Archive for April, 2009

Begging For Socialism

Monday, April 27th, 2009

In a shameful move by a shamefully & poorly managed US auto company, GM is now asking the government to completely take over the company so it doesn’t have to run itself – nor confront the unions it plans to phase out:

GM is living on $15.4 billion in government loans and faces a June 1 deadline to restructure and get more government money. If the restructuring doesn’t satisfy the government, the company could go into bankruptcy protection.

GM said in a news release that it will ask the government to take 50 percent of its common stock in exchange for canceling half the government loans to the company as of June 1.

If both are successful, the government and UAW health care trust would own 89 percent of the company’s stock, with the government holding over a 50 percent stake, Henderson said.


I would rather see GM go out of business or at least substantially reduce its product offerings (more than just slashing Pontiac; think much bigger – or smaller, as the case may be). The government should not be in the business of making cars for profit. And since the government will realize this soon too, taking over 50% of the company’s stock (read: operational & financial decisions) means we’re slowly getting on the path of government taking over all industry. It’s frightening for those of us who value good old fashioned hard work in our industry here in the States.

My only hope is that a strong state like Texas secedes from the union and shows the other 49 how it’s done. Only that type of action will finally convince people that a heavily centralized federal government, which should not be in the business of bailing out or taking over industries to the point where those companies are given a lifeline just long enough to BEG the government to put it out of its misery as an independent for-profit going concern, has no place in this country.

If this (or something like it) doesn’t happen? I fear the socialism bug that has infested too many countries in Europe, and spread all too easily via the EU.

Reverse Colonization: Not Looking So Rosy Now

Monday, April 27th, 2009

“The Department of Health and Human Services has declared a Public Health Emergency as a precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively,” Obama told a gathering of scientists, amid increasing worries worldwide about a possible pandemic.

In the United States, a private school in South Carolina was closed Monday because of fears that young people returning from Mexico might have been infected.”


Reverse colonization never took such a hard blow. A Mexican illegal is on the border, right now, hearing word about this, and has one foot in one country and one in the other. Maybe his thought process would go something like this: Go into the US at risk of swine flu but free medical care; go back to Mexico at risk of swine flu and not-so-great medical facilities.

I don’t think this changes much about our illegal immigration issue.

It does highlight a couple of important points though, and people tend to largely ignore these in the politically heated debate about illegal immigration:

  • As awful as the immigration worker in The Godfather Part II was to Vito Andolini by changing his name to Corleone, checking his eyes, ears, nose, and throat for sickness was a good thing for our nation. I know; I’m the child of a legal Italian immigrant, the family of whom was rejected three times at the embassy due to eye infection in one child.
  • Tolerance of everything except intolerance – this logic is hit hard by the simple reality that if you tolerate everything and everyone in a given society, you end up with no culture, no mores, nothing to which you can anchor your society. So “swine flu outbreak – let’s shut down the border for a while and sort this out, oh and by the way, we’re going to screen all passengers coming back from Mexico” becomes “swine flu – oh no – Obama will put the CDC into action and save us, all hail our savior!” We treat symptoms and effects in our society instead of causes: it’s sickening, it can’t last, and our country will crumble if we continue down this path.

How to get popular

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Justify selfishness.

If you look at all massively popular things, that’s what they do: praise the social ego, that which demands more attention and more material product, and needs to think highly of itself.

They just don’t do it directly… that doesn’t flatter the ego, but makes it feel manipulated.

Tiresome much? Yeah, it is. Here’s a good example:

What is Objectivism?

Rand described it as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The only social system consistent with this morality, Rand insisted, is pure, unfettered capitalism, and the only function of government is the protection of individual rights.

The Week

Working for you own happiness is a good way to isolate yourself.

I appreciate what Rand is reacting against: unfettered socialism, or the idea that we make equal distribution of wealth our primary goal, and therefore have zero feedback mechanism for separating responsible people from the parasites. What’s nice about Rand is that she simply calls them parasites.

…mediocrities, parasites, and “second-handers” (i.e., the altruistic)…

What’s insane and silly is that she insists on judgment of the individual, which requires individuals constantly mucking up social order in an effort to prove themselves. Not quality thinking there.

What’s even more insane and silly is that she adopts her ideas from Nietzsche, super-simplifying his social Darwinism into “do what you want and if you succeed, it’s the will of God/nature/Reason.” From a philosophical standpoint, “Objectivism” has nothing to do with objectivity, never proves itself, and in fact never advances an argument — it lavishes us with words that sound good describing concepts that seem to feel good, until we consider their secondary consequences.

