anton Wilson, the complete opposite of a dogmatic ideologue.

I find it amusing when anarchists like this complain that others are disconnected from reality. The only reason they can make their arguments is that they are offering utopian visions. No one can point to the failure of anarchism because there is no great example of anarchism ever having been attempted.

When anarchists try to bring up real world examples, they come off as entirely unconvincing. They are so lost in abstractions and imaginings that they can’t look at the evidence for what it is. This kind of right-wing ideological certainty fascinates and frustrates me. I’ve been down this road before (see herehere, here, here, here, and here). I know all the arguments made. I know the mindset.

There is a careless thinking in much of this. There are left-wing examples that are similar. But in the US the right-wing examples are more prevalent and in your face. It’s harder to ignore them. Unlike left-wing fantasies, right-wing fantasies hold immense power in our society. Confronting these fantasies is important. This requires engaging them, not just dismissing them.

Ancaps have a few favorite things they like to cite. History doesn’t offer them much in the way of evidence, and so they have to cling to what meager evidence they can find. They’ll bring up such things as ancient Ireland. But they end up cherrypicking the facts to fit their ideology and then molding them into a vague resemblance of what their advocating.

Consider the interpretation of the historical and archaeological evidence. It demonstrates the problem when you try to make anarchism into an ideology and then try to apply that ideology to complex social reality. Ancient Ireland wasn’t anarchist in the normal sense of the word—certainly not anarcho-capitalist.

Not only laissez-faire capitalism wouldn’t have existed, but neither would individualism, land ownership, etc. These were highly communalistic societies with strict hierarchies and powerful authority figures. If you disobeyed tradition and broke taboos, you’d quickly find that you weren’t free to do whatever you wanted. The modern idea of individual civil rights was simply nonexistent.

Yes, they were small-scale, local, and decentralized. But that isn’t the same thing as anarchism. Many confuse anti-statism with anarchism. What anarchism means is no rulers. These ancient Irish societies didn’t lack rulers, even if they operated differently than in statist societies. They also didn’t lack violence and oppression. The ancient Irish regularly fought one another—including wars of aggression, not just wars of defense. They didn’t simply respect each other’s liberty and freedom.

We need to speak more clearly and not filter reality through our ideas and ideals.

At a Youtube video, one person left this comment:

Er… There was no individual property ownership in Medieval Ireland. Land was controlled by the nobility as heads of collectives known as “túaths”. These collectives were based on kinship and regional proximity. The vast majority of the people were peasants, or “Churls”, who worked the land for the nobility. Yes, the membership of the túaths was fluid, but this system was based on fealty (oath and allegiance), to break an allegiance was not a simple matter.

These societies had rulers. An anarchist society would lack rulers. By definition, these ancient Irish societies weren’t anarchist. Plus, the cost of leaving one of these societies would be extremely high, including the clear possibility that one wouldn’t survive for long. These were extremely authoritarian societies. There was nothing libertarian about them.

From the same video, someone else wrote:

Under that definition, every economic arrangement imaginable is capitalism. Socialism is capitalism, merchantilism is capitalism, feudalism is capitalism etc. It’s fallacious.

People traded. But trade alone is not capitalism. There wasn’t much if any notion of individual ownership. One community might trade with another, but it was typically a collective action as decided by the king and nobility.

Plus, most daily activity would have included more along the lines of social exchanges, not necessarily even barter as we think of it, but more likely a gift society. See David Graeber’s writings.

As all this demonstrates, anarchists are going to have to take their own arguments more seriously. It’s not a matter of convincing others. The best way for them to convince others would be to create an anarchist society somewhere. They could buy an island and start their own non-statist society. No one is stopping them, at least in a legal and economic sense.

Of course, they would argue that the statists are stopping them or making it difficult. Sure, statists have no reason to make it easy. That isn’t the responsibility of statists. If your anarchism can’t withstand the power of statism, then that is proof of why your beliefs have never succeeded in reality. State governments aren’t going to roll over and die. An actual functioning anarchist society will have to be able to fight and win a war against the militaries of nation-states…. or otherwise somehow defend and prevent such attacks.

The problem here isn’t ideologicaly. It isn’t about finding the right principles and being unswerving in one’s conviction. What anarchists face is a whole world of people, a global population growing ever larger on a planet that is staying the same size. Telling most people that they are wrong doesn’t really achieve anything, however satisfying it might feel to express one’s righteous outrage.

