The Unintentional Contrarian

I tend to find myself on the least popular side of most arguments. It is not by choice mind you. I am not the kind of person who likes to pick a fight. I am, though, not opposed to a debate. From this unenviable place I find myself in a rather precarious position in the age of identity politics. I have the least valuable inherent identifiers for commenting on a wide variety of issues that occupy the pages of print and web based media outlets. For the record, those identifiers are as follows: white, middle class, college educated male born in 1985 and raised in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota. I grew up with a stable family, Nintendo, Jesus, public schools, and girlfriends. Pretty standard.

Those features do not appear to provide me much credit in terms of understanding what it is like to be black, poor, a woman, or any other marginalized or oppressed group. Any criticism I make about the nature and value of identity politics and the social movements it inspires can be easily dismissed as the ravings of a privileged-white-heteronormative-American-male. How can someone like that understand the animosity people of color hold for the police or a woman’s justified fear when alone at night? The sad irony is that rather than being judged by the content of my character (evidenced by chosen, not given identities) and instead by the color of my skin or where I was born, the sweeping generalizations that inevitably follow are by definition discriminatory. Since I am who I am, the argument goes, there is no way I can ever really understand the systemic nature or the experience of racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination. I would do well to just stay quiet.

But beyond those inherent identifiers are chosen identities. These gave me insight into what it is like to be a minority or to be oppressed. Because these identities fall outside the norm that my inherent features project to the rest of the world, they have allowed me to bridge the gap between my more traditionally privileged positions and those of the oppressed. The first of these is that I do not believe in God.

I remember the look on my pastor’s face when I told him. I was about thirteen and I had developed a bit of a reputation for asking annoying questions in church classes. So I finally had to come out with it. I was an atheist. Church had been a consistent component of my life growing up. Most Sundays and Wednesdays I would go do church stuff with my family, but I never really believed any of it. I went along with most of it because it was easier that way. No reason to rock the boat. By the age thirteen, pubescence and pompousness had swelled to a point that I was willing to finally tell people. Some people could not even fathom being an atheist while others did not see what the big deal was. Either way, there was a price to pay to assert a position so far from the norm. When you no longer accept religion, you have to surrender the protection that religion demands: immunity from criticism. Unfortunately that often leads to a litany of rude questions, unwarranted judgment, preconceived yet hidden assumptions and a generally negative attitude about your character. The usual outcome is social exclusion.

While that was certainly my experience, it was not mine alone. Over the course of human history the gravity well of religion has kept most human minds and actions in a close orbit around tradition. Our evolutionary impulse to listen to our parents has a reasonable grounding – one does not want to test whether they should or should not jump from a cliff edge – but it lends itself to easy abuse. The acceptance of parental authority is easily translated into other social spheres. We learn to obey authority figures and to respect status. But some of us seem incapable of doing so and therefore feel compelled, usually by good reasons and intentions, to contest the legitimacy of authority wherever we find it. When humans sought answers to questions we did not have the knowledge to truly understand, we thrust those questions up to the gods to answer. Religion is a very human impulse, but so too is the tendency to reject it. It seems inevitable that humanity would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil at some point.

Still, that has not gone well for those who have asserted intellectual independence, specifically in the realm of religion. The length of the list containing names of those socially excluded, banished, fined, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and killed because they asserted a disbelief in the one, or many gods, will never fully be known. Rest assured, it is long, and more names are added every day. One needs to look no further than Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, or Iraq see the potential dangers of the strength of will it takes to stand by your supernatural convictions. While for me the threat of death or imprisonment was slight, the social exclusion was real. Invariably after admitting that I was an atheist I was immediately put on the defensive. The barrage of questions – so easily answered by priests, rabbis and imams – came rushing forth. The answers I gave, tough as they are to accept, were rarely granted with grace. Some people even refused to go that far, condemning me as the holder of a dangerous and potentially treasonous idea that should be avoided if not simply suppressed. To be an atheist was and still is tantamount to not being a full member of society, at least not one in good standing. Rather, we atheists should be pushed to the margins and had a close eye kept on and preferably to, again, stay quiet. For the first time in my life I felt the social weight of a minority status.

Even within the Atheist community there is disagreement and marginalization. In the hyper-specialized world of 21 century capitalism, no difference is too small to matter. Every divergent position may cause such heated vitriol that both sides can, though aligned in nearly every other issue, refuse to cooperate. Some, like me, enjoy the “New Atheist” tradition while others like the more mild, complacent and socially acceptable form. It really is a matter of whether you are willing to thrust yourself into the fray, or wait for everyone else to catch up. I have never had the ability to wait.

Holding, not to mention being open about, such a socially precarious position seems stupid to most people. Sure, we should all be authentic, be proud of who we are and whatnot, but if we are honest, no one wants to commit social suicide. Becoming an atheist, especially fifteen years ago, was just that. That was not the end for me, though. When I was fifteen I had to participate in a debate for English class that though I intended it as a test of my skills to choose a topic that was a non-starter I knew just the proposition, I would find that I would come to argue my position outside class as well. That position: “The United States should adopt a Communist form of government.”

Given what we had all learned in school up to then, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I remembered my history lessons. The Soviet Union was the evil empire: a place without freedom, fraught with commodity shortages and little more than an archipelago of prison camps. We had been taught that America’s great struggle with the Communists exhibited not only that the American way was better than the Soviet, but that Capitalism was superior to Communism. Communism, (or Socialism or Marxism – they are synonyms as far as most Americans are concerned) they told us, is a system contrary to human nature. One where the government takes all property, forces everyone to work for the same wages, and demands a dictatorship to control the whole terrible system.

