Saturday, January 30, 2016

It's All About the Beef

A man  by the name of LaVoy Finicum was shot dead by the Federal authorities, while he had his hands up. The Bundy Militia has stood down from their takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. And life goes on.

One side will quote you Bible verses as if they were the constitution, and sections from the constitution as if they were Bible verses. The other side is laughing and saying: well, how did you think it was going to end? Did you really think you could go up against the big, bad Federal government with a few guns and some Bible verses and the constitution and win?

Even my most libertarian friends have said to me: that is just like asking for war. Yes. that's what it is. And so was the American Revolution. The only difference is: then, those fighting for freedom had the support of those who were not. Today, asking for war is not really practical, because no one will stand up and be counted with you, and they will just say you deserved what you got when it happens.

So here's what I really think: no matter who you are, right wing or left, Bible-thumper or unbeliever, strict constructionist of the constitution or a follower of unfettered democracy: It's all about the beef. It's about your food supply. It's about the price of meat in the supermarket. It's about that steak dinner you like to eat, or the hamburgers you buy at the fast food place. And even if you are a sworn vegan, it's going to affect you where it really hurts: in your pocket book and your belly. There will be economic repercussions for all of us when those ranchers give up and close off their businesses, and go on unemployment and welfare, with their hat in their hands, like everybody else. It's not just on our heads -- we will feel it in our stomachs.

Should the Federal government own that land? No, they shouldn't. The constitution does not allow that.  But who pays attention to the constitution? That document has been pretty much ignored since before the Civil War. It was a good idea, but the people will not fight for it, so it's very, very dead.

However, city people need to realize that when they allow the authorities to destroy the independent farmer and rancher, they have only themselves to blame when there is nothing but factory produced food on the grocery store shelves. Do you want free range chickens and grass fed beef? Where do you think they come from? Not a collective farm run by hippies, I assure you. And not from the government.

This is just like what happened all those many years in the concentration camp near Weihsien in Shandong Province. When the prisoners did not stand up for the Chinese farmers who were shot for selling them eggs, they lost their egg supply. It's that simple.

You don't need to like the farmer or rancher who raises your food. You do not need to believe in what he believes or go to the same church or use the same jargon. But when he goes down, you need to get ready for very hard times at the dinner table.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Immutable Soul and Other Paradoxes of Personhood

When I was in grad school studying linguistics, I met some colleagues who had done fieldwork in the Amazon jungle. They told me about a tribe they worked with, and that tribe's concept of how souls are distributed. Now most of us in the modern world are used to the idea that souls are distributed one to a body, so if there is a human body, and it hasn't died yet, then it has a soul. But this particular Amazon tribe believed that souls are distributed one to a pregnancy. So when twins were born, the soul that went with that pregnancy was given to the first born, and that meant that the other twin had to be killed at once, Because having a body wandering around with no soul in it would be bad! It would be like a zombie!

Now, as educated, modern people, we discussed this tradition trying to inject as little cultural bias as we could into the discussion, and we all agreed that probably the reason for this conception of the distribution of souls was that in a hunter-gatherer group, a mother could afford to take care of one baby, but not two at the same time. For the survival of the group, as well as of the mother and one of the twins, the other twin had to be eliminated. But since no human being can countenance the killing of an innocent baby without some justification concerning the properties of the baby, this story about the second baby not having a soul had to be invented. This was done to lessen the guilt of the mother, the father and the entire tribe. It was a legal fiction to justify an unpleasant reality.

Now, if we had been missionaries, we might have taken a completely different attitude toward the soul question, believing that the primitive religion of the tribe was mistaken, and if they only adopted the one true religion, then they would realize, as we do, that every baby has a soul.  And of course, they also would have had to adopt a modern, non-hunter-gatherer lifestyle in order to be able to economically afford this view of the soul.

The concept of the soul was invented in order to help define and distribute personhood rights to some but not all. Otherwise, all we would need to consider would be animacy. Is it alive? If so, it has rights. Is it not alive? Then it can be owned, used, and destroyed.

