Sunday, May 29, 2011

Daoist Morality

I recently got around to watching the movie "The Reader". For those of you who might not have heard of it, this movie is about a young man who has an affair with an older woman who turns out to have been a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. He only finds this out years later after both have gone their separate ways and he attends her trial while attending law school.

It is a very good movie and I found myself absolutely captivated by Kate Winslet's performance as Hanna Schmitz, the Nazi guard. Indeed, I was so struck by the film that I went on to read a translation of the novel it is based upon.

The story is basically a mechanism for the author to deal with a key problem for Germans of his generation: how to deal with an older generation that was tarnished by co-operation with the Holocaust. This is not a hypothetical situation. Almost everyone of a certain generation in Germany has had the opportunity to wonder what his parents did during the Holocaust.

In the book, the narrator never does come to peace with Hanna. He has a connection to her that he cannot sever, but on the other hand, he refuses to allow himself to manifest any sort of human connection with her. As a result, he spends his life denying her the friendship that he feels he should offer her and feeling like he has betrayed her. In both the movie and the book Hanna commits suicide shortly before she is released from prison after the narrator rebuffs her attempt to connect during a visit. The book ends with him still unable to sort out his feelings, in contrast, the movie ends at her grave where he has finally made his decision and honours her by telling his daughter about his relationship.

The book is probably a more honest statement of how many Germans feel, but the movie has a more hopeful ending.

A key scene in the movie and book both takes place after Hanna's death where the narrator takes on a task left to him in her suicide note. Hanna wants her entire life savings given to one of the few surviving victims of her particular camp. The woman adamantly refuses to accept any of the money, as she feels that this might look like some sort of atonement. The idea is that there is no room for forgiveness in the heart of the victims.

This is very similar to a core theme in Simon Wiesenthal 's book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It too is about an SS killer, but in this case it is a dying man who is asking forgiveness from a specific Jewish inmate. (This is a true incident that happened to Wiesenthal.) The story is told in a short book and various people from different religious traditions are asked to comment on whether or not they would be willing to forgive if they were confronted by this situation.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that when people refuse to forgive even the most vile behaviour they are operating on a flawed conception of what it means to be a human being. That is, the conventional view of human beings is to see them as having souls, free will and the constant opportunity to choose between two very obvious and different sets of actions, one right and the other wrong. I come from a different perspective. I see people as being dominated by peer pressure, strong emotional tendencies stemming from our past experiences, and social ideas that form the language and structure of our thought processes.

People think that it is "obvious" that it is evil to torture and kill other human beings. But if we look at recent history, I can see people who in support of what they believed are the noblest ideals were willing to kill thousands in terrorist attacks and for others in support of other (but, I would argue very similar) ideals were willing to authorize torture and trample on the civil liberties enshrined in their government's constitution. Murdering millions is not the same as water-boarding a few suspected terrorists and wire-tapping lawyers. But Eastern Europe in the 1940's was not the same world we inhabit now.

Eugenics was not considered the raving of lunatics, but rather the latest in science. My mother, who trained as a nurse at this time, used to tell me once in a while about how the "dull, subnormals" were going to eventually destroy the human race because they were out-breeding the more intelligent. Obviously, this is something that she picked up during the few weeks she spent learning about social issues. The idea of protecting the race from "dilution" was so much a part of the air, that even the political elite of Canada were willing to send "defective" children to schools where they were sterilized, without consent. The province of Alberta had a regulation that gave a board of appointed "experts" the right to force sterilization on people they deemed defective and therefore, a threat to the gene pool.

This is just part of the context that people like Hanna Schmidt would have inhabited. Add to that a background that discouraged curiosity, encouraged conformity, an abusive background that may have triggered inappropriate violent emotions, etc. and we have the making of a violent prison guard. I would argue that if many of us were to have had exactly the same background, context and set of circumstances we might end up doing much the same thing.

Indeed, I happen to believe that there actually is a Holocaust happening right now before us. That is, our behaviour to the environment will eventually be viewed with much the same horror that we feel towards the Nazis. I suspect that ordinary Germans were about as oblivious to the plight of the Jews as many people of today are about the prospects of global climate change. Many people refused to believe the stories they heard and what they saw just as many people today refuse to believe the warnings of scientists.

