Posts Tagged ‘Inequality’

Buzzwords circulating heavily in the public sphere these days include equality, equity, inclusion, representation, diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, and privilege. How they are defined, understood, and implemented are contentious issues that never seem to resolve. Indeed, looking back on decade after decade of activism undertaken to address various social scourges, limited progress has been made, which amounts to tinkering around the edges. The underlying bigotry (opinion, motivation, activity) has never really been eradicated, though it may be diminished somewhat through attrition. Sexism and racism in particular (classics in an expanding universe of -isms) continue to rage despite surface features taking on salutary aspects. Continued activism use the buzzwords above (and others) as bludgeons to win rhetorical battles — frequently attacks on language itself through neologism, redefinition, and reclamation — without really addressing the stains on our souls that perpetuate problematic thinking (as though anyone ever had a lock on RightThink). Violence (application of actual force, not just mean or emphatic words) is the tool of choice deployed by those convinced their agenda is more important than general societal health and wellbeing. Is violence sometimes appropriate in pursuit of social justice? Yes, in some circumstances, probably so. Is this a call for violent protest? No.

Buzzwords stand in for what we may think we want as a society. But there’s built-in tension between competition and cooperation, or alternatively, individual and society (see the start of this multipart blog post) and all the social units that nest between. Each has its own desires (known in politics by the quaint term special interests), which don’t usually combine to form just societies despite mythology to that effect (e.g., the invisible hand). Rather, competition results in winners and losers even when the playing field is fair, which isn’t often. To address what is sometimes understood (or misunderstood, hard to know) as structural inequity, activists advocate privileging disenfranchised groups. Competence and merit are often sacrificed in the process. Various forms of criminal and sociopathic maneuvering also keep a sizeable portion of the population (the disenfranchised) in a perpetual and unnecessary state of desperation. That’s the class struggle.

So here’s my beef: if privilege (earned or unearned) is categorically bad because it’s been concentrated in a narrow class (who then position themselves to retain and/or grow it), why do activists seek to redistribute privilege by bestowing it on the downtrodden? Isn’t that a recipe for destroying ambition? If the game instead becomes about deploying one or more identifiers of oppression to claim privilege rather than working diligently to achieve a legitimate goal, such as acquiring skill or understanding, why bother to try hard? Shortcuts magically appear and inherent laziness is incentivized. Result: the emergent dynamic flattens valuable, nay necessary, competence hierarchies. In it’s communist formulation, social justice is achieved by making everyone equally precarious and miserable. Socialism fares somewhat better. Ideologues throughout history have wrecked societies (and their members) by redistributing or demolishing privilege forcibly while hypocritically retaining privilege for themselves. Ideology never seems to work out as theorized, though the current state of affairs (radical inequality) is arguably no more just.

More to unpack in further installments.

My inquiries into media theory long ago led me to Alan Jacobs and his abandoned, reactivated, then reabandoned blog Text Patterns. Jacobs is a promiscuous thinker and even more promiscuous technologist in that he has adopted and abandoned quite a few computer apps and publishing venues over time, offering explanations each time. Always looking for better tools, perhaps, but this roving public intellectual requires persistent attention lest one lose track of him. His current blog (for now) is The Homebound Symphony (not on my ruthlessly short blogroll), which is updated roughly daily, sometimes with linkfests or simple an image, other times with thoughtful analysis. Since I’m not as available as most academics to spend all day reading and synthesizing what I’ve read to put into a blog post, college class, or book, I am not on any sort of schedule and only publish new blog posts when I’m ready. Discovered in my latest visit to The Homebound Symphony was a plethora of super-interesting subject matter, which I daresay is relevant to the more literate and literary among us. Let me draw out the one that most piqued my interest. (That was the long way of tipping my hat to Jacobs for the link.)

