We must privatize everything because ownership motivates owners towards betterment of that which they own. But then running things off the back of workers who aren’t owners can’t possibly be the best state of affairs. BTW, did you know that the term and practice of “privatization” is rooted in Nazi policy? See “The Coining of ‘Privatization’ and German National Socialist Party” by Germa Bel.
I haven’t written in a while. A long while. Why? Because I think it is pointless. Not because I believe that telling that which one believes to be the truth is pointless, but because I think no one is listening. Oh, they may look your way once in a while when you say something really dramatic, or unusual, but then the novelty passes, and they go back to watching movies, TV, playing video games. And feeding an economic monster that rapes, and kills, and maims, and commits genocide against humans and other species, and is willing, enabled and ready to absolutely annihilate the only vessel we know in this entire universe to contain this precious thing known as life.
Why then am I writing now? The same reason Winston wrote in 1984. To communicate with himself. To unleash the petering words of a dumbfounded conscience at mountains of silent stones. For when no one listens, walls do.
Today, my thoughts regard the relative absence of totems to peace in the world around us. This idea first hatched in my mind during a train ride, on a day this country I was in uses to glorify its own indulgence in orgies of violence and destruction known as wars. A holiday, a war memorial day (I swear it is merely a freudian slip of the conscience that this post is going out in the wake of what some call world peace day, a day which isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, recognised as a public holiday anywhere in the world).
On that day, in that train, I saw an old man. A very old man. He wore a colourful outfit, with gaudy buttons, and a rather funny looking hat (to me, you might have found it haute couture). All across the front of his pocket where many colourful bits of fabric, beneath which hung many ornaments. He wore strange large shoes. He was no circus clown. He was a warrior clown.
I gathered from the decorations on his garb that he had killed many, far more than those who didn’t win those little colourful ornaments. I gathered that he was a man who had been retained many decades ago, when he was young, strong, and “idealistic,” to slaughter in the name of king (or queen, or president), country and ideology. A job he had taken very seriously. And still did. Judging by the effort with which his old bones were fluffing up his geriatric chest. As if he was expecting a salute from everyone in the train car.
The train stopped at some station somewhere, where I presume his kind were being given special attention of some kind (there were others like him standing on the platform), something that was probably costing tax payers a pretty penny. At that point he got off. As he left, something which had been bothering in the back of my mind became a tangible thought. I wondered, what was this old man so proud of? I just didn’t get it.
If I had instead met an old, retired janitor, a cleaner of human excrement, who had put on his faeces covered overalls that he had worn every day for the decades of his life that he had spent wiping the stains of our collective existence, and came out to be recognised for the service he had performed so laboriously and so diligently, on a day that the citizens had set aside to honour his work, I would have understood that. But I couldn’t imagine, nor had I seen, a janitor as vain as that who thought that his excrement shovelling was more noteworthy than the efforts of doctors, and teachers, and bus drivers, and road workers, and brick layers, and miners, and factory workers, and dozens and dozens of people who do their duties for their entire lives that benefit us all on every blessed peaceful day. Besides, we just didn’t have a special day to recognise such honourable albeit odiferous work.
Why were there no sewerage memorial days? Which is, from every angle that I can conceive of, a complete analogue of war. For what is war, but the fetid, stagnant sewerage pond of our collective id, that oozes its vile infectious bubble of evil indulgence in death and destruction every few decades? Into which we have shovelled uncountable numbers of our young men (sorry ladies) over and over again. Why do we celebrate one type of putative hygiene effort, but not the other?
This little thought train took me back to another incident many years earlier, in a small college town in USA. There I met another old man, this time in a coffee shop. I don’t remember how I struck up conversation with him. He wore no uniforms, he had no medals, and he was just another old man in a coffee shop full of old men. He did look really old. Maybe that was what got the conversation started. I have a habit of starting conversations with the elderly. I think probably trying to find out what it is that they know, that I don’t know.
