When the beacon of justice goes out, what will we use to light our way? 

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfearForeword:

I originally wrote the story below in the innocent days of August 2016. Its hard to believe how much hope I had then, and what a contrast I feel now.

For those friends who caution restraint, even in linguistics, who believe that an erosion of civil rights has not yet begun, I ask that you attempt empathy for me, even if you can’t for those currently in the same limbo at airports around the country.

Each one of the detained has a life, a social network, goals, and loved ones waiting for them at home. The vast majority are students and doctors, parents and neighbors, co-workers and friends. We already have a rigorous vetting process for all applications to this country that is proven to be as effective as possible. This type of thing has never happened before, despite claims to the contrary. This policy does not increase security, but threatens our partnerships in conflict regions and is a death sentence to families that risked their lives to support our interests.

I am a deeply privileged white woman with resources of many kinds to help me through my own experience. Please recognize that without all the help I had, my refused entry would have been emotionally crushing and life-altering. Delay of even one more day in my case would have meant an entire year lost because I would have been too far behind to catch up.

I do believe that in times of peace and stability it is helpful to adapt your attitude to hand out happy, but this is not that time. This time our integrity is under threat. This is not a bureaucratic error. Foundational elements of our political system are under threat and ‘not minding’ is not an option.

If you feel this story in any way might help someone understand the human cost of a refused entry, please share. We are all human, we all feel joy and pain and loss. We have come too far to return to tribalism and hatred and outright violence.

The most white supremacist thought to which I have ever been immediately attuned was in the stress of the situation described below. I was in the deportation lounge thinking ‘Can’t they see I’m not a terrorist?’ My second though was ‘wow, that was pretty racist. What does a terrorist look like? Why can’t she look like you?’ I didn’t know until I had that thought how shocking it is to realize you were racist all along. The shame of that self-reflection is not easy to bear and is terrifying to share publicly. Both feelings inform how important it is to share this story. It is critical that we are all a little more reflective, a little more honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens.

Any shame I feel is outweighed by the hope that in sharing I might help one person to see a little more clearly. Hopefully some of this speaks to you.

 

The secret to a charmed life is making all the green lights… and not minding the red ones

This popped into my head on a sunny September afternoon while waiting in traffic at an intersection I used to breeze through in SE Portland.

I was considering my helplessness, stuck in Portland while the rest of my graduate classmates were moving in, finding books, meeting each other and beginning class. That was all continuing on the other side of the world while I was waiting for a light, and waiting for my whole life at the same time.

I was supposed to be in London, and I was here, waiting for the British civil service to decide if I was going to be allowed back, if I could live and study in the UK, a place I was pretty sure was integral to my whole future. Looking back, I suppose there was an issue I was a security risk. I thought I was a normal 20 something, just wanting to go back to school. I didn’t think that my constant international travel looked suspicious, although I should have known better after all that time traveling to weird destinations. Student tickets aren’t usually the means of constant global circumnavigation

It started like all my other trips. I packed, printed documents, double checked lists and said my goodbyes. From the moment I stepped on the plane I was on my way to a new chapter of life, expectant, nervous, a little jittery with my soundtrack plugged firmly in my ears.

I hit the immigration hall out of the gate. I was excited to be there and I knew this drill. A lifetime of international travel and I thought I knew it all. Little did I know I had only ever seen one side of that system.

I strode confidently up to the podium, my passport and a print-out of my invitation letter proudly displayed. I tried to keep the conversation short and polite, my goal was to get out of the airport and on the train asap. I guessed I could be in my room in 2 hours, max. My head was already at Paddington station, looking for a taxi.

I was drawn back to the podium by a question “Where is your visa?”

I was confused. They were supposed to stamp that. That is how most visas worked for American passport holders (outside China, at least.) My two previous student visas had been granted that way.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Isn’t that what we’re doing? Did I forget to give you my letter?”

(Always be polite when traveling, it costs nothing and is much more effective)

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back”

I was left standing alone at the podium while others streamed by me. I had never had this perspective before, I was always the streaming, moving quickly through barriers with a smile and a quick polite word. It was disorienting, to suddenly know something is different and off, but not understand what exactly is happening. I was told to take a seat and wait. My original timeline was now very off and I was very much present in only this moment.

Flights land at Heathrow from all over the world, passengers enter the UK from 3 international terminals. That year 68 million passengers passed through their doors.