In an old (by Internet standards) yet fascinating book review by Michael Walzer of Siep Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity: Equality and Cultural Difference in World History (2017), Walzer describes the four inequalities that have persisted throughout human history, adding a fifth identified by Stuurman:

  • geographic inequality
  • racial inequality
  • hierarchical inequality
  • economic inequality
  • temporal inequality

I won’t unpack what each means if they’re not apparent on their face. Read for yourself. Intersections and overlapping are common in taxonomies of this sort, so don’t expect categories to be completely separate and distinct. The question of equality (or its inverse inequality) is a fairly recent development, part of a stew of 18th-century thought in the West that was ultimately distilled to one famous phrase “all men are created equal.” Seems obvious, but the phrase is fraught, and we’ve never really been equal, have we? So is it equal before god? Equal before the law? Equal in all opportunities and outcomes as social justice warriors now insist? On a moment’s inspection, no one can possibly believe we’re all equal despite aspirations that everyone be treated fairly. The very existence of perennial inequalities puts the lie to any notion of equality trucked in with the invention of humanity during the Enlightenment.

To those inequalities I would add a sixth: genetic inequality. Again, overlap with the others is acknowledged, but it might be worth observing that divergent inherited characteristics (other than wealth) appear quite early in life among siblings and peers, before most others manifest. By that, I certainly don’t mean race or sex, though differences clearly exist there as well. Think instead of intelligence, height, beauty, athletic ability, charisma, health and constitution, and even longevity (life span). Each of us has a mixture of characteristics that are plainly different from those of others and which provide either springboards or produce disadvantages. Just as it’s unusual to find someone in possession of all positive characteristics at once — the equivalent of rolling a 12 for each attribute of a new D&D character — few possess all negatives (a series of 1’s), either. Also, there’s probably no good way to rank best to worst, strongest to weakest, or most to least successful. Bean counters from one discipline or another might try, but that runs counter to the mythology “all men are created equal” and thus becomes a taboo to acknowledge, much less scrutinize.

What to do with the knowledge that all men are not in fact created equal and never will be? That some are stronger; more charming; smarter; taller with good teeth (or these days, dentists), hair, vision, and square jaws; luckier in the genetic lottery? Well, chalk it up, buddy. We all lack some things and possess others.

The difference between right and wrong is obvious to almost everyone by the end of kindergarten. Temptations persist and everyone does things great and small known to be wrong when enticements and advantages outweigh punishments. C’mon, you know you do it. I do, too. Only at the conclusion of a law degree or the start of a political career (funny how those two often coincide) do things get particularly fuzzy. One might add military service to those exceptions except that servicemen are trained not to think, simply do (i.e., follow orders without question). Anyone with functioning ethics and morality also recognizes that in legitimate cases of things getting unavoidably fuzzy in a hypercomplex world, the dividing line often can’t be established clearly. Thus, venturing into the wide, gray, middle area is really a signal that one has probably already gone too far. And yet, demonstrating that human society has not really progressed ethically despite considerable gains in technical prowess, egregiously wrong things are getting done anyway.

The whopper of which nearly everyone is guilty (thus, guilty pleasure) is … the Whopper. C’mon, you know you eat it do it. I know I do. Of course, the irresistible and ubiquitous fast food burger is really only one example of a wide array of foodstuffs known to be unhealthy, cause obesity, and pose long-term health problems. Doesn’t help that, just like Big Tobacco, the food industry knowingly refines their products (processed foods, anyway) to be hyperstimuli impossible to ignore or resist unless one is iron willed or develops an eating disorder. Another hyperstimulus most can’t escape is the smartphone (or a host of other electronic gadgets). C’mon, you know you crave the digital pacifier. I don’t, having managed to avoid that particular trap. For me, electronics are always only tools. However, railing against them with respect to how they distort cognition (as I have) convinces exactly no one, so that argument goes on the deferral pile.

