Some Things Are Worse Than Other Things: the Philosophy of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, six scenarios:

  • A Nazi punches a man walking down the street because he is a Jew; a Jew punches a man walking down the street because he is a Nazi.
  • A woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is Hispanic; a woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is unabashedly racist.
  • A restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he is gay; a restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he despises gay people.

The mind’s first temptation may be to construct creative contexts, but there are no ambiguities here. The Nazi is not just an ultraconservative; he believes in Nazism and wears the swastika. The Hispanic woman is a citizen born in Idaho and the racist woman knows it; the racist woman is not merely concerned with how unfair illegal entry is to those waiting their turn or that illegal immigrants are “stealing jobs,” but rather she does not like Hispanics — living in the same neighborhood as they, working with them, hearing Spanish, and so forth. The first restaurant owner and the second man denied service both go way beyond trust in biblical teachings about how homosexuality is an abominable sin — it disgusts them beyond words, they believe it should be a crime as it once was, they don’t value the life of a gay person equal to that of “normal” straight person. These being hypothetical scenarios of my own creation, there are no excuses nor saving grace available.

The question explored here isn’t which of these things are wrong and which are right. People have different ideas concerning when violence, extreme disrespect, or denial of service is acceptable, if ever. Sorting through all that, making a case one way or another, is not the point. Let’s proceed from the standpoint that all of these things are morally wrong. That is, after all, the typical premise of someone presenting a moral equivalence relevant to this discussion. The premise is: a racist attack is morally wrong and an attack against a racist is morally wrong. The moral equivalence is: an attack against a racist is as morally wrong as a racist attack.

Is it?

Are the scenarios above and their inverses truly equal in their “wrongness”? Or can two things be wrong, but one slightly less wrong?

Today, this debate arises constantly. We have open Nazis walking around the mall and white supremacists attacking or murdering people of color, unhinged riders unleashing racist rants on the bus, with medical institutions refusing to treat LGBT Americans and pastors wishing more gay people had died in the Orlando massacre. We also have Antifa and others sucker-punching Nazis and advocating we “Kill Nazis,” a gunman killing Republicans, business owners kicking out Trump supporters — and people attacking them physically or verbally. Opposing protesters brawl in the streets.

To reiterate, all of these things could be called morally wrong. After all, they do harm to others. But here we need to add an important point: to say a scenario is more morally wrong than its inverse is not to advocate for either. To conclude, for instance, that denying service to a bigot is less morally egregious than denying service to a gay person isn’t to automatically or necessarily advocate for denying service to bigots. One can still oppose both because he or she has determined they are both on the spectrum of immorality, even if at different points. Likewise, to say that some things are worse than other things, to believe a scenario worse than its inverse, is not to say this is always true for any other scenario and its inverse. As we will see, where motives are more equal the immorality of actions are more equal.

Turning back to our hypothetical situations and whether they involve false equivalences, we first have to agree upon the principle that some actions can indeed be morally worse than others — that a spectrum of morality makes sense. This shouldn’t even have to be argued, but there may be some religious fundamentalists or others who posit all “sin” is equally wrong. So lying about your age is just as wrong as rape. This sort of black-and-white thinking isn’t something most people, including people of faith, take seriously, so we won’t spend much time on it. (And we’ve already seen how morality is opinion-based even if God exists; see Where Does Morality Come From?The Philosophy of MoralityYes, Liberals and Atheists Believe in Absolute TruthIs Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?) Most people would conclude stealing money from a man’s wallet is not as wrong as killing him, and so forth. So some wrongs are more wrong than other wrongs.

Then we need to recognize that the same action, doing the same harm, can be less wrong — even morally right — if done for certain reasons. Ethics are situational. Motives matter. Again, most everyone accepts this. Take an action like killing. Killing a man because you want his wife or because he looked at you the wrong way is a bit different than killing in self-defense or in war. Those last two situations are often regarded as morally right, though there’s plenty of debate about it. That doesn’t matter — what matters is that the underlying principle is agreed upon: the same act will have a different moral status depending on why someone does it. A spectrum is easy enough to envision. Perhaps killing someone in self-defense is less wrong than killing someone in war, which is perhaps less wrong than killing someone because he or she used the “white” restroom, etc. Use your imagination.

If motives matter regarding the morality of some actions, might they for others?

The actions of our scenarios are the same, but the motives are not — which may alter the morality of the action.

Think of the possible motives, the driving forces, of the Nazi, the racist woman, the bigoted owner. What comes to mind? Conspiracy theories about the inferior Jews ruling and ruining the nation, discomfort with a country growing less white, preferring gays scared back into the closet — out of sight, out of mind. Whatever you envision, it likely isn’t good. It isn’t something you find morally right. And what of the possible motives of the Jew, the Hispanic woman, the gay man? Opposition to Nazi ideology, racism, and discrimination come to mind. These are likely stances you agree with and find morally right, even if you don’t approve of the action that followed.

How is it, then, that anyone can say these scenarios and their inverses are equally immoral? How are two identical actions equally wrong despite one having more moral motives and the other more immoral motives? This is like saying that killing in self-defense is just as bad as killing someone for looking at you the wrong way. It is saying that motives do not matter.

But most people believe they do. Why the double standard? Does it involve the severity of the action? Why do motives affect the morality of a more serious action like killing but not a less serious one like a punch, name-call, or refusal to serve? There is no logical reason that I can see. Lying is a less serious action, but we all understand that lying about someone raping you would be worse than lying about how late you were past curfew.

Again, there may be situations where X is as equally wrong as Y, but it seems like that would require motives that are more equally wrong. Lying to your spouse about losing the dog is roughly as wrong as lying to your spouse about spending vacation money on a new television. Killing over jealousy is about as wrong as killing over insults. But the motives of our situational pairs are much farther apart, polar opposites in fact. (One may insist they are the same because each attacker wants to exert power over the other, put him in his place, seize control, do what’s best for herself, express hate, intimidate, hurt, and so on, but that only takes one temporary step backward. Why are they doing those things? What are the motives behind those motives? Can all hatred be equally wrong — say, racist hatred versus hatred of a racist — if the motives are ethical polar opposites? Aren’t the motives morally different, even if you frown upon where they lead? Of course they are, as we saw above.)

(Now, folks will disagree over what motives are moral, but for each person there will always be an array of motives that include some more moral and some less. If you’re a Nazi sympathizer, you’ll think racist motives more right and opposition motives more wrong, and apply the same to the actions — but no one in his or her right mind can hold both racism and anti-racism as equally moral or immoral! Therefore the logical argument in this piece, finalized below, applies to everyone who accepts the premises with which we began, that not all sins are equally wrong and that the same action can have a different moral flavor dependent upon motives.)

Is the double standard topic-based? If our near-universal way of thinking about ethics involves an action having a changed moral character following a changed motive, there has to be some kind of justification for not applying this to matters of bigotry. I cannot think of any such justification. What possible reason could there be to exclude this topic, to create a new, special standard that doesn’t apply to anything else? None exists. (Imagine excluding matters of war — what could possibly justify doing that?) A racist attack therefore must be morally worse than an attack against a racist. (Or, if you’re a racist or one of their sympathizers with different views on the motives, as discussed above, it must be morally better! They cannot be equal.) Some may say it’s radically worse, others just slightly, but based on our premise of ethics it must be worse (or better, for you Nazis) to some degree — it’s a logical necessity. If they were equally wrong, we’d have to throw motives out the window, and there would be no reason to stop at matters of bigotry (just as there’s no reason to exclude it). Self-defense would be just as wrong as cold-blooded murder based on that new premise. Lying to save an innocent life would be just as wrong as lying to end one. And so on. With no justification existing to exclude actions related to a certain topic, one must hold all actions to the same standard — either motives matter or they do not. (Same for hatred and so forth.) Again, that’s what’s logically sound for each person regardless of his or her unique views on what’s ethical: you can’t logically think two identical actions equally wrong if you also think one motive is more moral than the other (which you will if in your right mind). If you think motives matter for other moral questions, that’s simply what makes logical sense.

