Praying for a Broken Faith: Why I Never Liked The West Wing, A History Boy, 30/11/2014

A spontaneous blog entry about modern politics and politically-minded media, on a night when I’m too worn out from the last month of producing a play, dealing with school, dealing with the politics of changing my program’s working group around, and keeping up with publication work. Inspired by some random tweets I read Saturday night from regular VICE contributor Anne Thériault about why she hates The West Wing.

When the world didn't give Western liberals the US
President we wanted, Aaron Sorkin put one on TV.
I’ve talked before about how much the Sept 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and watching the Bush-Cheney Administration’s radical expansionist ideology of democracy by the gun wreaking havoc around the world shaped the fundamentals of my political perspective’s development. 

I had always been interested in politics throughout my life. I always enjoyed watching election night coverage — I’d get excited by election results and campaigns the same way most ordinary humans get excited by sports playoffs. Having been raised in a traditional left-wing household, I took for granted many of the views and political orientations that were important to my mother in her politically definitive years, her time as a women’s rights activist in the 1970s.

But those first few years of the 2000s saw me put a lot of those political values under a more critical lens. It wasn’t that I was leaving left-leaning positions behind; far from it. It had occurred to me that a lot of the political solutions of the traditional left, the values forged in that global revolutionary moment of the 1960s and 1970s, were simply inadequate to the Bush-Cheney ideology.

Take this example. From the time NATO forces first invaded Afghanistan in 2001 until sometime around the start of the Obama Administration, I did believe that this was a legitimate military action that could have positive consequences, especially for the women of the country, if we dismantled the Taliban regime and installed a more democratic government that would permit social liberalization again. We could achieve the goal of protecting women’s rights through military and state action. I believed that this military action was okay because of this eventual best-case scenario.

But I didn’t support the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. My reasons lay in that invasion’s never having received United Nations support, and that the Bush Administration had clearly fabricated its claims about collaboration of Saddam Hussein’s (secular, Stalinist) Ba’ath government with Al Qaeda as well as that regime’s possessions of WMDs. Much like the time's liberal consensus.

Dick Cheney is one of the great monsters of American
politics and history. Just visually, he's scary.
Over the following years, I became even more disturbed by what I learned about Bush-Cheney’s ideology and Iraq. For a political science course that I took in the Spring/Summer of 2003, I wrote a paper about the United States’ motivations for going to war. The major assignment for the class was to analyze the reasons why the permanent Security Council member state of your choice voted as it did. That was how I discovered The Project for a New American Century, the conservative think tank where Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and other key members and advisors to the Bush Administration developed their philosophy of foreign policy that it was possible to invade a country into democracy. Forget the “It’s All About Oil” conspiracies; this was more insidious. The world’s most powerful army near-bankrupted itself to put a philosophy into action.

They conceived of liberal democracy as the natural state of human civilization, the mode of government in which people were most free. Liberty being the natural state of humanity, societies would organize themselves to maximize their liberty as long as oppressive or otherwise restrictive state practices did not interfere with the process. The corollary was that, if a democratic country were to depose the government of a dictatorship that was otherwise culturally developed, free and fair elections would naturally produce a liberal democracy as an expression of a people in liberty.

This was when I first understood the power of philosophy, the tradition of the pure creation of ideas. If you believed deeply enough in an idea, you would live your life according to it, to the maximal power you had. Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the PNAC gang all believed in their philosophy so deeply that even actual facts couldn’t convince them to reconsider. And they controlled the maximal power of the United States' entire armed forces.

Niccolo Machiavelli on mercenaries: "Mercenaries and
auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his
state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor
safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without
discipline; unfaithful." – The Prince §12.
As well, the crimes of both the American state army, but especially the mercenary businesses who eventually took de facto control over the occupation force, created the conditions for the horrifying regional war that has engulfed Iraq and Syria today.

Over the course of the Obama Administration, I saw the inexorable slide also of Afghanistan back into civil conflict, de facto rule by regional warlords and criminal chiefs, and a resurgence of radical religious social conservatism there and in rural Pakistan that was expressed most publicly in the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. I can’t put my finger on when I had my final resolution on our intervention in Afghanistan. It wasn’t directly connected to a single event. 

During those years, I realized that, in terms of fundamental philosophy, there was no truly different motivation for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush Administration believed that a military force could destroy a dictatorial government and eject its state employees from their institutional roles and the natural liberty of humanity would raise a liberal democracy in its place. 

The UN-sanctioned invasion of Afghanistan ultimately had a goal of deposing the Taliban regime to secure, if not a pure democracy (though Bush often spoke of the Karzai regime this way, because he was regularly elected), then at least a more socially liberal government and society. In both cases, we sought to impose democratic government and society on a culture through military force. We did it all in the name of ostensibly liberal values, the social values of the left: individual liberty for self-determination, free elections, representative government, and women’s rights.

What does all this have to do with The West Wing? Well, I had a lot of very good friends with similar traditionally left-leaning beliefs as I had in the early 2000s who loved The West Wing. It was their dreamland, a place they could go where the world operated according to more sane rules. 

Jed Bartlet was a United States President who would have operated according to true liberal moral principles. It was like all the liberal ideals of the 20th century’s democratic left came true on The West Wing. It was our comforting counter-factual. For a lot of fans of the show during its years of peak quality, the years of peak insanity from the real American state executive, it was a refuge for liberal faith.

They were once some of the biggest musicians in the
United States, then they spoke their minds in public.
Thériault accurately pointed out that The West Wing, when it focussed on political principles instead of character drama, was simply the mouthpiece of Aaron Sorkin’s Conscientious White Liberal Values™. But those values had already been co-opted by the Bush Administration. Neo-conservative philosophy of international politics is expansionist liberal democracy at gunpoint. Domestic hysteria saw all critique of the government on matters of war to be treason. A government acting in the name of the national security of a democratic country must not be questioned, because questions about the defence of democracy undermine that very defence. Faith in liberal values was itself motivating the destruction of liberal politics. 

I always hated The West Wing, even though I could rarely admit it. At the time, I just found it too preachy, but the last ten years, and this moment of reflection, brought a deeper meaning to me. It was a retreat from the challenge the Bush years brought to liberal values. 

The West Wing let us hide ourselves from the truth that 20th century liberal values had been destroyed from within. We pretended that destruction had never happened because we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask ourselves the difficult questions that would help us articulate a new left, overcoming values that had been made to become monstrous self-subversions. I see the social movements of the last four years actually doing this: Occupy, Idle No More, social network feminism. But they’re very late in coming.

