Capitalism and Divergent Thinking.

For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism.  Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least  any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.

Capitalism loves homogeneity.  It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship.  Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same.  Shipping is cheaper.  Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture.  One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same.  Meanwhile the real variety is absent.  Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products.  It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas.  Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood.  Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.

Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well.  Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost.  When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up.  In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators.  The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles.  Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity.  We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity.  Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.

Even our own brains reward conformity.  Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man.  Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon.  It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth.  This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms.  To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth.  In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.

This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale.  Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced.  Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression.  When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.

In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression.  This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self.  The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.

So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self.  This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward.  It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.

This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people.  We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people.  We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful.  Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.

The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge.  We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous?  We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch.  We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke.  It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul.  This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad.  These are just parts of being human.  But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.

The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves.  The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy.  The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.

So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?

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An Open Letter to Cliven Bundy.

Dear Mr. Bundy.

I have been following your story with interest.

While I understand that the tactics employed by BLM agents against you may seem oppressive, your refusal to pay twenty years worth of fees for the use of federal lands has given the federal government little choice.

These lands are owned publicly, and are held in trust for the people of the United States of America by the Bureau of Land Management.  The BLM takes on the responsibility of maintaining this land, and this maintenance has associated costs.  I know; I have camped on several occasions on BLM land in Nevada and Utah.  I make use of these lands for a night, packing out everything that I packed in.  Cattle grazing is a far more intensive use of these lands, and particularly in sensitive areas of desert habitat, can cause a lot of damage.

I have no problem with you grazing your cattle on these public lands, but due to the fact that grazing is the use of a resource, you must compensate the United States of America for this use.  The way that this is managed is through the land use fees.

Now I understand that not actually having to buy land to graze your cattle on, and on top of that refusing to pay fees for the use of public range land, gives your ranching business quite an economic advantage.  But I have to ask myself; how long did you think that you would just get away with this theft?

It is theft, you know.  You’re stealing from all of us, and possibly most hurtfully from other ranchers who lawfully graze their cattle and pay use fees when they do so on public lands.

I know that you claim to own those lands, but your failure to produce any documentation to that effect, not even a homestead certificate (which if your family had been ranching and improving those lands for as long as you say, should have been in your ancestors’ possession at some point), is problematic.  That combined with the fact that no level of government has records of you owning the land makes you a liar.  If your family owned the land, why did you continue to pay usage fees up until 1993?

You did it because you don’t own the land.

Even under homesteading law, you would need to file paperwork with the government, and though Nevada still has some homesteading laws on the books, they do not grant you the right to move your cattle onto Federal land and then claim that it’s yours.

I understand your disappointment with the BLM.  I am disappointed with them also.  I am disappointed that it took the more than twenty years to end your theft of the public’s resources, and I’m very disappointed that it took the threat of a lawsuit from a non-government environmental group to get them to take action regarding said theft.  As far as I’m concerned, whoever is in charge over there should be investigated, probably fired, and then replaced with someone who has some kind of respect for their post, and the law that they are charged to enforce.

Speaking of the law, your claim to abide by state laws but not federal laws puzzles me.  You know that the federal government has taken steps to ensure that you can run your ranching business, right?  They put in interstates, and fund the highway programs on a state level so that you can get your beef to a processor and out to customers.  They provide management for the land that you illegally graze, and without said management, I reckon that land wouldn’t be worth grazing much on, other than pronghorn.  They have provided funds to states that allow for irrigation projects, particularly in the southwest, and funded the Hoover Dam, which provides electricity to the area that you ranch in.  So why is it that you’re pleased as punch to take advantage of these amenities to run your business, but will not pay for the 158,000 acres of federal land that you have decided to graze your cattle on.

This, in addition to the acreage that you actually own.

And while you might see it as a victory that the BLM has stopped operations to round up your trespass cattle, understand that they only did it because unlike you, they value human life more than wealth, more than land, more than grass, more than cows.  If this is a just world, the government will be back to stop you from stealing from the federally held lands, from other ranchers who abide by the law and pay for their acreage, and from all of the rest of us.

