I am a heterosexual, cisgender, white male. A character in my novel “Incarnate: Existence” is a Japanese transgender woman. For some people this is probably already ‘problematic’ – I, of course, do not and cannot know the experiences of a non-white and transgender person. That could certainly be an article all in itself, whether someone like me should be “allowed” to write this kind of character, and I’ve tangentially written about this idea before. But that’s not what this article is about. I’m interested if, in general, a character in a creative work (book, movie, TV show, etc.) who is LGBTQ+ should always and necessarily be written to make a political or cultural statement, or can the character exist as they are without attempting to make a statement?
In this day and age, with social media and politically biased news media, it seems that truth isn’t truth. Thus it has become popular to talk about ‘my truth‘ when people talk about their opinion. It’s interesting that people can believe wildly different versions of things that happen. From Russiagate to Uranium One, it all seems to depend what ‘our truth’ is for any particular group.
The alternative, unfortunately, is to have some version of a single, orthodox ‘right Truth’ that we all must agree on, possibly enforced by a Ministry of Truth or a Truth Force.
I’m okay with a US Space Force. But what we need most is a Truth Force — one that defends against all enemies of accurate information, both foreign & domestic.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 20, 2018
The problem with this is obvious: who gets to say what the Right Truth is? What are their motivations for saying that A is the Right Truth but B is not the Right Truth? Is it ever possible for one source to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
It has been a little under a week since Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. I didn’t actually watch the address, but I’ve watched and read commentary on it. Most of the stories I’ve seen first mention that Trump was uncharacteristically reserved and on script. He checked off the usual SOTU boxes – the state of the union is strong; we have to do more to unify and stop trying to divide our nation; congress has to be willing to reach across the aisle; the military is great but we can make it greater; immigration; infrastructure; etc. That’s all well and good – although those of us paying attention know that this is mostly feel-good gobbledygook that doesn’t actually translate into any real policy or changes in attitude. Interestingly, a look at George Washington’s first SOTU (1790), it appears they were concerned about very similar issues – the military, immigration, jobs, education.
However, I’m more interested in the tradition of the State of the Union in general than any particular president.
What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.
Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?
Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).
So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.
Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.
Let’s say that someone you knew bought a 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500KR back when they first rolled off the assembly line. They loved this car and took very good care of it. Whenever a part began to go bad, it was immediately replaced before anything could damage the car. They kept this car for the past 50 years. Over that time, 90% of the parts in that car were replaced with new parts. They now want to sell the car to you, and they say that it is an original 1968 – are they telling you the truth? Or is it now a completely different car than the one they bought 50 years ago?
This, of course, is a modern re-telling of the Ship of Theseus. The reason I ask is because this applies to more than just objects, but also ideas. Ideas mutate and evolve over time. Some aspects become obsolete, emphases are changed, new thinking is added, and sometimes ideas are rejected completely. Like switching out the different parts in our muscle car, these changes are due to the emergence of new information and technology, along with the growing and shifting social, political, and philosophical milieu.
And when I say “fighting for” something, I don’t necessarily mean physically fighting for it, but also advocating and arguing in favor of, and being willing to align oneself and take a position for, a particular set of beliefs, ideals, and principles.
Christianity, for example, as it is understood nowadays, is very different from its original conception – so, is it still the same thing that the early followers had in mind when they were persecuted for their beliefs? Is Christianity still the same thing that the Medieval people had in mind when they persecuted others in its name?
What about the United States of America? Certainly the country is very different from the one the founders understood – now slavery is abolished, women have equal rights, our government involves itself in the affairs of every other country. So, when someone says they are fighting for America, what does that really mean?
And, more interestingly, will people in the future think what you believe is worth fighting for now had been worth fighting for at all?
What comes immediately to mind is the Confederacy during the American Civil War. They believed they were fighting for something noble and just, and now most people think their cause anywhere between misguided all the way to despicable. But what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War – would their cause be seen as righteous and just, the way the Union is often portrayed? Which raises the question – will the way the future judges us be based solely on which ideas win out over the others, or will the future be able to judge what we fight for objectively and see an idea, even if it “loses” the fight, as better than one that may have “won” the fight?
It also brings to mind the people fighting during the 30 Years War – many atrocities were committed, thousands killed through warfare, disease, and starvation, ruinous destruction wrought on the people of Europe, and yet nowadays most people don’t even know that this war happened, much less what it was even about. But the people fighting it (or, at least, funding it) thought it worth the catastrophic consequences. Which raises the question – are your ideas worth fighting for is they will simply fall by the wayside in history, forgotten by posterity? What if they only remember what you did for your cause, but not why you did it? How will you be judged?
What about humanities greatest experiment with implementing an idea – Communism in places like China and the Soviet Union? Untold millions suffered and died for this grand experiment, the world being brought to the precipice of thermonuclear annihilation, only to have it all fail. Now that we are in their future, with the Soviet Union in our past, would we deem Stalinist or Maoist Communism to have been worth fighting for? At the time, many people certainly believed in those ideals enough to kill and die for them. Now, it seems, all of that suffering was for nothing.
So how does one know what to fight for now, given that it may be forgotten by posterity, or deemed misguided or even evil? Is it worth killing for a cause that will be judged so harshly by our descendants? Worth dying for? What if the ideas you believe will make the world a better place get put to the test, and it turns out that they make things worse for everyone? And if these questions are paralyzing, what if not fighting for anything is even worse than fighting for the wrong thing?
Is there something worth fighting for?
[Featured image is from Kharkov in the Soviet Union, 1933, during the Holodomor, where estimates of 2 million to 10 million people starved to death due to Communist collectivization policy.]