Ultimately, I think the thing to remember is that there are no rules sent down from on-high by God----for God doesn't exist. Nor is there any sort of immortal soul that tells us what the "right" or "wrong" thing might be in any given situation. Instead, all we have are the circumstances of individual life and culture that influence our consciousness. They flow like a river through time. We call that river the "Dao" and all we can do is be like a leaf that floats with the current.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Environmental Vow: Part 14

An Alternative Model of Freedom

I've raised the idea of restorative justice not to solve the problems of our criminal justice system, but instead as a bit of a “thought experiment” to illustrate the different ways in which the concept of “freedom” can be understood. My suggestion is that the ideal encapsulated in the ethic of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” (at least as popularly conceived) is based on a flawed definition of freedom, one that is specifically centred on the individual. As I've suggested, as people naively express this ideal in their personal lives, it boils down to “do your own thing”. And, as I've pointed out, the ethic of “doing your own thing” has no real answer to the question “Why not become a crack whore? Couch potato? Greedhead? Sex Maniac? etc.” Adherence to this ideal has not only discredited so-called “progressives” in the eyes of the Right, it means that they have no moral grounds for suggesting that there is an imperative (moral, religious or patriotic) for people mobilize in order to deal with our climate catastrophe.

At this point, I'd like to introduce a more sophisticated definition of “freedom”, one that can go a long way, I believe, in answering the problems that have arisen from the “do your own thing” worldview. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the ancient Roman, once wrote that “Freedom is participation in power.” This definition will probably sound startling to some readers, so it might be helpful to mention that I first heard this quote mentioned by the consumer advocate and community organizer Ralph Nader. What he was saying was that “freedom”, in the political sense, does not flow from the absense of the Gestapo or the Inquisition, but instead from how engaged the citizenry is in the daily life of their society. It is possible to consider an enlightened dictatorship with complete freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc. But insofar as the people who live in that state do not have feel that they have any control over who is making the big decisions in their life, they still live in a dictatorship and they are not “free”. As a result of this reasoning, Nader was saying that if you want to be politically free you have to be actively engaged in the political process.

I believe that this new definition also works when we go beyond the realm of politics. “Power” is more than just government. Engineers and scientists, for example, gain power by learning more about the physical world that surrounds us. Even ordinary people who know how to fix a leaking toilet or change the operating system on their computer insofar as they can do so participate in the power of modern technology. It is certainly the case that when people are confronted by something that they don't know how to repair or even operate they feel especially powerless and unfree.

I would further suggest that the fundamental issue is not the specific knowledge that a person gains from learning about the machinery that surrounds them. Just because I can change the operating system on my computer doesn't mean that I know how it works or could even write a very simple program. The “mastery” I feel is ultimately pretty shallow and inconsequential. But the process of learning how to download open source software and install Linux on my laptop has resulted in my becoming personally “engaged” with the technology in a way that cannot happen by going into a store and buying a new computer pre-loaded with a MS Windows package.

In much the same way, the “freedom” that Cicero and Nader are talking about comes not from having all that much real control over the political process (even citizen groups have to have leaders and followers, after all.) Instead, the relevant issue is how much the person has invested their own personal well-being into the group project. This means that when we think about the phrase “freedom comes from participation in power”, the emphasis should be upon participation, not power.

At this point we can see where the value of restorative justice comes into play. It sees the key issue in criminal activity as being that of an individuals's alienation from society instead of their personal “evil”. The solution, therefore, is to reintegrate the offender into the community instead of merely punishing him. The Lakota elders reintegrated the murderer by making him responsible for supporting the wife and children of the man he killed. The modern example I gave teaches the offender that there really are individual human beings who are harmed by property crimes like burglary, which thereby deflates the comforting illusion that their offenses are only against impersonal, inhuman insurance companies. Insofar as this initiative is successful, it means that if the would-be criminal contemplates committing similar crimes in the future, the crime will have to be understood specifically as an act that is done to specific human beings who will suffer as a result. This makes the crime “real” in a way that it wasn't before, which is to say that the criminal has been brought back into the community of man.

Once we start seeing freedom in this way, we can see how religious people like the Benedictines and soldiers like General Wolf could see themselves as being “free”. Insofar as they felt that they were emotionally “participating” or “engaging” in enterprises much bigger than themselves---the monastery or regiment---they felt “free” in the same sense as understood by Cicero and Nader. Obviously the individual soldier driven into the army by poverty or oblate given to the Benedictines while still a young child, did not initially “participate” very much in the “power” that compelled them. But even so, many of these people no doubt did end up identifying with the community that they found themselves in, accepted its ideals, and ended up finding satisfaction in the life. Proof of this fact exists around us insofar as many people still find enormous personal satisfaction from living in religious communities. Similarly, a great many veterans of the Armed Forces are tenatiously loyal to their branch of the service even many years after being discharged.

The important point to understand in using Cicero's definition is to change the emphasis from that of being free from constraint to that of engagement in something bigger than one's self. The “free” man is not one that is free from coercion---a necessary, but not sufficient state of affairs---but rather one that is engaged with something that fulfills him. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre pointed out much the same thing when he suggested that there is a difference between what he called “freedom from” and “freedom for”. Many people seek freedom from constraints of one form or another (work, rules, etc), whereas the truly free man seeks freedom to follow some sort of higher idea (art, justice, etc.) This is where the difference lies between the crack whore and a great man like Martin Luther King Jr. comes into play. The former never set out to become enslaved to cocaine, it was just the result of a series of bad choices and/or consistently bad luck. The latter, on the other hand, devoted himself to the ideal of civil rights and did what was necessary to pursue it. Both came to a bad end, but the former is a sad tragedy whereas the latter was heroic martyrdom.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Politics: the "Land of Dust"

Canada recently had an election and as someone who has devoted enormous amounts of my precious time to politics, the experience brought me mixed emotions. I was angry, because I think that politics is ultimately a game that exposes much that is wrong about people. I was also very attracted to it, though, because I tend to believe that the democratic ideal is something very noble and valuable. I have no truck or sympathy with cynics who refuse to engage in the process of choosing our government, even though I am fully aware of how far the practice diverges from the ideal.

I've learned a lot of things from my involvement in politics, and increasingly I've wondered how I could pass on this information to others. I'm pretty sure that I would have benefited greatly if someone had tried to explain a few of these things to me early on. Indeed, I was desperate for some information when I started out, yet I never really did meet anyone who understood and could articulate some key points that I only learned from long, hard experience. Think of what follows as my first attempt at a "Politics 101".

Politics is Personal

I was always amazed at how petty most people can be. That is, it is a very rare person indeed who can differentiate between their personal feeling about a person and the program that they are supporting. I found in politics that a person can be totally in favour of a specific project, it can even be useful for their future career, but if they dislike the person who is promoting it, they will usually move Heaven and Earth to sabotage it. This always flabbergasted me, as I am so committed to saving the planet that I don't usually care who I'm working with as long as they are helping me work towards the same goal. Most people aren't like that, though. If you piss them off about something, they will usually hold onto that slight like a dog with a bone and if it is necessary in order to punish you, will destroy the organization they support and all the ideals that they hold dear to do so.

As a result, when you get involved in politics always consider the person you are dealing with. If you possibly can, try to be their friend. If they are a total dick (and don't kid yourself, many people are), then ask yourself very seriously "how much damage can this person cause me years later if I cross him and he ends up hating me for all of eternity?" If he can cause you problems (and almost everyone can), then try to figure out some way of hopefully avoiding him, or at worst neutralizing him in a way that he never thinks to blame you.

People Will Play Dirty Tricks

I was often surprised at how incredibly underhanded a lot of people who mouth the most beautiful sounding ideals can be. I've always believed that being "forthright" was a virtue, so I tend to tell people to their face what I think about them instead of trying to manipulate them from behind. The way I believe democracy should operate is that people should articulate different points of view in a very honest, open manner and allow the membership to decide which course to follow through a free vote. What I found instead was that many people in the party would use process rules in order to drastically limit the ability of the membership to make decisions.

Often this involved keeping the membership from being able to vote on the issue at hand. One classic method was to set up the agenda at meetings so the item that the organizing committee didn't want to see passed was put at the absolute end of the agenda. That way people opposed to it could waste time through various methods in order to "wait the clock out" with the result that it never got discussed. Since meetings where these sorts of agendas only occur once a year, this usually meant that no matter how popular a resolution might be, it could be postponed almost forever.

In general elections there are any number of dirty tricks that can be used to massage a vote. In the last Canadian federal election, for example, fake "robo calls" (originating in the USA where they could hide from prosecution) informing voters that the place where they vote had been changed. These targeted polls that traditionally voted one particular way.

Politics Is a Team Sport

Because people managing the organization of any sort of political institution will take advantage of their authority to manipulate the process---no matter what the constitution may say---it is imperative to avoid trying to play the role of "lone wolf". Playing by the rules is no guarantee whatsoever that you will be given a fair say if the referees are all members of the other team. Instead, you have to be willing to form a team of your own and make sure that you get control of some of the referees yourself. If you don't do this, no matter how popular you may be with voters you will always lose due to the other side cheating.

"Nice" People Aren't Fair People

It's important to remember that most people are more concerned about people being "polite" than they are about people being "fair" or "honest". What this boils down to in politics is that no one gains any support from the populace for pointing out when the other side is cheating. The reason for this is that they do not have the interest to try and figure out the truth of what you are saying. Instead, what they hear is someone "squabbling about politics", which at best will turn them off the entire process or at worst decide to not support you because you are "paranoid" or a "whiner". This allows the people who control the referees pretty much a free reign when it comes to manipulating or even totally ignoring the process set out in the constitutional structure. Ultimately, voters are like parents who's response to complaints by children that one of them is cheating is to throw over the board----which always gives cheaters at worst a draw.

(This rule was shown in the last Canadian election where the Liberals tried to show how badly the Conservatives had subverted our Parliamentary rules---they were destroyed as a party. It also may be why John Kerry in the USA never really tried to fight against the voter fraud that appears to have given George Bush his second term of office.)

People Want to be Lied To

Very few people have the inclination to "stretch their minds" or challenge their basic assumptions about how the world operates. What this means is that any politician who can spin his message around what passes for "conventional wisdom" has a tremendous advantage over anyone who is trying to express something that is either unpleasant to consider or hard to understand. This isn't hard to understand. If a person is confronted by two equally plausible options, they will tend to be attracted to the one that doesn't require him to make any uncomfortable changes in life or to work very hard to understand.

The problem is, however, that whenever a society genuinely does face a significant problem, the political system will usually refuse to deal with it until some sort of catastrophe makes it impossible to avoid admitting that there is a real problem. America was isolationist in spirit until the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. And even though Jimmy Carter could easily see "the handwriting on the wall" with regard to dependence on foreign oil, Ronald Regan was able to cast him as a "gloomy Jimmy" who didn't understand that America could still do anything it wanted without regard for the future. This basic tendency probably means that our political culture will not do anything significant about climate change until some catastrophe (perhaps dramatic increase in sea levels) makes both the fact of change and the scope of the problems it will create impossible to ignore. (Hopefully geo-engineering will allow us to retreat from this situation.)

Politics is Universal, But Democracy is Best

People often think of politics as being something peculiar to democratic states. This is a profound misunderstanding of how societies operate. A dictatorship or absolute monarchy may not have regular elections or formal political parties, but it does have constituencies that need to be supported. Even the most ruthless dictator has to have the support of his praetorian guard or else they will kill and replace him with someone who is more able or willing to serve their interests. In authoritarian or totalitarian states, politics always comes down to the creation of cabals who then maneuver to be able to seize control of the government through assassination, coup d'etat or other violent means.

Democracy has two great advantages over other forms of government.

First, it allows for a non-violent method of changing the regime. Votes can be rigged and manipulated, the system of organizing representation can (and usually are) grotesquely unfair, and voters can be systematically misled and confused by propaganda campaigns----but no one ends up with their head on a stick at the end of the process. In and of itself, this is a big improvement on just about every other system humanity has created.

Secondly, democracies are organized around formalized institutions: Parliament, Congress, political parties, Riding Associations, etc. In contrast, non-democracies are built around "big men" that everyone looks to for leadership. This makes non-democracies very vulnerable violent turnovers in times of crisis. All that the rebels really need to do in Libya, for example, is knock out Gaddafi and the country is theirs because the government he has built around him will collapse immediately. In contrast, were someone to assassinate the Canadian Prime Minister the deputy leader would immediately take control, and were he assassinated too, the house leader would replace him, even if there was a mass slaughter of the cabinet, MPs would quickly hold a snap vote and appoint someone else. Similarly in all democracies there is a clearly defined chain of command, all of which members have significant legitimacy within their own right.

Machiavelli believed that it was very dangerous for princes to declare war on democracies (both forms of government existed amongst the Italian states of his time), as the former would almost inevitably collapse on the death or significant failure of the ruler whereas the latter could survive tremendous setbacks by bringing forth new leaders in times of crisis.

Why it is called "The Land of Dust"

It is easy to see why a Daoist would be repelled by the chicanery endemic in any form of politics. It is impossible to manifest Ziran when you find yourself having to avoid saying or doing anything that will put you at a disadvantage vis-a-vis someone else who is ruthlessly trying to push you out of the way. Indeed, the system has worn me down to the point where I've pretty much given up on politics. But as the saying goes, even if you give up on politics, it will not give up on you. In other words, just because you chose not to participate don't expect the decisions made by the process to not affect you in your daily life. As a result, I still try to follow politics, I vote and even donate money to parties when I can afford it.

But I have realized that politics is invariably for mainstream people, and I am a totally marginal person. I believe that I am right a great deal of the time, but my viewpoint makes me about as alien to the average voter as if I was from the planet Mars. Sometimes people ask me why I call myself a "hermit" even though I live in the city. It is this sense of alienation from "normal" society that gives me this label. So, like many Daoists before me, I have removed myself from the Land of Dust.