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.

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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.

The Declining Value of Art

What gives art value? That is, inherent value, not mere monetary value. Perhaps it is actually quite similar for artist and spectator. The artist may impart value on her work based upon how much joy and fulfillment the process of its creation gave her, how satisfied she is with the final product if it matched or came close to her vision, how much pleasure others experience when viewing (or listening to) it, or how much attention, respect, and fame (and wealth) is directed her way because of it. Likewise, the spectator may see value in the work because he knows, perceives, or assumes the joy and satisfaction it might give the artist, he’s interested in and enjoys experiencing it, or because he respects a successful, famous individual.

There are various forces that impart value, but a significant one must be effort required. This is, after all, what is meant by the ever-present “My kid could do that” muttered before canvases splattered with paint or adorned with a single monochrome square in art museums across the world — pieces sometimes worth huge sums. People see less value in a work of art that takes (on average between human beings) less effort, less skill. Likewise, most artists would likely be less crushed were a fire to consume a piece they’d spent a day to complete versus one they’d spent a year to complete. To most people, effort imparts value.

I’d be remiss, and haunted, if I didn’t mention here that this demonstrates how most people think in Marxian ways about value. (If you thought, dear reader, that in an article on art you’d find respite from socialist theory, you were wrong.) Marx wrote that “the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour” needed to create it (Value, Price, and Profit). Again, not mere monetary value. This doesn’t mean “the lazier a man, or the clumsier a man, the more valuable his commodity, because the greater the time of labour required for finishing the commodity.” Rather, Marx was speaking about the average labor needed to create something: “social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed.” Labor, effort, imparts value on all human creations, whether it’s art, whether it’s for sale, and so forth. Doesn’t it follow, then, that what takes less effort has less inherent value?

This train of thought — how the effort put into paintings, drawings, writings, photographs, sculptures, music, etc. affects their value — arose during an interesting conversation on how much respect should be awarded to each of these forms. Respect was based on effort-value. In other words, does a “good” photograph deserve the same respect as a “good” painting? Does a “great” piece of writing, like a book, deserve the same admiration — does it have the same value — as a “great” sculpture? One may feel at first that they shouldn’t be compared. But all forms have value because they require effort, and thus if we can determine how much effort, on average between human beings, is required for two compared art forms and then decide one takes more effort we will have also found a difference in value. (One need not worry about “great” being subjective, because we are only talking about how each individual personally views the value of different art forms; perceived effort will also be subjective, which is the whole point, as it determines one’s view on value.)

If it helps make this clearer, we might start with a comparison within a single form. Which takes more effort on average: to record a single or an album? Cartooning or hyperrealist drawing? Most people would say the latter finished products have more value because of the greater effort typically required (work may be a breeze for some hyperrealist artists, as easy as cartooning for cartoonists, but remember we are speaking of averages).

Now what about the average effort to create a “good” photograph versus, say, a “good” (let’s say realist) painting? It seems like it would certainly take more effort to make a good painting! The technology of photography always advances, making tasks easier and more accessible, and thus grows more widespread. After film yielded to digitalization and computerization, it became much easier to take a nice photograph — it’s easier to do and easier to do well. Exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, focus, white balance, metering, flash, and so on can now be manipulated faster and with greater ease, or automatically, requiring no effort at all. Recently it’s become possible to edit photographs after the fact, fixing and improving them. You just need a program and know how to use it. Because the form has never existed without technology, the average effort to create a great photograph has probably never rivaled the average effort to create a great painting, but the gap was smaller in the past. Today anyone with the right technology can produce a great photo; true, it requires know-how, but surely the journey from knowing nothing to mastery is shorter and easier than the same journey for realist painting. (Film — now digital video — production is a similar story.) Because the effort needed for the same result — a good photo — has declined over time, the value of the form overall has also decreased. (This does not mean some photographers aren’t more creative, skilled, or knowledgeable than others, nor that there doesn’t remain more value in the work of hardline traditionalists who refuse to use this or that new technology.) But painting — the technology of painting — hasn’t really changed much through the ages; it still requires about the same effort to produce the same quality work, therefore its value holds steady. If “painters” start having robots paint incredible works for them, or aid them, there would obviously be a reduction of value. No one is as impressed by robot paintings or machine-assisted paintings.

