But Abortion!

There exists a particularly obnoxious set of visuals and memes produced by both conservative and less sophisticated liberal social media pages (looking at you, Occupy Democrats). They have to do with hypocrisy, and often revolve around abortion.

An example from the Left reads: “Only in America can you be pro-death penalty, pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-guns, pro-torture, anti-health care, and anti-food stamps and still call yourself ‘pro-life.'”

One from the Right goes: “Oh I get it now… The death penalty is bad, abortion is good.”

The implication or accusation of hypocrisy appears in conversation as well. Often when I post or write something critical of some horrible thing it’s only a matter of time before a conservative friend or acquaintance drops by with the tired “Yet you support abortion rights, what a hypocrite.” There is a good chance if you’re reading this right now it is because you just said something along those lines, as my quest to one day be able to reply in article form to any political comment or question, to save vast amounts of time, continues.

The problem with such accusations of hypocrisy is that they are so easily reversed. Well, well, well, you’re pro-life yet not a pacifist — what we’ve got here is a hypocrite! Why, you’re a pacifist yet somehow pro-choice — at least be morally consistent! 

Typically, when someone comes along guns blazing in this fashion, they’re employing the whataboutism fallacy. It’s distracting from or even discrediting whatever was originally posited by accusing someone of hypocrisy. So perhaps I post about how I think we shouldn’t conduct drone bombings in the Middle East and Africa because they kill far more innocent civilians than actual targets. When the inevitable “but abortion!” comes, there is usually no agreement concerning the immorality of the original issue addressed. Sometimes there is, but usually the individual only provides it later (when pressed), after the implied or explicit accusation of hypocrisy. The individual isn’t much interested in discussing whether the original issue is or isn’t moral. He or she wants to discuss abortion and make sure you know you’re two-faced. In turn, I try to keep things on-topic (and celebrate agreements where we find them), a debate preference that seems to annoy some people to no end. I often say that each issue, each moral question, needs to be weighed on its own merits. People don’t often grasp right away that this belief is connected to whether or not someone is actually a hypocrite, and I don’t explain it because that would further derail the conversation away from whatever the original topic was. As a remedy, I’ll briefly explain my thoughts here.

Say you’re a conservative and you’ve posted about how killing babies in the womb is wrong. Here I come with “But you support our War on Terror, which kills countless pregnant women and other innocent human beings. Hypocritical much?” If you’re like me, you’d be somewhat annoyed at this distraction from the cause you were trying to advocate for, or perhaps you’re unlike me and don’t mind taking whatever detour someone wants to go on. Regardless, you likely think and believe something along the lines of: These things are not the same. They’re a bit different, they have slightly different contexts — even if they both result in similar tragedies. You’re probably counting the ways in which they’re distinct or shouldn’t be compared right now.

In thinking so, you are essentially acknowledging that each moral question should be weighed on its own merits. Unless you actually think you’re a hypocrite, you believe these are slightly different situations and therefore different stances concerning them may be morally justified.

And you would of course be correct. These situations — torture, war, the death penalty, abortion, homicide, unregulated gun ownership, free market healthcare, and on and on — are unique, and have very different questions you have to answer before you can make a decision on whether they’re ethical. You have to work through unique factors.

Many of the most deeply conservative and fervently religious people believe abortion is never morally permissible under any circumstance, while others (conservatives and liberals, religious persons and nonreligious persons, etc.) believe there are some or many instances where it is. The purpose of this article isn’t to argue one way or the other, which I have done elsewhere. No matter what you think about abortion, I hope to simply demonstrate that people across the political spectrum are a tad too quick to use the h-word. So what are some standard questions about abortion that make folks think differently?

  • Was the pregnancy the result of rape?
  • Does birth endanger the life of the mother?
  • Should the government force you to give birth against your will?
  • Is it less moral to commit abortion as the pregnancy goes on? Does the age of the fetus matter?
  • Does the fact that women seek unsafe black market abortions, resulting in health complications or death, in societies where abortion is illegal change the moral equation at all?

Those are important questions to think about and answer when deciding whether or when abortion is morally permissible, and each person will answer differently.

But the relevant question here is: Do we also need to ask those questions when we ponder the morality of war?

Not really. Those questions aren’t going to be very helpful when deciding whether massacring civilians while dropping bombs to kill terrorist suspects overseas is the right thing to do. The questions concerning war won’t sound like the questions concerning abortion, and vice versa. Each issue, each situation, has its own array of unique questions to consider. They’re truly dissimilar contexts. This is why accusations of hypocrisy like we saw above don’t make a lot of sense.

In fact, such accusations of hypocrisy are so easily reversed because they don’t really have much to do with hypocrisy at all. It’s a bit like saying it’s hypocritical to think killing someone in cold blood is wrong but killing someone in self-defense is not. It’s the same result, right? In either case someone is killed. You hypocrite! Well, no, these are different circumstances with different moral questions and answers. Real hypocrisy has more to do with situations that are essentially the same. If I curse like a sailor but lambaste others for cursing, that’s hypocrisy. If you think women should be forced to give birth regardless of circumstance but wouldn’t think the same for men if they could get pregnant, that’s hypocrisy. If you’re Mitch McConnell, that’s hypocrisy. And so on. It has to do with holding yourself to different standards than you hold others in the same situation, which is pretty disingenuous (the word actually derives from the Greek word ὑπόκρισις [hypókrisis], meaning play-acting or deceit). But in different situations you have unique things to figure out and may therefore end up with different moral answers. Even a close analog to abortion, infanticide (more universally opposed, yet not without exception, as with the infant in constant agony from an incurable illness), has a difference people have to mull over, namely that the baby has not yet been born. One can think both are wrong, that the difference is insignificant, but the fact remains it is a literal difference — the situations aren’t identical. They’re much closer than other comparisons, true, but there is a difference that is more significant to some than others. That’s my point. So you have to ask different questions and decide for yourself if different scenarios have the same moral conclusions; they may, but when they do not it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, simply because the scenarios were not indistinguishable.

(This isn’t the only context in which “hypocrisy” isn’t really used correctly. I once thought of writing an article entitled No One Knows What Hypocrisy Means after I was called a hypocrite for frequently criticizing white attacks against innocent people of color but rarely — though not never — doing the same for the reverse. But one is an exponentially bigger societal problem than the other. I didn’t posit that one is the wrong thing to do and the other the right thing to do; it simply makes sense to focus most of our attention and energies on more prevalent problems.)

The conservative can say to the liberal, “You’re a hypocrite for being a pacifist yet pro-choice,” but why bother? The liberal can simply respond, “And you’re a hypocrite for being pro-life yet pro-war.” Stalemate. Are we all hypocrites then? I would posit, instead, that none of us are. I personally don’t believe a conservative who is pro-life yet pro-war is a hypocrite (if I did, we know what that would be an example of). This is because I know these issues are not the same, that the conservative has different reasoning for and answers to unique moral questions that could result in divergent conclusions between scenarios. I may not agree with that reasoning or those answers one iota, but I understand them and how they may not lead to the same place.

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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 (one truly wonders why it’s difficult to see that the alt-right, full of people who advocate a “White Ethno-State,” is generally evil, whereas Antifa, full of people who advocate standing against “racist and fascist bigots” is generally not), 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 were elsewhere in the ancient world, as they’re not too difficult to figure out after understanding basic division/multiplication and taking some measurements (once you measure a few circles, build a few round structures, you’d likely notice a circumference is always a little more than 3 times longer than the diameter), 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. As I wrote elsewhere, the evidence “does not support the Judeo-Christian creation story (in which birds appear on the same ‘day,’ Day 5, as creatures that live in water, before land animals, which appear on Day 6; the fossil record shows amphibians, reptiles, and mammals appearing long before birds — and modern whales, being descendants of land mammals, don’t appear until later still, until after birds, just 33 million years ago).” Or one could note that the overwhelming evidence for evolution blows up the stories of a first man from dirt and a first woman from rib (if one believes in evolution, it seems one must accept Genesis contains falsehoods, written by ordinary people or spoken by God). 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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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”

‘The Last Jedi’ Review

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.

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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.

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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:

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 1.11.45 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 7.39.17 PM

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.

