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Corporations Is People

Corporations Is People

We have all heard the phrase “corporations are people,” either stated in earnest as a reading of the law (corporations are people in that they are independent entities, pay taxes, have rights to due process, and of course, the right to free speech) or stated ironically as ammunition for our friends on the Left. But whereas that question is about the legal personhood of the corporate entity itself, I would like to discuss something else entirely: the oft-forgotten fact that a corporation is not a distinct entity but a team effort comprised of many individuals. In other words, “corporations are people,” and we would serve ourselves to understand this vital distinction.

So what is a corporation?

In a free society, corporations are voluntarily organized by and among a collective of individuals–investors, employees, volunteers, and customers–in order to pursue a common goal. If you look into any large corporation, you find nothing less than tens of thousands of real people, all on a team together. The goals of that team can be very different. At BP, the goal of the team is to explore, dig and extract new oil wells on the one hand and ship, refine, and distribute gasoline on the other. At Walmart, the goal of the team is to produce and purchase a variety of items so they can be sold at mass market prices in their retail stores. To take the opposite end of the corporate spectrum, the goal of the team at a hair salon is to make women beautiful.

In other words, corporations have no sentience on their own. This may seem blindingly obvious to anyone who has worked for a corporation of any size. Corporations are, first and foremost, collectives where people collaborate to perform labor in exchange for money, which is exactly what people as individuals do. Except in a corporations, people can be often more productive working as a team than they can alone. If someone takes a job with corporation instead of producing and selling a product all by themselves, it is often because they can earn more with their skills as part of a team than they can alone. And the more successful the team is at producing and selling a product, the larger, more specialized and more efficient the team becomes.

I am not suggesting that all the people who make up a corporation are equal, but merely that their incentives are aligned. Shareholders, for instance, have a much bigger stake in the corporation’s successes and failures than employees. But those employees benefit from greater corporate profits in the form of greater job security if not increased benefits and wages, and when corporations lose money, they are the first to suffer. The level of commitment and risk may vary among members of a corporate team, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a team, for the same reason that a quarterback and a wide receiver have very different risks and rewards that come together for a common purpose.

And yet, everywhere you turn in politics today, there is an attempt to demonize and dehumanize corporations, to “make them pay” for whatever real or imagined harm they have inflicted, and in general, hold them responsible for the world’s ills. This trend is especially alarming in Europe, where hating on corporations is in vogue, and just yesterday Angela Merkel announced a G20 conference to tackle “corporate tax avoidance,” a particularly bad euphemism since it ascribes evil intent to a perfectly legal practice, encouraged by many G20 nations themselves. Corporations are routinely maligned as rapers of the environment, destroyers of wealth, vanguards of global destruction, and, of course, kingmakers behind elections. The American Left is particularly adept at these forms of accusations, although the right takes its toll in its own crusade against nonprofits like Planned Parenthood. And the Right is more prone to defending corporations, while corporations themselves deserve neither to be attacked or defended while sparing the individuals who make them up.

Why is it so easy to detatch corporations from the people who make them up?

I think for your run-of-the-mill politician on either the Right or the Left, it is politically popular to complain that “corporations are making record profits,” whereas it would be unpalatable for a politician to complain that individual tax-paying men and women are making too much money (not to mention complaining about the jobs that follow). When a politician says that an auto company should get a bailout, that is more persuasive than suggesting that tens of thousands of employees instead receive a welfare check directly from the government. It helps to be able to hold up certain corporations as “criminal,” but corporation can’t really commit a crime, only people can. Nothing is stopping us from going after criminal individuals who make up a corporation, and we should go after them just as we do anyone else committing a crime. Yet it is far easier for politicians to attack corporations as criminal rather than individuals.

So why do we continue to dehumanize corporations?

I think one of the biggest things to drive a wedge between people and corporations has been the corporate tax. Corporate taxes aren’t really corporate taxes at all, but are in reality taxes on the people that make up that corporation. If a corporation pays money in taxes, it must take that money from the corporation. If that money comes out of the pocket of shareholders, it is a tax on shareholders. If employees must earn less to cover the cost of the tax, then it is a tax on employees. If prices must go up to compensate for the tax, then it is a tax on consumers. The corporation as an entity has not paid anything, as it does not have any money of its own (much like the government doesn’t have any money of its own). Instead, the people who make up that corporation–the shareholder, the employee, and the consumer–have paid for it.

As it happens, we already impose these taxes separately: we tax shareholders for their holdings, tax employees for their income, and tax consumers for their spending. If we were to eliminate the corporate tax entirely, surely these taxes could be appropriated to the individuals from whose pockets the money came out of in the first place. But by taxing the corporate entity, we allow shareholders, employees and consumers alike to pretend that the corporation is an entity separate and apart from themselves. At the very least, the corporate taxes imposed offset the direct cost on the individual in the short term and lets the individual believe his money is safer than it would be without the corporate tax. This is an illusion, but a compelling one: we have let it drive us to raise taxes on corporations to the highest level of any country in the industrially advanced world.

Finally, I think one more major factor in creating a dehumanizing membrane around corporations is caused by corporations themselves: branding. Branding is, definitionally, creating a unified identity and persona behind a corporation. Through branding, corporations, subvert individual identity to the wisdom of the collective. Although corporations are collections of free people, the big ones present like unifaceted behemoths; ironically, the more people a corporation contains, the less human it appears. As consumers, we allow the branding of corporations to define our attitudes towards the work those corporations do, especially if we don’t approve of it. It is easier to rally against a logo that stands for a purpose rather than lash out at the indivdual actors, for the same reason it is easier to fire on an advancing enemy under one flag than it is to hunt urban guerillas. The corporation has proudly and intentionally presented its mission for all to see, and this makes its existence even the more offensive if their mission is distasteful. The fact that profit is the primary goal of the corporation is added salt in the wound. Never mind that profit, like taxes, doesn’t belong to the corporation at all, but belongs to the shareholders, employees and consumers of the corporation.

Let’s end anti-corporatism

Now, I think that it is generally true that people will ascribe a set with the actions and morals of a much smaller subset. It is generally true for racists who use the actions of a small minority of people to justify hatred of an entire group. It is true for misogynists who prefer to paint all women with the brush of a few bad ex girlfriends. And it is true for anti-corporatists, who feed on news like an oil spill or financial system collapse as evidence of the global evil of corporations. It would of course behoove the anti-corporatists to know that their prejudice towards corporations is usually based on the behavior of a small minority of corporations, usually in one or two industries. If pressed, they will of course not attack with the same vigor barber shops, restaurants, bodegas, hardware stores, bars, nightclubs, Hollywood movies, publishing houses, newspapers, coastal fishermen, travel agencies or farmers’ markets, which are all organized as corporations. Nor will they attack corporations established for an eleemosynary purpose: Churches, preschools, health clinics, hospitals, cancer research institutes, civil liberties organizations, or rotary clubs.

In addition, the anti-corporatist slant willfully ignores the unrelenting progress and prosperity we have experienced as a society using the corporation as a vehicle. It is not a coincidence that the formation of the first corporations in 17th century Holland (debatably the first, but certainly the first legally defined joint stock operations) coincide with the explosion in private capital investment, exploration, mass employment through international trade, and real distribution of wealth through wages that characterized the late mercantilist period, sowing the seeds (or tulip bulbs) for the industrial revolution. The reasons for this are complicated, but in short: the corporate vehicle allows private investors to protect their personal assets and take risks, while at the same time providing a legal structure for many people to work together in pursuance of common goals.

I’m not suggesting that corporations are victims, but just that our rampant anti-corporatism too easily misses the vital distinction between the corporation as a legal entity and the corporation as a living organism with real human beings as its working cells. We do not benefit when we deprive corporations of oxygen. We only benefit when the corporation is allowed to thrive as an organization of free people assembled to accomplish a common purpose.

February 16, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

I was reading my friend Luca’s blog post today about language and memories of our home stay in HaMakuya, Limpopo way back in 2009.  It was an awesome experience, and I have many fond memories of our host family and the various escapades of the children, who shall forever remember me as the white dude with the beard who couldn’t get the drum rhythms quite right.  But speaking of language, in Venda, the word for hello is different for men and women.  The women say Aa, which means “hello,” but the men declare Nda!, which literally means “I am a lion.”

This his how it usually happens:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

In my time in HaMakuya, I witnessed the interplay between Nda! and Aa several dozen times.  Sometimes the interaction was between two men, sometimes between a man and one or several woman, but interestingly enough, never from one woman to another–the household where we were staying was made up of mostly women of several generations, and they did not exchange Aa‘s as far as I could tell.  But as soon a man entered the conversation with the declarative “Nda!,” the women would always respond with “Aa,” accompanying it with a floor-level bow.

It is a challenge to modern notions of gender justice when you witness an old woman cowtowing to a young boy in casual conversation.  It is also difficult, as a foreigner, to let this situation play out without any judging the society based on moral incongruity.  One situation I saw that was particularly memorable was a boy who was just hitting puberty–maybe thirteen years old–walk into the household full of women, and without breaking his stride declare “Nda!”  The women, in response, all hit the floor with “Aa.”  What was striking about it was the level of bravado in his greeting: chest puffed out, chin lifted, with his voice intoned with confidence.  It was surprising to see this level of arrogance, especially in light of his smallish frame.  But for men and boys, the experience of Nda! must be imbued with an extreme level of self-righteousness, as it is always an opportunity to assert one’s dominance at the beginning of every conversation.  I suppose you have to give the men some credit; Whereas most men around the world must assert their masculinity in more subtle ways, the men of Limpopo can directly and forcefully declare their lion-hood to all company present without social awkwardness or shame.

The women, of course, are not ignorant to the peculiarity of this custom, and thus when a man walks into a room and declares “I am a lion,” it is not unusual hear the voices of the women dripping with irony as they assume their bows, often elongating their greeting with a sarcastic “Aaaaaahhhhh.”  At one interaction, I could have sworn I heard a woman say “Uh huh,” and she might as well have.  The tradition of Aa is clearly not taken very seriously by the women of HaMakuya.

So while a man hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

A woman hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  Sure you are, big guy.

That this very basic greeting, probably the cornerstone of conversation, can be used wildly differently depending on the gender of the speaker, speaks volumes about the role of language in society.  Words are the building blocks of ideas.  So when an entire Venda-speaking population communicates everyday greetings with this type of built-in sexism, one has to euthyphroically ask:  is the culture sexist because people say hello in this manner, or do people say hello in this manner because they are sexist?

When girls are taught at a young age to bow and submit to their male peers–when they see their grandmothers doing the same to their little brothers–they learn to assume the position of inferiority in a quite literal manner.  There is no ambiguity in the deep bow, no question of whose authority is present in a room when the first speaker declares he is a lion.  And as far as I can find, Aa has no correlative meaning (such as “I am a dove”).  It just means Aa.  The persistence of this tradition in the face of modern gender liberation is fascinating–especially since the women of Limpopo are no strangers to gender liberation.