Stalin, my teachers lessoned, was Communism incarnate: a shrewd man who, though once our ally, killed millions of his own people through starvation and concentration camps. My high school history teacher was very adamant about the subject. “Stalin,” he said, “was even worse than Hitler.” From those lessons in my mind, and the minds of my classmates around the country, Nazism=Hitler > Communism=Stalin. So I had to argue for something worse than Hitler? This decision was not likely to help my already uneasy social position given my already out atheism.

As I prepared for the debate – reading the Communist Manifesto and then several other of Marx’s famous works – I was left mostly confused. I had come to one unshakable realization. My teachers had lied to me. Either they did not know what they were talking about (which was probably the case) or they had consciously or unconsciously accepted Cold War propaganda as fact. The ideas of Marxism, Socialism and Communism, first and foremost as distinguishable and independent things, are, I learned, much more nuanced and less superficial than we had been led to believe. Really it seemed to me more like an argument for a system that tapped into the very things that I had learned and enjoyed about the moral teachings of my religious education. As I read more it seemed that Socialism or better yet Communism, rather than Capitalism, was the means to bring about a better, more moral state. Marx talked about the seizure of the government by the working class, not so it could ingratiate itself with lavish luxury like in Russia, but so it could use its power to combat poverty, inequality and discrimination of all forms. The truth was there before me. I figured I could win the debate so long as I dealt with Stalin.

My adolescent study of Marx, though quick and too shallow, when combined with a dramatic conversation with a crack addict in the downtrodden Southeast side of Washington D.C., changed my perspective. No longer did I debate the issue simply to test my oratory skills. Instead I tried to undo the damage that the propaganda about Communism and the Soviet Union had done. I gave an impassioned plea for us to let go of their preconceived notions about the subject. I explained that the infantile description of Marxism that we had been taught was bunk. That it was our economic system, Capitalism, and not Socialism, which was responsible for the greatest woes: slavery, inequality, colonialism and two world wars. Stalinism, I told them, is distinct from Marxism. Sure they share a common vocabulary, but one attempts to criticize capitalism and proscribe an antidote, albeit an amorphous one. The perverse form simply usurps those same phrases which tap into the generosity of the human spirit and uses them to facilitate the consolidation of power into the hands of a small center of power. Finally, I tried to sum up the whole thing; Communism is nothing more than true democracy.

Democracy, we all agree, is the ideal, right? Well, we do not have democracy in America. Our economic system and the places we spend most of our waking hours – our jobs – are not democratic institutions but oligarchies or mini-dictatorships. Communism merely asserts that we ought to democratize work. That iss all. How could you disagree with that? After my opponents inevitably failed to adequately combat my contentions the class voted unanimously for the resolution. I was stunned. People like me, who had not grown up in the propaganda frenzy of the Cold War were able to see past the remnants of it with which we had been indoctrinated.

From then on I thrust myself into studying Marx and had to do so mostly on my own. No one was teaching about such a dangerous and radical idea. After the local newspaper published my letter to the editor cautioning my fellow citizens about the dangers of American intervention in Iraq, I received a copy of the alien and sedition act while sitting in class one afternoon. I did not know it then, but that is the very law that the government has used to silence dissent by arresting, detaining, and/or deporting anyone promoting “seditious” activities like advocating for the system I now did. As a seventeen year old kid in 2003, I finally saw how criticizing capitalism in America, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was tantamount to treason. It was not at all clear to me why though. But it did not matter.

Over the course of the last hundred years the United States government, media and education have waged a full scale assault on people like me. Though we never really learned about Marx, we did learn about the Italian anarchists Sacco and Venzetti, (as dangerous revolutionaries who were executed after being convicted of murder) but nothing of the Haymarket Riot. There were the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920. As the German revolution was being drowned in blood, the American Department of Justice decided to go after radical leftists, arresting and deporting hundreds and causing the rest to hide in fear. Rather than learn about the labor struggles that had led much of the American working class to strikes and boycotts which precipitated the raids, all we had been taught was that the DOJ went after the commies because Communism is “anti-American.”

As I said, there was nothing about the labor struggles and trials of Communists and Socialists in the 1930s taught in school, despite the history being relatively recent, interesting and full of lessons about the depression that did not focus solely on the President. It is hard for Americans to believe this, but the President does not do everything. No doubt, the brief read that most students partake of our flawed history textbooks could easily convince them otherwise. Real history shows us that it is not presidents but the people who generate real and lasting change. Like the lost history of the Communist Party in organizing black laborers in the South, which paved the way for the civil rights movement, a movement whose key organizers were committed Communists. But you would never hear that in history class.

After WWII the anti-communist activity in the US swung into full gear. The propaganda machine began rolling both by the U.S. Government but also by big media, industrial and financial business as well as academia. Hollywood radicals were blacklisted. Senator McCarthy made “The House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities” a spectacle only rivaled by the Purge Trials in Stalin’s USSR. The FBI, under Herbert Hoover who was convinced that there was an imminent threat of Communist uprising, created and implemented the COINTEL program which infiltrated and incapacitated all of the leading labor, radical, student and Marxist organizations in the United States. At one time, there were as many FBI informants in the Communist Party than there were actual Communists. Part of this campaign involved imprisoning, murdering, deporting or other ways of taking members of the movement out of commission. Taken together, by the 1980s, America’s radical left had been all but wiped out. There were few Marxist teachers in classrooms, no popular writers on the subject, only a select few political leaders that attempt to give voice to the cause. It was not because the ideas were in and of themselves fraught with error, but that they were suppressed, managed, marginalized and taken out of public view by those with the most to lose. With it went a philosophy which sought to promote the simple idea that we should not tolerate poverty, inequality and war for the sake of profit.

Because of this history, I have too been relegated to the position of “that Godless Commie” or “that crazy guy talking about revolution.” These powerful ideas are seen by so many as nothing more than a joke or a position stemming from naivety. The United States program of destroying radicals in general has been so successful that simply as a Marxist I am a minority whose voice is or should be silenced. Sure I can write my blog or speak on the street, but there is no path to power, all pathways to information to the common person are controlled by corporate and social media companies and their government regulating friends. Besides, being a communist is tantamount to being a fascist in America. I would wager that even someone with a sufficiently deep education may still have trouble telling the difference. If you did not study history or political science at the college level, and even then, how would you know? After all, it was what we all learned in school, right?

Just in case, let me be clear then. Barack Obama is not a socialist; he is a centrist capitalist politician. Adolf Hitler was not a socialist (yes, I know it the National Socialist Workers Party – but who did Hitler destroy first? He destroyed the communists), he was an ultra-conservative corporatist. Stalin claimed to be a socialist but the Soviet Union under Stalin was about as far from a democratized workforce as you could get. China is led by the Communist Party, but it is clear that there is neither democracy at work, nor in any true sense in the political sphere. This is not Communism. There have been many iterations of Marx’s perspective which have been prompted by world events since Marx’s death. All of them are attempts to make the theory work. Unfortunately revolutions occurred in the places where it was most unlikely to succeed (the non-industrial) and in the manner that quite destructive (famines and wars). This is not Socialism or Communism: it is Capitalism. If one is looking for an example of the ideas of Marx in practice, I suggest a study of the Paris Commune.

But to make this point puts you further into the margins. Even if this analysis is right, and I assure you it is, it makes no difference if no one hears it. But it does not stop there for me. Around the time I came to understand the exploitation of workers by capitalists while still trying to deal with the profound intellectual and emotional struggle of dealing with death without God, I came to yet another revelation. Much of the food I ate growing up was pretty standard northern European, white people food. You know, the standard, meat and potatoes. For the most part I liked most of it. My mom always called me a picky eater, which I guess I was, but I never thought much about what was really going on every night. Provoked by the deaths of childhood pets, coupled with the irony of the fun times I had herding sheep at my grandfather’s farm knowing of their impending slaughter, the weight of the finality of death finally hit home. It forced me to contemplate just how many lives I had been responsible for taking every day I unconsciously ate meat. I had never really made the connection.

In the course of a week it became clear that I could no longer eat meat. There is no possible moral argument for eating meat. Where one stands on the issue lies on a spectrum between unconscious meat consumption (and the results thereof) and the strictly vegan diet. This continuum is a moral one. The farther you go towards the vegan end, the more moral your dietary habits. I cannot fathom an argument that would serve to refute this assertion. I think it will be clear that no kind of religious or speciesist (humans are the top of the food chain: the moral equivalent of “it is okay because we can”) argument will suffice.

The decision to become a vegetarian at the age of sixteen again put me in the minority. In Midwestern America, so few people violated the norm that when they did, there was not much by way of support. Sure, I suppose I could have just not rocked the boat, but then I would have to resign myself to being, at best, a hypocrite and I refused to do that. The knowledge that I was right acted as a buttress, and I was able to withstand the social pressure to conform. Although much more common in 2015, this obviously morally superior dietary decision still stands as something that can serve to marginalize those who want to bring to a light a subject that most certainly needs the consciousness of people to be raised.

So, even as someone who appears to be able to take advantage of all that white, male, hetero-normative, middle class (oh, and middle class is not a real thing, by the way) privilege can provide, I too have struggled with marginalization, social exclusion, police intimidation and incarceration. I too have felt general dismissed from the rest of society. The most complicated of these positions is when it regards an identity that conforms closer to the traditional identifiers that gain one social currency nowadays. Over the last ten years I have seen the LGBT equality movement begin to really get steam and make some significant headway. First I have seen the consciousness of our nation change after an opening and the relaxation of the formerly stringent marginalization of the community en masse. It led to the opening up of social dialogue about the place of sexual orientation in our understanding of equal and human rights. I have been very proud of the American people for this, but do not get me wrong, the struggle continues.

As a bi-sexual man I feel some affinity for the movement and consider myself a member of it. But I have not participated meaningfully in gay pride parades or become wildly (though slightly) active in the gay marriage movement. There are several reasons for my arms-length relationship. First, as a Marxist I see the marginalization and oppression of gay people as a service to the ruling class by further dividing the large working class. So while I understand their struggle, if we focused on overthrowing Capitalism, then there would be no social value in LGBT discrimination of any kind. I see the gay marriage aspect of the LGBT movement as a distraction from the larger goal of lasting social change.

Marriage is an institution with a dubious past (one of passing property – the woman – from father to husband) that I am still not sure why the LGBT community would want to promote such an institution. But this is the genius of modern capitalist society. Rather than a marginalized group gaining political power to challenge the systemic nature of discrimination and exploitation as aspects that benefit a certain class, the movement spends political capital on a program aimed at attaining inclusivity into the very societal structure that allowed it in the first place. This is what happened with gay marriage and happened to the African American civil rights movement as well. Instead of seeking to topple the system that allowed and encouraged LGBT, racial, sexual, and national discrimination, these movements are guided not to revolution but to inclusion as full members of the hegemonic system. The irony is too sad to enjoy in this case.