Music is facing a smaller-scale attack on the value of the form with digitally created instrumentals, autotune, and so forth. Perhaps the value of writing declined slightly as we shifted from penmanship to typewriting to computer-based writing (with backspace and spell-check!). It will decline again as voice transcription programs are perfected and grow in popularity.

Sculpting, painting, and drawing — the forms least infected by technology — still essentially require the same effort to do, and same effort to do well, as they have throughout human history. The tools and equipment have changed some, yes, but not nearly as much as those of other forms. Their value will remain the same as long as this state of affairs persists. If music, writing, film, and photography continually grow easier to do well, their value, by this metric, will decrease, slowed only by those who valiantly resist the technological changes. This does not mean a splatter painting automatically has more value than a beautiful photo — remember we’re each personally comparing the value of what we subjectively see as “good” paintings versus “good” photographs; you may not see a splatter painting as good. Rather, it may simply mean that what you see as a good painting takes more effort on average to create, and thus has more value, than what you see as a good photo. Perhaps also more than a good book, song, or video, depending on the size and scope of the projects being compared (it may surpass a good video but not a good film, or a good short book but not a good tome; up to you).

It could be that effort required is somewhat rule-based, too, rather than just technology-based. Music, writing, film, and photography rely on more rules. That’s probably why technology is encroaching quicker on such forms. In music, keys, pitches, quarter-notes, half-notes and so forth are rules. Build a program that knows and follows them and you don’t need human players or singers anymore at all. Writing has spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. So spell-check and A.I. can help you or do it all for you. Film has frames per second, photography f-stops, and together a thousand other rules. Devices can handle them. Artists break the rules all the time, but that doesn’t mean their form doesn’t rely more heavily on them than other forms.

Sculpting marble or clay into something recognizable, adorning a canvas with life, or sketching a convincing face perhaps are not activities that rely as much on rules. This does not mean there are none; for instance there are drawing guidelines to make a face proportional and grids to help you transfer reality to the paper. Again, the rules may or may not be followed. And this does not mean an A.I. couldn’t do such activities, because it could. It’s just hard to define what rule you’d use to draw something so perfectly it looks like a photograph; but you know you have to hit certain notes to sing something perfectly. You have to be talented to do either — but maybe one has more foundational rules to get you there.

I’ve sometimes wondered if closing the “effort gap” or “talent gap” between novices and incredible artists is easier in some art forms than others. Meaning, is the gulf between an inexperienced writer and an incredible writer smaller than the gulf between an inexperienced painter and an incredible painter? What about the gap between a new photographer and masterful one compared to the gap between a new sculptor and a highly advanced one? On average, that is. I would suppose the art forms that in any given era take more effort would have the largest chasm to cross. So it would be harder to become a master painter than a master photographer. Perhaps harder, also, than becoming a master cinematographer, writer, singer, or even musician. (I think this view explains why I personally respect and admire the best works of sculpting, painting, and drawing more than the best works of other forms, though music is high up there too. And that’s coming from a writer.)

If so, perhaps rules have something to do with it. We know that practice makes perfect. Some are born with unique gifts, no question, but others go from zero to hero through practice. Might more rules make it easier? Do human beings learn better, faster, with those defined rules? If you stripped away the aforementioned technology of singing, music, and writing (it’s impossible to do this with photography and film), would the rules of the forms alone make these things easier to master than art forms with fewer rules? It’s interesting to consider.

Conservatives Are More Likely to be Racist

One early morning at Salem State University in Massachusetts, students stumbled upon vandalism of benches and a fence at the baseball fields. Spray paint had been used to write “DIE NIGGERS,” “Whites Only USA,” and “Whites #1.”

