The Injustices of the Moment Are Our Eternal, Research Time, 31/01/2017

Here's a deeper theme of my in-progress Utopias, my published Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, and a lot of my current philosophical and journalism work – justice, understanding what justice is, and what it can be in my world.

It’s a bit of an old problem in the tradition of philosophy. And as I look through the different corners of the history of Western philosophy, I see different approaches to that problem which will be useful to my own work.

Elements from the Jewish philosophical traditions will appear in Utopias both explicitly and implicitly. I found in Jerusalem a little while ago a wonderful example of how a work of philosophy engages the concept of justice itself and the practical workings of justice in our own world.

Chava and Fyedka from Fiddler on the Roof: A Jew marries outside the
faith – a gloss on the dangerous practice of eroding a community,
when there's no sign that the minority religion will ever be respected
in that household.
It’s a moment where Moses Mendelssohn appears, from our perspective, literally hundreds of years ahead of his kind. It’s a footnote that runs nearly two pages long, arguing for a woman’s right to divorce her husband.

Let's remind ourselves that Jerusalem was published in 1767. Kind of a conservative setting. And a woman’s right to divorce is based in her basic right to live her life as she chooses.

If her husband radically changes or breaks the terms under which they agreed to marry, that gives her the right to leave the marriage free of penalty. Because her husband has broken his promises to her.

An argument that cuts at the heart of the era’s immense cultural and political conservatism. An argument for divorce on a woman’s initiative on the ground of universal moral principles – fidelity to the terms of a promise, the fundamental autonomy of a person to live as she wishes.

Now consider the example he uses to illustrate this. It’s an example with a deep and chilling political relevance to mid-1700s German society. Even more chilling when you read Mendelssohn today.

Rahel Vernhagen, the Jewish-to-Christian
convert at the heart of Hannah Arendt's first
major book.
When a man converts from Judaism to Christianity, his wife has the right to divorce him for those universal reasons. A key part of the marriage contract is the manner in which they will raise their children. So if a woman gets married with the implication that their children will be raised in her religion, she expects that to result.

Moses Mendelssohn’s life was defined by the constant attempts fellow German intellectuals made to convert him to Christianity. If his life is any indication – and there’s plenty of historical evidence beyond that implication – then German Jews were under constant pressure from neighbours and authorities to convert.

And in the patriarchal laws and culture of 1700s Germany, if a man converted to Christianity, he was obligated to have his wife and their children all baptized and remove them permanently from the Jewish community. It was a form of hostile conversion – the work of converting only one Jew brought a full family to the Church.

Mendelssohn’s argument for the right to divorce was more than a recognition of one important aspect of justice and freedom. It was also a direct response, calling upon values of justice and freedom, to the real political problem of the social pressures grinding away at the Jewish communities of Germany.

The real injustices that you see in front of you in your own life call you to seek after the fundamental ideal of justice and freedom.

Because You Have to Make the Calls – Get Things Done, Jamming, 30/01/2017

I’ve been trying to figure out the best path to get You Were My Friend made into a film for about a year now. So far, the biggest obstacle has been that I can’t do it alone.

If I were so financially independent and wealthy that I could just start a production company and hire a film out of my own pocket, I would have a long time ago. But I’m not. So I’ve had to look into avenues by which I could punch up from where I am now.

And I can’t lie to you about it – it’s been tough. Simply having a secure enough base from which to get all my bills paid and have a reasonable life as an individual is sometimes hard enough. My job has been stressful, and has consumed a lot of energy that I want to put toward my career.

When Lily Tomlin accepted her SAG lifetime achievement award on
Sunday, she said that you should never cry for missed opportunities,
because every failure is an opportunity someone wishes they missed.
The lesson: Don't fail.
Lately, a health crisis has interrupted that job.* So while I’m worrying a little about money, I actually feel like I’m in a better position than I was when I was working 20-30 hours each week at the store.

* Don’t worry; I’m not dead, or dying. But it’s still serious.

I have time.

Time to look for work that’s closer to what I actually wanted to do with my career. And I’ve had the past year to build a network of contacts in Toronto that are better suited to helping me find opportunities. Opportunities to work in writing and media, where I actually want to be.

Opportunities to find the people I need to make the film that I want, and a team who’ll be dedicated to promoting and marketing it. You Were My Friend is a story that speaks to a lot of the problems we face today – it’s a tough story of friendship, strength, betrayal, joy, and resilience.

The simple struggle to get by in a tough city is enough to wrench your heart out. And when I look at the script I wrote and the dry run I did for this film on the stage, I know it can stand up with the greatest of what's been done.

I wanted to make an unforgettable piece of theatre. And I did three years ago. Now, I want to make an unforgettable piece of cinema.

I have calls to make, things to do. I can finally get to it.

Confronting the Need for Laws, Research Time, 27/01/2017

Here's a less intense – but still nicely humming – problem of modern politics. Dealing with libertarians. When I write Utopias, this will be a tough problem I tackle. Because libertarians and radical democrats should be perfect allies, despite their differences.

But the radical divergence comes over the question of governance. The libertarian ideal is to have literally no government – a society of autonomous individuals binding themselves as people through voluntary contracts.

The only true positive content to any utopia that wouldn't directly
collapse into terror: an imperative, "Be excellent to each other!"
Which is quite appealing, but doesn’t work out all that well when actually applied to real economies where there are massive inequalities.

Yet there is one common point that every democrat (radical or not) shares with every libertarian – A deep distrust of government as a constant danger to ordinary people, through oppression or corruption. Libertarians focus on the oppression. Democrats focus on the corruption.

Libertarian thinking presumes that government is inherently coercive, and so a vector for oppression. The historical fact that many governments have and do oppress people in different ways lends them some credibility.

But democracy is founded on the notion that government can be perfected – If the problem of real governments is their corruption, then you’re presumed that there can be a non-corrupt government. You know that it’s at least possible to imagine a functional, entirely benevolent government.

And if you can imagine it, you can at least work your hardest to inch progressively closer to that ideal.

Dig back a couple of centuries, and an overlooked Moses Mendelssohn offers an ideal for governance and political leadership that can overcome libertarian distrust of the state. A moral value at the heart of good governance.

No, Helen, there will be no Happiness Patrol.

The most excellent form of government is the most benevolent – a government that provides the perfect conditions of social harmony, happiness, and peace. But this doesn’t come from the coercion of law. This isn’t the Happiness Patrol.

Mendelssohn describes a population so perfectly educated and enlightened that we’re simply kind and peaceful to each other. All of this would come from the proper education.

In the 1780s, this kind of naïveté was more than a century away from dying out. So you could imagine that a government could provide universal moral education alongside universal science and humanities education.

But consider the ideal of what education is supposed to be – It’s any process of human maturity. Growing up as a person, you’re supposed to become a better person.

Mendelssohn sincerely postulates, at the heart of his political thinking, the notion that humanity can become perfect. That we’ll all constitute a society where each of us will do the best for each other. The job of a good – no, an excellent – government is to encourage each of us to approach that moral and ethical virtue.

