Saturday, May 31, 2008

Blurring the Spectrum

Every so often, I ask myself why I identify as far left. After all, I'm all for efficient government, I value personal freedom, and I have a weird fascination/relationship with the United States and nuclear power. These are points commonly espoused by the Libertarian Right, but I've changed the phrasing (efficient versus small government, personal versus total freedom) so that I don't appear as in their camp. With this background, it should come as no surprise that I agreed with everything Jim Scarantino said in his column about reforming the Republican Party.

To be fair, Jim Scarantino isn't the average republican, and that's the point of his column. He subscribes to an older, different notion of that party, and his credentials align him more with Eisenhower than Reagan. This a a perspective on a Republican Party with a clearly demonstrated right to rule; a right earned through competent governance and not dependent on moral or divine authority. And this party, this return to form that he argues for, is a party I can agree with in many ways. Step 9 of his plan is especially appealing:
Make direct amends to such people wherever possible. Give Iraq back to Iraqis, move all Katrina victims out of formaldehyde-poisoned trailers and rebuild their homes, improve veterans services, and repeal some tax breaks to pay for the nation’s needs.
This is something a responsible party would do. Combined with advocating for freedom from control and low-cost government, it would be the beginnings of a conversion. But there is a divergence here - I think those policies are good, but I think they are good policies for a party of rule, and for the nation. They are not partisan positions. Lawrence Lessig, who is as close to a political guidepost as I currently have, "thinks there are allies to be found among the "intellectually honest" right." But Lessig is speaking from a position on the left, but he is speaking towards a consensus position; "He points out that the need to raise money from industry provides an incentive to grow government and maintain regulation as a kind of leverage to extract donations from industry. He's made battling earmarks, a conservative cause célèbre, a Change Congress core mission".

Lessig and Scarantino overlap here on what should be the center, and it should be a center made up of the "intellectually honest" on both sides of the aisle, or even among those who don't fit nicely on the conservative/liberal political spectrum. And so I can support Scarantino's desire to reform his party into one that protects freedom (our venn diagrams of beliefs overlap here), and I can be happy about a Republican Party that takes that form. It would be a much more pleasant opposition party.

But I will have to diverge from that perspective, because I think that government can do more than just guarantee freedoms. I think that government can work towards social justice, and I think that it serves an important role in the mediation between business and individuals, and I think that the protections government can offer, which come at the expense of both personal and business freedoms, are fundamental points essential to living in society with other humans. I'll end with a Lessig quote that contains a Reagan quote:
"There's a speech that Reagan gives in 1965," Lessig says, "where he talks about how democracy always fails because once the people recognize they can vote themselves largess, they just vote themselves largess and the fiscal policy is destroyed. Well, Reagan had it half-right. It's not as if it's the poor out there who have figured out how to suck the money out of the rich. It's exactly the other way around."
I can agree with anyone that there are problems in government. But, as is always the case, the trick is figuring out where the problems fall, and here is where Scarantino and I begin to disagree.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Another Youth Rights Quickie

First, Britain, where children sitting on steps warrants legislative consideration. Found here, which came from here, but the original article (and important comment thread) is here. I'm just going to say that making steps hard to sit on is ridiculous, and the motive is ageist. This can't possibly need further debate.

And this comes from a blog full of angst, which draws it's inspiration from this and this. Few issues are black and white, but legally sanctioned corporal punishment for kids? Absurd. Harmful. Detrimental. Backwards? Certainly, if major nonprofit childcare organizations can move beyond it, without the benefits that parents have in behavioral policy, we can move beyond this question in regular contexts. C'mon guys, you can give this up, no really.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Another Lessig Bit

A great overview of Lawrence Lessig can be found here. The page setup is a bit irritating (hint to The Nation - use margins!), but the article is great. Here's my favorite bits:

"There have been all sorts of DC-based organizations that have tried to crack this nut, and I think they've hit the limit of what the 'Let's send out an e-mail to our 100,000 members and tell them to write their Congressmen' model can do," he says. "We have an opportunity--and it won't last long--to take advantage of the uncertainty that Congress has about how the Net actually works. They don't get it right now. And while they've learned how to ignore 1,000 e-mails, they haven't quite figured out what to do about fifty blogs talking about various legislation or meet-up events. So there's an opportunity to leverage the technology and the irrational insecurity of members of Congress, who look at any objectively insignificant resistance as something to be dealt with immediately."

