Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Is democracy receding?

A perfect storm is brewing for democracy: globalisation, immigration, populism, wealth inequality the 2008 economic recession, the Iraq War’s legacy and a rising China. Yet everyone seems comfortable with this transition.

People say "left" and "right" are defunct, to be replaced by the binary of nationalism and globalism. But this is simply the trick of the civil service to whom society has outgrown politics and requires something more mature. Yet headless civil service government has no institutional pressure for efficiency and its interests are not ours. Everyone seems comfortable with this, too.

Ultimately, words mean whatever we want them to. But if the phrase “representative democracy” is interpreted to mean a political system in which power is held by representatives of the people chosen in democratic elections, the US is a representative democracy in the same way the Roman Empire was a republic, the United Kingdom is a kingdom and the Chinese Communist Party is communist.

In this new format, democracy can never lose if it is defined as "democracy that works." So when it doesn't work, it isn't democracy. Democracy that does work always seems to have quite a large element of the rule of law making it look remarkably like an aristocracy. The trouble is that the democratic forms are still there. And everyone still believes in them. Niccolò Machiavelli said it best:

"He who desires or attempts to reform the government of a state, and wishes to have it accepted and capable of maintaining itself to the satisfaction of everybody, must at least retain the semblance of the old forms; so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different from the old ones. For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are."

Consider what many people think of the words political, partisan, politician and so on. Politics is never healthy. Donald Trump has “politicised” the Justice Department, which is a brutal indictment. If people hated black people the way they hate politics, they might say Trump negroised the Justice Department. The phrase would carry the same payload of contempt.

Progressives worry Trump poses not just a threat to democracy, but some sort of regime change. I must say, it is quite ballsy of progressives, who believe in an ideology that destroyed all the old regimes in the world through more or less violent revolution, to suddenly declare regime change as fundamentally evil and impossible.

By 19th century standards, all Westerners today support one party: the party of the permanent civil service. If you count journalists as civil servants, regardless of the nominally private status of their employers (is there much difference between working for CNN, TVNZ or the BBC?), it’s obvious how pervasive and successful this party is. There are fewer major policy disagreements between left-wing and right-wing parties today than within any pre-1932 party. So something certainly has changed.

Nowadays, young ambitious people don’t choose government jobs. Maybe the foreign ministries still attract a few. But all the real action is in the NGO world (especially if you count journalism as operating in the NGO space, which I do).

Representative democracy has become a meaningless abstraction in the same general category as the Holy Roman Empire. It is quite sensible to believe it has entered the last stage before its disappearance. While it’s here, we’re used to it. Once it goes, everyone will wonder how it lasted so long. People are already asking that very question.

I’m starting to think the reason some societies are called “developed” is because representative democracy in those places is considered a sort of vestigial reptile brain in this new era of scientific government. The message is clear: developed societies should be ruled by civil servants who are not responsible in any way, shape, or form to the electorate. If their policies worked, that would be fine. But they don’t seem to…

What fresh hell awaits us? I can’t even imagine. I am not a fan of revolutions, so I hope this transition runs smoothly. But the state isn’t going anywhere because – to those who run it – it is worth far too much to give up, and as it is the concentrated instantiation of sovereignty in society, nobody can make it do anything. I just don’t think we should call this a “democracy” any longer.

The broken legacy of African post-colonialism

The 93-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is pleading with his country’s four million skilled workers living overseas to return home to help revive the country's floundering economy. I can almost hear Niall Ferguson laughing.

Of course, I'm not saying Rhodesia was some kind of lost utopia. It was a just a country. Its system of government was effectively a degraded, second-rate copy of Edwardian Britain, and the demographic behind the Rhodesian Front was the petty-bourgeois. Ian Smith was not an aristocrat, either by birth or by training, and neither were his people.

Saying there are similarities between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe is like complaining that the Allies, after occupying Germany, used the old Nazi concentration camps. Of course they did. They needed the buildings to hold all the German POWs. But it does not make the Allies responsible for Nazi crimes, or vice versa.

Many people who died in the various postcolonialist conflicts were not white. But if you think the wars were over anything but white supremacy versus black supremacy, or that the former did not lose and the latter did not win, you are simply not accurately reading history. But this reading leaves out a crucial fact. Colonialism ended not because the natives overcame the colonialists, but because the postcolonialists overcame the colonialists – with native assistance. Always willing to lend a hand, those natives.