For in HaMakuya, the women attend school and take night classes in business (we talked to a group of them coming home from school once).  The women run the households and educate their children.  The women do all the farming and cooking.  The men, as far as I can tell, have very few responsibilities.  They have political power in the community, they handle the cattle and fetch firewood, and in the rare case where employment is available, they work, usually in the nearby city.  When it comes to household finances, women make purchases for house and home and education, whereas the men, far as I can tell, spend their money on beer.  It was very apparent in our household who was in charge and who wasn’t.

Yet when the men arrive late at night from the bar and declare “I am a lion,” they are greeted customarily by all the women of the household, who put down their cooking spoons and brooms and scythes and kindling.  “Aaaahh,” the women say, falling to their weary knees, bowing to the freshly swept floor, “We salute you, Lion.  Now we need to get back to work.”

June 20, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Modern Psychohistory

Modern Psychohistory

I have been reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and although it is a mediocre work of fiction with limited literary value (sorry fans), it does shift one’s perception of our own time; and, indeed, makes our age seem wholly insignificant.  The Galactic Empire of Foundation is a civilization that has existed for 12,000 years and according to the predictions of one scientist is doomed to fail for a 30,000 year interregnum, a prediction that has made the Empire squirm with unease.  The source of this apocalyptic prediction is the study of “psychohistory,” a science of Asimov’s own invention whereby large bodies of people have inertia and follow historical trends that can be calculated and predicted.  The larger the group of people, the larger the psychohistorical inertia.  Even with the small scale variance of chance, in the long run a civilization will follow a predictable path–so claims the school of psychohistory.

It is hard not to see our current world in the same light.  A world that had 800 years of Roman civilization, only to fall into a 1,000 year interregnum, emerging as it did in the 17th century with little knowledge, strength or civility which it has since had to learn.  Of course, the Romans were not a perfect civilization, and neither is ours, and neither were any of the civilizations that fall outside the traditional western historical sphere, but I think it can be said for our present civilization that the psychohistorical inertia of mankind has rendered it incapable of truly altering its course, and it is so that we tumble deeper and deeper into the abyss.  All through history we have feared the apocalypse, and looking back even 30 years we see the minutes of the Doomsday Clock tick ever closer to midnight as the Soviets played war games, and the surely predicted fall of civilization in the emergence of Islamic terror, financial catastrophe and skyrocketing prices in the stagflation of the 70’s.  And now we find ourselves precariously in an even worse position, with the institutional levers of our economy collapsing and seemingly nothing that can be done about it.

Why is this the case?  Psychohistory tells us that it is the responsibility of purely human emotion and instinct, for instance, fear.  Fear people have of losing what little stability they possess in order to gradually cede more power to rulers.  Fear rulers have of losing their power to the hungry and restless people.  Fear the intellectuals and the journalists and the artists have to stand up and tell the truth, no matter the consequences.  And fear of god: that almighty fear which has driven people to do stupid things and believe in them to the end.  I don’t often look to FDR for inspiration or guidance, but his ominous calling to be rid of fear of fear was prescient.  He of all people, a cripple with his own challenges, would know that people are not fallible.  That death is inevitable.  That we are always, always circling the drain.

In the lens of psychohistory, one sees not the European debt crisis as austerity vs. the Euro, or socialism vs. capitalism, or good vs. evil.  One only sees the inevitable decline of Europe as a great power due to the folly of mankind.  It is as sure as mathematics that the Eurozone will collapse, because its fate has been preordained from the beginning:  A monetary union backing several disparate political interests with a history of brutal warfare.  A fantasy of European socialism calling for borrowing a health and happy lifestyle at the expense of the working poor and the next generation, not to mention the immigrants whom Europeans spit upon.  The legacy of nationalism that makes Europeans immune to self criticism or introspection.

In the lens of psychohistory, one does not see the American politics as anything more than a page in a play of history.  We trade jabs about the relative power of corporations and unions, the responsibility of banks, the rights of the downtrodden, and of course, where our European and Chinese foes fit into the equation.  But the equation spits out the same answer:  We continue to borrow from our own prosperity and refuse to acknowledge our inevitable decline.  Although America has been luckier than most; insulated from the baggage of the past, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the world, with an imperfect constitution that Americans just happened to have respected and supported this last quarter millennium, we continue to put faith in our leadership to right the ship even though Americans feel the inevitable pull of fate.

In the lens of psychohistory, what is Iran, with its petty, fumbling dictator and its all-but-certain nuclear weapon?  Do we really think that the people of Iran have any less motivation, drive or ambition than the people of California?  Do we really think that Iranians have any interest in destroying Israel, or the US, or anywhere else, rather than proceed forward with mutual cooperation, trade and respect?  If the lesson of South Africa teaches us anything, it is never the people that are the problem, it is it the rulers.  And what of the rulers?  Why have we created democracies that ensure us that we empower rulers to cede the will of the minority to the tyranny of the majority?  Or, what is worse, cede the tyranny of the majority to the special interests of the entitled minority?  We have either dictators on thrones stolen at the point of a gun, or presidents on electoral thrones smoldering in their own hypocrisy.  These presidents give us a false sense of security and guard us against the barbarians at the gates, while they pick our pockets and promise us guarantees they don’t have the money to pay for.  Americans have it better than the Europeans, but how much worse are those false democracies elsewhere?

In the lens of psychohistory, all people are the same.  We do not have any differences that are not determined by birth or circumstance.  We all behave with the same motivations.  We all fall in love and get screwed by society’s pressure.  We all discover new things.  We all fail to get recognition for our accomplishments and get castigated for our failures.  We all don’t get what we deserve.  We all don’t deserve anything.  No one is special, and if there is anything I have learned in my travels, it is that people follow only one rule: Do by myself and my family.  If I have extra time, help others.  If I have a tender heart, go out of my way to do something nice for someone else.  But at the end of the day, every person will follow the same rule: Me and my family.  And when societies embrace that individual drive, they thrive.  And when they deny that, they destroy freedom, happiness and prosperity.  When a government provides an avenue to success through thuggery and murder, people will take that road.

Psychohistory tells us that we are hitting an inflection point, one which will push us over the abyss or lead us to the greatest period of wealth and prosperity the world has ever known.  We do not know when the inflection point will hit.  It could be with the Greek election on Sunday, or it could be at years end.  It could be when that first nuclear strike from North Korea backfires and lays waste to the desolate deathtrap of the miserable Kimtatorship.  It could be when Justin Bieber becomes elected president and, through momentous incompetence, fails to accomplish anything significant which might be the most productive thing he could do for our country.  It could be the rising of the oceans that swallow up our greatest cities.  Or, true to the mathematics of psychohistory, some unforeseen change in the human processing of external stimuli may occur, throwing off any and all predictions for better or for worse.  A larger-than-life figure may appear, altering the course of humanity by defying the natural bounds of human fear and consciousness.  Or an external alien force may puncture our self-contained system and introduce unknown variables of physics, science and culture that change our perceptions of ourselves and our humanity.

June 17, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Morning in Vienna

Morning in Vienna

Sunday mornings are silent in Vienna, punctuated only by the dull hum of a tram or the chirping of birds in the hundreds of parks in the city.  The wind coming out of the Danube valley rushes down the wide boulevards, amplifying their desolateness.  I am in Burgengarten, looking at the backside of the Hofburg palace with HIS • AEDIBUS • ADHAERET • CONCORS • POPULORUM • AMOR emblazoned in Latin across the frieze.  As far as European palaces go, Hofburg is pretty disappointing.  Tour groups wander in and out of the grounds, following their herders with disconnected interest.  One group removed itself even more from human contact by donning headphones which were all connected to the tour guide’s microphone.  This group can’t even interact with each other in person, let alone the drone at the front of the pack leading them through a sanitized history lesson with practiced monotony.  In Michaelerplatz, horse-drawn carriages shuttle tourists around the roundabout.  Students are dragged by invisible leashes through the grounds as their eyes remain fixated on their phones.

I got in yesterday evening, after deciding on a whim to visit this city I once visited ten years ago.  There hasn’t been much change, and my feelings about it remain the same.  It is sprawling, scrubbed down, impersonal, and boring.  Classical German romantic façades make carbon copies of each other on street after street, with the occasional rusted dome popping up above the fray.  When I got in, I took the metro right to Landßrase where I thought, mistakenly, there would be something to see or do.  Instead I was among residential complexes, so I decided to walk to the Danube, not anticipating my journey across less than 10% of the city would take two hours.

On the way there, I saw a park that would be a convenient shortcut to the water.  The door was labeled “Hundezone,” and I saw a couple dogs inside with their owners, but thought nothing of it.  I walked into the park, and almost immediately the dogs, who were calm and playful before, started barking angrily and going for me.  I made it halfway up the hill before I had one dog right on me, with another dog, that came up to my chest, sniffing at me aggressively.  The owner was yelling in German, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at the dogs or at me.  I didn’t feel very safe, and he wasn’t doing much to dispel my fears, as he just stood there and let his dogs threaten violence on me.  I’m glad I don’t understand German because I don’t want to know what he was saying.  Was he egging them on?  His family was picnicking 30 feet away, and they were watching the spectacle but didn’t seem to pay it much mind.  Meanwhile, I’m about to have my limbs torn off by at least five dogs, none of whom were nicer than your average French waiter.  I quickly turned tail and got out of the dog zone, which I thought might have led to a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was specifically for ill trained dogs?  But I couldn’t find anything out about it online later.  By the time I reached the Danube, the sun was just about to start going down and I realized, against all intuition, the Danube is an urban wasteland in Vienna.  There is an office park across the way, one high span bridge every two miles, and nothing but bike paths along the shore.  It took an hour to walk back to the nearest metro stop.

One thing I did notice on my walk through the back streets of Vienna was the abundance of graffiti.  I feel you can tell a lot about a society through its rogue artwork, and it is not surprising that a land where certain thoughts of an Aryan nature are not permitted by law, the Nazification of the urban landscape would be close at hand.  Vienna does not disappoint.  It is one of those cruel ironies of free speech that the less free the speech, the more in bursts to the surface, and in this case, it is clear how the fringe (at least I hope the fringe) of Austrian society finds its outlet, how the stormy, angry undercurrent shows through cracks in the stony, impersonal, buttoned-up façade of the city.