What are your first thoughts concerning who did this? You’re a reasonable person, so you know this might be a hoax. That happens from time to time. But if this was done in earnest — by someone who sincerely wanted to degrade and threaten black people and extoll the white race — who seems most likely? It seems likely the culprit was white. Gun to your head, it was probably a man, or more than one, just a couple buddies out having some “fun.” Perhaps someone younger, a student; this is a school, after all. Now, was this person more likely liberal or conservative? Who would be more likely to write “Whites Only” or “DIE NIGGERS”? Left or Right, quick.

If this was no hoax, and if we were all to be honest with ourselves, the probabilities might increase as we move along the political spectrum. In other words, the far Left seems least likely (recall we’re focused on content here, not the act of vandalism itself, which some on the far Left do happily partake in), the mainstream Left still unlikely, the center perhaps somewhat likely, the mainstream Right more likely, and the far Right most likely. At no spot on the spectrum is the act impossible, but such a probability scale shouldn’t be all that controversial for anyone with a handle on reality.

In this particular case, we needn’t wonder long, as the vandals included “Trump #1” in their graffiti. This was part of the hate crimes that swept the U.S. after Trump’s election, as Trump supporters gleefully attacked, verbally and physically, Hispanics, Muslims, blacks, Jews, gays, and women — weeks of terror.

But, one protests, the answer to the theoretical was biased and the anecdotal is weak argument. True enough. Conservatives and liberals always dig up examples, point at each other, and insist the other ideology is more prone to racism. (Here we mean against people of color; conservative whites who think anti-white hate from liberals is a bigger problem will have to educate themselves elsewhere). How can we know who is right?

One way is to simply ask people their views.

In 2014, Nate Silver and Allison McCann looked at Americans’ answers regarding race in the General Social Survey, which has been issued for decades. Self-described Republicans were, from 1990-2012, 5-10% more likely to object to a close relative marrying a black person, 5-20% more likely to believe blacks “lacked the motivation” to get out of poverty, and 2-10% more likely to say blacks are more lazy than hardworking. 2-5% more Republicans thought blacks were more unintelligent than intelligent, until things evened out between liberals and conservatives in 2009.

Things have been about even regarding comfort with living in a diverse neighborhood, with only occasional spikes in conservative opposition, and even concerning voting for a black president, except between 1994 and 2007, when in fact white Democrats expressed stronger opposition.

The good news is that for both groups racist views are in general declining. Majorities today do not have (admit) explicitly racist views; this article is not intended to posit all conservatives are racist. The bad news is that for both groups today over 20% dislike the idea of living in a neighborhood that isn’t majority-white, over 20% oppose interracial marriage in their family, over 30% think blacks are lazy, over 40% that they lack motivation, and 15% that they are unintelligent. And that’s just the Americans that will admit to extreme (conscious) racism, as this is a survey. So while this article is indeed intended to settle a recurring debate, it is also a condemnation of (and call for reflection from) us whites on the Left. Our scores, while better, are hardly anything to celebrate.

The aggregate of all responses looked like this:

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The 2012 American National Election Studies survey revealed similar answers. 18% more white Republicans saw black people as lazy than white Democrats, with an 8% lead concerning belief in lack of intelligence and an 18% lead in thinking blacks had too much influence in politics (at the time, there was a black president, one black Supreme Court justice, and no black senators; the country had seen a single black president, six black senators, and two Supreme Court justices since 1776). Nearly 35% more white Republicans thought blacks would be just as well off as whites if they’d try harder — a belief requiring a racist premise about black laziness.

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But the data from these two surveys, and others, can be a bit misleading — and not in a way that will comfort the Right. By lumping together Democrats of all sorts (centrist, Left, far Left), and doing the same with Republicans, the data reflects more timid differences in ideological views of race. As we move further to the right, views grow increasingly racist; as we move further to the left, views become decidedly less racist:

Among strong Democrats and strong Republicans, the numbers [concerning who thinks blacks are lazy] become even more stark, 20 percent compared with 46 percent. Furthermore, 41 percent of whites who say they are extremely conservative believe black people are lazy, compared with 14 percent of whites who say they are extremely liberal. On the question of whether black people are unintelligent, it’s 30 percent for extremely conservative whites versus 11 percent for extremely liberal whites. This clearly suggests that racial animus is more prevalent among conservatives and Republicans.