If it’s still difficult to see our scenarios as false equivalences, it may help to consider others, perhaps from other time periods, where gaps between “wrongness” seem bigger, more obvious. The way humans observe history is always less morally confused than the way we observe the present. Hindsight and all. Note these also could unwisely be labeled identical attempts to exert power over someone, hurt someone, lash out in hate, and so on:

  • Would a slave killing his master be as wrong as a master killing his slave? Isn’t one about liberation, the other subjugation?
  • Would a rich woman stealing from a poor woman be just as wrong as the reverse? Might one motive be greed, the other need?
  • Were the Allies just as wrong to invade France in 1944 as Germany was a few years earlier? Is there any side in any war less wrong than another?

Motives matter, always. That is why some things are worse than other things.

As a last word, while I don’t believe this fact affects the logic, it’s important to note that in our scenarios, and real-world ones that spark the equivalence debate, attacks against bigotry are a reaction to bigotry. Bigotry comes first; the only “reaction” it entails is one against who people are: their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. Reduce bigotry and there will be fewer reactions; but reduce reactions and bigotry will crush people per usual. Again, this isn’t to necessarily advocate for violent or hurtful reactions. It’s simply to recognize the worse problem, the root problem — and focus our energies on obliterating it in ways ethically acceptable to each of us personally.

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Is There Any Actual Science in the Bible?

Someone once told me that the bible was the greatest work of science ever written. This is mildly insane, as anyone who’s read the bible knows there is more scientific knowledge presented in any grade school or even children’s science book. (And, given thousands of extra years of research, it’s probably more accurate.) The purpose of the bible, secularists and believers can surely agree, was not to acknowledge or pass down scientific principles. Finding incredible scientific truths in the text typically requires very loose interpretations. But as religious folk sometimes point to science in the bible as proof of its divine nature, it seems necessary to critically examine these claims.

In making the case that “every claim [the bible] makes about science is not only true but crucial for filling in the blanks of our understanding about the origin of the universe, the earth, fossils, life, and human beings,” Answers in Genesis points to verses that vary in ambiguity. Meaning some are more believable than others as to whether they could present valid scientific information.

Take Job 26:7, in which it is said God “spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.” One may wonder what it means to spread skies over empty space. Perhaps it’s referencing the expanding universe, as others think verses like Job 9:8 reference (“He alone spreads out the heavens”). But the second part matches well what we know today, that the globe isn’t sitting on the back of a turtle or something. Why this and other verses may not be as incredible as supposed is discussed below.

(It’s often asserted also that the Big Bang proves the bible right in its writing of a “beginning,” but we simply do not know for certain that no existence “existed” before the Big Bang.)

Answers in Genesis also believes the bible describes the water cycle. “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again,” reads Ecclesiastes 1:7. It also provides Isaiah 55:10: “The rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…” Some translations (such as NLT, ESV, and King James) are missing “without,” instead saying the rains “come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,” which sounds more like a repudiation of the water cycle. But no matter; other verses, such as Psalm 135:7 in some translations or Job 36:27, speak of vapors ascending from the earth or God drawing up water.

From there things begin to fall apart (the Answers in Genesis list is not long).

The group presents Isaiah 40:22 and Psalm 103:12 as the bible claiming the world is spherical rather than flat (“He who sits above the circle of the earth”; “as far as the east is from the west”). But neither of these verses explicitly makes that case. A flat earth has east and west edges, and a circle is not three dimensional. “Circle,” in the original Hebrew, was חוּג (chug), a word variously used for circle, horizon, vault, circuit, and compass. A “circle of the earth,” the Christian Resource Center insists, refers simply to the horizon, which from high up on a mountain is curved. If biblical writers had wanted to explicitly call the earth spherical they could have described it like a דּוּר (ball), as in Isaiah 22:18: “He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you.” This is not to say for certain that the ancient Hebrews did not think the world was a sphere, it is only to say the bible does not make that claim in a clear and unambiguous manner.

The remaining “evidences” are really nothing to write home about. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11) is supposed to show an understanding of blood circulation; “the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:8) is supposed to represent knowledge of sea currents; “the fixed order of the moon and the stars” (Jeremiah 31:35) is allegedly a commentary on the predictable paths of celestial bodies in space (rather than, say, their “fixed,” unchanging positions in space, another interpretation). But none of these actually suggest any deeper understanding than what can be easily observed: if you are cut open and lose enough blood you die, bodies of water flow in specific ways, and the moon and stars aren’t blasting off into space in random directions but rather maintain consistent movement through the skies from our earthly perspective. Again, maybe there were actually deeper understandings of how these things worked, but they were not presented in the bible.

The Jehovah’s Witness website has a go at this topic as well, using most of the same verses (bizarrely, it adds two to the discussion on the water cycle, two that merely say rain comes from the heavens).

The site uses Jeremiah 33:25-26 (“If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth…”) and Jeremiah 38:33 (“Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”) to argue that the bible makes the case for the natural laws of science. Perhaps, but again, this doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge beyond what can be observed and, due to consistency, called a law by ancient peoples. So maybe it’s one of God’s laws that the sun rises each day. It’s a law that water will evaporate when the temperature gets too high. And so forth. These verses are acknowledgements that observable things function a certain way and that God made it so. There’s no verse that explains an actual scientific principle, such as force being equal to a constant mass times acceleration, or light being a product of magnetism and electricity.

True, it’s sometimes said the bible imparts the knowledge of pi (3.1415926…) and the equation for the circumference of a circle, but this is a bit misleading. There are a couple places where a circle “measuring ten cubits” is mentioned, with it requiring “a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chronicles 4:2). Pi is implicitly three here. The equation (rough or exact) and pi (rough or exact) were possibly known, as they’re not too difficult to figure out after taking measurements, but that is not an absolute certainty based on this text. Regardless, neither the equation nor the value of pi are explicitly offered. (Why not? Because this is not a science book.) If these verses were meant, by God or man, to acknowledge or pass on scientific knowledge then they either didn’t have much figured out or were not feeling particularly helpful. “Figure out the equation and a more precise value of pi yourself.”

The Jehovah’s Witness site further believes it’s significant the ancient Hebrews had sanitary practices, like covering up feces (Deuteronomy 23:13), keeping people with leprosy isolated (Leviticus 13:1-5), and washing your clothes after handling a carcass (Leviticus 11:28). However, if you read Deuteronomy 23:14, you see that feces must be covered up so God “will not see among you anything indecent” when he visits. It wasn’t to protect community health — or at least that went unmentioned. Noticing that leprosy can spread and deciding to quarantine people who have it is not advanced science. The guidelines for cleanliness after touching dead animals start off reasonable, then go off the road. Even after washing your clothes you were for some reason still “unclean till evening,” just like any person or object that touched a woman on her period! (If this was just a spiritual uncleanliness, why were objects unclean? They don’t have souls.) The woman, of course, was unclean for seven days after her “discharge of blood.” How scientific.

Finally, this list mentions Psalm 104:6 (“You covered [earth] with the watery depths as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains”) to posit that the biblical writers knew there was an era, before earth’s plate tectonics began to collide and form mountains, when the earth was mostly water — there is actual scientific evidence for this idea. The verse may be referencing the Great Flood story; verse 9 says of the waters, “never again will they cover the earth,” which sounds a lot like what God promised after wiping out humanity: “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). But if it does in fact reference the beginning of the world, it could be a verse a believer might use to make his or her case that the bible contains scientific truths, alongside Genesis 1:1-10, which also posits the earth was covered in water in the beginning.

