Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vignettes. v. What to do?

Which do you think will work better? A few people who "get it" and act through "activism" to "change the world"? Or many, many people who don't quite "get it" but are beginning to be influenced and reached just a little bit so that they begin to think about the harm they are causing.

By the way, I don't claim to know the answer to this. But I do want to try the latter, because the former isn't working.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dreams. i. How I became a champion of the black bloc.

I am riding Sounder from my girlfriend's house. She lives up north somewhere. It's dawn. I didn't quite get enough sleep the night before. I am listening to my iPod. I see the man and his young daughter from the Subcontinent bound for the airport and then for San Francisco. I had chatted with him the train station about the IT industry. His daughter is playing with a toy hairbrush and brushing her father's hair. She looks at me and offers me the toy brush. I smile and point at my shaven head, reminding her I have no use for a hairbrush. She grins.

I stare out the opposite window at Puget Sound. I notice an attractive young woman sitting across from me, dressed professionally, listening to her iPod as she commutes to work. She notices me looking at her, smiles, then looks away just as quickly. This is, after all, Seattle. I smile back as her gaze crosses mine and then resume staring at the water.

My eyes close. They open. I am no longer on the train. I am walking on 6th Avenue between Union and Pike Streets. I'm headed north, towards Pike. It's cold, yet sunny. I am wearing a $3000 business suit and a long overcoat. There's a LOT of people running around. I hear screaming and yelling behind me. I look, and there's a lot of police in riot gear and a lot of hippies. And then I remember the date--it's November 30, 1999. This is a flashback or something. Interesting.

This reality is a bit different. I reach into my coat pockets with both hands. In each pocket, I feel two hardwood rods separated by a small length of chain. Ssang jyel bongs, right. You might recognize the term nunchaku better. But ssang jyel bong are a more appropriate name, because this reality is different in another way--earlier in November I had just received my second-degree black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. Unlike my real 1999 self, I am in excellent physical condition. I am calm. I am centered. I am here for a reason.

Now I remember the reason. In front of me are a group of young men dressed in black, running up the street, smashing out windows of corporate storefronts. But they are leaving the local businesses and residences alone. I know who they are. Not specifically, though, I don't know any of their names. They are part of organizations dedicated to the use of black bloc tactics. Or maybe they are individuals also so inclined. Anyway, on this fine November morning, the black bloc is on the loose!

Remember? The WTO is town, talking about how to better convince us to let corporations and governments take resources at the point of the gun and consume them. The delegates have been milling about this part of downtown for several days. Hm, this version of myself seems to have a different attitude about it than the real one did. The real version of myself was annoyed at the disruption, but was generally favorably inclined towards neoliberalism and at least tolerated the WTO. But this version of myself is different. I am enraged that these fuckheads have invaded my city. I am enraged at the corporations whose storefronts the black bloc is now smashing. I am enraged at these men and women also dressed in suits, helping these corporations to ruin the lives of all of us. I grin. This is fucking awesome. Go, my brothers and sisters. Go throw rocks and swing clubs and destroy these fucking stores.

On this day, my employer is an IT consulting firm. They think I am here visiting a client. I will visit the client later if I do not end up in jail. But I think jail is probably in my future. I grip the ssang jyel bongs tightly, knowing what is about to happen next. For I also know that the police have chosen this morning to attack the pacifists who have been trying to obstruct people from the WTO conference going to and fro, as well as other benignly disruptive things. My attitude towards them is also different. Rather than viewing them with contempt and disgust, I give them a wry smile when I see them. Rather than seeing them as dirty hippies who need to get a job, I see them as lighthearted people who hate what is happening to the world and want to do something about it. But they don't understand when violence is necessary, so they mostly do this pointless bullshit they are doing. They mean well, but what impact are they going to have, really?

