The struggle is real.
Trump kept the book ‘My New Order,’ a collection of Hitler’s speeches on his night table for years.
It all starts to seem a little too on point.
“I support anyone’s right to be who they want to be. My question is: To what extent do I have to participate in your self-image?”
“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should, therefore, claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”
― Karl Raimund Popper, The Open Society, and Its Enemies
A society based on freedom and liberal humanism must value tolerance just to exist. But it must value itself more highly than any culture or alternate system of government if it is to survive. When the Mohamed cartoons controversy arose we were faced with another culture protesting the rules of our own. There were threats of murder, and outraged demands to change our rules on their behalf. Demands to essentially to add a dogma of Islam (not depicting Mohamed) as an amendment to western values from now on.
The west responded with a mix of:
- Cowardice: “OK! Done.”
- Nationalistic grumbling.
- Assholes taunting Muslims by burning Korans.
- Liberal appeasement, which volunteered to alter our way of life because other cultures naturally take precedence.
- Indifference, the deciding vote of many disputes.
- Worry by those who know that there are no take backs when you hand over any part of your autonomy.
The conciliatory impulse when someone is (or even seems) deeply offended is to apologize and seek accommodation. It’s a good impulse because peace is good. In seeking peace you ask what will make it right. The clear message from the Islamic protesters was: “You aren’t allowed to do that, it must never happen again.” Claiming the right in a non-Islamic, free speech culture to determine not only what they see in newspapers but what everyone else sees too.
Many European politicians acceded instantly, deploring the cartoons, many in the media acceded to cowardice really but cloaked as respect for feelings. There have been roughly 200 deaths related to the cartoon controversy since 2005 and anti-blasphemy laws have sprouted up in many places giving more control over speech to those who feel offended. Tolerant European societies began dismantling their foundations partly from fear of religious thugs and partly out of the desire to be nice people and not cause offense.
This hardly constitutes the death of a tolerant culture, but it was surrendering the autonomy of a tolerant culture to the demands of an intolerant one. This is “proof of concept” for Popper’s thesis. What possible polar corollary can we dream up where Europe is offended by an Islamic meme and Islam is sorry and wants to make it right? There is no such situation. In fact, throughout Islamic cultures, things we would find outrageously offensive are common-place: Horrible anti-semitic cartoons are daily fare, hateful denouncements of everything in the west and hope for their prompt destruction is the stuff of coffee chat on TV.
All impulse to appease travels one way, and that is through the hole in our cultural defenses wrought by tolerance. The values we thrive on and hope to leave in place for the future will be further weakened by the culture of being too “nice”. Our cultural immune system recognizes certain hot topics for special handling. We maintain our Nazi defenses, we recognize that this hateful speech is something to be watched cautiously. We also recognize that it would permanently fracture society if we cripple free speech to silence Nazis. The problem now isn’t recognizing an overt enemy but a more subtle one. We are vulnerable on our left flank to the idea that all cultures are at least equal; and that any culture that has suffered insult or injury from the west at large deserves to have a say in our own. The welcoming tolerance of pluralistic cultures must be maintained, yet for it to be maintained it must have limits.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”
In other words, it ought to take a matter nearing our imminent destruction to make us consider hitting the pause button on freedom of speech, not the first complaint raised against it.
Brooks Adams believed that commercial civilizations rise and fall in predictable cycles. First, masses of people draw together in large population centers and engage in commercial activities. As their desire for wealth grows, they discard spiritual and creative values. Their greed leads to distrust and dishonesty, and eventually, the society crumbles. In The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), Adams noted that as new population centers emerged in the west, centers of world trade shifted from Constantinople to Venice to Amsterdam to London. He predicted in America’s Economic Supremacy (1900) that New York would become the center of world trade.
Adams was a great-grandson of John Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, the youngest son of U.S. diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and brother to Henry Adams, philosopher, historian, and novelist, whose theories of history were influenced by his work. His maternal grandfather was Peter Chardon Brooks, the wealthiest man in Boston at the time of his death. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1918.
Margaret Chase Smith writing against McCarthyism. A very different time, much like our own.
I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership in either the Legislative Branch or the Executive Branch of our Government.
That leadership is so lacking that serious and responsible proposals are being made that national advisory commissions be appointed to provide such critically needed leadership.
I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as briefly as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.
I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American.
The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world. But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.
It is ironical that we Senators can in debate in the Senate directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to any American who is not a Senator any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an American — and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us — yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order.
It is strange that we can verbally attack anyone else without restraint and with full protection and yet we hold ourselves above the same type of criticism here on the Senate Floor. Surely the United States Senate is big enough to take self-criticism and self-appraisal. Surely we should be able to take the same kind of character attacks that we “dish out” to outsiders.
I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching — for us to weigh our consciences — on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America — on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.
I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.
Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.
Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:
The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought.
The political debate in the United States has gradually developed a tacit consensus that if ordinary people try to advance their interests they are being self indulgent and childish. Yet advancing the interests of the wealthy and powerful, “the owners” as George Carlin put it, is sensible, mature and realistic. It isn’t surprising since untold millions have been spent to achieve this version of common sense.