Angry PostHumanism II: The Continuity of All Life, No Matter How Different, Research Time, 28/11/2014

Continued from last post . . . Cary Wolfe’s “Event-Machine” essay is published again in his What Is Posthumanism? collection, in a slightly expanded form from the version I first read in Emergence and Embodiment, which came out the year before. It’s my favourite kind of expansion, which changes the title a little (to “Meaning and Event”), and adds some paragraphs and deletes others at different points throughout. So you don’t just get the original essay with an extra section, but the more detailed work of reconsidering some aspects of the argument and updating it. 

Part of what he’s updating it with, aside from some improvements to the expression and the order of some of the arguments, is attempting to link the essays together. Very few collections of previously published essays do that, and as a result, they’re often quite repetitive, as essays originally published in different journals years apart will be smashed in a book within a few pages of each other. And reading through marginally different iterations of the same introductory conceptual material can get damn annoying sometimes. 

Although Wolfe sometimes refers to the same texts in different articles, and even sometimes the same quotes from the same texts (I’m thinking about a particular line from Jacques Derrida’s essay “Eating Well”), the context of each occurrence is different enough to make it land on a reader differently each time. 

Really, just coming to grips with the fact of our ecological
evolution must adjust you to your continuity with animals.
Any process as slow as humanity's evolution, while involving
thresholds, can only be continuous.
Derrida’s “Eating Well” is his engagement with the ethics and morals of animal rights and vegetarianism, and his conclusion amounts practically to the same brand of not-quite-quietism that most of his ethical engagements end in (unendability, that is). There are several essays in this book about the question of human continuity with non-human animals, an issue that conventional transhumanism usually ignores in its gleaming visions of a humanity that is ultimately stripped of all that could be called organic. It makes for a wonderfully multifaceted critique of all conceptions of humanity that radically separate us from all other forms of life and ecologies.

This makes Wolfe’s essays on the human conception of ourselves regarding animals a welcome addition to the Ecophilosophy manuscript. Because he frames their inclusion in the book using a conception of post-humanism, the new introduction to the manuscript would explicitly link the ecological and geo-historical continuity of humanity to all other life on Earth now and throughout the distant past to the planet’s beginning. 

Wolfe is also very good at calling up the ethical squishiness of our mainstream conceptions of the animal in the context of his own inquiry. I could tell that an essay called “Language, Representation, and Species” originally appeared as a direct attack on Daniel Dennett’s conception of mind, and used the actual mental complexity of animals to expose that Dennett’s concept of mind just begged the question of what exactly mind is. 

Basically, Dennett’s argument that the human mind is special because its self-consciousness (that only we can think reflexively, experiencing our own experience) is unique depends on having postulated at the beginning that non-human animals can’t think reflexively. He doesn’t prove that non-human animals are deficient in this way. He just presumes it, and argues for it in a way that makes it feel like a conclusion, when it’s been a premise all along. So I’d like to thank Cary Wolfe for finally putting a finger on why I’ve felt so iffy about Dennett’s ideas ever since I first encountered them late in my undergrad.

So there is no categorical separation between humanity and the rest of the organic world.* Once we’ve established this continuity, we end up in a very difficult spot. A lot of the moral distinctions that allow us to treat animals so poorly (medical and scientific testing, factory farming and industrial slaughterhouse practices) depend on the premise that they can only think in a fundamentally inferior way.

* Thinking in terms of this radical duality also commits the blindness of collapsing all the differences among non-human species of organism into a single category and treating them as if they were all a single type of thing, organisms-that-are-not-human. 

Recognizing the continuity now introduces the ethical issue that moral dialogue with non-humans is possible where all participants are moral agents. Standing on a moral platform, if not in strict moral equivalence or sameness because of our important physical and epistemic differences in kind, means that we have to take our cruelty to animals in a profoundly serious sense. It’s more than just immoral because humans are bad when they’re cruel. A non-human’s cries, when we think authentically in terms of our natural continuity, should touch our soul. To be continued . . .

So About This PostHumanism Thing Again, Research Time, 27/11/2014

When I first got word that my Ecophilosophy manuscript would be considered for a slot in a book series broadly about posthumanism, I started looking into works that explicitly engaged with the concept. This is where my series of posts about Rosi Braidotti’s work this April and May came from. 

When I first discovered The Venture Bros.,
I thought it was a sign that we as a culture
had finally gotten over our techno-futurist
dreams. I guess not.
As I said a couple of days ago, my thoughts about transhumanism are noteworthy mostly because I so rarely think about transhumanism. I always found the philosophy played better as science-fiction concepts, and most of the straight philosophy of transhumanism ends up stuck in techno-futurist dreams that I thought we had gotten over. The techno-futurist dreams of the 19th and 20th centuries all blew up in our faces when the totalitarian regimes of Europe and Asia nearly destroyed humanity’s moral sense, and this was followed by the global ecological crisis hitting us with pollution phenomena so enormous and strange that you have to be crazy just to understand them. 

The Pacific Trash Vortex is a thing that is real, and we made it. That’s just my personal favourite example of this terrifyingly surreal ecological crazy of our civilization. So the idea at the heart of transhumanism that a whole-hearted embrace of technology will save us from ourselves is kind of laughable to me.

Posthumanism is an amorphous collection of philosophical perspectives that basically acts as a variety of rejoinders to this freakish optimism of the transhumanist vision. And at the moment, I’m looking into an essay collection by Cary Wolfe called What Is Posthumanism?, a title and a jacket description that made me think it would be quite useful for the new introduction to the Ecophilosophy project that sets it in the posthumanist context.

Wolfe’s book doesn’t quite do that; I think Braidotti’s work is best suited to forming a ground to a new introduction. Wolfe is a little too much of a Derrida fan for that. I first came across his work in the initial research when I was composing the manuscript in 2011, in my doctoral program at McMaster. He wrote a very illuminating essay, called “Meaning as Event-Machine” that closed the multi-author collection Emergence and Embodiment, which was about philosophical explications and implications of systems theory.

Wolfe’s “Event-Machine” essay helped me see the core problem with mainstream systems theory, that it isolates perceiving bodies from each other and the world semantically, even while they do perceive the world’s affects. If meaning is idiosyncratic to the perceiver, then communication is impossible. So the fact of communication is either an illusion or a paradox, which Wolfe illuminates with a parallel to Jacques Derrida’s ideas.*

* Yes, you can illuminate an idea with a reference to Derrida. Now put away your snark and be nice or go back to work for philosophical Buzzfeed.

Basically, we affect each other, but all we manage to do is hopefully harmonize our mutual irritations. It really helped me understand perception and language as a field of affects. Yes, we basically just create fields that disrupt each other, but those fields can interact harmoniously, and the patterns in those affects actually constitute meaning, like the patterns of fluctuations in radio waves making the content of our transmissions. Semantics emerges from syntax. It’s only a mysterious paradox if you don’t think that’s possible. To you people I say, go learn how radio works.