How we should lead out lives as people – to make the world a better place than when you found it – is how we should lead our governments. In such a world of angels, the police and law enforcement would be unnecessary. Even law itself wouldn’t be needed. People would naturally be good to each other.

If we can imagine that, and push ourselves in that direction as we grow older. Maybe be good enough parents and elders in your community that the young people around you are on the whole more virtuous than the old folks.

Belief in humanity’s perfectibility is the foundation of a positive utopia. As long as that vision of perfection is a society where we’re all excellent to each other.

Making a Tradition of Yourself, Composing, 26/01/2017

There’s plenty I find really fruitful for political and moral philosophy in Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. I’m not even really sure where to start.

Most obvious at the moment are the political principles. Right now, in my research for Utopias, I’m looking in classical eras for theoretical resources. Drawing an inheritance of concepts for my own work that sits a little to the side of the typical mainstream.

The history of human ideas is a tangled, living library. The artist has
some very nice sci-fi landscapes.
A typical approach that a lot of philosophers have when they tackle current political problems, is to draw on the concepts of figures from farther back in history.

For instance, you want to understand the roiling, chaotic, frightening political turmoil of contemporary America under the Trump Presidency. Excellent – You’re not the only one. So you go to the source that may inspire your own thinking, or which has an immense influence in the field you work most in.

One of the first go-to figures is Immanuel Kant – alongside Aristotle, probably the most fundamental fulcrum in Western philosophy’s development. Also known for a substantial, and equally influential approach to moral and political thought. Why not start there? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

So you try to understand this intense problem in contemporary politics through the conceptual machinery in this noteworthy philosopher. Excellent – I hope we can learn a lot.

But I have my suspicions. The problem with returning to mainstream texts in the tradition is precisely that they’re mainstream. Now, I’m not about to become some kind of hipster of the history of philosophy.* But a suspicion about the relation between the widely-known ideas of a widely-known text, and the currents of wider culture.

* Not to say that I’ve never been one myself. Even a little.

A philosophical concept doesn’t become massively influential without having touched on some important aspect of its time – culturally and politically. It’s in dialogue with the world around it, influencing that world, and being influenced by it. So a concept that hits it big expresses a cultural theme that many disparate events seem to express as well.

For example, when I went back to Kant, I didn’t necessarily go back to his most typical ideas for moral and ethical thinking – the categorical imperative, what’s broadly called deontology.

For one thing, it might end up being bad history – Kant himself wouldn’t necessarily have been a Kantian, and might not even have considered himself a deontologist about morality.

But as far as I’m concerned, I wanted to find a few different ideas because I wanted to find a counterweight to the mainstream. The problem with concepts that connect sharply with mainstream thinking is this – What if the mainstream is the problem?

If you're wondering whether it's ethically right to punch Nazis, the
answer is a resounding yes. 1) Because alt-right goons threaten and
harass people continually themselves, and 2) Those who want to
destroy democracy must not be given a democratic platform if
that democracy is to survive their assault on it.
What if you’re trying to work out some concepts, ideas, and strategies for critiquing the mainstream? If your point is to find alternatives to a mainstream that isn’t going in good directions. That might be heading for violence on very large scales.

Violence for which concepts of nationhood, belonging, and ethnic-cultural conformity provide very explicit motives. So when I find a lot of the groundwork for this thinking in the presumptions and framework principles of how Kant writes about politics, I’m going to find my inspirations in different places.

The historical aspects of Utopias – at least its explicitly political sections – will go through two parallel routes. On the one hand, there’s sketching the origin of dangerous conceptions of race, ethnicity, state power, and the hierarchy of peoples, which lie at the heart of the terrifying disasters of Western history.

On the other hand, there’s the more important history that I’ll be making. Plucking concepts and thinkers that have offered alternatives to these mainstream ideas. They might not have been picked up at the time, but maybe they can provide some ideas and lessons for the concepts needed for our era.

I’m not making a point that this counter-tradition is an explicit project unfolding throughout history. I don’t know if Antonios Negri or Gramsci drew on Mendelssohn’s thought or Jerusalem in particular. And for how I’m approaching history, I don’t have to care. I’m not doing a scholarly history here. I’m using history to help me through a contemporary problem.

When Utopias gets into history, I won’t be commenting on an already-existing tradition. I’ll be weaving a tradition out of my own inheritance of ideas.

How About Let’s Talk About Our Mental Health Language? Jamming, 25/01/2017

Today is a Canada-wide corporate-sponsored day to talk about mental health issues. The event does a lot of good work in eroding the vile myths about mental health issues, and our culturally-ingrained tendency to demonize and isolate people with mental health issues.

I’ve certainly had my own mental health issues. Sometimes, I discuss them here. But today, I want to talk about how I’ve often heard mental health issues discussed. Canada has done a good job integrating the serious treatment of mental health into workers’ rights, employment standards, and legal rights.

For all that success, there’s still plenty of popular prejudice about people’s mental health problems. But I see that prejudice as rooted in deeper places than stereotypes and our spaces of ignorance. It’s rooted in the language we use to talk about ourselves.

Basically, popular conceptions of how human behaviour works leaves us either total robots with no moral accountability or fully responsible agents entirely in control of our own actions.

Clarifying before I continue – There are actually a ton of different models of thinking that develop many different concepts of human agency, power, responsibility. They’re bound up in different ways of thinking about the relation of humans and our environment – many degrees of lockstep firmness in causation and conditioning.

I’m pretty familiar with these different models of agency. I wrote a book that used quite a lot of them in theoretical development.

But I’m talking about popular ideas right now. The ideas that creep into our thought when we talk or think about mental health.

And I mean mental health in two contexts. Think about the casual conversations you have when you’re specifically using words like ‘mental health,’ referring to psychiatrists, and the relevant science.

You find yourself talking about mentally ill people as victims, as passive before their conditions and their treatments. If they’re in treatment, they’re doped up. If they’re undergoing problems in their lives, they’re helpless, adrift, caught up in their illness.

They aren’t responsible for their actions – they aren’t even really seen as acting. Just flailing about. And they’re always the objects of pity.

Later, you find yourself talking about someone you know. They’re having mental health issues – depressed and a drag, anxious and worried, or hostile and annoying. And this is all in their daily life. Going to work, running errands, meeting friends – it’s all tinged with this character of lower quality than yours.

Of course they’re responsible for their behaviour, you think. They’re out living their lives just like me – they’re just irritating, or assholes. Fully responsible for their shitty behaviour.

We have no way in our popular conversations yet to talk about that middle range of responsibility in everyday language. Someone with a mental health issue – in those ordinary expressions of pity or annoyance – remains either totally passive or fully responsible. A victim or a jerk.

This either/or of extremes is still how we think about too many health issues. You’re perfectly healthy until you need treatment – then you’re suffering, afflicted, at the mercy of some condition as if it were a contagion.

But most people with mental health issues are quite functional – they just have unfortunate tendencies. A tendency to worry too much, to become acutely agitated in some situations, to dwelling on the worst possibilities. What began once as unfortunate habits become ingrained ruts.

