Saturday, December 29, 2007

Movie recommendation: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is a German drama exploring the impact of the East German socialist/surveillance state on its citizens. This film involves the artistic community (which was constantly under suspicion), the Stasi, and high government officials. It details the methods of both the dictatorship and subversives. The themes remind me that I still need to read "The Road to Serfdom". Throughout the movie, agents of the state constantly act above/outside of the law to manipulate others, both in the interests of the state and themselves. Almost everything is treated as a privilege to be doled out (or withheld) by government officials at their whim: drugs, travel, and careers. While romantic relationships are nominally not owned by the state, in practice they can be manipulated by the state's control of all material conditions of life, and the ability to arbitrarily detain individuals.

I was creeped out by the ways that our own society reflects the East German dictatorship. For starters, it's easy to suppress dissent when over half of the population has committed a crime. Furthermore, simply discussing unpopular ideas or past activities can have your visa denied.

The American state is only a shadow of the East German state, but the same tendencies are here, and we need to fight them every step of the way.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thoughts on Friedman and Chile

Milton Friedman is often accused by leftists of having collaborated with the Pinochet regime in Chile. Friedman and (American) libertarians defend him by claiming that he only provided abstract, universal policy advice and that the implementation of Friedmanesque policies resulted in the democratization of Chile.

This debate recently flared up on a few left-libertarian blogs (Mutualist Blog and Freedom Democrats), leading me to develop an opinion on this issue, which I figure is worth reprinting:

It seems that the damning act was his 1982 Newsweek article (which I can't find online), in which he publicly lauded the Pinochet regmine for the economic policies. From what I can piece together, at that point, the Chilean people had been suffering economic deprivation for much of Pinochet's regime--first with the assault on inflation and then with a recession brought on by international conditions. For the Pinochet regime to get the endorsement of a Nobel-prize winning economist at that point would have been a meaningful propaganda victory: just as people would have been most likely to abandon the Pinochet regime, the wise-man (Friedman) comes in and says "you are on the right track." This seems to have been a lapse of judgement equal to those of the communists who defended the USSR in the early 20th century.

This analogy is strengthened by his apparent support for "shock therapy" (supposedly recommended in his policy proposals to Pinochet) -- the drastic restructuring of the economy without concern for the severe hardship that it would cause. This attitude is reminiscent of the USSR's drive to industrialize regardless of the price paid by the people, and the drastic reforms called for in Harry Browne's presidential platform.

Both his praise for Pinochet and his endorsement of drastic, painful changes suggest that Friedman had a certain top-down bias that I find fundamentally incompatible with liberty and democracy (by which I mean including regular people in the governance of society, not simple majoritarianism). Perhaps Friedman was just reflecting the mainstream bias of his society, or he was blinded by his own influence among powerful people--but it's really disturbing. Too often libertarians simply reject these criticisms of Friedman, and hold him up as an icon of liberty. Failure to heed these criticisms and integrate them into libertarian thought will continue to marginalize the movement.

P.S. I don't blame Friedman for what his students did, and I don't blame his students for taking an opportunity to improve their country (assuming that they weren't explicitly trying to transfer wealth to the elite). I don't blame him for giving a lecture in Chile, or even for writing a list of policy proposals specifically for Pinochet's Chile (except to the extent that this was supposedly congratulatory towards Pinochet). Finally, I don't believe that his economic policies are incompatible with democracy, though his recommended implementation of these policies may have been.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Blogger censorship?

It seems that Blogger will not allow users to register the subdomain "". I tried to register this site, but was rejected, despite the fact that no-one else seems to be using it.

It is understandable that Blogger (Google) would want to distance itself from anyone who would advocate killing a king or other head of state (I don't advocate this form of killing)....but it's odd that they didn't prohibit the use of the subdomain "", since this is arguably more applicable to the USA (Google's home country) than the idea of regicide.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The ethical bright line

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.
This thought from Raynard Kington comes to us by way of joshuah, a young up-and-comer among the Washington technocrats. While Kington emphasizes the problem of identifying the line once you are close to it, Joshuah ponders the problem of identifying the line from a distance. Joshuah also comforts himself with his self-perception that:
I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings.
Let's take for granted that Joshuah's perception of himself is accurate, and he doesn't have any need for self-aggrandizement (a rare breed!), nor does he see himself as part of an aristocratic class that needs to keep the riffraff in their place. I think that there is still a real risk of corruption that faces even the most well-intentioned and well-adjusted individuals--it is the dynamic that I called "competing power" in a previous post on how power corrupts.