But I’m not really a fan of Derrida precisely because he sticks with the pessimistic view. Because all we do is affect and irritate each other, he mourns the loss of the more profound communion that we all thought communication really was. So I was a bit disappointed to see what a devotee Wolfe is of Derrida’s fundamental frameworks. 

Even so, he does much more interesting things with Derrida than I expected to see. To be continued . . . 

Networking Analysis, Jamming, 26/11/2014

Last night, I attended a set of brief workshops that are regularly organized by the Corporate Communications department of Centennial College at the Story Arts Centre in East York. Like all events related to corporate communications, it had a name that the cynical would consider just a little cheesy, Talk Is Cheap. Here are a few brief things that  this night of seminars and panels really solidified in my knowledge about the field of work I’m about to enter.

Critical stuff first. I’m not sure how much knowledge can be imparted in a single 20 minute workshop session that still includes a presentation. I attended two workshops that were much too short to contain all that they could contain. The most interesting one was a presentation of a representative of the Cision analytics company, about the metrics by which they analyze a blogger’s audience and overall influence. They use this data to advise their clients on who is the best person to form a corporate relationship with. 

Maps of the internet look cool, but they're even
cooler when you understand their science.
I’m incredibly interested in the science of networks, which companies like Cision use to assemble their reports and analyses. Like most of reality, networks don’t form according to human intuitions. They assemble themselves as hubs and surrounding links — the influencers and those who they influence. Multiple people are influenced by multiple noteworthy hubs, but these hubs are the key points in the dissemination of knowledge. Elitism, at least in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, is built into the fundamental habits of human social activity. 

While my career will start in the corporate sector, I ultimately want to bring this mode of understanding knowledge creation and social change into a social and political context, using the knowledge of networks to change people’s lives for the better.

My only real problem with this presentation was that it was packed with too much introductory material, as if all the audience had never learned anything about networks of influence before. It was built for an hour-long session. All that necessary introduction can’t be employed in a 20 minute session and still leave adequate time for audience engagement.

I think there needs to be more engagement with the fundamental concepts that underlie the business of communications in the education of this field. I know a lot of it already, but you’ll be a better practitioner of your field if you know the conceptual and material levels of its operations. 

On another critical note, the other 20 minute workshop I attended last night suffered from an unfortunate superficiality. I had hoped to get some more intense knowledge of the practice of media relations. Instead, I got 15 minutes of tips and instructions for dealing with the media from a position of institutional power (this presenter did corporate PR for a large public sector corporation) that my first introductory media relations class had already covered. “Some journalists will be hostile to what you have to say.” They certainly will. 

I was more interested in getting into the details of media relations, and perhaps getting some advice on how to engage media when you aren’t in a position of power. For instance, when you’re representing a small company that needs to engage the media to survive and thrive. 

Yes, I was interested to apply some lessons to future promotion for my theatre and fiction work, because we badly needed it on the first run of You Were My Friend. But these are important lessons that I never had the chance to discuss because the over-long presentation took too much time away from discussion, and most of the discussion was taken up by a confused student journalist from Centennial’s college newspaper asking for clarification on particular basic technical terms from PR work.

I guess I'm smart, you know.
Perhaps my most personally satisfying lesson came from the keynote, a three-person panel on social networking and personal branding that was almost entirely based around audience discussion. It also had the benefit of lasting just shy of an hour. The discussion was very enlightening, and I was pleased to see some thoughtful professionals on the panel who had clearly put some work into understanding the central concepts of their occupations.

Here’s the kicker for me personally. There were two interactive wall projections running during the presentations displaying people’s live tweets of the keynote. One of my tweets was about how all the trendy-sounding talk about personal branding is basically just about the expression of character in user-driven media. I tweeted other thoughtful reactions to the presentation, as well as a couple of joking comments about the danger that the cupcakes topped with red icing posed to participants with moustaches. 

Almost every other tweet from student participants was a generic ‘About to get started!’ or ‘Can’t wait to get started!’ or ‘Awesome seminar!’ Don’t be afraid to express a little personal singularity on your twitter account. It’s one thing to listen to people talking about personal branding for an hour, but if you keep thinking in superficial terms, you’ll never actually do it successfully. It’s about character.

Overcoming the All-Too-Human: Response to the Technoprogressive Declaration, 25/11/2014

I’ve never really gotten all that excited about transhumanism as a philosophical or political movement, but it seems that it’s been thrust upon me over the last few months. I’m taking part in a review and a critical discussion on the subject at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, and a promising publication venue for my Ecophilosophy manuscript is as part of a series of books on the general topic of post-humanism.

The Ecophilosophy manuscript was originally conceived as a contribution to environmental moral and ontological philosophy, which it still is. But the opportunity to pitch the manuscript as a discussion in a post-humanism context gets to a central meta-philosophical point in the project itself, my vision of what philosophy is actually for, and what constitutes philosophical progress. 

The transhumanist stereotype: man becomes technology
in a vision where man is the only life.
I consider philosophy an intellectual tradition based upon the creation, refinement, and critique of concepts, new frameworks and approaches to thought. So philosophical practice is essentially theorizing new ways to be human, overcoming existing limitations of human thought and life. This would appear to put me clearly in the transhumanist camp.

But I’m not, really. Steve Fuller should consider this one of the early critiques of the recently published Technoprogressive Declaration. This set of principles for the politically progressive employment of human enhancement technologies emerged this weekend from Transvision 2014, a conference on transhumanist ideas organized by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Take a few moments before I continue my introductory critique* of the statement to actually have a read of it.

* I say introductory critique because I don’t want to spoil too many of the ideas that I’ll discuss in my upcoming joint review of the essay collection Post- and Transhumanism, edited by Robert Ranisch and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, which will be up on SERRC over December.

The goals of the Technoprogressive Declaration are admirable. As technology to improve human life through increasingly amazing ways develops, it should be deployed to maximize human benefit and overcome the inequalities that exist in our world. I certainly hope that the Technoprogressive Caucus puts some concrete action into its activism and either reaches out to the people developing these technologies, or develops ways to liberate them from what will likely be their first home in the luxury goods market. If technology is genuinely able to liberate humanity from its material chains, then the restrictions of economic disenfranchisement have to fall first.

So the Technoprogressive Declaration is certainly right to call for the radical transformation of our economic system. Technological growth has removed the need for human labour from much of our manufacturing processes, but our mainstream morality says that income should only be earned in exchange for work. Extreme technological progress combined with the morality that you must work to live will eventually create a society of permanently destitute unemployed.

