Compassion for victims, not for perpetrators

This banner helps me frame what I’ve been trying to say since Monday.

Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.
Syrian Revolution hold a banner in support of Boston.

I don’t have compassion for the perpetrators of vile acts.

My compassion extends to the victims of those acts and the environments in which both victims and perpetrators live. Given similar context, environment, and social structure, the only thing that separates a victim from a perpetrator is compassion: perpetrators do not have it.

In other words, responding to an act of terror by saying “we must have compassion and understanding” for the perpetrator doesn’t cut it for me. I have compassion for the situations (Syria, for instance) and for people in general (perhaps those holding the banner), but I will not waste my compassion on those who would turn their own victimization into an act of destruction. Why? Because out of the millions and millions of victims on this planet, only the most cowardly seek to perpetrate their problems on others.

I will not waste my compassion on current psychopaths, rather I will use my compassion and empathy to prevent societies from creating them in the future.

Gun control and ethical consciousness

When we talk about gun control and assault weapon bans, should we talk about controlling the weapons themselves, or should we talk about the ethical weight of having access to such weaponry and the implications of that weight? The national dialog certainly has been focused on the former, but I believe that the latter is far more important a thing to address.

Our right to bear arms has become a label we use for what should be called our desire to bear arms, and it is this desire that we need to discuss. It is this desire and the ethical consequences of it that have to be brought forward into the national dialog. It cannot be denied that the United States is deep in the throes of a passionate, sordid love affair with firepower. We are drenched in the post-coitus scent of black powder, molten lead, hot brass. Our language in the debate is not logical nor reasonable but passionate and fiery: the rhetoric of lovers afraid of losing each other, afraid of admitting what they have. Other countries can see the lust for weapons in our dialog, our media, our attitudes.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am not promoting a ban on anything. In fact, because my position is that we are not having the proper discussion about weapons, I am against the discussion on banning anything. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. We tried to ban alcohol: it didn’t work. We’re trying to ban drugs: that’s not working. My parents tried to tell me to not have sex with anyone in the house when I was a teenager: that certainly didn’t work. None of these things work because none of them address the issue at hand (hedonism, addiction, hormones). And the issue at hand in the gun debate should be around our responsibilities as they relate to owning weapons, the ethics implied by the second amendment.

For instance, I have a right to stand in a crowded plaza and say “Bomb!” because the first amendment grants me the right to free speech. However, it would be right for someone to hold me responsible for the damage that declaration might cause because my right to free speech also leaves me responsible for what I say and the results of those utterances. The same should hold true regarding the second amendment.

I have a right to purchase, own, and fire a weapon. However, I also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that my weapon is not used to harm others. I think most folks who are pro-gun would agree with this, and I’m glad of that. Responsible gun ownership is one of the hallmarks and cornerstones of the second amendment. Fine. Let’s not argue that here.

Looking back at the first amendment again. Imagine that I know or can deduce that someone is about to shout “Bomb” in a crowded plaza and cause an unmitigated panic in which surely a number of people will be trampled to death. Imagine I have the power to keep that from happening by simply taking away that person’s power of speech. Does my foreknowledge of that person’s action give me an ethical responsibility to stop him? Are that person’s first amendment rights being violated if I do so? These are the kinds of questions that are not easy but have to be asked of ourselves in terms of our “rights” as granted by the United States Constitution.

So how does this thought experiment apply to the second amendment? Surely we can recognize that the right to bear arms comes also with a responsibility to ensure that those arms are born in an ethical and safe manner. A manner in which violence does not come to those who are innocent. If you exercise your right to carry a weapon, then you tacitly agree to the ethical responsibility that comes with that weapon. It must be so, because otherwise we are giving ourselves over to the idea that the right to power also gives us the right to hold power over and disregard others, and surely that’s not what is meant by the second amendment.

