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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.
I hear X-Men Origins was leaked. So now copies are spreading about the internet like wildfire. And the studio is squealing like a stuck pig. I even saw one pundit (I don’t remember where) who tried to tell me that illegally downloading movies takes food off the tables of all the poor schmucks who work in the industry (in a word: Bullshit. I used to work in the industry – there are obscene sums of money involved in even low-budget films. We don’t have to worry about the paychecks of the working class of the film industry. Especially because their jobs are well over and paid for long before there’s any kind of product to be ‘pirated’). But the studios want us all to sympathize with their pain. Want us to see the ‘problems’ that internet ‘piracy’ causes. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that people who download movies are stealing from the studios because if they (the ‘pirates’) couldn’t download the movies, they would purchase them instead. Setting aside all the inherent flaws in this argument, let’s take a quick look at the legal process of purchasing a movie. Our case study will be the Disney film Bolt, my two-year-old’s current favorite movie.
First off, we have to pay the studio just to find out whether or not we like the movie (there was a day, you know, when record stores would let you listen to an album before buying it. Really). In this particular case, the question isn’t whether we like the film, but rather whether our son does. We are careful and conscientious parents, so we don’t let our boy watch movies until we’ve seen them first. So it’s off to the in-laws’ so the boy will be well taken care of while we check out the show. Thirty-five to forty dollars later, my wife and I have learned that the movie is fine for the boy to watch. Cost breakdown: $20 for our tickets, $15 to $20 for refreshments (when it’s just the two of us, we ALWAYS get refreshments, because we love them so, but also because refreshment sales is the only real profit our local cinema makes. You DO know that the overwhelming majority of ticket sales goes to the studios, right?).
Now we can move to the next step, which is finding out whether our son likes the film. This time we go to a matinee, and we bring some of our own snacks (no theater sells any form of snack food we’re willing to feed our son), so we spend less money. Let’s say 15 to 20 dollars. When it’s all said and done, we find out that our son does, indeed, like the movie. And it’s only cost us somewhere in the area of fifty to sixty dollars to learn this. Let’s call it $55.
Since we’ve learned that the boy likes the movie (loves it, actually. He’d watch it 5 times a day if we’d let him) we now have to buy the DVD, to the tune of $25. This brings us to the nice round figure of $80 invested in this movie.
Then, my wife reads an article about marketing in movies, and she tells me about it over dinner. So the next time we watch Bolt, I watch with a more discerning eye. I notice that, during the course of the movie, we repeatedly see a U-Haul truck. Not a made-up company, but U-Haul. And I realize that this is happening because U-Haul gave Disney a great deal of money for it to happen. I also realize that this particular marketing campaign is not directed at me, but rather at the two-year-old sitting next to me.
A smart and long-term investment on U-Haul’s part, actually. Someday – years from now – my son is going to move somewhere. And when he does so, he’s going to rent a U-Haul. He won’t do so because they offer a better product than anyone else, or better customer support, or better prices. He’ll do so simply because he feels kindly disposed toward them. Because during this formative time of his life, those trucks and that company are becoming intricately associated with things (and people) that he loves dearly.
And when he moves again, he’ll rent from U-Haul again, even if his previous encounter with them entails sub-standard equipment, half-assed customer service and over-inflated prices. And he’ll have no idea why he’s doing so.
In a nutshell, Disney got paid a lot of money to program my son. And many, many other children. Even worse, I paid eighty dollars to have this occur. And my family is just one of tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands? Millions?) of families affected just by this one studio and this one film.
And the studios want us to believe that someone else is the bad guy.
Got into a discussion/argument with a random Internet pundit yesterday. He did a post on his blog about Islam, in which he stated that he thinks ‘Islamophobia’ is understated. He seems to feel that we should all live in mortal fear of Muslims. I wasted a few minutes of my life trying to reason with the poor guy, but realized that I was being stupid when he professed to have read the Koran, specifically referring to ‘the nasty parts’. He actually tried to convince me that within the pages of the Koran lies adequate reason for all right-minded global citizens to fear the ‘Muslim Threat’. Painfully obvious that he had never actually read the book. Or if he had, he had done so with extremely prejudiced eyes.
