On idealism

I suppose I should preface this by explaining that, no, I’m not speaking of a philosophical doubt of external reality as possibly nothing more than a perverse fragment of one’s imagination.

No, I speak of idealism in a possible perversion of Plato,[1] one I’m surely guilty of myself, of insisting that a thing can and must be the best that it can possibly be. As a notion, idealism is placed in opposition to realism, which itself lies in opposition to fantasy. And so it is that idealism and fantasy are often conflated.

But even in that conflation, what is a fantasy? Is it an unrealized potential? Or is it a nonexistent one? And if it is the latter, who determines what is ‘nonexistent?’

And it is in that question that a problem lies. For in social reality, ‘realism’ is intrinsically associated with the status quo and its preservation. It is therefore inherently associated with power.

So let me ask that question, again: Who determines what is ‘nonexistent?’ How do they make this determination and on what motivations?

Does a potential exist that is unrealized? There are probably many of them with varying degrees of plausibility. But if an authority rules that a social potential does not exist, does s/he do so even in part to protect or enhance her or his own position in overlapping hierarchies of political and economic power?

We must be careful about ruling out idealistic notions. Are we doing so out of justice or of authoritarian self-interest?

And if we act not out of justice, then what of those to whom we are unjust? Is it even possible to disconnect their injustice from authoritarian self-interest?

Several years ago, before I entered the Human Science Ph.D. program at Saybrook, I entered the Transformative Studies Ph.D. program at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). I retain serious doubts about this program. Nonetheless, I learned a lot, especially including about complexity theory. And the reading list I had for that summer before beginning the program was phenomenal. And I think it helped prepare me for that Human Science program from which I did earn my Ph.D. But Transformative Studies was the wrong program for me and that meant I had to leave.

So I attempted a transition to what was, at least then, called the Social and Cultural Anthropology (SCA) program at CIIS. This failed, with the committee saying I would have to start clear back at the Master’s level for preparation. As it happened, I had the acceptance letter from Saybrook’s Human Science program in hand, and so, with a lot more amazing learning, I now have a Ph.D.

But in that final Spring semester at CIIS, I signed up for classes (which due to a collapsing financial aid situation, I had to withdraw from) in the SCA program, one of which, taught by Richard Shapiro, introduced me to a Jewish notion of justice as a quest simultaneously never to be completed and never to be abandoned and a goal that, once imagined to have been achieved, has surely been missed. It is this powerful notion that leads me to think that if I were into patriarchal monotheism, I might choose Judaism.

I don’t remember much else from that class. A lot of it was barely comprehensible post-modernism and a lot more of it was fully incomprehensible. I liked a sense of ‘post-’ in post-modernism as a sort of retrospective critique of modernism and it is this same sense of ‘post-’ I draw upon when I call myself ‘post-disciplinary.’

But wow, that notion of justice. It is an awesome notion of justice that immediately separates itself from any attempt to reduce it to law, for justice is an intangible beyond our best efforts at emulation, let alone those puny bastards arguing fine points to see who can twist which rules in whose favor, and never mind the assembly line of injustice where overworked public defenders are too often too eager to secure ‘deals’ for their clients to plead guilty (or “no contest”) in exchange for a (possibly) reduced charge or sentence.

Justice itself is an idealistic notion. It demands an unending quest for perfection. Which is idealism at its core.

We are probably now long past that point in time in our society when we could choose: Would we seek justice? Would we understand that to seek justice intrinsically means seeking it for all?

We have chosen instead injustice. Every act of complicity with—even protest against (because it in fact appeals to[2])—the authoritarian regime is to choose the status quo, to choose injustice. And in that choice, we bear a moral burden that in neoliberal society we have arrogantly and self-righteously chosen to ignore.