Is it better to believe in pleasant falsehoods or unpleasant truths?
Having a sense of purpose in ones life leads to better cognition, resilience to trauma, positive self-image and lawful behavior, as well as longevity. This has been utilized by programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – the insistence on accepting a higher power and devotion to helping other struggling alcoholics and addicts is said to be the key to the success of these programs. What this doesn’t say is whether someone’s chosen purpose has to be true (or even morally good, but that may be a topic for another article). In other words, even if the purpose for which one has devoted their life is false, it could still have positive benefits for the individual.
Religious people have bemoaned the decreased emphasis on religion because it leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It’s also possible that this loss of higher purpose has led to sociopolitical woes – in the absence of higher meaning, people seek purpose in other, less healthy outlets, such as drugs and sex. But it could also explain the rise of identity politics – without a sense of higher purpose, people find meaning in their various intersecting identities. Being female, or male, or gay, or straight, or transgender, or black, or white, or working class, or disabled, or liberal, or conservative…these things begin to provide the meaning that people no longer get from religion. Unfortunately, as is playing out, these sources of purpose are divisive and provide no overarching, unifying narrative to give meaning and purpose to everyone as a whole. Instead, our chosen purposes put everyone at odds.
But what if something like religion is no longer able to give meaning? What if belief in a higher power that gives us an overarching, unified meaning is now obsolete or impossible? This may be the legacy of globalization, multiculturalism, and scientific progress – a strange concoction of moral relativism and materialistic reductionism. So we find out that God doesn’t exist (or, at least, has yet to intervene and set us straight on the issue at hand) and we are condemned to freedom. As such, people have come to different conclusions on how to live The Good Life here on earth – each of them the flawed brainchild of human beings in all our biased thinking, all of them equally valid without an ultimate authority, mutually incongruous, and yet unable to avoid one another in a world shrunk by globalization and constant connection, leading to polarization, division, and conflict.
So what’s the answer? Do we continue believing the truth – that there is no ‘right’ answer to the question “what is my/our purpose in life?” and that we are permitted to do anything, no matter how bad it is for ourselves and those around us? Or do we take the Leap of Faith that Soren Kierkegaard suggested – that, given what we know in our modern times, we tell ourselves Sweet Little Lies – that will make our lives better? The former has obvious real world consequences, as discussed above, but the latter requires us to commit what Albert Camus called philosophical suicide by attempting to make transcendental meaning out of meaninglessness (to his credit, I imagine Camus would also condemn something like identity politics as a source of purpose as philosophical suicide, too).
This discussion may seem somewhat academic, but I contend that it has very important ramifications. How will we reconcile the truth that meaning is merely what we make it with the need for a higher purpose? I hope I am being melodramatic when I say that our civilization may depend on this reconciliation, but more and more I feel like this isn’t too much of an exaggeration.
Anyone who pays attention to the news in the United States will at least be vaguely aware of the sociopolitical rift that has opened recently (1) (2) (3) (4). Whether this rift had been hidden for some time and has only just recently been brought to the surface, or if this is a new phenomenon in American culture, no one can say for sure.
When it comes to these issues, subjective truth is often more salient than objective truth. It doesn’t matter whether immigration – both legal or illegal – is up or down, whether this has consequences for job markets, crime rates, and terrorism, or whether there is a concerted, racially motivated effort to crack down on immigration. It doesn’t matter if high profile police shootings of black people is part of an epidemic indicative of long-standing institutional racism in America or just a false narrative perpetuated by those who hate police and law-and-order or simply want special privileges for particular groups of people. It doesn’t matter if all transgender people are beautiful and inspiring heroes who are deserving of our utmost admiration, a mixed bag of people just trying to live their lives in a way that best suits them, mentally ill victims in need of psychiatric attention to alleviate their suffering without mutilating their bodies, or menacing perverts who will sink to any level depravity to pursue their fetishistic desires. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the right is a money-grubbing, capitalistic, environment hating white supremacist or not, or if everyone on the left is a cis-hetero-white-male hating neo-Marxist identitarian slouching toward Sharia Law or not.
What matters, as far as social interactions, voting trends, and policy decisions are concerned, is that people believe these things are true, one way or the other.
But why do people believe the things they do? And why is there a divide? And what was it that brings people together in the first place? Lets go through these questions one at a time.
- Why Do People Believe the Things They Do?
It turns out that there is a large biological component to why people have the sociopolitical views that they do. For example, a twin study, conducted in five democracies (Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and the US) using a sample size of 12,000 people over the years 1980-2011, found that genetics played a significant role in peoples political self-identification. These results have been confirmed in other studies (1) (2) (3).
This can be troubling, since people use what is called motivated reasoning when it comes to accepting different conclusions. This means that we start from preferred conclusions and then look for evidence to support those conclusions, as opposed to formulating conclusions based on the known evidence. In other words, humans are lawyers, not scientists. And once we reach a conclusion, our confirmation bias allows us to continuously find evidence to support those conclusions we’ve already accepted. The backfire effect makes it difficult for anyone to convince us otherwise, regardless of the facts. And our bias blind spot leads us to believe that we alone are immune to all of this.
Thus, having a genetic predisposition for certain sociopolitical beliefs, a propensity for motivated reasoning clad in the armor of confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and bias blind spot, can make it difficult to achieve reconciliation when divisive issues are given primacy in the national conversation.
- Why Has the Sociopolitical Division Become so Large?