The black bloc isn't really having much of an impact, either. But if we're lucky, they'll do several million dollars of damage to the corporate cluster between the Convention Center and Pike Place Market. That will not transform the world in any meaningful way. But it will send these fuckheads an important message--there are people in this world dedicated to making their lives as difficult as possible, and our numbers are growing. But I feel a little bad, because I know I'm going to have to break a few heads of the pacifist hippies in a few minutes. You may be wondering why I would do such an awful thing, but you're about to find out.

I glance behind me again. To the extent they are capable, the police are now realizing the error of their ways. The crowd is pushing them back towards 6th and Union. I smell a whiff of CS gas or something equally foul. I should probably more quickly head towards Pike street, I think. I start walking faster. I am not worried--the police will think I'm part of the WTO delegation if they don't look too closely. I dressed this way on purpose. However, the black overcoat is a signal to the black bloc. They know I am there to help, but they're not sure how. They're about to find out.

I am at the southwest corner of 6th and Pike. Opposite me is Niketown. There is a swarm of black bloc tearing the place to shreds. Most excellent--Nike represents what is most foul about Corporate America. They have destroyed their silver storefront marquee--it now merely reads "OW". I grin. But then my grin fades as I see a crowd of "pacifist" hippies descend on them from points east on Pike Street. I know what is about to happen. But that is why I am here.

The hippies descend on the black bloc, yelling and pointing. The hippies are nearly all white. They overwhelm a couple of black kids dressed in black. The black kids fight back as best they can, but the hippies are just too many. These pacifist hippies cannot abide the "violence" of the black bloc, and they intend to hold these two young men for the police. AWESOME. I wish they would think for a second about what it is they are doing and how absurd it is. But, then again, what is about to happen is equally absurd.

Suddenly, a tornado of hardwood, feet, and forearms descends upon the hippies holding down the two black youths. That tornado is me, a finely tuned engine of "less-than-lethal" violence. In seconds, the hippies are scattered about on the sidewalk and the youths are free, but appear momentarily shocked and horrified. Then they realize who I am, and a grin breaks out on their faces. I nod and say, "Run!" They do.

The hippies are horrified. They don't know what the hell has just happened. But now they are starting to forget they are pacifists. They turn on me. I hold as many of them as I can at bay for as long as I can, but eventually they pin me down. I relax, knowing I'm probably about to be severely beaten. I am, in fact, beaten a little bit, but fortunately none of them know how to use ssang jyel bongs (which is part of the reason I selected those weapons to begin with). They calm down. It turns out I have not been badly injured. I will probably question the wisdom of what I have done in the morning. My glasses are ruined, but they are backups anyway. They inform me they are holding me for the police. They start to ask me questions about why I am so OMG VIOLENT.

I ask them, "Do you know what the Castle Doctrine is?" They stare at me blankly. "You know, the 'Make My Day' law?" They grimace. "None of you are from around here, are you?" They shake their heads in the negative. I calmly explain that in Washington State, violence is authorized in the defense of someone who is being attacked, whether that person is you or someone else. I remind them that this violence can, in fact, be lethal, so I was well within my legal rights to kill all of them (possibly an exaggeration, but I like being dramatic). They coil back in horror.

One of them asks me, skeptically, "but this is only in your own home, right?" I shake my head and smile. "No, sir, in Washington the Castle Doctrine extends to wherever you happen to be. Whether in your house or at, say, Niketown." I glance up at the marquee again, point, and giggle a little. "OW". Ha ha ha.

I continue. "I have even worse news for you. An accomplice has caught this scene on videotape. If I go to trial, I will play the tape. It will show a gang of white men and women attacking two black youths, and it will show me defending them from you. I am not terribly worried about a criminal conviction in this manner. Oh, and, by the way, if you give a statement, I will find out who you are and sue each and every one of you for assaulting me. And my lawyer fucking hates hippies, so...." I trail off.

That is not a bluff. I am working with a woman I know only as Maria, who has been following me on camera perched on a Vespa somewhere in the area. She is probably halfway to Burien by now. Good luck, hippies. Good luck, police.