This information will be displayed in a map, which Lessig believes will show in stark terms just how "broad and deep" the consensus for reform is. Take, for instance, the ultimate prize for Lessig and reform allies: public financing of Congressional campaigns. A 2006 poll showed overwhelming support among voters (75 percent) for such a system. The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter, has attracted eight co-sponsors (including Barack Obama), and Hillary Clinton is on record as supporting public financing in principle if not the Durbin bill specifically. While McCain supported full public financing as recently as 2002, he retracted that position last year. This is not to say we're anywhere close to having public financing enacted--the interests opposed to it are substantial--but it is by no means a fringe idea.

"When I was thinking of running," Lessig says, "the biggest pushback I got was from all these senior politico types who are like, Look, you can never sell process reform; nobody will ever buy it; if that's your message, you cannot win. And my response is, Well, we've got to figure out how to sell it, for Chrissake! It's not like we have a choice."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I've babbled a bit here before about frontier theory. I like the idea of a nation with two clear-cut social contracts, where the trade-off between freedom and security is so clear cut that "if you don't like it, leave" is not only a valid notion, but is a way of life. Frontier Theory, as I've analyzed it here, has something of that to it, but it is a theory retroactively applied to a bygone era, and it doesn't quite fit. Reality is not that clear cut. But you know what can be that clear cut? Science
Fiction. Namely, Firefly.

For those of you unfamiliar with Firefly, it's a television show canceled halfway through its first season that was later made into a feature length movie. Catching up on it only takes about 18 hours, so I'll wait.

Done? Excellent.

Firefly takes place in a universe post-frontier, sort of. Where human civilization established itself early, and where there are great resources, the government is one of an omnipresent welfare state - life is rather controlled, everything is monitored by the government, taxes are high, but it's also very prosperous, and the state takes care of its people. It's the benevolent patriarch model of a welfare state; "We know what's best, and we'll provide it for you".

Before the core worlds expanded their control, their were independent worlds. Governments varied, laws were iffy, and things like slavery or indentured servitude were common. Government was fractured among these appropriately-named "Independent Planets", and so leaving the reach of government was, in theory, possible by just leaving the planet, or in some cases going away from cities and centers of power into the hills. Under this set-up, it is safe to assume that healthcare was iffy, that regulation on business were scant, and that there was no safety net.

Reminding ourselves that this is science fiction (making speculation a matter not of historical analysis but of writers intents), the universe still manages to be more complex than that, giving lots of powers and rights to interplanetary corporations. For the purposes of this discussion now, we'll ignore them.

More relevant to the two-social-contracts model of human existence is the Unification War, whereby the Alliance 9monied, wealthy, watches everything you do) fights against the Independents (poor, rugged, fiercely independent). The Alliance wins, and so the two social contract system collapses, leaving one system of government. Sort of.

Firefly is a show about characters existing beyond the reach of government, or as beyond as they can best manage, and the governments they deal with are mayors, magistrates, and governors. Local autonomy exists on the end of the universe, as the sheer cost of the welfare/police state is expensive and doesn't yield enough taxes to make it sensible. But the interplanetary government still has the right to and likes to make a show of being in charge, and so they meddle.

Meddle, more than any other word, describes the distaste for government that does anything more than exist, and folk aren't even too fond of government existing. It's a very interesting sort of freedom advocated, given how much abuse and degradation it allows for.

Slavery, for example, exists in the Firefly universe in a technically illegal state, and given the shows' civil war inspiration, it makes sense that the right of an individual to own slaves could have been something fought for. Also, the freedom to not have a government get in the way of revenge and blood-feuds was probably desired y at least a few. The whole freedom from meddling is impressive, as it means a whole spectrum of things - you can sell whatever you want, but a dissatisfied customer may just shoot you for selling them snakeoil. There is no mediator is this society, as mediation is meddling. There are no/minimal police, as that's meddling. Theres no guarantee of healthcare, as that is meddling.