We’re responsible for our actions, yet it takes more effort to break the habit of these tendencies than it does for someone who doesn’t have them. My tendency to anxiety isn’t nearly as intense as some others.

Only very overwhelming situations set me off – being overbombarded with so much stimulation that I can’t concentrate my thoughts even enough to be a person. It takes having to do literally 20 things at once for close to half an hour or more to bring me here. But there are some who reach that threshold just walking down a busy street.

We’re responsible. We’re conscious and self-conscious. We go about our business like the rest of you. But in the course of the day, we’re in some ways just a little more fragile.

Visiting Jerusalem, A History Boy, 24/01/2017

I’ve been reading Jerusalem by Moses Mendelssohn over the last week or so. It’s one of those books that I read and think, “I wish I had read this years earlier!” There are quite a few reasons behind that.

One lies in my immediate reaction to the book’s ideas. For instance, he takes a refreshing view on the old social contract concept. Writing in the 1780s, Mendelssohn describes the “state of nature” as a society where all people are free and no one has authority over anyone.

Hobbes described this as a state of perpetual paranoia and war – violence is humanity’s primary social essence. Rousseau as an eden of sensual delights – the violence is gone, but the ego remains. Mendelssohn: It’s a society where no one has the right to tell me how I can help my neighbours and fellows – the natural drive of humanity is benevolence.

One of many, many Jerusalems that exist.
How utterly refreshing.

Also, how utterly Jewish. As I’ve learned more about many of that religious tradition’s ethical and moral ideas, what I love most is that a fundamental Jewish value is benevolence.

Actually, it’s more than a value – it’s an ontological principle about humanity. Right from the primal, most basic level of understanding what humanity is, the Jewish principle is that we are benevolent creatures. And we only become evil through bad education and bad role models.

As Mendelssohn puts it, because we fundamentally desire that others be benevolent to us, we ourselves are naturally benevolent.

And as I reflected on this idea, I thought to myself – “Why didn’t I read any Mendelssohn when I was studying this philosophy?”

I did my undergrad philosophy degree at Memorial, and I worked with a lot of folks who specialized in 1700-1800s German thought. Mendelssohn was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, and a famous public intellectual of the period.

Yet he was never part of the course materials, never part of the official chronologies.

In all fairness, if we’re talking about historical influence on the major themes of the period’s German philosophy, it’s reasonable to put Mendelssohn to the side. Mendelssohn’s political philosophy in Jerusalem – his most famous book – is unabashedly Jewish.

Jewish influence was simply not considered as legitimate a form of
thinking in 1700s Germany. Mendelssohn had to deal all his life
with the constant obnoxious pestering of other famous intellectuals
trying to convert him to Christianity. It makes me think that public
opposition to Judaism – in all corners of Christian Germany – was
a major reason why Mendelssohn's thought constitutes an alternate
history of philosophy. Concepts that we have to dig for.
Its ontology is quite secular – deist at best about the question of God’s existence. But the book’s ethics and moral investigations are blatantly and inescapably Jewish. With Jerusalem, you can see Mendelssohn bringing the Jewish tradition of morality and political thinking into the deist context of late 1700s Germany.

In that mission, it was a failure. Kant’s own thinking remained supremely influential on subsequent philosophy in the German countries. Johann Fichte brought to Kant’s models of how knowledge worked a new grounding in experience that overcame a lot of “thing-in-itself” issues, and anticipated a lot of ideas in phenomenology.*

* I wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on this, and I’m still quite proud of what I did.

Then he became a rabid German nationalist. Hegel made the core concepts of Christianity into a framework that functioned as the scaffolding of highest human reason.

A Jew bringing Jewish ideas into the context of metaphysics was not welcome. No matter the real quality of his ideas.

As I plan out the structure and historical influences of Utopias, there are two interesting strains where I’ll draw for its core concepts. Regarding the explicitly political stuff, it will be a continuation of what I call – for lack of an academic consensus term – radical democracy.

That’s a materialist approach to politics that picks up from the rejection of marxism found in the work of Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, and Antonio Negri – screw the dialectical historicism to embrace the contingency of politics and people power from the smallest possible scales on up.

They and the more ontologically-focussed writers of the tradition like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari draw deep inspiration from Spinoza. Spinoza, parallel to Mendelssohn, was bringing many ideas from the Jewish tradition into the philosophical mainstream of his own time.

Radical democracy – its snaking path of conceptual development through those French and Italian writer-activists, Althusser, Gramsci, Marx, Machiavelli, Spinoza – is an alternate tradition that wriggles underneath the mainstream schools that dominate the history students typically learn.

That history isn’t only pragmatist, materialist, focussed on people power and the dignity of the poor. It’s also Jewish.

Facts – Alternative Facts – Post-Truth – Truth, Composing, 23/01/2017

I’ve kept thinking about that project on the idea of post-truth that we’ve been tossing around the Reply Collective. There’s one approach that I want to explore for this piece – I thought of it over the weekend, and I want to mull it over with some folks to see if it has legs.

Here’s how it came to me, first of all.

Pictured: A collective experience of truth-expression.
So I was at the Toronto Women’s March to protest Donald Trump’s existence Saturday, and I saw plenty of signs mocking the idea of ‘post-truth.’ In a very basic sense, this is the opposition of truth and lies.

* I wish I’d gotten a picture of it. They were good and sarcastic, just like a lot of what I saw during the march.

In one dimension of the ‘post-truth’ problem, that looks like it’s all it comes down to. A trivial assertion of lies by government figures. The press secretary blatantly lies about the facts – how many people attended Trump’s inauguration – and chastises the White House press corps for their outlets’ honesty instead of reporting what they were told to report.

We told you what we wanted you to say, says Sean Spicer, and I paraphrase – and it was your moral failure and your disloyalty to the office of the President for not doing what you were told.

The most popular followup was Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press interview with Kellyanne Conway. Anti-Trump Twitter particularly blew up over Conway’s contention that, “We presented you with alternative facts.”

Orwellian? Most definitely. But ultimately, Orwellian doublespeak is trivial.

Reactionary contempt for critics now has free reign.
Even the typical recourse to postmodernist thinking about the slippery meanings of language is ultimately trivial. It’s a mere stereotype that ‘postmodernist’ attitudes and philosophies imply that there is no truth and there are no facts. Or rather, that facts are defined solely through discourse.

So factuality becomes no longer about what is and isn’t the case. It becomes a matter of duelling visions of the world – a pro-Trump set of facts means enormous inauguration crowds and violent protestors, while an anti-Trump set of facts means anemic attendance and police brutality on the streets of DC. One is an alternative to the other, and you’re free to choose between them as you’re inclined.

So you’re stuck with the oversimplified, misunderstood popular understanding of postmodernism. If you want a philosophical investigation into what post-truth can be to produce something more interesting, more useful than this, you need a different direction.

Inside the volcano.
Here’s that different direction.

Ask yourself: What truth do the women’s marches demonstrate? We are talking about a demonstration, after all.

We have a set of facts that can be described in propositions of language – statements about women’s needs, fears, vulnerabilities, and strengths; statements of political and moral beliefs that oppose them to Trump’s presidency and what it represents in wider society; biographical timelines and events in the lives of the people in the march and the wider anti-Trump movement.