I can present this either in terms of modern American politics, or in terms of Nazi Germany...let's do the Nazi's first. The following quotes come from Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free, an excellent and enthralling case study of Nazism in Kronenberg, where this form of corruption was called the temptation of effectiveness.
"Yes," said (the professor), shaking his head, "the 'excesses' and the 'radicals.' We all opposed them, very quietly. So your two 'little men' thought that they must join, as good men, good Germans, even as good Christians, and when enough of them did they would be able to change the Party. They would 'bore from within.' 'Big men' told themselves that, too, in the usual sincerity that required them only to abandon one little principle after another, to throw away, little by little, all that was good. I was one of those men."

Another professor (a chemical engineer) confessed:

You see, refusal (to take an oath of fidelity in 1935) would have meant the loss of my job, of course, not prison or anything like that... But losing my job would have meant that I could not get another.... Nobody would hire a 'Bolshevik.'

I tried not to think of myself or my family. We might have got out of the country, in any case, and I could have got a job in industry or education somewhere else.

What I tried to think of was the people to whom I might be of some help later on, if things got worse.... If I took the oath and held my job, I might be of help, somehow, as things went on. If I refused to take the oath, I would certainly be useless to my friends, even if I remained in the country. I myself would be in their situation.
This man used his apartment as a hideout for fugitives until he was caught in 1943. But he still believed that he should not have ever taken the oath...
(T)here is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil a fact.
In explaining why he regretted the decision to take the oath, this professor emphasized his privileged and influential position in society, and his view that the failure of people like him to resist the Nazis in 1935 guaranteed that the Nazis would come to power. He didn't even delve into the fact that even as he was hiding refugees in his apartment, he was also going to work (as a productive member of German society) and paying his taxes--providing the Nazis with the resources they would use to commit the very crimes that he was risking his life to mitigate.

To illustrate the same issue in contemporary American politics, consider two Senators running for President, with sincere differences of opinion on a number of "big" issues. Each of them believes that his own election will result in a substantial increase in the welfare of the people, yet he needs to convince the voters of this fact. Should he use his current power to direct taxpayer money to a particular company, with the expectations that this will increase campaign contributions from that company and help his election? The politician believes that the harm of this little kickback scheme is trivial next to the benefit arising from the campaign contribution (likewise, the voters believe that the harm of this kickback scheme is nothing compared to the harm caused by "the other guy" winning the election and setting policy on the "big issues").

Tragically, if both politicians follow this strategy, then they will resort to bigger and bigger kickback schemes, with the only limit being that they can't be substantially worse than their opponent. This is the basic problem of retaliation and escalation. I think the whole point of morality/ethics is to make sure that we don't go down that path...but it's so easy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fascists among us

Cross posted to Daily Kos and Freedom Democrats (a week ago)

The Philadelphia Daily News has published a disturbing commentary that comes close to being a piece of fascist propaganda: Stu Bykofsky's "To save America, we need another 9/11". Before laying into Bykofsky, I'll acknowledge that he later wrote "I WAS WRONG ABOUT ANOTHER 9/11", in which he claims that the headline exaggerated his thesis a little bit. However, the same can be said for the headline of his "apology" because he doesn't admit to having been wrong; instead, he claims that he was misunderstood.

Despite his clarifications, I still think that he expressed fascist sentiments in "To save America...". The basic thesis is that the September 11th attacks generated a sense of unity among Americans, which has since fallen apart even though we still need it in order to fight Islamist terrorism. The main problem in his argument is its circular logic: We need to be attacked, so that we will be united, so that we can fight the enemy, so that we won't be attacked. It apparently doesn't dawn on him that if we aren't attacked again, then we won't have any need for this unity. In other words, he's seeking national unity for it's own sake -- which is the core of fascism.

Another fascist element in "To save America..." is the implicit message that Americans should rally behind the President. He may not even realize that his call for unity implies subordination to the President. Of course, one way to maintain unity would be for the President to give some consideration to others, but that isn't going to happen with this President. Furthermore, the President has the political advantage; being the executive, he gets to initiate things, and no "disunity" is apparent until opposition develops. Consequently, an ideology of unity gives the Presidency a major political advantage.