After I had been sitting for 20 minutes, a flight landed from Lagos. About half of the African passengers were detained for health screenings. I considered how lucky I was. Mine was probably a simple misunderstanding, his was being born in the wrong place. I was scared but grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths and choose happy.

I was not allowed in that day. I was refused entry, detained and treated suspiciously by a group I had previously barely noticed. I was fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. I was in a windowless room with a payphone useless to me. It was early Sunday morning GMT, who would be available? Could anyone help? I sat with the other Americans who had made my same mistake. For some it had been a gamble, for some a genuine misunderstanding. There was a quorum of about 5-6 students, constantly shifting, but always about the same size. There was a woman who had been at a conference and couldn’t give up her passport long enough to get the visa. She was kind in telling me to give up hope immediately, but I was still naïve enough to be unable to comply.

There was a VERY highly strung gentleman from New York who kept us informed of the events he was currently missing at his college on an hourly basis, in between lamenting how miserable this situation was. Now was the coach to meet him, now was the welcome drinks, now was the meeting with his advisor. Maybe he could just buy a cheap ticket to Denmark or Amsterdam, and stay a few days. It is the only time in my life I have ever genuinely thought ‘you are killing my zen, man’

I was trying not to panic and so had not begun to focus on how this knot would be unraveled. I kept thinking that when they understood how the mistake happened, and that I was unaware of a rule change, there would be some accommodation.  There was a singular unwillingness to do anything other than process us and send us home to deal with their colleagues in another branch of UKBA.

We went down to the arrivals hall to collect my bags, including the extra I had brought and paid for. I was quickly learning what it was to be accompanied everywhere, treated as a suspect.

My luggage was searched thoroughly in the otherwise empty entry hall as other passengers sailed through ‘nothing to declare’ and searchd again in front of the entire flight I was put on to get me home as quickly as possible. I had a short chance to call my parents to tell them to expect me. I was escorted with 3 guards, all at least a head taller than I was, the most unlikely international menace you had ever seen. They walked either side and behind me, to the van with the cage in the back and from the cage to the secure departure area where they checked my bags again. My rational mind knew it was a shaming mechanism: how could I have any contraband when the bags had been in their possession since they last searched them? The rest of me was mostly numb. The female guard, taking pity, gave me the chance to pull 2 things from my checked bags- a clean shirt and a stuffed dog who was my most constant companion.

And there I was. In seat 47G, on my way to another 30 hour journey back home to figure out what came next. I flew to Dallas, was met and given a hotel room, woke in darkness to the ringing of the wake-up call and stumbled onto a plane to O’Hare, more grief from TSA, probably because I was a mess and easy. Finally, I arrived back where I started, 72 hours later. My parents had hugs and plans and we had a mad rush for the first 3 days while I got a new passport (a whole other story) and sent all the paperwork to the consulate. Apparently, they aren’t kidding when they say ‘check all immigration requirements’ because those suckers change! As an undergrad I needed a letter, as a postgrad (and post 9/11 and 7/7) one needed a bank account, and a letter, and a whole form, and additional photos. We sent everything they asked and called everyone we knew who might be able to help. And then we waited.

The thing that people misunderstand about government, is that there are lots of parts and they function very differently. The civil service is a job for life. It’s a slow but steady rise, as long as you do your job, don’t make trouble, and are good at the tasks assigned you, its possible to have a wonderful life, and contribute to society. People in the civil service are the balance to politics. They keep the trains running, and the security at borders well, but they are also impervious to changing or breaking the rules. They are annoyed by people trying to circumvent a system and they are careful and thorough. All of which meant I was totally helpless, waiting at that light. Hoping a stranger would read my application, including the statement of why I made the mistake I did and got sent back. There was nothing I could do, no levers to pull.

The only option was to wait at that light, and wait for that civil servant and trust that I would be on time where I was going, and that things would work out ok. The only thing I could do was try to not mind the waiting. To decide that there was a reason that things happen and I’m not always in control.

Sometimes we hit all the green lights, and some days there are more red ones. The way to ensure we have a charmed life either way is to make sure to hit all the greens, or just to choose… not to mind the red ones.

 

Afterward:

I was able to have hope because I trusted the system, and I have faith in something higher. I still believe there is an order to the universe, but our system is in trouble. It is imperative that we fight on, using whatever tools we can, until we see green lights for everyone again.

 

 

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Please consider carefully

I feel compelled to write this because I am genuinely confused by something and it scares me. I have enjoyed debating friends on the other side of the political spectrum for well over a decade now.