The trick will be developing a morality where all people find pleasure in self-improvement. This is a transformation of human nature that transhumanist doctrine often does not touch. In fact, several key historical arguments in favour of transhumanist transformation of the human condition is couched in the notion that radical technological enhancement of the human organism will result in a life of great pleasure and practical immortality to experience that pleasure.**

** Not to mention other problems that maintaining our current economic morality will create for a society of practical immortals.

This hedonism is precisely what proponents of work-to-live moralities decry: the lazy pleasure-seeker whose profane lifestyle is subsidized by the state. The only way to convince moralizers of the principle that one must deserve one’s income through labour to join the transhumanist train is to combine it with a post-humanist principle: that we must overcome the tendency in our nature to rest content with a purely pleasurable environment.

Transhumanism requires an ethical transformation of the human condition, which technology alone is inadequate to achieve. An economy of guaranteed incomes resting on machine labour will only sustain itself if the human race finds its most profound and satisfying pleasure in the independent pursuit of the sciences and arts, and other means of individual self-improvement. Our mythic role models for this future would be figures like Doctor Who and Jean-Luc Picard.

I’m also disappointed that ecological knowledge plays no explicit role in the Technoprogressive Declaration. A secure civilization, especially one so intimately dependent on technology as transhumanist visions, requires an ecologically sustainable technology at every stage of the material production process. It sorely disappoints me that I have so rarely come across transhumanist discussions that take seriously the ecological health of Earth (or whatever planets we settle upon in addition) as the foundation of any sustainable technological progress at all.

An Unheard Idealism: The Lie of a Colonial Israel, Jamming, 24/11/2014

When I was reading Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist revolutionary, earlier this year, what struck me especially in his later texts was a sense of sorrow, as if he knew, despite the continued existence of the organizations and networks he helped build, the moment for social change had passed. He was still alive, though not for much longer, and the conditions in which a radical change to society could happen were gone. The opportunity existed only for a moment, and then it disappeared.

As I watch the unfolding crisis in Israel, I feel as though a similar moment for genuine progress had long since passed. Over the last couple of years, I’ve grown more connected to the conflict in that country, first because of my girlfriend’s strong personal ties to Israel, and then because of my fear and disgust over the anti-Jewish racism in the West, when it became strangely acceptable to articulate criticism of the Israeli state’s actions as violence against ordinary Jewish people.

I was particularly horrified by the tendency among too many of the Western left who have begun to parrot rhetoric that begins in the anti-Jewish racism of Arab street propaganda, that Israel is a colonialist creation and has no right to exist.* But I find it completely weird to think of Israel as an articulation of colonialism because of the conditions of its formation. 

* In a broad philosophical sense, all states are founded on some form of violence toward their populations and have no real right to exist.

Before the modern left stumbles into parroting the racism
of Hamas, we should remember the values of the people
who originally settled Israel, the kibbutzim.
Thinking through this, I realized why Holocaust denial recurs so frequently in the discourse of prominent figures and ordinary people in the Middle East who advocate for Israel’s destruction, and who describe the Israeli state measures to control the Palestinian population as the only real Holocaust. Because if you accept the truth that the Holocaust was real, then you understand the Jewish settlers of Mandate Palestine and the population who founded the modern state of Israel as refugees.

There’s a story in the Amos Oz collection Between Friends that articulates the tragedy of the situation beautifully. Its focal character is an old professor who became a kibbutzim after surviving the Holocaust’s concentration and death camps. The story describes, through his memories of the kibbutz’s foundation, what their motives were. 

They were all anarchist and socialist radicals from eastern Europe, educated people whose goal was to work the land in Israel and build a peaceful society that had overcome all the ethnic and nationalistic enmities of the past. They had already lived through the most horrifying social phenomenon nationalism had ever produced, the industrialized death factories of the Holocaust. They bought the kibbutz’s land from Jordanian aristocrats and set up shop. 

The kibbutzim always made entreaties of friendship to the Arab villagers who lived nearby. They were all working people, farmers, teachers, craftspeople, who had suffered under oppressive powers that persecuted them because of their identity. The Arabs suffered under British, French, and Turkish colonialism; the Jews suffered under Russian and German racial oppression and violence. The establishment of the kibbutz movement was to have been the moment of radical change, when oppressed people would build a new society free from the terror of racism and colonialism under which they had suffered for centuries. 

Likewise, we should look to people like Amos Oz to
understand modern ideals of universal brotherhood.
At the same time as these kibbutzim, many of them Holocaust survivors, were reaching out to their Arab neighbours, there was another group of Jewish immigrants to the Palestine Mandate who had a more skeptical attitude. These were the Haganah and Irgun paramilitary groups who worked to establish the state of Israel by force. Oz’s story describes their dynamic with the kibbutzim as brotherly, but tense. 

The paramilitaries were skeptical that the Arabs in the region would ever accept Jewish people as their brothers. Decolonization in Arab cultures took a nationalistic character, revolving around the Arab identity. This was the grassroots activism of the pan-Arab movement that would bring the military government of Nasser to power in Egypt. People who define themselves according to ethnic nationalist characteristics will exclude those who do not fit the model, even if they could benefit materially from friendship.

What’s more, the military and monarchist leaders of the Arab peoples had a vested interest in preventing the growth of solidarity between poor Arabs and the secular socialist kibbutzim of Israel. If you define your anti-colonial movement through an ethnic national identity, then it won’t matter if your rulers are kings, army generals, or presidents-for-life, as long as they’re your kin.

In this atmosphere, every entreaty for peace and comradeship the kibbutzim made to their Arab neighbours was met with violent reprisals, as Arab people followed the rules of their nationalistic movement. This, even though a political alliance with kibbutzim would have liberated them from the kings and dictators who treated them as rabble or pawns.

Eventually, the kibbutzim gave up on their idealism in the face of ethnic nationalist violence, and their own ethnic nationalists had their way. So the one attempt to stop the feedback loop of violent uprisings and military reprisals was a failure. Despite the public force of those ideals influencing Israeli society ever since, the forces of nationalism have come to dominate the country’s politics.

One of my last conversations with my libertarian friends happened during the firestorm of anti-Jewish hatred that spread throughout Europe and Canada during Operation Protective Edge. He spoke seriously to me about how a core value of socialism was the hatred of Jews, their equation with capitalism and greed through their cultural association with the finance industry. He assured me that all leftists were anti-Semites who would like to rid the world of all Jewish people. 

Perpetuating Holocaust denial throughout the Arab
world is in the interests of oppressive military groups
like Hezbollah and Hamas.
I could not abide this because I knew that, despite many of my friends in left-wing political movements beginning to fall for the anti-Israeli rhetoric that was only a few short steps from the Holocaust denial that is a popular belief throughout the Arab world, it was a lie. And it was just as hateful a lie as Holocaust denial itself.