That is significant. It also mimics the probability scale envisioned above.

A 2016 YouGov survey asked white people if they thought black people typically “give more to society” or “take more.” For a large majority of conservative respondents, no amount of good black people do for society — teaching students, creating art, running a business, waving hello, nothing — could outweigh the racist laziness myth.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 3.21.41 PM

In an article called Trump Did So Well Because Many Conservatives Are Just Like Him, I collected surveys and studies to show how a significant portion of Trump supporters (though not all) hold extremely bigoted views. But the article didn’t dive into how much worse these views were compared to Clinton supporters. A 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll of 16,000 Americans found that

In nearly every case, Trump supporters were more likely to rate whites higher than blacks [concerning positive traits] when their responses were compared with responses from Clinton supporters.

For example, 32 percent of Trump supporters placed whites closer to the top level of “intelligence” than they did blacks, compared with 22 percent of Clinton supporters who did the same.

About 40 percent of Trump supporters placed whites higher on the “hardworking” scale than blacks, while 25 percent of Clinton supporters did the same. And 44 percent of Trump supporters placed whites as more “well mannered” than blacks, compared with 30 percent of Clinton supporters.

Trump fans were also more likely to dislike minorities compared to other, more sane, Republican voters.

There is a wealth of other surveys that show comparable results to the four included here; they are not difficult to find.

Moving on from surveys, there are also scientific studies that indicate conservatism is deeper in the racist mud than liberalism. Research shows that dislike of government services and spending, especially welfare, increases as racial animosity does. A 2014 study from Northwestern University showed that whites with no political affiliation more strongly favored conservative policies when distressed over increasing racial diversity in the U.S. In fact, even those with a political affiliation — any — who became distressed moved to the right. A 2012 study of the U.K. showed social conservatism is linked with greater prejudice. Conservatives were less likely to agree with statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races.” Other studies link antiracism and social liberalism. A 2013 study found that American conservatives had less favorable views of black people than liberals, unless black people had conservative values and attitudes (liberals also favored persons of color who thought like them). As with Trump, greater anti-black attitudes among citizens more strongly predict votes for the Republican candidate, even when he’s not running against a black man, for example with Bush. Areas of the South with histories of strong Klan activity correlate with stronger Republican loyalty. And so on.

No, not every survey nor study will fit into this pattern, but most do. That consistency across sources deserves serious consideration.

All this makes sense in light of what “conservative” and “liberal” actually mean at the conscious and subconscious levels — and how their adherents opposed or supported the civil rights movement, and other social movements, based on those meanings (see Which Broadened Freedom For the Oppressed? Liberalism or Conservatism? and Why Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently, From Someone Who’s Been Both), regardless of ideological changes within America’s parties, a topic conservatives who insist “Liberals are more racist because the Democratic Party supported slavery and the KKK” desperately need to study (see Republicans Used to be Liberal, Democrats Conservative). While not all conservatives are racist by any means, the evidence suggests that, while both sides have work to do to master true racial tolerance, more conservatives lag behind.

The Case For Direct Democracy

Ultimately, “socialism” is the idea that power, not merely wealth, should be made “social”—spread out among the people. That is to say, socialism simply means more democracy. We have seen how worker cooperatives are more democratic structures than capitalist businesses, relying on representative democracy (elected, removable managers and executives) or direct democracy (all decisions made by all workers on a one-person one-vote basis), sometimes called pure democracy. On a similar note, the solution to our troubled political system is a more democratic structure. Under such a system, the people control their own destiny.

