Ideology In Brief: “Are you free?”, and Other Ideological Musings

Ideology In Brief: “Are you free?”, and Other Ideological Musings

Let’s talk about sex! No, wait, let’s talk about something even more taboo!

These are some samples of political, ideological, or economic thoughts I’ve jotted down. I don’t consider myself an authority on these things, for sure, I just like to think things through, and as I like to say, for me these kinds of writings are intended to open a conversation, not to be the final word.

    • Evolution of a species: physical risks vs psychological domination (723 words) It strikes me how far we've come as a species. We've completely minimized the need to constantly be on guard against the endless physical threat of being eaten by a wild animal, or helplessly struck down by the omnipresent, invisible dangers of a minor disease or infection.

      And we did it by creating a world where we have to constantly be on guard against endless psychological threat of behavioral and emotional manipulation, and or helplessly having our own interests subsumed by  the omnipresent, invisible dangers of a downright religious commercialism. We are a constantly barraged by a manufactured culture that proselytizes a set of values which solely serve the interests of powerful people, allowing them to get what they want from everybody else ever having assume any slight risk to their person by needing to approach and put others in direct physical jeopardy to coerce them, as it was for most of previous human history. And it's such an effective program that many people are not just willing to give up their own interests without any physical coercion, but actually thankful to do it. Some are even proud of it.

      There's a reason for having this realization today. I've been watching old Twilight Zone episodes, and today I watched the Christmas one where Art Carney plays a wino who becomes Santa Claus. The central theme of this heartwarming episode is that Art Carney's character redeems himself by producing the precise present everybody he meets wants.

      And it struck me, suddenly, just how horrible the values that produced this episode are.

      One thing I've written about elsewhere—and a topic which will inevitably pop up in great detail somewhere on this site at some point—is that the most effective propaganda isn't telling people what to believe, it's simply slipping what you want them to think right past them by giving them explicit messages that validate their own values, but which depend, as a silent device, on assuming the things you want them to believe.

      So, this episode's heartwarming tale of redemption—who could complain about a heartwarming tale of redemption?—didn't advocate for consumerism. It simply operated, in its entirety, on the silent assumption that giving people a gift they want is the highest good. It openly raised issues of economic class, of prejudice, of corruption in authorities. But it never risked raising the question of whether giving people material possessions is really a virtue, not in any way that might consciously get you to think about it and perhaps question it. No, it just presumed it tacitly.

      And that got me thinking. Obviously, people want gifts, they want possessions. If you are someone who says, "Stop giving kids toys, stop giving adults bottles of sherry", you're arguably the bad guy. People like those things. Because that's how deeply ingrained commercial interests have got us to equate supporting their businesses with happines, not just today, but already over 60 years ago when this episode came out. (Notice, you never see anything suggesting that, for Christmas, making your kids or spouse something from the heart might be a virtue. It's always things that have to be bought that are presented as the key to happiness.)

      And I realized, if consumerist propaganda had already taken that solid a hold 60 years ago, and probably long before then, just how big the collective effort to instill it must have been. Fighting it would be tremendously difficult—especially once it was ubiquitous and became a basic and societally widespread assumption that it was essentially the atmosphere we live in permanently. As they say, I don’t know who discovered water but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.

      And it just got me to wondering. This has overwhelmingly bent our society and culture. It's inseparable from them. It is woven through the fabric of the civilization our ancestors built to escape the savagery of the jungle.

      And suddenly, watching the holiday miracle of Art Carney redeeming people with consumerism, I had a flash. For just a moment, I questioned whether having to be constantly on guard against efforts to persuade us to subsume our entire culture, our entire sense of our own purpose and values, our entire selves, to serve commerce, wasn't a lot to give up just to not have to occasionally fight off a saber-toothed tiger.

    • The Most Evil Words (47 words) I think "fuck 'em" are the most evil two words, the worst thought, in the English language.

      Maybe they're not terribly evil, said once, by themselves. But no words are. Catastrophic evil is a compound phenomenon.