There are of course many more alleged scientific truths, most more vague or requiring truly desperate interpretation. For instance, the “Behemoth” in Job 40 is sometimes said to describe a dinosaur, but it in no way has to be one. Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” That can refer to nothing other than atoms — not any nonphysical possibility like, say, love and the breath of God. Others think a sentence like “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30) hints at the future invention of the television! TV is apparently the only way everyone could see an event at the same time — miracles be damned. Still others suggest that when Genesis 2:1 says the heavens and earth “were finished” that this describes the First Law of Thermodynamics (constant energy, none created nor destroyed, in closed systems)! When Christ returns like a thief in the night, “the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10) — that’s apparently a verse about nuclear fission. One begins to suspect people are reading too much into things.

We should conclude with four thoughts.

This can be done with any text. One can take any ancient document, read between the lines, and discover scientific truths. Take a line from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylonia: “The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning.” Clearly, the Babylonians knew the phases of the moon, how the moon waxes (enlarges) until it becomes full as it positions itself on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, allowing sunlight to envelope the side we can see. They knew how the moon then wanes (shrinks) as it positions itself between the earth and sun, falling into darkness (a new moon) because the sun only illuminates its backside, which we humans cannot see. This line must be in the text to acknowledge and impart scientific knowledge and prove the truth of the Babylonian faith, likely arranged by the moon god mentioned, Sin, or by his wife, Ningal.

This argument is no different than what we’ve seen above, and could be replicated countless times using other ancient books. Perhaps the Babylonians in fact did have a keen understanding of the moon and how it functions. But that does not mean a sentence like that in a story is meant to pass on or even indicate possession of such knowledge. Nor does it mean the gods placed it there, that the gods exist, or that the Epic is divinely inspired. Its presence in a text written between 2150 B.C. and 1400 B.C., even if surprising, simply does not make the book divine. It could be the first text in history that mentions the waxing and waning of the moon; that would not make its gods true.

(By contrast, archaeological and ethnographic research points to the Israelites as offshoots of Canaanites and other peoples around 1200-1000 B.C., with their first writings [not the Old Testament] appearing around the latter date. Though believers want to believe the Hebrews are the oldest people in human history, the evidence does not support this. I write this to stress that, like Old Testament stories taken from older cultures, the Hebrews may have learned of the water cycle and such from others.)

A society’s scientific knowledge may mix with its religion, but that does not make its religion true. Even if the Hebrews were the first group of modern humans, with the first writings, the first people to acquire and pass along scientific knowledge, that would not automatically make the supernatural elements of their writings true. As elaborated elsewhere, ancient religious texts surely have real people, places, and events mixed in with total fiction. If some science is included that’s nice, but it doesn’t prove all the gods are real. The Hebrews knowing about the water cycle or pi simply does not prove Yahweh or the rest of the bible true, any more than what’s scientifically accurate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran, the Vedas, or any other ancient text proves any of its gods or stories true. That goes for the more shocking truths as well, simply because…

Coincidence is not outside the realm of the possible. As difficult as it may be to hear, it is possible that verses that reference a watery early earth or an earth suspended in space are successful guesses, nothing miraculous required. If one can look up and see the moon resting on nothing, is it so hard to imagine a human being wondering if the earth experiences the same? Could the idea that the earth was first covered in water not be a lucky postulation? Look at things through the lens of a faith that isn’t your own. Some Muslims believe the Koran speaks of XX and XY chromosome pairs (“He creates pairs, male and female, from semen emitted”), the universe ending in a Big Crunch (“We will fold the heaven, like the folder compacts the books”), wormholes (“Allah [who owns] wormholes”), pain receptors of the skin (“We will replace their skins with other new skins so that they may taste the torture”), and more. (Like nearly all faiths, it posits a beginning of the universe too.) How could they possibly know such things? Must Allah be real, the Koran divinely inspired, Islam the religion to follow? Or could these just be total coincidences, lucky guesses mixed with liberal interpretations of vague verses? Supposed references to atoms or mentions of planetary details in the bible could easily be the same. If you throw out enough ideas about the world, you’ll probably be right at times. Could the Hebrews, like Muslims, have simply made a host of guesses, some right and others wrong? After all…

There are many entirely unscientific statements in the bible. Does the ant truly have “no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8), or were the Hebrews just not advanced enough in entomology to know about the ant queen? Are women really unclean in some way for a full week after menstruating, with every person or thing they touch unclean as well? Or was just this male hysteria over menstruation, so common throughout history? If the sun “hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5), does this suggest the Hebrews thought the sun was moving around the earth? Or was it just a figure of speech? One could likewise interpret Psalm 96:10 (“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”) to mean the earth does not rotate on its axis or orbit the sun. If one can interpret verses to make people seem smart, one can do the same to make them look ignorant. Do hares actually chew their cud (Leviticus 11:4), or did the Hebrews just not know about caecotrophy? Did Jesus not know a mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds” (Matthew 13:32)? Likewise, seeds that “die” don’t “produce many seeds” (John 12:24); seeds that are dormant will later germinate, but not dead ones. Some translations of Job 37:18 describe the sky “as hard as a mirror that’s made out of bronze” (NIRV, KJV, etc.). One could also go through the scientific evidence of today that contradicts biblical stories like the order of creation, or look at the biblical translations that mention unicorns, dragons, and satyrs, or just argue that supernatural claims of miracles, angels, devils, and gods are unscientific in general because they can’t be proven. But the point is made: the bible takes stabs at the natural world that aren’t accurate or imply erroneous things.

In conclusion, the science in the bible is about what one would expect from Middle Eastern tribes thousands of years ago. There are some basic observations about the world that are accurate, others inaccurate. There are some statements about the universe that turned out to be true, just like in the Koran, but that doesn’t necessarily require supernatural explanations.

Your White Ancestors May Have Immigrated Illegally, Too

It is undeniable that the United States has a long history of extreme racism regarding citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790, passed just three years after a Constitution that spoke of “Justice” and “Liberty,” bluntly declared that only a “free white person” could become an American citizen. This remained unchanged for nearly a century, until the 14th Amendment in 1868, passed after the Civil War, determined anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen. This was immediately contradicted by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which declared the only non-whites this change applied to were blacks; the 1898 Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark v. the United States finally brought citizenship to all people born here.

As for those already born who desired citizenship, the struggle continued. Women became truer citizens when they won the right to vote in 1920, unless they married an Asian non-citizen; then their citizenship could be revoked! Native Americans — whose ancestors had been here before anyone — had to wait until 1924 to be eligible for citizenship, Filipinos and people from India until 1946. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, social movements then battled to make what had been promised by law a reality for men and women of color, whether native-born or immigrants.

Given white supremacy’s zealous protection of citizenship, it may seem surprising that there were no laws against immigration itself until 1875, when prostitutes and convicts were barred from entry. (But then, perhaps not so surprising, as most immigrants were from Europe — this despite hostilities towards the Irish, Catholics, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans. All immigrants represented cheap labor, too.) Before that, immigration was reported but not regulated. Anyone could simply show up and try to scratch out a life for him- or herself. You can come, but don’t expect citizenship, don’t expect any power or participation in this democracy.

Millions came by the time the first racist immigration restriction was created: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning almost all immigration from China. Many American whites were openly bigoted, but also spoke of economics — Chinese workers hurting their wages and taking their jobs. Other Asians were banned as well, as were people deemed idiots and lunatics. So it was the late 19th century before illegal immigration was possible, because beforehand there really were no laws against immigration.