Another giant example not in terms of participation but in terms of effect is the capitalist urge to gather to oneself as much filthy lucre as possible only to sit heartlessly on top of that nasty dragon’s hoard while others suffer in plain sight all around. C’mon, you know you would do it if you could. I know I would — at least up to a point. Periods of gross inequality come and go over the course of history. I won’t make direct comparisons between today and any one of several prior Gilded Ages in the U.S., but it’s no secret that the existence today of several hundy billionaires and an increasing number of mere multibillionaires represents a gross misallocation of financial resources: funneling the productivity of the masses (and fiat dollars whiffed into existence with keystrokes) into the hands of a few. Fake philanthropy to launder reputations fail to convince me that such folks are anything other than miserly Scrooges fixated on maintaining and growing their absurd wealth, influence, and bogus social status at the cost of their very souls. Seriously, who besides sycophants and climbers would want to even be in the same room as one of those people (names withheld)? Maybe better not to answer that question.

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Here’s a deal many people would take: you get to live in the First World and enjoy the ample albeit temporary benefits of a modern, post-industrial economy, but to enable you, people in the Third World must be brutally exploited, mostly out of sight and out of mind. (Dunno what to say about the Second World; comparisons are typically hi-lo. And besides, that Cold War nomenclature is probably badly out of date.) There no need to say “would take,” of course, because that’s already the default in the First World. Increasingly, that’s also the raw deal experienced by the lower/working class in the United States, which now resembles other failed states. People without means are driven into cycles of poverty or channeled into the prison-industrial complex to labor for a pittance. That’s not enough, though. The entirety of public health must be gamed as a profit center for Big Pharma, which wrings profit out of suffering just like the U.S. prison system. That’s one of the principal takeaways from the last two years of pandemic. Indeed, from a capitalist perspective, that’s what people are for: to feed the beast (i.e., produce profit for the ownership class). For this very reason — the inhumanity of exploiting and subjugating people — critics of capitalism believe the ruthlessness of the profit motive cannot be tempered and the economic system is ripe for replacement.

Arguments that, “yeah, sure, it’s a flawed system but it’s still the best one on offer” are unconvincing. Rather, they’re a rationalization for lack of imagination how a better, more equitable system might be developed and tried. Human nature, frankly as “animal” as any other animal, also discourages anyone from rising above social conditioning or breaking from the herd. Instead, history forces fundamental change only when decrepit systems no longer function. Late-stage capitalism, having reached nearly the full extent of easily exploitable resources (materials and labor), is creaking and groaning under the weight of its inbuilt perpetual growth imperative. The dynamic is nonnegotiable, as measures of gross national product (GNP) are only acceptable if a positive index, the higher the better. Whereas previous social/economic systems failed in fits and starts, transitioning gradually from one to the next, it’s doubtful capitalism can morph gracefully into a new system given its momentum and totalizing character.

For many millennia, slavery was the solution to labor needs, which became morally intolerable especially in the 19th century but was really only driven underground, never truly extinguished. That’s the point of the first paragraph above. Terminology and mechanisms have sometimes been swapped out, but the end result is scarcely less disagreeable for those on the bottom rungs. Globalization brought practically the entire world population into the money economy, which had been irrelevant to peasant and subsistence societies. Apologists often say that the spread of capitalism enabled those peoples to be lifted out of poverty. That’s a ridiculous claim while wealth/income inequality continues to launch the ultrarich into the stratosphere (literally in the infamous case of at least a couple billionaires) compared to the masses. Yes, refrigerators and cell phones are now commonplace, but those are hardly the best measures of human wellbeing.

So what’s person of conscience to do? Born into a socioeconomic system from which there is no escape — at least until it all collapses — is there any way not to be evil, to not exploit others? Hard to say, considering we all consume (in varying degrees) products and services obtained and provided through the machinations of large corporations exploiting humans and nature on our behalf. When it all does collapse in a heap of death and destruction, don’t look for high-minded reexamination of the dynamics that led to that endgame. Rather, it will be everyone for themselves in a futile attempt to preserve life against all odds.

To set up this blog post, let me venture recklessly into a less-familiar (for me at least) area of science, namely, physics. Intersections with particle physics and cosmology might be possible, but my concern is within the everyday world of objects that don’t require an electron microscope or telescope to be seen by humans. Most of us know in a routine sense that liquids, solids, and gases come under a variety of influences, e.g., radiation (including light), heat (and its inverse cold), and pressure (and its absence vacuum or its inverse suction). Could be other causes of deformation; it’s not my area of expertise but rather that of materials engineers who determine how much stress various kinds of a particular material can withstand before becoming useless. Pressure in combination with heat governs when an object, tool, or part is likely to fail over its projected useful life, which can be the root of either planned obsolescence or permanence for particularly hardy man-made (?) objects such as Neolithic ruins. For solid objects in particular, the amount of deformation that can be absorbed relates to its function. Rubber bands, springs, and paper clips serve their purpose by tolerating deformation, whereas bridge framing has far less flexion. When objects become truly massive, such as planets and stars (suns), gravitational forces in their interiors where the highest pressure/heat is found produce effects that are understood imperfectly. As I understand it, the (inferred?) molten iron core of Earth is responsible for its magnetic field, which has been determined to reorient repeatedly over planetary history. The sun is massive enough to produce nuclear fusion and energy roughly equivalent to the explosion of 91.92 billion megatons of TNT per second.

/rant on

Importing deformation under pressure into human character and society, opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale arguably produce the most distortion. Although many welcome the prospect of a big lottery win, anecdotal evidence suggests that most winners simply can’t take the sudden release of normal financial responsibility (pressure). Similarly, those who rise from austere beginnings to become hundy billionaires (names withheld) reliably become maniacs, diverting their wealth into undeserved influence, boondoggles, and self-serving bids for immortality. Born into obscene wealth? Arguably never even had a chance at normalcy. And because fame, influence, and indulgence go with extraordinary fortunes, idle whims are given serious consideration because, after all, why the hell not? Nothing holding back someone who can essentially purchase anything.

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Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

“Language is dynamic” is a phrase invoked in praise or derision of shifts in usage. Corollaries include “the only constant is change” and “time’s arrow points in only one direction” — both signalling that stasis is an invalid and ultimately futile conservative value. The flip side might well be the myth of progress, understood in reference not to technological advancement but human nature’s failure to rise above its base (animal) origins. This failure is especially grotesque considering that humans currently albeit temporarily live in an age of material abundance that would provide amply for everyone if that largesse were justly and equitably produced and distributed. However, resources (including labor) are being systematically exploited, diverted, and hoarded by a small, unethical elite (what some call “alpha chimps”) who often use state power to subjugate vulnerable populations to funnel further tribute to the already obscenely wealthy top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But that’s a different diatribe.

Although I’m sensitive the dynamism of language — especially terms for broad ideas in need of short, snappy neologisms — I’m resistant to adopting most new coin. For instance, multiple colors of pill (red, blue, white, and black to my knowledge) refer to certain narrative complexes that people, in effect, swallow. Similarly, the “blue church” is used to refer to legacy media struggling desperately (and failing) to retain its last shreds of legitimacy and authority. (Dignity is long gone.) Does language really need these terms or are hipsters just being clever? That question probably lacks a definitive answer.

My real interest with this blog post, however, is how the modern digital mediascape has given rise to a curious phenomenon associated with cancel culture: deletion of tweets and social media posts to scrub one’s past of impropriety as though the tweet or post never happened. (I’ve never deleted a post nor have any plans to.) Silicon Valley hegemons can’t resist getting their piece of the action, too, by applying deeply flawed algorithms to everyone’s content to demonetize, restrict, and/or remove (i.e., censor) offensive opinion that runs counter to (shifting) consensus narratives decided upon in their sole discretion as water carriers for officialdom. Algorithmic dragnets are not effective kludges precisely because thoughts are not synonymous with their online expression; one merely points to the other. Used to be said that the Internet is forever, so wait before posting or tweeting a reasonable duration so that irresponsible behavior (opinion and trolling, mostly) can be tempered. Who knows who possesses technical expertise and access to tweet and video archives other than, say, the Wayback Machine? When a public figure says or does something dumb, a search-and-destroy mission is often launched to resurrect offending and damning past utterance. Of course, scrub-a-dub erasure or deletion is merely another attempt to manage narrative and isn’t a plea for forgiveness, which doesn’t exist in the public sphere anyway except for rehabilitated monsters such as past U.S. presidents a/k/a war criminals. And the Internet isn’t in fact forever; ask an archivist.