Studies show mixed results about how much the media effects political polarization (1) (2) (3), where there is a positive correlation for people who have a high interest in politics and in consuming traditional media, but it doesn’t fully explain the recent extreme polarization, especially since news media has been around for a very long time. One hypothesis is that social media, which is a new phenomenon compared to traditional media, is the driving force – whether through the creation of ideological echo chambers or the spread of fake news. However, the evidence doesn’t bare this out. The most extreme polarization comes from people who use social media the least (1).
So, what are some other possible explanations for the recent sociopolitical division?
In addition to more access to our own preferred narratives, the rhetoric has become more polarizing and divisive. When people who are political/ideological opponents are not just viewed as those who have the welfare of their fellow countrymen in mind, using a different approach of achieving that end, but instead are characterized as people acting in bad faith, or with malicious, self-serving, or spiteful intentions, it creates a whole new dynamic. In the former case, political and ideological opponents are people who can be engaged in dialogue, where ideas can be discussed and with whom compromises can be arrived. In the latter, political and ideological opponents are beyond the pale. They are not worth engaging in dialogue, since they will only do so in bad faith, and all that will result is giving legitimacy to ideas not worth considering, and in fact may be reprehensible. Thus, it is not necessarily that our information is being catered to our preconceived notions, but the atmosphere in which the information is being discussed. Instead of constructing a reasoned argument why a political or ideological opponent is incorrect or misinformed, all one needs to do is denounce them categorically. Virtue signaling trumps reasoned argument.
What we can say about the recent sociopolitical polarization, which may be a result of the divisive rhetoric, is that it seems not to come from increased extremism in one’s own belief in their own ideology, but an increased mistrust of those considered to be part of the opposition. Interestingly, mistrust of ones perceived ideological opponents is also correlated with a recent decline in trust for the government. What is also interesting is that distrust in the government leads to more calls for increased government regulation. It’s possible that the recent sociopolitical polarization could have something to do with each side perceiving the other as attempting to use the government as a weapon to impose their own ideology on others. As each side becomes more distrustful of the other, they more fervently attempt to stymie each others legislation, vote for people who will more vehemently oppose the other side, and enthusiastically support politicians who will use stronger verbiage to attack opponents. This leads to more distrust in the government, which results in calls for increased regulation as an attempt to reign in the other side.
But a primary driver of sociopolitical division is identity politics along with relative deprivation. The first aspect, identity politics, has been widely discussed lately. This is the phenomenon of viewing social and political interactions, decisions, and conceptual frameworks through the lens of one’s self identity. This alone isn’t enough to cause sociopolitical rifts. But along with relative deprivation – the fact or perception that one’s particular identity group(s) are being treated unfairly or having access to resources or political influence restricted by those outside the identity group – identity politics can result in division and conflict. This phenomenon has occurred on both the left and the right – the left focusing on the present and historical relative deprivation of minorities, the right focusing on the resulting relative deprivation of cisgendered, heterosexual, white males from this recent shift in ideological emphasis on the left. Where this initial ideological reorganization on the left originates is up for debate, but many issues may be contributing factors – changes in parental styles as a result of current scholarship, the relative lack of external threats to personal safety and well-being that results from living in a civilized soiety, the inevitable decline of national identity and subsequent replacement by moral decadence that befalls every hegemonic power, an extreme over-correction of past wrongs on account of guilt brought on by increased awareness, paternalistic government expansion that results in infantalizing the populace, etc.
- What Brings a Population Together?
The identification of a population as a cohesive group is based on shared qualities of race, ideology, and culture. Race is an easy one to understand – people inherently identify with those who share common physical features (1) (2) (3). Ideology refers to a shared set of specific beliefs. For instance, in the United States, the belief that all people are morally and legally equal (ie despite obvious differences in intelligence or physical strength between individuals, it is just as wrong to deprive one of life as another, and each should be treated equally by the law), that we have the right to free speech, etc. Culture refers to a shared set of traditions, social mores/taboos, values, and language. For instance, in the United States, Christmas is widely celebrated, even by people who don’t believe in Christianity; money and material possessions are valued as a measure of social status and success; and most people expect those around them (at least while within U.S. borders) to speak English.
The U.S. was unique in that it did not have origins in racial similarity. Yes, the founders were white men, but the U.S. was and is a country of immigrants (both voluntary and involuntary). Even if the credo that “all [people] are created equal” wasn’t realized from the start, it was an eventual, and inevitable, destination. The U.S. instead originated from a shared ideology – namely, the ideology that all people are morally and legally equal – that resulted in a shared culture. A culture that valued chasing the vaunted American Dream – that one’s children will live a better life than they had.
What seems to have changed recently, on both the left and the right, is that this has been turned on its head. American, and more generally, Western culture has been demonized as inherently oppressive, through the denigration or appropriation of certain heritages. The ideology is held accused of being hollow and unequally distributed. Instead, we are told, race is what matters. Your rights are determined by your race (or, often times, sex) – whether you are white or non-white – and all conflict is based on the relative deprivation of certain races (or sexes). This will not result in national unification, but only further division. There are those who may see this as a desirable result, and in fact may be actively working towards these ends, but I don’t foresee this as resulting in anything good.
I don’t have any particular prescriptions for how to fix any of this. I can say, broadly speaking, that if the U.S., and the West in general, doesn’t find a common ideology and culture once again, that we will only further divide.
Imagine that you live in a 200 meter by 200 meter square cage of solid walls with a ceiling 10 feet above you and a dirt floor. This stone ceiling contains two barred openings in two of the corners, which allows you to see the sky and obtain water from the rain. One of these barred openings 100 feet by 100 feet, the other is only 10 feet by 10 feet.You have no idea how you got into the cage, why you are there, or even really how long you have been there.
