Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons from Abroad

The following essay comes from a discussion about the nature of healthcare policy in the United States.  I started out wanting to talk about healthcare, and wound up addressing the entire Spanish economy as an illustration of problems we deal with in healthcare, education, employment, and government--i.e. economic and politics generally.

My personal feeling is that the USA is simply too large to have a coherent, consistent public health agenda that extends nationwide. Europe benefits from smaller administrative regions, with more homogeneous culture(s). In my experience, Europe is a gated community built to exclude outsiders (who respond by seeking to replace rather than assimilate: immigrants from the Third World do not become French, or Spanish, or Scandinavian, by and large). America is the opposite (though we keep trying to repent and become more European; unfortunately, we need cheap labor, too).

When I was living in Spain, there were serious political movements in every place I stayed whose central goal was complete autonomy. I did not meet a single population in northern Spain (over two years, I lived in these provinces: Castilla y Leon, Galicia, Vizcaya) without a significant minority who wanted nothing to do with Spain or Madrid. Some parties even wanted autonomy for smaller regions (there was a party that wanted to get Castilla out of Leon). People grew up in small regions, in neighborhoods where they could point to the house their great-grandparents occupied (which often as not was a cottage predating modern civilization). There was a very strong trend to shut the world out, to suspect "growth" and "progress" as cloaking devices for "rape" and "pillage," and to distrust outsiders permanently (because they are not from here, they do not know this place, they will take our stuff and make good with it somewhere else, somewhere we cannot follow). In America, I can move thousands of miles to a neighborhood where people have never seen me before, and the common reaction is, "Hello! Welcome to the block!" In Europe (Spain anyway), this reaction is still there (particularly if I am talking to foreigners or people who live in the city), but it is supplemented by another: "You're not from around here? Fuck you! Go back where you came from. We don't need foreign shit. It is hard enough to deal with all our own."

Everything is different (healthcare, economics, religion) in areas where people have deep-seated distrust of the novel, the foreign, the unusual. America thrives on imagining the novel optimistically: "This new treatment could work wonders for me! I might survive this illness and even come out stronger than before!" In my experience, Europeans imagine it pessimistically: "This new treatment is probably going to make me die even faster than I was already, smoking two packs a day. Fuck it, and the white horse it rode in on." My experience is colored by the reality that I have never lived in the "really cool Europe" that American Leftists like to gush over. While I met plenty of German, Dutch, and Scandinavian tourists (who were invariably tall, healthy, and very articulate in English), the local populations I met were Iberian (short, not so healthy sometimes, and incomprehensible in English). I know that Spain is not Germany, or Holland, or Sweden (or Finland: man, I love that place, though it does have a rather high suicide rate for being so awesome in so many other ways). If there is anything I learn from my limited experience with Europe, it is that poor people (in particular) do better trusting authority and novelty less. The less we aim at "wealth" (move to a big city, get a nice job and a fancy-ass house, settle down) and the more we aim at "competence" (move to a quiet place, acquire skills that make any particular job unnecessary, and live in the cheapest hovel you can afford)--the happier we will be.

Happy Spaniards knew their neighborhoods (their grocer, their doctor, their teachers), and were busy building those neighborhoods themselves--they did not trust you to come in and fix them. Even when your motives were entirely pure and you had no evil track record, they wanted you out of the way so that they could keep planting and building what they wanted, not what you wanted to give them. My purpose living in Spain, as readers of this blog know, was offering folks a chance to become Mormons. Needless to say, that did not go over very well. But I learned a lot--including two really important things about myself: I am a terrible salesman, and I hate sales. I did not sell the Spanish on Mormonism, but they certainly sold me on hating sales. That visceral distrust and dislike of advertising is something I think Americans could stand to learn.