And while he probably doesn’t know it, it’s not Ian Smith’s legacy that bothers Mugabe. He should really be blaming “Exeter Hall.” That name might not ring a bell, but for a long time it was a building on The Strand in London used for religious and philanthropic meetings including the Anti-Slavery Society, the Protestant Reformation Society and once served as the headquarters of the YMCA.

Richard Francis Burton dedicated his Wanderings in West Africa to “the real friends of Africa” and castigated “the philanthropists of Exeter Hall.” The “real friends” were the explorers, merchants, traders, soldiers, settlers and administrators – the exploiters. The “philanthropists” were Protestant missionaries. They don’t call themselves missionaries any longer, but this is only a name change.

In the 1940s, Exeter Hall’s main criticism of colonialism was that it retarded the economic development of Africa by preserving agrarian cultures and failing to create a modern, socialist, industrial state. With public-policy experts like these, who needs liars?

Liberal do-goodism might be their stated sentiment, but that’s not what drew so many to the flag of “a man, and a brother.” Humans will always want to exercise influence over events in the world. To wield power. And the philanthropic movement wields quite a bit of power today.

To get an idea about what these guys did read Burton’s description of Sierra Leone and ponder what he would make of Africa today. All of Africa was given to Exeter Hall, and Exeter Hall turned it all into Sierra Leone. And Exeter Hall’s modern successor is the notorious aid-ocracy. If good intentions guaranteed good results, Africa would be a paradise under their loving care. It quite simply is not, and it isn’t obvious it would continue to be a disaster zone if they left.

Mugabe inherited the Rhodesian state because Exeter Hall gave it to him. South Africa forced Rhodesia to surrender in a misguided attempt to appease the “international community,” which would have preferred if Rhodesia had surrendered earlier. The French have a saying for this: cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il ce defend. “This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.”

But the do-goodism didn’t turn out so well. Africa at its best is ruled by wa-Benzi (Big Men). At its worst, Mugabe and the Zuma decide they don’t want to take orders from Harvard anymore. They would prefer to interpret the word “independence” according to its literal meaning, because Harvard’s interpretation proved to be a bit more, well, Orwellian.

There is only one independent country in Africa. Its name is Somaliland. You won’t find it on a map. It is independent in the sense that “in” means “not,” and “dependent” means “dependent.” If Zimbabwe had truly achieved its “independence” in 1981 it would have returned to the traditional patterns and structures of government in that area of the world.

Instead, “independence” in sub-Saharan Africa meant the destruction of every remnant of traditional African society and aggressive Westernisation. In an independent Africa, rulers would have titles like “Sultan” and “Sheikh” and “Chief.” Instead, we see presidents and prime ministers. Ah, independence.

When it is finally written by honest and disinterested historians, the story of “decolonialisation” will be more properly written as a second Scramble for Africa. After WWII, the more or less responsible Tory administrators, merchants, settlers and soldiers to whom Britain and France assigned colonial government were stripped of their conquests, in favour of American and Whig missionaries, diplomats, journalists and academics. As always, the strong take from the weak.

Those winners devastated Africa. King Leopold looks like an amateur by comparison. They did this in exchange for a rich and permanent supply of jobs in aid, diplomacy, public policy and now “replacement” voters…sorry, immigrants. Today, Africa employs more white men than ever, although they don’t live there. To everyone involved, Zimbabwe is “progress.”

I feel sorry for the Africans because one of the great post-colonial taboos is the old practice of appointing European or international executives to manage a civil service or military staffed by natives. Even in the UN occupation of Kosovo, this taboo was faithfully preserved. But the French have retained a lot more of the mechanics of golden-age colonialism than most people think. I don’t think Paris entirely goes in for this whole “do-goodism” thing.

Noam Chomsky was right in one sense: the US is and always has been the world’s leading exporter of terrorism. Revolutionary terrorism. Support from the most prestigious institutions in America fuelled Bolivar, Mazzini, the Fenians, Juarez, Chiang, Castro, Mao, Ho, Mugabe, Mandela and Zuma.