In many religions, non-humans have no souls. In some religions they do have souls. Whether you are allowed to eat them is one of the questions that this classification might help with. It is not a coincidence that cultures in which cows are said to have souls are also the same cultures in which eating or killing cows is not allowed. Which came first? The soul classification or the dietary restrictions? I think the concept of the soul follows the lifestyle, not the other way around.

If we go back to our own cultural bias of thinking it is one soul per human body, we can see that this idea is not entirely unproblematic, either. What about conjoined twins? One soul or two? One vote at the polls or two votes? How about conjoined twins that share a single heart, but have two heads? Is it one soul per heart, or one soul per head? Two heads, but just one body -- one vote or two? If two, who gets to cast the two votes? The head that controls the arms? But how will the other head get to choose how its own vote is cast? Will they vote on it? Who gets to tally the votes? Who is the tie-breaker?

It's obvious that giving rights to people who cannot possibly exercise those rights is in reality giving extra rights to the people who control the ones who ostensibly have those rights. So if we give all the rights of a citizen to a mental vegetable, we are actually giving those rights to his guardian.

Now, in addition to believing that it is one soul per body, many western religions tell you that the soul in question is immutable. It does not change. No matter what experiences the person has had, no matter what personality shifts the mind inside the body has undergone, the soul remains exactly the same.

In Our Lady of Kaifeng Courtyard of the Happy Way, it is Ted Sesame who gives voice to this credo concerning the immutable soul.

If the soul has nothing to do with our personality, our memories, our sense of self, our ethical standards or anything else that stems from our consciousness and changes with time, then the soul is a meaningless marker of legal personhood. Does a person still have a soul when he is brain dead? Is it the living body that gets attributed a soul -- or the mind inside that body's brain? If someone suffers a brain injury and turns from a sweet, caring person into a homicidal maniac, are we to think that nothing happened to his soul along the way?

Right now, many people enjoy movies and television programs about the zombie apocalypse. Once a person becomes a zombie, in this fictional scenario, it is all right to kill him with impunity. The implication is that his soul is no longer there, and so all the normal prohibitions concerning unjustifiable homicide are lifted. You don't have to wait till it is a self-defense killing. You can go hunting zombies. I think that one of the attractions of this kind of fiction for many people is the relief from our social prohibition against demonizing our enemies.

There's not much to take home from this, I think, besides the fact that arguments concerning the soul are not factual. You cannot prove or disprove whether someone or some thing has a soul. Stating  who has a soul is in most cultures a political decision about what rights are going to be assigned to whom.

We need to be very alert to this, whenever people argue based on intelligence quotient or proof of having feelings or experiencing pain that any particular being has a soul. In most cases,  this is an argument that precedes the granting or taking away of legal rights.  Who gets to exercise those rights? If the rights of personhood  are granted to someone who cannot stand on his own two feet and support himself, then these rights accrue to the guardian or caretaker. Sometimes the people who argue for more rights are people who plan to become caretakers. It only pays, of course, if there is public financial support given to legal persons who cannot stand on their own two feet. Hence public welfare provisions are the driving force behind expansion of  legal personhood rights.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Socialism is Favoring Relationships Over Individuals

The latest news from China is that a "circuit breaker" has been applied to their stock market to keep it from crashing.

In other words, the "needs"  of society to have a stable stock market have been placed above the rights of individual stockholders to sell or buy as they please. That in a nutshell is the entire dilemma of looking at everything from a social perspective. How can society be more important than the people of which it is composed?

I made a second book trailer for Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way that addresses this issue.

This trailer is about the personal and spiritual issues addressed in the novel, but if you are an economist or a political science major, don't let this put you off. The issues are all the same, whether the relationship in question is one between two people or among all the people in a country or region. What is paramount, the individual or his relationships?

Over and over again, we are told that relationships are more important than individuals. For instance, yesterday, I saw a TED video that claimed people are happiest if they have stable relationships, not when their personal achievements are at their best. In other words, if you spend your entire life loafing on the couch, but your sweetheart is right there with you, that is better than being a successful athlete, businessman,  hunter-gatherer, explorer,  artist, writer, scientist, farmer, rancher, privateer, craftsman, silversmith or shopkeeper.