After checking into my hostel (itself far on the outskirts of the city with a gorgeous view of the valley), I took the bus back into town and checked out a couple of the popular metro stops.  I once met a girl in Moscow in 2010 who told me her philosophy on travel was to “go where the party was at,” so I hopped onto the subway and got off at where the most people got off, in this case Stefansplatz.  This was a charming area, with a cathedral, several open squares in close succession, with music, restaurants and fountains sharing one crowded space on the cobblestones.  I ended up in a bar talking with high schoolers from an American school in Vienna, and at one point shots of lemon vodka got passed around.

I hopped on the metro again and went to Schwedenplatz, where I was told there would be “an assortment of good and bad places.”  I don’t know what good places there were to be had.  It was worse that Wrigleyville in Chicago for its drunkenness and worse than Las Vegas for grittiness.  I was glad to hop back on the train and go to Thaliaßrase where I was told there would be a series of arcades under the train tracks with bars and clubs.  There were, with Viennese and foreigners mixing in an orgy of popular music, booze and lights.  The party capital of Austria is no different from the party capital of Anywhere…in the cities of the world, all humans party the same.

After getting back to my hostel, I met a couple from Mexico City doing a tour in Europe on their way to Budapest, and a couple from Arizona doing a tour in the other direction.  Hostels are one of those rare places where you are always destined to meet people with interesting stories, shared experiences, and there is always an element of fate.  Every day the crowd changes, and thus every day new possibilities about who you can meet anywhere in the world.  In one night’s stay at a hostel I made new “friends” in Canada, Mexico, and Arizona.  My new “friends” from Canada were interesting. They were a couple from Vancouver Island who lived on an organic dairy farm.  I asked them if they ate organic in Europe, and they said that ignorance was bliss.  The guy, Jeremy, said there were two kinds of non-organic contaminants: crop-specific, which are added by farmers deliberately to their crops (and can be chosen out by conscientious consumers) and environmental, which affect all crops in the form of air, soil and water contaminants, which he was more concerned about.  I found the distinction interesting because it’s basically a choice between free choice and neighborhood effects, always an interesting problem in economics.

Which brings me back to Burgengarten.  The “free” wifi is spotty at 1 KB/s max, clearly a tragedy of the commons.  Every family in the park has 2 kids, one boy and one girl.  No one raises their voice above a whisper.  Every dog is football sized and on a leash.  The grass is immaculate.  The park is square and the fountain in the pond makes perfect ripples which radiate outwards rhythmically.  It is the same feeling you get throughout this city.  The subways and trams and busses arrive the second they are supposed to and are cleaned by hand so they glisten, even in the underworld.  Viennese pedestrians wait for red lights at empty intersections.  Every cobblestone in this city is in perfect place with its perfect purpose, although that purpose remains, as so many things in this city, beneath the surface.  I’m fairly certain that no one here poops.

Yet even with the concerted effort for utopian sameness, there are signs of decay in the republic.  Scratched paint at the bus stops. Public garbage bags stretched open. Puddles left undrained in the road.  The air is stale, the food has been bland and the people have been mildly entertaining at best.  It has copied the cultural milieu of Germany with none of its work ethic, proud history and heritage, or national heroes.  There is an undercurrent of national arrogance, reminding me of that old joke about Austria:  “The Austrians have only accomplished two things: to convince the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Viennese.”  In short, I remain, as before, underwhelmed with what Vienna has to offer.

I will be glad to get back to Budapest tonight.

Why We Pursue Freedom

Why We Pursue Freedom

Recently I was having a spirited debate with a friend whom I suspect to be a libertarian sympathizer.  His big criticism of libertarianism–a very fair one–was that libertarians tend to value Freedom as an end in itself, not more tangible and perhaps more measurable goals such as social mobility, humanitarianism, or even wealth creation.  What good is Freedom if the fruits of that freedom for some are poverty, sickness, or despair?  In particular, the criticism here is utilitarian.  Like any ideology, libertarianism proposes a social and economic ideal and lets the policy makers work out the kinks.  Of course, then one is left with the same problems:  addressing poverty, homelessness, trade deficits, human trafficking and Justin Bieber.  Regardless of your ideological positioning, your imperative is to find utilitarian solutions to real world problems.  If wearing seatbelts lowers the risk of death in accidents, why not require the wearing of seatbelts?  If hamburgers increase the risk of heart attack, why not tax burgers?  Etc, etc.  Says the jaunty liberal, here we are trying to solve problems and you don’t care:  all you care about is the principle of Freedom, but not the problems themselves.  Says the social conservative, we agree in theory that Freedom is good, as long as gays and Muslims are just slightly less free than everyone else.

So to the question that was posed to me, which I try to answer here, was this: Why do libertarians promote Freedom as an end to itself?  I can’t speak for all libertarians, but I can speak for myself.  I pursue Freedom as an end goal in itself because:  A) Freedom is a philosophically pleasing concept, one which is, and should be, a satisfying end to itself, B) Societies organized around a political and economic system of Freedom happen to be those that are extremely beneficial for the growth and wealth of individuals, families and society, and C) Free(er) societies also score higher and better for the general welfare, particularly for those indicators which I value as a humanitarian:  diversity, equality, opportunity, tolerance and peace.

Now, I must digress and first establish that I do not think that free societies exist in reality, although certainly it can be said that some societies are freer than others.  Certainly even the freest economies, like Singapore and Hong Kong, exist under less than optimal political regimes, while the high social freedom of the Netherlands is combined with an almost masochistic suppression of economic freedom.  And certainly, the United States, as my main interest, has many free aspects, although on the whole our country has become less and less free economically.  Although much social progress has been made in the twentieth century, this progress has come at the expense of the Fed, the Income Tax, the New Deal, the Great Society and countless other bloated expansions of state power, from tariffs to occupational licensure, that have marred the promise of economic freedom that has been synonymous with America for two centuries.  In fact, one of the great fallacies of the American right is to continue to claim against mounting evidence that America is still the “land of opportunity.”  The fact remains that our stratifying social classes, hardening economic regulations and explosion of the rentier class have made this opportunity dwindle for most and swell for a select few.  Conservatives do themselves no favors by denying the obvious instead of working harder to right the ship, making government smaller and pursuing sensible economic deregulation instead of inexcusable social regulation.  That said, I look forward to a liberal party that is more interested in social deregulation than economic regulation.

Freedom as a Philosophically Pleasing Concept 

I am surprised by how often people tend to discount the central tenant of libertarianism:  the Freedom is important.  It isn’t important like belief in God or being a vegetarian is important.  Freedom is important precisely because it is, in human history, probably the most evasive desire for most people.  I have been reading Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People, and aside from a compelling critique of the creation and hardening of American whiteness in the last 200 years, she goes into the history of race and slavery in general, establishing a long history of forced labor that reaches every expanse of the globe for most of the middle ages.  Americans today tend to think of slavery as being that particular institution that existed in the Americas for the planting of cotton and cane with slaves imported from Africa.  Painter shows us that not only was African slavery the tail end of an epoch, but a relatively minor part of a much larger epoch than anyone realizes, especially for Europe.  This slavery–white slavery–in Europe not only has a legacy, but an extremely powerful legacy in the Enlightenment when the fundamental philosophical disruption about freedom concerns the plight of not just enslaved foreigners in Europe but enslaved Europeans themselves.  The legacy of slavery in Europe extends well into the 18th century, such that Robinson Crusoe was not only slave trader and owner but was once a slave himself.  By the time of the settling of the new world, Painter estimates that before the boom in African slaves in the 18th century, one-half to two-thirds of the white immigrants to America came in chains.

Why is this important?  It tells us that slavery still had a resounding effect on America’s founding fathers, not in the way that you would expect (in that they mostly all owned black slaves) but in that it was a part of their recent cultural memory as well.  They may have denied humanity to blacks, but they were not immune to fear of their own servitude as well, as many of them, I’m sure, were descendants of white slaves.  Hypocrisies aside, this gives us a very interesting insight into the minds of the founding fathers who had not only utilitarian but personal and cultural reasons to see to the fact that they would never be slaves.  Today, Freedom is often presented from an original position, whereby we know that as citizens we are generally free to pursue a living, have a family, do and say what we want, and these are all freedoms guaranteed to us by our constitution.  But we forget that the constitution was itself a radical leap forward, and even though it gives us an original position of freedom from which we can write our historical narrative as Americans, we should not take it for granted, and realize that Freedom is extremely vulnerable, even in free societies, even today.

Like all things, people don’t realize how important Freedom is until it is taken away.  The discourse of Freedom is often presented as whether or not video games can be sold with obscenities, or whether gays can serve in the military, or even whether having a choice between a low paying job and no job is no choice at all.  Very little do we expand our historical frame and realize just how fundamentally secure our freedoms actually are, not only in comparison to the last generation, or the last century, but even our own so-called free contemporaries today.  In France, for instance, the rights doctrine not only permits, but encourages, the government to ban burqas in the name of freedom.  In Switzerland a similar ban has been placed on minarets.  In Germany, antisemitism is illegal, and in Austria, David Irving was actually put in jail for daring to promote a historical opinion that was deemed untrue by the authorities (as untrue as that opinion is, it does not justify jail time in a free society).  Of course, in America these laws would never work, but we have our own peculiarities, such as an abhorrent anti-drug regime that has imprisoned millions of people for recreational activities, probably the worst violation of freedom of our time.  And we can’t forget the 170 prisoners continuing to be held without a trial at Guantanamo.

Freedom is obviously a specious philosophical concept with many definitions.  Some will say that it is primarily a social concept, a basic form of organization where each individual is free to pursue his own relationships and activities.  Still others will insist that the economic cannot be ignored in pursuit of the social: by what means do we pursue our own interests if not economical?  For me, I will adopt the philosophical paradigm of J.S. Mill, interpreted through the lens of Oliver Wendell Holmes:  My right to swing my fist ends at the other guy’s nose.  Such is an ideal system for social and economic organization.  Since the trade is the basic unit of economic organization, the economic corollary, of course, is that my right to trade freely shall not interfere with your right to do so.  Trades undertaken by free people must be A) Bi-laterally voluntary and without coercion, B) Informed and not based on fraud.  A slave is not free because his labor is coerced and his work is not voluntary.  A snake oil salesman is not free because he lies about the effectiveness of his product.  In both cases, the buyer and the seller of a commodity must be informed and without coercion.  In this way, people do not trade unless each person feels they have something to benefit from the trade.  The great thing about free trade in this manner is that both people can benefit; i.e., it is not a zero-sum game.  Now, as to how we define informed (a sticking point with liberals) and coercion should not distract us from the general principle.  It is interesting to note that the areas where Freedom is most controversial is exactly where the definitions of coercion and fraud factor into the discussion.  In abortion, a fundamental question exists of whether the fetus constitutes an agent of choice free from coercion.  In healthcare, a fundamental question exists of whether adequate medical knowledge is possible for a layperson.  But in general, the principle is sound.  If we can agree on the terms coercion and fraud, the general paradigm of Freedom should solve itself.

