Friday, March 6, 2009

Empower the rich to fight the rich? Sounds like a perverted attempt at a joke

When you are a liberal or progressive activist, you keep having the same few conversations with your friends-- about some aspect of the movement, politics, society, and your own lives-- over and over again. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me when I was a young activist in college. One of those conversations that seemed to come up again and again was the participation of the affluent in the movement.

One matter on which Aristotle was right I think is that human societies really are in one or two respects like a bee-hive or an ant-colony. Insect communities like those of ants or bees contain several types of individuals possessing different behaviors, which coincide with different types of work necessary to the survival of the community. Similarly, it’s just plain wrong to think that any one or two individuals alone can stand as a sufficient biological example of the human race that can be expected to survive and thrive in the species’ habitat. Humans, like bees and ants, have survived because our diverse heritable instincts and diverse heritable psychological characteristics are necessary for survival. Among humans, it is easy to see that an individual who becomes effective at the occupation of a righteous, fair judge is simply not interchangeable with one who becomes effective in the occupation of, say, a vice cop in a violent neighborhood, or an elementary school teacher-- they are not interchangeable not only in terms of their training, but also in terms of their inclinations and attitudes. To give some more basic examples, throughout pre-history and history, it’s certainly sometimes been a shy person whose personality left him prone to make the right decision in a perilous situation, and other times the availability of a bold yet stupid person was what allowed a community to test an option that ultimately proved to be the avenue they needed for survival. Without a multitude of personality characteristics that are not all possessed by one single individual, communities would have been wiped out. There is no such thing, among humans, as a super-individual who by him- or herself alone posseses all the traits that can best promote that individual’s survival in diverse situations. This differentiation of behavior exists not just across the lines of profession, but also across class lines.

With this background it is easy to see how in terms of politics, certain stratas of our society can hurt the society as a whole, or just hurt the left-wing movement. For example, over the course of the history of the left-wing, it has probably been all too natural for people from upper-class backgrounds to assume or hold leadership positions. This mirrors the fact that in the society as a whole, rich people hold powerful positions, and do not “fall far from the tree”-- if a person’s parents are rich and privileged, an individual is likely to remain rich or privileged throughout the person’s lifetime. And this persistence in leadership and privilege may come about due to certain heritable personality characteristics which will not necessarily promote the movement to be large, strong, or even ideologically healthy or pure as time goes on. For examples, perhaps the genetic reason rich people accrue more benefits than others is that they just are more pushy than other people, feel more entitled than other people, or care less about other people. While it is easy to see that these characteristics may certainly help you build a big company, they do not at all by the same token make you more likely to be vigilant against, for examples, the left-wing movement becoming corrupt, activism being conducted in a stupid or inefficient way, ideology not being developed well or fully (so that policy will properly protect people, or so that the movement will attract a lot of supporters), thw wicked and the conservative being opposed boldly, vigorously, thoughtfully, and constantly enough, and so on. So investigating the question of whether an upperclass person is the best person to hold a leadership position in the left wing is more likely to show us, I think, that in a variety of situations and contexts, this kind of individual as a left-wing leader is more likely to turn out to be a mixed bag in a lot of contexts than they are a clear benefit. Obviously, being from a certain certain class, in and of itself, does not make any individual a better person than anyone else, nor does it of course make them some kind of ideal person. The specific problems an upper-class person may have as a leader of any kind of left-wing endeavor might be classism, a lack of a background in lower-class lifestyle, attitude, or expectations, an inability to effectively communicate with or judge individuals from a lower-class background, and so on. Of course, like anyone else, upper-class people tend to see themselves favorably as individuals and thus are not as likely to see that they have these kinds of deficiencies than other people might be. So, largely, it is not for upper-class people to tell us whether they are qualified to be leaders or not-- it is up to left-wing activists from more humble backgrounds to be on the alert to make sure these people do not gain too much control, and to work actively to exclude them from gatheirng too much leadership power.