The various “liberation struggles” had many American supporters outside Washington – including the World Council of Churches. It’s hard to see how any American activity in Africa, left-wing or right-wing, did the US much good. But if Ian Smith had supported the ANC, and used it as a pro-government militia which burned its enemies alive, these would be called crimes. But this principle only operates in one direction. It works against the Tories, but not against the Whigs.

Watch Africa Addio. The film contains probably the only live colour footage of genocide shot in 35mm: several helicopter shots of the murder of the Arabs in Zanzibar. The documentary doesn’t get a lot of press for some reason. It is known about but downplayed. The State Department was a little too busy at the time courting the winners.

Exeter Hall is now gone. Perhaps one day, the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Times and Harvard will quit supporting any murderous bandit warlord who can dupe them into thinking he’s an 18th-century Renaissance man, a 19th-century statesman or even a 21th-century technocrat. But I am not optimistic. The aid-ocracy delusion is too profitable for everyone involved.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Devil is in the bargain bin

Here’s the thing, if you want to increase the diversity in businesses by adding more representation (of what…exactly? Customers? The public? A particular suburb? Your house?), go ahead. But you have to take responsibility for all the consequences, both good and bad.

Consider this direct quote from the Ministry of Women’s website: “Since 1986 the female labour force has increased by more than 50% and internationally New Zealand’s female labour force participation rate is above the OECD average.”

That’s fine, and I applaud the individual success of each and every one of those women. Yet the latest OECD Economic Survey of New Zealand shows this country’s labour productivity consistently dropping every year since that time.

Am I saying there’s a correlation? You bet. Is the diversification of gender at workplaces at fault? Who knows? But to pretend the push for diversity is an unmitigated good for society is disingenuous at best and manipulative at worst.

Are there plenty of mediocre men in the workplace who would be thrown out on their asses if more women challenge them? Absolutely. But the framing of this question assumes every time a woman is hired to replace a man it necessarily, by some magic, increases the quality of that workforce, when this simply isn’t true.

You’ll also notice that since about 1987 or so, consumer spending has gone waaaaay up as well. Hmmmm, how interesting. At the risk of sounding sexist, heavy consumption is a stereotype of women. Is this a victory for diversity in the workplace as well? Or does that not fit the narrative? Only in this culture do we want the system to force us to do the right thing so we can take the credit.

When they ask for more women CEOs, feminists miss the only important question: why is it always about access? Why don't women just, you know, invent their own things? The system isn’t stopping women from building anything. Instead, they want to be given power, rather than take it. By all means, write a story people will be telling in a thousand years. But to think you're better than someone who wrote a story 2000 years ago that you’re still reciting only broadcasts your resentment and incompetence. Wouldn't it be better to encourage women to participate in STEM for the sake of construction itself? Dispense with the power games already. You don't even like guns, but you're gonna need them eventually if you're going down that path.

In The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway gets a job in her chosen field, and although she performs the job just fine, she is treated poorly because she doesn't share Meryl Streep's values.

Hathaway is beaten down by Streep until she upends her values, abandons her personal life and destroys her relationships in order to placate her abusive boss, who in return belittles her for not knowing the history of the colour of her sweater. So what? Hathaway has Stockholm syndrome? That's the easy criticism. No - listen closely to Streep's words:

"This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. 
"And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic "casual corner" where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of 'stuff.'"

Yeah, well, two can play at that game, Streep. Did you know that the width of European rail tracks can be traced back to the average width of a Roman horse butt? Romans built a lot of roads for vehicles designed to be drawn by two horses, which determined the axle length. Over the years, they left grooves, so everybody who came after them made carts the same width because otherwise, it was a bumpy ride.

When train cars were invented, engineers naturally used existing carts as a model, so the size of the subway car Streep took to that fitting room was a result of horse breeding decisions made thousands of years ago. Like she said though, small things can propagate across time. It does not, however, make ancient Roman horse butts inherently important.

Hathaway is in the firing line, but the joke is on Streep because even with all that work and effort in fashion, the cerulean sweater still ended up in a bargain bin. All that effort, for what? Did you make some money? Get some prestige? Did you win sex? Because those are the reasons men work insane hours on freezing cold oil platforms deep in the Bering Sea.