I actually kind of like the Koran. As religious texts go, It’s not too terribly offensive. It’s extremely dull, but not too offensive. The fact that it belongs to a western religion is a strike against it, but it’s actually more interesting to read than the perennial favorite of the western religions: The Bible.
Two quick facts, little-known to most Americans: 1) The Koran is not the only scripture of religious import to Islam. The Old Testament also plays a prominent role. 2) The word ‘Jihad’ makes an appearance a grand total of four times in the Koran. In none of those instances does it refer to an armed conflict (or a conflict of any kind). In the Koran, the term ‘Jihad’ refers to a struggle – specifically a spiritual struggle. And any idiot can tell you that a spiritual struggle is, above all, a personal one. It’s not something you do with a group. Especially a group with machine guns.
Anyway, this guy I was arguing with kept trying to convince me that Islam poses a threat to the world, despite all evidence to the contrary. Eventually, I realized where he was coming from. He had pretty much told me everything I needed to know with the first word he used. Or, rather, the second part of that word: phobia. The guy is just plain living in fear – even abject terror – of Islam. Or, more accurately, of Muslims. And his fear is irrational, a fact that obviously bothers him. So he professes to a knowledge of the Koran, which gives him the ability to claim his fear is a rational, reasoned fear. It’s kind of sad, actually.
Since I’m aware of the fact that this guy is not alone in his fears, I started to wonder about the nature of those fears, and their genesis. To be sure, they have roots that go back to the Crusades (you remember the Crusades – when the Pope saw that too many Christians were being killed by other Christians, so he invented an outside enemy for his flock to focus their considerable homicidal energies on), but while the seeds may have been planted in the Middle Ages, the Bush-Cheney cartel did a fine job of pouring Miracle-Gro on it. But the propaganda alone doesn’t really explain the fear. What – exactly – are so many Americans afraid of here? What is it about Muslims that strikes so much terror into the heart of Joe Sixpack?
Belief. Real, intense, white-hot belief. The Kind of belief that Americans never see in their own lives. The kind of belief that can drive people to obliterate themselves because they feel their faith demands it. Americans don’t get this. America has a different kind of belief – the kind that just asks you to show up on Sunday and perform the proper rituals. Americans feel drawn to religious institutions not out of any spiritual drive but rather out of a simple need to belong. And when we Americans are confronted with people who are willing to die for their beliefs, they scare the crap out of us.
Before anyone starts shouting, let me just say that I’m not talking about ALL Americans here. Just the majority of them. I know there are people in this country who are truly religious. I also know that there are people in this country who are truly spiritual. And I know that sometimes these are the same people. But I know that these people are – by far – the minority. Most Americans subscribe to one religion or another out of fear. Simply because they’re afraid that the Beard In The Sky will punish them if they don’t. Which is also the only reason most Americans behave themselves. The average American (possibly the average person) is lying, thieving, raping, murderous scum, and the only thing keeping them from acting upon it is the threat of retribution. Don’t believe me? Just look at any situation in human history in which the rules were removed. Riots. Wars. Show me any break-down of the social order, and I’ll show you the true face of human nature.
Now, this all got me thinking about the nature of belief. Specifically, the nature of American belief. What, if anything (I wondered) do Americans believe in strongly enough (or love strongly enough) that they would be willing to die for it? Religion? Not likely. Sure – there have, on occasion, been Americans who have willingly chosen to die for their beliefs – but they are so rare as to be statistically nonexistent. Their country? Another big ‘no’. While there are (and have been) plenty of people who will stand in line to fight and kill for America, those who have actually willingly died for it are intensely rare. Family? Sadly (and inexplicably, to my mind), also no. Hell, I know many, many people who can’t even be bothered to give up their bad habits for the sake of their family.
Which brings us to the True American Belief System: Hedonism. This is the belief that burns strongly enough in America that its adherents are willing to die for it. Americans have proven – repeatedly – that the one thing they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives for is their own pleasure. Here we drug and drink and smoke and eat and sex ourselves to death every day. Here we willingly risk our lives just to achieve the pleasure of the moment. This, my friends, is the true American object of worship: Personal pleasure. It is this, not money, that we – as a people – love most.
My 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.