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10 Rules: How Closed Minds Become Closed Borders

It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service.  I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist).  Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties.  It is designed to misinform or mislead.  Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application.   These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.

I am driven to know what is.  I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social.  There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions.  What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!

As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children.   Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions.  My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience  is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter.  I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually.   This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged.  Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.

I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects.  All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values.  I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences.  I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one.  Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain.  Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.

I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times.  It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did.  How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.”  As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.

Rule #1 :   The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.” Read more..

Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture.  What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations.  The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate.  It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn.  They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number.  After all, Daddy knows best.

Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.

Rule #2:  At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate  conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible  alternatives. 

Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it.  Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations.  We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do.  At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.

Rule #3:  As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.

Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated.  We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable.  As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity.  There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease.  We experience anxiety without knowing the cause. 

When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you.  A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding.  A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet.  Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie.  You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.

Rule #4:  What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.

In every case, we always trusted the source.  The doorman to our mind was sound asleep.  There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.

That’s why I write about labels.  I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do.  The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty.  A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table.  To belong is to share in the laughter.  The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source.  We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.

Rule #5:  It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.  

How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?

I used to finish reading any book I had started.  Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started.  I don’t always do this anymore.  Life is too short.  I always seek to identify as quickly as possible  authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something.  I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind.  Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny.  The final questions are always, Who says so? Why?  Based on what?  I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.

If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and  unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility.  Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.

If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.

How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas?    For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics.  Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption.  I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic.  So we’ll move on.  In commercial matters, follow the money.  In political and institutional matters, follow the power.  Look past the easy answers.  Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action.  The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary.  The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits.  They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities.   The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power;  the power to bestow or withhold.   Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up.  Daddy needs you to need him.  Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.

Rule #6:  If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.  

It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts.  Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen?  If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them.  Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs.  They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth.  Do they really know better than you how to direct your life?  Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government  does.  We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing.  Does that sound like what they have been doing?  Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters?  This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject.  Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?

In the end it’s the same.  Money is power.  But government is money plus guns.  By guns I mean the police power of the state.  With guns you can seize other people’s money.  If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it.  This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million.  The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers.  These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.

All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises.  Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life.  In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt.  Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas.  Some of them were morons.

Rule #7:  Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.

Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses.   New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries.    The grand ideas  have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies,  and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff.  Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them.    Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers.  I hear it in conversations at lunch.

Rule #8:  There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.

When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized.  Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized.  Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure.   The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering,  and eliminating competing groups.  There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.

This is why I champion individual rights in my writing.  The individual is the smallest group in the world.  Protect individual rights and you protect the world.  Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups.  Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society.  Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it.  On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe.  Not even the members of their group.  Every group has its purges.

There IS a problem with championing individual rights.  It puts responsibility on the individual.  There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed.  What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in.  And you can’t do that to anyone else either.  Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea.   They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally.  Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values.  This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit.  Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.

Individual rights mean the government is there to protect  individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government.  Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do.  No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens.  The power of government is in granting permissions.  That’s where the money is.

Rule #9:  The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”

You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.  

Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked.  The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede.  The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual  is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole.  Individuals can  expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of  government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else  who doesn’t want to do the group’s  bidding.  Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state?  Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission.   I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means.  Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course.  Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.

Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency.  When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse.  We all know the rest of that story.

You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.

So what is my point?  Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights?  Not really.  You can, of course, if you want to.  All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events.  Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation.  Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye.  In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it.  Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and

Rule #10:   Know where the border is.

Closed minds eventually become closed borders.

 

Why Voltaire?

If you have been following this blogsite, you are aware that it is in a state of renovation under the theme of The New Voltaire.  The revised graphics and other technical goodies are coming.  But much more importantly, I would like to address the question, why Voltaire?

