thu 13 feb 2003 12:00:00 osdorp / de aker
growing up reasonable
about growing up and being reasonable.
i guess part of this is about discovery.
as i grew up, i noticed some differences between the way i was raised to believe things were, and the way things seemed to be.
i'd been led to believe that a nation and its people were, despite internal grievances, essentially one thing. you could picture nations as pyramidal chess figures on the game board of geopolitics. each nation-piece had a broad population base supporting a narrow, pointy government. and the governments of the world dealt with each other on behalf of their supporting peoples. i never had the delusion that all governments were kind to their own people. but i did see each nation and its people as one civil unit.
and why not? that's how everybody else saw it. a quick glance around the world, via television, showed lots of people cheering their governments and waving their national flags, much the way sports fans root for their home team. in each case, no matter how bad the home team might be, from the population's point of view it was still "ours."
but as i grew up, i met more people who felt alienated by "our" government. then i met people from other countries who felt alienated by "their" governments, for some of the same reasons. one of my early jobs at a south boston warehouse put me in close everyday contact with folks from iran, ukraine, argentina. the people i was meeting in real life shared a lot of the same basic needs and desires. they all wanted love, shelter, food, sex, a sense of belonging, — and also, some affirmation of their personal identity, whether through creative expression, or just by knowing their voices were being heard. and in these things we could support each other, where our respective home governments could not.
and yet the governments of nations continued to play games with each other, over issues that seemed to have little relevance to our quality of life. in fact the cold war games played by the major powers seemed to do nothing but endanger the life of the people.
so my framework changed. you could say my geopolitical orientation swung 90 degrees counterclockwise. once i started considering their real behavior, i could no longer see nations as actors on behalf of peoples. i saw nations on one side, and people on the other. and it wasn't a pretty picture. nations as political entities tend by nature toward amassing power. they can acquire power from other nations, but it is easiest to acquire it from their "own" people. in that respect, each national government could be seen as a local department of power acquisition, acting on behalf of the rulers of the world. as the power of governments steadily grew, the power of people seemed to be diminishing. that the agendas of national governments also appeared to be bought and sold by corporate and/or tribal big-boys made the whole framework even more disenchanting.
seeing the political world in that geometry, one could be tempted to imagine a dark global conspiracy guiding it. the likelihood of that is debatable, but it's also immaterial. DNA replicates itself not because of a secret conspiracy, but because of how it is structured. what matters in our world is that the structure of our organizations tends to result in an unhappy and dangerous antagonism between rulers and ruled — between all nations and all people.
another thing that i noticed as i grew up was that the people out there in the world generally weren't as bad as i'd been led to believe.
to the question "what good is government?" the first answer is usually about protecting us from each other. if not for government, bad guys would come and steal our things, our labor, our bodies and our lives — and we would have no recourse against them. the case for perceived threat is invoked both locally and globally. the argument is that on the home front we need policing against our neighbors; while on the global front we need a strong national defense against active or potential "foreign" foes.
i know from personal experience that some people are inclined to take unfair advantage of each other. that inclination can arise from laziness, greed, a sense of personal injustice, or sheer desperation. but generally speaking, we can say that some people get their affirmation of identity — their personal "yes" — from gaining power over others. which is why we have politicians and criminals. so i never disputed the fact of threat in the world.
but as i grew up, i began to see that the news and entertainment media were almost invariably telling stories of worse threat than was actually observable. in day to day life, truly predatory behavior was out there, but still comparatively rare if you really looked around. even in the worst neighborhoods, most ordinary people — the ones you rarely see on TV except as victims — seemed to be just getting along as well as they could, trying to avoid trouble, trying not to provoke each other. so the case for threat was being artificially amplified by the cultural motifs of our communication — the story shaped by our rules of storytelling. that's only natural.