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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.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

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/

Guaranteed Income vs. Guaranteed Work

Living in a socialist society would mean awakening each workday and heading to your worker cooperative, while regularly visiting your voting place to help decide local and national policies. But it is more than that—and has to be. The State has a few important services to provide if the socialist dream of prosperity and dignity for all people is to be achieved.

What if, for instance, you cannot find a job? Just because all workplaces are democratic and share profits does not mean there will always be enough jobs when and where you need one. There is no room in a socialist nation for unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and so on, and thus some mechanism is needed to guarantee that we only see these horrors in history books. Every person, regardless of who you are or what work you do, should make enough to have a comfortable life—which requires a high minimum wage (required by law but inherent in worker ownership) and guaranteed access to an income. There are two paths forward to eradicating the horrors, stated succinctly by Dr. King: “We must create full employment, or we must create incomes.”[1] Guaranteed work or a guaranteed income. Either would be adequate, but there are positives and negatives of each to weigh.

Let’s first consider a guaranteed income, or universal basic income (UBI). All UBI entails is using tax revenue to send a regular check to each citizen, a simple redistribution of wealth to eradicate poverty and provide security during times of unemployment or underemployment. Its simplicity is a major advantage over guaranteed work.

UBI has been around for a while in various forms. Alaska has given $1,000-$2,000 a year to every resident without condition since 1982.[2] Hawaii may follow suit soon.[3] The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation launched its own UBI in 1996, and today gives $10,000 a year to each of its members, which has helped reduce behavioral problems and crime.[4] Iran from 2010 to 2016 had the world’s first national UBI, giving each family the equivalent of $16,300 a year.[5] For one year, 2011, Kuwait gave $3,500 to each citizen.[6] In 2017, Macau, a region of China, began giving over $1,100 a year to each permanent resident.[7]

Trials in some of India’s villages that began in 2011 show huge success in improving children’s education, access to food and healthcare, and the total number of new business startups.[8] Other past small-scale experiments were conducted in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Namibia, and elsewhere. Models range from everyone getting the same amount to poorer recipients getting more while richer ones less (which even some conservatives support in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit or even a negative income tax[9]). Studies indicate that when people have this financial security they spend more time taking care of family, more time focusing on education, and are able to win higher raises at work because they have a more serious option to leave, leverage they did not have before.[10] Contrary to myth, giving poor people cash tends to have no impact on or reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption, likely because paying for healthcare, education, and so forth is suddenly an option and people want to direct their resources there.[11] In 2017, experiments with UBI launched or were preparing to launch in various places in Finland, Canada, Kenya, Uganda, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, and the U.S.[12]

“A guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year,” Dr. King estimated in 1967. “If our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.”[13] The question of priorities in spending is as relevant as ever. The cost of American UBI would depend on similar factors: how much would be guaranteed, if everyone would receive it (if the rich do not then it’s not technically UBI, but no matter), and so on. $10,000 a year for all 240 million U.S. adults is $2.4 trillion, $15,000 a year for the poorest 50 million people is $750 billion, etc. Of course, the net cost would be lower, as giving tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people greater purchasing power would put the economy into overdrive—that money would be spent, enriching co-ops and thus increasing State tax revenues (this is also why economic research overwhelming shows higher minimum wages do not lead to higher unemployment or prices; extra money is spent at businesses, boosting their profits, balancing the system out[14]). “People must be made consumers by one method or the other,” King said when discussing guaranteed income or work.[15] One study estimated giving each American adult $1,000 a month would grow the economy 12-13% over eight years, or by $2.5 trillion, if employment remained steady.[16] It is important to keep the cyclical nature of this system in mind while considering costs. UBI is expensive, but it also increases tax revenue.

Now, major concern exists that UBI will cause people to stop working, hurting the economy and leaving the worker-owners stuck supporting the easy lifestyle of the lazy. As we have seen, at some point in the human future automation will essentially make labor a thing of the past, highlighting the need for both collective ownership of the machines and State-provided incomes. So it seems obvious that at some point we will have to give up our agitation over people who do not work (rather, poor or middle income people who do not work; critics seem less concerned about the wealthy types who enjoy work-free lives). We won’t be able to absurdly base people’s value on how many hours they work or what sort of work they do. Everyone will spend their days as they see fit, some choosing to design skyscrapers (even though machines could do it for them) because they enjoy it, others doing nothing all day because they enjoy that more. But until machines can serve our every need, the point is a valid one, as some people will indeed prefer not to have a job, while supported by the labor of others. (On the positive side, there would be decreased competition for jobs for those seeking them.) This wouldn’t bother all worker-owners, but it would be reality. In five experiments on guaranteed income done in the U.S. and Canada, the decrease in the labor participation rate ranged from zero to 30%.[17] However, most studies show no effect or only a small decline.[18] Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney ran UBI experiments in a few cities for President Nixon, and found work rates remained steady.[19] A study of Alaska found employment levels weren’t affected. A study of Iran’s UBI revealed some people worked a bit less, but some actually worked more.[20] India’s basic income grants led to more labor, as did Uganda’s.[21] Namibia saw no negative effects on labor participation.[22] Naturally, the decline depends on how much is received, but it is predictable that UBI will mean some people will choose not to work. Importantly, with so much to do to rebuild and maintain our society, is UBI yet wholly practical? Will enough citizens volunteer to participate in all the unpleasant tasks that make a society function, such as repaving roads or waste disposal, if a high income is guaranteed? Would necessary tasks remain undone because Americans would want to pursue other things? These nagging questions will spur some to throw out the whole idea, insist the monthly amount must be low enough to force people to get jobs, or propose a higher UBI for people willing to do unpleasant work. All told, UBI would have to be implemented strategically, perhaps beginning at a level that eradicates poverty and slowly increasing as humanity approaches the point where machines can take care of all undesirable duties.

Guaranteed work is a more complex system, but avoids the concerns associated with lower labor participation. In fact, there would be a job for all. “If Government in our present clumsy fashion must go on,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said in 1843, “could it not assume the charge of providing each citizen, on his coming of age, with a pair of acres, to enable him to get his bread honestly?”[23] In a society offering guaranteed work, federal tax revenue could be transferred to municipalities to create salaries for unemployed or underemployed people. City governments would use the funds to launch public work projects to improve their communities (what projects would be a local democratic decision, of course). So if a city has 50,000 people looking for work at the start of the year, it might receive $2 billion, to offer a $40,000 salary to each person. If the U.S. had 8 million unemployed, it would cost $320 billion to employ them—half our modern military budget. Prioritization is easy enough. Dr. King said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”[24] As with UBI, however, broadening purchasing power will reduce the net cost through increased tax revenues.

Workers can be hired to rebuild our crumbling inner cities, install solar panels on homes, plant trees, tutor struggling students, spend time with neglected seniors—literally any task that betters society in some way. Because not all positive tasks require physical labor, the program would be inclusive of many persons with disabilities or even seniors who want to work (though obviously not intended to replace social security or disability insurance). Cities will need more funds than just those for salaries, however, sums dependent on the type of project. Some projects will be relatively cheap, like cleaning trash off the streets, others more expensive, like renovating a school. Extra funds could nevertheless be fixed to a city’s unemployment level. Using their allotted monies, cities could contract with local co-ops to supply equipment and raw materials for necessary ventures. Public workers would also receive help securing employment at a cooperative, where higher incomes, democracy, and ownership can be enjoyed, so that the public sector doesn’t continually grow. Rather than shrink the private sector, however, guaranteed work programs can actually expand it—fewer unemployed persons means more spenders, benefiting businesses and allowing them to expand.[25]

Co-ops could also receive federal funds, allowing them to take on more worker-owners. This needn’t be a permanent relationship. The State could fund a position for a year, giving a co-op time to absorb a new member. Cooperatives would get another worker, and thus greater productivity and more profits, for nothing, in return for guaranteeing the worker a permanent job and ownership after the year ended. Co-ops could further receive government contracts to do certain projects, as businesses do today, with increased employment stipulations. Alternatively, cities could organize unemployed persons into new cooperatives, helping fund the endeavor during the first few years, until it became self-sustaining (whether for-profit or nonprofit). If there was a need for greater production in a certain sector, from agriculture to social work, that need could be met with new co-ops.[26]