It is easy to see how all of this has played out in the history of the left wing. While it should have been obvious to left-wingers that people who come from a background that is raised or genetically desigend to despise other people and oppress them would not be the best to write the story of the movement and to give the speeches, over the course of history these people have pushed their way into leadership positions in the left-wing (basically just as another hobby of the idle rich, like fox-hunting, yachting, and golf; or perhaps as a form of adolescent rebellion against their parents). As could be expected and should have been expected, these people brought the same inherited personality characteristics to running the left-wing as they would have brought to running their parents’ corporations mercilessly and unethically, and what we have gotten as results from this are (for example) things like the USSR-- a horribly corrupt, criminal and oppressive state that actually openly ran both a gulag (Siberian political prisons), and a huge terror-organization (the KGB) that oppressed people within the USSR (and abroad) at least as horribly as, say, the Nazi Gestapo did in WWII-era Europe. As a further example, even though the record of the USSR as anything but a good example of the values and goals of the left-wing continued to mount over the course of decades to the point that it became at least as ridiculous to defend the USSR as it was to defend O.J. Simpson against the charges that he was involved in his wife’s murder, many First-World liberal activists with personality characteristics that should have completely disqualified them from holding important leadership and spokesperson positions in our movement continued to defend and champion terror-states like the USSR. Clearly this discredited our movement and contributed to stunting our proper ideological development/growth, since young people who were interested in left-wing politics often must have assumed that a large ostensibly left-wing effort like the USSR must have gotten policy and ideology figured out pretty well, and that all that was left was for the individual activist to do was to shut up, accept the authority of the super-power socialist state, or at least to mimic its ideology- and policy-preferences-- and especially when the USSR got the endorsement of older, more experienced liberals in the First World. Very ironically, this implicit opposition to critical thought on policy and ideology that the fascist, cruel upper-class created in our movement looks just like the senseless form of orthodoxy that any smart left-winger very naturally and rightly begins to feel opposed to in his or her own nation or community at (often) an early age.

Conclusion: The participation and especially leadership of upper-class individuals is a positive threat to the welfare of our movement, and activists have to be very vigilant about how these upper-class people participate in the movement. They have to do this despite any superficial admiration or feelings of friendship they may have developed for specific individuals, and they have to try to do it without absolutely excluding the rich or discouraging their labor or participation too much.


Any liberal who thinks that Soviet totalitarianism/communism was something to aspire to or even merely ok is a problem. This should be obvious from, say, reading about the horrible political prisons and repression/repression of public opinion in the GDR/East Germany, and reading about the Soviet/KGB cooperation (or should I say control) involved in all of that.

Many liberals who support states like the USSR are simply ridiculous. Treating the notion that the USSR was ok as aphoristic or unquestionable for a liberal certainly is a ridiculous idea, at least. Liberals who hold that idea are often not much different from kids who fill the detention halls in a high school, or drop out of high school-- just too lazy to educate themselves.

I know that for a lot of liberals, the unthinking answer to what I wrote above about states like the Soviet Union and Cuba is some version of "Well, if the only danger that threatens a liberal society from being able to exist is opposition, then oppression may be necessary."

In a movement that has become too often unwilling or unable to give the simple answer dumb concerns like these call for, I give the simple answer required:
For a society to be really free or really worthwhile, it has to be capable of withstanding freedom of speech. The only contexts when true repression of speech on political issues is necessary or adviseable are very specific, transitory wartime contexts (such as perhaps anti-war speech, made during a war that is necessary for the state’s safety, in a specific province that is likely to erupt in a rebellion that could cause terrible harm to the nation if the speech is allowed). For this reason, no liberal movement should subscribe or sign its support to policy or practices that invalidate political speech based on the speech’s having some specific political content, and support of freedom of speech should always be the default liberal policy. This does not mean, of course, that individuals should be allowed to dirupt our political meetings so that they cannot function, or anything like that-- instead it’s just a stance on a public policy issue.

Another worthless dodge is the idea that if only the USSR or other states like it had been successful enough to conquer more capitalist nations, they would have somehow inevitably grown adequately benign in their policies to be free, worthwhile states, and that this justifies their oppression of private civilians during those states’ times of weakness and vulnerability. The fallacy of this idea is shown by the example of China, which is a rich nation that still has a vast, miserable, oppressed population, as well as the typical illicit grossly rich population typical of modern communist nations and other totalitarian or facist states. What really accounts for how the civilians are treated are the characteristics of the leadership, and the characteristics of the leadership of China and the USSR have basically been that they are or were a bunch of opportunists or people who don’t care about the masses, who are posing under a socialist rationale in order to support their authority. These characteristics do not simply dissappear because the predator becomes more successful at victimizing people (e.g., conquers more relatively free states that they can enslave the populations of).


Now that America has proved itself willing to elect a (very worthy) African American to its highest public office, the fighters for social justice must look to what can be done with this political capital we possess. Although President Obama is in office, the prisons of this nation are still filled with African Americans and other racial minorities, African Americans are still very poor-off compared to white Americans, and African Americans generally live and socialize in racially segregated communities and cliques. That this is a harm, and the cause of it, are obvious, and they must end. Just as obvious is that the cause of the harm was a wrong that deserves to be righted. Some people may make racist arguments, and show statistics from testing, and claim that a lot of what African Americans are suffering is inherent to the race. But what should be obvious to everybody in this nation is that whether or not it is true that African Americans can achieve everything in equal measures as members of any other race can, African American at least certainly should not be livin gin the grossly disparate conditions I have described, and the cause of the fact that they do must not be any characteristic of their race, but instead the incredible historical hurdles that that one race-- but not the others-- have been hampered with for many generations in this country.

There should be reparations for slavery of something like $40,000 to every African American person who is over the age of 18 (as of the effective date of the enacting legislation), regardless of when and how they became a citizen, so long as they do not make over a certain amount or have a certain amount of assets that indicates affluence. The $40,000 could be paid out over the course of 8 monthly payments of $5,000 so it has a little bit of the protection of a spendthrift trust, and the payees should be able to apply to have the money directly deposited in a bank account so that stealing of these much-publicized checks out of mailboxes will be minimized.

How will we determine who is black for the purposes of making reparations? People will get in line in designated public places at a specific date and time to be judged by a few public employees on the basis of appearance. Congress, or some appropriate body charged by them to administer the project, should vote on sample photographs to be used by the panels of judges as guidelines to decide who is and is not black (this will provide a degree of uniformity to the initial decisions that will eliminate some embarrassing inconsistencies from location to location). If people want to challenge a decision that they are not black, then they will be able to make such an appeal to a committee that will judge them according to guidelines to-be developed (that will probably involve proof of what relatives looked like, documentation of ancestors having been slaves, DNA tests, etc.). Although "blackness" is not an absolutely objective concept, it will do a lot more good to get reparations out to the vast majority of black people and have some uncertainty about a few people than it will be to just forget about the whole thing just because there may not be one answer that is acceptable to every single person to the question of who is black.

There are about 40 million black people in America, so counting the costs of administration, these reparations should not cost too much over $100 billion, which is significantly less than what we are spending on the economic bailout (not to mention a lot of stuff we'll probably never need, like a lot of our high-tech weapons development has proved to be over the course of recent decades-- I'm sure I probably don't need to remind anyone here of the Pentagon's terrible rep for shelling out $$$ for development of weapons that never go into production, are developed very inefficiently (so that after many years, the latest plan or prototype version is basically totally unacceptable), or are quickly obsoleted by newer technology).

Barack is the President now, so he should get this rolling! It may be unpopular in some circles, but reparations is more the type of thing that will heal the wounds of racial prejudice in the long run than affirmative action alone. The great wrong of slavery should not go unredressed.

Speculation on the results of reparations:

One the positive side, more black people will be getting married because more black people will have sufficient money saved up to get a home and start a family. More black people will stay out of prison because they will have a lot more incentive and means to stay out of trouble. A lot more black guys will have girlfriends. All the women out there will know that any black guy they see who is over 18 has $40,000 in the bank. More black people will start small business or take gambles on other dreams (e.g., producing a demo tape). It will provide a lot of satisfaction to African Americans and psychological healing to the nation, although arguments could always be made that reparations should be a bigger sum than $40,000 a piece or in a different form (i.e., some kind of mixed bag of investments and benefits). Not to mention many black families will just be a little better provided for, have an easier time staying out of trouble economically, and be happier. For a lot of people, it will be more toys and better clothes for their kids, etc.

On the negative side, a few people will probably try to invest their money to start up illegal little drug-dealing businesses. This kind of thing probably won't be widespread, and shouldn't be used as an excuse not to adopt the legislation. Instead, we should rely on normal law enforcement to stop any new drug dealing activity and communities should make appropriate efforts to discourage recipients of reparations from taking this rash gamble with their new wad of loot.

Is $40,000 paid in monthly $5,000 payments to every black person who is over 18 as of a certain date enough? I certainly am not against reparations being bigger than this, but my suggestion shoots for a number that might be politically doable in the foreseeable future instead of towards satisfying some over-idealistic activist's pipe-dream. I also want to make clear that my plan isn’t that as of a certain date, we start giving $5,000 payments out to people just for being black as soon as they turn 18. Rather, my idea is that everybody who is not 18 as of the effective date of the legislation will be considered not to be entitled to reparations without further legislation. If congress finds at some point that the initial round of reparations wasn’t enough and the country is willing to provide more, there can be successive rounds of reparations (crafted perhaps in different amounts) awarded to newer generations.

In the absence of federal legislation, states that can afford it should craft programs to issue some sort of reparations to their residents with state money. Perhaps the legislation could stipulate that the reparations are only made in place of reparations by the federal government, which should more appropriately be taking the lead, and that in order to receive the reparations, any recipient has to agree to give back to the state an amount equal to what they received from it out of any federal money that is eventually awarded to them as reparations. I think there may be some good arguments against this policy, but it’s just an idea to help get reparations rolling in the states-- to accommodate everybody in case people start objecting that the states shouldn’t do it, because it would be unnecessarily duplicative of any eventual federal program (e.g., people might complain that if their state steps forward to pay reparations and others don’t, then that state’s taxpayers will have unfairly shouldered too much of the burden of reparations; having state reparations simply take the place of future federally-sponsored reparations helps to allay this concern).

One really racist argument you sometimes hear against reparations is that African Americans are better off because they ended up in America, despite the racism and bad situation that is the legacy of slavery. This argument is wrong for at least a couple of very good reasons. The most basic one is that the black people who were put into slavery were different people than the ones who are alive in America now. The ones who were put into slavery were not better off, because being a slave in America was by-an-large not better than being free in Africa. And the ones who are alive now are not better off than white Americans are now, simply because of the color of their skin: they unfairly suffer disadvantages that are the after-effects of a racist institution of slavery that was supposed to be abolished over 100 years ago.

If we are successful in getting reparations discussed more publicly in the months and years ahead, another way to answer this argument is to say that if there hadn't been slavery, America still would have needed labor and African aborigines certainly might have been brought over to work for pay. Without racism and slavery, African Americans who would have come to America certainly would have suffered a lot less. How Africans in Africa fared has nothing to do with that. The standard of whether blacks deserve reparations is how white people in America have been doing relative to them, not how any people living in horrible circumstances across the world today are living. We certainly don't ask if a white man or woman should just be happy to live in America when deciding whether they have a right to sue somebody who wronged them, and the reparations issue is the same. Whether some black man somewhere else is poorer than a black man in America has nothing to do with whether disadvantages that African Americans suffer here are wrong.

In other words, (1) slavery was a wrong when it existed (2) whether the descendants of Africans who remained in Africa are worse off than the descendants of Africans who were brought to America does not mean that it is not a wrong for modern African Americans to suffer from racial discrimination today, or from racial discrimination against their ancestors (3) since it was the evil institution of slavery that in great part led to the situation of African Americans of today suffering these ill-effects, and since Africans could have easily emigrated here without there having ever been any slavery, the nation owes modern African Americans compensation for the great harm done to them by having allowed slavery.

Some people may make a totally inappropriate comparison between the Holocaust and slavery to argue against reparations, because Jews are doing well nowadays. To answer this kind of objection, here is such an argument and the response I wrote to it a while ago:
a court in France ruled that the Jewish victims of the Holocast in France had been compensated enough
mimi B.Eng.(Mech) P.Eng.M. Eng | 02.17.09 - 9:17 am |

Really? What was the issue? Like, what were they trying to get from the court?

Anyway, I hope this wasn't posted as a counterpoint to what I wrote about reparations. The situation of Jews in Europe who were affected by the Holocaust was a lot different than that of African Americans effected by slavery both before and after the relevant events (slavery and the Holocaust) so I don't think you can compare the two. I don't think you can say that when Jews don't need any more reparations for the Holocaust, that says a lot about when blacks should no longer need reparations on account of slavery.