activism, changemaking, politics, social justice, Uncategorized

Bill Gates and Technocratic Solutions to Social Problems

Patrick Bond, a really insightful thinker, offers a really good analysis of the limitations of charitable approaches like the ones Bill Gates proposes.

I’ve actually been impressed by how erudite and compassionate Bill can be on issues, recognizing risks ranging from the serious threat of a pandemic to the still-salient specter of nuclear war. But Gates is at his heart an engineer, and he embodies a problem I’ve often discussed before and been disappointed to see in otherwise-decent people: the idea that problems can always be solved by a technical or engineering or technological approach, and indeed that such an approach is always the best. But human beings aren’t machines and societies aren’t computers, and you can’t just hack problems away. It’s always worth it to try for clever solutions and to try to leverage technology and creativity to go for unorthodox approaches, but the problem is that those ways of thinking are usually efforts to try to be apolitical. A political problem doesn’t become less political when you try to pretend it’s just a debugging exercise. Smart technological and scientific solutions to social problems need to occur alongside political, social, economic and cultural change, in conjunction with artists, activists, attorneys, civil servants, social workers, psychologists, and others. Instead, folks like Bill tend to try to skip that part.

We should always try to look for win-win solutions, and we should have optimism in the power of the brain. But we should also have optimism in the power of the heart too, and when we use exclusively technical approaches, we’re actually expressing severe pessimism in human potential.


I’m Not Here to Pander To You: Politics, Leftism and Fairy Tales

People will often say that leftists are just pandering to the naivete that they view others as having. They like to imagine that we’re just saying things that sound good in a fairy tale context to appeal to fools and credulous people, but that the real world is much nastier.

But in fact the work that we do involves tearing away a lot of illusions that people rather like to hold onto. It’s actually those of a conservative bent who routinely are holding onto comfortable, but false, beliefs.

Throughout history, people have believed that there was a golden age that we just lost somehow. The Sumerians viewed the people from before the flood as being better and stronger than us. The Greeks viewed themselves as the most degenerate of humans. If only we could go back to that past, the reasoning goes, we’d be better off. Of course, it seems so silly in retrospect. We know that, as tragic as it was, the Sumerians and the Greeks were actually the height of civilization, its apotheosis, not its nadir.

That’s the idea that people are expressing when they say “Make America Great Again”. They want to believe that America’s golden age is behind us. But it never was. We never had the kind of freedom or prosperity or equality that we hoped for. A world where every American has dignity only lies forward into the future.

So we have to take away that hope, that they can go back to some place in America’s childhood. Even if they could try to suspend time and roll back the clock, that place never existed.

We also have to tear away the illusion that the system can be easily reformed, or that it’s just a few bad politicians or a few conspiracies that took away what we love.

Fact is, even when you actually voted the bastards in, voting them out doesn’t matter if the only people you can even in theory choose from will be other bastards. Our system doesn’t need an Illuminati or a New World Order to crush people: It’s always crushed people, because that’s what the system is basically designed to do.

A lot can be done within what we already have. But the kind of world people want is only going to be achieved by really marked changes to our basic social institutions.

Nor is America being ruined by crime, or immigrants, or any other presumably outside toxin. There, at least in theory, the problem could be solved: Throw them into jail, throw out the parasites.

But the corruption came from within. The collapse of the American middle class had nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with decades of class warfare waged by the rich against the poor. The fact that we don’t call it class warfare and call it “economic policy” or “ta x breaks” is only an indication of how totally they won. As John Oliver put it recently, when it comes to inequality, the rich are practically just running up the scoreboard now.

We as leftists and social justice activists have to take away the myth that it’s a few mean people that cause the racism and discrimination that we see in our society. We have to take away the comforting belief that it’s going to be possible in even the very short term for America to bomb its foreign policy problems away. We have to take away the intellectual sanctuary that there’s a safe place from the drought, extreme weather conditions and destruction that climate change and ecological damage will wreak.

Even the idea of American exceptionalism is rooted in a fairy tale that reduces our work. If America is the best country in the world, then we’re done! No more hard work, no more marching in the streets. Admitting that we have problems and that they’re hard to fix… That requires facing our fears and our busy schedules.