Being a CEO isn't about the creativity for men. Or, more precisely, if being creative didn't earn men sex, would they still work like this? So then why are women fighting to get to more work if they don't even know what the reward is? I get that women want to be allowed to work. But 60 hour weeks, constant litigation threats and multiple million-dollar loan repayments? Really, you want that? You do realise men don't care about powerful women, right? The singer Lorde is probably filthy rich, but I don't know any guy who wants to bang her.

Streep is a just tool for the system. She smirks in superiority because she "knows" how the system works. But she is only allowed to know this because her enlightenment poses no threat to it whatsoever. She might act like she's got it all figured out, but she has no idea what forces were acting on her and what these forces wanted from her that elevated her to celebrity status. Most men don't even know what those forces are - and they set the system up this way.

No one seems to acknowledge the uniquely male aspect here either. Clothes that are traditionally male constitute a smaller set than clothes that are female. Women can wear men’s shirts, jeans, t-shirts, tactical gear and are still women. They can also wear dresses, skirts and more conservative clothing and still code as a woman.

So you might say the mainstream believes girls dressing as boys and doing boy things is an upgrade for girls, whereas boys dressing as girls is a downgrade for boys. It’s not. The consumers are women, the rest of you just pad the numbers. You have your sexism backwards. People imagine "sexism" as institutional power directed top down against women, oppressing them with sexist jokes. But it's much more illuminating to understand sexism as just another tool to increase consumption. Even Streep knows it costs more for women to dress professionally, even as they probably get paid less.

Do you understand the infrastructure necessary to cause people to disavow something that they know with total clarity, just to keep the money flowing? Replace "feminism" with "civil rights" and "executive positions" with "votes." It doesn't matter. This is a game that can be played forever. The form of the question is about whether The Beast is being fed. You have to defeat consumerism or your social change will be for nought - frantic energy dissipating like a car up on the blocks, gunning its engine in furious self-righteousness as it passes hundred dollar bills to the gasman. Yes, I'm aware how quickly that metaphor collapsed.

I just think anyone who says diversity is only about “treating people fairly” should keep in mind that the system doesn’t see you as a person, it only sees you as a battery. It doesn’t care about your sex, gender, religion or political belief. It only cares that you act in the required direction. All you’re good for is how much you can produce and consume.

The problem is, even when women get into that CEO position, how many of them will stop to ask, “hey, why did they let so many of us in?...”

Saturday, 22 July 2017

On choices, Christianity and Chester Bennington

I

Chester Bennington died yesterday. He was the frontman for Linkin Park, which was a big part of my life as a teenager. The Meteora album was in my portable CD player when it stopped working.

II

Linkin Park wasn't a refuge for me. There was nothing about my life that needed the kind of self-reflection the metal genre seems to offer kids. I spent most of my time outside having fun sneaking around my neighbourhood or building ridiculous huts out of plywood and incompetence. I grew up in a transitional era when computer games were pathetic but immensely creative and nowhere as fun as shooting joey guns and exploding fireworks.

That was the world of my Linkin Park discovery. Actually, it was my neighbour Mark who introduced me. His mother bought the Hybrid Theory album and they both had excellent taste in music so I knew it would be good. I used to wander over to his place to listen to it while we played Halo. I think for about a week over the school holidays, we cranked that CD loud. And then one day Mark said, "Nah, not Lick My Park again, let's listen to Queen." I'm not sure how long it took me to buy my own copy of Hybrid Theory, but I eventually did. It wasn't my first CD, that award goes to The Corrs (yes, I know...)

It's hard to put a finger on exactly why I listened to Linkin Park. Maybe it was rebellious, but I don't think so. My departure from religion was actually very structured. I picked up a book by New Zealand journalist Ian Wishart called The Divinity Code and started reading. On the second page, he introduced the four writers called the "new atheists." Rather than let him explain what those people wrote, I read the four books first and returned to his critique afterwards.

So Linkin Park wasn't some sort of devil worship gateway music. Rock music is a kind of channelled aggression mostly lacking in the rest of my life. In some way, it's cathartic for teenagers. And I was already deconstructing my religious upbringing anyway.

