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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Recently, someone asked me why I care about Beijing’s campaign to exterminate the Uighurs, stating that he had little symmpathy for them; he appeared to believe the Communist Party’s designation of them as “terrorists”, a word calculated to shut down cognition in anyone predisposed to believe that governments, even oppressive governments, are generally trustworthy in their statements.  Presumably, this person was just intelligent enough to grasp that if he questions the Chinese government’s right to oppress a Muslim minority, the right of his own government to do the same is suspect.  I quickly dismissed him as an odious clod, but was irresistibly reminded of the words of John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

These words are not merely true in a philosophical and moral sense, but in a practical one as well; for every time we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged, we participate in normalizing and excusing the behavior, and establishing it as international precedent.  Then one day soon the victims may not be a strange people in a distant land, but familiar people in our own country.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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For the past two and a half years, Friday columns have generally been light and low-effort for me; many of them are just expanded versions of tweet threads that I felt deserved a more permanent treatment.  Well, last week someone retweeted some of my content from 18 months ago, and I realized it should have that treatment as part of my intermittent series of columns on language.  I’ve written about this in a number of places (two of which I’ve linked below), but never quite this clearly or succinctly.  And so without further ado:

There are 4 separate meanings of “libertarian”:

1) one who opposes authoritarianism
2) a member of a broad movement advocating reduced governmental power
3) a US political party (capitalized)
4) a pejorative used by some “progressives” to mean “anyone I disagree with”

So if you’re in that first category, which many people are, you may be correctly described under (1) while not fitting into (2) or (3).  And (4) is impossible to control, but also no more meaningful than “traitor”, “infidel” or “doodyhead”.  I’m certainly a member of (1); as an anarchist I’m tolerated by (2); I have generally friendly relations with (3); and (4) is meaningless because membership in it is controlled by the whims of the very silly.

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I believed in Santa Claus long after my friends had stopped, until about 9.  This may seem strange to those who don’t know me very well, because I’m so intelligent, skeptical and hardheaded.  But looking back on it, I realize that I expended considerable mental effort to make myself believe, long after doubts had become well-established in my mind.  Then about ten years ago, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather made me realize the probable reason for this:  deep down I knew that once I stopped believing in that one powerful symbol of goodness in the world, the rest of the pretty lies such as “justice”, the goodness of “leaders” and their henchmen, the notion that there’s “someone for everyone”, the silly canard that “following dreams” often results in something other than disaster, etc, would fall as well.  And of course I was right; by 13 I had rejected organized religion and my teachers and parents were criticizing me for being so cynical; by 16 people were saying I was “born adult”; by 18 I was an anarchist.  Once I lost the ability to believe in childish fantasies, all of the childish fantasies – including the ones most adults still cling to –  went down in flames.  But even though I no longer believe in a literal Father Christmas, I still have a very high regard for the symbol, and at this time of year I make sure to do whatever I can to act in a way that would make him happy.

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You often say “Never call the cops for any reason whatsoever”, but what’s the alternative when I’ve been burgled, robbed, or assaulted?  Vigilantism?  I’m sincerely asking.

The cops do not exist to “help” you.  That is not their purpose, and the great majority of crimes are never “solved”; most of the time the cops don’t even investigate them.  On top of that, there are thousands and thousands of cases of cops showing up and either inflicting violence on the caller or their family, or accusing THEM of a crime, or both.  We hear a lot about how rape cases often result in the victim being treated like a criminal, but in reality that’s true for all crimes.  If a cop takes a dislike to a complainant, he may decide that it would be both easier and better for him to accuse the complainant of a “crime” (usually a criminalized consensual act) instead.  In the US, most prostitution charges result not from “stings”, but from cops charging victims of some crime (rape, robbery, assault, etc) with “prostitution”; in this recent example, cops ignored a violent serial killer to try to charge his intended victim.  Examples of cops hurling drug or DV charges at crime victims abound.  You honestly think it’s worth it to risk all that so you can have the faint hope that the state will inflict vicarious revenge on the one who harmed you?  “Closure” is bullshit; people who expect to gain it by seeing the one who harmed them imprisoned often fall into depression when they realize it does nothing of the kind.  Nor is it a valid argument to claim that in seeking vicarious vengeance through state-sponsored violence, you are helping other potential victims; cops generally charge whoever is handy and pressure the victim to agree with their choice instead of actually seeking the true malefactor.  More simply put, when cops act to “solve” a crime at all, they generally do so by picking someone to frame for it and torturing the “evidence” to support their choice; your misfortune may be used to feed an innocent person into the carceral machine.  In short, there are very few good possible outcomes to calling the cops, and lots of extremely bad, even life-destroying, ones; before dialing “9-1-1” or its equivalent, you might at least consider asking yourself whether you’re feeling lucky that day.