Jack London wrote that socialism’s

…logical foundation is economic; its moral foundation, “All men are born free and equal,” and its ultimate aim is pure democracy. By “all men are born free and equal” it means born free and with equal opportunities to earn by honest labor—mental or physical—a livelihood. By a pure democracy is meant a form of government in which the supreme power rests with and is exercised directly by the people instead of the present form, which is a republican form of democracy, in which the supreme power rests with the people, but is indirectly exercised by them, through representatives. Representatives may be corrupted, but how could the whole people be bribed?[1]

Imagine having a direct say in public policy: the ability, like Congress has now, to vote yes or no on proposed laws. Imagine heading to your voting place not every two or four years, but instead many times each year. Your vote would decide national policy. There is more than one reason for America’s abysmal voter turnout, but a large part of it is that people do not believe their vote will affect anything, will bring about meaningful change.[2] With politicians mostly representing the interests of the rich individuals and corporations that fund them, this attitude is understandable. Imagine how this could change if the people had real power, living in a society where the citizens controlled the State rather than the reverse? As London pointed out, it would be very difficult for special interests to influence policy. Citizens are not running for office. They cannot be bribed with campaign contributions, probably won’t be involved in secret meetings or backroom deals. Corruption on a scale that would be effective and remain secret would be impossible. This does not mean there wouldn’t be challenges—when a popular vote takes place the key for special interests is to attack information itself, misleading the public into voting a certain way. But there is no question that giving all voters lawmaking power would decimate corruption.

How would this work? Citizens would need direct initiative rights. Such rights allow people to place a proposed law on an upcoming ballot for people to vote on. Passionate individuals work together to draft legislation, file it with local officials, and gather the required number of signatures to put it on the ballot (no, this is not something a couple of jokers can do in an afternoon; it has to have a reasonable, serious level of support). After the vote takes place, and if the measure passes, government departments enact and enforce the measure as they do today after a legislature passes a law. “Imagine everybody governing!” exclaimed Victor Hugo, who had socialist leanings even if he never adopted the label. “Can you imagine a city governed by the men who built it? They are the team, not the coachman.”[3] And not just one’s city, of course, but one’s state and nation—people’s legislation and the people’s say at every level.

This is a radical change. Socialism would take decision-making power away from city councils, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress and give it to constituents, ending these institutions as we know them. Rather than electing people to vote on issues for us, we could elect or approve people to enact and enforce the decisions we make: the heads of government departments. Today the president selects a secretary of education, homeland security, transportation, and so on, as well as the heads of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies, and Congress approves them. Then they take congressional legislation and make it a reality. Tomorrow the people will either elect candidates to these positions or take over the traditional role of Congress and approve or disapprove the president’s selections. Those directly responsible for carrying out the people’s will should be answerable to the people, just as presidents and representatives are today. (In contrast to today, candidates, from multiple parties with equal ballot and debate access, will either enjoy publicly financed elections or rely on small donations from individuals—co-ops and organizations should not be able to give, to avoid quid pro quo politics. A $100 cap for each adult leaves $25 billion for candidates to compete for.)

Such a proposal may cause consternation. Arguments about tradition will sound: the U.S. was founded as a representative democracy so we mustn’t change it. Well, systems, laws, and practices can always be improved, and typically are. The U.S. scrapped its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, after seven years because its designed structure was flawed and ineffective. The 12th Amendment got rid of a system where the losing opponent in presidential races became vice president. In 1913, we finally let the American people directly elect senators. The 22nd Amendment created presidential term limits. Socialists are interested in positive change, not tradition. Which helps explain why American socialists were at the forefront of every major justice campaign—abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, the anti-war movements, etc.[4] The U.S. has a rich socialist history, from socialists writing the “Pledge of Allegiance” to founding the Republican Party![5]

