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How We Go to War

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Batman-and-Superman-sell-war-bonds

AS CITIZENS it’s vital that we understand the devious but predictable means by which our government gets us into wars.  When enough do, perhaps the day will come when we can stop our country from continually plunging into unjust and disastrous wars.

As we learn from the works of writers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the process by which we go to war is fairly consistent.  It can be seen as having four steps: (1) Motive, (2) Opportunity, (3) Pretext, and (4) Consent.

1. Motive

First the government needs some motive for fighting a war.  Almost always the motive is economic gain; occasionally it is self-defense; but it is never humanitarian.  If the government were motivated by sheer humanitarian concern, it would recognize that there are far better ways to help the poor and suffering of the world (e.g., with food, medicine and education) than by fighting wars.  Wars tend to produce worse humanitarian conditions than those they purportedly set out to remedy or prevent.

Often our government wants war to please foreign allies (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia).  However even in such cases motives are ultimately economic.  That is to say it isn’t the people of these countries that want the US to fight a proxy war for them, but rather elite oligarchs (e.g., Saudi billionaires) or vested interests (e.g., Israeli defense contractors) within those countries.

Besides motives specific to each situation there are also constant background factors that predispose our country to war.  Among these are (1) the military-industrial complex, which thrives on war, whether necessary or not; (2) banks and financial institutions, which can usually find ways to make huge profits from wars;  and (3) politicians for whom war is a way to gain popular support and/or to distract attention from domestic problems.

2. Opportunity

Having a motive isn’t enough.  There needs to be some window of opportunity that makes a military intervention appear to have reasonable probability of achieving its goal. An unpopular or authoritarian ruler or general domestic instability within a foreign nation are two examples.

This principle helps explain why there is usually a rush into war.  The politicians say, “We don’t have time to deliberate this carefully.  The situation is too urgent.  We must act immediately.”

It’s also important that the country being targeted for intervention not have too many powerful allies, and that it not itself pose a credible military threat.

3. Pretext

A government can’t very easily say, “we’re fighting this war for our own gain.” There needs to be a socially acceptable pretext.  Common ploys are as follows:

Exaggerate threats. Sometimes there already exists a convenient pretext, such as actual violations of human rights.  These are then exaggerated.  They are also presented in a one-sided way.  For example, we are told of terrible actions committed by a foreign ruler, but not of equivalent acts by opposing factions. Every effort is made to demonize and dehumanize the enemy.

Instigate. If there isn’t already a convenient pretext, our government has almost unlimited power to create one.  A standard method is to sponsor a rebellion within the target country.  This tactic has been used countless times by our government.

The example of the Panama Canal is illustrative.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the US had an immense economic interest in building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama.  At the time this area was part of Colombia.  Colombia was willing to lease rights for a canal to the US, but balked at the first offer, seeking better terms.  In response an angry Teddy Roosevelt promptly resorted to ‘Plan B’:  for the US to work with a faction of Colombian businessmen to orchestrate the secession of Panama.  A warship, the U.S. Nashville was promptly dispatched to Central America. Once it arrived offshore, a small revolutionary force (actually, a fire brigade paid by the New Panama Canal Company) declared Panama an independent country.  The Nashville then quickly landed its troops to keep Colombia from interfering; high-ranking Colombian military officials were also bribed.

From the newly independent Panama, the US procured extremely favorable arrangements for building and operating a canal, including de facto ownership of adjacent land (the Canal Zone remained a US territory until 1999).   As one Senator at the time put things, “We stole it fair and square.”

Some may say, “But it’s perfectly legitimate for the US to back a popular insurrection.  After all, didn’t the French help us during our revolution?”  There is, arguably, a small grain of truth to this argument — but no more than that.  There are dissidents and malcontents in every country.  The question never asked is whether such a group represent a popular rebellion, or merely a small faction.  When are rebels honest patriots, and when merely warlords, thugs, and greedy opportunists?

In this case the US helped orchestrate the secession of Panama.  Other times it connives to depose an inconvenient foreign regime via a coup.  Confirmed (from since-declassified official documents) cases of the CIA’s global campaign of regime-ousting coups include Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Brazil (1964).

But these are only the cases where our own official documents confirm the activity.  In addition there are over two dozen more instances where there is little doubt of active CIA involvement in a foreign coup. A classic study of this topic is William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II.

Outright lies. As people are only all too willing to assume the worst, this tactic seldom meets with much resistance.  The most wild, illogical and preposterous charges are accepted as truth.  There is no shortage of sources who will gladly concoct and feed to the government false stories, which news media happily repeat.  A classic, recent example of this is the ridiculous charge that Libyan president Qaddafi distributed Viagra to his troops to facilitate a genocidal campaign of rape. In reality, the only genocide that occurred in Libya is when the foreign-backed, armed and trained rebels, upon deposing and brutally killing Qaddafi, besieged the hapless sub-Saharan immigrants whom he, a staunch pan-Africanist, had brought into the country to supply construction labor.