If anarchists hope to find real world applications for their utopian ideals, they will have to confront human nature and not just in theory. That goes for anyone with an ideological agenda, even those who claim to have none. As for utopian ideals, I have my own that I favor and that is the reason I spend so much time thinking about human nature. I want to understand what might lead a mere potential to become manifest. This is the tough questioning and self-questioning that I rarely see anarchists willing to take on.

Despite my criticisms, I support anyone with utopian aspirations. Go right ahead. Dream those crazy beautiful dreams. Think big. You are right to not confuse what is and what ought to be. We need more people with daring imaginations and the courage of their convictions. The next step is to experiment, find out with an open mind whether what you believe is a possibility. Prove all your detractors wrong, if you can. I’ll cheer you on in your bold quest for humanity’s future.

Just don’t fool yourself that analyzing a problem is the same thing as offering a solution.

Political Alliances and Reform

“Our opponents have stripped the discussion of rights of all its complexity.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Location 1349

I had a direct experience of this over these past few days. I was involved in a political debate. It was on a facebook page for a local group, Reform the Johnson County Criminal Justice System. Before I go into the details of the situation, let me briefly explain the background of the group.

The group was formed because of a particular issue that was being fought against, but it quickly broadened in scope. It attracted many people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives. Over time, some people grew dissatisfied. Many liberals, progressives, and similar types left the group and joined another group. The main guy who organized the group was one of those who left. He passed the keys onto at least one other person, Sean Curtin.

Sean is a lawyer and a libertarian. He is very much an activist. I get the sense that he dedicates his entire life to his politics. He seems devoted and is a decent guy. However, he is a tad dogmatic in his right-wing politics. There is a slight reactionary slant to his libertarianism, but someone was explaining to me that he has been moving (or, because of circumstances, has felt pushed) leftward toward greater alliance with liberal and progressive reformers.

I like to see alliances. This is what makes me a liberal. I’m all about seeking mutual understanding. That is often easier said than done. Sean had sent me a friend request on Facebook and I accepted. I remained ‘friends’ with him for a while, until his dogmatism irritated me enough and I unfriended him.

That wasn’t that long ago when I unfriended him. I hadn’t interacted with him since. For some reason, I was drawn to comment on a post on the group’s Facebook page. He joined in along with some others. It didn’t lead to fruitful discussion. No mutual understanding followed from it, to say the least. Instead, Sean deleted the entire discussion thread. He essentially silenced his opponents. Not very libertarian of him, I must say… or maybe all too typically ‘libertarian’, in that it is liberty for me and none for thee.

The discussion began because of a video talking about “personal responsibility”. This led to talk about rhetoric in terms of language and ideas. It was just when I thought the discussion was getting interesting that it got deleted. I think I understand why. The direction that I was pushing the discussion toward was one in which a libertarian position has little defense. Right-libertarianism can’t handle much direct scrutiny of its ideological rhetoric, because it falls apart or else becomes quite wobbly.

From Sean’s perspective, betraying his idealized principle of liberty by shutting discussion down was more acceptable than allowing any further scrutiny of that ideal and the related ideological rhetoric upon which it is based. That is why I began with that quote by Howard Schwartz. Libertarianism, in its extreme right-wing form, necessitates a simplification of thought and hence a narrowing of debate.

As such, someone like Sean can move pretty far to the left on many issues, but he can only go so far. This leftward shift can even include acknowledging racial bias. It’s just that it has to be kept within a limited framework of analysis. To question too deeply into racism would point toward its structural nature. This enters into dangerous territory of larger social injustice issues that erode at the very foundations of the economic system that libertarians so strongly uphold.

This was the direction in which the discussion was headed. And this is why Sean had to end it before it got too far. This is problematic for any attempt at an alliance for reform. If an alliance is dependent on the lowest common denominator, including reactionary politics into a reform group can bring the agenda down to an extremely low level. This is an even greater problem when reactionary attitudes are held by the leader of a reform group.

This incident has made me question any hope for an effective alliance between the left and right. I haven’t given up hope, but I’m feeling circumspect. Maybe Sean and other libertarians will surprise me in how far they might go, when push comes to shove.

Beyond Liberty Alone

Liberty and responsibility can’t be separated. There is no dependence without interdependence. There are no individuals outside of community and society.

This is why a people who can’t be trusted with collective governance can neither be trusted with self-governance. Eliminating big government wouldn’t solve the problem. Corruption and oppression often is even worse with small governments. This is the failure of the libertarian fantasy.