To end this interminable comment en pointe: the official policies coming from Madrid make Spain sound like utopia (or at least, like France): free healthcare, job security, political democracy, etc. But the reality on the ground is rather different. You see, making this utopia real requires more economic strength than the nation has (leading some of the least economically depressed regions, e.g. Catalunya and Vizcaya, to produce large numbers of citizens who openly, loudly, and even militantly desire to secede from Spain). This is because there is a high ceiling for legal employment (meaning that employers and the state together have to be able to guarantee healthcare, wages, votes, and acceptable living conditions to legally employed persons, such as I was during my stay). But crap jobs still need to be done, so as we do in America, the Spanish hire foreign slaves (Africans and South Americans, and some Eastern Europeans)--who are willing and able to work for pennies that people have as opposed to the euros that dreamers (officials, humanitarians, managers, EU bureaucrats, Spanish bureaucrats) want to give them. There is this perverse dynamic at play whereby native Spanish youth have nothing to do (employing them would be exploitation, i.e. illegal and punishable as a criminal offense), so they must sit around on the street and in their parents' basements collecting pensions from the state (mostly; it occasionally cannot pay!) while Africans, Arabs, native Americans (many from Ecuador and Colombia), Bulgarians, and Albanians keep everything running for wages. The Spanish folk in my age bracket, while I was there (as a 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old) spent most of their time walking around town, smoking, making out in street-corners, getting drunk, playing video games or watching TV, and harassing people like me. Were they better off than I, health-wise, job-wise, education-wise (tuition was cheap)? In some ways, yes. In others, no

Monday, October 20, 2014

Semper Fidelis

I am increasingly of the opinion that modern Western police (many police, maybe not all) exist to clean up after crimes, to beat suspicious people up (especially if they are poor and otherwise defenseless: worst-case scenario, the cop just goes nuts and starts dropping bodies), and to collect a nice pension.

Crime prevention isn't really part of the picture (unless you think those press conferences mean something useful: I suppose there might also be real utility from classes that some officers give, e.g. explaining to youngsters what they see in terms of crime in any given community and how they would advise avoiding it). One problem I consistently have is that I feel some of the onus (for preventing crime) should be on me, rather than police. I feel that modern police have too much responsibility (protect and serve me, officer! I am too helpless to do anything in the way of protecting myself) and too little liability (saving that grown-up baby's bacon required killing a few lowlifes? no prob! back on the job tomorrow, with a raise!).

Communities that work, it seems to me, are communities in which we all take turns shouldering the real burden of "serving and protecting" ourselves--rather than passing the buck to professional mercenaries (who may or may not be assholes: in my mind, that is a different problem; I suspect many of these are honorable, and many are not). People (especially people in positions of authority or aspiring to such positions) need to spend some time "in the trenches" with soldiers and police, it seems to me. One of the great problems of our time is that we have leaders and citizenry utterly blind (in practical terms) to the realities of human violence. Professors, politicians, and clergy cannot really offer a useful, practical perspective on violence if they are never confronted with it--if they never have to deal with it in real time, with life and limb on the line.

I like the old Swiss model (every able-bodied citizen spends some time in the military / police), precisely because it involves ordinary citizens learning to provide protection and service to themselves, at a realistic cost (to themselves and the whole community). The Left would probably hate me if I became mayor (or anybody with political clout), because I would want to resurrect the militia (local military and police) as something to which every able-bodied voter must contribute. You put in your time--not necessarily in the line of fire, but close enough to see it--or you forfeit your right to vote on anything that involves public defense (because you are not qualified to have an opinion: the shepherd does not take a vote from the sheep when deciding how to fend off wolves). I think this model is the only way to create police and military forces that does not ultimately incentivize corruption. Of course I remain open to counter-argument, but for now that is where I stand.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Building My Identity

This article touches the fundamental problem with identity politics: the real Muslim (the real Christian, the real feminist, the real white man, etc.) does not actually exist. The identities we construct for ourselves are at some point uniquely personal, an expression of the particular self whose idiosyncrasy rejects (and breaks) every universal mould. Identity politics as an exercise require me to identify myself wrongly with people who look like me in some fashion, and then to go out and apply this mischaracterization to other people, as well. Identity politics, even when they are most factual (dealing practically with people who for whatever reason appear to act en masse), ask us to behave as pawns (the agents of some collective to which we must belong, to which we owe our identity). It is unfortunately true that I will owe many of my life's goods to groups that include people and things I find immoral, but that seems to me like something to limit wherever possible, rather than to celebrate. I would not choose to enumerate at great length the ways in which I am and must be the helpless agent of some larger identity (religious, political, cultural) that controls me against my own better judgement. I would prefer to dwell on the ways I can break these moulds, can defeat the mandate that I pick a faceless tribe and then stand with them no matter what.

It seems to me that the best way to defeat identity politics (which I regard as evil) or the evils of identity politics (for those who think that identity politics are good) is to quietly refuse to conform to the agenda of your "tribes" (the groups who seek to claim you as their pawn because you practice a certain religion, dress a certain way, come from a certain ethnic background, etc.). My identity is a temporary thing, fraught with many limits such that it inevitably becomes evil, to me and to other people, at some point. In light of this reality, I seek to make that ego as little active as possible in the world around me. I don't lend my weight to causes waged by "my tribes" against others merely because "everybody who looks like you is doing it." I do not know what all academics, all males, all white people (etc.) are up to, as a group. I don't want to put myself in a position where I have to know, where I make myself liable for some kind of gang activity that pretends (inevitably falsely) to speak for "our kind." We have no kind: you are one self, and I am another. Superficial likeness might conceal vast oceans of difference, so vast in my experience that I always assume we are more unlike than like until I see you acting, until I know you--as a person, not a stereotype.

The tribe that I want around me is not a nation, not a race, not an ethnos, nor a worldwide religion. I want real family and friends, people I know personally from historical interaction. If I am to go to war, to make bets with my life, to take risks with uncertain causes and conditions in a troubled world, then I am going to do it not for an imaginary identity or camaraderie (nationalism, racism, chauvinism, capitalism, Christianity, etc.). I am going to do it for friends and family I love, because I see immediately how their survival demands it. I do not care that my friends and family look like me in some superficial way (i.e. that they have language like mine, skin like mine, ethnic background like mine, or religion like mine). I care that they show me moral integrity I can respect, especially where it differs from my own. The more I embrace this integrity, and the people who come with it into my life (from all kinds of odd places), the less I identify myself with the "tribes" that sociology textbooks want to put me in. My friends and family can come from any religious background (I am on intimate terms with many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists). They can be any number of races (and they are). They can come from many different countries (and they do). I want to make my identity from them, from their small diversity, rather than take the large monotony of society's tribes as my heritage. I want my ego to reflect the people I love and care about, more than the people who look like me superficially.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Politics of Divergence

It seems to me that there are some communities too large to function democratically (the USA and the EU among them: Massachusetts does not want to live like Texas, and Germans don't want to live like Greeks). Sometimes, the best long-term solution is not "to enable agreement on a generally accepted solution" (or otherwise validate the idea that we all have the same interest where it is clear that we do not and cannot)--but to facilitate diversity, divergence and experimentation, admitting up front that there is no such thing (existent or creatable) as a single policy for all Americans or Europeans. I think the idea of "one policy to rule them all" (whether all the states in the USA or in the EU) is always going to break down catastrophically at some point (even in the domains where it works best, e.g. military alliances).

The use of irreconcilable differences in philosophy to discuss the limits of human ability to suppress divergence is not wrong, of course. Philosophy is one symptom of this human trait. But it is hardly the only such symptom (others would be the observation that people don't visit the same stores on the same schedule, or buy the same things in those stores; we don't all study the same subjects in school; if we do, we don't study them the same way; we don't do the same jobs; if we do, we don't do them the same way; etc.). It is wrong to think that this intractability between you and me boils down to nothing more than a vapid difference of philosophical opinion or expression--that there is nothing serious or intractable behind it. Historically, there is something there. A resistance to monotony and conformity that is always in the end stronger than any force we can bring to bear to make monotony and conformity universal and permanent. We have brought some really powerful forces to bear (e.g. the world wars in the last century, the Civil War in the United States before that) without achieving our object. Some of us see this and conclude that the object is one that we should not waste any more time pursuing, but others are still eager for the scheme of one policy to rule them all.