Racist laws continued, of course. In 1921, temporary caps were placed on the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from other countries; these were made permanent in the Immigration Act of 1924. This was particularly an effort to stem the post-Great War flood of southern and eastern European immigrants, especially Italians, who were coming by the hundreds of thousands. Complaints against them, says historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University, “sounded much like the ones that you hear today: ‘They don’t speak English. They don’t assimilate. They’re darker. They’re criminals. They have diseases.’”

Immigrants from northern and western European nations were favored, including the recent enemy, Germany, which was allowed the most immigrants. (Later, Nazi Germany would justify some of its own racist legislation using American law, which was widely considered the harshest immigration policy in the world; see Hitler’s American Model, Whitman.) In 1929, only 11.2% of yearly immigrants could come from Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, Russia, and surrounding nations. Only 2.3% could come from outside of Europe, and outside the Americas (the Americas were exempt and had no quotas).

Quotas

via George Mason University

This quota system persisted until the civilizing effects of the civil rights era reformed immigration law in 1965 and opened up the U.S. to more non-European immigrants (though quotas were then put on American countries).

Today, U.S. permanent immigration from other nations is capped at 675,000 people per year, except for people with close family in the U.S. — the number of permanent visas for that category is unlimited. In 2016, 618,000 permanent resident visas were issued. 5 million more applicants wait. No country can receive more than 7% of our visas. Add to this the temporary visas that are successfully converted into permanent ones and around one million people, most from Mexico, China, and other American and Asian nations, achieve permanent residency status here each year. Europeans make up a small minority of immigrants to the U.S.

In today’s debate over illegal immigration and citizenship (solved here), the white conservative trope that Central and South Americans should “do it right, do it legally like my ancestors did” is played on repeat. One has to question, however, whether such confidence is justified. During this period of tight restrictions on European immigrants there were indeed many illegal immigrants from Europe. How certain are you, exactly, that you are not a descendant?

To dodge the quota system, European immigrants would journey to Canada, Mexico, or Cuba and cross the border into the United States. Or they would simply pull ashore. The American Immigration Council documents:

In 1925, the Immigration Service reported 1.4 million immigrants living in the country illegally. A June 17, 1923, New York Times article reported that W. H. Husband, Commissioner General of Immigration, had been trying for two years “to stem the flow of immigrants from central and southern Europe, Africa and Asia that has been leaking across the borders of Mexico and Canada and through the ports of the east and west coasts.” A September 16, 1927, New York Times article describes government plans for stepped-up Coast Guard patrols because thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Russians, and Italians were landing in Cuba and then hiring smugglers to take them to the United States.

The 1925 report regretted that the undocumented person’s “first act upon reaching our shores was to break our laws by entering in a clandestine manner.” The problem was so bad that Congress was forced to act:

The 1929 Registry Act allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the country since 1921 and were of “good moral character.”

Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940—80% were European or Canadian. Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 unauthorized Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through “pre-examination”—a process that allowed them to leave the United States voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a “touch-back” program), or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in “meritorious” cases. In the 1940s and 1950s, several thousand deportations a year were suspended; approximately 73% of those who benefited were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians).

The 1929 Registry Act, Steve Boisson writes for American History Magazine, was “a version of amnesty…utilized mostly by European or Canadian immigrants.” Much kinder treatment than mass deportations and separating children from parents, to be sure.

One woman who took advantage of the program, according to The Los Angeles Times, was Rosaria Baldizzi, who snuck in after leaving Italy.

Baldizzi would not become “legal” until a special immigration provision was enacted to offer amnesty to mainly European immigrants who arrived without proper documentation after 1921, who had established families, and who had already lived in the U.S. for seven years. She applied for legal status under the new policy and earned her citizenship three years later, in 1948. Only then, for the first time in more than two decades, could she stop worrying about her immigration status.

If you trace your family history you may be surprised by what you find. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stanford professor Richard White, after researching his family tree,

discovered that his maternal grandfather, an Irishman, had entered the U.S. illegally from Canada in 1924 because he could not get a visa that year under the new quota laws. His grandfather failed in his first attempt, when he walked across a bridge into Detroit, got caught by U.S. customs officers, and was deported.

From Canada, the grandfather called his brother-in-law, a Chicago policeman, who came to Canada and met him there… The pair then walked to Detroit, but this time the brother-in-law, who was dressed in his police uniform, flashed his badge at the customs officers, who waved the duo through.

Even today, there are white undocumented immigrants in the United States. There are 440,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants from Europe. This includes an estimated 50,000 Irish.

The next time someone declares his or her ancestors came here legally, demand proof at once.

Let Them Flirt

Whether we have a Republican or Democratic president, diplomacy and open dialogue are key to peace with other countries. Given that, Trump is doing the right thing by talking and meeting with North Korea. It’s not a groundbreaking idea, as Obama also expressed willingness to meet with Kim and engaged in diplomacy with Iran that culminated in an important anti-nuclear accord (two things that conservatives who are now just in awe of Trump absolutely lost their shit over at the time; for some reason totalitarian enemies can now be trusted to keep their word, inspections now work, and so forth).

I wish with every atom of my being that it wasn’t Trump in negotiations with Kim, of course. Like, driving someone who’s dying to the hospital is the right thing to do, but do you really want the cat behind the wheel? I guess if Petals is all you’ve got… I’d prefer it be a president with actual political/international diplomatic experience, deep knowledge of North Korea and its regime, better attention capabilities and comprehension skills, fewer authoritarian mannerisms and ideas, and better moral character. I’d also like a president who talked more about negotiating to make North Korea’s horrific, Holocaust-like labor camps, where even family members of people who complain about the regime are starved and worked until death, a thing of the past. Kim doesn’t exactly “love his people,” as Trump says. This issue is just as urgent as ending a nuclear program. Reports suggest Trump didn’t bring up human rights abuses.

I will say, however, that I am pleasantly surprised with what Vox described as a “shockingly weak” concession from the supposed tough guy: Trump said U.S.-South Korean military exercises would cease. Such exercises have always been stupid, near-suicidal acts of aggression on our part. People just don’t realize how close the U.S. has come to nuclear catastrophe, accidental or intentional, over shit like that since the beginning of the nuclear Cold War; it really–and obviously–escalates things…when you want to de-escalate things. So that, if it actually occurs, would be good. We could use less “toughness” in that and other regards. It’s also a good thing North Korea has publicly recommitted itself to doing away with its nukes (the U.S. should of course do the same), as unlikely as that is (being the only deterrent to U.S. invasion), and that Trump spoke of U.S. troops one day leaving South Korea. We just have to hope for the best with these talks; we want these awful, volatile men friendly. The main point is I’d rather have Trump and Kim frolicking arm-in-arm down the streets Pyongyang than threatening each other with nuclear destruction. The world is a safer place under those circumstances.

My Disillusionment With Social Justice Organizing in Kansas City

While originated with a rather different context, Elvis’ line “A little less conversation, a little more action, please” dances through my head when I reflect on the state of social justice organizing in Kansas City. The following thoughts come from observing, co-founding, and being employed by social justice groups here over the past few years. They represent my biggest concerns. As I will emphasize at the end, these problems don’t apply to all organizations nor are they always seen to the same degree.

First, many social justice groups focus heavily on events and gatherings where people simply sit around and talk. For some groups, this is literally all they do — either someone talking at the attendees, participants speaking with each other, or some combination of both. The primary purpose is education, raising awareness, whether concerning ideology, a social issue, an organization’s affairs, and so forth.