The fundamental concept that Freedom is that wonderful system whereby people are able to pursue their own ends for their own purposes, without it being at the expense of others, is not only philosophically satisfying but unquestionably good.  I don’t see how any interlocutor–ignoring the specific questions above–can say that Freedom is morally repellent from a purely philosophical perspective.  I think Americans, whatever their persuasion, recognize this, which is why our cultural memory is shaped most often by those people who fought for more freedom–Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln–and those people who defended freedom–Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan–and those people abroad who fought their own battles for freedom–Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela.  Even our movie icons are freedom lovers, from John Wayne to Braveheart.  And of course, Freedom is a strong philosophical tradition in its own right.

Still, it is hard to believe today that despite this cultural and philosophical legacy there are many, from all sides of the political spectrum, who want to deprive citizens of their Freedom.  This is why to this end libertarians devote themselves:  To defend Freedom, not as a means to any economic or humanitarian end, but as an end itself.  Although, as I establish below, there are economic and humanitarian benefits to Freedom that more than justify its preeminent position as a philosophical standard bearer.

Freedom as a Means to Greater Wealth

If Freedom were achieved only for its philosophical ends, it would be enough.  But it just so happens that Freedom is a necessary prerequisite of those other elusive human desires: wealth and welfare.  We must distinguish between wealth and welfare.  Wealth is individual, relative and mobile.  Welfare is societal, regresses to the mean, and moves with the lot of society.  Now, it just so happens that Freedom is a boon to both.  In this section I will talk about wealth, and in the next, welfare.

Wealth is an individual concept.  One man’s wealth, speaking strictly economically, is defined by what he is able to purchase and trade, not how his wellbeing is defined in relation to others.  Wealth is also a relative concept.  Poor Americans are materially richer than most people in the world, and yet still find themselves at the bottom of a tremendous spectrum of wealth.  We have abject poverty contrasted with insane amounts of wealth in fictional sounding quantities.  Much has been made about the growth of the gap between rich and poor in Western countries in the last half century, but not nearly as much has been proclaimed about the growth of the lot of the poor, especially in those regions of the world only recently freed from the chains of communism and socialism, the eastern bloc European countries and of course India and China.  Putting that aside for now, we can see that the discourse is very quick to point to relative wealth instead of absolute wealth.

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.  It is a wonderful little book, not so much for its economic content (it has none) but for the narrative it casts over that little scandal in American society we term the working poor.  Of course, the existing of the working underclass is no secret but Ehrenreich brings it to light in an honest and provocative way.  But its lack of economic content leaves the reader wondering–why are the poor people she writes about so thoroughly disfavored by the system, and what can be done about it?  The immediate answer from most liberals is a higher so-called “living” wage, which is academically lazy.  Yes, more money would be great (I would like more money too, thank you very much), but the economic question that the book begs, and she fails to answer is not why workers don’t make enough but why is everything so goddamn expensive?  An economist would be ashamed to propose a fix to the demand side without the supply side, and Ehrenreich talks at length about the obstacles faced by the working poor–housing and lodging costs, cost of food, medical costs, gas–without once questioning when and why the prices have jumped as they have.  Why a pill that can be made for 10 cents costs $10 a pop.  Why gas is almost $5/gallon in some places and rising.  Why the demand for housing from the urban poor has not been met with adequate supply.  And while this book has been met with an immense amount of critical review from proponents of increasing the minimum wage, no one I have found has approached the book as a guide to those truly horrendous treatments our society gives the poor through curtailing the Freedom of society, and that’s the real scandal at play here.

What do I mean?  Well, let’s look at a disadvantaged poor 20-something male in an inner city like Chicago.  From where have his disadvantages come?  First, he has been “educated” in a governmental school: an atrocity where pupils are churned out with no regard to individuality and dumped on society at larger with no skills are training.  He has grown up in public housing, where people of lower socioeconomic status are not only segregated from the public, but are segregated in groups that make it more likely for children to grow up around gangs, drugs and violence. He has a criminal record due to the possession of marijuana, because of puritanical drug laws that increase criminality rates with no discernible effect on drug use.  Occupational licensure has restricted his access to stable middle class employment.  He has been unable to acquire on-the-job training from a young age–the most important path out of poverty–because minimum wage and child employment laws have prevented him from getting a job at a relatively low wage and younger age to acquire skills he would need to get a higher wage later on in life.  Finally, to add insult to injury, he is enrolled in a government welfare scheme that controls where he can live, what size family he can have, what jobs he can take and how many substances he can ingest.

When he works, he has to pay a portion of his income toward a required annuity at sub-market rates that he may never live to receive (Social Security).  His cost of living is significantly increased by a host of regulations:  commodities like clothes and tools face tariffs coming in from China, raising their cost.  Anti-big box store legislation has made it more expensive to get necessities of life from places like Walmart (which isn’t even allowed in Chicago).  The cost of gas has gone up because our government restricts drilling and piping making us vulnerable to foreign markets.  The cost of medical care and drugs has skyrocketed thanks to regulations running the gamut from medical licensure (restricting entry into the profession) to FDA rules (preventing the importing of lower cost drugs or drugs that aren’t available on the market in the US) and regulation of the insurance markets.  And then, the rent situation: virtually anywhere he can live is steeped in housing regulations, from rent control policies which raise rents to building codes which require over-engineering, to hotel codes which raise the cost of bookings.

And this is all before taxes and inflation.

Now, whether or not one agrees with these regulations or believes them necessary (I will be happy to take up any one of these points for further inspection), it cannot be denied that these disadvantages are not inborn but a result of a system of governmental controls that prevent economic mobility and keep poor people poor.  The problem of poverty in wealthy countries has nothing to do with wealth distribution and everything to do with wealth suppression; i.e. active government policies which suppress the accumulation of wealth for those who need it most.  It just so happens that a philosophy of Freedom also applies to economic freedom and ridding society of these pesky regulations–there is no conflict and most importantly, we have historical evidence that the pursuance of these policies are not only infringements on Freedom but destructive to wealth in general.

Throughout history, societies with larger private sectors and greater economic freedom have contributed to greater wealth for the society on the whole.  Can there be any doubt that the bloated public sector of India until the liberalization of the economy in the 1980’s led to poverty, widespread depression and lower wellbeing?  Can there be doubt that the redistributionist policies of Mao led to widespread famine and poverty in China until the private sector was unleashed in the 70’s?  Finally, what is to be said for the paragon of socialism today, the relatively wealthy countries of northern Europe?  Even with a large public sector, certainly, the standard of living has dramatically increased in Europe in the last 50 years.  But I venture to say that such economic gains have been made with short term investments with no regard for long term consequences.  The current financial crisis will cripple Europe for a generation, precisely because far too much borrowing and expansion of the public sector at the expense of future generations was undertaken.  Of course, countries like Sweden are doing very well since they have liberalized in the last 20 years, whereas countries like Greece that have not are stagnant.

So although the US as well as Europe and many other free market societies continue to fail in alleviating poverty, the biggest scandal is that instead of trying to fix the problem by liberalizing, we turn to solutions that have not only been demonstrated ineffective but cause more poverty.

Freedom as a Means to Greater Welfare

Of all the desirable effects of Freedom on a society, perhaps none is as easily attainable–and yet still so widely out of reach–as general welfare.  In unfree societies, many people can become wealthy and thrive.  I attended a very elite university with many of the offspring of these wealthy individuals from unfree societies, individuals who, for the most part, attained their wealth and status by extorting their people’s labor or nationalizing their country’s natural resources.  Robert Mugabe is known for his lavishly expensive birthday celebrations.  The King of Swaziland has a reported $100M fortune.  Certainly tyrants and their cronies know how to enrich themselves at the expense of their people.  What you don’t have in these societies, on the other hand, are thriving economies of ordinary, non-endowed people who likewise are able to acquire wealth for themselves and families.  Societies where a middle class exists and betters itself.  Societies where the general welfare is on the whole greater through cooperation and non-coercion.  So one must distinguish between wealth and welfare, insofar as wealth is a yacht, and welfare is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Now the phrase itself, “general welfare,” is perhaps misleading because it connotes wealth more than less intangible indicators like happiness, health, human development, safety and security, and peace.  General welfare is about eliminating the restrictions on a society’s opportunity to grow, flourish and succeed based on the merit of individuals–restrictions that have almost exclusively happened at the hands of state power.  Thus the third pillar of Freedom is to support the pursuance of Freedom in the name of welfare, or, as I like to approach the problem, humanitarianism.  The indicators of humanitarianism grow in free societies not out of control but out of voluntary cooperation.  People are happier in mutual partnerships with other people provided that a framework exists to foster free trade, free discourse and free religion.  It is the societies that depart from these fundamental values that find themselves at the short end of the Freedom spectrum.

It is beyond debate that the societies that embrace values consistent with freedom–free trade, free speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of person (subjected to imprisonment only under the due process of law)–are demonstrably better societies, even if we are talking in just degrees.  There is no question that the quality of life in liberalized France is better than the quality of life in post-communist socialist Slovakia.  There is no question that people are healthier in Singapore than in neighboring Malaysia.  And most importantly, we have three amazing accidents of history in which countries once united factored along lines of economic organization and showed us just how important Freedom is to the welfare of a society:  the Two Koreas, the Two Chinas and the Two Germanys; all showing us that the society with freer trade had freer people, and freer people were not only more productive but happier, healthier and materially richer.  Now of course, as Milton Friedman so often said, free trade is not a sufficient condition for freedom, but it is a necessary condition.  Free trade is philosophically consistent with the basic purpose of Freedom, which is to allow the individual control over her own life and property.

What’s more, the humanitarian values of free societies are consistent with the core philosophies of Freedom:  mutual respect for another’s individuality.  Diversity.  Self-reliance and self-responsibility.  Helping others through voluntary altruism instead of forced wealth distribution (it isn’t charity if you’re doing it with other people’s money).  The very historical heroes of humanitarianism are those people who advocated freedom in the face of government oppression: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, whereas many heroes of socialism insult the values that humanitarianism represents:  Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, and Fidel Castro.  This is without mentioning those socialists who actually came to power in a real way, and in doing so destroyed tens of millions of lives:  Joseph Stalin (30-60 million), Mao Zedong (40-70 million), and Pol Pot (a paltry 2 million), to name a few.  Socialism has such a bloody and painful history, it is a wonder that any serious disciple of philosophy or history advocates socialism at all with any qualification, “democratic,” “libertarian” or otherwise.