Growing up, Voltaire was one of my heroes.  He still is.  His real name was Francois Arouet.  Voltaire was his pen name.  He had a very strict religious upbringing.  So did I.  He eventually left the church, and became its outspoken critic.  So have I.  He was a writer, a dramatist, playwright; he wrote biographies, histories, books on science.  While my meager offerings pale in comparison with the productivity of this 18th century prodigy, I also am a writer, including non-fiction books, literary economic commentary, and on matters of financial, historical, social, and political interest for today’s non-aligned and non-ideological seekers.

Most of what Voltaire wrote was banned during his lifetime, and therefore he often wrote anonymously.  I also write some things anonymously, as a ghost writer for others whose names adorn my work as the “authors” of record.  In my case, I do this not as protection from a coercive State (at least not yet), but as an artist whose work is commissioned and paid for by my clients.  In other words, it’s called making a living.

Voltaire evidently did not subscribe to the Platonic split of humans into an upper and lower self, a spiritual and material self, and he saw no reason to eschew the material comforts in life.  He was neither stoic nor monastic in search of his higher self.  He held no highbrow distinctions between the sciences, the arts, and the world of business and trade, and he applied himself equally assiduously and successfully to all of them.  This aspect of his character resonates with me, because all my life I have been a writer, but for 35 of those adult years I was a businessman for the simple reason that it provided for my financial needs and aspirations less tentatively than a writing career might have.  Or so I thought. Read more..

Voltaire wrote 56 plays, as well as countless other stories, novels, epic poetry, and what we would today call scientific “white papers”, book reviews, and over 20,000 letters.   But that didn’t prevent him from becoming a successful investor, bond, commodity, and currency trader, and becoming a millionaire by the time he was 40.  With his books banned, he relied on his business income for his lifestyle.

He was a champion of individual freedom, was imprisoned twice in the infamous Paris prison, La Bastille, and both the government of France and the Church were the targets of his rapier wit and excoriation.  He was beaten in the streets by hired thugs while an aristocrat watched from his coach.  He knew the importance of having cash on hand and living close to the border in the event that a hasty exit became necessary.  Voltaire lived in a time and place where the rule of law was arbitrary and capricious and its implementation often viciously politically motivated by those whose primary preoccupation was with the extension of their privilege and power over the masses.  So many laws were being made that virtually anyone could be construed as guilty, and their property could be confiscated by the State, and their life made forfeit.  Interestingly, the finances of the State were in such chaos, that in 1764 a law was passed forbidding publication of any criticisms of the finances of the State.  My oh my, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Much of what Voltaire wrote was set in the context of countries other than his native France, making it somewhat more difficult for his censors to claim that he was criticizing his own government.  Most of what he wrote was published and distributed outside of France for the same reason.

Last but not least, I am forever impressed with Voltaire’s taste in women.  He met Emilie, the Marquise du Chatelet,  in 1733, and eventually moved into the Chateau de Cirey owned by the Marquise’s husband, the Marquis du Chatelet.  Emilie’s marriage to the Marquis was one of convenience, and husband and wife led separate lives and each took lovers.  The Marquis was a military man, and a hunter, whereas Emilie was a genius in her own right, an intellectual worthy of the term.  By the age of twelve she could read, write, and speak fluent German, Latin, and Greek (bear in mind that her mother tongue was French) and she continued on to take private lessons in geometry, algebra, calculus, and physics; she spent her fifteen years with Voltaire studying mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, and metaphysics.  Like Voltaire, she was no ascetic seeking absolution or approval by a life of self-denial; she loved her extensive wardrobe, shoes, and diamonds, sang opera and performed as an amateur actress.  With no taste for gossip and small talk, she had few female friends and intimidated most men.  She met her match in Voltaire, and they were together until she died.

Voltaire was one of the intellectual giants of history, one of the few who defied the orthodoxy of his time and moved the world forward.  Voltaire was a contributor to the Encyclopedie, one of the primary French philosophical contributions to the Enlightenment.  He stood head and shoulders with his contemporaries, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton.  He was a major intellectual influence on the founding fathers of the great American political experiment, the creation of a republic, the first of its kind in the world,  that championed individual rights as inalienable, and therefore not granted by the State. 

