Friday, March 11, 2011

Things We Should Have Learned By Now

Earlier this evening, I was having a conversation on one of Scott's posts with a nice chap called Lars who I don't think I've met before. And we ended up talking about the need to put some decent funding into space research so we can get off this damn rock. Not everyone, just the vaguely sane people (I realise that a mentally ill guy calling himself part of the "sane people" is just dripping with irony). And the new society we'll set up. Our new society will have it's problems, as any society does but in contrast to what we have right now, we'll have learned from our mistakes. The mistakes we've made in this society, mistakes that are now so embedded as to be near-impossible to correct, we'll already know to avoid them. Oh, for sure we'll find all new mistakes to make but we'll know to...

Keep carbon emissions below 350 ppm.

Three hundred and fifty parts per million is the scientifically established safe level of carbon emissions. Above that level, the earth gets warmer and we're all in trouble. Below that, the temprature stays the same or, just possibly, even drops. Granted, the new planet we set up house on will have a slightly different safe level but we don't know what that will be yet so I've just used the earth's limit. We'll have to do this on our new planet because this one is already fucked. The very concept of climate change is now so politicised that it's impossible to do anything about it. In the halls of power, they're not talking about how to deal with this problem, they're talking about whether the problem even exists. The cap-and-trade program that Obama's endorsed won't help the problem and might even make it worse and even THAT is too much for too many. And that's something else we'll have learned:

Don't let politicians decide science by vote.

Science is done by scientists. The second politicians start discussing science,. it becomes politicised and that inevitibly means it becomes a matter of party affiliation. The politicians we have now refuse to do a damn thing about the fact that our planet is melting. Abstinence-only sex-ed clearly and provably doesn't work but politicians keep funding it because they think it should work. Stem-cell research, which could save or improve countless lives, doesn't get funded because politicians know shit about the science involved. A basic rule of humanity is that humans are, by and large, fucking dense. We have this really cute idea that one side makes their decisions by emotion and the other side makes theirs by cold, hard reason. It's a cute theory and, like most cute theories, it's bollocks. Research done with people who actually can't feel any emotion (mainly due to brain damage) shows them to be utterly indecisive and that's because humans rarely make decisions by reason. We use reason to rationalise decisions we make by emotion. And one of these days, I'll write one of these essays about how terrifyingly easy it is to manipulate the human mind. Point I'm making is that most people make their decisions by emotion and politicians, who have very well-paid staff who know that, know how to manipulate those emotions. And nowhere is that more apparent than with science. Because most people don't understand science and don't really want to.

Don't let everyone think they're an expert on everything.

I might catch some flack for this one but I studied law and I'm currently studying criminology with psychology. Law is a subject where everyone instantly considers themselves expert. Some case comes before the SCOTUS and everyone thinks they understand the issues at stake. Plain truth is, law uses specialist language and principles and most people don't have the experiance or training to understand them (or why "activist judge" is a nonsense phrase). Medicine is the same way. I'm mentally ill, I have been for some time. As soon as you admit that, especially on the internet, you get a bazillion orders from everyone and their dog that you should take vitamins, take excercise, stop taking your meds. Advice like this gets people killed. Among my many other problems, I have Major Depressive Disorder. Telling someone with MDD to stop taking their meds drops their life expectancy to a matter of weeks. The climate change "debate" is the same way; people without a day's training or experiance in climate science who instantly think they know better than trained professionals who have devoted their lives to studying the subject. Biblical literalists (they like to call themseloves "Bible-believing" like literalism is the only form of belief) who think they know better than paleontologists who've spent their whole lives immersed in study and will still tell you that they don't know everything about the subject. And it's because we've eliminated the concept of expertise. We've gone from "your opinion is valuable" (which it is) to "your opinion counts as much as anyone else's" (which it doesn't). Yes, the experts in a subject can occasionally be flat wrong, no arguments there, but they are a damn sight more likely to be right than muggins off the street who thinks Glenn Beck is a prophet and The Sun is a newspaper. When people who have studied the subject are talking, either ask some sensible questions or shut the fuck up. If Gordon Ramsay is trying to teach you how to cook, shut the fuck up and listen. If John Dicey is trying to teach you law, shut the fuck up and listen. If Kurt Angle is trying to teach you how to wrestle, shut the fuck up and listen. Asking intelligent questions and taking notes is also encouraged. Our society has become terrified of telling people that they don't know what they're fucking talking about. It's said that the more you know about a subject, the more you become aware of how little you know. I'm sure that's true but I think someone needs to add the caveat: The less you know about a subject, the more likely you are to think yourself an expert in it.

People are people are people.

