Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Let's come to grips with reality

I spent some time last week in Madison, where the demonstrations and protests against the activities of governor Scott Walker continue apace. On the Saturday at which I was present, there were probably a good 40 or 50,000 people eventually gathered around the capitol. The Iraq Veterans Against the War led the march in to the capitol square, joined by strong contingents of both firefighters and police, even though their bargaining rights aren't impacted by the bill (they know they're next...) If one knows anything about the history of labor struggles in this or any other modern nation, it might be a bit disconcerting to see shirts proclaiming: "Cops for Labor." But if you have any sense of humor at all, you should be able to appreciate it, all the same.

The crowd frequently chanted the by-now old standby: "This is what democracy looks like!" and many signs reflected that same opinion in that form or another... all of which, of course, made me grit my teeth in frustration.

These protests are not a sign of 'democracy'. On the contrary, given that this legislation was voted upon by the majority of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature; and both of said houses are comprised largely of Republicans duly elected by the majority of Wisconsin citizens; and the legislation was signed by Wisconsin's equally duly elected governor, one could reasonably say that the legislation itself is what democracy looks like. This is what the state voted for: a collection of ideologues so immersed in their religion that Goldwater would be nauseated (and probably equally appalled at the waste of time and money the governor of Maine has expended in dealing with paintings he doesn't like.)

Standing up for one's rights is not an example of 'democracy'. Far from it; especially if one is referring to the bastardized system of government that the United States uses and likes to proclaim to the world as 'democracy'. As pedants will like to point out, the United States wasn't even intended to be a democracy. It was intended to be a republic. Of course, since most of the so-called Founding Fathers intended that the republic be based upon that same style of government employed by the Romans prior to Caesar, our government, like theirs, is no closer to being an actual republic than I am to being president. The average Roman citizen did not have a republic and neither do we.

We have an oligarchy.

Just like Rome, our government was owned originally by wealthy families. In the case of Rome, they called these clans 'patricians'. In our case, we called them 'plantation owners and titleholders in Britain.' In the case of Rome, when the people had finally had enough of hereditary clan rule, they revolted, most notably under the Brothers Gracchi, and were finally invited to share in some of the exercises of government. All that did, of course, was gain nominal representation for the average Roman in the form of the tribunes and invite wealthy plebeians to run the government alongside the wealthy patricians. Eventually both were owned by equally wealthy Greek, Italian, and Roman merchants and everything continued on in true oligarchic fashion. The same thing happened here, in that we often see hereditary exchange of office controlled by a few wealthy clans and they and others like them are often completely owned by merchants we now know as 'corporations'. In Rome, one bought oneself down the cursus honorum (military tribune to quaestor to aedile to praetor to consul and then possibly on to censor or provincial governor) by using other people's money whom you would then repay by granting rights of trade to areas or routes. In the US, you often perform the same journey: state officer to representative to senator to president or governor; all of it done with someone else's money whom you then repay with legislative or regulatory favors.

In ancient Rome, you had to do something pretty egregious or have made more than the usual assortment of enemies to get accosted for the open bribery that made the system function. No one walked the cursus without bribing people; often the voters themselves in their centuries. Same thing here.

We don't have a democracy. We don't have a republic. We have an oligarchy. And they own you. They own everyone. So, standing in the streets, protesting the actions of one's own elected officials, who freely engaged in the institutionalized bribery known as our electoral system, suggesting that what you're doing is an example of 'democracy' in action is very, very far from the truth, either real or imagined. The better concept to keep in mind is not democracy, since that's always been a somewhat questionable concept to begin with. As Isaac Asimov often complained:

"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

No, the better concept to keep in mind is justice. Justice is what we're talking about when we argue that the right of workers to bargain together is essential to their well-being. Justice is what we're talking about when we see people in the wealthiest nation in the world going without healthcare and those people that actually have access to it as a part of their employment are about to see it stripped away. Justice is what we're talking about when the living standard for the average employee, public or private, hasn't appreciably improved in four decades while the wealthiest have seen their income and assets skyrocket. Justice is the essence of tens of thousands in the streets, shouting their anger at the people who so boldly treat them as if they were expendable; as if their lives and their families didn't matter; as if their labor and time were something to be used and tossed away; as if they were... plebeians. And not wealthy ones, at that.

Don't talk to me about what democracy looks like, because I've never seen it in my lifetime and neither have you. Talk to me about justice. Talk to me about basic rights denied. Talk to me about equality. Talk to me about a wealthy class so grasping that hundreds of millions in "bonuses" remains not enough to satiate their desire. Talk to me about casting aside the corrupted system, as Jefferson suggested, and then I will join you in the streets every minute of every day. And then we will talk of revolution.

If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine. - Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Subconscious expression

I play a little WoW. It's no secret that science fiction and fantasy have been interests of mine since I can remember knowing about them. I was fascinated by things like Star Trek and the Lord of the Rings (which I read at age 7.) However, despite being a huge Blizzard fan and having spent days on end in front of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo (as I used to express to people in the Green party: I'm a peace activist who spends a considerable amount of time playing wargames.), I resisted World of Warcraft and MMOs in general for a long time. I just felt like I had too many other things going on and didn't really have the time to become absorbed in it.

However, a couple years ago, I had some time on my hands and figured I would download the demo and try it out. After playing off and on for a few days, I decided I'd give it a try for a few months, and I've pretty much persisted in that pattern: every couple days I'll get on and play for a couple hours. It's a cool distraction and there are a few other friends of mine who play about as much. In possible subconscious tribute to my environmental politics, my main is a shaman; a class that attempts to commune with the natural spirits of the world and act with them to preserve parts of it and change others. He's part of a race called tauren, whose culture is expressly modeled on that of Native Americans, which is a longstanding interest and probably another subconscious engagement (believe me, if there were a culture modeled on feudal Japan, I would have been all over it.)

My initial role with my shaman was one of offense. There are few things as enjoyable as strapping on a couple of fist weapons (cesti of fantastical proportions and design far beyond anything possibly imagined by the Romans) and whaling away on whatever enemy creatures happen to be within reach. However, there's an alternate talent spec on my shaman that is based solely on healing. I can't do much with it on my own, but I can join a group in 5-, 10-, or 25-person instances and keep them alive so that we accomplish larger goals than I could perform by myself. I'm sure you've heard this theme before...

So, I've fallen into the habit of healing more than anything else when I play. There are four more healing specs among the 9 other classes in the game and I have characters that perform each of those specs. As with a lot of games that I play, I've become interested in the methodology behind the systems and how they accomplish the same goal with different tools. I still find it somewhat odd because, at root, I'm not a healer type, as it were. My personality lends itself to problem-solving (often, uh, direct problem-solving) moreso than sympathy or nurturing; both of which are often associated with the idea of healing. Furthermore, I'm more prone to playing the leadership role in a lot of my activities, which in the game would equate to tanking, not healing.

But I've begun to wonder if the healing approach is instead a substitute for the pursuit of group activity. While groups in the game can't function without a tank, they are equally unable to function without a healer (delving deeper, one realizes that without competent DPS (Damage Per Second) people, it's often difficult to succeed, as well.) However, the healer strikes me as the one that sustains the group as a whole. While the tank is needed to progress, there are many situations in which the group as a whole will be hindered (i.e. getting killed) even if the tank is doing his/her job properly. What gets them past those hindrances is usually the healer. Am I acting out my desire for achieving goals as part of a group/family/society?

There's no denying that I've been part of any number of ventures (personal, professional, political) in which progress has been halted by the lack of enthusiasm of those around me. I can remember any number of times when I was still ready to struggle ahead and everyone else seemed to find better things to do and left me holding the bag or, at the very least, stranded with the remainder whom were either indolent or motivated for narrow reasons, if not both. I've tried to start any number of projects that essentially depended on the participation of others which never came to fruition because my enthusiasm was always greater than everyone else's. So now I find myself enthralled by a game role which requires the presence of others.

The game can be played alone. Despite its appellation as a massively multi-player game, there are many who, in fact, prefer to solo it. One can quest and progress alone as a tank or DPS. It's far more difficult to do so as a healer. So, if one heals, one groups.

Thus we come back to one of our essential dichotomies: anyone who knows me realizes that I'm not overly fond of people and can lose my patience or become bored with most in a very short time. And, yet, the majority of what I enjoy involves other people to an often extraordinary degree: politics, games, even aikido. The latter is nominally a defensive art and perfecting the form requires uke (the person being thrown) to absorb the energy of shi'ite in a manner both protective of himself and in an understanding of the form. In other words, it's really difficult to practice the form alone; even (perhaps especially) the jo katas. You need someone else to exchange energy with.

Logically, one can't fail to see that there are any number of goals that will only be accomplished with the strength of many. Logically, there will have to be some spirit of cooperation amongst the people in order to make progress. Logically, people are going to have to be willing to tolerate either others' company or be reduced to factionalism before the goal is even approached. This is where logic clashes with reality and Ambrose Bierce's example of the post holes comes to mind.

So, here I am, seemingly naturally inclined to solitude, yet driven to participate with others in most of the things that I still enjoy (many of which are, admittedly, fading fast these days.) Am I a socialist at heart or just projecting onto an inclination for human contact, despite recoiling from the majority of it?

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me (not of the same blood an seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with one another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism. - Marcus Aurelius, Mediations, II.
 Still working on it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The common good

"Let every action aim solely for the common good." One of my favorite quotes from Marcus. It's definitely an aspirational concept, as it's difficult to process the idea of getting out of bed and taking a shower somehow serving the welfare of one's neighbors. Unless they're going to be working alongside you and smelling you. Or unless you're leading the community action network that's helping to repair the road upon which you all happen to live. See how easy?

It's not hard to convince yourself of anything as long as you keep an open mind about the topic. Of course, the intent of Marcus' quote was not to encourage the concept that eating your 3 squares a day was going to advance the community. He meant public actions serving the public weal. That shower is, almost by necessity, a private action (unless your neighborhood and local statutes are a lot more relaxed than mine.) But I like to think that I've absorbed the concept at every level upon which it was intended. In point of fact, getting out of bed and getting your ass in gear could be considered of benefit to the people with which you live, communicate and, in some cases, serve. In my case, the question often becomes: where does one draw the line?

As my best friend has told me more than once, I'm, uh, not lacking for self-confidence. There are many things at which I know that I'm pretty capable. There are more at which I may not be great, but at which I'm able to fake it so that most won't know the difference. In that respect, one would think that whatever rewards might result from those capabilities would be justifiably mine and I could feel good about having achieved what was necessary to receive them. Or, for that matter, one could envision benefiting from good fortune simply from being willing to get out there and try, as well as having advantages of experience or skill or talent; "making one's own luck", as the saying sometimes goes.

But I'll be the last person to tell you that I deserve anything. In point of fact, it's far more likely for me to concede any kind of reward or advantage to someone else, simply because it's, once again, easy for me to talk myself into it precisely because I have an open mind about so many things... and a largely closed one about myself.

It's very simple for me to suggest to myself that someone else is better at something than I am and that any advantage I've gained in a contest is largely through mistakes of theirs or luck on my part and/or lack of same for them. It's likewise simple for me to hand things over to someone in a material dispute largely because my version of "the common good" often translates to "anyone but me." From my perspective, anyone could do better with material resources or advantages than I could and, thus, there's no sense even arguing about it because they'll at least do something useful and I probably won't. It's not even a question of who deserves it ("'Deserves' got nothin' to do with it.") It becomes more of a question of worth. Are they (whomever 'they' is) the more worthy recipient? Yes. Does that comprise the "common good"? Usually not, but having the prize come to me doesn't serve the "common good", either, so it might as well go to someone else.

This is one of the foundation stones of my disaffection with the capitalist system, in that said system virtually requires one to step on the bodies of his competitors in order to "succeed" (putting aside the farcical nature of the construct since the 16th century, anyway) and, while I'm no stranger to winning things like games, it's my first nature to take the rewards of winning and hand them off to someone else (or at least feel miserable about not doing so; or perhaps turning down any reward. Or compliment. Or even acknowledgment of success.) Why? Is it because I'm not worthy? Maybe. Is it because others are more worthy? Probably.

So how does someone with my level of confidence become completely mortified at the idea of benefiting from any kind of personal success or good fortune? That's a complex question with what may not be a single answer. Guilt? Pride? Martyr complex? A conviction that my happiness is utterly secondary (if not tertiary) to that of those around me? That last one sounds the most likely. After all, I always arched an eyebrow at the whole "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" thing. The first two are fundamental, of course, but the third always struck me as kind of half-assed. If one has the first two, shouldn't the third be a given? But what if that's only when the first two are pursued for... the common good?

Regardless, keep fighting for all three, Wisconsin. You probably deserve it more than I do, anyway.