unfortunately, the people who seemed to benefit materially from all that fear-mongering seemed also to be gaining ever-greater control of the news and storytelling media themselves. and it was apparent that they knew it. not just in countries like cuba, iraq, afghanistan, where the government exerted overt control of the media — but also in those countries where fewer bigger media companies had a vested interest in loosening government regulation. government and big media each had something the other wanted, and by the turn of the century it really began to appear as though one hand was washing the other, so to speak. for whatever reason, the magnification of perceived threat inevitably served as an excuse for government, corporations, legal agencies and tribal leaders to steadily acquire more power in the sphere of everyday life. just as in the computer games we were raising our kids on, no sooner did one threat appear vanquished than another appeared on the horizon.
and the more power governments gained, the more threatened we all seemed to feel.
at the same time, however, in america it seemed as though almost everybody had given up on the possibility of moral rectitude ever reappearing in government. almost everybody seemed to think that all politicians were crooked. and for heaven's sake one of our presidents had even got an illicit blowjob in office. and lied about it! the election of his replacement was so ridden with controversy that it took a couple months to sort out.
then, during the summer of 2001, i had one of the spookiest thoughts i ever had. it was a fleeting thought. i was reflecting on a series of popular movies that were being released in america, in which war heroism and patriotism were being re-converted back into the feel-good themes they'd been in my youth. and i said to myself, "this is weird. it feels like we're totally being prepped for a war."
the massacre in september of that year made me think it had been proven once and for all that the authorities are incapable of protecting people. that we literally cannot prevent others from doing evil, and that our goal as humans should be not to make them want to. as usual, the rest of the world seemed to see things from a different angle.
not only did the american president's approval rating go up a few notches before he even said or did anything. the prevailing sentiment that politicians are crooks kinda vanished. the definition of terrorism got wider and narrower at the same time: wider because more people could be suspects. narrower because terrorism was now something committed only against "western" or "pro-western" powers. actions committed by western or pro-western powers could not be defined as terrorism, even if those actions explicitly involved violence and coercion.
as i write this bit in february 2003, most americans agree that of two neighboring middle-eastern countries, one is permitted to have weapons of mass destruction and the other is not. why? because the american president says so.
so much for the theory that politicians can't be trusted. in this new context, good old-fashioned skepticism has become an act of brazen irreligion. pro-american means you may have the bomb; anti-american means you may get it dropped on you.
the world still seems to believe that actions may be judged good or evil differently depending on who performs them. that morality is a somehow matter of real estate. our customs forbid us to think that all bloodthirsty violence is intrinsically evil no matter who performs them. we are compelled not merely to excuse bloodthirsty violence on the part of our own tribe, but to go to such lengths of abberation from reason in pursuit of that excuse that in any ordinary context we would have been hospitalized. and there stands politics on the brink of holy world war as i write this.
and yet there's one more thing, one more little twist i discovered as i grew up just a bit more.
and that observation is this. most people who work for government and its countless manifestations and branches, are actually pretty decent folks. a great many of them, i think, are sincerely motivated by the unselfish desire for public service. many work very hard, and some even risk their lives, and lose them, for those ends.
granted, i've only met the fairly nice members of the authorities because i'm not important enough to get a meeting with the evil ones. in the same way, the person who smiles at you from behind the counter at starbucks tomorrow morning is there sincerely hoping to brighten your day because the evil ones are busy elsewhere, in a place with no ground floor entrance.
so what are we to make of the fact that perfectly decent people can be so broadly, so inextricably, and so sincerely wound up in systems of leviathan inhumanity?
and that's just it. they are systems. systems of society, of commerce, of policymaking, of peacekeeping, all originate as systems of thought. but in the absence of critical thinking, they can become consuming machines that frighten us from questioning. and yet, only by looking at behavior with reason — and maybe a bit of compassion — can we ever begin to unravel the truly mad from the truly sane. and so often this is just a matter of admitting to ourselves that a group of very similar behaviors actually do belong to one class of behavior. if i go outside this morning, i will stand by a canal, and a duck will probably swim by. it will probably look, act, and sound like a duck. if i call it a terrorist and another person standing across the water calls it a freedom fighter, it is still, most likely, a duck.
we just have to grant ourselves permission, for a moment, to be fools, and see things as they really are.