Outside the Asylum

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Just Deserts

Cake or death--that’s a pretty easy question. I mean, anyone can answer that.
Eddie Izzard

...we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled up in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.
Ursula Le Guin

As you all may have noticed, I often use my writing to poke holes in the ideas of the right. This includes the Trumpian right (which appears to function more or less like a cult of personality); it includes the fascist right (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Brennan, John Bolton, Don Regan, Ronald Reagan, etc.), and it includes people who are, in what amounts to a triumph of modern propaganda techniques, falsely labelled as “left” because they work toward fascist outcomes from within the Democratic rather than the Republican party.

I think it’s important from time to time to subject left-wing assumptions and habits of thought to a similar critique; we obviously can’t assume that leftists never fall victim to fallacy nor trip ourselves up with unfounded assumptions. It would be easy to become complacent if we compared ourselves too often to the right, especially the corporatist right, because their fallacies are so much worse than ours. Usually, our fallacies have a fairly low chance of actually killing anyone.

Maybe that’s because, unlike our right-wing corporatist counterparts, we want to maximize not profit, but life, and something that might as well be called “happiness.” This thing I’m calling happiness requires both the freedoms elucidated in the Bill of Rights and the Four Freedoms that were described by FDR in 1941. There is a bit of overlap, because FDR’s “four freedoms” include the freedom of speech and of religion:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.
https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrthefourfreedoms.htm

To put it simply, a human being, in order to become the best it can be, should be free from both tyranny and want. You don’t prove that you are the best by succeeding despite tyranny and want. That would assume a pre-existing natural meritocracy operating in a vacuum, independent of all circumstances: an underlying talent or virtue which is just waiting to be revealed under pressure. The right-wing idea seems to be that such a natural meritocracy does exist, and it is unveiled to the uninitiated by the pressure of adverse conditions. Those who win against the odds are superior to those who are crushed beneath those same odds.

It’s true that winning against the odds makes a good story. Americans, on both the left and right, are in love with such stories. I like them myself, probably because it’s fundamentally reassuring to think that one need not be defeated by ill fortune or malice.

Unfortunately, such stories can also lead to the notion that tyranny, want, and all other manner of hardships should not be eradicated or mitigated because they are the great winnowing hook that separates the wheat from the chaff. Under this ideology, all forms of hardship, including injustice, are merely the opportunity for greatness to put itself on display (and also, though this is less often stated aloud, the opportunity to cull the herd of inferior stock). There are multitudes of problems with this belief. One only has to poke at it a little to find a nasty smell reminiscent of eugenics, Calvinism, and other atrocious dogmas.

They never seem to ask these questions:

If someone succeeded despite poverty, tyranny, bigotry, or disease, what might they have done without those hardships?

Shouldn’t we want everyone to succeed? Don’t we all benefit when an individual successfully develops his imaginative gift, her capacity for invention, her athletic ability, his scholarship, their ability to build and sustain communities?

Granted, there are some people who will never succeed by any of the current definitions of that word, so I suppose a third question is in order: Are we willing to designate such people as garbage? And a fourth: If we are willing to designate any people as garbage, where does it stop? Who gets to define what constitutes success, or what degree of failure puts one into the “garbage” category?

The left has been on the right side of these questions for around a hundred and seventy years or more. We believe that the world would be better, and humanity would do better, if we maximized both our survival chances and our capacity for self-realization (two things not entirely unconnected). To do so, one must struggle against the common enemies of man: poverty, tyranny, disease, and war itself. These products of malice or misfortune are seen, from the left wing point of view, as obstructions to excellence, in the same way that it’s an obstruction to your corn crop if you have the misfortune to undergo a forty-day drought—or if your enemy sows your field with salt. Excellence and happiness are not inimical to one another; you don’t create the largest number of successful individuals, nor, possibly, even the most successful few individuals, by making people miserable. Our world as it’s currently constituted provides fairly compelling evidence of that statement. If misery created success, we should be up to our ears in success; yet one would have to be a sociopath to describe our current historical trajectory as “successful." If success has anything to do with survival, it's arguable that Homo sapiens has rarely been less successful.