Another reason I do not usually openly identify with the LGBT community is not because I am afraid of the backlash, but because my letter of the four – “B” – has its own unique history within the movement. This is where even within the inherent characteristics, for which gender and sexual identities surely are, can clash with the chosen even within a traditional identity based community. One of the strengths of LGT people is their more obvious challenge to hetero-normative social roles and norms except – maybe and paradoxically – marriage. This is not the case with bi-sexual people. For my own sake I am much more taken with women than I am men, and therefore present no real visible outward contest to hetero-normativity. I would appear to any observer as straight. I am married to a woman, behave very much like a “dude” for all intents and purposes, and am not branded on the tongue as it were. In many ways I fit into neither world. It is a limbo that is, as the theme again emerges, marginalizing even within the movement.

The provincial nature of the LGBT movement has caused some tension between the LGs, the Bs and the Ts. While there is a general understanding of the larger issue of equality and justice (words whose meanings are seemingly nebulous in a capitalist economy), there is not such an understanding about the particularity of the struggle on the individual identities in the larger LGBT community. Many gay and lesbian people are obviously so, and make no attempt, nor have any good reason, to hide it. They have no reason to be, but their outward expressions of that difference are now pillars of strength on which they can lean. For transgender people the struggle is one of gender identity and societal norms regarding sex and gender in general. While I freely admit that the struggle of the trans community is the most important of the four, it does not mean that others are not so as well. For some time a current has run through the more – shall I say? – conservative gay and lesbian crowd that see bisexual people has ‘having it both ways.’ We can be gay when it is convenient or when we want, and straight otherwise. Therefore, we are not really ‘all in’ like the others. They are openly different, obviously threatening the status quo, whereas bisexual people can blend in without being noticed. It seems like the safer – err – choice? I will leave you to deal with the layers of irony there.

So even my non-chosen identity is perilous in the world of identity politics and that is the limitations of it. When the ‘politics is personal’ the politics cannot be structural, and it most clearly is. While I understand the natural desire of social beings who feel marginalized in modern society to want to strive to be included in that society, the gains are temporary at best and do nothing to prevent that kind of action against a different group. Just getting to fit in does nothing to alter the structure that allowed for, or even encouraged, the discrimination to begin with. To ignore the structural impediments to progress, we only empower and legitimize the system which previously exploited us. It is like when a worker becomes an owner, a gay couple gets to marry or when a black man gets elected President. Sure, it makes us feel good, but does nothing to change the system that benefits from such exclusions, and then again benefits from the inclusion. We get taken advantage of either way. If we continue to look inward for our political perspective we will only see the gap that we can fill in the edifice of society, rather than the crumbling and unjustifiable absurdity of the whole monstrous construction itself.

Therefore, I encourage my brothers, sisters, comrades and friends around the world to think big about our problems. Step outside the confines of your innate characteristics, the identities you did not choose but came with, and see how you relate to the political and economic systems of the 21st century. Explore the criticism of religion and decided for yourself whether it make sense to you given the information to which you have access. Think about why some people (white, black, men and women) are poorer than others, and if it is justified for 90% of the wealth to be owned by 10% of the population. Consider whether you like going to work at your mini-dictatorship every day, or if you would rather have a say in your work. Think about who died for your meal, and whether marriage is all you want to see for your LGBT friends.

I can assure everyone that if you take a sober assessment of the world around you and neither accept nor dismiss anything from the start, you may realize that – although one may not look like it – they may have experienced the kind of marginalization that you have but it is not because of their skin color, or where they were born, or who they want to have sex with, but the content of their character that put them there. That experience, I assure you, may provide a unique perspective that may be worth listening to for once. If we do that, we can start making this world better for everyone.

Chomsky and Harris – Making and Crossing the Bridge

HarrisChomskySam Harris recently published e-mail correspondence between him and Noam Chomsky which was, to say the least, unhelpful and downright useless as it stands. What is needed, it seems, is a bit of distillation. We need to understand where the difference between them is. Anyone who has read enough Harris and Chomsky (who have apparently not read much of each other’s work) may understand where that difference truly lies. Seeing nothing but banal summaries and shameless side-taking, I feel it worth it try to make some inroads. Here is how I see the difference and how to resolve it.

Harris sent to Chomsky his section in the “End of Faith” that discussed, as he saw it, Chomsky’s lackluster, if not absent, attention to intention as a motivating factor in his moral condemnation of America’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan. He sent to Chomsky his explanation which included the following questions and terse answers:

“What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.”

Harris asserts that the specific intent of the Clinton administration had in bombing the factory was not to cause human harm, though he concedes that was the ultimate result. Harris concludes, both in his writing and in a recent Joe Rogan podcast that he does not believe that the administration had any intent to kill anyone and ostensibly bombed the factory because they believed it was manufacturing chemical weapons in aid to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

If that was indeed the case, the moral culpability of the bombing is much less on Harris’ terms than if the Clinton administration had intentionally bombed the factory to bring about the deaths of thousands, which was, after all, the end result. Collateral damage, based ostensibly on a mistake, simply does not rise to the same level of culpability as if they had coldly intended to bring about those deaths. Harris does not consider that the possibility that the Clinton administration bombed the factory out of retaliation for the embassy bombings that happened just before the attack. Chomsky adamantly asserts in response and explains that it was, for the worse, representative of cold indifference to the results that is the most morally corrupt aspect of the bombing given the available evidence at the time. Harris does not consider that it may have been a wag the dog situation (that the 9/11 commission denied) to distract from the failures of Clinton administration policies, which has also been suggested. Harris takes the government at its word, and further bolsters that belief by saying in the Rogan conversation that he couldn’t fathom Clinton rationally behaving to the contrary. That, needless to say, gives Bill Clinton far too much credit.