The hippies decide they don't want to hold me anymore. I nod and smile, wish them all well, and get up and dust myself off and start calmly walking up 6th Avenue, just as the police begin to descend on the area. I leave the ssang jyel bongs for the hippies, as a reminder to them and everyone like them what might happen to them if they ever side with the police again.

I close my eyes. I smile to myself as I feel the endorphins cruise through my body. This is what living is like.

"Now arriving, King Street Station. Please look around for your belongings and prepare to disembark." I open my eyes. I am on the Sounder again, back in 2009. The woman across from me smiles at me again and stands up and heads for the door. I look out into the darkness of the Great Northern Tunnel and smile. Yes, this is what living is like.

How did I go from being a champion of the status quo and an ambiguous apologist for globalism and the WTO to a champion of the black bloc? I am not exactly sure. But I am sure of one thing--whatever trip I took was a one-way trip.

My friends are probably horrified at what they initially perceive as my total abuse of the spirit of taekwondo. I need to reassure them. This is a fantasy based mostly out of remorse and shame, not revenge. However, I should also say that, yes, if I ever see a member of the black bloc attacked by a "pacifist" hippie, I will use my taekwondo skills, whatever they happen to be at the time, to defend them. This is defensive violence, perfectly in the spirit of taekwondo. In fact, nothing is more noble in the spirit of Songahm than standing up for those who are weaker than you are. So, I say to them, "SUCK IT UP, SIR/MA'AM."

Also, I am not terribly sure I will be cruising the streets of protests looking for fights like this.

Not yet, anyway.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Vignettes. iv. I got a better idea.

How about we strongly encourage those who exploit to give of themselves to ease the suffering of those they exploit? If they refuse, then we stick a gun in their face (ie, tax them) until they cough up enough dough to get the job done. We should start with the very very few people who have nearly all of the dough and stick the guns in their faces first. This should be a lot easier than it is, though, because there are way more of us than there are of them.

However, we shouldn't for a minute defend the process of sticking the gun in their face, so once we get that rolling, we should start questioning the whole notion of running our society by sticking guns in each other's faces when people do things their own way rather than the way we would like them to do them. Or, even worse, when we stick a gun in someone's face because we want their oil, or gold, or timber, or whatever. Maybe we should start questioning that whole idea, because that's probably where we fucked up to begin with.

But FIRST we make sure that everyone eats. And as many people get access to medicine as they can. And shelter. And shit like that. Then we can get to the real task at hand.

And I'm not intersted in hearing any excuses about why this is bad for the economy. You know what else is bad for the economy? Killing your fucking planet. Or war. Or polluting your water supplies so badly that you die of cancer from drinking the tap water. And so forth.

Yes, that kind of looks like Marxism, but I'm going to avoid Marx' error in two ways:

1. I am not going to suggest that using the state to redistribute wealth is fundamentally a great idea. Because this assumes that things like "the state", "redistributing", and "wealth" are great ideas. I'm not sure that they are.

Not to mention the fact that I'm using violence to impose my will on other people. That kind of sucks. However, I believe that using violence to help the exploited better survive is way better than using violence to exploit them. So, for now, I'll put up with it. I don't have many options here.

2. I don't presume to imagine what the world looks like when we start questioning this use of violence.

You're a man and you just learned about feminism. What do you do?

This is what I wrote in an online discussion about whether a man should call himself a "feminist."

When you are a man who agrees with or at least sees as reasonable the arguments feminists have made you tend to freak out a bit because you've had everything you thought was good about your gender identity destroyed, and you find yourself left with only the bad things. This is more than a little painful. Then again, it's not up to our feminist sisters to heal us, too (though if they felt bad for us and decided to help us anyway, that would be awesome and stuff.)

But, really, what can you do, as a man? You didn't create this world, so you don't need to bear any guilt for that. But you do now have the responsibility not to make things any worse than they are already, so what can you do?

You can't do anything meaningful by yourself. You could start by reducing the harm you *do* cause (a good start would be, for example, not raping or beating up your girlfriend). But that just contains the harm--how do you make things better for both yourself and the world?