So, no, we’re not trying to pander to you. And maybe sometimes you might think that folks on the left are disrespectful, or disloyal. But ask yourself: Ho w many people, from conservative politicians to talk radio of all kinds, are actually trying to pander to me and give me a fairy tale instead of the truth?


Privilege Parable #1

Two men are digging holes. They both want to plant a tree to beautify their neighborhood and free their family.

One of the men looks at the other man’s hole when they take a break to grab some water and says, “Wow, that’s much smaller than mine. You must be slacking, dude”.

The other man says, “No, your shovel is better. I just grabbed the one I had and it wasn’t very good”.

The first man says, “Oh. That’s fair. Let’s try to get you a better shovel then”.

Neither man feels that their effort has been insulted. Neither man thinks that their family has been insulted. The first man doesn’t call the second man a lazy parasite. They both tried as hard, they just had a difference in terms of what advantages they had to work with, so of course one man did better.

This is, of course, how neighbors who love each other behave.


The Past is Ruination and the Future Is Brighter Than We Can See

American politics is all too often defined by the past.

“We need to go back to American freedom! That idea that you can do what you please and I can too, without Big Brother getting his nose in there!” (This one is usually offered in response to policies that make it so that people can’t do what they please to other people. The fact that the latter would undoubtedly prefer to not have those things done doesn’t seem to enter into the discussion).

“We need to go back to traditional values!”

The great irony, of course, is that America has always been defined by optimism. There was always a sense that we would lead the world into a future beyond compare and beyond the imagination of the present.

There’s a lot of reasons people are scared and want to go back to an idealized past, which they’ve seen in movies and TV shows so they know it must have existed! (Never mind that the idea of people being dissatisfied with American life and embracing amoral escapes is as old as The Great Gatsby, Rebel Without a Cause, and Philip Marlowe). The fact that people’s wages have been stagnating for so long in a country that values material wealth and forward career progress stings deeply. Surely, the 1950s must have been better! (And they were… if you were white, and male, and straight). People are scared that their children are moving back in and unable to find a job. We face a complicated world where we’re no longer as assured of our safety or the inevitability of our success. We feel that maybe this isn’t a world where hard work is all that matters.

Usually, leftists chime in at this point to destroy the mythology. America slaughtered the Native Americans, so as problematic as our foreign policy is today, at least it’s not genocidal. Our free speech rights really only formed in the 1960s: Prior, laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts truly did regulate controversial speech, and Presidential candidates like Eugene Debs could be jailed for speaking out against a war! We had slavery and Jim Crow. For women, the ability to get divorced from an abusive husband, get a job of their own and have independence and their own dreams of contributing to society, all really only began in the late 1960s or 1970s. For LGBTQ people, the closet was all there was for so long. Native American people could only have the reality of their genocide even acknowledged, let alone mourned, for a few generations back at most.

We also point out that things like drugs and gangs have been a fixture of American life.

And this is all fair. But can’t we see why this is just destroying the one retreat that people have? If the future sucks, then the past sucking means we have no place to run. History will smash us between the cymbals of inevitability and obsolescence. Can’t we see why so many well-meaning people might be willing to listen to the little worm in the apple that says, “The 1950s was great, so what if black people were treated like second-class citizens? They really deserved it anyways”. Can’t we see why so many people would find it easier to listen to a racist, classist, sexist, homophobic narrative?

So what should we say instead?

There is no going back.

And there shouldn’t be.

Our future can be as bright as we can imagine.

Our future can have technologies we can’t even dream of. We can actually have real equality and real empowerment for workers. People can be more tolerant, more open-minded.

Christians can believe a final judgment is coming. Atheists can look forward to a world where religion has to play along with everyone else.

The reason why we can’t want to go back isn’t just because the past was flawed in ways we struggle to recognize. It’s because the past is ruination. It’s gone.

The values of the past, whether they were good or bad, don’t work for the new future we face. Whether we yearn for the anarchists and Marxists and a time when socialist parties existed in America, or the Christian hegemony of the past that hedged against scary things like gay marriage and drugs and gangs,  those days are gone, and they should be.

