The Art of the Lost Cause

Many people are understandably disappointed, frustrated, or angry when they lose. It’s just not fun to lose, especially in a competitive society. But there are advantages to losing. And losses are as much determined by perspective. Certainly, in more cooperative societies, what may be seen as a loss by outsiders could be taken quite differently by an insider. Western researchers discovered that difference when using games as part of social science studies. Some non-Western people refused win-lose scenarios, at least among members of the community. The individual didn’t lose for everyone gained. I point this out to help shift our thinking.

Recently, the political left in the United States has experienced losses. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton who in turn lost the presidency to Donald Trump. But is this an entirely surprising result and bad outcome? Losses can lead to soul-searching and motivation for change. The Republicans we know now have dominated the political narrative in recent decades, which forced the Democrats to shift far to the right with third way ‘triangulation’. That wasn’t always the case. Republicans went through a period of major losses before being able to reinvent themselves with the southern strategy, Reagan revolution, trickle down voodo economics, the two Santa Claus theory, culture wars, etc.

The Clinton New Democrats were only able to win at all in recent history by sacrificing the political left and, in the process, becoming the new conservative party. So, even when Democrats have been able to win it has been a loss. Consider Obama who turned out to be one of the most neoliberal and neocon presidents in modern history, betraying his every promise: maintaining militarism, refusing to shut down GITMO, passing pro-biz insurance reform, etc. Liberals and leftists would have been better off to have been entirely out of power these past decades, allowing a genuine political left movement to form and so allowing democracy to begin to reassert itself from below. Instead, Democrats have managed to win just enough elections to keep the political left suppressed by co-opting their rhetoric. Democrats have won by forcing the American public to lose.

In the Democratic leadership failing so gloriously, they have been publicly shamed to the point of no redemption. The party is now less popular than the opposition, an amazing feat considering how unpopular is Trump and the GOP at the moment. Yet amidst all of this, Bernie Sanders is more popular than ever, more popular among women than men and more popular among minorities than whites. I never thought Sanders was likely to win and so I wasn’t disappointed. What his campaign did accomplish, as I expected, was to reshape the political narrative and shift the Overton window back toward the political left again. This period of loss will be remembered as a turning point in the future. It was a necessary loss, a reckoning and re-envisioning.

Think about famous lost causes. One that came to mind is that of Jesus and the early Christians. They were a tiny unknown cult in a vast empire filled with hundreds of thousands of similar cults. They were nothing special, of no significance or consequence, such that no one bothered to even take note of them, not even Jewish writers at the time. Then Jesus was killed as a common criminal among other criminals and even that didn’t draw any attention. There is no evidence that the Romans considered Jesus even mildly interesting. After his death, Christianity remained small and splintered into a few communities. It took generations for this cult to grow much at all and finally attract much outside attention.

Early Christians weren’t even important enough to be feared. The persecution stories seem to have been mostly invented by later Christians to make themselves feel more important, as there is no records of any systematic and pervasive persecution. Romans killing a few cultists here and there happened all the time and Christians didn’t stand out as being targeted more than any others. In fact, early Christians were lacking in uniqueness that they were often confused with other groups such as Stoics. By the way, it was the Stoics who were famous at the time for seeking out persecution and so gaining street cred respectability, maybe causing envy among Christians. Even Christian theology was largely borrowed from others, such as natural law also having been taken from the Stoics — related to the idea that a slave can be free in their mind and being, their heart and soul because natural law transcends human law.

Still, this early status of Christians as losers created a powerful narrative that has not only survived but proliferated. Some of that narrative, such as their persecution, was invented. But that is far from unusual — the mythos that develops around lost causes tends to be more invented than not. Still, at the core, the Christians were genuinely pathetic for a couple of centuries. They weren’t a respectable religion in the Roman Empire, until long after Jesus’ death when an emperor decided to use them to shore up his own power. In the waning era of Roman imperialism, I suppose a lost cause theology felt compelling and comforting. It was also a good way to convert other defeated people, as they could be promised victory in heaven. Lost Causes tend to lead to romanticizing of a distant redemption that one day would come. And in the case of Christianity, this would mean that the ultimate sacrificial loser, Jesus himself, would return victorious! Amen! Praise the Lord! Like a Taoist philosopher, Jesus taught that to find oneself was to lose oneself but to lose oneself was to find oneself. This is a loser’s mentality and relates to why some have considered Christianity to be a slaver religion. The lowly are uplifted, at least in words and ideals. But I’d argue there is more to it than seeking comfort by rationalizing suffering, oppression, and defeat.

Winning isn’t always a good thing, at least in the short term. I sometimes wonder if America would be a better place if the American Revolution had been lost. When I compare the United States to Canada, I don’t see any great advantage to American colonists having won. Canada is a much more stable and well-functioning social democracy. And the British Empire ended up enacting sweeping reforms, including abolishing slavery through law long before the US managed to end slavery through bloody conflict. In many ways, Americans were worse off after the revolution than before it. A reactionary backlash took hold as oligarchs co-opted the revolution and turned it into counter-revolution. Through the coup of a Constitutional Convention, the ruling elite seized power of the new government. It was in seeming to win that the average American ended up losing. An overt loss potentially could have been a greater long term victory. In particular for women and blacks, being on the side of the revolutionaries didn’t turn out to be such a great deal. Woman who had gained the vote had it taken away from them again and blacks hoping for freedom were returned to slavery. The emerging radical movement of democratic reform was strangled in the crib.