Socialists thrive in free societies where their voices are unburdened and they find willing listeners among a population that has lost its perspective on what freedom actually means.  When so much material wealth exists around us, one often hears phrases like “a country that is as wealthy as the United States should take care of its citizens with ‘free’ healthcare, ‘free’ tuition, and more.”  This turn of phrase does not take into account that the reason the United States is as wealthy as it is is because it largely did not “take care of its citizens,” i.e. it did not abuse the levers of state power to distribute wealth or take on the mantle of paternalism (while, I might add, the now-collapsing European socialisms did just that).  The United States is a great historical example of the benefits of Freedom.  Of course, it is not a perfect model.  The framework of a constitution written by slaveholders who claimed all men are created equal–as long as they were white and male and owned land–is of course fundamentally flawed, and this directly violates the liberty, at the hands of government, of everyone who doesn’t fit this narrow criteria.  And this goes way beyond access to resources.  This is about human liberty and the dehumanization of blacks, women and Indians from the national project.  Thus our constitution from its very onset was, to a degree, anti-freedom, even though it was arguably more pro-freedom than any framework set up before it.  But we can’t change the past, only look to the future, and we want to improve liberty, we need to look to the problems of today and fix them.  Certainly, today, there are major problems; if we had made it to the ideal of liberty (that libertarians seek), then we wouldn’t be constantly frustrated about how much the government does to destroy Freedom.  So I do not pretend to claim that we have reached the pinnacle of human freedom, or any time in the past was necessarily better for freedom than today.  Of course, in some ways it was and in other ways it wasn’t.  But even a casual observer of history has to recognize the path of progress, and how we’ve slowly gained freedom, for the most part, as a nation, even if we haven’t reached that ideal yet.

There is a final point to be made about peace.  Another elusive political and humanitarian goal, peace is so often on the standards of leftists who simultaneously promote policies that undercut Freedom in its basic sense, and rightists who promote peace with the imperialist sword.  The hallmark of peace is a society without war.  So a fairer question is, not “what can we do to achieve peace” but “what can we do to avoid war,” a question which receives too few answers from the pacifist left and the war-mongering right.  I would certainly side with the leftists in that going to war seems hardly the best way to avoid war.  But I would side with the rightists in that fostering cooperation and trade between nations is the best way to not only avoid war, but to make people in both countries personally invested in a state of peace.  Free trade, like all aspects of Freedom, is about lowering the barriers to competition, letting people mutually cooperate across boundaries of ethnicity, race and class, and more importantly leave nationalism at the door.  When people shop at Walmart, they are shopping for products that were produced by fishermen in Peru and loggers in China.  They are using shopping carts made of metals mined in Angola with wheels made of rubber harvested in Brazil.  The very experience that so many Americans live every day has been shaped by millions of nameless people, all cooperating despite the fact that their mutual religions, races, languages and philosophies may be at odds with each other.  A world at peace is a world where people grow from mutual cooperation, not destroy each other with competition, trade or otherwise (it is one of the main points in support of free trade–the intractability of trade wars).

There are many other points that could be made here:  how Freedom is a proxy for opportunity, how Freedom is favorable to education and learning, how Freedom creates communities that are dependent on each other out of choice and support instead of malice and desperation.  There are so many good points to be made, but for the sake of brevity (I jest) I have given a basic outline of Freedom as a means to general welfare.  But in short, a proper libertarian reading of history views humanitarian injustices as infringements on human freedom.  Our goal is to expand human freedom which requires recognizing the source of past problems (namely, the government being established on the basis of, and then for a long time–and still today–restricting human Freedom), and correcting those problems by pursuing good changes like the Nineteenth Amendment which move the cause of liberty forward, and opposing bad changes like the Eighteenth Amendment which move it backwards.

In Which I Concede Some Ground to the Utilitarians

Above I have tried to answer why Freedom is the goal that libertarians seek, for its undeniable philosophical ends, for its economic ends, and its humanitarian ends.  If he has read this entire essay, a utilitarian will immediately jump on the fact that I have not responded to his concerns that sometimes a government can promote Freedom and sometimes a government can promote wealth and sometimes even a government can promote humanitarianism.  I will concede this point to the utilitarians:  that nothing is perfect; that Freedom is not a perfectly attainable goal given the current political climate, that no true lover of Freedom would be interested in pursuing violent means to achieve the ends of Freedom listed above.  Thus, Freedom lovers must embrace the enemy, so to speak, and work within the bounds of a structure, highly entrenched society like the United States in order to arrive at the conditions conducive to maximum Freedom piecemeal.  It means that lovers of Freedom, however reluctantly, must support some legislation to see their work accomplished.

The Civil Rights Act of 1965 is an excellent example of Freedom coming to opposition with government power, without resulting in evil for society.  There is no question that segregation (itself a result of racist, anti-humanitarian and unfree government legislation) needed to end.  And there is no question that the only thing more powerful than the state of Mississippi in 1965 was the federal government.  We must applaud the political tact of Lyndon B. Johnson in his ability to maneuver a vote on the Civil Rights Act which at least created a reprieve in bad government regulation for an oppressed population.  But lovers of Freedom must also question those parts of the Civil Rights Act that might have done more harm than good in the long run.  Regulations that set the precedent of establishing how a private citizen may spend his money are dangerous to the economic welfare of society.  Regulations that forcibly integrate schools are nominally no different than regulations that forcibly segregate schools.  We benefit from those regulations that support our concept of equality and fairness, but we lose when those regulations create an environment rife for abuse and tyranny.  With schools, especially, we have an atrocious system of education that penalizes the poor, lowers the quality of schooling, and often ends up ironically being more segregated than meeting the public educator’s vision of diversity in education.  But libertarians would not gain credibility or political capital by outright opposing long-held tenants of American progress such as Public Schooling and the Civil Rights Act.  We must be pragmatic in our pursuit of Freedom, even if it means sometimes sacrificing principle in the name of progress, as many progressives and socialists have done in the United States in the past.  With schooling, for instance, support of a voucher program is much more likely to gain support than support of outright privatization.

There is also the question of the utilitarian harm of radical economic change.  For instance, no libertarian worth his salt supports the minimum wage law, but we must not pursue the abolition of the minimum wage before we have pursued other low hanging fruits with a better positive utility for all Americans instead of a negative utility for the poor.  There is no question that if the minimum wage were abolished tomorrow, before the economic benefits of eliminating other burdensome government regulations listed above, the poor would suffer disproportionately more from lower wages and no change in the cost of living.  This would not be progress.  But we also should not shy away from pushing for progress on all fronts:  the minimum wage law could be opposed on a federal level without harming its impact on a state level (where it is often higher).  Another example is healthcare regulation:  most libertarians oppose occupational licensure, but there are benefits to keeping licensure of physicians in place while we push for more structural changes to free up the healthcare market and liberalize hospitals, medical practices and insurance companies.

So the utilitarians are right in their general criticisms toward libertarians, in that we are mainly an ideology of principle.  Let us use our common ground to blur our differences, however.  Libertarians still have a duty and an obligation to be a voice of reason against the radical calls of the socialists on the left and the neo- and social conservatives on the right, with utilitarians often apologists for both, and consistent with Freedom, we should make our case in the marketplace of ideas and not force others to believe as we do against their will.  A devotion to Freedom should not, as a friend of mine has suggested, reach a level of religiosity whereby  we forget ourselves and real utilitarian concerns, but nonetheless libertarians should remain devoted to principle and should always do more to spread the gospel of Freedom to anyone who would hear it.


Unfortunately in this essay I have not done much to define Freedom or ease the concerns of non-libertarians that our definition of Freedom might ignore the very real perils of freedom for people living in free societies: for example, a low wage worker who must choose between working for a corporation that abuses him or starving is not really free by any reasonable definition.  There is an ethical approach to this problem, and to the question of Freedom, that I would like to cover in another essay.  The rough outline of the argument is defining Freedom as a societal problem, not an individual problem, and those solutions which might improve the freedom of the individual often do the opposite to society, and in many cases, the cure is worse than the disease for all parties involved, and still yet in many cases the disease itself is a result of the worker not even living in a truly free society.  But as that essay is an ethical one and this one is a political one, I will leave those points elsewhere.

Hopefully what I have done in this essay is touched on the main concerns of libertarianism as it comes to pursuing Freedom, and make it clear why it is that libertarians pursue Freedom for its own ends, as a means to greater wealth and a greater welfare.  With the goals of Freedom in mind, libertarianism is not only a means to an end, but an ideology committed to those human values which have plagued us from the dawn of civilization.  It may be difficult to convince others, but that does not mean we should shy away from the fight.

June 10, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

I was reading recently about a peculiar custom in Israel of not performing Richard Wagner. Although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of this custom isn’t legal, it still continues to be an ongoing, rampant phenomenon in a country that has an established tradition of free speech. In recent years, Israeli musicians planning to travel abroad to perform Wagner have been lambasted and widely condemned.

The reason? Both Wagner’s documented antisemitism and his great admirers, the Nazi Party of Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler.

Truth be told, art has been used too often as a weapon by the evil and powerful, and not often enough as a line of defense against them. Artists like Richard Wagner and the film director Leni Riefenstahl were instrumental to the propaganda of the Nazi movement. Wagner’s works were performed extensively throughout the Third Reich and Riefenstahls’ cinematic masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, was as efficacious to the Nazi media campaign as the Blitzkrieg was to the war campaign.

At the same time, artists are often the first to be targeted by regimes: they are those on whom the hardest tests for free speech and a free society are conducted, upon whom an understanding of a national culture and way of life are based, and with whom a true cultural life would not be possible. It is the artists who are the first to criticize accepted beliefs and the first who pay for it. The history of banning artists is as long as the history of regimes. The Romans had a long history of censoring Etruscan and Carthaginian authors and artisans, not to mention early Christian art from both Romans and non-Romans. More recently the Beatles were banned in the USSR as if they were poison to the regime: nothing more than words and music in a language understood by less than 10% of the population, and yet somehow they posed as much a threat to the country as an invading army. (The “British invasion” carried much more weight in this context.) Today, artists such as Ai Weiwei in China languish in prison for their critical art.

In almost all cases, the source of the ban is a belief that the ideas presented in art are somehow dangerous. If enough people believe those ideas, the fabric of society itself will be torn apart. As a particular columnist writes, “That Israel’s Wagner ban serves as a still-useful reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their evil consequences. Even geniuses.” After all, how many regimes have been shattered or created by the power of ideas? The ideas of Jefferson, of Marx, of Mao, of Herzl, and today, the ideas of millions across the Arab world.

But it’s a universally accepted belief among scholars–even those who don’t follow their own advice–that free and open expression is a necessary condition for a free society. So I won’t continue to preach to the choir.

What is outrageous about the Israeli practice is the fact that Wagner’s art is not banned in Israel for its ideas–after all, music is an abstraction that is fully interpretive–but it is banned for its admirers and its composer. It has been tried and convicted by guilt by association: It is banned because its composer held antisemitic beliefs, and its admirers went on to perpetrate the greatest mass murder in world history. But Richard Wagner, though known to have been an antisemite in his lifetime, was not known for his published works or his writings on Jews, no more so than Hitler was known for his art. And yet the politics of Richard Wagner are under as much scrutiny today as his music, if not more so.

