Let Freedom Ring

Today marks the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington”, and in celebration of that fact there is another memorial march being held in the same place. As a good libertarian I might be expected by some to rail against the goals of this march, or even the original, and certainly some of my past posts might be seen as reflecting a lack of sympathy for the plight of minorities in this country. In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to take the opportunity to set forth my beliefs on the matter.

I agree with Dr. King a great deal, particularly in what he set forth on that day in 1963. Certainly at that time in our nation’s history no person could seriously argue that any minority, of any race, gender or class received equal treatment in America, in any time or place. And to suggest that we have achieved full equality before the law even today, that (to use Dr. King’s metaphor) the bank of justice is no longer bankrupt would be misleading at best and a travesty at worst. We have a drug war in America that disproportionately affects people of color; we have endemic poverty that, again, disproportionately affects people of color; we have endemic unemployment that disproportionately affects people of color; and we are putting in place immigration laws that are targeted at people of color.

Where I disagree with the modern civil rights movement in many ways is through the choice of tactics, not goals. I believe that the state is a coercive device, and social change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. The only value in legislative change is to make all men and women equal in the eyes of the law, which is only natural and right. To try to “level the playing field”, to take from some to give to others because of an accident of birth or choices made by free people is an abomination, regardless of the direction the appropriation flows or the justifications given for it.

The truest value, the highest value, and the one worth fighting for, is freedom. The freedom to make choices, to live one’s life as one chooses, within the bounds of respect for your fellow man’s natural rights and the just laws that flow therefrom. Anything else is anathema. If there are unjust laws (and there are, even still today) then by all means I believe in calls for legislative redress, for there is no other recourse save revolution, which is the worse, albeit sometimes necessary, course. But if your cause exceeds that narrow channel and you still believe it is right and good, the only weapon you should carry is sweet persuasion. In the marketplace of ideas, if you are right, it should suffice.

In closing, I leave you with the words of Dr. King, which I believe are as true today as they were fifty years ago:

“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’ “

The Shortcut to Enlightenment

I’m not a transhumanist, and to be perfectly honest I don’t strive to be. While most of the transhumanists I have met have been perfectly nice people, I’m a little too invested in the cyberpunk movement to really believe that science can save us. I also have too keen an appreciation of history, and for all the good that scientific progress has brought (and I’m no Luddite who will claim that science is inherently bad), there is a strong tendency to find ways to misuse and abuse technology, even setting aside the very human tendency to weaponize any scientific advance or discovery that is made. For a couple of examples from recent history, consider either the Fukushima accident or the NSA domestic spying program.

The frontier to which many transhumanists I know are currently looking, and the one that I agree we are most likely to see the next great revolution in human interaction, is the virtual world. The virtual world is already intellectually indistinguishable from the real world, except to the extent that it is superior to the real world (data exchange, etc.) If you don’t believe me, consider how fast conversation happens, how good memory is, how suitable fact checking is without access to the virtual world. Yes, there are issues with the virtual world, but those are issues of emotion, not intellect. When the virtual world becomes physically and emotionally indistinguishable from or superior to the real world, that is the point of singularity. That is also the point at which, lacking other systems, the race will cease to exist, certainly as we know it.

So why would I worry about this? To be honest, I like things more or less as they are. I’ve studied more than a few philosophies and religions to try to understand the world and my place in it, and I’ve had a lot of fun, even if I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. One in particular seems especially relevant to the point at hand.

I’ve come to the decision that I am unlikely to ever be a Buddhist. Buddhism, as I understand it, involves deliberately attempting to let go of earthly pleasures, as pleasure is a source of desire, and desire is the root of suffering. The ultimate goal is the extinguishment of the self, and achievement of nirvana. While I certainly understand and respect that point of view, I happen to feel differently about it. I lean more in the direction that self-understanding is the path of enlightenment, and understanding comes from embracing your passions. Note that I do not necessarily counsel over-indulgence, as that is more often caused by a misunderstanding of some deeper issues, but a true understanding of one’s passions is not necessarily a bad thing, and to understand them you need explore them, and to explore them you must indulge them, at least to an extent. Of course, there was a time in his life when nobody would have expected Siddhartha to achieve enlightenment, much less to be the Buddha, so it may be possible I will change my mind.

