Tag Archives: activism

Blogging as Service

As I mentioned in the last post, I have been feeling a lack of meaning in my life, as though where I am putting my energy doesn’t matter.  However, when I try to find a project to invest my energy in, I am overcome with a feeling of confusion.  We all want to change the world, but I don’t know what I want to change the world into, nor do I feel I can even see clearly the world I ostensibly want to change.  I am growing ever more tired of the political rhetoric I’m exposed to, which seems more and more a tribalistic war; people are not interested in finding real solutions and compromises to the problems we face as a people, rather they care only about whether I am expressing that I am one of the good guys or one of the bad guys.  Not only do I find this pattern unhelpful for the advancement of humanity, I find it boring, and so my instinct is to disengage with politics and cultural criticism altogether.

Lately I have been reading and writing a lot in an attempt to see more clearly.  However I have an aversion to publishing my thoughts, because I feel they are naïve or incomplete. In this post I wish to criticize this aversion and defend the social value of publishing these intermediate writings.   My claim is that publishing my incomplete and imperfect thoughts is a meaningful and positive use of my time.

The Absurdity of Genius

I seem to have a belief something along the lines that you have to be a “genius” in order to have valuable thoughts: the only philosophical perspectives worth reading are those of the approved Great Thinkers, and that mere mortals cannot have any true insight. I think this comes from my schooling, in which the people we study have large names and are exalted and praised.  Of course it is ridiculous.  How else could someone become a great thinker than by working with and refining what they have?  Furthermore, the concept of “great thinker” itself is subject to the same laws of popularity that put Maroon 5 on the Top 40.  Furtherurthermore, all theories are amalgams (at least in as much as words themselves are socially constructed, and clearly much more), so it not out of the question that a world-changing theory could be influenced by my ideas.

I am reading Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Things” (which is awesome, by the way).  In the introduction he says that the book was inspired by a passage by Jorge Luis Borges, which in turn was written as a critical response to a proposal for a “universal language” by John Wilkins.  Here we can see the flow of ideas.  Wilkins writes something which Borges thinks is stupid; Borges’s response makes Foucault laugh and then write an insightful book essentially about what is funny about the response; Luke reads the book and decides to start publishing his writing.  Perhaps a future Borges will read my naïve theories and make a joke about them which will be the seed of another insightful work.

Refinement by the Risk of Criticism

The lens of publishing helps me refine and add nuance to my thoughts.  Insofar as my journal is a log of my thought process, I might write some absurd nonsense that would not hold up to criticism in my journal, and never give it a second thought.  That thought-structure is allowed to continue existing in my mind, unexamined.  If I publish, even to my meager blog following, I am forced to consider my opinions more deeply, so that I don’t embarrass myself.  There is added incentive for me to re-read what I have written, thus to organize it, considering more distant combinations and interactions between my ideas and my knowledge.  As a result, a more refined and well-examined knowledge base will, in principle, help provide a stronger theoretical foundation to my future actions, so I don’t get lost in the well of meaninglessness so easily.

Encouraging Nuanced Reflection

One of the problems I identified in the introduction is that I feel that thought is losing nuance and converging toward a few tribalistic echo chambers.  I feel that the world would benefit if people would philosophize a bit more.  It is certainly possible to navel-gaze too much, but I feel like we are in a period of over-activism and under-reflection.  We are in a time of huge protests with tiny results––this indicates that we do not have a clear foundation for our activism.  We’ve got the pathos but not the logos.  This is not helped by the popular social media platforms, which seem as though they are designed to promote simplistic, echo-chamber discourse.  Ideas are communicated in tag-line form, and sealed with a blue checkmark––an idea is good if a popular person said it and we like how it sounds.  I believe people are monkeys who imitate each other, so by raising my own standard of discourse, even if my ideas are silly, I am helping to promote a culture of reflection and nuance.  I am demonstrating that I value trying to figure it out, rather than having it all figured out, which is doubtless a message I can get behind.