Finally, Bykofsky's assumption that Americans would unite after another attack is quite debatable. Sure, we united after the 2001 attacks, but back then we felt a shared sense of confidence in a number of institutions, including the Federal government. Since 2001, many Americans have lost that sense of confidence in the Federal government, so we may not turn to it to protect us in the wake of another attack. Indeed, given the large number of neo-cons/Republicans who have been pining for another terrorist attack, there's a good chance that many Americans will succumb to "Bush did it" conspiracy theories. More skeptical Americans may still decide that the Federal government is a hindrance in fighting terrorism, rather than an asset.

Finally, I have to acknowledge a few writers who have inspired this analysis. First, there is Milton Mayer's "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945", which has made me sensitive to the types of appeals that persuade "little folk" to support fascism (thanks to mstein for recommending this excellent book). Also, there are three stories at DKos addressing "To save America...", but I didn't notice the above analysis in any of them, so I wrote my own analysis.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Damn the draft

A political consultant over at Open Left is advising progressives to keep quiet about the threat posed by a military draft, largely in the hope that fear will produce favorable political conditions. It's been a long time since I've read an essay that was wrong on so many levels; it's insulting, threatening, and idiotic.

1) Insulting: All of this talk about the morality of a draft (whether for military or civilian projects) effectively glorifies a subset of human activities, while diminishing all others. Why is a soldier morally superior to me? Do all socially beneficial activities require the threat of sudden death? What about engineers and scientists who forgo most leisure time to improve our lives (including military technology)? How about the doctors who are on call constantly? How about those who spend all of their leisure time working on a project that they think is REALLY beneficial to society (whether it is art, an invention, or developing open source software)? How about those who take care of sick relatives and neighbors. Apparently none of these things matter, and all of these activities can be cut short if the draft board decides that "society" would be better off if the person picked up trash along a highway. And we are considered selfish if we prefer to rely on freedom of choice to guide our lives, and professional service to guide our economy.

2) Threatening: Any draft system threatens to seriously disrupt the lives of millions, and will put many of them in harm's way. Any suggestion that we should just let that happen is a threat to me and everyone I care about. This threat can be mitigated by making dangerous service voluntary (either by giving alternatives or permitting domestic military service), but we're still talking about serious disruption to our lives and communities.

3) Idiotic: Much of this argument for a draft is based on the completely speculative theory that a draft will move society and politics in a progressive direction. It just as likely could trigger an outright rebellion (as people see the government as a threat to their lives), or conversely it could result in an authoritarian society where military discipline conditions everyone to just go along with the President's orders. The truth is that we have no idea of what to expect from social engineering schemes like this--and yet we are expected to disrupt millions of lives and squander billions of dollars in the hope that it will generate some sort of beneficial outcome.

While the above flaws in the argument appear to be independent, they are actually united by a common theme: arrogance. All of these flaws arise from the assumption that a bunch of professional politicians in Washington (and their delegates) can judge the lifestyles of millions of Americans and assign each of them to their most socially useful role.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Iraq, what exactly constitutes "extremism"?

Over the past several weeks, many leftists have been criticizing the mainstream/corporate/commercial/lazy/brain-dead news outlets for just parroting the administration's lines regarding the war in Iraq. All American operations are against "Al-Qaeda", all enemies are "terrorists" or "extremists".

Here's one example I noticed yesterday in Forbes: "Extremists unleashed a barrage of more than a dozen mortars or rockets into the Green Zone..."

First, do they really have any idea of who shot the mortars? Is the fact that these people shot mortars into the Green Zone sufficient to label them as extremists? What exactly does it mean to be an extremist in Iraq?

I think that "extremism" must be judged with respect to the political center-of-gravity for that society, or alternatively, to the political traditions of that society. From that perspective, Baathists are conservatives. And proponents of national independence are fairly moderate (as they are world-wide). In Iraq, I think that Iraqi liberals (i.e. "republicans" or "democrats") are fairly extreme, since they have never held power in Iraq and there is substantial evidence that most Iraqis are not "unity liberals". The major political parties seem to be either socialist or Islamist. On top of that, there are a few influential separatist movements. Any of these groups--which deserve the title "moderate" or "centrist" could be in opposition to the American-installed Iraqi government.