While we debate about what is or is not an assault rifle or even if that’s a term that makes any legal sense; while we try to find “compromise” about how many bullets in a magazine is too many or few; while we spin our wheels trying to ban or not ban a variety of weapons, we are missing the point altogether. Banning a weapon does not free us of the shared ethical responsibility of how weapons are used any more than controlling the time manner and place of speech frees us from the responsibility we must bear if our speech causes harm. We are not able to see this clearly, however.

We are in love with firepower. Love has blinded us to the responsibility inherent in having access to that firepower. Blinded us so deeply and assuredly that the deaths of hundreds of people in either accidental or deliberate acts of gun violence has become nothing more to us than statistics we can compartmentalize for the sake of a pro or con stake in the national argument. We are so in love with firepower that the death of a child means less to us than the debate about how many bullets is too many or whether “assault rifle” is a real term.

Because as a nation we are granted the right to bear arms by the second amendment, we as a nation have also tacitly agreed to shoulder the ethical burden of that amendment. We know this because we live in a civilized society, not an anarchistic state. By exercising this right, we acknowledge our adherence to the laws and morality around that right. Just as in speech, driving a car, growing our own food, owning the rights to land, etc.

The debate about our love of firepower and our ethical responsibilities must begin and the argument over which component of what weapon will be regulated must stop. Only by acknowledging our responsibility for the safety of ourselves and each other can we begin to find a way to eliminate the innocent deaths caused by this love affair we have with weapons.

 

 

Affecting political change: a suggestion

Lately I’ve been getting into some debates on Facebook about the nature of political change. My position in this discussion has always been that we have to avail ourselves of the tools given to us — free speech, right to vote, access to government officials, etc. — and use every means necessary to get what we want. For some people I’ve discussed this with, my opinion is incorrigible because it includes participating in the government that they loathe so much. My point of view is that we are governed whether we like it or not, so we might as well learn the rules better than those who govern and make the changes we can. My reasoning is that this has worked before: civil rights amendment, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, poll taxes, etc. Their reasoning is that since the government is corrupt, nothing will change, so why bother participating.

As an aside, this position aggravates me to no end. Here’s why. Imagine that 100 people are all stuck in a burning building and are told that the only way to get out is to build a machine on the bottom floor and that at least 75 people have to work on the machine in order to finish it in time. Immediately, 25 people start protesting those who started the fire and refuse to help build the machine. While that’s happening, 33 people head down to the first floor to start building the machine that will be able to break them out. We’re now left with 42 people to help build the machine. If they all helped, then the machine could be built and everyone could escape. Unfortunately, 25 of those people didn’t pay attention to the rules (to remedy this in reality, please read “The Federalist Papers” and “The United States Constitution” and take particular note of the flexible structure that is in place and how change can be affected both from within and without) and head up to the top floor to build their own machine. The result? Everyone dies. That’s why I hate the “protest is the only way to change things” line of thinking: it doesn’t address the problem in the way that creates a solution.

So let’s take a look at this “protest only” method. It’s usually run by a professional protester or activist who has done this kind of thing before. It’s well-organized and scripted, and always presents a particular vibe to outside observers. All of this is tightly controlled. The emphasis with this method is on volume and presence. From my experience in participating, reporting on, and monitoring these kinds of gatherings there is usually a unifying goal bringing a number of people together in one area for the purpose of visually showing how many people agree with one thing. In some cases the participants may not be clear on why they are all there (later adopters of the “Occupy” movement), but support whatever they feel is the purpose. There is also plenty of thematic signage, uniform chanting, and hard-to-understand bullhorn-based speeches. Flash mobs, flyers, community food locations, and distrust of all government sources are also common. In some cases these protests can become violent and dangerous. This depends on the purpose and location of the protest, of course, and more of these kinds of gatherings are peaceful. Civil Disobedience and ending revolution are all possible outcomes of this approach.