Now imagine that you are not the only one living in this cage. There are nine other people living in the cage with you, none of them knowing how they got there, either. As far as any of you know, you have always lived in this cage. Out of the ten total people, including yourself, two groups have formed. Each group has four loyal members, led by one charismatic leader. You and one other person are only loosely tied to your respective groups. The group you are in has taken residence in the corner of the cage with the 10 foot by 10 foot opening in the ceiling, while the other group was able to take the prime real estate near the 100 foot by 100 foot opening, where they have had success in farming the dirt floor, while your group has had only modest success. This has created an imbalance within the cage, where your group would depend on theirs for food.
But there are also four barred doors that lead to the outside the cage, one on each wall of the cage. Outside these bars there is also a solid door that can be open or closed. The people inside the cage can determine whether these solid doors are open or closed. Whether the people within the cage have a tenuous connection to the outside. But the doors only seem to open into a large, dark, and empty corridor. And yet, mysteriously, if the solid doors are open, food rations are deposited at the doors seemingly at random. But necessity is the mother of all invention. As the other group is content to farm, whenever those solid doors are open, your group stakes out the four doors and retrieves the rations when they appear.
The result is that when the solid doors are closed, the other group thrives; when the solid doors are open, your group thrives.
Every year, on the year, ten consoles raise from the floor in the middle of the cage. The consoles contain three buttons, labeled Open, Close, and Leave. If most people vote Open, the solid doors will be open, allowing for outside food to come in and your group to thrive. If most people vote Close, the solid doors will be closed, making it so only food grown inside the cage is available, allowing the other group to thrive. If most people vote Leave, the solid and barred doors will all open, allowing you and everyone else in the cage to leave to an unknown fate. If it is a tie, the previous years’ state of affairs will remain in effect.
Finally, one year, just days before the election, you bring up the strange fact that nobody has ever voted “leave” before to your group. The others scoff at you. You’re that disloyal person anyway, who has voted for closing the solid doors a few times in the past. You did this because you saw the devastation of the other group when the doors were open and you were sympathetic. Their crops dried up, the people begrudgingly taking scraps from your group rather than put in the effort to make their own. But, of course, the other group has one person who has voted to open the solid doors a few times. The two of you have been chastised for being ‘undecided’ and ‘independent’ before, so your bringing up the third option is not all that surprising to your group.
“Leaving might be better than either other option,” your group leader points out, “but it will never win. Voting to leave is the same as voting to close off those solid doors. It’s throwing your vote away. It’s more important to make sure they don’t win, because closing those solid doors would be worse than having them open.”
“But having the solid doors open is worse than being able to leave,” you point out.
“We don’t know what’s outside the cage,” your group leader says, “for all we know, it might just be more cage, or someone out there might just trap us in another cage that’s even worse than the one we’re in.”
“But if we keep voting for the same two options every time,” you argue, “there is a one hundred percent chance of us being trapped in a cage. If there is even a one percent chance of no longer being in a cage by voting to escape, isn’t that worth pursuing?”
“It’s just not going to happen,” your leader says in a condescending tone, “this is just the way it’s always been.”
“But everyone agrees that they would rather not be stuck in the cage,” you say, “so why can’t we have bipartisan support for Leaving? If we all decided not to conform to the Open-Close duopoly, there wouldn’t be a need to vote strategically for the lesser evil in which every choice you want, Open or Closed, is still being inside the cage.”
“By voting Open or Closed,” you continue, “you are essentially voting for me, and everyone else, to remain inside the cage. The real choice isn’t between Open or Closed, but between Imprisonment and Freedom.”
“That something has been the way it is for as long as you can remember,” you plead, “is not a good reason to continue keeping it that way. Besides, there must have been a time in the past when we were not inside the cage, even if we don’t remember being outside, nor how we got inside, which was almost certainly not voluntary on our part. Someone put us here, and we have the means to escape, yet we choose not to. We continue choosing the same two options, but the ultimate result is that we remain in this cage, telling ourselves that we are free as long as it is our side who wins the next vote.”
“But this is a lie,” you say, “our side is the side that gets all of us – our group and theirs – out of the cage. There is no freedom for us if the solid doors are open, and there is no freedom for them if the solid doors are closed. We all know the two options are not good, yet we keep ourselves imprisoned merely to stop the people we think are our enemies from falsely believing they won. We think that ‘winning’ the next vote will make us free. But insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Solid doors closed: 5
Solid doors open: 4
You all remain in the cage.
Disclaimer: this post was inspired and largely (but not completely) influenced by the book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East” by Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer who started in 1969 in Vietnam and ended as a Colonel after Desert Storm, and has since become a military historian who is critical of American militarism (but possibly not for the reasons you think). For a much more in depth look, read his book, or listen to it on Audible (~15 hours) like I have done over the course of a few weeks (while falling asleep after long days of being a biochemistry graduate student).
With the 2016 election coming up, militarism is something I’ve seen a bit about (with the limited time I’ve been able to devote to politics and current events). I am a self described libertarian (or self confessed, depending on how you view libertarians), so I have no illusions about my anti-war stance. That makes seeing pro-war people much easier – to someone like me, everyone seems pro-war to some extent. That being said, liberals make Trump and Cruz out to be warmongers on the scale of Hitler or Mussolini, and libertarians make Hillary out to be worse than either of them on war, for reasons I’ll go into.
