Posts Tagged ‘ends and means’

Earlier today I was writing about The System, and the behaviors which have led us into all our current crises. I was thinking about the enormous challenges facing humanity, about the common ostrich-desire to avoid these problems as long as possible, to get what they can while they can.  Why do people who think of themselves as good allow so many bad things to happen in their name?  Why do many of us seem to have an inability to think of the long-term? Is there something uniquely wrong with us?

Yes, and no.

I am going to talk a little about what I think makes people do “bad” things. It feels a bit naive on my part, but maybe that’s part of the problem. It may sound (and probably  is) too ambitious, or a waste of time, whatever. But well,  these are just my own insights and observations.

As I have looked around the world, I have noticed a few constants. First, most people want to think of themselves as good. Second, most people value themselves more than others. I guess that’s natural, whatever ‘natural’ even means. Third, as much as people want to think of themselves as good, they also want to be liked, usually by as many people as possible. People like to be impressive. That’s also normal, I guess. But the second and third things can lead individuals to do absolutely rotten things, and they will excuse it under the fact that they think of themselves as good. They will push away anything which challenges the status quo or their self-perception.

I’m lucky in a way most people wouldn’t consider lucky. I grew up with, let’s say, ‘interesting’ parents. They certainly didn’t value money or power or popularity, and they had all sorts of funny ideas. As for me, I absolutely loathed bullies. I was shy. I was empathetic to the point of feeling paralyzed by embarrassment for another classmate, or sadness for others. I would see children at school do vicious things to fit in; sometimes to me, sometimes to others who lacked a killer instinct, or were awkward, a little too smart or not-quite-smart-enough. I had no desire to retaliate, but I desired to protect all the other misfits. I learned quickly that not conforming can be extremely painful. Most of the kids grew up and chilled out. But as I’ve gone through life, I can’t help but remember that so many kids were ready to humiliate, to spread malicious lies and rumors, to make others miserable. The rest just stood by and watched; better us than them. There were others who rejected the whole system didn’t have chance, rougher kids who had dirty mouths but far more decency.  As for me, I know there are reasons why people are cruel or selfish, and those people should be met with love, knowledge, and ultimately forgiveness.  Though, personally, I still do try to avoid being good friends with assholes.

Witnessing and enduring that sort of suffering made me think about the small horrors people are capable of. I don’t feel like a victim in the least, but I do feel a need to protect others. It also taught me the value of self-examination.

Most people do small, petty things at various moments in their lives, but they excuse themselves in the grand scheme of things because it’s much more comfortable to think of yourself as a good person. This is one of the basic facts of human existence. The big wrongs happen when this seemingly small trait is manifested on a much larger scale. There’s a video somewhere of  environmental protesters who showed up at an oil executive’s house in England. The protesters were doing their thing, and the very polite couple came out to talk to them. They were accessible and reasonable, explaining they were just two people in an enormous system. They weren’t criminals, but normal kind people who wanted to live in peace and be happy. They were very calm facing the anger of the protesters, and nearly seemed to want to offer them milk and cookies.

But that’s the huge problem, this is what I am talking about in regards to ends and means. Well-intentioned people work in the office all day, go home and play with their kids, give money to charities. Some are Republicans, some are Democrats. They also work for a system which puts profit before all else. John Calvin, who wrought some great evils himself, once said the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” He wasn’t wrong about this. I use the word worship in the sense that though many say they do not worship God, nearly everyone has their own personal idol. Some worship the good. Some worship humanity. Some worship intelligence, some worship cynicism. Some just worship having fun.

Most idols seem dangerous to me, because attachment to an idol excludes an ability to remove one’s passions and view what good and evil the idol is capable of in and of itself. It leads to an inability to empathize with those who go against one’s idol. Think of those who demonize science because of their religious fundamentalism. Or, to risk my head, those who attack religion as the greatest evil in the world because a good many religious people are ignorant assholes. The world is, for the most part, not made of saintly religious people or saintly scientists. Similarly, Republicans and Democrats demonize one another. Some idols may be better than others, but nonetheless our idols can make us do evil things because we have made something more important than people: an ideology (and yes, pleasure-loving is an ideology too, it’s just an extra stupid one). In the worship and identification with an idol, all that is Other loses at least some of its value . “I love democracy, it is the most important thing in the world, so whatever I do for democracy must ultimately be good.” Democracy is now a little bit more important than people, and it is a little bit easier to defend bad things because they have a seemingly good end.