III

But I'm writing this because Chester killed himself. He wasn't caught in a car accident and his heart didn't suddenly give out. He tied one end of some sort of rope to a tall, sturdy object and fashioned a tight knot closing a loop around his neck. I hear Chester struggled with drugs and alcohol and I know he was abused as a child, although I don't want to hear the details and won't be searching them out. Something about his struggle was too great a burden, and so he chose to finish it.

I remember in my mid-teens telling my mother I'd thought about suicide. Even now I don't think that confession was true. Sure, I probably "thought about it" but it wasn't a contemplation - there's a difference. My teen years introduced the normal adolescent skin problems which I found tough to deal with. I realise now most of them could have been averted if I knew to change my pillowcase every night (you spend about eight hours each day rubbing your damn face on a single piece of cloth, so of course there'll be issues). I naturally had ups and downs with self-esteem. I could get a bit, well, melodramatic. Bear in mind I still believed in magic as a Christian. So perhaps I was just hoping the Big Guy upstairs would hear my despair. My mother took the skin issues seriously, but she had no idea how to fix them. Propitiations were probably all my immature mind had left to do.

Chester's life was nothing like mine. Fighting others is far simpler than fighting yourself. The mind is an abusive boyfriend that will do ANYTHING to avoid change. It will even destroy itself to cancel the effort. Perhaps this was Chester's central issue, I have no idea. But if nothing external could help him, then the enemy was internal. Everyone knows what kind of adversary the self can be. Maybe you aren't fighting it today, but you will eventually. So you should learn now, while there's still time, how to defend against your self's attempts to defend itself.

Yesterday one of my Christian friends said Chester set a bad example for his fans by killing himself. I realise Chester isn't doing much of anything right now, but that wasn't the point. Linkin Park's music was introspective and castigating, not of others, but of the band's personal struggles. The lyrics were their experiences and we were simply the third parties. The songs didn't belong to us. It was their trial.

My friend's point was that it's all well Linkin Park expressed those trials in musical form, trying work things out and recover - whatever recovery looks like - but when Chester hanged himself he showed his fans how the recovery couldn't be done. That no matter how tightly he bandaged his demons, experiences and fears, his inimical self was victorious anyway. That's not a good message.

IV

And I agree, to a certain extent. But religion is clouding my friend's judgement. You see, to him, there's something special about life. Most Christians don't quite know what exactly this "specialness" is, but they have a gene-deep certainty that it's there. Apparently, only God is capable of giving life, so He's the one who gets to retract it. So to take your own life is a sin because it's not yours to take away. This is perfectly reasonable thinking - for a slave.

The thing about being a slave is you don't know you're a slave. We're told the fences are there to protect us from the outside threats. Strongmen are at the top because no one knows what to do next. God is needed otherwise we wouldn't know right from wrong. The manacles on our wrists and markings on our shoulders display group identity, not ownership. In fact, those aren't shackles at all, says the new master, they're...something else.

But a freed slave only changes his master. The fresh restraints are sold to him in the exuberance of transitional freedom as the semiotics of emancipation, not of new slavery. The slave believes and uses the names for the restraints uttered by his new master who calls them by any name except limitation.

This is why you should never wear a sign or speak a slogan you didn't invent, it is only another manacle. Christians are still using other people's words to describe themselves. They speak about mercy, grace, righteousness, resurrection, etc. The proclamation is simple: my life would not be complete without this belief system. I was one way before, and now I am different. But only slaves look for someone else to free them, for a saviour. They never observe how simple it is to free yourself. What keeps a slave in line is the false assumption that on the other side of the fence lies danger and fear. Where did the slave hear this? Was it from his master?

Speaking strictly from a historical perspective, Christianity is a slave religion. It was built by peasants frustrated at the corrupt priestly caste in first century Judea. The priests were supposed to defend and help the peasant caste, but they aligned themselves instead with Rome's power. In early Judea, the peasants were always going to find a messiah. It was just a matter of time. And what better way to galvanise a desperate caste so fearful of the fence than for that saviour to also be a God?

V

My friend made the central mistake of all slaves. He gave a specific power to Chester to send some ethereal "message" and cause teenagers to act in a particular direction. This specific power is the first one removed by any master (and readily given up as too burdensome by every slave). It is the power of agency. Whatever your reaction to Chester's death, saying it sends a bad message is founded on the assumption that other people have the authority to set standards. Which is why the reflex is to complain about the actions of a singer, not assert the insignificance of those actions.

This is the same problem with those hoping to ban Photoshopping in magazines. This obsessive worry about what's in an ad is completely predicated on the assumption that the ad, the media, has all the power to decide what's desirable. And therefore, of course, it does. But the important point is not that you believe this to be true, the point is that you want this to be true. You want it to be true that advertising sets the standard of beauty because in the insane calculus of your psychology you have a better chance of changing ads than you have of changing yourself.

Christians can't comprehend suicide because no slave knows what it's like to have power. I was told once that being blind doesn't mean a person sees black all the time. It's more like seeing out of your elbow. This is what Christians don't understand. Before you were born, there was only nothingness. And you will return to nothingness once this brief spark sputters for the last time. It will not be a continuous, never-ending stretch of days being dead. It will be as if you have never existed. Death is like seeing out your elbow.

And for someone like Chester to enact the ultimate power over the one thing he truly had control should not be seen as abhorrent. Neither should it be seen as good. Suicide is painful for those left on this crusty planet. But it's not for them! If you organise your life around what other people feel, you'll never be happy and neither will they. Letting externalities guide your life is the definition of slavery, which is precisely why Christians use this argument.

My reading of the Stoics is that life is the toughest thing any of us will ever do. And attempting to apprehend and grapple with your own limitation and vulnerability to reduce the amount of suffering for you and others is the only job you have while this spark is burning. It's difficult, but you still have to do it anyway. The most frightening thing about existential power is how easy it is to hand it over to any master offering fresh fences.

VI

In Breaking Bad, Walter White chooses not to get chemotherapy to treat his cancer, which might look like agency, but it is not. He rationalises his decision by saying:

"All right, I've got the Talking Pillow now. Okay? We all, in this room, we love each other. We want what's best for each other, and I know that. I am very thankful for that. 
"But what I want. What I want, what I need, is a choice. Sometimes, I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer all I have left is how I choose to approach this."

And he sounds in charge. He sounds like he knows what he's doing. But it is a mistake. His thoughts are wrong in the only way that matters: pro status quo. Walter complains about never having made a decision in his life. Up until now, his life has coasted along. Go to school. Get a degree. Find a job. Get married. Pay your taxes. Buy a house. His life is like a cart on tracks. Now the Talking Pillow gives him one final decision in his miserable life. But this is all a lie.

Walter is trapped in the thinking of a slave. He looks into his past and sees nothing but an uninterrupted line of compelled decisions. He sees the servitude, but he doesn't comprehend its grip. Walter confuses his correct decisions - from the perspective of the system - with a lack of existential power. This is the trap. He doesn't see how every second of every day he was actually in control. Nothing stopped him from getting up, right now, and flying to Fiji. At no point was he ever robbed of agency.

But because he made the choices the system wanted him to make, his life was harmonious and everything seemed to line up. He studied and got a job. He talked to a girl and got married. He paid his taxes and the IRS didn't blow off his door hinges. At every step, Walter was in control. Yet here he sits complaining of a life as a crippled slave. No Walter, you are lying to yourself.

When he takes control over his life, the path set up by the system begins to fork. This wasn't the first crossroads he'd seen, but it is the only one he's ever really looked at. So he turns left and climbs over that fence. It is at that moment Walter discovers something real about existential power. Slaves live behind that fence with plug-and-play livelihoods painted by choices made in the required direction. But when you decide to apprehend life, when you climb over the fence, the system cannot protect you any longer.

And that's the thing about existential power. Choices made from the moment you realise you have it might lead to incredible riches and wonderment - or everyone around you could die. This is what it means to no longer be a slave. You are at the mercy of the nature of reality. There is nothing more empowering than this. But if the result of emancipation could be the collapse of everything, then is it any wonder why enlightenment is in such short supply?

Walter picked his life. You may not think you picked yours, you may think you were forced into it and inescapably tied to it, but I know that every moment is a choice, right up to and including blowing your brains out. Saying, "I had no choice," is itself a choice. Your choices may be stupid, but they're still choices. And as all choices in life are ultimately binary, you really have no one else to blame for them but yourself. Flipping a coin should win you happiness 50% of the time. If you're running less than that...well, consider getting a coin.