I think Forbes just fed us a bunch of bullshit.

The Second American Revolution

Cross posted at Freedom Democrats

Every so often, I come across an activist claiming to be part of a "Second American Revolution". I generally find these assertions to reflect the ignorance of the person making the assertion -- after all, haven't we already had more than one revolution in this country?

Looking around the web, it seems that the term Second American Revolution is used to represent a few different historical conditions. First, there is the war of 1812, which might better identified as the "Second Revolutionary War": as John Adams wrote of the first revolutionary war, the revolution was not in the war itself (though others assert that the war was revolutionary), but was a change in the "principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people." With that perspective, I have to think that the revolution was not complete with our independence from Britain in 1783; instead, it only completed once our institutions had all been modified to recognize the fundamental equality of everyone in our society.

To some, this means that the American Revolution had two aspects, the first being anti-monarchism and independence, the second being a broader anti-elitism. This second aspect was never seen to conclusion, but was expressed in post-independence resistance to the new government such as Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.

Another way to parse this interpretation of the American Revolution is to identify the first revolution as embodying the ideal of fundamental equality among members of a society--in this case, "society" was defined as white males. This "first" American Revolution only reached its conclusion in the period of Jacksonian democracy, around the mid-nineteenth century. This was immediately followed by a strong push for the "second" American Revolution, which sought to expand our definition of "society" to include every person involved--specifically blacks and women. This revolution was only completed with the social and political reforms of the 1960's, and its gains are still being consolidated.

This is my favorite interpretation, though I realize attempts to delimit social evolution are far from objective. Still, I think this paradigm provides some context for thinking about contemporary changes in American society. Has America stagnated, such that we will have no more revolutions? Is there a "top-down" revolution being forced upon us by the ruling elite? If there is to be another populist revolution, will it be a "reactionary revolution", such that we are just going to put the government back in it's proper place, as it supposedly was in some mythical past? Or have we entered into a new, progressive revolution that builds upon the accomplishments and experiences from the previous revolutions?

I suppose only time will tell, but your thoughts are appreciated.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Rebellion Day

On Independence Day, you may be invited (and pressured) to participate in rituals demonstrating unconditional submission to the government, such as pledging allegiance. In these situations, remember the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who publicly renounced their allegiance to their former government. Remember that these rituals are in opposition to the spirit of this holiday, where we celebrate a document that declares the innate human right to "alter or abolish" one's own government when it becomes a threat to liberty.

Not only have authoritarians hijacked The Fourth for the celebration of the state, but they also use it to promote a cult of the soldier. They promote the absurd and insulting claim that our liberties were given* to us by soldiers; again, perverting the meaning of this holiday. The Americans who led the struggle for independence recognized that certain rights were essential to prevent the return of tyranny, and they made these rights sacrosanct by listing them in the constitutions for the new governments that they created (e.g. the Bill of Rights).

Only a tyrant would minimize the importance of these liberties (among them are speech, assembly, publication, and privacy). The misled soldier is the enemy of freedom, not its defender; it is the reporter who assures that soldiers point their guns in the right direction. Only an idiot would deny that there is often risk in the exercise of these essential liberties--that many people (including Americans) have made great sacrifices to bring information to the public or to organize non-violent opposition to tyranny. As important as the role of soldiers is, many others play a role that is no less essential.

When we criticize the American government, we may be told to "love it or leave it". On Independence Day, we are reminded that the government is not America--America is the people. Each of us is part of America, just as each of us is a part of humanity, and we strive to reform the government so that we will not have to fight it in the future. We must resist every step towards slavery. If we permit our enslavement, resistance will be impossible--our lives will be in the hands of our masters. This existential truth is enshrined in a Revolutionary era motto: "Live free or Die."

Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Freedom Democrats

* Footnote: Soldiers protect our rights, they don't give them to us. Just as soldiers protect our rights, the threat to our rights comes from other soldiers. What makes our soldiers different from enemy soldiers? It is the very institutions (academia, journalism, civil society) that are dismissed by the cult of the soldier.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Libby's commutation in context

Cross posted at Freedom Democrats

Scooter Libby obstructed justice in order to defend his political masters. He was convicted, but was let off the hook by those very masters. This is especially interesting in light of the numerous investigations of the executive branch that are coming to a head. Bush has just sent a clear signal to his underlings that perjury is just fine, when it protects the President's interests.