The answer? First, start thinking. Start thinking about how your behavior impacts the other people around you. Take it as far as you can. Then when it overwhelms you, stop. Figure out what harms you can prevent right now and what harms you can't. And then, act naturally, taking care to prevent the harms you can prevent. If you do this honestly, you will do better than your forefathers. If you keep doing it, though, you might accidentally change the world for the better. But you might not, so on to the second step.

Second, convince other men to start thinking. Don't tell them *what* to think, just get them to start thinking in the same way. And invite them to share their thoughts with you, and with others. Together, you might eventually figure out how to create a male identity that serves yourselves and other men, and even women, and even those who have ambiguous gender, and even those who aren't human.

By the way, this technique isn't just for confronting feminist issues. It isn't just for men. It is for everyone. About everything. It works for *everything*. Everything. It's the dirty secret that the overculture doesn't want you to know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vignettes. iii. The banality of exploitation.

One of the most "awesome" things about being an American is that it's possible to be a massive exploiter of other people without even realizing whom you are hurting. In prior eras, exploiters had to at least confront those whom they exploited.

This is why the present situation is so fucking egregious and dangerous. When you had to confront those you exploited, you knew you could only go so far before they grabbed pitchforks and stabbed you to death with them. Now we are limited only by what we can imagine!


Vignettes. ii. Liberty, freedom, and the right to exist.

I do not have the right to exist in this civilization without the permission of someone else. Therefore, I can never be free.

You might ask, "how can that possibly be true?" Well, let me answer. To exist, I need the following five things:

1. Clean air.
2. Clean water.
3. Nutritious food.
4. A way to shelter myself from the elements, if necessary.
5. A way to dispose of my waste that doesn't conflict with the aforementioned needs.

If I do not have ALL FIVE of these things, I cannot exist. In this civilization, I definitely cannot get the last 4 things without someone's permission, and I effectively don't get the first either, because too many people seem to think they have the authority to dump poisons in the air. Furthermore, if someone ever figures out a way for corporations to own "air rights", then I am sure it will happen.

If you don't have the right to exist, how can you possibly have the right to "pursue happiness?" How can you be "free" at all? Well, you can't do either, really.

Oh, sure, you might be able to get "liberty." Liberty is awesome if you're the one in the position to do the exploiting and not the one being exploited. People who think that liberty is the most awesome thing ever usually call themselves "libertarians."

Vignettes. i. Liberty, Freedom, and Happiness

"Liberty" is a discredited Enlightenment-era notion that means "ability to exploit other people without having to answer to others, such as the King of England, the US government, or environmental activists, or, least of all, the people you are exploiting."

"Freedom," on the other hand, is three things:

1. The lack of being exploited

2. The understanding of what you are dependent on.

3. The ability to live within those dependencies sustainably.

"Happiness," then, is the result of being "free."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

He's on to something, but he's too afraid to ask the right questions.

Yahoo! Finance: The Real Problem with the Economy Is That It Doesn't Need You Anymore

Here's what the "technology will solve everything" people are saying these days. Even they are beginning to realize that there's a serious problem, but they can't quite put their finger on it.

Maybe it was technology that got us into this mess to begin with. Ever think about that? No, of course not, that's the question we can never ask.

Little Stauffenbergs.

When I say "we have to act", one of the people I think of is not someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mohandas Gandhi. I think, instead, of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg.

Stauffenberg was an aristocrat and very invested in the idealized nation-state of Germany. To this end, he pledged his life towards "defending" her in the German military, which eventually became the Nazi-era Wehrmacht. He was always appalled at Nazism, but as Hitler grew more and more insane, and as the Holocaust got more and more horrifying, he realized that not only was Nazi Germany in an unsustainable position, but that it would cause unspeakable damage to Germany and, really, to all of humanity if it were not stopped immediately. At the time he was stationed in Tunisia fighting to hold what was left of the German position in Africa. Just about the time he figured out how bleak the situation was, a British Hurricane showed up and strafed his command vehicle, causing him to lose an eye, a hand, and two fingers on the remaining hand.