The most common idol, to me, seems to be plain old self-interest-I-look-out-for-me-first-life-is-short-and-I-want-to-have-fun. Some of those people really could not care less about the results of their actions. They want money to buy luxury, they want to be entertained and served, and they don’t care about the consequences. Some of them just want to have a pleasant life and don’t mean to intentionally cause harm, and so refuse to acknowledge that their actions have consequences. But whatever their intentions, other people lose out, because other people are the means to their ends.

The banality of evil. The insidiousness of that sort of mindset.

We live in a world with so much suffering partially because of idol-worship. Also because of the way we define evil actions to ourselves. First, we save the word evil for really really bad things, like murder. But even here, we leave ourselves a little wiggle room. Not all murders are created equal. Then, we distance ourselves from things. Evil is an aberration, it is a monstrosity. It is something that is Not Us. Evil was the slaveholders, evil was the conquistadors, evil was cannibalism and human sacrifice, evil was the Holocaust, evil is utterly other from who we are.

Not true. Evil is the act of self-interest magnified. It is the act of creating and defining an “other”, and using and manipulating it for one’s personal gain, or destroying the other as an act of loyalty to the idol which gives the self meaning. Evil is banal. It’s not the horror movies we watch, or the sociopaths who turn into serial killers. Monsters aren’t real, and sociopaths suffer from mental illnesses. But there are people who think they are good, who have outsourced their evil, who rely on impersonal evil acts which cause great suffering to sustain their lifestyle, but refuse to accept responsibility. To refuse to know, to choose ignorance, is an act I would consider evil, bad, wrong, whatever you choose to call it; just don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. If you disagree, think about those who knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing. Also, please realize I seek not to condemn this sort of wrong because I have some wish to show that we’re all hopeless assholes, but to give it the proper name so we can stop pretending it doesn’t exist, and start trying to address it.

Sometimes evil happens in a flash, sometimes we can point with ease to those who wield the weapons.  We can all recoil in horror at mass murders (well, most of us can). Sometimes we can look at the horrors of history and they’re quite obvious. Other times they’re not, because the evil is so subtle and pervasive, is so much a part of our society that it’s hard to identify where the root lies. I think the difference between obvious, specific evil and the more common sort is the reason why World War II is of far more historical interest for most people than World War I. World War II is this clear-cut battle between good and evil for us. There was evil, here was good, it was a battle against an absolute monstrosity. We could condemn with ease. But life is rarely so simple, and these black-and-white classifications actually do harm in the long run.

How many times have I heard that the nazis were utter monsters, devoid of any semblance of decency, the scum of humanity. Absolutely: yes. But to end the discussion there is to avoid how it happened, and so it has happened again. Most nazis didn’t consider themselves to be monsters. They had wives and children they loved, books and music they cherished. Murderous thugs, true, but some of them really thought of themselves as being upstanding citizens. Then there were millions of people weren’t nazis at all, but they didn’t speak up against what was happening. In the end they grew accustomed to silence. Others died fighting them, or risked everything to protect a stranger’s life. There are people in this world, I like to believe, incapable of doing harm to others. The vast majority of us, though, have the capacity for good and bad. To deny many of us in that situation would have been complicit, or worse, perpetrators, is to live in ignorance of ourselves, and so to rationalize whatever we do. If we refuse to believe we can do truly bad things, then we’ll justify everything because we can’t shatter our self-perception. To refuse to examine ourselves is to make small atrocities okay, to not call them by their name.  Goodness is not a label we give ourselves or a thing we are born with or a religion which makes us infallible, but a choice we constantly make.

