Monday, 23 January 2012

You Say You Want A Revolution

This past week I was watching some video taken during the Occupy Movement’s demonstrations in Washington DC. The key video is below with the poster’s description.

Occupy DC protesters tried to force entry into the Washington Convention Center on Friday, where Americans for Prosperity was hosting its “Defending the American Dream Summit.” The protesters also formed roadblocks, surrounding the convention center and only allowing non-luxury cars to pass.

What struck me most about this footage was the sheer naiveté of the protestors. I think that this is in fact one of the key issues of our time and needs to be addressed.  In my writings on metaphysics, I explore the three types of reality: Objective Reality, the world that is, Subjective Reality, the world as we perceive it, and the Artificial Reality, the world humans have created. What we see here is a crisis in Artificial Reality.

Imagine a snowy day but you are nice and warm in your heated home padding about wearing next to nothing. This is Artificial Reality. A huge and complex chain of events has made possible the luxury of heated accommodation that you take for granted, but the grim truth is that without the thousands of links that comprise the supply chain you would freeze to death, or at least be less comfortable.

The metaphysical crisis epidemic in our society is that this great machine has become so vast and complex that anyone without a basic knowledge of history and economics has no idea how it functions, is psychologically overwhelmed, and emotionally unprepared. To them, the act of simply turning on the heat creates the heat as if by magic. Of course that is not literally true, but in terms of attitudes and behaviours it might as well be.

As you look around your world, you will no doubts see all sorts of things from bottles to books to bed sheets. All these things are the result of human production involving thousands, if not millions, of people. This concept was illustrated in the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read in 1958 which discusses all the various production requirements it takes to produce a pencil. Artificial Reality is just as vast, complex, and interconnected as the ecosystems we find in Objective Reality.

If you were to ask a child where money comes from, the child may answer, “from Dad’s wallet”. In their tiny subjective world this makes perfect sense because that’s where they see it come from. This is their immediate contact with money. They do not understand the labour markets, budgetary constraints, or other complex economic systems that brought that cash to the wallet. If Dad refuses to give his money, this is perceived as an act of refusal rather than what might be an economic necessity.

I believe that our understanding of the three “realities” of the Objective, Subjective, and Artificial is critical and we are constantly balancing the three. For many people the balance is off and too much emphasis is placed on the Subjective. This predominantly subjective orientation to reality produces solipsism where the world is evaluated and acted upon solely on the basis of personal perception, experience, and feelings. They have in essence a child mind and this is what I see in most modern protestors, including the Occupy crowd.

I have identified seven forms of power. Power can be defined as the means by which we work our will in the world. The seven include: characteristic, physical, material, social, legislative, titular, and time. I want to focus here on social power.

When protestors gather they are exerting social power. The more numbers they can produce the more powerful the protest. A large number of people with a singular intent can be a very intimidating force if you are not one of them and a strong visceral event if you are. This makes them dangerous.  It is essentially a show of force and a threat. That is what a protest is, whether you call it peaceful or otherwise.

Unfortunately, post-1950’s protestors in the West, particularly in America, do not see this fact. In understanding Artificial Reality it is important to recognise a luxury rather than take it for granted. Objective Reality is the norm and anything good beyond the norm is a luxury. So a man-made fire in a cave against the cold is a luxury. Likewise in human conflict the kindness of an oppressor is a luxury and not a moral given. If a child punches an adult man and the man does not respond with physical force, then he is being kind. The child is foolish to think otherwise.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King both successfully used non-violence as a tactic to achieve their goals. People tend not to realise that it was a tactic and one that worked well against the sentiments of the British and American governments respectively. The same tactics would have failed against Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Historically, revolutionary change is achieved through extreme violence. That is the norm and anything better is a luxury.  Modern protestors in the West take the luxury of the non-violent protest for granted as the norm when it is not.

The June Rebellion of 1832 is known to most people through the book and the musical Les Miserable. When the students took to the barricades they did so with rifles in hand and prepared to die for their cause.  Contrast that concept with the Occupy protestors. Their tactic was to harass their fellow citizens. This included those either going to a public gathering, as is their Natural Right and a right as per the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and by blocking traffic, particularly what were deemed luxury cars. The protestors appear to believe that they could engage in these actions with impunity and responded with outrage when their victims did retaliate.  Whereas the students of 1832 fully expected to shoot and to be shot at.  They understood the basic fundamental of action/reaction as any adult brain would.