The technological and social changes that we’re facing as a world are not going to be solved by the tools of the past. The threat of a pandemic will require new tools. The threat of global warming will require new innovations. Looking to the past will only allow the future to ambush us without warning.

We keep parroting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but with typical American obtuseness, we missed the point entirely, left and right.

He was looking forward to a future. That future has not arrived. If he were alive today, I am sure he would say that his table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) would include North Koreans, Muslims, and Russians.  He would remind us that the freedom of every person is bound together, so that as long as there are those abroad who are not free, none of us truly are. He would remind us to not “wallow in the valley of despair”.

The past could never have had liberation for everyone. Only today is it even in theory possible that everyone, straight and gay, male and female, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, First World or Third, can be free.

Psychology and politics are intertwined in ways that remain endlessly ironic. When a patient focuses on the past when things were better, a psychologist must help them move forward through the hurt. As a nation, as a world, we have to move away from a past we remember into a future that we cannot know. It is terrifying. It is walking into oblivion and blackness. It is a species-wide leap of faith.

So, whenever you think of saying, “What happened to freedom in America?” or “What happened to the pioneer spirit?”, remember this: They disappeared. And it’s up to us to make sure they are replaced by something better.

Our species can no longer afford nostalgia.


Hobbies and Changemakers

Hobbies are important.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been playing Sentinels of the Multiverse more than my traditional gaming hobby, tabletop roleplaying. We’ve been designing heroes, villains and environments so we can try new experiences.

Many of the people in my gaming group are either training to become or actively are, as part of their lives, changemakers. People concerned with either the healing of the mind or the body.

There are times that I am at a table talking to people and I always wonder if there is some gap between me and the rest of the people there. If I’ve spent my day working through a trauma of torture or helping others cope with some kind of political event that is tough to swallow, it can put me into a place where I feel like I’m in a different world, just sort of faintly talking through.

But plenty of people feel that way. During serious depression, it can feel like someone is buried alive, just barely managing to talk through the dirt. Schizophrenics and autistics have a fundamental experiential gap. And I’ve come to realize over time that my normal experiences are also not the norm for others. That I have experiences as a daily occurrence that many strive for years to have just a precious few times.

So when I, and the other people in my group who are changemakers, come to the table, we no longer have to be the counselors, or the reporters, or the cops, or the political writers, or the support group leaders.

We can just be the people who are playing a superhero card game. We can be the dudes nerding out about Marvel. We can be those guys who fight Transformers in a tabletop setting.

It’s vital for those of us who want to change the world to remember that we are still people with hobbies, people with friends and families. We want a world of people, not automata. We want a world where people are free to play a board game and have no greater implication or darkness outside the room.

Let’s get it.

changemaking, politics

Hard On Evil, Soft On People

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”.

It’s such a cliché now, so suffused with triteness and hypocrisy, that it’s easy to overlook how immensely radical it is and how far-reaching its implications are. Like any good theory of the world, it is simple to understand and yet complex in its application.

One of my favorite authors and a role model, Tim Wise, has posted a crucially important article: “Hard on Systems, Soft On People: Fighting for Social Change As If People Matter”. We all would hope that we assume that people matter, that everything matters.

Perhaps the most crucial line is in the opening: “we need to be soft on people because people make mistakes, we hurt each other, we are all works in progress, and each of us is capable of saying or doing the wrong thing at any time — indeed we all have, many times — and so we should essentially extend to others the patience and compassion we would want for ourselves, as growing, changing, and hopefully maturing people. But also, and more importantly, when it comes to the issues we were discussing, be soft on people and hard on systems because it is the systems (racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, heterosexism and straight/cisgendered supremacy) that have distorted us, taught us the biases with which we all walk around to one degree or another, and in some ways damaged our ability to see each other as fully and equally human sometimes”.

So much of what people trying to change the world have to do is raise consciousness. Help someone else see something differently, see the world from someone else’s perspective. And, of course, along the way help ourselves in that process.

What Tim is saying is radical, and it’s something that radicals often ignore. It’s all too easy to let any ideology turn us into assholes. It’s all too easy to let ourselves think we belong to some special club. It’s often only after it’s too late that we’re ashamed of that elitism.

But this statement, as foundational as it is for changemakers to understand, is actually only a corollary of an even deeper point.