Your threats of violence are harrowing and sad.  Your rallying of other gun-toting reactionaries to your cause is terrifying.  This is the sort of thing that ends up a sad chapter in history books in a few years… a selfish man who wanted to get away with having something and not paying for it, who got a lot of people killed.

And while the right wing media howls about the “First Amendment Zone” that protesters have been restricted to in this case, they are remarkably silent when it happens to anyone other than a rural states-rights hardliner.  And believe me, First Amendment Zones or Free Speech Zones are pretty standard practice at any demonstration at which there is a risk of violence.  You know they assume there’s a risk of violence because of you and your family making repeated violent threats, right?

And I want you to consider that the moment that you shoot at and kill or even injure a federal agent, your life is essentially forfeit.  They will use whatever means they have to end the standoff; they will shoot you.  They will shoot your family.  And they will burn the house if they have to.

I’m not making a judgement on this fact.  I’m simply stating that this is the world that we now live in.  We have seen it play out in different circumstances in different locations around the country.

You are free to do what you like, Mr. Bundy.  You are just not free to do it on my land.

You simply cannot take advantage of the conveniences offered by our system and then refuse to pay in, Mr. Bundy.  Your theft will catch up with you eventually.

Good Reasons to Oppose GMOs.

cornPeople who oppose the growing of GMO crops (I actually prefer to use the word “transgenic,” indicating that it contains genes from another species, because it is more specific and because critics will tell you that all crops have been genetically modified by centuries of artificial selection… this is accurate, and the more specific term helps to keep things clear) have come under fire for being unscientific, or for using pseudoscience to back their claims that transgenic crops are harmful.  There are good reasons for this; I am not one of those “GMOs are poison” people, mainly because I haven’t seen sufficient scientific evidence to convince me that there are direct adverse health effects from transgenic crops, and I think that opponents of these crops suffer from a lot of bad messaging.

I do oppose transgenic crops, though.  I think that there are a lot of good, scientifically sound reasons to oppose them.  Some of these have to do with the kinds of crops that we’re creating, and some have to do with how these crops are grown, while still others have to do with how the products are handled legally.

To start with, and probably my greatest concern, is the large quantity of pesticides required to grow the most common varieties of transgenic crops on the market; the glyphosate resistant crops.

Glyphosate resistant crops account for 80% of the transgenic crops grown in the US today.  These are commodity crops; corn, soybean, canola, cotton, sugarbeet, and (at one time) alfalfa.  These are things that we don’t generally eat directly, but are processed into products that are then used in cattle feed and processed foods (with the notable exception of cotton).  They are engineered to resist having been sprayed with glyphosate (brand name Roundup), so that a farmer can spray the entire field, killing the weeds without endangering the crop itself.  This sounds great on the surface, but it has lead to more and less discriminating use of the herbicide, which we are now finding out may cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and infertility.  In fact, in addition to the glyphosate, some of the “inert” ingredients in Roundup may be more deadly than the herbicide itself.  And despite what we’ve been told about the fact that glyphosate breaks down after spraying, we’re finding that it persists in the water and the air, and residues remain on the food that is harvested from these fields.  More than that, pesticides are sometimes even sprayed on farm workers, some of our most vulnerable and invisible workers.

There are other problems with the heavy use of glyphosate… one is that it does appear to have environmental impacts… it is destroying the Monarch butterfly migration, reducing the genetic diversity of wild plants (commonly known as weeds), and creating glyphosate resistant weeds.  The industry solution to this was initially to prescribe larger quantities of Roundup to be sprayed, and recently to introduce a new line of products resistant to 2,4-D, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War.  This will, in turn, create more resistant weeds.  It is, at best, a temporary solution.  In the same way, Bt crops, crops engineered to produce their own pesticides, are now producing a Bt resistant corn rootworm.  These are not unexpected results.  These were a forgone conclusion.