In Rand’s world, the only argument is for the advancement of the individual; nevermind that society itself requires the cooperation of individuals, and does not naturally entail supporting parasites or creating bureaucracies hidebound in rules requiring they support parasites. She creates a false dichotomy, and people relish is because they — although this is cheesy, most people’s logic is fairly cheesy — like the idea that selfishness is justified.

It makes more sense to have a goal/values for society at large, to work for family and community, and to realize the self is means to an end (the experience of life through the self)… but that would require Rand to face some unpopular truths. Ever the marketer, she sidesteps that.

Her dichotomy of the free versus the unfree, “reason” (rationalism) versus emotion/aesthetics, and so on reminds me of every liberal super-state and utopia ever designed. The individual is king; that’s liberalism. There should be no rules on the individual; that’s liberalism. We will use utilitarianism to make this individual king; that’s liberalism. So why is she a conservative icon? Oh, because her route to “freedom” is through money.

Except that, historically speaking, mercantilism and capitalism are liberal innovations. They came as a replacement for the system of leadership by pure power through the best, known as aristocracy.

Rand’s dichotomies remind me of this:

The Bielefeld Conspiracy story goes that the city of Bielefeld (population 330,000) in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia does not actually exist. Rather, its existence is merely propagated by an entity known only as SIE (THEY or THEM), which has conspired with authorities to create the illusion of the city’s existence.

The theory posits three questions:

1. Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
2. Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
3. Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

A majority are expected to answer ‘no’ to all three queries; if they don’t, they, or the person they know, are said to be simply part of the conspiracy.


You must acknowledge the dogma. If you do not, you are part of the anti-dogma, and therefore your opinion is valid. In Rand’s case, the dogma is the ego, the method is capitalism, and while we all enjoy her slamming of the parasites, we should just get over our fears from social censure and criticize parasites on our own, without adopting a similarly parasitic ideology.

People working for the individual, through modern “reason” (linear thinking) produces the soulless modern city, the streets lined with advertising, the ugly concrete cube architecture, the blockhead giant corporations, the neurotic liberal office worker and the lonely Republican rich girl pining for meaning in her life. Rand is utilitarianism; Rand is “fiscally-justified anarchy,” or libertarianism; Rand is destruction of the soul in the human spirit, just to get over our social fear of criticizing the parasite.

When she died of lung cancer, in 1982, a 6-foot-high floral dollar sign was erected by her open coffin.


Radical evil

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Spotted on the internet:

If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out… and die being boiled alive.

Empirically, this is not true: frogs have enough temperature sense to escape warming water, even though they’re cold-blooded. Rhetorically, it may also be true. It’s related to this:

Slippery Slope

If A happens, then by a gradual series of small steps through B, C,…, X, Y, eventually Z will happen, too.
Z should not happen.
Therefore, A should not happen, either.

We see slippery slope classified as a fallacy by those who need rigid definitions. However, technically speaking, it is not a fallacy — it’s misused frequently and the unwashed masses can’t tell the difference:

This type of argument is by no means invariably fallacious, but the strength of the argument is inversely proportional to the number of steps between A and Z, and directly proportional to the causal strength of the connections between adjacent steps.

Fallacy Files

I think such arguments appeal because we’re referring to a form of the Broken Windows theory: if we tolerate small acts of stupidity/evil, we will soon become accustomed to them as a form of background noise, and then not notice when we enter a phase of true horror:

Kant places particular emphasis upon human responsibility for both radical evil and moral conversion.

Unlike original sin, which Christian belief has understood as inherited, radical evil is self-incurred by each human being. It consists in a fundamental misdirection of our willing that corrupts our choice of action. In Kant’s terminology, it consists in an “inversion” of our “maxims,” which are the principles for action we pose to ourselves in making our choices.

Instead of making the rightness of actions — i.e., the categorical imperative — the fundamental principle for choice, we make the satisfaction of one of our own ends take priority in the willing of our actions. We thus inculcate in ourselves a propensity to make exceptions to the demand of the categorical imperative in circumstances when such an exception seems to be in our own favor.

Overcoming radical evil requires a “change of heart” — i.e., a reordering of our fundamental principle of choice — that we are each responsible for effecting in ourselves.