While all those statements may be true, you have to ask whether they’re adequate to the situation. If you were to list all these statements, would they alone suffice to describe – completely – what the marches actually demonstrate.

A set of statements leaves out the visceral power of a person’s experience itself. The emotional and mental impact of material events in your life on your own person, personality, and subjectivity. It leaves out the force of what shapes your character, even as it describes that shape and its changes.

A cinematic philosopher.
The closest I can come to naming this kind of visceral, material, truth-in-unfolding-experience is to riff on a term from Werner Herzog – ecstatic truth. A kind of truth that’s beyond factuality, and communicates a deeper truth than an isolated fact of the matter.

An ecstatic truth communicates the power of forces that shape subjectivities and situations of life. Such a truth is the majesty of an Antarctic mountain range or the peaks of Mount Erebus and its bubbling crater. And such a truth is the terror of being lost in the jungle, with violent armies around every corner.

Such a truth is also the yearning for dignity of a poor immigrant lost in the desolation of his new country. Or the bliss of giving in to evil.

It is the human experience of sublimity, but recognizes that the sublime can appear not only in terrifying or awe-inspiring natural formations and phenomena. Sublimity is also in the daily experiences of human lives.

An incredible power can come from communicating that sublimity.

Trumponomics Could Be an Even Bigger Disaster, Jamming, 20/01/2017

First of all, I’m sorry for not having written even a short blog post for Thursday. I had an amazingly stressful day at work Wednesday, and I was so burned out and tired when I got home that I barely had enough energy to eat Chinese food and nap.

Can’t go wrong with the sesame chicken, but sometimes nothing can overcome total nervous burnout.

I spent yesterday doing some much more relaxing research for my communications agency job. I can work this position from my home office, which means that my working uniform usually involves a pair of bear claw slippers. No better solution for any workplace stress or burnout.

In the course of that research, I read up on general economic trends and projections, trying to incorporate them into my strategies and recommendations to clients.

All hail Fearless Leader!
One thing I discovered was this analysis of the centrepiece of the Trump Administration’s economic policy – protectionism.

When I first heard during the campaign that Trump promised a protectionist national economic policy, I knew it was a radical break from political parties’ orthodoxies in America.

Now, I’ve opposed for a long time many of the injustices that unrestrained, corporate-led free trade has created. But I also know that any solutions to the problems of corporate-led free trade can only really come from people-led globalization.

Protectionism and the autarkic ideal that inspires those policies, ultimately leads to disaster. There’s simply no way that an economy – even one with the diversity of the United States – can survive without supplemental goods and services from around the world. It’s a perfect recipe for long-term stagnation.

Look at the effect of Trump’s plan. High tariffs at the same time as you choke off immigration. America’s has a large population of people retiring from the workforce and dying off – the country has a low unemployment rate.

There are millions of people out of the workforce – maybe for their own or a family member’s health reasons, or because they just have no marketable skills. But with no plans to raise wages, or finance a nationwide equitable program of affordable higher education, those unmarketable people won’t find work.

As for Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the Affordable Care Act? Millions won’t be able to get the treatment they’d need to return to work. Nor could those millions afford or the homecare contractors to whom they can trust their ill loved ones, so they could return to the job market.

So the only way to inject capital into the country at a national scale comes from trade links. High tariffs would essentially cut off a lot of the foreign savings and investment entering the United States.

The country imports way more than it exports. But a country makes up its massive global trade deficit by selling huge numbers of state savings bonds. The sale of those bonds brings in billions of dollars in investment money.

Shutting off global trade with high tariffs shrinks your trade deficit, which sounds like a good thing – America becomes a net exporter, drawing money into the country.

But if its people are still poor when this happens, people won’t have enough money themselves to make up for the immediate-term shortfall in bond income.

A wealthy citizenry and a properly funded government can provide the investment income to fuel the economy. People, their banks, and their governments can save money and invest it in developing ventures and companies in their country.

But people in the United States are – as individuals – burdened by hideous debt. It’s a continued hangover of the mortgage crisis at the end of last decade, for older folks. For younger people, it’s the crushing weight of enormous student loans to pay off at the very beginning of their careers in a workforce of insecure labour.

So the economy is choked from two sources. Foreign investment plummets, the government is so underfunded that a budget surplus is impossible, millions of people are drowning in personal debt.

Whatever income first comes from the export surplus won’t make up that difference. The surplus will only come from the same inadequate export numbers the US now has – it’ll only be a surplus because imports shut off. With fewer goods on market, prices will increase, but no one will be making any more money and they’ll have just as much debt.

Some people already live like it's the Great Depression again.
Millions more might if this economic scenario happens.
Low incomes and rising prices means mass poverty.

The solution to unjust globalization led by corporate oligarchs isn’t turning away from the world. It’s a just globalization. Such a thing is possible. Here’s one way to imagine a just, fair globalization.

Governments around the world cooperate to build planetary infrastructure – transit links, internet cables, transnational power lines, ecological preserves, treaties to manage and conserve natural resources properly. Stuff like that.

People build business links around the world through professional networking associations. I’m a member of one – the International Association of Business Communicators. And there may be thousands upon thousands of similar associations all over the world. All building links and making deals. Actually person to person.

Imagine a world built by the world’s governments and independent, hustling businesspeople.

When the Imaginary Is Real, Composing, 18/01/2017

Social contract stuff again today. Because the whole concept of the social contract has been at the centre of Western political theory for literally hundreds of years. As a popular idea, it informs the very act of writing states’ constitutions.

As annoying and constraining the concept can be, it’s not going away, and anyone who wants to write foundational political theory has to grapple with it.

Here’s a common stereotypical way* to describe a social contract: as a thought experiment. “We all know that such a moment could never have existed. But if all the members of a society could have gathered to decide among themselves how they’d live, they would decide that . . .”

* You know where you can find the best examples of sadly common lazy stereotypes about how to describe philosophy? Look up a kind-of-shit Introduction to Philosophy textbook.

But here’s a problem with that image of the social contract concept as a thought experiment. It doesn’t really make clear why we would make the experiment in the first place.

Social contract thought experiments are ostensibly about discovering the fundamental relationships and concerns of society. Depending on the emphasis, it tends either to security (so you lean Hobbes) or productivity in community (so you lean Rousseau).

Yet it rarely works as a means to discover a real essence of politics. It’s an argumentative demonstration, but as an argument, it’s strictly rhetoric. If you’re interested in building a vision of society as fundamentally about mutual security, you’ll work through a social contract experiment that makes it so. Same goes for whatever set of values you want to argue is paramount in society.

That's not to say that social contract thought experiments are useless or poor philosophy. They’re actually great philosophy, but not because they reveal some real essence of society. It’s because thinking through them is an engine of concepts and ideas about fundamental issues of social life and human nature.

You don’t want to get to a right answer that’s so clearly correct that it shuts everyone up and they just memorize it as the perfect answer to the question. You want the best way to encourage thinking.