Walter and Chester both knew something about the world Christians can never know. Sometimes the task of embracing the consequences of choices might lead to a decision that the burden is simply too great. Going once more into that forbidding land outside the fence is simply not worth the effort this time. It is then that the freed slave still has the blessing of falling to his knees and embracing the full meaning of agency with one final choice. To secure existential power and snuff out the spark.

I get that it's easier to be a slave, and far less suffering will come with that choice. But I am asking you, at what cost?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Translating James "Mad Dog" Mattis

Jim Mattis is an interesting dude. He gave an interview to a high school newspaper recently and a transcript was made of the exchange. Do read the whole thing.

But in case you don't read it, I want to tease out a few things because I think the way someone talks to students will be different to adults. Turns out it's disturbingly enlightening.

The first thing to notice is the core dynamic of American power laid bare at the beginning: the power struggle over Washington between diplomats (State) and soldiers (Defence), played out in proxy battles in faraway lands. Mattis neatly bridges the Potomac with a shout out to Tillerson, who about nine months ago was still serving industry as an ExxonMobil CEO (ExxonMobil is a transnational corporate, part of the extended civil service tied to the Pentagon). Here's Mattis:

"So what you have to do is make certain that your foreign policy is led by the diplomats, not by the military. I meet for breakfast once a week with Secretary of State Tillerson and I’ll advise him on the military factors for his foreign policy, but I do not believe that military issues should lead in foreign policy. I think that’s where diplomats lead and the military then reinforces the diplomats."

Notice how the set-up has the military playing the supporting role, while the diplomats are in the supported role. This is deliberate. When the Republicans are in the White House, the Pentagon has control of the executive. And boosting the diplomats might sound like he's abdicating an opportunity to drive home the nail. Not really. State pulled the same move in reverse for the last eight years, and for the same reasons. What's going on here is simple.

Framing it in this way, Mattis gets to say that when things go bad the blame should be with the diplomats and Defence was only helping out. But really, at least for the next 3.5 years, it will be Defence calling the major shots (pun intended) in Washington. State will work to undermine Defence, just as Defence did during Obama, but it won't have the platform (executive office) to broadcast to the American people its side of the story.

So for the time being, Mattis gets to pretend like the two factions are working together, when really he's neatly saying that when things inevitably go wrong, Defence was doing everything it could, but State screwed things up.

The meat of the interview, at least for me, starts when Mattis brings up the Marshall Plan:

"And look at us today, where Germany and Japan are two of our strongest allies in the United Nations, in NATO, in the Pacific. I think what you want to do is look at the Marshall Plan, but instead of the American’s carrying the full burden or even the heaviest burden, look at all the nations in the world since many nations have become wealthy since World War II, and see it as being an international effort."

I find this disturbing. The way I see it, the Marshall Plan was a result of the US and its allies entirely eviscerating their political enemies in Japan, Germany and Italy. Note that "political" refers to the different versions of democracy fought over during WWII and that the US waged war, not for freedom, but to remake the world in its democratic image. The 20th century was bloody not because people are nasty and evil but because democracy is the antithesis of good government.

The Marshall Plan should be seen as the US equivalent of the colonisation of Europe. It was the wholesale purchase (sorry, "aid") of Europe. And when you free a slave, the slave isn't let loose - he only changes master. Thus, the story of the 20th century. The Plan rebuilt Europe, sure, but at what cost? It seems to me, it only worked because the entire continent was exhausted, completely at the mercy of a rabid and angry new owner from across the Atlantic.

And now Mattis wants a new Marshall Plan in the Arab world? Do these words not enlighten us as to why Obama thought it a good idea to set the whole region aflame in 2011 with the Arab Spring? I'm not talking about coups and clandestine measures. At least not directly. Those are ham-fisted when conducted by Americans, and let's be honest, usually end in tears.

It was the incredible media messaging for decades, delivered all across the Middle East, from CNN and the State Department saying: rise up, tip over your autocratic governments and the US shall defend your democracy! Well, how did that work out in Libya, Syria Afghanistan and Iraq? Not so well, at least from where I'm sitting.

Run the numbers and you'll see why the logical thing for Mattis to suggest is a new Marshall Plan. After all, if you break it, you buy it. The Middle East is on fire and Washington has been pumping gasoline through its long and winding firehose. And you thought it was cool water pouring from the nozzle...