This is precisely what Chomsky is annoyed about. It is part of the reason he, poorly in my view, categorized Harris and Hitchens as “religious fanatics” of the “state religion.” It seems to me that Chomsky ought to, at minimum, clarify his position and to walk back from his irresponsible turn of phrase, a kind he so uncharacteristically engaged in here. That being said, and not to defend his unnecessary callousness in his personal emails with Harris, he has legitimate concerns about the nature, truth, utility, and indeed rationality of Harris’ position regarding the bombing of the Al-Shifa factory and the presumed intentions and moral culpability of the Clinton administration.

What Chomsky failed to adequately express to Harris is Harris’ fundamental misunderstanding of American foreign policy, propaganda and the moral aspects of both. He assumed that Harris would understand this point because he assumed Harris had read him but only because he hasn’t read any Harris, which Harris assumed. That fundamental mistake helps to understand why Chomsky dismisses Harris and Hitchens arguments as “fanatics” of the “state religion.” He sees Harris like the follower of a prophet, simply buying the American exceptionalist position, as mouthed by that government. Harris, it seems, believes America (at least vis-a-vis the government) is a genuinely positive moral agent, because it is so in contrast to ISIS or some other horrific group. But when our (America’s) agency creates moral hazards, Harris sees them as an aberration of our inherent moral worthiness, whereas Chomsky sees it as indicative of the precise opposite character that America holds.

Basically Harris believes that America is good and has made mistakes; Chomsky believes those “mistakes” are in fact the intended, or allowed collateral results of our actions which show our amoral (if not immoral) nature. This is the fundamental difference. Chomsky is unwilling to believe or apologize for American actions which have, as intended or at least collaterally “tolerated” resulted in the deaths of hundreds to millions of people, as merely moral mistakes. Harris it seems to take, a priori, America as a positive moral agent and when it fails to be so, it is because something went wrong, or something was coopted by other immoral forces. Chomsky denies this, suggesting the evidence just is not there to support such a claim.

Harris suggests a way to think about his point by way of two thought experiments. The first he made in the correspondence. In the first case we are to imagine that al-Qaeda is filled with genuine humanitarians.

“Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

Harris says this would be “a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

Counterpoised to the la-Qaeda humanitarians Harris then asks us to consider that “al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.

Then Harris would simply “imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.”

The second thought experiment asks us to consider the results of the possession of a “perfect weapon” by different forces. The perfect weapon is one that insures against the possibility of collateral damage. Armed with this weapon how would the various agents in the world use them? Harris argues that terrorist or religious extremist forces would use them to cause wanton destruction of their apostate enemies, civilians and military forces alike, despite their ability not do so. Harris believes, and has good reasons to believe, that these forces want to destroy a world that does not conform to their religious conservatism.

Harris rejects, through silence it seems, another potential of the use of this perfect weapon for the Islamists. It is possible that they would be used to rid the Middle East or other “Muslim Lands” of infidels (Westerners) and would do so without collateral damage. It may go further, with a Muslim conquest of the whole world, yet without civilian deaths or “terrorism.” Harris has to admit this is, at least, a possibility. Those who have studied modern warfare understand that guerrilla war tactics (which may include suicide bombings, car bombs, hostage taking or other “guerrilla” activities) is the only one capable of successfully contesting something like the American military. There is at least the potential that they are related, albeit distorted through the realm of religion with all its vulnerabilities, to military and other international interventions. Harris is silent on all of this.

However, the fear that Harris presents is understandable. There is something to the fact that there are people who would act in conscious disregard for the value of human life. That is a real threat, one Chomsky too easily dismisses. After the seeming demise of the Communist opposition to capitalist imperialism, Islamic Jihad has taken its place. The difference between these ideologies is crucial to understand why Harris is right to be concerned, and Chomsky is dismissive. Whereas the Communist revolutions of the late 20th century attempted to usurp the power of capitalism with socialism, the Islamic “revolutions” are reactionary in nature. They seek to pull the world back to the 5th century, all with 20th and 21st century technology. This is not a situation to take lightly. Chomsky, unfortunately, does just that.

The odd result of this concern for Harris appears to make America, as the countervailing and therefore morally benign (or indeed superior) force without exception. Going back to his perfect weapons thought experiment America would likely use them to advance democracy and freedom or at least to minimize casualties in pursuit of its otherwise noble interests. In this sense, he has bought – hook, line and sinker – the propaganda campaign of American bourgeois forces to convince its population that it is not the imperialist juggernaut the way the majority of the rest of the world sees it. The thought experiment leads to an absurd and useless line of questions with corresponding untenable answers regarding a false analogy with Iraq from Harris book.

“Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.”

While this might sit well with a generally liberal audience, one that accepts the rhetoric and propaganda of American moral virtue, it does not conform to the realty that Chomsky has diligently spent his life carefully and methodically attempting to dismantle. It is more a representation of the success of the propaganda that Harris seems to accept without exception. Chomsky has become famous as someone consistently critical of the way America both behaves in the world, as well as how it perpetrates that myth at home. His catalog is a robust denunciation of the very myth that Harris appears to accept. Harris’ misunderstanding of Chomsky is clear from this confusion, as is Chomsky’s of Harris’ perspective. They really need to sit down and read one another’s work.

If Harris is right in his presupposition of American moral virtue, then his argument would make sense. But Chomsky has the lead here, because America and its foreign policy is not positive, or even benign, it is quite the contrary. This is not to say that America could not change this, but there is no evidence that these policies would change without mass action by the population of the US. Chomsky has shown time and time again that American military force is consistently used, in contradiction to international law and general moral principles, not as an aberration of American virtue but a representation of its malignancy.

Chomsky expressed his dissatisfaction by bluntly dismissing the thought experiments especially when the assertions of whatever reasonable intentions the administration may have had, the truth is they do not have “even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.” Beside the lawyerly argumentative tone, not helpful for the kind of dialogue Harris intended to foster, the point remains the same.

