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Framers

The current background music in our house is the soundtrack to Hamilton: An American Musical.  This is a good thing, as my wife adores it, I like it more every day, and my son’s understanding of US history is positively impacted.  As a parent, as an American and as a thinking person, I want my son to know what the Founding Drunkards were really like.  I don’t want him to grow up believing the same lies I was taught when I was his age.  For good reason.

Here’s the deal – the Founding Drunkards were human.  Flawed, annoying, ridiculous humans.  Just like the rest of us.  Most everyone who has a knowledge of US history beyond the grade school level is aware of this.

When we are young and our society thinks our young minds need to be instilled with a certain amount of patriotism (often confused with nationalism), we are taught that the Founders are larger-than-life figures, noble in purpose and pure of heart.  The idea is to get us to love our country and the Founders are presented as the personification(s) of everything that is good and beautiful and decent about the United States of America.

As we get older, most of us (especially the historians among us) get a fuller, more accurate picture of the Drunkards.  We learn a thing or two about their flaws.  We discover – despite ourselves – that they were human, and therefore necessarily flawed.  And if we really pay attention, we notice that most of them were deeply flawed.

Case in point:  slavery.  I’m sure most of you know that many of the Founding Drunkards were slave owners (with notable exceptions – Hamilton, for instance, was a dedicated abolitionist).  I’m sure you’re also aware of the usual narratives offered to explain why it’s somehow magically okay that they were slave owners.  We are told, for instance, that Washington inherited slaves (as though this made it acceptable).  And this is partially true.  When he was eleven years old, Washington inherited ten slaves.  At the time of his death, however, there were a total of 318 slaves residing at Mount Vernon.

Washington was by no means unique in this.  Jefferson’s relations with his slaves are well known.  The point is that the bulk of them weren’t exactly against slavery.

I am not judging these men here.  I am merely trying to underscore a point.  You see, all of the Founding Drunkards knew – they knew – that slavery was morally wrong.  Yet for many of them their economic standing depended upon slavery.  They were rich and powerful men and their wealth and their power depended upon slavery.  Which leads to my point, which is important enough to merit large boldface letters:

When faced with a choice between their morals or their wealth and power, they did NOT choose their morals.

Does this make them bad people?  Maybe.  I don’t know, and that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is the basic design spec of the United States of America.  This country was designed by a bunch of guys who cared more about their own wealth and power than about other people’s basic human rights.  Hell – they ranked their own wealth and power above their own morals.  Their priorities and motives are evident.

And these are the guys who designed our government and our political system.

Think about that for a minute.

From the outset, the United States of America was designed by a bunch of rich white guys for the express purpose of preserving and advancing their own personal wealth and power.  For this reason, they specifically designed it to be an amoral system.  And this turned out to be both a bug and a feature.

It’s a feature because it made for the separation of church and state, an idea that worked pretty well until the 1950s when American politicians started trying to inject their own personal God into our lives.  We’ve been striving against this ever since – and have been largely successful – but the struggle continues.  As you probably already know.

The amoral nature of our system is a bug in that there is absolutely no common decency built into it whatsoever.  But it’s an easy bug to forgive because there’s no reasonable way to achieve the feature without also accepting the bug.

The problem with all of this is that most of us – deep down – don’t really understand it.  We may know the details on an intellectual level, but underneath it all we really believe it’s something different.  When we are children and are taught about the Founders as great and noble and admirable, we are instilled with an unreasonable – and unreasoning – faith in our political system.

And this gives us funny ideas about politics.  We find ourselves believing in things rather than thinking about them.  We forget that politics attracts wealthy, powerful, ambitious people.  We believe that there really can be larger than life figures who – superhero-like – will arrive on the political scene and save us all.

I’m sorry to inform you that this just isn’t the case.  It never has been, nor will it ever be.  It just simply is not in the job spec.  In fact, the nature of American politics actively repulses people who do not place their own ambition above morals and ethics.

This is not a problem if we simply look at the situation clearly.  What we have right now in the United States of America is a job opening.  Just that.  I’m not drawing an analogy here – we really do have a job opening and it’s up to We The People to fill it.  And if you’ve been part of the hiring process before you know that it’s always a bad idea to fill a job vacancy based only on how much you like a particular candidate.

