The Problem of Israel in the Modern World

Can the Unspeakable be Spoken?
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by MICHAEL WELTON

The mood of our uneasy times is incredibly bellicose, dark, apocalyptic and vengeful. The “war on terror” is like a virus that infects everything it touches. And it does seem to touch everything, from our popular television shows, to getting across borders, travelling overseas somewhere. You can’t read the Sunday paper without feeling queasy, a sense of dread tingling our nerves and spoiling our lovely morning coffee. Everyday brings a new jolt. And if terror doesn’t do the trick, fear of global warming, or running out of oil will spoil your day for sure.

I am particularly interested in probing the role that religious belief and mythological systems play in dividing us from one another, fuelling irrationality and hatred of others, and dampening any spirit of radical self-criticism. To illustrate the incendiary nature of religious belief, I will focus attention on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the context of the Middle East. Perhaps no topic–Israel’s fate and role in the Middle East–is itself so incendiary and symptomatic of the failure of our global civilization to act justly.

The horrific Israeli war against Lebanon in 2006, the continuing assault on Palestinians in the Gaza strip, now virtually a prison, and the building of settlements in the West Bank, has revealed to the world the stark inadequacies of the old axiom, that “might is right”. I am fascinated with why Israel, particularly, believes that might is right, that war is the only message the Arabs understand and why Israel refuses to talk with their enemy. What belief system underpins the aggressions of Israel against the Palestinians and its Arab surroundings? Why is it so hard for us to criticize Israel in the west? Are there mythic underpinnings and reasons operating here, too?

September 11, 2001 set me on a pathway to understand what was behind this ghastly act of flying hijacked airplanes into the very heart of the American military-industrial complex. Why was it so easy for George W. Bush on a Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2001, on the south lawn of the White House–to utter these words: “We need to be alert to the fact that these evil doers still exist. We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft–fly US aircraft into buildings full of innocent people–and show no remorse. This is a new kind of-a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take awhile.”

Commentators of the day observed that Bush’s remark about crusade had come in an off-the-cuff comment to a journalist. Actually, he had struggled hard to find the right word. This was the word that came from his gut. It signified the struggle between Good and Evil. On January 29, 2002, Bush announced that: “States like these (Iran, Iraq. N. Korea), and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Unwittingly, Bush was dragged back to the century’s old world of malediction–cursing one’s enemies.

One of the deep reasons why the West is open-hearted to Israel and hard-hearted towards Palestinians (and increasingly all Arabs) is the pre-eminence of “Israel” in the western, Christian imagination. Let me tell a personal story to illustrate my point. The Diary of Anne Frank has taken its place in the western religious imagination from its publication after the war until the present day. I can remember reading an expurgated version of the diary when I was a teenager. The excruciating drama of her hiding from the Gestapo, and her family’s eventual murder, was cut into my youthful memory. I somehow took on her suffering as my own. In my twenties, I read Holocaust narratives by the likes of Elie Wiesel (Night) who captured the horror of trains carrying Jews to the death-camps, Jews who didn’t know what was in store for them as they shuddered down the rails. I read the works of Jewish theologians who taught me that The Holocaust was the most horrific form of human suffering.

When I gradually made the journey from pietistic evangelicalism to liberation theology, like so many others, I read Gustavo Gutierez’s Liberation Theology text with amazement. There, the Exodus narrative was claimed as a paradigm for the liberation struggles of the oppressed everywhere. The spirituals of Black slaves incorporated Old Testament, Jewish imagery as they longed for “Moses” to lead them to the promised land of freedom, away from Pharaoh’s crushing contempt. “Israel” existed as a powerful metaphor–the Jews appeared to be the paradigm of profound suffering. Those suffering from the depredations of South African apartheid, or sugar plantations or the brutality of Latin American dictatorships–could find comfort in the story of the Exodus.

But I didn’t think about the real state of Israel that was forged through violence and terrorism in the 1940s on the historic land of Palestine. Nor did I pay any attention to what actually happened when the ancient Hebrews ventured into the “promised land”, instructed by their tribal sky-god to eliminate the Amalekites. What happened to them? Didn’t Yahweh tell the Israelites to murder, plunder and rape its inhabitants? When I think about Israel now, and the Diary of Anne Frank, I realize the power of Edward Said’s remark that Israel’s “other”, the Palestinians, have never had permission to possess their own narrative. It is not that Anne Frank’s diary ought not to be read. But the fact that we keep telling, and re-telling this story and its variants, leaves little room for other narratives. It contributes to the idea, I think, that Jewish suffering is unique, different from other forms of suffering, mysterious and resistant to rational understanding.

A diary for our time would, perhaps, be entitled The diary of Asthma al-Mugghayr, a 16-year old Palestinian, an account of what happened to his fellow and sister kids and family and community members in and around Rafah. Scribbling among the ruins, would Asthma write of watching his brother, Ahmad, 13 years-old, shot with a single bullet through his head while taking clothes off the drying line and feeding pigeons? Apparently the shot came from a house nearby, which been taken over by Israeli soldiers shortly before. Would he write by candle late at night, amidst the rubble, about the thirteen year old girl who was shot while she was walking to school? What would this teenage boy think about the Israeli commander who emptied his gun into the school girl?

What would Asthma think about the Occupation–a system of military check-points splitting towns and villages into ghettoes, curfews, closures, raids, mass demolition and destruction of houses and land expropriations? How would he characterize daily life, and the grotesque wall, that, when completed will total 400 miles–four times longer than the Berlin wall. Would Asthma write youthful poetry about being caged or displaced? Would this young man be driven mad? Would he confess to a concealed desire to be a suicide bomber?

Maybe Asthma would keep a record of just how many children have been killed. Two-thirds of hundreds of children killed at checkpoints, in the street, on the way to school, in their homes, died from small arms fire, directed in over half of the cases to the head, neck and chest–the sniper’s wound. Would these young men wonder why the Palestinians are always terrorists? Would he have taken his own life?
Why is it almost unspeakable to speak of the suffering of the non-Jew in the west? Why is the suffering of Palestinian people of so little concern and interest to the western mind and politicians? One answer surely is that both Christians and Jews share a common mythology: that Yahweh created the world, that the Jews are a chosen people, that they have been promised a land. Christians and Jews obviously differ regarding the significance of Jesus. But those who embrace him become part of the universal “people of God” who will inherit the earth when the redeemer returns to Zion. Islam has no place in the great purposes of God.

But there is something else. The United States and Israel have fused into a single entity in global politics and world history. Both are uniquely chosen to be redeemer nations, a light unto the nations. They have special status in the cosmic story. Israel is the US, and the US is Israel. The early Puritans were the “new Israel” and America was the Promised Land. America has never forsaken its historical sense of specialness before God, to be a redeemer nation. And, as we will now see, Israel’s imagined destiny was not only to be a homeland for dispossessed Jews. It was to be beacon of civilization in savage Arab lands, a light unto the nations.

We cannot understand the current crisis in the Middle East without understanding the religious mythology and historical circumstances underpinning the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. I can only highlight these. All of us, if asked, probably immediately link The Holocaust perpetrated in Germany with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 in historic Palestine. Getting their own state was Europe’s payment for their suffering in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, they will be safe and less subject to anti-Semitic attacks or assaults. Many of us might even assume, without thinking too much about it, that God gave the land to the Jews. The Palestinians are Amalek. If they will not submit to Jewish rule they must, or will be, destroyed. The basis for this is the Old Testament, the shared sacred text of Christians and Jews. One cannot argue with sacred texts! Indeed, in 1971, Golda Meir told Le Monde that Israel existed as “the fulfilment of promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for is legitimacy.”

Yet those of secular mind might want to ask some questions and probe into history deeply. At the dawn of the twentieth century, historians tell us, Europe’s ‘subject peoples’ (Poles, Czechs, Armenians, Serbs) dreamed of forming their own ‘nation-states’. Places where they might live free from fear. These states privileged particular ethnic groups–defined by language, or religion or antiquity. The Zionist movement originated in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. The land of Zion, the ancient homeland (Israel actually existed for only 60 years in the thousands of years of life in historic Palestine) was an exultant space of hope for some Jews. Zionists dreamed of the restored ‘lost fatherland’. This was a powerful dream that turned into hard fact at the end of World War II.

Zionism coincided with the period of European imperialist expansion and acquisition of lands in Africa and Asia. Lands, including lands in Canada, were acquired and occupied in the name of a higher power, God, and a higher civilization. There is something very interesting here for our understanding of Israel and the crisis in the Middle East. Zionist ideologues like Moses Hess and Theodor Herzl (as did all Israeli leaders from Ben-Gurion onward) believed that they had a divine right to occupy the land that was plainly occupied by others. If they were soft on ‘divine right’, they simply accepted that they were going to lands that were empty. Not empty of real live people, but empty of civilization and proper cultivation. In other words, those who colonize, or steal, other peoples’ lands (be they in Africa, Asia or in the Nass River Valley in BC) carry ideas in their heads about their right to do so. They, the colonists, will cultivate the untended gardens and settle the savages in orderly, moral communities.