Counterarguments

It could be argued that I should keep my ideas to myself until I feel like I have something important to say, otherwise I’m just adding noise.  Indeed, it’s something I’ve struggled with in my artistic pursuits, of publishing things that I don’t feel proud of.  When I have had a corpus of material available online that I am not proud of, it makes me shy about promoting myself, for fear that I will be discovered as incompetent.  But I am not afraid of that here––I don’t care about being a popular writer, I care about refining my own ideas, I care about building a strong theoretical foundation for positive action.  So the argument breaks down, it doesn’t matter whether I am proud of my work in this case.

It could be argued that I should be more informed before writing, that I should not claim things which I don’t know for sure.  Since I do not have a large reader base I don’t think this is a problem; if I did, I might take this more seriously.  I think it is important to plan for your own success––it’s a good question to ask whether, if you did somehow become successful, it would even be a good thing.  But just I don’t think it’s important at this stage; the other benefits of publishing outweigh this risk.

Seal Of Permission

In light of the aforementioned arguments, I hereby grant you, Luke Palmer, permission to publish silly sounding ideas in your blog, even if you believe in them.

Advertisements

Discoveries This Week

This week’s reading was more scattered than last week’s, which was focused mainly on US surveillance and politics. Still lots of interesting stuff this week — it’s amazing what comes to light when I allow myself to care.

I thought a lot this week about worker’s rights and democratic companies. I realized that Google’s workforce has no real decision-making power for the company — we do what the leadership tells us to do. This realization came with the awareness that it doesn’t have to be this way. Google does not have a worker’s union, but if we did, we could democratically control the company — the power is already available, we need only claim it. But we have no need to claim it because the leadership is doing a good job. All systems which rely on labor of the many are eventually democratic, the question is only how much resistance the many need overcome to affect the decisions of the powerful (however, I might stop classifying them as “eventually democratic” at the point where power’s resistance is physically violent). Hence education plays an incredibly important role: the more this is known, the more powerful the people are. But Google makes me wonder, how powerful should the people be? I like Google’s leadership, and honestly if Googlers were encouraged to vote on important company decisions instead of having them decided by the leadership, it’s not clear that Google and/or the world would be better off. Google is made of geeks whose views of the world are often idealistic, opinionated, and out-of-touch. I wouldn’t trust me to make good decisions for a company, no matter how many of me there were.

Chomsky noted that the USA must oppose the democratization of Iran because the census showed that 80% of the population supports Iran building nuclear weapons. It is fairly convincing that more countries with access to nuclear weapons creates more chance of total nuclear annihilation due to local political instabilities. I believe in democracy, but now I must ask: do I support a US-controlled oppressive monarchy as an alternative to a democratic, nuclear-armed Iran? Do I support US hegemony as an alternative to a yet-more dangerously unstable world? Am I only doubting democratization of Iran because I live in the USA? I don’t know these answers.

With those happy thoughts, here are the pieces I found notable this week. As always, comments and suggestions for further reading are welcome and appreciated.

World Affairs

Social Justice

  • Talking about how much you get paid is protected speech; that is, you have legal recourse if your employer retaliates against you for talking about how much you get paid. Pay as a taboo subject benefits the employer, and contributes to pay inequality between men and women.
  • The graphic design community is against “spec work”, for example logo contests, claiming that it devalues their industry. I support the community and will raise awareness of this type of exploitation when the opportunity arises.
  • The State of Working America, a site that collects data and trends in US demographics. They published the book Failure by Design which analyzes the policies which led to the horrendous economic inequality we have today (I haven’t read it, but might).

    The good news is that policy works, it does what it’s actually designed to do; the bad news is we designed it to do, in my view, a very bad thing.

  • Walter White Supremacy, an essay about the racist themes in Breaking Bad.

    The white guy who enters a world supposedly beneath him where he doesn’t belong yet nonetheless triumphs over the inhabitants is older than talkies. TV Tropes calls it “Mighty Whitey,” and examples range from Tom Cruise as Samurai and Daniel Day Lewis as Mohican to the slightly less far-fetched Julia Stiles as ghetto-fabulous. But whether it’s a 3-D Marine playing alien in Avatar or Bruce Wayne slumming in a Bhutanese prison, the story is still good for a few hundred million bucks. The story changes a bit from telling to telling, but the meaning is consistent: a white person is (and by extension, white people are) best at everything.

  • The Catholic schoolgirl & the wet nurse: an important paper to read for social justice-aware people sharing about racism. It describes the way our narratives of racism both simplify and dehumanize the victims and make the oppressors invisible. I felt +1 to Nuance after reading this.

My Political Activation

Six weeks ago, Jimbo Wales tweeted a link to a fantastic article titled Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy. At the same time, I had been reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in order to become a better teacher. Freire’s book is about freedom and humanization, and is full of disquieting rhetoric calling people to take charge of their situations and their agency in transforming the world. These two pieces got together in my brain and started a campaign, the outcome of which was to politically activate me. I began listening to Noam Chomsky on YouTube at work and at home, following and furiously reading news and history, refining and deepening my view of the world, where it is going, and my place in it. It broke my heart. The importance of my comfort is fading away, the actions I take which are not in support of creating a better world are beginning to feel trivial and meaningless. It’s shattering to my illusive sense of safety — the truth is frightening. Yet I would never choose to unlearn what I have learned. The truth is unique that way.

I expect that I will continue learning a great deal about the state of the world. I have been sheltered and naive, making other things more important, and there is much to find out. So I decided to start this series (I hope it’s a series, I haven’t been good at keeping up with series’ I’ve started in the past) of summarizing what I have learned, as a way both to congeal through reflection, and a way to share with others who are similarly interested. I am absolutely open to further information readers have about what I post, ways my readings might be mistaken, or ways I am not seeing far enough. If you want to join this conversation, please do.

Without further ado, here are the pieces I found notable this week.

  • Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown. The Pentagon is funding research to the order of $100M to understand how social contagion and tipping points work, “geared toward producing quick results that are directly applicable to field operations.” In particular, they are focusing on civil unrest which may be caused by climate change. Particularly interesting is the rhetoric around who is considered violent.
  • The IPCC predicts 4-6 inches of sea level rise in the next 50 years. When thinking about just the coastlines, this didn’t seem like it would be a huge deal. But then I remembered foundations, basements, sewers, etc.
  • Homeland Security Starts Citywide Cellphone Tracking Project in Seattle. Homeland Security and the Seattle Police Department have installed wifi devices on every street corner, not to provide free internet access to all citizens, but to be able to track the location of citizens by their cell phones. This infrastructure has been built without any limiting legislation or public oversight. This comes back to the increasingly common pattern of “trust us” security infrastructure.

    The SPD declined to answer more than a dozen questions from The Stranger, including whether the network is operational, who has access to its data, what it might be used for, and whether the SPD has used it (or intends to use it) to geo-locate people’s devices via their MAC addresses or other identifiers.

  • The Powell Memorandum. Chomsky pointed me to this 1971 letter between leaders of enterprise, which is a call to action. The American economic system is under broad attack, it begins. Powell is concerned about people speaking out against problematic corporate establishments, and ostracizes the owners of the media for allowing this to happen on their own networks. He calls for a major collaborative campaign to train and implant pro-corporate academics and activists into public discussion, and to censor anti-establishment advocacy in the media.
  • In NSA-intercepted data, those not targeted far outnumber those who are. This article contained the first evidence that I have seen that NSA is actually using its massive data collection for anti-terrorism.

    Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.

  • Rich People Rule. This is about the Princeton study I read long ago and dug up again, showing that the preferences of average citizens are far underrepresented in the USA’s policy in favor of the preferences of the wealthy — essentially that people below the 90th percentile of wealth only have 1/15th of a vote when considering policy legislation.
  • A San Fransisco Bay Area Progressive Directory, a directory of activist movements in the bay area which I am using to find how I can be of service.
  • Noam Chomsky, Surviving the 21st Century. This Chomsky lecture has a very interesting historical arc from 35:00 to 51:00 on the US Government’s blatant disregard for national security in favor of dominating the world.