Chomsky roundly rebuffed both of the thought experiments in his responses, again not in useful ways or with a respectful tone. Basically he explained to Harris that he is not in the business of hypotheticals. He wants to live in the real world where the decisions and resulting consequences are real. He used the words “ludicrous and embarrassing” to describe the thought experiments. That seems unnecessarily rude and contrary to Chomsky’s own assertions that one ought not to convince but to explain. The thought experiments help make Harris’ philosophical point, but at the expense of understanding the applicable actual material conditions that are at play. This is useful for armchair philosophy, but not for moral, political, and policy analysis. You can abstract things to make your point, but the world is not abstract. This, I believe, is the source of Chomsky’s consternation, but also representative of his ignorance of Harris intent. That is not necessarily merely as personal misunderstanding, yet the exchange certainly went there. That is what made it useless.

America was the lone superpower for a while in the last century. It maintains this hegemony in relatively 19th or 20th century fashion. It maintains control through neo-imperial policies of intervention and outright invasion, followed by business integration into the world market. A foreign policy truly based on genuine desire to raise the standards and freedom of people would not look like what American has consistently (not contrarily) engaged in. However, if America is a neo-imperial superpower, with the intention to ensure the stability and lucrative nature of the world capitalist economic system for which it’s ruling class gains the windfall, then it would behave precisely as it has.

The main difference, the ships that are passing in the night in their exchange, is that Harris does not consider the geo-political and economic components of American foreign policy and therefore its intentions, whereas Chomsky not only considers those factors, but identifies them as the mechanism by which the intention of American action arises while failing to consider the relative importance of the intentions of those who would, if able, do mass harm to much of the world. For Chomsky, intention is evidenced by prior and consistent action. For Harris it is implied by relation less moral agents. Chomsky looks through the record to see how decisions are made, and understand why in the context. Harris uses abstraction to make a larger philosophical point. There is value in both, but this fundamental difference must serve as the starting point to further communication.

To not bridge this gap is to fundamentally misunderstand the value and utility of both sides. Add to that public and seemingly disparaging comments and we the readers lose (in Chomsky’s words) the value of a public discussion in which this fundamental difference can be explored. I do think this was Harris’ intent, and Chomsky just shut it down before it really got going. Both Chomsky and Harris’ fame and public personas are based on the validity and truth of their statements. For both to feel as though the other spoke so flippantly about the other shows that fundamental misunderstanding and then immediately stalls it. Harris is right that the medium of e-mail was, in retrospect, a less than valuable way of attempting to get something resolved.

Harris and Chomsky would do well to speak to one another in private with the specific intent to come to the understanding I have outlined here. In doing so, hopefully the dialogue may carry a different tone and allow for the noble, if not slightly naive, desire that Harris attempted to engage Chomsky in the first place. I would be interested to hear from either Chomsky or Harris if my reading of the situation is correct.

The Poverty of Philantropy

On Thursday the New York Times published Jo Becker and Mike Mcintire’s story suggesting potential impropriety between the Clinton Foundation and a Canadian Mining company. The story is an illustration of the realpolitik of modern philanthropy. The notion that private money coming from multinational corporations and the wealthiest individuals will not influence the goals and direction of foundations and charities demands a level of trust in private organizations that cannot be justified. Given the track record of the wealthiest companies and individuals in the world regarding their institutional role as the exploiting class, the idea that they are ones who can best direct aid to communities that are directly impacted by their policies and decisions is to have their cake, and eat it too. The question arises: What is the value of Philanthropy?

Origins and Development

The word philanthropy comes from the Greek φιλανθρωπία meaning “love of humanity.” In the Hellenistic tradition this meant subjects we now call the “humanities” – art, literature, politics, and science – were undertaken because they promoted what it meant to be human. In focusing their efforts in this way, the Greeks were able to achieve incredible things. Societies around the world still retain reverence for this ancient culture. But with the fall of the Greek city states and the rise of Rome this love for humanity was transformed into the love for the state and done in furtherance of this less noble but still advantageous goal. After Rome fell, and Christianity and Islam came to be the dominating political entities, these pursuits, if engaged in at all, were not pursued merely from that impulse that arises out of a general love for that which is human, but rather in service of the Almighty.

During the long dark period of the Middle Ages these vestiges of philanthropy took a totally ecclesiastical tone. As humans, we simply cannot refrain from such activity and so we are left with the likes of Dante, Aquinais, the Hagia Sophia and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was not until the Italian Renaissance and the following enlightenment period that the ideas of philanthropy were again resuscitated not to please apostolic authority, but for their own sake and the obvious benefits that these advances in technology and science gave to those who investigated them. The Italian Renaissance ushered in a new period of human advancement in which the thousand year rule of the church was contested and the formerly subjugated fields of inquiry like astronomy or chemistry released a new productive capacity. With this advance in technology rose a new class, the bourgeoisie, which sought to replace the old ruling class – that of Monarch and feudal lord – with themselves as the new ruling class of the advancing economic system that we call capitalism.

For the bourgeoisie, science was essential for their rising power, and was in many ways the basis of it. Therefore this new class was a very strong proponent of science and technological development. This however did not promote the philanthropic aspect of the humanities, but instead transformed these activities from pleasing God to serving the interests of the capitalist economy. That gave rise to the emergent ideas of intellectual property and copyright. Instead of being pursued for its own sake, scientific advancements, art, literature, and politics were oriented to serve the interests of the capitalist class, thereby making owners of property out of scientific inquiry. Philanthropy, it seems, was dead. The value of doing activities for a love of humanity instead of profit was antithetical to the philosophical underpinnings of capitalist society.