But if we somehow do achieve this technological singularity and embody the virtual world (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the virtual world would embody us), I don’t believe we would have the same passions, the same desires, and in some very real sense we wouldn’t even be the same selves. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be better (as the transhumanists might argue, that’s the whole point of it), but in some ways it seems like abandoning our bodies for a virtual existence would be like a shortcut to Nirvana. Even worse, like any shortcut we would be missing the main road and everything along the way, which is kind of the point of the journey. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment, no matter what your version of enlightenment is.

A Little Slice of the American Dream

In about a month My Not So Humble Wife and I will be taking a big step and moving into our own place. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve been living with our current roommates (who are fantastic guys) for the better part of a decade now, and we have never lived on our own together (does that make any sense?). At any rate, it will be a big change for us, but a good one, and one I feel ready for, despite the fact that I’ve never lived without a roommate and/or fewer than three family members at once.

While I was talking about it with a friend at lunch the other day, I realized why I’m so excited about this move. What it really comes down to is that we’re finally going to capture a little slice of the American Dream. Sure we won’t own our own home, but I think the American Dream is more basic than that, more primal. I think it all comes down to autonomy.

When you go all the way back to the beginning, the American Dream was about owning land. Even if it was just a small piece of land, it was still yours, to do with as you please, and no lord or master to tell you otherwise. Coming out of an age of feudalism and many countries that still operated along socioeconomic systems that were barely removed from feudalism despite the Black Death, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

As the country became more urbanized and people moved into the cities, owning your own business became the new aspiration. But why? More often than not you would have to work the same long hours for little money, and the only difference from being a laborer was that you couldn’t just pick up in the middle of the night and leave if things went sideways. But what you did have was self-determination. You were your own boss. In an age when the bosses made all the rules, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

Fast forward a ways to when the cities started pushing out into the suburbs. The single family home, the fenced yard, the 2.5 kids and a car in the garage (the car, not the kids), all of this was what people longed for. Even if it meant you had to be away from home longer because you had a commute, and there was always the terrible traffic to consider, and maybe you didn’t get to know your neighbors as well, it was all worth it in the end. Why? Because your space was yours. Every house a castle, and every man a king. In a time when radio and television were bringing the world into your living room, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

And so it goes. America has always been a culture that values the individual. There are other countries, like Japan, that have cultures prioritizing the community over the individual, and those are fine cultures, but they are not ours. The American Dream is and always has been about self-reliance, self-ownership, and self-discovery. Autonomy is at the heart of who we are, what we believe, and what we desire, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even when we form, join, or participate in communities, it is as individuals coming together, not communities deigning to acknowledge the individual from time to time.

And so at last we will be starting down the road of that American Dream, together.

Memory as Identity

As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:


Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?

Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.

So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?

Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?

A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?

I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.

Nobody’s Forcing You

So I’ve heard more than a little bit of grumbling about how libertarians don’t care about the poor, and the truth is if you read some of the more out there screeds *cough*Atlas Shrugged*cough* I can see where you might get that impression. And the truth is there’s a lot of distance between even the most bleeding heart libertarian and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. That being said, I still believe there is an argument to be made that not all libertarians are looking to throw the baby out with the bathwater if the baby didn’t pay for the bath first.

Now I’m no philosopher (as has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), and I’m certainly not an economist (as has also been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), but I think somewhere between the two disciplines we might be able to find an answer that, if not perfect, at least gets to a reasonable engagement of the issue at hand. While I’m not big on addressing the notion of social justice as such (that ground has been tread quite thoroughly by stronger minds than mine), I would like to address one small slice of the view: the question of the use of force as coercion, and specifically whether it is possible to use economic force as coercion.