Provoke. Provocation is another regularly used tactic.  One simply needs to make aggressive advances towards a foreign government, with the calculated intention of provoking a military response.  That defensive response of the foreign government — which might be no more than a minor, face-saving action — is then vastly exaggerated, and demands are made for a full scale war in retaliation.

When in 1846 the US wanted to acquire large expanses of new territory, and most importantly, California, it stationed troops on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico.  The purpose was to provoke military action by Mexican troops.  Eventually an American scouting party sent into disputed territory ran into a Mexican scouting party; shots were fired and eleven Americans killed.  Scarcely had the blood from the skirmish dried before President Polk, a fervent expansionist, sent an outraged message to Congress, which then rushed to approve measures for all-out war.

An unwilling witness to proceedings in Texas, Colonel Ethan A. Hitchcock, wrote in his diary at the time:

I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country [Mexico] as it chooses…. My heart is not in this business, but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders.  (Zinn, 2010)

False-flag activities. There is almost always some dissatisfied faction within a foreign country that can be goaded by our government into staging a rebellion or coup.  But if all else fails, there is an even shadier recourse: false-flag operations.

These come in two varieties. One is to direct our covert operatives to pose as rebels or dissidents and perform an act of violence against a sitting regime. When the foreign government takes reprisals against the actual rebels, it is accused of being a brutal dictatorship, and this used as an excuse for our military intervention.

The other is for our operatives to perform or sponsor a malicious action posing as agents of the foreign government itself.  That government is then held responsible, and the events used to justify going to war.

4. Manufacture of Consent

Now all that is needed is to convince the American public to support the war.  Usually this isn’t very hard to do: unfortunately, many Americans still consider it their duty to support every war under a misguided sense of patriotism and maintenance of unity.

When every news source recites a war mantra like, “So-and-so is an evil dictator who kills his own people” the public begins to uncritically accept this as fact.   As is well documented, the same marketing techniques that are used to sell cars and laundry detergent are enlisted to manipulate the public thinking into accepting war.

Without going into detail here, we can briefly note several characteristic means of manufacturing consent for war.  These include:

  • Propaganda. The US government today can basically write its own news story and hand it to media sources to uncritically repeat. The number and nature of specific falsehoods is beyond counting.  (“Truth is the first casualty of war.”)
  • Censorship. News media do not publish information which might contradict the official government narrative of events.
  • Intimidation. At home, protestors, dissenters and other anti-war activists can be subjected to actual or implied intimidation, including black-listing, arrest, tax audits, and so on.
  • Conformity. Human beings are herd animals, and the government knows this.  Hence it tries to create the impression that a public consensus exists, even when it doesn’t.  Once people are told “most Americans support this war” they tend to go along with it.
  • Patriotic appeals. Having the Blue Angels fly over a football stadium is always a nice way to rouse the war spirit.  Or maybe have beer commercials featuring wounded veterans.  Call dissenters traitors.

Because the historical facts and the principles at work basically speak for themselves, this is an intentionally short article.  More information can be found in the sources listed below.  However the point of writing this is that today generally — and perhaps even more especially in the weeks preceding the November 2016 election — the public needs to be on its guard lest our government plunge us into another war.  Several potential crises are looming, including Syria, Libya, and the Ukraine.  All three of these fit the pattern outlined here.

Note in any case that everything said here applies only to how our government tries to create a perception of just cause for military intervention.  Establishment of just cause is only the first step of sincere war deliberations. Several other conditions must also be met, including: exhaustion of all other alternatives (i.e., the principle of last resort); assurance that the war will not create greater evils than it seeks to redress; and reasonable prospects of winning the war (which, as recent experience shows, are almost nil).  In actual practice, none of these other components of just war doctrine are realistically considered.  Once the case of a just cause has been made, we jump immediately into war.

All the more reason, then, to exercise utmost vigilance lest our government commence yet another disastrous military adventure.

In conclusion, it is vital that we as citizens examine the record of history to learn how our government lies us into wars.  As the anti-war journalist Richard Sanders put it:

The historical knowledge of how war planners have tricked people into supporting past wars is like a vaccine. We can use this understanding of history to inoculate the public with healthy doses of distrust for official war pretext narratives and other deceptive stratagems. Through such immunization programs we may help to counter our society’s susceptibility to ‘war fever.’

We must learn to habitually question all government narratives that try to lead us to war.  We should be skeptical in the utmost.   We need to train ourselves to ask questions like these:

What is the actual danger we are trying to address?

Where is the documented evidence of this danger?

Why is immediate and lethal force needed to redress this injustice?

Perhaps most importantly we should always ask:  who benefits (cui bono)?  If we do so we will inevitably find that the real motives are private gain.