The rise of capitalism’s productive capacity came with it the birth of a new class: the proletariat. This class – thrust from the village to the city and from simple agricultural work to atomized factory production – saw their material condition change but not dramatically improve. In fact, as they continued to urbanize and fill the streets of ever-growing cities the new working class was subjected to all manner of new social ills of a kind the world had not previously seen. Poverty and pauperism in the urban poor was ubiquitous during the entirety of the 19th century. Because of this there was rising resistance to the inequalities capitalism produced.

Many theories, most notably Marxist, critique the capitalist system particularly because it is unable, even given its great productive capacity, to cure the worst social pariah: poverty. Marx sought to replace the system through revolution of the proletarian class, while others argued that we ought to not go that far. Instead, they sought to fill the gaps that capitalism creates through charity. The church, having lost its leading role in society, now found a niche by which it could use its historical lessons as well as its great cash reserves to provide least some assistance to the worst off. But the church was not the only player in this game and by the mid-to late 19th century several large-scale charitable organizations sprang up and were providing aid to proletarians. Some of them are still around today; think the United Way, the YMCA so of course Catholic Charities. While these reasonable efforts were appreciated by those for which they assisted, they were unable to tackle all of the issues and growing animosity between the working-class and the bourgeois class became ever more ardent. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the bourgeoisie recognized that if they continued these policies, the their dominant position in society couldn’t long endure.

Because a class is hard to hate as a whole, it is much simpler to pick out the most famous of those who represent the class to hurl your anger in that direction. In America it was directed at the likes of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Recognizing this animosity, these prominent capitalists sought to repair their public image. Notably, John Rockefeller hired Frederick Taylor Gates to do just that. Gates’ understanding how public opinion can be manipulated paved the way for the rise of modern field of public relations which Edward Bernays would later revolutionize and entrench in American society. He would do so all while claiming what he was doing was simply propagandizing, but the euphemism was much easier to swallow by the American public. Gates convinced Rockefeller to start his own charitable foundation in which his name would not be attached to the destruction of unions, deaths of striking workers at Ludlow among others, and the overall continued oppression class, but instead on public houses for the arts and humanities and medical research and outreach. In order to attach more weight to these charitable givings the word “philanthropy” was resuscitated as a way to describe his activities. This public relations scheme changed the names Rockefeller and Carnegie from the capitalist juggernauts with all the attributes thereof – selfishness, greed, capriciousness – into the most charitable Americans ever known.

If one is, as I am, in the business of critiquing capitalism, this is a common argument. It states that capitalism and wealth concentration can actually be a social good rather than social ill because it allows those who make the most to give a lot back. The campaign to change social attitudes regarding the bourgeois class from anger and frustration to appreciation and idolization was a great success.

Philanthropy as a Social Good

Philanthropy, like all charity, has many positive components. Namely, charity does in some ways overcome the failure of the current economic system to provide all of the mean that people need to survive. It is not news to anyone that there are countless people within even the most advanced economies, to say nothing of the Global South, who suffer economic woe on a daily basis. Charities attempt, sometimes nobly, to target these individuals and to do their best to aid them in whatever means they have at their disposal. Philanthropic foundations and other charitable organizations have the advantage of being flexible whereas governments and other political institutions may have significant barriers or bureaucratic hurdles that make them less able to quickly and specifically target all the various needs. Likewise, charitable organizations are able to focus their energies in a very limited field such as the Gates Foundation focusing on disease or women’s organizations funding better women shelters. When they grow to significant size, these organizations become institutions in and of themselves and are recognized and institutionalized as nonmarket players that can be counted on. These include the Red Cross, United Way, the YMCA, among others. There is no doubt that these charities and foundations have saved or improved the lives of millions of people around the world. They can and should be commended for doing so, but they are not without their own problems and shortcomings.

Charities and philanthropy are stopgap measures. They take as a presupposition the failures of capitalism and instead of working as powerful institutions to change those dynamics they instead focus on ameliorating the problem as much as possible. Though in some senses a virtue, the specific focus of many charitable organizations means that not all manners of social exclusion or economic hardship are covered by every charity. On top of that, as Janet Poppendieck and Robert D. Lupton have shown that charity has two poor consequences for recipients. First, it is demeaning and inhuman – it makes those in poverty feel personally responsible and immoral for needing “handouts.” Second, it can solidify a dependency culture in which the aid given to a community or individual becomes a lifeline that they depend on but one in that is constantly insecure. For more on this, check out Quinn Zimmerman’s blog about his time in Haiti. Simply put, charities are not enough to fix the real problem.

There is a large propaganda campaign which Nicholas Kristof is one of the notable apologists. He promotes charitable organizations, especially the Christian ones, as more than what they really are. Charities plug the hole in a cracked dam in which leaks spring up every day. A band aid cannot heal a wound that is continuously reopened. Charities also serve a different function. They stand as symbols that this capitalist epoch is not run by capricious and self-serving individual but indeed philanthropists are capitalism’s greatest achievement in that those who have reaped so much of the benefit feel in some ways compelled to give back.

As I said before, this urge or compulsion to give back is not for the love of humanity but for the rehabilitation of public image. Though tempered by the experience of the Cold War and the seemingly internationalization of class conflict, the animosity between workers and owners appears to have waned. Philanthropists only serve to decrease that animosity through the public relations firestorm that they create to promote and raise awareness of their so-called altruistic endeavors.

In Andrew Carnies book, “Gospel of Wealth,” he attempts to outline this obligation but does so not by criticizing the system for having produced the great inequalities and failures of capitalism but to suggest that it may well be the engine by which society as a whole can be made better, all through the contributions of the wealthiest individuals. They have shown themselves to be capable in business, why not in charity? This self-serving justification is the very basis of all modern capitalistic philanthropy. It doesn’t, and will not, suggest there is anything structurally wrong that produces these inequalities but instead the fact that these inequalities exist creates some kind of obligation in them. This is a perverse manifestation of philanthropy.