I have nothing against protesting and activism. There is a strength and passion to this method that cannot be denied. The media loves images of people with signs sharing their discontent, and quick sound bytes can be easily generated from the groups’ slogans and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go!” etc). If you want quick attention to a current issue, this is a great method. Many movements were started this way, and many more will be as well. The problem with this method is contained in its very DNA: what gathers in one place must eventually disperse or keep doing something new to maintain its energy. Entropy ensues. The message gets lost. This is the flash mob of social progress. Today’s issue is tomorrow’s trivia question. The movement that arose like wildfire fanned by the hot breath of mass media dies by the same group’s smothering blanket of public attention and advertising dollars. Revolutions eventually become the next target of protest — French Revolution, Russian Student Revolt — and the heroes of the picket lines — Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin — are just as quickly demonized by future revolutionaries.

Protest by itself as a method for changing policy doesn’t do anything. Protest is a means by which an issue gets noticed. Once that happens, there is still work to do in order to change policy. Our government is — like it or not — established by those who vote. And as such, the people in government are only beholden to those who voted for them, not the people in the park or street protesting. In fact, statistics are telling the government that those people don’t vote.

You want policy change? You contact your rep over and over again. You can even tell him you’ll be at the rally tomorrow, but you need to contact him. It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or not, you’re still beholden to his decisions. While your at it get everyone at your protest to contact their reps over and over again. If a representative’s constituents present an overwhelming — or even slightly-whelming — position, he has to listen if he wants to get elected again. And don’t give me that crap about corporations and bribery. If he doesn’t get votes, he won’t be there to get bribes. We’re still in control if we want to be.

Case in point: PIPA/SOPA became a massive issue started online. All of those people posting in forums, blacking out sites, creating comics also did something else: they called their representatives. The sponsor of PIPA pulled the bill. He pulled the bill he wrote because people from his district told him to. In the case of SOPA there’s still work to do, but the vote was delayed indefinitely as a direct result of the voting public contacting their representatives.

Counter-case in point: Scott Brown (R MA) was elected to the US Senate by a majority of voters during a low-turnout election. Republicans knew that in order to try and block the health insurance reform bill, Martha Coakley would need to lose. They turned out in droves, while the democrats from a democratic state assumed victory and stayed away — even though a bulk of them would have been participating in cheering for the health insurance reform. Brown won and voted no. Voter turnout had a direct impact on the process in Washington, DC.

There is nothing wrong with protesting, but going around insisting that it’s the only way to affect change in government is absurd at best and dangerous at worst. Apathy is what your opponents bank on. They assume that if you’re in a picket line, you’re not at the polls. Unfortunately that’s more often than not the case. How about surprising the bastards and doing both? Here’s why: effectiveness at the polls is achieved through mass participation. Protesting gets people’s attention, voting tells the system what they want. If we can use both together, then that’s something that could finally tip the scales in our favor.

As an example, let’s look at China and Iran. Protests in those countries have made the news, changed our minds about the nature of social media, gave us some shocking imagery, and maybe inspired some of us along the way. However, little in the way of progress can be reported as a direct result of those protests. Why? Because there’s no recourse for those protesting to directly control the actions of government. Because that’s what voting is: a group of people coming together to express their approval or dissent with issues and people. It only works if we all do it.

In closing, I’d like to point out that a vote-based system of government is very grass roots and egalitarian in nature. It requires broad communication of issues and ideas as well as coordination of efforts and people across social and financial divides. In short, voting en masse is a grass roots, people-powered method of governing. I’m constantly told, though, that the representative democracy we have is selfish and doesn’t account for a greater good. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless we all work together, the building’s going to burn down and we’re all going to die. How’s that for greater good?