Further Reading

Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Revised edition. Zed Books, 2003.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Revised edition. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Revised edition. Harper Collins, 2010.

Zinn, Howard. Zinn on War. 2nd edition. Seven Stories, 2011.

You can also find lot’s of videos (speeches, interviews, documentaries, etc.) featuring Zinn, Chomsky, Blum and Perkins.

 

 

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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

A Better Alternative to Facebook

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Now back to social commentary.

Here are some reasons you don’t want to use Facebook:

1. Basically lousy software: often doesn’t work; inflexible; lacks useful features;
2. Ads, ads and ads;
3. Unsettling feeling that you’re a pawn in Facebook’s get-rich-quick scheme;
4. Ultimately, Facebook is a tool of the corporatist/government/news media power structure, deceitfully hidden under the guise of a “community-building social network platform”.

They want to build a community alright – of dumbed down, brainwashed, stressed out, divided, agitated and confused  consumer units.

The user-unfriendliness of Facebook is deplorable.  Any decent software engineer could design a better interface over a cup of coffee (and probably implement it in a week!)

As proof, consider how easily we could lay out specs for a better system.  It could be as simple as this:

1.  Instead of subscribing to Facebook, you (and everybody) set up a personal blog, or just a Tumblr account.
2. Whenever you see an interesting web page or news story or have a picture or comment, post it to your blog or Tumblr page instead of FB.  (These days you can do this automatically from your web browser.)

3. One more thing is needed. Each person needs a blog aggregator web page.  This is basically a page you own, which has feeds to all your friends’ blogs.  If one of your friends posts something to their blog, a notice is given on your accumulator page.  This can easily be done using RSS feeds.  Very possibly there is already way to set up such an accumulator page (or the equivalent) in Tumblr, WordPress or Blogspot etc.

4.  If you see an interesting item on your accumulator page and want to comment, simply go to your friend’s blog and comment there.

Voila!  A better alternative to Facebook, without ads, where you totally control the content.  Someone with just a little programming knowledge could easily design a customized personal front-end page (i.e., accumulator page), in any format desired.  For example, you could have your friends’ comments, news headlines on topics of interest, and announcements from business or organizations you like in separate columns or sections.

Another possibility would be to have some third-party service set up accumulator pages for people for free or a very nominal price.

(Yes, I know that, in theory, Google and Yahoo offer this feature; but you can only personalize the pages they supply to a very limited extent.)

This sort of thing — a fully personalized ‘news and views’ front end page is the whole point of RSS feeds anyway.  These totally personalized pages should be routine.  A likely reason people aren’t already using them is because the big corporate entities — Facebook, Google, etc. — are trying to co-opt the Internet for their nefarious purposes.

So, ultimately, Facebook is not needed – unless maybe you find it somehow beneficial to know how many of your friends’ ‘friends’ are illiterate, boring or nuts.

Written by John Uebersax

August 11, 2012 at 12:37 am

The Psychology of Political Fighting

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Question:  Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist.  Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now?  It seems like that’s all people do these days?  Perplexed in Peoria.

Answer: Dear Perplexed.  Thank you for your question.  No doubt many people are asking the same thing.

The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one.  There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response.  In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.

Imitation.  Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior.  Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation.  For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture.  Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword.  We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones.  This is related to the phenomenon of conformity.  In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way.  They can change very rapidly.  Once a critical mass of  “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform.  Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.

Instigation.  The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict.  News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation.  As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government.  Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism.  We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm  us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.

Stress.  Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody.  It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.

Ignorance.  People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects.  First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking.  Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose).  Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy.  Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills.  Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.

Laziness.  This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative.  Partly this is due to stress and fear.

Lack of good examples.  This is self-explanatory.  Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones.  Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.

False opinion.  By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact.  Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions.  Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely.  At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs.  But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts.  Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts.  In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.

Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates.  (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant).  From Socrates we also learn the solution.  Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance.  That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.”  The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions.  By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.

Schematizing.  In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world.  This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception.  We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it.  If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so.  We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.

Identity.  One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity.  If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses.  People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.

Perversity.  So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord.  These ones are not very threatening.  Most people can probably agree that they exist.  But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues.  The first of these is the perverse side of human nature.  Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good.  Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy.  Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose.  In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful.  The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.

Concupiscence.  If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples).  To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order.  The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience.  And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason.  By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one  has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.

Collective selfishness.  From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level.  We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures.  To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused.  If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged.  Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.

Question:  That’s more than I bargained for!  With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless?  How can we straighten out something this complex?

Answer:  It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others.  If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible.  Fortunately, there is a short cut solution.   So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective.  But there is another dimension to the human person:  that of ethics and moral nature.  In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.

The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure.  All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis.  Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence.  These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc.  In short, it means seeking the finer things.  This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.