The real question of radical evil is: when an individual goes down a path to error, or a group does, how do they reverse themselves when they have come to tolerate the evil as “normal”?

In other words, if we slowly boil that frog/slip that slope by making competitive only the everyday actions that are radical evil, soon we radical evil is seen as normal, and defined as normal — and because that which opposes it also opposes the normal, any real “good” would be seen as evil.

Reminds me of Plato’s parable of the ring of the Lydian Gyges.

We live on different planets

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

At some point, when a society becomes so internally divided that compatibility is impossible, truth itself gets assaulted. Groups literally believe in a different reality because the individuals in those groups make their identities from their beliefs.

Check this duality:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.


And then:

The Central Intelligence Agency told today that it stands by the assertion made in a May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that the use of “enhanced techniques” of interrogation on al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) — including the use of waterboarding — caused KSM to reveal information that allowed the U.S. government to thwart a planned attack on Los Angeles.


So which is true?

The right wing, who are inherently collectivists, realize that the individual never trumps the group; as part of this, they deign to subsidize those who do not contribute to the group.

The left wing, who are inherently individualists, say that no individual should ever be subjected to torture, even if the collective is threatened, because the principle of being immune to society is most important.

So we all believe what we want to believe is true, and at the end of the day, what we have done is fragmented ourselves and cast doubt on the idea that we’ll ever know truth.

Everyone loses.


Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

So I was visiting an office the other day, and as often happens, I stumble on something in conversation that triggers a political response.

The woman I was talking to reminds me of a smart version of everyperson: roughly conservative on fiscal issues, roughly liberal on social issues, but personally relatively conservative as a means of self-preservation.

That is, she likes small government and capitalism; thinks we should have a civil rights agenda and that it’s why our nation is great; however, has learned already that gay sex, multicultural neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, casual sex, and pluralism don’t work for her.

People like this make me curious because I’m envious. I like the nice, simple detached sound of that worldview: I’m just doing my thing. Unfortunately, so were most of the people in Greece, Rome, France, India and Russia when they fell; doing your own thing results in others seizing political power. You know that old saw: all that it takes for evil people to succeed is that good people don’t challenge them.

Apparently, I stumbled onto one of her political hot buttons because I said something about the inefficiency of a public agency. “You know,” she said. “I voted for Barack Obama, but Ron Paul is right about this. Government cannot do anything more efficiently than private practice.”

I told her I agree, but that too much privatization could lead to corruption as we see in, and here are my worlds, “failed states like the third world.” I don’t see any point in beating around the bush and telling you that government works better in Italy than Germany, or in India than England, or in France than Sweden — it doesn’t. Failed states crush their elites and spend the rest of their lives circling the drain.

She leapt on me in a flash. “We have something now called relativity,” she said icily. “That means that there is no absolute standard for what is a failed or succeeding society.”

I looked at her and said, “You know, you’re right. There isn’t an absolute standard. But by my standards, those places have failed and I don’t want to live in them. So I’m going to call them failed.”

“But you can’t do that,” she said. “We don’t have an absolute standard.”

“But that in itself is an absolute standard,” I said to her. “Telling me I can’t consider them failed is as absolute as calling them failed.”

“That’s a logic trap,” she said, and to her credit: “I can’t figure that out. I think it’s in the words.” Not the most coherent explanation, but better than any I can do: it’s in the words, or the logic. It’s a property of the symbols.

What she means is “don’t judge others.”

What I pointed out was that “not judging others” is in itself a judgment.

How to escape this logical loop?

If there’s no universal standard, there’s no universal standard. That means it’s not bad for me to refer to third world nations as failed, and for others to think of them as doing just fine. Depending on where you are in life, both may be true.

But the problem exists when we try to apply one standard to both groups. I want to move upward, far away from the third world state, to more organized, rule of law, rule of logic type states; others may have different goals.

“So,” I said. “I guess the question really becomes relative: what you prefer. I know I’d rather move my family into a first-world state, and be among people who want to make first-world states, than be in the third world. Where would you rather live?”

We left the discussion at that, but it could extend to other things. Values systems — she and I are both personally conservative, meaning that we’ve figured out entertainment, intoxicants, casual sex, laziness, stupidity, freedom and convenience are bad goals. Order, efficiency, honor, fidelity, chastity, pride, intelligence, education and hard work are good goals.

We vote with our feet. There won’t be one standard for all of us, but if someone else has the right not to be beholden to my standard, I have the right not to be beholden to hers.