There is much precedent for guaranteed work. Generally speaking, employment by the State is something we take for granted. Critics of paying citizens to work often have no qualms over paying citizens to be soldiers or police officers. If one can be called necessary for protection, the other can be called necessary for poverty’s demise. Local governments across the U.S. employ 14.1 million people, over half of them in education, the rest in healthcare, fire and policing, financing and administration, transportation, library services, utilities, environment and recreation—and public works.[27] (States employ another 5 million, and the federal government employs over 2.5 million civilians and over 2 million active and reserved military personnel.[28]) More specifically, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, Civil Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps hired some 15.5 million people to build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, museums, and zoos; to garden, plant trees, fight fires, reseed land, save wildlife, and sew; to undertake art, music, drama, education, writing, and literacy projects. While not without challenges, public works saved many families from hunger, strengthened the consumer class and thus the economy, and beautified the country.[29] Roosevelt actually included “the right to a useful and remunerative job” in his 1944 Second Bill of Rights.[30] Similar federal initiatives have occurred since, such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 1970s, which employed 750,000 people by 1978.[31] (In countless other programs, like the Public Works Administration of the 1930s, the U.S. government indirectly created jobs by paying businesses to tackle huge projects. Construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 60s entailed the federal government funding the states, which either expanded their public workforces or contracted with private companies.) Today, cities like Reno, Albuquerque, Tempe, Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Portland, and Los Angeles offer jobs to the homeless to help them out of the social pit. Cities elsewhere in the world do the same.[32]

Governments around the world run programs similar to our New Deal. India is pouring billions into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which gives, or rather tries to give, residents of a few poor, rural states one hundred days of guaranteed work annually.[33] 50 million households, 170 million people, are involved—the largest public works program in world history.[34] Other nations, especially in Europe, have made the government the employer of last resort at various times.[35] So have South Africa and Argentina. Argentina’s Jefes de Hogar program paid the heads of household with children, persons with disabilities, or pregnant women to do community service, construction, and maintenance work. 2 million Argentinians, 5% of the population, were employed at its height.[36] South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Program includes government jobs in infrastructure, tourism, environment, early childhood education, and more.[37] As in the U.S., local, state, and national governments around the world may not offer guaranteed work but do offer public works jobs. These efforts and countless others have dealt serious blows to unemployment and poverty. Wages even rise in the private sector, because it must compete with the public sector for workers. “We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all,” Dr. King said, “so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened.”[38]

One criticism of guaranteed work is that unemployment dropping too low will herald inflation. It is said if unemployment is eliminated then businesses will have to compete for fewer workers, driving wages up, which will drive up the cost of everything else to compensate, which will lead to higher wage demands, all in an unending upward wage-price spiral. This is not actually as grave a concern as one might imagine. First, the correlation between unemployment and inflation is not terribly strong: sometimes they move in opposite directions, sometimes they move together.[39] Mainstream economists are increasingly acknowledging the relationship is weak or nonexistent. It’s easy to see why more workers doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices. Increased profits from more consumers spending more money help firms absorb higher wage costs without raising prices. Again, even drastic increases in the minimum wage create only tiny increases in prices, making the wage increase plainly worth it.[40] To stay competitive there is every incentive for firms to expand production, and thus sales, or take a bite out of profits rather than raise prices on consumers. Many economists have argued persuasively that, contrary to William Phillips, Milton Friedman, and others, full employment can be achieved without inflation.[41]

Second, if upward wage pressure became so great it could not be absorbed, and prices rose, there is reason to predict this would be a brief phase, not an eternal spiral. It is not likely the upward pressure on wages would last. Say the public worker salary was set at $38,000 a year (we’ll say that is also the minimum wage). If you worked for a capitalist firm making $38,000, you would likely be able to convince the capitalist to give you a raise—otherwise you could leave, guaranteed to make the same in the public sector. You win a raise and are then making $40,000. But if you continue pushing over time, the potential loss due to ultimate failure (being let go, replaced by someone cheaper, someone from the public sector wanting to make more) rises—it’s at $2,000 now and will only get bigger.[42] So there is a disincentive that keeps higher wage demands down. The capitalist may get rid of you and you’ll be worse off financially than you were. A guaranteed job gives people more power and leverage, but not so much to create an inflationary disaster; with limits on the upward pressure of wages come limits on price increases, which tend to be tiny proportions of income increases anyway. At a cooperative, as raises are determined democratically, the majority would have to repeatedly vote to both give raises to all and to raise prices on consumers—this seems just as unlikely, perhaps more so, as a single capitalist continuously doing this.

Third, more production of goods and services through the public sector, like increased purchasing power, increases supply and thus pulls price down.[43] Fourth, various effective tactics the State uses to control inflation will still exist under socialism.[44] In practice, at least regarding partial guaranteed employment and public works ventures, skyrocketing inflation is a nonissue. The Reserve Bank of India found that the MGNREGA program did not raise food prices.[45] We know that Argentina’s inflation was extremely high in 2002, when its works program began, but declined and remained relatively low past 2007, when the program ended, until 2013.[46] South Africa’s ongoing program began in 2004; inflation grew by over 10% by 2009, during economic crisis, but then fell and remained low through 2018.[47] The four points above also answer concerns about UBI and inflation. Further, studies of Alaska, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mexico, India, and African nations have at least shown that a small UBI does not cause inflation.[48]

Whether UBI, guaranteed work, or a combination of both (guaranteed work followed by UBI, for example, so no one is stuck doing pointless work for a city while co-op members get rich off machines that can do all tasks) is implemented, one of these strategies will be necessary as a safety net for those struggling to find a job. With it we can eradicate need and want forever. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice,” Nelson Mandela said. “Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”[49] Either system would have other significant effects on society, too, such as replacing many older forms of welfare, freeing people from the fear of quitting a job they do not enjoy, giving people greater ability to strike—a tactic that may not entirely disappear with worker ownership, as some worker-owners may be so opposed to a majority decision they walk out—and more.[50]

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Notes

[1] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[2] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/jp5wdb/only-state-free-money-alaska

[3] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/15/15806870/hawaii-universal-basic-income

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/01/opinion/sutter-basic-income/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/iran-introduced-a-basic-income-scheme-and-something-strange-happened

[6] http://basicincome.org/news/2011/05/kuwait-a-temporary-partial-basic-income-for-citizens-only/

[7] http://basicincome.org/news/2017/07/wealth-partaking-scheme-macaus-small-ubi/

[8] https://mondediplo.com/2013/05/04income

[9] Milton Friedman, Free to Choose

[10] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

[11] https://qz.com/853651/definitive-data-on-what-poor-people-buy-when-theyre-just-given-cash/; http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/617631468001808739/pdf/WPS6886.pdf

[12] http://basicincome.org/news/2017/10/overview-of-current-basic-income-related-experiments-october-2017/; http://time.com/money/5114349/universal-basic-income-stockton/

[13] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[14] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/the-last-article-on-the-minimum-wage-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

[15] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[16] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/09/a-basic-income-could-boost-the-us-economy-by-2-5-trillion/

[17] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

[18] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/30/16220134/universal-basic-income-roosevelt-institute-economic-growth

[19] https://qz.com/931291/dick-cheney-and-donald-rumsfeld-ran-a-universal-basic-income-experiment-for-president-richard-nixon/

[20] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/iran-introduced-a-basic-income-scheme-and-something-strange-happened

[21] http://isa-global-dialogue.net/indias-great-experiment-the-transformative-potential-of-basic-income-grants/; http://www.unicef.in/Uploads/Publications/Resources/pub_doc83.pdf; https://medium.com/basic-income/evidence-and-more-evidence-of-the-effect-on-inflation-of-free-money-a3dcc2a9ea9e

[22] http://bignam.org/Publications/BIG_Assessment_report_08b.pdf

[23] http://books.google.com/books?id=04NPax82MZQC&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=ralph+waldo+emerson+socialism&source=bl&ots=9Cp_2uKvRI&sig=AfJfiT0oIr3L4XRC2hpxaA93sgs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sZgkVMbKH4GUyATVlILoCQ&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=ralph%20waldo%20emerson%20socialism&f=false

[24] http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/28568-martin-luther-king-jr-all-labor-has-dignity

[25] https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/44/youre-hired/

[26] Alec Nove, Essential Works of Socialism, 555

[27] https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/21955000-12329000-government-employees-outnumber-manufacturing; https://www.cbpp.org/research/some-basic-facts-on-state-and-local-government-workers

[28] https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/21955000-12329000-government-employees-outnumber-manufacturing; https://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Robert-Reich/2010/0813/America-s-biggest-jobs-program-The-US-military

[29] http://www.history.com/topics/works-progress-administration; http://www.history.com/topics/civilian-conservation-corps; https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/The-Great-Depression#ref613079

[30] http://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[31] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/6/16036942/job-guarantee-explained

[32] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/u-s-canadian-city-governments-ending-homelessness-by-offering-jobs/; http://www.newsweek.com/homeless-paid-clean-streets-texas-786311; https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/tempe/2017/10/16/tempe-hire-homeless-temporary-jobs-fight-mill-avenue/754199001/

[33] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dpr.12220/full

[34] https://scroll.in/article/807379/why-2015-16-was-the-worst-year-ever-for-mgnrega; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/atul-dev/the-need-for-guaranteed-e_b_6295050.html

[35] https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2000/10/art4full.pdf

[36] http://www.cfeps.org/pubs/wp-pdf/WP41-Tcherneva-Wray-all.pdf; http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_534.pdf

[37] http://www.epwp.gov.za/; https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/expanded-public-works-programme-epwp-0; http://www.publicworks.gov.za/PDFs/Speeches/Minister/2016/Minister_EPWP_2016_Summit_closing_remarks_17112016.pdf

[38] http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2013/08/honoring-dr-kings-call-for-a-job-guarantee-program.html

[39] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.526.7530&rep=rep1&type=pdf; https://wwz.unibas.ch/fileadmin/wwz/redaktion/makrooekonomie/intermediate_macro/reader/7/02_ACFC7.pdf; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46529582_The_Moral_Imperative_and_Social_Rationality_of_Government-Guaranteed_Employment_and_Reskilling

[40] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/the-last-article-on-the-minimum-wage-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

[41] http://www.redalyc.org/pdf/601/60124701.pdf

[42] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=718089001090029001080009094097103014067041034067091025005110119013116028124085065079106087021005066041048019022117117074085015103072012028116125001110102097111024001098096104064120025064&EXT=pdf; https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/31634/1/571704611.pdf

[43] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=718089001090029001080009094097103014067041034067091025005110119013116028124085065079106087021005066041048019022117117074085015103072012028116125001110102097111024001098096104064120025064&EXT=pdf

[44] https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/2269/economics/ways-to-reduce-inflation/

[45] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/mgnrega-has-not-contributed-to-food-inflation-report/articleshow/44903564.cms

[46] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/FP.CPI.TOTL.ZG?end=2013&locations=AR&start=2000

[47] https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/inflation-cpi; http://www.epwp.gov.za/

[48] https://medium.com/basic-income/evidence-and-more-evidence-of-the-effect-on-inflation-of-free-money-a3dcc2a9ea9e; http://ubi.earth/inflation/

[49] http://www.mandela.gov.za/mandela_speeches/2005/050203_poverty.htm

[50] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

For the Many, Not the Few: A Closer Look at Worker Cooperatives

After pointing out the authoritarian hierarchy of the capitalist workplace—the capitalist chief at the top wielding ultimate decision-making power and owning the wealth created by the workers—John Stuart Mill envisioned instead the “association of laborers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.”[1]

Socialistic worker cooperatives are the humane alternative to capitalist businesses. In a worker cooperative, you become a company owner soon after being hired. All workers share equal ownership of the firm, from custodian to spokesperson. This translates to equality in power (all decisions are made democratically) and in wealth (company shares and incomes are the same for everyone). Just like that, the exploitation of labor by and authoritarian power of the greedy few are consigned to the dustbin of history, replaced by cooperation, equity, and democracy. Workers control their own destinies, deciding together how they should use the profits created by their collective labor, be it improving production through technology, taking home bigger incomes, opening a new facility, hiring a new worker, lowering the price of a service, producing something new, and all other conceivable matters of business.

With the disappearance of hierarchy and exploitation comes the elimination or great alleviation of other crimes of capitalism we’ve explored. When worker-owners invest in new technologies that increase productivity and require less human labor, they won’t fire themselves—they can make more money and/or work fewer hours, bettering their standard of living and spending more time with family or doing things they enjoy. They will not outsource their own jobs to Bangladesh, either. Their greater wealth will reduce poverty, their greater purchasing power easing the throes of recession and depression (as would less competition, were cooperatives to federate). If co-ops were adopted on a national or global scale, the stock market might disappear, or at least substantially change, as the workers might want to keep all the shares of their company. Transparency and democracy should make a firm less likely to commit the kinds of profit-driven abuses against people, planet, and peace, because there are more players influencing decisions; the wider the field, the less likely everyone would feel comfortable with, say, poisoning our biosphere to make a buck. This is not to say that laws prohibiting the production of vehicles that run on fossil fuels would be unnecessary. They would. Rather, it is simply to say there would be more room for dissent in a workplace and a greater chance of a more moral or safe alternative being adopted. Socialism is not a cure for all our problems, just many of them.

Some criticisms of worker cooperatives can be easily dismissed with simple philosophical and theoretical arguments. There’s the desire of capitalists and would-be capitalists to have all the power and hoard the wealth. Well, this is about being more ethical than that, having the empathy to support the common good, not selfish ends. As Dr. King said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[2] There’s the consternation at the thought of a majority of workers with little to no experience with a task overruling a worker with experience and knowledge of said task. What does the graphic designer know of welding processes and how to best use or improve them? How can we let younger, newer, brasher salespeople make policy for the veteran salesperson? Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that both fresh blood and odd ideas from outside a field can at times prove beneficial, a spark of innovation and positive change. Second, many worker cooperatives make it a point to train all workers in multiple or all areas of the business, lessening the knowledge gap with education, training, and staff development. Some even rotate jobs! (On-the-job training and shared knowledge is a key factor for success in co-ops where most founders have no business experience.[3]) Third, a cooperative environment encourages workers to listen carefully to those with greater experience, knowing that deference will be reciprocated later. Fourth, most business decisions, if found to be ineffective or harmful, can be reversed before a total collapse of the company, just like in business today. Lastly, even if a shortsighted, unknowledgeable majority ran the cooperative—their cooperative—into the ground because they stubbornly refused to listen to the wisdom of the experts, there is nevertheless something satisfactory about the democratic nature of this failure. Under capitalism, the stupidity of a single capitalist can destroy a business, wiping out jobs for everyone. Under socialism, the workers democratically determine their own destiny. It may be a disaster, but it’s your disaster, collectively speaking. But, as we will see, cooperatives are in no way more likely to fold.

Cooperative work is as old as humanity itself, as we have seen. Worker cooperatives in their modern form have existed around the world since the Industrial Revolution began and capitalism took off, that is, before Marx’s writings.

The U.S. has a rich history of cooperative enterprises that continues to this day.[4] No, they are not always perfect. While some exemplify precisely the socialist vision, others could be more egalitarian or democratic (for example, many make use of elected managers or executives with slightly larger salaries, which can be easier with larger companies; others are too slow at granting ownership rights). But they are all a giant step up from capitalist firms. The U.S. has an estimated 300-400 cooperatives, everything from the 4th Tap Brewing Co-Op in Texas to Catamount Solar in Vermont, employing 7,000 workers (the average size is 50 people) and earning $400 million in revenue each year. (If you’ve heard it’s more like tens of thousands of cooperatives making billions, such inflated numbers are only possible by including credit unions, “purchasing co-ops,” independent farmers aiding each other through “producer co-ops,” Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and other structures that, while valuable, don’t exactly qualify.) 26% of them used to be capitalist-structured businesses.[5] Converting is a great way to preserve a business and protect people’s livelihoods; when small business capitalists retire, the vast majority of the time they do not find a buyer nor are able to pass ownership on to family, so the enterprise simply ends and workers are thrown out.[6] Cooperatives represent all economic sectors, and have annual profit margins comparable to top-down businesses—the idea that they are less efficient is a myth (not that efficiency has to be more important than democracy and equality anyway). 84% of the workers are owners at a given time.[7] Many firms are members of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a growing organization. Because people are put before profits, most cooperatives have a particular focus on community improvement and development, for example the Evergreen Cooperatives in Ohio. One study found food co-ops reinvest more money from each dollar in the local economy.[8]

America’s largest co-op, the Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, has grown to 2,300 employees, about half of which are owners (to become an owner one pays $1,000 in installments). It is 90% owned by minority women. With $64 million in profits in 2013, the CHCA provides wages of $16 an hour (twice the market rate), a highest- to lowest-paid worker ratio of 11:1, flexible hours, and good insurance. Its governing board is elected; profits are shared. The company has a turnover rate that is a quarter of the industry standard. Some workers left behind minimum wage jobs and are now making $25 an hour. People say they stay because the co-op lifted them out of poverty and as owners they have decision-making power.[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life (1860), “The socialism of our day has done good service in setting men to thinking how certain civilizing benefits, now only enjoyed by the opulent, can be enjoyed by all.”[10] People who join the Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) co-ops in California see their incomes skyrocket 70-80%.[11]

As one might expect, workers are more invested in a company when they are also owners, which translates into better business outcomes. Though they are not without challenges, a review of the extant research reveals co-ops have the same or greater productivity and profitability than conventional businesses, and tend to last longer; workers are more motivated, satisfied, and enjoy greater benefits and pay (with no evidence of increased shirking), information flow improves, and resignations and layoffs decline.[12] They are more resilient during economic crises.[13] Many studies come from Europe, where cooperatives are more widespread and more data has been collected. In Canada, worker cooperatives last on average four times longer than traditional businesses.[14] Their survival rates are 20-30% better.[15] Research on France’s cooperatives revealed that worker-owned enterprises were more productive and efficient, and over a four-year period cooperative startups actually outnumbered capitalistic startups.[16] French capitalist-turned-cooperative businesses have better survival rates than capitalist businesses by significant margins, 10-30%.[17] Analyzing cooperatives across the U.K., Canada, Israel, France, and Uruguay, one study found that cooperatives had similar survival rates to traditional businesses over the long term, but better chances of making it through the crucial early years. Italy and Germany experience the same.[18] Italian co-ops are 40% more likely to survive their first three years; Canadian co-ops about 30% more likely in the first five years and 25% more likely in the first ten years; in the U.K., twice as many cooperatives survive the first five years than traditional firms.[19] In Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, an economic powerhouse of that nation and Europe, two-thirds of residents belong to worker cooperatives.[20] In Spain, a study of a retail chain that has both top-down stores and cooperative ones revealed the latter have much stronger sales growth because worker-owners have decision-making power and a financial stake.[21] In the U.S., much research has been done on businesses with Employee Stock Ownership Plans, which are called “employee-owned” because employees are given stock, but most are not democratic nor totally owned by the workers (Publix and Hy-Vee are examples). ESOPs are only one-third as likely to fail compared to publicly traded businesses, suffer less employee turnover, and are more productive.[22] One rare study on American plywood worker cooperatives found they were 6-14% more efficient in terms of output than conventional mills.[23] When the economy declined, conventional mills attacked worker hours and employment, whereas the worker-owners agreed to lower their pay to protect hours and jobs.[24] Given the benefits of worker cooperatives, places like New York City, California, and Cleveland are investing in their development, recognizing their ability to lift people out of poverty and thus strengthen a consumer economy, plus offer an opportunity to focus on alleviating systemic barriers to work and wealth that minorities, former felons, and others face in the United States.[25] This is no small matter. The egalitarian structure and spirit of solidarity inherent in co-ops can help win equality for the oppressed and disadvantaged. While perfect by no means, women tend to have more equitable pay and access to more prestigious positions in co-ops.[26] 60% of worker-owners in new American co-ops in 2012 and 2013 were people of color.[27] 90% of worker-owners at one of Spain’s co-ops are people with disabilities.[28] Italian cooperatives are more likely to hire folks who have been unemployed for long periods, often a major barrier to work.[29]

Spain has one of the strongest cooperative enterprises, no surprise to those who know Spain’s Marxist history.[30] (In the 1930s, George Orwell marveled at Barcelona, writing that his visit “was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers… Every shop and cafe had been collectivized… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”[31]) Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is a federation of over one hundred socialistic workplaces around the globe and in many economic sectors, from retail to agriculture. It is one of Spain’s largest corporations and the largest cooperative experiment in the world, with over $10 billion in annual revenue and 74,000 workers. Those who are worker-owners have shares of the business and the ability to run for a spot in the General Assembly, the federation’s democratic body of power, which elects a Governing Council. However, each cooperative is semi-autonomous, having its own, smaller democratic body. The manager-worker pay ratio is capped at 6:1.[32] In rough economic times, worker-owners decide democratically how much their pay should be reduced or how many fewer hours they should work, and managers take the biggest hits. This stabilizes an entity during recession, avoiding layoffs. So does job rotation and retraining. Further, Mondragon has the ability, as a federation, to transfer workers or wealth from successful cooperatives to ones that are struggling.[33] Due to these flexibilities, Mondragon cooperatives going out of business is nearly unheard of. When it does happen, the federation finds work for the unlucky workers at other member co-ops.[34] During the Great Recession, Mondragon’s number of workers held steady, and the Spanish county where it is headquartered was one of the least troubled.[35] The enterprise, however, has major faults. It actually owns more subsidiary companies than cooperatives—capitalistic, exploitive businesses in poor countries where workers are not owners. Also egregious: less than half of all Mondragon employees are actually owners.[36] Nevertheless, the business is a step in the right direction, indicating socialistic workplaces can function large-scale. (In fact, on average co-ops tend to have more employees that top-down firms.[37]) Mondragon is a member of the International Co-operative Alliance, the leading global association for the movement.

There are 11.1 million worker-owners worldwide.[38] When we include folk who work for cooperatives but are not owners, our total rises to 27 million.

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Notes

[1] Mill, Principles of Political Economy

[2] King, “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, New York City Riverside Church

[3] http://www.aciamericas.coop/IMG/pdf/CWCF_Canadian_SSHRC_Paper_16-6-2010_fnl.pdf

[4] Curl, For All the People

[5] http://institute.coop/what-worker-cooperative

[6] http://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Employee-ownership-may-help-businesses-stay-open-10941974.php

[7] http://institute.coop/sites/default/files/resources/State_of_the_sector_0.pdf

[8] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[9] http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/08/15/how-americas-largest-worker-owned-co-op-lifts-people-out-poverty

[10] Emerson, The Conduct of Life

[11] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[12] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers; https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[13] http://storre.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/3255#.Wm-XeJM-fsE; https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[14] http://inthesetimes.com/article/17061/a_co_op_state_of_mind

[15] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[16] https://www.thenation.com/article/worker-cooperatives-are-more-productive-than-normal-companies/

[17] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[18] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[19] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[20] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[21] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1849466

[22] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[23] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers

[24] https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5qcPK0MuCXQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA462&dq=%22worker+cooperatives%22&ots=rVtg5rB4Fs&sig=6OXh-j6-MTTcrYJgbIgcvvrgma4#v=onepage&q=%22worker%20cooperatives%22&f=false

[25] https://www.thenation.com/article/worker-cooperatives-are-more-productive-than-normal-companies/; https://apolitical.co/solution_article/clevelands-cooperatives-giving-ex-offenders-fresh-start/; https://www.thenation.com/article/meet-the-radical-workers-cooperative-growing-in-the-heart-of-the-deep-south/

[26] http://www.geo.coop/node/615; https://www.thenews.coop/119294/sector/worker-coops/co-operatives-ensuring-no-one-left-behind/

[27] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[28] https://www.thenews.coop/119294/sector/worker-coops/co-operatives-ensuring-no-one-left-behind/

[29] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers

[30] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/07/03/socialismo-the-marxist-victories-in-spain/

[31] Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia”

[32] http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/world-s-largest-federation-of-worker-owned-co-operatives-mondragon-josu-ugarte

[33] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative; Putting Democracy to Work, by Frank Adams and Gary Hansen, p. 145

[34] http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/world-s-largest-federation-of-worker-owned-co-operatives-mondragon-josu-ugarte

[35] http://www.northeastern.edu/econpress/2016/11/16/mondragon-economic-democracy-in-the-startup-age/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative

[36] http://www.northeastern.edu/econpress/2016/11/16/mondragon-economic-democracy-in-the-startup-age/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative

[37] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=630093101127024071122112080068014068031053050050057049071105017072103089077103089094028058042052005023061081018000001123015079014012043035035115110105126071030118028095082080068011004095110081113065023069089126092123117096125095075072112084120095119024&EXT=pdf

[38] http://www.cicopa.coop/Second-Global-Report-on.html (p. 25, Table 1). If we add in people who are self-employed but members of “producer cooperatives” that support them (farmers and fishermen, for instance, especially in Asia), 280 million people are involved in cooperative employment. Bringing these workers into the analysis would also swell the U.S. numbers mentioned earlier.