It's a rather radical take on the world, perhaps warranting a second post.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Professional Soldiering (Memorial Day Special pt. 2)

Yesterday, I made a rather bold claim on this blog. The claim? War is back to the 17th century, and the era of mass citizen-soldier armies is over. Here's the quick sequence leading up to that claim:

Part I:
  1. No current Presidential candidate wants new nukes
  2. Even Bush gave up his plans for small nukes used in conventional war
  3. Therefore, Nukes will remain a deterrent to war between nuclear nations
  4. Modern War will be limited in the choice of weaponry
Part II:
  1. McCain, and the Pentagon, oppose a bill that would provide scholarship for service personal who have only served for three years
  2. The Pentagon doesn't want soldiers who return to civilian life; this is why there's been no draft, and why they'd rather expand the army and marines than continue to rely on part-time soldiers like reservists
  3. The Pentagon wants to have soldiers free of the constraints the re-entering civilian life entail
  4. The Pentagon wants the military to be a full-time professional force.
So, what does it mean, then, to have the task of soldiering removed from the standard obligations of citizenry? In effect, this removes the military from a principal constituency - at present, the military serves at the behest of the nations' leaders with some degree of consent from the public. But with a full-time professional army, the military only has to answer to the leaders, and there are no needs for plebiscites or much public approval. The military will be less of a public institution, and while I don't predict the Blackwater-contracted-army extreme, I imagine there will be more of a disconnect between the public and the people serving in the military.

The advantages of this approach are many. The military can go ahead and be a military, fight the limited wars that politicians want it to fight, and do so without being subject to widespread demoralizing coverage. Primarily, though, the professional army is free to operate without a groundswell of resistance from a public motivated by moral objections and mortal fear to stop the war. Professional armies will do what they are asked to do, and they'll do it without public debate, without calling into question the whole existence of the military, and career soldiers mean that investments of training and conditioning will get the maximum yield. The professional army is almost, but not quiet, the political leadership's plaything, and while that is justifiably terrifying, it makes the military a very effective policy tool.

The downsides are many, and the key one to emphasize on this memorial day is that the appeal of citizen-soldier is lost. And the disconnect between citizenry and soldiers is painful - in the article that inspired this, McCain remarked that Obama "did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform." It's a cheap shot, but the sentiment that motivates it is one where the civilians not only have no experience wit which to talk about the military, but because of that, they have no right. This weakens the principle of civilian control of the military, and is the basis for the attitude the inspires coups. But military independence from civilian leadership is a secondary problem with the professional army.

The main problem is that the professional army is expensive. Really, really expensive. Going into the military is not a career choice people make lightly, and that makes perfect sense - it involves killing and the risk of death, after all. Appeals to patriotism and citizens' duty can make up for it, but that helps with new recruits, and not with retaining people who have been burnt out. A military that uses drafted soldiers and that rotates soldiers back into civilian life can more reliably keep (relatively) low-cost infantrymen in steady supply - the draft helps a lot because it not only means there are more soldiers, but it means they have few alternatives and so might as well serve. But the professional army doesn't have that luxury - the soldiers are to serve for life, in high numbers, and with frequent deployment. The benefits for these soldiers have to be good, the healthcare superb, and the pay especially has to be high. Blackwater gets volunteers to be soldiers in Iraq by paying four or five times what the Army pays soldiers required to be in Iraq. The costs for a standing, professional army at the size the Pentagon wants to maintain would be astronomical. For a test as to weather the public would agree to these costs, we can look at the Third Amendment, which was put into place specifically after Americans didn't like the burdens associated with housing a professional army responsible to their government.

Building upon this, large, professional standing armies are a huge sunk cost. They are expensive to maintain, and so it makes sense to try and get the most benefit out of that already paid cost. Professional soldiers cost almost as much kept at home as they do used in wars abroad, and one of those things has political yield. It has risk, too, but we can look to the histories of colonial militaries to see how a professional army can be used for gain by an industrialized nation's military at a minimum of cost.