But what I find the most ironic is that Wagner’s opinion on art, that he presented in his masterpiece opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, is the finest repudiation of Israel’s practice that unfortunately can never be heard there:

Honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

The idea that art is transcendent of regime, is bigger and more grand than any individual or government, is precisely why Israel needs to hear Wagner. The people of Israel would benefit from the presence of transcendent, abstract art which calls for the lifting of souls and the perseverance of culture.

Would an Israeli know a Wagner if he heard it? If not, would he not be as moved to emotional exuberance as any other listener. Would his heart not vibrate? The time has come for free regimes to put aside the ghosts of the past and embrace the music that can set them free.

April 16, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
Thoughts on Israel Discourse

Thoughts on Israel Discourse

I choose the title of this post carefully.  The point is not to elucidate a position on Israel: actually, I rather believe here I criticize that very concept.  But I seek to address what my main issues are with the Israel Discourse and (perhaps) arrive at a satisfactory end point.

It is my position that the Israel Discourse poses more of a threat to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the conflict itself.  With a longer essay, someday, I would like to further extrapolate this position, but for now, a very long blog post will do.

The Questions

When I say Israel Discourse, I mean the body of arguments, debates, positions, political views, religious justifications and/or oppositions and policy on or about Israel, Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any or all matters relating therein.  I say “any or all matters” because this “issue” is not a singular one–it is composed of many overlapping–and in some cases contradictory–questions in many disciplines including history, political science, theology, moral philosophy, jurisprudence and human rights.

Within these disciplines, several questions arise that often form the fodder for the Israel Discourse.  I would categorize these questions roughly inside the disciplines to which they belong.  These are in no particular order of importance, and I seek to phrase the questions as neutrally as possible (i.e. as questions on which argumentative propositions can be based, not argumentative propositions in and of themselves).  This is, of course, an incomplete list, and I will use the term “Palestine” inclusively to refer to the historical and modern region, except where geographical alternatives are appropriate.

Historical Questions

  • What peoples have lived in Palestine during what eras, ancient to modern?
  • What were the events leading to the formation of the modern State of Israel with respect to population displacement, war, immigration and colonial involvement?
  • What were the military, social, political and economic gains or losses of Israel during the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006 wars?

Political Questions

  • What is the political status of the State of Israel? (questions of legitimacy would fall here)
  • Do the West Bank and/or Gaza exist in a state of occupation?
  • What is civil status of Jews within Israel?  Non-Jewish Israeli citizens?  Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza?  Jews in the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the political status of the West Bank?  Gaza?  What is the political status of the Palestinian people?
  • What are the geopolitical factors regarding neighboring countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc) which affect the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region on a whole?
  • What role do Palestinian political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What role do Israeli political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What responsibility do Arab states have toward the Palestinian people, especially with regards to financial or humanitarian assistance and migration opportunities?
  • What is the obligation of Israel regarding the worldwide political status of Jews?
  • What is the role of the media regarding perceptions of Israel, or Palestinians?
  • What is the role of antisemitism in discourse of and relating to Israel and Palestine?

Theological Questions

  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Jews?
  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Palestinians?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Israelis?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Palestinians?
  • What role does religion play in the determination of the historical and the political, especially with regard to land and statehood?
  • What is the status of Judaism with relation to Israel?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to Judaism?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to religions other than Judaism?

Philosophical Questions

  • What is justice for victims of a great tragedy?
  • What is a Right of Return and on what philosophical, political and moral foundations is it based?

Jurisprudence Questions

  • What are the civil rights of the various constituencies in Palestine and under what jurisdiction do they exist?
  • Who is the proper adjudicator of criminality in Palestine, and how are questions of law settled non-nation-state regions like Gaza and the West Bank?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Palestinian socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Israeli socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the jurisdiction of the State of Israel?
  • What is the Right of Return and on what juridical foundations is it based?

Human Rights Questions

  • What rights do Palestinians have regarding property (land, capital) either they or their ancestors have previously owned or occupied within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What rights do Jewish or Arab Israelis have regarding property they have settled, capitalized upon, or purchased within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the status of human rights within Israel regarding non-Jewish citizens or non-citizens?
  • What is the status of human rights within the West Bank or Gaza regarding non-Jews or non-Jews?
  • What is the obligation of international NGOs to monitor and/or criticize human rights abuses in Palestine?
  • What are the human rights practices of the IDF?
  • What are the human rights practices of the Israeli government with regard to settlements, settlers, or soldiers?

As you can see, there are a multitude of questions.  Imagine that for each one of the questions listed above, one can establish a series of propositions to make an argument.  Such propositions would, or should, lend themselves handily to an argument regarding the proposition on the table, but for many reasons–and in my personal experience almost invariably–lead to a far reaching discussion that often seeks to incorporate as many of these questions as possible!  I’ll get into that in a bit, but first, let’s establish some propositions (fairly common ones) that arise from the above questions.


Again, I am not establishing a position on these propositions, but merely relating them as I have heard them from arguments on all sides of the spectrum.  No doubt, each of these propositions will have vociferous supporters and detractors, and of course, I don’t seek to suggest that any one person has all (or any) of these positions.

“Pro-Israel” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is a Jewish homeland, and displaced Jews have a Right to Return. (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Palestinians have a robust body of protected civil and human rights within Israel. (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on largely unsettled or unoccupied land. (historical)
  • Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust. (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Jews have a right to a country of their own. (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is, and ought to be, a Jewish state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to defend itself. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Other Arab states have repeatedly expelled Jews and Palestinians in contravention of international law. (historical)
  • Resolved: Anti-semitism is responsible for a worldwide media bias that poisons the world against Israel; or, Israel is the only country that the world cares about with regard to its treatment of Palestinians. (political)
  • There were no such thing as Palestinians until 1948. (political)

“Pro-Palestinian” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is an Arab homeland, and displaced Palestinians have a Right to Return (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Israel has routinely and systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians both within Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians (historical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians continue to live in a state of violence, occupation and statelessness in violation of the very human rights treaties the Holocaust inspired the world to create (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to a country of their own (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is not, but ought to be, a democratic state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has no right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to defend themselves from, or attacking, their Israeli occupiers. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Palestinians belong in Palestine, whereas Jews do not. (historical).
  • Resolved: The world does not recognize the self determination of the Palestinian people and is content to view them as terrorists rather than activists fighting for a cause. (political)
  • Palestinian is an established and recognized ethnic and national group with legitimate aspirations of self determination. (political)

I have attempted to outline this (admittedly incomplete) list of propositions in order to make several points.

Israel-Palestine and the Mismatched Proposition

Many propositions about Israel do, indeed, have a similarly inclined counter-point.  By counter-point I mean a proposition that can be made simply by negating the original proposition.  An argument can thus be made from that proposition using a line of reasoning.

However, this is not often the case.  Before I attempt to speculate as to why this is not the case, I want to point out two examples of the sort of discourse I mean.  These are both taken from my personal experience, and illustrate the problem with the Israel Discourse rather well.

First, the following resolution.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Palestinian” side.

Resolved:  That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians.

I have properly labeled this a historical question, because it is, indeed, historical (if the tense of the question doesn’t betray the discipline).  To argue this proposition on either side, one not need look any farther than the historical event in question (the formation of Israel in 1948).  The question is of and relating to this event, and no other.  Certainly, many historical factors tied into this creation event, and these factors are helpful.  For instance, to ponder the historical creation of Israel one must necessarily ponder the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, and of course the well documented violence that preceded the formation of Israel in 1948.

However, to settle this question, which specifically concerns the existence (or not) of a population in a land during a time, one doesn’t even need to discuss these formation events.  This is a purely demographic questions which asks: Who lived in Palestine before and after the creation event?

Is this such a difficult question to solve?  Does this question require the use of anything other than a reasonably trusted primary source such as a census, land records, or eyewitness evidence?

Yet right now I would wager that my “Pro-Israel” readers are creating a multitude of “counter-arguments” in their head.  These arguments probably include (and I have heard these all before in response to this very proposition):

  • Palestinians didn’t use the land, whereas the Jews settled and tilled it and capitalized on it. (irrelevant, because the question wasn’t how the land was being used, but that it was being occupied)
  • Jews had nowhere to go after the Holocaust (irrelevant, because the question was not how the Jews ended up in Palestine, but what space they occupied when they got there)
  • Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria all dispossessed and/or displaced their Jews (irrelevant, because the question was about what happened to the Palestinians in Palestine, not what happened to the Jews in Iraq)
  • Jews, not Palestinians, have an original and inherent right to this land because it is their homeland (irrelevant, because it doesn’t oppose the proposition; in fact, it supports it by adding a justification for the Palestinian displacement)

I don’t seek to take a position on this proposition one way or the other (I wouldn’t dare), but I seek to illustrate a very important point:  Why is this simple question so difficult to settle?  Are we so blind as to ignore historical truths when (and if) they occur?  If a historical answer for this question could be found (let’s say, an accurate census in which it is clear just by the population decline compared with land ownership records that a large majority of Palestinians were unwillingly displaced shortly before or during the creation event), would that settle the question?

Such a proposition should be (and ought to be) easily settled and understood.  Would that not benefit all sides to come to a conclusion that can be supported all around?

I ask because such a simple proposition–one regarding recent history which can be easily verified or disproved–is a far cry away from some of the harder propositions that exist about questions of theology and moral philosophy.  So if we have to start somewhere, shouldn’t it be at a place where at least–hopefully–some consensus can be found?

Here is the second resolution.  This one is more philosophical in nature, and definitely one that I’ve encountered personally.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Israel” side.

Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust.

This is a very, very common proposition and continues to be a powerful argument for the existence of (a) Jewish state.  Like most propositions on self determination, it includes a very good justification: historically documented persecution of Jews by many peoples over the millennia have left Jews with no national homeland, until Israel.

To discuss this proposition the key is the word necessary.  For all its historical and sociopolitical implications, the question of legitimacy for the State of Israel rests on the idea that not only is the State of Israel a sufficient protection for the Jews against antisemitism, it is a necessary one.  The proposition therefore exists to challenge any counter point on the legitimacy of Israel based on its necessity.

But that’s not what we have.  Instead, the following propositions are often stated in opposition.  My “Pro-Palestinian” friends almost certainly are formulating these arguments right now.

  • Palestinians are a persecuted minority with no national homeland, and a homeland is necessary for them as well for the same reasons. (irrelevant, because the question is whether Israel is necessary for Jews, not whether a Palestine is necessary for Palestinians; if anything, this enforces the proposition, not detracts from it)
  • The Holocaust doesn’t give Jews the right to persecute others. (irrelevant, because the persecution of Palestinians is not at point, merely the necessary conditions for the formation of Israel)
  • Jews have inflicted more (or a comparable amount of) suffering on the Palestinians than they faced under Hitler/in history. (irrelevant, because again, the question is the necessity of the formation of Israel for the Jews, plus this is a classic case of reversing the question: clearly the suffering of Palestinians doesn’t negate the suffering the Jews, regardless of who the relevant actors are, and suffering is certainly not a zero-sum game)
  • The Holocaust did not happen, thus the de facto justification for the formation of Israel does not exist. (irrelevant, because it is a historical fact that the Holocaust did, indeed, happen)

Again, I pose the same question as in the former proposition:  Why is this question so difficult to answer?  Is not a similar feeling of common moral outrage over persecution felt by all?  Can’t in principle most people agree to the basic premise that self-determination is a valuable and legitimate aspiration for any nation?
There exist, of course, very valid and legitimate counter-points to both propositions.  For instance, to the latter proposition, an arguer could easily make the point that Jews live in safety in many parts of the world not in Israel, thus proving that the continuing existence of Israel is not necessary under the stated criteria.

Likewise, an arguer against the former proposition could make the point that many Palestinians were, in fact, legally dispossessed of their land or compensated for it, or left voluntarily.  Historical evidence would of course be required in either case.

My point here is that despite a list of personally rational propositions and counter-propositions that could be made to establish an argument, so many discussions that make up the Israel Discourse quickly decompensate.

Thus what you have, oftentimes, is a complete mismatch of propositions that quickly escalate out of control.  Some of my favorite exchanges from recent memory:

A:  The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is a human rights travesty.
B:  The Palestinians have places to go (i.e. other Arab countries) whereas Jews have nowhere to go.

This is a human rights proposition met with a political one.

A:  Israel has no right to exist.
B:  Israel has been attacked in 7 wars and has defended itself against Arab attackers.  All the Arabs want to do is wipe Israel off the map.

This is a political proposition met with a historical one.

A:  Israel has committed war crimes against Palestinians.
B:  Jews aren’t allowed to speak their mind in Egypt.

This is a juridical proposition met with a politico-historical one.

A:  Israel shouldn’t have attacked the Gaza flotilla.
B:  [Country Xyz] abuses human rights every day, but the UN and the world only criticizes Israel.

This is a political position met with another political one, but one that is completely irrelevant to the question at hand.

As a friend of mine likes to point out, the Israel Discourse very much resembles the sound byte world of the mainstream media, in which talking heads seek not to engage in intellectual discourse, but to make their talking points regardless of their opposition (even if the opposition might agree with them!).  I would like at some point to put proof, from the media and literature on the subject, that this is the case, but I am pressed for time.  I hope my readers at this point can recognize in their own lives when they have experienced this sort of argument and have been as frustrated as I have in many of these situations.

(One final caveat on the Israel Discourse and its tendency to decompensate:  I have this feeling that so many discussions about Israel end up being a battle to claim the lowest common denominator of victimhood, and thus claim the mantle of highest possible virtue–perhaps this could be called a corollary of Godwin’s Law.  But I merely ponder.)

Israel-Palestine and the False Duality

I mentioned earlier that I created the list of propositions for several reasons.  The first of course was to demonstrate some examples of illogical counter-arguments that mismatch propositions in odd ways.  I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated, for a blog post, that this is frequently the case within the Israel Discourse.  The second was to illustrate that to have any position on Israel is decidedly complicated.  Exceedingly complicated.  Complicated beyond all compare.  And, despite what most people may think, they do not have one mind on this issue.  This is why I have put “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestinian” in quotes.  For most people–I would estimate an overwhelming majority of people–their views are going to straddle both sides of the divide.

Thus, I wish to dedicate the second half of this essay to the extraordinary bravery of people who question the accepted wisdom of their so-called intellectual leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  This “leadership” across the spectrum is revealing of perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Israel Discourse–that it continues to be perpetrated, reinforced and magnified by the most vocal and stringently polarizing figures on the right and the left, until reason is left far behind.  Ironically, from both the grimy, corrupt, destruction-bent and vitriolic anti-Zionist left and the slimy, power hungry, stodgy and non-pragmatic pro-Israel right come very similar viewpoints on humanity, political discourse and pragmatism.

  • The humanity of the “other” matters little to naught compared to our own short-term political interest
  • The important battle to be fought is that on the airwaves, in order to justify the unconscionable on the ground.  A corollary of this is the belief that what the media thinks is more important than what we do.

Fortunately, not everyone is so pigheaded.  Most reasonable people–I would assume–can make certain acknowledgements about freedom, liberty, human rights, and–gasp–history that might not “prove” a solution for the conflict, but might indeed come close to understanding its more troubling aspects.

For instance, a secular humanist who believes in self-determination might well agree with the proposition that Israel is necessary for the protection of Jews against worldwide antisemitism, but might also agree with the proposition that a Palestinian state is necessary for the same reasons.

A historian of South Africa–which I happen to be–might draw historical similarities between the nationalistic ethno-centric nature of the Zionist movement and its analogous National Party in South Africa, especially with regard to how the state is defined as a political entity with respect to its occupants, without jumping on board with the proposition that Israel is–or shares more qualities than not with–an apartheid state.

A scholar of human rights might take great umbrage over the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank & Gaza by Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers, but simultaneously believe that the capture of Israeli soldiers for material or strategic gain, or the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians is likewise a humanist scandal.

And a pragmatic jurist might find Palestinian self-determination to be a completely invalid concept based on the historical formation of the Palestinian people and their respective origins, but not feel compelled to invalidate the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people who remain, to this day, largely stateless.

My point here is to clarify that a range of positions may be had on the issue, which don’t necessarily corollate with the well-worn ideological positions of “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestine”.  But the ideological lines, of course, are how the debate defines itself.  So how is this problem to be reconciled?  How can an Israel Discourse be addressed on its arguments alone, if its very existence is predicated on a false duality?

And it is, my friends, a false duality.  To take a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” position is to completely ignore the tapestry of complex questions which I have outlined above, which make no promises, cure no problems and certainly, when taken as a whole, make no sense.

And yet that is what occurs.  At almost every turn, conversations quickly decompensate into their polemic elements.  An innocuous, even sarcastic point might be countered by a reasonable challenge, such as–in a recent example from Facebook–linking to a Haaretz article on the IDF starting to use cameras to stave off criticism:

LK:  “Too bad the Israeli government has a bad track record of photo editing.”

CF:  “It’s better than nothing dude.”

This is where, somehow, the conversation takes a political turn.

JK:  “i don’t know, i think it’s worse than nothing. it means they’ll continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing (murder, torture, humiliation), and then doctor and selectively release photographs to try to convince the world otherwise. besides, the entire occupation is criminal…”

CF:  “Who’s “they”? The soldiers and the politicians trying to control a message are completely different people, and the soldiers are less likely to gamble with their careers if there’s a recording device present. A good example is taping of police interviews. Since police interviews have been taped in some jurisdictions, prisoner abuse and coercion have decreased.”

Now more people join the conversation.

NI:  If they want to use cameras to avoid intl criticism then all of the cameras should be streaming live to an objective UN body with no editing.

CF:  Lol find one army in the world that would have its practices real time streamed to the UN for scrutiny

At this point, the conversation is still genial.  As far as I can tell, it’s more about cameras and psychology than Israel.  But see how JK takes up this opportunity to turn the conversation toward his topic of choice:

JK:  I don’t see anything in the article that suggests the IDF rank and file would be the ones curating what photographs get released and where they get released to, but in any case the question is somewhat of a distraction: even if the IDF were the world’s “most moral army,” the entire occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral. Any attempt to portray the IDF as a “moral army” that does not recognize the illegality and monstrosity of the occupation just serves the propaganda interests of the occupiers.

What?  Where did we get here?  In three steps, we went from the Israelis not having a good record on photo editing, a point on which LK and CF seemed to be in agreement on, to an amicus incursion by JK, who is fixated on perpetrating a point of view that–while it has some legitimacy–has no place in this conversation.  But it continues–now another friend joins the conversation.

BA:  the difference is that police interviews are controlled by a separate entity.beauracracy.. in the case of the IOF, these videos are likely to be edited to fit the narrative they want to portray to the world

LK:  remember the photos revealed post-mavi marmara? didn’t one of them turn out to be a recycled photograph of a weapons cache the Israeli army found years prior? the date was cleverly edited. who says this can’t happen again. and even if they didn’t edit anything, when you have 1000 hrs of footage, for example, why release all of it? why not just release the segments that show the soldiers picking dandelions? there’s so much potential for deception and this doesn’t make me confident or relieved in the slightest.

As far as I can tell, LK is merely defending his original assertion that the Israeli army has doctored photographic evidence in the past.  CF tries to bring the conversation back, only to have JK hijack it again.  Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said “a fanatic is one who won’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject?”

CF:  Even if they edit EVERYTHING, my comment was only about the psychology of being filmed, which could only help reduce atrocities, not increase them. I don’t get your logic.

JK:  propaganda that whitewashes an intrinsically violent occupation legitimizes and prolongs the occupation. as others have above i’d argue that no such reduction is likely to occur, but even if so, the reduction in violence is dwarfed by the violence intrinsic to the occupation. this isn’t an insignificant question; supporters of palestinian self-determination need to call out all of this bullshit on the part of the IDF and israeli government for what it is, each time they come out with a new round of it.

The conversation continued, but for the interest of space, I want to quote a later participant, who added this gem:

DD:  Was there a point to any of that? Yes the Nakba and Ma’ale Adumim are fucking horrible. Gold star. We’re talking about camcorders.

DD’s bluntness sums up the very issue.  His distaste for the Nakba, the Palestinian occupation, the atrocities committed by Israel–all irrelevant to a fanatic who is content to hold his position hostile over a disagreement over video equipment.  But DD also shows that there is the possibility of knowing truth in both the Israeli and Palestinian polemical narratives; as he says later to JK:

DD:  you don’t have an argument- just a full tour of every irrelevant permutation in this conflict and an abdication of any moral condemnation of the Palestinian “tactic” of shelling civilians, which is a direct violation of all international law governing war. I’m elated that you are opposed to the occupation and the various forms of misery that attend it. I am too, though you assume otherwise, presumably because whatever Middle East-related sources you’re lifting your talking points from leave you unequipped to debate someone who opposes occupation and at the same time does not condemn Israel at every juncture.

I challenge any of my readers to create an Israel Discourse which is not predicated on this false duality–with this obsession with a side and a cause–but in which propositions may be made and debated on their own merits, and arguments may be had that attempt to find truth, instead of insisting on a fanatical point-counterpoint that goes nowhere.

This duality is made worse by the equally egregious defenders of Israel in the United States, who share with their brethren on the other side a dislike of logic and a love of polemical ideology.  Take the rhetoric of Abe Foxman, who doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile a Jew who is critical of Israel.

Resolving the Discourse as a Necessary Condition for Resolving the Conflict

I want soon to be able to make the argument that the Israel Discourse is the problem of the conflict. The way discourse is propagated, misused, misunderstood and reinforced is a threat to the State of Israel, a threat to the Palestinian people, and ultimately a threat to peace in the region.

This argument will necessarily require a lot more research than I have yet to conduct.  My opinions are formed but not formulated.  I don’t think that they are particularly controversial, except for the inevitable backlash I will have to face from countless people who believe they know what is right, which will probably prove my point.  At this point, a lengthy blog post will serve to get my ideas on paper.

April 12, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
A School’s Responsibility

A School’s Responsibility

There is nothing as sad as the suicide of a student.  There is the feeling of remorse of the entire university community, for one, on top of the morbid calculation of suicide rates that complements any discussion of the “toughness” of a school–be it MIT, Cornell, or the University of Chicago.  There is the irreconcilable feeling of loss that accompanies the death of any student, not knowing who he might have become, or what might have been.  But most of all, there is the feeling of guilt, that someone, somewhere, should have seen that this young adult was in trouble, and no one did anything to stop it.

I have no doubt that in the next couple of days at the University of Chicago, many condolences will be uttered and these feelings of guilt, of sadness, will come out into the open.  Students and faculty alike will mourn the passing of this student, as they have for the death of students in the past.  It is with great sorrow that we remember the life so painfully cut short by its own hand.  And, of course, the questions will be asked, tenderly at first, but then more firmly, as people demand to know why this student did not receive the help he needed, and to what extent the University is responsible.

Of course, it is not the Administration’s fault that this tragedy occurred; nor should any student, parent or community member try to point the finger of blame on anyone.  But the questions should be asked, because they are necessary to prevent further such tragedies.  They are necessary to spare the suffering of countless students and parents and teachers, friends and family and colleagues.  What can the University of Chicago do to see that students in trouble receive the help they need?  What can students do if they notice that a friend is in trouble?  How available are school resources, such as the school psychologist and advising services, when they are most needed?

These questions are important, because they go to the core principle of what the University represents.  In English common law, the University is of the tradition in loco parentis, or “in the place of a parent.”  It is the job of the University to represent a parent, and to provide for the students under its wing with the care, support, and encouragement.  It is true that the institution has not been a curfew-bearing, strict disciplinarian since the 60’s, but the University is still supposed the place where children become adults, where they are nurtured to their full potential under a transitionary parental guidance.  The University has a role to guide its students on the right path to adulthood.

When a student cuts his own life short, while partaking in the University system and interacting with the community, in a community of friends and professors who share his love of education and are kin in the life of the mind, it is a sad day indeed for the University whose responsibility it was to see to it that his upbringing reached a full fruition.  It is not a question of fault, nor of blame; it is a question of responsibility.

Suicide, as Durkheim liked to say, reflected the happiness of any society.  More suicides meant a society was less happy.  Why else would someone take their own life, unless death were a preferable option to living?  However, there is obviously more to the complicated pathos of a suicide, and we cannot understand what drove this poor student to take his own life.  The University of Chicago is not an unhappy community–nor does the University wish its students unhappiness.  But it appears that the failure on the part of the University was not in neglecting the happiness of one of its flock, but in failing to actively increase happiness for all.

As it stands right now, the philosophy of the University seems to be “You are independent, responsible adults–we are here for you if you need us, but we believe you to be on your own.”  It should be “We are responsible for you, the students.  Enjoy your independence, but always know that we are watching out for you.”

The former, current, attitude, the attitude of passiveness, is apparent in the advising system of the College, which “Requires” students to make a yearly appointment, yet does nothing to make sure the students seek out their own advisor.  It is apparent in the academic system, which has degree requirements but puts the onus on the student to find his or her own BA advisors and plan his or her own course schedule, including Core requirements essential to graduation.  It is apparent in the Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS), which only offer real help, guidance, and employment opportunities if they are frequently requested to do so.  It is apparent in the housing system, which provides a safe haven but can be ignored completely for the entire year without any questions being asked.

A student with no drive or independence could clearly get lost in the network of bureaucracy of student services, and fail to graduate in four years without having the ability to ask the right questions, such as “What language requirement do I need?” or “How many classes do I need to take to major in biochemistry?”  Of course, the University of Chicago is largely absent of these non-driven, dependent students, with its high standards of admittance and the quality of the intellectual community.  However, even small gaps in basic services for competent students means much larger, gaping crevices for struggling ones.  Students who miss something, or students who aren’t always entirely on top of their game, can quickly find themselves frantically trying to keep their head above water, realizing too late, for example, that they cannot take a certain class pass fail or they have missed their opportunity to apply to a dream internship.

What does a student do when the University is clearly there for help when he reaches for it, but does not provide a safety net should he not be willing to seek help?

It is with great sadness, then, that we arrive to what seems to be one of an inevitable cycle of self-inflicted student tragedies.  It is with remorse that the University community will address this tragedy, but it is with determination that the community must push forward to improve its safety net, and take the role of in loco parentis that is its rightful duty.

June 28, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope

The most disturbing story to come out of the news of late has not been the Michael Pfelger videos (although, unlike Wright, he has managed to issue a somewhat sincere apology).  Lost in the Politico’s election analysis and the media’s echo chamber has been a little-noticed story about Dunkin’ Donuts, who just pulled an ad from the air which included Rachel Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabic scarf.

Facing severe criticism that the wearing of the scarf was symbolic support for Islamic terrorism, Dunkin’ Donuts, as the BBC reports, issued a statement that the scarf was not intended to offend and that “given the possibility of misperception the commercial was no longer being used.”

What misperception?  The wearing of a traditional dress, cultural dress, is somehow a support of Islamic extremism?  Conservative bloggers have pointed out, correctly, that the scarf was worn by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian liberation movement until his death in 2004, and is routinely worn by Islamic extremists and Palestinian nationalists.

True.  But the scarf is also worn by millions of Arabs, and non-Arabs, around the world, and an overwhelming majority of them would rather not perform extreme and violent acts of terror, thank you very much.  Most people who wear the keffiyeh are not extremists, and are certainly not terrorists (and I’m sure Rachel Ray would agree).

Not only do Arabs wear the keffiyeh, but Urban Outfitters sold the scarves until January 2007, when, responding to public pressure, they pulled it from the shelves.  In their statement:  “We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”

What’s next?  The pulling of Middle East products off store shelves?  The sacking of Arab journalists?

This is symbolic of a much larger undercurrent of American Islamophobia that has swept the United States (and much of Europe) since before September 11.  Indicators of this movement have been rampant: Brigitte Bardot’s incendiary anti-Muslim comments that recently got her fined, riots in the streets of Paris, the Danish cartoon fiasco and of course, conservative commentators’ incessant ranting about the “Muslim problem.”  Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are especially to blame.

Of course, now that Barack Obama, a black man with the middle name Hussein, is running for president, the ugliest of the hatred of Muslims in America has come out in full force.  In all the talk about racism in this Democratic primary season, the mainstream commentary has forgotten about the real issue of race in this election—not whether Obama is “too black” to be President, but whether or not he is a Muslim.

It was Barack Hussein Obama’s connection to Islam—through his father—that led to the Fox report, later proved to be false, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a schoolboy in Indonesia.  It was this false religiosity that led to the famous “Madrassa Hoax” email, which circulated the internet widely in the early months of the primary and has since emerged again.  The email implored Americans “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy,” and that “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!”

Remember Hillary Clinton’s famous “3AM” ad, in which she asked who would best be able to answer a 3AM phone call to the White House in the midst of a catastrophe?  Orlando Patterson wrote for the New York Times that the ad played on subtle racism and the classic white fear of “the outsider within”—the criminal black man infiltrating the safe neighborhood:  “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”  However, the more subtle sub-message, the one that did not have to be stated, was the fact that “Something is happening in the world,” and the terrorists behind that “something”—well, you get the picture.  The very idea that a Muslim—a guy who shares a name with the late Iraqi dictator—could be the one answering that call in the White House came across clear enough.  Clinton’s margin of victory in Ohio, much larger than the pre-election polls, suggest that late-deciding voters broke for her, and whether the subtlety of the “3AM” ad had something to do with this final push will never be known for sure.

A Pew poll taken in late March found that one in ten Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim.  The number is telling in part because 10% of Democrats—most of whom already were Clinton supporters—believed this fact, and because 8% of Independents—a group who Obama needs to depend on to win the election in November—believes it as well.  Furthermore, a whopping 19% of rural voters—that’s one in five—believed this to be true.

The fact that the son of a Muslim Kenyan joined a radical black Chicago church, and then stayed in that church for 20 years, does not help diminish the rumor that he is a Muslim.  America is familiar with images of radical black Muslims like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and should now be equally familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s praise of Farrakhan.  The tendency to equate Islam with radicalism of course has been swollen since 9/11.  But the underlying assumption is that it is Islam that implies radicalism—not blackness.  The fear of Islam “penetrating” American society cannot be understated.

It is disturbing that I have received these emails about “Barack Hussein Obama” being a “secret muslim” who “joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”  These claims are not only outright false, but they force Obama to sink to the level of divisiveness by having to respond.  “No, I’m not a Muslim!” he has had to say, as if being a Muslim were somehow like being a bunny eater.  Such stringent, politicized denial only reinforces the claims, not diminishes them.  It reminds me of the high schooler who insists “I’m not gay!” when he is hit with the G-word in a routine downsizing of his character by his peers.  (Harry Truman, when we was running for a judicial seat in Missouri, was rumored to be Jewish due to his close ties with a Jewish childhood friend and business partner.  “I’m not Jewish,” he is reported to have said, “and if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”)

This is a major problem, and one that shows no sign of letting up.  Let the keffiyeh remind us that hatred of Muslims has increased in recent years.  How would America respond if, tomorrow, a skullcap-toting news anchor stepped down because “given the possibility of misperception Mr. ____ will no longer be working with us,” because, after all, “we don’t want anyone to think that we work with Jews.”  It’s unacceptable.

Milton Friedman wrote that in the long run, the free market will work against discrimination.  It’s in the best interest of industry economically, he said, for employers to seek the most qualified people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  However, the free market in this case has spoken in another direction:  “Don’t sell this item because people associate it with terrorism, and thus we will lose business if we keep it on the shelves”–this might be good business, but morally it stinks of bigotry.  The underlining assumption is fed, not starved, and thus the evil wheel of bigotry continues to turn, turn, turn.

June 3, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More