In World War I, millions and millions of people were killed… for nothing, we think. Pointless waste. But there were reasons; they just happened to be awful ones. The greed of the wealthy, the armaments build-up, the race for colonies in Africa, nationalism, imperialism, all idols in which people were not as important as the money, power, and lifestyle desired by some. These things all still exist in our world today, but we ignore or rename them. Perhaps there won’t be ever be another war like the Great War; it’s difficult to imagine we’d stand for it. But our economic crisis could become far more devastating, our oil will one day be gone, our environment may become unable to support billions of people. We persist in thinking that what happened in the past can’t happen again, instead of learning from the past to prevent a different, but equally devastating, sort of catastrophe. Murder scenes aren’t identical, but some of the details are. Death and destruction.

The evils of war are, or at least should be, easy to condemn. The things which create war endure. They are the evils of nearly every society, and unchecked they can cause immense suffering. Sometimes they lead to more wars, more land grabs. Other times they create a society in which a large portion of the population exists only to serve the wealthy. Where a democracy is built upon slave labor. Where the wealth of one continent is based upon the pillaging of another. Where some children are born into a life of ease, and other children are born in order to mine coal, to make sneakers, to work as sex slaves. Where genocides happen overseas, but we go on eating our dinner. Where our government does things we would condemn in theory, but which we implicitly bestow our consent upon.

Someone else is evil, but we never are. Slavery was evil. It is thought, though, that there are more slaves on the planet today than at any other point in history. We don’t see them. We also don’t count the other sort of slavery, the type that doesn’t bear the name but is a form of nearly inescapable servitude. We still don’t make our own clothes or grow our own food or build our own furniture or make the plastic junk which fills our lives. Someone else does, and they get paid shit for it. They can’t escape. But we do not want to know. Because we don’t see them, we deny responsibility. I would argue this is the most common sort of evil in the world, an evil more pervasive than the bureaucrat “just doing their job.” It’s the evil of not wanting to know the results of our actions, of choosing to deny evidence when presented to us, of being too lazy to change. An evil which would like things to be different, but accepts the way things are as long as it is left alone. An evil which accepts there is some suffering which is not a fact of life, which is preventable… but does not want to be inconvenienced.

The evil which rationalizes other evils in order to not be disturbed, to maintain the status quo, to have its lifestyle protected and enhanced: that is the basic human sin. The ancient sin of selfishness, of Me First. It starts with small things and can’t stop. It’s an absence of goodness, a nothingness, a corrosion. In its search for personal, perpetual ripeness, its soul is devoured.

That is the problem we face. We have met the enemy, and it is us. That boring old Golden Rule, requiring so much from us. How naive. Much better to just eat, drink, and be merry.

Despite the enormity of the problems we face, of the Herculean task of changing ourselves, we must not become pessimists, or lose our humanity by wasting time on blame and punishment. To live with hate or anger at other people would be to miss the point entirely. Rather, let’s rage at the way things are, and then get busy fixing what we are given time to fix, loving more so we need less. What was that old saying, kinda helpful? Oh, I remember:

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.

If we decided to live by that, with all its implications…


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Glenn Greenwald is a very good writer. He is responsible, thorough, and unswerving. I read him semi-regularly, but I always feel a little sad after finishing one of his essays/posts. This is because as persistent as he is in calling for justice, as often as he lays the facts out, it won’t happen, and the underlying cause of the situation will persist. On the one hand, writers like him have kept the debate about torture alive. By pressing the point he has kept vital matters from being swept under the rug. Thank God for people like him who take the time to deconstruct right-wing talking points, who endlessly research and pull facts together and present them to the public. We need many more Glenn Greenwalds.

But I do get sad, and one of his posts this week provides a very good example of why. Here is an excerpt:

The interrogation and detention regime implemented by the U.S. resulted in the deaths of over 100 detainees in U.S. custody — at least.  While some of those deaths were the result of “rogue” interrogators and agents, many were caused by the methods authorized at the highest levels of the Bush White House, including extreme stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation and others.  Aside from the fact that they cause immense pain, that’s one reason we’ve always considered those tactics to be ‘torture’ when used by others — because they inflict serious harm, and can even kill people.  Those arguing against investigations and prosecutions — that we Look to the Future, not the Past — are thus literally advocating that numerous people get away with murder.”