(Have a question of your own?  Please consult this page to see if I’ve answered it in a previous column, and if not just click here to ask me via email.)

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Allena Gabosch’s new book, Sex Positive Now, is out, and I have an essay in it; so do lots of others whose names you may know, including Veronica Monet, Gloria Brame, Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, and many others.  So as is my habit, I’ll just give you a little taste of my contribution; if you want more you’ll just have to buy the book!  And if you do you’ll not only be supporting the work of a lot of sex positive thinkers and writers, but also helping Allena herself, who is battling cancer (please also consider donating to fund her treatment).

…For most of recorded human history, the manifold laws regulating sex work were not intended to preclude pragmatic motivations for sexual behavior, but rather to keep up appearances, guard the purity of bloodlines, and maintain public order.  But as industrialization rapidly changed the face of Europe and the young United States, a new idea began to take hold of people’s minds:  if science could improve Man’s tools and techniques, why couldn’t the same process be applied to Mankind itself?  The immediate result of turning (pseudo-)scientific inquiry upon sex was that taking money for it was no longer considered merely something that “low” or “sinful” women did for a living or extra income; instead, the “prostitute” was defined into existence as a specific type of woman, separate and distinct from other women.  And once the idea of “prostitution” as some uniquely disgraceful activity was invented, and the “prostitute” was defined as the lowest of the low, it was inevitable that women who would previously have been considered more or less the same as whores would attempt to draw lines between themselves and the new pariah class.  Furthermore, once these new ideas inspired Western governments to criminalize prostitution and/or its attendant activities, distinguishing oneself from a “common prostitute” became a matter not only of dignity, but of legal necessity.

The first group to successfully shed the whore stigma was actresses, who had since classical times been considered interchangeable with harlots; dancers whose style could be credibly represented as asexual or highbrow (preferably both) followed them, then masseuses and finally, “emancipated” women who had extramarital sex for non-financial reasons.  In the past several decades, these groups have multiplied to include burlesque and competition pole dancers, glamour and lingerie models, professional “cuddlers”, nude maids, waitresses catering to sexual fantasies and even sugar babies; all of these absolutely insist that they are different from strippers, hookers and fetish workers in some real (and legally defensible) way.  Even people who are directly paid for a hands-on sexual service claim that being “certified” or “spiritual” or whatever makes them distinctly different from other sex workers, and I’ve actually heard women willing to top strangers at kink parties claim that their lack of a pecuniary motivation makes them not only distinct from, but morally or even psychologically superior to, professional dominatrices…

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  –  George Santayana

Americans suffer from a peculiar and almost characteristic ignorance of history.  Part of the reason is certainly “American exceptionalism”, the ridiculous dogma that the US is intrinsically different from all other nation and empires which have preceded it since the nation-state was first invented; after all, if one truly believes that none of the lessons of history can possibly apply to one’s own current reality, then studying it is as academic as a physician choosing to study the anatomy of echinoderms.  Another part is this country’s bizarre celebration of ignorance; as Isaac Asimov once expressed it,

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Soi-disant conservatives mock the currently-fashionable elevation of feelings above facts by the “woke”, yet they themselves are guilty of the same sin; they eschew facts which conflict with their irrational attachment to ancient religions, their emotional discomfort with new ideas, and their visceral fear of unfamiliar cultural or sexual practices.  Americans belonging to both “wings” of the US Fascist Party are only too happy to discard whatever economic, scientific, or historical facts get in the way of their preferred policies, especially when those facts indicate that the policies will accomplish exactly the opposite of their pretended goals.  And then there’s intentional disinformation; since tribalism is the highest virtue in modern American thought, nobody wants to be called a “traitor” for refuting the lies vomited out by their “leaders”, even when those lies are easily contradicted by consulting a legitimate source.  So the ignorant believe whatever they are told, while those who know better remain silent.

Worst of all, history has always been written by the victors, and in the US the victors have always been authoritarians; US history is thus warped by authoritarians to glorify other authoritarians, and Americans can’t be bothered to consult histories written by non-Americans because what do those foreign eggheads know?  They’re probably atheist or libertarian or Muslim or dead white males who aren’t Marx anyway.  USA! USA! USA!   Both Team MAGA and Team {unpronounceable string of umpteen capital letters} are much too busy dreaming of inflicting their own flavor of totalitarian dystopia on everyone else to bother even attempting to learn from those who went before, and besides, it’s 2019, duh.  And so they keep fighting over the wheel while the ship which carries all of us spins slowly in the rapid current toward the whirlpool ahead, ignoring the writing on the map, the clearly-posted warning buoys, and the shipwrecked sailors on nearby islands shouting at them to turn back before it’s too late. 