And the difficulty that I have with this is that the transgenic crops don’t even present long-term, consistent gains in yield.  In fact, some studies seem to show that the introduction of herbicide resistance or pesticide producing traits create lower yields overall.  This is not surprising… there is no such thing as a free lunch in nature.  I think that if these crops produced an increased yield, we could actually have a conversation about how to keep the transgenic crops and manage the risks involved, but as it stands, I don’t see a lot of advantages.  In the meantime, the truly massive quantities of transgenic crops being grown are supplanting heirloom varieties (varieties of food crops changed by generations of selective breeding).  This is a problem; many heirloom varieties provide superior taste and even better nutrition, and more importantly, they’re often selectively bred to be well-suited to their growing environment… so that certain plants may be hardy to temperature variations in a certain area, or more resistant to diseases common in another.  Crops developed in drought-prone areas may be more drought tolerant.  These crops are important, not just because they’re good for us, or good at growing in certain areas, but also culturally… this has been a big concern in Mexico, which is home to the widest variety of heirloom corn species anywhere in the world.  And this magnificent diversity is under threat.

Biodiversity in food crops is a good thing.  It means that when one variety fails, a different one might do fine.  It gives us more options, is a bullwark against massive crop failure due to drought and disease, and provides a varied diet, which is extremely good for us, since we are omnivores.  Not only is the concern that so many large farmers have adopted vast transgenic monocultures, but it is also that transgenic crops interbreed with conventional crops, and there’s no way to determine which traits will be inherited or eradicated in the resulting offspring.

Farmers have so readily adopted transgenic crops because it is cheaper and easier to spray an entire field without worrying about what is friend and what is foe, and frankly for the growers of commodity crops, I can’t blame them.  Soy, canola, and corn aren’t highly profitable; in fact without federal subsidies, corn couldn’t be grown at a profit.  But with the way transgenic crops are handled, the farmer becomes a kind of seed tenant, and never truly owns his product or the means of production.  The seeds cannot be saved and replanted by law, and the farmer MUST purchase new seed every year rather than saving a portion of his crop for the next sowing season.  This results in additional cost to the farmer, but it also prevents the farmers from continuing to select seed from the best plants of any given crop, and the process of artificial selection that gave us the modern potato, the modern apple, and Mexico’s incredible diversity of corn, just… ends.  It no longer exists.  The seeds are now mass-produced in a lab by an agri-chemical company, and the crop field innovation by individual growers that has served us since the very beginning of human agriculture is suddenly no longer possible.

The spread of this monoculture is so complete, that grocery stores are running short on organic eggs.  The reason for this is that commercial chicken feed is made largely from corn, and so few farmers are growing organic corn that organic chicken feed is scarce.  Transgenic crops are not considered organic, and hence cannot be used in feed for organic animals.  Organic meats can be raised on pasture or on other forms of feed (pigs are particularly omnivorous), but commercial laying hens, even organic ones, don’t generally have enough room to range to allow them to find sufficient protein… they must be supplemented with feed in these cases.

And aside from the fact that these crops are bad for us, bad for animals, bad for the environment, and don’t even offer increased yields, they aren’t even things we eat.  They are an industrial raw material, made into fuel, animal feed (which is fed to farm animals in confinement operations which is a whole different can of worms for a different and probably equally lengthy blog post), and the ingredients for processed foods.  Processed foods are strongly indicated in America’s current health crisis, due to their high amount of empty sugars and ridiculous quantities of salt.  So in addition to all of this, they’re making us fat and sick.

It’s hard to find good information on transgenic crops these days.  It seems that most of what you can find is either sponsored by the company producing the product, or the ravings of pseudoscientific whackadoos such as Mercola, Natural News and the like.  But there are reasons to oppose transgenic crops… good scientific reasons, even more than I’ve enumerated here.  You just  have to use common sense and be discriminating in your selection of sources.

The Utopian Delusion.

There’s a peculiar delusion that seems to effect only humankind.  It doesn’t happen to rats in labs, or to chimpanzees, or to dolphins.  It is a thing, a mental illness, that is only observable in human beings.