So, the American adventure into the Middle East didn’t start on September 11, 2001. America has been involved with the Middle East since the British after World War I (1914-1918). But the real intervention started during the cold war (1946-1990), most notably after the Iranian coup in 1953 when democratically elected Mosaddegh was overthrown with American help to put American friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in charge. The other notable American intervention was their undying support of Israel after 1948, which saw occasional disagreements, but remained an ally due to A) geopolitical Cold War reasons, B) cultural reasons, such as American Christians identifying more with European Jews than with Middle Eastern Arabs, and C) religious reasons (particularly by the evangelical Christians, who saw Jewish occupation in Christian prophecy).
Although the Israel/Palestine conflict has often been held up as the primary conflict in the region, nationalism has been an enormous part of Middle Eastern culture, although this has sprung from the Israel/Palestine conflict in many ways since the Balfour Declaration during World War I, but even more so since World War II and the winding down of European colonialism (i.e. post-colonialism in Asia, Middle East, and Africa). This has taken two forms. The first has been Arab nationalismArab nationalism, which seeks a pan-Arab nation. Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (leader of Libya from 1969-2011) was a self-proclaimed Arab nationalist who had run-ins with the USA as early as the 1980s. The second was Islamism, which started as early as the 1700s with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, 1800s with Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, and modernized with Sayyid Qutb for people like Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden.
The events in the Middle East that ramped up America’s interest in the region primarily started in 1979. The first was the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi regime and implanted the Ayatollah Khomeini regime. The second was the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. And the third was the Soveiet invasion of Afghanistan. The first and the third had immediate influence on American foreign policy. Iran was at best an American ally, at worst an American colony – such was the motivation for revolution. The third was an immediate threat by then arch-enemy Soviet Union, yet it was also motivated by the Iranian revolution. The American Cold Warriors thought that Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan would quickly and easily bring the Soviets into Iran and give them more control over the Iranian oil fields. This prompted the Americans to give arms and aid to the Mujahedin fighting in Afghanistan, despite the fact that most of them held anti-American views.
Osama bin Laden, a rich citizen of Saudi Arabia, was a huge benefactor in the Soviet-Afghan war. He made many friends with the Taliban by funding their war and participating in the conflict.
The Afghan war happened all during the 1980s. Also in that time was the Iran-Iraq war. Hitler used gas on the Jews during his atrocious, inconceivable, and damnable holocaust. Yet the only two times gas was regularly used on the battlefield was in World War I and during the Iran-Iraq war. The American government sided with the chemical weapon using Iraq, which used chemical weapons on both the Iranians as well as the Shia and Kurds that lived within Iraq (the minority Kurds received American sympathy afterwards for a time, but the majority Shia got the cold shoulder). The Americans looked the other way on the cruel practices of their allys. Even after the USS Stark incident, the American government sided with Saddam Hussein.
And this hardly covers the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Oliver North, working within the Reagan administration, sold arms to Israel, which then sold the arms to Iran, in order to get Iranian help in freeing American prisoners in Lebanon as well as illegally make money under the table for the Contras in Nicaruagua to battle the Sandinistas – which may have also involved the cocaine trade.
The Gulf War (ie Desert Storm), which came only shortly after the Iran-Iraq war, in which America sided with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, happened for three reasons. The first was obviously for oil. Even in the early 1990s the politicians weren’t yet embarrassed enough to admit that, and the public wasn’t yet conscious enough to realize that nations outside of the United States had issues of their own that might influence global trade. The second was because the United States was still embarrassed by what had happened in Vietnam. For more on that second issue, I definitely recommend Andrew Bacevich’s book – I could never make the case he does in this space.
But the real reason is to exercise foreign policy. Here comes the doctrine:
1) Despite the fact that the Nuremberg trials found preemptive war a war crime (Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union preemptively in order to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany), America will exercise previously decided war crimes and demonstrate that they are necessary and that laws against preemptive war is exempt, but only for America; this is because new technology makes those old preemptive war ideas obsolete, but only for America (which now exercised unrestrained power, with the Soviet Union collapse). 2) America alone has the willingness and capability to exert its diplomatic and military power, now that the cold war is over.
The first is somewhat self-explanatory. It says that America will do what it wants, when it wants, as long as it perceives a threat to its interests. The second has a bit more impact. If America tells you to do something, you had better do it, because nobody is coming to rescue you, and you have no chance of defeating America. It is a lesson taken to heart by the American military machine. This is a conceit seen plainly in America’s involvement in the Iraqi no-fly zone, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. I could spend an entire blog post on each of these, but it would probably do you better to just click the links and read about them – particularly the Iraqi no fly Zone. I remember hearing about this as a kid, but I simply thought that the Americans and Iraqis had agreed that Iraqis won’t fly in these zones – it turns out that Americans were shooting down Iraqis in these zones and that the Iraqis had never agreed to this; in other words, it was a continued war that few realized, but that went on for more than a decade, along with draconian sanctions that caused the suffering and death of literally millions.
It was an American version of the Siege of Leningrad.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 came as a surprise to everyone aware enough at the time. I think, personally, I was not quite aware enough at the time, despite being sixteen years old. I was in homeroom when I first heard that something was going on, which must have been sometime between 9:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. I also remember, throughout the day, rumors that other attacks had happened, in places like LA and Chicago. Obviously, none of them came to pass. I was an asshole in my teens, and about the biggest emotion I remember from the time was boredom. I remember hoping that this would upset each classes normal schedule. The only two classes I remember specifically were my English class, with a teacher I hated, in which the normal class routine went as scheduled, which disappointed me. I also remember my last class of the day, which was creative writing, and we got to sit and watch the news for the whole class period, with the expectation that we would take notes in our journal and then write a few pages about how we felt afterward. That seemed like a sweet deal to me, since it meant we didn’t really have to do anything except watch TV. I remember, after getting home, wishing that every channel on TV would stop talking about the 9/11 attacks and get back to more entertaining programming (the coverage of the 9/11 attacks went on for more than a few days on many channels – and yet I was so far up my own ass I didn’t realize that this meant it was kind of a big deal). I remember complaining about seeing the same footage of the twin towers falling over and over again on TV, rather than showing something I would rather see (reruns of the Simpsons, anyone?). Needless to say, I had no idea the level of impact the 9/11 attacks had, and would have, on both American and world affairs.