Oz’s story makes the point that Israel was built on a terrible tragedy, an attempt to build a home for all the oppressed whose idealism found no willing listeners, either among the nationalists of the Jewish community or their Arab neighbours. And despite all the violence of modern politics, that yearning for peace and brotherhood still exists in Israeli society, just as the yearning for freedom remains in every culture that’s been shaped by a rebellion against oppression.

This is why, to preserve the narrative of Israel and the Israeli people as inherently colonial oppressors of the Palestinian and wider Arab peoples, Holocaust denial has propagated through Arab society. Because if you admit the reality of the Holocaust, you are led inevitably to the fact that, despite all the reprehensible state violence and the pressures of population management that the Occupation encourages, you can’t vilify Israel in a pure sense. 

The reality of the Holocaust proves that the Jewish people are also historically oppressed, and that Israel was founded as an anti-colonial movement as well. Jews fleeing the Holocaust and poor Arabs stifling under colonial, military, and monarchist rule should have been brothers. The real seeds of peace lie in that regret.

Our Morality Determines Our Art, Composing, 22/11/2014

Or at least our morals and central ethical concepts have significant foundational influence on how we engage them in art. Let me start with a brief memory from high school, when a crotchety old Newfoundlander Literature teacher named Mr Matthews taught us Sophocles’ Antigone. It was my first exposure to Greek tragedy, a dramatic tradition that has been revived in occasional forms and influences since the Renaissance, but never really had the impact that it originally did.

Read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy if you want the details. In a basic sense, Greek tragedy doesn’t really have the same impact on us today as it did in its original setting because in ancient Greece, the theatre was more than thoughtful entertainment. It was deeply integrated with the religious rituals of the Greek people, particularly the worship of Dionysus, and invested with an ontological meaning that was integral to the worldview of that culture.

A lot of the humour in You Were My
 comes from Samantha (right)
reacting to Hannah (left) rant, the straight
man to her comic. Part of what the play's
structure does is slowly expose Hannah's
shattering soul under all that sarcasm.
That ontology was about fate. The widespread belief, the predominant tendency of thinking about the world, was that humanity was powerless before the forces of nature, including the chains of events that united us. The plots of Greek tragedies all revolved around the same general movement: the central characters attempt to exercise control over their world, make it bend to their will and desires, but a series of events and coincidences over which they have no control ends up utterly ruining them. 

The tragedy, so goes the major theme that, in this case, I take from Nietzsche’s interpretation, offers its audience the opportunity to meditate on our powerlessness before nature. Greek culture at this time had an ethical sensibility based around how miniscule we were compared to the gods, so their whims in shaping our lives were inescapable powers. Tragedy in its original, ancient Greek sense, was about terrible things happening to admirable people because there could have been no other way.

Modern sensibilities are a little different. I don’t really have the time, space, or desire to write about what makes contemporary humanity different from the perspective of the ancient Greeks, despite our important cultural heritage from this epoch. Going into every aspect of that history is, shall we say, a bit of a big topic.

But the central idea of the modern sensibility is that we as individuals and as societies do have some control over our destinies. Maybe we’re not totally in control, maybe some forces do still dwarf us. They don’t determine us, though.

I say this as a convoluted means of advertising the last show of You Were My Friend at the Pearl Company later today at 8.00 pm. The show didn’t do quite as well as I’d hoped in terms of sales and audience. My provisional assessment is that, in the most immediate sense, Theatre Aquarius down the road kicked our ass. They were selling out the house damn near every night with a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War whose performance schedule revolved around Remembrance Day weekend. And their show opened a week after Nathan Cirillo was killed.

So there was no way a dramedy about cycles of underemployment and skirting poverty in downtown Toronto was going to beat that jingoistic celebration of Canadian military pluck.* But everyone who did see You Were My Friend loved it. We’re planning a run in Toronto itself this summer, hopefully at that city’s Fringe. 

* You can see where my feelings fall on the subject of Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Toronto has a lot more younger theatre-goers than Hamilton. Although a lot of the older folks in our audiences have loved it — I had one older fellow opening night tell me that the play very accurately articulated the perspective of his grandchildren struggling with underemployment — I wrote You Were My Friend to articulate the struggles and pain of my own generation. These are the people I want it to speak to.

Many of Nietzsche's ideas have
turned out to be centrally important
to my art.
Getting back, however, to the question of tragedy, that cultural shift regarding our control over our lives has completely rewritten our conception of tragedy. A modern tragedy is that there could have been another way. We see a terrible destructive event, and the entire story that has come to us has presented countless opportunities to improve the fates of the characters. Instead, because of the characters’ own failures to see these moments for the pivotal events that they are, and act accordingly, everything falls apart. 

That’s modern tragedy. That there could have been another, better, way.

In the case of You Were My Friend, the entire set is trashed in our final destructive event. Samantha Nemeth’s award winning moment is an emotionally excruciating 10-minute sequence where her life has fallen apart and she, person by person, discovers that there is no one left in her life she can turn to for help. And if Samantha’s character had been there to help her friend through her emotional breakdown, or if Hannah Ziss’ character had brought herself to share a little more of her emotions with her friend, it never would have gone down like this.

You Were My Friend’s director, Mel Aravena, told me one day that he found the play very nihilistic. I understand where he’s coming from, but there’s ultimately a hopefulness to the play as well. If you come by the play tonight, watch how we turn up the house lights for Hannah’s central monologue. You’re involved in this play. The hope is that you’ll see the terrible things that can happen when we stop listening to the people we care about, and listen a little bit more.

We have power over the world, and if we know how best to act, we can make it better.

A Lesson in the Journalism of Insinuation, Research Time, 20/11/2014

Here’s another example of a tenuous link that could blow up into an embarrassing mess for an organization that matters a lot to me: the New Democratic Party of Canada. My political beliefs aren’t exactly a secret; I blog about political issues all the time. I self-identify with the left, even though I don’t exactly conform to any specific left-wing doctrine. 

Ryan Holiday’s first-person experiences and considered analyses of the online media economy, network of incentives, and the tendencies of discourse this creates have helped me better understand the event I’m about to describe. In particular, I understand just how much of it is a matter of insinuation, speculation, and conspiracist thinking instead of deeply investigated journalism, despite the protestations to investigative bonafides that come from the website that publishes it.

My old friend Dinner once described an important principle to keep in mind as you navigate a complicated business world. It was why he never ate food from a restaurant in old-town central St. John’s called Pizza Pros. “You already own and operate a business from which you earn a living making pizza. That fact alone constitutes knowledge that you are pros, and you do not need to tell me that you are, in fact, pros.”

