Reflections on society, politics and nature – vol. 60

This is one in a series of posts with brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include short personal notes as well. Click “read more” to see all the entries.

JUSTIFYING INJUSTICE WITH SPIRITUALITY

Religion and spirituality have always been used to justify injustice.

The most recent one I heard was from a wealthy woman in a country with many living in poverty. She justified her wealth, and her inaction and support of conservative politicians that wants to keep people in poverty, with karma. The poor are just reaping what they sowed in past lives. And she also added that they chose that life to learn something. So she doesn’t have to do anything to help or to righten the injustice.

To me, it’s very different. Yes, it’s possible there is something like karma that continues across lives, but it’s more about mind patterns, and if there is some kind of karma as she talked about, it would mean we all have infinite amounts of an infinite variety of karma.

And what it comes down it is how I relate to the lives of others. I don’t justify my own relative wealth and I certainly don’t justify poverty. I know it all comes from what we happen to be born into in an unjust system. And I do what I can to change that system, including by supporting policies and politicians working for that change.

ADOPTING THE MINDSET OF THE COLONIZERS

Some modern societies pat themselves on the back for giving indigenous people some autonomy and for honoring, to some degree, their culture.

That is, of course, a step in the right direction. But it’s good to keep the larger picture in mind.

The larger picture is that colonizers and the mainstream Western culture have oppressed the indigenous culture for centuries – through genocide and violence, and by banning their religion, forcing Christianity on them, separating children from parents, and so on.

Now, they have lost so much of their original culture that the little that’s left is not a threat anymore. So it costs almost nothing to allow them some autonomy and allow them to have the little that’s left of their culture.

The oppressed have adopted the mindset of the oppressor. They have internalized the Western culture sufficiently to no longer be a threat.

DISTRACTIONS AT A CRUCIAL TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY

We are in the middle of a huge ecological crisis that will – and already is – impacting the whole of humanity, and especially the ones with the least resources. This crisis is created by human systems that don’t take ecological realities into account, and this especially applies to our economic and related (production, transportation, etc.) systems. And the solution is either a profound systems change brought about by a collective realization of what’s going on and a will to change, or a massive die-off of humans along with many other species.

This is undeniable. We have know for decades that this would happen. We know this is without comparison the major issue of our time.

And yet, it’s not prioritized. Media have occasional stories on this topic, but don’t weave it into just about every single story as they should considering its importance. People still vote for politicians and policies that don’t prioritize this shift. Most continue to live their life as if nothing is happening. (Partly because they may now know what to do.)

And some actively chose distractions and try to get others involved in the same distractions. One of these meaningless distractions is conspiracy theories and anti-science views. Why on Earth spend time and energy on this what we KNOW is happening is far worse and more dramatic than any conspiracy theory? Why spend time on it when we know that the major challenges in our time – ecology, poverty, and so on – are systemic and the consequences of systems that made sense, to some extent, when they were created and now absolutely don’t anymore.

When I see this lack of action, and the active distractions by some, I have to admit I feel less encouraged. Will enough of us come to our senses in time? Will we identify the systemic causes and what needs to be done? Will we take the actions needed?

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND LACK OF INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

It’s no surprise that the conspiracy world is riddled with a lack of intellectual honesty.

For instance, when it comes to the covid vaccine some take the inevitable examples of a few who have a serious reaction to the vaccine and use that to discredit the vaccine in general. We know some bodies react to certain vaccines strongly, that’s not a secret. This is about the bigger picture.

They pretend that vaccines should prevent illness and say they don’t work since they don’t, and dismiss the real reason for taking the vaccine which is to prevent serious illness and death. (Which it does well.)

They talk as if vaccines are mandatory while they obviously are not. You are perfectly free to not take them.

They pretend that since masks don’t work 100% it means we shouldn’t use them. And I am sure they too know perfectly well that here too, life is imperfect. Nobody says masks should work 100%. That’s not their purpose. Their purpose is to reduce viral load, which they do well and which is crucial for how severe the illness becomes. Also, they obviously reduce transmission from the inevitable spit that comes out of our mouths when we talk. And the good ones do prevent transmission well. (I use the best ones from 3M.)

They pretend that the common-sense pandemic measures taken by many democratic countries not only unduly restrict their freedom, but is a step in some conspiracy to keep restricting their freedom. To me, this seems childish to the point that I am baffled that adults would want to appear so stupid. We already live with a large number of restrictions and responsibilities that helps society function, and most people are happy with it because we are used to it and we know it works. And there is absolutely no reason to assume that this is a step in keeping restricting freedom. When it comes to pandemics, we know what works and what doesn’t from history and epidemiology. And the vast majority of the measures we see in democratic countries follow what we know works. And to me, responsibility is as or more important, especially in these types of situations. I am happy to change my life if that means the more vulnerable among us are more protected. This is not about me, it’s about the more vulnerable.

We know that harebrained conspiracy theories flourish in pandemics. So why repeat history? The conspiracy theorists in pandemics in the past now look pretty stupid to us. Or, rather, uninformed and scared and reacting to their fears by trying to find safety through conspiracy theories. (By going into these conspiracy theories, they feel they know, they have human scapegoats instead of living with the inherent unpredictability of life, they have something to distract themselves from their discomfort, and so on.) So why do these people willingly mimic the people of the past? Probably because their need to escape into a sense of knowing and having someone to blame is greater than their interest in intellectual honesty.

The right side of history & the need for deep systemic changes

This is perhaps obvious, but worth mentioning.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

The early suffragettes were ignored, ridiculed, attacked, and then won. At least, they won women the right to vote, even if the overall process of equality between the sexes is still ongoing.

WHAT ARE WE IGNORING, RIDICULING, OR ATTACKING TODAY?

So what are people ignoring, ridiculing, or attacking today?

The most obvious is people like Greta Thunberg. She is admired by many, but she also belittled, ridiculed, and attacked by people who don’t see or care about the big picture, and don’t want our civilization to shift and become more ecologically sustainable.

She is smart, her message is sober and grounded in reality (listen to the scientists), and she is getting attention, so of course she will be ridiculed and attacked.

We also see that the very real need for thorough systemic changes is ignored by the media, politicians, many scientists, and most people in general. In order to survive, we need our systems – economic, production, energy, transportation, and so on – to be aligned with ecological realities. It seems obvious, but it requires deep and profound changes in almost all areas of our lives, so most people seem to prefer to ignore it. They pretend this need is not here. They engage in the fantasy that small changes here and there will be sufficient.

It’s likely that as this need for profound systemic changes gains more traction, as it will, then this too will be ridiculed and attacked, until it’s eventually implemented.

What else is ignored, ridiculed, or attacked by the mainstream?

The rights of ecosystems and non-human species are largely ignored, with a few exceptions. There are some laws in place, although many of these are anthropocentric in nature and we use anthropocentric arguments to gain support.

As the idea of the rights of nature gains traction and we see more real-life examples, this too will be ridiculed and attacked. To the extent ecosystems and non-human species get legal rights and real political and legal representation, it will be seen as threatening to some, and they will use this familiar strategy to try to sideline it.

These are some of the large issues that involve Earth as a whole and all life.

There are also some smaller issues. For instance, ESP, reincarnation, and UFOs have been ignored and ridiculed for a while now by mainstream media, science, and much of the general public. As there is more solid research into these phenomena, and to the extent we find that there is something to these phenomena, it’s likely that this too will become more accepted and move into the mainstream.

WHY DO WE IGNORE, RIDICULE, AND ATTACK?

Why do we ignore, ridicule, and attack these ideas and social movements?

It’s easy to ignore. We may not know what’s happening. We may see it as insignificant. We may not think it will amount to anything.

We may ridicule for a few different reasons. It may be an intentional strategy to belittle, shame, and sideline an idea or movement. If we ridicule it, we don’t have to address the substance of the issue, and we may hope that others will hesitate in agreeing and joining.

It can also be a more unconscious reaction. We see something that’s unfamiliar and fringe, so ridiculing it makes us feel more normal and mainstream. The ideas may threaten our own familiar views and habits, and ridiculing allows us to not take a closer look.

The reason we may attack these movements is similar. Some feel that their interests or identities are threatened by the movement, and they see that they are gaining traction, so they attack it.

It’s good to be aware of these dynamics. If we are part of a social change movement, it helps us predict these responses, deal with them, and not be discouraged by it. If we are prone to react in these ways – ignoring, ridiculing, and attacking – it may give us pause and find another way to deal with it.

SOME CAVEATS

When we talk about these topics, it’s good to take a look at some underlying assumptions that may color how we see and approach them.

For a while, we had an idea of inevitable social progress in our culture, and it’s clearly not that simple.

Our ideas about what constitutes “progress” differ between people, eras, and cultures. And no long-term historical trend continues indefinitely.

Also, some social movements are ignored, ridiculed, attacked, and then accepted, and they are not exactly what we want to see if we value human rights, democracy, social justice, sustainability, and so on. The Nazi movement in the 1920s and ’30s Germany one example.

When we talk about the right side of history, we usually mean according to how we see it today. Suffragettes and abolitionists were on the right side of history since we today have voting rights for both sexes, we have abolished slavery, and both conform to our current values. So although I sometimes use the phrase myself, I am also aware it’s a slippery concept.

Toni Morrison: I tell my students

I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

– Toni Morrison

Photo by Angela Radulescu – Toni_Morrison_2008.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Reflections on society, politics, and nature XII

Continued from previous posts…. These posts are collections of brief notes on society, politics, and nature.

One essential way Trump is no different.

But it wasn’t sane before. Obama was not sane; he was led by the same interests that put the corporate business ahead of people, with bread buttered by Goldman Sachs, only now, it is more brash” Sadier said. “For centuries the political class has been fucking poor people off.

This is a view I often hear from regular people, including most of my friends. But I don’t see it much from mainstream politicians, journalists, or social commentators. Of course, the job of the mainstream is to maintain the status quo, even if it benefits the few in the short term rather than the many in the long term. (Or perhaps just for that reason.)

Most politicians and political parties support neo-liberal capitalism, which in turn is designed to maximize profit for multi-national corporations at the expense of nearly everyone else, including nature and future generations. In this sense, Trump is no different from most other politicians, including Obama and both Clintons. He is just less subtle about it.

September 6, 2018

Strawman arguments
. This seems so obvious I haven’t mentioned it before but I wanted to say a few words. When American football players protest during the anthem, they are not disrespecting the US, they are highlighting a very real issue of racism and inequality. And when people criticize or disagree with Israeli policies, they are not anti-semitic. To say they respectively “disrespect the US” and are “anti-semitic” are strawman arguments and it’s transparent and childish. It’s an attempt to shame people into silence and deflect from the real issue by attacking the person. 

The golden rule in politics. Why should we treat others as we would like to be treated, even in politics? For me, it has to do with a couple of things. First, self-respect. If I treat others with respect, I can have respect for myself. The other is for strategic reasons. When I act and speak with respect, I invest in norms I would like myself and others to follow. I strengthen them. Also, if I don’t treat others with respect, I cannot expect others to do the same towards me (or politicians I support) and I am not in a position to ask them to do so. 

This came up for me today since the New York Times has an article about the resistance to Trump’s policies from within the administration. Some liberals seem to applaud this. And I understand the impulse to want to curtail some of Trump’s worst actions. But he is legally elected and the resistance described in the NYT article is actually a subversion of democracy. It sets a very dangerous precedence. And it’s definitely not something I would approve of if it happened in an administration I happened to personally support.

On the topic of the NYT article: The other side is that these unhappy civil servants would do better quitting and speaking out openly about their concerns, or try to get Trump removed if they think he is a danger to the country. It does seem a bit spineless, as Trump said, to anonymously complain in this way.

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Childish Gambino: This is America

Donald Glover’s new music video feels iconic and is understandably receiving a great deal of attention.

Why does it feel so iconic? And what is it about?

To me, it feels iconic because of its simplicity, depth, and universal archetypal themes grounded in a specific time and place. There is a strong contrast between the violence and the joyful song and dance. There is a simplicity in that it’s in one setting and mostly shot in one take. It has sincerity, depth, and urgency. The theme is clear but it leaves the interpretation and reflection up to the viewer.

And what is it about? Most obviously, both the violence and the joyful song and dance reflect Black history in the US, and also the current Black experience in the US. Both are part of their history and lives. Beyond that, it’s part of the US culture as a whole, human civilization, and each of us as individuals. It reflects our human experience. We contain and experience both.

It’s interesting that the sequential nature of the video suggests different ways of relating to this. We can bring fleeting attention to the drama of violence and then move on as if nothing happened. (As US society and media seem to do with the current gun violence, and as we as individuals sometimes do in our own lives.) Or we can acknowledge both as part of our history, our lives, humanity as a whole, and us as individuals, and engage with it more intentionally and responsibly and do something about it. Both of these are relatively privileged ways of relating to it.

There is also a third way of relating to it, which is – I imagine – is the reality of many black people in the US. They live with both and compartmentalize the violence and pain so they can move on with their lives.

Again, it’s a very simple theme. We all know that humans are capable of terrible things and wonderful things. We know both are part of our lives collectively and individually. We know that we often ignore the unpleasant things and move on to the pleasant ones. We know that can be fine in the short run but it creates problems in the long run. And yet, we often act and live as if we don’t quite know. And that’s why these reminders are so important, especially as they ignite reflection and discussion as this video is doing right now.

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