One major objection is that it’s a bad idea to give the people so much power, as they could vote for awful things, with a mere 51% majority ruling over and oppressing the minority (“mob rule,” “tyranny of the majority”). That’s what the founding fathers knew, so best to trust them. It’s true that most of the founders detested democracy, in fact because they saw it as a threat to their riches and power.[6] (The same sentiments were expressed by the powerful later on, such as in the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report.[7]) So they made sure ordinary voters could not elect justices (we still do not), nor directly elect the president (we still do not, as the Electoral College persists), nor directly elect senators. The people only directly elected members of the House, yet only (white, male) property owners were allowed to vote, further disenfranchising the poor and keeping power in the hands of the better off. Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote.[8] Yet somehow people who gripe about majority rule don’t realize that’s how it works right now. While sometimes the bar is higher, a simple majority decides the fate of most bills in Congress. As little as 51% of congresspersons rule from issue to issue. A majority carries the day in city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and every election except the presidential election from time to time. Direct democracy simply alters which majority makes decisions, giving ordinary people a direct say in the decisions that affect them. “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear,” George Orwell wrote. “It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor… The average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”[9] Yes, the majority has the power to make awful decisions—in the precise same way Congress and other bodies do now. But you nevertheless had a say in the matter, whether trying to stop a bad idea or joining others in making a mistake. As with worker cooperatives, it is better that the many fail together by their own hand than be destroyed by the few from above.

Additionally, there are limits to the awful things that a popular will could enact. Yes, mistakes will be made. That’s democracy, whether direct or representative; it’s messy. But remember, checks and balances still exist under this system. It’s true, there is one fewer; today a bill must pass both House and Senate to see the light of day, while direct democracy replaces them with one chamber, the people. (There are countries, such as Denmark, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Israel, and New Zealand, which only have one house, a unicameral congress.[10]) But there would still be a president to veto legislation. There would remain a Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional. Only a supermajority of the people could change the Constitution, as it is with Congress today (state legislatures holding a constitutional convention would not be possible, as state legislatures would be replaced by a state’s populace). Fears about the prejudiced majority oppressing smaller groups of people can be put aside. It’s possible, but no more likely than it is now, because checks and balances will be preserved. And it goes without saying that direct democracy gives the people power to end injustices too. As Arthur Miller, best known for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, said, “Socialism was reason.”[11]

The most sensible concern is how direct democracy can be structured to run well. Much legislation today is very long and highly complex. Bills are introduced by politicians and go through committees, where representatives of different political views research, discuss, and modify them. They go to the House or Senate floor for debate and more changes and amendments before the vote. With direct democracy, aren’t we sacrificing a crucially important vetting and compromise process? Are ordinary people who use initiative rights really smart enough and experienced enough to create laws? Won’t some laws have to be so complex, and so full of unintelligible legislative jargon, that a typical American voter would be unable to make an educated decision on it? With many bills being hundreds of pages or over a thousand, will not the length alone dissuade people from voting or encourage voting without reading through the details?

While a “vetting and compromise process” is valuable in theory, in practice all it means is total gridlock and the death of the bill. Only 1-5% of all the many thousands of bills introduced under each Congress become law.[12] Almost all of them die in committee, never making it to the debate floor.[13] This is not because they are all bad bills, but because the parties don’t agree on anything. Americans are tired of such inaction, and direct democracy is the cure. Some may say why not keep Congress, let it craft laws, and require a popular vote to pass (a referendum democracy). While this, whether or not combined with initiative rights, would be far better than a representative system, it would nevertheless 1) still allow special interests to infect legislation, which the populace would likely remain unaware of when voting and 2) would require committees and compromise to be at all meaningful (otherwise it’s just groups of similar thinkers putting what laws they like before the people, i.e. the initiative process), resulting in the usual gridlock. But direct democracy in fact has its own vetting mechanisms. If an initiative petition cannot garner enough support, it dies. If the question makes it to the ballot and is not quite what most people want, it will fail. Vetting lies in the discussion and debate surrounding proposed legislation before the vote, as citizens of different opinions study it, weigh it, and try to convince others to vote this way or that.