Of course, the death of the citizen-soldier army, with part-time service, is not inevitable. It requires political approval, and the whole crux of the scholarship debate is the difference in opinion between Obama and McCain. Obama advocates scholarships after three years of service, indicating that part-time military service and citizen-soldiering is the way he sees the future of the US military. And the election has not yet happened, so a full-time professional US military is not yet a certainty. But it is the direction the Pentagon would like for the military, and their voice carries serious weight.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

How will we fight our next wars? (Memorial Day Special)

This post is inspired by two articles found in today's Albuquerque Journal. The first, from Christopher Wills of the Associated Press, is about a dispute between McCain and Obama over benefits and scholarships for veterans. The second, from ABQ. Journal writer John Fleck, is about the presidential candidates attitudes on "Reliable Replacement Warheads", a program name which entails many things, but the basis is updating the US's nuclear arsenal. The combined gist of these two articles?

The conventional war fought by citizen soldier armies is dead. Sort of.

First, the bit on nukes - as John says, "all of this suggests that the next customer-in-chief is not likely to be an eager nuclear weapons buyer". A de-emphasis on new nuclear weapons can mean many things, but the important point here requires a look into the last modern nuclear plan. The bunker buster was widely touted by Bush, had some controversy in New Mexico (good for the labs? bad for people who don't like nukes used in war?), and involved an interesting workaround for nuclear treaties. The warheads would be from other missiles, making a new weapon but not a new warhead. There was some squabbling of semantics over this (John can, more clearly than I, relate what exactly the squabbling was), but the gist of it was that the US wanted to pursue a small nuclear weapon that they would use in conventional warfare, primarily in Afghanistan. Several years down the road, a curios thing happened:
The Bush administration removed its request for funding of the weapon in October 2005. Additionally, US Senator Pete Domenici announced funding for the nuclear bunker-buster has been dropped from the Department of Energy's fiscal 2006 budget at the department's request.
Nuclear weapons are not going to be used in conventional warfare anytime soon; the Bush Administration gave that plan up, and all the viable presidential candidates aren't currently planning to do anything new and big. Nuclear weapons will, instead, remain giant, aging, and nation-destroying. Combat applications are gone. This means unchanged conventional war, and can't possibly herald the end of war-as-we-know-it, can it? Well, sort of. War as we know it, war that can draw from history up until Truman's decision to not use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, is a wholly different kind of war than what is fought now. That war, especially the era of cataclysmic total war, required that a nation going to war be ready to fight the war until its death, and to do everything imaginable to win. Napoleon set war up like that, though the change from territorial squabbles to wars for national existence are not entirely his doing. Likewise, the European colonial experience provides an example of military conflicts of a different mold in the midst of an era of military changes; the French even had separate militaries for this problem. That division didn't render total war unavoidable, as both World Wars prove. But nuclear weapons, with global reach from one nation to many within the space of an hour, has in all but name eliminated the specter of total war.

The factor that made total war possible was mass conscription and the draft, and this is how the French Revolution, fought for fraternity, equality, and liberty, ended with an emperor who had conquered almost all of Europe. Citizens, invested in their nation as equally as everyone else, had military service as a civic duty. nations preparing for World War counted among their estimates of strength a sizable number of reservists and draft age males. The entire population of an nation could be the army, and the ratio of professional servicemen to enlisted citizens changed dramatically over the course of both world wars. Notable in the US, and to the AP article, is the GI Bill, which after the war made a college education for its citizen army part of the social contract of military service. The large armies would, after the war, go back to civilian life, or so was the plan.

Obama is advocating for a veteran bill that rewards military service of 3 years or more with scholarships. This is a commitment to the new citizen army, and it draws from the lessons of the military conflict I've avoided mentioning until now - Vietnam. I see the draft as a way of limiting the use of military force (advocated here), but that requires citizen soldiers, who can express their dissent in a meaningful and legal way. Through voting, hopefully. Vietnam saw a huge antiwar movement, citizen soldiers, and a serious loss of the respect of the US military among citizens. The military has adapted, and expanded into a permanent professional force. We've had no drafts since Vietnam, and if possible, the military will keep it that way. We've used Reservists in Iraq in an unprecedented way, but even that transition is one aimed at utilizing semi-professional soldiers, instead of citizens. This is a huge distinction.

The military does not want to rely on citizen soldiers.