I have a significant philosophical problem with the existence of a central bank. This is not precisely the same thing as my problem with the existence of authorities with claim to rule the most intimate decisions of my life. At some point in the negotiations (between me and the central authorities who want to control me the way farmers control cattle), I am going to break away--either to run from the policy I don't like or to fight it (with whatever arms seem likeliest to avail). In today's climate, these arms are probably not militant, since the central bank has more firepower than I could ever hope to have--more than I would regard it as safe to use. So probably I will end up advocating for some kind of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Gandhi and Thoreau--and our own Martin Luther King, who did so much to fix problems the Civil War could only bring to a boiling head.

We cannot all live the same life.  At some point, your life would kill me in ways that I don't like, and vice versa.  I must give you room to live as yourself, without me, and you must reciprocate.  If we cannot do this, if we must choose one of our lives as "the one true life" and force it upon the other willy-nilly, then we are deciding to kill someone.  Are you willing to kill me now?  Maybe so.  There are acceptable reasons to want me dead.  But I would hope that these are only invoked when absolutely necessary, when peace between us is really impossible.  I would rather have another Great Depression than kill off half of society (even if that meant avoiding said depression).    

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Defending the Family

Another rant about gay marriage, and the religious Right in America.  This one comes on the eve of the 9th Circuit ruling against the right of states to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and the vow of certain state governors to fight this decision.

It seems to me that the surest way to destroy authority (and tradition) is to invoke it in ways that are patently absurd (and in this case, unjust).

The greatest enemy to heterosexual marriage and family, in any traditional sense, right now, in the United States, is the political movement that wants to strengthen these by attacking things outside them. Burning your garden down does not make mine grow better: in fact, if you look closely, you will see that while I have been wasting time and energy trying to kill yours (in vain), mine has become a neglected sea of weeds and garbage. "It's the gays' fault!" No, morons. It is your fault for wasting time attacking the gays instead of minding your own garden, your own business, your own family, your own tradition.

If I want a good garden, I have to go out and work--not find somebody else to blame. If I want to make myself strong, I have to go out and work--not punish you for going to a gym I don't like. If I want a good education, I have to go out and work--not punish you for studying something I wouldn't study. If I want to wear a burkha, I put one on: I don't come to your house and make you wear it against your will, no matter what the majority of people in our area believe about anything.

The worst thing about this political putsch from the Right is that it is so blatantly anti-American (in the old sense: it ignores the separation between church and state and makes "religious freedom" a piece of specious rhetoric). Essentially, these people want to enact their own brand of sharia in the US, and call this "religious freedom" (it is my religious freedom to make you wear a burkha, because if you don't, Satan wins; if you dispute this, it is because Satan owns you, and you cannot be trusted--you must be burned at the stake as a heretic). Hello, Inquisition! Hello, fascism! This is simply absurd (without rational standing) and dangerous (likely to break society more than defend it).

My final word on this nonsense from the Right is that even if letting gays marry did create opportunity for really bad things to happen (somehow, in ways I have yet to perceive), I would be for it. The same way I am for allowing heterosexual, traditional marriages that end in crime (or just divorce, pain, and suffering). You don't ban things simply because somebody somewhere might conceivably get hurt doing them. Eating is dangerous, but we all have to eat--and we don't all have to eat the same thing, the same way, at the same time: that would be bad. Kind of like we don't all have to marry the same way. That would be really bad, for everyone--straights included. But who is going to protect us from that? Who will defend us when one of Jesus' American mullahs receives a revelation commanding us to participate in the one true order of marriage or be damned--in this life and the next? I will take any defense I can get from this dangerous bullshit, including defense from "activist" judges (who in my view are simply doing what we created them to do, i.e. rule on problems within the historical legal framework that constitutes the official life of our society).