Shifting language, shifting records, shifting sentiment, shifting intellectual history are all aspects of culture that develop naturally and inevitably over time. We no longer believe, for instance, in the four elements or geocentrism (a/k/a the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system; never mind the intransigent Flat Earthers who need not be silenced). Darker aspects of these shifts, however, include the remarkable Orwellian insight that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” from the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s the passage for context:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past … The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

In 2021, the awful lesson is taken to heart by multiple parties (not the Party in the novel but wannabes) who have latched maniacally onto Orwellian mechanisms of thought control specifically through the manipulation of records, history, and language. But as mentioned above, policing mere expression is not the same as policing thought itself, at least among those who retain critical thinking skills and independence of mind. I abstain judgment how effective attempted brainwashing is with the masses but will at least mention that Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007 before settling in the U.S. in 2014, describes the chilling totalitarian thought control exercised by the North Korean government — the stuff of nightmare dystopianism. The template is by now well established and despots everywhere are only too happy to implement it repeatedly, following an evil trajectory that should be resisted at every turn while still possible.

Something in an online discussion brought me back to my days as a Boy Scout. (No, not that, with your nasty, nasty assumptions.) It was one of the first merit badges I earned: Citizenship in the Community (link to PDF). I can’t remember any of the content anymore (haven’t yet consulted the PDF), and indeed, looking back with the advantage of several decades of hindsight, I have a hard time imagining any of the (morality? ethics?) lessons learned back then having had much durable impact despite remembering an emerging confidence and awareness (a commonplace delusion of youth) of my position within the community. Still, I appreciate having had many Boy Scout character-building experiences, which led to simple and enduring understandings of ideals such as honor, duty, preparedness, service, forbearance, shouldering hardships, and perhaps most of all, accepting responsibility for others, particularly those younger and weaker. (I’m not claiming to be any sort of paragon of virtue. Cynicism and misanthropy may have wrecked that aspiration.) I never served in the military, but I surmise others learn similar lessons slightly later in life when more readily absorbed and not so easily forgotten. In the past decade plus, some may seek these lessons through participation in endurance sports or martial arts (if not distorted by bad instruction like in Cobra Kai), though the focus outward (i.e., toward community and mutual reliance) may not be as strong.

The subject came up in a discussion of participants in small-scale democracy, something I’ve always known is messy, unrewarding, thankless, and sometimes costly yet still necessary to be a good citizen contributing to one’s community. Many adults get their first taste of local democratic groups (read: self-governing) through parent groups like the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Or maybe it’s a performing arts organization, home owner’s association, church council, social work hotline, self-help group, or cooperative. Doesn’t matter which. (Political activism and organizing might be something quite different. Hard to say.) Groups run on the good will and dedication of volunteered time and skills for the benefit of members of the community. As with any population, there are always free riders: those who contribute nothing but enjoy and/or extract benefits. In fact, if everyone were integrally involved, organizational complexity would become unmanageable. If activities of such groups seem like a piece of cake or vaguely utopian, just join one and see how different character types behave. Lotta dead wood in such organization. Moreover, power mongers and self-aggrandizers often take over small-scale democracies and run them like private fiefdoms. Or difficult policy and finance discussions divide otherwise like-minded groups into antagonists. As I said, it’s a decidedly messy undertaking.