Our government has become the agent of the owners against the people of the United States. We pay absurd prices for health care, internet access, etc., because the free market is suppressed by the owners conspiring against us. If our lives are spent struggling to work enough to stay afloat and to keep paying interest on our debt for school or home or medical care, if out our lives are diminished or even endangered it doesn’t matter a shred to the owners. We exist to pay them. That’s why we are here. We are payment units. It doesn’t matter if we are happy or healthy, we exist to maximize their profit.
The owners demand to be in charge of every area of our lives, to make each a service they own and allocate at minimum quality and cost for maximum profit. They want the roads and highways, they want our schools and postal service, they want the armed services and prisons. They own the non-governmental services of health care and insurance and communications and internet access and so much more. They want us to have nothing of our own, nothing independent of them. Nothing will be corrected by “Market forces”. The government is being used by the owners to suppress market forces for the elite. Continue reading
Take a million rats.
Raise them in a strange high tech “ratatarium” full of rooms and environments where every positive experience is profoundly associated with clear-cut brightly colored shape pulsing on screens all around. Every wall and ceiling is a display screen. Local events of feeding, play, nurture or sex all generate a clear instance of the specific happy sign nearby. Periodically the whole place is electrified or bombarded with terrifying noises and rumbles. The happy lights are always off during these events, replaced by vivid and consistent alternate shapes and colors.
Never mind how it’s possible, I got a grant.
These million rats have a shared language of symbols. Being rats, they don’t speak of the symbols or scrawl them on things but if one day the system stopped mirroring what the rats were enjoying with a symbol and instead just turned the symbol for food on in one room and the symbol for sex on in another, hungry rats and horny rats would self-sort into each room, hoping to get lucky. Hungry AND horny rats would face a dilemma, and my heart goes out to them. Rooms displaying the BAD symbols would empty out. The experimenters would only rarely do this proof of concept, because “false advertising” might diminish the power of the symbols.
I didn’t mention it, but there are actually 2 of these Ratatariums ©, and each contains a million rats. I have spared no expense. They are exactly alike except that the shapes, colors etc. of the symbols are associated to mean something very different. A warm fuzzy symbol to one group is a cold prickly symbol to the other. A green pentagon to one group means “playtime ending in sex!” while to the other it means “horrible shaking with bang sounds”. Continue reading
The most intractable problems of this jittery moment come from the human sweet-tooth for conflict and excitement. The sweet-tooth is natural, it is good or bad by context. If you are an ancient human and opt to look at the exciting thing, you are better at staying alive. If you are an ancient human and your clan starts getting pumped up over increasing tension with another clan, you are your clan are more cohesive and motivated. In this context the “sweet tooth” is a healthy (pro-survival) relationship to your environment. It’s a bit like our love of actual sugar, fat and salt: That love becomes destructive when these go from rare, random windfalls to a superabundance. When we can have as much of something as we like, we keep mashing the button till we find out how that ruins us. Morbid obesity is what THAT button does. What does this other one do?
Our hunger for excitement and conflict became more complicated when our “news” input went from direct observation and word of mouth to massive information pumps like newspapers that could flood a large city in a day with a single message and point of view. Thousands of opinions could be massaged and tweaked at once. “Yellow journalism” was the click-bait of that time. The radio hit people like a massively purified version of the newspaper drug. Music and voices could hit sweet spots in our monkey guts that letters on paper could only dream about and rather than the isolated one-at-a-time experience of newspapers, radio could flow like a connecting current though everyone in earshot. And everyone was within earshot. Then the television became a cultural charging station in the center of every home. At night we were quietly filled with a homogeneous informational snapshot of the day. Of course we felt more united, any axes we were grinding were not wirelessly communicating with all the other axes. You couldn’t make that world combust because there was no connecting medium of petrol fumes.
The issue now is that we are a different organism as flashing, participating neurons on a network then we were as slow moving, disconnected creatures who got the news from kids on bikes, or in the mail, god help us, or arriving on the TV like a friendly little train at the same time everyday.
The organism we are now is constantly lit up, alert and watching for movement like meerkats on crack. The news equivalent of plasma waves erupting from the sun flare and sweep endlessly across the internet. Our new atmosphere is a highly combustible, volatile medium. The ignition behind these flare ups is mostly outrage, as one group or another does a “football stadium wave” of alarm in response to some stimulus. Tsunamis of cortisol are washing over us 24/7, leaving us feeling hypervigilant and weary.
Why? Because we are idiots who like that sort of thing. We can’t help being idiots who like that sort of thing…BECAUSE WE LIKE THAT SORT OF THING. Part of the rush is certainly negative but part of it is the fun of holding hands with like-minded neurons and cascading as a gigantic wave across the world. It’s thrilling because we are playing with a new level of complexity and connection.
We are a new species variant of human and we are figuring out what this human is, what it does and what it can do.
And because we are the only animal enemy we have left, we are looking for its weaknesses; feeling around for its windpipe, thumbs and eyes.
The danger from this all out competition for eyeballs and clicks is low except where real territorial stuff is on the line. There, virality means masses of people losing control of themselves and losing all sense of proportion. You know, like angry mobs.