      "Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty."

      -Stanislaw J. Lec

    • A step towards understanding (instead of) violence (191 words)

      Originally posted on my blog Sloth And Dignity.

      I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and people being accountable for their actions. That said, there’s only so long you can do something to people that they perceive as unjust before they lash out. It's as certain as a natural law.

      It's true even if only they think you're acting unjustly to them. If people don’t understand that or don’t care, violence will continue.

      This also allows both sides in a conflict to believe, with moral certainty, that the other side started it.

      Complicating the issue is that violence as a means to an end, even as an attempt to end injustice, is bound up within the larger issue of what violence, for any reason, is: a forceful attempt to achieve one's goals when someone else's goals stand in the way. Sometimes this is completely successful against the very weak, but most often what violence primarily accomplishes is socially strengthening an opposing force's resolve. Why is that so hard to understand?

      (Although I think that some people who appear not to understand that actually understand it very well.)

    • Ideology in Brief: Are You Free? (130 words) You're permanently confined to a bed because someone has shackled you to it with iron chains. Are you free?

      You're permanently confined to a bed because someone surreptitiously slipped you a paralyzing drug, which is preventing you from moving. Are you free?

      You're permanently confined to a bed because someone is standing there threatening your life with a gun to prevent you from moving. Are you free?

      You're permanently confined to a bed because you are immobilized by an incurable, debilitating illness. Are you free?

      You're permanently confined to a bed because you are immobilized by a debilitating illness, which is curable but which you were not able to afford the treatment for. Are you free?

      You're permanently confined to a bed and you don't know why. Are you free?

    • Satire: "Traffic Lights" and the Left's Destruction of American Mobility (138 words) You know what I hate? "Traffic lights".

      What gives the GOVERNMENT the RIGHT to tell ME when I can stop or go?!? Government shouldn't be standing in the way of American mobility, that just hurts everybody.

      The only way to increase American mobility is free traffic. Get government out of it, and let the traffic participants just sort it out naturally. Let free competition between drivers determine traffic, so nothing stands in the way of drivers getting where they need to go.

      And besides. If the best drivers can get where they're going quicker, they'll spend the time they save giving slower drivers a ride. A faster current speeds up all boats.

      While we're at it, what's with this "9 AM", "10 AM", "11 AM", "Monday", "Tuesday", "Wednesday" thing? Now government is going to tell ME what to CALL my TIME?!?

    • Conflict and Division: One Root Of Fractiousness—the Role of Government (1359 words) Reading an interesting and wide-ranging article on political analyst David Shor ( I came across the following passage:

      "[Shor] and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration. He often brandishes a table showing that among voters who supported universal health care but opposed amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012 but 41 percent voted for Clinton in 2016. That difference, he noted, was more than enough to cost her the election.

      "This can read as an affront to those who want to use politics to change Americans’ positions on those issues. “The job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular but to make popular what needs to be said,” Shenker-Osorio told me.

      "Shor’s rejoinder to this is that the best way to make progress on race and immigration policy is for Democrats to win elections. "

      This is very interesting because it strikes at what I think has become (or what I have finally become aware already was) a very important issue: the divide between people who think the goverment should try to change Americans' positions, and advocate for holdouts to join in working towrds (or at least understanding the value of) an ideal, vs people who think the government should represent Americans' positions, without judging them as right or wrong.

      I get it. Simply put, for example, some people don't want government to try to jumpstart a shift to electric vehicles. They just want government to make sure nobody takes our stuff and missiles don't rain down on our heads, and not much more than that. Ok, there's obviously much more than that (and in practice those same people may suddenly want the government to do much more when it serves their own personal interests, and are less concerned about the principles of freedom when it's someone else's freedoms standing in the way of their personally desired outcomes rather than vice versa), but, I think I like that as an encapsulation of the right wing viewpoint.