Well … he had a story to tell. He was 80 something years old. When the second big war of last century was fought, he was a young man. An idealistic young man. A pacifist. An unshakeable pacifist. Who wouldn’t kill no matter what, for any country, or any ideology. Or any Fuhrer. Yes, he was a german pacifist in Nazi Germany.
Though he wasn’t an active rabble rouser, he was discovered fairly quickly soon after the rise of the Nazis. When they were drafting every able bodied young man they could lay their hands on. He naturally refused to enlist, which led to his arrest and sent to prison. Where he remained in prison for the entire duration of the war, getting repeatedly beaten and tortured to renounce his beliefs and join the german army. He pulled his dentures out, and said to me that his teeth weren’t missing because of old age. He hadn’t had them since that fateful day in prison when a bunch of guards knocked out every one of them with rifle butts.
He didn’t know exactly why he had survived, they mock executed him many times. Throughout his prison days he never met another like himself. He thought that may have had something to do with it. He was such a novelty, he was almost like their unfortunate one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable pet. Maybe that is why they never killed him, and instead prolonged his torture until the war itself ended. A few moments later both our coffees ran out, as did his willingness to talk anymore. We exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. I ran into him a few more times after that, but he never brought up the subject. Nor did I. If he isn’t a hundred years old now, I am guessing he is now dead.
Up until that day in the train I didn’t know where this story of the german pacifist fit into a broader meaningful picture with which I could understand not the world of yesterday, but the world of today. Its been a little over two years since the thought triggered by the warrior clown in the train began. The story of the forgotten pacifist had become apparent as a piece of the puzzle. I have since gone past many days, and monuments, and museums that commemorate and celebrate and glorify the worse primitive cultural strain that is common to every corner of the planet inhabited by humans. The culture of war. Every time I do I tell myself to lookup the nearest monument to peace and pacifism, a grave of the unknown pacifist perhaps, into which I may intern the name of this old german. And maybe read about a few others like him. Sadly, I haven’t found it yet.
I ran into a post last night, about the “Pirate 2 Pirate Kopimi Station” (via “MAKE: Blog“). It is great that folks at Make are covering this emergent phenomenon. But then they went ahead and made the following wimpy statement, which got me all riled up:
“Obviously this is not something we are encourage [sic] folks to do …”
In response I’d like to pose an open question: why not? Make supposedly is all about a certain grassroot DIY ethos. Is that only going to go so far (to the extent of “…for content owners who *do* want to share their works,” ) and stop short at certain things? Like the concept of a public library, and the laws that make or break it. That, it is clear to me, is exactly what is being re-invented by the likes of Piratbyrån (wikipedia entry). Is that degree of DIY outside the limits of the maker movement? The idea of the public library must evolve into the 21st century. We can’t let Mickey Mouse tell us what the public library is.
There is the whole “content owner” thing. But who decides where that begins and where that ends? The “who” and the “what,” and the “how long?” If it is the public that gets to decide, then the public has spoken. The amount of file trading that happens is proof enough that the public is okay with “piracy,” by and large. On the other hand, if it is the profiteer oligarch that gets to decide, who is often not even the content producer but “their agent,” and incidentally gets to keep bulk of the loot (just think of the “Life + 70 years” rule in that light), then I claim myself the agent of the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Indians, Phoenicians, Egyptians etc. Would all of current western civilization pay me 1000 years worth of copyright fees please? I am going to pass some of it on to the descendants of the producers, I promise!
There is a story about the ancient library of Alexandria, where king Ptolemy decreed that all visitors had to surrender books in their possession to be copied for the library to keep. There is nothing inherently universal about the right of copy ownership, the way it is commonly perceived today even by those contravening it. So if I get to pick which law is better, Ptolemy’s law, anarchically instituted and executed, sounds like good copyright law to me. It is true that the “owners” will make less money. But what makes it my business to concern myself with their profit interest, instead of the public enlightenment interest?
A thing of value today may be of no value tomorrow. “They” tell me that the markets change, its all about supply and demand. Thats just the way it is. That may be true, although I don’t buy that it is. But let us for the moment suppose that it is true. For that specific thing at least. The next logical jump is that everything is subject to valuation via the market. That too is the way it is. Which I buy even less. But let us work with that for the moment as well. There are many “things” besides things. For example, a human being. So now I ask, what exactly is a human being worth in a market driven economy? A “thing” of variable value, precious today, worthless tomorrow? Is that the way it is?