Yes, Evolution Has Been Proven

Evolution is a simple idea: that over time, lifeforms change. In a small timespan, changes are subtle yet noticeable; in a massive one, changes are shockingly dramatic — descendants look nothing like their ancestors, becoming what we call new species.

Changes occur when genes mutate during the imperfect reproduction process, and are passed on if the mutation helps an individual creature escape predators, find food or shelter, or attract a mate, allowing it to more successfully reproduce than individuals without its new trait (natural selection). Some mutations, of course, hurt chances of survival or have no impact at all.

Naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin provided evidence for this idea in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species and other works, and over the century and a half since, research in multiple fields has consistently confirmed Darwin’s idea, irreparably damaging religious tales of the divine creation of life just as it exists today.

  

The Myths of Man

While many people of faith have adopted scientific discoveries such as the age of the earth and evolution into their belief systems, many have not. Hardline Christian creationists still believe humans and all other life originated 6,000 years ago, with a “Great Flood” essentially restarting creation 4,000 years ago, with thousands of “kinds” of land animals (tens of thousands of species) rescued on Noah’s ark. 

The logical conclusion of the story is utterly lost on believers. There are an estimated 6.5 million species that live on land today, perhaps 8-16 million total species on Earth (that’s a conservative estimate; it could be 100 million, as most of our oceans remain unexplored). People have cataloged 2 million species, discovering tens of thousands more each year. Put bluntly, believing that in four millennia tens of thousands of species could become millions of species requires belief in evolution at a pace that would make Darwin laugh in your face.

To evolve the diversity of life we see today, much time was needed. More than 4,000 years, a planet older than 6,000 years. We know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old because radioactive isotopes in terrestrial rocks (and crashed meteors) decay at consistent rates, allowing us to count backward. Fossil distribution, modern flora and fauna distribution, and the shape of the continents first indicated the continents were once one, and satellites proved the continents are indeed moving apart from each other at two to four inches per year, again allowing us to count backward (Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne). When we do so, we do not stop counting in the thousands.

Naturally, criticisms of myths can be waved away with more magic, which is why it’s mostly futile to tear them apart, something I learned after wasting time doing so during my early writing days. Perhaps God decided to make new species after the flood. Perhaps he in fact made millions of species magically fit on a boat roughly the size of a football field, like a bag from Harry Potter. It’s the same way he got pairs of creatures on whole other continents to, and later from, the Middle East; how one family, through incest, rapidly evolved into multiple human races immediately after the flood (or did he make new human beings, too?); how a worldwide flood and the total destruction of every human civilization left behind no evidence. The power of a deity — and our imagination — can take care of such challenges to dogma. But it cannot eviscerate the evidence for evolution. Science is the true arrow in mythology’s heel.

Still, notions of intelligent design bring up many curious questions, such as why a deity would so poorly design, in identical ways, the insides of so many species (see below), why said deity would set up a world in which 99% of his creative designs would go extinct, and so on.

It seems high time we set aside ancient texts written by primitive Middle Eastern tribes and listened to what modern science tells us. And that’s coming from a former creationist.

It Wasn’t Just Darwin

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Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. via Britannica

Creationists attempt to discredit evolution by attacking the reliability and character of Darwin, but forget he was just one man. Darwin spent decades gathering the best evidence for evolution of his day, showed for the first time its explanatory powers across disciplines (from geography to embryology), and brought his findings to the masses with his accessible books. But there were many who came before him that deepened our and his understanding of where diverse life came from and how the biblical Earth wasn’t quite so young. For example:

  • In the sixth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Anaximander studied fossils and suggested life began with fishlike creatures in the oceans.
  • James Hutton argued in the 1700s that the age of the earth could be calculated based on an understanding of geologic processes like erosion and the laying down of sediment layers.
  • In 1809, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physical changes to an individual acquired during its life could be passed to offspring (a blacksmith builds strength in his arms…could that lead to stronger descendants?).
  • By the 1830s, Charles Lyell was putting Hutton’s ideas to work, measuring the rate at which sediments were laid, and counting backward to estimate Earth’s age.
  • Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, suggested “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” with “the power of acquiring new parts…delivering down those improvements by generation.”
  • Alfred Wallace theorized natural selection independently of and at the same time as Charles Darwin!

In other words, if it wasn’t Darwin it would have been Wallace. If not Wallace then someone else. Like gravity or the heliocentric solar system, the scientific truth of evolution could not remain hidden forever.

Creationists also seize upon Darwin’s unanswered questions and use them to argue he “disproved” or “doubted” the validity of his findings. For example, Darwin, in his chapter on “Difficulties of the Theory” in The Origin of Species, said the idea that a complex eye “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”

Emphasis on seems. He went on to say:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false… Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from an imperfect and simple eye to one perfect and complex, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever slightly varies, and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should ever be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, cannot be considered real.

In other words, the evolution of eye is possible and there is no real difficulty in supposing this given other evidence he had found. Darwin knew he was not the end of the line. He made predictions concerning future discoveries, and supposed that other scientists would one day show how eyes could develop from non-existence to simple lenses to complex eyes, as they indeed have. It began with cells that are more sensitive to light than others. Biologists believe, in the words of Michael Shermer (God Is Not Great, Hitchens), that there was

Initially a simple eyespot with a handful of light-sensitive cells that provided information to the organism about an important source of the light; it developed into a recessed eyespot, where a small surface indentation filled with light-sensitive cells provided additional data on the direction of light; then into a deep recession eyespot, where additional cells at greater depth provide more accurate information about the environment; then into a pinhole camera eye that is able to focus an image on the back of a deeply-recessed layer of light sensitive cells; then into a pinhole lens eye that is able to focus the image; then into a complex eye found in such modern mammals as humans.

Earth has creatures with no eyes, creatures with “a handful of light-sensitive cells,” and all the other stages of eye development, right up to our complex camera eye. Given this, there is no reason to believe the evolution of the eye is impossible. As creatures evolved from lower lifeforms, there were slight variations in their ability to detect light, which proved useful for many, which helped creatures survive, which passed on the variations to offspring. This is how life can go from simple to complex over the generations. See The Evidence for Evolution, Alan Rogers, pp. 37-49, for a detailed study.

While the natural process has yet to be observed by humans — it takes eons, after all — we are able to create computer models that mimic beneficial mutations. Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger at Lund University in Sweden, for instance, made a simulation wherein a group of light-sensitive cells on top of a retina experienced random mutations in the tissues around them. The computer was programmed to keep mutations that improved vision in any way, no matter how small. So when the tissue pulled backward, for example, forming a “cup” for the primitive eye, this was preserved because it was an improvement. After 1,829 mutations (400,000 years), the simulation had a complex camera eye (Coyne). Computer models are a great tool for showing how evolution works. Simulations aren’t programed to build something complex, only to follow the simple laws of natural selection. Check out Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins for more.

Strange Coincidences

TetrapodLimb.jpg

Homologous limbs. via University of California Museum of Paleontology

While the study of homologous structures is fascinating, most won’t impress creationists. Humans, bats, birds, whales, and other creatures all have a humerus, radius, ulna, carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges in their forelimbs, with simple variations in size and sometimes number, suggesting they are related via a common ancestor yet have changed, evolved. But the creationist can simply say a sensible deity created them with similar structures. 

Yet there are some coincidences and oddities that no serious person would call intelligent design, and in fact scream common ancestry.

Modern whales have tiny leg bones inside their bodies that are detached from the rest of the skeleton. We humans have three muscles under our scalps that allow some of use to wiggle our ears, which do nothing for our hearing but are the precise same muscles that allow other animals to turn their ears toward sounds. Goosebumps, now worthless, are vestiges of an era when our ancestors had fur. Our sinus cavities, behind our cheeks, have a drainage hole on top — our ancestors walked on all fours, and thus the location made sense, allowing better drainage. Cave salamanders have eyes but are totally blind. Koalas, which spend most of their time in trees, have pouches for their young that open up-side-down — their ancestors were diggers on the ground, so this was useful to protect young from dirt and rock thrown about, but now threatens to allow koala cubs to plunge from trees (The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins).

Even more astonishing, within the neck of Earth’s mammals, the vagus/recurrent laryngeal nerve, instead of simply going the short distance from your brain to your voicebox, extends from the brain, goes down into your chest, twists around your aortic arch by the heart, and then travels back up to the voicebox! It’s three times longer than necessary.

Incredibly, this same lengthy, senseless detour is found in other mammals, even the towering giraffe, in which it is fifteen to twenty feet longer than needed (see evolutionist Richard Dawkins cut one open and look here). In fish, which evolved earlier than us, the nerve connects the brain to the gills in a simple, straightforward manner (Coyne). This indicates our common ancestors with fish did not have this issue, but our common ancestors with other, later species did. As our mammalian ancestors evolved, the nerve was forced to grow around other developing, growing, evolving structures.

Human males have another interesting detour. As explained by Dawkins, the vans deferens, the tube that carries sperm from testes to penis, is also longer than necessary — and indeed caught on something. The vans deferens leaves the testes, travels up above the bladder and loops around the ureter like a hangar on a department store rack. It then finally finds its target, the seminal vesicle, which mixes secretions with the sperm. Then the prostate adds more secretions, finalizing the product (semen), which ejaculates via the urethra. The vans deferens could go straight to the seminal vesicle (under instead of around the bladder and ureter), but it doesn’t.

This same trait is found in other male mammals, like pigs. Creatures like fish again do not have this mess. Our ancestors had testes within the body, like many modern species, and as they descended toward the scrotum, toward the skin for cooler temperatures, the wiring got caught on the ureter. Perhaps one could see an intelligent (?) designer having to jam some things together to make them work — a detour for the van deferens here, another for the recurrent laryngeal nerve there — in one species. But in mammals across the board? How does that make more sense than all this being the imperfect byproduct of mindless evolution over time?    

Recurrent_laryngeal_nerve-for_web

via Laryngopedia

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via Anatomy-Medicine

And it doesn’t end there. Vertebrates (species that have a backbone) like us happen to have eyes with retinas installed backward. Rogers writes:

The light-sensitive portion of the retina faces away from the light… The nerves, arteries, and blood vessels that serve each photocell are attached at the front rather than the back. They run across the surface of the retina, obscuring the view. To provide a route for this wiring, nature has poked a hole in the retina, which causes a substantial blind spot in each eye. You don’t notice these because your brain patches the image up, but that fix is only cosmetic. You still can’t see any object in the blind spot, even if it is an incoming rock.

But cephalopods (squid, octopi, and other advanced invertebrates) have a more sensible set-up, with wiring in the back (Rogers). Guess what kind of creature appeared on this planet first? Yes, the invertebrates. These coincidences and bad engineering suggest that as life evolved to be more complex there were greater opportunities for messy tangles of innards.

The best creationists can do is declare there are good reasons for these developments, that evolutionists “fail to demonstrate how this detour…disadvantages the male reproductive system” for example, which is completely beside the point. There were indeed biological reasons behind the development of these systems, which served as an advantage, not a hindrance (breaking the vans deferens or recurrent laryngeal nerve to let other organs grow and evolve would not be good for survival). The point is that if some species share this trait, it hints at a common ancestor.

So does embryology, the study of development in the womb. The field of genetics, which we explore further in the next section, helped us discover dead genes or pseudo genes in lifeforms. These are genes that are usually inactive but carry traits that, if developed, would be viewed as abnormal. In light of evolution it makes sense that we still have them. And sometimes dead genes wake up.

Humans have just under 30,000 genes, with over 2,000 of them pseudo genes. We have dead genes for growing tails, for instance. We all have a coccyx, four fused vertebrae that make up the end of our spine — four vertebrae that are larger and unfused in primates, thus being the base of their tails (Coyne). Not only are some humans born with an extensor coccygis, the muscle that moves the tail in primates but is worthless in us due to our vertebrae being fused, some people are born with a tail anywhere from one inch long to one foot! It has to be surgically removed.

Balaji

Arshid Ali Kahn, born in India in 2001, was worshiped as a reincarnation of the Hindu monkey god Hunaman. He had his tail removed in 2015. via Mirror

In fact, all human embryos begin with a fishlike tail, which is reabsorbed into the body around week seven. We develop a worthless yolk sac that is discarded by month two, a vestige of reptilian ancestors that laid eggs containing a fetus nourished with yolk. We develop three kidneys, the first resembling that of fish, the second resembling that of reptiles; these are also discarded, leaving us with our third, mammalian version. From month six to eight, we are totally covered in a coat of hair (lanugo) — primates develop their hair at the same stage, only they keep it. These marvels exist in other life, too. Horse embryos begin with three-toed hooves, then drop to one; they descended from creatures with more than just one toe. Occasionally, a horse is born with more than one hoof, or toe, on each foot (polydactyl horse), similar to its ancestors. Birds carry the genes necessary to grow teeth, minus a single vital protein; they descended from reptiles with teeth. Dolphin and whale embryos have hindlimb buds that vanish later; baleen whale embryos begin to develop teeth, then discard them (Coyne).

lanugo-bebe-vello-espalda-hombros

Premature infants still have some of their lanugo coat. They will soon lose it. via Mipediatra

It should also be noted that people with hypertrichosis are covered in fur like other primates — perhaps the reactivation of a “suppressed ancestral gene. In the course of evolution genes causing hair growth have been silenced and the appearance of hair in healthy humans can be explained by an erroneous reactivation of such genes.”

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Supatra “Nat” Sasuphan, who has hypertrichosis, is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for hairiest person. via Fox News

Quite interesting that God would give us genes to grow tails and fur.

Our fetal development, you likely noticed, actually mimics the evolutionary sequence of humanity. This is most noticeably true with our circulatory system, which first resembles that of fish, then that of amphibians, then that of reptiles, then finally develops into our familiar mammalian circulatory system (Coyne). Strange coincidences indeed.

But there are more. As one would expect if evolution occurred, fossils of creatures found in shallower rock more closely resemble species living today; fossils found in deeper, older sedimentary layers are more different than modern life. This pattern has never been broken by any fossil discovery, and supports Darwin’s idea (Coyne).

Similarly, consider islands. The species found on islands consistently resemble those on the nearest continent. This at first does not sound surprising, as one would predict that life (usually birds, insects, and plant seeds) that colonized islands would do so from the closest landmass. But the key word is “resemble.” What we typically see are a few species native to a continent (the ancestors) and an explosion of similar species on the nearby islands (the descendants). Hawaii has dozens of types of honeycreepers (finches) and half the world’s 2,000 types of Drosophila fruit flies; Juan Fernandez and St. Helena are rich in different species of sunflower; the Galapagos islands have 14 types of finches; 75 types of lemurs, living or extinct, have been documented on Madagascar, and they are found nowhere else; New Zealand has a remarkable array of flightless birds; and Australia has all the world’s marsupials, because the first one evolved there. To the evolutionist, a tight concentration of similar species on islands (and individual islands having their own special species) is the result of an ancestral explorer from a nearby landmass whose descendants thrived in a new environment unprepared for them (a habitat imbalance), reproducing and evolving like crazy. Thus a finch on a continent has a great number of finch cousins on nearby islands — like her but not the same species (Coyne). Darwin himself, still a creationist at the time, was shocked by the fact that each island in the Galapagos, most in sight of each other, had a slightly different type of mockingbird (Rogers).

To the creationist, God simply has an odd affinity for overkill on islands.