He was decorated for his sacrifice, and eventually he landed a position in the OKH, the Army High Command. He worked as part of an elaborate conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and other key senior Nazis. As well, he developed a plan for the Army to take over the government before the SS could do so, thereby preventing the SS from perpetuating Nazism. The takeover plan was called "Valkyrie." This was called the 20 July Plot, and Wikipedia has a decent overview if you follow that there link.

Well, needless to say, it didn't work (mostly because of bad luck), and Stauffenberg and his buddies got lined up against the wall and shot. But that's not what's important about the story. The important part was that Stauffenberg realized that the portrait of Hitler in his office was coming down, sooner or later, and he'd rather be the guy to take it down rather than some American. And, if he took it down his way, maybe Berlin wouldn't have to be practically razed for that to happen.

He also wanted his grandchildren to know that their grandfather tried to do something about it. Even though he failed, every German alive today looks at Stauffenberg in admiration, because he represents an alternative to "going along to get along," and he shows that the German people were not wholly irredeemable. And, to that end, I think the lesson took, and Germans as a whole are now fairly benign people--as benign you can be when you're wrapped up in the overculture, anyway. (Unfortunately, that's not benign enough.)

A probably insane dude named John Zerzan once came up with a little concept called "Little Eichmanns". This is a very combative way of reiterating a point made by Hannah Arendt in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her thesis was that most Nazis weren't psychopathic megalomaniacs, but just average guys who simply "went along to get along." Another way to put this is the "banality of evil", another phrase she liked to use.

"Little Eichmann" is a way of applying the concept to our own overculture in a highly combative and probably seriously insensitive way. Ward Churchill found out the hard way that you don't want to just throw this term around willy-nilly, especially when referring to highly sensitive issues like discussing those killed in 9/11. What you're trying to say when you use language like this is that the death and destruction caused by the overculture is supported in some way by nearly every person who lives in the industrialized world--you, me, Zerzan, Churchill, Derrick Jensen, Arendt...everyone. It's just another reflection of the banality of evil, but if you call someone a Little Eichmann, then you really get under their skin. Or something.

Well, anyway, maybe I'm a Little Eichmann. But what I want to be is a Little Stauffenberg. I want to show future generations that some people did care and did worry and did want to do something about it. Unlike Stauffenberg, though, I am not terribly inclined to blow something up. Even discussing the merits of such things these days has the bad result of landing you in a Supermax prison.

At least, I can start down the Stauffenberg path by thinking of ways to change things that don't involve blowing things up. I've made things probably impossibly hard on myself, but, well, prison sucks, and if I'm there, I certainly won't be able to make a difference.

So, for now, I'll just be a "Little Stauffenberg." I invite you to be one, too.

[PS: A reasonably good movie about Stauffenberg is the 2008 film Valkyrie. Its merits were compromised by Tom Cruise playing the part of Stauffenberg--his hilarious Scientologist hijinx really put a bad taste into the mouths of Germans, and so the film's impact was weakened. I thought it was a pretty good treatment of the 20 July Plot, though.]

Here's something to think about.

Derrick Jensen in Orion Magazine: World at Gunpoint.

Derrick Jensen is certainly not someone I would uncritically agree with, but he has ways of thinking about these issues that are simply amazing.

Anyway, he gives us an example of the sort of thinking that isn't going to work.

So, then what? Well, Jensen has his own ideas about how to act, but I'm not quite ready for that. Certainly, we should keep it in the back of our minds.

Ten things I hate about the world.

Oh, sure, they aren't the only ten things. But it's a place to start. These are ten things I thought of when I started thinking about the question, "What is really wrong with the world we live in?"

Assertion 0. Just thinking about this has value.

I am about to tell you many scary and provocative things. They do demand action, but even if you find yourself unable to act, just being aware of the problem is a huge step in the right direction. And even if the situation is hopeless, our humanity begs—no, it demands—that we try. If you start to get frightened or overwhelmed, keep that in mind.

Assertion 1. The existential crisis.