I’m not telling you who to vote for.  I assume that if you’ve read this far you probably have enough interest in the process to already be leaning toward a specific candidate.  Chances are there’s somebody running whose message resonates with you and who is saying the kind of things you want to hear.

Which means they wrote a good cover letter.  They figured out which things you – a prospective employer – want to hear, and they smartly said those things.  This is an important part of the hiring process, but it’s just the beginning.  Now it’s time to read the résumé.

Seriously.  You wouldn’t hire someone based on their cover letter without also reading their résumé.  So why would you elect someone based solely on their speeches without also considering their qualifications?

This should not be an emotional process, America, but a rational one.

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tkam

I am the youngest of three boys raised by a working single mom in the 1960s and1970s.  We lived toward the poor end of the spectrum, so much of my childhood was spent devoid of television (back in those days, TV was considered a luxury, not a necessity).  Due to these circumstances, I was well into my teen years before I encountered the idea that women could be anything other than strong, intelligent and capable.  It still baffles me when I encounter people who start from an assumption that women are not strong, intelligent and capable.  Especially because so many of them actually consider themselves to be feminists.

Needless to say, I am often misunderstood by people when the discussion turns to sexism and women’s issues (yes – I am allowed to discuss these things even though I have a penis).  Usually it’s because I don’t assume women need protection.  And because I assume they are relatively intelligent adult human beings, so when they do stupid things my initial response is other than “Oh, you poor thing!”.  In fact, I have a universal response to stupidity that is colorblind and genderless.  Those of you who know me have encountered it frequently.

So I generally try to avoid these discussions, especially on the Internet.  When I look at a situation and say “Why in hell did she do something so dumb?” I immediately get attacked by a half-dozen or so ‘feminists’ who demand to know why I’m “blaming the victim” and/or being such a sexist.  Which leaves me wondering why these ‘feminists’ think their role is to gallantly provide protection for someone they claim to consider a strong, intelligent, capable equal.

A large part of the problem is the simple fact that the Internet is a piss-poor vehicle for human interaction and communication.  This is no fault of the Internet but is rather due to the fact that most humans are not very good at communicating.  And extremely few of us are skilled at communicating using only the written word.  This is why people who are good at it get paid for doing so.

So when we do try to discuss important issues on the Internet we usually screw it up.  As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of the ‘discussions’ on the Internet about sexism consist solely of people pointing out instances of sexism and screaming “Look everyone!  A bad thing!”.  Just in case we didn’t already know that sexism is bad.

I, on the other hand, want to know why the strongest, most intelligent, most capable, most badass woman on the face of the planet still occasionally needs someone else to tell her she’s pretty.  And I think maybe this is the kind of thing we should be talking about.  The parts of the issue that are complicated and that maybe make us a little uncomfortable.

Which brings us to Go Set a Watchman.

As should be obvious, the following will contain spoilers (although probably not anything you haven’t already heard).  If you haven’t read Go Set A Watchman and intend to, you might want to stop reading at this point (I’m a Map Dork, so as a buffer I’ll throw in a map [found here]).

Maycomb

Still here?  Good.  I’ll get right to the point:  Atticus Finch is a racist.  I know this is not easy to accept, but it is, in fact, even evident in To Kill a Mockingbird (although not obvious.  That is reserved for Go Set a Watchman).  Before you get too upset, though, let me explain a couple things.  First off, Atticus Finch is a racist, but only by today’s standards.  By the standards of his own time (To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the mid-1930s, when Atticus was in his early 50s.  Go Set a Watchman takes place in the mid-1950s) he was something else entirely.  Second, Atticus was what I think of as a ‘benevolent racist’.  Unlike most of his contemporaries he didn’t consider black people to be subhuman (yes – I said black people.  Political correctness is the process of white people sitting around deciding what the new labels should be.  I don’t subscribe), nor did he in any way consider them to be undesirable or even unlikable.  He just didn’t consider them to be equal.  In To Kill a Mockingbird Jean Louise (a.k.a. Scout) states:

“Atticus says cheatin’ a colored man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man”

Later, Atticus himself says:

“There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”

Atticus’ racism is there, if you have eyes to see it.  Go Set a Watchman just makes it more blatant and obvious.  But it’s not any different.  Atticus is not any different.  His form of racism is a condescending one.  He views black people very much as though they are children.  Children who need our (read: white people’s) help.