Here's a thought. Maybe, just maybe, people will have the moral fortitude to live decent lives on their own, without the mullahs--without a bunch of external "defense" (that seems not to do anything besides grind on the face of those unfortunate enough to appear untraditional from some narrow, hypercritical vantage-point). Maybe my marriage needs to live on its own, without taking yours (or a celebrity's) as some kind of fixed reference point (which it never was anyway). Maybe the best way to strengthen my marriage is to make it owe as little as possible to the kind of culture that values tearing others down more than allowing them the chance to make something beautiful of their lives--something that they choose and do for themselves (with success or failure: the outcome is irrelevant; what matters is that they have the option, the choice, the capacity to try something they want to try).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Ennui of Civilized Man

One of the great problems of our times is how to deal with the angst of civilization. We used to be happy to survive, back when food and shelter were our main concerns. Then, we invented ways of mass-producing necessities, and discovered "free time" (time that could be spent doing something other than looking for food, looking for shelter, or recovering from that search). Free time allowed us to play around more--to do things like build, trade, and make war.

The ancestral economy makes sense to us. Assuming you survive, it is not hard to live and be relatively happy while you are looking for food (that you expect to find), looking for shelter (that you expect to find), and recovering. Primitive, uncivilized people we can observe are often happier than their civilized counterparts, particularly as you look toward the bottom of civilized social hierarchies.

Civilized "free time" provides many benefits, of course, but these come at the expense of significant social and psychological turmoil. I don't know how to get my own food. I must rely on someone else to get it for me. I don't know how to get my own shelter. I need someone else to provide it for me. If I am living in a cultural backwater like the Middle East (or Africa or many parts of Eurasia and the Americas), then I am keenly aware that everyone really close to me lives subject to the whims of people we never meet. People with power. People who inherit a long tradition of free time, complete with awesome ways of making food, shelter, and war. I have three choices: abject worship ("please, god on earth, don't kill me! you want these shiny things? please, take them!"), avoidance ("better to avoid dealing with gods altogether: I think I will take up residence in a mountain cave and chant with some beads"), or revolt ("death to the evil gods who run my life without my consent!"). The choice between fight and flight is one that each person must make for herself, and we all make it differently. But some of us always choose to fight. Fighting is part of human nature.

For me, the really interesting question becomes one of finding ways to manage the fight-response to civilization. Can I take the urge to revolt, to burn civilization down for its crimes (which would be a crime, of course, but that did not stop the Mongols, and I am guessing that it will not stop the terrorists today), and turn it into something good? Can I build a cure for civilization into the death-wish that it spawns in certain people? We are always trying. (Politics and economics historically involve warfare: they struggle to contain and suppress and redirect it towards less destructive outlets, so that instead of burning your house down with fire I do it with bankruptcy in a court of law. It is easier to recover from bankruptcy than from war, on the one hand; on the other, going bankrupt too often will eventually drive people to war.)

The angst of civilization ultimately comes from lack of control over one's own life. The more you can convince people that they make decisions that really matter to their individual lives (and deaths), the less eager they are to blow themselves up (and seek another life beyond the grave, whether as glorified Homeric heroes or mujahideen copulating with crowds of virgins). The more invested people become in civilizations' games as active players, the less they want to burn every game to the ground (and start over, building new games--new ways of occupying people's "free time" that always resemble the old ways in time). When I hear people calling for more education (as a solution to problems of civilization), I think this is really what they are aiming to do: they want to show the desperadoes--the outlaws, rebels, and terrorists--that there is a productive place for them in existing civil games, that society has a nice place for them right here, if they would just put down their arms and play cool instead of fighting. Part of the problem with this idea, however, is that civilization is dynamic. People always lose its games; you have to lose (sometimes, something) in order to win. There is no such thing as a civilization that endures unchanging and perfect ("with liberty and justice for all," blah blah). If you play civil games (the market), you will get burned. Eventually, you will die. Confronting that reality is too hard for many of us (not just the poor or the outlaws), and some people cannot see it without going berserk. I don't have any easy answers for this problem. All I can do is observe it closely, and then take what measures are available to insulate myself maximally from its harmful effects (as I observe them in myself and the people around me).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Prophets