The invasion of Afghanistan came soon after. Support for George W. Bush had skyrocketed. Everyone was a super patriot. American flags were everywhere. Nobody questioned that most of the hijackers were Saudi Arabian, nor that Osama bin Laden, the easily fingered ringleader, was also Saudi. And everyone had forgotten that the Soviet Union’s adventure into Afghanistan had ended in disaster. The idea of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” was already in the aether. But it was only a decade after our supposed Vietnam redeeming victory in Desert Storm, and our purported success in the Balkans during the 1990’s, and to boot this was a just war against people who attacked us first.
There was success in Afghanistan at first. The Taliban, having seemingly forgotten the guerilla tactics that won them victory in the 1990’s after the Soviet-Afghan war, attempted to face American forces head on. They were obviously defeated over and over again. But after the distraction of the impending Iraq war had swayed the American attention, the Taliban, alongside al-Qaeda, rediscovered their guerilla/insurgent roots. America forgot about Afghanistan as Iraq loomed on the horizon.
Afghanistan is a war that makes sense to many Americans. Osama bin Laden had been given asylum in Afghanistan after being banished from Saudi Arabia (some time spent in Sudan in there, too). Osama bin Laden was given asylum by the Taliban, whom he had helped during the Soviet-Afghan war. The Taliban had been helped by al-Qaeda in the 1980s and 1990s. Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened.
Although I also imagine that many Americans don’t know that Osama bin Laden is Arabic, but the Taliban is not, and that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same thing. Either way, I think most Americans would see Operation Enduring Freedom as a just war, regardless of their ignorance on the war aims or the local culture being faced; or what it would actually require to ingratiate ourselves; or whether the culture even wanted what the west was offering, despite the propaganda that says everyone wants what Americans have.
However, the war in Iraq was a hard sell. The justification was 1) that Saddam Hussein harbored Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) with the implicit assumption that he had the willingness and capability of using them against the United States (or, at the very least, US allys such as Israel) and 2) that the Saddam Hussein regime had ties to al-Qaeda, despite al-Qaeda despising regimes like Saddam’s for not being Islamic enough. Many in the American public did not buy this, particularly liberal leaning people.
I was one of those liberal leaning people. I remember in March of 2003 when the war began, I had a debate with my co-workers at a restaurant I worked at. It was me and one of my managers against just about everyone else working there, with the two of us voicing our disapproval with the Iraq war – the conversation stayed civil, but it was an ongoing debate throughout the evening that I was working there. This is about the first time in my life I remember ever being political about anything, but I remember being very charged up about the issue. I don’t think I really knew much anything about politics at the time, except that I was against war, especially unjustified war. That is a position I maintain to this day – I am a libertarian, but above all, I am against war.
The Iraq war started in 2003 was supposed to be “shock and awe.” That phrase became somewhat of a punchline after what happened in Iraq, but given what the actual aims of the war were, it makes sense. One has to understand that all sorts of justifications for the war have been attributed to George W. Bush. All of them have some truth, but were almost certainly not the war aims. The first, that I’ve heard from numerous liberals, is that George W. Bush only wanted to go into Iraq because his daddy wasn’t able to finish the job. This is a very pedestrian motive that certainly fits with the liberal notion that GWB was an infantile minded rube that would throw around billions of dollars and human lives for petty feuds like a Roman Emperor. There might be some enmity harbored by the younger Bush, but I hardly see this as a primary motive. Another two motives, which I will combine into one, and one in which I myself bought into for a long time, is that the way the Iraq war went is exactly how the Bush administration wanted it to go – a long-term occupation that benefits a) the military-industrial complex and b) the oil companies. America’s prolonged presence would simply mean bigger profits for arms manufacturers, nation builders, and oil companies.
I don’t discount any of these motives. Primarily the war profiteering motives. I’m sure there are many businesses that saw their profits climb substantially during the Iraq war. But I am saying that this wasn’t the primary motive for this war. Once again, I attribute two motivations: 1) establishing the idea of preemptive war, and the American prerogative to do it and 2) demonstrating that America can easily overthrow a regime and implant a new one.
Let us imagine that the Iraq war had been a resounding success. Imagine if the American military had gone into Iraq and overthrown Saddam within a matter of weeks and installed a functioning democracy a month later. What do you think Syria, Lybia, and Iran would think? What would they do if America had threatened to do the same thing to them that America had done to Iraq?
That is what the American government wanted to achieve. A military preeminence that gave them the Big Stick that Teddy Roosevelt talked about – do as we say, or you know what will happen. Iraq was to be the smoking gun the government could hold to other countries, showing that they mean business. It was supposed to permanently throw off the humiliation that was the Vietnam war, showing that the American military had the teeth to back up its hardline diplomacy.
The biggest failure, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, is that we didn’t win with ‘shock and awe.’ That was the plan. We were supposed to be in and out quickly. We were supposed to take that smoking gun from the chest of Iraq and point it at all over the Middle East and ask who is next. Regimes such as Assad and Qaddafi were supposed to quail at our ability to overthrow regimes and give in to our demands. The fact that the military-industrial complex profited mightily from Iraq may have been part of the plan, or simply just an opportunity that arose, but we can say for sure that that the real war aims were a failure.