From many years ago I recall a certain article in Newsweek that labeled Nigeria as Kleptocracy Central. Nigerians the world over were embarrassed, annoyed and up in arms about it. There was some truth to their indignation, although I think what many of them sought was total absolution. The truth is that the country was and is a kleptocracy. Nothing else can explain the gap between where it came from, and where it ended up. But calling it the capital of corruption was a little far fetched, which is what my Nigerian friends should have had issues with.
A few years later I came to the United States, and have since been getting some additional education on the subject. An American friend of mine who travels a lot to the remnants of the USSR recalls a moment of self deprecation when he found himself sharing some vodka with a Ukrainian. The drunk and morose man kept ranting about how corrupt his country was, and how everything was going to hell in a hand basket etc. My American friend ultimately responded by saying that the Ukrainian should consider himself lucky. Here the corruption is only retail. In his country, America, it is wholesale. The last 8 years have taught me the full meaning of this truism. Here is a nice article that sketches a map of contemporary corruption in this once (maybe in distant past, let us not forget Clinton’s Pardongate) great nation of ours:
This is the beacon of democracy, freedom, justice, achievement, wealth and other civic goodies? There is a chasm of herculean proportions between where this country came from, and where it is ending up now. Much larger than anything that can be seen in any other country. So, to be fair to Nigeria, in Newsweek style, I propose that we rename USA to KSA, the Kleptocratic States of America (which ironically also stands for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Connections, connections, connections. James Burke, eat your heart out!), and Washington DC as Washington KC. The one and only legitimate claimant to the title of Kleptocracy Central.
A couple of days ago I found myself in a fairly familiar lunch hour confrontation. Here is how it went.
Him: “You are NOT going to vote for Obama?!” angrily, “Are you voting for McCain???”
Me: “No, I am not voting for McCain either.”
Him: “What, you are not going to vote at all?”
Me: “No that is not the case either, I am …”
Him: “I’m sorry, but that is just stupid. Not voting is just stupid …”
Me: “I don’t see any reason why not voting isn’t a valid choice, but anyway I am not saying that I am not going to …”
Him: “No really, not voting is stupid. Just plain unrealistic and stupid. Big things are happening in this country and you are saying you are not going to be part of it. That is complacency. Complacency is just stupid …”
Me: “HEY! Take it easy. I never said I am not going to vote.”
Him: “So then what? You are going to vote for someone else?”
Him: “I am sorry, that is stupid too. That is just like not voting. You are throwing your vote away. You are burning it. ”
Me: “You know, I have wondered about that, about whether that wouldn’t be a more effective and empowering expression of my choice. A Gandhi style public vote burning …”
Him: “No, see here is how it works. You have two choice on the menu, Vanilla, or Chocolate. You are saying you want Strawberry. You wanna go off the menu. You have two choices, and you wanna go for one that isn’t there. That is just plain stupid.”
Me: “There is a third choice.”
Him: “No there isn’t.”
Me: “Yes there is.”
Him: “No, just two choices.”
Me: “Actually there is a third. If you slow down a little, I’ll tell you about it.”
Him: “Okay,” impatiently, “what is the third choice?”
Me: “I always have the choice to not eat ice cream at all.”
Him: “That is just plain stupid. How can you not eat ice cream? That does not make sense. That is just plain stupid.”
Me: “Well, maybe ice cream is bad for ones health …”
Him: “That is just plain stupid.”
Which is where time ran out. The lunch hour came to an end, just as my patience with this whole “stupid” thing was running out. The “conversation” ended. Yet another self satisfied political party fanatic goes off on his angry little way. If you are not with him, you are against him. If you are not in his party, you are a party pooper. It is his way or the highway. One finds this character, in overwhelmingly large numbers, in all political factions. I wish he would slow down a bit and listen. Maybe the complexity of his world will increase for the better. At least I might have been able to continue the conversation in one of the following two ways:
Me: “You know, your analogy is a little lame. I like ice cream. You like ice cream. Who doesn’t like ice cream?”