Now, this has value. Education, discussion, and perspective-taking are important and have value. But how much I somewhat question (especially speaking comparatively; see next section). The people who come to monthly meetings, community forums, panels, and so on are mostly going to be people who already care about whatever issue or ideology is being discussed, and thus already know something about it. It’s true, no one is ever done learning or listening; and it is further true that there will always be a few newcomers who don’t know anything about racism or socialism or what it means to have no healthcare. But most people who attend probably know a great deal about these things, through personal experience or study or earlier thought and discussion. One gets that impression by observation, at any rate. That’s why I suspect there are real limits to the value of these kinds of events due to the prior interest, knowledge, and worldview of most of the audience. That is not to say they should never be held! It’s simply to question why they should be the majority or totality of a group’s efforts.

Things worsen when these events grow repetitive. There are some organizations’ events I pop into every once in a while, and unfortunately confirm they’re basically the same thing every time. And having been on the planning side of things, I understand why, or at least one of the reasons why: you’re always thinking of the few newcomers. If you dive too deep into an education newcomers will get utterly lost, or at least you fear they will. So you end up sticking with the basics, and boring anyone who knows a bit about the issue.

Therefore, it’s easy to simply stop going to the gatherings of groups whose ideals you earnestly support. You may enjoy conversing with your friends and fellows, and hearing the perspectives of others, but in the end you may not feel you’re learning all that much, things may get repetitive and boring, and it dawns on you that while all this isn’t without value it’s not bringing about social change as speedily as other possibilities. Is sitting and talking really the best use of our time, energy, and money? All this is my experience, anyway. (I recently quit my job over this very issue; it gnawed at me for months, and finally one day I stood up at a conference of social justice groups in D.C., told everyone this was a waste of money and time that could have been better used, and walked out.)

There has to be something beyond sitting and talking. You have to give people who care about these issues something to do. But too often that isn’t coming; organizers and attendees pat themselves on the back as if they’ve accomplished something (I sense that white people at conversations on race especially feel like they’ve done something useful, alleviating their white guilt but not really bettering society much), then everyone starts preparing for the next monthly meeting.

Most importantly, the majority of what many organizations do does not confront power. Resources, time, and human energy poured into sitting and talking aren’t being poured into activities and tactics that put pressure on decision-makers, which does more good for society. Educating yourself and others is just Step One; it is just the first tool in the toolbox of social change. Then you actually get to work. Get out the vote for policies and candidates (if your organization legally can). Put your own initiatives on ballots. Harass the powerful in business and politics with petitions, messages, and calls. Boycott businesses. Protest and march outside workplaces and representatives’ offices. Go on strike, refusing to return to work until your demands are met. Engage in acts of civil disobedience: sit in and occupy your workplace or a political chamber, block streets as the powerful try to head to work, chain yourself to trees, and other illegal acts, facing down the risk of arrest or violence by police or bystanders. And you keep doing these things until you win. That’s how social movements succeed.

We need to shift from education to agitation. Imagine if instead of regular meetings, groups organized regular phonebanking, signature gathering, protesting, civil disobedience, and so forth. Imagine constant disruption on a host of issues. Imagine the impact. We should set specific, measurable goals (local control of the police for instance) and do those things until we win. As long as it takes.

We could combine agitation with service. We could raise money to help pay off people’s medical debts, help create strike funds for workers, organize volunteer efforts to clean up long-neglected neighborhoods, and other tangible ways of helping others. Such things don’t put pressure on power (though they can grow organizations, and solidarity among the people), and they address symptoms rather than the diseases agitation seeks to eradicate, but they’re better than sitting around.

I simply feel that some social justice organizations need to ask themselves: How much of what we do puts the pressure on? Is our money, energy, and time confronting corporate power, political power, police power? Why settle for just 5% or 10% of your activities actually pressuring someone? Why not make it 75% or 80%, and drive social change forward faster, doing more to better people’s lives?

True, some groups face obstacles. You may have very limited resources, making cheap meetings tempting. If you’re a 501(c)(3), you can’t support candidates. If you’re a grant-funded nonprofit, your energy may have to go into what is dictated by (oftentimes corporate) funders. See, what one may wish to do may not have a grant that will fund it; one then must do things according to grants that exist; the requirements to fulfill such grants may not do much good for anyone. It’s a systemic problem. But I nevertheless imagine most slow-moving groups could find some room to shift from education to agitation, despite the challenges. If the limit is 55, why go 25?

Finally, the Left is fractured, which helps no one. Often Kansas City’s communists, socialists, and anarchists are all at each other’s throats. Differences between anti-capitalist ideologies have led some groups to simply declare they’re never working with these other groups ever again. And of course the radical Left as a whole often refuses to work with liberal or center-left groups that aren’t anti-capitalist, even when they’re fighting for a number of identical or near-identical policies. The liberal and center-left groups naturally don’t want to be associated with radicals who carry red flags, wear black masks, and talk about revolution. Yes, there are limits to cooperation here (you’re not going to get some revolutionaries to get out the vote for anything or anyone), and that’s fine, but there are many areas where cooperation is possible but is not being pursued for fairly stupid reasons. It is vital to the future of social justice work, and the future of countless people, for groups to find common ground and stand there in solidarity with each other, despite stark or maddening differences that lie outside such ground.

These divisions are so great that some groups won’t attend any protest or other event unless it’s their own. Unless they’re brought on board as a sponsor, some organizations wouldn’t dream of promoting important actions and activities being conducted by others. It’s not ours, why would we? That’s the attitude, one I’ve wrestled with professionally. Perhaps we feel it makes our own organization seem less legitimate: less of a leader or less independent or less active. Perhaps it’s the fear of lack of reciprocity. We’re spreading the word about their stuff, why aren’t they doing the same for us? There should really be some sort of formal agreement of mutual support for actions and activities that relate to shared values. You don’t have to help organize and plan everything everyone else is doing; just advertise it to your networks to help drive turnout and involvement in confronting power. You don’t have to promote things or participate in things you disagree with, just those you do. That’s solidarity, right?

This article certainly isn’t meant to indict all organizations in Kansas City. There are some that focus their efforts on pressuring the powerful and work with anyone who agrees on the solutions to specific problems. It’s urgent others move in that direction. That’s how we can be most effective at changing society in positive ways and do work we can take pride in.

On Monday, June 11, 2018, I will again be arrested for an act of civil disobedience with Stand Up KC and the Poor People’s Campaign. The time for sitting and talking is over.

If you feel as I do, join us.

Good Morning, Revolution

We have explored in-depth what socialism is and how it works, but it is equally important to consider how to bring it about.

Well, there is a word that has stirred in the U.S., and roared to life throughout history. The great poet and socialist Langston Hughes penned in 1932:

Good morning Revolution:
You are the best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from now on.
Say, listen, Revolution:
You know the boss where I used to work,
The guy that gimme the air to cut expenses,
He wrote a long letter to the papers about you:
Said you was a trouble maker, a alien-enemy,
In other words a son-of-a-bitch.
He called up the police
And told ’em to watch out for a guy
Named Revolution

You see,
The boss knows you are my friend.
He sees us hanging out together
He knows we’re hungry and ragged,
And ain’t got a damn thing in this world –
And are gonna to do something about it.

The boss got all his needs, certainly,
Eats swell,
Owns a lotta houses,
Goes vacationin’,
Breaks strikes,
Runs politics, bribes police
Pays off congress
And struts all over earth –

But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat.
Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter.
Me, I ain’t never known security –
All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth
Hand to mouth.

Listen, Revolution,
We’re buddies, see –
Together,
We can take everything:
Factories, arsenals, houses, ships,
Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
All the tools of production.
(Great day in the morning!)
Everything –
And turn ’em over to the people who work.
Rule and run ’em for us people who work.