More importantly, those who would take away from others the right and freedom of self-governance are those who lack the moral capacity for good governance. They shouldn’t be allowed to govern anyone, not even themselves. This speaks to the problem of ruling elites, whether in big or small government, whether local or centralized power.

Too often people who speak of liberty speak only for their own liberty while hoping to deny the liberty of others. This inconsistency shows that they don’t even respect the principle of liberty. It is just empty rhetoric and so dangerous rhetoric. We should fear those who use talk of liberty in order to undermine any real possibility of a free society.

The problem, as always, is the lack of functioning democracy. The balance of liberty and responsibility is democracy’s defining feature. If that doesn’t exist, there is no free society and hence no free individuals. Either everyone is free or no one is free.

“Instead of thinking of liberty as a set of natural or individual rights that must be protected no matter what, this other tradition also sees liberty as including a set of obligations, duties, sacrifices, and responsibilities that come into being as members of social communities and as human beings. Liberty in this view means living justly as part of and within a social community and as a responsible member of the human species.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Locations 395-397

If You Think Democracy Is Bad, You Should See Libertarianism

I differ from mainstream liberals in having some libertarian inclinations. I don’t think I’m extraordinarily unusual in this. I live in a liberal town and know other liberals that think more like me.

The reason I’m so inclined is simple. I like democracy. It appears that democracy has failed on the large-scale. The only successful examples of democracy are on the small-scale. Hence, libertarianism of a leftist variety.

That said, I wouldn’t identify as a libertarian. Not because I don’t like the label. I couldn’t care less about the label. The real point for me is the principles I hold. In principle, I’m indifferent to the argument of big versus small government. I suspect big government might be a necessary evil.

For example, there is good reason few minorities are libertarians. Colonial African slaves had to choose between Britain and America. It was no easy choice. Few of them were thinking about grand changes. They were simply seeking the best hope available to them. If they chose to fight on one side or the other, it was a very personal decision. They were more fighting for their individual freedom than they were fighting for some ideal of a free society.

It was very concrete and direct. They just wanted to be able to live their own lives and be left alone. That is freedom in the most basic sense.

Since that era, their descendents have continuouslly fought for ever greater freedoms. Yet most of the battles continued to be for very basic freedoms. And most of the battles have been fought at the local level. But almost every victory they had at the local level was reversed by local whites, almost everything they built at the local level was destroyed by local whites.

Conservatives complain about what they see as minorities love of big government. It’s not that they love big government. It’s just that they’ve learned from hard-fought experience that the only lasting change for the good they’ve gained has come from forcing change at the level of big governmment and so forcing local small governments to comply.

Black history demonstrates the failure of libertarianism. An even greater failure than democracy.

Libertarian rhetoric is a white privilege and also a class privilege. There is a reason most libertarians are wealthier whites. They already have their basic rights and freedoms protected, more than anyone else in society.

Minorities aren’t stupid. They see this privilege for what it is.

Libertarian Failure of Principles

I came across a decent article by Will Moyer. I’ve never heard of him, but for the sake of amusement I’ll just assume he is the son of Bill Moyer. This piece is published in Salon with the title, “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology“.

This interests me for a number of reasons. My criticisms of libertarianism, similar to this article, are motivated by my principles. I like aspects of libertarian rhetoric, but I see two problems. First, libertarian reality doesn’t live up to libertarian rhetoric. Second, libertarians don’t take their own rhetoric seriously enough to follow it to its inevitable conclusion. That last point is major part of the article.

I don’t know if libertarianism is possible on a large scale of running a society. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a society attempt it. The one thing libertarians pride themselves is on their principles, as if they are more principled than everyone else. Considering that, it is strange how they sell short their own principles. Some of the strongest criticisms of libertarianism come from within libertarianism, just as some of the strongest criticisms of liberalism come from within liberalism.

I’d love to see libertarianism succeed. My harsh attitude toward libertarianism is that it fails according to its own high ideals. I’m a classical liberal and I’m attracted to left-libertarianism. What this means is that I actually take seriously the values of the Enlightenment. When I hear libertarians go on about freedom and such, what makes me wary aren’t that I disagree with those values but that I don’t trust libertarians to live up to them. I don’t trust the Koch brothers to follow libertarian principles any more than I trust Obama to follow liberal principles.

Here is what I liked about Will Moyer’s analysis:

“Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or delegitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

“It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children. [ . . . ]

“Besides all it leaves out, the framework also includes a facile conception of consent.

“Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

“Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

“But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

“Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality, which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

“But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

“Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And — within the political ethic — even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

“A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up — by your parents, teachers and peers — may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

“We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum — the unconstrained one — is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical and authoritarian.

“As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.”

Cryptonomicon: Democracy & Moderation, Conflict & Violence

I’m not going to do a full review, much less a fair and neutral analysis, of Cryptonomicon. The book is large with multiple storylines, one of which involves World War II. The passage that caught my attention, however, comes from the storyline set in the late 1990s when the book was written. Before I get to that passage, let me make note of the worldview of the novel and of the author’s other novels.

I’m going to take a partly critical view on Neal Stephenson’s work or at least aspects therein, but I’m not trying to dismiss his work. I enjoyed Snow Crash, in particular. It felt like a very plausible future in many ways. Stephenson can be a fun writer to read. He is imaginative. So, my purpose here isn’t to do a review of Cryptonomicon or literary criticism of his ouevre. I simply want to use his writing as a way of offering cultural criticism since Stephenson very much seems like a product of our culture. So, I will be narrowly focused in this sense.

I haven’t read all of Stephenson’s books (nor do I want to try). From what others have written, it seems that all of his fiction involves conflict and typically fighting, often outright war. As Al Dimond explains:

Conflict is a theme that runs through every Stephenson novel that I’ve read. That’s a pretty vague theme, you might say. Well, how about this: they’ve all ended in the middle of violent struggle. The corporate wars and virtual swordfights of Snow Crash, global factional fighting in The Diamond Age, small-scale jungle combat in CryptonomiconCryptonomicon‘s story of World War II, its central thesis made explicit in Enoch Root and Randy’s conversations in jail, is the clearest statement that Stephenson basically believes in conflict. He believes that the right side (the progressive side) will eventually win if there is conflict. That without conflict societies lose their sense of what they believe in the first place and can’t progress. Whether or not you believe that what I’m calling progress here is good, this is something that rings true to me: in a world of competitive civilizations, the progressive ones wipe out the others. We always worry that they (we) may wipe out themselves, too, just for the sake of completeness (ha, not really, actually just because we know no other way, or because there’s still enough inequity and thus conflict to keep us fighting and thus progressing). This is a subject that I’ve got to do some reading on, because I’m sure Great Books have been written on the subject.

One could easily conclude that Neal Stephenson, going by his fiction, seems to have little faith in the ideal of social democracy working out its problems without recourse to violence and revolution. There seems to be no overarching socio-political worldview that can encompass the diverse opinions and viewpoints of his characters. Some group apparently has to win and everyone else lose… or else there will be endless fighting and competition between forces. One might say that it is a bit of a Social Darwinian vision. Unsurprisingly, there is a libertarian bent to many of the narratives and characters.

The following is by David Axel Kurtz. This is from the beginning of his post which is a celebration and apologia of this worldview:

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, there is nothing more derided than irony. It is seen as the enemy of the artist, an obstacle to creativity, and the antithesis of true production.

If there is a protagonist to Crypto it is Randall Lawrence Waterhouse. He is comparable in many ways to the author of the story. They both came from the American heartland. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest. They both came of age at the time of the computer’s introduction. They are both highly educated. They are both “white male technocrats.” They are both nerds.

The nerd as hero. I have nothing against that in principle. It is better than Rambo, but Cryptonomicon has both types: the nerd-hero and the soldier-hero. The greatest enemy of all is not taking one’s mission deadly seriously (i.e., irony is bad). No matter which type of hero you are in this world, you have to fight for what you believe in. There is no pacifist-hero of slow, gradual democratic change… for I guess that would make a boring story (and some would say make for a boring ideology)… very few stories, ideologies or products are sold without some drama involved, even if the only drama is the conflict of not having the beautiful woman in the advertisement.

Kurtz identifies the character Randy (Randall) with the author Stephenson. That is something I wondered when I came across the passage where Randy takes on the smug humanities professor G. E. B. Kivistik, a truly pathetic caricature in the tradition of right-wing fear-mongering about the academic liberal elite. What I wanted to know is: Why was the author setting up a straw man for his antagonist to knock down, unless that caricature is genuinely how the author perceives such people? The scenario was a libertarian wet dream. This immediately put my defenses up and made me start to pay closer attention to the story. I’m still not entirely sure where the author comes down on this.

Randy sees himself as self-accomplished and hardworking. He doesn’t see the privilege he has had a white guy born and raised in America. Nor do those inspired by this passage see this. It has become a manifesto of white male victimhood.