“Be hard on pathology, but soft on people”.

Or, put another way:

“Be hard on evil, but soft on people”.

We have to decide, when we try to go into this world and change it for the better, what our goal is.

Are we going to try to destroy, or punish, or alter, or transform, or change, the human vessels of evil?

Or are we going to stop evil itself?

The only way I’ve ever been able to imagine doing good for people, helping them achieve greater consciousness or just be able to get through the day with something resembling a smile, has been to imagine what I do and what my allies do as a brawl against a figure of darkness.

That figure is evil, callousness, cruelty, pain.

We have to act as if people aren’t evil. They’re just vessels for evil, sometimes.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to assume. It can go against every instinct we have to look at the rapist, the molester, the Nazi, and remember their humanity.

And that’s exactly why it matters so much.

Almost every evil in human history has been inflicted because we have the ability to dehumanize the Other.

They’re the Jew, so they’re alien, parasites, people trying to destroy and hurt us. Hurt us and our families.

They’re the Arab, the Muslim, the black.

They’re the criminal, the rapist, the thief.

They’re the war criminal, the dictator.

Sometimes, we are right that they are a threat. Sometimes, people really do want to hurt us.

But that doesn’t make them any less of people.

I am making a value judgment here. It is of course quite possible to view some people as evil. Irredeemable monsters. And this approach has some plausibility: Those who inflict evil damage themselves, warp their souls. When we look at someone else with racist suspicion or bigotry, we distort our good and trusting hearts. When we treat someone else as an object or a means to an end, we turn ourselves into the same kind of instrument.

But the problem with the approach of identifying people as the problem, rather than evil, is that it is itself toxic to our soul.

When we say someone is “evil”, “a monster”, “just a psychopath”, “a murderer”, we reduce their entire life to the worst things they did.

Maybe they were awful examples of people. Maybe they did indeed torture and kill many people throughout our life.

But their mothers, or their siblings, may have loved them. They may have made their friends laugh. They may have done people kindnesses. They cooked meals, sung songs.

It does spiritual and intellectual violence to reduce anyone, even people who have done unspeakable crimes, to a moment.

And what’s worse is that there’s no buffer between them us and us.

Because we’ve all done horrible things.

We’ve all broken hearts, said things in anger that hurt feelings, destroyed objects. We’ve all been callous, cruel, jealous, angry, and apathetic. And virtually everyone alive has at some point or another sat idly by while their society committed monstrosities.

Noam Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly that all American citizens are responsible for the crimes being done in their name. We could have done more. Maybe this is an unfairly extreme viewpoint, but it has the advantage of holding us accountable. Certainly, when we pay our taxes, obey the police, and go about our business, we are giving some kind of imprimatur to the policies of our society and our government.

If we want to reduce others to monsters, there’s no end to that process.

And I have noticed that everyone who has taken the maxim that people can be irredeemably evil, no matter how wonderful of people they may have been, closed their hearts, even if just a little bit.

And we can’t afford that anymore as a species.

I’m not saying that there’s never a reason to stop someone with physical force. I’m not saying that perhaps some people need to be jailed, or compelled to psychiatric treatment. I’m not saying that people should just get away with whatever they please.

But when we start thinking of people as problems rather than souls to be raised up and enlightened, when we start viewing people as dragons to slay, we do something to our ability to solve the problem.

So, if our goal is to reduce evil, what do we do?

Comfort each other. Insure that no one has to go a night in terror. Make sure no one cries themselves to sleep.

Make sure that these huge villages we’ve built called “countries” don’t have people in them who are separated from each other by the accident of their birth or by the caprices of our systems of labor and commerce.

Eliminate the institutions like sexism, racism and classism that degrade the humanity and equality of our fellow women and men.

Make sure that our work is filled with joy and a loving spirit, so that it flows into those who need it.

A lot of people view Empire Strikes Back as the most utterly complete of the Star Wars films. But I view Return of the Jedi as being the more important film.

In Return of the Jedi, the true hero, the one who is right at the end, never stops believing in the capacity for goodness of someone he loves.

That audacity destroys an empire.

When we stop treating people as broken, maybe we can start picking up the pieces.