Later on, the Confederates learned of the power of a lost cause. To such an extent that they have become the poster boys of The Lost Cause, all of American society having been transformed by it. Victory of the United States government, once again, turned out to be far from a clear victory for the oppressed. If Confederates had won or otherwise been allowed to secede, the Confederate government would have been forced to come to terms with the majority black population that existed in the South and they wouldn’t have had the large Northern population to help keep blacks down. It’s possible that some of the worst results could have been avoided: re-enslavement through chain gangs and mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws and Klan terrorism, sundown towns and redlining, etc —  all the ways that racism became further entrenched. After the Civil War, blacks became scattered and would then become a minority. Having lost their position as the Southern majority, they lost most of the leverage they might have had. Instead of weak reforms leading to new forms of oppression, blacks might have been able to have forced a societal transformation within a Confederate government or else to have had a mass exodus in order to secede and create their own separate nation-state. There were many possibilities that became impossible because of Union victory.

Now consider the civil rights movement. The leaders, Martin Luther King in particular, understood the power of a lost cause. They intentionally staged events of getting attacked by police and white mobs, always making sure there were cameras nearby to make it into a national event. It was in losing these confrontations to the greater power of white oppression that they managed to win public support. As a largely Christian movement, the civil rights activists surely had learned from the story of Jesus as a sacrificial loser and his followers as persecuted losers. The real failure of civil rights only came later on when it gained mainstream victories and a corrupt black leadership aligned with white power, such as pushing the racist 1994 Crime Bill which was part of the Democrats becoming the new conservative party. The civil rights movement might have been better able to transform society and change public opinion by having remained a lost cause for a few more generations.

A victory forced can be a victory lost. Gain requires sacrifice, not to be bought cheaply. Success requires risk of failure, putting everything on the line. The greatest losses can come from seeking victory too soon and too easily. Transformative change can only be won by losing what came before. Winning delayed sometimes is progress ensured, slow but steady change. The foundation has to be laid before something can emerge from the ground up. Being brought low is the beginning point, like planting a seed in the soil.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

“Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.”

* * *

Living Differently: On How the Feminist Utopia Is Something You Have to Be Doing Now
by Lynne Segal

Another anthropologist, the anarchist David Graeber, having been involved in protest networks for decades, remains even more certain that participation in moments of direct action and horizontal decision-making bring to life a new and enduring conception of politics, while providing shared hope and meaning in life, even if their critics see in the outcomes of these movements only defeat:

What they don’t understand is that once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is permanent. Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, but Greeks, Spaniards and Tunisians) now have direct experience of self-organization, collective action and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way. While the world’s financial and political elite skate blindly towards the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes and workplaces, organizing rent strikes, seminars and debtor’s assemblies, and in doing so laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic culture … With it has come a revival of the revolutionary imagination that conventional wisdom has long since declared dead.

Discussing what he calls ‘The Democracy Project’, Graeber celebrates forms of political resistance that in his view move well beyond calls for policy reforms, creating instead permanent spaces of opposition to all existing frameworks. For Graeber, one fundamental ground for optimism is that the future is unknowable, and one can live dissident politics in the present, or try to. This is both despite, and also because of, the insistent neo-liberal boast that there can be no alternative to its own historical trajectory: which has become a linear project of endless growth and the amassing of wealth by the few, toil and the struggle for precarious survival for so many.

Furthermore, Graeber points out that historically, although few revolutionaries actually succeeded in taking power themselves, the effects of their actions were often experienced far outside their immediate geographical location. In a similar reflection on unintended consequences, Terry Eagleton suggests that even with the gloomiest of estimates in mind, many aspects of utopic thinking may be not only possible but well- nigh inevitable:

Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired.

Even catastrophism, one might say, has its potentials. […]

It should come as no surprise that most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us, at least partially. However, to confront rather than accept the evils of the present, some utopian spirit is always necessary to embrace the complexity of working, against all odds, to create better futures. A wilful optimism is needed, despite and because of our inevitable blind-spots and inadequacies, both personal and collective.

For many of us, it means trying to live differently in the here and now, knowing that the future will never be a complete break with the present or the past, but hopefully something that may develop out of our most supportive engagements with others. To think otherwise inhibits resistance and confirms the dominant conceit that there is no alternative to the present. Thus, I want to close this chapter repeating the words of the late Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, which seem to have been translated into almost every language on earth, though I cannot track down their source:

Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep moving forward.

Our political dreams can end in disappointment, but are likely, nevertheless, to make us feel more alive, and hence happier, along the way, at least when they help to connect us to and express concern for those around us. Happiness demands nothing less.

 

We’re Ready For Democracy

Routing the progressive movement back into the establishment parties for decades is what got us into this mess. “Playing it safe” turned out to be extremely dangerous.

THE CASE FOR A PEOPLE’S PARTY
From Resistance to Revolution

Americans are Progressive and Want a New Party

❖ Issue polls show that the majority of Americans are progressive. They want single-payer health care, money out of politics, free public college, and much more.

❖ The majority of Americans want a major new party: 57% to 37%. In the 2016 general election, 55% of Americans wanted a major third party option on the ballot.

Affiliation with the Democratic and Republican parties has been declining for a decade and is near historic lows. Democrats account for 28% of the country, Republicans for 29%, and independents for 40%. Gallup projects that 50% of Americans will be independents by 2020.

Gallup figures reveal an alarming trend: since the 2016 general election, affiliation with the Democratic Party is declining while the Republican Party is holding steady, even growing slightly. The Democratic Party is losing supporters at the time when it should be growing most. Despite Trump’s attacks on working people and Bernie’s monumental efforts to bring people into the Democratic Party, more and more Democrats are becoming independents[…]

The political revolution has already been won in the hearts and minds of the next generation. Millennials almost universally reject the status quo and the parties that enforce it. 91% of people under 29 wanted a major third party option on the ballot in 2016. People under 29 have a much more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.