Soldiers may be citizens, but military service already curtails rights, and leads to a different set of interests than those held by the man who goes back to dentistry after spending a couple of years in a battle zone. McCain, as representative of the military (volunteered, proud veteran), is opposed to the scholarship bill because it entails a higher turnover of part-time soldiers back into citizens. This is bad for the military, making the investment in part time soldiers disproportionately costly, and it helps encourage a semi-professional nature of military service.

Obama, on the other hand, is advocating the military as a reasonable part of civic duty, but for a large segment of servicemen, he intends that it be part time. The military as a stepping stone towards social advancement is a fine and noble tradition, and part time service allowing for a career after the military helps make that goal more realistic for the citizen.

So how does this spell the death of "the conventional war fought by citizen soldier armies"? And how do scholarships do that in a way nuclear weapons didn't already? The military wants to move from mostly to primarily exclusive professional service. They want servicemen who are citizens, and not the priorities the other way around. And they will do anything to avoid the draft, the usage of part-time soldiers. The political costs are too high, and the military exists that the whim of political costs. Nuclear weapons put a cap on the kind of conflict that can happen - equally-equipped nuclear nations will not fight conventional wars against each other. The move away from ever having to rely on the draft means that a nation cannot pour its citizenry into an asymmetric war, and that conflict on the part of the United States will be left to the professionals. In the final analysis, what does this mean?

War is back to the 17th century.

Sermon on Racism

It isn't up here yet, but it soon will be. Within the week, probably. Here's the blurb about the sermon:

Questions of Power: Race, Class, and Privilege
Presenter: Antonia Won, Ministerial Intern

UUs espouse equality and diversity, yet our congregations remain overwhelmingly white and middle class. Stories from New Orleans and New Mexico help to define the factors that perpetuate racism, and to find questions we can ask of ourselves.

The sermon was good, a remarkably well done handling of a thoroughly uncomfortable topic. How uncomfortable? It was a white female Canadian minister giving a sermon to white educated upper middle class Americans, and added to that setup is the dimension
of New Mexico and racism (White privilege in a climate of more marked skin gradations, the whole Latin America bit about class and race before the American dimension was added on, and the nature of indigenous/Hispanic cultures, as opposed to the more clear cut white/black dynamic). Finally adding to this is New Orleans as a catalyst for anti-racism, and New Orleans has one of the more complex histories of the white/black dynamic (free creole blacks, slave port, Ruby Bridges, and the white exodus/surrounding suburbs following desegregation). The sermon did not, as is almost certainly best, address this whole range of experience, but it touched upon some of it, and it was a remarkably skillful handling of a topic and message that, by its very nature, is designed to make people uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable, depending on the goal. This being a sermon, the discomfort was appropriate; anti-racism training and activism can make things uncomfortable on an unforeseen level, designed so that every day you wake up thinking "hey, I need to change things because this system of power and privilege is really, really messed up".

This was not anti racism training. But I'm hoping it sparked some anti-racism impulse, and I'm hoping that translates to anti racism work.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Soundbite quickie

Much has been made of Barack Obama's statement that he would talk with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The spin varies, saying that this proves antisemitism, that this is a sign of weakness, that this is part of some weird conspiracy. All the spin ignores the single most important part of this issue - As President of the United States, Obama would talk to Ahmadinejad because Obama would be a world leader, and his job description requires interacting with other internationally significant figures.

I'm waiting for someone to say this publicly and bluntly.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two Quick Things

The first is an excerpt from Cory Doctorow's article on the risk of rare events:

The rare – and the lurid – loom large in our imagination, and it's to our great detriment when it comes to our safety and security. As a new father, I'm understandably worried about the idea of my child falling victim to some nefarious predator Out There, waiting to break in and take my child away. There's a part of me who understands the panicked parent who rings 999 when he sees some street photographer aiming a lens at a kids' playground.

But the fact is that attacks by strangers are so rare as to be practically nonexistent. If your child is assaulted, the perpetrator is almost certainly a relative (most likely a parent). If not a relative, then a close family friend. If not a close family friend, then a trusted authority figure.

And yet we continue to focus our attention on the meteor-strike-rare paedophile attack instead of protecting our children from the real, everyday dangers they face from the familiar. This has the twin effects of making our children less safe, and of making adults less free, because we are all subjected to scrutiny on the grounds that we may be hunting children.