The rest of the questions, concerning the competencies of the people getting questions on the ballot and the complexities of legislation, are not major concerns when we study deeper how the initiative process actually functions. Because filing the legal paperwork, gathering enough petition signatures, and getting out the vote is not an easy task, it is usually undertaken by serious organizations: political advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, non-profits, and so on, which are typically made up of or are well-connected to lawyers and the politically experienced—people who are just as capable of designing legislation as politicians in Washington. Next, the question that goes before voters is not usually the full text of proposed legislation, but rather a summary in plain language created by public officials.[14] The full text is of course publicly available, online and elsewhere (caps on legislation length is in the realm of the possible too). While it is true that many voters will not read the full bill, the summary must accurately describe it. This functions just fine in the real world.

The United States already uses initiative rights and direct democracy to pass or reject legislation, at the city and state levels. It is legal in twenty-four states and Washington, D.C.[15] (Some, however, use indirect initiatives, which force a legislature to vote on citizen-crafted bills.) In the November 2016 election, 150 measures were on ballots throughout these states. California, Nevada, and Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana use; Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington raised their minimum wages; Nebraska restored the death penalty and Oklahoma made it harder to get rid of; Colorado legalized medically assisted suicide; California, Washington, and Nevada tightened gun laws. Voters in Arizona rejected recreational marijuana legalization; Maine shot down stricter gun control; California declined to abolish its death penalty; Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota rejected tax increases.[16] You won’t always get what you want. That’s democracy. But you will, no matter your beliefs, have a voice. Things will get done. No politicians gridlocked in committee. No representatives on the voting floor following the whims of their biggest donors. Just ordinary people creating real change for themselves, no representatives needed. “I’m a socialist,” one of H.G. Wells’ characters from In the Days of the Comet said. “I don’t think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of every one else.”[17] The Canadian province of British Columbia and all German states also enjoy initiative rights.[18]

All this demonstrates, you’ll notice, that direct democracy works on a large scale. California is the most populous state in the nation, with nearly 40 million people in 2017. Florida, with nearly 21 million people, is up toward the top too. State direct democracy works well, and has since 1898, when South Dakota became the first state to adopt the initiative process.[19] A wide range of U.S. cities use it as well, and have since the town halls of colonial times. Direct democracy has existed in local government throughout human history, from the city-state of Athens, Greece, in the 5th century B.C. to Porto Alegre, Brazil, today.[20] Interestingly, since 1989, Porto Alegre, a city of over 1.5 million people, has allowed participatory budgeting. Citizens participate in the design of the annual city budget, and everyone has the right to vote to approve or strike down the finished product. Since this democratic idea, pushed forward by socialists, was enacted, funds have shifted dramatically to poorer, high-need areas of the city. The process is marked by transparency and lack of corruption.[21]

There are in fact countries that use pure democracy. Switzerland, a nation of eight million people, has had an initiative process at the federal level since 1891. Since then twenty-two initiatives have won out of over 200 proposals. The country also has a parliament that passes laws; it’s therefore called a semi-direct democracy (the people, however, can veto legislation parliament passes through the referendum process). Popular votes take place up to four times annually. In 2016, the populace rejected a law to give each citizen a guaranteed income. Changes to their constitution require majority support from the people and majority support from the cantons (states).[22] While the Swiss majority has at times passed prejudiced, oppressive laws, the Human Freedom Index, published by conservative and libertarian institutes, nevertheless ranks it as the freest nation in the world.[23] The Philippines and the European Union likewise have initiative rights.[24] There is no reason direct democracy cannot work at the national level. (If we were to consider the referendum process, in which legislatures craft laws and once every blue moon the people vote on them, we would have a very long list of participating nations, including some of the most populous in the world, such as Brazil, with 209 million people, and Bangladesh, with 165 million.[25])

Pure democracy is not a perfect system. Yet it gives the many the ability to address the problems we’ve explored elsewhere: to give workers ownership, to protect the planet, to reject war, to guarantee the rights and services people need, and so on. As Mark Twain once asked, “Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”[26] This does not mean they will (the majority may vote for capitalism!), but the mechanisms make it possible. Changing hearts and minds so the system can be used to create a fully socialist society will be just as important.