Of course they are advocating that people get away with murder. This is not surprising in the least. Take a long, hard look around. This is a society where it is perfectly acceptable that men who sit at desks and lunch at Charlie Palmer’s make hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It is also perfectly acceptable that people who work 2 to 3 jobs as janitors, housekeepers, construction workers can’t make enough to pay their bills. We are okay with punishing the Bernie Madoff’s of the world, but we do not examine the system which enables and encourages people like him. We reward people who do not make things except illusory wealth, and we punish people who are vital to our system’s functioning. We rationalize their poverty and say that if they would just pull themselves up by their bootstrap, maybe some wealth will trickle down to them. We can’t have government hand-outs or socialized medicine helping these people out, after all.

We are okay, perfectly okay, with bombing and targeting civilian populations. We have been perfectly happy to overthrow democratically elected governments and install mass murderers who use torture to keep the population quiet. We are okay with jailing drug users instead of providing treatment. We are okay with global warming because we need to drive our cars to the movies right now. People go to fundamentalist churches where they learn a fetus is more sacred than a woman, where the guilty need to receive divine justice in the form of lethal injection, where countries with terrorists deserve to be bombed, and it doesn’t matter that the lives of the innocent are made miserable if they are not outright destroyed.

We are okay with this because we put ourselves first, always.

The cults of corporate “greed is good” capitalism, the “technology will save us we don’t need to change anything” faith in material progress are okay with these things. We have been taught to put out of mind that which teaches us empathy and compassion. We have been taught to focus on what is new and not what is best, and we have learned if we must ask questions at all, we should always ask “how?” and never “why?” As much as we say we deplore the things that take place in our name, we eat the same, we drive the same cars, we buy lots of oil, we need our computers, we have to have nannies, we just can’t take care of grandma so put her in a home, etc. There are some very real solutions to the problems facing us, but we don’t want to hear them. We can’t imagine having less, traveling less, doing less. We can’t imagine forming more life-long relationships in our communities, because it’s not as cool as going everywhere and seeing and buying everything. Because of that, we need material products and technologies which make that possible. In turn, there needs to be an underclass of people forced to accommodate us (but we do not call them slaves. slavery ended and people are all free now … right?), and our government has to have access to the resources which create these products and enable our lifestyles.

I won’t pretend I’m immune. I am as much a part of this as everyone. But it’s important to try to lose our illusions so we can maybe improve this situation. I do not think it’s impossible to keep many of the good aspects of our society alive; but some stuff does have to go. Which it will, whether we like it or not: it simply isn’t sustainable. A society which pays so little to the people caring for people (to caregivers, daycare workers) and the people who clean up after us, who teach us… it will have to change. A society which is more interested in building prisons than schools shows us the kind of faith we have in children. The middle-class and rich send their kids off to private schools, and the children of the poor can have their crumbling facades and ancient textbooks. We’ve set up an apartheid system of schooling in our country which basically still determines a person’s fate based on where they’re born and who are their parents.

As long as we refuse to acknowledge the underclass which lives amidst us, as long as we bomb and kill children in foreign lands and refer to them as “collateral damage”, there will be torture. As long as women do not control their bodies and are slaves to zygotes, we will be okay with punishing the living. As long as we worship wealth over work and those who have over those who do, we will continue to rationalize greed. As long as we value justice more than mercy, as long as we seek not to understand but to condemn, as long as we put ourselves before others, there will be torture. It is the logical conclusion of a mentality in which other people are not as important as one’s lifestyle. It is the outcome of not identifying with other people, of a mentality which seeks to possess and not to be. It will happen as long as other people are not important in and of themselves, but as means to our own ends.

I am not surprised at all that those who tortured and those who condoned it are going to get away with it. I’m grateful Glenn Greenwald and people like him are outraged and are still speaking out, and I hope they never stop. If there is any sort of justice, it will be because they never quit pointing out what is wrong. The Glenn Greenwald’s of the world are in the right, absolutely. But the people they are talking to just aren’t going to listen, because not-too-deep-down, they are okay with the way things are. They are okay with torture being used in the ticking time bomb scenario. They are okay with thinking only in terms of this moment, and not in terms of the past or the future. They are okay with children being crippled and murdered in Afghanistan and Iraq, because it isn’t them or their children. It’s obviously okay to love your own friends and family most in the world, but it is wrong to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty, and it is wrong to justify it, and it is wrong to not call it what it is: murder. It is wrong to glorify those who kill, and it is even worse to justify and worship our leaders for making these decisions. But worst of all is this: perpetuating the disconnect between those who commit great crimes and those who created their possibility.

