Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Freedom & Capitalism / American Character

Image result for plato

- Sometimes I think I've got these ideas almost worked out, but then when I need them most I'm lost. Will you help me out?
- If I can.
- You know how when someone asks you 'How are you?' and you answer honestly, 'Not too good, there are these problems I just can't manage to solve, not for lack of trying, I've tried everything I can think of.' And the person you're talking to answers that he is a great believer that it's possible to do anything you set your mind to. Which makes you angry. You've had the experience, I'm sure.
- Yes.
- I get angry because I am being told to do what I never want to do in order to allow me to do what I want to do now. I'm being asked to do things I fundamentally don't want to do, like lie, disrespect strangers, turn completely around the direction of my life and go another way. Follow?
- Yes.
- So tell me, what exactly defines this wrong way we refuse to go in order to get to where we won't otherwise ever be? They, the good Americans, tell us traitorous complainers, if only we turned our minds to it, repeated to ourselves over and over anything is possible, anything would be possible. We traitorous complainers answer, 'Maybe, much is possible, if we're willing to destroy ourselves, but we aren't.' And the good strong positive thinking true Americans ask us what we're talking about. 'Destroy what about yourselves? Your inflexibility? Yes, now you're talking, destroy that! Do it right now!' What do we say to them? 
- We ask them, Isn't it true that if we have a certain character, we have certain habits, ways of doing things, and these habits make it easier for us to do some things and harder to do others? And if so, how can a person of strong character do everything and anything?
- By strong character they mean the strength to go against their own habits when necessary.
- And that is the American character that anything is possible to.
- Yes.
- A sort of instantly renewed character to suit constantly changing circumstances.
- Yes.
- Where would such a character be at home?
- In America, obviously.
- But would there be any particular place they'd be more at home than another that would suit their character best?
- That would have to be the place where instant adaptation of character would get most exercised.
- And where would that be?
- America.
- Would such a character find any rest in America?
- How, if being at home meant constant change and adaptation?
- Then being at home would mean constantly moving, inventing, producing. For those who have the un-American character of having habits rather than having a habit of change, the reward and goal of activity is rest at home when activity has come to an end. What is the reward and end for those who have a habit of changing their habits? Do they never rest?
- I'd say they don't. The more money they make and possessions they acquire the more they want to make money and acquire more possessions. 
- Would you agree that if it is true to say they rest at all, it is a rest in their confidence in and satisfaction at the thought they can continue to perform and acquire new habits successfully in any conditions?
- Yes. They gloat over their sense of power.
- But only to go on and acquire more power, because only in their thoughts is there a sort of rest, not in the world itself, there is no comfort anyplace for them when they stop doing things. 
- So, when they tell us, if we only turned our mind to it, we like them could do anything, we answer, maybe, maybe not, but we don't want to lose our sense of home, we don't want to lose our character.
- And they tell us, yes, you say it yourself, you have another character, you are different from us, you are un-American losers.
- They do. 
- What do we say to that?
- That they are the true losers.
- What have they lost? Themselves? Truth?
- Yes. But what I was thinking particularly to tell them was that they have lost exactly what they think they have gained.
- Which is?
- Freedom. Call it a bad habit, a character flaw if you will, but one last time will you let me make use of Plato's allegory? 
- Prisoners are chained in a cave...
- Behind and unseen by them is a wall on which puppets and objects are paraded. And behind that wall the puppets are moved along is a fire which throws their shadow on the back wall of the cave the prisoners face. Outside the cave are the real people and things the puppets represent, but the prisoners only see the shadows of the puppets. Let's say the American 'we can do anything' character is that of a prisoner who has broken his chains but rather than escape to the upper world of real things remains down in the cave to be a puppeteer. In his bets with his fellow prisoners about what the shadows will do he almost always comes out on top because he is no longer simply himself, he can do what he wants with all the shadows including the one that the other prisoners are now told represents himself. He can do anything he wants, subject to the need to avoid the danger of losing his advantage by teaching too many of the other prisoners to do the same he has. What do you think? Does this describe the American character of having no character we've been talking about?
- It's not really true the prisoners can do anything: it's true only that they can do anything with the shadows. 
- Yes. Outside the cave is the real world illuminated, not by the artificial light of a fire, but by the sun, which is the source of good. Getting up and getting out of the cave we establish a real relation to the world we come to know. We find that known part of the world to be good, and rest in the feeling of being at home.
- The unchained but still in the cave prisoners are free to produce for themselves the most powerful representation of themselves. It's like magic to the other prisoners who can't change their own representations and are afraid to break their chains and do what true Americans can do.
- We know though that among the prisoner puppeteers there can be no discussion about truth: each tries in his own way to put on the show that brings the most possessions into association with his own puppet. There is no truth to the show except that it is a show.
- But it's all about things. It's a show about things.
- What else could it be about if there never is any home or rest? 
- So the prisoner puppeteers are capitalists: there is no fixed right and wrong, there is nothing but the fact a show is to be performed, a show about things being produced and exchanged, and in that show they can do anything, they can destroy competitors' puppets and the things associated with them, do it behind the scenes or openly on the wall, whatever they can get away with. But no matter what they do their world is exclusively a world of things.
- To people without character everything is allowed, everything except getting out of this world composed only of things and their shadows. Or to put it another way: Americans are entirely free to do anything they can get away with except question property, the idea that meaning in life is to be found in associating oneself with things. They never get out of the cave. They are not free to make their lives good.
- But, you know, I allowed you the cave, allow me to risk making myself ridiculous and speak for the whole country: these people we are calling Americans are not Americans. You and me are Americans. We don't want freedom to move around things and images of ourselves. We want freedom to do good with our lives. These people are 'doers for the sake of doing'. They are materialists, they are restless, they are without home.
- They have a lot of character for people who claim to have no character.

Further Reading:
Puppy & Puppets
Hybrid Fates
Zagreb Stories

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Puppy & Puppets

- I don't know. It's so abstract. When's the last time you were at Starbucks?
- Why do you ask?
- Things happen to you there. You probably tried out these ideas on someone. Did you?
- I did.
- Let's hear it. The conversation.
- Three characters, four including me. A woman in her early twenties, a man somewhat older, and the woman's dog, a Pomeranian, who stood impressively still on his four legs to his full six inches of height. The man I'd talked to before. He made angry, raging videos about prejudice against his race.
- Which was?
- Black. First asking and receiving permission I went to make friends with the dog. He remained quiet, not sure if I was worth noticing. I asked the young woman if as often the case with dogs and their masters he got his manners from her. She said unfortunately she wasn't so calm. She was busy day and night. Busy with what? She tended bar, and the rest of the time, like the young black man, made YouTube videos. And they were about?
- My generation. We're different. We're organized.
- Organized to do what?
- To make a difference. Your generation made a mess. We're trying to clean it up.
- Do you think you can?
- Yes. We have the internet. We're connected to each other. There are millions of us. I'll show you someone I like. He has millions of followers and he's still a teenager.
- What's his subject? Political satire?
- Yes. He makes people laugh telling the truth.
- What about you? Are you satirical?
- Sometimes.
- Your generation entertain each other, put on shows for each other. Do you think shows change anything?
- I think artists and creators are the only one's that change the world. We're serious about what we do. Entertaining we build an audience.
- You expose injustice, the criminality, stupidity of your opponents. Yet satire works by adjusting the relative power of roles in the imagination of the audience, makes the audience feel more in control, more comfortable living in a world with what they've satirized so they end up doing nothing.
- We elected a black president for the first time.
- Elected another artist, a talker, a creator of an image, a role to be played out, not something real. And consequently nothing much changed.
- A lot changed. The country's perception of itself changed.
- Do you agree? I asked the black YouTuber. He took out a vintage micro-cassette recorder and placed it on the table. This time around, he said, he chose to listen and get a recording. For this he asked and was given our permission.
- You two are very polite with your permissions.
- Have to be. Everyone is touchy about other's treatment of their image, especially those whose business it is to make images of themselves. I continued to the YouTuber:
- You're not silent like your dog, but maybe he takes after you in another way.
- What?
- As a puppet.
- People often make the mistake. He's little, but almost four, he's not a puppy.
- Not puppy, puppet: little figure of a person or animal moved around on strings. In Plato's allegory of the cave puppets are moved on top of a wall built inside the cave, a fire behind them projecting their shadows upon the back wall. Between the puppets and the back wall prisoners are chained so that all they can see are the shadows. For them, the shadows are the only world they know. They make predictions of which shadow will follow another, and this is their knowledge. If the prisoners could escape and leave the cave and see the world outside, they would at first be blinded by the light, and not understand what they see of the real world, and prefer to go back to the cave and watch the shadows of the puppets. It seems to me your generation of performers are alike in making shows of yourselves, are alike in moving puppets casting shadows in the cave. You make the show, move the puppets along the wall, fight with the other puppeteers for precedence, but your audience sees only the show, your shadow, only your words and gestures, knows nothing of why you do it or the techniques you apply to hold your audience's attention.
- If our videos are shadows, that's for the best. Our generation are not dogmatists and ideologists. We know anything anyone makes is partial, one view of the truth. Nothing is the whole truth. Get used to it. We avoid fanaticism of all kinds including Plato's idealism, his religion that in some other world ideas live eternally. We live in the real world, I think we live in a more real world than the older generation. We have to deal with global warming, nuclear weapons, economic collapse. That we don't hide that our ideas are shadows, that makes them more not real and truthful, not less.  
- What did you say to that?
- I said:
- Here's my experience of the past 24 hours. Listen, and then tell me if role play brings people together or separates them. The night before at midnight I was at FedEx's office on Wilshire sending off the memory book* to the Washington Holocaust Museum. The young man on the other side of the counter, making small talk, asked me where Washington was. There were two of them, he knew. Up near Oregon? This was going to the other one. Oh. he said. 'D.C'. Did I know what 'D.C'. stood for? Didn't he? I asked. No. Where, I asked, was the capital of the U.S? He didn't know. And you, our sound recorder, you told me you were working towards revolution. And is it true or not that when I brought up the recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East, that was the first you'd heard of them? Still recording this? And at Ralphs supermarket, where a guard lurks at the exit all night, stationed there glaring at all who come and go just to have the opportunity to catch people like this one, a mad man I often see wandering in filthy rags by the L.A. Country Club. He was cleaned up, in new clothes, but still mad, holding aloft a plastic tray with day old rolls, now after midnight, 2 days old not legally to be sold. The guard stop him, says, Where do you think you are going! He says, What? The guard says, You can't take that. He says, Oh? The manager comes over, says to him, You have to pay. You have to pay! He says, What? He moves more towards the door at which point a customer waiting and watching at check-out says he'll pay the two dollars for the two day old rolls, saving the madman from arrest and possible a week locked up in a mental hospital before being returned to the streets.
- I listened. What conclusion you draw?
- Our friend here wants to play revolutionary. He's not interested in what revolution is enough to study it, not even in very recent history. And the FedEx kid, old enough to vote, identifies himself to himself and others by his tattoos. For him that is enough, he has his role and not an idea in his head. Consequently no politics either, not curiosity enough to know where the capital is. And the corporate supermarket, those who work there are forced into slavery and most abject role practice, no humanity or reasonableness allowed.
- If roles separate us, what brings us together?
- You know your Plato, the analogy of the sun.
- Sure:
As goodness stands in the intelligible realm to intelligence and the things we know, so in the visible realm the sun stands to sight and the things we see.**
- Politics requires ideas. Ideas are shared, bring us together. Roles separate.
- Roles are based on ideas too.
- But they are not good ideas, not drawn out from a shared human nature that strives toward good. The playing out of roles and protection of roles, those made up things, is done in the dark, unilluminated by the good.
The Memory Book
** The analogy of the sun is found in the sixth book of Plato's 'The Republic' (507b–509c)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Kant & Compromise

Image result for kant immanuel


- We're told it's unreasonable to expect we'll ever have someone represent us in government who is not
a sociopath or clinical narcissist, (who has) failed to be the target of fraud lawsuits, sexual-harassment claims, or federal criminal investigations...(who hasn't) the capacity for unspeakable evil that is generally considered necessary to win higher office.*
We're told we have to vote for Clinton to make sure we don't get Trump. We have to choose the lesser of two evils. Do we?
- We don't.
- Why not?
- Because it is a compromise that is sure to have drawbacks and is sure not to have benefits.
- How can that be? The benefit is to save the world from Donald Trump, who with nuclear launch codes in hand can basically end the world.
- Aldous Huxley's 'Ends And Means'** argues that the only end we could choose bad means to reach was there being greater charity in the world. Choosing any other end we'd be doing certain bad for the sake of uncertain good, at the cost to both ourselves and others, losing our integrity and becoming a bad example.
- We'll have our integrity while the nuclear bombs are exploding over our heads.
- In the 18th Century Immanuel Kant wrote an essay,*** drawing on Plato's allegory of the cave,**** that argued that people are weakened by dependence on others and don't dare to take back their independence. But once they do,
free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.
- And what if there is no time?
- Kant advocated freedom only in public speech, not in personal life:
Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment.
- Then Kant advocated compromise too.
- He advocated obeying the rules in our personal lives when combined with free speech in public life, because that was he believed sure to result eventually in change for the better in our lives. If we merely call on each other to compromise in our personal lives, without the free speech in public life, our compromise will cost us our integrity and our good example and get us nothing.
- Except maybe not having nuclear bombs falling on our heads.
- Wouldn't that risk be better taken care of by people coming out and talking to each other, looking to another candidate or another political party rather than voting for the lesser of two evils?
- If there is time and if you can get people to talk to each other.
* From the Borowitz Report, July 24, 2016 issue, The New Yorker Magazine
** Ends And Means, (An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals)
*** What Is Enlightenment?
**** The Allegory Of The Cave


- I've done a little research. According to Kant, because ability to be free develops slowly and is limited by present conditions, we have no choice but to accept present political conditions, in his case a more or less benevolent dictatorship, in ours oligarchy, and talk our way into more and more enlightenment which will in time change the present political circumstances. Correct?
- Yes.
- As incredible as it may seem, my research shows that present conditions may not be a restraint for us much longer. Want to know why?
- Why?
- A few years ago you talked about throwing out the existing Congress and electing a whole new one.* There now is a political movement called Brand New Congress** for doing just that in 2018 when most congressional seats will be up for grabs. You also talked about criminal prosecution and taxing of the rich to fund economic freedom for the majority of the people. The charity Oxfam, hardly a radical organization, in 2013 calculated that half of the income of the world's hundred richest people would be enough to save the lives of millions dying every year of starvation.*** Existing law in the United States makes it a crime to fail in the "duty to save".**** Putting this research together I come up with the surprising conclusion that in 2018 it is not impossible to elect a Brand New Congress with the exclusive mandate of criminally prosecuting and confiscating the wealth of our country's richest citizens for gross negligence of duty to save.
- Save from what?
- Poverty, conditions of violence and social injustice, all of which can be directly laid to the door of their hoarding of wealth, not to mention their bribery of the government in the service of that hoarding. Two years ago you wrote all this should happen.
- I did. And it is true, we have the wealth, we have the law, we have the political organization necessary for change. But part of the restraining conditions are the use of advertising and political speech to convince people change like this is impossible. Voters are allowed to choose only between images of leaders that make them feel better about themselves.
- Even if in public life they are told about other possibilities, they won't be able to act on them because in their personal lives they have been made idiots by advertising, movies, TV, music. I'm not so sure.
- Why not?
- Because as statistics tell us Americans are some of the most religious people on the planet, and really all we are talking about here is the golden rule: act with others as you would like them to act with you. Right now Americans are being told, Let those guys be billionaires as they like to be billionaires, because wouldn't you like to be a billionaire too and act as you like with your billions? But Americans haven't had the opportunity to see that those billions were acquired and maintained by criminality that costs million of lives every year, many of them in their own communities.
- They haven't had the opportunity to see because their minds are controlled by those same rich people who are criminals under current law.
- But Kant's theory of the enlightenment, and despite all our faults we are creatures of the enlightenment, predicts that that control can't indefinitely be maintained against public talk of new political parties, the world's increasing wealth, and existing law.
A Spiritualist Campaigns For Congress, An Anarchist Attends
** Brand New Congress
*** Oxfam report
**** Duty To Save

Monday, August 8, 2016

Time's Up

              D-Wave's Quantum Computer

There's this theory I've been reading about. As communications that once were controlled by monopolies at high profits are now produced and consumed directly by people at no cost on the Internet, so energy and transport will go the same way. Everyone will have solar panels on their rooftops and everyone will share transport rather than own a car. The production of the tools of communication and energy production and transportation are getting cheaper and cheaper through automation, approaching the point where the tools can manufacture themselves and repair themselves. Only the raw materials the tools are made from need be provided, but they can be recycled. Sounds good, right?
- Do you remember the conversation?* Last year, I think?
- Yes.
- From what I've been reading we are now within five or ten years of the point where the tools can manufacture themselves and repair themselves. We have already functioning 'machine learning' with neural network computing. Its weak point is the immense power of computation required to connect more and more 'neural' nodes to each other. However quantum computing is developing fast, and is poised to provide almost unlimited computation power. And then...
- Then?
- The head guys involved in both machine learning and quantum computing don't neglect issuing the usual warnings about technology being a tool that can be used for good or evil. Their job is to develop the technology, the society at large has to take care of the problem how to use it safely.
- There are whole institutions dedicated to this question.
- Staffed by technicians.
- Should they be staffed with philosophers who don't understand the technology?
- Perhaps they should, if this warning from 50 years ago, the ideas developed 30 years before that, turns out to be true:
The danger to democracy does not spring from any specific scientific discoveries or electronic inventions. The human compulsions that dominate the authoritarian technics of our own day date back to a period before even the wheel had been invented. The danger springs from the fact that, since Francis Bacon and Galileo defined the new methods and objectives of technics, our great physical transformations have been effected by a system that deliberately eliminates the whole human personality, ignores the historic process, overplays the role of the abstract intelligence, and -- makes control over physical nature, ultimately control over man himself, the chief purpose of existence.**
- Lewis Mumford. His astonishing idea that technology, before it constructed machines of metal, made machines out of people, organizing them in massive armies for constructing monuments to their leaders or to fight wars.
- From the same 1963 essay:
Let us fool ourselves no longer. At the very moment Western nations threw off the ancient regime of absolute government, operating under a once-divine king, they were restoring this same system in a far more effective form in their technology, reintroducing coercions of a military character no less strict in the organization of a factory than in that of the new drilled, uniformed, and regimented army....
And, towards the conclusion:
Again: do not mistake my meaning. This is not a prediction of what will happen, but a warning against what may happen. 
- So with machine learning here and quantum computing on its way: time's up.
- Slaves provided the human material to ancient civilizations to construct their technology, so as Mumford put it there was no need for 'inorganic' material and to develop metal based technology. Once, however, all our inorganic machines are making and taking care of themselves, immense supply of organic material - we human beings - will be available for use to serve the 'human compulsions' that were behind the drive to construct the first social, organic technologies, and are already a dominant element in present day social organization.
- What are those human compulsions?
- Doing for the sake of doing. Endless production. The more times you can successfully repeat an action, the safer you feel in your power to perform that action, and others related to it.
- A question of safety then. How are we ever going to get past that?
- Find security in our knowledge.
- Technology is knowledge and it is in the service of this power madness.
- The wrong kind of knowledge. We have the most perfect myth to express this: Adam and Eve,*** expelled from the garden of Eden for acquiring knowledge, become mortal. They can apply their knowledge to their work, but they are punished by work and reproduction being a pain to them and by being confined within their social roles of master and slave. Work is to do what you don't want to do, that you don't have a personal reason to do. Reproduction is a pain. Put these ideas together, and you get doing for the sake of doing, production without end never without pain. You have to do what your role tells you to do and you have to do it for no reason outside itself and you have to keep doing it forever. It is the only thing that makes you feel safe in your state of mortal uncertainty and fear.
- So you end up doing it more and more because the more you do it the safer you feel you can continue to do it. If you have the chance, you make yourself into a pyramid building pharaoh or modern day prince of finance or industry.
- Yes. Adam and Eve are out and can't get back in to Eden, but their descendants have a way back if they use knowledge right.
- Which is?
- For the sake of getting back to Eden.
- Which is where exactly?
- In the company of the people we love. Or perhaps you want a more technical answer? Here's Mumford:
The reconstitution of both our science and our technics in such a fashion as to insert the rejected parts of the human personality at every stage in the process. This means gladly sacrificing mere quantity in order to restore qualitative choice, shifting the seat of authority from the mechanical collective to the human personality and the autonomous group, favoring variety and ecological complexity, instead of stressing undue uniformity and standardization, above all, reducing the insensate drive to extend the system itself, instead of containing it within definite human limits and thus releasing man himself for other purposes. We must ask, not what is good for science or technology, still less what is good for General Motors or Union Carbide or IBM or the Pentagon, but what is good for man: not machine-conditioned, system-regulated, mass-man, but man in person, moving freely over every area of life.


- Do you know what I find most interesting in this?
- What?
- Mumford warned that control over physical nature and over man himself had already become the chief purpose of existence. If that is true, we should be seeing the two acting together.
- How do you mean?
- We should be seeing people treated as property and defined and distinguished from each other by their relation to property. We should be seeing all parts of the human personality outside of these definitions being rejected, both by threat of exclusion from social participation and by outright violence upon those whose present social position is an irritant to the efficient practice of accepted social roles. I have some personal experience of this happening.
- Tell me.
- So far, all rather ridiculous stuff. On my way back to Westwood late at night I'm often trailed at walking pace by Beverly Hills police cars. I've been approached by the University police and asked to inform them of any suspicious people (like myself) I see on campus.
-What did you say?
- That there was already too much spying going on and I didn't want to be approached again.
- They must have thought you were crazy.
- They must have. To continue. My single valuable possession, a 17 year old Italian racing bicycle, regularly suggests to bike thieves who are out in force late at night that as it was too good for somebody like me it would be better in their hands than mine. Earlier this month a man was gesturing crazily across the street as I was coming towards him. When I passed he exclaimed, 'That's a nice bike', and ran after me, grabbed hold of the bike seat and tried to pull me to a stop.
- He didn't?
- No. The benefit of a fast bike. At Starbucks in Westwood a twitchy drug addict told me his story. A poet and filmmaker, he was also a biker. He had gotten into drug dealing with one of the numerous bike gangs that group-ride late at night in L.A. They demanded of him that he steal a bike for them as sort of an initiation. When he refused, his story goes, one of the leader's friend's asked to try out his bike, and rode away never to return. Whereupon the gang leader with suitable menace sends him on the way home on foot: an all night walk from Burbank to West L.A. As I got up to leave he repeated his observation, what a nice bike I had, placed his hands on the handlebars, asked couldn't he take it for a ride?
- You didn't let him?
- No. The ridiculousness reached a new level a couple days ago. I was sitting at the tables outside of Trader Joes market in Westwood, eating lunch and reading, when a strong wind rose and blew the large garden unbrella down on top of the woman at the next table. She got up and left, and I tried but failed to steady it so it wouldn't fall next on me. I was unlocking my bike to leave when a man approached me, crying out, "What are you doing to our property?" I asked,
- Who are you?
- I work for the association. We got a call that a strange man was breaking our umbrella.
- The Westwood Community Association. Who called you?
- The manager of Trader Joe's.
- Hard to believe.
- Are you calling me a liar?
- Let's go inside and talk to the manager. If he denies he called you, then I'll call you a liar.
- No.
- No what?
- I won't go inside. I'm here because a strange man was damaging our property. You admit that strange man is you.
- Your property fell on the head of the woman sitting at the next table. She left and I attempted to set it straight so it wouldn't fall on me.
- You have no right to touch our property. You have to leave.
- What?
- You have to leave. Right now.
- Who are you?
- I work for the association. I'm protecting our property.
- Your property is a public hazard. And your property is on public property.
- No. This is our property.
- It's public property.
- It's ours.
- Possibly it's Trader Joe's property which you've been given the authority to manage.
- No it's not.
- Let's go in and ask them..
- No.
- Then I'll go in. But here's the manager now.
- What's going on?
- This idiot from the Westwood Association claims he manages this area outside the store for you. Is this your property?
- No.
- No. Did you call him to come here?
- No.
- No. You're a liar, idiot.
- You can't call me an idiot.
- I can't? Is this your property?
- Yes.
- Idiot.
- Don't call me idiot! Leave right now!
- You leave. If you choose to stay I'll conclude you're such an idiot you want to be called an idiot many more times.
- You can't talk to him like that.
- I can't? Is this your property, manager of Trader Joe's?
- No.
- Then you can't control what I say.
- But you're not right to ...
- Nothing's keeping you here. You can go back into your store.
- Tell this man he has to leave.
- Look, idiot...
- Don't talk to him that way!
- Idiot, you leave, go back the way you came, and you, manager of Traders Joes, if you don't like the conversation go that way back to your store.
- Wow. The manager went back into the store?
- Yes. And the association man also went away.
- Without either community association representative or market manager showing the slightest concern about the dangerous garden umbrella.
- But showing, which is why I'm telling the story, plenty of menacing authority.

                                                          * * *

P.S. 'The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.' - Albert Einstein

Something To Look Forward To
** Authoritarian and Democratic Technics
*** Eve In The Garden Of Eden

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The First Loser

Image result for cain abel text

- Did you hear? They found a dead girl in the trash behind Jerry’s deli.
- When?
- Early this morning. And last Saturday when they came to work at Coffee Bean there was a body lying on the sidewalk.
- Dead?
- Yes. On TV every week now there’s a report of the police killing someone, usually black.
- Last night at Starbucks, at closing time, one of those who live on the street came in. He dug a crumpled dollar bill from his pocket, asked for coffee. The girl behind the counter said it was $1.95. He turns out his pockets. He has no more. $1 only. The girl repeats he has to pay full price. He cries out, “I’m trying here.” Her coworker appears, confirms full price is required. Behind us in line is the nurse who comes in with a trolley every night getting drinks for the intensive care unit at Cedar Sinai. She says she’ll pay. He's handed his coffee and told he has to go. He gets angry, shouts, not understanding that it is past closing and everyone has to go, everyone except the three Sheriffs deputies that also come in every night at this time. One deputy shouts back at him: Leave! Another deputy laughs, warns 'We’re all going to be on YouTube tonight.'
- What happened?
- The intensive care nurse gently urged him out.
- Probably saved his life.
- Probably. Have you seen the new guy? Comes at night to Ralphs, sits on the stairs up from the side street to the parking level, surrounding himself with dozens of little bottles filled he says with detox juices.
- White guy?
- Black. Claims to be a music producer, been in L.A. five years, worked with many famous acts but his accounts receivable is backed up, he expects substantial amount of money, until then…
- Sits on the iron stairs up to Ralphs all night. Maybe he’s the killer, maybe he's the guy on the street the police kill next. How does he look?
- Take a look for yourself. He’s there now.
- Maybe later. What’s happening with you?
- I got my first death threat. Sent from a little used Google Plus account. Not really a threat, more like a heart-felt wish: 'Hope someone kills you soon.'
- Why would someone want to kill you?
- It was a comment on a story I wrote about Donald Trump.
- What will you do?
- Nothing. I feel like I’ve finally made it. I’m important enough to kill. The paparazzo who comes here tells me that after I’m dead they’ll all remember me by my bike locked outside.
- Don’t joke. It might be serious. There is a killer on the loose in the neighborhood.
- The world is a world of killers. I think we’re entering into a period of realism in which the structure of human life is becoming clear. We talked about indifference, the people living on the street in Westwood.* Some are gone, dead or dying in hospitals. Some are still there. They’re the ones we Americans like to call 'losers': they go along with the idea that everyone must have a role, they don’t want more from life than money and power. Until then they study to play the role they have been given by fate, they work out where to go at what time. Bad as things are, they’re confident of the future and of themselves.
- Losers we have contempt for, for the role they accept. So we’re not indifferent to all of the people on the street, only those who have no role. Police have the power to do away with them. The rest of us have no feeling at all for them, only a conviction they don’t belong and the world's better off with them gone.
- Yes.
- And you? Do you have a role?
- I’m proud to say apparently not: If people want to kill me, it means I’m among those with no place in life. I'm not even in the role of loser, the object of contempt. I'm open to the violence of anyone interested in relieving themselves in that way. Though to be fair there's this man who comes in here, a retired real estate speculator, friend of the Guru. He says he’s afraid of me, I’m poor and have too much confidence. According to him if I were rich I’d be another Hitler.
- You told me about the Guru, he and his gang pretending to be orthodox Jews, going to temple in the morning visiting prostitutes at night. Can social roles really be so important that we kill those who don’t have any, either by our indifference, or with the police?
- Yes, absolutely. The more we see the world as a world of things, the more we focus on improving the technology of things, the more we see people as things useful to other people in the way things are useful.
- How do we see the world as not of things?
- From the beginning, both in the West and the East, there's been an attempt to answer that question with metaphor and story.
- Why can’t it just be answered directly?
- Because of language. Language uses nouns and verbs, things and actions.
- So maybe that is the way it is.
- No. Our thoughts don’t work that way. The world we see is in flux, a movement out of which we draw out things in movement when we want to talk about or do something. Heraclitus called this necessity a 'sacred disease'. The I Ching put the situation like this:
[Separating itself out, the hard rises to the top, and in doing so provides the soft with pattern;] this is the pattern (wen) of heaven. It is by means of the enlightenment provided by pattern that curbs are set, and this is the pattern of humans. One looks to the pattern of heaven in order to examine the flux of the seasons, and one look to the pattern of humans in order to transform and bring the whole world to consummation.
- I didn't understand a word.
- Here's Helaclitus again:
Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.
- He's meeting straight on the 'sacred disease' of words. Anything that changes in response to the world cannot be accurately defined in isolation from the world. We have a sense of ourselves in movement, changing in relation to the world; repeatedly responding to the world we learn about the world. Because we change and the world changes (gives us different responses to our differing responses) it makes no sense to talk about ourselves as things.**
- If we aren't things what are we?
- We don't ask "what". That's the point. We move. We see a pattern to our movement. We aim to get somewhere.
- Where? And what is this 'we'? You told me don't ask 'what' thing but what am I supposed to say to ask my question?
- We can identify repeated paths of change of relation to the world.
- What in relation to what?
- A cell joins with other cells into an organ, and it finds itself part of new activities. Athenian citizens joining together in assembly gain new opportunities of social life.*** A child moving its hand over a toy experimentally in time learns to see it, and in addition to what it could do before now can identify and play with the toy. We're talking about things here, using words that name them: child, citizen, cell, but things in the process of change in reaction to other things that change.
- You said that. The truth is we still see things, but focus instead on the pattern of their changes. That, according to Heraclitus, is wisdom, gets us to the heaven of the I Ching. I got it. When we talk about ourselves in our roles, we are locking ourselves down in relation to other locked down things of the world. We don't lay down a pattern in our story, we don't get to heaven. Is that what you mean? Maybe it is more clear now that we make a sport of killing people without role, but it doesn't seem like anything new to me.
- It's not. We see it in our founding myths.**** Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden of Eden, rebelling against god just as he intended.
- Why?
- Because they are made in god’s image and god is not obedient.
- God doesn’t play a subservient role. He doesn’t play any role.
- Exactly. Adam and Eve break the rules, act independently, get thrown out. They’re punished by having to painfully work the land and punished worse by being locked in a hierarchy of social roles, woman subservient to man. But what happens then? Their first boy becomes a farmer, their second a shepherd. Note that a shepherd does not work the land, does not stay in the same place, a shepherd manages a community of animals. God likes Abel’s sacrifice better, despite the fact Abel has evaded the ancestral punishment of being tied to the land and its pain. Cain goes crazy, and like our police are drawn to kill those who live without social role, he kills his brother. And what does god do to Cain? Set’s him off to wander the world with nothing, no herd of sheep, no community to be the managing spirit of.****  When Cain complains everyone will kill him, god establishes him in stable social role by marking him with a sign of his protection, warning of retribution should something happen to him.
- Cain is the first loser!
- He has his role wandering endlessly and uselessly like the people of the street. No one will kill him.

Further Reading:
Killer Metaphysics
The Way And The End
Political Correctness
Consciousness (For Sale)
Process Philosophy
Donald Trump
** Since childhood, I’ve passed through a flow of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? Tied in every way to places, sufferings, ancestors, friends, loves, events, languages, memories, to all kinds of things that obviously are not me. Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges – at certain times and places – that being which says “I.” - Julien Coupat (presumed), The Coming Insurrection
*** Prostitution, Employment, Slavery
**** Eve In The Garden Of Eden  
***** Bringing Back Stray Sheep

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Character Of Donald Trump

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We admire good character: directness, openness, etc. We ask about politicians whether or not they in fact act, in their personal and professional lives, up to the character they work hard to display to the public.

Donald Trump is a building speculator who started with inherited wealth, repeatedly went bankrupt, and was repeatedly bailed out by the public. He is a man who was bailed out, an interference with free-market discipline, and who also claims to support conservative principles of no interference with free market discipline*. Hypocrisy is evident, that is, bad character. Much, probably most, of Trump's wealth was acquired acting in TV shows*** and licencing for profit his name, activities which make use of the show of character, not actual character, and certainly do not make use of business genius unless business genius, contrary to conservative free market principles, means profiting from claiming business genius without having the reality. Trump went bankrupt in 1991, 1992, and 2004 prior to his TV acting career, with his bankruptcies continuing in 2009 and 2014 during his acting career. Even if he had business genius, use of it in speculation in housing for the rich is not admirable or creative behavior, and does not benefit anyone other than himself:
Drawing from a deep well of data Piketty found that for almost all recorded history, those who are rich enough to be sitting on a pile of cash and assets will get richer just from the returns on their capital at a faster rate than the economy can grow as a whole. In other words, if you don’t start with capital, you can never close the gap with the rich, no matter how hard you work; whereas if you do start with capital, you’ll get richer and richer whether you work or not. Over time this leads to greater and greater inequality. (from The London Review Of Books)

Trump talks of "our people". It is natural and inescapable to care more about people you know than those you don't. That however does not make it a sign of good character to irrationally hate strangers or act without information and judgment in defense of "our people". Indiscriminate bombing of terrorist enemies in foreign countries, which Trump recommends be intensified, has caused the United States to go from having a limited number of enemies in one small corner of Afghanistan to having tens of thousands of enemies in dozens of countries all over the world -- the kind of result to be expected when show of character substitutes for reality.
* Trump, in fact wildly inconsistent in his economics, has made a point of putting himself on record to be in favor of free market principles (for example with regard to health care). However, being wildly inconsistent in economics is typical of free market conservatives who in practice mean free markets to be for the poor, and protection to be for their sponsors, the rich. Trump, like did his fellow nationalists the Nazi party (the National Socialistsin Germany of the 30s, for the sake of getting elected, as a bribe temporarily delivered, is including the poor electorate in the spoils of market economics normally reserved for the rich.
** No major U.S. company has filed for Chapter 11 more than Trump's businesses in the last 30 years. See this article in CNN Money.
*** The exact amount Trump has been paid for his TV performances is in dispute. See this article in the The Hollywood Reporter.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Political Correctness

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Since childhood, I’ve passed through a flow of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? Tied in every way to places, sufferings, ancestors, friends, loves, events, languages, memories, to all kinds of things that obviously are not me. Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges – at certain times and places – that being which says “I.” - Julien Coupat, The Coming Insurrection

- What’s happening with your friend, the graduate student who got thrown out of UCLA for sending insulting emails to his professors? He wasn’t the guy who killed the professor in his office a couple weeks ago?
- No. That was someone else.
- Professors don’t seem to be too popular at UCLA. After this students won’t be able to say anything critical without being considered potential killers. Political correctness will reign supreme. What do you think? Should we talk about political correctness?
- Fine with me.
- How would you define it? A claim everyone has on each other for tolerance? Everyone can think and do anything without challenge except use violence?
- What do you mean by “without challenge”?
- We may not like what we see but we won’t demand it be changed.
- Everyone is free to do anything that is desired?
- Except use violence.
- And what would you say is being tolerated: individual acts and words and thoughts, or identities?
- People get upset about what other people do all the time. But tolerance is not about individual acts: that is something psychological, something maybe calling for forgiveness. Tolerance is political. So I’ll say it is about social roles, identities.
- We are told to tolerate types of people unlike our own type, types which in some way interfere with the actions types like us perform.
- Yes.
- Why do we choose to see ourselves and others as types?
- Because we think we and they really are types. The type of person we are are our identities. Our Identities identify ourselves to ourselves and to others.
- Why do we need to do that?
- Why?
- Could it be for security? A sense of our own power to do the kind of things the type of person we are does?
- Could be.
- But then, why do we feel insecure in the first place? Are we missing something we need in order to feel safe and powerful?
- What are we missing?
- You know Plato’s three part division of the human soul: the rational, the spirited, the irrational. The rational part thinks and reasons, the spirited part has courage and becomes indignant, the irrational part desires.
- Why do we need the spirited part? Aren’t anger and courage irrational forces like sex and aggression?
- We are passionate when a physical need is not being satisfied. Spirit is a passionate response as well, but to a social world, the world of people we live with who we have become accustomed to, a need of their company that has become “second nature”. Follow?
- Yes.
- Political correctness, the demand for tolerance bars spirited action.
- Because spirited action makes a demand on the others in society?
- Yes.
- And because the politically correct aren't allowed a home in the social world to protect, they are insecure. They still though have the other two parts of self.
- And what do they do with them?
- They have reason and desire: they think about how to most safely and regularly satisfy their desires.
- How do they do that?
- By adapting their identity to circumstances.
- That’s all?
- What else?
- Don’t people secure their satisfactions by acquiring possessions, even hoarding them as symbols of power and security?
- They do.
- Don’t people attempt to make other people their possessions, to dominate them? To force an identity on them as dominated?
- Not always.
- If people are fundamentally insecure wouldn’t this always be an attractive possibility, a desire that reason would choose to satisfy?
- But how do spirited people maintain security? Wouldn’t they be always undermining for each other the social world each makes a home in?
- Constantly. But when you live with people without identities to be protected accommodations are easily reached.
- I don’t see it.
- If you don’t have an identity to protect you don’t have to have things any one particular way. No one ever has to face the catastrophe of loss of self. All you want is that the new way can be relied on, and it be a good way, which it will be because you’ll naturally be at home with people who’ve reached agreement with you.
- Naturally. So you argue that the crime of political correctness, respect for identities, is that it leads to possessiveness and domineering. Which political correctness tell us we have to tolerate.
- And worse. One class of people identify themselves as political and business leaders. In their insecurity they pursue endless accumulation of possessions, taking advantage of the dispossession of the rest to dominate them, to force them to sell themselves as employees or to adopt a submissive identity. Political correctness, by repressing the spirited part of ourselves, eases the way to dispossession and domination.

Further Reading:
Killing At The University
UCLA Stories

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Killing At The University

                                  (UCLA June 1, 2016)  

This morning, while I was at the library at UCLA, the police announced there was an "active shooter" on campus, and all about 70,000 people on campus got locked in where ever they happened to be. The police call taking this precaution "lockdown".

Everyone checked the internet for news. 2 people had been killed in the Engineering building. No details. 

In the library, the student security service went around the floors ordering everyone into the bathrooms and meeting rooms. I drifted off down the stacks of books before anyone could try to herd me into these small spaces. 

A student I passed going the opposite direction asked me why I seemed so calm. I answered that it looked like the police were deliberately not giving out any information so as to create panic. Literally hundreds of police from all over the city were now on campus. You could hear shouting from outside the library even up on the 5th floor where we were.

I went on with reading (the novel "Elizabeth" by Coetzee, the South African writer). A few minutes later, a SWAT team in riot gear (helmets, armored vests, etc.) moved through the aisles of books on the 5th floor, rifles in their hands. The library's own uniformed security guard arrived saying that there had been a report of "shots fired" on the 5th floor of the library.

Internet news reported that police were emptying the engineering building of students, ordering them out "their hands held in the air". 2 hours later student library security staff arrived on the 5th floor to announce that a SWAT member was outside and wanted everyone to leave the library. That turned out to be untrue. True instead was the "lockdown" was over and people could leave. No more information was given. 

It was another hour before the police revealed to the news media that "apparently" there had been a murder suicide; there was some kind of note. Now 5 hours later the police still have not said more.

On the basis of 2 dead bodies being found in the engineering building, along with an apparent suicide note, 70,000 people got locked in buildings and led to believe they were in utmost peril. In many buildings students had barricaded themselves in classrooms blocking up the doors and windows with furniture.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Bad Results

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- So you really did it? You told Google they were evil?
- Suggested the idea to their man in charge of new advertising, yes.
- What did he reply?
- I gave a definition of evil - knowing as individuals doing something was bad but doing it anyway for social rewards. Asked him about Google producing a list of search results it claims to be the best possible, in order of usefulness, then subverting the order by putting paid advertising on top of the list.
- What did Google say?
- He'd prefer to continue the conversation by email.
- And you did, of course.
- Yes. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Pleasance, 
You remember me, I think: I asked about the inherent contradiction in Google Search's business process: search results, page ranking, reflect technical calculations of popularity, personalization, and inter-linkages. And this calculation is undermined by paid advertising, which puts at the top not the most popular, personally relevant, or interlinked, but the highest paying. 
I'm sure this is not the first time you have heard this remarked on.

A related problem is that the paid advertisers, after paying for a period of time, as their paid for popularity leads to more popularity, they gain page rank based not on payment but on unpaid characteristics (popularity, personalization, linkage), and so these results too become "contaminated" by the influence of money, rather than calculated to be of advantage to the customer.

So there are two related problems here: (1) the top results, being paid for, work against the advantage of the customer, and (2) payment promises to create a brand, or a monopoly of interest, which will find its place in the unpaid portion of the search results, thus contaminating the entirety of the results. 
Shouldn't Google, if it wants to do good, be looking into ways of dealing with these problems? 
I can think of two solutions to try, right off the bat. 
To deal with the first problem of advertising undermining the suitability of search results: "Affirmative action" advertising. Small businesses, on a competitive basis, would be chosen by Google to benefit from free top-of-the-page advertising.

To deal with the problem of monopolization of search results:

Go back to the Aardvark past of Google plus. Use robot chat to ask members, "What do you want to do?" and on the basis of personalization statistics send the best people to the questioner. The robot follows up, asking, was he/she the right one to meet?, and continues to be a presence in creative management of individuals' lives. People would more easily find each other and become each other's resource, become temporary "companies", and this robot aided formation of alliances, business and personal, potentially can undermine the market control effect of monopolies.

I look forward to your response,

- Rex Miller

Hi Rex, 
Thanks for the follow up. I think at the core of your assumption is a belief that somehow having ads included as part of a search result is disingenuous and/or bad for people. You also appear to believe that top ranked ads are placed purely to the highest bidder. I can help address both of these: 
1) Search ads that are served are done so with an expectation that they are 100% relevant to the query being submitted. In fact, the goal at Google is to make search results most relevant by having ads as part of the results and ensuring that the ads that get shown are in fact useful and relevant to the person searching. If ads were to go away, the relevance and completeness of the search result would drop and actually be of lower value to the searcher. In addition, to ensure maximum transparency, and provide the maximum choice and control to our users, we ensure that all ads are clearly marked as such so that there's never any confusion that the content at the top of the search results are paid for, while also being very relevant to their query. As such, there should never be a question in a person's mind about what they're clicking on, and they will only click on an ad if they find that it's most relevant to addressing their query. This is all very consistent with Google's mission of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful. 
2) Search ads are not just rank ordered based on who pays the most. Ad relevance plays a much higher role in determining what gets shown. To help better understand this, here's a link to a good YouTube video by Hal Varian describing in detail how Google algorithms determine what ad to place on a page, and in what order. As above, Google's goal is for transparency and relevance and to this end, we make the advertising division of our company very transparent and available for all to learn about and understand. 
I hope this is helpful, and I hope you found my talk on Monday interesting. 
Warm regards, 

Dear Mr. Pleasance,
Thanks a lot for the completeness of your response (and I did enjoy your lecture). Can I take you at your word that Google has a positive wish to clarify their advertisement policy and continue the discussion with you a little further?

I understand, I think, what you mean when you say ads improve the search results. I may prefer to know about, as in your video, an artisan furniture maker rather than the more widely known companies at the top of the search list. 
My question is, if Google knows the results are improved, why does it wait for the artisan to come up with some money for Google before the search results are changed? Is Google not able to find the artisan furniture maker and depends for his discovery on him to come to its advertising division? In fact, I read some time ago that Google was already doing something like this, advancing in the search rank worthy individuals, in a small way and on a trail basis.

Do you see what I mean? Any good that you attribute to advertising, with respect to search results should have already been there. Unless Google is really saying it needs to advertisers to come forth and bring themselves to its attention? 
But in that case, why should businesses that put themselves forward have to pay to improve Google's search results? It is already in Google's interest of complete results to have them there. Or can you be seriously suggesting that willingness to pay makes these businesses more of interest and relevance? 
Of course, Google makes money from advertising at the top of the page listing. But there are other ways Google could make money that would not lessen the value of the search results, when, as you write, Google definitely does not want to lesson the suitability of the results to the customer. 
I suggested two steps Google could take without changing basic advertising policy. "Affirmative Action Advertising" that would allow many people to compete for Google's attention, when Google could not otherwise find them, and receive free top of the page listing on a lottery or merit basis. 
I suggested returning Google Plus to its Aardvark past, this time with robot assistance for site members, not to answer each other's information queries, but to find each other to do things with each other. Many small enterprises could be created, and the effect of monopoly arising out of popularity breeding popularity would be lessened. 
I would appreciate a response to these suggestions. Many people are interested in how Google approaches suggestions of innovation, whether they are truly open to innovation when it comes to their basic business of search. 
- Rex Miller 

Hi Rex, 
Two things: 
1) I don't think it's fair to say that Google is avoiding debate and communications on the topics you've raised. You have I have had several back-and-forths on this topic and each shared our points-of-view.

2) Regarding your suggestions for ways Google could improve its products, I think you should publish those and let the readers weigh in. Our product teams are constantly on the look out for opportunities to make our products the best they can be for our users and customers and I'm sure they'll see your ideas and also see how readers weigh in with their views on your ideas. 
All the best, 

Dear Mr. Pleasance, 
Thanks for your quick response. You are right that if I publish a story about Google, the company will one way or another get to hear of it. However, when that happens, Google does not respond. That lack of response is what we are talking about here. It makes Google appear to be an institution that makes its way in the world through the use of power, rather than knowledge. Google claims otherwise, so I ask the company, through you, why it is impossible to communicate with the company? 
- Rex

- That's it?
- There was a round going over the same ground I've left out.
- Aside from the fun of asking your innocent question, does it really matter? Google is evil, the rest of big business is evil, politics is evil. 
- Did you ever get around to reading Guns, Germs, And Steel*?
- I'm meaning to.
- The book argues that technology, material and social, develops best in regions with moderate connectedness, neither too high nor too low.
- What's wrong with high connectedness?
- It allows communication to be seized hold of, controlled, monopolized, filtered, reduced.
- So Google, monopolizing access to internet communication, is reducing access, retarding social development? How?
- By putting at the top of their search results what has been paid for, when what is at the top is already, in a sense, the result of monopoly, of what is most popular becoming more popular by being at the top of the list.
- When there is medium amount of communication, there are some pockets which do not get absorbed in that cycle of popular becoming more popular, and they survive to issue a challenge to the monopoly.
- Exactly. You can see our culture as a kind of epidemic, which ends when it kills everyone, but in Europe, for example it didn't, because there were always other pockets of people to move on to and infect.
- Then Google, as their guy said, by subverting their own monopoly with advertising, opening it up to uninfected pockets of information, is doing something good. Their results are better with the advertising. That's why you suggested extending the benefit with affirmative action advertising. And, I understand now, that was the idea behind the social network sending people to each other to do things with: each person with his connections is to the other is a pocket of communication that can be put in contact with another pocket of communication with his connections. Not too much connection, not too little.
* Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, 1997

Monday, February 8, 2016

Conservatives With Property & Without


People Helping People

- What are you doing here?
- Drinking coffee. Reading.
- What is someone like you doing here, alone at a fast food restaurant in the middle of the night?
- Drinking coffee. Reading.
- What are you reading?
- The London Review Of Books.
- I knew it!
- What did you know?
- I can help you.
- How?
- Do you need help? Are you in danger?
- Riding my bike here an Aston Martin going about a hundred ran a red light and missed me by a few feet. And there's this lapsed student who wanders around Westwood night and day who has an apartment he's afraid to stay more than a few minutes in. Last week he invited me over and served me poisoned Tequila. I saw him again tonight at Starbucks. Did I want to come to his place again, he asked, he didn't like Tequila any more, wouldn't I finish the bottle for him?
- God's trying to tell you something.
- What? That I am in danger and announcing that you would arrive to save me?
- Why not?
- How are you going to save me?
- What do you need?
- A safe place. Is that what you are offering?
- Yes.
- I accept. Let's go.
- The place is my girlfriend's friend's. It's not free at the moment.
- I see.
- You should help people like I do.
- Do you offer everyone a place to stay?
- I do what I can. Sometimes a few words, a few dollars.
- How are you going to help a drug addict with a few words or a few dollars?
- I understand them. I'm a drug addict myself.
- You're a drug addict? A drug addict is sent by god to save me at Jack in the Box? You don't look like a drug addict.
- I'm checking into rehab next week. Crashing at my girlfriend's until then. I'm going outside to smoke. Come with me.
- I'll wait for you here.
- Sure you'll wait?
- Yes, sure. Go on, smoke your cigarette.


Conservatives & Other Strangers

- Something terrible has happened.
- What?
- One of my best friends has become a conservative.
- Conservative morally or politically?
- Politically. It’s so stupid.
- By conservative you mean resistant to change?
- No. I mean wanting to keep the present kind of government but reduce it to a minimum, conserving the idea of government and little else.
- That is stupid because an idea of government doesn’t govern, people do, the kind of people who have that idea of government. And what kind of people are they?
- Selfish and greedy.
- And the reason you say conservatives are stupid is that the government in idea alone they ask for ends up being against them?
- Yes. Against all of them but those who are of the same social class and wealth as their leaders.
- Conservatives want to exclude aliens, end aid to the poor, forbid subsidies to business: they don’t want the government to help strangers. Yet they elect to represent them and implement this idea strangers who convince them that they hate strangers more than all the others running for office. They don’t seem to have any doubt these strangers who hate strangers will not hate them as strangers.
- They think these politicians are their friends.
- Where do they get that idea?
- They share with them a fear and hatred of strangers. Living alike in fear they think they all are in this together.
- A kind of family. While in a family people help each other instead of treating each other as enemies, as the politicians say they want to do and the people say they want the politicians to do.
- And somehow not hate them too!
- Some things government must do if the state is to remain in existence. Government must defend against attack, protect against other countries' subsidized products coming in to ruin local trade, protect against crime. These government jobs are to be given into the hands of people who hate strangers, when the people who gave them the jobs are also strangers to them and in the normal course of things will be hated?
- They aren’t expected to act against us because, just like us, they don’t like strangers. We’re alike in not liking strangers (yet alike in nothing else).
- Political representatives have authority over people who elect them, like the government has authority over the poor and weak. Representatives who are elected to minimize concern for the poor and weak will also minimize their relation to those who elect them who are likewise poor and weak in relation to themselves who have the power of the government behind them. Have you tried explaining this to your friend?
- You know how it is. No one listens.
- We’re strangers.


Conservatives With Property & Without

- Let's say conservatives don't hate strangers. They believe a limited government is the only safe government. The don't want property relations questioned, they believe that is too dangerous, they'll instead select leaders who say they will lead without questioning property and govern as little as possible. But the led, giving up their freedom into the hands of leaders, are treated by them as their property to do what they want with, and what they want is more of their property.
- Why do the leaders have to want property?
- If you don't acquire property for your life with people, you use people to acquire property.
- Why?
- Because people who you manage are your work, not your joy. You don't live with people you have power over. You live with the people you share that power with, your fellow leaders, with whom you can act creatively and be at ease. Conservatives in their trusting to leaders are like their nemesis the communists. For if like them you do question property, yet agree to having leaders, you'll find unequal property relations returning, leaders getting rich, the rest getting poor.
- Then politics don't matter, communist or capitalist? Choose to have leaders and you've chosen to redistribute property from the poor to the rich?
- Yes. Conservatives and Communists alike must expect redistribution. For leaders, it is just what they do, for the led, it is the mysterious way of the world they gave up understanding when they gave that job of understanding to their leaders. Can I tell you two stories about conservative leaders and their concern for the led?
- Ok.
- In the last days of the Clinton administration a bill proposing a new bankruptcy law was introduced into Congress and passed by both houses. The proposed law would make bankruptcy inapplicable to credit card debt. The rich could go bankrupt and not pay their debts, corporations go bankrupt and not pay their debts, but those without corporation protection and without wealth, who in fact had nothing but debt, would have to pay in full. On the same principle that only the poor have to pay their debts, student loans had already by recent law been exempted from bankruptcy forgiveness. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the President would sign the bill into law, when Senator Elizabeth Warren* received a message from President Clinton's wife asking for a crash course in bankruptcy. Senator Warren met with Hillary Clinton, schooled her, convinced her the proposed law was extremely unfair. Within days the president's wife had convinced her husband not to sign. The president left office, and Hillary in the course of time became a U.S Senator. The same bankruptcy bill came up for a vote and she voted for its passage. She was willing to make a kind gesture when her husband's office was at an end, but not when for her own political career she needed funding by the credit card industry, the largest of all donors to politicians, tens of millions a year. Just today she claimed on television, now running for president herself, that she doesn't know why Goldman Sacks paid her $650,000 to give a speech; they offered, and she accepted. No obligation. An act of generosity.
- Like her act of generosity to all the little people in America.
- Not really. Leaders when they are generous to each other strengthen each other, make their collaboration more productive in the endless endeavor of acquiring property from those they lead. Generosity to the led however is a mere gesture to make the leaders feel better about themselves, severely limited because strengthening their victims too much makes victimizing them that much harder. Here's the second story about conservative leaders and their care for the led.
- I'm listening.
- The 24 hour fast food restaurant is cold, near freezing at 2 in the morning. Those who sleep outside come in one by one, encumbered with their bags, or sometimes like this one, dragging behind him a strong scent and a filthy blanket. He studies the overhead menu, while the night manager, an immigrant from India who has held this same night job for 26 years waits, his expression not hiding his increasing impatience. Yes? Yes? Can I help you? Finally the customer makes his decision.
- Give me, uh, two tacos.
- We have no lettuce.
- I'd like two tacos.
- No lettuce.
- Uh, two tacos. I want tacos.
- I tell you. No lettuce.
- No lettuce?
- No lettuce.
- Uh, hm, two tacos.
The manager grunts, punches in the order, takes payment, gives change. He moves quickly away and takes up his station at the drive through window, ready to deliver orders to the waiting cars as they are delivered by the cook. A headset keeps him in communication with cars. The overnight shift has a skeleton crew of three: cook, and two more who between them take drive through and walk in orders, clear the tables, clean the floor, and keep an eye on the bathroom which receives a steady stream of problematic visitors arriving at regular times. This demands considerable attention, as almost every night one of the bathroom regulars will flood the place bathing or washing clothes, or in an attack of madness strew the floor with paper. The next day just ahead of that time the night shift takes the precaution of locking the bathroom door: the visitor gets the message, finds another bathroom to frequent, perhaps returning after a suitable interval expecting forgiveness and period of exclusion expired. Those are the problem visitors. There are also the favored visitors, who whether they buy anything or not are allowed to pass the cold nights inside the restaurant. These include: the "mummy" who pulls his football jersey over his head and draws his arms inside and sleeps at the table; the bike restorer who sleeps days under the freeway in a semi-permanent structure built of scavenged boards, with dozens and dozens of bikes on the sidewalk protected in his absence by the other denizens of the underpass who've all got their bikes from him; the old man who talks to himself and reads the newspaper; and the former counterfeiter of U.S. currency. He operated a press himself, aged the bills in cat litter, lined up a whole crew to make purchases with the counterfeits and get genuine money in change. Finally he was caught living too large and too getting too many people involved. That was long ago. Now he's at the 24 hour fast food every night all night writing for micro payments fake comments and reviews on the internet. Counterfeiting opinions not money, he's gone legal: who can prove payment affects the personal views he expresses?
- He's doing there what Hillary Clinton does accepting Goldman's Sacks' generosity, which you say is something significant...
- It's their work.
- Not the mere gestures she makes in the direction of the public.
- He is. More, many more, are regulars at the fast food restaurant.
- The drug addict who wants to save you.
- Which is his generous gesture, like the manager letting this assembly spend the night at his restaurant despite it being against his nature and his principles and his personal interest. Indeed, his own good nature makes him angry and bad tempered with everybody. For he is a conservative just as every person let stay in the restaurant is a conservative. He doesn't complain about the desperation he has to face every night, the customers don't complain; they accept the government isn't interested in them, that actually no one is interested in them. Poor as they are they don't for a moment challenge existing property relations.
- They're conservatives without property. Why does that sound strange?
- Because we think of people being conservative to protect their property. That's generally true. As it is true that generally the poor become communist to acquire property. But in both cases the consequence of accepting leaders deprives them of property at the same time it makes them accept, in their voluntary relinquishing of responsibility and understanding, being deprived of their property.

Further Reading:
Against Leaders
Killer Metaphysics
Elizabeth Warren interview with Bill Moyers, 2004

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

People Helping People

From Westwood Stories

- What are you doing here?
- Drinking coffee. Reading.
- What is someone like you doing here, alone at a fast food restaurant in the middle of the night?
- Drinking coffee. Reading.
- What are you reading?
- The London Review Of Books.
- I knew it!
- What did you know?
- I can help you.
- How?
- Do you need help? Are you in danger?
- Riding my bike here an Aston Martin going about a hundred ran a red light and missed me by a few feet. And there's this lapsed student who wanders around Westwood night and day who has an apartment he's afraid to stay more than a few minutes in. Last week he invited me over and served me poisoned Tequila. I saw him again tonight at Starbucks. Did I want to come to his place again, he asked, he didn't like Tequila any more, wouldn't I finish the bottle for him?
- God's trying to tell you something.
- What? That I am in danger and announcing that you would arrive to save me?
- Why not?
- How are you going to save me?
- What do you need?
- A safe place. Is that what you are offering?
- Yes.
- I accept. Let's go.
- The place is my girlfriend's friend's. It's not free at the moment.
- I see.
- You should help people like I do.
- Do you offer everyone a place to stay?
- I do what I can. Sometimes a few words, a few dollars.
- How are you going to help a drug addict with a few words or a few dollars?
- I understand them. I'm a drug addict myself.
- You're a drug addict? A drug addict is sent by god to save me at Jack in the Box? You don't look like a drug addict.
- I'm checking into rehab next week. Crashing at my girlfriend's until then. I'm going outside to smoke. Come with me.
- I'll wait for you here.
- Sure you'll wait?
- Yes, sure. Go on, smoke your cigarette.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Westwood Stories

Westwood Stories
Starbucks Cafe, Westwood Village, Los Angeles


A Place For Themselves In Other People's Places

- Who was that guy you were talking to? It sounded like you were mentoring him. I do that myself.
- No, just met him. I saw him at Ralphs last night after seeing him here at the café, said hello, and he told me about his life.
- What did he say?
- His life was going about looking for a place for himself in other people's places. The first place was a Zen Buddhist monastery, across the street from the aged Filipino woman he was taking care of in Hilo, on the big Island of Hawaii. He hung out for years there at the monastery. Then he had some legal difficulties with the ethnic Hawaiians, and switched to hanging out around the Hilo courthouse, the only place he felt safe from the police. He became an expert in local crime. Then he returned to the mainland and lived, he claims, six months in the San Francisco airport.
- Why?
- He said he was afraid people wanted to hurt him. Then he spent another six months living out of an administration building of the University Of California at Berkeley, until he got caught and charged with trespassing. A public interest lawyer he found got him off, and he came down to L.A. He's been hanging out at Malibu, attending the Habad Center there. The rabbi had agreed to help him convert to Judaism and go live in Israel at a Yeshiva. He was copying the entire bible by hand so as to memorize it.
- What did he get angry with you about? Sorry, I didn't mean to eaves-drop...
- I pointed out that he kept talking about Jesus, and about himself as someone chosen by fate to be a significant religious force, and that this didn't look much like Judaism to me, rather it looked like ego mania. He began insulting me and I asked him to leave.
- There's a lot like him around here.
- What about you? What do you do? Are you also a messiah?
- No. I have several projects I'm developing.
- What kind of projects?
- Music, movies, a hedge fund, many things. An entire conglomerate actually. I've put it into lockdown now while I get my life in order.
- While you're hanging around here. Ok. It's really a remarkable crew that passes the nights at this Starbucks. Do you know any of them?
- I keep to myself, do my own things.
- They do too, mostly. In front of me is the computer programmer, in a moment you see him go into his routine of wrist twitching, finger pulling and joint cracking. At the far right corner is an old con artist who acts like he is my friend. He tried to trick me out of 500 dollars when I returned from Europe a couple of years ago.
- How?
- Said he'd give me a job writing a television show. Minimum wage, but a good start to show my talent. But was I a member of the Writer's Guild? He was a member of the Producer's Guild and he could only hire Writers Guild members. No? No problem. He could send his lawyer right now to the Guild and get a temporary membership. Only five hundred dollars instead of the regular two thousand five hundred. Let's go to the ATM, he said, and get your money.
- You didn't give him the money?
- It was really tempting, even though I knew the whole thing was ridiculous. He'd never read a word I'd written.
- How did he know you?
- He saw me through the window of the cafe and came in, sat down next to me, asked me if I was a writer. So, I told him I didn't have the money, but he could take it back out of my first two weeks salary. He said he couldn't do that, it wasn't professional. I was making a mistake, he warned me, maybe the worst mistake of my life, I'd always regret it. That's the story, he left the cafe to try the trick on other poor hopefuls. But back to the regulars here. Around the corner, in the other room, is the grey bearded man being treated at the University hospital whose medical expenses ruined him. Ahead of you is the black family, mother, father, two teenaged daughters, who work quietly at their table on their individual projects.
- What kind?
- I don't know. At the window is the Russian, or maybe only Russian reading man who spends his days at the UCLA library, nights here, also sometimes in a sleeping bag in a doorway on Westwood Blvd. Three or four women regularly spending their nights in village doorways come in here as well. I'm sure you've seen them. They don't talk to anyone.
- They talk to themselves.
- Yes. There's the guy who never takes off his ear speakers, and is writing a screenplay, seems to live somewhere hidden on the UCLA campus. There's the black guy who sits smoking outside giving everyone provoking hostile looks. Last night a woman sleeping on the street began screaming Help! Someone called the police. This smoking provocateur was throwing garbage at here while she tried to sleep. He didn't even bother to leave. The police came and took both him and the woman away. More people stay here, but enough for now, right?
- I was the one who called the police. Are you going to put me on your list?
- Do you think you belong? What they all have in common is their great similarity to the orthodoxy of our world.
- They're victims of the powerful. The government gives them free food and no place to live so they can scare the rest of us into conformity.
- They do the work of scare crows. And like scare crows resemble real men and woman, so these people on the street resemble those they are meant to scare. What they have in common is their attachment to social role, despite the fact that in their present way of life there is no one along with them up on stage, and in fact, there is no stage either. I'll tell you what I mean. In the last week, there have been two more scandals about UCLA. Scandals are nearly continuous these days. The first was the hospital being fined 250,000 dollars by the state of California for endangering the lives of their patients through negligence. It seems that in one out of every three thousand operations surgeons leave inside the bodies of their patients a sponge or towel or some instrument or other object. That is ten times the state average, with most hospitals reporting no cases at all.
- The surgeons are in a hurry to move on to their next operation.
- That's what the nurses I talked to about it said. The other scandal isn't even reported. At the California Nanoscience Institute there is one out of only two in the world x ray microscopes which can make three dimensional images at the atomic level, can actually see molecules. Though developed by public funding, maybe in the billions of dollars, it is being rented out exclusively to drug companies to do research at the price of 200 dollars an hour.
- About the cost of a cheap car repair.
- Yes. I've told you about these things because I want to make a point: the overnighters here at Starbucks each have their role, they'll tell you about it if you ask. Some are messiahs, others, many others actually, are writers and filmmakers. We think there is something pathetic about this self conception they have because no one else in the world has a role to play with them, to give the writers a job, the messiah a people to save, whatever. And they don't have any regular place they live to perform their roles in. But look at the UCLA surgeons and scientist administrators. Surgeon is supposed to be functioning with patient, scientific administrator with the California public. Instead the surgeons treat their patents like disposable garbage bags and the scientific administrators are no different than the con artist I pointed out to you. The con man doesn't run from me, the man attacking the woman on the street for the fun of it doesn't run from the police, because there is no place they are performing their role in. They don't live anywhere. They can play their solitary role anywhere. But if the people here overnight don't have a stable place to play their roles, neither do the surgeon and administrator. They couldn't be scared so easily if they did by the show of these scare crows wandering the village and campus. Administrators and surgeons know no one is really safe. That's why they go for the money in the first place. The real difference between the people down here at the cafe and those up at the university is possession of property, and property can easily be taken away.

(Continued at Zizek At Starbucks)


What We're Doing Talking Like This

- Ever wonder what we're doing, talking like this?
- We're getting ready to change the world.
- Why do we have to wait?
- We don't. Getting ready is already beginning. Think about what happened here last night: three in the morning, Westwood Village, night café. This corner more than well lit up under the marquees of two of the city's oldest and largest movie theaters. People coming and going even at this hour. You and me are here, with three or four others, waiting for the morning. A vague resignation of no better place to go hovers over us with the light.
- "The dispossessed and abandoned", in the words of those bygone days when it was considered normal to be of concern to others and to have some place in life, when it was thought something must have happened to people like these to overthrow the usual ways of the world.
- That world has long been overthrown.
- It has. So we were sitting there and then: pound! pound! pound! Across the street two storefronts down is someone in a deeply hooded sweatshirt with a sledgehammer hitting away at the jewelry store window. And what do we do?
- We do nothing.
- We watch. We wait. We are in no conflict about it. The world has its ways and they are violent and the world is not our world.
- What is our world?
- We're ready for that question, aren't we? All this past week* we've been talking about the secular and the sacred, the new school of theology that studies their relation. The secular: the world, as its etymology suggests, that is in time and of the times. A world in which what people claim is good changes because that world itself changes, is not fixed in time. Though there is a kind of fixity to be found in the way the secular world moves. It has a system or mechanism, in fact, has two of them: the free market in which everyone trying to profit at each other's expense is said somehow to work to every one's advantage; and evolution in which violent competition for survival strengthens the species to the advantage of those members of the species privileged to survive. In both cases there is mechanism and violence. And what you and me discovered, and the professors hadn't, was that the sacred is the same! The sacred: the world outside time we can only access through rituals and ceremonies of gods dying and being reborn, through a mechanical procedure re-enacting violence. The professors of the new school saw clearly there is religion in the secular world, that people imagined themselves in the god-like force behind mechanisms of market and evolution. But the professors didn't see how the secular enters into the sacred in the form of mechanism and violence guiding the transition from secular time to sacred time. What they, these professors of the secular and sacred didn't notice being immersed in these worlds themselves was that the secular and sacred have almost everything in common: life practiced in the secular would is mechanical and violent, and our access to life in the sacred is also mechanical and violent: we have to lose ourselves to gain the world.
- And sitting at the café, watching the sledgehammer wielded by the hooded man?
- The secular world is supposed to operate on its own market mechanical principles without our having to decide what is good or bad. And the sacred world promises us that with a different kind of violence and machine we can get out and away from that secular world of violence and mechanism. What is all this to us? I don't want either world. Do you? Do the dispossessed who watched along with us? One world of violence and mechanism, two worlds, an infinity of worlds of violence and mechanism, how does this involve us?
- We sat at the café and watched.
- Yes. Our ideas of good and bad, secular and religious, have been discredited. Gods are in the secular, mechanism is in the sacred, violence is in both. Religion is a joke, as is non-religion.
- But if we say it is a joke that implies we have a standard we are judging it against. What is that standard if it is neither religious nor non-religious?
- In the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah we are sparks fallen to this world from the fire of god. Only when we have perfected our knowledge will we return to god. 'Souls must reenter the absolute substance whence they have emerged, but to accomplish this they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them.'** We need knowledge, not mechanism and violence. And what is the most essential knowledge we need?
- Of the world we actually live in.
- We need to know our world here and now and the obstacle to knowledge it represents if we are to have a chance to acquire more knowledge.
- We need to know the world we actually are in if were ever to get out of it.
- Know what the secular and the sacred really are. It's knowing a lot, a good beginning, to see that they are much the same.
- Because that tells us to look for good elsewhere?
- Yes.
- But if not in this secular world of time passing and not in the timeless sacred world of ideas and ideals, what's left?
- The world right here. Starbucks Coffee, Westwood. The guy in the deep hood and the sledgehammer. This world of mechanism and violence protected by the police whose sirens we could hear approaching, whose helicopter in minutes would be overhead.
- Average house price in Westwood: two and a half million dollars.
- The police, an invasion army is coming, trained to issue orders to anything that moves: Keep your hands where we can see them! Identify yourself! State your reason for being here! One minute you're sitting at a café drinking coffee in the place you grew up in, the next you stand a good chance of being shot.
- All of us left before the armed forces arrived.
- Why should we stay to be subject to mechanism and violence? Did we believe we were gods of violence in charge of the world economy or evolutionary fighters for survival? No, not us. We didn't believe good came out of the sacred world, we didn't believe morality was determined by a god who had to have recourse to mechanical ritual to get us to do his bidding, didn't believe in the rules of the free market, of violent competition for survival. Secular and sacred emerged from nowhere and become our worlds, learned in childhood without knowing we learned them: the sacred taught us to engage in mechanical ceremonies pretending to be a murdered and then reborn god, the whole process beating into our heads acceptance of roles, old and new, weak and powerful, reconciling us to a society of roles, of power exerted by one role upon the other, taught us to be slaves and masters of slaves; the secular taught us to do things for the sake of doing them, to keep things we didn't have use for from others who did, taught us to hoard.***
- Again: if not those, what world do we live in?
- What world did we go to when we left the café? Where did you guys go? It would be hard for you to hoard possessions you don't have or sell yourselves into slavery to people who have more slaves than they need. I myself went on with reading and writing.
- We turn the corner but haven't gone anywhere.
- We've gone to look for good each in our own way with each other's help.
- How can we know the way? How will we help each other?
- Keeping off the wrong ways, wary of violence and mechanism, wary of hoarding, slavery, role, hierarchy.**** Gradually our eyes will open.
- Is that your religion? A prediction?
- A theory.
- Then let's find out if it's right.
- Let's. But our difficulties are not as great as they seem.
- Optimism coming from you is suspicious. I think you enjoy leading me in circles.
- Violence and mechanism, hoarding and hierarchy are social expressions of vain thought and vain action. Vain thought is when, rather than (as in ethical thought) being inattentive to ourselves while seeing the world as beautiful and whole, we instead see only ourselves, see our power of control. Vain action is when, rather than (as in ethical action) being inattentive to the world, unclear in the process of change, while attentive to our selves as we try differing attempts to better our position, we instead are blind to ourselves as in intoxicated passion we strive to force the world back into a form in which we felt powerful.***** Ethical action and thought, being the reverse of vain thought and action, involve a changed relation to the world, but don't require any new learning or experience. Plato called progress from one to the other conversion: a turning around.
- Conversion. A theory that once stated confirms itself. We're back to religion.
On Bureaucrats & Violence
The Two Worlds
** The Zohar
*** Clutter, Gloves Off
**** Bringing Back Stray Sheep
***** The Mathematics Of Consciousness
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things


What's In A Name

- Hi.
- Sit down.
- Ok. Have you seen Donny?
- Donny is the old guy? No, not since this morning. Why do you ask? Did he make you a business proposal?
- How did you know?
- I should have warned you. You didn't give him any money?
- What should you have warned me about?
- A few years ago he was working as a professional confidence man. I know because he tried his tricks on me. He was good, very good. Something in me wanted to believe. He taunted me, said my doubts were pathetic weakness and irresolution.
- But last night you were sitting down at the same table as him as if nothing had happened.
- I can't tell if he remembers. I think he does and is pretending he doesn't.
- He said he'd get me job managing a hedge fund and I'd be making 50,000 dollars a month.
- I doubt he has a dollar in his pocket. You know, last night at the café is the last for us. They're closing the terrace.
- Really? They're taking in the tables?
- Yes. This morning I overhead the policeman who comes at closing ask them if they wanted him to clear everyone off the terrace.
- What did Starbucks say?
- No.
- Why?
- People living on the street must serve some function if they are allowed to accumulate in such visible numbers. After all, we live in a society whose god is efficiency and profit. Going into Ralphs today  I stopped when I saw someone new. The security guard looked to see what I was looking at. She pitied them, she said, these people, we were all only one step from sleeping on the street.
- You said it to that deluded hedge fund guy: the job they do is scare people.
- Too much tolerance defeats the purpose: the powers that be don't want objects of their tolerance enjoying themselves with the Starbucks terrace to themselves in the middle of night.
- If they enjoy themselves they don't scare anyone.
- Exactly. Thus the rules must be changed. The rules are changing everywhere in the neighborhood. The university seems to have hired a police informer, a tall long bearded foreigner about 60 years old who rides a skateboard in the middle of the night. He claims to be Scandinavian but if you ask which country he won't say.
- I haven't seen him. How does he talk?
- I can't identify his accent. Perhaps South American. I've seen him many times in many places late at night riding his skateboard. He's generally in a hurry, not friendly. But a couple nights ago he skated right up to me and said, Hey, I was looking for you. You look like a bohemian, like someone who'd knows things I need to know. I got evicted last night from my studio. Can you tell me where I can crash on the street?
- What did you say?
- I said I couldn't help him and he shouldn't do it. He said why not, it wasn't forever, looked at in the right light it was romantic. I said if he tried it he'd find himself being hunted 24 hours a day, always on someone else's property, in a permanent fight with the world and his own building paranoia. And tonight, as I walked here a woman who sleeps in a doorway on Weyburn called out my name and demanded, why don't I get a job?
- How did she know your name?
- Don't know. A few days earlier a habitué of the research library who'd always waved off my attempts at conversation did the same thing, practically chased after me saying he'd forgotten my name, what was my name, would I tell him? I expect this dining area here at the market soon will be closed too.
- This is making me uncomfortable. How do all these people live?
- They keep track of cultural events where they can get free food, they know the library's where they can get some sleep during the day, and where's to be found the strongest wifi...
- So the University hires old bearded spies, and businesses in Westwood are pulling back on their tolerance. This because the people living on the street weren't frightening enough. Too many of them were smart enough to keep themselves alive and not die promptly and publicly.
- At Starbucks last night there was you, recent University graduate, employed part time. Me, reader who claims to write. Donny, elderly confidence man. And the Tunisian refuge waiting on a visa to Australia. No drug addicts or alcoholics. Neat and presentable all.
- Not dying to order.
- We're disappointments. Now, do you want to know what I think is most interesting about this situation?
- What?
- You, me, the con-artist, the Tunisian, we don't know each other and we aren't ever going to know each other.
- But you know all about us!
- Observation goes with the job.
- The job of writing?
- Thinking. The writing's just for the Internet. What I wanted to say is we live in a society of doing for the sake of doing. Nothing is respected but producing and profiting from what is produced. Only technical skill and achievement. But skill and achievement for what? For its own sake. And if you look at this little group of ours you see the same thing: people who have skillfully managed what you'd think were intolerable circumstances and making what looks like a lark out of it, a romantic vacation.
- Gathered together on our private middle-of-the-night Starbucks terrace.
- Yes. We too are doers for the sake of doing. Working not to make profit upon profit we can't use, but working profitlessly simply keeping ourselves alive.
- What's wrong with that?
- The Tunisian is well up on political theory. He is in favor of direct democracy, is against any form of representative government. He asked, was I interested in politics, what did I think? I agreed with him that only community decision making was safe from representatives using their power against the people who they were supposed to represent. But democracy was only a sharing of power. It was always in the interest of some to jump ship, form a faction and force themselves on the people. This would always happen as long as people only thought of their power, their ability to do things.
- What else should politics be concerned with?
- With why we wanted power to do things. With the reasons we become so expert with our techniques. With what we do things for.
- And that is?
- Our relations to people and the world. Our loves, our sense of beauty, of truth, goodness.
- Abstractions.
- Realities. There is nothing more abstract and senseless than doing things without being able to say what you are doing them for.
- What did the Tunisian say?
- Human nature was bad, so maybe I was right. I said No, our nature was both good and bad. When we know ourselves better we can take steps to protect ourselves from unwanted political developments.
- Give me an example of what we can know.
- Two examples: hoarding and employment both predestine any politics to totalitarianism. But we'll get into this some other time. What I want to say is that our defunct middle of the night Starbucks society was a microcosm of the society at large, we too were politics without knowledge. We were extremely efficient people with nothing in common, were even former antagonists, who had established the most efficient society possible in the circumstances but had no real relation or knowledge of each other. No sympathy, friendship, admiration, nothing. Or do you not agree?
- I agree. You don't even know my name, do you?
- I don't.


Migrant Minds


- Everything alright?
- Fine. Why do you ask?
- It's been a while since our last conversation. Last month* you proposed that like there was atrophy of muscles and memory in their disuse, so there was an atrophy of good.
- You wonder if I've atrophied. You're welcome to test me.
- Then I will. Here's my question: Is the same true of societies as for individuals? Is there an atrophy good in a society? I've been reading the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson who seems to have thought so. His 1757 book is called Essay on the History Of Civil Society. I've marked a few passages:​
There have certainly been very few examples of states, who have, by
arts of policy, improved the original dispositions of human nature, or
endeavoured, by wise and effectual precautions, to prevent its
corruption. Affection, and force of mind, which are the band and the
strength of communities, were the inspiration of God, and original
attributes in the nature of man. The wisest policy of nations, except
in a few instances, has tended, we may suspect, rather to maintain the peace of society, and to repress the external effects of bad passions, than to strengthen the disposition of the heart itself to justice and goodness. It has tended, by introducing a variety of arts, to exercise the ingenuity of men, and by engaging them in a variety of pursuits, inquiries, and studies, to inform, but frequently to corrupt the mind. It has tended to furnish matter of distinction and vanity; and by incumbering the individual with new subjects of personal care, to substitute the anxiety he entertains for a separate fortune, instead of the confidence and the affection with which he should unite with his fellow creatures, for their joint preservation.
If to any people it be the avowed object of policy in all its internal
refinements, to secure only the person and the property of the
subject, without any regard to his political character, the
constitution indeed may be free, but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they possess, and unfit to preserve it.
But, apart from these considerations, the separation of professions,
while it seems to promise improvement of skill, and is actually the
cause why the productions of every art become more perfect as commerce advances; yet, in its termination and ultimate effects, serves, in some measure, to break the bands of society, to substitute mere forms and rules of art in place of ingenuity, and to withdraw individuals from the common scene of occupation, on which the sentiments of the heart, and the mind, are most happily employed.
That last sentence has the most weight for me. Specialization, the division of labor, tends to corrupt the mind: make people selfish, self absorbed, and vain of their power within their speciality. Without deliberate attempt to strengthen the disposition of heart to justice and goodness society atrophies. Do you think he was right?
- A muscle atrophies by poisoning itself, one chemical process interfering with another. Is there a parallel in society? Looking at our times, is there some regular process in which one part is poisoned by the other? Is the free market the poisoning mechanism?
- Many people say so. The free market creates conditions that make a good life, a life of confidence and affection, more difficult. People even say that the disruption of everyday life is deliberate: market societies deliberately start wars, grant unpayable loans, cause economic depressions, so as later to move in, cheaply pick up the pieces, increase their market share acquiring businesses and properties.
- A market society, letting good atrophy, deliberately poisons itself, together with the soon to be incorporated world around it.
- Yes. So the argument goes.
- And like the invisible hand of the market place in which everyone seeking their own advantage is, it's claimed, to the advantage of all, this process of poisoning also is automatic?
- Yes. Market society makes a life doing good difficult or impossible, which incapacity opens further markets to the society of trade, making life of doing good even more difficult. Wouldn't a good example would be today's news, the mass migration of refugees from war-torn Syria towards Germany? Market society creates huge disorder with two big wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and refugees stream from newly opened war zones out to market society's home territory, to Germany, Europe's most powerful market society. Along their way in Hungary the migrants encounter mistreatment by the market society's own home grown disruption, neo-fascist anti-immigration political parties. The German government is now showing signs of willingness accept the migrants for the very sake of creating further internal disruption, a new labor pool to lower the wages of workers, the cost of the surplus migrants presence paid mostly by workers themselves who unlike the rich can't bribe the government to lower their taxes. The surplus remain in the country as internal, eternal migrants, forced to move place to place, no place their own, functioning like the American army of the dying on the street as a source of permanent fright and disruption of everyday life.
- How can a process like that be automatic?
- The disruption is restricted to economic realms that are still uncontrolled: local businesses not yet taken over by a chain store, undeveloped countries invaded militarily or their markets conquered by import of subsidized grain. The desire for profit, and the ability to control government war making and subsidies, bring the rest.
- An automatic process in which government in control of big business creates disruption, inside the country and out, which disruption creates conditions of expansion. And expansion brings progressive atrophy of good.
- Which I, doing all the talking, was supposed to be testing you on.
- But giving you the exercise, saving you from atrophy, wasn't that good of me?


- This time I'll do all the talking. The international migrant crisis happening in Europe does in fact closely parallel the local crisis happening with the street dying here in Westwood Village. Three of the largest corporate owned businesses in the U.S. - Starbucks, Ralphs Grocery (Kroger Corp.), Target Department Stores - have recently been overrun by those who die on the streets. One large group sleeps on the sidewalk directly in front of the department store's main entrance. This situation developed because the formerly tolerant beach city Santa Monica adopted the policy of sending their police to wake the street sleepers every hour, with the result that they moved to neighboring Westwood Village. Starbucks was the first to take action: formerly open 24 hours (this is said to be the busiest Starbucks in the country), they began closing for two hours between 2 and 4 AM to force the street sleepers to sleep in the street and not their store. When the street sleepers simply moved outside to the terrace, Starbucks closed the terrace. The street sleepers then slept under the marque of the historic movie theater next door. The police were called in to clear them out. Meanwhile the expelled had been gradually moving over to the dining area of the Ralphs 24 hour open supermarket. Ralphs in response began closing the dining area 2 hours in the middle of the night, then closing from 2-6 AM, and then, after Starbucks and the movie theater had taken action, hiring new security guards who suddenly appeared early in the evening and ordered everyone out. These policies had immediate effect. Within a couple of days almost all the foreign street sleepers were gone, the Westwood Village ones remaining. The articles on the international crisis I read this morning all pointed out that Germany, different from the other EU countries, had both a large budget surplus and an aging population, putting the economics clearly in favor of taking in immigrants. No similar safe harbor exists for the American street sleepers, said to be over one million now, about one third former soldiers. The French government issued a statement yesterday that the cause of the refugee crisis should be addressed: the persecution of minorities in Syria. No one in authority talked about what was behind that persecution, the US and NATO's Middle Eastern wars, just as in Westwood Village there is no chance the corporations will take responsibility for bribing the government into economics leading to breakdown of families and people dying on the street.
* The Atrophy Of Good


Once we accept our limits we go beyond them.*

- It's not too late at night? It's four o'clock.
- No. The time is perfect. Let's go. That is, if you're really up to it, seeing assemble the unwanted of American life on these dark streets, the daytime preserve of wealth. It's not a nice sight. As a precaution maybe before we go we should clothe ourselves in understanding, see if we can agree on fundamentals.
- I don't think I'm so sensitive.
- The worse for you.
- Yeah? What fundamentals do we need to agree on to protect our sensitive souls?
- When we blame or praise we do so by rule, rules which apply to everyone. Have you ever wondered why?
- We want to be treated equally.
- Why not demand better treatment especially for ourselves? Because others would not agree to it, or because it is not right?
- Because it is not right.
- Why is it not right? Why are moral judgments "universal"?
- That's simply how we're made.
- Why are we made that way? Why do we expect to be treated the same as everyone else?
- We're just made that way.
- You said. Could be. It could also be that moral rules are fundamental: in good relations to others they are the foundation other principles of conduct are built upon. When we talk we build up a description: You and me are here in Westwood, We are in Westwood at night, We are here at night talking, We are talking about what we'll see at four in the morning...
- If we ever stop talking...
- We build up a sentence hierarchically. Maybe morality builds upon a shared foundation in the same way: We're talking, We understand and share the meaning of words and share an intention to go on talking, We learn doing this something about the world and ourselves we can use to make our lives better. If we agree on this - that we sometimes build a life together on such a foundation - we can get an idea of what is behind indifference.
- Which we define as what happens to us when we don't build our rules of conduct on any shared foundation.
- Yes. Does the idea suit you?
- I'll try it on for tonight's tour.


- If language is built on foundations...
- Where's the poverty?
- Coming. We say language is hierarchical, builds foundations upon foundations.
- If language builds on foundations and indifferent people don't have a shared moral foundation what kind of language do they speak?
- Their language also is hierarchical.
- Then how is it different?
- The picture their language builds is not a model of what has been experienced but a model built in imagination of future foundations they are to construct.
- Construct doing the work equally?
- Yes.
- Now you've got me totally confused. The indifferent have a morality that is equal and hierarchical, and so do those who aren't indifferent?
- The indifferent are all equally subject to their model, participate in making it, they build it up step by step. But building a model society equally is not the same as equally subject to the same rules of conduct.
- Why not?
- Their society is specialized, segmented into different social roles, sexual roles, occupational roles, each role subject to different rules of conduct appropriate to different responsibilities.
- A foundational rule, "don't kill", applies to all of us, but a soldier in a model society must kill when ordered to?
- Exactly.
- I think I understand. Governments like to claim they act in the interest of the entire population equally but this really only means they set up a model society in which those in control have taken the most profitable roles. Because all are equally invited to participate in the society's building, everyone has something to do and everyone has a place in the building built on the shared foundation, it seems like the society is moral when it is far from it.
- Let's begin our tour. We're on Wilshire Blvd., the southern border of the village. We'll go around this corner, up Gayley Ave. Atop those steps to the bank ahead - do you hear?
- I don't see anything. A crazy person raging to herself?
- Keep walking. It's morning wake up time for the transvestite who sleeps there. Well? What did you think?
- She's sitting on piles of carpets, very stylishly holding up a cigarette. When will I feel your promised 'cold wind of wealth's indifference to poverty'?
- Just wait. Let's turn here. Turn again, we're going up Broxton. There: see the small guy, young, bearded, neatly dressed, no bags?
- He's rubbing his hands.
- A compulsion. He's down from Berkeley where he's a student. He grew up in Northern California, but his uncle has a place here, not far from Westwood. But he doesn't often go back to his uncle's house. He has in fact his own, completely empty little apartment up on Fraternity Row his family has rented for him.
- How do you know?
- I've been there. He says he's unable to stay within four walls for more than a few minutes at a time. He wanders all the night, strolls the supermarkets, spends an hour or two at Starbucks, Coffee Bean, he walks the streets, he stands holding his phone reading on the internet.
- Where does he sleep?
- In a coffee shop chair, or a chair in the student center at UCLA. That bent old man pushing the cart: he's also on his way to Starbucks. He sleeps in a doorway on Westwood Blvd, spends whole days at the computers at UCLA's Research Library. I see him sometimes reading through dictionaries.
- Why is he doing that?
- Don't know.
- Why don't you ask him?
- I'm afraid to. He's started to say hello to me when we pass each other on the UCLA campus.
- And you, Mr. Sympathy wrapped up in his ideas doesn't like that.
- No, Mr. Sympathy doesn't. Starbucks is straight ahead. But let's turn right. In front of Trader Joes is this fat naked girl always wrapped in a blanket lying down on the pavement; about this time she's also getting up. Her legs are bruising more and more, severe sores are developing. Soon she won't be able to walk. She sings softly to herself, has the mind of a three year old. Been on this corner for months, since summer people say.
- How does she live?
- People shop for her and leave her bags full of groceries, hand her cash or set the money down beside her when she's sleeping. Last night she offered me her surplus food, an entire shopping bag. The destitute of Westwood come and ask to borrow money from her. She gives it. 
- Are you indifferent to her plight?
- No. But I do nothing to help her. Are you indifferent?
- Do you mean am I going to do anything to help her?
- Do you feel anything, anything at all about her?
- Yes. Like you. So we're not indifferent, just don't know what to do. 
- What about the others who pass by her all day and night, sometimes, when she has moved across the street, literally stepping over her sleeping body to get in the door of the department store? Are they indifferent?
- They can't help noticing, seeing her. Do they feel nothing?
- They appear not to imagine she is suffering. Or that the others suffer either who sleep on the streets here.
- But maybe they don't suffer. They are protected by their craziness, distracted by their mental weaknesses.
- They don't they feel the cold? Feel pain of wounds? Fear the police?
- Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Of course they do. Maybe a lot of people are like us, not really indifferent, just don't know what to do about the problem, seeing as we don't have any influence on our finance and corporate controlled government. But what about them, the corporate and financial rich: are they indifferent?
- Playing their roles in the construction of the imaginary state they are indifferent to those who don't share in that construction. 
- But who says they always are like that: can't people switch back and forth between the two languages, foundations, sometimes building up imaginary societies, sometimes building upon a foundation of sympathy? The two ways exclude each other, can't be done as the same time, but we can imagine organizing one as the "spare time", recreational, restorative, behavior of the other.
- At times when recreation is not required won't the wealthy be indifferent?
- Yes, they'll be indifferent.
- See that man? He wheels a cat around in that trolley bag to all the same places the hand-rubbing young man with the beard goes. See that shuffling even older man, barely able to drag himself forward? He's the one who used to be a professional confidence man. Most days he's penniless, drinks the self-service coffee cream at Starbucks. See that old woman standing at the window of Starbucks? She sleeps in her car parked across from Dennys on Tiverton; she believes while she sleeps crack cocaine is introduced into the car's heating system.
- And Starbucks lets all these people stay?
- They don't even ask them to buy anything. They wake them when they catch them nodding off. We said the rich are indifferent when they don't feel the need to recreate themselves. But maybe they are indifferent in the very practice of charity too.
- Why?
- Because on days they don't give charity they go right back to stepping over the poor naked girl's sleeping body to do their shopping.
- And you think it would not be so easy for them if their days off from indifference involved any real feeling?
- Yes. Don't you agree?
- I do. What about you?
- What about me?
- Do you step over her sleeping body with indifference? 
- Not that. Indifference takes me when I do my own society building, imagine myself occupying an important place.
- And are you ashamed of yourself afterward?
- I am. When you allow yourself to feel indifferent, your life founded on sympathy brings discredit on life without; you feel guilty, you feel like you have lost yourself.
- You're building society's world not your own.
- Exactly. Those living lives of society-building can imagine that in giving charity they are moving to another kind of life but they are not.
- Why not?
- Because that life builds upon the foundation of sympathy, and charity is only an interval of imitation sympathy that nothing builds upon and which soon sinks back to the life of indifference never really left. 
- Then the indifferent can't escape even for a moment their indifference without challenging their whole way of life.
- That's right. 
- And not even in their charity do they stop being indifferent.
- Not even in their charity.
- How many of these people at Starbucks do you know? At least something about?
- Around half. Some of them practically live there. The coffee shop closes between two and four to allow them to clear out those who've fallen asleep in their seats; in those two hours they go lie down on the pavement under the theater marquee next door. See: they're getting up now.
- Tell me the truth: what do you feel as you look on at this?
- I feel sad.
- Me too. But if what we've said is right, the majority of us fine Americans are not merely looking away to spare ourselves from feeling bad about something we have no control over, but we in fact do look and feel nothing. What do we do about that?
- What we said also shows us that the indifference is not an inherent, unavoidable personal fault, but a consequence of the wrong kind of society. Human nature is not an obstacle blocking our way, we know what we must do: understand and change society.

Further Reading:
Justice & Terror
How To Read Plato's Republic
Compassion & The Story
* Albert Einstein


The Supermarket

You've heard a couple times now about the young man in Westwood Village who wanders from cafe to cafe all night, who has his own apartment but is afraid to stay there? You remember? He'd often come find me late night at the supermarket's restaurant. He'd ask me to buy beer with him. He was making a study of the best breweries, ranking, categorizing them. Well it seems the University Police had identified him as the perpetrator of the crime of bringing alcoholic beverages within the surveillance perimeter of the University, swerving their car towards him in one instance as he walked down the street to let him know they had him in their sights.

The University police had tracked the source of the young man's beer back to Ralphs, the all night supermarket; apparently they then held secret meetings with the supermarket management to coordinate action plans. Last night the outsourced uniformed security service of the supermarket entered the restaurant en mass, came up to me, and declared, 'You are a drunk, Sir. You have to leave! Right now, Sir! Sir! Leave now, Sir!'

My reply? I took a pause, looked around me. There was the old man who for years had been sleeping uncaught in the bushes of the University. His friend was absent, the Chinese woman, recent UCLA graduate in Library Science, who unemployed had rented an apartment then subletted the rooms to students leaving herself only a couch in the living room to sleep on. When not here she could be found patrolling the aisles of the market day and night looking for discounted items, taking breaks to go outside to the village and check garbage cans for leftover food. Present were the contingent of recently released penniless prisoners with no place to go and nothing to do but rest their heads on their tables and sleep. In the corner, the grey haired woman who pushed a wheel chair packed with her possessions. Someone had given her a black eye. These, and more, had been my late night companions of several months. But all things must change, even this, so talking to the dead for the entertainment of the living I said to the corporate representatives of law and order: 
'What's it like to be dressed up morons like you? To live like a robot? To be completely without thought? Have you noticed there was something missing in your life? Something like a brain? Look at you! What a sight you are! Don't worry, I'm going, I'm going. It's only fun to insult monsters like you for a few seconds. Give me a few more seconds. You Idiots! You Psychopaths! YES! I'm going. Bye Bye.'