I’ve seen this same behaviour in footage from protests in London where a pregnant woman was injured by the mounted police and a demonstrator expressed moral outrage. In another video from the same Occupy protest above the camera man is questioning the morality of the protestors bringing children along. He did not challenge the protestors or their right to protest. He was simply pointing-out what I am illustrating here. The reality is that all protests have the potential to cause physical harm. Therefore, it is not a safe place for pregnant women, children, and those who are not prepared to be hurt for their cause, and that harm is in itself a luxury compared with the historical norm where you would possibly be killed protesting your cause.

There are powerful forces at work in world. There are governments who command armed soldiers adept at killing resistors. There are mega-corporations, media moguls, central bankers, and special interest groups who have monetary resources beyond your wildest dreams at their disposal. There are entrenched politicians, adept at manipulations, which use their positions to acquire vast wealth and influence. All these forces are aligned to promote their agenda and the status quo. Then you have your fellow citizens who just want to live peaceful, productive, and plentiful lives – yes, the “comfort zone” is also a powerful force.

In the face of this you have a growing number of people calling for revolution. The most visible are those belonging to a protest subculture dating back to the 60’s. These are people who enjoy the thrill and group dynamic of protesting. They hold up their signs, make outrageous demands, harass anyone in their way, and then go home patting themselves on the back on how they are changing the world. More and more we see people joining this subculture who find that vandalism is also fun and they can get away with it because of the perceived moral imperative of their cause.

Looking back over the history of this protest subculture we find that they have been amazingly ineffective. This is not hard to believe given their naiveté. They are successful in expressing their opinions, but not in changing the world. They did not end the Viet Nam War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, or the current wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. They have not changed monetary policy or even affected grand social change through their protests.  For the men and women in power playing Risk or Monopoly on the global scale, the concerns of protestors means nothing unless it serves their interests.

A common trend seen over the last century is illustrated by protests against short-haul railway fares in the United States during the 1890’s.  For long-haul fares multiple operators brought fares down due to competition, however for short-haul there was sometimes only a single operator in a particular area and this made fares more expensive.  In answer to the protests against high local fares the United States government created the Interstate Commerce Commission to address the problem.  The victorious protestors, satisfied that the issue was now sorted, moved on to other concerns.  Thomas Cooley, a lawyer for the railroad industry, was named the first ICC commissioner in charge of regulating the railroad industry.  The solution to the fares issue was to raise the costs of long-haul travel to match local levels thus increasing the corporate profits for the long-haul railroad companies.

The pattern is this.  People protest something in society that they do not like, if government takes notice they agree to create an agency for dealing with the problem, the protesters see this as a victory and move on because they have no real vested interest in problem, and then those who do have a vested interest, such as the companies and industries affected by the problem, move into the newly created government agency and regulate themselves to their benefit and against the interests of potential competition and the public at large.  So when the protesters “win”; they loose.

Where the protest subculture has succeeded is in promoting their ideology in the fields of education, media, and politics, but once there they are subject to the same social and market forces that they preach against and thus are perceived as hypocrites biting the hand that feeds them, but still taking the food and becoming very wealthy and influential in the process.

The Occupy Movement has achieved a great deal in raising public awareness and bringing key issues into public debate. Unfortunately, the group lacked any real ideological cohesion; many of those who rallied to the banner had no understanding of the complex social and economic systems of Artificial Reality so they made outrageous and childish demands like, “abolish money”; some engaged in acts of violence and disorder with no achievable goal in mind and with no understanding or accepting of the consequences of those actions. In other words, the movement devolved into a university frat party.

Let’s take a look at a couple of true revolutionaries, Lenin and Trotsky. They were chess players. The people of the Occupy Movement would be their pawns, fodder to throw into the fray as foot-soldiers. When Lenin returned from exile to Finland Station he declared that the Communist Revolution was to be non-violent. Why? Because the other side had all the guns. Once he drew a significant portion of the military to his cause, only then did the revolution become violent, as with all revolutions with few exceptions. It is estimated between five to nine million people died in the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War that followed.  The pattern in revolutions is this.  All the small dogs join forces against the big dog.  Once the big dog is defeated they turn on each other.  This is why revolutionary outcomes are so unpredictable and deadly.