Jean Louise, however, is not racist.  She is described (by herself, in the interest of full disclosure) as ‘colorblind’.  Despite growing up in Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s.  How did this happen?  Because she was raised by Atticus FinchTo Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are, in fact, two parts of one story.  Jean Louise Finch’s story.  The story of her relationship with her father.  And how Scout, like every child, eventually comes to terms with her father’s humanity.  How she finally realizes that Atticus Finch has as much right to be flawed as the rest of us.

Jean Louise eventually accepts the fact that her father is human and he therefore has faults.  And she realizes that he is not defined by his faults.  For his part, Atticus learns that he has succeeded in the task that all good parents set for themselves:  he has raised a child who is better than he is (which, by the way, may not have happened if Atticus hadn’t actively defied the dictates of his family and community to allow his daughter to grow up to be exactly the person she desired to be).  At the end of the day, though, Atticus lived in a time and place that was both extremely racist and extremely sexist, and he was years ahead of his time on both these issues.  But not immune to them.  And – truth be told – I’m okay with that.

I am finding, however, that many of the people I know are not.  I am a little surprised and dismayed by how many of my friends are actively avoiding reading Go Set a Watchman (some of them have even concocted elaborate reasons for it).  I wish I could say the reason for this is simply because they don’t want to face the fact that Atticus is a racist.  The truth is that they don’t want to face what Atticus Finch’s racism represents.

We here in the Northeast live in a fuzzy pink bubble wherein we think we have largely beaten racism (we are wrong, and we are also not alone in this).  Because of this, we believe that there are precisely two types of racists in this world:  bad people and stupid people.  We honestly believe that at least one of those two conditions must be in place before racism can even exist, let alone thrive.  So the idea of an inherently decent and intelligent person (like Atticus Finch) who is also a racist is complicated and it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t want to look at it so we instead decide that it can’t exist.

Which only serves to prove that we are failing to understand the nature of racism.

See, racism is not rational.  This is why it does not respond to reason.  Nobody sits down, analyzes all the available evidence, then concludes that the only logical course of action is to be a racist.  Racism arrives through a different vector, and for this reason we cannot combat it effectively with logic and reason.  Also for this reason, otherwise decent and intelligent people can sometimes turn out to be racists.  This invariably occurs during childhood.  If you spend the bulk of your formative years surrounded by a certain way of thinking, there’s a decent chance you will come to believe that said certain way of thinking is normal and/or proper.  Sexism often procreates by this method as well.  As does religion.

Relax.  Before you throw a hissy and accuse me of badmouthing religion, take a moment to look up the word ‘rational’.  And know that most of the religions of the world will back me up on this.  One does not reason one’s way to God.  Religion is not logical nor does it desire to be.  Belief is arrived at through other means.

This is why belief systems (good or bad) need to be kept in check via legislation.  We cannot carefully explain the facts and then expect racists to become colorblind.  We cannot throw logic at sexists and then expect them to suddenly support paycheck equality.  We cannot reason with the religious right and then expect them to see the light in regard to marriage equality.  It simply will not happen and thinking otherwise is just plain dumb.  We need Affirmative Action. We need the Nineteenth Amendment.  We need separation of church and state (make no mistake, folks – the Founding Drunkards were not concerned about freedom of religion.  They were concerned about freedom from religion).  Rationality cannot be applied to belief systems, so the only recourse a rational society has is to protect the general populace from them.

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hoffmanThose of you who know me know that I have my share of issues with this whole “Occupy (Insert name of Street or City Here)” movement.  For the most part, my issues stem from a general lack of tolerance for hypocrisy.  I don’t take Teabaggers seriously because they whine about taxes while at the same time complaining about potholes that aren’t getting filled.  For much the same reasons I don’t have much use for people who wear designer jeans and drink Starbucks coffee while they Tweet on their iPhones about the evils of corporate America.