At least maybe the first military aim. America has not shown that it is capable of easily overthrowing regimes. But America has shown that it is willing to engage in war preemptively. George W. Bush codified this with Iraq. The Obama administrations have taken this to the next level in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and West Africa.
But what has changed the most between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is that war itself has become too unpopular. So the new war is the use of drones and special operations, with little approval or knowledge by the American people. This allows the regime to announce minimal ‘boots on the ground’ while obfuscating how militarily involved the US government is.
The American public has forgotten about our wars. The liberals that protested George W. Bush have mostly stayed silent on Barack Obama’s military actions, no matter how much they inflict on war crimes. Foreign affairs have been only a side note to the 2016 elections – Trump’s supposed banning on Muslims entering the US ignores the gargantuan crisis in Europe and the actual conflict in Syria; the focus on ISIS ignores the greater Middle Eastern crisis in places like Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan; both Trump and Sanders promising to close America off from foreign trade is advertised as being America First without any clue of how economics works.
The majority of Americans are behind the drone program without understanding the effect of blowback. The majority of Americans agree with the torture program with no self awareness about how this makes them the bad guy – or at the very best, the good guy that everyone hates.
No matter how you vote, just try to think of yourself as NOT the bad guy.
It’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t think they’re at least trying to be a moral person. Even someone who thinks of themselves as immoral does so because he or she sees themselves as failing to live up to their own moral code, not because they are purposefully choosing the route of immorality because of some warped value system. But what does it even mean to be moral? Is someone who blindly performs an action that results in more overall happiness a moral person? What about a person who intends to increase overall happiness, but their actions end up having a neutral or even detrimental effect on the overall happiness of the world? If we consider telling the truth (or at least not lying) to be moral, what happens if telling the truth gets people hurt? Or what if lying can prevent that pain – even if it’s as benign as telling someone they look nice when they don’t?
The keen observer will notice there are two kinds of arguments here. In moral philosophy, we call these two schools of thought deontological moral arguments and consequentialist moral arguments.
Deontological morality refers to those things we see as intrinsically moral. We say that murder is wrong because human beings have an intrinsic moral value. Life is precious and should be valued for its own sake. There can be recourse to some justification, but the consequences on the world are not what justify deontological moral theories. This can be problematic, since we must say that if every life has intrinsic moral worth, regardless of the person’s impact on the world, then Martin Luther King Jr has the same moral worth as Adolf Hitler. Of course, it also means that if you’re the kind of person that works at McDonalds all day only to come home and play video games all night, you are just as protected under the law as the person who raises a family and regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter – the two situations will ideally receive equal protection.
Consequentialism is the idea that the moral value of an action is based on the affect it has on the world. This school of thought might handle the case of murder by saying that murder causes pain and suffering in the world. The victim will no longer get to live the rest of their life, experiencing its joys, accomplishing their goals, and being there for their loved ones, who will be worse off with the victim dead. One could even argue that it would be worse for the economy, and that it might be a financial drain on the victims family. For these reasons, murder is wrong. And since the victims life is judged on their worldly consequences, if the victim was more beneficial to the world, then we can say that their life was worth more than someone who was less beneficial, or even detrimental, to the world. In other words, Martin Luther King Jr’s life was worth more than Adolf Hitler’s life. Of course, it also means that the life of someone who regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter and raises a happy family is worth more than the life of someone who spends every day working at McDonalds only to come home and play video games. Thus, if we accept that people’s impact on the world determines their moral worth, then we must accept that some people are literally better human beings than other people and are therefore worth more protection under the law.
In this way, consequentialist arguments can sound almost cynical. But lets look at a situation where consequentialism seems to win our over deongoloty. Lets say you’re living in Nazi Germany and you’re hiding Jews in your basement. A Nazi officer comes by and asks if you are hiding Jews. Deontologically speaking, not lying is the more moral action. Not lying is even one of the ten commandments (more on this later). But telling the truth – that you’re hiding Jews in your basement – might have the consequence of getting them hurt or killed. So the consequentialist argument would be to lie, since that will have a greater moral outcome – the people you are hiding will be more likely to survive and go unharmed if you lie.
So we can see that sometimes these different schools of thought can be applied and seem more intuitively moral. So is it legitimate to use an argument from one school of thought against the argument from another? I contend that in many places – politics, religion, society – this is what people are doing without realizing it.
Religion often uses deontological arguments for morality. When a commandment says not to kill or steal, it brooks no arguments. We are not to do these things because they are intrinsically wrong. Of course, the problem with making arguments about the intrinsic value of actions, people want some justification for it. Immanuel Kant attempted to make deontological justification for moral arguments with his categorical imperative using reason alone. Religion attempts to justify deontological moral precepts with recourse to God. This runs into the sticky problem of Euthyphro’s dilemma, which can be stated: are moral commands moral because God says they are, or does God say they’re moral because they are intrinsically moral? In other words, should I obey God because if I don’t then God will punish me, or should I obey God because God is the arbiter of intrinsic moral values? In the first instance we end up with a consequentialist argument – I should act moral because if I don’t, I will be punished, and if I do, I’ll be rewarded (or that my actions determine whether I become close to God or not). The latter is deontological, but it’s problematic in that A) God is no longer required for morality and is therefore not sufficient for recourse on matters of morality and so B) we still must find some justification for why some particular action is considered moral or immoral.