So you say you want a revolution. You want to tear down the system. Fine, but remember the system has the guns, the money, the power, the resources, the influence, and it does not want to be torn down.   Also, whatever it is that you are revolting against might just be connected through the interconnected supply chain to something that you either hold dear or are dependent upon.  If you go ahead with the revolution,  first you will be ignored, then you will be ridiculed, and then gassed and beaten. These are all luxuries, acts of kindness and tolerance. Your protests are nothing more than a minor annoyance played for entertainment value on the 24 hour news cycle and then forgotten. If you become too violent, then you will be hunted down and shot as terrorists. Revolutions are not a game or a party, and they don’t end like in the movies.

Successful revolutionaries play it smart. They understand the Artificial Reality and how the world works. They know the resources at their disposal and how to use people and materials coldly and effectively. They adopt whatever tactics are necessary with a full understanding of the effort and sacrifice required, sacrifices that they and their followers are willing to make.

Even then, most successful revolutions fail in the long-term. Lenin’s Soviet Union collapsed after only 72 years. Eighty years after the American colonist fought against a central government authority they fought each other over the same issue. The French Revolution only traded King Louis for Emperor Napoleon.

History demonstrates time and again that real change comes from cultural, social, economic, and legislative evolution, not revolution. But if you want a revolution, at least accept what you’re signing-up for and don’t go crying when you reap what you sow.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Finding the Centre — Romanticism, Equilibrium, and Masculinity in Rudyard Kipling’s “If”

When I was a child I had a vinyl recording from the folks at Disney that contained two Rudyard Kipling stories – “The Cat Who Walked By Himself” and “The Elephant’s Child” both from the The Just So Stories. I cannot say that this was the beginning of a lifelong love of Kipling’s work, but it did secure him a place in my heart and I would visit him from time to time in the decades that followed by reading (or watching) The Man Who Would be King or a poem here or there.

You might then be able to imagine my shock when I discovered from an acquaintance attending university that Kipling had been banned from the curriculum for being a racist and an imperialist. It appears that Rudyard was too politically incorrect for the 1990’s and beyond, and yet, his poem “If” was voted Britain’s favourite poem in a poll taken in 1998. Of course, I have been familiar with the poem most of my life, but it was only recently that its full measure was revealed to me.  If you need to refresh your memory of the poem click here.

In my more frivolous moments I describe myself as a preacher of the Church of the Romantic. To put that more seriously, I am an outspoken advocate and writer on the subject of the Romantic philosophy. What I mean by that is that from roughly 1776-1929 a culture dominated Western Civilization built upon the ideas of the Enlightenment. The first burst came in the form of art, what is called the Romantic Period. From there it entered the mainstream to form what today we call “the Modern World”.

In contrast, the post-Romantic Era from 1929-the present is often called the Post-Modern. I call it the Socialist Era because of the cultural shift from Romantic Individualism to Collectivist Socialism in the sense that social planning on the state level is seen as preferable to individual responsibility.

To illustrate these two cultural worldviews imagine two men walking down the street and they encounter a down-and-out homeless man. The Romantic stereotype would say, “How horrible that this man has done this to himself.” The Socialist stereotype would say, “How horrible that we live in a society that allows this to happen to this kind of person.” The Romantic sees the world as individuals and the Socialist sees it in terms of society and groups.

In my studies of the Romantic I discovered the work of the French-American cultural historian Jacques Barzun and read his book, Classic, Romantic, and Modern in which he makes a very interesting point that I had long over-looked. This is the idea of equilibrium. When I had studied the Romantic in school and university I was given a list of topics that characterised Romanticism. It included things like Nature, Love, Death, drug use, etc.. One of these qualities was extremism. This shows the ignorance of whoever compiled this list. Barzun demonstrates that Romanticism is not about extremes, rather what he calls equilibrium. 

I will confess that it is a difficult concept to grasp.  Barzun describes the Romantic as bringing "into tense equilibrium many radical diversities".  So it is not balance per se, or compromise, or even an amalgam, but rather apparent opposites in mutual existence, like light acting as both a wave and a particle.  David Hume illustrated this concept when he wrote that, "without passion, no idea has any force".  This demonstrates the equilibrium between the perceived extremes of emotion and reason.  Passion without reason has no brain and Reason without passion has no heart.  Neither extreme is desirable, so instead we seek that point of equilibrium.

For another example, Romanticism is all about the individual; however we cannot deny the legitimate demands of the group in which the individual is a part. So there needs to be an equilibrium between the extremes of the individual and the collective.  Anyone seeking to adopt the cultural philosophy that I have labelled here as “the Romantic” must focus on attaining equilibrium.