The most horrible crimes in our modern world have happened because it takes only one person to push a button or pull a trigger, and so all the other people involved are able to deny their own culpability. This is wrong. Those who torture and kill directly are responsible for their actions. More so are their commanders, more so the people who make the decisions to employ these strategies. Most of all, us. Those of us who elected the men and women who do these things are responsible. Yes, most of us say we do not want it. But we do not vote them out of office. We make some of them villains (and of course they usually are) so we don’t have to acknowledge our role in why they do what they do. We turn others into heroes; we think they will fix everything so we don’t have to, and we refuse to acknowledge the wrongs they do too. We keep voting for the same two parties, we keep purchasing products from the same corporations, we are tired and overworked and overwhelmed and we just want to relax for a little while. We didn’t make this situation, we too were born into it. There are injustices we hate, but we didn’t want them. We can’t all change the world.

But I can change myself. I can do whatever possible to never make other people the means to my end.

Maybe there will be reform, maybe there will be some justice, as there should be. Maybe we can avoid another Iraq for a while, maybe we can have some small efforts at global warming. Maybe we can stay off the devil for a bit longer. But it will happen again. It always will, until the day we stop asking anyone to serve us, until we decide to try to change ourselves first.

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One of the issues I intend to address in depth here are the ways women’s work is trivialized and forgotten. How many times have I read a book on art history or philosophy where the author excuses the lack of featured women by explaining that up until the 20th century females did not have many opportunities to contribute to that particular field? This is utter bullshit. I am constantly discovering female artists from the Renaissance and female philosophers from ancient Rome and so on and so forth. What is more frustrating is how past discrimination is used to justify present-day neglect, and so all sorts of brilliant women from history simply disappear from our collective memory. I reach the pinnacle of angst when I see how this has never stopped and is still happening with living women. Women’s rights are often discussed in terms of cultural relativism, and people have to fight tooth and nail to point out that women who do not want to undergo genital mutilation need to be protected, or that girls have the right to be educated, and women should be able to live without fear of rape or domestic violence. In our own culture women barely have the right to dictate what happens to their own bodies, and appealing to women is something our popular culture seems less and less interested in. A woman has never won an Oscar for Best Director. Women compromise only 17% of the US Congress. But as some folks like to say, feminism was necessary once but not anymore and now can be safely laid to rest, right?

That’s why I want to talk about women who matter, women like Simone Weil. Simone Weil was a brilliant philosopher, writer, mathematician and activist. She lived an intense life of passionate devotion to her ideals before dying at the age of 34 during WWII. After graduating at the top of her class (a class which included Simone de Beauvoir) she taught, wrote constantly, worked at a factory so as to understand those conditions, and joined the French Resistance. She was a contemporary of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, men who made equally worthy contributions but who are far better known.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

Some of Simone Weil’s excellent works include Gravity and Grace, The Need for Roots, Waiting for God, and Intimations of Christianity Among the Greeks. Wikipedia has a pretty impressive page discussing her philosophy, but I highly recommend Intimations or Waiting for God in order to really get an idea of what she was all about.

Simone Weil’s thought deserves much more than a brief summary, a summary which I am not really qualified to make. Some of her ideas are fascinating and I hope I get to talk about them at some point later on. Her own words are the best introduction, and as I have a great interest in ends&means I think this excerpt is fitting.

“…the law of all activities governing social life, except in the case of primitive communities, is that here one sacrifices human life — in himself and in others — to things which are only means to a better way of living. This sacrifice takes on various forms, but it all comes back to the question of power. Power, by definition, is only a means; or to put it better, to possess a power is simply to possess means of action which exceed the very limited force that a single individual has at his disposal. But power-seeking, owing to its essential incapacity to seize hold of its object, rules out all consideration of an end, and finally comes, through an inevitable reversal, to take the place of all ends. It is this reversal of the relationship between means and end, it is this fundamental folly that accounts for all that is senseless and bloody right through history. Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men – oppressed and oppressors alike – the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels.” – Oppression and Liberty.

Pretty interesting, right?

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