      For contrast, I think a similar overbroad description of the left would be, "We can band together and do more working together than we can on our own. Government is how we do that." Honestly, I think that's probably a fair attitude to have, but also, very easy to criticize as overlooking significant realistic difficulties with that approach... like, how do you draw the line? Where does it end? That kind of thinking is how we got to soft drink bans and similar "put the cart before the horse" solutions, not to mention love-to-hate-them efforts like California's attempt to claim CA income tax from people who've moved out of CA up to 10 years prior. (Of course, that kind of thinking is how we would also get to proven working solutions like real healthcare reform and drug decriminaliztion. The reason I like the capsule descriptions is that once you depart from them you get into the weeds of far longer and more unwieldy conversations very, very quickly.)

      In the broadest, most reductionist view, one perspective is more concerned with broader outcomes, with the real effects on people's lives of delays in societal progress. The other perspective argues that in a free country it's the job of private individuals and groups to advocate and educate to bring about willing changes in attitudes, not to have the desired results compelled by government.

      From that governmentally conservative perspective it's not the government's job to shepherd a society towards, say, for example, greater ecological sustainability. Progress and freedom are not easy partners, because freedom means being allowed to be a stubborn and backwards jackass if you want to be. Even some people who are not themselves stubborn and backwards jackasses, and who lament that some people are stubborn and backwards jackasses, hold that point of view.

      So you wind up with one side that wants freedom even if it means negative outcomes for people, and the other that wants positive outcomes for people even if it means taking away some freedom. That's it, in a nutshell. Personally, my gut says a smarter person than I might someday come up with a clear-cut idea for a workable middle ground that enough people can agree on to resolve the conflict. Right now, though, it's a contest between fairly intractable opposing views with no obvious place for an equally-principled and easily grasped compromise.

      And it gets even more fractious because, really, neither being ok with bad things happening to people, nor being ok with taking away other peoples' freedoms, is a very good look. At least, to big enough majorities, on one side or the other, that it's a problem.

      It also comes back to another idea I have, about the frictional cost of getting to the ideal situation from where we are in reality, which the left's legislative solutions tend to ignore, much to the umbrage of the right. (At this point, I must acknowledge that the right's more often preferred market-based solution to broad societal problems, "let's just do nothing and let it work itself out, or not", isn't any better, just different.) This is an idea I have been writing about but haven't got anything ready to post yet, although I will at some point. The basic gist is simple: If something is a good idea, there's a big difference between choosing it at the outset, and trying to switch to it once we're already materially invested in an opposing bad idea. Off the top of my head, if there are better power sources than coal, for example, it doesn't mean it's as equally good an idea to start using them now as it would have been if they'd been available when we first decided to use coal. We have jobs and infrastructure invested in coal and abandoning them will materially hurt living people.

      I'm not saying we shouldn't solve problems, even (or especially) if they've gotten out of hand already, but, we have to be cognizant that there may be frictional costs to solving them in reality, starting from where we're at now, that aren't present in the theoretical model. Changing horses in midstream is a different proposition from choosing the right horse before you cross. However, I recognize that this idea requires more explication; this is just a quick summary, not the full argument, and therefore is an introduction, not intended to be persuasive. That piece is currently roasting on the bonfire of things I need to get written, and hopefully, someday, will.

      But, briefly, I think it might be easier to sell governmental solutions if they more clearly acknowledged and accounted for the practical difficulties in transitioning to what even might clearly have been an inarguably better option, to everybody, if it had been available from the start, before we ever went down the wrong road.

      Tangentially, I should include this as a standard disclaimer on my political thoughts: I am pretty forgiving of even what I consider to be deeply mistaken opposing arguments. Most people nowadays are too damn busy. They have homes, cars, jobs, families. I have none of that. I have a lot more time to read, absorb, think, analyze. I really can't blame most people nowadays, my friends on both the right and the left, for not always getting it, for sticking by their guns when their side has gone too far (which is usually.) It's not their fault. They don't have time. Sometimes, as a matter of practical concern, you have to just put your trust in the conclusions you're hearing from the other people wearing your same team jersey, because you have other more immediate concerns occupying your attention. (Though I wonder, sometimes, if that isn't, on a certain level, by design. It sure seems like however much we progress as a society, personally, people still always have to work and stuggle the same amount. You'd think people freeing themselves of that would be a goal; and it's talked about, for sure; yet, over the decades, it never changes. But that's a subject for a different post.)