The second thing is Budget Hero, which is an awesome game that's been keeping me from more regular summer blogging. It's awesome, no really.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Five Quick Musings

While being trained to be an XCORP daycamp counselor, my mind wandered a bit. Here's where it ended up:
  • Social Contracts & Youth: Unlike the social contract that is formed by consenting adults at the moment of codification (in, say, a constitution) or with implied consent (via immigration), youth age into an existing social contract. This partly explains the tendency of the young towards discontent in any and all systems, but there's a bit more to it than that. Youth transition into citizens, at which point they take on the burdens and are granted the rights associated with citizenship (can vote; must pay taxes and become eligible for military service). The citizen/state social contract is clear at this point, but the prior contract of non-citizen youth residing in a sovereign state is more anomalous.
  • Consent Politics, as Regards Sex: there's an editorial cartoon that ran yesterday in the Albuquerque journal that bothers me fundamentally. I'll be writing a letter to the editor about it later, but the point for now is that it looks favorably upon the quaint and hetero-normative polygamous cult, while frowning upon two adults engaging in BDSM. The trick with all this is that the quaint cult raped girls below the age of consent, and that adults engaging in BDSM do so consensually. I frown upon any demonization of consensual sex between adults (taking into account the condition that some decisions cannot be made by sane people, and so are invalid; "Rousseau also argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery"), and things that condone rape are, to put it lightly, evil.
  • Consent Politics, as Regards Governance: Social Contracts, as established, are between consenting adults, and later are between consenting adults and their institutions of governance. How does this contract apply to those unable to consent, either by youth or by some other standard of being mentally unfit? How is mental fitness determined, and how do definitions that have standards of mental fitness explain those standards?
  • Nanny State: I'm going to be working at a day camp, and fresh from a semester heavy on political science there is a striking contrast between how rules work for adults and how rules work for children. The structure, guidance, and explanations that make day camps and childcare and schooling work for young children would be rejected in full if forced upon adults. The rules for such institutions hinge upon the accepted fact (which I have no intention of challenging) that adults know what is needed to keep kids safe, and that adults have as an overriding concern the safety of children. Everything is secondary to this fact, but there is leeway - safety does not mean forcibly keeping kids away from everything scary; I've advocated quite the opposite here before. And camps that are nothing but knee protectors and padded walls would be no fun. But it does mean that, when safety comes into conflict with things like the freedom to act of children, safety takes priority. Adults hate this in their lives, as angst about smoking bans in bars (for this generation) and mandatory safety belts in cars (for a previous generation) prove. But with children, rules are different, and especially with children, the obligation of a caregiver is towards the safety of another adult's child, which will be enforced by the state.
  • State Allocates Responsibility: This came up partly during an episode of Boston Legal, and partly during a discussion over the cardboard gun fiasco. I was happy to see the student suing the school, as everything that was done seemed to demonize him, way out of proportion to an incidence that (I feel) needs no response, and has a kid screwed by horribly planned zero-tolerance policy and poorly executed APD action. Suing to me seemed appropriate, but Lia felt differently. She argued that the student had been at fault for making a stupid mistake (walking around and playing with the cardboard gun as though it were a gun), and that the police and school were also both at fault for how they handled the incident (poorly and with over-reactions everywhere). Rather than arguing which side was more at fault, her point was that the situation could only be rectified by all sides admitting their appropriate faults, accepting appropriate consequences, and then moving on, once everyone was in right relationship with each other. The legal system in the United States does not operate in this fashion.
    • Responsibility means liability means fault, and to claim responsibility is to accept the fault of an action, and especially the cost of that action
    • Having clear lines of responsibility allows an organization to punish the wayward individual and to operate in a legally safe bubble.
    • Admitting fault in any part of a case is close to admitting fault in all of it, and makes it much easier for the other parties to foist their guilt onto the admitting party
    • Day camp counselors exist in the legal limbo of protecting other people's children, who are sort of legally anomalous (sort of citizens? guardian law might evolved from property law? responsibility of the state to the point where they will punish abuse but not to the point where they will actually provide the day camp?), while working for a private employer (but a non-profit one), and all of this is overseen by a government. If a day camp counselor screws up, that makes at least 3 outside sources to which they are responsible.
    • This is the real reason why I never want to go to law school, despite living and breathing politics.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Golden Age Satire

My dad and I just listened to a recording on cassette of a radio drama. The play was The Investigator, and it aired on May 30th, 1954, at the height of the McCarthy hearings. It is absolutely brilliant political commentary, and it is fortunately online. It half-exists in bits and pieces: .ram files which don't work are here, a partial clip is available here, and a New York Times review behind some gate here. Frustrating, certainly, and I'll do my best to update with a complete version recorded from the tape later.