Recent NDP rhetoric of empty centrism has not only
helped cost them elections, but contributing to grassroots
activists growing suspicious of its leaders.
So a friend posted on his Facebook page a link to a news item from Martin Forgues of Ricochet Media, a donor-funded left-oriented online journalism organization. The story implies that the federal NDP has hypocritically begun to use the famous revolving door of political staffers and lobbying firms. In this case, it refers to Erin Jacobson. She’s worked in the NDP communications staff since 2008, served as a high-level communications worker for Jack Layton in his last year, and was retained by Thomas Mulcair’s office.

Jacobson left that position this May, transitioning to Edelman, one of the biggest PR firms in North America, working as a vice president for digital affairs. The document leaked to Forgues is called the “Grassroots Advocacy Implementation Plan,” an action plan Edelman staff wrote for its client TransCanada. It’s a guide for Edelman to identify local actors in Canada who support the Energy East oil pipeline project, extending a pipeline that currently runs from southern Alberta to the eastern border of Ontario to reach a new terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick. 

The document describes Edelman’s plan to improve public support throughout Canada for the pipeline extension and TransCanada’s long-term interest in hydraulic fracking. It lays out the strategies that environmentalist organizations have used to kill public support for TransCanada’s most famous petroleum project, the Keystone XL pipeline. It identifies groups that could support the pipeline and strategizes ways to engage them into action on behalf of getting the pipeline extension to New Brunswick built.

On the document’s final page, it identifies Jacobson as the digital action and strategies lead of Edelman’s team in their plan to build a coalition to support the Energy East pipeline construction. It’s a single line in the document where they identify human resources at TransCanada and Edelman who will lend their support to the project, normally an innocuous closing element to any communications plan.

Layton's legacy included a public image of the NDP as
more ethical than Canada's other political parties.
Two levels to what I have to say, the immediate potential firestorm and the media analysis.

The immediate. Anyone can tell how bad the optics are on this. The NDP brand is as the political party that stands against the usual moral compromises and anti-democratic collusions with business of lobbyist politics. Although PR firms aren’t technically covered under restrictions regarding former government staff becoming lobbyists, Jacobson's move displays the same basic structure of just such a corrupt move. And although Mulcair’s NDP is a vocal opponent of Keystone and Northern Gateway, they’ve been relatively silent on Energy East, a pipeline that cuts through less famous ecological zones than the BC temperate rainforest, Quebec south of the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick. 

When a high-ranking communications staff member jumps ship to a PR firm that not only represents TransCanada, a company of whom the NDP is a visible opponent, but who is assigned to the TransCanada file, Mulcair’s NDP look like hypocrites. Any opponent of the NDP can point to this leaked file and do serious damage to its reputation. It can also cost the NDP a lot of support among its own members. Mulcair’s ascension to the leadership came with serious resistance, and distrust of him lingers because of how he’s perceived as a pragmatist who sacrifices ideals and as an inauthentic political machine thanks to his former post in Quebec’s Liberal government.

Media analysis. Ricochet is a donor-funded online publication. It may not subscribe to the economics of the monetized click-through, but it still takes part in the same discourse. Ricochet succeeds by encouraging viral spreads of its articles, and as such it must play up the sensationalism of everything it publishes. So here are two questions that Forgues’ post never bothers to pose, let alone find answers to, which he should have asked in assembling this story.

1) What were Erin Jacobson’s reasons for leaving the NDP? Has she come to abandon a devotion to particular environmentalist principles which the party as an institution still shares? If she’s comfortable having a pipeline and fracking company for a client, then her attitude might not have blended well with her co-workers in an environmentalist political party. Forgues never asks this question; it would have required him to talk with officials in Mulcair’s office, as well as members of Edelman’s TransCanada task force, including Jacobson. 

Given the critical stance the NDP takes to the oil industry,
any apparent hypocrisy in this regard would be especially
damaging to their reputation.
The pressure in online journalism to publish at all cost as quickly as possible would have mitigated against this. Forgues’ post consists only of speculation about the implications of Jacobson’s name appearing as the head of digital media on Edelman’s communications plan for TransCanada. The story as it is describes only the leak itself, leaving its meaning to speculation. Investigation would mean Forgues would have had to confirm or deny the possible speculations. If Jacobson's situation turned out to be innocuous, then Forgues wouldn't have been able to run it, and the generally piecework pay that online journalists earn creates a disincentive to disconfirmation because no one can afford to work on a story that doesn't end up generating content. 

2) Who leaked Edelman’s communication plan in the first place? Of course, Forgues never indicates the source of his leaked document; a journalist, no matter the press, must maintain the privacy of sources. But that duty implies an obligation to the public that a story in its entire presentation can’t consist only of the sourced document. A single leak has to start an investigation, providing the basis for a wider inquiry about, in this case, whatever might lie behind Jacobson’s easy career transition to advocate for a company to whom her previous employer was vehemently opposed.

Otherwise, the news is only about speculations of what might be, instead of reasonable evidence as to what is the case. When speculations are allowed to run unchecked by the complex facts of the world, mental associations and gut feelings are all people have to draw the connections among suggestive, vague events with uncertain connections. That way lies paranoid conspiracy-mongering, when your understanding of the world is too simplified and reductive to function effectively. 

More simply, because the allegations implicit in the speculations that the leaked document encourages are very shady in their worst optics (and the story is so thinly investigated that optics are all we have), smearing Mulcair and the NDP to look just as morally compromised as any other political party would be very beneficial to their opponents going into an election year. It would certainly be in the interest of a Conservative Party hack – or a Liberal Party hack – to leak this document to a source that wouldn’t have the incentive to investigate it well enough to disconfirm its most sensational possible interpretation. 

The saddest part is something else that Ryan Holiday taught me. Even my just writing this post criticizing Forgues’ and Ricochet’s compromised journalistic practices still draws attention to their article. I will draw page impressions to their piece, further encouraging them to write such potentially damaging speculative articles that barely follow up on their leaked information. Yet I can’t help advance an alternative viewpoint, and possibly contribute somehow to the reform of online journalism away from its yellow incarnation if I let it lie. And I can’t contribute to the chatter of an effective defence for a political party that, some differences aside, I still believe in and support.

A very Joseph Heller moment.

The Yellow Screen: Blog-Based Knowledge Makes a Hit-Job Easy, Research Time, 19/11/2014

I haven’t mentioned much of the material I’ve engaged with in my Communications program on the blog much lately, because my learning curve in that field is a bit larger than I originally thought it would be. However, I’ve begun to catch up to some of what we’ve been taught, and surpass some of the theory involved. My casual background in media studies is a help in this as well, as it’s helped me get a grip on some of the aspects of new media as an art form that our program hasn’t touched directly.