This administration has been obsessed with secrecy (and avoiding accountability) since day one. Even as Bush undermines the fact-finding ability of the criminal justice system, we need to keep in mind that the main tool of the general public -- the Freedom of Information Act -- is likewise constantly obstructed by the government.

It seems that government outrages are coming to light faster than I can keep track of them (definitely faster than I can write about them), but before this one fades into the shadows of history, make sure you take a moment to look over the "top ten items among the CAI's "Family Jewels" --released 15 years after the National Security Archives at GWU filed a suit under the FIOA.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Singing the gasoline blues

Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Freedom Democrats

Gasoline prices rise every summer, but this year they are even higher than last year. As if the high prices weren't annoying enough, we can look forward to massive displays of ignorant indignation from many of our countrymen. These theatrics typically come from those who can't be bothered to even read an economics blog, yet still prescribe decisive economic intervention on every issue imaginable.

I am pleased to find some reasonable pundits who appreciate of how markets work even more than corporate apologists do. It's even better when these pundits promote productive conversation about important issues. This stands in stark contrast to the knee-jerk legislation that just passed the House, attempting to start a massive diplomatic and economic dispute with OPEC.

Unfortunately, it's times like this that people call for a decrease in the gasoline tax, even though gasoline taxes may be the best tool that we have to manage our relationship with OPEC. Opponents of the gas-tax also seem to ignore the fact that there soon will be no money to build new highways (which may actually be a good thing), not to mention the gas tax's role in recovering pollution costs. Furthermore, a short-term reduction in the gas tax would transfer a good chunk of those lost tax revenues into oil-company pockets: prices may stay high if suppliers are unable to produce additional gasoline on short notice, and they wouldn't fall the full amount if decreases in prices discourage conservation by consumers.

If any SUV-driving suburbanite whines about the cost of gasoline and tries to make it into a political issue, I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Ride a bike(again, good discussion)
  2. If you don't like the market, leave it!
There is no reason (at the moment) to believe that anything unfair is going on, except in the collection of economic rent (from oil deposits or grandfathered pollution rights at oil refineries)

In related news: Iranian motorists start paying 25 percent more for fuel.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Siege of Iraq

I am sick.

I am sick of the righteous indignation of the right-wing militarists, proudly on display in last night's Republican debates. "America is innocent!", they cry ("Israel is innocent!" is the companion cry). They should study a little bit of Christian theology--none are innocent. We are all sinners. They claim that "America is the victim"; that there is no good reason for anyone to dislike us; that there is nothing that we could have done to reduce anyone's desire to harm us.

They are full of shit, and it's making me nauseous. Sean Hannity dismisses the suffering of the Iraqi people during the 1990s by invoking our "moral obligation" to drive the Iraqi army from Kuwait and then lay siege to Iraq. Hannity implies that we have a moral obligation to use violence: we never have a moral obligation to use violence. We sometimes have the right to use violence, but even that is questionable if our violence will engulf non-aggressors.

If there is any chance that you are buying into the (American) militarist myth that we only fight wars against "evil despots" and never against the subjugated people, then you need to refresh your memory about the Siege of Iraq. From 1991 to 2003, the USA blockaded and bombed Iraq. By the time we were done, the society had collapsed. It's hard to say that the people themselves were simply collateral damage in this strategy--just like strategic bombing in WWII (culminating the the atomic bombing of Japan), this strategy is designed to destroy the society's ability (or will) to field a military by destroying the entire economy of that society. The people are the target, just as much as they were on September 11, 2001.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The threat of partisan paramilitary forces

Cross posted to Daily Kos and Freedom Democrats.

Naiomi Wolf's Fascist America, in 10 easy steps provides an interesting evaluation of America's situation with respect to the experience of societies that have succumbed to totalitarian ideologies (i.e. fascism). I thought that the most interesting "step" was the third--Develop a thug caste--both because it is the weakest link in her argument that America is on the brink of totalitarianism, and because if such a caste really exists, it is the single most telling sign that we are on the brink.