The Limits of Charity

If those who have benefited the most from this economic system truly feel compelled to do something about its worst consequences, charity is not the most effective means. It should also be noted that very few, if any, wealthy individuals give away their entire fortunes. And, though Americans are very charitable overall, most of it comes not from the rich, but from the working class itself! (The article uses “middle class” which is a misnomer and should be translated to “working class”) The rich, and the most rich are by in large unwilling to give up their class position or to throw themselves off the rolls of the millionaires or billionaires club. Instead they commit just enough to be able to form a public image that sees them not as the exploiters of labor that they are, but as kind and generous people. The two richest Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are perfect examples of this sort of disinformation campaigners. The way in which both of those men made their billions is not through some sort of hard work or smarts, but by being able to promote and engaging in business practices which produced for them the most profit.

Economics 101 teaches us that the way companies make profits is to charge more for the commodities they produce than the cost to do so. In order to make profit or to increase profits a company must either lower the cost of production which normally comes through as the stagnant or lower wages which we have seen over the last 50 years or by adjusting their business practices to make their production capacity more efficient, usually by introducing some technological implement. That of course has the consequence of lowering the need for additional human labor. This and this alone, is how the rich, and all other wealthy people, make their fortunes. It is important to say that all that wealth that is being used to promote charitable causes comes from money that was stolen from the very people who now need their services. In that since, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are essentially responsible for the ills that they supposedly are working to eliminate.

If they truly want to make a difference they would use their vast wealth to argue for systemic change in our economic system and to foreclose the possibility of the kind of exploitation that they engage in and has made them ungodly amounts of money. There are obvious reasons why they do not do such a thing. It would make them an enemy of their own class. It is neither rational nor justifiable for them to do so. Why indeed would the rich argue against the system that made them rich, even if it demands countless others to be poor? There is decidedly no good reason for them to do so.

Given this state of affairs, we can see that being truly beneficial would necessitate more systemic transformation that would prevent the kinds of difficulties charities are in the business of assisting. By using their vast resources to focus not on the systemic problems but on individual issues, philanthropists get to have their cake and eat it too. They are allowed to exploit and to oppress the vast majority so that they may one day be remembered, not necessarily as a baron of industry, as we do Rockefeller and Carnegie, but instead as “philanthropists.” One thing is very clear. Modern philanthropy is clearly not done for the love of humanity as the word may suggest, but instead for the love of themselves and their public image. For all the good that charities and foundations and philanthropic endeavors have done, which is ample, they have done nothing to prevent these problems from continuing ad infinitum.

Therefore, we should be compelled not to praise these charlatans but to expose them for what they are: self-serving, egotistical, oppressive, capricious, greedy, exploiters. The dark history of philanthropy casts a long shadow and makes charity something done for the image of the rich rather than for its own sake, or even in the service of God. This is decidedly actions which are not undertaken for the love of humanity.

Just Before It Hits

Sit back and take in the moment just before the first note arises from behind and in front. Look out, the lights positioned just right so that only the figures in front of you appear. Three very lose silhouettes dancing in light beams. Beneath them the first row or so, and that’s enough. That could be all that’s here. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the note that’s just played, and the waves hitting the ear. Head bouncing, the beat is infectious, and it’s only just began. A small twitch of an ankle is all that’s needed. Just the slightest touch.

Perfect position.

One breath. Don’t think about it.

That first hit, no matter what – is the sweetest thing on earth. The eruption of relative calm. There may be music playing, but when it stops, and the crowd quiets, there is that  same moment. Just before it all begins. A miniscule moment, but its perfect, and lasts forever.

That is transcendence.

That moment is perfect.

It is an instant.

But its mine.

Al Mezan Reports on UN Concerns Over Israel’s Use of Administrative Detentions Against Palestinians

by Magister, licensed under GFDL

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reported that the United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) recently “expressed concern” over the increasing use of “administrative detentions” by Israeli authorities. Recently Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar was arrested and administratively detained on April 2, 2015 and will likely be charged with six months detention without trial which is indefinitely renewable. Jarrar’s case is typical of these detentions and the UNHRC has several times condemned them with no significant action on behalf of Israel. As of today over 400 Palestinians remained detained which is double the amount over last year. These detentions are in violation of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Condemns Continued Mistreatment of Thulani Maseko

by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, public domain

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights strongly condemned the movement of Swaziland human rights defender Thulani Maseko to solitary confinement. The move was prompted by the publication of a prison letter marking the one year anniversary of his original detention. Thulani was sentenced for publishing articles critical of the non-independent judiciary of Africa’s last monarchy. Additionally Thulani was critical of the laws restricting freedom of expression and access to information. In response, RFK Human Rights sent a petition to King Mswati III demanding the release of all political prisoners, replacing the current Chief Justice among other measures.

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Al Mezan Center for Human Rights Reports on Increase in Israeli Forces’ Attacks in Gaza

by Russavia, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reports that Israeli Occupation forces near the “access restricted area” in Gaza have conducted over thirty attacks since September of 2014 which has resulted in two deaths, thirty-six injuries, nine of which were children. This comes with increased attacks on Palestinian fishermen in Gaza waters. Notably, on March 7, 2015 Israeli boats opened fire on a Palestinian fishing boat damaging the boat’s engine and killing one member of the crew. The rest of the crew was arrested; their boat confiscated and was not returned upon the release of the remaining crew. Al Mezan contends that the killings, for which the international community stays silent, are violations of the legal obligations under international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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