Although moral commandments are at least ostensibly deontological moral beliefs that are justified with recourse to God (assuming the previous discussion is not problematic), it’s still popular for religious apologists to couch religious morals in consequentialist theory. For instance, the often quoted Leviticus 20:13 condemning homosexuality makes no mention of why homosexuality is wrong except to say that homosexual acts are “detestable” or an “abomination” (depending which version of the bible you read). This is a deontological argument, as it doesn’t say what detrimental consequences homosexual acts will wrought on the world. But when gay rights issues are talked about in politics and the media, it’s often consequentialist arguments – that marriage is meant for procreation, that allowing gays to marry will ruin marriage, that allowing gays to marry will lead us down a slippery slope into pedophilia and bestiality, that gay couples make bad parents, that gay marriage will lead to more abortions, and sometimes even that homosexuality causes natural disasters. None of these arguments are biblical, nor are they backed by evidence, but it creates an impasse when deontological theories of morality run into consequentialist theories of morality.
This same sort of impasse can be seen in politics. I’m not talking as much on what is usually seen as the left-right scale so much as the statist-libertarian scale. When I say statist, I mean someone who believes that the state (or government) must exist, at minimal in the Hobbesean sense, in order to maintain law and order. When I say libertarian, I mean someone who believes that state (government) should not exist in an anarcho-capitalist sense. Most people fall on the spectrum somewhere on the statist end, and this is for consequentialist reasons. There might be deontological arguments for the state in fascist or Leninist and Maoist communist thought, but I’d say the majority of people see the state as a tool meant for maintaining law and order. People may disagree on the roles the government should take, but they all agree that the government has a legitimate role to play. Liberbarians, in the anarcho-capitalist school of thought, make the deontological claim that government shouldn’t exist. They justify this with recourse to the non-aggression principle, which is based on self-ownership and property rights. Of course, even anarcho-capitalists often defend their views using consequentialist arguments based on the ideas of the negative unintended consequences in foreign and economic policies (for example, the minimum wage creating more unemployment or regulations that hurt small businesses while doing nothing to big corporations) and blowback in military policies (for example, the U.S. drone program creating more terrorists than it kills). The impasse occurs when statists attempt to attack the deontological theory of the non-aggression principle using consequences (“without the government, there would be chaos”) and libertarians attempting to use this deontological argument against this form of consequentialism. It’s also a problem when a deontological theory, such as the non-aggression principle, is defended using consequentialist arguments. If we accept the non-aggression principle, than we must say that it should be a moral theory that applies to any situation, regardless of the consequences. Even if adopting anarcho-capitalism causes an endless economic depression, it is still more moral than allowing the violence of government intervention to exist, regardless of how well the economy works under that government. However, if it’s true that the non-aggression principle will bring about greater economic prosperity and restrict fewer civil liberties, and we accept that the non-aggression principle is only justified with recourse to these consequences, then statism is in trouble without a deontological leg to stand on in defending the existence of the state.
This all seems a bit abstract, but there is a somewhat more practical reason to consider the deontological vs. consequentialist arguments when it comes to government. This might be referred to as the Euthyphro’s Dilemma of Government. This dilemma has to do with the morality of charity. Statist arguments, particularly those on what is considered the left, state that there is a moral obligation to take tax money from those who make more money and distribute it to those who are not well off. The libertarian will argue that this is not a moral action, since the tax money is taken by force, violating the non-aggression principle, and there is no choice involved in giving this money. This, of course, assumes that there must be a choice involved in moral actions – an act is immoral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so, and vice versa, an act is moral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so. So given this, is it immoral for money to be taken at the threat of force from person A and given to person B, even if A had more than needed and B less than needed? And hence we come to the impasse. The deontological libertarian will say yes, it was an immoral act since the non-aggression principle was violated and person A had no choice in the matter anyway. The consequentialist statist will say no, it is not immoral because person A is not left wanting overall and person B can now live a more comfortable life.
I mentioned it briefly earlier, but when it comes to what morality even is, in either the deontological school of thought or the consequentialist school of thought, we might distinguish between prohibitions and virtues. Prohibitions would be morals such as not killing, not stealing, and not lying. Virtues would be morals such as giving to the poor, cleaning up trash in the streets, or rescuing someone in danger. The issue becomes: can we say that someone is moral if they simply follow all the right prohibitions but never do anything virtuous? What about someone who constantly does virtuous things, but also constantly lies, cheats and steals? Does a moral person have to both refrain from doing bad things and endeavor to do virtuous things? Does an immoral person have to both refrain from doing virtuous things and endeavor to transgress against moral prohibitions? Consequentialists may be able to argue over metrics by which to judge these things, but to my knowledge, most deontological arguments are of the prohibitive kind – both Kant’s categorical imperative and the libertarian’s non-aggression principle are the prohibitive flavor of morality. So how might virtue ethics fit into these systems? Would a deontological theory of virtue ethics be nothing more than a list of precepts to follow, a code with no justification or resource?
The age old question, in the end, is which school of moral thought is the better one? Which will lead to a more moral society? Deontology has an air of being more noble, in that it brings up a sense of duty and struggle to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing. I’ll apply the non-aggression principle, even if I think my life would be easier if I broke it. And yet people are generally judged on the consequences of their actions. I would argue that a mix of both are needed. The ground, I would say, should be deontological, but their application in the real world – and judgments on where deviations are allowed – should be based on consequentialist ideas. Of course, this becomes messy, and trying to pin down the optimum socio-political-economic system or deciding how justice and mercy should be applied could get bogged down in minutiae. This leaves us at another impasse. What I think the important message is, though, is that people need to realize when they are using consequentialist arguments against deontological theories and vice versa, because otherwise everyone will simply continue to talk past each other and no progress will be made.