    • Just A Dab'll Do Ya: Against Libertarianism, Almost (1663 words)

      Originally posted on my blog Sloth And Dignity on 10/22/13 @ 07:47 pm.

      Foreword about "Against Libertarianism", 2023I wrote this, originally a blog post, about 10 years ago. Nowadays I have more to say about this, but for the moment this stands with minor editorial revisions but significantly as I originally posted it. As per my Terms & Conditions nothing on this site should be construed as conveying my current (or even past) beliefs, and although I still do agree with most of what I said here, this post is to me, today, a starting point for kicking off discussion, not the final word on it.

      I do have some further thoughts which I will get written down and posted at some point, and without which my full views on Libertarianism cannot be said to be expressed. There is a solution: Libertarianism could maaaaaaybe conceivably work, but there's another side of the story, which nobody wants to talk about, or more precisely, there's a clear criteria for whether it could work or not that could at least put all argument to rest. And I have a firm idea about that but haven't had a chance to formulate a coherent argument yet to put down in essay for.

      At bottom I have included some new followup about valid points that were raised after I wrote this.

      October 22, 2013

      Governmental overreach and the "nanny state" are as big a concern for me as anyone, have been for a long time. I think that people will generally rise or fall to meet expectations, and therefore, treating a population like children teaches them to be childlike. I do think if things like that little story about the school lunch (which, if you research, turns out to be the claim of two 4 years olds on one single day at one single kindergarten, and not even conclusively shown to really have happened; hardly representative of this nation, more like a puff of hot air repeated breathlessly across the right wing blogosphere) [* see note at bottom about this. —Mike, 2023] were any more than just outliers being exploited for political gain, we'd be in a lot of trouble.

      At the same time, capital-'L'-Libertarianism is just a gateway drug to the very tyranny Libertarians claim to want to avoid.

      Well, almost the same: under a Libertarian state, runaway privatization would ensure that our Constitutional rights, which protect us only from governmental tyranny, are rendered totally moot. Freedom of speech only applies in public spaces... once all space is privatized, and all media is privately owned, all speech can be legally suppressed at will of the owners. [** see note at bottom with further information on this. —Mike, 2023] The Constitution becomes simply irrelevant. Which is exactly what some of the folks behind popularizing "Libertarianism" want. Power abhors a vacuum, and that holds true for a symbolic power vacuum as well as a mechanical one. As the prophet said, truly: you're gonna have to serve someone. It may be the devil, or it may be the lord, but you're gonna have to serve someone. Once the government of the people, by the people, and for the people has been successfully neutered, and public commons where our rights are guaranteed have become a thing of the past, there will be nothing left in control but the corporate chiefs, stomping with impunity on whoever they want. That includes the less ruthless corporate chiefs, until finally, only the most ruthless remain in charge.

      By and large, in my experience, people who gravitate towards capital-'L'-libertarianism tend to be intelligent, and most of the time, their heart is thoroughly in the right place. My concern, though, is that most of the time, they don't follow their own reasoning all the way to it's logical conclusion.

      They follow it until it gets where they want to go, and then they stop, and say, "And thus we have arrived at societal perfection, and evermore shall it be so." And, I believe, a few cynical people who actually know better that to think that exploit that tendency in everyone else.

      Look, nobody likes being told what to do. I've always said, "I think every intelligent has a little streak of Libertarian in them. But, for god's sake, no more than that." People throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      The central fallacy of free-market mythology is that a chaotic system, left on its own, will settle towards the most equitable mean. That's a very nice theory, and a total mistake when misapplied. In actual reality—”you can do the experiments yourselves that show this—”individual multivariate chaotic systems tend towards extremes over time, not towards the median. In libertarianism, you would end up at one of the two extremes: power would get concentrated in the hands of an ever-diminishing group of the most ruthless winners; or, alternatively, society would be reduced to uniform savagery, with nobody coming out on top at all.