I’m not much of a believer in karma. My understanding of the Buddhist concept is that it is a burden one imposes on oneself. (Enlightenment entails a shedding of that burden, which might be achieved through an accumulation over several lifetimes of ‘good karma,’ or perhaps in a single lifetime with Tantric Buddhism. Or perhaps that burden might be shed by simply abandoning it and disclaiming responsibility for it.) I’m simply not seeing that many cases where people get their ‘just’ due. Whether it is the vast deprivation of absolute poverty, the humiliation of relative poverty, or in the opulence of the top 0.1 percent, I see appeals not to ‘karma’ but to the ‘market’ or exchange system. This system is not ‘natural’ but rather a social construction which should therefore serve but instead inherently oppresses humanity.[3]

And the rationalization for this inherently oppressive social construction is an allegation that, given the opportunity, ‘lazy bums’ will be ‘free riders,’ consuming without contributing, that is, failing to participate in exchange. People must be therefore coerced to work and need for this coercion justifies political and economic authority. This allegation simultaneously assumes the worst of humanity and the best of political and economic authoritarians (who are also human).

Idealism demands the best of everyone. But realism, even leading to our extinction, has won.

Which means a great deal of suffering lies ahead. As climate change proceeds, the extreme weather we are witnessing can be expected to intensify and challenge the infrastructure that civilization depends upon.[4] Even currently prosperous places may face shortages as goods traded for from afar simply have no way to be transported. And as we have pursued a notion of specialization based on so-called ‘efficiency,’ we have fostered monocultures both in agriculture and production that assume a means of transport and communication for long distance exchange. People will go hungry. They will face deprivation.

Realism offers us no way to avert this outcome. So if we hope to survive, we’d better get idealistic. But I have lost hope.

  1. [1]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  2. [2]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  3. [3]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  4. [4]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).

Failing the test, again

Let this paleoconservative writing sink in for a moment: “‘Thirty years from now, the black and brown coalition plans to pit its new brown majority against aging whites,’ targeting Social Security benefits unless whites support their efforts to compel ‘the younger generation of whites to pay the future bills for welfare and education for America’s new Third-World majority.’”[1]

I want you to let this notion of racial conflict explicitly between whites and people of color sink in real hard because at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Rabbi Michael Lerner has repeatedly warned against demonizing all those (largely working class whites) who supported Donald Trump. He notes that many whites have economic grievances, are not racist, did not create systemic discrimination, but have felt abandoned by the Left and by Democrats, who now speak increasingly for just about every subaltern group imaginable except for folks who suffer various forms of economic injustice. The Rabbi’s warning stands on its own virtue; I do not know if he realizes he is also warning the Left against making a paleoconservative prediction true. Continue reading “Failing the test, again”

  1. [1]Yggdrasil [pseud.], “Republican Immigration Fantasies,” Occidental Quarterly, November 10, 2011, http://www.toqonline.com/blog/republican-immigration-fantasies/, as quoted in David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).

What’s the end game?

The question came up for me in seeing coverage of the much-too-frequent police violence against Occupy Wall Street and again in the Ferguson riots: What’s the end game?

Really, now, I imagine I might have asked police, what’s your fucking end game? Do you really want these kids, who will eventually go back to their neighborhoods and have kids of their own, to forever distrust you? To forever remember your actions in this case with absolute contempt? Why would you even consider taking the risk of worsening community relations? How can you ever hope to ever have civilian cooperation when we see scenes like this? What kind of a country do you even want this to be when you treat it like occupied territory and us like a hostile population?

Now that seems to me to be an insanely rich topic for inquiry and maybe critical analysis. But that’s not the direction I’m following today. Continue reading “What’s the end game?”