Now here’s how Immanuel Kant lays it out. He turns it into an example of a technical term in his complex, carefully designed ontology of the human subject – an ideal of pure reason.

How an “ideal of pure reason” works – it’s a framework principle of thought itself. Literally a regulation for our minds. So while it's an imaginary scenario, it's a real part of the human mind and subject.

So what kind of thought does thinking through a social contract argument facilitate? For Kant, it’s the thought of governors themselves – heads of state, politicians, functionaries, legislators, parliamentarians.

By focussing their minds on the fundamental questions of what brings people together in a society, leaders will create laws, regulations, and institutions for their own societies that align with the values and best interests of their own people.

As Kant puts it, they’ll write laws to which every citizen would consent if given the opportunity – just like in the image of writing the social contract in the first place.

There are some limitations to this. But I’ll get into those tomorrow.

Post-Truth Riffing With the Squad, Jamming, 17/01/2017

So my colleagues at SERRC have been tossing around the idea of a project engaging with the notion of post-truth.

A bit of a serious topic these days. It’s a term that cries out for analysis from the professional social epistemologists. I’ve signed on to be part of the project. Its timeliness (and general mainstream media ubiquity) makes it a good topic to throw down on as a group of public intellectuals.

Besides, the general discipline of the organization is social epistemology – the study and investigation of how social interaction at all levels of individual, group, cultural, and institutional processes creates knowledge. The concept cries out for our analysis.

Rather, the general idea is crying out to become a concept. ‘Post-truth’ is largely just a buzzword with a little academic pedigree. But when philosophers go to work on a messy, complicated phenomenon, we can craft a concept that can do some useful work in helping us understand clearly a muddled, confusing real-life situation.

So here are some initial thoughts on what to do about this post-truth idea. We’re still in the early stages of working out this project, and I’d like to get some thoughts from my likely collaborators, anyone else in the SERRC, or any of my friends and readers so inclined.

The notion that we're in a post-truth world isn't exactly new. We've been
slipping in this direction for a long time. What's happened lately is that
we've crossed a threshold. But the conditions have existed for a while.
First of all, here’s a few things my approach won’t be. I won’t rest with the idea – very valuable and important though it is – that a ‘post-truth era’ is basically a world of lies. Or the fulfillment of Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ – strength of self-belief and the emotional intensity of your opinion matters. Whether it reflects actual facts at all? Not so much.

This notion is true. But it’s too simple. It’s the idea of ‘post-truth’ before philosophical creativity has really gone to work on it. We don’t know the idea’s inner structures, possible implications, its links to other concepts of different philosophical approaches and positions. It’s just an idea. Only when we’ve engineered it into a concept can we know what it means.

Yet you also can’t take the idea too seriously. There are certainly dangerous elements to how easily knowledge is undermined. A. C. Grayling cites one example – that one of the first auto-complete suggestions for the phrase “Did the” is “Holocaust really happen?” and some of the top hits are from denialists.

Definitely serious. But you can’t approach the ‘post-truth era’ as if we were in some radically different mode of politics and society than we were only a few years ago. It passes blindly over the real continuity in history from the current moment to the past.

We see only a huge difference – it’s there since we’ve apparently crossed a post-truth threshold in 2016 – but we also have to see its conditions and precursors. The journalist Jonathan Mahler got the philosophical ball rolling a few weeks ago.

The loops of knowledge – the social connections through which we learned about the world – began closing off a while ago. Some of the first to close their knowledge to outside input were the leaders and many figures in the W Administration.

Turning their eyes from the intelligence reports that would have denied their desire to invade Iraq. Occupation leaders unable to see the growing insurgency until it was too late to stop anything. Even when the UN was bombed and many people who could have helped build a better post-invasion Iraq were killed.

Everything was normal. Their blindness is the precursor to our closed feedback loops of partialities, dogma, and conspiracies. It’s a normal development in continuity with the past. But those situations only become conditions retroactively.

This is my starting point. I want to touch base with my collaborators and see what else can develop from this project. It could be a fantastic blend of philosophy, sociology, politics, and historical anthropology. Hope to hear from everyone soon.

The Slow Outreach of Respect in the Troll Era, Advocate, 16/01/2017

A fortunate follow-up to my analysis of troll politics this weekend. It’s a small example of a conversation that I think demonstrates how real social change happens. A story about getting people with opposing political views to sit down respectfully and work out ideas about the future of society together.

That kind of coalition-building used to be done in most state politics and governance, but not anymore in this era of demonizing the opposition and priming people for one-party rule.

A graphic representation of people's typical attitude when discussing
politics on the internet.
Qualifications first. I don’t intend this story to imply anything about how to win elections or referendums. Because this is about how to build bridges with opposition to humanize each other and restore values of friendship and brotherhood to political organizing.

So do you win elections? Present a set of genuine policy alternatives driven by a genuinely alternative political and moral philosophy that critiques and makes up for the blind spots in the current government’s approach. Then promote the hell out of that vision and drive turnout as high as you can.

But how do we end this impasse of polarization? What kind of conversation spaces can we start with our opponents that won’t immediately become cesspools of abuse?

Twitter will not be that space. Political organizing on Twitter is for peacock posturing and rallying your own troops with news, photos, and live video.

Facebook can be that space, but not the typical kind of Facebook space that’s gotten all the press this year – It won’t be partisan news pages like Eagle Rising or Addicting Info. I’m talking about interactions of personal pages and profiles.

My old friend D the Miner got into it when I posted a link to my post about troll politics, throwing some right-wing perspective into the mix. And though I cheekily confronted him about it at first, we ended up in a fairly detailed back-and-forth about how people perceive and associate political and social values, and what the future of Canadian energy should be.

Do not let the monsters determine how you live, only how you fight
Facebook comments allow people to have public conversations where each statement can carry a lot of detail. You can explain what you want to say in a comment or reply field where you can go on for a paragraph or two.

What’s more, the context of those threads are clear from their layout – if a thread is a conversation between two people, you don’t have to jump in on that exact thread if you have something different to say. You can start your own comment thread and conversation on the post.

It’s a slow process – literally just detailed conversations among friends scattered around the country and the world. But it can create a more relaxed space where people can talk in a respectful way about the different ways they experience life and society.

Because while we may be in a time of extremism now, we’ll also need to lay down the foundations of a more peaceful politics to emerge if democratic culture survives this upheaval. Those foundations are those calm spaces of conversation and fellowship between different people.

Not always appropriate for every political context. But definitely needed.

Troll Politics, Advocate, 14/01/2017

It’s not exactly news to call Donald Trump America’s most prominent troll. But it’s not just an insult. Trolling is often discussed (and dismissed) as the immature snarking of self-entitled jackasses. And it is.

But it’s also become a politically powerful weapon – the discourse of mocking, dismissal, and the marginalization of critique and conscience. It turns every piece of sincere communication against itself. The crystallization of nihilistic postmodernism.

Troll discourse is the most powerful political speech weapon of our time. And if progressive forces don’t master it and learn to destroy it, anti-racist and anti-fascist politics will be crushed in the West.