I discovered a book in my independent research by someone who, when I researched his career and reputation, was actually rather notorious. Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me I’m Lying is a description of the discourse structure of online blog-based journalism as a media, which he’s theorized based on his empirical experience as a promotional fixer and as a company executive having to deal with it.

Trading up the chain from business to qualitative research
to media theory.
In short form, the intense pressure to publish constantly degrades editorial oversight simply because no one in blogs has the time or money for it or fact-checking. You have to publish much too quickly for facts to be fully checked. That’s only the negative aspect of the problem. The positive aspect of the problem is that online revenue depends on page views and click-throughs, the number of discrete advertising impressions. So the incentives in publishing aren’t truth, but encouraging shares and fighting through the deafening din of all the other blogs screaming for attention. So sensationalism is the main incentive for publishers and writers.

This is a media environment that makes a disincentive of truth and encourages excitement, anger, and confirmation bias. It’s an environment where correction becomes impossible because of the incredibly high turnover among articles, and a publisher-reader relationship where every individual piece has to fight for reader attention by distracting them with the most intensely sensational headline or image. The sober act of correction of a previously published lie would never have the same reach as the original offending article because of how little attention it would draw.

While meditating on these lessons, I discovered the story of Cheryl Abbate, a PhD student and philosophy instructor at Marquette University, who has just had her career ruined by the new media environment. Abbate was teaching an ethics lecture one day, and asked her class for examples of public policies that would violate John Rawls’ principle of equality, a standard method of teaching an abstract principle of moral philosophy. One student suggested a ban on gay marriage as such an example, which Abbate acknowledged and moved on.

A different student later complained to Abbate that she had moved on from the gay marriage ban example too quickly, so he never had the opportunity to speak in its favour. His objection was actually rather tangential to the topic, and it turned out that it was based on faulty scientific research (the contention that children of same-sex couples tended to turn out worse than those of more conventional families). But he was recording their conversation on his phone without Abbate’s permission.

Later, a Marquette political science professor named John McAdams wrote a blog post accusing Abbate of pushing an ideological agenda on her class and railroading over the objections of students. McAdams’ post was an utter distortion of the facts of the case when he was not outright lying. However, his post was picked up by several other online conservative publications, a textbook example of an individual blogger trading his content up the chain to professional blogs, who monitor smaller cases for grassroots stories.

The irony is that I learned about this case through the Daily Nous, a blog covering issues in academic philosophy. This publication would itself come under Holiday’s definition of a blog, though it is an entirely volunteer effort of its contributors and editors, who run it in addition to their day jobs and do not monetize their sites with ad revenue. Nonetheless, to advocate for Abbate, they need to follow the same sensationalist rules of promotion that all online blog media do. Otherwise, they would go unread. This is why the post has such a provocative, share-attractive headline, “Philosophy Grad Student Target of Political Smear Campaign.”

Even in defence of the victims of sensationalistic smears against their reputation and career, one must play by the rules of the 21st century’s yellow press.

Colonial Enterprises: How Legitimate Is a Resistance? Jamming, 18/11/2014

Thinking about the politics of post-colonialism, colonialism, and one’s complicity in or resistance to colonialism is an immensely tricky subject. Anything that you could write or say on the subject is bound to make someone angry. In that sense, it’s ideal for contemporary online media: blog publishing is driven by encouraging reader anger because rage is most likely to generate shares and clickthroughs. I didn’t make this system; I’m just learning about its details as part of my education in modern communications.*

* Mind you, this isn’t actually part of my program at Sheridan College; it’s part of the supplementary reading that I’m exploring while I work through my program.

So I thought I’d put together a short set of reflections on how I’ve engaged with the issue in my thinking. I’m not sure how these concepts will apply to the larger philosophical book projects that I’m slowly working on. The Ecophilosophy manuscript is a very separate topic, and while utopian elements are built into the ideologies of many anti-colonial resistance movements, their relationship to the vision of the mechanized man of Marinetti and Jünger’s imaginations at the centre of biopolitical totalitarianism is complicated. Mechanizing humanity is an inherently Western cultural idea, after all. 

But after going through Spinoza’s political writings (in reaction to my engagement with Robert Nozick over October and November), I realized that a core question of his work in the 1600s had become essential to understanding contemporary anti-colonial struggles, many of which had or plan to replace the current regime with one that’s even more oppressive. Why do people fight for their enslavement with the devotion they should apply to fighting for their freedom?

Negri: Imperialism vs Empire

While I now have the entire Empire/Multitude/Commonwealth series on my shelf, I haven’t really gone into Antonio Negri’s Empire since 2008. It was always on my list to revisit for the Utopias project, and I think I’ll start through that in December. 

One thing that stood out to me, and this was Negri’s major conceptual innovation in Empire, was that he distinguished the nature of the economic and cultural globalization of our current era from the empire-building of the past. States and control of territory through military occupation and governance were no longer the driving processes. Economic domination was occurring without direct state sponsorship. The result was a much more networked, centreless form of economic intensification. 

Negri clearly identified what had changed, what caused this radical change, and what its implications were. I learned from Negri that you could never denounce the West and its governments in this decentralized structure as directly or obviously as the sole cause of exploitation on Earth. In current times, you see the leaders of states that have been liberated from Western colonial control still carry out openly colonial practices in the Victorian mode. Yes, for the most part, the royals were the vassal governors and puppet rulers of Western colonial regimes. But to say that the ruling class of monarchist authoritarian states who buy African nature reserves to hunt for sport are more legitimate governors than a democracy founded on values of communitarian solidarity because 'colonialism' is a schizophrenic political blindness to a reality that makes nonsense of your knowledge categories.

The network had become much more complex, which made moral and political culpability a more difficult matter to settle, and maybe made it a non-issue if even nations who materially benefited from these arrangements had enough people who were otherwise disenfranchised. Blame would be the wrong question to ask.

One thing I've learned about Israeli society is that people
in North America don't often take seriously just how
different it really is from here.
The Vilification of Israel

When I read that late-period Karl Jaspers book a couple of months ago, it featured a quality that I find amazing to read today. Jaspers was a left-wing figure who lionized Israel as a bastion for democracy and a nation leading the world to the elimination of racism. Israel was founded by secular socialists, some of the most intelligent people of Europe in union with the Sephardic Jews who had lived in the territory for literally millennia. It was a democratic country building a strong tradition of communitarian anarchism through the kibbutz movement.