The electorate is rapidly becoming even more progressive. As of 2016, Millennials are the largest age-group voting bloc. Four years of highly-progressive Millennials will replace four years of Silent Generation conservatives in the electorate by 2020.

The Democratic Party Remains Firmly in Neoliberal Control […]

Americans have a less favorable view of the Democratic Party than they have of Trump and the Republican Party. Two-thirds of Americans say that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of most people. More Americans believe that Trump and the Republican Party are in touch with their concerns.

In a poll of swing voters who supported Obama and then supported Trump, twice as many people said that the Democratic Party favors the wealthy versus the Republican Party. The Democratic Party’s brand is destroyed. Working people have no confidence in it. […]

Sanders can Create a Party for the Progressive Majority

Bernie is the most popular politician in the country and has an 80% favorability rating among Democrats and 57% favorability among independents. His appeal with conservatives would attract many anti-establishment Republicans to the new party as well.

A new party that attracts just half of the Democrats and half of the independents would be the largest party in America by far.

❖ If Bernie starts a new party, we would begin with at least half of the Democratic Party. Then we would add independents, young voters, anti-establishment voters, the white working class, people of color, third party voters, people who have given up on voting, and many conservatives who have a favorable impression of Bernie. This would make the party significantly larger than what remains of the Democratic Party.

❖ The spoiler effect leads voters to consolidate around two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. Our new party will be the largest party on the left, leading whatever remains of the Democratic Party to consolidate around us. The spoiler effect will accelerate rather than hinder the new party’s growth, as the progressive majority and everyone opposed to Trump gathers around the largest opposition party. […]

Only a New Party Can Defeat Trump and his Agenda

❖ This past November, we witnessed a spectacular failure of an attempt to defeat Trump and authoritarianism from a neoliberal party. Since November, the Democratic Party has only exacerbated the conditions that depressed turnout and led Americans to support Trump in the first place.

❖ Republicans are decimating Democrats because the country is growing more progressive on the issues. As Americans grow more progressive, they realize that
the Democratic Party doesn’t represent them and are not inspired to turn out. The more progressive the country gets, the less motivated voters are to support a corporate party.

The people who need to vote in Democratic Primaries for progressives to win are leaving the party and becoming independents, or not voting at all. The party’s declining affiliation and favorability numbers are reiterating what we learned in 2016: opposing Trump without offering a populist alternative is the path to failure. The Democrats are poised to continue losing and our progressive country will continue moving to the right. An arrangement that suits the corporations and billionaires who fund both establishment parties. […]

The Numbers
Americans are Progressive

Issue polls show that a large majority of Americans are progressive. They would overwhelmingly support the new party’s platform. All figures are percentages.

Americans support:

Equal pay for men and women 93%
Overhaul campaign finance system 85%
Money has too much influence on campaigns 84%
Paid family and medical leave 82%
Some corporations don’t pay their fair share 82%
Some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share 79%
Allow government to negotiate drug prices 79%
Increase financial regulation 79%
Expand Social Security benefits by taxing the wealthy 72%
Infrastructure jobs program 71%
Close offshore corporate tax loopholes 70%
Raise the minimum wage to $15 63%
The current distribution of wealth is unfair 63%
Free public college 62%
Require special prosecutor for police killings 61%
Ensure net neutrality 61%
Ban the revolving door for corporate executives in government 59%
Replace the ACA with single payer health care 58%
Break up the big banks 58%
Government should do more to solve problems 57%
Public banking at post offices 56%

As our options dwindle down…

Some want to argue that we have a functioning democracy because we have the outward forms of democracy. We can protest in the street, vote, etc. But then why does it rarely lead to democratic results, specifically at the Federal level? And why is there so little ability for the public to force transparency and accountability?

It’s because those forms are separate from the actual seat of power. The two party system and corporate media is controlled by oligarchs. They use public perception management (AKA propaganda), backroom deals, cronyism, revolving door politics (e.g., politicians becoming lobbyists), regulatory takeover, and a thousand other kinds of anti-democratic tactics. They use these to determine who we are allowed to vote for and what those people can do while in office.

This system is so well entrenched that is protected from the voting public. But it isn’t just the government. Polls show that union leadership advocate for positions and support politicians that union membership often doesn’t support. The same thing is seen with organizations like the NRA, a divide between those who control those organizations and the members.

Of course, the leadership of these organizations have close ties to the two party system that controls the government. So, these organizations can’t be used by the public to exert influence on politicians. They are part of the social control. No amount of petitions or protests can change this. Present strategies of activism and attempts of reform have been failing for longer than I’ve been alive.

If what you are doing has been proven not to accomplish what you claim to want, then what do you do? You either lower your expectations by making excuses or you try something new.

We have two options left to us. The first is a constitutional convention. But the first constitutional convention more than a couple of centuries ago was taken over by powerful (pseudo-)Federalists who, unconstitutionally according to the first constitution (The Articles of Confederation), forced through an anti-democratic document to ensure their rule. Powerful forces would attempt to do the same thing with another constitutional convention. So, if that fails, that leaves only one option left. That is revolution, whether peaceful or not.

As our options dwindle down, our choice of action becomes simplified. The only question remaining is do we have the moral vision and moral courage to take action. It is up to the oligarchs about whether or not they want to push us to the edge, seeing how far we can be pushed before we simply go over. But as we find ourselves teetering on the edge, what do the rest of us do, We the People?

As citizens of the United States, here is something to keep in mind. Fool the American public once, shame on the oligarchs. Fool the American public a thousand times, that is the shame of our entire society. We’ve been played for fools and we’ve acted accordingly. Let’s take this as a lesson learned the hard way. So, what do we do now? The first step might be learning to make important distinctions.

Pseudo-democracy is to democracy as truthiness is to truth. The spectacle of pseudo-democracy gives us the appearance of democracy to absolve the public’s sense of failure and guilt. The public can say that, well, at least I voted, joined the union, protested, signed a petition, volunteered for a campaign, etc. It allows small impotent acts in order to avoid the possibility of actions that would make a difference.

If we want actual functioning democracy, it is our collective responsibility. We have to act outside of the anti-democratic system. That would require creating a new parallel system that acts independently. We need to create our own separate government, not unlike what the American colonists did when they turned revolutionary, and then put so much public support and power behind it that it can’t be denied. We’ve waited long enough for the oligarchs to do the right thing. It’s now in our hands.

All of that is easier said than done. But it is either that or we continue our decline. As always, it’s a choice to be made.

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Here is some interesting stuff from the past few days. Included are online writings I’ve been perusing and my thoughts that were inspired.

First of all, in response to my last post on basic income, a regular commenter pointed out two articles, one from Inc. Magazine and the other from the Atlantic Magazine.

American Entrepreneurship Is Actually Vanishing. Here’s Why
by Leigh Buchanan

Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial
by Walter Frick

The second is the most interesting. That directly touches upon my thoughts about basic income. Like welfare, basic income is a form of social safety net that creates freedom from want and so freedom from fear, including freedom from being punished for taking risks.

As I’ve said before, this liberating support and protection breaks the oppressive morality-punishment link. A society can have rigid social control or a society can have experimentation and innovation, but to the degree it has one is the degree to which it constrains the other.

Putting those two articles together does make one think.

Much of what Americans, especially on the political right, assume to be common sense may very well be blatantly false. But we will never know one way or another, until we try something new or else we’ll keep getting more of the same, which is the point. The stifling of innovation and experimentation is no accident.

It is so rare that people scientifically formulate their ideological beliefs as falsifiable hypotheses to be tested, but most things could be tested if people had the courage to do so. What we perceive as common sense and counter-intuitive depends on the beliefs we dare not question, which often leads to a self-reinforcing reality tunnel where our assumptions create the conditions that result in the evidence that conforms to our assumptions. That is what makes experiments, social or scientific, so dangerous to the status quo.

What little data we have about basic income experiments, it appears that the results are not as many would predict. Social problems decrease while unemployment doesn’t appear to increase, except within specific demographics such as young mothers and students (who are doing non-paid forms of work). One wonders, if such an experiment was ever done on the large scale, that there might be a large increase in such things as entrepreneurship.

What certain people actually fear isn’t the stifling of innovation, but the possibility of encouraging too much of it. Innovation is always dangerous to the status quo. Some of those on the political right might talk a good game about such things, but too many of them want a highly constrained and uneven playing field to determine only a narrow set of innovations are possible, those that can’t challenge the social order itself. What they fear isn’t that a social safety net can’t work, but that it might work too well.

While I was at the website of The Atlantic, I noticed a few other interesting articles about a different topic. They are all by the same author, James Fallows.

Language Mystery Redux: Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?

That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way?

There is another kind of societal change. There once was a faux aristocratic dialect in the US. It survived into the early era of mass media. Along with it, there existed some of the remnants of the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy with its noblesse oblige.

The Roosevelts were among the last major example of an American family of inherited wealthy that embodied both these ideals and the way of talking, and noblesse oblige was a major force driving the Progressive Era and the New Deal. The last wave that still carried on the faux aristocratic dialect were those like William F. Buckley Jr who used it as a pose, although no longer held the worldview of noblesse oblige that went with it.

The post-war period with its rising middle class ended the old order with its quirks of language and such. It was also a time of mass assimilation, some combination of chosen and forced. For example, German-American culture was annihalated in a generation or two, despite it having been the single largest ethnic culture in the country, larger than that of the English ancestry. The German-Americans dominated the most populous region in the US (the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest), as French-Canadians still do in Quebec.

This is what is known as the Midlands culture, which German culture heavily influenced since before the American Revolution. Out of this formed the Midlands dialect. One particular variety of this became Standard American English. This dialect then replaced the faux aristocratic dialect that had previously dominated mass media.

Here is another article from The Atlantic.

America’s Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail
by Matt Ford

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Prisons have become the one-size-fits-all solution for America’s problems. If we incarcerate the people afflicted with social and psychological problems, then we can pretend that we don’t need to face the problems themselves. The poor, homeless, unemployed, mentally ill, etc are then reclassified as criminals. The problem is dealt with by locking away the victims of the problem, but that is a bandaid on a gaping wound.

Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t justice. This brings me to some other things I’ve come across. There is a book I just noticed, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado. It could be a worthy read and it sounds like it might be a useful extension and broadening of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Two related articles, the first from Yes! and the second from The New Yorker, are about the long-term costs this has had for the African-American population, often quite personal costs.

40 Acres and a Mule Would Be at Least $6.4 Trillion Today—What the U.S. Really Owes Black America
by Tracy Loeffelholz and DunnJeff Neumann

Kalief Browder, 1993–2015
by Jennifer Gonnerman

The second is particularly heartbreaking. A kid was locked away and tortured for years. It turns out he was innocent the entire time and there never was a trial. Most people don’t get a trial with a jury of their peers, as most people assume is their right, but it turns out many people don’t even get a trial.