If progressive activists can grow their own trolling skills – both on
social media and in real life – to Shkreli's and Milo's levels, those
movements will have a chance of surviving the Trump years. If not,
we'll be ripped to shreds.
So how does troll discourse work? It’s essentially the subversion of political language. Look at the most recent example.

For the last month, the progressive mainstream Western press has led major discussions of “fake news.”

The term originally refers to the websites and Facebook groups that concoct lies and hoaxes – usually about left-wing political figures and the Hillary Clinton campaign. These hoaxes are so purposefully inflammatory that they’ll drive a huge number of clickthroughs (and the attendant ad revenues).

It’s a little blunt, but basically accurate. Since the US election, there’s been a flurry of panicked articles floating around the progressive and liberal online literati denouncing fake news and trying to figure out how to stem it.

Now look what Donald Trump did in his press conference last week. During the presidential campaign, CNN was widely seen as kowtowing to the Trump campaign for the sake of ratings. But the network also employs many Trump-skeptical journalists.

When faced with critical questions about his Russian connections from CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump refused to answer them. He instead denounced the whole network. But look at the language – “You’re fake news!

He smeared any reporting of Trump’s personal and business connections with Vladimir Putin and the Russian billionaire nationalist community as the irresponsible spreading of fake news.

Yeah, well you're a fake President.
A term that’s been defined in popular discourse as Trump-critical is now used by Trump himself to denounce any criticism of him and his government. Classic trolling – take a term whose popular meaning is most often used against you and use it against your enemies, claiming it’s for the same reasons.

In just the same way, chief trolls like Milo Yiannopolous and protege Martin Shkreli are brilliant practitioners of trolling. They’ve taken the narrative concepts from people and groups who’ve historically suffered from systematic institutional marginalization, and let wealthy white men of various levels of jockishness and dorkitude claim to be victims of systematic discrimination.

Because someone who makes video games they don’t like broke up with a stalkerish asshole. Or a Trump-critical journalist who works for a typically “women’s” magazine objected to harassing, stalking behaviour to get a millionaire hedge fund trader banned from a social media platform.

Shrkeli’s defenders have called his removal from Twitter his victimization at the hands of SJW fascists and an attack on his free speech rights.

Verbal and graphic harassment in a public forum has been defended as an untouchable act of free speech. When Shkreli was to appear as a guest of honour at the UC Davis stop of Milo’s Dangerous Faggot Tour, protests of the two grew so intense and violent that the appearance was cancelled.

Millions of people take this notion seriously. We have a lot of work to do.
And people called the cancellation of a high-budget campus tour stop an attack on Milo and Martin’s free speech.

All the concept that progressive activists develop to articulate their claims, their programs, and their rights are co-opted by reactionary enemies within months, weeks, possibly even days. Not just intent, but linguistic meaning itself has been politically destabilized.

Unless progressively-minded activists and organizers confront this form of reactionary subversion, we will be crushed. Progressives need to master the subversive and moving language that reactionaries already use with expert skill – This is the most difficult political battle of my generation, and we need to perfect our weapons.

I’ll be posting this on my Facebook author page, and tagging all my activist friends – I hope we can have the first of some productive discussions to turn the tide against reaction and in favour of real freedom.

Patriotism and the Nation, Composing, 13/01/2017

So here’s a preliminary outline of how the argument I laid out the other day about patriotism will play out in the arguments of Utopias.

This is the conception of patriotism as it was originally developed – a concept of democratic revolution. It’s the notion that ordinary people could mature and progress politically, socially, and morally, enough to take responsibility for running the country.

Patriotic politics was a democratic response to the mainstream of central Europe’s approach to governance in Immanuel Kant’s time – paternalism, where the only bulwark against chaos was the authoritarian rule of a monarch and the noble classes that surrounded him.

It's easy when you're an absolute monarch to think the whole country
revolves around you. Mainly because, institutionally, it does.
Doesn't necessarily make for the most well-rounded people.
The ideal of patriotism was the ideal of the French Revolution, which loomed large in Kant’s political imaginary. This despite Kant arguing explicitly against the overthrow of any constitution, ruler, or sovereign institution in his “Theory and Practice” essay.

Because the core idea of the French Revolution was that the king, despite his position and the ontological conception of the crown as sovereign, was actually immature, self-interested, blinkered, and blind to the real concerns of the country’s people. And the people had a better conception of what their country needed than the king.

For the first time in continental European history since the beginning of the centralized state, a sudden and massive institutional change took place, based on the notion that the people could govern better than the monarch.

And that popular practical knowledge justified the replacement of the monarch. More incredible, that transformation took place in France, which was the largest, most centralized monarchist power in continental Europe.

Kant himself straddled the two eras as a thinker, since he was already an old man when the French Revolution began playing out. But this idea of the people’s maturity to be free was much more influential on German thinkers of the following generation: George Hegel, Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, Novalis, and those who followed them.

But now, a new political problem began playing out in Western society: Who were the people of a country?

In a political context of absolute monarchy, this question makes no sense. The country was defined through the person of the crown – the people of a country were the subjects of the crown.

The only power for which a monarch is fit, is symbolic power. Only
when they have no real material mastery of the government and no
truly absurd or exploitive privileges, can a heredity monarch be more
likely to accept the responsibilities of the throne. Good series, too.
Being its subjects separated them from that crown – not just a difference in social hierarchy, but a difference in being, in essence. The people and the crown were different orders of being. The people’s national revolution in 1789 changed all that.

Popular sovereignty means that the people and the crown are the same. Just like it says on the tin, the people are sovereign. But now you have to figure out who the people are.

Kant’s political writings refer to the citizens as the sovereign people. But citizenship alone is more than just a matter of who holds papers for the state – who’s registered with the passports, the birth certificates, and other citizenship documents at the relevant government ministry. That’s the factual question of citizenship.

It isn’t the moral question of citizenship. That’s not just about who happens to have citizenship of a country, but who should have citizenship of a country. Not the citizens as they are, but the body of rightful citizens. The people who can unify their political and social desires into a popular general will that shapes institutional structures and governmental norms.

There can be many possible answers to this. But the answer that quickly came to predominate in European philosophy was the nation – that concept unified ethnicity, linguistic community, cultural mores, and religious heritage into a single, unified essence for each state.

This is the philosophical and political moment when the concept of nationalism came to dominate Western thought. It would not end well.

Entertaining the Possibility of an Actual Film, Composing, 12/01/2017

It actually will just be a short one tonight. Most of my creative activity today was revisiting the treatment pitch I wrote for a You Were My Friend film. I’m pursuing some leads right now that I hope will lead to some help with the production, so that I can raise enough money in the next year to get it produced.

I mean, I’ll probably end up being a producer myself. I’m already the writer. And I’ll probably be the director. I at first didn’t feel totally comfortable with that, but a talk with my friend Aisha – a professional documentary filmmaker – convinced me that it’s probably for the best.

I know the story best. I know the characters best behind it. I know what I want to say to the actors to make this my way.

And I learned a lot from working so closely with Mel, my director on the theatrical version, about how to guide actors.

