Thursday, July 02, 2009

Dignity, Freedom, Idealism & Expectations

"We are far too slow to outrun it now but not too far gone to care"
--Balance by the Mountain Goats

I was recently chatting with a dear friend about various philosophical perspectives and, being mildly provoked and not completely devoid of ego, I felt the the need to defend my own perspective. People always seem to try and pigeonhole me as being an excessively idealistic hippie or an excessively cynical anarchist. Perhaps there is some truth in both assessments (I can only hope that Derrick Jensen has the same problem). In any case... this is my personal perspective/self-assessment in regard to what I write and stand for philosophically.

My positions have changed somewhat over the years but I try stand by most everything I've written on my blog or submitted to periodicals in recent years. Obviously, my most recent articles will reflect my current positions most accurately. In my writing I always strive for complete intellectual honesty and stand by almost all of the comments I've made in various discussion forums on various sites around the web -- with my blog and OpEdNews accounts standing out as particular examples.

"If you tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember anything."
--Mark Twain

What I try to present in my writing is, in short, this:
A) The problems (and the origin of the problems) facing humanity and the biosphere.
B) The ideal ways I feel these problems ought to be dealt with (on a personal and collective basis).
C) What I actually expect to happen in the world (generally and specifically) regardless of any particular strain of idealism.

Idealistic Contradictions

What I've come to realize about myself over the years is that while I do try to present necessarily radical solutions (necessary because the situation we find ourselves in is so dire), I do not have an incredible amount of faith in any of those solutions being applied for the purposes of bringing about a soft landing (whether they be proposed by myself or others).

The problem with idealism is that it is often presented in an intellectual vacuum and often starts to crumble when presented with the most basic opposition. Take, for example, Gandhi's position of absolute non-violence. On close examination of his writing you find at least one instance where he writes about the duty to physically "subdue" an axe-wielding maniac running amuck in a village. Or, you might find his letter to Hitler which, apparently, he actually believed might move the Nazi leader to abandon his imperialistic war efforts. George Orwell examines these things exquisitely in his famous essay about the "great soul."

"The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals."
--George Orwell, Reflection On Gandhi

In my own experience I am often reminded of an exchange with a man whom many would perhaps consider something of a modern day saint, Howard Zinn (who in any case promotes Gandhi's political methodology of non-violence). I asked Zinn (after a talk he had given about non-violent civil disobedience), "How many non-violent activists would it have taken, chained to the gates of Auschwitz, to shut it down?" As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was most disappointed with his glib response of "About a million."

The point I'm obviously getting at is the demonstrable long-term ineffectiveness -- and in some cases a subtle hypocrisy -- regarding such idealism. Certainly it is true that short term objectives may be achieved by non-violent civil disobedience (and that tactic certainly has a place when trying to make the world a better place) but I often see the true legacy of such movements as being remembered with inaccurate fondness. In Gandhi's case... his Indian nationalist movement ended up splitting the nation along religious lines and it is now in a nuclear standoff with Pakistan. He himself saw this as a horrible failure of what he was trying to achieve. One could try to debate whether or not the average Indian is better off due to his efforts when considering the socio-political and environmental conditions of modern India. It is true that the British empire was appropriately expelled from India, but that is lmore likely due to the mass rioting and increasing aggression towards the British imperialists (immediately proceeding their departure).

Similarly, in the U.S., Martin Luther King is often credited with advancing civil rights by means of non-violent civil disobedience. And while that's undoubtedly true, to an extent, the mass rioting and open revolt by large sections of the public may have also played a role in prompting the state to concede some rights to African Americans. (One might also point to the Stonewall riots as a starting point for the gay rights movement.)

As one last example... I will point to another fairly prominent & saintly activist in form of Julia "Butterfly" Hill. She is the person who sat in an old-growth sequoia (which she called "Luna") as an act of non-violent civil disobedience to protect a portion of the environment. Hollywood is currently making a movie about her experience but what often gets overlooked are the facts that A) the surrounding forest still got cut, B) her organization ended up simply buying the land, and C) the tree she "saved" eventually ended up having a chainsaw taken to it and only stands today because of giant metal braces which were attached to it.

The Nature of Idealism (& why people cling to it)

As a previously sustainable species, humanity did not evolve to deal with the myriad of problems which we not find ourselves confronted. It was quite arguably easier to be idealistic in simpler times because the potential threats faced (pre-)historically were not so potentially devastating. Certainly it is true that humans in the pre-civilized world faced threats and death but, even if you don't buy into Marshall Sahlins' ideas about the Original Affluent Society, it's obvious that the primitive world did not face the threats of nuclear war, human-induced climate change, and the general pressing issues of widespread environmental degradation. Most reputable anthropologists will agree that that primitive humanity did not face the the overwhelming threats of genocide and mass starvation that so many in the modern world confront regularly.

The point is... on an evolutionary timescale, humanity has very quickly moved away from a relatively ideal situation to this point today where billions are, in a very literal sense, living in a nightmarish dystopia. All you have to do is look at the great numbers of people who are malnourished, living in wholly dilapidated slums, or who are slaving away in sweatshops. And that's before mentioning the refugees and victims of modern conventional warfare (although they are likely to be included in those previous categories).