Grazing in the grass roots

I had an opportunity to participate in a small part of what is becoming a large movement in support of the “Move to Amend” campaign to adopt an amendment to the United States Constitution that declares in no uncertain terms that corporations are not people. The local group here is comprised of a handful of passionate and determined men and women — veterans of progressive campaigns and protests all — who want nothing more than the elimination of corporate control over elected officials. I couldn’t agree more with the aims of this group. There’s obviously a corruption, and it can be readily traced back to lobbying, corporate interests, and campaign donations. All of which needs to stop and control of elected officials needs to be returned to the voters for whom they serve. So while I support the movement and its aims, I feel that there are talking points that are not being addressed in the public discourse that are an essential part of deciding if this movement is worth supporting.

Firstly, there are two versions of the amendment: the version I linked above, and the one penned by Senator Bernie Sanders here [PDF]. They are actually quite different from each other, and address different points of concerns. The MtA version attempts to establish that a) all corporations are not people, that b) money is specifically not speech and b) neither a nor b apply to the press. Bernie’s version states simply that for-profit corporations would no longer be allowed to participate — through financial means — in the electoral process. These are two fundamentally different statements and to put our support behind a “non-corporate-personhood” movement would seem to imply that they are both the same. Which to choose, which to choose. I will address the specific wordings of each in a later post, but suffice it to say that we have to either merge them or pick one to support or all of our efforts are for naught. For the sake of this post, let’s assume that we’ve settled on a compromise version of the two that includes proper wording addressing the MtA points.

The second talking point is the question of what will happen if the amendment succeeds. It seems like a simple question because we tend to see the success and lack thereof as a binary result. On the one hand corporations are removed from matters of free speech, their money is kept out of politics, and people will regain control of their representatives. Without this amendment, we imagine a country where more money means more speech, where politicians make decisions based on who their largest donors are, where the voting public is unwittingly duped into electing a puppet of some foreign power. I submit however that it is not so cut and dried as it would seem.

For instance, in the case of success will the corruption we’re railing against be cured? Will this amendment keep corporations from establishing some kind of legalized slush fund through which individuals can send donations or pay for campaigns on behalf of the corporation? Will this amendment keep corporations from providing ever-increasing funds to lobbyists and directly influence law making after the election process? Will this amendment in fact make elected officials more subservient to their constituents and less so to their donors? It’s reasonable to assume given the specificity of the language and purpose that the answer to all these questions is no. Let’s suppose, though, we live in a country where the press is free, money is not the same as speech (which means it can be regulated far more than just through time, manner, and place), and corporations are not covered under the Bill of Rights.

In this new country, the government is allowed to regulate the flow of money that supports individuals who are trying to speak because money is not speech and — given the precedent of Citizens United — could not legally be used for speech. If an individual is seeking a grant from the government or a government-funded agency, that grant could be denied if the money was going to be used to perform “speech”. Could a corporation rent a hall in town to present a documentary or educational film? What are we limiting by saying money is not protected speech?

Corporations in our new country would also no longer be covered by the Bill of Rights because of our new amendment. The government would be able to freely seize, shut down, censure, or otherwise inhibit the activities of any corporation regardless of due process, etc. This could be Monsanto, or your local church (a not-for-profit corporation). The Bill of Rights is what keeps the government from doing that. If it no longer applies to corporations, they are removed from its protections. Extending this a bit further, would a work-around be that corporate rules are changed so that they can be represented by a person? Can the chairman of the board work on behalf of the corporation, but still be protected by our new amendment and the Bill of Rights? It’s not unreasonable to believe so since this has not come up as a point of discussion.

Hyperbole aside, are these likely events? Given the history of government behavior when given the latitude for that behavior, it is safe to assume that we are not outside the realm of possibility. England, Italy, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, and the United States all have glaring histories that show how their government behaves when given the right mixture of latitude, reason, and will. Could this amendment provide or be a catalyst for that kind of mixture? It’s possible given what laws are passed afterwards and how desperate certain parties are. While the future is never certain nor predictable, we can safely say that there are unforeseen circumstances that are worse than what we face now.