For the most part, though, my problems with OWS are not so much with the message as with the messengers.  While the issues surrounding economic inequality in this country are real and important, I don’t feel the reluctance of the white middle class to repay their student loans ranks terribly high among them.

As time has gone by, though, I find myself less and less enamored of the message behind the protests.  In fact, the entire movement has completely failed to impress me.  This concerned me at first, mainly because I felt I should be impressed.  Economic equality is just the sort of socialist idea I can really get behind, so on the surface it really appeared to be my kind of movement.  But once I looked hard at the movement – looked below the surface – I realized it’s not actually my kind of movement at all.

Why?  Because it’s got no soul.  It’s got no heart.  It is a movement that is incapable of seeing beyond itself.  Or maybe it’s just unwilling to.  It has been called an inherently selfish movement by many (myself included), although it may be more fair to call it ‘self centered’ or ‘self-absorbed’.

The 99 percent

I’ve heard the arguments – that we should endeavor to look beyond the iPhones and the designer jeans to the message beneath.  That the ‘message’ of OWS is in their words, not their behaviors (any 4-year-old can tell you differently).  Here’s a news flash:  the message is getting out to the world, and it is loud and clear.  But it isn’t necessarily the message OWS thinks it’s broadcasting.  If you bring a gun to an anti-war protest, your message is not one of peace, no matter what you say.

I have repeatedly seen attempts to compare OWS to the civil rights movement, as well as to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s.  All of these attempts have failed, and in their failure they underscore the fundamental shortcomings of OWS.  Its lack of a soul.  Its absence of heart.

First off, lets dismiss any comparisons to the civil rights movement.  I’m sorry, but placing OWS into the same category with Freedom Rides is almost insulting.  Let’s face facts here, people – those actively participating in the major events of the American civil rights movement were risking a great deal more than a dose of pepper spray.  And while a faceful of pepper spray is not exactly a pleasant experience, in comparison to the civil rights movement participating in OWS is practically risk free.  They also were fighting for rights on a far different level than those claimed by OWS.  They weren’t looking for a bigger slice of the pie – they just wanted to be allowed into the restaurant.  Those occupying Wall Street may argue differently, but in the eyes of the law, the 99% have the same rights as the 1%  (in theory, at least).  This was not the case for African Americans well into the twentieth century.  Today, no African American can legally be stopped from drinking out of a public water fountain.  The importance of this statement cannot be understood by anyone who would compare OWS to the civil rights movement.

When the proponents of OWS compare it to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s, they are on slightly less shaky ground.  But only slightly.  The movements of the 1960s – like OWS – were primarily white middle-class movements.  And this is pretty much where the comparisons end.  When we start looking for more similarities is when the self-absorption of OWS stands out.

In both cases, we’re talking about the (primarily white) middle class.  We’re talking about people who have every door open to them.  Who have every opportunity available to them.  Who have every right and privilege handed to them.  From this starting point, vastly different messages arose.

OWS looks to the gap between itself and the 1% and says to the world:  “This inequality is inexcusable.  We should not have to settle for what we have when these few have so much.  As a society, we should take steps to reduce what they have so that the rest of us can have more.”

In contrast, those protesting in the 1960s looked to the gap between themselves and those who had less and said to the world:  “This inequality is inexcusable.  We should not allow members of our society to have so little when we have so much.  As a society, we should take steps to increase what they have, even if it means decreasing what we have.”

The movements of the 1960s were selfless (this is not to say that there were no egos involved).  They were about ending war.  They were about treating each other fairly.  They were about striving toward equality by giving – not by taking.

Those on the ground in the 1960s also saw inherent flaws in American consumer culture.  They too saw rampant consumption and pervasive greed, and they feared the results of them.  Their response to it, though, was almost opposite to OWSers – they opted out.  When they saw a culture of avarice that they felt had eroded their society and threatened their world, their response was to turn their backs on it – not to demand more of it.  Thus the term ‘counterculture’.

If OWS had occurred in the 1960s, iPhones wouldn’t have been used to Tweet about it.  They would have been used as firewood.

The counterculture movements of the 1960s possessed something that OWS sadly lacks.  They had heart, soul and yes – even magic.  Because of this, they gave birth to greatness.  Heroes don’t give birth to movements – movements give birth to heroes.  The 1960s produced the likes of Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Seven.  (The civil rights movement produced even bigger giants.)

This is the soul that OWS lacks. And without it I feel it is doomed to failure. Where is its Hoffman, its Dylan, its Joplin, its Baez?

Speaking of which, where in hell is the music?  How is it that this movement has inspired so little?  Oh – I know that the people on the ground have been attempting to write songs.  I’ve listened to some of them.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

And I was going to continue my decades-old practice of ignoring Third Eye Blind, but I will go so far as to give them 10 bonus points for offering their song as a free download.  And then I’ll take 5 of those points away because one of the places they posted it is their Facebook page.  However, you’re fooling yourself if you see their “anthem”  as anything other than a thinly-veiled attempt to resuscitate their dead careers.

The 1960s, though, produced music of a different sort.  The kind of music that never goes out of style.  The kind of music that understands that peace is the answer to war, love is the answer to hatred, and generosity is the answer to greed.  The kind of music that shines light into dark places and makes flowers grow there.

The kind of music that can somehow magically transform half a million sweaty, mud-caked, tripping hippies into Stardust.

Internet Kill Switch

As you probably know, Egypt has been going through some crazy political shit as of late.  In a nutshell, the general populace of Egypt decided they weren’t very happy with their sitting government.  In fact, they pretty much concluded that they would prefer it to be a getting up and running away government.

Mubarak, of course, felt differently about this.  Being a reigning scumbag is rather habit-forming, and he obviously desired to keep his personal status as quo as possible.  Toward this end, he thought it would be a good idea to prevent his people from talking to each other.  This, to his thinking, was the crux of the problem – as soon as any group of Egyptians started talking together, the conversation invariably turned to everything that was wrong with Mubarak’s regime.

The solution was elegant in its simplicity.  To stop the conversations, all he had to do was plug the pipes.  To accomplish this, he turned off the internet in Egypt.  In response to which Egypt – well – exploded.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about Tahrir Square.

When all was said and done, Mubarak was out of power and Egypt began a series of political seizures that still haven’t finished playing out.

After watching these events unfold, some members of our political leadership started to revisit the idea of a U.S. government-controlled internet kill switch.  Seriously.  And these people are running the show.  What were we thinking?

Of course, this idea has surfaced before.  The rationalization is that the government may someday have to shut down the internet in the interest of National Cybersecurity (leaving aside the reality that by the time our government actually became aware of such a need it would be far too late).  I haven’t heard an explanation as to why the government would need to shut down the entire internet to achieve this, rather than just their pieces of it.  I assume this is simply because no one who works for our government actually knows anything about the internet, but it could be that they just don’t want to admit that the only real use for an internet kill switch is the one Mubarak employed.

The problem here in the U.S. is that We The People have all those pesky Constitutional rights.

When the Founding Drunkards were drawing up the documents that rule our lives, they produced a Constitution, which they swiftly followed with the Bill of Rights.  There was much arguing over the Bill of Rights (specifically, whether there should even be one), but eventually the majority decided that the document should be ratified.

It is curious that the Constitution – the document intended to serve as the foundation of our nation – was so quickly amended.  Not once but ten times.  It could be that they wanted to drive home the point that the Constitution is meant to be amended.  It’s the whole idea behind the document – that it be something that can change and grow along with the change and growth of the United States of America.

I also think it’s possible that the Bill of Rights was the Framers’ way of saying:  “These are the big ones, folks.  If you don’t have these freedoms, then you are not free.”

I bring this up because I think it’s important to note that an internet kill switch would be seriously flirting with infringing on our Constitutional rights.  Specifically in relation to the First Amendment.

You thought I was talking about Freedom of Speech (more exactly, Freedom of Expression), didn’t you?  Well, I’m not (although that argument could be made).

No, I’m talking about another First Amendment right:  Freedom of Assembly.  This, my friends, is what we do with the internet:  we assemble.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace – just to name some of the big guns – for many people, these are the internet.  These days, it seems more and more that the internet exists solely to give Social Media a place to hang out.  In case you haven’t noticed, what most of us do with the internet is connect, reconnect, and stay connected with each other.