Obviously, things could be far more ideal. The real question is... how likely things are to get better before they get worse & how effectively can lasting and widespread positive change be brought about by intentional and direct actions? Pragmatically, as a utilitarian idealist, I'm talking about the greatest long-term good for the greatest number. To me, in short, that means a return of humanity to the primitive form of society which many anthropologists suggest existed in the form described by Sahlins.

We can debate the specifics of how ideal primitive societies were before civilization so altered the literal and (figurative) landscapes, but I am not seeing a more likely or favorable alternative (in terms of a historically demonstrable ideal).

Some would suggest the opposite extreme as an ideal -- these are those people who who promote the technological singularity up to, and including, the transfer of human consciousness into digital form. And while I do believe there is a slight possibility of this singularity happening... I generally doubt it's likely, I doubt we'd survive the process to bring it about, and I'm hardly convinced it's a great ideal -- unless the fictional lifestyle of the Borg seems ideal to you. As ill-defined as it is, I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if this future is possible or ideal -- but my intellect and my instincts cause me to doubt and recoil at the suggestion. At the very least we're probably talking about a new form of eugenics in regard to the advancement of this dubious singularity.

Arguably, the status quo of our actual society, techno-industrial mass society, already promotes many projects which aim to bring about the singularity. Prominent computer scientists have even started a prestigious "Singularity University" which is funded by Google. So this is a vision which people are truly working to bring about.

To me, this idea of progress seems horribly misguided, at best. This is the path humanity has been going down since the dawn of civilization and, to quote another great philosopher:

“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

So the problems we face are not due to a lack of technological progress but, rather, because we've had far too much of it. And thus we come to a choice of how to ideally proceed as a society. Do we stand by and behind the technocratic status quo or do we resist it? Do we remain neutral on the subject and does that amount to complicity or acceptance either way?

The Nature of Resistance

My political instinct and intellect compels me to promote, stand behind, and generally favor those ideas and actions which seem to work towards the greatest utilitarian good (in terms of health and freedom) for the greatest sustainable population. [As an aside I'd like to note that a smaller than sustainable population would probably be OK as well.] Assuming for a moment that such ideas and actions could be readily recognized, the individual and sub-groups would still be presented with the problem of picking winnable battles. Freedom-loving individuals and groups would, naturally, be in support of preserving and protecting the rights, freedoms and/or liberties of the individual.

This is what I'm getting at... Suppose you were in an isolated society of 100 people. A few in this society somehow achieve some sort of political sway over most of the rest who then begin to serve and militarily empower that minority of politicians. Now, if this power-grabbing minority attempts to persecute, enslave, torture, or kill another relatively isolated member of the society -- who seems to be purely or mostly innocent -- what risks are you willing to take on the individual's behalf and what reasonable expectations should the tormented individual have of you? What if the individual were your parent or lover or child? What if, somehow, you never met this other individual in your small society? Would, and how much, should these particulars matter -- and why?

You'll have to excuse me if this hackneyed hyperbole seems cliché, but these are the basic types of questions that too often seem to go unasked and unanswered in this modern, techno-industrial, mass society. And if you are reading this... then you are, to some degree, part of that society. Do you really know what you would take a stand for and how would you answer such basic questions as these just posed?! [I'd love to receive some comments in response to these questions.]

Dignity & Freedom

In general, it seems to me, that most people have a very weak, hollow, and limited definition of freedom. And, although I'd prefer to be having sex or eating chocolate... I think this is a fairly important topic -- in terms of self-understanding and community building -- so I will attempt to offer some outlines of a reasonable definition of freedom. [Perhaps this will lead to more sex & chocolate -- if not for me, then for others.]

One thought about freedom which has stuck with me for many years amounts to this... Freedom isn't something you have so much as it is something you allow. An individual who truly values freedom does so beyond what he or she is capable of and values the unhindered existence of all beings. A society that values freedom does so in regard to others and seeks not to infringe upon those activities which do not infringe upon the freedom of others.

A problem, historically, is that people have been excessively concerned about their own freedom (seeing what they could get away with, as it were) and have thus bastardized freedom by using their abilities to limit the rights of others. As if to say: "A free man, in a free society, ought to have the right to own slaves or impose their will at whim upon others."

The contradictory hypocrisy of such a sentiment (and actions upon it) is obvious. Those who would approach and engage the world in such a manner cannot truly be said to value freedom. It is difficult to imagine how a society of such selfish individuals could be sustainable -- especially if they continue to push the limits of what they are capable of doing merely for the sake of doing it.

Beyond simply human beings, someone who truly valued freedom would value the freedom of all beings. This is no small point and presents us with the physical danger to our health brought about by infringing upon the freedoms of others to exist without molestation in the natural world.