Him: “Exactly! Who doesn’t like ice cream?”
Me: “Lets try something else. When was the last time you ate at Mc Donalds?”
Him: “I don’t eat Mc Donalds … ”
Me: “Well, there you go. They’ve even got more than two choices on the menu, not just McCainuggets vs Oburger, and you still won’t eat there.”
In the theatrical version, the conversation would have concluded with Tribe Called Quest’s Ham n Eggs song trailing into the background.
Me: “I know you just love democracy, because it is all about choice right?”
Me: “So, you need to decide if I as a voter have a choice or not. You can’t have it both ways.”
Him: “What do you mean?”
Me: “I can’t have a choice, and have someone else make it for me.”
Him: “I still don’t get it.”
Me: “Well, I either have a choice or I don’t. If I don’t have a choice, then voting is pointless, and possibly immoral. It is pointless because it does not change the outcome. At best it is a ceremonial, for-show endorsement. Kinda like those one-choice elections in those banana republics like Zimbabwe. And immorality may result from endorsing something reprehensible, even though it may be co-packaged with some good things.”
Me: “On the other hand, if I do have a choice, then my choice is my choice, not yours or anybody else’s. You can’t frame it for me, nobody else can frame it for me, only I get to decide. It is my choice.”
Him: “I see.”
Me: “Oh, by the way, you never gave me even two choices. You are giving me only one. Just one piddly choice.”
Me: “You know I’d never opt for one of those two choices, not in a million years. One of those two characters is absolutely the wrong choice, on the grounds of his specific lip-service record alone. The other is the only possible choice you are giving me. That is pathetic. That is not democracy, that is more like monarchy. ”
(I did not have a good musical score to set this version of the conversation to. I thought silence would be best, until my friend JG sent me a link to Devo’s Freedom of Choice . Thanks JG!)
Unfortunately, such conversations will have to be relegated to immaginary corners of the lonely dark alleys of the net. Simplistic tribalistic pre-framed discourse in the real world never leaves room for dialectics of even this level of complexity.
The mystery of these times : massive monetary evaporation. Where did all that cash elope to? No one is ready to tell the tale. We can’t tell where it went, maybe we can tell where it came from. That might give us a clue. Paul Grignon made a documentary on that subject, a video titled Money As Debt. The video has been around for a while, but I thought it might be pertinent to revisit it here.
To me, the most disturbing aspect of all this is the degree to which popular conception differs from what is stated in the sources above. Except for graduates of Economics, who by-the-way often confessed only fuzzy understanding of the Multiplier Effect and Fractional-reserve Banking, everyone I shared this video with expressed complete and utter surprise at its contents. This is the way the guts of our world works, and we barely know it.
Subsequently I find my mind reeling at the idea that the primary repository of value in the gargantuan global financial system is debt. Debt backed by debt, backed by debt backed by nothing much. Extending a loan is ultimately a statement of faith, in the debtor’s future ability to fulfill obligations. Using this faith as the foundation of the entire monetary system rests upon the belief that an interest bearing debt is more valuable than the money used to create it. But what happens when that faith is misplaced? What happens when money is lent for ends of dubious economic value? Like gambling with random variables (see Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2005). Or waging wars which — even if they had a point or were necessary — are destroyers not creators of value. What happens when good loans go bad?
Supposedly the Central Bank (in the case of the USA, it is the Federal Reserve System) would step in, and save the day. But the reserve rate is usually much smaller than 100%. For example, in the case of the USA, the reserve rate is 10%. Which means that every dollar lent out is backed by a mere dime. So, if enough debts go bad, the reserve can’t cover it. District of Columbia, we have a problem.
Someone sent me a very thought provoking 1875 print by Currier & Ives, pictured below. Apparently the current state of affairs is a near century old dejavu. There is hope in this picture. Maybe the so-called crisis will teach this generation a lesson in age-old basics of true economic values.