I have always appreciated that we have different core values, or assumptions about people, groups and social drivers, but that we are united in a cause of contemplation, and finding the best solutions to make the world a better place for everyone.

After spending as much time as I have trying to find the other side of an argument, I can honestly say that I’m usually able to see and respect my opponent and the arguments they pose.

This is why I am confused:

I know that every friend I have, despite the ways in which we disagree, demonstrates integrity, commitment, and compassion. I know that you are kind and good people who practice respect to every individual you encounter regardless of gender, color, socio-economics, disability, sexual orientation, religion or even the dreaded apple/ android divide.

You believe in two sides to an argument and honest and direct engagement. You believe in the value of discussing issues with respect and tolerance. I would be shocked to hear you insult someone based on how they look, or how they pray, or how they struggle.

I know that you are leaders and hold yourself to high standards. So I honestly don’t understand why you aren’t fighting harder for the soul of your party and your side. You had a fringe group get really loud in a crowded field and yell to victory someone who demonstrates none of your best qualities, and undermines so many of your important arguments. Your candidate is openly bigoted, dishonest and corrupt. This is the foundation of his candidacy.

I like the idea of smaller government at times, I see how values around security can outweigh those of justice at times. But it terrifies me that we would further reduce a shoestring government, and empower our military and police, while simultaneously installing in our highest office a man who takes advantage of every loop-hole and exploits every person he can, who has already expressed a disregard for the checks and balances of our system. You could understand that the exploited would be in favor of more regulation given the way that his tactics are being celebrated as ‘good business’, and worse, ‘good leadership.’  That isn’t good business, it’s straight up exploitation.

I see the value of regulatory bodies when faced with someone who has no concept of enduring truth (or truth of any kind), has such little compunction being deliberately inflammatory for his own gain, and clearly doesn’t respect any laws or regulations if they curb his quest for more power. How will he enforce laws when he regularly disobeys them?

My side is terrified of gangsters like that, and see government as the best way to curb that kind of excess. You’ve repeatedly told me that there are other corrections for behavior like that, and that people are good-hearted and fair. But your party has chosen the biggest and most offensive gangster of our time and is anointing him king because they don’t like his opponent. He is currently under investigation for a number of crimes ranging from sketchy business and financial dealings to sexual assault of a child, his opponent has been cleared from every investigation against her.  Have we really stopped trusting all of our civil organizations? Do we have so little faith in our institutions and our fellow citizens? Have we left all reason and historical context behind?

This country is great because of our democracy AND our diversity. The experiment of the US was an inspiration around the world, and with the constant course corrections intended by the Framers, we have evolved so far beyond where we started. We all agree we still have a lot of work to do.

I have to ask, although I expect no response: All things being equal, are you really going to choose to install as the head of the most powerful military the world has ever seen someone who respects tyrants and not diversity? Who has no integrity and thinks facts and data are not important to the ability to govern? Are our families and future safe when the person who commits their lives to conflict can’t even rise above tiny hand jokes?  Do you believe that over the next four years he would be able to accomplish some of your goals, move the country closer to your ideals? Do you believe the economy, the environment, our education system, our infrastructure, our global security and social relations within the polity will be improved?

You are a member of a party because it represents your views, when it doesn’t, you have a responsibility to try to change that party, or seek an alternative. If a third party candidate is closer to your value-set, vote for them. But don’t vote for the guy who wears your jersey just because you want the win. The win in this case is such a loss for all of us, please, think carefully before you choose.

As a woman I am scared. I am beyond privileged that my gender is the only thing I have to really worry about. I am scared for my friends of color, of different sexual orientation, who carry any marker that isn’t white, cis-male, economically well-off and heteronormative. I am scared for their safety, scared for their mental health, scared for the environment in which their children will come of age.

You are all leaders, and good people, and some of the most intelligent people I know. You have a difficult choice in front of you; support your traditional side and the people who look like you, or choose your conscience, doing the right thing, but knowing your party will lose. Perhaps take as consolation the fact that the likely winner has skirted the political center for decades and demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle to move the country forward. The ability to compromise and evolve your thinking should not be demonized.

This is not Brexit, there is no argument on the other side. A denial or denigration of democracy is for keeps. If we don’t have a strong grasp of indisputable facts how can we even begin to understand where we disagree? How can we believe Trump will serve the public when so much of his life has been spent taking advantage of others? How will he bring together a deeply segregated polity when he himself is so deliberately divisive?