Still, the whole thing is interesting, especially in the style of McCarthy's attacks on his opposition and his absolute denial of the significance of anything except that which is explicitly said. It is the art of the political hack job being exposed, and while it's nice to think we've moved past that, the horror is that now this is news technique and not satire.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Deliberate Community and Social Contracts

Obnoxious as it may sound, I want to spend a good part of this summer analyzing social contract theory. Step one in doing that involves strange travel advice as a dancing lesson from God.

Two weeks ago, I was standing outside Z'ots, a sort-of 245 hour coffee shop within walking distance of Tulane. While standing with my drink, a man in his young 30s came up and started a conversation. He was all about Burning Man, with a sort of evangelical fervor. He runs a bar in Black Rock City, and upon finding out I was studying political science, he tailored he summation of the experience towards the ear of a political observer.

His important points:
  • Burning Man, as a money-less society, runs on an
    • "economy of personality", where interactions with other people overshadow the movement of goods and services
  • The city is a spontaneous creation
    • Black Rock City is an autonomous community of roughly 30,000 people that exists for one week out of every year...The city is constructed anew at the beginning of the week by the returning residents, and torn down entirely, leaving not a single trace that human beings were ever there, at the end of the week
  • The city, as an independent organic entity, self-corrects
    • BURNING MAN CHANGES FROM YEAR TO YEAR. Here are some of the changes that have warranted complaints from the folks who attended Burning Man when it was 100 people on a beach in the Bay Area: You can no longer bring guns and fire them off into the sky. You can no longer detonate explosives without warning to your neighbors. You can no longer drive your car at high speeds through the city. The city now has roads allowing citizens and Emergency Services to find things.
That's the gist of what made Black Rock City a politically fascinating entity for him to observe, but it wasn't the main point of politics in his conversation. The politics he talked about and felt a part of were the politics of running his camp/bar.

The camp is nominally run by an oligarchic council, of which Ari is the head. This is a position similar to whatever name Russia's autocrat* holds, where the other organ of power offers suggestions and gives consent to policy, but really has no say in ultimately deciding how things are run. He described a power struggle with other oligarchs; two of them wanted to change the system into a formal and not de facto monarchy, and another wanted Ari to allocate funding differently and would gladly change governments to do this. The nature of the power struggle was complaints through a free and open listserv that the camp using to communicate when not in Nevada, and the nature of the struggle was one where the people at the top battled, with the revolting leaders claiming a mandate from the disaffected masses while Ari knew that the disaffected masses didn't care so long as there was a government. Ari, in describing this, said he felt like Stalin as he gave those revolting the choice of leaving his camp or falling in line. Ari elaborated, claiming that had the scale been a nation of millions instead of a camp of 60, the result would have been to order executions. (It is worth noting tat someone who knew Ari was skeptical of this fact as he related it). The end result of the struggle was those revolting quit the camp, rather than go along with Ari.

The point is not the details of this internal struggle - what matters is that in a deliberate community (the camp), which has established its own governing board (Ari and the oligarchy), a struggle over resources (the funds people contribute to be part of the camp) was resolved by having people simply leave the community. This is the first time in recent memory I've heard of a situation where "love it or leave it" actually counts as a valid choice.