Now obviously I think every libertarian (and most everyone else) would agree that violence is bad (mmm’kay?). More specifically, either the express or implied use of force is what we object to. Because government usually has a monopoly in a given geographical area on the use of force it tends to be the target of libertarian ire, but contrary to what you may have been told I don’t know any libertarians who give a free pass to corporations or private individuals who utilize force to get their way either.

But is violence the only kind of force? What about economic pressure? After all, the government uses economic pressure in the form of sanctions on other countries all the time, so there has to be something to it, right? And if that’s the case, how is that any different from Wal-Mart threatening to fire employees for joining a walkout or working in sweatshops?

My coworker and I had a talk about this at lunch, and I came up with a theory that, while by no means unassailable (see my caveats re: my status as philosopher and economist above) seems to be a good starting point. It goes something like this. In order for a situation that does not involve direct physical violence to be considered coercive, it must meet two criteria:

(1)    The next best option is catastrophically bad.

(2)    The fact that the next best option is catastrophically bad is not a direct result of an improvement in station caused by the current situation.

So for example, if your current job requires you to work 16 hours a day, and your next best option is no job and starvation, then yeah, I’d say that’s catastrophically bad. But if you were unemployed and starving before you got your current job, then a threatened return to that state isn’t coercive. By the same token, if your next best option is to make less money but still get by (which is most Americans), then again, bad but not catastrophically bad.

Does this justify all kinds of horrible behavior? Certainly not. At no point am I saying that anyone should be subject to violence or assault as a precondition for keeping their job (and I do include unwanted sexual advances in that category). But I think it may help to frame the discussion about whether or not corporations are coercing their employees to work long hours or whether “sweat shops” are coercing their employees to work there at all, among other discussions.

I welcome honest and respectful debate on the matter. As I said, I am sure the theory could use some work.

I Will Choose a Path That’s Clear

Recently on Facebook I’ve been having a spirited (but civil!) debate with a friend of mine regarding gun control. Unsurprisingly at some point relatively early in the discussion my argument incorporated the issue of defense against tyranny, which is an argument that I stand by. He actually pivoted from there to a surprisingly apt and unusual comparison, one that I have not before seen, invoking the specter of 1984 before I could, but then he made the point that “Brave New World illustrates that humanity can be lulled into submission into serving the interest of a minority by luxuries and promoting self interest.”

It was a different tack, and one that at least took our discussion in a new direction, but it also got me thinking. One of my great loves is dystopian literature (although the sub-genre of cyberpunk is my favorite), and obviously I have given more than a little thought about what shape society takes both now and as we move into the future. So as we continue forward, which is the move likely totalitarian prospect: the iron hand or the velvet glove?

Historically I would say it’s both. Consider one of the most successful (if you can use the word without being offensive) totalitarian regimes in history, the Nazi regime. By combining a rule based on fear and oppression with strong economic growth that gave the “approved” majority of the populace not only the necessities they had been denied but the luxuries they craved, the Nazis turned Germany from a failed state into a powerhouse virtually overnight. I’d have to do a lot more research than I’m ready to right now to call this a thesis, but it does provide some (disturbing) food for thought, if anyone has a strong enough stomach for it.

The iron hand is easy to fear, and just as easy to dismiss. We always assume we’ll see it coming; after all, why would we allow someone or some government to drag people out of their homes in the middle of the night, lock them up for no reason, torture them, or execute them without good reason? We’re good people, we live in a good society, we’re better than that. But then, all it takes is one bad day; one evil act. Then the world changes.

On the other hand, the velvet glove seems far more likely. Stories of people giving in to addiction, vice, and other temptations are as old as… well, stories, and the idea of the guy who controls your hunger controlling you has a great deal of appeal. But consider the recent Occupy movement. Here is a case of rebellion against a system that tried to control the populace by controlling luxury, Big Business in cahoots with Big Government (and the system fought back). Keep in mind plenty of Occupy supporters were not the homeless, the starving, or folks who struggled their whole lives to make it day to day; they were college graduates, middle class and above, theoretically bought and paid for.