Voltaire’s father disapproved of his son’s choice of vocation; he kept telling him he couldn’t earn a living as a writer.

In today’s world where the omnipotent State is on the march as never before and liberty is perpetually in retreat, the voice of Voltaire needs to be heard, revived, and amplified.  This call needs to be taken up by anyone with a voice, a keyboard, and most of all, a good mind and the courage to use it.  But like Voltaire, do not live just to save the world; learn to love your own life and live in this world.  Keep your sense of humor, keep some cash on hand and remember where the border is.

Labels and Group Warfare (Part 2)

Sometimes one group finds it useful to appropriate the label used by another group and adopt it as their own.  Those who called themselves liberals 200 years ago most likely would today identify with the label classical liberals or libertarian to better distinguish themselves from the progressives who arrogated the label of liberal to their cause.  Why is the label so important?  Because folks buy labels.  Once a brand is established and trusted, it becomes invaluable. 

Very broadly speaking, Democrats became known as the party of the poor and minorities.  Republicans became known as the party of the business-rich (not to be confused with Hollywood-rich) and the financially savvy.   For perhaps the majority of voters, once these identifications become fixed in their minds, little or no further research is necessary.  These instant mental associations do not need to be accurate to be effective precisely because they serve as a shortcut for thinking and make decision-making easier.  From the point of their acceptance  on, the only reinforcement that labels need is brief but frequently repeated sound bites in the media.  As with sports, the names may change and even the entire team can be transformed or relocated, but it is still our team.  We are loyal to our brands. Read more..

Because of the blurring of boundaries when using labels, we are often unsure who we should hate.  During periods of intense competition for control over resources, we find our leaders fanning the flames of our differences, because assimilation usually means loss, defeat.  Republicans don’t want their membership showing interest in or empathy for some of the Democratic Party’s platform. (And of course, vice versa.) There can be no weakness, because we have a winner-takes-all system.  The rank-and-file then behaves much like sports fans, learning to hate people they don’t know, people with families like themselves.  There is too much at stake, or so it seems at the moment.  Politics is group warfare, and the grandstanding of the candidates has little to do with the maneuvering for the levers of power in the back rooms of the State.  The power they seek is to control resources confiscated by taxation and regulation of the producers, to be redeployed to the fulfillment of the winners’ personal vision of a better world and rewarding the pillars of their personal power structure.

Racial Brands

When I was growing up, white people called black people colored.  It wasn’t terribly important because in my neighborhood we were friends and we were all just people.  Well, somewhere along the line colored people became blacks.  I never really understood this because a lot of my colored friends were not very black.  They were just not white.  It didn’t matter.  We were friends, we went to the same church, and I thought a couple of the girls were hot.  But our new abbreviated labels made it clear we had been de-peopled.  Dehumanized.  It became easier to know who to hate.  Black versus white.  Us versus them.

Then black people became persons of color.  As Americans we were in search of better, more politically correct labels.  In trying to mitigate prejudice, we became more focused than ever on differences.  Our labels reflected and exacerbated those differences.

At one time, people who came to this country wanted to become, and be called, Americans.  What was important was not where they came from, or where they had been, but what they had become.  This was the New World, and they were thrilled to begin a new life.  The world changed on us again, and today we are distancing ourselves from our homogeneity and resurrecting and re-emphasizing our cultural differences.  People of color have now become African-Americans.  Perhaps this is because some people came here to become free, and others came here to be slaves.   That would certainly have an impact on my attitude.

But the fact is, today none of us regardless of color are free.   There are growing limits on our autonomy and our lives become increasingly circumscribed by the intrusions of the State.  In New York City as of this date, it is illegal to donate food to homeless shelters because the government does not have the manpower to monitor the salt, fat, and nutrition content of the donated food.  Read about it here http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/03/19/bloomberg-strikes-again-nyc-bans-food-donations-to-the-homeless/.   Are there really people who  imagine such micromanagement as being part of the founding fathers’ vision for freedom? The sad truth is, yes there are—a lot of them.  And obviously they have the power to turn their opinions and whims  into law.  One has to wonder, are they really concerned about the nutrition of hungry people, or are they simply trying to starve undesirables out of their city?