Yet, despite being dedicated to maximizing human happiness, the left has become embroiled in an odd fallacy: we have gotten the idea that misery is virtue. The argument goes something like this. There are people in the world who are enduring agony for no reason (or at least, no justifiable reason). They are being experimented on by pharmaceutical corporations in Africa, or they are being worked to death by Apple Corporation in China, or they are being tortured at Guantanamo Bay, or they are being carpet-bombed in Palestine, or they are starving in…well, many places. Maybe they are being jailed for no reason, or are being murdered with impunity; maybe they had the misfortune to live in a place targeted by the global elite and consequently a war exploded over their heads and killed them by the thousands, leaving the survivors struggling in a junk heap that used to be their lives. How can I possibly be happy in a world that contains such atrocities? In fact, if I *am* happy, I must be an immoral lout, redolent of privilege, insulated behind walls of wealth, able to ignore these atrocities whenever I like.

It sounds really convincing.

The problem is, my misery has no appreciable benefit for the victims of injustice. My being unhappy has no more effect on them than my being happy. In fact, my feelings are pretty much completely beside the point—as is my virtue, or lack of it.

Whether I have a bad character, or whether I'm the 21st-century answer to Mother Teresa, it is not my lack of good character that’s causing pharmaceutical corporations to use Africa as a lab; it’s not my feelings that keep Chinese people working in a closed facility where the conditions are so bad that they have to stretch nets between floors to prevent workers from committing suicide; when I broke down in tears, several years ago, after reading an article about Guantanamo Bay, my grief did the inmates of that horrible place no good whatsoever, just as my good mood today (against the odds) does them no harm. Because it’s not about me. My individual moral character is not the sun around which these issues revolve; my feelings are not interchangeable for actions, and certainly are not interchangeable with the kind of actual, material change for the better which would relieve the suffering of these people.

The point of leftism is not to prove how sensitive I am to the suffering of wronged others; the point is to end their suffering by changing the world.

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lotlizard's picture

In recent years, advocates for identity group politics have succeeded in elevating feelings to the level of an argument that “trumps” almost every other consideration. The new principle seems to be, “Your rights end where my/our feelings begin.”

“Do I feel oppressed by something or someone? Then by definition it’s / they’re oppressing me, committing violence against me. Who are you to judge or contradict? You’re not me or a member of my group.”

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9 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

Identity politics is one prong of the fork. "I feel your pain" is another. Being black or LGBTQ or female is supposed to be a substitute for taking action toward justice. Being sympathetic, a la Bill Clinton of the 90s or Nancy Pelosi of recent years ("If Black Lives Matter approaches you, be sympathetic, but don't make any specific promises) is supposed to be a substitute for taking action toward justice. Barack "The Climate Speech Was Last Summer" Obama showed that giving rational, sensible speeches is supposed to be a substitute for taking action toward justice--or, in that case, toward survival.

I used to say that it wasn't so much that Black people were trading their inheritance for a bowl of beans when they supported Obama--it was more like they were trading their inheritance for a picture of a bowl of beans. What's on offer is the political, ideological equivalent of Monopoly money, and we're expected to act like they're real simoleons.

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4 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

seems very little of "the left" remains. It has been consumed by the corporatazation of the entire system. As Brother Cornel said this week we have a choice between a Neoliberal Disaster or a Neofascist Catastrophe!
Perhaps the Bernie folks represent some vestige of the left?

Thomas Franks has been around lately pushing his book on populism suggesting (as does Nader) that uniting the working class from both sides of the spectrum is the hope. MLK also thought that was the best approach. I don't know, seems to me we need to blow up the entire political system and start over creating more direct democracy now that we have the internet and blockchain technology. Of course then the problem would be the lack of honest media to educate people about the issues.

Reminds me of the star Trek joke - "Quick Scottie, beam me up. I'm in a world of shit down here."

Hope you and yours are doing well. COVID has finally made into the rural areas here. My county is estimating 1 in 10 folks are infected. However, the rate of increase is decreasing. So weird. Take care and be well!

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9 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout @Lookout

All my best wishes for you and your wife. Stay well!

As for the left, the only "left" that really gets any airtime to speak of is Antifa. And, of course, there are honest left-wing people of good will involved in BLM, though I bet most of the honest people acting in good faith are not at the higher levels of the organization. George Soros is not, of course, "left;" we are one of the few sites that seems to understand that fact.

Jimmy Dore and the people in his circle are what I call "left." Abby Martin and her circle at The Empire Files also. Aaron Mate and the other guys at the GrayZone. Jamarl Thomas. Tim Black. Hell, I'll even throw in Kyle Kulinski, though he is considerably to the right of me. Same for Nick Brana. Matt Taibbi. Even Matt Stoller, who is about as mainstream as I get. Possibly Krystal Ball. Mike Figueredo. The Rational National. Hard Lens Media. Lee Camp and Redacted Tonight. Jordan Chariton at Status Coup. I'm probably forgetting some people.