Where are the right-wing libertarians when big government steps on the rights of the poor minorities? Where is Fox News to argue that failed, money-draining big government programs like mass incarceration need to be shut down? Where are the GOP politicians, or any mainstream politicians for that matter, to demand a full investigation of the entire US prison system and the industrial-prison complex that promotes it?

Another article from The New Yorker is about one of the main costs of these divides in justice.

What Poverty Does to the Young Brain
by Madeline Ostrander

This is how the personal meets the political, when an entire social order of dysfunction causes brain damage to a significant part of the population. This is also how this dysfunction gets perpetuated as a vicious cycle. This stunting of brain development leads to all kinds of cognitive and psychological problems, which create massive stumbling blocks for those inflicted.

That article reminded me of Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids. I haven’t read it yet, but I noticed some reviews, articles, and interviews mention the neuroscience research.

Poor kids’ brains don’t work as well as rich kids’ brains do
by Doyle McManus

Growing Up Alone?
by Hope Reese

Review – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
by Carrie Sheffield

Author Robert Putnam sounds alarm about growing inequity among rich and poor youth
by Leslie University

All of that and, from what others have written, it appears that Putnam mostly ignores the larger and deeper structural issues, from rigid class hierarchies to entrenched power. One review pointed out that he was avoiding talking about anyone as the bad guys, as if this shift was a mere side effect.

Richer and Poorer
by Jill Lepore

““Our Kids” is a passionate, urgent book. It also has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame. But Putnam’s eagerness to influence Congress has narrative consequences. If you’re going to tell a story about bad things happening to good people, you’ve got to offer an explanation, and, when you make your arguments through characters, your reader will expect that explanation in the form of character.”

(If you want some hard-hitting analysis of how corruption and power go hand in hand, see the recent Salon piece by Corey Robin, Your boss wants to control your vote: The real reason to fear corporate power. The society we have is created by intentional policies that are promoted by those with concentrated wealth and power. We shouldn’t fear pointing fingers at those who are responsiblte.)

If anything, Putnam puts the focus on poor parents.

Putnam misses the mark
by Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam review – concerned, scholarly
by Richard Reeves

Book review: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’ by Robert D. Putnam
by Alan Wolfe

It reminds me of clueless people wondering where black fathers are, because of the lower marriage rates. Well, like other disproportionately poor and disadvantaged populations, many of them don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like; plus, research has shown how destructive poverty and social stress is to relationships, often either preventing marriages or breaking them up. Also, there are economic disadvantages for poor single mothers to hitch themselves to a poor man, an issue discussed in Putnam’s book and elsewhere.

That said, many black fathers are doing quite well in their rates of visiting with and helping their kids (see here and here). As for those fathers who genuinely are missing, if they aren’t excluded from contact with their kids because of incarceration or criminal records, they likely are working long hours at multiple jobs, forced to seek work elsewhere, or simply unemployed and not in a position to play a supporting role.

Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex
by David J. Leonard

Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix
by David J. Leonard

6 Actual Facts Shatter the Biggest Stereotypes of Black Fathers
by Antwaun Sargent

About these systemic problems, some people see hope for reform, whether social reform or political and economic reform. Putnam puts his hope in the former. Others look to the latter, including sometimes myself (as in my last post on basic income).

A Practical Vision of a More Equal Society
By Thomas Piketty

Of course, Piketty was reviewing a book written about reform in another country. Many Americans are too cynical to believe that kind of thing is possible here.

This brings me to my last item for consideration. Corey Robin had another recent piece, that can be found on his blog. In it, he offers an extended quote from an article by William Hazlitt.

“The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.”

What is possible is largely based on what we can imagine is possible. Hazlitt makes a case for the power of imagination wielded by the reactionary right-wing, a topic of particular interest for Robin. There is power to the conservative imagination because it idealizes and serves power. Power of imagination relates to power in the world, and there is a blunt force in how those on the political right use this power, their aesthetic sensibility being as subtle as a hammer (the reason there are few highly successful conservative comedians).

That said, in one response to Robin’s post, someone pointed out that imagination is obviously not owned by any single group. There is also a long history of its power being used by the political left.

With both Hazlitt’s view and that of the response to it, I felt a resonance to my own thinking. I want to dig below the surface. It’s great to read discussions of data, policies, and real world examples. But that doesn’t get to the beating heart of the matter.

Mechanical Spider Legs and Progressive Reform

Did you see this article about FDR?

Report: White House Officials Deliberately Hid FDR’s Mechanical Spider Legs From Public

It does explain a lot. I always wondered why public photos of him never showed his legs.

On a happier note, here are some thoughts about the coming future, when mechanical spider legs will no longer need to be attached to humans.

‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’

One of the jobs that hasn’t been mechanized yet is that of torturer. But with Poland being held accountable, let’s hope it won’t be a growing job sector.

With US Accountability MIA, Poland to Make Payout for Torture of CIA

That article points out how the US government officials aren’t being held accountable for their own actions. That isn’t just true internationally, but also nationally. The US government isn’t accountable to American voters anymore than it is accountable to international courts.

Study: Congress literally doesn’t care what you think

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change. – The Boston Globe

A major reason for this is big money. The US government has big money (funding a big military—and increasingly militarized police—along with helping to fund a big defense industry) and, of course, American politicians are beholden to big money (including from that defense industry), a cozy corporatist collusion. Besides indirect bribes (beyond just campaign money) and unofficial kickbacks (via no-bid contracts and below-market-value of natural resources from public lands), there are also direct subsidies to corporations and banks.