Lastly, we’re presented with a state of affairs where our chosen version of the amendment doesn’t pass. What if what we’re left with is a post-2009 world where corporations spending money on campaigns is a form of speech, where they can create Superpacs and support a candidate? What is our recourse to such a world? In fact, it is the same as it is in our fictional future-world above: people and their level of determination to change government through the electoral process — which is on a basic level inviolate and sacred if handled in the correct way.

No matter how much money is thrown into a campaign, how muddled a message may get, people have the ability to find their way to the truth of things if they are determined enough. the Federal Election Commission publishes all donations a candidate receives. Corporate board members can be looked up. Individual’s associations can be researched. Who paid how much to whom is a question that in the age of Google, govtrack.us, and Wikipedia is not terribly difficult to answer. Public libraries provide Internet access, free magazines and newspapers. In other words, the methodology for dealing with corruption is as powerful as the citizenry’s desire to use it.

* * * *

While I support the idea that corporations are not people, and while I support the idea that money on the scale of the millions and millions of dollars we’re seeing should not be in politics, I support the amendment movement with caution. Whether the amendment succeeds or fails, there are outcomes that are unforeseen. This is because the problem is not a question of corporate personhood, campaign donations, or lobbying. The problem is that the majority of those who are currently in government are not governing well. The only sure way to deal with such a thing is through the willingness of the governed public to take control of their own destinies.

What we’re left with after all the dust clears are some basic tenets that have always been true about our country and are mentioned numerous times in the “Federalist Papers”. The first is that participation in government is a requirement of all voting age citizens. It is not a privilege, nor a right, but a responsibility of each governed citizen who is able to participate. The second is that when the citizenry do not participate, government is pulled from their hands by factions: religious, business, cultish, political. The nature of the faction doesn’t matter, what matters is that a minority (say 33%) becomes a majority as fewer and fewer people participate.

Simplified, I think my argument for supporting the move for a constitutional amendment could be written like this:

  1. Factions are anathema to a government that is meant to represent the entirety of the governed (Federalist Papers)
  2. Corporations are a faction that harms government (Assumption)
  3. The amendment is an attempt at limiting the powers of corporations (ibid.)
  4. Therefore, supporting the amendment helps limit the power of factions (1,3)
  5. Therefore, it is reasonable to support the amendment (4)

Reasonably speaking, then, should we support the amendment movement? Given that in either a passed or failed scenario, we are still relying on the citizenry to vote, participate, and ensure corporations don’t take over elections anymore than they have then yes, but only in understanding that it’s not the solution to all of the problems of government. In other words, support or not, the problems plaguing our government are not going to go away with the success or failure of this amendment. Since there’s no real way to tell if it will do more harm than good, it’s not unreasonable to support it, but it also may not lead the country to the solution that is expected.

On militant veganism and the environment

How does one balance the importance of a strong, personal belief with the overarching needs of an entire society? The answer to this question — if there is an answer — could very well decide whether the human race is able to pull back from the environmental brink we’ve landed ourselves upon. Specifically, I’m talking about the unwillingness I’ve seen in — what I hope is a few — certain sects of veganism. These folks believe that the way to salvation for both human health and the earth’s environment is to completely eliminate any dependent relationship humans have with animals. No dairy. No leather. Certainly no meat. The idea is that by doing so we will reduce the number of greenhouse gases (methane), increase the amount of usable land (less acreage used for corn), and improve human health. I don’t doubt that they’re right, but the cost of their proposed changes is too great.

From the very first fencepost humankind put down, we started ourselves on a path that is impossible to veer from or go back down. We are the only species in the animal kingdom who practices husbandry: the raising and caring for other species as a survival mechanism. To that end, we have altered or created new strains of domesticated animals through selective breeding practices and — less endearingly — kill-offs of entire species (Aurochs among others). While this has been largely successful, there are severe drawbacks that need to be corrected. Industrial farming has impersonalized the husbandry process and turned the slaughter of other species into nothing more than a step on an assembly line. It has produced more methane than we can contain. It has taken up large chunks of land for growing genetically altered corn to feed to these species. It has also placed the control of the world’s food supplies into the hands of the powerful and wealthy. Not to mention the small cages, deplorable living conditions for the animals, etc. So yes, there’s a serious problem here that needs a serious solution. Unfortunately, veganism isn’t it.