On the naked display of sovereignty

Unintentionally, I’m sure, but in support of one of my grander claims, Catalonia held—or attempted to hold—a referendum on independence. Spain’s central government, citing the “the [constitutional] indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,”[1] deployed violence to repress this vote.[2]

Which is to say, in Spain at least, but I’m pretty sure most countries as well, that a question of secession—not even the act, but the question itself—rationalizes hundreds (at least) of injuries at the hands of police.[3] Continue reading “On the naked display of sovereignty”

  1. [1]Mariano Rajoy, quoted in British Broadcasting Corporation, “Catalan referendum: ‘Hundreds hurt’ as police try to stop voters,” October 1, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-4146103
  2. [2]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Catalan referendum: ‘Hundreds hurt’ as police try to stop voters,” October 1, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-4146103; Peter Geoghegan, “Catalonia votes amid violent clashes,” Deutschewelle, October 1, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/catalonia-votes-amid-violent-clashes/a-40770357; Jon Sindreu, Pietro Lombardi, and Marina Force, “Hundreds Hurt as Catalans, Spanish Police Clash Amid Independence Referendum,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/voters-turn-out-in-catalonia-for-independence-referendum-1506838287
  3. [3]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Catalan referendum: ‘Hundreds hurt’ as police try to stop voters,” October 1, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-4146103; Peter Geoghegan, “Catalonia votes amid violent clashes,” Deutschewelle, October 1, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/catalonia-votes-amid-violent-clashes/a-40770357; Jon Sindreu, Pietro Lombardi, and Marina Force, “Hundreds Hurt as Catalans, Spanish Police Clash Amid Independence Referendum,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/voters-turn-out-in-catalonia-for-independence-referendum-1506838287

San Francisco’s war on Uber and Lyft drivers

I got started driving for a living in the wake of a relationship that ended with her leaving for a mental hospital in Washington. That wasn’t entirely my fault.

But a lesson I drew from that experience was that, while there certainly had been problems with the relationship, which were certainly compounded by her depression, graveyard shift had made everything else worse.

When I left school the first time, with an Associates degree in Business Data Processing, I was a computer programmer. But what I didn’t realize at the time—or really even for many years afterward—was that this was the wrong career for me. It requires an intensely sequential and binary way of thinking to organize tasks to be performed by the computer, a way of thinking that I could sustain only at great personal cost. And by 1985, I had, in fact, burned out. Continue reading “San Francisco’s war on Uber and Lyft drivers”

MADness and North Korea

“I told myself I won’t be the cause of World War III,” recounted Stanislav Petrov, a Russian hero of the Cold War, of an incident in which “Soviet early warning satellites had detected the long-feared American nuclear strike” but “he came to the conclusion that something wasn’t right. Instead of notifying the chain of command of impending doom, he recorded the moment as a system malfunction.” He was right, of course,[1] and his story joins a few others that I have been accumulating in which somebody in the right place at the right time made the right call, saving the world from nuclear Armageddon.[2] Continue reading “MADness and North Korea”

  1. [1]Public Radio International, “The unsung Soviet officer who averted nuclear war,” September 21, 2017, https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-21/soviet-officer-who-averted-nuclear-war
  2. [2]I assume there are many more stories like these: Michael Dobbs, “The Photographs That Prevented World War III,” Smithsonian, October, 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/the-photographs-that-prevented-world-war-iii-36910430/; Robert Farley, “How the Soviet Union and China Almost Started World War III,” National Interest, February 9, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-the-soviet-union-china-almost-started-world-war-iii-15152; Geoffrey Forden, “False Alarms in the Nuclear Age,” Nova, November 6, 2001, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/nuclear-false-alarms.html; Sébastien Roblin, “The Terrifying Tale of How One Russian Submarine Almost Started World War III over Cuba,” National Interest, June 22, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-terrifying-tale-how-one-russian-submarine-almost-started-21270; Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” Guardian, October 27, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war

My generation

I was eight years old for the Summer of Love, and geographically, not even all that far away, living in an apartment in San Francisco’s Richmond district on the north side of Golden Gate Park, just a block or so south of the Presidio which was then still an army base.

The Summer of Love centered in the Haight-Ashbury, to the east of Golden Gate Park and south of the “panhandle.” Other social movements, including the Black Panthers and anti-war movements, whose legacies are all but lost, arose in the East Bay. Continue reading “My generation”