Boy! Them radios!
Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
Another member of the International Soviet’s done come
Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
Hey you  rising workers everywhere greetings –
And we’ll sign it: Germany
Sign it: China
Sign it: Africa
Sign it: Italy
Sign it: America
Sign it with my one name: Worker
On that day when no one will be hungry, cold oppressed,
Anywhere in the world again.

That’s our job!

I been starvin’ too long
Ain’t you?

Let’s go, Revolution![1]

People don’t realize their power. They feel helpless in the face of injustice and miseries, not understanding the simple truth, that they have the power to take whatever they want. By joining with others, the people—the workers—can radically transform society whenever they please.

There are many tools in the toolbox of social change, all valuable at creating a better society (despite what anti-reformist puritans may say) but varying in effectiveness. Educate others. Harass the powerful in business and politics through petitions, messages, and calls. Vote for and aid socialistic policies and candidates. Run yourself. Put your own initiatives on ballots. Boycott businesses. Protest and march outside workplaces and representatives’ offices. Go on strike, refusing to return to work until your demands are met. Engage in acts of civil disobedience: sit in and occupy your workplace or a political chamber, block streets as the powerful try to head to work, and other illegal acts, facing down the risk of arrest or violence by police or bystanders. Orwell said, “One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.”[2] Malala Yousafzai declared, “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”[3] The more allies that join the more effective these tactics become, and they have done incalculable good in our own country and around the globe, weakening or defeating occupation, white supremacy, patriarchy, starvation wages, and countless other evils.[4] Progress comes on the backs of the troublemakers.

Though violent revolutions (also in the toolbox) have seen freer, more democratic societies and significant system changes grow out of bloodshed—in our own country and elsewhere—a revolution doesn’t require violence. It may in fact be an insult to the power of the people. Nonviolent mass action (often termed a “revolution” if it grows large enough, though some want the word reserved for violent upheavals) is growing increasingly successful. When political scientists Eric Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined violent and nonviolent revolutions between 1900 and 2006 they found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to be successful. Since the 1940s the success rate of nonviolent efforts has jumped about 30%, while the success rate for violent efforts has fallen about 30%. The latter are more likely to result in unstable, anti-democratic regimes or bloody civil wars. The researchers found that zero campaigns failed once 3.5% of the population was involved (many won with far less). But only nonviolent revolutions reached this threshold—more people are willing to join a nonviolent revolt and more are physically able to join (children, the sick, the elderly, persons with disabilities).[5] Perhaps no one embodied all this better than Gandhi, who wrote:

My socialism was natural to me and not adopted from any books. It came out of my unshakable belief in non-violence. No man could be actively non-violent and not rise against social injustice, no matter where it occurred…

This socialism is as pure as crystal. It, therefore, requires crystal-like means to achieve it. Impure means result in an impure end. Hence the prince and the peasant will not be equalized by cutting off the prince’s head, nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed… Therefore, only truthful, non-violent and pure-hearted socialists will be able to establish a socialistic society in India and the world…[6]

What would a nonviolent revolution that could achieve socialism look like? In short, skip class and work. Spend the day marching through the streets instead—and do not leave until your demands are met. Helen Keller said, “All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.”[7] 3.5% of the U.S. population is a mass strike of 11 million people—and victory could probably be accomplished with fewer. Imagine a million people bringing D.C. to a standstill, with others paralyzing cities across the U.S. When workers come together they can shut down a street, a city, a state, or an entire nation. That’s how you win. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”[8] No violence is necessary; you simply stop producing and bring society to a halt until power yields. True, there is always the risk of being expelled, fired, or arrested, beaten, or killed by the police or army (though they cannot easily get rid of millions of protesters, especially in freer societies). There is no revolution without danger. But prior generations (especially those of color) faced even greater dangers, and with fewer numbers secured lasting victories against our darkest and most oppressive systems. There is truly nothing the people cannot do, if only they unite and refuse to cooperate with power, from the Montgomery, Alabama, boycott that ended local segregated busing in 1956 to the protests that drove out Tunisia’s dictator in 2011.[9] At the time of this writing, in 2018, tens of thousands of West Virginia teachers went on strike, forcing every public school in the state to close, winning higher pay in nine days.[10] Then Arizona teachers, after nine days, won a 20% raise; Oklahoma teachers won the largest pay raise in state history in the same amount of time.[11] The strikes continued to spread. It’s these same proven tactics that can eradicate capitalism, and it is right to use them. Mark Twain said, “I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.”[12] Langston Hughes wrote:

You could stop the
factory whistle blowing,
Stop the mine machinery
from going,
Stop the atom bombs
exploding,
Stop the battleships
from loading,
Stop the merchant
ships from sailing,
Stop the jail house keys
from turning
…You could
If you would[13]

Ordinary people are going to have to strike for direct democracy, universal healthcare, universal education, and guaranteed work or income. They are going to have to strike for worker ownership, occupying their workplaces and seats of political power. We will have to win a new legal right to equal ownership and power, to go alongside countless other workplace rights that have been won: minimum wage, workplace safety, anti-child labor, anti-discrimination in hiring, and more. This is the only freedom that disappears under socialism: the freedom to be a capitalist, exploiting and holding power over workers. More ethical rights often crush older ones. Kurt Vonnegut said capitalism was simply a set of “crimes against which no laws had been passed.”[14] The right of the worker to a minimum wage abolishes the right of the employer to pay him or her $1 per hour; the right of a person of color to be served at a restaurant ends the right of a white supremacist to deny him or her service; the right to be free crushes the right to own human beings. So will it be with the capitalist organization of the workplace. Victor Hugo warned the rich:

Tremble!…They who are hungry show their idle teeth… The shadow asks to become light. The damned discuss the elect. It is the people who are oncoming. I tell you it is Man who ascends. It is the end that is beginning. It is the red dawning on Catastrophe. Ah! This society is false. One day, a true society must come. Then there will be no more lords; there will be free, living men. There will be no more wealth, there will be an abundance for the poor. There will be no more masters, but there will be brothers. They that toil shall have. This is the future. No more prostration, no more abasement, no more ignorance, no more wealth, no more beasts of burden, no more courtiers—but LIGHT.[15]

Winning these demands is far from impossible. The seeds of American socialism have been long planted. Worker co-ops and direct democracy exist throughout the country. There are growing universal healthcare and tuition-abolition movements, rekindled by Bernie Sanders. One may be quite surprised to learn just how close the U.S. came to universal healthcare, universal early childhood education, UBI, and guaranteed work under Nixon and Carter, among others, after they felt some pressure from the people.[16] Elsewhere national direct democracy, free healthcare, and free college are taken for granted. UBI and the State as the employer of last resort have been tried and accomplished. Co-ops are more common, and workers in capitalist firms are gnawing at capitalist power from the inside—for example German unions fought for and won the right to have representatives on the boards of directors of large corporations.[17] Part of the reason why other countries are ahead of us in these respects is they have much stronger protest movements. In late 2016, India saw the largest strike in world history, with 150-180 million people participating.[18]

The thought of millions of Americans striking should not be inconceivable. Throughout its history the U.S. experienced strikes involving hundreds of thousands—even half a million—workers, many of which were victorious in the end.[19] Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the anti-Vietnam War protest of November 1969 each had 250,000 in attendance. And protests have only grown. March-May 2006 saw the largest series of demonstrations in U.S. history, as 3-5 million Latinos, immigrants, and allies protested in 160 cities against anti-immigrant legislation.[20] That May Day, the “Day Without Immigrants” saw 1.5 million people refuse to go to work or school.[21] In January 2017, in perhaps America’s largest protest, 4 million people participated in the Women’s March in 600 cities.[22] Cities on every continent joined in. Indeed, international solidarity and coordination are growing. Six to 11 million people around the world protested the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003, the world’s largest single-day protest.[23] In October 2011, millions of people in nearly 1,000 cities in over 80 countries rose up to protest economic inequality and the corporate corruption of democracy. 10,000 people marched in New York (Occupy Wall Street), but some half-million protested in Madrid and 400,000 in Barcelona. In September 2014, 400,000 people rose up in New York City, and tens of thousands more in 150 nations worldwide, to push for global environmental protections. There are many more examples.