Question:  Great!  So how do we get other people to do that?

Answer:  The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.

The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.

Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties.  A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her.  If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.

Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it.  Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.

Question:  And how is that done?  Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?

Answer:  One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.)  Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy.  The Westerner will find much of value in  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms.   A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”.  In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable.  The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.

The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

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The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

A point emphasized in several Nobel Peace Prize Lectures of the 1950´s and 60´s (e.g., those of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr) is the obsolescence of war.  It was noted that modern technology had produced weapons of awesome power.  This meant we had no choice but to evolve beyond war, because, with such weapons, the prospect of war was no longer thinkable — too much harm would be done.  For those too young to remember, this was a widely held view in the years following the development of nuclear weapons.

However this reasoning does not just apply to nuclear weapons.  As the 9/11 attacks illustrate, technology had made it  possible to easily inflict massive harm in other ways.  A few extremists were able to get control of huge jets and fly them into buildings, killing thousands.  It could have been even worse.  The jets could have been flown into nuclear reactor power plants, potentially producing much greater devastation and loss of life.  Other realistic scenarios we must contend with are use of biological weapons on civilians, attacks to the electrical power infrastructure, poisoning of water supplies, or even things like computer viruses.  Any of these could be used by a few terrorists or a small country to inflict great harm.  Coupled with the continued threat of nuclear proliferation, the potential threats are so many, and so easily accessible, that, we are more vulnerable than ever.

Fifty years ago,  the consensus was that our only choice was to evolve ourselves — by dint of sheer will, if necessary — out of the mentality that begets war and violence.  If that was so then, how much more true it is now.  Further, the very fact that people are not saying such things today is itself extremely serious and revealing.  It means we are collectively less wise and more confused than people were then.  In this atmosphere of confusion, desperation, and loss of vision, people are even more likely to lapse in their judgment and make use of such weapons.

This pertains directly to the US involvement in Afghanistan, and the stance of modern governments towards terrorism.  Yes, terrorism is a terrible thing, and we must be prepared to work with intense dedication to prevent terrorist attacks.  But in today’s technologically advanced world we must ask more than ever:  can terrorism be effectively prevented by pre-emptive aggression or a just war?   And yet, not only is the US now falling back on the notion of a just war, one is astonished to see that no public officials are questioning it.

Even if the war in Afghanistan is ‘just’ – and there is genuine doubt as to that – two other questions must also be asked.  First, is the war winnable?  Events so far would suggest that it is not.  We are not countering a conventional army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.  The nature of terrorism in the age of modern technology is precisely that a group of dedicated extremists, few in number and extremely mobile, may hold at bay even a great military superpower.  We cannot spend $1 trillion retaliating every time there is a terrorist attack — especially if the retaliation is ineffective.

Second, we must ask: does a large military response to terrorism cause more harm than potential good by affirming the principle of aggression as a way to solve problems?

Third, we should ask why governments are so chronically unable to work for peace pro-actively.

Fourth, what has happened to the moral and ethical fabric of society?  Fifty years ago the view expressed by socially-minded intellectuals was that the moral evolution of humankind was not keeping pace with technological progress.  But at least there was a sense of there being some progress.   Now there is considerable evidence (and one need only turn on television any given evening to confirm this) that we are going rapidly going backwards.

We cannot lay blame on President Obama so much as on the failure of the intellectual community to question the continued dominance of war as a strategy for countering terrorism.

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Americans do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden

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Letter to US Senator Barbara Boxer

December 24, 2009

Dear Senator Boxer,

Please be apprised that, I, as a US citizen, do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or of some form of general diplomatic discussions. I believe many Americans feel likewise. Neither will I hesitate to mention that ‘forgiveness of enemies’ is a central ethical principle of Christianity.

I therefore wish that the US government not proceed unquestioningly under the assumption that all or even most citizens are intent on revenge, or see no possibility of peaceful resolution of current conflicts.

Nor do I simply take it for granted that bin Laden and Al-Queda are inherently ‘evil’ and hold positions inherently and irrevocably inimical, hostile, and dangerous to the welfare of the citizens of the United States.

Further, I perceive a tendency of the government to actively shape — though perhaps unintentionally — public opinion in the direction of revenge and violence. The president’s recent remarks on Afghanistan, for example, nowhere seem to acknowledge that many Americans are hesitant about continued military involvement in Afghanistan. In effect, a false consensus on this issue is presented to the American public. The government is not making a sincere attempt to determine the true sentiments and beliefs of the people.

Indeed, if we are concerned about the events 9/11, should not our first priority be to take better care of the survivors and their families? Imagine how much more we could help these people were even a small fraction of the $1 trillion spent on Iraq and Afghanistan devoted to assisting them.

That we do not do so calls into question the sincerity of our expressed motives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sincerely yours,

John S. Uebersax PhD

Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2009 at 9:44 pm