You see, the Drunkards were well educated folks.  They had read their history and were quite aware that most revolutions begin in pubs.  They were also aware that this is not due to the presence of alcohol (although it certainly doesn’t hurt).  The reason drinking establishments so often serve as birthplaces for insurrection is that they are public venues where people are able to come together and speak openly.  Where We The People can assemble to discuss our grievances.

Which is precisely what Mubarak feared and tried to stop.  He wasn’t just trying to keep people from talking – he was trying to keep them from talking to each other.

internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.

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Great Wall in Winter I studied anthropology in college.  At the particular university I attended, this entailed a certain amount of time spent hanging around the anthro lounge with other students.  There was a grassy corner outside the building housing said lounge where a curious family would occasionally take up temporary residence to harangue the students passing by.  They had a large (about 15’ tall) wooden cross they would hold (usually the father) and they would scream at the passerby about their likelihood of burning in Hell for all eternity.  Apparently, this family thought attending university was some form of especially grievous sin.  Beside the father, the family consisted of a mother and a small boy, probably around 8 years old at the time.

One day, I sat in the lounge while this family stood at their posts screaming invectives.  Dickie, a grad student, entered the lounge and flopped angrily into a chair.  I looked up and noted that he was visibly upset.

“What’s up?” I queried.

“I just feel for that little boy,” came the response.  “I just want to go out and tell him that there’s another way.”

My reaction to this statement was to question Dickie about a few things.  Specifically, why he thought he had the right to tell anyone else how to raise their children, what he thought entitled him to pass judgment on someone else’s beliefs, and whether he liked the idea of someone else telling Dickie how to raise his own children.  I didn’t do it very nicely.

I got to thinking about that family today as I was reading yet another article about China/Google.  I was thinking about them because the elephant in the room reminded me of them.

You see, in all the discussion about this scenario, I have read reams of opinions about human rights (which I’ll get to later), but I have read precious little about sovereignty.  You know – something along the lines of:  Who are we to tell China what to do?  When companies from other countries do business here in the United States (even Chinese companies), we quite rightly expect them to play by our rules.  If they fail to do things our way, we kick them out.  This is right and proper and how it should be.

But not, apparently, when China does it.  When we do it, we are a sovereign nation exercising its right to protect the interests of its people.  When China does it, they’re an evil, tyrannical empire abusing its citizens.

To quote Brian Lewis:  “God bless America. And no place else.”

Just one more damn thing I find tiresome about my country.  Which should not be taken to mean I don’t love my country.  I love my country, and I always have.  I just hold it to a higher standard than most people.

Anyway, a large part of the Great American Idiocy is the unshakable belief that everyone else in the world wants what we have (which contains a kernel of truth, but not of the sort most people think).  Americans inexplicably think that the rest of humanity would really love to have an American form of government, as well as a full set of American rights.  This is inexplicable for a variety of reasons, the largest of which being that Americans don’t even want them themselves.

Don’t believe me?  Are you actually under the impression that Americans are protective of their rights?  If so, I have one question:  Where the hell were you for the first eight years of this millennium?  You know – that dark, cold period in American history when the Bush/Cheney empire routinely erased the rights of the American people, in response to which the majority of Americans stood up and cheered.

And our form of government?  Please.  In the first place, we do not have a democracy in this country, or even anything close to it.  ‘Representative Republic’ is one of the phrases that often gets batted around in an attempt to describe what we have.  Whatever you want to call it, what we do have in this country is the ability to vote.  The actual weight our individual votes carry is an arguable point (and it varies, depending on what, exactly, we’re voting about), but in some fashion it boils down to the fact that we are freely given a real, active and meaningful voice in our government.

And yet, in the last election, only 58% of Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so.  This means that 42% of the Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to participate in the process, despite the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything, is easy to do, and directly and immediately affects their lives.

