Monday, April 9, 2012

On Richard Dawkins

Walking through the National Mall two weeks ago, I was surprised to catch Bad Religion playing a set at the "Reason Rally", a "celebration of secular values" organized by a 501(c)(3) outfit called Reason Rally Coalition.  The headlining speaker at the event was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins  Dawkins, the public face of what is often described - and what, I would argue based on his speech, is aptly called - "militant atheism".

The full text of Dawkins' speech at the rally can be found at The Daily Bluster.

In this post I want to analyze and critique passages form this speech that I find representative of certain problematic tendencies within atheist discourse in the industrialized West. These discursive tendencies are understandable, yet I argue that they need to be aggressively considered and addressed before the secularist political movement can come to maturation.  This discussion is not meant to be authoritative or particularly scholarly.  My goal is simply to voice a crucial perspective in an attempt to help construct the political movement as the greatest possible force for good that it can be.

Binary Logic in Atheist Discourse
Dawkins' rhetoric here, typical of his large body of work in atheist discourse, constructs a fundamental and insurmountable binary opposition between, one the one hand, the "science-reason-truth" complex and, on the other, the "religion-unreason-falsehood" complex.
"In a hundred years' time, it seems to me inconceivable that anybody could want to have a rally for reason. By that time, we will either have blown ourselves up or we'll have become so civilized that we no longer need it." (emphasis added)
 "Electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from extremely long wave, radio-wave end of the spectrum to gamma waves on the very short-wave end of the spectrum. And visible light, that which we can see, is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perspective of that section to long-wave radio waves on the one hand and gamma rays on the other. I take that as being symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision -- our little, parochial, small vision -- and broadens it out. And that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn't see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see." (emphasis added)
I never did meet a binary opposition I liked.  But this is the heart of Dawkins' atheism: "science" and religion" are read as stable entities with fixed definitions (and fixed real-world effects) that are incompatible in essence.  The possible future scenarios envisioned in the first quote capture this binary opposition nicely.  On the one hand is salvation through modern science - the end-point of rational civilization in which the discourse of empiricist reason has finally triumphed, winning over or otherwise silencing all its opponents to become the basis of an idealized utopia.  The other option is not merely ruination, but final self-destruction at the hands of religion - of unreason - of falsehood.

Dawkins' envisionment of our possible future encapsulates his essentialist view of science so well because it clearly ties the well-being of the human race to the 'success or failure' of what Dawkins considers to be the 'essence of reason' - a 'civilizing force' that rights wrongs and universally improves conditions.  This envisionment does not take into account the wide multiplicity of ways in which forces of reason - the most important being science - alter the world.  Industrial pollution that affects only the poorest rural populations, nuclear proliferation, drone technology - for Dawkins, these examples do not fundamentally represent the essence of science, which is to do good.  No these phenomena would be seen as temporary perversions of science, bad apples that will sooner or later be fixed by true reason and brought back to the fold.

Science and Religion as Open-Ended Assemblages: What Do Science and Religion DO?
For my part, I advocate a non-essentialist view of both religion and science which acknowledges the historical and cultural contingency of their construction and of their real-world effects; which reads them not as necessarily opposed but as always already entangled with each other in uncountable places; and most importantly, as each doing a multiplicity of different kinds of work, without ever losing the potential to do other kinds of work.

Science and religion are open-ended assemblages of individuals (human and non-human), organizations, texts, instruments, populations, places, buildings, thought-concepts (ideologies), ....  The list doesn't end: it's open-ended.  What is science?  When one considers the huge multiplicity of ways that "science" is performed, one realizes that it can never be pinned down as a stable entity.  This realization is somewhat unnerving in the sense that we realize we aren't dealing with one "thing" that always necessarily "works in a certain way" - the  work science does is always up for grabs.  The same goes for religion, although the two are obviously not one and do not share the same structure.  But this is also a comforting realization in that we are never stuck with the temporal constructions of science and religion that we find: there is infinite possibility for rewiring to be done, for disparate elements to be connected by new practices, for energy to be rechanneled and desires reassessed, for old kinds of work to be replaced with new kinds - crucially, however, only by working authentically with what we already find, by maneuvering through and within preexisting systems and rules in order to eventually reformulate them.

I emphasize the idea of "work done" by these entities because as I see it, at the end of the day work is what we are concerned with.  Science and religion are not performed without the impetus given to them by the desire (but whose desire?  Ah, there's the rub...) for specific work.  This work could be the implementation of a more cost-efficient energy source; the destruction of weeds in an agricultural crop; the elimination of enemy combatants in a less dangerous manner; the social cohesion of a certain community; the imparting of hope into a populace; the supplication of God.

In order to problematize Dawkins' conception of the phenomena, I'm strategically invoking a radically different perspective in which "science" and "religion" are seen as arbitrary categories into which we segment the vast, infinitely differentiated but inextricably interconnected net-work being performed by human and non-human agents across space and time.  This is not to say that speaking of science and religion is meaningless - our language-culture imparts such discussion with unavoidable meaning - nor that it is useless.  Of course, the act of "calling-Science" which is performed whenever we see, for example, a man in a white coat pour the contents of one beaker into another beaker, is an incredibly useful act.  And of course, I don't refute the immense amount of beneficial work that the various assemblages (of assemblages of assemblages...) that we call science have done.  My point in calling attention to the open-endedness of science and religion - their quality of being always up for grabs in terms of what they consist of and what kinds of work they do - is to try to undermine the view that they are always necessarily opposite, foiling each other, incompatible, at war.

Viewed from this perspective (for which I am indebted to Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia), we can see both science and religion as fields of potential work, as forces that are already constantly interacting in complex and unpredictable ways according to micropolitics of a particular place and historical moment.  This perspective allows us to see through the dominant atheist narrative in which science always does good and religion always does harm to the more nuanced and realistic perception that both entities can potentially do both.  What I'm leading up to is the point that in order for the secular movement of reason and science that Dawkins represents to have the best possible real impact on the world - assuming that it does indeed have aspirations beyond merely chalking up points in intellectual debates - the many and varied interactions between the assemblages of science and religion need to be paid attention to and constantly tweaked through a sensitized approach.  The insistence that science and religion are now and forever fundamentally opposed and incompatible damages the potential that both these practices have to "do good".

What Do We Want To Do?
Dawkins', and the militant atheist movement he speaks to and for, has so far had a fairly limited conversation with religion.  Mostly, this has centered on debates about faith and belief.  The critique I offer is based on the assumption that Dawkins' rhetoric, as a strategic practice, is meant to produce tangible benefits in the real world; of course, it is entirely possible (indeed, it would explain much) that all he really wants is the simple satisfaction of attacking faith in a supreme being whenever possible - in which case this critique is moot.  Of course, without the underlying goal of producing tangible social benefit, Dawkins and his followers are simply another group of zealots out to collect as many converts as possible - even if their particular belief holds up a little better in the light of postmodern day than the alternatives.  But I am assuming this is not the case; that the "Reason" this respected scientist says things like the following, from the rally speech, is that he thinks that by doing so he will produce some tangible good in the world:
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: "I don't believe you. I don't believe you until you tell me do you really believe -- for example, if they say they are Catholic -- do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?" Mock them! Ridicule them! In public! 
Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt. (emphasis added)
The problem with Dawkins' tactics is that religion is much more than faith and belief, just as science is more than the natural laws it discovers.  As I have struggled to explain, religion is most usefully conceptualized as an assemblage, an open-ended machine that operates through the connections between a multiplicity of different parts: individuals, organizations, places, populations, texts, politics.  No matter how strenuously or effectively one attacks a specific religious belief, the interaction is still inauthetic, pretending to be a triumph of reason over religion when in reality it is merely the triumph of one ideology over another (or, more accurately, merely one brain over another, at a specific place and instant in time).

Why do I say that atheist attacks on "religion" are inauthentic?  Because they don't make a serious attempt to interact with the reality of religion as it exists in the material world, to come to terms with it, to find solutions to real problems.  Much to the contrary, these attacks undermine possibilities for beneficial cooperation between various points on the secular-nonsecular spectrum (spectrum, not binary!).  What the industrialized West refers to as "religion" is intimately, inextricably, tied up with the culture and identity of a huge swath of human population.  It is both fallacious and, more importantly, harmful to see religion as a foreign or external entity that, some time in the distant or not so distant past, hijacked pre-existing cultures for dubious purposes.  Instead, we must recognize the instances when a religious practice is the outgrowth of expression of a culture, when religious practice is more an involvement in the social language of a place and people than in some intellectual "belief".  This allows recognize the times when by arrogantly insisting that science and reason can have no parliament with a certain religion, we risk being interpreted as saying that science and reason can have no place in the associated culture.

 All around the world, in countless different places and in countless different ways, work is being performed by the various assemblages that constitute "religion", many of which have only a faint or indirect link to the material fact of the belief-thought that Dawkins attacks.  Of course, I have no problem admitting that in many, many cases, this "work" is misguided, dubious, problematic, and needs to be ended.  A single, relatively cut-and-dry example is the recent instance in Gambia of "witch doctors" abducting and detaining villagers, forcing them to drink "potions" that caused diarrhea and vomiting.  But this is an incomplete picture.  As real-world entities, science and reason, too, have problematic histories of work done.  Science gives us (Westerners with access to good health care) advanced medical technology, but it also gave the ecosystems and populations of Vietnam napalm and Agent Orange.  It gives us cheap energy - and it gives mountaintop-removal to the poor of Appalachia.

Dawkins' presents a vision of reason that is monolithic and fixed.  But the reality is that what is reaosnable is always up for grabs, and secular movements need to recognize instructive instances where the problems of constantly deferring to "reason" show themselves.  For example, who is we're trying to help?  One reasonable answer would be "the human race".  So, what, then, we slash and burn the forests, empty the earth of oil?  Is it reasonable for us (indeed, who are we?) to make sacrifices in order to protect our resources for future generations of humans?  For future generations of other living beings? Is it reasonable to decide to preserve endangered species such as the Western Gray Wolf which reduce economic productivity by eating livestock?  If the pertinent question is, indeed, "what do we want to do", then the reaosnable answer is always up for grabs because "reason" is a practice that always starts with the assumption of premises that can be disputed.

From one perspective of reason, the answer to these questions is the affirmative; from other, equally valid perspectives, it isn't.  Since reason and science appear to reveal to us a world without objective values, questions of what we value cannot be escaped.  Reason isn't totalizing or totalizable.  Religion, as it is currently formulated, is not be the ideal assemblage to step into this gap and help us figure out what our values are; but then, it is already doing exactly that all over the world.  The machinic assemblage that is religion will not be prevented from doing work all over Earth in any foreseeable future - work of defining and informing cultures and reactions to other cultures; work of distributing economic benefits, work of education, and many other kinds of work.

Dawkins' response to this material, and the response of so many militant secularists, is summed up brilliantly by his injunction to "Mock them!  Ridicule them!  In public! ... if necessary".  This is the attitude of one who has chosen to deal with, make contact with, and converse with his own intellectual concept of what religion is ("religion makes specific claims about the universe", its essence is belief) rather than the living, breathing reality of "religion" and its various structures of power.

I propose that secularists in the sciences, humanities, and avoid producing and reproducing constructed conceptualizations of religion and reason in which the two are naturally and inescapably opposed and cannot productively work together for the greatest possible good (whatever we decide that is).  Dawkins' approach only makes sense if we decide that the greatest possible good simply consists in assuring that as many people do not believe in God as possible.  This is the approach of a zealot and fundamentalist.  I propose instead a consistent practice of sensitization (what is going on, what do we want to do, and how is the best way to try and do it?) rather than the de-sensitization of Dawkins' rhetoric ("Mock! Ridicule!").  My reading, and rewriting, of reason and religion is heavily indebted to the "rhizomatic" theoretical framework of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus.  However, I stress that this issue is crucially practical and immanently important.  The effects of the relationship between reason, science, religion, and belief (to name a few actors) is already happening, already doing work.  All we have is our choice of re-producing it, so it is time the secular movement grew up and started thinking about the work it is doing.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wilderness Under Seige

On Saturday I spent the afternoon hiking around Raven Rocks in West Virginia.  I particularly remember one moment when my friends and I, after leaving the trail and bushwacking down the side of the ridge to find a cave, stopped for a moment in silence to listen to the sound of the dead leaves caught in the bare trees that surrounded us on every side.  From every direction the leaves seemed to be whispering something just beyond our grasp. The sound was only broken by distant birdcalls and the muffled thumps of target practice being conducted somewhere along the valley.  This moment is one reason why, when I picked up a copy of the Washington Examiner to read for kicks on the metro ride home, I was so enfuriated by Ron Arnold's op-ed peice, Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts' political war.

The article applauds the work of Don Amador, a Beltway lobbyist advocating "to keep scenic forest roads and public trails open to motorcyclists, snowmobilers, trail bikers, dune buggy fans and other OHVers".  This article paints Amador as the "General" of "embattled motorized recreation enthusiasts" in their struggle against the monolithic axis of evil that is "Big Green's ferocious and lavishly funded anti-OHV faction - those selfish, relentless, and effective elitists out to reduce public access to federal lands substantially, if not altogether".  It also bemoans the Wilderness Act of 1964, the act that created the federal category of designated wilderness areas in which there is no mechanized vehicle access or man-man structures built, and trails are generally maintained to a lower standard.

Amador is from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an oil-, mining-, timber-, and motorized recreation-funded advocacy outfit that sees it as its obligation to its members to attack the very idea of legislated "wilderness" and aims to ensure that there is no federal territory anywhere that is protected from motor vehicles.  BRC, like the Examiner article itself, seeks to promote a political narrative in which "elite" anti-recreation environmentalists seek to close off access to any public lands they can from everyone except, well, themselves.  Like most political narratives, this one works by portraying the population as inherently divided, in this case between a majority who require their noisy, polluting motorized vehicles to access wild areas and a small minority with the necessary fitness, money, and leisure time to  hike on foot into these spaces.  The BRC sees environmental organizations as anti-human in that they ultimately desire to close off any and all access by the public to whatever wild lands they can get their hands on.

I have spent a lot of time in federally designated wilderness areas in both the West and the East.  Just this summer I had an amazing weekend backpacking through New Hampshire's Pemigawasset Wilderness.  The honest truth is that there are very good reasons why a small proportion of federal wildlands should always be closed off from motor vehicle access and human development of any kind.  The noise and pollution that comes with these vehicles, plus the necessary increased trail maintenance work, necessarily robs these areas of a certain value in terms of biodiversity, solitude, and serenity.

Currently designated wilderness makes up only 4.82% of the country's land area, although even that figure is misleading, since more than half of that wilderness is located in Alaska, where, in fact, limited use of motorized vehicles and limited human development is already allowed in wilderness areas.  That means that, in the lower 48, only 2.58% of land is designated of wilderness.  The idea that even this tiny bastion of motor-vehicle-free wildland should be indiscriminately opened up to these devices is bizarre.

BRC's contention that prohibiting bikes or motor vehicles from wilderness areas necessarily denies access to groups of people is not only fallacious but misframes the issue.  Arnold, in the article, blames the Wilderness Act for being "why you can't drive your kids or their granny through a federal wilderness area some nice weekend afternoon".  He seems to envision a hypothetical future in which roads carrying minivans of the elderly and disabled run through all federal wildlands, yet paradoxically, these lands manage to retain their value as solitary, remote recreational destinations.  Yes, prohibiting the building of roads and the use of mechanized vehicles in these areas does make it more difficult to access them.  But in no way does it bar any one person or group of people from getting into them.  Pack animals are still a legal and perfectly legitimate way of traveling in wilderness, one that is available for day rental and, in my view, requires no more physical stamina than riding an OHV over rocky mountain trails does.  Yes, the prohibition on mechanized vehicles does prevent every Joe Schmoe with a few hours to kill on a sunday afternoon from revving up the ATV and driving through pristine woodland to check out the foliage.  Yes, because of the prohibition, it takes time, effort, and dedication to access these areas; you have to really want to be there for the sake of being there.  But no one (except, perhaps, those so frail they can't ride a pony, and would probably never even be able to ride an OHV either) is denied their right to access these lands.

Arnold attacks what he sees as the undue influence of big money in matters of public policy.  Apparently, in matters of environmental policy and federal-land-use issues, the worst offenders aren't the coal, oil and timber companies smacking their drooling lips over all those resources in wilderness areas just begging to be pillaged.  No, the real big-money wielders are the "Big Green" outfits like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

I contend that for any mainstream political voice to claim undue influence of money in politics, in our current moment, is fundamentally disingenuous and necessarily misrepresentative.  Yes, our nation has a problem with money in politics.  In fact, you need money, lots and lots of it, to make your voice heard at all in today's political climate.  The right uses these tactics, and the left uses them too.  Everyone does it, and it isn't going to stop.  Whenever anyone even close to the mainstream political views of this country to cries foul over money in politics, its always in an attempt to destroy the influence of the other side (I exempt those with views so radical or fringe that their voice really IS silenced by the lack of big-money outfits advocating for them - although in truth their are a number of fringe political extremists on the right in the US today that have no problem finding plenty of money to make their voice unduly heard).

Finally, I cannot ignore the penultimate paragraph of Arnold's article.  Its short and I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety here:
What's most political about trail decisions is that they're not just for OHV enthusiasts. They're about keeping federal lands open for business. Think timber, mining, farming, ranching, oil and gas.
I have to admit I was quite surprised to see this stated so openly and specifically.  I would have thought that an underlying agenda of using the debate about recreational use of wilderness as a vanguard to ultimately push the interests of these industries would be something that the OHV-faction for which Arnold speaks would wish to keep quiet.  I would have thought that the BRC and their ilk would prefer to represent their interests as fundamentally distinct from the interests of the resource-pillagers of the fuel and mineral industry.  Nope.  Apparently these "OHV enthusiasts" see no disconnect between their rally for increased recreational use and larger fight to open land to industrial use which would severely limit its recreational value.

Now, I'm not opposed to certain forms of industrial development on federally protected land; as Richard White has pointed out, environmentalists are too often "equate productive work with destruction", seeing nonproductive recreation as the only valid and sustainable use of wildlands, thus leaving all those who support productive industry on the anti-environmental side.  However, not all industrial use of wildland is equal, and certainly the wide range of industries that Arnold lists in the end of his articles do not all represent equal threats to protected land.  Oil and gas extraction are intensively damaging and polluting practices that must be strenuously resisted n all protected wildlands.  What these industries do is take a public good, held in common - namely, wild and biodiverse areas with their educational and recreational value - and convert them to a resource to be consumed for private profit.

On the other hand, timbering, farming, and ranching, in theory, are productive industries that can be integrated into protected wildland in a manner that doesn't damage the integrity of the land as a wild area and a good held in the common. The forces of biology are not so fragile that controlled, sustainable techniques can prevent ecological compromise.  This, of course, requires intensive oversight and regulation, but I am getting beyond the scope of this article.  That being said, even these industries must be kept out of designated wilderness areas.  As I have mentioned, wilderness is a tiny portion of the land area of the USA, and holds great value for our society precisely because it is untouched by devlopement.  Arnold's out-of-the-blue invocation of industry interests at the end of his paragraph is interesting because it turns an issue of public access - of increasing the public value of a public good - into an issue of private profit.  It does this, of course, through the pervasive capitalist narrative (implied here in the phrase "open for business") that private profit is actually public profit because private profit drives the economy and benefits the public.

Despite all the rhetoric, what the political forces of the Blue Ribbon Coalition et al.,  represent is a fundamental attack on the legal concept of wilderness as created by the landmark Wilderness Act (1964) and Eastern Wilderness Acts (1975).  Besides the fact that Arnold makes it clear that the issue over the recreational use of wilderness is in part a vanguard attack to clear the way for big industry to get its paws on those last bits of protected land, the issue of motorized vehicle access is a purposely divisive narrative that seeks to define environmentalists as anti-recreation and fundamentally pitted against OHV enthusiasts.  Instead of entrenching these divisions which ultimately serve the interests of those who want to see federal land gutted of all protection from development, we need a new narrative.  Those who enjoy public land recreationally need to come together and recognize that there is always a value to protecting certain pieces of land from the intrusion that motorized vehicle necessarily represent - but, even more importantly, also recognizing that all recreationists have an interest in seeing federal protection of wild lands built up, and not torn down.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Occupation and American Culture

            Finally I have some time to put down a few words about Occupy DC and the police action that occurred at MacPherson Square yesterday (and is being repeated at Freedom Plaza today).  Unfortunately, I don't have much time, so I will simply sketch out some of what I saw and felt and heard and offer some thoughts about what it all "means".
            Around 5:40 on Saturday morning, an overwhelming platoon of US Park Service Officers descended on the Occupy DC site at MacPherson square.  With streets all around blocked off and lined with police vehicles, some officers on horseback, others in full riot gear, and all, of course, heavily armed, they resembled a military force, and it was a reminder that there is very little difference between our modern police institutions and a standing army - the standing army, that institution the founding fathers decried as an impediment to liberty.  There was no warning except a non-specific statement issued on Monday warning that enforcement of the no-camping ban would be increased.  I was there around noon when the police occupation was still in full effect, and when I returned ten hours later, the police and their barricades still dominated the whole of the park.
             The strategy was perfect - give the required notice ahead of time that enforcement would be stepped up, but so far ahead of time (5 days) and without stating a specific date and time of the inspections, so that the effect would still be that of having given no warning at all.  When they arrived, what the Park service claimed was that they were there to inspect the site for non-compliance with the camping ban, and that those tents that were "in compliance" would not be removed.   The reality was that the conditions of compliance were so needlessly specific and arbitrary - every tent had to be completely clear on the inside, with all personal belongings and trash piled neatly separated in piles outside, and with no evidence whatsoever of bedding - that, combined with the fact of the pre-dawn unannounced timing of the raid, it allowed the officers to take down and confiscate nearly every single tent in the park.  The Park Service officers barricaded off, in turn, each “occupied” – that is, tented – section of the park in turn and cleared out all of the residents.  Then they brought in HazMat workers to inspect the tents based on their unreasonable criteria that each one be completely empty inside.  
That is correct: workers in full-on HazMat suits with masks, inspected tents for “human waste” – a phrase that seems to evoke an expectation of… what?  Holes dug in the ground for communal toilets?  “Human waste” ? At least half a dozen horses and two bulldozers were paraded around the block – the effect was comical, pageant-esque - while several dumpster-size flatbeds loaded up their quotas of confiscated tents.  The HazMat workers, to me, were the quintessential image of the narrative underlying this attack.  It seems that the collective value systems being enacted by Occupy DC are literally a literally toxic threat to American culture, so much so that the employees of the state need to suit themselves up from head to toe as if they were cleaning up a nuclear-power accident before they could move in on the tents where these people had been living out lives of collective solidarity and non-heirarchical, communal-property-based empowerment systems.
I am sure that the police realize that they did not abide by the law in their handling of their duty to enforce the no-camping ban.  I will not even go into the multiple horrendous examples of physical abuse some protesters suffered at the hands of these officers, though this is an important part of the story as well.  The entirety of their raid, in fact, was illegitimate and is undoubtedly going to be challenged in court - occupiers I spoke to today claimed to have videotaped footage of the government forces tearing apart tents that were totally compliant with their stated criteria.  But that was all secondary to the Park Service's intention to sap the movement of momentum and destabilize it in one fell swoop.  While the legal battles will be fought in coming weeks, the police's improper conduct had the immediate effect of sending the protestors scrambling to even find a place to be.  It seems that the new philosophy of our police institutions is "shock and awe".
Before it was cleared out, the Occupation itself always felt to me to have a subdued carnival atmosphere - a harmonious, well-decorated community of all different kinds of people standing in solidarity and living together with radically collectivist values.  For a person like myself, with too much studying and too comfy a bed to have ever spent much time at a stretch at the Occupation, it was like a cool new museum exhibit in town: an anti-corporate commune that you could walk through and see up close.  Except that every time I go there I meet new people, have new conversations, think about things differently, and my feelings of being an outsider are challenged.  Everyone hedges their statements with admonitions that they “can’t speak for anyone else”.  It had a sense of joyous optimism that was contagious. 
These places, these occupations, are doing a makeover on American culture, replacing the concept of the “public” with the more nuanced concept of the “common” and other collective values.  A public park is something you can only use in superficial ways, run by the government and controlled by the police.  A common park is one that houses people, feeds people, is controlled by general assemblies and group consensus.  American values today thrive on a fallacious notion of individual self-reliance that allows those whom the system privileges to ignore the plight of the disenfranchised.  Occupations bring to light the fact that every person, from the richest to the poorest, depends on resources held in common to do anything and that no one acts in a vaccuum.  They demonstrate that a radical break can be made and american culture shaped into something that recognizes the necessity to accommodate the needs of all, something that recognizes that unbounded consumerism and unbounded greed (which are really both the same thing, or two sides of a coin) is not the only basis for a society.
People keep asking the occupiers for message, for demands, statements, and in fact the MacPherson occupation issued a Declaration back in November of their political demands.  But what these people are actually doing transcends the one-side “demand” logic of the standard civil protest.  These people, through their actions, are making the solution.  This is why and how the mere fact of their camping can be political speech.  It is an active, daily demonstration of the power of collectivist values to create societies of equality where no one goes hungry or lacks a comfortable place to sleep.  And to the corporate interests that profit off of the individualistic values of current American culture, the culture that says that life is a competition for who can die with the most land and cars and luxurious clothes, that says that if you have more money than your neighbor you have the right to do whatever you want with it because of course that means that you worked harder than he did, collective values are anathema.
I won't pretend to know anything about what will happen with Occupy DC except that it will not go away.  The park is still occupied in a general sense - the library, kitchen, and info desk stand, along with less than ten tents that were apparently compliant, out of the dozens that were standing on Friday.  I just returned form a general assembly of about 100 people where the dominant mood was one of defiance and strength.  A multiplicity of plans are being drawn up and it is clear that this is only the beginning of the occupation of american culture by voices of radical dissent.
Perhaps when I have more time I will be able to expand on these ideas and what cultural and societal forces are involved in the Syria-esque nationwide crackdown on these nonviolent protests, plus put up the photos I took that show just how huge an operation this raid was.  For now, though, I'll leave these imperfect paragraphs as they are and return to my studies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

PIPA, SOPA, and the Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous

Entertainment and Large-Corporatism
Who remembers DIY punk rock?  As a 20-year-old, I sure don’t.  Once, they say, this lifestyle movement was such a bright beacon of anti-consumerist, anti-mass media energy that Bob Marley himself (now, of course, just another tragic casualty in global capitalism’s attrition war on authenticity, but once, I’m told, a veritable High Priest of nonmaterialism) found the soul mate of his spiritual roots reggae in punk’s discontented spasms.  But by the time I was in middle school, this radical proposition - the proposition that the creative act of making music should never let itself become another unexamined way for the slimy-jowled back-room fat-cats of the world to line their pockets by exploiting the insatiable appetites of the developed world, even if that meant willfully choosing guaranteed obscurity over any shot at fame, in short, the proposition that there might be some force in the human spirit that is not reducible to a money-making enterprise - had been bought and sold in a manner that might have seemed ironic at first glance.  Except that it’s not ironic, because it’s perfectly logical in a society grossly infected by the malignant bacteria of Big Capital.

The narrative that the DIYers proclaimed was that the “big labels” - which of course are really just limbs of the handful of multinational corporate behemoths that have had the “free world” at gunpoint for decades - threatened their “artistic freedom” by placing the demands of “the mainstream” over the immunity of artistic expression.  How quaint and wishful this battle cry now seems.  The crime has never been that, faced with a conflict between a pre-existing, massive “mainstream” audience who all uniformly crave a specific “pop” musical sound and musical groups who have no interest in providing that sound but instead wish to create music that happens to have a type of sound that few people are interested in listening to, these labels choose not to invest money in the groups whose sound doesn’t line up with what most people want.  In fact, the real narrative here is that the very existence of a “mainstream”, of an absurdly large portion of the world whose musical tastes all happen to fall on a few dozen artists playing a handful of specific styles, is a construction by the entertainment and media industry, a stratagem to finance their obscene lifestyles.

Getting Mainstreamed by the MES
How is it possible that out of all the millions of musical artists currently operating out there in the world, or even in the USA, millions upon millions of music consumers would all pick the same favorite few artists, all have iPods filled with nearly identical playlists?  Isn’t the very idea of a Top 40 list, where only 40 specific songs, out of the thousands that are released every day, are paid for by the majority of consumers, an absolute absurdity?  The answer is no - what makes this incredible congruity of tastes that we take for granted whenever we speak of the “mainstream consumer” possible is something I will here call the Mass Entertainment System.  And what makes this system possible is the mind-boggling greed of almost everyone who comes into contact with the entertainment industry.  

So what is the Mass Entertainment System (MES)?  It is the system that presents the consumer with a limited number of big-industry-supporting artists (“are you a Miley Cyrus fan, or a Taylor Swift fan?  Do you prefer Jay-Z or Lil Wayne?  The Flaming Lips or Wilco?”) who stand for pre-determined consumerist lifestyles and whose popularity is a direct engine of disgustingly unfair corporate profits.  The MES involves an entrenched capitalist logic whereby one’s choice of entertainment  is made semi-consciously on the basis of one’s choice of “lifestyle”, while at the same time this choice of “lifestyle” actually represents a choice between various preset versions of the kind of alienating consumption that free trade requires.  This system exists for no other reason but the bottom line, and the well-known excesses of everyone from major-label artists themselves to the corporate heads of labels makes it clear that the system is inherently exploitative.
It is crucial to the MES that while people feel they have a choice between the several personality-lifestyle-consumption “sets”, these sets are fundamentally predesigned as whole packages, with little real room for deviation or customization.  This is necessary because it is the only way to make lifestyle choice a tool of mass-marketing.  In other words, are you a country fan, a hip-hop fan, a pop fan, or an alternative fan?  If music as a commodity existed in a cultural vacuum, and if it were typical for the average consumer to design his own stylistic preferences “from scratch”, as it were, choosing from among the millions of extent recording artists with no attention to which were already popular, it would be impossible for the big labels to make the kinds of obscene returns they enjoy currently from sinking huge investments into a small cadre of artists chosen to be made into celebrities.  In other words, in a hypothetical world where consumers didn’t give preference to certain artists because they’re already famous, a Jay-Z or Miley Cyrus could never exist as they do today.  This, though, is wishful thinking: This consumption-as-lifestyle tactic has been in operation since at least the “culture wars” of the sixties and owes much of its dehumanizing tendencies to the consumerism-for-consumerism’s-sake culture that has been inculcated by American capitalist interests since the end of WWII.

I only use the music industry as an example of what Big Entertainment does to culture because it is what I’m most familiar with, but film would serve as easily.  Any thinking person should already be aware that the vast majority of movies pumped out by the major studios every year are derivative junk that play into cultural expectations of certain tropes, plotlines, character personas, etc. which have been created by Hollywood over its history.  It is not that Americans/Westerners are born with an innate desire for stupid action movies, insipid romantic comedies, horror movies (which I won’t even give an adjective).  American culture, which for much of the twentieth century has been constructed by the corporate interests of the entertainment industries, teaches us from an early age about a few different kinds of movies, about happy endings, about a 2-hour timeframe and a certain narrative arc, etc.

What I am trying to create an awareness of here is something I call the act of mainstreaming and its role in the entertainment industry today.  Mainstreaming, the practice of which utilizes advertising, ideology, celebrity culture, and other social tools in all their permutations and combinations - is the act of creating a mainstream.  The entertainment industry, which in its corporate structure is close to monolithic, has consistently mainstreamed the entertainment of desires of the western world for many decades now.  Why?  Because the finances of big-money entertainment - action movies that cost millions in SFX costs, albums that cost six digits to produce - demand that these corporate interests be assured of the general demand for a specific music or movie before it is even created.  We know that Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 will make money, despite its worthlessness as a creative statement, because the mainstreaming of the entertainment culture of American children guarantees that parents will bring their children to it.

The Internet and the Freedom of Information
What does all this have to do with the current debate over PIPA and SOPA?  These potential laws represent Big Entertainment’s most recent and most brazen attempt to use the state as a corporate-interest-protector, “Robocop”-style, against the radical forces of intellectual-property theft which is currently dismantling the Mass Entertainment System and freeing the social flow of information.  As the critics of these bills have stressed again and again, they represent an attempt to fundamentally change how the internet works by making intermediaries and even ISPs legally liable for supposed damages caused by the sharing of copyrighted material.  To understand why this is necessary to the MES, and why corporate interests from far beyond the entertainment industry are ardent supporters of the bills, it is necessary to examine how the internet as it exists today threatens the profit structures of huge swaths of the corporate world.
The internet is a technology which is perhaps comparable to electricity in its ability to infiltrate and alter nearly every aspect of the human experience.  In a sense, though, the rise of the internet is, or is becoming, implicit in a far greater scope of radical change because while electricity allowed us to distribute physical power almost instantaneously, efficiently and easily, the internet does the same instead to information.  The online “world” actually consists purely of information, an immaterial substance created solely by the human race.  It is not a series of tubes; it is a collective repository of information, the vast majority of which is the well-deserved birthright of every living human.  Nothing distributed by the internet can directly harm or infringe upon the rights of other people; information is intangible.  Considering this, a viewpoint presents itself by which the information of the human race as a whole should be considered the fundamental birthright of every member of the collective, the race.

Of course, personal propriety of very recent creative information should be protected, within a reasonable temporal frame.  The current US model of pharmaceutical patents, where newly minted  information (i.e. chemical patents) is protected, legally isolated from the great current of the public domain, for less than a decade - this is more in the direction of appropriate intellectual property law than the decades-after-the-author-dies system that, by contrast, governs creative works today.  This approach retains a strong financial incentive to contributing new information, new creative entertainment, but at the same time, arises from a ground of public domain, shared collective interests, considerations of the true value of public property and the cost of its loss.

For most of the 20th century, the monied, capitalist interests of the large labels, studios, and distributers have controlled this information the way a mob controls the drug flow into a city.  Now, the internet alone is a radical game-changer in the flow of information.  Users, freed of much (but not all) of the large-corporate structures that have only recently begun to lose their oligarchic grip on “intellectual property” (i.e. information) It is natural, then, that the internet has been seen as threatening to intellectual property rights in this nation almost since its birth in the early nineties.  Ironically, this occurs even as, elsewhere in public life, the national and multi-national firms that comprise Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Financial, the super PACs, continue to tighten their norming, commodifying, alienating hold on the populations of the world.

The PIPA/SOPA debate is not the first, but is definitely the most frightening, of large-corporatism's cannonblasts against the freedom of the internet, a freedom which challenges its domination over global culture in a way that nothing has in a long time.  This is why the great forces of the large-corporate world, with the exception of a few internet giants like Google, stand behind the legislation.  The PIPA/SOPA question is but a single battle in the larger war over whether, eventually, the internet will succumb to large-corporate control or remain free and therefore inherently antagonistic to large-coroporatism.  One only need look at television and radio to see how far large-corporatism can go in controlling the flow of information through a given medium.  The only difference with the internet is that the technology does not lend itself to centralized control the way that television and radio do; therefore, the corporations have resulted to legal battles, and their attempts to dominate all information flow by any means necessary will not stop with this apparently failed legislation. 

In 2011 we look forward to a century where the individualistic value systems will have to be abandoned in favor of collectivist thinking, or we, as a people, risk losing much.  We only must consider that, on both population- and species- wide levels, many the human race’s necessary resources on this planet are unavoidably finite.  Information, notably, is not finite.  It easily travels at the speed of light, is extracted out of thin air - or out of anything, “mined” as easily from the physical world as the subjective mind.  With infrastructure (which is minimal - cables, servers) provided for, information can easily be sent anywhere it is needed, rapidly and in detail, where it may... save a life? avert a crime? prevent tyranny? Information has infinite uses.  What may not be immediately obvious about the implications of collectivist thinking, in terms of information, energy considerations, housing, health care, whatever, is that the first obstacle that collectivist thinking will encounter in its widespread application is the large-corporate systems that currently structure the developed world.  I’m talking about Big Finance, Big Oil, Big Media.  These interests depend on individualistic thinking and resultant economic consequences to justify their obscene profit at the expense of the downtrodden of the world.  The internet is the beginning of a coming culture revolution towards an information economy whose protection from corporatism in favor of collectivism must begin now with the democratic protection of the freedom of the internet.  It’s really as simple as the First Amendment was obvious when the Bill of Rights was passed; the neutrality of the internet infrastructure should be the law of the land.