So in the Church of the Romantic is seems reasonable to adopt Kipling’s poem “If” as a sort of prayer or creed to guide us down the path of equilibrium. Here are a few lines to illustrate.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

The word Romantic is often associated with fancy, imagination, and delusion. The origin of this lies in the origin of the word Romantic. The word originally meant Roman-like to describe the Latin patois that would eventually become the Romance languages of French, Spanish, and Italian. In time the word Romantic came to describe the popular medieval stories in these languages. These stories usually featured supernatural creatures and persons, like dragons, fairies or wizards. So the word Romantic came to be associated with the fantastical.

There was another element to these Romances and that was action. The brave hero knight acted to reach resolution. To make a more modern example, think of Star Wars as a Romance. There are fantastic creatures and magic powers and this is what we think of when we think of Star Wars. The action seems secondary. For action films we look to Die Hard. This is unfortunate because action is at the heart of the Romantic.

Dreams and thoughts are key components of the Romantic, but we cannot forget that their purpose is to drive action. The man who makes dreams his master is the Comic-con geek who is lost in fantasy. The man who makes thoughts his aim is the academic always looking for new ideas or refining his thoughts. Neither man has balanced these dreams and thoughts with action.

Now imagine the scientist inspired by Star Trek to invent some new technology. This happens all the time. Or imagine the soldier who performs an act of heroism because he is unconsciously inspired by Captain America or Wolverine. This is the balance between the inner world of dreams and thoughts and the outer world of action required by the Romantic path. Now let’s look at the next coupling.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Here we are presented with extremes of Triumph and Disaster. One theory of human emotion is that there are four root emotions from which all other emotions flow and these fall into two categories. One set is reality based. These are happiness and sorrow as the gaining or loss of a value. The second set is imaginary. These are desire and fear as the imagined gaining or loss of a value. These can be divided in another way between gaining-based emotions and loosing-based emotions – Triumph and Disaster.

So how are these imposters? I remember reading an article from a man who wrote about how happy he was when he bought his first Mercedes. He felt as if he had arrived. However, this triumph was short lived because after about a month his vehicle ceased to be his Mercedes and simply became his car. Likewise when disaster strikes it is a singular event that passes and when it passes it is in the past and the only life it has comes from dwelling on its memory.

The sense of triumph may inspire your confidence to greater victories or it may make you complacent as you revel in the memory of past deeds but accomplish nothing more. The sense of disaster may cripple your confidence to inaction or it may inspire you to fight harder. But in the end all that matters are the actions of the now. Past triumphs and disasters once passed are equally nothing but memory and both are imposters to the present. So the trick in balancing the extremes of life’s ups and downs, whether you get the bear or the bear gets you, lies in accepting that there is no bear. All that exists is how you choose to feel about it.

The previous two examples dealt with the balance between the inner world of thoughts and emotions and the outer world of action and consequence. The last example I would like to give pertains to social equilibrium.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

Again we are presented with opposites and we are admonished to find the equilibrium. The word I would like to focus on here is virtue. In Aristotelian ethics a virtue is defined as a positive habit and he encourages us to cultivate these positive habits. Virtue is to be found in “the Golden Mean” which is the balance of extremes. For example, courage is a virtue however too much courage is rashness and too little courage is cowardice.

I believe what Kipling is advocating here is Pride. Now pride is an often misunderstood and ill-defined concept. Going back to Aristotle, pride is seen as the crown of virtues. It is the reward for living a virtuous life. The opposite is arrogance where someone demands the reward without earning it.

So pride is a self-belief and self-confidence born of experience. When a man is admired by the group it is very easy for him to be swayed by them because he wants to keep the praise coming. The same holds true when important people treat him as being important. It’s natural to want to keep that positive feedback coming. The danger lies in abandoning those virtues which are the source of his pride in order to please the crowd or the king. When this occurs his pride transforms into arrogance.

I mentioned my humorous self-conceit as being a preacher in the Church of the Romantic and that the Romantic period ran from 1776-1929. Well, I also dress the part. My clothes are all custom made from 1880’s patterns from my trousers, to my waistcoat, to my frock coat. So you can imagine that I get noticed publically.

If someone on the street was to call me a cabbage, then I would certainly be puzzled. I might try to figure-out what they meant by that, but I certainly would not be hurt. Several years back I boarded a bus and some teenage girl in the back shouted, “get a grip” and she and her friends laughed. That hurt.