"On the education, I sometimes wonder how much better the world would be if we funded for nations where they have ideology problems, where the ideologies are hateful, full of hatred.I wonder what would happen if we turned around and we helped pay for high school students, a boy and girl at each high school in that country to come to America for one year and don’t do it just once, but do it ten years in a row...I think ideologies can be countered by showing people a better education and hope for the future by learning how to get along with one another. And for all of our problems in our country, we’re probably still the best example of that in the world."

Look, I'm not one to bash a genuine desire to teach Arab kids how to use a computer or a monkey wrench. Lord knows the Middle East needs some TLC. But "hateful" is just an emotive word, its purpose is only misdirection. It depicts nothing but Mattis' own goals. To him, and everyone in the US, hate is something other people feel. Mattis doesn't hate anybody. He's the one dropping 500-pound bombs of love while ISIS straps vests of hatred onto 18-year-olds.

You see, from the perspective of power, it doesn't matter what you think or believe, so long as you act in the required direction. You could be the nastiest, most disgusting human blowing up children, but if you act towards the default assumptions, you're good to go, baby. Again, it's not ISIS terrorism that drives Mattis to call the Wahabist ideology "hateful," it's that the goal of ISIS is to remake the world into one Caliphate in which nation-state and democratic ideals are cancelled and replaced by theocratic leaders answerable to no-one but God and other members of the priestly caste.

To Mattis, not only is ISIS not acting in the required direction, it behoves him to organise a programme both to kill everyone who thinks like the extremists and to compel or steal via "refugee" programmes the children of this broken region to travel to the US and undergo re-education in its esteemed universities. What he won't tell you, because he can't see it himself, is that the purpose of those universities - as with churches and temples in times past - is not education but cadre. These institutions churn out compliance first and skills second. Which is why they're so powerful.

Mattis believes everyone in the future will learn how to "get along." Duh, that's the end-goal of every hegemonic structure. What might surprise him is ISIS wants to do this as well. Both vectors sum for the same result. They are each in the world-eating business, and they know it too.

And you can see this thought pattern and strategy at work again in Mattis' description of the "Iran problem":

"So his idea on the way to do it was through education. I think that’s probably the most enduring way. Other things are shorter term and certainly, they can work for short term, but if you want to really change it in the long term, I think it comes down to doing so through education of the young people...Until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy, these guys who think they can tell the people even which candidates they get a choice of."

Did you feel a chill in the room, or is it just me? "Until the Iranian people can get rid of..." Who does Mattis think he's kidding? He's the one who told us to read history. Well, I've read plenty of Iran/US history, and it says right there in the textbooks how the US, France and all the other progressive, socialist countries have been balls deep in Iran for decades. Pushing and pulling the Iranian people to rise up against whatever regime the West thinks is evil today is a pastime activity in Washington. Miles Copeland, the forerunner of the CIA, boasted about standing outside mosques in Tehran handing $US100 bills to anyone who would yell "down with the Shah!"

And now we're supposed to believe, according to Mattis, that when the Iranian people start to peep and squeak about democracy and ridding themselves of meddlesome priests, it's all their idea. Like the Iranians magically came to the same governmental conclusion as the US and France, all on their own, that the best form of society is one built by progressive democracy? Give me a break.

The US is just playing firefighter with gasoline again. It awaits only a spark, which Washington will no doubt say was kindled by the desperate Iranians crying out for freedom. And as it rushes to provide that very freedom, dragging along those dripping firehoses, it will quickly slip the matches back inside its pocket. Ahh, Washington, I see those matches...

"The Iranian people are not the problem. The Iranian people are definitely not the problem, it’s the regime that sends agents around to murder ambassadors in Pakistan or in Washington DC. We’ve got to make certain that the Iranian people know that we don’t have any conflict with them. I’d start with that. 
"There are moderate regimes in the Middle East. The king of Jordan, clearly a moderating influence. The Emirates, the United Arab Emirates, I think almost a quarter of their ministers, what we would call secretaries of departments, are women...There’s a carrying capacity in any society for how much change it can incorporate at any one time."

Couldn't have said it better myself, Jim.