This one really should be a no-brainer but our society still has problems with it: Treating everyone the same, giving everyone the same rights. And yes, I'm talking partly about letting gay people get hitched. Now personally, I don't see why anyone would want to marry but that's besides the point. Usually, at this point, some dickhead starts saying that gay people have the same right to marry someone of the opposite sex as everyone else but that's bullshit, that's playing fucking word games. If that worked, we could shut down every church except mine. You still have the freedom to be a Satanist like any rational person after all. There is a reason the phrase "one size fits all" appears in no known Constitution or Bill of Rights anywhere and that's because you don't have freedom if the state bans everything else. Loving V. Virginia defined marriage as a "fundemental human right" and sorry, wingers, there is nothing so extraordinary about same-sex marriage that the ruling has to add "this includes the queers too" (yes, I believe in reclaiming unpleasent words. I also believe in hitting people who use them unironically). Likewise, I can't see why any gay person would want to join the military especially right now but if straight people have the option of getting their nuts shot off, gay people should have that option too. Gay people are exactly the same as straight people in almost every regard; same plumbing, different wiring. That's the only difference. Some guys want to shag Johnny Depp, some girls want to shag Angelina Jolie. I'm bi so I'll take both (because I'M HARDCORE! and only fans of old-school ECW will get that joke). Look, humans are pretty simple and we're mostly much the same. We almost all want the same things. We want shelter, food and drink and we want someone to share our lives with. Yeah, I'm talking about love. Love is what redeems us, it's what makes us something more than just a super-evolved ape and love, real love, is so rare in this world. Every seer and visionary down through the ages has told us the same thing. Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus; all of them said the same thing, the same thing John Lennon said: Love is the answer and you know that for sure. Are we really stupid enough, petty enough and spiteful enough that we would shut off someone's chance at happiness (or permanency, depending on your experiance of marriage) just because a guy likes cock or a girl likes pussy? A lot of us are that petty and that spiteful and that baffles me. I'm not a very nice guy (despite this rep I've bafflingly acquired) but even I'm not that much of a bastard.

Don't let megacorporations buy news providers

Another one that should be a no-brainer but has become so deeply embedded that we'll never get it out. Wingers love to trot out that survey where most reporters admit to having liberal social views (although they always ignore the part of that same survey that shows reporters generally have conservative economic views). Thing is, reporters don't decide what goes into news media, editors do and editors tend to be conservative and part of the reason editors tend to be conservative is because they're the ones accountable to media owners and the corporations that generally own the media tend to be conservative. In fact, corporations generally tend to be conservative and that's entirely logical. To be conservative means to be opposed to, or at least wary of, change and corporations that are successful enough to own media outlets don't want change, they've already got the world arranged just the way they like it. In fact, corporations generally want change rolled back, preferably to the Gilded Age when workers were desperate and had zero protections (see, Scott Walker). That anyone could actually believe that the US media is predominantly liberal simply proves what I was saying earlier about how easy it is to manipulate humans because the US has the most conservative media in the free world. Even the channel considered most liberal, MSNBC, has a Republican former elected official for three honkin' hours every morning.

Don't let them buy politicians either

Oh boy, the Citizen's United decision was a fucking catastrophe. The US system of funding political campigns is perilously close to outright bribery. The politicians would have us believe that the millions fuinnelled to them by corporate donors doesn't affect their votes. You have got to be kidding. Look, basic human nature dictates that if someone plays a big part in placing you in a position of power and priviledge, a position that if you're careful, you can extend into a lifelong gravy train (see Gingrich, Newt; see also "crook"), you are at least going to feel warmly about that person. And politicians are no different. If Exxon helps get a pol elected, he is, at very least, going to give Exxon more of a hearing than he would of a company that hadn't given him millions of dollars. Now, Republicans have given up any pretence of being anything other than the political arm of Big Business but the Democrats aren't a great deal better (although there are a few notable exceptions, take a bow Dennis Kucinich). We are asked to believe that politicians are both "just like you" and also such a rarified breed that basic human emotional drives don't apply to them. Of course, if they didn't apply, they would be psychopaths which is scarcely more reassuring. And speaking of psychopaths...

No Ayn Rand.

Do I even need to justify this one?

Corporations are not people.

First off, a corportion is not a person. The basic definition of a human being can be found in any encyclopaedia, while a corporation is a piece of shorthand we use purely for legal convienience. Now, "personhood" is, to some extent, also a legal construct but from it's very beginnings, it has had a specific meaning: A (born, although that came later) human being. Not an automaton, not an animal and not a legal construct. A corporation has all the advantages of being human but none of the drawbacks. A corporation cannot starve, feel cold or wet or have it's heart broken. A corporation doesn't have to worry about paying the rent or keeping the electricity turned on. In a lot of ways, a corporation is closer to a vampire (the traditional folk tale version) than a human; it's sole reason for existing is to generate profit which it then uses to generate even more profit. Indeed, legally, that is the only duty of the corporation and it's directors. Humans are not so simple. Humans have numerous competing needs and desires. If you could look inside the head of even a mentally healthy person, you would see a constant struggle between desires for basic survival needs, for status, for companionship, for a hundred things. Not the corporation. It has only one desire.