I have dressed in this manner for about twenty years now, though the style has been refined over time. For me, these are just my clothes and as normal to me as another’s jeans and T-shirt. Like them, I dress in a manner that suits my tastes, personality, and beliefs. This does not mean that I am immune to the social mirror. I am very much aware that I am different and I dislike it when that difference is pointed out.

So if someone was to call me a cabbage, it would be nothing to me. However, if someone was to challenge my grip on reality or perceive me as a joke then they are tapping into my innate sense of alienation from society. They are essentially putting salt into an existing wound.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one ugly woman, famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I mention her looks because it adds gravity to the quote. Foes can only hurt you when they have an ally in your psyche. So once more we are back to the concept of pride. If you believe in yourself, and have the virtues to back-up that self-estimation, then you are inoculated against such threats of harm.

Assuming that the harm from foes is in the form of destructive criticism, we may also assume that the hurt from loving friends is constructive criticism. Nobody is perfect. Sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes it takes a friend to tell us when we are acting like a complete ass. The question is how we take it. Do we feel hurt and hold it against them, or do we take their criticism under advisement to discover if there is truth to it. Pride comes from virtue and virtue comes from balance. It may seem strange to put it this way, but if you respond to your friend with pride then you are not hurt by their remarks but grateful, because they are helping you maintain your balanced virtues and therefore your pride.

The final phrase, “If all men count with you, but none too much;” is a counter to this one. On the one hand there is criticism, either destructive or constructive, and on the other there is praise in the form of allies “counting with you”. Over the decades I have been praised as a writer. Every now and then someone comes along who praises a bit too much and too often. At this point I start to doubt their sincerity. It is good to have many friends and allies, but dangerous to be surrounded by “yes men” or to compromise yourself.

Social equilibrium is the balance between man the individual and man the social creature. Humans as a species are neither solitary tigers nor hive-minded ants but a little of both. So how does the Romantic individualist balance the needs of the self and that of the other selves that compose society?

Kipling does not give us a nice and neat answer. I do not see this as an omission on his part because there is no fixed answer. It is a question of balance. Sometimes you must walk with kings and other times you are in the crowd. Sometimes you take the rebuke and other times you take the praise. The only constant is you, how you choose to perceive, respond and act.

The Hindus teach that ours is the world of Karma. The West has mystified this concept, but all it really means is action/reaction or cause/effect. In “If”, we see Kipling repeatedly arguing for equilibrium between the inner world of thoughts and feelings and the outer world of action with the balance favouring the latter. Ours is the world of physical action with thoughts and feelings playing a vital but auxiliary role.

To this end Kipling encourages us to take risks, build something of value, and to persevere regardless of success or failure. Likewise he discourages us from being too subjective by judging the world according to sentimentality, which can often lead to self-harm and delusion. Most importantly, he encourages pride born of virtue.

The word virtue has the root vir meaning Man. You see, men are not born but made. Every man instinctively knows this. This is why we have the phrase “be a man” and every culture has its rites of passage into manhood. Women can just be, but Men must become and it is the balanced life of virtue that is the path to manhood.

I have argued here that Romanticism as a concept is actually masculine despite the modern belief that it is feminine. We see this in the Romantic concepts laid out by Kipling to his Victorian readers during the Romantic Twilight.   According to Matthew Sweet in his book, Inventing the Victorians, the Victorian man struggled with this crisis of masculinity just as much as modern men do. I recently discovered that my personal role model, my father, lived in the shadow of his dad just I live in the shadow of mine.

So what makes a “real man”? From the sublime to the ridiculous, these are some lyrics from the song “Now You’re A Man” by the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “What makes a man? Is it the power in his hands? Is it his quest for glory?... Is it the woman in his arms?” These are the answers given by the modern media. Think of the stereotype of the football jock, the popular tough guy with hot girlfriend. This is the role model we have been given.  Kipling and the Romantics reject this premise.

The quest of masculinity is the quest for virtue, and this is to be found when each man finds his unique centre, his balance, his equilibrium. It is this portable inner strength that allows him to walk with kings or move in the common crowd. He does not need to curry favour to feed his ego through overt shows of power or in pursuit of fickle female admiration. Nor does he loose his way in the tumultuous waves of dreams, thoughts, or sentimentality. He is, quite simply, an oak.

It is this solid grounding of the self, born of virtue, which leads Kipling to conclude his poem with the assurance that if you can accomplish all these things:

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!