Do we want to be perceived and judged as individuals or as members of our group?  Is being a hyphenated American a good thing, or simply one more sign of our fractured society?  If you haven’t traveled much, you may be unaware that prejudices of one group against another are everywhere.   There is no place on this planet that is prejudice-free.  This is just what groups do.  Us versus them.  So by hyphenating ourselves, emphasizing our group-ness, are we celebrating our differences or deepening the divide already between us?  Are our labels the herald of our rise or the stigmata of our fall?  As individuals we might like each other; in the aggregate we can demonize and hate each other.  Divided we fall, while the ascendant State continues to metastasize.

The American Brand

Americans are a group.  What does it mean to be an American today?  What do we stand for?  How would a European watching our elections answer that question?  I used to think being an American had something to do with our Constitution, but today that document seems to change in meaning daily, if not hourly when Congress is in session.  Is there any philosophical bedrock to this racial and ethnic medley called America?  Some few people came here because they were tired of groups, but most came here because they were tired of their group being told what to do by another group.  America meant freedom from harassment from other groups who didn’t approve of your group.  For me, the meaning of the Constitution was simple.  In the words of Erwin Griswold, one-time Dean of Harvard Law School in a speech to Northwestern University Law School in 1960:  “The right to be let alone is the underlying principle of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”  America was an experiment in upholding the rights of the individual.  America was not about your freedom to conform, but your freedom not to conform.

Our politicians from both sides see that Constitution as a rubber document.  Yes, some of them pay lip service to a strict construction of the founders’ intent, but those philosophical pretensions evaporate as soon as they get their shot at winning a prize for their group.  The Constitution was formed to protect the smallest minority in the world—the minority of the individual.  If you protect the individual, including those individuals we don’t like and don’t agree with, then you have defanged the power of groups.  Individuals need protection from groups.  When we lose sight of that one fact, we have opened Pandora’s box to endless possibilities for injustice and evil.

 

Labels and Ultimate Truth (Part 3)

Our country was founded more than anything else on the premise of basic individual freedoms, including freedom  of religion, which also had to include freedom from religion, for those so inclined.  Most of those who came to this country were fleeing religious persecution; they were refugees from the moral certainty of their persecutors.  As American educator and historian Arthur Schlesinger stated:  “Those who are convinced they have a monopoly on The Truth  always feel that they are only saving the world when they slaughter the heretics.”  Read more..

Believer is a label.  So is the word heretic.  One indicates belonging and conformity.  The other describes a non-conformist, a deviant from some orthodoxy.  The word heretic has persisted in infamy throughout history, the cause of some of the worst crimes of man against his fellow man.  Groups get very upset when someone deviates from ultimate truth.  In every instance throughout history, the oppressors believed that in their case circumstances justified their behavior.

Among our early forebears, it took almost no time at all for the oppressed to become the oppressors.  Let’s revisit a bit of Americana we may have forgotten.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a business that was strongly influenced by Puritan theologians.  About 20,000 folks from England emigrated to this central part of what we now call New England.  In short order the Puritans came to blows with the local Indians because they did not understand their culture.  The leaders of the colony had to pass an examination about their religious beliefs before they could take office.  (Anything sound remotely familiar here, folks?)

One member of their community, a guy named Roger Williams, was banished (excommunicated) on the grounds of sedition and heresy (non-conformity), and the religion-dominated General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accused Roger of “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.”  In the dead of winter, the sheriff came to pick up Roger (the Church using the police powers of the State).  Roger escaped by hiking through a blizzard 105 miles to an Indian tribe where he was given refuge.  Imagine!  A Christian given refuge by the heathens from his fellow Christians.  Roger and a few of his buddies obtained land from the Indians and called their tiny settlement Providence.  The very next year they decided that in their settlement, government would be restricted to “civil things.”  Unknown to them, they had established the first settlement in modern history with religious liberty and separation of church and state.