The Zionist project, Edward Said has argued, participated in the “great dispossessing movement of modern European colonialism, and with them all the schemes for redeeming the land, resettling the natives, civilizing them, taming their savage customs…” The natives are, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to begin with! They are inferior and marginal. Herzl admitted in his diary that “both the expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.” He thought that they had to be spirited across the border and denied employment. They existed, but not as full human beings. These inferior beings could be put on reservations, on compounds, on native homelands. They could be taxed, counted and used profitably. Then, the new society could be built in the vacated space. Thus, ‘empty’ actually means ‘uncivilized’. Now we can understand the slogan of Israelis who saw Palestine as a “land without people, for a people without land.”

Those are Ben-Gurion’s words. In 1937 he had argued that “we must expel the Arabs and take their places. He acknowledged the presence of Arabs on the land, but denied the presence of Palestinians. In her famous statement to The Sunday Times in 1969, then Prime Minister Golda Meir said: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people. It is not as if we came and threw them out and took over their country. They didn’t exist.” During that same year, Zionist leader Menachem Begin told Kibbutz members the importance of denying the existence of Palestinians. “My friend, take care. When you recognize the concept of ‘Palestine’, you demolish your right to live in Kibbutz Ein Haboresh. If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came.”

But the Palestinians were there, weren’t they? At least 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes, and villages were destroyed or pillaged. Israeli propagandists used to push the story that the Palestinians just ran away, saying, “Here, Israel, take our homes, here’s the key, and don’t forget to look after our olive trees.” Contemporary Israeli historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe have dispelled this farcical story. The Israeli armies and terror squads expelled the villagers through terror and massacre. This the Palestinians call the Nakba, “the original sin.” The process of ethnic cleansing began in the mid-1940s and has never ceased. Border raids, massacres, settlements, slaughter of 20,000 in Lebanon, expulsions, demolitions, arrests, torture, and assassinations, chicanery and all the tricks of road maps that never materialize. Israel is a big problem in the modern world. Perhaps even an anachronism.

Zionist strategy has always been to seize the moment when they can take-over all of Palestine. In 1947-8, under cover of conflict, 78% of historic Palestine was transformed into “Israel.” In 1967, Israel seized the opportunity to take-over the remaining 22% of Palestine. Israel justified the 1967 war as self-defence; thus they are blameless; just as they are in the recent disproportionate destruction of civilians in Palestine and Lebanon. Israel is the perpetual victim; the little David facing the Arab Goliath. Israel never initiates; it only responds.

There is little historic or contemporary evidence that the Israeli military, which runs the country and shapes its mental outlook, has a shred of commitment to a Palestinian state. Liberal critics who rail against the “occupation” of the West Bank or the Gaza and the settlements and the capture of Jerusalem are correct, but only from the Palestinian point of view. Israel is doing everything in its power, day after day, minute after minute, and one stone at a time, one olive grove, one goat at a time, to destroy the possibility of a Palestinian state. If it did exist, it would be tiny, fragmented, weak–an act of Palestinian surrender and humiliation.

Don’t we see through Israel and US games? Hamas was elected in democratic elections. US-Israel and the EU have done everything possible, short of utter starvation of the people, to destroy Hamas (and Hezbollah). They keep telling Hamas that they have to lay down their arms, and recognize Israel. But what are Israel’s borders to be recognized? Where are they drawn? Hamas might well agree to return to the 1967 borders with all settlements dismantled. This is just a wicked charade being played out on the international scene, and many fall for it, including Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

We in the west have a hard time seeing what is before our eyes. Another logical error, which we see committed all the time, is to talk of the “cycle of violence” in the Middle East. From our vantage point in Canada, we imagine both are to blame, tanks and F-16s on one side, suicide bombers on the other. Aren’t human beings violent creatures–we mutter to ourselves: just an endless cycle of violence. But the Israel/Palestine story is not one of moral equivalence. It is a story of brutal dispossession and oppression of one people by another; it is not simply a sort of Greek tragedy. The idea of a cycle of violence leaves Israel once again not guilty. Everyone is not an innocent victim.

At this point, one can see where the idea of enemies talking it out can be premature. You feel my pain, I will feel yours. If only we could listen. I’ve suffered, you’ve suffered. Let’s talk. But it is not true that Palestinians have not heard the Zionist story. They have heard it ad nauseum and have heard enough about Jewish suffering. Both sides do not need to listen. It is Israelis and Jews who need to listen. There is lots of evidence–from Jewish Israeli commentators–that most Israelis scarcely give two hoots about the sight of a white-scarfed women scrubbing through the rubble of a bombed out building for a trace of her child.

Can you imagine both sides in apartheid sitting down to talk and listen to one another? What form would the suffering of the white perpetrator of apartheid take? That’s the point, isn’t it–there is a perpetrator, there is a victim; there is an oppressor; there are the oppressed.

Funerals, observes the great Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, are an “integral part of the lives of Palestinians wherever they were, in the homeland or in exile, in the days of their calm and the days of their Intifada, in the days of their wars and the days of their peace punctuated by massacres.” Thus, when Yitzhak Rabin spoke so eloquently of Israelis as absolute victims, and the eyes of those in the White House and the whole world grew wet, Barghouti said that he “knew that [he] would forget for a long time his words that day: “ We are victims of war and violence. We have not known a year or month when mothers have not mourned their sons.”

Barghouti says that Rabin “knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli blood, the blood of every Israeli individual without exception. He knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli tears, and he was able to present Israel as the victim of a crime perpetrated by us. He changed facts, he altered the order of things, he presented us as the initiators of violence in the Middle East and said what he said with eloquence, with clarity and conviction.”

Rabin told his story of soldiers returning from war, covered in blood, and funerals where those in attendance could not look into the eyes of grieving mothers. In a remarkable passage in the brilliant book, I saw Ramallah, Barghouti argues compellingly that it is “easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from “Secondly.” Yes, this is what Rabin did. He simply neglected to speak of what happened first. Start your story with “Secondly,” and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with “Secondly”, and the arrows of the Red Indians are the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victim….You only need to start your story with “Secondly”, and the burned Vietnamese will have wounded the humanity of the napalm, and Victor Jara’s songs will be the shameful thing and not Pinochet’s bullets, which killed so many thousands in the Santiago stadium. It is enough to start the story with “Secondly”, for my grandmother, Umm ‘Ata, to become the criminal and Ariel Sharon her victim” (pp. 177-78).

Zionism has been a beautiful dream for many Jews. But Zionism from the ‘standpoint of the victim’ is not a pretty picture. My conclusions may be troubling and disconcerting. But I think that the cause of global justice and world peace, and particularly peace in the Middle East, demands that we understand that the state of Israel is at the crossroads. Israel, the first modern ‘democracy’ to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, can continue towards an “ethnically cleansed” Greater Israel, or transform into a single, integrated, bi-national, multicultural state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. In my view, the ferocity unleashed in Lebanon and the Gaza—laying sieges, causing electricity blackouts, bombing and shelling, assassinating and imprisoning, killing and wounding children and babies—can only be comprehended in terms of the Zionist project to eradicate any opposition to their goal of total domination in historic Palestine and the surrounding Middle East. Hezbollah was being taught the Zionist’s elementary lesson: we have the right to abduct, you do not.

Israel is an anachronism in our increasingly cosmopolitan world order in that Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privilege from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded. This is a “separatist project” in a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law. Thus, in the Jewish state, one community, the Jews, is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

The wall being erected between Israel and Palestinian occupied territories is a symbol of the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect. You cannot build pathways towards others if you believe they are inferior beings, or that you, and not they, are superior, chosen ones, with your suffering privileged above and beyond everyone else’s. Israel’s actions in the world towards and against the Palestinians—curfews, check points, bulldozers, public humiliations, home demolition, land seizures, shootings, targeted assassinations, and the separatist fence—indicate a state that appears to have lost is moral centre, and is possible facing its own Nakba.

I believe that the United States’ unconditional support for Israel, and the adoption of an Israeli approach to foreign policy, is undermining the hopes and possibilities for peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world. The US’s catastrophic loss of international political influence and the degradation of its moral image has much to do with their bizarre approval of, and financial support for, Israel’s actions in the Middle East. Israel embraced the “war on terror” when the smoke was still rising from the Towers, immediately identifying the Palestinians as “terrorists” who had to be eliminated. Thus, Israel’s wars, now and in the past, are always presented to the world as wars of necessity, of self-defence.

The compelling question before Israel and the rest of the world is simply this: will Israel reinvent itself and dissolve the exhausted Zionist political project in favour of building a truly bi-national state in historic Palestine for everyone? We have reached a moral crossroads. In the new Middle East defined by the US, only Israel and the US may dominate, only they may be strong, only they may be secure. But in the just world that lies on the other side of the crossroads, this is unacceptable.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/30/the-problem-of-israel-in-the-modern-world/

The fall of Europe: Why the European Union is teetering on the brink

Growth is anemic at best and socio-economic inequality is on the rise. How did the European project go so wrong?

The fall of Europe: Why the European Union is teetering on the brink
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Europe won the Cold War.

Not long after the Berlin Wall fell a quarter of a century ago, the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States squandered its peace dividend in an attempt to maintain global dominance, and Europe quietly became more prosperous, more integrated, and more of a player in international affairs. Between 1989 and 2014, the European Union (EU) practically doubled its membership and catapulted into third place in population behind China and India. It currently boasts the world’s largest economy and also heads the list of global trading powers. In 2012, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

In the competition for “world’s true superpower,” China loses points for still having so many impoverished peasants in its rural hinterlands and a corrupt, illiberal bureaucracy in its cities; the United States, for its crumbling infrastructure and a hypertrophied military-industrial complex that threatens to bankrupt the economy. As the only equitably prosperous, politically sound, and rule-of-law-respecting superpower, Europe comes out on top, even if — or perhaps because — it doesn’t have the military muscle to play global policeman.

And yet, for all this success, the European project is currently teetering on the edge of failure. Growth is anemic at best and socio-economic inequality is on the rise. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe, even relatively successful Poland, have failed to bridge the income gap with the richer half of the continent. And the highly indebted periphery is in revolt.

Politically, the center may not hold and things seem to be falling apart. From the left, parties like Syriza in Greece are challenging the EU’s prescriptions of austerity. From the right, Euroskeptic parties are taking aim at the entire quasi-federal model. Racism and xenophobia are gaining ever more adherents, even in previously placid regions like Scandinavia.



Perhaps the primary social challenge facing Europe at the moment, however, is the surging popularity of Islamophobia, the latest “socialism of fools.” From the killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the recent attacks atCharlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, wars in the Middle East have long inspired proxy battles in Europe. Today, however, the continent finds itself ever more divided between a handful of would-be combatants who claim the mantle of true Islam and an ever-growing contingent who believe Islam — all of Islam — has no place in Europe.

The fracturing European Union of 2015 is not the Europe that political scientist Frances Fukuyama imagined when, in 1989, he so famouslypredicted “the end of history,” as well as the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and the bureaucracy in Brussels, the EU’s headquarters, that now oversees continental affairs. Nor is it the Europe that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imagined when, in the 1980s, she spoke of the global triumph of TINA (“there is no alternative”) and of her brand of market liberalism. Instead, today’s Europe increasingly harkens back to the period between the two world wars when politicians of the far right and left polarized public debate, economies went into a financial tailspin, anti-Semitism surged out of the sewer, and storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

Another continent-wide war may not be in the offing, but Europe does face the potential for regime collapse: that is, the end of the Eurozone and the unraveling of regional integration. Its possible dystopian future can be glimpsed in what has happened in its eastern borderlands. There, federal structures binding together culturally diverse people have had a lousy track record over the last quarter-century. After all, the Soviet Union imploded in 1991; Czechoslovakia divorced in 1993; and Yugoslavia was torn asunder in a series of wars later in the 1990s.

If its economic, political, and social structures succumb to fractiousness, the European Union could well follow the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into the waste bin of failed federalisms. Europe as a continent will remain, its nation-states will continue to enjoy varying degrees of prosperity, but Europe as an idea will be over. Worse yet, if, in the end, the EU snatches defeat from the jaws of its Cold War victory, it will have no one to blame but itself.

The Rise and Fall of TINA

The Cold War was an era of alternatives. The United States offered its version of freewheeling capitalism, while the Soviet Union peddled its brand of centralized planning. In the middle, continental Europe offered the compromise of a social market: capitalism with a touch of planning and a deepening concern for the welfare of all members of society.

Cooperation, not competition, was the byword of the European alternative. Americans could have their dog-eat-dog, frontier capitalism. Europeans would instead stress greater coordination between labor and management, and the European Community (the precursor to the EU) would put genuine effort into bringing its new members up to the economic and political level of its core countries.

Then, at a point in the 1980s when the Soviet model had ceased to exert any influence at all globally, along came TINA.

At the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan were ramping up their campaigns to shrink government, while what later became known as globalization — knocking down trade walls and opening up new opportunities for the financial sector — began to be felt everywhere. Thatcher summed up this brave new world with her TINA acronym: the planet no longer had any alternative to globalized market democracy.

Not surprisingly, then, in the post-Cold War era, European integration shifted its focus toward removing barriers to the flow of capital. As a result, the expansion of Europe no longer came with an implied guarantee of eventual equality. The deals that Ireland (1973) and Portugal (1986) had received on accession were now, like the post-World War II Marshall Plan, artifacts of another era. The sheer number of potential new members knocking on Europe’s door put a strain on the EU’s coffers, particularly since the economic performance of countries like Romania and Bulgaria was so far below the European average. But even if the EU had been overflowing with funds, it might not have mattered, since the new “neoliberal” spirit of capitalism now animated its headquarters in Brussels where the order of the day had become: cut government, unleash the market.

At the heart of Europe, as well as of this new orthodoxy, lies Germany, the exemplar of continental fiscal rectitude. Yet in the 1990s, that newly reunified nation engaged in enormous deficit spending, even if packaged under a different name, to bring the former East Germany up to the level of the rest of the country. It did not, however, care to apply this “reunification exception” to other former members of the Soviet bloc. Acting as the effective central bank for the European Union, Germany instead demanded balanced budgets and austerity from all newcomers (and some old timers as well) as the only effective answer to debt and fears of a future depression.

The rest of the old Warsaw Pact has had access to some EU funds for infrastructure development, but nothing on the order of the East German deal. As such, they remain in a kind of economic halfway house. The standard of living in Hungary, 25 years after the fall of Communism, remainsapproximately half that of neighboring Austria. Similarly, it took Romania 14 years just to regain the gross national product (GDP) it had in 1989 and it remains stuck at the bottom of the European Union. People who visit only the capital cities of Eastern and Central Europe come away with a distorted view of the economic situation there, since Warsaw and Bratislava are wealthier than Vienna, and Budapest nearly on a par with it, even though Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary all remain economically far behind Austria.

What those countries experienced after 1989 — one course of “shock therapy” after another — became the medicine of choice for all EU members at risk of default following the financial crisis of 2007 and then the sovereign debt crisis of 2009. Forget deficit spending to enable countries to grow their way out of economic crisis. Forget debt renegotiation. The unemployment rate in Greece and Spain now hovers around 25%, with youth unemployment over 50%, and all the EU members subjected to heavy doses of austerity have witnessed a steep rise in the number of people living below the poverty line. The recent European Central Bank announcement of “quantitative easing” — a monetary sleight-of-hand to pump money into the Eurozone — is too little, too late.

The major principle of European integration has been reversed. Instead of Eastern and Central Europe catching up to the rest of the EU, pockets of the “west” have begun to fall behind the “east.” The GDP per capita of Greece, for example, has slipped below that of Slovenia and, when measured in terms of purchasing power, even Slovakia, both former Communist countries.

The Axis of Illiberalism

Europeans are beginning to realize that Margaret Thatcher was wrong and there are alternatives — to liberalism and European integration. The most notorious example of this new illiberalism is Hungary.

On July 26, 2014, in a speech to his party faithful, Prime Minister Viktor Orban confided that he intended a thorough reorganization of the country. The reform model Orban had in mind, however, had nothing to do with the United States, Britain, or France. Rather, he aspired to create what he bluntly called an “illiberal state” in the very heart of Europe, one strong on Christian values and light on the libertine ways of the West. More precisely, what he wanted was to turn Hungary into a mini-Russia or mini-China.

“Societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way,” Orban intoned,“will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they will be able to substantially reform themselves.” He was also eager to reorient to the east, relying ever less on Brussels and ever more on potentially lucrative markets in and investments from Russia, China, and the Middle East.

That July speech represented a truly Oedipal moment, for Orban was eager to drive a stake right through the heart of the ideology that had fathered him. As a young man more than 25 years earlier, he had led the Alliance of Young Democrats — Fidesz — one of the region’s most promising liberal parties. In the intervening years, sensing political opportunity elsewhere on the political spectrum, he had guided Fidesz out of the Liberal International and into the European People’s Party, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Now, however, he was on the move again and his new role model wasn’t Merkel, but Russian President Vladimir Putin and his iron-fisted style of politics. Given the disappointing performance of liberal economic reforms and the stinginess of the EU, it was hardly surprising that Orban had decided to hedge his bets by looking east.

The European Union has responded by harshly criticizing Orban’s government for pushing through a raft of constitutional changes that restrict the media and compromise the independence of the judiciary. Racism and xenophobia are on the uptick in Hungary, particularly anti-Roma sentiment and anti-Semitism. And the state has taken steps to reassert control over the economy and impose controls on foreign investment.

For some, the relationship between Hungary and the rest of Europe is reminiscent of the moment in the 1960s when Albania fled the Soviet bloc and, in an act of transcontinental audacity, aligned itself with Communist China. But Albania was then a marginal player and China still a poor peasant country. Hungary is an important EU member and China’s illiberal development model, which has vaulted it to the top of the global economy, now has increasing international influence. This, in other words, is no Albanian mouse that roared. A new illiberal axis connecting Budapest to Beijing and Moscow would have far-reaching implications.

The Hungarian prime minister, after all, has many European allies in his Euroskeptical project. Far right parties are climbing in the polls across the continent. With 25% of the votes, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for instance, topped the French elections for the European parliament last May. In local elections in 2014, it also seized 12 mayoralties, and polls show that Le Pen would win the 2017 presidential race if it were held today. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the National Front has been pushing a range of policies from reinstating the death penalty to closing borders that would deliberately challenge the whole European project.

In Denmark, the far-right People’s Party also won the most votes in the European parliamentary elections. In November, it topped opinion polls for the first time. The People’s Party has called for Denmark to slam shut its open-door policy toward refugees and re-introduce border controls. Much as the Green Party did in Germany in the 1970s, groupings like Great Britain’s Independence Party, the Finns Party, and even Sweden’s Democrats are shattering the comfortable conservative-social democratic duopoly that has rotated in power throughout Europe during the Cold War and in its aftermath.

The Islamophobia that has surged in the wake of the murders in France provides an even more potent arrow in the quiver of these parties as they take on the mainstream. The sentiment currently expressed against Islam — at rallies, in the media, and in the occasional criminal act — recalls a Europe of long ago, when armed pilgrims set out on a multiple crusades against Muslim powers, when early nation-states mobilized against the Ottoman Empire, and when European unity was forged not out of economic interest or political agreement but as a “civilizational” response to the infidel.

The Europe of today is, of course, a far more multicultural place and regional integration depends on “unity in diversity,” as the EU’s motto puts it. As a result, rising anti-Islamic sentiment challenges the inclusive nature of the European project. If the EU cannot accommodate Islam, the complex balancing act among all its different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups will be thrown into question.

Euroskepticism doesn’t only come from the right side of the political spectrum. In Greece, the Syriza party has challenged liberalism from the left, as it leads protests against EU and International Monetary Fund austerity programs that have plunged the population into recession and revolt. As elsewhere in Europe, the far right might have taken advantage of this economic crisis, too, had the government not arrested the Golden Dawn leadership on murder and other charges. In parliamentary elections on Sunday, Syriza won an overwhelming victory, coming only a couple seats short of an absolute majority. In a sign of the ongoing realignment of European politics, that party then formed a new government not with the center-left, but with the right-wing Independent Greeks, which is similarly anti-austerity but also skeptical of the EU and in favor of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

European integration continues to be a bipartisan project for the parties that straddle the middle of the political spectrum, but the Euroskeptics are now winning votes with their anti-federalist rhetoric. Though they tend to moderate their more apocalyptic rhetoric about “despotic Brussels” as they get closer to power, by pulling on a loose thread here and another there, they could very well unravel the European tapestry.

When the Virtuous Turn Vicious

For decades, European integration created a virtuous circle — prosperity generating political support for further integration that, in turn, grew the European economy. It was a winning formula in a competitive world. However, as the European model has become associated with austerity, not prosperity, that virtuous circle has turned vicious. A challenge to the Eurozone in one country, a repeal of open borders in another, the reinstitution of the death penalty in a third — it, too, is a process that could feed on itself, potentially sending the EU into a death spiral, even if, at first, no member states take the fateful step of withdrawing.

In Eastern and Central Europe, the growing crew who distrust the EU complain that Brussels has simply taken the place of Moscow in the post-Soviet era. (The Euroskeptics in the former Yugoslavia prefer to cite Belgrade.) Brussels, they insist, establishes the parameters of economic policy that its member states ignore at their peril, while Eurozone members find themselves with ever less control over their finances. Even if the edicts coming from Brussels are construed as economically sensible and possessed of a modicum of democratic legitimacy, to the Euroskeptics they still represent a devastating loss of sovereignty.

In this way, the same resentments that ate away at the Soviet and Yugoslav federations have begun to erode popular support for the European Union. Aside from Poland and Germany, where enthusiasm remains strong, sentiment toward the EU remains lukewarm at best across much of the rest of the continent, despite a post-euro crisis rebound. Its popularity now hovers ataround 50% in many member states and below that in places like Italy and Greece.

The European Union has without question been a remarkable achievement of modern statecraft. It turned a continent that seemed destined to wallow in “ancestral hatreds” into one of the most harmonious regions on the planet. But as with the portmanteau states of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the complex federal project of the EU has proven fragile in the absence of a strong external threat like the one that the Cold War provided. Another economic shock or a coordinated political challenge could tip it over the edge.

Unity in diversity may be an appealing concept, but the EU needs more than pretty rhetoric and good intentions to stay glued together. If it doesn’t come up with a better recipe for dealing with economic inequality, political extremism, and social intolerance, its opponents will soon have the power to hit the rewind button on European integration. The ensuing regime collapse would not only be a tragedy for Europe, but for all those who hope to overcome the dangerous rivalries of the past and provide shelter from the murderous conflicts of the present.

John Feffer‘s most recent book is “North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.”

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From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourPark

By Bernardo Gutiérrez On January 29, 2015

Post image for From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourParkAfter the square occupations of the past years, the Augusta Park actions in São Paulo, Brazil, open a new phase based on a vision of the commons.

There was a time when the occupied square was the city. The initial camp of Spanish 15M Indignados in Puerta del Sol in Madrid became a city per se. In this square-city a kindergarten, libraries, clinics, and cultural spaces emerged.

There was a time when the occupied square was a country. In Tahrir Square talks of dissatisfaction of the mosques of Egypt and Facebook groups like We Are Khaled Said converged, lighting the flame of the revolt. During the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul a map of the Republic of Gezi was even designed. The space occupied by different ethnic, religious or ideological groups appeared in different colors: anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, LGBT, environmentalists, Muslims, and football fans. Groups losing their walls of prejudice, talking to each other for the first time.

There was a time when the occupied square was the world. In fact, all occupations were or wanted to be the world. The mind map of Acampada Sol of Madrid drew a planetary dialogue in which groups such as the Zapatistas and Anonymous and events such as Argentina 2001 default and Tiananmen Square fitted together. The Zuccotti Park in New York, taken for weeks by Occupy Wall Street, became a global connection interface. We are the 99% of the square-world, they said.

But many squares forgot to be squares. The occupation created a second skin of commons-oriented practices and self-management. But the petitions of the occupations had more to do with macro-political, social or economic issues. The exception could be the Turkish #DirenGezi explosion, born as resistance against the construction of a mall in Gezi Park. After the outbreak of the riots, the cause of Gezi Park was diluted in an ocean of ailments and requests. The slogan “It is not for a park” opened a multi-faceted revolt. But beyond the conservation of Gezi Park there was no specific demand for self-management. Defending the park as a public good seemed to be the horizon.

Neither public nor private

The occupation of Augusta Park in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, without being as explosive as the Turkish Gezi Park, opens a new breakthrough in the global cycle of occupations: the proposal of a commons-oriented park. The Augusta Park — being city, country and world — wants to be a park. But it wants to be a common, communitarian or collective park, not just a public park.

Many of the contradictions of the global occupations float over the 25,000 square meters of Augusta Park. As Zuccotti Park in New York, the Augusta Park is a private property. Two companies are the owners of the park: Syrela and Setin. Syrela is also responsible for the construction of the golf course in the Olympic area of Rio de Janeiro, where the #OcupaGolfe (#OccupyGolf) movement has emerged. And here comes the dystopian metaphor: a public sector serving the private sector interests. The market sets the pace.

The municipality of São Paulo, after a lot of public pressure, sanctioned the creation of Augusta Park in late 2013. The forest, the last redoubt of Atlantic Forest in São Paulo, has been declared a historical, environmental and cultural heritage. But the city hall council argues that it has no resources to expropriate the park. The owners of the park wanted €21.8 million in September 2013. Now, based on rising housing prices, they want €85.5 million for the park.

The Park Augusta Movement, after months of actions, festivals and small raids into the park, decided to ‘liberate the park.’ They broke the locks. They entered. They camped. The movement argues that they are not occupying: “We are releasing a space that should be open by law,” says Daniel Biral, member of the Advogados Ativistas collective. The freedom of movement of citizens in the Augusta Park is legally guaranteed. But since December 2013, the park is closed. That is why the park was occupied/opened on Saturday 17 January.

The assemblies within the park take place at a dizzying pace. There are yoga classes, shows, an open school, workshops, meetings, and so on. The creative frenzy includes the presence of many of the groups and social actors of the massive June 2013 protests. The occupation of Augusta Park aims to break the logic of the market. One paragraph of the objectives of the Park Augusta Movement stresses that point: “A public park is a common good, belongs to the social network of the city and cannot remain under private and speculative interests. Its social function must be guaranteed.”

The park wants to be a park. The park wants to be a common park.

The process-park

“We do not have a definite plan for the park.” The sentence floated on a screen in one of the initial assemblies after the occupation. Breno Castro, one of the participants, was explaining, one by one, the principles of the movement. First: horizontality. Next: pluralism, public space, permaculture, direct democracy, respect and generosity. Finally, Breno explained the process-park concept, a point which also summarizes the insights of global occupations. It is also linked to the so-called ‘perpetual beta’ state, common in the hacker world: an unfinished shape that collective intelligence can constantly improve. The Process-Park, according to its own site: “Why defining a design that will last for years? The Augusta Park will be multiple and be renewed periodically. We will leave mobile and empty areas, which will enable rebuilding processes.”

The Augusta Park park is city, country and world. It is a park-city: inside there are reading places, recycling areas, tents for political debates. It is also a park-city because it is connected to a network of twelve threatened parks in São Paulo, all of them in a process of resistance. It is a park-country: it has close contact with other urban environmental struggles, such as Fica Ficus (Belo Horizonte), Ocupe Estelita (Recife), the Gong Park (Curitiba), Coco Park (Fortaleza) and #OcupaGolfe (Rio de Janeiro). It is also a park-world: in 2014 they were visited by activists who participated in the occupation of Turkish Gezi Park. Both movements released together the manifesto #Reclaiming our parks. And it is an icon that gains support in several countries, as reflected in a recent BBC article.

But maybe the Augusta Park is something else. Something else than park, city, country and/or world. Paulinho Fluxus, one of the participants in the occupation, sitting on the grass of Augusta Park, remembered his visit to the Santuario dos Pajés, an indigenous land threatened by the housing boom of Brasilia. The sanctuary, for urbanite Paulinho, is the city’s cosmic connection with nature. With the planet. The Augusta Park represents that connection too. It is an urban struggle, but connected to the environmental imaginary of the world.

It is connected to the ancient world-views of the so-called Global South. It is a resistance connected to some commons-ruled natural forests in Europe (as in Galicia, Spain). The Augusta Park is technopolitics, networks and territories. But it is also cosmopolitics. This kind of cosmopolitics, linked to the practices of indigenous people around the commons, is a counterweight to the storytelling of the Western world. The individual Cartesianism succumbs in the collective Amerindian vision. “The other exists, therefore he thinks”, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, an influential Brazilian anthropologist.

With a serious hydraulic crisis in Brazil, Paulinho Fluxus’ speech makes even more sense. There is a lack of water in the main Brazilian cities. Many people think that a water revolt is inevitable. Within weeks. Naomi Klein, in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate puts climate change at the center of politics. There will be riots, she states. Many. Different ones. Against the lack of water. Against the scarcity of green in the cities.

On September 20, People’s Climate Mobilization held protests in 156 countries. “Whether or not climate change is the main reason, (such local movements) deserve to be recognized as the anonymous ‘carbon keepers’, which means that protecting their beloved forests, mountains, rivers and coasts are helping to protect all of us”, writes Klein. It is the water, stupid. It is water. It is the climate. It is the park that resists against capital. OccupyDesign and 99% cross creativity and plan actions to impact the UN Climate Conference COP21, to be held in Paris in late 2015. It will be a classic scene of battles. An old struggle. But now there is the landscape of environmental urgency, indignations are rising, and the global network system is more connected than ever.

Near the entrance of Augusta Park in São Paulo, a painting on a poster ignores the fact that military police already has the legal order for eviction. The Augusta Park can be evicted any day. The painting talks with passersby with a shout that opens doors. A shout that connects the city with other visions. A shout that is an evolution of that of Take the Square of 2011. Black letters, white background. An arrow encouraging new horizons: Free your park.

Bernardo Gutiérrez (@bernardosampa) is a Spanish-Brazilian journalist and writer who researches networked movements, hacker culture and peer-to-peer politics. He is the founder of the network FuturaMedia.net, lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and participates in the Global Revolution Research Network (GRRN).

Image by Acacio Augusto via Twitter: @acacio1871

 

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First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts

By Heathcote Ruthven On January 28, 2015

Post image for First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts
Syriza’s victory — a product of Greece’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics — will resound throughout Europe.
Image: Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos faces off with a riot cop in 2011.
In April 1941, after nearly a year of the Greeks staving off Italian forces, the armies of the Third Reich rolled their tanks into Athens. An Evzoni guarding the Parthenon was ordered to replace the national flag with the fascist ensign. After taking it down, he wrapped himself in the redundant flag and jumped to his death from that democratic theater rock.One evening, barely two months later, Nazi troops were toasting Hitler’s invasion of Crete. Two boys — including the then 18-year-old Manolis Glezos — armed with a knife and lantern, snuck past them, into the Acropolis and captured the billowing Swastika. That evening they tore it to shreds and buried it, keeping rags as souvenirs. Telegrams blazed around the continent, and the action became a call to arms for resistance movements in Greece and beyond.

Why the harsh treatment?

Throughout his life, Glezos has been sentenced to death three times; spent over a decade incarcerated; been memorialized on a Soviet postage stamp; written six books; innovated new systems of flood preventative water irrigation and has been granted honorary professorships in geology, civil engineering, and philosophy. Now 92, he is one of the most prominent members of Syriza — a coalition of radical left parties that has gone from 3% of the national vote in 2004, to 36% today.

Still on the streets in a 2010 Athenian street protest, Glezos was hit in the face by a riot cop and teargassed by another. In 2012, he became a Member of Parliament, and as of 2014 he is representing the party in European Parliament. Bringing an “anti-government, anti-system and anti-Troika” message to Brussels, he campaigns, amongst other things, for reparations from Germany. Here’s an extract of an open letter he penned last year:

Due to bombings, executions, famine, disease, and reduced fertility our country lost 13.4% of its population. The USSR 10%, Poland 8%. Yugoslavia 6%. At the same time it suffered an incredible economic catastrophe: our infrastructure was destroyed, our resources were looted. At the same time our cultural treasures were stolen and taken to Germany.

And yet, 70 years after the end of the occupation our country has not received from Germany any redress, any compensation! When indeed all of the other countries invaded by Germany have received reparations from Germany. All of them except Greece! Why? And furthermore: the loan Greece was forced to make has not been repaid to our country whereas Germany has repaid the equivalent obligatory loans made by Poland and Yugoslavia. Finally the archaeological treasures and priceless works of art which were stolen from Greece have not been returned. Why? What is the reason for this particularly harsh treatment of us?

Europe’s debt colony

‘Harsh treatment’ indeed. In the past four years Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Child poverty is at 40%. A quarter of a million people are without electricity. Unemployment stands at 26%, and most of these people do not receive benefits. For those in work, job security and wages have been cut and 33% of the population has no health insurance. The list goes on.

The story is a familiar one. The Greek state was lent huge amounts by the IMF and Eurozone countries — it is 175% of it’s GDP in debt — in exchange for brutal austerity conditions to be imposed. Syriza want to stop all of this. The newFinance Minister described the bailout deals, with characteristic Greek flair, as “fiscal waterboarding policies that have turned Greece into a debt colony.” He is now aiming to negotiate 50% of their debt to be wiped off (such a thing has happened many times before, including to Germany in 1953).

Syriza now lead the only anti-austerity government in Europe, with the 40-year-old former communist student leader Alexis Tsipras at the helm. Their emphasis on negotiating with their creditors has drawn criticism from the left, with many accusing them of tempering their views or never really having been that radical in the first place.

Syriza seems to understand the fundamental antagonism of its relationship with the Troika: debtor doesn’t want to pay, lender wants its money back. Along with Spain, Italy, and Ireland, they may have a certain ability to bargain collectively. “We both want us to be in the euro. We’re not going to pay though. Kick us out? Then we’ll all leave and your EU is finished,” so to speak.

Roots in years of struggle

No matter how ideologically brilliant this “formidable coterie of academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries” may be, there have been two prongs of anarchist practice that have made demands for radical change realistic:

  1. The alternatives: the citizen-run health clinics, food centers, public kitchens, legal aid centers, and various forms of mutual aid co-operatives necessitated by the poverty of recent years;
  2. The critique: riots, hunger strikes against incarceration, occupied factories, strikes, the molotovs. Paul Mason describes the Exarcheia district of Athens — “the last of the great bohemias” — as resisting gentrification by “night after night of barricade fighting and random attacks on TV news crews.”

It is only possible for Syriza to exist because of the country’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics. They are the result of years of struggle. To talk about party politics without talking of these networks is entirely illiterate.

What happened in Greece is deeply intertwined with social movements around the world. Syriza would mean nothing without, for example, Spain’s Podemos — a one-year old radical leftist party set to win the 2015 elections. Their victory would put an end to the two-party system that has reigned since Franco. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, took to a stage with Tsipras a few days before the election. Side by side, punching their fists in the air, they looked like two cute drunk IT-workers as they sang along to Leonard Cohen’s classic:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

The ‘contagion effect’ of this far left victory will resound throughout Europe, boosting support for a range of left parties: Sinn Féin in Ireland, the Greens in United Kingdom, Die Linke in Germany, Parti de Gauche in France, and also in Greece’s historic nemesis Turkey, where marginalized leftist and Kurdish groups such as the HDP have found an ally in Syriza.

The specifics of these groups are unremarkable enough, but the widespread rejection of traditional political parties, and the breakdown of a parliamentary consensus on debt is something new.

Global resonance

There is a feedback loop. Each of these anti-austerity parties is a product of mass social movements. They were created by these social movements, and in turn, the success of these parties will (hopefully) facilitate those movements to progress in creating non-state, non-market networks.

It reaches far beyond Europe. Since 2011, in South America, North Africa, East Asia, and beyond, prefigurative politics have come to the fore in a previously unimaginable way. Around the world, there is a change in common sense about what constitutes democracy, and how to practice it. These behaviors are the murmurs laying ground for our post-capitalist future.

Stepping down from utopia for a moment. The most important reason for thinking outside Europe is simple and ignored: reparations. There is an absence of discussions about what Syriza’s potential successes here could herald. If Germany would repay Greece for the misery it has been in since WWII, it will resound through the (post-)colonized world, and embolden the cries for historical justice long written off as ‘unrealistic.’

Heathcote Ruthven studies Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his dissertation on the relationship artists and musicians have with capitalism in Iceland.

Follow him on Twitter at @heathcoter.

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The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

What Makes You You?

When you say the word “me,” you probably feel pretty clear about what that means. It’s one of the things you’re clearest on in the whole world—something you’ve understood since you were a year old. You might be working on the question, “Who am I?” but what you’re figuring out is the who am part of the question—the part is obvious. It’s just you. Easy.

But when you stop and actually think about it for a minute—about what “me” really boils down to at its core—things start to get pretty weird. Let’s give it a try.

The Body Theory

We’ll start with the first thing most people equate with what a person is—the physical body itself. The Body Theory says that that’s what makes you you. And that would make sense. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in your life—if your body stops working, you die. If Mark goes through something traumatic and his family says, CH“It really changed him—he’s just not the same person anymore,” they don’t literally mean Mark isn’t the same person—he’s changed, but he’s still Mark, because Mark’s body is Mark, no matter what he’s acting like. Humans believe they’re so much more than a hunk of flesh and bone, but in the end, a physical ant is the ant, a squirrel’s body is the squirrel, and a human is its body. This is the Body Theory—let’s test it:

So what happens when you cut your fingernails? You’re changing your body, severing some of its atoms from the whole. Does that mean you’re not you anymore? Definitely not—you’re still you.

How about if you get a liver transplant? Bigger deal, but definitely still you, right?

What if you get a terrible disease and need to replace your liver, kidney, heart, lungs, blood, and facial tissue with synthetic parts, but after all the surgery, you’re fine and can live your life normally. Would your family say that you had died, because most of your physical body was gone? No, they wouldn’t. You’d still be you. None of that is needed for you to be you.

Well maybe it’s your DNA? Maybe that’s the core thing that makes you you, and none of these organ transplants matter because your remaining cells all still contain your DNA, and they’re what maintains “you.” One major problem—identical twins have identical DNA, and they’re not the same person. You are you, and your identical twin is most certainly not you. DNA isn’t the answer.

So far, the Body Theory isn’t looking too good. We keep changing major parts of the body, and you keep being you.

But how about your brain?

The Brain Theory

Let’s say a mad scientist captures both you and Bill Clinton and locks the two of you up in a room.

CH

The scientist then performs an operation on both of you, whereby he safely removes each of your brains and switches them into the other’s head. Then he seals up your skulls and wakes you both up. You look down and you’re in a totally different body—Bill Clinton’s body. And across the room, you see your body—with Bill Clinton’s personality.

CFO

Now, are you still you? Well, my intuition says that you’re you—you still have your exact personality and all your memories—you’re just in Bill Clinton’s body now. You’d go find your family to explain what happened:

CF1

CF2

So unlike your other organs, which could be transplanted without changing your identity, when you swapped brains, it wasn’t a brain transplant—it was a body transplant. You’d still feel like you, just with a different body. Meanwhile, your old body would not be you—it would be Bill Clinton. So what makes you you must be your brain. The Brain Theory says that wherever the brain goes, you go—even if it goes into someone else’s skull.

The Data Theory

Consider this—

What if the mad scientist, after capturing you and Bill Clinton, instead of swapping your physical brains, just hooks up a computer to each of your brains, copies every single bit of data in each one, then wipes both of your brains completely clean, and then copies each of your brain data onto the other person’s physical brain? So you both wake up, both with your own physical brains in your head, but you’re not in your body—you’re in Bill Clinton’s body. After all, Bill Clinton’s brain now has all of your thoughts, memories, fears, hopes, dreams, emotions, and personality. The body and brain of Bill Clinton would still run out and go freak out about this to your family. And again, after a significant amount of convincing, they would indeed accept that you were alive, just in Bill Clinton’s body.

Philosopher John Locke’s memory theory of personal identity suggests that what makes you you is your memory of your experiences. Under Locke’s definition of you, the new Bill Clinton in this latest example is you, despite not containing any part of your physical body, not even your brain. 

This suggests a new theory we’ll call The Data Theory, which says that you’re not your physical body at all. Maybe what makes you you is your brain’s data—your memories and your personality.

We seem to be honing in on something, but the best way to get to concrete answers is by testing these theories in hypothetical scenarios. Here’s an interesting one, conceived by British philosopher Bernard Williams:

The Torture Test

Situation 1: The mad scientist kidnaps you and Clinton, switches your brain data with Clinton’s, as in the latest example, wakes you both up, and then walks over to the body of Clinton, where you supposedly reside, and says, “I’m now going to horribly torture one of you—which one should I torture?”

What’s your instinct? Mine is to point at my old body, where I no longer reside, and say, “Him.” And if I believe in the Data Theory, then I’ve made a good choice. My brain data is in Clinton’s body, so I’m now in Clinton’s body, so who cares about my body anymore? Sure, it sucks for anyone to be tortured, but if it’s between me and Bill Clinton, I’m choosing him.

Situation 2: The mad scientist captures you and Clinton, except he doesn’t do anything to your brains yet. He comes over to you—normal you with your normal brain and body—and asks you a series of questions. Here’s how I think it would play out:

Mad Scientist: Okay so here’s what’s happening. I’m gonna torture one of you. Who should I torture?

You: [pointing at Clinton] Him.

MS: Okay but there’s something else—before I torture whoever I torture, I’m going to wipe both of your brains of all memories, so when the torture is happening, neither of you will remember who you were before this. Does that change your choice?

You: Nope. Torture him.

MS: One more thing—before the torture happens, not only am I going to wipe your brains clean, I’m going to build new circuitry into your brain that will convince you that you’re Bill Clinton. By the time I’m done, you’ll think you’re Bill Clinton and you’ll have all of his memories and his full personality and anything else that he thinks or feels or knows. I’ll do the same thing to him, convincing him he’s you. Does that change your choice?

You: Um, no. Regardless of any delusion I’m going through and no matter who Ithink I am, I don’t want to go through the horrible pain of being tortured. Insane people still feel pain. Torture him.

So in the first situation, I think you’d choose to have your own body tortured. But in the second, I think you’d choose Bill Clinton’s body—at least I would. But the thing is—they’re the exact same example. In both cases, before any torture happens, Clinton’s brain ends up with all of your data and your brain has his—the difference is just at which point in the process you were asked to decide. In both cases, your goal is for you to not be tortured, but in the first situation, you felt that after the brain data swap, you were in Clinton’s body, with all of your personality and memories there with you—while in the second situation, if you’re like me, you didn’t care what was going to happen with the two brains’ data, you believed that you would remain with your physical brain, and body, either way.

Choosing your body to be the one tortured in the first situation is an argument for the Data Theory—you believe that where your data goes, you go. Choosing Clinton’s body to be tortured in the second situation is an argument for the Brain Theory, because you believe that regardless of what he does with your brain’s data, you will continue to be in your own body, because that’s where your physical brain is. Some might even take it a step further, and if the mad scientist told you he was even going to switch your physical brains, you’d still choose Clinton’s body, with your brain in it, to be tortured. Those that would torture a body with their own brain in it over torturing their own body believe in the Body Theory.

Not sure about you, but I’m finishing this experiment still divided. Let’s try another. Here’s my version of modern philosopher Derek Parfit’s teletransporter thought experiment, which he first described in his book Reasons and Persons

The Teletransporter Thought Experiment

It’s the year 2700. The human race has invented all kinds of technology unimaginable in  today’s world. One of these technologies is teleportation—the ability to transport yourself to distant places at the speed of light. Here’s how it works—

You go into a Departure Chamber—a little room the size of a small cubicle.

cube stand

You set your location—let’s say you’re in Boston and your destination is London—and when you’re ready to go, you press the button on the wall. The chamber walls then scan your entire body, uploading the exact molecular makeup of your body—every atom that makes up every part of you and its precise location—and as it scans, it destroys, so every cell in your body is destroyed by the scanner as it goes.

cube beam

When it’s finished (the Departure Chamber is now empty after destroying all of your cells), it beams your body’s information to an Arrival Chamber in London, which has all the necessary atoms waiting there ready to go. The Arrival Chamber uses the data to re-form your entire body with its storage of atoms, and when it’s finished you walk out of the chamber in London looking and feeling exactly how you did back in Boston—you’re in the same mood, you’re hungry just like you were before, you even have the same paper cut on your thumb you got that morning.

The whole process, from the time you hit the button in the Departure Chamber to when you walk out of the Arrival Chamber in London, takes five minutes—but to you it feels instantaneous. You hit the button, things go black for a blink, and now you’re standing in London. Cool, right?

In 2700, this is common technology. Everyone you know travels by teleportation. In addition to the convenience of speed, it’s incredibly safe—no one has ever gotten hurt doing it.

But then one day, you head into the Departure Chamber in Boston for your normal morning commute to your job in London, you press the big button on the wall, and you hear the scanner turn on, but it doesn’t work.

cubicle broken

The normal split-second blackout never happens, and when you walk out of the chamber, sure enough, you’re still in Boston. You head to the check-in counter and tell the woman working there that the Departure Chamber is broken, and you ask her if there’s another one you can use, since you have an early meeting and don’t want to be late.

She looks down at her records and says, “Hm—it looks like the scanner worked and collected its data just fine, but the cell destroyer that usually works in conjunction with the scanner has malfunctioned.”

“No,” you explain, “it couldn’t have worked, because I’m still here. And I’m late for this meeting—can you please set me up with a new Departure Chamber?”

She pulls up a video screen and says, “No, it did work—see? There you are in London—it looks like you’re gonna be right on time for your meeting.” She shows you the screen, and you see yourself walking on the street in London.

“But that can’t be me,” you say, “because I’m still here.”

At that point, her supervisor comes into the room and explains that she’s correct—the scanner worked as normal and you’re in London as planned. The only thing that didn’t work was the cell destroyer in the Departure Chamber here in Boston. “It’s not a problem, though,” he tells you, “we can just set you up in another chamber and activate its cell destroyer and finish the job.”

And even though this isn’t anything that wasn’t going to happen before—in fact, you have your cells destroyed twice every day—suddenly, you’re horrified at the prospect.

“Wait—no—I don’t want to do that—I’ll die.”

The supervisor explains, “You won’t die sir. You just saw yourself in London—you’re alive and well.”

“But that’s not me. That’s a replica of me—an imposterI’m the real me—you can’t destroy my cells!”

The supervisor and the woman glance awkwardly at each other. “I’m really sorry sir—but we’re obligated by law to destroy your cells. We’re not allowed to form the body of a person in an Arrival Chamber without destroying the body’s cells in a Departure Chamber.”

You stare at them in disbelief and then run for the door. Two security guards come out and grab you. They drag you toward a chamber that will destroy your cells, as you kick and scream…

__________

If you’re like me, in the first part of that story, you were pretty into the idea of teletransportation, and by the end, you were not.

The question the story poses is, “Is teletransportation, as described in this experiment, a form of traveling? Or a form of dying?

This question might have been ambiguous when I first described it—it might have even felt like a perfectly safe way of traveling—but by the end, it felt much more like a form of dying. Which means that every day when you commute to work from Boston to London, you’re killed by the cell destroyer, and a replica of you is created.1 To the people who know you, you survive teletransportation just fine, the same way your wife seems just fine when she arrives home to you after her own teletransportation, talking about her day and discussing plans for next week. But is it possible that your wife was actually killed that day, and the person you’re kissing now was just created a few minutes ago?

Well again, it depends on what you are. Someone who believes in the Data Theory would posit that London you is you as much as Boston you, and that teletransportation is perfectly survivable. But we all related to Boston you’s terror at the end there—could anyone really believe that he should be fine with being obliterated just because his data is safe and alive over in London? Further, if the teletransporter could beam your data to London for reassembly, couldn’t it also beam it to 50 other cities and create 50 new versions of you? You’d be hard-pressed to argue that those were all you. To me, the teletransporter experiment is a big strike against the Data Theory.

Similarly, if there were an Ego Theory that suggests that you are simply your ego, the teletransporter does away nicely with that. Thinking about London Tim, I realize that “Tim Urban” surviving means nothing to me. The fact that my replica in London will stay friends with my friends, keep Wait But Why going with his Tuesday-ish posts, and live out the whole life I was planning for myself—the fact that no one will miss me or even realize that I’m dead, the same way in the story you never felt like you lost your wife—does almost nothing for me. I don’t care about Tim Urban surviving. I care about me surviving.

All of this seems like very good news for Body Theory and Brain Theory. But let’s not judge things yet. Here’s another experiment:

The Split Brain Experiment

A cool fact about the human brain is that the left and right hemispheres function as their own little worlds, each with their own things to worry about, but if you remove one half of someone’s brain, they can sometimes not only survive, but their remaining brain half can learn to do many of the other half’s previous jobs, allowing the person to live a normal life. That’s right—you could lose half of your brain and potentially function normally.

So say you have an identical twin sibling named Bob who developes a fatal brain defect. You decide to save him by giving him half of your brain. Doctors operate on both of you, discarding his brain and replacing it with half of yours. When you wake up, you feel normal and like yourself. Your twin (who already has your identical DNA because you’re twins) wakes up with your exact personality and memories.

twins

When you realize this, you panic for a minute that your twin now knows all of your innermost thoughts and feelings on absolutely everything, and you’re about to make him promise not to tell anyone, when it hits you that you of course don’t have to tell him. He’s not your twin—he’s you. He’s just as intent on your privacy as you are, because it’s his privacy too.

As you look over at the guy who used to be Bob and watch him freak out that he’s in Bob’s body now instead of his own, you wonder, “Why did I stay in my body and not wake up in Bob’s? Both brain halves are me, so why am I distinctly in my body and not seeing and thinking in dual split-screen right now, from both of our points of view? And whatever part of me is in Bob’s head, why did I lose touch with it? Who is the me in Bob’s head, and how did he end up over there while I stayed here?”

Brain Theory is shitting his pants right now—it makes no sense. If people are supposed to go wherever their brains go, what happens when a brain is in two places at once? Data Theory, who was badly embarrassed by the teletransporter experiment, is doing no better in this one.

But Body Theory—who was shot down at the very beginning of the post—is suddenly all smug and thrilled with himself. Body Theory says “Of course you woke up in your own body—your body is what makes you you. Your brain is just the tool your body uses to think. Bob isn’t you—he’s Bob. He’s just now a Bob who has your thoughts and personality. There’s nothing Bob’s body can ever do to not be Bob.” This would help explain why you stayed in your body.

So a nice boost for Body Theory, but let’s take a look at a couple more things—

What we learned in the teletransporter experiment is that if your brain data is transferred to someone else’s brain, even if that person is molecularly identical to you, all it does is create a replica of you—a total stranger who happens to be just like you. There’s something distinct about Boston you that was important. When you were recreated out of different atoms in London, something critical was lost—something that made you you.

Body Theory (and Brain Theory) would point out that the only difference between Boston you and London you was that London you was made out of different atoms. London you’s body was like your body, but it was still made of different material. So is that it? Could Body Theory explain this too?

Let’s put it through two tests:

The Cell Replacement Test

Imagine I replace a cell in your arm with an identical, but foreign, replica cell. Are you not you anymore? Of course you are. But how about if, one at a time, I replace 1% of your cells with replicas? How about 10%? 30%? 60%? The London you was composed of 100% replacement cells, and we decided that that was not you—so when does the “crossover” happen? How many of your cells do we need to swap out for replicas before you “die” and what’s remaining becomes your replica?

Something feels off with this, right? Considering that the cells we’re replacing are molecularly identical to those we’re removing, and someone watching this all happen wouldn’t even notice anything change about you, it seem implausible that you’d ever die during this process, even if we eventually replaced 100% of your cells with replicas. But if your cells are eventually all replicas, how are you any different from London you?

The Body Scattering Test 

Imagine going into an Atom Scattering Chamber that completely disassembles your body’s atoms so that all that’s left in the room is a light gas of floating atoms—and then a few minutes later, it perfectly reassembles the atoms into you, and you walk out feeling totally normal.

disassemble

Is that still you? Or did you die when you were disassembled and what has been reassembled is a replica of you? It doesn’t really make sense that this reassembled you would be the real you and London you would be a replica, when the only difference between the two cases is that the scattering room preserves your exact atoms and the London chamber assembles you out of different atoms. At their most basic level, atoms are identical—a hydrogen atom from your body is identical in every way to a hydrogen atom in London. Given that, I’d say that if we’re deciding London you is not you, then reassembled you is probably not you either.

The first thing these two tests illustrate is that the key distinction between Boston you and London you isn’t about the presence or absence of your actual, physical cells. The Cell Replacement Test suggests that you can gradually replace much or all of your body with replica material and still be you, and the Body Scattering Test suggests that you can go through a scatter and a reassembly, even with all of your original physical material, and be no more you than the you in London. Not looking great for Body Theory anymore.

The second thing these tests reveal is that the difference between Boston and London you might not be the nature of the particular atoms or cells involved, but about continuity. The Cell Replacement Test might have left you intact because it changed you gradually, one cell at a time. And if the Body Scattering Test were the end of you, maybe it’s because it happened all at the same time, breaking thecontinuity of you. This could also explain why the teletransporter might be a murder machine—London you has no continuity with your previous life.

So could it be that we’ve been off the whole time pitting the brain, the body, and the personality and memories against each other? Could it be that anytime you relocate your brain, or disassemble your atoms all at once, transfer your brain data onto a new brain, etc., you lose you because maybe, you’re not defined by any of these things on their own, but rather by a long and unbroken string of continuous existence?

Continuity

A few years ago, my late grandfather, in his 90s and suffering from dementia, pointed at a picture on the wall of himself as a six-year-old. “That’s me!” he explained.

He was right. But come on. It seems ridiculous that the six-year-old in the picture and the extremely old man standing next to me could be the same person. Those two people had nothing in common. Physically, they were vastly different—almost every cell in the six-year-old’s body died decades ago. As far as their personalities—we can agree that they wouldn’t have been friends. And they shared almost no common brain data at all. Any 90-year-old man on the street is much more similar to my grandfather than that six-year-old.

But remember—maybe it’s not about similarity, but about continuity. If similarity were enough to define you, Boston you and London you, who are identical, would be the same person. The thing that my grandfather shared with the six-year-old in the picture is something he shared with no one else on Earth—they were connected to each other by a long, unbroken string of continuous existence. As an old man, he may not know anything about that six-year-old boy, but he knows something about himself as an 89-year-old, and that 89-year-old might know a bunch about himself as an 85-year-old. As a 50-year-old, he knew a ton about him as a 43-year-old, and when he was seven, he was a pro on himself as a 6-year-old. It’s a long chain of overlapping memories, personality traits, and physical characteristics.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.

______

It would have been pleasant to end the post there, but I just can’t do it, because I can’t quite believe in souls.

The way I actually feel right now is completely off-balance. Spending a week thinking about clones of yourself, imagining sharing your brain or merging yours with someone else’s, and wondering whether you secretly die every time you sleep and wake up as a replica will do that to you. If you’re looking for a satisfying conclusion, I’ll direct you to the sources below since I don’t even know who I am right now.

The only thing I’ll say is that I told someone about the topic I was posting on for this week, and their question was, “That’s cool, but what’s the point of trying to figure this out?” While researching, I came across this quote by Parfit: “The early Buddhist view is that much or most of the misery of human life resulted from the false view of self.” I think that’s probably very true, and that’s the point of thinking about this topic.

___________

Here’s how I’m working on this false view of self thing.

Sources
Very few of the ideas or thought experiments in this post are my original thinking. I read and listened to a bunch of personal identity philosophy this week and gathered my favorite parts together for the post. The two sources I drew from the most were philosopher Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons and Yale professor Shelly Kagan’s fascinating philosophy course on death—the lectures are all watchableonline for free.

Other Sources:
David Hume: Hume on Identity Over Time and Persons
Derek Parfit: We Are Not Human Beings
Peter Van Inwagen: Materialism and the Psychological-Continuity Account of Personal Identity
Bernard Williams: The Self and the Future
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter: Of Identity and Diversity)
Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
Patrick Bailey: Concerning Theories of Personal Identity

 

http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/12/what-makes-you-you.html

He’s not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let’s not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet

Populist State of the Union with a fiery tone has liberals excited. They’d be wise to remember Obama’s true nature

He's not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let's not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet
Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Reuters/Bob Strong/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech capped an epic political makeover. In two months he went from the living avatar of the political and economic establishment to a self-styled populist scourge. It’s as if he walked into a plastic surgeon’s office after Election Day and said “make me look like Bernie Sanders.” No president has ever tried to alter his image so drastically or so fast. I wonder if he’ll pull it off.

His campaign began emphatically on Nov. 5. Instead of the ritual submission the media demands of defeated party leaders, Obama used his post-election press conference to renew his vow to enact substantial immigration reform by executive order. Days later, he announced a major climate accord with China and finally came down foursquare for net neutrality.

These were big moves, but Obama was just warming up. In December, he announced the surprising end of our miserably failed Cuban trade embargo. Earlier this month, he unveiled a bold bid to make community college free for millions of students all across America.

Still not impressed? On Tuesday night he called for paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage hike and a tripling of the child tax credit to $3,000. He’s also pushing a $500 “second earner” tax credit and wants to give college students up to $2,500 apiece to help with expenses. The best part is how he’d pay for it all, mostly by taxing big banks, raising capital gains rates and closing loopholes that allows rich heirs to avoid capital gains taxes altogether.

A not-so-subtle shift in tone followed. Gone, for now, is Obama the ceaseless appeaser. He’s been replaced by a president with a more combative stance, as befits a true people’s champion. At times on Tuesday Obama even seemed to taunt his tormentors. In the last two months he has threatened five vetoes. In the previous six years he’d issued just two; that’s the fewest since James Garfield. Garfield, by the way, was president for six months.

What should we make of this new Obama? Are he and his new agenda for real? For liberals, these are tender questions. When Obama first appeared, their response was almost worshipful. Even today, many liberals treat Obama’s progressive critics as apostates. Given their deep investment in him, the vitriol of Tea Party attacks and the looming specter of GOP rule, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s crucial now for his liberal critics and defenders alike to see him as he is.



Obama’s new program seems real enough. We can’t gauge its full impact without more numbers, but this much is clear: Do it all — equal pay, minimum wage hike, community college tuition, family leave, middle-class tax credits and taxes on big banks and the superrich — and we’d make a very big dent in income inequality. Add the financial transaction tax Ralph Nader and Rose Ann DeMoro’s California nurses have long been pushing — and that some House Democrats now embrace — and you have enough money on the table to reverse decades of wage stagnation.

It may seem a big claim but the numbers are close to consensual. The transaction tax would raise a trillion dollars in 10 years, in which time a modest minimum wage hike would put $300 billion in the pockets of the working poor. Equal pay for equal work could do as much. Even without Obama’s numbers, we know the ideas gaining ground among Democrats could solve one of our biggest problems. As the president said apropos of just about everything, “this is good news, people.”

So what’s not to like? The bad news is there’s quite a bit. The problem is that Obama’s deeds so often contradict his words. Indeed, examine his actions over these same two months and one could also construct a compelling counter-narrative to this tale of populist transformation.

Consider climate change. While negotiating his China deal, Obama was also busy auctioning off drilling rights to 112 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the deal was done, he was on the phone urging Democrats to back a bill that cut EPA staff, let the Export-Import Bank fund coal-fired electric plants and blocked enforcement of new rules for energy-efficient light bulbs.

In his first term Obama passed the word to his top hires to quiet down about global warming. He likes fracking and brags about increasing oil production. He won’t let Congress approve the Keystone pipeline, but he may approve it himself. In short, he’s a study in mixed climate messages.

The net neutrality story is even more confounding. The statement Obama released was one of the more thoughtful of his presidency. But he’d already made Tom Wheeler, CEO of the most powerful lobby opposing net neutrality, head of the Federal Communications Commission. And they decide the issue. It’s an independent commission that does what it wants. Its members may be moved by Obama’s eloquent words, or just confused.

Perhaps the most troubling contradiction lies in foreign policy. Obama began his speech on Tuesday by saying “tonight we turn the page.” As evidence he cited our newly reduced role in Afghanistan. As he put it: “For the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman… who has served to keep us safe.”

Obama’s relative restraint is such an improvement on George W. Bush’s bellicosity that we can’t help but judge him on a curve. That he’s bogged down in Afghanistan is no surprise, as these wars are always easier to start than finish. (It’s why they call them quagmires.) But in fact there are more than 15,000 Americans still left there. There are, for instance, the private contractors, whose number tripled under Obama. In early 2014, the last time figures were reported, there were 24,000. Obama says the “combat mission” is over — but the combat isn’t finished and neither is the mission.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story by Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reporting that in 2014 Obama deployed U.S. Special Ops forces to 133 countries. That’s more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world; it’s a disturbing number and one that also grew exponentially on Obama’s watch. Even more disturbing are the drone strikes Obama has authorized, more than 10 times the number authorized by George W. Bush. American drones have now killed an estimate of more than 4,000 people. At least 20 percent of them were innocent civilians; less than 2 percent were high-value military targets.

In case you thought our combat mission in Iraq ended, buried in Obama’s speech was a call for Congress to pass a “resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” That was it — no explanation of vital interests at stake or limits to set. It was strange coming from a man who wouldn’t be president but for a speech he once gave against a war into which we were tragically conned.

Our war with ISIL proceeds under cover of our original Iraq war resolution, the exhaustion of which Obama concedes by implication. Someone should tell him the same resolution is used to justify drone strikes in nations we’re not at war with. Someone might also mention that use of “private security contractors” — the word “mercenary” stirs indignation — ill befits a democracy; that sending special ops forces to 133 countries also requires authorization and that if you declare an end to combat operations in two wars, your next budget should declare a peace dividend.

Obama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

Missing from Obama’s speech, as from his presidency, was any mention of public corruption. Countless polls attest to the depth of public revulsion at the domination of government by moneyed interests. Obama’s silence allows the Tea Party to fly the flag of “crony capitalism.” Most progressives miss the criticality of this issue that social change movements the world over put at the very top of their agendas.

It makes it really hard to enact new government programs, which is one reason Obama didn’t propose any new federal programs, just tax cuts, private sector mandates and grants to states. There are things the federal government does better, but voters won’t hand over the keys to a car with a cracked engine block. A real populist would fix what we all know is broken.

Betting on what a politician truly thinks is a high-risk business. Some say Obama has changed. Perhaps so; maybe a friend gave him a Krugman book for Christmas and midway through it he had an epiphany. Others say he feels liberated; that’s a popular hope among liberals in that it implies he really did love them all along. Still others say he wants to shape his legacy or the next debate.

But in studying Obama, one discovers a man of markedly fixed views. His take on issues has barely budged over a lifetime. Once he sets a course he sticks to it. We saw it in 2008 when Hillary Clinton rose from the dead sporting a new populist persona. It surprised many to see her peddling her wares to the working class. It shocked them when she won the Pennsylvania primary. John McCain shocked some by running even with him up until the Wall Street crash. We don’t know if either shocked Obama, but we do know he never once changed course.

On Tuesday he devoted an astonishing 20 percent of his time not to global warming or “middle-class economics” but to a defense of his 10-year pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. For six years Obama played Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy in budget battles. In December he took another crack at the football. Is his new populism such a far cry from his 2008 rhetoric of transformation, or just a bit more specific to satisfy the hunger still rising for change? Do we really think it arose from somewhere other than the usual focus groups and polls?

There’s good news in all this. Someone changed, and if it isn’t Obama it must be us. It isn’t any politician but the power of public opinion that drives this debate. Republicans feel it. Hearing just an outline of a populist message scares them. Pundits say they won’t pass any part of Obama’s agenda but if they’re smart they will; perhaps a lesser minimum wage hike and something just for women. But we’ll never win the victory we must win without a strong progressive movement because neither this system nor those who run it will ever really change.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

 

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