A prophet is simply a spokesperson (προφήτης).  Historically, spokesmen for divinity divide pragmatically into two predictable groups: (1) the divine spokesperson who speaks for some human establishment or institution (the Sanhedrin, the Synod, Senatus populusque Romanus, the LDS church, Harvard); (2) the divine spokesperson who speaks for him- or herself, and for humanity outside any particular establishment or institution (Amos, Jesus, Cato, self-appointed Mormon apologists, rogue academics).  The two kinds of prophet have a history of fighting one another tooth and nail, with the establishment predictably winning battles (Jesus is killed) only to lose wars (when the response to their crackdown is the foundation of a new establishment dedicated to preserve the memory of a martyred prophet).  The new establishment relatively quickly becomes everything it claims to loathe in the old establishment (read Mormon writings on the Great Apostasy and then compare the modern Mormon establishment with Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox establishments: from the metaphorical 30,000-foot view, they are virtually the same in terms of how they relate to outsiders and insiders via bureaucratic process).  The original sin of fallen prophets or their followers, it would seem, is that they found a church to entrain, contain, and disseminate in some controlled fashion that which is fundamentally unstable, unentrainable, uncontainable, and beyond institutional human control.

We need communities, of course.  But these communities will not be managed (not for long at least) by visionaries who speak meaningfully for interests outside the community.  To lead a community is, historically, to shut oneself off to the world, to commit oneself to a position that cannot be changed easily, to become fragile (and make others fragile as a means of protecting the fragility one has discovered by incorporating as a community with explicit procedures for life).  Caiaphas is the leader of your community, semper et ubique.  He is not always a bad dude, viciously or maliciously punishing people who shouldn't be punished.  He is legitimately a prophet.  He is a punitive prophet, a conservative stick-in-the-mud who pulls society back from the wild ideas of anti-establishment prophets (who are also dangerous, though not the same way he is).

Outside the community or on its fringes, we get another kind of prophet.  Jesus does not write books.  He does not live by protocol (until he visits the temple or the city, where he makes a good show of paying tithes and taxes--and occasionally busts some heads, when he finds the establishment cheating flagrantly at its own game).  He does not have a church.  He does not aim to exist in history, but in eternity: the atemporal present wherein individuals become aware of themselves confronting a unique and personal mystery--that I exist, inexplicably, and there is something else out there around and with and through me, something larger than I am that has the power to mould my life in interesting ways.  Communities, history, taxes, bureaucratic process: Jesus dispenses with these things (necessary and helpful as they are, for the down-to-earth inhabitants of this world).  "My kingdom is not of this world," he says, deliberately abandoning church, country, and even the family to live naked before his Father in the wilderness (fasting and praying and being generally useless or even detrimental to the community, from Caiaphas' perspective). 

When too many people follow Jesus into the wilderness, bad things can happen: society might collapse entirely, or (what more often happens) the check Jesus provides on community values (traditional values) may be lost--as Caiaphas moves into the desert without leaving the world behind.  "We can build heaven on earth here with you, Jesus.  We can make it an external, communal experience.  We can deliver it to groups through an organized, efficient process of education that I will oversee carefully."  Wrong.  There is no church of Christ.  Paul, the Christian missionary to the West, was just another Caiaphas.  He was building community, not running away into the wilderness to commune with God and then speak to friends.  The paradox of Jesus is that the gospel must be preached without ever being established.  You cannot put new wine in old bottles, and even when you put new wine in new bottles, it ages (and becomes old, i.e. other than it was).  As Caiaphas runs the risk of being a vindictive, reactive stick-in-the-mud, so Jesus runs the risk of being a cheerful onlooker to the collapse of human civilization (which requires rules and procedures and tradition that is communal and so at some point antithetical to the prophetic gospel he embodies).

At the end of the day, all prophets are dangerous--for they are human beings, and carry within themselves the seeds of mortality.  We are all going to die at some point.  We are all going to do things on the way to death.  At some point, all of us will embrace or avoid tradition in ways that are dangerous.  There is no way to "fix" this, no way to make death go away (or become innocuous).  Integrity is something we seek as we embrace mortality, our own and that of the species (collectively).  No individual is made to last, just as no community is.  Integrity exists as we seek and discover the means to negotiate this reality with dignity and respect that looks both inward (to ourselves and the mystery of life as we perceive it) and outward (to other people and the mystery of life as it appears to communities).  We need Jesus and Caiaphas, and both are prophets.  But neither one will save us from death: nobody and nothing can do that.  The only way to deal with death is to die.  Die well, my friends!