US taxpayers subsidising world’s biggest fossil fuel companies

U.S. Taxpayers Subsidizing World’s Biggest Fossil Fuel Companies

Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?

Top Banking Analyst: Subsidies to Giant Banks Exceed $780 Billion Dollars Per YEAR

Big Banks Have Raked In $102 Billion In Subsidies Since 2009: Report

A related aspect is that of the climate change debate. People are always arguing over who is getting funded how much and who is doing the funding. Interestingly, many of the same big energy sources that fund political campaigning also fund the opponents of the scientific consensus, from funding think tanks to funding scientists. No matter how much money climatology researchers get, they can’t use that money for lobbying and campaign donations, as does big energy.

Accusations that climate science is money-driven reveal ignorance of how science is done

Not just the Koch brothers: New study reveals funders behind the climate change denial effort

Graphs of Science Funding

It’s obviously a complex issue, but one has to wonder what are the end results of all that money. Even the money that goes to research, is the issue really a lack of enough data to know we have a problem to deal with? I doubt it.

Big money corruption is a non-partisan issue, not that you’d realize that from the mainstream media. It has been a central concern of both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. In general, it has been a growing concern of all Americans. A movement is forming and those involved, individually and collectively, are demanding to be taken seriously. In some cases, concerned citizens are going to extremes in their attempt to get heard.

Can the Gyrocopter Gang Start a Political Reform Movement?

Much of the organizing is grassroots and the changes are starting at the local level. Just recently, the county I live in issued a resolution and so joined the ranks of a growing number of local governments across the country, in both red and blue areas.

County supervisors call for Constitutional amendment – The Daily Iowan

Now, we just need a president who is even half the man FDR was and apparently he himself was already half machine. Maybe having mechanical spider legs gives someone the courage to face down the fascists and oligarchs in order to demand progressive reform.

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.

Reform as Fear of Revolution

It is easy to focus on the victim while ignoring the victimization.

Let me explain. Narrowing our focus too much on a specific group, as is common with identity politics, can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. A culture of victimization is something that impacts everyone. It is easy forget this simple truth.

White males have relative privilege, but that doesn’t make poor rural white males feel any better about their lot in life. Rich people may amass great wealth in a society of great economic inequality, but research shows that even the wealthy are worse off in such societies because the increased social problems affect everyone. Middle class Westerners live relatively comfortable lives, but if you are a woman or homosexual you will still experience prejudice.

A society of violence and oppression doesn’t make for happiness for anyone involved. Pollution is breathed by all humans, rich and poor, white and minority, male and female, adult and child. We aren’t all impacted equally, that is true. Even so, we are all impacted.

We have difficulty in our society to think about problems from a more systemic perspective. We would like to improve things for those who suffer most, which is a noble endeavor. Yet, at the same time, we are reluctant to question too deeply the entire social order that made that suffering possible or even inevitable. We see problems as isolated issues that require isolated solutions. We are unable or unwilling to see how all the problems connect and magnify. We focus so much on minor reforms for fear of revolution.

This is as true for those on the left as for those on the right.

The line between victim and victimizer can at times be uncomfortably blurred. In our carelessness and unawareness, we are complicit in these ongoing injustices, for we are as responsible for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. No single person, group, or generation can be blamed for all the problems, and still the problems continue. Who is at fault? No one and everyone.

Taking responsibility is different than blame. To blame is to try to make others feel shame, but shame is rarely motivating. We take responsibility or we don’t, simply because that is what we choose. If we make that choice, we do so because we can.

 * * *

 

Paradigm Shift: Beyond Reform and Revolution

We need a miracle.

That is how I titled and concluded my last post. I did so a bit jokingly. It was an expression of how little we know about what causes social change. It might as well be divine intervention.

Although it was just a passing thought added to my otherwise serious analysis, I was trying to get at some kind of understanding. A miracle is a religious belief, a theological concept. The basic idea behind it is that god(s), saints or other supernatural beings may intervene on our behalf. The belief in a personal god who would intervene in human affairs became popular during the Axial Age. Before that time, the the great deities, the rulers of the universe were often portrayed as distant and aloof.

Speaking of D.M. Murdock’s scholarship, I previously explained that,

Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people.  With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god.  There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god.  It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis.

That is a very impressive transformation that happened and it was happening across many societies. This didn’t cross-cultural shift can’t be pinpointed to particular revolutions or reforms. It was a paradigm shift and it spread like a contagion, both its cause and origin being unknown. Now, that puts the American Revolution in perspective.

My interest in the history of religion precedes my interest in the history of politics and revolutions. This is how my interest in the Axial Age came about. In my last post, the focus was on social change and the relation between reform and revolution. I queried why so often reform always eventually fails leading to revolutions and those revolutions, even as they fail, force the reform that previously failed. This is fine. I say it is fine because it just is what it is and apparently can’t be otherwise. It’s just human nature on the collective level.

As this cyclical pattern has been going on for millennia, it seems doubtful it will likely change. Yet change happens across the long view of history. The Axial Age is probably the most important shift for all of modern civilization. I’ve hypothesized that the ensuing history was a playing out of this worldwide transformation of human society: personalizing of religion, universalizing of theology and politics, Arabic math and science, European Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, English Civil War, Revolutionary Era, globalization of imperialism, multiculturalism of colonialism, pseudo-scientific racialized slavery, and on and on.