We are a divided country, with systemic and structural problems that need to be addressed right now. They are complicated problems that require difficult solutions and we have procrastinated for too long. I’m not asking you to vote for anyone, just to consider carefully before you give your very precious ballot to a bully who simplifies issues by denying their existence and like a ADHD puppy just moves on to the next thing. ‘Blizzard of lies’ is the best description I’ve heard about this election so far and it isn’t hard to identify the cloud causing the storm. I’ve never wished so much for a transferable vote system so we can see why people are choosing and how our priorities play out.

In the 1930s my grandfather, newly emigrated from Germany, was happy to be safe in this country even while he despaired for his family and friends suffering under the increasing strain of Fascism in Germany. My father grew up, secure in the belief that we would never forget and it would never happen again, I believed that too.

This is why I am now so confused and so scared. Edmund Burke once wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I don’t believe Trump is evil, but I think the rapid descent into white supremacy, fear, blame and lies is the greatest threat our democracy has seen in my lifetime. I’m terrified we will see and do nothing. I see so many leaders in the Republican party jumping on a bandwagon with someone I know they can’t respect, it scares me for the future of our entire political system.

I know we often have different core values that inform our choices, but fear, blame and post-truth politics are not values, or usually drivers of good decisions. This is why I want to ask, as a friend and fellow citizen, to please consider your choice carefully. Please discuss candidly and honestly with the people you know and vote for the person you believe is best equipped to govern the whole country. Please listen carefully to what Trump actually says during this debate about how he will help us improve our future. Weigh it against what you already know and what you find valuable. Decide how accurate or likely his plans are and the specifics of the policies he has in mind. If, after all that, you still believe he is the best person for the job, then vote for him. If not, vote for someone else. It doesn’t have to be Hillary, but don’t just go along this time. The consequences are too important.

Political Debates 9: (She said)

This was a difficult debate to find coherent themes for and I wanted to try to draw it back to some specific points of crystallization so I’ve grouped by theme below.

Individual v. Collective

I think you are mischaracterizing part of my argument, but for the sake of discussion I’ll engage with your comments about the individual unfettered or within a collective governance structure. I see the difference caused because she, the individual, isn’t simply left alone in isolation without any governance structure. She is placed in a situation that incentivizes rampant individualism acted out against others. That is the point, that our governance structures are created as a result of the need to contain individual self-actualization, protecting the rights of those who would otherwise be exploited, and protecting the majority from destructive forces that benefit the few by harming the many. My argument is not fully for one or the other but that there must be a balance between the two. That’s why I believe in sensibly regulated private exchange. I think regulation is pretty important though to create a more level playing field and ensure competition, maintain quality and protect consumers, protect the environment and our economy. (full disclosure: I copied most of these benefits of regulation directly from the Wikipedia article but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.)

I don’t disagree with your points about individual self-interest demonstrated by the VA case (actually, they kind of help make my point), but I also wonder what engenders the level of fear that would let people die instead of owning to a mistake? What allows someone to abandon a basic sense of morality? How close to disaster are they? What happens if they lost this job? How desperate must one be to sacrifice another? And why are they in that space? Surely if the government pays them enough, and they don’t fear unemployment the only reason they could sacrifice those others is because they are somehow evil. And yet- they took a job intended to help someone else. There must be powerful social forces at work that help engender this result, or we must write off whole groups of people as evil or subhuman.  I choose to believe there are forces at work, so I don’t have to write off other humans.

My perception of the individual is specifically not anarchic, I agree that people are naturally social and often come together voluntarily, but I think that Capitalism and Democracy are necessary correlates and serve to balance the dangers inherent in each. Democracy, when properly functioning, restrains the potential for human exploitation, and Capitalism encourages innovation and supports a vibrant and dynamic public sphere. Liberalism is an important third pillar, and ensures we navigate the dangerous path around majoritarianism and chauvinism, but it is important we are careful to maintain the bonds that unite us. People are both social and self-interested (for profit or to avoid danger), we need to take into account both possibilities, and structure society in such a way to help allow for and contain the opposing tides which means a discussion about a cohesive social fabric is highly germane! J

Also, I think I might totally agree with about moral relativism, although I think it might be a beginning, not an ending. I totally understand why it seems scary, but I think our government was founded as a first attempt at allowing for a high degree of difference while still making tactical decisions about matters of common concern. It would seem like maybe we should try to continue that project?