Ari went on to say that he is avowedly anti-democracy, that his anarcho-libertarian philosophies don't allow him to trust the masses to think for him, and that democracy is an organ (especially in Louisiana, he made sure to point out) for collective disenfranchisement. His camp, temporary as it is and dependent upon outside factors for its existence, functions as a voluntarily entered into governed body, where people can opt out or make a stab (through the economy of personality) of influencing the autocrat. This was a social contract consented to, not by necessity, but because that is how people would prefer things. Ari's cynicism attributes his perpetual rule to the fact that people don't really care about whose governing them, but I think it has more to do with the fact the people would rather care about other things. For many, politics are something they only think about when terrible things are happening or when they are upset. It's not quiet cynicism, but I think that people don't care about how government functions when they are content with it. One of the tricks with democracy is that it makes people have to think about government fairly regularly, and not everyone wants that.

That's a side note - what matters is that there are situations where people can willingly enter into governance, establish and codify social contracts, and then chose to leave society when the feel the social contract isn't to their benefit. I've written about deliberate communities before, often UU affiliated - YRUU, Church Camp, and in general UU congregations all function as groups people willing enter, and leave or work to change when discontent.

Nations, however, are different. This is a bigger issue, and this is why Social Contract theories exist. People are born into social contracts with their nations of residence, and people have an elaborate series of obstacles in their place when they want to change the relationship between themselves and their government. Emigration is perhaps the simplest, but it requires another nation consent to housing the emigrant, and that can be quite tricky, as US/Mexico relations show. The more challenging but still civil procedure is to run for government offices, to support candidates and to actually try to enter into and change a political system. Reform has, at its heart, the idea of renegotiating the social contract. Lastly, there is open revolt, in the form of either succession or revolution, and that is contentious and violent and has the most uncertain results of all.

Just leaving, finding a new place, and starting a new thing, as valid an option as it is for small deliberate communities, stopped being a valid technique for nations over a century ago, when the Boers went into the African interior, trying to displace the Africans and be free of the British. Now, the nationless spots on earth are international waters and the Western Sahara. It's fitting that Black Rock City, too, finds itself existing in inhospitable conditions. This winds itself back to Frontier theory, where in the US the option was tolerate the rules of the cities or go off into the hinterland. A dual social contract existed then within the same nation, and the choice was available. Today, the option is gone, more or less.

The only exception I can see is the internet.**

*Tsar and easily-dismissed Duma, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, Stalin and the Communist Party Congress, Putin and modern Russia's Duma. The mold is the same, and Ari presented his camp oligarchy using specifically the Stalin metaphor.
** Expect a post on that soon, inspired in part by this.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iran and Russian and Film Adaptations of Graphic Novels

A few quick thoughts, partially inspired by seeing Persepolis, partly by Russian history, and partly by having not had tiem during the semester to put this all down:

1. Revolutions are really good at making loyal yet less competent people into winners. This is a flaw, but it makes sense: a degree of competence in running a system is put in place only after the system has been around for a while and fixed.

2. Revolution can be way, way less sexy than punk makes it seem.

3. Nihilism parallels reactionaries/conservatives in a crude breakdown of outlook: both want to go back to the beginning. Nihilists just think we need a fresh start because any system is better than what exists, while Reactionaries (Khomeini or the slavophiles) want to go back to the beginning when everything was perfect. These attitudes work great together for destroying, but they are a terrible combination in figuring out a solution. This is another pairing that I see fitting in with Cory Doctorow's progressive/regressive apocalypse bit, which is increasingly my favorite frame of reference.

4. The horrors of a revolution only legitimize a revolutionary government for one generation, which is often exhausted and unwilling to live through another bitter struggle with the potential for things to get worse. In any period of stability, no matter how repressive, later generations will become discontent, and appeals to the sacrifice of a revolution will fall flat.

5. Repression can pay for itself through bribery or fines. If it doesn't do that, it has to actually be carried out consistently, which makes it much harder to sustain.

6. Marxism is appealing because it is about social justice and hard work being justly rewarded. It's persistent because it addresses the economics affecting injustice, and economics can be a huge, impersonal, and terrifying thing. It is flawed because economic systems and arrangements have to be entered into willing, or they will be subverted by what people are more willing to do. For all its praise of social justice, the very nature of forcing this concept on people invalidates all its moral backing, and for all its talk of sane economics, it is both time-limited and often wrong.

7. That said, it makes sense that young Marjane Satrapi has God and Marx as her moral basis, but only as a rare backdrop to the much more relevant and situationally appropriate advice of mortals.

8. Eye of the Tiger will always be the best montage song: