On individualism

If you ask me about my political leanings, I’m likely to tell you that I’m a small-L libertarian. Or a philosophical minarchist. Small-L libertarianism — at it’s most basic, socially liberal and fiscally conservative — is the “new” big thing in American politics. One of the key characteristics of libertarians and of a lot of the conservatives who rail against social welfare programs is that they claim they favor individual responsibility and the rights of the individual. A lot of this argument goes back through Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, to Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes’ views of the state of nature from which man arose.

The three philosophers envisioned variations on a world in which man was a solitary creature and that encounters with other humans were violent by necessity. It was only through overcoming this inherent violence that humans were able to establish societies and rules for governing human interactions. But, without question, this is choosing the chicken when asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. (Evolution tells us it was the egg, because there were plenty of species which laid eggs before there were birds, let alone chickens in particular.)

The fact is that humans are inherently social creatures. All other currently existing primates are social creatures and we have evidence that early hominids were as well. The earliest humans, those residing in a “state of nature”, were not solitary creatures. They had families, often extended ones. Based on the behaviors of the other extant primates, when those extended families got large enough, they would split apart because of the stress they put on the food supply and other resources. Over time, after each group split enough times, the separate families would be unknown to each other. And when two distantly related families encountered each other, the result would often be a conflict over resources. In this, the philosophers were undoubtedly right. Violence was inherent in the life of early man. But it wasn’t a violence of individual against individual,  it was a violence of tribe against tribe.

And this is the root of something which I’m becoming more aware of amongst the various folks who claim to support individual rights, and that they want to protect those rights against encroachment from the state. In proclaiming individual rights uber alles, people often ignore the fact that individual rights have always been suborned to some extent to the health and security of the tribe. In their everyday lives, however, people tacitly acknowledge this truth in their behavior, acting beneficially for not just themselves, but for their family and their friends, and often for a local community that they don’t necessarily have close biological ties too.

It is a rare thing for a person who is defending individual rights to actually be a true individualist and not a voluntarily contributing member of a community. It is this seeming contradiction that has always kind of tickled at the back of my mind whenever political discussions develop. The truth is that almost everyone is a socialist to the extent that they want their social unit — their tribe — to be equitable to its members, and to ensure their health and safety.

What gets me curious is why some people are more able than others to expand the population of their “tribe” to include an entire nation, or even the global population as a whole. I seem to recall reading about some research study which found a potential connection between the presence of certain genetic markers and this ability, but my memory may be lying to me.

On a personal level, I’m continually getting better at recognizing that my tribe is as much of the world’s population as wants to be part of a single tribe. On the national level, I tend to disapprove of the methodology of many of the policies we’ve enacted in an attempt to most effectively benefit the nation because I don’t believe that the majority of them are effective at all.

Tunisia & Facebook: private global entities acting on a national scale

At this point you’re probably at least somewhat aware of the revolution of sorts which has been going on in Tunisia. You’ve probably heard that it was instigated by the self-immolation of a fruit vendor who the government had put out of business. You may even have heard that a prominent Tunisian Twitterer has joined the newly formed government and that Twitter itself has been key for Tunisians to spread the word of their protests and the government’s abuses.

There is no doubt that social media has played a role in widespread protests in several nations. But in Tunisia, Facebook has taken it to a new level. Prior to, and during the widespread protests, the Tunisian government, which controlled internet access in Tunisia had instituted a script which was harvesting login information for the people who were accessing Facebook and using that information to delete the profiles of people who were posting anti-government and pro-protest statements and information. It does not appear that they took the next step and rounded up any of those people, but the story isn’t completely clear.

What’s interesting to me is that Facebook took it upon itself to counter the government’s actions by adding some extra security to the login process for Tunisian IP addresses. I don’t know Tunisian law or international law (or any law, for that matter), but I’m curious about the larger issue. If a government says that it has the legal right to access any information transmitted through the internet service which it provides, what legal right does a private entity, based outside of that government’s nation, such as Facebook, have to circumvent the government’s access to that information? Especially after the fact? Facebook was not using https to encrypt the login information preventing the keylogging style harvesting script the Tunisian government put into place until after they became aware of the keylogging.

Even in the US there is a disconnect between an individuals privacy regarding electronic information on stored on computers and networks and their privacy regarding physical information on paper and objects in their homes. And if the US government obtained a warrant to access a US citizen’s Facebook account, I believe that Facebook would be obligated to give that information to the government. Maybe Tunisia doesn’t require a warrant. So, again, would not Facebook be obligated to allow Tunisia’s government to access that information?

On the whole, I’m rather happy that Facebook took the steps it did. (Amused also, considering how much Facebook tries to default to sharing an individual’s personal information with other people and companies.) But with the global growth of the internet and entirely online entities such as Facebook and Twitter and Google and others, I’m curious about how they are able to interact with different nations and their informational policies. Last year we saw Google close up shop in China because of that government’s informational practices which the company did not want to support. And it briefly (I think it’s no longer functioning) provided full Google access to Chinese citizens by directing their access through a different domain.

Over the past 100 years we’ve seen massive growth of international businesses. Calling companies like Coca-Cola “American” simply because that is where their headquarters is located is almost farcical when they are publicly traded and have ownership distributed globally and do most of their business and base most of their employees outside of the US. And internet based ventures blur those lines even further. How are such companies to be governed and policed? While they are headquartered in a country like the US, they are nominally subject to certain laws and restrictions and obligations. But what if they don’t want to be?

Perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian science fiction, but imagine a world in which various internet corporations have banded together to purchase a small area of land, say, an island in the Caribbean or South Pacific and declared that island’s independence from it’s prior government, or just buy off that government. They then draft up a constitution that is completely beneficial to their own needs and desires, completely freeing them from the obligations of the laws of their original host nations. How then would they be restricted, or held responsible? Some might say that the powers of the free market would compel them. But that isn’t really likely when they already control so much of the activity within their business domains. And at that point, they’d essentially be a nation (or nations) themselves. Forget granting companies the rights of the individual which people got up in arms about after the Citizens United case a couple years ago. Now they’d have the ability to declare war. Imagine a group of the most significant international businesses and internet entities placing an embargo on a nation. They would possibly be able to almost completely isolate that nation electronically.

This idea is pretty far ranging from the original issue. Morally, Facebook very much had an obligation to protect the identities and privacy of its users from a hostile government. And it came through on that obligation. But considering the criticism Facebook has faced regarding its policy toward user privacy, it might be somewhat surprising. And at the same time (or possibly before) we concern ourselves with corporate nations, we need to concern ourselves with the ability of any government accessing our private information which we maintain online. In Tunisia it was just Facebook accounts getting shut down. But what if next time it is people getting arrested or killed? How do people protect themselves from that? What ability and legal right do companies have to take action to prevent that?

Rally to Restore Sanity: The Experience

Two parts to this post. First is the summary of my experiences. Second is my thoughts about it after the fact, which I’ll post tomorrow.

My brother came up for the weekend and we biked over to the Mall a little before 11am. I was too busy navigating pedestrians to get a look at the size of the crowd from the top of Capitol Hill, but when we rolled across 3rd St SW, I had a definite “Holy Shit” moment when I realized just how crowded it was already. We locked up our bikes in front of the Air and Space Museum and worked our way into the crowd. We didn’t get all that far, because it was ridiculously crowded. But it was an exceedingly polite gathering. Bumps and jostlings and stepped on feet were followed by sorries and excuse mes. Everyone was rather gleefully looking around to read the various signs.

My brother and I found some standing space right on the inside edge of the gravel path around the main grassy areas of The Mall. We had a clear sight of one of the big screens and the speakers which were showing clips from The Daily Show and Colbert Report which had led up to the Rally. We got to chatting with some of the folks around us, discussing the crowded metro ride they had, pointing out funny signs and costumes. It made me really wish I’d followed through on my idea to dress as the Grim Reaper and attach an “I <3 Fear” sign to the scythe.

The Roots started up right at noon and they and John Legend put on a pretty nice show for about 20-30 minutes. Then the Mythbusters came out and had us do the wave a few times, front to back. Cameras followed it and showed it on the screens. The crowd was pretty solid all the way back to the Washington Monument, which is about a mile away from the stage (and there were people crowded on the museum steps flanking the Mall who occasionally chanted “Louder! Louder!” because the speakers weren’t carrying the sound out to them.) The wave took just under 2 minutes to travel that distance. They did some other silly things as well and then had us all jump simultaneously and measured the “groundswell” on a seismometer. Apparently the crowd had a total impact approximately equal to the impact of a car traveling 35 mph.

After the Mythbusters, the show proper started. Jon Stewart was the main focus, Colbert serving as the foil that his character definitely is. The general dynamic was of reasonableness vs. fear. The two clearest examples of that occurred during one of the musical acts and during a brief “debate”, the latter of which served primarily to set up Stewart’s closing speech.

The music set in question was amazing in itself. Stewart started it off by bringing out the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted and is now performing just as Yusuf. I hadn’t even known he was performing again as he left the music business following his conversion in the 70s, but Wikipedia tells me he’s been back on stage since 2006. I’ve always loved his music, and getting to hear and see him perform “Peace Train” live gave me chills. And when Colbert interrupted him and said that there was no way he was getting on that train, I turned to the folks we’d been chatting with and said, “If he brings out Ozzy for ‘Crazy Train’, I’m gonna shit myself.” (I’m a pretty big metal head, but have never seen Ozzy perform.) And a couple of moments later, my pants were metaphorically heavier and smellier. The two went back and forth for a bit before leaving the stage arms across each other’s shoulders to let Stewart and Colbert argue about which artist should be playing. And then out came the Ojays to play “Love Train”, which satisfied Colbert’s desire for fear because of the possibility of STDs.

Until the final sequence, the rest of the rally was mostly forgettable. Each comedian gave out a few awards recognizing the sane people and the people who have promoted fear who have made a mark in the public consciousness recently. A few musical guests who no one really cared about — Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow and some others — but nothing especially offensive to the ears or mind.

Then Stewart came out to give a “keynote speech”, but before he could get going, Colbert came out to turn it into a debate. Colbert used a series of video montages of news media clips promoting fear to “defeat” Stewart’s special guests who showed that generalizations didn’t apply to all people who had those labels (e.g. Kareem Abdul Jabbar to show that Muslims are normal). But Stewart was “saved” by a Daily Show correspondent dressed as Peter Pan who got the crowd to cheer their support of Stewart and sanity and in a rather transparent gimmick showed that by working together, Americans can defeat the people who are promoting fear.

That led to Jon Stewart’s actual closing speech. And boy oh boy what a speech. The Vietnam veteran, Harley-Davidson riding biker next to me turned to his wife and said, “This is the best damned speech I’ve heard in 40 years.” If you haven’t seen the speech, you should definitely watch it. Everyone wanted to know why the rally was held, and I think this speech tells you pretty clearly, as Stewart says, the reason why he wanted to hold the rally. Why we came is something else entirely, but the point Stewart makes about the quality of the American public is something I wholeheartedly believe.

Burning the Quran supports terrorism

So, by now you’ve probably heard about the church in Florida which is planning on holding a party on September 11 where they intend to burn large numbers of Qurans. Clearly, like Fox News’ attacking the guy funding the “Ground Zero Mosque” who also happens to be a primary stock holder in Fox News’ parent company, these folks really haven’t thought this out. Because, as my title suggests, burning the Quran supports terrorism.

As the people who are participating in this literary roast are pious and good Christians, I’m certain that they don’t have a vast multitude of copies of the Quran laying around. This means that they will be purchasing most of the books they will be burning. So, they will be paying bookstores for these books. To get the books, the bookstores will be paying the publishers who printed the books. In that legitimate copies of the Quran have to be attested as correct printings and translations, most such publishers are likely to be Islamic organizations. As such, it is entirely possible that there will be some wealthy Muslim backers for these organizations and some of those backers and organizations will likely have possible connections to the extreme factions of Islam and might even directly support the spread of Sharia Law. That means that some of those organizations must be partially funding and supporting terrorist activities.

So clearly, paying money to bookstores for copies of the Quran means that those bookstores are paying publishers, some of whom are Islamic and some of whom have contributed money or other support to terrorists. Clearly buying copies of the Quran to burn them is supporting terrorism! And that’s even before the action promotes violence against America and it’s troops.

Parallel Evolution in Political Parties

Beginning in the late 1800s, before the adoption of the modern meanings of “liberal” and “conservative”, America saw the rise of progressivism. In general, the term was an all-encompassing word for various political efforts which focused on reforming society in response to the changes driven by industrialization and modernization. Progressivism included members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, but one of the main groups driving the various efforts were socialists in all of the term’s many varieties, and before “socialist” became a dirty word which was synonymous with “communist”.

By the 1930s though, following Woodrow Wilson and FDR’s elections to the presidency, the Democratic party was almost completely characterized by its progressive members. A key part of this loss of “conservative” party members was the growth of the influence of the more extreme elements of progressivism — most notably, Marxist socialists — and the willingness of the more moderate (in relative terms) Democrats to do things that were designed to alienate the conservative members of the party. Think FDR’s attempt to pack the US Supreme Court leading to a cross-party conservative effort to block the vast majority of the legislation Roosevelt later proposed. The influence of communists and other true extremists diminished quickly following WW2, but the result of the growth of the party in the 20s-40s was a fairly monolithic party with regard to the social ideals which it represented.

Since the late 1900s, we’ve been seeing a similar process, albeit influenced by different factors, occuring the Republican party. Following an even further homogenization of the Democratic party in the 1960s, in response to further progressivization, a populist driven effort to reform social norms based on “traditional” conservative values developed under the banner of the Christian right — a mirrored reversal of the goals of the Democrats in the early 1900s.

More recently, the rist of further populist, grassroot efforts led by demagogues in the media (for every Upton Sinclair there is a Glenn Beck? (Probably the first time they’ve ever been mentioned in the same sentence!)) has created a similar effect on the Republican Party as the polarizing grassroot reform campaigns of the many socialist-led Democratic efforts in the 1920s and 30s. And just as the populist driven growth of Democratic progressivism drove out conservative elements of the party, so too has the populist driven growth of Republican traditionalism driven out liberal elements of that party.

Assuming there is no imminent future official splintering of the Republican Party, it will be interesting to see how the more extreme members are treated in the future with respect to the persecution that the communists of the 20s and 30s experienced in the 1950s and 60s.