Members of the community outside of the executive group (typically a board of directors) also have legitimate interests. Maybe community members attend meetings to keep informed or weigh in online with unconstructive complaints and criticisms (or even mockery and trolling) but then refuse to contribute anything worthwhile. Indeed, boards often have difficulty recruiting new officers or participants because no one wants to take on responsibility and face potential criticism directed at them. I’ve also seen boards settle into the same few folks year after year whose opinions and leadership grow stale and calcifies.

Writ large, leadership skills learned through citizenship in the community rise to the equivalents of Boy Scout merit badges Citizenship in the Nation and Citizenship in the World (no links but searchable). Skills deployed at those strata would arguably require even greater wherewithal and wisdom, with stakes potentially being much higher. Regrettably, having just passed through an election cycle and change of leadership in the U.S., my dour assessment is that leadership has failed miserably at multiple issues. The two most significant involve how we fail to organize society for the benefit of all, namely, economic equality and resource sustainability. Once market forces came to bear on social organization and corporate entities grew too large to be rooted in community service anymore, greed and corruption destroyed high-minded ideals. More self-aggrandizers and careerists than ever (no names, fill in the blanks, they’re all famous — or infamous) rose to the tops of organizations and administrations, especially politics, news media, and the punditry. Their logical antidotes are routinely and ruthlessly disenfranchised and/or ignored. The lasting results are financial inequality run amok and unsustainable resource addictions (energy mostly) that are toxifying the environment and reducing the landscape to ruin and inhabitability. (Perpetual war is a third institutional failure that could be halted almost immediately if moral clarity were somehow to appear.) It’s all out there, plain to see, yet continues to mount because of execrable leadership. Some argue it’s really a problem with human nature, a kind of original stain on our souls that can never be erased and so should be forgiven or at least understood (and rationalized away) within a large context. I’m not yet ready to excuse national and world leaders. Their culpability is criminal.

I have a memory of John Oliver dressing down a room full of entertainment journalists (ugh …) asking him questions following his Emmy win a few years ago. The first few had failed to offer even perfunctory congratulations for his award but instead leapt straight into questions. After his demand that everyone observe basic courtesy by at least acknowledging the reason for their attention being focused on him, each dutifully offered their compliments, which Oliver accepted graciously, and a question and answer ensued. It was a worthy reminder (something I mistakenly believed superfluous when I was much younger) that we have a sophisticated set of manners developed over time to which we should all subscribe. Behaving otherwise (i.e., skipping straight to matters at hand) is boorish, clownish, rude, and unsophisticated. Thus, routine exchanges at the beginnings of most interviews intended for broadcast go something to the effect, “Thanks for appearing on the show” or “Nice to meet you” followed by “Pleased to be here” or “My pleasure.” It’s part of a formal frame, the introduction or prologue, bearing no significant content but needful for hosts and guests to acknowledge each other.

In the course viewing many podcasts, often conducted by relative unknowns who nonetheless manage to attract someone of distinction to interview, I notice a tendency to geek out and succumb to effusive fandom. Even a little bit of that has the unfortunate effect of establishing an uneasy tension because the fan often becomes unhinged in the presence of the celebrity. Even when there is no latent threat of something going really wrong, the fanboi sometimes goes to such an extreme heaping praise and adulation on the interview subject that nothing else worthwhile occurs. Instead, one witnesses only the fanboi’s self-debasement. It makes me squirm watching someone figuratively fellating a celebrity (apology for my coarseness, but that’s really what springs to mind), and those on the receiving end often look just as uncomfortable. There’s simply no good response to the gushing, screaming, fainting, delirious equivalent of a 15-year-old Beatles freak (from back in the day) failing to hold it together and being caught embarrassingly in flagrante delicto.

Like others, I admire some people for their extraordinary accomplishments, but I never describe myself as a fan. Rather, objects of my admiration fall uniformly in the category of heroes people one shouldn’t scrutinize too closely lest their flaws be uncovered. Further, those times I’ve been in the presence of celebrities are usually the occasion of some discomfort precisely because celebrities’ fame invokes a false sense of intimacy (one might say oversharing) because details of their lives are in full public view. A balanced interaction is impossible because I know quite a bit about them whereas they know nothing about me, and topics gravitate toward the reasons for their celebrity. Most of us average folks feel compelled to acknowledge the films, trophies, recordings, awards, etc. that form their accomplishments, no matter how out of date. I’ve never been in the circumstance where a famous person, recognizing that I don’t recognize him or her (or don’t kowtow as expected), plays the celebrity card: “Don’t you know who I am?”