There’s a chaos to humanity.  This is not exclusive to us; it’s a thing shared by all the animals of the land, sea, and air.  Every one of them, down to the microscopic level, has its share of what we would describe as chaos.  Bloodshed, wars, violence, greed… these things happen all over the world, even inside our own bodies.  Humankind  bears the distinction of being the only animal to deny that these things are an intrinsic part of who and what they are.

You know what I’m talking about.  The insistence that we can somehow end hunger, end war, end desperate poverty, end racism, end violence, end abuse, end corruption.  The view that world peace could just happen if everyone just stopped.  If everyone just settled for enough, and stopped clawing through the mud for more.

And try as I might, I can’t figure out where these ideas come from.  Maybe it’s the ideas of right and wrong, our inborn concept of fairness that helps us to maintain the social relationships so vital for our survival.  Maybe it’s the intelligence, born from our intensely social nature and also vital to our survival, that makes us think ourselves so different from all of the millions on millions of earth’s other residents.

But I was thinking today, maybe it’s also religion.  Monotheistic religion.  The faiths of the Abrahamic God, to be specific.

Prior faiths, from the simplest nature worship cults now all but lost to the mists of time and a short memory, to Hinduism, a tradition so incredibly complex that one could study it their whole life and still not learn all of it, leave room for the natural complexity and chaos of the human spirit.  But monotheistic religions showed up, with their one perfect god, and their one perfect evil, and attempted to divide all of human endeavor, all of human behavior… all of humanity, into two categories.

If you were good, you would earn yourself a place in a heaven of some kind.

If you were bad, or if you committed any in a very very long and seemingly arbitrary list of sins, you would go to some version of hell.

And in most versions there is little to no room in the middle for the vast variety of human behavior and motivation.

We are told that there is god inside all of us, and that god is perfect.  We are told that we must be as close to perfect as we can, to strive for perfection, to secure some kind of blissful immortality.

Heaven was the first utopia ever invented by mankind.

This theistic duality is at the root of a lot of our social ills; most notably, it makes us easier to control and manipulate.  I don’t necessarily believe that this intent was in the founding of these religions, and I haven’t studied them enough to know whether there was an earlier mysticism to them that reflected humanity rather than reflecting an impossible but necessary perfection.  But I do believe that in many cases, the establishment has been built up since founding in a way that made it a weapon, and a way to coerce people, to anesthetize them, to manipulate them.  The striving for perfection is a distraction that so many of us fall in to, especially in the western world, where so much of our culture is built on an abusive tradition of religious authority.

I’m not saying that I think that these religions are by nature bad, or that faith itself is bad.  You can read more about my feelings on that here.  What I am saying is that the theistic duality changed the way that people interact with one another, and with the world.

Utopian thinking, the idea that we can solve all of humanity’s problems, does not appear to be an inherent quality of human thought.  This is probably something that you’d have to travel outside the western world to observe, though, because our culture (not american specifically, but western culture) is drenched in it.  When you travel among people not infected by the theistic duality, utopia doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration.

There is a widely held belief that utopian thinking is the province of the political left, but it infects all segments of society like a virus. Indeed, for every peacenik hippie on the left insisting that food should be free, there is someone on the right telling you that the world would be just if we gave all people absolute liberty.  One end seeks utopia by imposing structure, and the other side seeks it by eliminating all structure.  On the one side is the Soviet Union, and at the other is Somalia, each with their share of human suffering.

Many people, many very smart people, have thought that progress toward a state of utopia is noble and just, and even that utopia is the eventual destiny of mankind.  And on the surface, it seems as though it is a desirable state… everyone gets what they need or deserve, everyone is treated fairly, war and human suffering end.  Sounds great, right?