Today, however, Israel is identified largely on the global left with the terms ‘racist,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘colonialist,’ and even ‘genocidal.’ I find far too many people for my comfort in the Western educated left thoughtlessly parroting the conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial regularly spouted by Saudi-sponsored Salafist clerics and radical militarist organizations. The government of Israel has certainly not been innocent in its hand-wringing disenfranchisement of the people in the Palestinian Territories after the Six Day War in 1967. But it is still a democracy where dissent is possible. 

In any other country in the Middle East, a socially conservative government with xenophobic tendencies, like the Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition, would have rounded up their opponents with the secret police, and would never have been seen again. That includes not only Assad, El-Sisi, and the House of Saud, but the monarchs of the Gulf sheikhdoms and the ever-so-Westernized royalty of Jordan. Instead, the Israeli government’s internal opponents fight them constantly in the Knesset, and the peace movement still continues its struggle against reactionary and xenophobic nationalists.

Violent Radical Islam as a Liberation Force

Nationalism is a danger in any state, because the mere existence of a state institution encourages a national identity to grow around it. That excludes people by its nature. The state is bureaucratic tribalism post facto rationally justified, after all. If we do it reasonably well, we get a democracy with a decent public health and welfare system that protects people’s rights.

So why does a movement that ostensibly fights against oppression choose a fundamentalist religious ideology, the most violently tribal extremism** humanly possible, as its banner of presumed liberation? It’s the ideology that its leaders and popular supporters seek to replace Western domination.

** Not only do you commit terrifying violence against a perceived oppressor, but that violence is justified by an absolutized transcendent authority. Not only do you act only on the material authority’s orders, but you act on your god’s orders too. That’s multiple dimensions of self-enslavement.

But it’s trading one form of enslavement for another. And because the topic is the subject of such a wide range of controversy and the resulting hyperbole, I don’t know if I could ever figure out a straight answer on the particular question that at the same time understands both the humanity of its practitioners while understanding how they can act so inhumanly.

To Mistake Piety in Your Own Slavery as Liberation, Research Time, 17/11/2014

When it comes to those early periods in the modern tradition, how I engage with those texts very much depends on how the major thinkers of the period of my specialty (Nietzsche and the following Continentals, Russell and the following Analytics) engaged with those thinkers. When I read Spinoza, it’s having had the tutelage of historical works by authors like Gilles Deleuze and Etienne Balibar. Essentially, they have made Spinoza a political thinker for me above all, meditating at length on what is probably the most important question for our times.

Why do people fight for their enslavement with the fervour they should apply to fighting for their freedom?

Deleuze and Félix Guattari made this the fundamental question of Anti-Oedipus, and Balibar’s book Spinoza and Politics puts it at the forefront of his analysis from the beginning. Anti-Oedipus examines the question from contexts of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, as well as from larger questions of politics and economic relations. None of these books settle the question with a clear answer; if they did, they never would have become such brilliant books of philosophy. They would have become footnotes to be discarded when the question recurred again in politics, as this question always does.

Probably the most impressive totalitarian regime in
human history.
Spinoza’s examination of the question in his political writings may actually have more relevance for the modern situation than Deleuze and Guattari’s calculation. They adapted the question to wondering why people so strongly desired to be rigidly diagnosed into psychoanalytic categories, boxed in to immutable definitions. And they asked why people so strongly desired the mass enslavement and will to self-destruction of totalitarian regimes.

Spinoza, speaking to the conditions of his earlier time and his experience as an advocate for liberal secular politics at a time of religious wars and the political marriage of monarchy and theocracy, framed the question in terms of religion. Why would a person so rigidly define their existence according to the orders and rules of ecclesiastical institutions to the point of annihilating their faculties of critical thought, when such thinking is how we become free?

This context is immensely important today because it’s now so similar to our current global politics, particularly in the Middle East. The ongoing war devastating Syria and Iraq right now is the strongest explosion of resistance against the militarized monarchist states whose armies and secret police have enslaved their populations for decades or longer.

Yet the movement that would replace these would enslave the Arab, Levantine, Persian, and Magreb peoples under an even tighter yoke. Many of the military (think of Egypt) and monarchist (think of Jordan, the UAE, and the small Persian Gulf sheikhdoms) are police states, yes. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia mandates Salafist Islam by all but the gun, and although they violently oppress Shi’ite and Sufi minorities, at least being a Sunni Muslim is enough to avoid serious police state violence.

An Islamic State rally. Well, I guess you have to start
The Islamic State movement, the most hardcore of similarly oppressive fundamentalist Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, would in practice be an even more dangerously terrifying totalitarian regime even than Hitler’s and Stalin’s versions. Uniting the oppressively violent extremes of Taliban-intensity religious certainty with the apparatus of a Ba’athist or monarchist police state and contemporary computer surveillance equipment would give Islamic State authorities the power to control every social aspect of an individual’s life to the fractally smallest detail.

Yet hundreds of thousands of people in the Islamic State armies (leaving aside the drive for total social control in the extreme wings of the slightly less insane fundamentalist movements) fight to the death to install a regime that would mandate rigid conformity to theocratic principles, and enforce those principles through totalitarian state violence.

Spinoza’s analysis in his political writings shows how people would develop such a hideous desire. He analyzes an ancient theocracy to show how a mutually empowering social cohesion can develop from an entire population sharing a single religion when that religion’s sole authoritative institution is inextricably bound with the state itself.

The religious state institution mandates very particular behaviours in all aspects of life, a mass similarity and familiarity that encourages, along with laws preventing one from being permanently divested of all property and means to support oneself, an atmosphere of brotherhood and camaraderie.

The problem with this is that internal brotherhood of this intensity, achieved through a totalizing social identity with the community of fellow-believers and the state, creates a terrifying xenophobia. The resulting external conflicts must always go the way of the religious state, because the people’s hatred of outsiders would tend to such extremes as to make the feeling universally mutual among peoples.

That was just one example, though. In this case, it was the first kingdom of the ancient Hebrews in Jerusalem, an analysis that would have, shall we say, ruffled a few feathers. I have no idea if it’s accurate as a depiction of the first Hebrew state in Jerusalem before the Babylonian conquest, and it can only be tangentially applied today. If the Taliban regime of Afghanistan is any indication, I doubt an Islamic State based in Baghdad would put much focus on internal camaraderie. As well, the ancient Hebrew Kingdom ruled by men like David and Solomon never had access to the regulatory institutions and tools of governance that we do, which would allow a government genuine control of every miniscule action, and even thought, of a citizen.

But Spinoza at least got the ball rolling on this question, even though it took a while for people to make the question of the people’s desire for their own enslavement a central question for political philosophy again. I don’t think we’ll forget it again anytime soon.