Wolf seems to be concerned about "groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers" who caused a ruckus during the Florida vote recount of 2000. While I'm not too concerned about those guys, I am a bit worried about the other group that she identified: the "security contractors" (a.k.a. mercenaries)who are providing firepower in Iraq without the accountability that real soldiers have.

While these organizations have their own command structure that seems to be aligned with the current government, and they have been called upon for domestic duty during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I hope that most of the employees would think of America as the place where they relax and have a life, and be unwilling to take up arms for combat within the United Sates. However, if we ever have riots, mass demonstrations, or a general strike in the USA while the National Guard is deployed overseas, I wouldn't be surprized if state and federal governments call upon these organizations to bust a few heads. I'm afraid that these guys would have even less restraint than the National Guard -- remember Kent State?

The striking thing about the two groups that Wolf listed is that they don't fit the mold of the prototypical thug castes: the Nazi Stormtroopers and Fascist Blackshirts. While those organizations were largely composed of proletariat street-fighters, Wolf's prospective thug castes seem to be made of middle-class political activists and professional soldiers.

However, there's a third prospective thug caste, which Wolf didn't mention, but fits the mold better than the other two. This prospective thug caste is best represented by the Gathering of Eagles, a supposedly impromptu organization dedicated to staging "counter demonstrations" against anti-war protesters.

They've been promoted by the likes of Michelle Malkin, and are clearly cut from the cloth of American right-wing militarism. They claim to be a defensive group, but have a very broad idea of what "defense" means:

What the Eagles will not stand for, however, are “violence, vandalism, physical or verbal assaults on our veterans, and the destruction or desecration of our memorials. By defending and honoring these sacred places, we defend and honor those whose blood gave all of us the right to speak as freely as our minds think.”

This raises the question: What constitutes verbal assault or desecration of a memorial, and what are they going to do about it? By some accounts, they interpret those words rather liberally, such that they will resort to physical intimidation and property destruction in order to silence the political opposition.

Disgruntled veterans made up a substantial portion of the the Fascists and Nazi thug castes, and that seems to be the same for the Gathering of Eagles. These "disgruntled veterans" are people who believe that their country lost a war primarily because their countrymen failed to provide the necessary support...if only we had fought a little bit longer and a little bit harder, we would have won. This is one of the most frightening side effects of waging foolish wars--our society generates large numbers of men with military experience who feel that they have been jerked around and abused. This is the path to tyranny.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Movie: The Corporation

The Corporation is complete crap! I was looking forward to a thoughtful analysis of the legal and social framework of modern corporations, but all it had was a bunch of hype. I think the director wanted to make a music video, but was stuck making a "documentary". It's just a bunch of metaphors and disjointed facts.

I've heard that Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a much better movie. I'll check that one out.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Struggle to See What Is Right In Front of Your Nose

Here is a link to a great little essay, with a great quote from George Orwell at the beginning.

Balkinization: The Struggle to See What Is Right In Front of Your Nose

I don't have much to say about it, except this little note for anyone who has read Orwell's ideas about the use of language in a totalitarian society (exemplified by Newspeak in 1984): Remember the "homicide bombers"!

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Community Voice Mail

Welcome to Community Voice Mail: "Community Voice Mail provides free, 24-hour nationwide voice mail to people in crisis - connecting them to jobs, housing and hope"

This represents one of those things that most of us take for granted, but which many people do not have access to -- the means of receiving private communications. According to the CVM website, it seems that many of their clients are focused on trying to find housing or a job, but I assume that this would also be helpful for persons stuck in an tyrannical household where they would be afraid to have messages left on their home answering machine or sent to them by mail.

CVM also seems to have a very reasonable strategy--they provide the technical service and "subcontract" to established organizations (Goodwill, YMCA, etc) who actually have contact with the people who need this service.

Secure, reliable communication systems are essential for freedom. Good for them!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Anarchism Without Hyphens

I just found a good broadside (Anarchism Without Hyphens) that describes an essential aspect of anarchism that I am just beginning to understand.