Except it’s not the way people work, and it’s not the way other animals work either.  Even the chimpanzee, who some try to paint as a gentle forest dweller, will kill one another in territorial disputes and are known as one of few animals who will kill humans for food (human children, but still).  They eat a lot of meat, and they hunt for it.  They hold territories and expand them whenever they get the chance, stealing resources from neighboring troupes.  These are not bad behaviors; they are behaviors that have evolved in the chimp brain over thousands of years.  And we have a lot of that wiring.

This doesn’t mean that I think that we should engage in violence and murder in pursuit of material gain; we also have a greater degree of intelligence and social awareness than does the chimpanzee, and with that comes a degree of responsibility for individual behavior.

Utopia means a lot of different things to different people, but one thing is true.  It either is, or it isn’t.  It is good, or it is a lack of good.  It is a new duality; an aspirational form of government in which the goal itself is by nature unachievable.  And what happens then?  The same thing that happens with the theistic duality; all necessary actions are taken to maintain the illusion that the goal is being met.  The failings are hidden away, swept under the rug, and dissent is crushed.  This happens regardless of who it is that’s in charge… it happens on the right and the left and in the middle.

Imposing a state on humanity that isn’t supported by human behavior requires such a tremendous amount of governance and structure that it becomes impossible on a national scale without the implementation of fascism.  At some point during that process, the goals of this utopian progression fall away, and the maintenance of the structure of control becomes the new and absolutely vital goal.  The structure takes so much support to maintain it that there is nothing left to ensure that the original utopian goals are met.  Justice falls by the wayside and humanity is crushed under a new and overpowering god.

Utopia is an aspirational goal, and it is the same as all other aspirational pursuits.  It is like a sugar-water… sweet to the tongue, but ultimately unfulfilling and without substance.  In order to be wholly human, we must turn our faces toward suffering and hatred, acknowledge it as a part of ourselves, and balance it with as much kindness and joy as we can muster.  We must live as undistractedly as we can bear.  Anything else is a lie.

The New Crimean War.

I’ve been following the crisis in Ukraine for the last month or so.  The reasons are selfish: one of my goals has been to travel to Ukraine and visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and in order for me to do that, Ukraine has to be in a somewhat stable state.  At the end of February, the Ukrainian people deposed their president, Victor Yanukovich, and started the process of putting together a new government.  At the time it had seemed like an astonishingly easy revolution, with very little bloodshed.  It’s what has followed that has caused consternation from nations all over the world.

At the time, Yanukovich had changed direction, abandoning closer ties with western Europe in favor of strengthening Ukraine’s connection to Russia.  This sparked popular and largely peaceful protests in Kiev as well as in other parts of the former Soviet nation.  A large number of people in western Ukraine supported ties with the EU, and this was not the first time that Russia had prevented those ties from being strengthened and not the first time that Yanukovich had bowed to pressure from Putin.

In February, those peaceful protests turned bloody as Yanukovich gave his special police permission to fire on his own people.

Soon after, he fled, and the opposition took over the presidential palace and began creating an interim government and making plans for new elections.  The presidential palace, which Yanukovich had recently privatized, was stormed.  It was discovered that in addition to authorizing armed violence against  his own people, he had robbed the Ukrainian people of thirty-seven billion dollars, revealed in unexplained transfers to off shore accounts.  He has since taken shelter outside of Moscow, and Putin has insisted that he be re-installed as a part of a coalition government.

In the meantime, armed and uniformed men without identifying insignia have occupied government buildings in the Crimean peninsula an area of Ukraine bordering Russia, and put a new provincial leader in place.  This new leadership has called for a referendum, initially to establish greater autonomy from Ukraine and later, to secede and become a part of Russia.  Official Russian troops have gone in to secure not just Russian military bases, but also to disarm and imprison the garrisons at Ukrainian military bases.  It appears as though Putin may also be inciting unrest in other parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s empty coffers and small military are of no use in preventing Russia from annexing portions of the country.  There have been instances of destruction to communication networks, and the new interim government is turning its face to greet a new, independent Ukraine in chaos.