Power Imbalances/ Inequality

At the point you admit we have a major problem when income is concentrated year after year I think you kind of concede much of the argument we are having. I honestly thought you might be joking for a minute there.  I’m not ruling out completely movement within the 1%, or even some movement within the top 3%-10% (I think this is pretty generous, but why not indulge slightly), but pretty much all evidence points to stagnant social mobility across the country, and decreasing potential for those not already wealthy to become so. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when we take away the things that used to provide a basic safety net, and we are unable to grow our way out of our current societal ills, we need to rethink our equation.

I also think it’s pretty obvious that disproportionate levels of education in this country, as well as different access to health care, mental-health care, socio-communal acceptance levels, etc engender inherently unfair contract negotiations. There are clauses in contracts written specifically because if you went to law school the clause is meaningless and if you didn’t you are somehow automatically at a disadvantage (because- y’know, not having gone to law school wasn’t hindrance enough for the highly paid lawyers to beat them in any kind of negotiation) You can even put metrics against it- there are high levels of variability in the infant and overall mortality rates. Sure, overall we all live longer- but there is a widening gap. Inequality in our society is bad and getting worse and that’s a problem for all of us.

If you believe in any positive rights, but the government is not the agent who should be concerned with their provision, I would be interested in what actor is responsible instead?

‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is specifically not a debate term. It encompasses the idea that there are structural issues within our society- things like access to basic human-rights-based services- that unfairly advantage and disadvantage other groups; access to things like good schools, an education in the things necessary for functioning as a citizen and securing future basic provisions, or access to basic childhood preventative health care.

It also encompasses a similar argument from a different discipline. The idea that violence is executed sometimes by specific actors against others, and sometimes inflicted in such a way that the individual internalizes that violence and continues the harm against themselves. We don’t address it for a variety of reasons, but our choice to remain with the status quo should not be taken as proof that inherent power relations are ok. Also, I think it’s important to note that we are beyond any notion of patriarchy and exclusions that could ever be mistaken for vague.

I’m also a little confused about your statement about non-discrimination as I read news pretty regularly about how SCOTUS keeps making judgements that specifically discriminate access to basic health care based on gender. And specifically in ways that demonstrably lead to economic, educational and other forms of discrimination and disproportionality (a woman’s ability to plan her family has long-term material consequences for both her and her society. You can say she can ‘just go buy it herself’ but when many families live hand-to-mouth an additional $250/ year can be overwhelming)

I would actually love to hear your arguments about the ‘check your privilege’ brigade. I don’t believe in cutting off avenues of debate- if you think there is something to be said there that adds to your overall argument, or is in some way an answer or foundation I would say that is totally germane.

 What’s to be done?

I think what we both definitely agree on is that what we are doing now isn’t working. The problem with your charter schools example as the alternative is an age old question in research: what happens if they fail? What happens to that group of students- failure for them becomes a lifelong issue, that we either will pay for in forms of social insurance, crime, or the further moral decay of whatever relativistic place we inhabit?

I have to disagree with your premise that ‘despite enormous sums of money’ education is failing. That assumes that the only thing that impacts the education of our young people is the overall aggregate amount of material resources over a long period of time. This is a problematic statement on a lot of levels- a) not sure it really is all that much money when it all shakes out, and b) unfortunately isolating specific parts of social infrastructure, alternately funding and defunding them, subjecting them to huge outside pressures and then blaming them for failure seems a little like a thumb on the scale to me. There was an Economist article a few years ago about the importance of respect and parental involvement in the overall success of children. How well respected are our teachers when parents struggle to name their childrens’ teachers instead of reality TV stars?

I agree we need to try something else, because what we are doing isn’t working. But we also need to ensure that we do not lose more generations of students in our experimentation. I would also posit that there have been successes as well as failure. So my question is why scrap instead of reform? Why do we have to throw out everything and treat something that really shouldn’t be subject to market pressures in the same way we treat any other commodity for trade?

Also, as an aside (and with gratitude to my brother the policy-smart-guy) The argument that government size is related to income inequality “is absurd for a few reasons. First, the size of government has grown both under times of growing and shrinking inequality. Government grew a lot from 1930-1960, yet inequality shrank. The better indicator for inequality is marginal tax rates. As they have shrunk over the last 40 years, inequality has skyrocketed. Also, there is zero evidence that trickle down, supply side or minimalist government reduces inequality. In fact, the laisse faire 1920s saw a massive rise in inequality.”