So what do they both have in common, and how is it that tyranny in any form finally does manage to take hold? If the neither the iron hand nor the velvet glove is sufficient unto itself, how do they succeed together? Is it simply that “one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away” is enough to confuse people? I wonder. Perhaps it’s more complex, or perhaps it is simpler than that.

According to the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. It’s an interesting philosophy, but what if it goes further than that? Can it be posited that nobody can truly be governed without their consent? After all, you can put a gun to my head but that won’t make my body move; you will simply be putting me under duress. If it is sufficient duress, I will take action, but it is still my action, not yours. Your action was coercing me in the fist place. Coerce enough people and you have a tyrannical government, but it is by the consent of the governed, even if that consent is given under duress.

Viewed in that way, we are always standing between Scylla and Charybdis, between totalitarian oppression and totalitarian luxury. The only thing that prevents it is our exercise of free will, a refusal to allow ourselves to be ruled by others. So long as we view certain things as right and others as wrong, and we hold to those principles in the face of opposition (even unto death), we can and will stand against tyranny. That is the cost of freedom. The cost of society, of civilization, is learning to live with each other, to find the reasonable compromises between my ideals and principles and yours, such that we can live together without my bowing to your tyranny or you bowing to mine.

As soon as I get that one figured out, I’ll let you know.

Anarchy X: There and Back Again

Several months ago I started out on a personal journey of discovery. Unlike many authors who seem to feel they need to take to the road, I abhor travel, so I decided to turn inward and try to explain, as best I could, what I believe, who I am, and the filter through which I view the world. It’s no small thing to encapsulate a worldview; greater thinkers than I am have filled volumes with better writing than I will ever manage trying to do the same, and making it approachable is even harder. The best I could do was pour my simple knowledge and limited understanding onto this page (yes, even now I still think of it as a page) and hope that it makes some sense and connects somehow with someone. While I would never be so presumptuous as to suggest I have scaled Mount Doom, I do feel confident saying what a long, strange trip it’s been.

This series has been as much an exploration of my principles and beliefs as it has been an explanation of them. In the course of that exploration I have discovered (or perhaps reaffirmed) that I am more William Wallace a là Braveheart than I am Patrick Henry; I believe that everyone is born with liberty, and it is not something that can be given or taken away. At worst, someone can violate my rights, even my right to life; as the movie goes, they can take my life, but they can never take my freedom. More than that, I have found, or at least I hope I have found, some semblance of support for that view, or an argument to be made for support, in two of the sources for much of the political discourse in America, The Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments.

It is possible along the way I have given the impression that I am somehow not proud of my country, or that I am less than a patriot because I do not support every decision that the government, my government, makes; I do not believe that anything could be farther from the truth. I believe there is always, must be, a place for the loyal opposition, and that so long as one is adhering to the core principles that the country is founded on as you understand them then you cannot be said to be unpatriotic. You may be wrong, but being wrong has never been treasonous; if it were, we would all of us be good company for each other in Coventry.

I also believe that it is possible for good people to disagree with my interpretations of these key and critical documents and still be good people. Who knows, they may even be right. I never made any claims to omniscience, nor would I want it; it would take all the fun out of surprise parties. What I do believe is that most people are mostly good most of the time; or as John Agresto put it:

Everywhere we see people fighting for their religion, for their cultural values, for the traditions of their fathers, for their idea of justice. Warped and destructive as they sometimes are, every day we see people driven not by “the economy” but by their creed, their values, their sense of honor. People sacrifice not for things beneath them, but for ideals they believe are higher than they are. And we Americans, with our pride and creativity and sense of duty, patriotism and love of country, are no different.

I couldn’t agree more. I have expressed my creed, my values, and my sense of honor in these posts as best I can. I hope they have resonated with you.

Does that mean this is the end of the Anarchy X series? For now. I promised myself when I started I would take it this far, and now my creativity and pride are driving me to try something new. Perhaps someday I’ll come back to it; after all, America has been around for a very long time, and I expect will be here long after I am gone. Politics, I fear, will last even longer, so I will have no shortage of things to write about.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

(Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)