But wait.  The story gets even better (and worse).  About four years later the first law was passed to make slavery legal in the English colonies.  And no, it wasn’t in the South.  It was the very same religion-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony that had made Roger Williams run for his life.  Eleven years after their infamous law was passed, Roger Williams and a colleague spearheaded the passing of a law banning slavery in their new province of Rhode Island.  The pernicious influence of the Massachusetts Bay colony prevailed however, and Roger Williams’s law was ignored and became a dead document.  Seventeen years after his death Newport, Rhode Island entered the African slave trade and remained the leading slave trading center all the way up to the American Revolution.

In one case, persecution was theology motivated, in the other case it was economically motivated.  It never really matters.  When a group wants  something, they will always find the means to justify it.  When a group succeeds in uniting with the police power of the State, minorities will suffer.  Labels are a big part of the propaganda campaigns in advance of misdeeds by isolating the target, portraying them as a threat to the greater community, an instrument of Satan or a danger to society.

Labels become a higher priority in an adversarial or judgmental context.  We know someone or something should be condemned, if only we can get the label right.  What exactly is an atheist?  Indeed, what is a believer?  In what kind of god or God?  Do you believe in an anthropomorphic God, one with human-like characteristics?  Is your God male or female?  Or do you believe in a more ancient model, a pantheistic god, a god who cannot be separated from the universe, that God and the Universe are one and the same?  Or do you subscribe to an Eastern model of God, an infinite force that is everywhere at once?  Or do you simply not know, but in talking about “God” infer something beyond human reference?  There is a continuum between your literalist, fundamentalist believer at one extreme who believes in a personal God who hears and answers every prayer and another believer at the opposite extreme who believes in God as some manifestation of quantum  physics, some indefinable energy field or force stripped of human characteristics–or believers not at all, at least not in any traditional sense.  All of the world’s belief systems fit on that continuum somewhere.  And the vast majority of them have mystical components to their spiritual lives that include good and bad spirits and ultimate rewards.  Even many atheists have churches and services, rituals, liturgies and prayers.

How complicated life can be, when all we want is your basic “us versus them” so it can be clear who has truth and who is sadly in error.  Continuums of any kind have no place in our group orthodoxy, because they introduce uncertainty and ambiguity.  It is the insistence on certainty and final truth that makes any group dangerous to their fellow travelers, whether they are believers of the religious or secular stripe.  Let any group of such believers get their hands on unchallenged power of the State, and we can be sure that whatever is left of the Constitution would be eviscerated overnight.  The primary differences in our political parties today is only which parts of our lives they most want to control.  They have no interest in the individual.  Control of groups is the source of their power.  The laws that are passed and enforced by the State’s monopoly on power are nothing more than the codification of the cultural beliefs of the majority.  As always, behavior considered deviant by that group will be punished.  You are either in or in trouble.

When we feel compelled to impose our sense of superiority or moral rightness on those around us, it is humbling to reflect that it was the Christian world that plunged us into warfare that eliminated 100 million of us during the 20th century.  America is the most religious Christian nation on earth, and we have soldiers in over 170 countries, doing what exactly, other than maintaining our military-industrial complex and doing what empires do?

Bertrand Russell once said:   “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing.  What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.”  Every group believes their group will be different.  As a matter of fact, they’re certain of it!

The only sure  protection in any society is to enshrine and protect the rights of the individual. Otherwise life is like entering a prison where the only safety lies in quickly being accepted and protected by members of one group from the predations of opposing groups.  The government, as the warden of our society, has little interest in the individual, because what can one person offer the warden that he cannot get in greater abundance from the group?  Is it any wonder then that our Constitution has been under assault almost from the day it was written?

 

Beware the State (Part 5)

Groups are a mask  for power seeking.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and a group can know no rest until a leader vanquishes all other comers.  Then groups compete with other groups, and groups align themselves in larger and larger packs, until finally nation states emerge.  At every level there is a struggle for power and dominance.  It becomes even harder to maintain power than it is to achieve it.  The vanquished go underground to live and fight another day.   I am forever reminded of the comment of Russell Baker, NY Times columnist, who wrote:  “What I despise the most about all minorities is their implied assumption that if the tables were turned, they would be different.”   Or as Eric Hoffer put it, “It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom.  They fight for pride and for power.—power to oppress others.  The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.”