So yes, there is a "left" in America. But, for the most part, the Left will not be televised.

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7 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

I guess I was thinking politicians where even the so called left seem pretty lame...mainly in their refusal to call out the war machine, the corrupt party, and so... they all voted for the CARES act which sent billion into the hands of billionaires. That is what leaves me wondering where is the overused/misused term "Left".

...and we're doing fine hunkering down in the holler. Thanks for asking.

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5 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

It's dying to get better.

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10 users have voted.

Let's try to help each other
find a better way.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

do you know I'd never heard this song before?

Thank you so much for this.

"Won't you please come to Chicago/Or else join the other side."

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4 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Anja Geitz's picture

The right-wing idea seems to be that such a natural meritocracy does exist, and it is unveiled to the uninitiated by the pressure of adverse conditions.

Which is the reason why I’ve always hated the analogy that human being are like diamonds. We are not like diamonds and pressure does not bring out our true characters. The act of kindness does. Especially when doing so garners you nothing in return.

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8 users have voted.

There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

@Anja Geitz

sign in a local shop.
Being kind is not a quarantinable
commodity.
Cheers

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8 users have voted.

Let's try to help each other
find a better way.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Anja Geitz

One could analyze the whole thing rationally, and ask the question: "What are the range of ordinary human responses to stress?" and then examine the gamut of responses, asking "How often does stress lead to exceptional, positive human responses (as with a mother lifting a car off her child)?" "How often does stress lead to people sinking to their lowest common denominator (as with 1930s Nazism)?". But it's impossible to perform that rational analysis when there's all this crappy dogma about. It's like you keep running into intellectual furniture every time you take a step.

In any case, the idea of inventing hardship so that people will excel, like the idea of injuring someone so they will have a release of endorphins, is one best used under extremely limited and well-defined circumstances.

Of course, that's not really what they're doing, anyway; the people who run this culture don't run it like a coach runs practice ("Do ten more pushups, McClusky! Do you want to be on this team or not?") or like a teacher setting a tough exam ("If you think this is hard, wait till you see college. You'd better take this seriously.") Coaches and teachers want for their students to excel, unless they're unregenerate shitheads who shouldn't be in that job, and when they are tough on people, it's with an eye to getting them to improve. The people running this country aren't in loco parentis to us, and they don't care whether we improve or not, no matter what they say.

What they're really saying is "If you have a problem, it's your problem. Everything is great but you."

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8 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Anja Geitz

for your kind words.

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4 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

enhydra lutris's picture

I particularly loved this paragraph:

To put it simply, a human being, in order to become the best it can be, should be free from both tyranny and want. You don’t prove that you are the best by succeeding despite tyranny and want. That would assume a pre-existing natural meritocracy operating in a vacuum, independent of all circumstances: an underlying talent or virtue which is just waiting to be revealed under pressure. The right-wing idea seems to be that such a natural meritocracy does exist, and it is unveiled to the uninitiated by the pressure of adverse conditions. Those who win against the odds are superior to those who are crushed beneath those same odds.

That information needs to be spread widely. As does the final, grand take-away:

The point of leftism is not to prove how sensitive I am to the suffering of wronged others; the point is to end their suffering by changing the world.

be well and have a good one.

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7 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

Did you ever watch Babylon 5? Straczynski delved deeply into social Darwinism in that. Gave it quite a thrashing, too.

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1 user has voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

is kind of along the same lines as:

Leftists object to Tomahawk missiles because they oppose nuclear war. Liberals object to Tomahawk missiles because the name is insensitive to indigenous people.

up
8 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

I hope you're having as good a Sunday as possible.

up
4 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

yellopig's picture

I've been meditating on the concept of "deserve" the last week or two. There's a lot in there:

—the way we use it to support our resentments,

—the way we use it as a bargaining chip:
"I think I deserve this; you think you deserve that; let's weigh them and see who wins."
(Americans are pathologically competitive.)

—the way we use it to flog each other, "You don't deserve that (good thing)…"

—and also to "praise" each other while at the same time not really helping each other. "Yes! You deserve that. I can't give you that, but somebody really should! Somebody else…"

As Ursula said, if we could just get over that whole concept, we could start to really think.

Thanks again.

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3 users have voted.

“We may not be able to change the system, but we can make the system irrelevant in our lives and in the lives of those around us.”—John Beckett

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@yellopig

Ursula LeGuin generally helps me out. I've been travelling with her since I was about fifteen.

Thanks for stopping by!

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2 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem