With the discovery of “Gliese 581″, the goldilocks planet (of which I wrote in my previous blog), we obtain a wonderful teaching tool for political theory. Sounds boring, but it’s every bit as exciting as the discovery of the America’s in the 1490′s, or the story of Robinson Crusoe. The question is, “how should humans behave with one another if they ever got to that place?”. Here is a brand new bit of real estate: no one owns it, no one can claim it’s theirs… so what happens? Because by tackling that question we get an opportunity to review some of the perversities which have developed here on Earth. And of course understanding our political environment on Earth is vastly more relevant and important than contemplating “Gliese 581″, but it does offer itself up nicely as something of a Petrie dish for political discussion and introspection.
For instance, should people, (if they got there), automatically have “political parties”? Should there be just Conservatives or Liberals? Or Republicans or Democrats? Why? What suggests that current political parties matter? If you can contemplate a new politically virgin territory, having no particular reason for these organizations and having survived just fine without them, can we not similarly question their purpose and necessity here at home? Yet very few bother, and that’s rather my point. Most people accept the status qûo because it’s not causing them obvious harm. [As an aside, in today's Globe & Mail, October 11/10, front page, there is reported that the Republicans are backing a Democrat in Nevada, on the theory that the Democrat is less "dangerous" to their interests than the threat of the "Tea Party" candidate. I really wish people would see that Conservatives are to Liberals in Canada, as Republicans are to Democrats in the United States, as Pepsi is to Coke in beverages...a closed loop of "serious" options maintaining control by sharing power in the guise of opposition, yet united in crushing new challengers.]
Let’s start with a definition of “politics”. “Politics”, I say, is the study of how people interact with one another. It is not necessarily about Government – that is only one popular interpretation. You have a political relationship with your parents, your neighbours, your siblings, your friends, your children, your spouse, your co-workers: (“family politics”, “office politics” are terms you recognize and use). It may involve love, tolerance, lust, hate, indifference, etc. etc. It may change from time to time, from person to person. The ultimate question of “political theory” is therefore, “how should people interact with each other?”. It is a vastly broader question than whether you vote NDP or not. Not just ‘should we have Medicare’, but ‘should there be slaves’, as has been the case throughout the majority of years of history? Should women be considered the equals of men, as has only recently been contemplated? Should Jews or Gypsies be singled out for destruction? Should there be such a thing as “property”, or is everything available to everyone as each claims? Different people through history have had different answers to these questions – what we do today would not be recognized as sensible in other times and places, just as their conduct might startle us. The point here is that people have and will continue to define their politics any way they choose.
Governments control the legal right to use force. In the guise of law, the State can make people do things against their Will on pain of legal punishment. In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh was able to command the construction of his pyramids. In the world of the Aztecs, people could be sacrificed to the Sun God. In medieval England, serfs could be forced to serve the King for several months each year for construction, or combat. In Hitler’s Germany, people could be forced to death in camps. In the early United States, black people were forced to be slaves. In Victorian England, women were the property of their fathers, and then their husbands. On some Pacific Islands virgins were tossed into volcanoes for the “good of the tribe”. In Communist China today, and North Korea, every human belongs to the State -there is no legal concept of the individual having rights. And yet all of these examples were “legal” political structures, generally accepted by Joe Six-pack as “right and proper” and safely status qûo. Yet obviously different people can enjoy a different view of what is politically “right”.
When the Americas were first discovered (although Spain, France, Portugal and England all pounced on the beaches to plant their flags), there were of course already Native inhabitants, and these were about to be dispossessed of their birth rights by “right of conquest”. At that point in history, there was no political view of property rights aside from the right of Kings to appropriate to themselves whatever they could seize and hold by might of arms, whether from subjects or foreigners. A person’s Rights, as a shield against the King’s depredations, was only beginning to be formulated in law. No “political theory” existed to firmly argue for the Natives’ “rights” in the courts of Europe because no such rights existed, and in any case the stakes were quite high; just like kids scrambling over their inheritances when their parent dies, politics change when money is on the line. Theories of Justice tend to be forgotten in direct proportion to the gain to be made by disregarding them: that is why looters smash windows to steal TV sets during riots or natural disasters, as if somehow that’s not a theft. But these are things which do not tend to make us proud of ourselves as a species. We are capable of better conduct. We don’t have to pillage others, just because we can “get away with it” (even though that is exactly what the “Welfare State” has taught a generation).
So we arrive at “Gliese 581″; if we both step on its soil side by side, does that mean I can make you my slave? or that you can make me your slave? can I take your wealth, your property from you because I need it, because I am more poor than you, or because I simply want it (like a Viking, or some Third World dictator)? or can you take my wealth from me against my Will? Is it really simply a question of which of us is stronger and can get away with such cruelty? Several hundred years ago Jean Jacques Rousseau answered these questions by contributing to the evolving political theory of Individualism and Liberty: that if we are going to work and survive with one another nearby, we need to freely agree with each other not to enslave or steal from each other. This was the “Social Contract”, to respect the other guy and his stuff, as an enforceable legal contract. I am not religious, but Jesus said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. Many a King, and a thief, has disregarded this political theory when it was handy to do so.
There is a so-called “political spectrum” with a so-called “Right” wing and a so-called “Left” wing; yet if you think about it, it makes no sense. On the Right wing you get Hitler, Idi Amin and Pinochet, with their Right wing “death squads”. On the Left you get Mao, Che and Stalin, with their Left wing “death squads”. This spectrum is a ruse, designed and propagated by the Conservative/Liberal/Republican/Democrats of the Middle. It makes being in the Middle the only sensible place to be, since the extremes are obviously too dangerous for average folk. But what kind of spectrum has the same absolute at each end? What is it measuring, where the range is one Totalitarian regime versus another? Would a thermometer be useful if it measured all temperatures between 100 degrees (at one end) and 100 degrees (at the other)? Would your bathroom scales be any use if they measured all the possible weights between 50 pounds and 50 pounds? Would the speedometer on your car be any use if it measured all speeds between 75 miles per hour and 75 miles per hour?
The only sensible political spectrum is one which measures something which can vary, (like temperature, weight or speed): the degree of a person’s legal Liberty. At one end people are slaves, at the other they are Free. At the slavery end, you find all the Totalitarian regimes, (Hitler, Pinochet, Mao and Stalin), since they all “legally” denied rights to the Individual. At the other end, you get Capitalism, the political theory of Liberty, where people have a “legal” right not to be plundered or sacrificed to the State. Then, in between, you can have your Welfare State, Kings and Queens, Pharaohs, Aztecs, and your Conservative/Liberal/Republican/Democrat brew, each and all with their varying degrees of control over people, showing up more towards one end of the spectrum, or more towards the other as their characteristics dictate. Whether you like Capitalism or not is not the point. At least you would now have a measure of something that matters, to meaningfully distinguish the choices one from the other.
So “how should humans behave with one another?” The only Just system is the Capitalist system, I say, since it grants everyone the same political right: to be a legally free Individual. Autonomous, within a law granting everyone that same right to autonomy; a contracting party, granting to others the same terms as claimed. Why would anyone want to inhabit “Gliese 581″ under any other conditions? And if that is the case, why would we want to dwell on Earth under any other conditions?
Some people reading this may be antagonistic to the principles of Individual Liberty, and believe “control” is necessary, and “private property” is evil. On that topic, as a Capitalist, I wish my congratulations on Mr. Liu Xiaobo for winning the Nobel Peace prize, and congratulations especially to the Norwegian judges who were willing to stand up to the admittedly powerful Chinese Communist Regime for pure reasons of ethics and Liberty. The Chinese are a mighty, intellectual, inventive and marvellous race, and have been so for thousands of years before that criminal Mao and his gang of thugs came along; and Mr. Liu, a veteran of Tiananmen Square (“whose conscience made him no coward before the oppressor’s wrong”) is an example of that courageous and indomitable spirit; and as soon as the Chinese can shake off their totalitarian mafia and enjoy every human’s birthright of Liberty, the better, safer and more Just the whole world will be.
October 7, 2010
Scientists have discovered evidence of the existence of a very special planet about 20 Light Years away from my house. This is a very special planet, because it seems to qualify as a “Goldilocks” planet. A “Goldilocks” planet is one where everything is not too hot, not too cold, but juuuuust right. It is called “Gliese 581″. All the way over here on Earth human scientists have the skills, tools, and intellect to discern that “Gliese 581″ has the right mass, the right distance to its star, the right tilt of its axis, the right speed of rotation, the right age, all to suggest that it ought to have produced water and ought to have produced an atmosphere. And therefore it ought to have produced life. Like Earth, that’s very special, as there are an awful lot of planets for which the necessary criteria do not line up, and for which there can be no reasonable expectation that life evolved.
I like to think that these scientists are pretty smart. They doubtless did well in math class. They can defend their findings by demonstrating facts that other people can check for themselves and verify -that’s what science (unlike religion) does. Their facts, like all facts previously discovered, can be built upon and improved, or corrected. The elementary observations of Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder were refined by the calculations of Descartes and Newton, and theirs by Einstein and Banting. And so on into our future. Intelligence is a progressive art, and moves us all forward. Our cavemen ancestors didn’t have cars, internal plumbing or medicine, but now we do. Mankind has “evolved” scientifically and, in consequence, materially. No science is static: no definition of science suggests that no further knowledge can be acquired, or that All is known on a topic. Every scientific discovery concludes with the question “what’s next?” No science is ever “proven”; it is simply the observation that no better model of interpretation has yet been discovered. No – remaining static, locked in the past, that is the purview and the glory of corporate “Religion”. Belief, by definition, is not swayed by the evolving understanding of facts. For Religion, the legends apparently handed down from centuries, millenia ago, are unarguably True, untouchable, by definition sacrosanct. For instance, there are some who actually maintain that the Universe is only 4000 years old, because that’s what Bishop Usher told them, and notwithstanding that better science is readily obtainable. And there are sadly shallow minds willing to kill for their centuries out-of-date “beliefs” – (it is always “belief”, not “knowledge” for them). One might observe that there are not many suicide scientists around.
Several thousand years ago, (in the desert, the crucible of so-called Holy texts), there were smart people too, at least relative to the general skill sets available at the time. Except for a few brilliant minds who methodically plotted the course of the stars, explored health, invented numbers, agriculture and the wheel (and were therefore credited with moving our species forward), generally the best the “earliest scientists” could come up with from their observations (and all knowledge has been based on observations of facts) is that lightning, death, famine, lust, fame, strength, health and so on are caused, and mankind influenced, by “Gods”. Or God. Early stumbling with “cause and effect”, before thinkers like Aristotle laid it out for us. But it was an early attempt to structure a “model” of what was going on – it seems to be a feature of mankind to try to explain things as best we can with the facts we have. But no thinking person would conclude that the best knowledge some fellow 3000 years ago could come up with, could not be improved upon. That defies the concept of progress completely; by the same logic, we should all be speaking the same desert language and wear the same flea-infested clothes. And yet, we have people among us locked in this past; these are “zealots”.
Ironically for those locked in the past, even that story of God(s) which they clutch on to has itself evolved over the millenia for historic, military and political reasons. That’s why Easter, Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving and Christmas are really just older pagan rituals, and why blood is so important in ritual, and so on: religious beliefs today are the product of political evolution of religious ritual. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, “religion is control of the masses by other means”. (It’s one of the few observations of Karl Marx with which I agree). Aztec religion for instance, is not much followed anymore because the Holy Roman Church annihilated it – as it did hundreds of other competitor religions over the centuries. McDonald’s was never as ruthless to attain a monopoly in its hamburger business as those stake-burners were in theirs. “God” has always been what those in power wanted it to be. For example, for political reasons, “God” is the foundation of the Canadian State as expressed in its stupid Charter of Rights: there exists a multi-century belief that people won’t behave their Kings unless they are in fear of God (who the King talks to, of course), and an after-life of pain for disobedience (Christian); or, with a slight twist to get people to wage war for the King/Church, a belief in an after-life of bliss (Muslim, Crusaders). God-fearing folk have pretty generally been pawns in the real game going on.
Which brings me back to that cool planet out there, “Gliese 581″. Its existence brings to mind certain similarities with the discovery of the Americas in the 1400’s. If there is life there, when we meet up will our religious folk try to “convert” them? Will the Church or the Mosque [whichever will have won by then our pending religious “Wars of Love”] conclude they are Sinners? Will the Church burn the difficult ones? Will the muslims declare a Jihad against these baffled “unbelievers”? Maybe they already have Gods and we can have a jolly good war over which of us is right! Will we try to wipe them out with smallpox-infected blankets as we did North American Indians? If they do not look like us, will we enslave them, because not being made “in God’s Image” (ie like us humans who wrote the Book which defined God as looking like us) they cannot be entitled to “rights”? Or is it just possible that the Life there just might be Good, all by themselves, and don’t need our so-called “salvation”? With any luck, maybe by then we will have evolved religion completely out of the political equation, and won’t have to try to explain to these innocents the concept of “original sin”, the Church’s morally reprehensible concept of mortal guilt acquired simply by virtue of existing.
As a Capitalist, I don’t accept the sales pitch that birth is a crime, nor that I have to purchase redemption “for my sins” from other people (the corporate Church).
And so I don’t be misjudged by the zealots, I freely give credit for, and honour, the millions of good people doing good and decent things through the society of their religious gatherings – it’s doing this in the name of God which bothers me. To offer charity to the needy, to comfort the dying, to try to educate the young, to get medicine to the ill, to attempt to bring peace to the mid-East; these are all good, laudable and decent things people do. But it’s because people are good and decent, generally. Nature made them that way. My point is, you don’t need to drape it in the robes of some Deity to make it worthwhile – and those in the corporate Church are moral thieves misappropriating credit for these peoples’ kind works to “the greater glory of God”. The news flash here is that people are “Good without God”. That’s a fundamental principle of Capitalism : you don’t need to invent a God in order to be good. “Goodness” is an internal, not an external, ethic.
Either the religious minds of society must evolve, and recognize that they evolve, (and in due course come to realize that “God is to Reality” as an “appendix is to the body” – generally useless, occasionally deadly) or frankly it is better we leave any alien beings alone – we should apply the wisdom of Star Trek’s “Primary Directive”, and not interfere with their evolution. They are safer and happier without our missionaries.
Applying this back to today, today’s suicide-bombers acting on religious faith must recognize, and their families and peers should teach them, that they are the laughing-stock of Man as a progressive being. They are killing themselves (and others) as a testimony to their own “Dark Ages” backwardness. They are like King Lear hopelessly ranting at the storm, or King Cnut unsuccessfully invoking “God’s power” to stop the tide. A pathetic attempt to maintain a belief that most of the rest of us have long ago figured out is false and anachronistic. You “radicalized youth” willing to blow yourselves up – yes, you- note that your “teachers” aren’t blowing themselves up. You are political pawns, like all simple folk through history – your sacrifice has nothing to do with religion, except in your own minds: you have been brain-washed by religious crud to carry out the political goals of others. You are as daft as Luddites (look it up). If you really want to do battle, do it with honour; put aside your Koran and study the Viking God Thor; now there was a Warrior God, and He had the guts to face his warrior enemies, not blow up kindergartens or markets like you pansies.
You can tell that I, as a Capitalist, am NOT the same thing as a Conservative (one of my pet-peeves is to be lumped in with those shallow sods): Stephen Harper’s response to a Koran-burner was that “his (Harper’s) God is a loving God” who presumably wouldn’t burn books. Well, Mr. Prime Minister, take a closer look at your Church and its history of bonfires. You are welcome to your comforting (albeit delusional) beliefs, but I am not thrilled to have the country’s political head drafting policy motivated by religious doctrine; it’s certainly startling when Presidents Bush and Obama engage in prayer for wisdom; it was also startling when Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke to his dead mother through seances for wisdom. There really isn’t much difference. (And the “Tea Party” evolving in the United States, I predict, will eventually implode as those advocating Liberty run up against the Christian Right comprising so much of its ranks. They think they have common-cause for the time being, but they are not interpreting their Founding Fathers consistently and must eventually fall out over religious fundamentalism.) What people want to believe is their own business, but Capitalism, as a political creed, has no interest in religion. All religious beliefs are allowed – but none matter politically. In the long run Nature will not suffer wrongness; but in the short term Canada needs to stand guard against the political insinuation of religious fundamentalism – Christianity’s version of the Taliban.
Everything is subject to the laws of nature – including religion. Without raising here the topics of raped boys and criminal cover-ups, native schools, lady priests, contraception (any of which would be tough to justify to an outsider)….wouldn’t it be something to witness the end of corporate Catholicism with this Pope, just like we saw the Soviet Empire crumble in 1989? And you know what? People would be just as Good without it. Like the Aliens on “Gliese 581″.
Post-script: [Regarding the extraction of the Chilean miners from deep underground and the scramble by the different flavours of Religion to take credit, see this headline, Globe & Mail, Oct 12/10 p A20: "Churches strive to stake mine miracle: Amid rise in religious fervour, Christian denominations claiming credit for divine intervention". Too funny. On a more intelligent level, note that there will be a debate between Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair in Toronto on November 26 on the topic of whether "religion is a force of good in the world".]