I still don’t think the Axial Age transformation has yet played itself out. When this old paradigm creates problems so massive that they can’t be solved within that level of understanding, human society will either shift once again to some yet unknown paradigm or else self-destruct. That is why we need more than reform or revolution. We need a change that comes from a ‘higher’ level of thinking and functioning. Something that, from our limited perspective, would be akin to a miracle.

This puts us in a special position. During the Axial Age, people including the prophets lacked such broad historical perspective and understanding. We instead are facing the possibility of a paradigm shift with, if we choose, awareness. That could make all the difference. Maybe we don’t need to be stuck in cycles or be passengers of history passively waiting upon the future.

Our fate will be decided by the choices we make, not just or even necessarily in what we do but how we see, think and feel. Once you realize you are in a reality tunnel, you don’t need to know what is outside of it. All you have to do is look for an opening.

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution’: from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

As the Heartland, what is in the heart of America? What was planted here? What has grown? What has come to fruition?

The Midwest is Middle America. Without a middle, there is no whole. The periphery, America’s coasts and borders, receives all the attention like the sweet juicy flesh surrounding the seed, but it is the seed that is the purpose of the fruit. Out of the seed grows what was in the seed to grow. The seed grows upward where the fruit is to be had, but the roots surrounding what was the seed holds it all in place. The center, like the roots, must hold for if it doesn’t nothing will remain to be held; a weakly rooted tree will topple. The center is what is at the core, the middle that defines the whole, the circumference measured outward from that point of reference, that point of stability.

In America, the middle has always been the Midlands and the former Middle Colonies, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest that extends into the interior. It is the cultural middling point where cultures meet, clash, merge, and even out. It is the linguistic middle of Standard American English. It is the median and mean center of the United States population.

Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer is slowly making its way across the Midwest. A couple of years ago it finally made it to Iowa and all the Ash trees I see in this Iowa town may soon be gone. The Norse World Tree Yggdrasil is considered to have been an Ash tree, out of which the first man was formed and the sugary sap from which was made the Mead of Inspiration. The Ash tree has long been rooted in Western society. It is a hardwood tree and so has been highly prized, including for use in shipbuilding. Consider how many immigrants came to America afloat upon ships built out of Ash wood. Yet now we are watching possibly a mass extinction of Ash trees, not just a single variety of Ash trees but all Ash trees.

How does the Emerald Ash Borer kill a tree? It does so by cutting off the flow of nutrients from roots to the crown. Where did this pest come from? It is an invasive species from Eastern Russia and Asia.

It is thought that the Emerald Ash Borer was brought to America along with a shipment of parts. This is one of those inevitable unintended results of globalization. The entire United States is itself an unintended result of globalization. The Atlantic colonies were part of the first major era of globalization. Many of the earliest colonies, especially Virginia and New Netherland, were simply intended as capitalist investments and not to develop into full-fledged societies, much less an independent united country. One of the earliest unintended consequences back then was slavery. Another unintended consequence was multiculturalism.

Many Americans today worry about the consequences of mass immigration, even though multiple waves of mass immigration have occurred every century since the colonies were founded. America is mass migration. It is the heart and soul of this crazy experiment.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty)

In these words is the only moral justification to be found for our having become an empire or what in doublespeak is these days called a global superpower. Call it what you will, but the US acts like an empire: colonial territories such as Hawaii and Philippines; regularly starting wars of aggression along with regularly invading and occupying countries; military bases in countries all over the world and naval presence in international waters all over the world; et cetera. The US is the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

(See the following: Manifesting America by Mark Rifkin, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, A Turn to Empire by Jennifer Pitts, and Among the Powers of the Earth by Eliga H. Gould)

I’m personally not in favor of my country being an empire (I say ‘my’ with some reservation for a subject doesn’t possess but is possessed by an empire, yet I must take some responsibility for it as I’m a direct beneficiary of its power). Nonetheless, if the metaphorical ‘we’ are going to be imperialists, we at least ought to stick to our moral justifications for doing so. We are an immigrant nation. This is our role in the world. Other countries accept us as big brother because every country has immigrants and descendants living in America. This is seen as everyone’s country. This is why the citizens of other countries mourned with US citizens after the 9/11 attack, and indeed the people who died in that attack were of diverse nationalities and citizenship. Without this moral justification for our empire-building, we are simply yet another big bully. Too many Americans want the benefits of being an empire with none of the responsibilities.

Multiculturalism is the tap root of the Tree of Liberty, whether for good or ill. In the 18th century, South Carolina had a African majority and Pennsylvania had a German majority. Further back in the 17th century, New Netherland had a Dutch majority, New Sweden a Swedish majority, the Spanish territories such as Florida with a Spanish majority and the French territories with a French majority. Even after being taken over by the British, New Netherland/New York still had a large Dutch population. Also, today much of the former Spanish territories that became the United States have continuously maintained a hispanic majority. Of course, the Native American territories had their native majority and once were the majority of the entire continent. These are the roots of the United States. This region of North America has never had a majority population that was of English descent.

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

Still, I wonder if it ever occurred to the mostly English-descended founding fathers, as they convened congress in Philadelphia, that they were surrounded by fellow colonists who weren’t Englishmen. Even back then, Pennsylvania was the Keystone. The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been. There was well-founded fears of despotic power arising after the defeat of the British military, and quite prescient considering what this country has become.