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The biggest problem with democracy is, of course, that being oppressed by violent thugs enforcing bad, evil laws invented by self-serving sociopaths who win popularity contests isn’t really a lot different from being oppressed by violent thugs enforcing bad, evil laws invented by self-serving sociopaths who are descended from other self-serving sociopaths who were on the winning side of some war centuries ago.  Without a solid constitution guaranteeing individual rights against a government whose powers are strictly enumerated, how the oppressor class justifies its tyranny is of little consequence to anyone who doesn’t have a say in the proceedings.  After all, “democratic” American institutions approved of the claimed ownership of human beings until mid-19th century; the violent oppression of racial and ethnic minorities until the mid-20th century; the violent oppression of most sexual minorities until the beginning of the 21st century; and the violent oppression of some sexual minorities (not to mention the de facto violent oppression of some minority groups and the de jure oppression of others) to the present day.  As a member of one of those groups, I can assure you that it’s cold comfort to know that the rapist thugs trying to destroy my life employ excuses made up by many power-mad busybodies rather than by a few power-mad busybodies, or that those busybodies were supposedly picked by “the people” than by a god or gods.

At one time, one’s religion was almost entirely determined by where one was born; Greeks followed the Greek religion, Egyptians the Egyptian religion, Chinese the Chinese religion, etc.  Most people simply followed the religion they were born into, and the few who questioned it were, in general, either banished or violently murdered.  But as humans started moving around more and even mixing with people who were born in different places, they became more tolerant of foreign religions; to be sure, there were still plenty of jihads, witch hunts, inquisitions and the like, but in the truly great cities a number of different religions might coexist with little friction.  And in the modern world, most developed areas are home to people of at least several different religions, and many choose to have no religion at all.  But while religion has thus developed to be less intrinsically tied to circumstances of birth than it was for most of human history, its twin sister nationality has barely developed at all.  It was very easy for me to renounce Catholicism; I didn’t have to move or lose my friends or property, and the only social consequence was some disapproval from a few members of my family.  And while it’s certainly true that renouncing religion is a lot harder than that in some places (for example, in some parts of the Muslim world), renouncing nationality is universally difficult (and sometimes virtually impossible).  Renouncing Americanism would require me to lose my home, my friends, and many of my assets; I’d have to get used to different ways, possibly even learn a new language, and could look forward to being seen as an outsider in my new land for the rest of my life.

It doesn’t have to be this way; some political thinkers have proposed that government, which we conceive of as rigidly connected to a physical territory, could be as borderless as religion has largely become.  People could choose a government as they can now choose a religion; they would be subject to that government’s laws and taxes (and reap whatever benefits it offered) just as they now are subject to the restrictions and tithes (and reap whatever benefits) of their chosen religion.  No doubt most would stay with their nationality of birth, just as most people stick with their native religion; there would probably be large areas where most people belonged to one nationality or another, just as the majority of Brazilians are Catholic, the majority of Iraqis are Muslim and the majority of Indians Hindu.  But nobody would be forced to uproot and lose everything merely to change government, and being stateless or anarchist would be no more difficult than being agnostic or atheist currently is in the Western world.  If you want a different model of how this would work, consider insurance companies; nobody thinks it’s weird or threatening that their friends or neighbors pay premiums (taxes) to a different organization and have different benefits and limitations (laws) than they do.  Want a nanny state that takes most of your income and has lots of laws but provides all kind of benefits?  You can have that.  You want a police state where armed goons watch you through cameras and then leap into action to “protect” you at the touch of a panic button?  I’m sure some government will offer that.  A theocracy?  Sure, but your neighbors can still sin like crazy if they contract with a secular government.  And naturally, some would choose no government at all.

Obviously there are a LOT of problems and complications with this idea; for example, mineral rights have long been divorced from the property under which they lie, but what about common resources like air and water?  Treaties would need to be worked out for that.  Roads and other civil engineering projects could be free to the citizens of the government or governments which built them, while others paid a toll (toll tags could parse this automatically).  Violent crimes would probably be handled by the victim’s government, subject to whatever treaties & reciprocal agreements it had with the offender’s; violent crimes committed by anarchists would automatically be handled entirely by the government of the victim, thus providing an incentive for everyone to contract with some government, if only for legal protection in case a citizen of a “presumption of guilt” state decided to point at them.  Governments could still require residence in a certain place if they wanted, just as certain cults do, and every government would maintain some capital territory in which its power was absolute (just like companies, universities, etc have their own campus rules and security forces).  But in general, people would be free to choose the government that was right for them, and within a few centuries people would consider our current “You must obey us or die because you are within this set of imaginary lines” system as barbaric and monstrous as we consider forced religious conversion.

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