She was right: it’s in the words. They’re claiming a standard of having no standards as somehow inherent or absolute — a variation on the naturalistic fallacy for neurotics — and trying to get me to agree to it. I want more, and so I won’t.

A useful parable.

Biological determinism

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

This is anecdotal, and I don’t pretend it is anything but. However, I think it’s useful to agree on some facts that most seem to intuit but won’t say in public — I wonder why?

Our population is divided by ability, including the ability to act sensibly and plan ahead:

  • 90% need to be told specifically what to do or they lapse into their various pleasures and unproductive or destructive activity.
  • 9% can be given a general task that helps fulfill a social direction or ideal, but they will not derive that direction or ideal themselves.
  • 1% can define a direction or ideal.

What separates these divisions?

The number of factors they must consider.

A leader must analyze millions; a general task completer can analyze thousands; a worker can analyze just a few.

When workers revolt, it places people who are biologically unsuited to lead in positions of leadership, and this is why their revolutions are destructive, as in France and Russia.

The greatest taboo today is that these divisions exist. It makes people feel as if they cannot be anyone, which interrupts the pleasant wish fulfillment fantasies they have absorbed from marketing and polite socialization.

Suddenly, reality rears its ugly head, and they have no idea how to give it meaning.

People hate biological determinism. It means they’re not undiscovered geniuses, brilliant artists, future kings — they’re average and they can’t escape it.

That irritates their monkey brains and they have epileptic seizures in which they wail miserably about oppression and conclude the solution is more powerful democracy, that can smash its enemies — including reality itself.

Yet the evidence keeps piling up — our intelligence, creativity, criminality and personality are defined for us before we’re even born:

Personality types are linked with structural differences in the brain – which could explain why one child grows up to be impulsive and outgoing while another becomes diligent and introspective.

Anatomical differences between the brains of 85 people have been measured and linked with the four main categories of personality types as defined by psychiatrists using a clinically recognised system of character evaluation.

Brain scans that measure differences in volume down to an accuracy of less than one cubic millimetre found, for instance, that people defined as novelty-seeking personalities had a structurally bigger area of the brain above the eye sockets, known as the inferior part of the frontal lobe.


In other words, our abilities define our behaviors — and our abilities are innate. This is a social taboo because it tells us that as individuals, we cannot be whatever we want to be; also, it tells us that as groups, we cannot rely on individuals to make the right decision if it’s beyond their ability level.

And as it turns out, there are problems with individual decision-making that can only be overcome with discipline and strong intelligence. First, there’s choice paralysis. Next, there’s the aforementioned Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who are out of their league when facing difficult tasks fail to notice their mistakes and so think they’re making right decisions when they’re screwing up. Finally, there’s choice blindness:

We have been trying to answer this question using techniques from magic performances. Rather than playing tricks with alternatives presented to participants, we surreptitiously altered the outcomes of their choices, and recorded how they react. For example, in an early study we showed our volunteers pairs of pictures of faces and asked them to choose the most attractive. In some trials, immediately after they made their choice, we asked people to explain the reasons behind their choices.

Unknown to them, we sometimes used a double-card magic trick to covertly exchange one face for the other so they ended up with the face they did not choose. Common sense dictates that all of us would notice such a big change in the outcome of a choice. But the result showed that in 75 per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch, even offering “reasons” for their “choice”.

We called this effect “choice blindness”, echoing change blindness, the phenomenon identified by psychologists where a remarkably large number of people fail to spot a major change in their environment. Recall the famous experiments where X asks Y for directions; while Y is struggling to help, X is switched for Z – and Y fails to notice.

New Scientist

Change blindness is what happens while you’re focused on a single aspect of reality, but don’t notice how other aspects in the scenario change, even if they indirectly impact the aspect you’re watching. This is why sleight of hand works; I distract you with the rapidly moving object, while slowing stuffing a pigeon in my hat in the background.

Choice blindness is a form of mental adjusting. If you want something, but get given something else, you’re so focused on receiving something that you accept what came and justify it by altering your memories to claim it was what you wanted.

In real world terms, this means that if a candidate promises no war but does something equally dastardly on an issue other than war, people don’t notice — that’s change blindness. On the other hand, if a candidate promises great beautiful things and then delivers more of the same, people adapt to it and still support him — because he’s their candidate.