Dominic Fox explains this worldview in terms of a “tribal sociology”:

The point to understand here is that Randy is right for a small, local value of “this society”: if you are in a position to participate in the social customs and network of the Dwarves, the path to advancement is indeed to “work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you”. If you are amongst Hobbits, you need to practice quite different virtues. Tribes such as these act as force-multipliers for personal effort (working one’s ass off, something Kivistik has also presumably done in his own way), provided it is directed towards goals that the tribe esteems and is in a position to reward. What is “entrenched” is of course not Randy’s personal position within the tribe to which he is affiliated, but the position of the tribe itself, with its considerable resources of knowledge and power.

The ideological move common to Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age is to displace class analysis (which would have something to say about hierarchy and exploitation, as fundamental operators of the division of the social world) into a “pagan” compartmentalisation of the world into competing tribes, a flat ecology of value-systems whose historical development is governed by something like an evolutionary fitness landscape. This is apparent from Cryptonomicon’s opening metaphor of the “first self-replicating gizmo” as a “stupendous badass”, and progenitor of a tremendous and varied proliferation of badassery throughout the natural and, by metaphorical extension, social world. This compartmentalisation enables Stephenson to range across wildly varied social and moral environments, and gives the Baroque Cycle its bewildering sweep and scope as well as its synoptic power. But it leaves Randy Waterhouse essentially mystified as to the nature of the opportunities available to him, and unable to grasp the Hobbits’ point, rendered as it is in language that seems offensively fatuous and vapid to him, about “false consciousness”.

An even more scathing criticism came from an unknown author of an essay, Retronomicon:

[W]hat’s most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there’s a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

This critic is speaking of that same passage. Further on, s/he gets into the meat of the issue:

Let’s set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it’s patently transparent. Look at Kivistik’s original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he’s asking is “who’s going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?” This isn’t some far-fetched academic pretense: it’s a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik’s point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he’s writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story.

This gives voice to my intuitive response when I initially read the passage in question. It seems the author expects us to take fully seriously this portrayal of academia and its takedown by the idealized nerd-hero outsider. Nonetheless, I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

In the passage, Randy defends himself against the accusation of being a technocrat… worse still, a privileged technocrat. I haven’t done a thorough search about the author’s views on such things, but I did come across an interview where he discusses a technocratic society:

The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions.

[ . . . ] for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.

That seems to offer a clue.

In Cryptonomicon, Randy denies being a technocrat, denies even knowing what that means. The author in this interview, on the other hand, offers a loving portrayal of the technocratic society he was born into. Growing up, Stephenson saw strife and bickering take over our country. Little of the optimism that brought us to the moon was left by the time he was an adult.

Stephenson states that, “It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works”. That is pretty much the opinion of Randy and how he sees the humanities professor. Following this statement, Stephenson also makes a similar statement about the “cultural right”. He is speaking of the culture wars and so the “cultural right” he speaks of is the religious right. However, he separates out the technical class out of this culture war. That is precisely the view of Randy as he sees himself as the outsider. This so-called “technical class” is stereotypically known for its libertarianism and I doubt Stephenson is unaware of this when he makes such statements. He is speaking about a specific group with a specific ideological tendency.

Stephenson seems to have sympathies for the libertarian-minded, but at the same time he sees a broader view:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

As he further explains, “Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.” Despite all the conflict and violence in his fiction, he apparently hasn’t embraced this as normative. Still, the fictional worldview being presented is certainly not one of moderation or even any obvious hope for moderation. Stephenson’s stories offer some particular conflict resolved or semi-resolved in a world of conflict, maybe never to be resolved.

Like me, Neal Stephenson was a child of the Cold War. He is of a slightly older generation, a young Boomer. So, he is even more of the Cold War era than I am. That “triangular system” of stability is very much a product of the twentieth century, but when Stephenson spoke in that interview it was several years after the 9/11 terrorist attack and in an entirely new decade following Cryptonomicon. In this new century, conflict and violence has become a lot more personal to Americans. It isn’t about oppressive foreign countries or dystopic futures. We have come to a point where statism, terrorism and libertarianism are being brought to their extremes.

Stephenson explores the world where great heroes go on quests and great men fight for what they seek. Most of us on this teeming planet aren’t great heroes or great men. We are just people trying to get by and hoping for a better world for the next generation. What is everyone else supposed to do while all the great things are happening? Is there any room for democracy to emerge, for grassroots change that doesn’t require conflict and violence?