(A)narchism is not an ideological movement. It is an ideological statement. It says that all people have a capacity for liberty. It says that all anarchists want liberty. And then it is silent. After the pause of that silence, anarchists then mount the stages of their own communities and history and proclaim their, not anarchism's, ideologies-they say how they, how they as anarchists, will make arrangements, describe events, celebrate life, work.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Would-be tyrant: Cully Stimson

A recent Washington Post editorial (Unveiled Threats) brought my attention to a new "would-be tyrant" in our governement: Cully Stimson.

It seems that this guy is trying to intimidate lawyers from defending people who are accused by the government of participating in terrorism. This sounds like one more brick in the prison-wall, to produce a society where the government can remove anyone from society by simply accusing him of "terrorism".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Books: "Bakunin" by Mark Leier

Bakunin: The Creative Passion by Mark Leier

A few weeks ago, while browsing the "new non-fiction" section of my local library, I was pleasantly surprized by the sight of the name "Bakunin" written in big letters on the side of the book. Picking up the book, a blurb from Simon Sebag Montefiore (author of Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar) assured me that I had found what I was looking for:
Bakunin not only reassesses this fascinating and important character, but also provides the biography of the forgotten ideology of anarchism itself
After many disappointing searches for books about anarchism in these libraries, I eagerly checked out this book and began to read it. I found Montefior's evaluation of the book to be spot on.

I was instantly absorbed in Leier's colorful and amusing style of writing. He provided a delightful description of the condition of Russian nobility into which Mikael Bakunin was born at the beginning of the 19th century. This included the many determinants of family status, the landscape of the Bakunin estate, the relationship with between lord and serf, the influence of radical ideas from Western Europe, and the ever-changing relationship between the tsar and the nobility, which greatly depended upon the personality of each tsar.

The description of Hegelian philosophy is detailed enough to understand Bakunin's contributions to that school, yet brief enough to not bore readers who are just interested in Bakunin's story. Leier also conveys Bakunin's excitement about the "revolutions of 48", along with the despondence arising from a stint as a political prisoner, followed by exile to Siberia, and escape via Japan and the Panama Canal only to return to the European radical community and find that it has, itself, been radically changed during his imprisonment.

Leier account of Bakunin's relationship with the new generation of radicals probably contains lessons for every aging activist. Leier also recounts Bakunin's relationship with various radicals of the time, including Marx and Proudhon, in which we can see the beginning of the ideological and cultural splits among radical activists that continue to this day.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to finish the book before other concerns grabbed my attention. However, I can whole-heartedly endores this book for anyone interested in the history and theory of anarchism, socialism, or any form of political and intellectual radicalism from the 19th century. I've recently taken an interest in the history of Russia and its sphere of influence, which this book only stoked.

Leier's writing is engaging. He adds humor and relevance with many tangential comments, often connecting the dynamics of 19th century society with those of 21st century society. Unfortunately, these tangents are sometimes annoying, as they gratuitously expose an ax to grind, or they suggest that he is ignorant of some topic that he has strong opinions about (such as how capitalists increase their profit).

It becomes apparent early on that if Leier is not an anarchist, he at least sympathizes with anarchism. His treatment of Bakunin often comes off as defensive--going out of his way to refute and even mock previous authors who have defamed Bakunin.

As for Bakunin himself, while Leier is clearly attempting to rehabilitate Bakunin's reputation, he admits some of Bakunin's shortcomings, if only to make him seem more human. Leier repeatedly notes Bakunin's inability to manage money, along with his tendency to constantly borrow money from friends and family without much of an idea of how he would repay them.

I find this aspect of Bakunin's personality to be rather distasteful, earning him the title of "wanker". It seems that Bakunin was capable of crafting fine theories about the economic condition of man, but was unable manage basic economic affairs. To Bakunin's credit, Leier suggests that he was aware of his own shortcomings, and eager to learn from socialists who had little formal education, but had developed socialist ideals as the result of their own experience as laborers, thereby fulfilling the socialist mantra of "uniting theory with practise".

Leier also depicts Bakunin as being humble in that most anarchist of manners--he refused to dictate the details of how a good society should operate or come into being, insisting that any society should arise form the decisions of the individuals in it, rather than from any doctrine proposed by a historical figure. This was a matter of distinction within radical communities where many theorists were willing to describe a "perfect society" in precise, dogmatic detail.

In summary: I liked it. It seems that others have generally liked it. The best review I saw was by this history professor.