The earth's biosphere is a closed system which evolved into a balance of rich diversity over billions of years. As valuable and necessary species are driven to extinction en masse by homo sapien sapiens, we (as a species) not only violate their right to exist, but we also threaten our own ability to exist -- and this is the most fundamental right there is because without the right to exist any other freedom is moot.

The naturally existent wilderness is necessary for life to exist. Without life, freedom is moot. Therefore... destruction of the biosphere is the most fundamental attack upon freedom.

Resisting impositions upon freedom (however a group or individual can or must) is not contradictory because the initially imposing force is acting selfishly and against the freedom of other beings. [And I'm talking here about reckless and wanton destruction for superfluous gain -- i.e. clear cutting & strip-mining as opposed to acquiring food & the basics for survival.] In fact, to not resist wanton destruction of the natural world is contradictory to a being which values it's own life and freedom. If one feels that they and others have a right to exist... resisting all forms of unnecessary domination and destruction is a matter of freedom-loving dignity.

The fact that survival and resistance is more difficult at different times does not change the fact. The fact that honor, dignity, and survival itself are often mocked... does not make it less honorable or dignified to struggle for freedom and survival. And have no doubt... honor, dignity, survival and freedom are often overtly and subtly mocked in various ways. If you pay attention you will observe this mockery if you haven't already. But each individual must choose their own values -- regardless of the values of techno-industrial mass society.

Dignity, Freedom, and Expectations

Have no doubt that the struggles we are facing today are like others in human history (as we are dealing with the potential extinction of the human species along with many others). Negative feedback loops related to climate change, desertification, and the species which humanity has already wiped out may, inevitably, lead to humanity's demise. And if the human species is not wholly doomed... the aforementioned problems (and others still [i.e. nuclear war, peak oil, overfishing]) will likely cause the first decline in the human population since the dark ages. All the evidence is there if you are willing to face it.

"So," one might ask, "why do anything?" And, so, again, I return to the concept of dignity. It did not have to be this way and many people have fought against the culture of destruction and the genocidal processes of civilization. We have a right to exist on this planet (as do all naturally occurring species)! Whether or not there is much reason to hope, why make it more comfortable or easier for those who continue to profit from the traditions of destruction and degradation? Perhaps a touch of hope is required to avoid falling into the trap of sadistic retribution but, in any case, there are, simply put, many highly destructive groups and individuals that need to be permanently stopped before they destroy all life on this planet. They need to be confronted directly, often covertly/clandestinely, and very carefully if you wish to keep confronting them.

Only madmen would want to possess the weapons and tools of mass destruction that are now being wielded around the planet. So, indeed, the lunatics have taken over the proverbial asylum (and they have fairly widespread support from the ignorant, naive, and spiteful masses [who have been bred and devolved under the conditions of techno-industrial civilization]). These are the people who need to be confronted and stopped.


So that's how I see things and I'm saying so (again) before I can't. I have no illusions about freedom of speech or intrusive surveillance (I know what happened to Judi Bari). But I don't feel there are enough people expressing opinions such as this one and, so, I feel obliged to express it. I also know that I am not planning to riot in the streets or engage in any other illegal activities. I've done all those kinds of things which I am going to do and I'm starting to feel old beyond my years. And so now, anymore, I just try to express what I feel needs to be expressed.

Nihilo Zero


Anonymous said...

Nonviolence has only ever worked against Christianized societies. And also arose within Christianized societies. Not surprising then that it would work within the culture from which it arose.

The elevation of nonviolence as a principle that would work in all situations is completely ridiculous to me.

Ghandi's nonviolence worked because the British did not want to kill people. Nonviolence against a regime that wants to kill you is ludicrous, as with your Hitler example.

Nonviolence against communists has also proven completely ineffective, as in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Apart from that, your fears about a coming oil crash are unfounded, and your radical solutions, if implemented, would be worse. Long, long before we run out of oil, it will be replaced as a commodity by technology in some form. Most likely through algae-based biodiesel or sunlight-produced hydrogen.

The basic problem with people like you, and the Left in general, is an incomplete and often false understanding of basic economics. And literature on the Left only reinforces these mistaken ideas. Go read some Thomas Sowell, stop being innumerate. And stop propping up the greatest force of evil the world has ever known: central control of a country.

N. Zero said...

Propping up central control of a country?

I have no idea where you are getting this idea out of anything I have written. I am not supporting an increase of centralized power in any modern nation state and I think even the most casual observer should be able to see that. I also don't consider anarcho-primitivism as something that is at all consistent with leftism. I think perhaps you are seeing what you want to see but are missing some central points to my positions. As with your comment on my other article (Twitphilia & Twitanoia), it ought to be clear that I am not excusing the left or the right nor am I promoting either.

As for peak oil... you are only hoping that some technology replaces the most important fuel in the history of industrial civilization and I don't think you make a strong case that this will happen with any certainty. Besides that... I listed several other problems, in addition the complex issues of peak oil, that are also leading to disaster. So, even if a suitable replacement for petroleum is found, the byproducts of this theoretical replacement and the continuation of a consumer economy might be even worse than the results of a social collapse brought about by peak oil.