Secondly and politically, an individual is limited to a campaign contribution of (I believe) $2,400 per cycle. A corporation may, however, make limitless donations in kind (another legal construct, in kind means that the receiver enjoys the benefit even though no cash changes hands) by buying tv time. Since tv time is likely to be a, if not the, major outlay for campaigning politicians, that amounts, in effect, to unlimited campaign contributions. And because a corporation is an automaton (lacking self-direction), those contributions will be made at the behest of the board of directors. By filtering the contribution through the corporation, the limit on contributions has effectively been abolished for directors. The US system of campaign financing is already perilously close to outright bribery. Whether we wish to alleviate that complaint rather depends on whether you plan your future to include elections or auctions.

Thirdly, this creates an unholy mess of legal principles. A human may commit crimes and, if caught, may be fined. Fair enough, a corporation may be fined as well (although they rarely are and never enough to make a difference). However, a human may also be imprisoned or, if the crimes are severe enough, executed. A corporation cannot be imprisoned and while it can be executed after a fashion by being wound up, those responsible for the crimes of the corporation walk away, free and clear and quite possibly to commit the same crimes at another corporation. Further, the law depends on a balance of rights and responsibilities. The responsibilities are usually implicit but they are there nonetheless. For example, your right to keep and bear arms carries the responsibly to do so responsibly. We might quibble over precisely what "responsibly" means but we do not deny that we have that obligation. Your right to free speech carries the rsponsibility to excercise that right with some care (the "yelling FIRE! in a crowded theatre example) and so on. Well, if a corporation is a legal person and has rights, what are it's responsibilities? It has only one responsibility: To gorge itself, to profit just as much as it can. That is it's only consideration. Legally, that can be it's only consideration. This is roughly equivelent to raising a child to believe that his only responsibility is to satisfy himself, come what may. We call people like that psycho or sociopaths. Ambrose Bierce once remarked that a corporation was "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility".

Fourth, a corporation is a psychopath. I touched on this above but it needs spelling out. Some humans have, for reasons we do not yet fully understand, a conscience and sense of empathy which is either extremely minimised or absent entirely. These people are called psychopaths ("sociopath" means the same thing, both are covered by Antisocial Personality Disorder). Contrary to popular belief, they are not automatically violent but because they lack conscience, because they feel no empathy or remorse, if one decides that his personal desires will be best satisfied through violence, he will act to satiate those desires as soon as is practical. A corporation also has no conscience, no sense of empathy or remorse. The people in charge of that corporation may do (or may not, a surprising amount of business leaders test out as psychopaths) but because decisions are made at a distance from the subject, that conscience may well not be sufficient to prevent a decision from causing damage. When you see your customers every day, when it's actual people coming into your store (for example), your subconscious marks them down as human, like you, and therefore beings you can feel empathy toward. However, if your only contact with your customers is as numbers in a book, account names on a profit and loss record, you don't think of them as entirely "real". That's not a unique thing, it's a perfectly normal human trait. It's the same reason why Americans were more emotionally affected by 9/11 than the London Tube bombings, it's the same reason I was more emotionally affected by the Tube bombings than by 9/11. Because I've visited London many times and used the Tube frequently, it was more emotionally real to me than the destruction of a landmark on another continent that I'd never visited or seen or known anyone who was there. That reduction of emotional impact for things with which you are not personally familiar is entirely normal. It is also entirely normal for humans to feel less concerned about the plight of someone distant from them (among others, it was observed by Milgram in his famous experiment). That's absolutely textbook human normal (note: "normal" does not mean "nice". Humans are a lot less psychologically pleasant than we like to believe) but when you combine those two perfectly normal psychological mechanisms, you end up with teh simple fact that, for the CEO atop his ivory tower, most of his employees and customers barely emotionally exist for him. It doesn't take a psychopath to poison the Gulf or dump hexavalient chromium into the water supply, all it takes is those two psychological mechanisms and the constant pressure to profit. If you are only barely emotionally aware of your employees and customers, why not drive them harder, why not slash their benefits and wages (real wages have been mostly stagnant for years), why not skip the safety testing?

I haven't brought you on this little journey to rant about the evils of corporations (although I could do that too). Rather, I am making the point that the corporation insulates it's controllers from the consquences of their actions to a great extent and thus, the corporation is able to take tremendously harmful actions without the soul-searching which a (mentally normal) human would be subject to. And thus, it can buy politicians to enable it without any second thoughts. And that's when politicians (especially Republicans) are not already doing it's bidding under the common misaprehension that being pro-capitalist necessarily means being pro-corporatist.

Fifth, and finally: If corporations are persons, why can't they vote? No, I'm serious. If corporations are legal persons, then they are covered by the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. That makes them citizens and that entitles them to vote.

And I haven't even gotten into the politicisation of the courts yet...

1 comment:

  1. Good read, still digesting, get back to you when I have more thoughts. (Though I mostly agree with you so I'm not sure if I will come up with much to say.)


I reserve the right to remove your comment if you're a prat. I also reserve the right to mercilessly mock you for the same crime.