It is interesting how this colonial region of multiculturalism was also the region with some of the strongest advocates for British loyalty and political moderation. It was the keystone not just for political and military reasons but also for cultural reasons. The Quakers as well believed in the rights of Englishmen. However, the Quakers were different in their understanding of English constitutionalism. They saw their rights directly rooted in the British constitution. They believed in popular sovereignty and that reform must be sought through the constitutional process. Englishmen didn’t lack a constitution and so didn’t need to create one. They simply needed to improve the very constitution that had given them the rights of Englishmen in the first place. (It is sadly ironic that this is precisely what is now claimed of the US constitution that violently replaced the British constitution. Americans prize their constitution and speak of the democratic process of creating amendments. Yet the US constitution was created by a process no more democratic than the process that created the British constitution.)

The Middle Colonies were the swing colonies for the issue of revolution just as today the Midwestern states are the swing states for presidential elections. It is partly because this has always been where the mass of the population has been centered. The reason it is centered here is because the Mid-Atlantic is where most immigrants arrived and the Midwest is where most immigrants settled. This wasn’t accidental but quite intentional. They were multicultural havens right from the start. To the North and to the South, the other colonial governments were more wary about letting just anyone to settle in their area or even merely to dock their ship full of immigrant strangers. In the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, a more tolerant attitude prevailed. This is the source of the Midwestern moderate sensibility.

During the revolutionary era, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware embodied this the most clearly. He was born of parents of multi-generational Quaker descent. He married a woman of multi-generational Quaker descent. He lived among Quakers and associated with Quakers. However, he came to believe in wars of defense which the Quakers didn’t support and so he wasn’t a Quaker. This single point aside, his worldview was thoroughly Quaker. But even in this point of disagreement, his taking a moderate support of war only in cases of defense was very fitting for the Quaker attitude of moderation. Dickinson was in this way semi-pacifist. He believed violence should be avoided at all costs when possible. His understanding of defense was very narrow and strict.

Dickinson was a principled man. Oddly, as a reform-minded moderate, he was a key player in helping to make the revolution possible. He was the most popular pamphleteer until Thomas Paine (the latter also having had Quaker values instilled in him by his father). Without what Dickinson helped start and what Paine helped finish, the American Revolution may never have gotten very far, quite likely not succeeding at all. These Quaker-descended righteous men (with, at least in the case of Paine, Quaker-taught plain speech) knew how to articulate a collective vision of freedom that unified what was otherwise just a bunch of disparate gripes about government. Many have misunderstand Paine as a mere revolutionary. Paine also sought moderation in his own way, but he sought a moderation of power that would benefit the commoner rather the established elite. To the established elite, this didn’t seem moderate at all. For example, Paine was a deist which he saw as a middleground position where the divine was envisioned as a moderating force between morally unrooted radical atheism/secularism and authoritarian theocratic tendencies such as established churches. Both Dickinson and Paine sought moderation while remaining principled. Neither changed with the times, but the world around them shifted over their lifetimes. They found themselves criticized and forgotten by those less moderate and less principled.

My point is to show the power of this vision of moderation. Like Quaker pacifism and tolerance, it need not be a position of weakness for it holds the potential of immense strength, both strength of conviction and strength of influence. Not all moderates are neutral and passive. The greatest wisdom of moderation, however, is easily forgotten even by moderates. When moderation loses its moral center, it merely becomes a defense of the status quo. The center is what holds, but what is being maintained and for what purpose?

The proponents of moderateness are what hold this diverse country together. An empire wouldn’t be possible without them. That is the rub. Modern empire-building has necessitated this kind of conservative-minded liberalism, the latter thus becoming complicit with the former. Why not give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, the Philippines back to the Filipinos, former Northern Mexico back to the Mexicans, and at least some of the former Indian territories back to the Native Americans? Why did we as a country expend so much blood in keeping the country together during the Civil War? Why do we want to be a great power on the earth? Why not just be free and independent communities that govern themselves as they see fit?

I love the Midwest for its moderation. I truly believe the Midlands has helped keep this country together, for whatever that is worth (I often do think there is worth in this, certainly Dickinson and Paine did). Still, the dark side of this bothers me. I see it in a status quo mentality. The attitude of tolerance only goes so far and often is only advocated when it is convenient and easy, when no sacrifices are required. This is the rot in the Tree of Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Jefferson proved to be less consistently principled than the likes of Dickinson and Paine, but still his words resonate as I don’t doubt that he believed them when he wrote them. What has often been on my mind lately is how the American Revolution was ideologically and politically lost by the principled reformers like Dickinson and the principled revolutionaries like Paine. Accordingly, it could be said that the American Revolution went too far and not far enough. Those who took the reigns of power were the very ones least interested in any liberty besides their own. It is strange how radical a moderate like Dickinson can sound compared to what came to pass.

I’ve never been sure about revolution, specifically violent revolution. It is hard to say that Canada is worse off for embracing slow reform instead of bloody insurrection. Canada has a more multicultural society than even the US. Plus, Canada has fewer of the problems found in the US: high poverty, high wealth inequality, low social mobility, etc. The American Revolution seems to have created a very divided country and made the Civil War inevitable. The British, instead, offered freedom to many slaves right after the revolution and many of them settled in free communities in Canada. I sometimes wonder if Canada is offering a better American Dream than America.

Is there something worth saving by moderation in America? Can we regain the moderate vision of John Dickinson? Or can we finally follow to completion the freedom-loving vision of Paine? If we are so incapable of worthwhile non-violent reform, what makes some people think that yet again more violence will solve our problems? How many more revolutions and civil wars do we need? What is this deformed tree of ‘liberty’ that has grown out of conflict? Should we hope to water it once again or just let it die from its own rot? What would we plant in its place? Or are there other seeds already planted that don’t need blood to grow?

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country–not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society–cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
~ Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times