So tell me – if our form of government is so damned wonderful, why do almost half of the eligible participants choose not to play?  And please don’t try to tell me that all those Americans want our form of government, but just aren’t willing  to ‘work’ for it.  That’s just another way of saying they don’t want it.  Besides, dropping by the polls for an hour (at most) once every couple of years is not exactly work (truth be told, there are only two things that the majority of Americans really do want.  They want to be able to pick up a six-pack on their way home from work, and they want their cable to work when they get home.  If these two things are in place, the average American doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else).  I just don’t understand why we insist on believing the rest of the world wants a piece of our so-called ‘democracy’ when such a large percentage of Americans don’t even want it.  Seems like a bit of a stretch.

Which brings us to the subject of human rights.  We here in the Land Of Silk And Money tend to believe that the government of China routinely violates the basic human rights of the Chinese people.  Personally, I believe this to be true, but not through any firsthand (or even secondhand) knowledge.

What’s unclear to me is why we’re bringing internet censorship into the whole human rights discussion.  This is not to say I am a proponent of internet censorship (or any other sort of censorship, for that matter).  I’d like to think this is obvious.  Censorship in any form is an infringement of the freedom of expression, something I consider to be a basic human right (within reason, of course.  You know – the old saw about not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.  Possessing a right to speak freely does not automatically confer a license to use it recklessly.  Nor does it absolve one from taking responsibility for things said).  What I’m not getting here is why we’re all pretending that the Chinese government is the only government that actively censors the information its citizens receive.  Or why we pretend that censorship only comes from ‘bad’ governments.  All governments censor information – some are just more honest about it (for which they get sent over to sit on the Group ‘W’ bench).

We here in the United States tend to place freedom of expression into the ‘basic human right’ category, I think mainly because our freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and therefore we have more of it than most.  What we forget is just how rare this is.  The overwhelming majority of humanity does not enjoy this right, even many of the people we Americans kind of assume do have such a right – While article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights pertains to the freedom of expression, it contains the conditional: subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, everyone should have a right to free speech, but only insofar as their government wishes to allow (Neil Gaiman wrote a great piece on this a while back).  It also should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights is much like the United Nations – it has no muscles.  It is only enforceable if a government chooses to flex its muscles on the Convention’s behalf.

I guess my point here is simply a repetition of one of the great litanies of my life:  They are all bastards. I don’t really see how asking Google to abide by their rules makes Chinese bastards worse than all the other bastards.

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Old TechnologyWe eat rather well around our house.  And by that I mean good, organic, healthy food.  We buy a share in a local farm every year, which provides all of our vegetables (in season).  We get our meat through a share at another local farm.  We buy our milk (raw) and eggs from small farms a few miles up the road.  The overwhelming majority of the balance of our diet comes from one of the nearby co-ops or farmers’ markets.

Now, it should not be thought that we have gone completely earthy-crunchy.  I drink soda.  We eat ice cream.  We eat junk food, and we drink cheap booze.  For the most part, though, our diet is a healthy one.  Not because we are fanatics about it, but simply because it’s a good thing to do (also, because we’re lucky enough to live in an area where this can be done at a reasonable cost).  Our boy is growing up healthy and strong, we all feel pretty good these days, and we know that our consumption is provided for without undue hardship for the planet.

My wife and I are both firm believers in the idea of minimizing the number of steps from ground to table.  The idea is that minimizing the steps also minimizes the actual consumptive cost of whatever you eat.  For example, the bulk of our food (in volume as well as variety) takes 3 steps from ground to table.  A local farmer harvests/slaughters/collects/milks it, they hand it directly to us, and we put it on the table.  The only way we could lessen our impact on the planet would be to grow our food ourselves.  My wife has dreams of this.  Personally, I don’t think it’ll ever happen, but you don’t need to hear that argument.

Now compare this with food we get from a supermarket (we do get some).  We’re probably talking about a minimum of 5 steps here, upward to 30 steps or more.  And the more processed the food gets, the more steps it takes.  The distance it must travel affects this, also.  And the problem with this is that each step costs something.  Usually energy.  Usually in the form of petroleum consumption.  This is why minimizing the steps is important.  It’s just plain good for everyone and everything.  So the phrase ‘From Ground to Table’ comes up a lot in these parts.