I have a feeling these dizzy mental failings are the result of optimizations made to our thinking process, originally to get it to work with slower primate brains. These may no longer be necessary. If we’re as intelligent as we like to think we are, we will recognize these limitations and thrust those who lack them to the forefront of our decision-making process.

Lack of moral attention kills communities

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

What is moral attention, you might ask?

Moral attention is recognizing that the broken windows theory is real: if people seeing others getting away with breaking the rules, they’re more likely to break the rules.

Therefore, tolerate no actions which are destructive to the collective or the non-deviant individual. (You can do both at the same time; this places you out of the left, which only protects the individual, and the extremists who only protect the collective.)

Here’s someone who spotted this condition in the microcosm offered by web communities:

It was once a well-kept garden of intelligent discussion, where knowledgeable and interested folk came, attracted by the high quality of speech they saw ongoing. But into this garden comes a fool, and the level of discussion drops a little – or more than a little, if the fool is very prolific in their posting. (It is worse if the fool is just articulate enough that the former inhabitants of the garden feel obliged to respond, and correct misapprehensions – for then the fool dominates conversations.)

So the garden is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old inhabitants, already invested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to attract new blood. Or if there are new members, their quality also has gone down.

Then another fool joins, and the two fools begin talking to each other, and at that point some of the old members, those with the highest standards and the best opportunities elsewhere, leave…

{ snip }

But when the fools begin their invasion, some communities think themselves too good to use their banhammer for – gasp! – censorship.

After all – anyone acculturated by academia knows that censorship is a very grave sin… in their walled gardens where it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to enter, and students fear their professors’ grading, and heaven forbid the janitors should speak up in the middle of a colloquium.

It is easy to be naive about the evils of censorship when you already live in a carefully kept garden. Just like it is easy to be naive about the universal virtue of unconditional nonviolent pacifism, when your country already has armed soldiers on the borders, and your city already has police. It costs you nothing to be righteous, so long as the police stay on their jobs.

{ snip }

And after all – who will be the censor? Who can possibly be trusted with such power?

Quite a lot of people, probably, in any well-kept garden. But if the garden is even a little divided within itself – if there are factions – if there are people who hang out in the community despite not much trusting the moderator or whoever could potentially wield the banhammer –

{ snip }

Maybe I understand on a gut level that the opposite of censorship is not academia but 4chan (which probably still has mechanisms to prevent spam). Maybe because I grew up in that wide open space where the freedom that mattered was the freedom to choose a well-kept garden that you liked and that liked you, as if you actually could find a country with good laws.

{ snip }

I confess, for a while I didn’t even understand why communities had such trouble defending themselves – I thought it was pure naivete. It didn’t occur to me that it was an egalitarian instinct to prevent chieftains from getting too much power. “None of us are bigger than one another, all of us are men and can fight; I am going to get my arrows”, was the saying in one hunter-gatherer tribe whose name I forget. (Because among humans, unlike chimpanzees, weapons are an equalizer – the tribal chieftain seems to be an invention of agriculture, when people can’t just walk away any more.)

Less Wrong

Plato would agree, but he’d point out that it’s not just agricultural societies: any civilization imposes a collectivist obligation. You can’t just walk away. You can’t just do it your way, and take your toys and go home, like libertarians or anarchists.

Instead, you need to stand your ground and separate the smart from the fools, and either censor the fools or removing them, but either way, keep them from lowering the standard of your community, because they will, and soon your community will be only populated by people too silly to see they are selfish and destructive.

Common sense observations of someone who survived through discipline and careful perception:

“I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” Chan said. “I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.”

Chan added: “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

Chan said the problem with Chinese youth is that “they like other people’s things. They don’t like their own things.” Young people need to spend more time developing their own style, he added.


He’s not talking about just the Chinese, but the human species as a whole. If we are given no constraints, we do what is selfish, and then disorder occurs. With too much constraint, we rebel.

I suggest another form of society: the cooperative where we don’t overrate each other’s egos through polite conversation, but clearly view where we each stand and what our abilities are. That way it’s no surprise when a king’s a king and a peasant is a peasant, even if he pretends to be a king on the internet.

We need direction. What we don’t need are calcified power structures that no longer provide that direction.

Two memes that failed by succeeding

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

It’s memetic warfare out there, folks. We have large populations empowered to vote, and fewer than five percent have any idea what they’re doing or do any research.