Non-interventionists will tell you that the United States and other NATO powers need to leave the situation alone and let the Ukraine and Russia figure it out.  They will tell you that the american people are tired of war; of sending soldiers to fight and die on behalf of a different nation, and that our still-struggling economy can’t weather another engagement.  The EU is hesitant to pursue economic sanctions against Russia due to the fact that most of Europe purchases their heating fuel from Russia.  And while the powers of the world hesitate, Putin’s grip on the Crimea grows stronger.

No referendum on Crimean secession can be considered valid as long as the peninsula is under armed occupation.  The leadership in Crimea cannot be considered legal, as it was put in place in the presence of armed Russian soldiers.  The one true deterrent that Ukraine had against invasion by it’s largest and closest neighbor was taken away after the fall of the Soviet Union by the Budapest Memorandum.

You see, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was a nuclear power.  It was not an inconsiderable nuclear power, either… it would have been the third largest nuclear power in the world, having inherited possession of 1,800 nuclear warheads.  But the end of World War II had changed the way the international community functioned.  The formation of an international law making body and the signing of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty limited possession of nuclear weapons to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China.  There was a perceived need to prevent the spread of these weapons around the world, and so Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arms.  But there was a price.

The Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 by the US, the UK and Russia.  It assured Ukraine that its sovereignty and the integrity of its borders would be respected.  It was losing its greatest means of self-defense… the threat of nuclear attack.

And now Russia is in breach of that agreement, despite the fact that Putin is attempting to disguise it as a democratic referendum from the people of Crimea.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t strong pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea.  There probably is.  The Crimea is a complicated place, and it only became part of Ukraine as a result of a decree issued by Khrushchev in 1954, that was considered a symbolic gesture, since he was not anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union.  So there is a large Russian population.  But the ethnic Russians may not have been a majority had Josef Stalin not forcibly deported en masse the Tatars native to the region.  So if it comes to light that Crimea would prefer to be either autonomous or a part of the Russian Federation, that’s something that the Ukraine will need to figure out and deal with in whatever way becomes necessary. What I am saying is that a referendum under armed occupation is just military annexation with a little more paperwork.  And the fact that Putin is agitating in other Eastern provinces of Ukraine may mean that he won’t stop at Crimea.  Allowing him to gain possession of the peninsula without facing steep consequences could embolden him and lead to the slow erosion of eastern Ukraine.  We have already learned that appeasement doesn’t work.

And that’s what concerns me.

If Putin, who is already working toward establishing a Eurasian Union, which despite the benign sounding name would build upon the “best values of the Soviet Union,” according to Vladimir Putin, will end up being a dictator’s club with Moscow at the head of the table, continues to claim territory, it’s possible he could creep into former soviet states such as Latvia and Lithuania, who as NATO members qualify for Article 5 protections.  If this were to happen, it would demand a military response.

You see, I don’t want two nuclear powers going to war.  Nobody wants that.  My concern is that if the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum don’t intervene now, diplomatically or economically, then we may be forced into a position in which a military response is required later on.  I would rather we make our choices now, while there are still choices to be made.  And I’m terrified that as we hang back waiting to see what happens next, that we may lose that chance.

Coming Home.

I had the opportunity to chat with a friend of mine yesterday.

He had posted on social networking that he would be at a local watering hole after he left work, and as it happened this particular bar was in between my work and the bus stop, so I stopped in to see him.

He’s a man I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see recently.  We keep different schedules, and run with slightly different but overlapping crowds, and I don’t get out much lately, mostly because I’m poor and pretty busy.  So I bellied up to the bar next to him, and had a couple of diet colas while he drank a couple of beers, and we talked.

We talked for over an hour, not about any particular thing, but kind of about everything.  We talked about relationships and sex, about marriage and children, about work and hangovers and the social nature of the human animal.  We talked about online etiquette, and about the job we used to share, and about people we have in common.  We talked about the role of physical versus personal attraction.  Afterward he walked me to my bus, amid the mild bustle of downtown Bellingham and the music of our still melting snow, and we went about our evenings.

I was reflecting on this, and it felt like a restorative experience.  I know that sounds like a lot of importance to hang on one conversation with a friend, but there it is.  We hadn’t really talked for a while, and we had some stuff to catch up on.  I have a lot of friends, but I keep up with the ones that are important to me pretty well.  There was something special about this catching up… I had new things to report and he had new things to report and we each learned a couple of new things about one another.  And I think it was this going away and coming back that made the chat feel so significant but also so comfortable.  I’ve known him for, oh probably a decade or near that.  So being apart and then getting to fall back into our casual openness and our particular mode of interaction felt like a wheel popping back into a well-worn groove.  It’s comforting, but also due perhaps to the time apart feels fresh, and has a sort of perspective to it that you might not see in a friendship with someone that you see every day.  You’re better able to see how both parties have changed, and maybe better able to see how and why the friendship works in the first place.

I also think that there’s more to it than that.  I have spent the last ten years developing the most stable friendships of my entire life, and I believe pretty strongly that these are long-term patterns.  I believe that the people I’m friends with now are the people that I’m very likely to be friends with in thirty years, or if I am lucky enough to live that long, fifty years.  There may be falling outs, and there will be life changes, such as moves and births and deaths… some people might even just drift out of contact.  But for the most part, the people I’m friends with now are my community.  They are my tribe.

What I’m talking about are people who fall within my Dunbar number.

If you don’t know what the Dunbar number is, it’s a fascinating bit of research first explored by an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who looked at other social primates and extrapolated the size of the human “social group” based on the size of our brains in relation to the size of primate brains and primate social groups.  For chimps it might be a troupe; for us it represents our community.  The tribe.  Dunbar’s number of persistent relationships was borne out by observations of group size from prehistory through to modern times.

Now, the social group among animals, particularly among primates, is a survival strategy.  A group of animals working together may fare better than an individual on its own.  Existing as a group allows one to hold more territory and thus more resources.  It gives a broader range of options for the rearing of young.  It allows individuals who are hurt or ill to be cared for by other members of the group, increasing the injured individual’s likelihood of survival.

The same was true for our pre-human ancestors, for early humans, and it’s still true today.  In fact, our social nature is so strongly tied to a survival advantage that our brains come with a neuro-chemical reward system built in that encourages us to socialize, to touch one another, and to help one another.  The situations are different now than they once were; you’re not likely to have to defend your neighborhood from invading neighbors, and while early human groups (and primate groups) were linked by genetics and by geography, now, with our intelligence and our technology, we tend to have a more diverse tribe linked by similar interest, by profession, and by affection.  But we still depend on these relationships.  We depend on them to help us when we’re down on our luck, or to bring soup when we’re sick, or to recommend a plumber, or to provide job references.  It’s even possible that without our social nature, cities and all of the infrastructure that they contain would not even be possible.

The reason for the Dunbar number is that these relationships require work to maintain.  Among primates that work might involve the sharing of food, or the ritual of mutual grooming.  Among people, it involves varying levels of trust and emotional intimacy, it involves talking and the sacrifice of time and attention to another person.  Without this work, these relationships wither and die, leaving us disconnected and often discontented as a result.  We miss out on the neuro-chemical rewards that we would normally receive in response to social behavior.  Even introverts need these relationships.  They just go about maintaining them differently than do extroverts.

The Dunbar number indicates an upper limit to the amount of stable relationships that we can reasonably maintain, given that these relationships have  to be maintained by the expenditure of time, energy, thought, and trust.  So the people within your Dunbar number are the people that are valuable enough for you to work for.  They are also the people that put the most work into maintaining their relationship with you.

And so, coming back to this friendship was like the process of watering and pruning a neglected tree… the tree was still there, but it needed a bit of care.  Except unlike caring for a tree, nurturing this friendship, spending my time and my vulnerability on this person, made me feel cared for in turn, in that particular way that this particular friend cares for me.  It was a thing whose lack was felt, whether I realized it or not.  And I’m very glad to have taken the opportunity to nurture it.

Martin Luther King Jr Was a Good Man.

I was taught about Martin Luther King Jr in elementary school.  You probably were too.  I was taught that he was a civil rights leader who waged a war of non-violence to secure equal rights for black Americans.  If you’re like most people, this is probably what you learned about him also.

I didn’t learn much about Malcolm X in elementary school, or in any of my schooling, to be frank.  I think I would have at least had the opportunity to do so had I continued to university, but in elementary, middle, and high school, all I was taught about Malcolm X was that he was a violent anti-white extremist.  This is, I now know, either a vast oversimplification or an outright lie, depending on the context.

Isn’t it funny how our culture paints these men differently?  By selectively employing his own rhetoric, the dominant culture has rendered Malcolm X inaccessible to young white people, even though his message and legacy are at least as important as Dr. King’s.

But Dr. King’s message has been muddied using those same methods, just in a different way.

Every year Martin Luther King Day rolls around, and the media is awash with shows and articles that celebrate the man.  Even wealthy right-wing political pundits have complimentary things to say about him.  He is this golden figure, a charismatic and fatherly man who led a racially united America to enlightenment.  His revolution was, in cultural retrospect, a safe one; it was safe because it had room for whiteness.

Except it didn’t.  Dr. King’s future included white people, but not people of privilege.  Dr. King took a more holistic view and painted a world in which all people were equal.  This sounds like an idea that most people could get behind, but the methods that he described are dangerous to the way society is currently run and terrifying to people in positions of privilege.

“White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo.”

Doesn’t it seem strange to see this quote from a man who Rand Paul and Glenn Beck both claim to hold as a personal hero?  Paul even went so far as to claim that Dr. King expressed libertarian ideals, but this is not the truth.  Dr. King came out in favor of a future that included the nationalization of industry and a more just distribution of wealth.  He believed these things because he understood that as long as people struggle under the burden of poverty, they are essentially powerless; they have no choices in life, no freedom, and are enslaved.  He saw people, both white and black, struggling under the yoke of poverty, and it pained him.

“I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and see Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. … I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.”

It pained him both because he knew that gulfs of economic inequality resulted in inequality of opportunity; and without equality of opportunity, he knew that his dream of universal equality for mankind would never come true.

“I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry. Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.”

These ideas were dangerous; especially during a time that coincided with the Vietnam war, part of a longstanding cultural terror of communism and socialism.  His political and economic views combined with the fact that he was an outspoken opponent of the war brought him under scrutiny by government agencies, including the FBI and the NSA.  You can read more about Operation Minaret here, including the fact that even the NSA admits that the program was probably illegal.

Considering the savage attacks against the first black president of the United States of America for his “socialist” tendencies (tendencies that Barack Obama does not actually possess), it seems odd, doesn’t it, that one of our national heroes once said that capitalism had outlived its usefulness.  I maintain a strong belief in capitalism… I love the idea that people can own business and industry and make their own mark in the marketplace.  But even I can see that in the modern day, the system has gone wrong, and the vision of Martin Luther King Jr has gone unfulfilled for centuries, despite the lip service we pay to it.

But that’s not the Martin Luther King Jr that I was taught about in school.  No, I was taught about the orator and preacher with the beatific smile, who wanted blacks and whites to walk hand in hand.  And while this version is true, it is only half of what is a very incredible story.  There’s a lot more about Dr. King’s movement that I don’t feel comfortable discussing, because it comes from a perspective that I do not own, and I would not feel right in claiming; but you can read more about it here, in a powerfully written piece that a friend of mine posted via Facebook.

I would like to think that the exclusion of a vast portion of Dr. King’s ideals are excluded from mention for well-intentioned and practical reasons… I would like to think that perhaps history books include his work on civil rights exclusively because that is what he succeeded the most in changing, and thus the way in which he had the greatest impact on society.  But I sometimes believe that this whitewashing of an incredible man happened because his ideas of economic equality are dangerous to people in power, and he had to be embraced but defanged… we must accept the hero, but remove his ability to give further hope.