One of my favourite stories about cameras comes from Werner Herzog,
telling the story of how he got his first camera. He was working in a
storage warehouse that included a lot of filmmaking equipment. He
saw a perfectly good camera that no one ever rented out, so he stole
it himself. He used that camera on just about every film he made for
nearly 20 years. Including some of his masterpieces.
I figure now that I’ll probably need only a crew of eight people. Myself, a co-producer with more experience in filmmaking logistics, a cinematographer, an editor, a sound recorder, a lighting and grip person, a set designer, and a production assistant to do continuity and take care of all the little crap.

18 actors. Eight bit parts of one or two scenes and a few lines, eight supporting roles who appear in three or four scenes, and the two leads Vicki and Madison. And I want to cast actresses who are actually the same ages as the characters – 19-20 and mid-20s. A few extras for restaurant scenes, and an indoor club scene.

The story has changed quite a lot, of course. Even just from the first draft of this script to the current one. In the original draft of the film, the sequences were very episodic. The episodes weren’t just about different phases in their relationship – in the film’s narrative, they also revolved around flashbacks.

Each sequence was its own story where we saw a part of the story unfold, intercut with scenes depicting the conditions bringing it about. For example, a comic conversation over Madison having bought an expensive coffee maker is interrupted by the full story of how and why she bought it in the first place. It reveals that she knows more than she says.

As I think about it, I realize that I was actually writing that part of the script more like it was a novel. There, you meditate with the amusement, can easily slip in a detail from the past, then let the rest of the scene play out with its more dramatic implications over the funny content.

But that only works because you take more time to read a sequence in a novel than you do to watch events unfold on a screen. In cinema, the tonal shift moves too quickly – it’s too abrupt.

So I made the sequence a straight chronological line. Madison discovers an event that makes her depressed,* and in an act of indifferent whimsy buys this machine. Now the whole conversation between she and Vicki about it is coloured with tragic implications. But you still laugh at the funny dialogue. It’s a twisty tension.

* I don’t spoil my own work. At least not that much.

I’m grateful to my former collaborator on this project Samantha for recommending this change. Going back to the scene as I update my treatment pitch, I better understand the structural reason why, how it’s rooted in the experience of watching cinema itself.

Every experience of writing, every thoughtful criticism from a friend, makes you a better artist. Now all I need is a budget commitment and a crew.

When Patriotism Was Liberation, Research Time, 11/01/2017

If you were to take Immanuel Kant’s political ideas with the spin I put on them yesterday, he’d be a guide to liberation and peace. In many ways, he still is. But there are some important aspects of his thinking the prevent people today from adopting his ideas as if we were simple Kantians.

I don’t just mean the huge number of possible interpretations that the term ‘Kantian’ includes. There’s so much diversity of thought in the umbrella of Kant’s influence – even among the thinkers who consider themselves loyal to him – that the term is at best a general description of a few key tendencies.

No, I’m talking about something less to do with the history of philosophy (or philosophical history) and just plain history.

For all the high-horse talk that academic philosophers can sometimes spout about the universal nature of their questions, how we engage those universal human questions changes with the context of our eras. Kant is no exception.

The best example I can think of right now* is the label he gives to that society of free people. Yesterday, I described Kant’s vision of a free society – a society of people who exercise their freedom by safeguarding and protecting the freedoms of everyone else. But I didn’t give Kant’s name for it.

* Because I literally read it three days ago.

He called it “the patriotic state.”

For someone reading this in 2017, that is a mind-fuck. When I hear the word ‘patriotic,’ I typically conjure up images of incredible conservatism. I remember my first years as a young adult, watching American political leaders and ordinary people quashing dissent and even mild critique of W and his clique in the name of patriotism.

Patriotism – as a word – I hear as a clarion call to conformity, to silence, to obedience. In 2017, the word ‘patriotism’ has more connotations of authoritarianism and even political violence than it does freedom. Think of the right-wing media jerks who laugh with glee when they hear of protestors beaten in the streets. That's what they get for their lack of patriotism.

Yet in 1792, patriotism meant freedom. In fact, it was dangerous. Kant’s own writings faced censorship by the government of his country Prussia. He’d written essays that took years to see the light of day because his state authorities deemed them unsuitable dissent.

When Kant called his vision of a society of universal mutual responsibility the patriotic state, he contrasted it with the paternalistic state. Paternalism was the ideology of central Europe’s kings and princes.

King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia, Kant's king.
The royalty that ruled because they saw themselves as the only class of people capable of ruling the disorganized masses. Ordinary people – so says paternalistic, monarchist ideology – are stupid, impulsive, permanent children who need a strong authority to guide them to proper behaviour.

Paternalism is the political order of obedience, hierarchy, and authoritarianism. The King is the stern father, and the police forces are his rod bringing necessary discipline to his children – the subjects – so that they will obey and do right.

Kant’s vision of patriotism reflects the popular understanding of the idea as it arose in the French Revolution of 1789. It was the idea that the ordinary people of a society really could take a leadership position. That they could participate in the institutions of their state in ways other than the chaos of greed and unrestrained desire.

Kant’s entire political philosophy is based on the notion that the masses can become mature, can be masters of their state, government, and society. That they can achieve the maturity to carry their societies along an arc of continuing moral progress. And that they need only the regulation of their own reason and intelligence to do it.

It turns the logic of paternalism on its head, while accepting some of its basic language. If the paternalists believed the people to be continual children, Kant and the patriots would say – No, everyone can grow up.

Everyone can be reasonable. That principle is the foundation of his philosophical commitment to democracy, even as he lived in one of the most strict monarchies of central Europe.

But he spoke language that was very much of his own time, that expressed the conflicts of his own society – between the paternalist authority of monarchy and the universal freedom of patriotic republicanism.

That authoritarian forces could, even after many years, capture the language of patriotism for their own ends speaks to the tenacity of the human lust for power and control. We can never stop being vigilant. No victory is ever permanent or assured.

Rights Are What We Give – Not What We Take, Research Time, 10/01/2017

Been going through an old essay of Immanuel Kant lately that doesn’t get much attention among the basic intros to his work. Like a lot of sentences Kant writes, the title is very long: “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, But It Is of No Use in Practice.”

It’s taught enough in introductions to Kant’s political and moral thought that it’s included in the Cambridge Practical Philosophy collection of his work. But it’s definitely outside the usual Kant undergrad canon of the first two Critiques and the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.

Part of what inspired me to write this post was reading about the
harassment journalist Lauren Duca recently endured from the famous
pharma troll Martin Shkreli, who plastered his Twitter account with
images like this one – of his head photoshopped onto Duca's husband
– when she told him to get fucked after he asked her to be his date to
Donald Trump's inauguration party. Shkreli ended up banned (at least
for now) from Twitter
over what he called "just a collage."
Hell, in my experience, I consider myself lucky to have even been offered to read the Critique of Practical Reason in my own undergrad years.

But “Correct in Theory” has some very useful ideas for today’s increasingly extreme politics. Particularly the contemporary defence of bullying and harassment as free speech.

I'm not going to pussyfoot around my own stance on the issue. The notion that all speech – including harassment mobs, threats, and cyberstalking like doxxing – is protected by our values of free expression is a perversion of the entire liberal tradition.