As a result, every viewpoint has a cheering team that’s fighting to inject its memes into the collective mind, basically using fond illusions and dire fears to convince the voting herd to sway one way or the next. If you want to know why our government is schizoid…

I illustrated one of these memes in another blog post, but wanted to show a curious twist of history: how a meme by becoming accepted can manipulate people, but if its manipulation is not carefully planned, can backfire and reverse all gains. Both of these have this problem, but only one has come true yet.

  • Postmodernism. Good liberals quivered in their hip downtown lofts. The forces of centralization — government, corporations, religion — were gaining power and advancing increasingly absolutist agendas. How to combat it? Create an absolute of non-absolutes, and insist as in the art of Picasso or the writing of Thomas Pynchon, on seeing every situation from multiple angles at once with each angle as a valid viewpoint. The hope was that this would cause people to reject rigid values systems. The reality was that people used it as a justification for believing whatever was convenient, rejecting any systematic thought.
  • Out-freedoming. The American right has got itself in a load of trouble. First, our country’s founding fathers did not agree on a lot of things, but were able compromisers. So there’s no tradition except European conservatism, which scares us. And then there’s the enduring popularity of liberal — or should we say Revolutionary — thought. How to compete it? Conservatives want the welfare nanny state off their backs, and they want to compete with liberals. Their response has been to try to compete by offering more freedom than liberal parties; they insist on dogmatic libertarianism now, where pretty much no one can tell you to do anything if you don’t want to. That sounds great when you first read it. The fond hope is that it will let the strong rise. The grim reality is that idiots will take advantage of this freedom to be selfish, causing socialized costs and an implosion of infrastructure. It wouldn’t be the first time…

What’s fascinating to me about these observations is that they show how different memology is from sciences that predict outcome. Memes catch on to hopes, dreams, wish fulfillment, humor, fond illusions… they have no bearing on reality. That’s why in the game of memes, to succeed is often to doom yourself.

The nationalism conundrum

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

We’re accustomed to the idea that in every nation, there’s a majority who inherently have privilege, and a minority, who are discriminated against.

Since 1789, we’ve known that minority to be a political minority, or the people versus the aristocrats and the wealthy.

Since 1968, we’ve thought of that minority as the oppressed/discriminated against, which is a long list of people from ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women, the disabled, religious minorities and youth.

We’re comfortable with this rhetoric — of minority justified in fighting majority because the minority is oppressed — but it’s a one-way street. First, it requires an enemy, an oppressor. Second, it requires that the oppressed be saints. And when those two come into conflict, we see that often there are multiple groups of oppressed and they are oppressing each other.

The United States is boycotting a U.N. conference on racism next week over a document that “singles out” Israel in its criticism and conflicts with the nation’s “commitment to unfettered free speech,” the U.S. State Department said Saturday.

State Department officials say the document contains language that reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Programme of Actions from the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, which the United States has said it won’t support. The 2001 document “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus said it was “deeply dismayed” by the decision made by the nation’s first African-African president, saying it was inconsistent with administration policies.


So what we’ve got here is our first African-American president, who the right is currently unsuccessfully trying to smear by comparing him to Hitler, and he’s backing out of a conference that might call the descendants of Hitler’s victims Hitleresque themselves. Hitler Hitler Hitler!

Obviously, this makes no sense. Our previous narrative — we use narratives to project ourselves into the future, in lieu of having some kind of values system we share — said that The Jews were victims, and that they were oppressed, and that empowering them would make us good.

But now, there’s another oppressed group that feels it is oppressed by Israel (I’m not sure of the overlap of Israel and The Jews, which seems to be a media term for “selected interests of Jewish descent and/or religion”). So we’re in conflict, just as we are anytime Jews and blacks mix it up on the streets of New York, or American Indians decide to exclude blacks, or gays hate on women. Our narrative has broken.

What makes more sense in my view is to recognize that the world is a varied place. Wherever a majority appears, they’re going to work for their own interests — and any other group showing up is a thorn in their side. Our narrative now demands that we shame them into accepting that group by calling them racists. However, that’s clearly not working: Israel, for example, knows that if they don’t oust Palestinians, the Palestinians will outbreed them in the next 25 years and democratically take over the state.

It’s time for a new narrative, and the USA being caught between a rock and a hard place — deriving its identity from being the savior of the oppressed everywhere, yet having allegiance to Israel — is forcing us all to reconsider the idea that majority-minority narratives don’t explain enough of the story for us to rely upon them.