On utopian socialism, it is, and I don’t advocate it, but it seems like almost every other industrialized country of the world has somehow gotten the balance better than we have. They oscillate between spectrums, but there are mechanisms to try to avoid barbarism, and a total denial of huge classes of people as people. I don’t believe all people will be totally equal and neither should they be. But I think we lose something as a society if most individuals are not allowed to at least have a fighting chance to reach their full potential. But for that to happen it takes a balance of functioning democracy and capitalism- we need both. I see your point re: xenophobia in Europe but I also don’t see furnaces, and the redirection of scarce resources to exterminate marginalized groups. I would still say we are doing better than we have.

I think I agree a little more with the Canadian system than you- there is both a letter and a spirit of the law, and to ignore the spirit completely is as foolish as believing we know what The Framers would think about politics today. Again, balancing the history and context, why they were writing, is as important to reading what they wrote. Sadly, writers almost always assume that audiences will understand their context- because they inhabit the same temporal space, or because they will inevitably be minor students of history. We know this, it’s demonstrated in literature critique and critical theory and cognitive psychology. We have to impute something of why they wrote what they did, as well as just the literal text. That is specifically the job of the judiciary, to interpret. If they were smart enough to know that interpretation was such an important piece of the functioning of law, they had to also expect that their intentions would be considered, as well as the letter of the laws they were drafting.

Also, do you honestly believe that we have the possibility of civil discourse at this point to deliberate on Constitutional amendments? Do you think if those in power even tried that there is even the slightest chance of an actual debate on the issue? In the chamber? With actual evidence? And would any of the media outlets actually respect the importance of the debate? The system is broken. I sincerely hope we all realize that and converse from within that context.

Laws aren’t usually created in abstract. At times they predate the actions they are designed to contain, when a large enough majority is afraid of the potential of something to make that decision. I would posit that more often however laws are made in specific response to needs within society. A harm that is large enough governors decide that action must be taken to curb or contain that harm. More than that, usually laws are created to protect those in society least able to protect themselves. I totally agree that in the last 30 years unfortunately some of that execution has shifted and the willingness of private interests to subvert the good of the people has taken hold. But it doesn’t negate the fact that we have to find a solution to the problems that face us, and that so far, some form of effect government has been the most successful means of doing that.

Honestly, that might be part of my difficulty. I still believe in an old-fashioned idea of government. In which it contains people of integrity- who see their job as a responsibility to be completed with honor. When did that change? When did we come to distrust those who stand up to take that responsibility? Does our slide into a never-ending political race mean we think only those driven by ego will put themselves up? Governance and its correlate government are specifically mechanisms of individuals trying to make efficient the mechanisms of our collective life. There are major issues in the manifestation we have, but I’m struggling to understand where the heart of your argument is. For example, you have many instances where our current bureaucracy is ineffective- is the issue that government should not be the mechanism for delivery of basic positive rights? Or do you truly believe that not all people have a right to a life unencumbered by preventable diseases?

The article you sent on positive and negative rights was a great one. (I mostly ignored the rhetoric at the beginning J) I mean, my basic and possibly simplistic answer is that it might just be easier if we viewed basic health provision as a positive right best ensured by government, and businesses paid higher taxes instead of purchasing the means for enacting that right privately (i.e. redirect the funds they pay one entity and pay another instead). The government could more effectively negotiate with large insurance companies and private citizens wouldn’t have to subject their negative rights to public negotiation. That way private groups wouldn’t have to be agents of the state and everything would be a bit easier? (I am awaiting your argument about the waste in government providing health care with great joy!)

Conclusion

I think that is plenty for us to be getting on with. But I can’t believe I forgot to talk about use-value and symbolic-exchange! Use value and symbolic-exchange-value are some of the best things I learned in my studies! It’s the spectrum between which something has value for the actual material resource it is/ can be used for and value based on the symbolism it invokes in us. A car is a car- but a branded car gives me a meaning and identity far beyond taking me to the store for milk. This is relevant because the concepts through which we understand society are becoming more and more abstract and difficult to negotiate. I think we need to reground ourselves in what we think matters, what we can agree on, and an attempt- however impossible it might seem- to agree to a process to negotiate difference in a way that leads to meaningful compromise and progress.

Always lovely to hear your ideas!

Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’

House Sitting But Dancing

Authors Notes:

Screen shot 2010-10-20 at 21.04.21

I am sorry for the delay, but it seems that moving and then Portland took much more time than I thought. Tobe honest, it wasn’t really the moving so much as that thedetails involved made it much more difficult to be

analytical. I’ve had lots of thoughts in the meantime, but not enough clarity for it to make it possible/ fruitful to write it down. I know that it’s a pretty serious lapse, but back now and hopefully less crap in future.

Also, and I know this is a really sucky excuse I’ve been having difficulty accessing iWeb from my laptop…

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I was reading an article today in the Oregonian (actually it was an op-ed) piece about the suicide of a supporting character on a reality TV program. The gist of the article was that we, as watchers, should be ashamed of ourselves for trafficking in and being entertained by this man’s (and other’s) difficulties in life. I was interesting because there was a report on the BBC news last week that researchers have found a difference in the choices children profess about intended employment/ dream careers. Previously children often chose to go into caring professions (doctor, nurse, policeman) while today they mostly want to be famous with careers that match (football/ movie/ popstar. The researcher blames the media endorsement of the glamorous lifestyle and exciting events in these peoples lives for the shift.

The two are, of course, related. At least I think so. But there are more pervasive and problematic correlations as well.

The op-ed blames us for watching, while the media industry blames them for signing up while simultaneously telling them they should. But the real issue comes from the individual shift in perception and the accompanying societal impacts. It seems we are failing to connect the dots between these things and that’s the mentality of blaming someone else. True, we could choose not to watch, true also those stars could attempt to anticipate and choose not to participate. At this point I don’t think its possible for them to say they had no idea what it might be like (although I think no one can ever really know what it would be like). But I think that’s somewhat the point. Although they couldn’t know exactly what it would be like, its possible to attempt to understand based on historical evidence of what its been like before.

This also seems linked to the riots. People’s inability to future the consequences of their actions. There has been a lot of talk, almost since the beginning of the riots of the culture and context that created the conditions conducive to their happening (sorry for the excessive alliteration). But based on the evidence in court many of the individuals were already members who had chosen to take criminal action before. This is not to say that there is not widening disparity in society (there is) or that it need not be addressed (it does), but to say that individual’s themselves still must bear responsibility for their actions.  I know that this is easier for me to say sitting in the privileged position that I do, but it is the same sentiment expressed by many people in the same communities from which the rioters hale.

Upholding the rule of law is about more than simple protection of property (although many think that’s its basis). From my perspective law is about organization of large groups in densely populated areas to allow people structure to understand how they can expect their neighbours to behave and give them codes of behaviour as well. The real crime is not the taking of things, but the unconscious thought that an individual’s desire for something is more important than the codes themselves. My father asked about the difference between the Arab Spring and the London riots and my answer is simple- in the former the long-term consequences and the collective were the point and in the latter they were not. The professed goals of all demonstrators in the Middle East is the introduction of democracy, a system that allows for the establishment and orderly maintenance of codes of conduct, allowing individuals within that society to make choices as to the balance between their freedoms and responsibilities. To be fair, once established those codes will favour those in power at the time of establishment and this undermines the premise of total equality. Democracy is not totally fair and not totally equal but it is an attempt at fairness and equality while maintaining the malleability for society to adapt to changing social conditions. At the point when individuals decide that system isn’t working for them to the extent they must ignore it it does raise questions. The question is, as many people have said ‘why did they do it?’. Many already have various politically charged answers, largely based on their ideological positions.

Rights/ Privileges/ Responsibilities

Governance.

There is something wrong with the statement ‘they work for us’ when applied to government. The reality is that they work on behalf of us, as a public good, codifying, overseeing and enforcing the codes we all choose to support. Even if we don’t agree with each thing, we agree with the system that has currently approved whatever it is they are codifying/overseeing/ enforcing and thus, in maintaining that system they are still working on our behalf. I say that because we are not their boss, just like they are not ours. They are from among us, self-chosen to be sure, and with myriad personal motives to make that choice, but still. The point of democracy is that expectation that everyone has a chance (although some have a greater chance) to make the choice and work on behalf of society and because it is a choice, and they are a member, we believe their work will be more reflective of our experience. But part of that work is to be informed about the consequences of their choices for all the people. Much of the disquiet with Washington is the perception (real or not) that those we have chosen to govern for us are making their choices either uninformed or unwilling to see the consequences of their actions.