Why do you suppose those people are trying so hard to sell us on being low-achievers with good social connections? Could it be because that is what socialism is all about? People who work in factories as automatons and people who work in offices as bureaucrats have this in common: that they try to solace themselves for their less than creative day-to-day life by having good personal relationships outside work.

But, of course, these relationships cannot be based on admiration, respect or hero worship, so then the connection itself is elevated to a place of worship over and above the individuals. People sacrifice their own desires in order to keep the relationship aloft. They put in circuit breakers  to prevent themselves and their partners from getting out of the relationship --  for the sake of the relationship and against the best interests of those involved.

I once had a friend in England who was a big fan of 1984 and Animal Farm.  I  convinced him he should read Atlas Shrugged. But all he liked out of that huge book was the story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company.  He thought the whole rest of the book should have been trimmed off as excess. He especially did not see what the point was of recounting Dagny Taggart's love life. To him, that was entirely spurious.

Unless we understand that the minimal relationship -- one consisting of only two people -- is a model for all our more complex relationships, we won't be able to fix the problem of putting society before the individual.  That's why the relationships in Rand's books are important.  That's also why unrequited love needs to be the model for all love.  Love precedes the relationship. It does not derive from it. The person comes first. The relationship is built on individual feelings,  not the other way around.  Society could not exist if it were not for the people. No god could survive without worshipers. If we all die of starvation, where does that leave society?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Self Determination versus Freedom

When there is a war, everybody -- on either side -- will tell you that they are fighting for freedom. In a way, that is true by definition. Each side is fighting for freedom from the other side. That is traditionally what war is all about -- who gets to rule whom.

But there are also internal wars that are less about freedom from invaders as freedom from tyranny. Those are the wars that are not about national freedom, but rather personal freedom. People rarely address this distinction clearly, so it is refreshing to find any writer who can conceptualize and articulate the difference. One such writer was Lord Byron, in his poem "The Isles of Greece", a serious lyrical piece within the larger satirical work Don Juan.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
  We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
  He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then        65
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

 Inspired by this during the heyday of my Blake's Seven fandom, I wrote the following filk:

Star One is found in The Blake Bunch, a filkbook by Aya Katz based on Blake's Seven

Whenever we go to war with a foreign country, one argument that is made fairly explicitly is this: "The bondage that we like the best, may yet be be ours. It could be less!" People fight to keep foreign powers from ruling them. They will support tyrants on their own side, rather than falling to the enemy.

During World War II, socialism was a very popular philosophy, and people on different sides of the war all had one form or another of it in force under the authority that ruled their country. The Soviets had communism, which is a kind of socialism. The Germans had national socialism. The Italians had fascism, which is also a kind of altruistic philosophy in which people sacrifice all for the homeland. The Japanese have always been very communitarian. The British had their own empire where people were expected to serve the interests of others overseas, for the good of the many. And the Americans had socialism under FDR, which included many programs under the New Deal, as well as price fixing and rationing of staple foods during the war. 

When the leaders of these countries told their citizens they were fighting for freedom, they meant freedom from being conquered by the other side -- not personal freedom. Not freedom of contract. Not economic freedom. And not the freedom to express an opinion that was not supportive of the war effort.

After the war, Britain's Empire collapsed under the extreme effort of paying for the fighting, even though the British were ostensibly on the winning side. The United States was in better shape, but things never really went back to the freedoms that were taken for granted before the two world wars.

Self-determination is something that many of the old colonies gained, not by outfighting the British, but simply because the British no longer could afford to keep them. It was the same kind of  "you are free to go" freedom that slaves of bankrupt masters sometimes win.

In the Weihsien Internment camp in China, self-determination was always allowed to the internees. They governed themselves under the Japanese rule. Their day to day life was a hell of their own making, because they voted on practically everything.

You don't automatically get personal freedom by being self-governing and self-determined. When your neighbor gets to vote on what you have, that is the least free form of government that there is. But the internees did not seem to realize this, because everybody in those days believed in absolute democracy. They were all socialist, each in his own way.