If we do not change something radically, then our civilization will collapse. This collapse has a high probability of causing humans to become extinct. But it may also severely damage the planet’s capability of supporting any life at all.

Assertion 2. The overculture sucks.

Our culture is so pervasive and hijacks all other cultures that the only proper term for it is overculture. Whatever it is, it sucks. It dehumanizes us. We are indoctrinated to hate ourselves, other people, other creatures, our planet. We trade comfort for giving others the power to enslave us. We are not free. The worst part of it is that we are misled into thinking we are.

Assertion 3. We have abandoned wisdom.

Few people are now able to think at all, much less critically. Of those who can, few ever feel like doing it. Of those who do, few do it well. There are so few people thinking well that they do not have enough people capable of listening and understanding and constructively criticizing. This means that their thinking doesn’t matter, because few people realize that such thinking has any value. The worst part of it is that most people falsely believe they are wise.

Assertion 4. The overculture seems malevolently alive.

The overculture is so complex that it resembles a living thing in and of itself. It is a predator, however—it consumes and destroys our humanity. It seems to identify threats and quickly adapt to them. I believe it has a fatal weakness—in the same way that kryptonite is lethally toxic to Superman, wisdom is fatally toxic to the overculture. The overculture is keenly aware of this and does everything it can to prevent the formation of wisdom.

Assertion 5. The hierarchy.

The overculture depends on a brutal hierarchy, a hierarchy of decreasing human value. Those higher on the hierarchy get to take anything they want from the people below them. This is called “business.” Those below do not have the right to resist this. If they try, they are called “criminals.” If they do so violently, they may be called “terrorists.” In case of resistance from people below, those above have the right to imprison or kill those below. This is called “justice.” This hierarchy is enforced with violence, but the culture does everything it can to hide or explain away that fact. This process is called the “rule of law.” The result is called “order.”

Assertion 6. The cultural anti-axiology.

If our culture has any axiology at all, it has two—death is better than life, and sexuality is a great tool for dehumanizing people. Since axiology is a study of value, and these two things are inimical to the idea of value, maybe we should call them the “anti-axiology.”

Assertion 7. We must transform the overculture or destroy it.

It may be possible to transform the overculture. Maybe we could evolve it into a vibrant and life-serving culture. But maybe we can’t. If we can’t, we must destroy it utterly, without regard for what might replace it, if anything. This is a gamble—if we try to transform it when we should’ve destroyed it, we might become extinct, and all life might become extinct. We need to figure this out as soon as possible.

Assertion 8. Technology sucks, but maybe it doesn’t have to.

Currently, technology is a major force in making us miserable rather than making us happier. This may or may not be an inherent feature of technology. We need to figure this out as soon as possible, before we create technology that destroys all life. I sometimes worry it may be too late already. In any case, we must demand that technology serves us—ALL OF US—rather than the converse. If we are not successful, we must destroy it. ALL OF IT, except what might be developed by a Stone Age or possibly medieval culture.

Assertion 9. Even if we fail, the fight is worth it in and of itself.

Yes, this is really the same as Assertion #0, repeated as a reminder. You could call this my lingering romanticism. Even if the situation is hopeless, our humanity begs—no, it demands—that we try.

If that wasn't enough to seriously scare you, then frankly, I don't know what could possibly scare you. More likely, it scares you too much.

I will probably spend the next several weeks posting short vignettes of experience to support the reasoning behind the assertions. Maybe I will make them better. Maybe my vignettes will coalesce into something resembling an actual argument. Maybe I will develop a philosophical framework to begin thinking of ways to understand these problems and act on them.

You can help, too. The first way you can help is to admit that these are things worth thinking about. Maybe you can leave some comments about your thoughts on these things. And maybe you can share some of my better ideas in your own blogs and social media sites.

The very first step in changing it is to start talking about it. Eventually we will need to act, but we won't know how to act until we understand what we are facing.

Let's start with a laugh.

You probably know where I got the idea for the name of this blog, but in case you don't, watch this scene from the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.