An interrelated effect is when someone has way too much money, that fortune clouding all interactions because it transforms the person into a target for those currying favor or otherwise on the make. Scammers, conmen, golddiggers, sycophants, etc. appear to extract wealth, and the dynamic breeds mutual distrust and wariness even in routine transactions. Chalk it up as another corrupting aspect of inequality run amok, this time affecting wannabes as well. In light of this, I suppose it’s understandable that rich, famous people are most comfortable among those similarly rich and famous, thus, immune to envy and fandom (but not always). Everyone else is alienated. Weird sort of gilded case to live in — not one that I admire.

This 9-year-old blog post continues to attract attention. I suspect the reason behind sustained interest is use of the term structural violence, which sits adjacent to voguish use of the term structural racism. Existence of permanent, institutionalized violence administered procedurally rather than through blunt, behavioral force (arguably still force but obfuscated through layers of bureaucracy) seems pretty plain to most observers. Typical analyses cite patriarchy and white supremacism as principal motivators, and those elements are certainly present throughout American history right up to today. I offer a simpler explanation: greed. Thus, most (though not all) institutionalized violence can be chalked up to class warfare, with the ownership class and its minions openly exacting tribute and stealing everyone’s future. Basically, all resources (material, labor, tax dollars, debt, etc.) can be attached, and those best positioned to bend administrative operations to their will — while pretending to help commoners — stand to gain immensely.

It doesn’t much matter anymore whose resources are involved (pick your oppressed demographic). Any pool is good enough to drain. But because this particular type of violence has become structural, after gathering the demographic data, it’s an easy misdirection to spin the narrative according to divergent group results (e.g., housing, educational opportunity, incarceration rates) where such enduring structures have been erected. While there is certainly some historical truth to that version of the story, the largest inanimate resource pools are not readily divisible that way. For instance, trillions of dollars currently being created out of nothingness to prop up Wall Street (read: the ownership class) redound upon the entire U.S. tax base. It’s not demographically focused (besides the beneficiaries, obviously) but is quite literally looting the treasury. Much the same can be said of subscriber and customer bases of commercial behemoths such as Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, and Netflix. Those dollars are widely sourced. One can observe, too, that the ownership class eschews such pedestrian fare. Elites avoiding common American experience is reflected as well in the U.S. armed services, where (depending on whom one believes: see here and here) participation (especially enlisted men and women) skews toward the working class. Consider numerous recent U.S. presidents (and their offspring) who manage to skip out on prospective military service.

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that it’s taken so long for this entrenched state of affairs (structural violence visited on all of us not wealthy enough to be supranational) to be recognized and acted upon by the masses. The Occupy Movement was a recent nonviolent suggestion that we, the 99%, have had quite enough of this shit. Or course, it got brutally shut down and dispersed. A couple days ago, a caravan of looters descended upon the so-called Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the site of numerous flagship stores of luxury brands and general retailers. I don’t approve of such criminal activity any more than the ownership class looting the treasury. But it’s not hard to imagine that, in the minds of some of the Chicago looters at least, their livelihoods and futures have been actively stolen from them. “Look, over there! In that window! Resources for the benefit of rich people. They’ve been stealing from us for generations. Now let’s steal from them.” The big difference is that designer handbags, electronics, and liquor hauled away from breached storefronts is relatively minor compared to structural violence of which we’ve become more acutely aware recently. Put another way, complaining about these looters while ignoring those looters is like complaining about someone pulling your hair while someone else is severing your legs with a chainsaw, leaving you permanently disabled (if not dead). They’re not even remotely in the same world of harm.