This all came up in a discussion I had this afternoon with a logger I know (Jake).  With the economy being in the shape it is, Jake has shifted a portion of his time and energy into firewood production.  It wouldn’t be his first choice (there’s more money in cutting large trees for sawmills) but it pays the bills and it’s virtually recession-proof.  As an added bonus, the process is good for the forest.  And, in much the same way that procuring local food minimizes our impact on the planet, procuring local fuel is just plain good for all of us.  Just think about all the energy that has to get consumed to get oil to our houses just so that we can consume energy.  Even if you think you’re doing your part: my sister-in-law has a pellet stove – I wonder how many steps are needed to get those pellets to her stove?  If you get your cordwood from Jake (or your own local equivalent), though, we get back to 3 steps.

They say that a cord of firewood produces the same amount of heat as 100-150 gallons of heating oil (the 50-gallon range is due to many variables, not least of which is the particular wood being burned).  Jake told me today that his total petroleum consumption to produce a cord of firewood (including his drive to the woods from his house in the morning, as well as the drive to deliver the cordwood) is about 5 gallons, give or take.  Looked at in the worst possible light, he’d still be producing more than 10 times the energy he’s consuming.  And what Jake’s doing is 100% sustainable.

The phrase ‘From Ground to Table’, while literal in many cases, need not always be so in order to make a meaningful point.  The idea is that living according to that simple rule makes everybody’s life better (especially your own).  This is why it gets talked about so much these days.  To complement it, I’d like to see the phrase ‘From Stump to Stove’ get added to the lexicon.  Again, not to mean simply buying wood from Jake (although that would be a good thing to do), but to be smarter and more thoughtful about our energy consumption.  Do we really need that extra 2 degrees on the thermostat?  Would that windmill farm really be so much worse to look at?  Should we really be investing in drilling for more oil, or should we be building a smart grid instead?  Should we be running nuclear power plants?  What about biomass plants?

Which brings me nicely to a close.  There’s a proposal out there to build a biomass plant here in our town.  The arguments are getting heated (no pun intended), but I’ll save that discussion for a future post.

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ides-of-marchMy boy and I watched Jon Stewart last night (possibly the night before), and Jon did a bit about the current fiasco at AIG.  He showed a nice montage of video clips, showing various pundits’ sound bites on the subject.  The last (and best) was some yahoo who stated that the culprits at AIG should ‘receive the Nobel Prize for Evil’.

First off, I agree with Jon – we really should stop giving out that prize.  Second, I don’t think this is a case of evil at work.  As much as we all might like to think otherwise, I don’t honestly believe that a group of evil, calculating men (think Cheney) sat around a boardroom and made an evil group decision to do the wrong thing with the taxpayers’ money.

I think something more insidious and frightening occurred:  Business As Usual.  I think the bonuses were given to those folks at AIG simply because it never occurred to anyone involved to do anything different.  Because their values are so skewed that they didn’t actually perceive of it as being ‘wrong’.  It’s just the way these things are done.  Incompetence is rewarded.  Gross incompetence is rewarded richly.  And I find it hard to assign any blame to the individuals involved.  I don’t think their professional lives equipped them to make ethical decisions.  They live in a world where poor judgement and mismanagement are admired and rewarded.  How could we expect them to do anything but aspire to these lofty ideals?

The problem lies not in a few individuals (be they evil or not), but rather in the system itself.  The American way of doing business is morally and ethically bankrupt, and we behave as though this is right and proper.  We talk about business as though it should be kept separate from all other aspects of life, because in the arena of business (politics, too), it’s okay (even expected) to be a scumbag.

Unfortunately, we (as a people) hide this from ourselves.  When situations like the one at AIG crop up, we lie to ourselves and make believe that the problem rests at the feet of a few ‘bad’ individuals.  This is how we keep our own moral integrity intact.  So long as the culprits are easily identifiable, we can comfortably write the whole thing off as an aberration and forget about it.  Which is, of course, why we still have these problems, despite the fact that they just keep on happening over and over.

This time, though, I’m holding onto a faint hope.  So far, they don’t seem to have presented us with a villain (a la Ken Lay).  Without a focal point for our displeasure, there’s a chance (however slight) that we, as a people, may finally start to examine ‘business as usual’ in this country.  And if enough of us do just that, therein lie the seeds of revolution.

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