Human beings are uniting for sanity and justice across the globe. We may yet achieve what Helen Keller envisioned: “Let the workers form one great world-wide union, and let there be a globe-encircling revolt to gain for the workers true liberty and happiness.”[24]

 

Notes

[1] Hughes, “Good Morning Revolution,” 1932

[2] Orwell, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party”

[3] http://www.marxist.com/historic-32nd-congress-of-pakistani-imt-1.htm

[4] http://time.com/3741458/influential-protests/; https://www.bustle.com/articles/195826-7-peaceful-protests-from-history-that-made-a-real-tangible-difference; http://www.upworthy.com/7-times-in-us-history-when-people-protested-and-things-changed; http://darlingmagazine.org/5-times-peaceful-protests-made-difference-history/; https://www.vox.com/2016/4/15/11439140/verizon-cwa-strike-2016

[5] Shermer, The Moral Arc, 87-89; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/11/05/peaceful-protest-is-much-more-effective-than-violence-in-toppling-dictators/?utm_term=.28f6dfb17fe4

[6] Gandhi, India of My Dreams

[7] http://gos.sbc.edu/k/keller.html

[8] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895)

[9] http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/tunisia-tunis-arab-spring-north-africa-revolution-uprising-president-ben-ali-a8158256.html

[10] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/26/health/west-virginia-map-school-closings-trnd/index.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/us/west-virginia-teachers-strike-deal.html

[11] https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/13/us/arizona-teachers-pay-raise-governor/index.html; http://abcnews.go.com/US/oklahoma-teachers-declare-victory-colorado-educators-walk-class/story?id=54499157

[12] Mark Twain, New York Tribune (April 15, 1906)

[13] Hughes, “If You Would”

[14] Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

[15] Hugo, “The Rich”

[16] https://www.vox.com/2014/8/13/5990657/basic-income-jobs-guarantee-child-care-flag-burning-btu-tax-balanced-budget; https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2012/06/22/stockman/bvg57mguQxOVpZMmB1Mg2N/story.html

[17] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 223

[18] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/indian-workers-general-strike

[19] https://www.vox.com/2016/4/15/11439140/verizon-cwa-strike-2016

[20] https://socialistworker.org/2013/05/14/confronting-anti-immigrant-bigotry

[21] https://www.democracynow.org/2006/5/2/over_1_5_million_march_for

[22] http://www.vox.com/2017/1/22/14350808/womens-marches-largest-demonstration-us-history-map

[23] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-happened-to-the-antiwar-movement_us_5a860940e4b00bc49f424ecb

[24] Keller, “Menace of the Militarist Program”

TLJ

Thoughts on The Last Jedi:

 

  1. SAME OL’, SAME OL’

I confess I’m quite baffled some people think The Last Jedi somehow “subverted expectations” and took Star Wars in some bold new direction. Most of it was a lazy copy-paste from the original trilogy, much like The Force Awakens. I get that’s intentional; it’s still bad.

Much of TLJ is a retreading of scenes from The Empire Strikes Back (and Return of the Jedi). The Luke character seeks training from the hermit-like Yoda character; the Luke character goes to a dark creepy cave and hallucinates; the Yoda character tells the Luke character not to go try to help save people; the Luke character and Vader character ride up the elevator to the Emperor character, where the Vader character kills the Emperor character to save the Luke character, of course after the Emperor character shows the Luke character the Rebel fleet being destroyed outside the window; literally Yoda teaches Luke stuff; the main characters escape from their base planet in a ship at the beginning and are pursued by the Empire’s fleet for much of the film; the Rebels hole up in trenches on the Hoth planet and are attacked by Imperial walkers. Worst of all, even much of the dialogue is ripped straight from the originals (“I feel the conflict within you”).

Don’t get me wrong, there were new, fresh elements. The depressed, disillusioned Jedi; Leia showing a new Force power, survival and movement in space; mutiny among the Rebels; Luke’s Force projection; a casino planet; hyperspace kamikaze. These were great ideas, for the most part executed really well (minus the first one, see below, and the fact the Rebels opened a door to space to let Leia in without all dying). But new stuff is something we should expect in movie series, and indeed each Star Wars film has new stuff. Unique elements being present shouldn’t be groundbreaking.    

So why else do people think it subverted expectations? Because Rey’s parents weren’t famous Jedi? Wowwww. Because the Darth Vader character killed the Emperor character in movie two instead of three? Woahhhh. Because we didn’t get a Snoke backstory and Luke doesn’t care about his old lightsaber and rich people fund both sides of the war? Slow clap. Maybe if you expected a higher-quality movie your expectations were subverted.

Think instead about all the ways the film could have betrayed expectations but did not. If Luke hadn’t been redeemed nor helped the good guys in the end; if Rey had taken Kylo’s hand, to either join him in building a new world without the war, try to turn him, or try to kill him later; if Finn hadn’t been saved by Rose, sacrificing a main character. I’m not necessarily advocating these things (except the one about Rey, absolutely), but just making a point about what really would have flipped the script, surprised us, shocked us. But of course Luke will be redeemed, Rey will fulfill her good gal role, and Finn won’t die. How dull.

 

  1. LUKE’S INANE THEORY

The idea of a depressed, hopeless, bitter Luke going searching for the first Jedi Temple at the edge of the universe was great. He’d failed as a Jedi master, lost all his students, and hadn’t stopped Kylo, his own nephew, from going evil. Luke is crushed and ashamed, plus is seeking answers to how things could have gone so badly for him, so he disappears. But those answers in the film make little sense, and TLJ misses a huge opportunity that will haunt me forever.

Luke explains to Rey that the Jedi need to end because they always end up training pupils that turn to the dark side. It happened to Darth Vader and Kylo. That’s the argument, that’s it. This sounds like an 8th grader’s idea. Sure, what Luke is saying is true, but it ignores important realities. A) Don’t the Jedi also do a lot of good that won’t get done without them? Do these positives truly get outweighed? B) More importantly, plenty of other big Sith baddies arise who were not trained by the Jedi. So if you shut down the Jedi, that won’t end the Sith. It’ll just let them take over everything. Which was basically happening. Luke can be depressed, but he shouldn’t be an imbecile.

What irks me is that, despite this being middle school-level thinking, it is actually so close to genius. Imagine if Luke actually found true Enlightenment. What if he’d begun suspecting, feeling in his heart, that something was wrong with the Force. What if he’d read the ancient texts and found a long-lost secret. Namely, that the more the Force is used the easier it is for more people to access (it grows stronger), and because the Force always balances itself, the only way to finally defeat the darkness is to let go of the light. Thus, end the Jedi, shut yourself off from the Force, and so on, which would inevitably lead to Kylo’s death, Snoke’s death, a weakening of the Force and the start of a new era without it. (The era doesn’t have to last, Disney has more movies to make, but it’s an interesting story for this trilogy.)

(This would explain why Rey, and the random kid with the broom on the casino planet, are so powerful and use the Force easily, without any training — the dark side’s growing, so more people can more easily access the Force, and the “light rises to meet” the darkness.)

Rey could have come to see this wisdom. She would have resisted at first, but her arc throughout the movie could have been to end up thinking as Luke did, and thus would have taken Kylo’s hand in hopes of convincing him too. Episode 9 would have been that struggle, and eventually Kylo would either come to agree or have to be killed; either way the trilogy ends with Rey being selfless, giving up any idea of becoming a Jedi, letting go of the Force, and as a result helping end the dark side and the Sith. That would have been a bold new direction, unique. (But no, Episode 9 will probably be good v. evil, where good wins, per usual.)