The idea of broadening democracy raises an important question: how far should we go? If “power to the people” is the goal, what about electing Supreme Court justices and federal judges? Should we abolish the Electoral College and elect a president by popular vote? Give the people recall rights, which allow a supermajority to remove officials, from sheriffs to the president, from office? The answers will depend on how much we can empower the common person while maintaining effective checks and balances. The country’s hundreds of top judges and the nine justices today serve for life. Perhaps the people rather than representatives could approve them; perhaps they could be elected—but certainly not more than once, as we do not want them thinking about their next election when making rulings, and probably not for a short term, as there is value in having one branch, one check, that doesn’t change with the winds. The Electoral College is a vestige of slavery, and there is no explanation as to why the president should not be elected by popular vote (like every other elected official in the nation) that doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight of critical thinking.[27] Recall rights would be a fine way to keep public officials in line, but should perhaps only apply to some (department and agency heads, sheriffs) but not others (the president, justices). There are many ideas to explore and solutions to craft as we build socialism.

 

Notes

[1] London, “What Socialism Is”

[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13536198/election-day-americans-vote; http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/04/half-of-those-who-arent-learning-about-the-election-feel-their-vote-doesnt-matter/

[3] Hugo, “Letter to the Poor”

[4] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[5] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[6] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[7] https://archive.org/stream/TheCrisisOfDemocracy-TrilateralCommission-1975/crisis_of_democracy_djvu.txt. Indeed, the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report warned that “some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy… Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.” “Expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents,” the authors feel, should “override the claims of democracy” in many situations, claims that were growing louder during “the surge of the 1960s”; the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are…limited,” so it would be unwise to, for example, have “a university where teaching appointments are subject to approval by students,” and presumably the same for citizen approval of national policy. Further, “apathy and noninvolvement” among some groups has “enabled democracy to function effectively,” as when “marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks…[become] full participants” there is a “danger of overloading the political system with demands which extend its functions and undermine its authority…” Indeed, “Democracy is more of a threat to itself in the United States than it is in either Europe or Japan where there still exist residual inheritances of traditional and aristocratic values.” In sum, full and actual participation by the people leads to claims and demands, whether civil rights or universal healthcare, that can override the authority of the Establishment, the privileged and powerful. Democracy should therefore be checked.

[8] https://books.google.com/books?id=JHawgM-WnlUC&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=1856+north+carolina+last+state+to+remove+property+ownership&source=bl&ots=sgfKjGzhet&sig=y8ALKjDhkAr2LNvcO6cACsvzRaQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_-rC3KXXAhUBYCYKHTxxBiEQ6AEIUzAI#v=onepage&q=1856%20north%20carolina%20last%20state%20to%20remove%20property%20ownership&f=false; https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[9] Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”

[10] https://www.britannica.com/topic/constitutional-law/Unicameral-and-bicameral-legislatures#ref384652

[11] Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, 1987

[12] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

[13] https://sunlightfoundation.com/2014/01/16/congress-in-2013/#gplus

[14] The process varies by state. See Missouri’s process as an example: https://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/Elections/Petitions/MakeYourVoiceHeard2018Cycle.pdf

[15] https://ballotpedia.org/States_with_initiative_or_referendum

[16] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ballot-initiatives-passed-marijuana-minimum-wage

[17] H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet (1906)

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[19] http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/initiative-referendum-and-recall-overview.aspx

[20] https://www.ancient.eu/Athenian_Democracy/

[21] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 155-160

[22] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/

[23] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/switzerland-the-ultimate-democracy-11219?page=2; https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/human-freedom-index-files/2017-human-freedom-index-2.pdf;

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[25] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_by_country#United_States

[26] https://fair.org/media-beat-column/the-twain-that-most-americans-never-meet/

[27] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/the-electoral-college-how-racist-white-slave-owners-made-your-vote-worthless/; https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/ending-the-electoral-college-wont-lead-to-city-rule-or-dictatorship/