This concept of freedom of speech as the entitlement to say whatever you want to whoever you want, with any attempt to make you go away as an act of censorship, is a distinctly contemporary creation. And it’s a creation of bubbles of self-entitled jerks in toxic online communities like particular Reddit boards, decent chunks of 4Chan, and pretty much all of 8Chan.

As a concept, it’s the notion that a freedom is a personal empowerment. That a right is a protection for the exercise of your power, whose only restraints are what you choose to impose on yourself. It’s a purely individualist way of thinking about rights – my right to do this.

So here’s an old, authoritative, dead white man for the misogynist mobs of the internet to deal with. Immanuel Kant writes,
“Right is the limitation of the freedom of each to the condition of its harmony with the freedom of everyone.”
Right, in other words, is bound up with limits. Despite the fantasies of the most individualistic minds and philosophies, humans are social creatures.

Once again, I turn to the words of Larry David and the voice of George
Costanza for the wisdom that so many of us so often forget.
We are living in a society. So the freedoms we need also come with obligations. Our freedom to speak our minds and opinions has to be tempered with the need for social harmony – not to harm our fellow people, whether by insult, violation of privacy, or disturbing harassment.

Yet that twinning of right and obligation doesn’t even get Kant’s idea quite right. He doesn’t say our rights should be limited by our obligations to our fellows – he says our rights are those limitations.

Our rights don’t come from our assertion as individuals. They are our stepping back from other individuals so that they have the space to live freely themselves.

We don’t create spheres of personal freedom with loud, bold assertions. We don’t beat on our chests like a stereotypical ape to make our rights clear. Our rights only come into being when we let other exercise their rights.

So the goal of political morality in this perspective isn’t encouraging loud, grandstanding, chest-puffing, “I do this to you because I have the right!” Right is the creation and maintenance of social harmony through each of our conscience and choice.

A society of free people is therefore a society of people who look out for each other, who run our institutions and act in everyday life to safeguard the freedom of everyone else.

I shouldn’t have to argue this like it’s some radical new idea. That quote came from an essay that is literally 224 years old!

Yet in our bubbles of self-entitlement, we’ve forgotten this powerful idea.

Inescapable Obsolete States, Research Time, 09/01/2017

So after reading through Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, I started looking around for other books that would examine perspectives like his. Conceptions of global citizenship and multinational civic engagement and identity building.

My own country Canada's policy of welcome to all immigrant groups
is part of a program of multiculturalism that's integrated our major
cities and helped build one of the first post-national countries.
I’ve had some limited success so far. I’ve snagged a couple of things by Pheng Cheah which are on my list to get to pretty soon. And I also found an interesting little book by a philosophically inclined journalist named Atossa Araxia Abrahamian.

The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen is a title dripping in irony. When I read Appiah’s abstract arguments in favour of embracing cosmopolitan, multicultural, multinational aspects of our identities, I found an optimistic, hopeful vision of humanity’s potential for coexistence and friendship.

Appiah’s philosophy and his life are conceptual and living arguments for embracing our multiplicity. We too often today use strictly defined terms – ex. Muslim, English-speaker, Quebecer, Burmese, Russian – to stake borders around our identities. We make a single or very few of these definitions primary to our identities, and see the world as a collision of these strictly-defined identities and allegiances.

But if we embrace the differences within our own identities and societies, we’ll make ourselves more open to building relationships with people whose cultures have very different thematic concepts and traditions.

It sounds like a paradox, but focussing on our own differences makes it easier to build kinship across cultural and national lines. We explore our many different vectors of cultural creation.

Philosophical journalist Atossa Abrahamian
Sounds fantastic. But Abrahamian’s empirical, journalistic perspective brings a dark angle to the embrace of cosmopolitan identities.

Reading The Cosmopolites, Abrahamian identifies a core source of cosmopolitanism’s corruption – economies and cultural connections have become profoundly global, but massive material power still rests with national, territorially-defined states.

For one, it’s largely the very rich who actually embrace global citizenship in practical terms. Small countries with limited economic possibilities have taken up selling their citizenships.

Several Caribbean island states like St Kitts and Antigua are the major players in this market. If you can afford to invest a few hundred thousand dollars in property or other support to these countries, they’ll offer you citizenship.

And it’s not just the Caribbean. Abrahamian informed me that, for example, former Thai PM and semi-evil billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra regularly travels on his Montenegro* passport.

* And Montenegro itself has been wrapped up in some freaky old-school imperialist shenanigans from its recent creation as a state until today.

But the weirdest kind of citizenship shenanigans is a practice I didn’t know much about until now. I had known already that many Arab countries have large populations of long-resident non-citizens. That many who were born in Persian Gulf monarchies and emirates had no path to citizenship because their families were foreign-descended.

Activist and writer Iyad el-Baghdadi
This was the situation of my old friend A from university. He and his family were of Indian descent, coming from Chennai. When he was born, they lived in Kuwait. Because they weren’t descended from old stock Kuwaitis, he was disallowed citizenship in the country where he was born.

But I didn’t know that many of these non-citizens were genuinely stateless. They had no citizenship at all. The reporting of Iyad el-Baghdadi – a human rights activist and reporter from the United Arab Emirates – first alerted me to the problem. From him, I learned that the UAE is on a path to a population of 96% non-citizens.

And Abrahamian has produced a report on the strangest solution to this citizenship problem. Kuwait and the UAE, in separate deals, negotiated with the Comoros Islands to buy hundreds of thousands of Comoro citizenships for its stateless citizens.

We’ve come a long way from the philosophies of the founding period of the nation-state. The modern state as a public ideology – a philosophy become dogma – the state is the expression of the nation. It’s an agent of social unity – the state unifies a diverse people, but is also the institutionalization of the universal national essence. It’s the voice of a people and simultaneously creates that voice.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the founding
philosophers of the modern concept of nation
as reaching its highest and most proper form as
a state government of free citizens.
Yet today, we see states and governments who treat citizenship as a commodity to be bartered for. Just another thing to be bought and sold.

Should we mourn for the ideal of the nation-state? Its commitment to forging a people in unity together. Or do we admit that it was always kind of a sham?

That a few sophisticated, idealistic, and maybe a little naive thinkers made an inspiration out of an institution that was always about control of populations. That the lofty philosophies of Rousseau, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel only ended up giving institutions of exclusion and racialization multifaceted dimensions and a bunch more propaganda material?

That all the talk about the unity of a state and its nation meant nothing when those very nations were building colonial empires, folding wildly different cultures inside their states.

Reality’s hypocrisy doesn’t mean we can simply write off the philosophies of nationhood and the nation-state. The philosophies provided the foundational concepts for how we as people understand our political institutions – their purposes and ideals.

Building a genuinely post-national world means building an institutional, activist, and conceptual toolbox for a model of politics that globalizes democracy. Building the concepts of the new means understanding the concepts of what you want to overcome.

Cosmopolitanism (the philosophy and the book) is a start. But as Abrahamian’s research shows, it isn’t nearly enough.