      I firmly believe that if we lived in a true Libertarian state, it wouldn't be long at all before nobody would have time any more to kick their heels up and talk about how great being a libertarian is, because they'd be too busy fighting to survive.

      The best thing I've ever read about Libertarianism is from John Scalzi: "I really don‘t know what you do about the 'taxes are theft' crowd, except possibly enter a gambling pool regarding just how long after their no-tax utopia comes true that their generally white, generally entitled, generally soft and pudgy asses are turned into thin strips of Objectivist Jerky by the sort of pitiless sociopath who is actually prepped and ready to live in the world that logically follows these people‘s fondest desires. Sorry, guys. I know you all thought you were going to be one of those paying a nickel for your cigarettes in Galt Gulch. That‘ll be a fine last thought for you as the starving remnants of the society of takers closes in with their flensing tools."

      He really nails it for me. As I said up top, I agree with some of the very basics of Libertarianism, but the problem is it's a fantasist's political philosophy. I like the "Rent Is Too Damn High!" guy, also; but I'm not going to vote for him, either. He's right, but he's a crackpot, too.

      Speculation aside, we've already seen corporate moves to stifle speech that they don't agree with; there have been several court cases at this point over telecom companies blocking messages that conflict with their interests, which the telecoms prevailed, because they were successful in arguing early on that digital media, like email and even digital voice transmissions, are "information", rather than "communication". And so AT&T gets to police the content of your text messages, allowed by law. As the public square is reduced, look for those sorts of erosions of our rights to become much more common. There are no checks and balances on privatized power, none, for anyone who doesn't sit on the board of directors.

      I'm not saying the government hasn't gotten equally tyrannical. It has, I think everyone here knows it. Bush and Obama have been despots, full stop [remember, this was written in 2013 —Mike] and it's only getting worse. We're instituting programs that become their own reason for being, and which suck up trillions of dollars in tax money to go directly to defense contractors, agribusiness, the media conglomerates, and whoever else can afford to make bottomless political contributions. This is, in fact, Libertarianism at work, in the form of deregulation. There's no guard rails preventing it.

      But we have a lot of protections from government tyranny. And as I said, power abhors a vacuum. So who would you rather have in power, making the decisions that affect your life? Someone you can elect and/or vote out of office, and whom the Constitution guarantees you limits on the power of; or someone whose name you don't even know, hidden behind some boardroom door, ensconced there for life, to whom you have no redress or appeal whatsoever if they are acting against your interests?

      I do disagree, by the way, with treating government as some sort of oppressive "other". The paper says we have "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." If that's not true anymore, do something to fix it. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

      Some additional notes and references, 2023:

      I'll be back at a later date to amplify more constructively about how I think the question of individual rights & freedoms vs the needs of a cooperative society can be weighed, rather than just by complaining about one existing take on it without proposing any alternative, as I have done here.


      *Looking at this 10 years later, I do not remember what the school lunch issue was about. I did some research and apparently school lunch was a hot story back then but I couldn't find a specific scandal I might have been referring to.

      **A reader (my dad. Thanks, Dad!) pointed out to me that I haven't adequately supported "once all space is privatized, and all media is privately owned, all speech can be legally suppressed at will of the owners" here. That's true, I didn't substantiate it. But this isn't a statement of my opinion, but one of legal fact. It's been litigated already. Don't take my word for it—in 2019 the Supreme Court explicitly ruled that "The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits only governmental, not private, abridgment of speech.", a case which specifically found that private media, such as a privately-owned Public Access cable channel, is not subject to the 1st Amendment. And here's Harvard Law saying it, too, in an article talking about free speech on college campuses: "The Bill of Rights does not apply to actions taken by private institutions".