The strong will prey on the weak.  Government is given a monopoly on the use of force to protect us from those who would harm.  Unfortunately government has always done more harm to its citizens than those others who supposedly threatened.  With a monopoly on guns, government has always found irresistible the temptation to use that power to solidify their position by eliminating their competition.  Read more..

The question has always been how to govern without letting the beast of power out of its cage?  Democracy is not enough, because any majority can and usually will turn on the minority for all the usual reasons.  Majority rule only makes sense if legal restraints are placed on the majority; that some things cannot be decided by majority rule, because some rights are inalienable and not subject to a vote.  The Constitution was the founding fathers best effort to limit the ability of our government to harm us.  Let’s be clear:  what is a government?  A group, that is all, some group of people like you and me with very bright ideas about how to make the world better for you and me, better than we can do on our own.  Of this they are quite certain.  So certain, in fact that they find it necessary to make their notions into laws as acts of coercion.  Every road to tyranny has been built with intentions for the greater good.  Every tyrant has demanded sacrifice for better tomorrows.

Today our national government passes 600-700 new laws every year to define and better refine the wonderful world they are making for us, or the better to protect us from our own foolish longings.  Every citizen in this country breaks laws every day, and should the government so choose, every single one of us could spend time in what is already the world’s largest prison system.  This is the price we pay for a century or more of steadily chipping away at the Constitution’s protections of individual rights.  Why have we done this?  Because over and over again, individual rights got in the way of something a group wanted, and each small victory for a group imposed a burden on others, who sought protection in groups of their own.

Since the State is nothing more than the conflict of groups, do you want to limit the power of those groups to interfere with your life, or would you give those groups free rein?  My experience is that those who are in favor of ever-expanding power of government are the same ones who are confident of final victory for their vision, with themselves experiencing the satisfaction of imposing the vision of their group  on those less enlightened.  There is a word for that:  tyranny.  No tyrant stands alone.  He has the support of groups, each of whom plays the odds as they jockey for advantage in competition with all other groups.  At best, the individual is only a footnote in the annals of history.

Emotional Response to Labels

Look at this list of labels.  What are your associations with each?  What emotions do you experience as you look at each item?  You are experiencing the power of labels, the power of branding, both positive and negative.

 

Drug addict                 Sex molester              Alcoholic

Ex-convict                   Mentally ill                 Tea Party member

Prostitute                     Atheist                         Occupy Wall Street

Televangelist               Lawyer                        Factory worker

Jew                                  Catholic                       Jehovah’s Witness

Social worker              Teacher                       Union organizer

Rich-celebrity            Rich-business           Rich-doctor

Liberal                          Conservative              Socialist

Gay                                 Straight                         Bi-sexual

 

Each label above brings a vivid emotional message to someone’s mind, and that message doesn’t have to have any basis in fact or reality.  Most likely it has to do with identification with one group or another and hostility to the perceived opposite.  Social media is powerful because we find strength in groups.  It is a rare person who is willing and able to think alone and stand alone for any length of time.

Groups use labels to narrow the field of who we are willing to learn from.  Judgment becomes pre-judgment.  Pre-judgment becomes prejudice.  Thinking is no longer required.  We know who the enemy is.  We know who to hate or fear.  The door to civil discourse and scientific inquiry quietly closes.  The individual is helpless.  Power to the people!

Which people?

The group with the control of the most resources; the group with the most access to the coercive machinery of the government; the group with access and control of propaganda, including media and state-sponsored education.  Power is ephemeral.  No group provides eternal safe harbor.  The only enduring legacy of groups is endless struggle for power.  What an irony that America became a magnet for freedom lovers from all over the world because of its Constitutional protection of individual rights, and then became an empire corrupted and mired in group warfare.

 

 

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