For one thing, we’ve got billions of animals to care for. If the vegans had their way we would no longer have a use for them, but then what? Release them into the wild where they endanger or destroy indigenous species or worse? Will the methane production cease because we no longer care for these creatures, or is it more likely to get worse as it will go completely unchecked. I’ve heard it suggested by a self-described vegan that the best solution would be to slaughter all of them. Because after all, killing millions of animals all at once in a bath of blood for no reason other than they’ve outlived their usefulness is far better than sitting by while they’re slaughtered for food. This is a problem that has to be solved.

My greatest concern is on the environmental side. For any environmental solution to be effective, it has to be adopted by a vast majority of humankind. Humans are pretty particular about “adopting” things. We want to be less wasteful, but not at the cost of our families, income, personal property, or freedoms. Militant veganism with its confrontational nature, its “do this or you’re wrong” attitude, and its lack of real solutions is not attractive to vast majority of us and can never succeed on the scale required.

It’s a totalitarian perspective on an issue too complex for black and white reasoning. Totalitarianism just doesn’t work. It’s unethical, inefficient, and it chafes. The same group of people who would tell us to stop listening to the “meat and dairy lobby” will in the same breath tell us to listen to only them. There’s a middle ground; however, and while it doesn’t keep us all from eating dairy and meat, it does seem to have a positive effect on our health, the environment, and the overall well-being of the species we’ve domesticated.

The practices of permaculture and localvore by themselves are effective ways of managing resources and health, respectively. If taken together I believe that the bulk of our environmental and health issues related to animal husbandry can be solved. Firstly, permaculture removes the concept of factory farming from our society. No longer would we see mile-long, stainless steel pens and slaughterhouses funded by the government and managed by the powerful, and centralized out of reach. Each family or community would be in charge of their own food production, no matter their location. It’s pure self-sufficiency. Some would choose a vegetarian lifestyle, others would not. Some might raise timber and barter for food or wool. Either way, we end up with closer communities, cleaner air and water, decentralized food production, and a serious reduction in the number of food-borne illnesses and health issues.

Localvore is the economic model and community promise that provides the motivation for permaculture practices. It is the practice of buying and eating a certain percentage of locally-grown foods. Some communities try to be 100% localvore, others shoot for a smaller percentage with an eye on increasing it over time. Whatever the current level of consumption, by choosing to purchase our food locally we reduce the necessity for government-subsidized farming, gain a vested interest in the husbandry methods our communities use, and support the self-sufficiency or oursleves, our neighbors, and our communities. All of the issues — other than the actual eating of meat and dairy — often raised by militant vegans are solved with these two philosophies practiced in tandem.

The species husbanded in this way have healthier, happier lives and are never killed without need. The humans in these environments feel closer to the natural law and order of things. The food — vegetable or animal — is cleaner and safer. The use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds is eliminated. This is a middle ground that works. There are communities doing this today and more are coming on board every year.

The environment and the caring thereof is one of the greatest weapons vegans have in their arsenal. By showing how industrial farming practices, government subsidies, and wasteful eating are affecting not only human health but the health of the planet, vegans have started a positive dialog. The healthier ones among them have shown how — with enough money in the right location — one can live free of meat and dairy. However, in order for that positive dialog to turn into positive action. In order for the people who can make a difference to stand up and change things, the totalitarian, all-or-none diatribes must stop. The cries of “flesh eater” and “food for pleasure” must stop. The hyperbole needs to be put away. It’s blocking the real issues that have real solutions. The problems of our society and our planet are larger than anyone’s personal belief system.