Luke could have either gone against what he’d learned to save Leia and the others as TLJ envisioned, leaving Rey to clean up the mess and get things back on track, or stuck to his guns, his Enlightenment, perhaps by physically going to the salt planet to stall for time, save the Rebels, and sacrifice himself, but not using the Force.

 

  1. THROW AWAY CHARACTERS & PLOTS

Like a lot of action films too timid to kill main characters, TLJ creates a throwaway character to fulfill the needs of a plot with a cool hyperspace kamikaze attack in it. This is Holdo, who we meet in TLJ and never really have a reason to care about. Thus her sacrifice has no emotional impact, and neither does the scene. Imagine if it had been Leia, or Po, or R2-D2, or literally anyone we had a relationship with. Even Akbar would have been better (instead he’s simply blown out the window and forgotten about early on).

Snoke is likewise a throw away character, even in The Force Awakens. He really serves no purpose in either movie, and really should never have existed. The plot needed Kylo to go evil, and no one could think of any other way to bring this about other than whipping up an Emperor 2.0 (the fact Kylo is blood related to Darth Vader, and curious about him, wasn’t enough apparently). We don’t know anything about Snoke, other than the one-dimensional trait of him being a bad guy wanting to, yawn, rule the galaxy, and thus we don’t care about him. He’s promptly murdered to take care of this issue. He’s pointless, and I think the creators realized it.

Another one is Phasma (literally just had to look up her name), who we saw for about 5 minutes in The Force Awakens. The creators seem to think that’s enough build-up to a big Finn-Phasma rivalry, animosity, and duel. Phasma dies and it’s hard to care.

Here is an appropriate place to include stupid cameos in the film. This may seem like splitting hairs, but so be it. Maz Kanata’s shoehorned appearance I didn’t mind too much, even though it felt like fan service or just a reminder that she exists. But I thought it wasn’t realistic to this world, and a lame attempt at humor, that she took a holo-phone call during a battle, and had prefered her as just an old bartender rather than a hero Rebel warrior. But no matter. Yoda’s cameo was the painful one. He looked awful, for some reason had reverted to the crazy act he played for an hour with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and his presence, for me, was just another reminder than Luke should have reached Enlightenment in this film, should have gained, painfully, the wisdom that would change everything. He shouldn’t have needed Yoda. Instead, Luke needs to learn another lesson from him. The Empire Strikes Back Again.

Rose isn’t a throw away character necessarily, but only exists to join in a throwaway plot. The journey to the casino planet, a location I find cool, simply made a long movie longer. It’s pretty clear the creators just wanted to give the Rebels, stuck on a ship being pursued, more to do. Thus, some Rebels sneak away to the casino world to find a hacker, and other Rebels stage a mutiny on the ship. Having both was really unnecessary. Imagine if Finn and Rose had simply joined in with Poe on his mutiny, and the film focused deeper and longer on the causes, planning, execution, and consequences of the mutiny. That would have cut out a pointless third plot. Then more time could have been spent on Rey and Luke, too, the main event.

This being said, Rose is sort of a shapeshifting character. She’s basically whatever the plot needs her to be in the moment. When we first meet her, she goes from heartbroken sister to fangirl Finn worshipper to badass Rebel guard in seconds, enough to give whiplash. The plot wants some low-quality CGI horse creatures to trample a casino, but wants it to have some emotional weight and justification, so Rose exists. Her home planet, we learn, was robbed to feed fat cats like those at the casinos, and she broadcasts what’s about to happen (cringe) when she says “I’d put my first through this place if I could.” Then, like magic, it happens! What a coincidence. (Between the cheesiness, spoilers, and bad CGI, this felt more like prequels-level stuff, as did BB-8’s operating a walker toward the end.) And of course, when Finn tries to sacrifice himself to save all the Rebels in the mountain, Rose becomes his lover, crashing into him to save him — presumably dooming all the Rebels. She says they had to “Save who we love”…uh, that’s what Finn was doing (and what she was certainly not doing, if she had any love for the other good guys). Before this moment, Rose seemed like a decent person who cared about the Rebels. But Finn needed saving. Thus now she’s the embodiment of selfishness, willing to let them all die, for a guy she met yesterday. I get that her sister died in battle and she doesn’t want to lose someone else, but we got zero indication she was capable of this monstrously unethical act (which the creators pass over like it’s nothing and will probably not address in the next film).                  

 

  1. FAILURE OF THE THEME OF FAILURE

While I don’t really think TLJ was sophisticated enough for themes, it’s supposedly all about failure. That’s the theme. Yoda says it. Failure’s the best teacher. That is always an interesting motif, but it’s not wholly accurate here. There’s less teaching and more just…lucking out.

True, lots of things go wrong for our characters. But, as my brother Sam pointed out, there’s no consequence to any failure. Seriously. Finn and Rose fail to find the hacker; it’s OK, another one happens to be in the cell they’re locked in. What a happy coincidence. Rey fails to be properly trained by Luke; no problem, she is still able to lift a mountain of rocks and save everyone in the end. Poe fails to follow orders, and his mutiny fails; he learns a lesson, but he’s never really punished. The Rebels fail to disable the bad guys’ tracker; it’s fine, a throw away character saves them all. Finn fails to sacrifice himself; it’s good, all the Rebels make it out of the mountain anyway.

“Inconsequential failure.” Great theme.

 

  1. REY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I wish the creators had written better Rey-Luke dialogue and not left their relationship seeming so…underdeveloped. More broadly, Rey, our main character, doesn’t really have much of a character arc. That’s what makes stories interesting: when characters face struggles and change, for good or ill, because of them. Sure, Rey becomes more friendly with Kylo, which I liked (Reylo is absolutely how this trilogy should end; it would have been cooler in my version, where Kylo is convinced after much struggle to let go of the Force, but whatever). Sure, she gives up on getting Luke to come with her and goes to fight on her own. But are these quality arcs? Not really. Overall, she ends the movie where she began: a hero, fighting for righteousness, who is super strong with the Force despite no training. Her perceptions and beliefs and attitudes haven’t really changed. At least in The Force Awakens she lets go of staying behind on Jakku to await her family, accepting they are never coming back, freeing her to a life of adventure. That’s a big difference in her between the beginning and end of the film. Rey is our main character, our beloved hero. She needs an arc with substance.

Other characters get more. Luke is redeemed. Poe perhaps learns to not be such a hothead, to follow orders, because you may not have the full picture. Finn wants to run away and save himself at the start, then is willing to die for the Rebels in the end. Kylo has a slight arc, changing from someone who seeks Snoke’s approval and spars with Hux into a strongman who needs nor tolerates either. Not every character in a film needs a substantial arc, but the main one does. Rey is left out, and thus her story in TLJ isn’t as interesting as it might have been.

 

  1. DIALOGUE

Don’t let the brevity or position of this last point fool you: dialogue is a massive problem in this movie. Most lines are very poorly written, making them difficult to deliver even for decent actors, like when Luke explains why the Jedi have to end because they train future Sith. There are moments when characters literally sound as if they are reading off cue cards, offering a bland, stale, I-am-acting delivery, notably during one scene when Rey is asking for Luke’s help (for the third or fourth time) by Luke’s meditation rock. Many lines are cheesy, such as when Finn and Rose express their delight that they just destroyed the casino, and everything sounds like a cartoon. In action-adventure films like this, a little bit of cheesiness can make for some funny moments, but The Last Jedi, sadly, shows the peril of overdoing it.