Shared DNA

In the 20th century, geneticists like Theodosius Dobzhansky synthesized Darwin’s theory with modern genetics, showing how the random, natural mutation of genes during the copying of DNA changes the physiology of lifeforms (should that altered state help a creature survive, it will be passed on to offspring). The study of DNA proved once and for all that Darwin was right. By mapping the genetic code of Earth’s lifeforms, scientists determined — and continue to show — that all life on Earth shares DNA.

DNA is passed on through reproduction. You get yours from your parents. You share more DNA with your parents and siblings than you do with your more distant relatives. In the same way, humans share more DNA with some living things than with others. We share 98% with chimps, 85% with zebra fish, 36% with fruit flies, and 15% with mustard grass. By share, we mean that 98% of DNA base pairs (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) are in the precise same spot in human DNA compared to chimp DNA. (These four nucleobases can be traded between species. There is no difference between them — we’re all made of the same biochemical stuff.) 

It is not surprising that creatures similar to us (warm-blooded, covered in hair, birth live young, etc.) are closer relatives than less similar ones. It’s no coincidence that apes look most like us and share the most DNA with us (and are able to communicate most directly with us, with one of our own languages, learning and holding entire conversations in American Sign Language). Evolutionary biologists used to use appearance and behaviors (such as gills or reproductive method) to suppose creatures were related, like the trout and the shark or the gorilla and the human being. But DNA now confirms the observations, as trout DNA is more similar to shark DNA than, say, buffalo DNA, and gorilla DNA is more similar to human DNA than, say, fruit fly DNA. 

But all life shares DNA, no matter how different (for a deeper analysis, see Rogers pp. 25-31, 86-92). That simple truth proves a common forefather. A god would not have to make creations with chimp and human DNA nearly the same, all the nucleobases laid out in nearly the same order; why do so, unless to suggest that evolution is true? When mapped out by genetic similarity, we see exactly what Darwin envisioned: a family tree with many different branches, all leading back to a common ancestor.  

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Our tree of life. Click link in text above to zoom. via Evogeneao

Transitional Forms

Darwin predicted we would find fossils of creatures with transitional characteristics between species, for example showing how lifeforms moved from water to land and back again. Unfortunately, the discovery of such fossils has done nothing to end the debate over evolution. 

For instance, as transitional fossils began to accumulate, it became even more necessary to attack scientific findings on Earth’s age. If you can keep the Earth young, evolution has no time to work and can’t be true. So, as mentioned, creationists insist radiometric dating is flawed. Rocks cannot be millions of years old, thus the fossils encased within them cannot either. This amounts to nothing more than a denial of basic chemistry. Rocks contain elements, whose atoms contain isotopes that decay into something else over time at constant rates. So we can look at an isotope and plainly see how close it is to transformation. We know the rate, and thus can count backward. If researchers only had a single isotope they used, perhaps creationist would have a prayer at calling this science into question. But rubidium becomes stronium. Uranium changes to lead, potassium to argon, samarium to neodymium, rhenium to osmium, and more (see Rogers pp. 73-80 to explore further). This is something anyone devote study to, grab some rocks, and measure themselves. All creationists can do is say we aren’t positive that “the decay rate has remained constant”! Can you imagine someone saying that during Isaac Newton’s time gravity’s acceleration wasn’t 9.8 meters per second squared? Anyone can make stuff up!

(You’ll find most denials of evolution rest on denials or misunderstandings of the most basic scientific principles. Some creationists insist evolution is false because it betrays the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the energy available for work in a closed system will decrease over time — that things fall apart. So how could simple mechanisms become more complex? How could life? What they forget is that the Earth’s environment is not a closed system. The sun provides a continuous stream of new energy. Similarly, some believe in “irreducible complexity,” the idea that complex systems with interconnected parts couldn’t evolve because one part would have no function until another evolved, therefore the first part would never arise, and thus neither could the complex system. But the “argument from complexity” fails per usual. [Other arguments, such as the “watchmaker” and “747” analogies, are even worse. Analogy is one of the weakest forms of argument because it inappropriately pretends things must be the same. No, a watch cannot assemble itself. That does not mean life does not evolve. Analogies fighting evidence are always doomed.] Biologists have discovered that parts can first be used for other tasks, as was determined for the bacterial flagellum, the unwise centerpiece of creationist Michael Behe’s skepticism. Independent parts can evolve to work together on new projects later on. Rogers writes:

Many hormones fit together in pairs like a lock and key. What good is the lock without the key? How can one evolve before the other? Jamie Bridgham and his colleagues studied one such pair and found that the key evolved first — if formerly interacted with a different molecule. They even worked out the precise mutations that gave rise to the current lock-and-key interaction.

A part of this process is sometimes scaffolding, where parts that helped form a complex system disappear, leaving the appearance that the system is too magical to have arisen. The scaffolding required to build our bridges and other structures is the obvious parallel.)

Let’s consider the fossils humanity has found. Tiktaalik was a fish with transitional structures between fins and legs. “When technicians dissected its pectoral fins, they found the beginnings of a tetrapod hand, complete with a primitive version of a wrist and five fingerlike bones… [It] falls anatomically between the lobe-finned fish Panderichthys [a fish with amphibian-like traits], found in Latvia in the 1920s, and primitive tetrapods like Acanthostega [an amphibian with fish-like traits], whose full fossil was recovered in Greenland not quite two decades ago.” Tiktaalik had both lungs protected by a rib cage and gills, allowing it to breath in air and water, like the West African lungfish and other species today. Its fossil location was actually predicted, as researchers knew the age and freshwater environment such a missing link would have to appear in (Coyne).

Ambulocetus had whale-esque flippers with toes (Rodhocetus is similar). Pezosiren was just like a modern manatee but had developed rear legs. Odontochelys semitestacea was an aquatic turtle with teeth. Darwinius masillae had a mix of lemur traits and monkey traits. Sphecomyrma freyi had features of both wasps and ants. Archeopteryx was more bird-like than other feathered dinosaurs (that’s feathered reptiles), yet not quite like modern birds. Its asymmetrical feathers suggest it could fly. The Microraptor gui, a dinosaur with feathered arms and legs, could likely glide. Other featured dinosaurs were found fossilized sleeping with their head tucked under their forearm or sleeping on a nest of eggs, just like modern birds (Coyne; see also Dawkins pp. 145-180).

Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and many more species had increasingly modern human characteristics. Less and less like a primate, closer and closer to modern Homo sapiens. Fossils indicate increasing bipedality (walking upright on two legs), smaller jaws and teeth, increasingly arching feet, larger brains, etc. (Also important to note are the increasingly complex tools and shelters found with such fossils. Homo erectus left behind huts, spears, axes, and bowls. Our planet had not-fully-human creatures crafting quite human-like things. Think on that. See The History of the World, J.M. Roberts.)

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A: chimp skull. B-N: transitional species from pre-human to modern human. via Anthropology

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Evolution can been seen in both the obvious and minuscule differences between species.

See for example “From Jaw to Ear” (2007) and “Evolution of the Mammalian Inner Ear and Jaw” (2013). It was theorized that three important bones of a mammal’s ear — the hammer, anvil, and stirrup — were originally part of the jaw of reptilian ancestors (before mammals existed). In modern mammals there is no connecting bone between the jaw and the three inner-ear bones, but if there was an evolution from reptilian jaw bone to mammalian inner-ear bone, fossils should show transitional forms. And they do: paleontologists have found fossils of early mammals where the same bones are used for hearing and chewing, as well as fossils where the jaw bones and inner-ear bones are still connected by another bone.

Creationists have a difficult time imagining how species could evolve from those without wings to those with, from those that live on land to water-dwellers, from aquatic lifeforms back to land lovers, and so on, because they believe intermediary, transitional traits would be no good at all, could not help a creature survive. “What good is half a wing?”

Yet today species exist that show how transitional traits serve creatures well. Various mammals, marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects glide. It is easy to envision how reptiles could have evolved gliding traits followed by powered flight over millions of years. Or consider creatures like hippos, which are closely related to and look like terrestrial mammals but spend almost all their days underwater, only coming ashore occasionally to graze. They mate and give birth underwater, and are even sensitive to sunburn. Give it eons, and couldn’t such species change bit by bit to eventually give up the land completely? The closest living genetic relative to whales are in fact hippos (Coyne). And finally, what of the reverse? What of ocean creatures that head to land?Crocodiles can gallop like mammals (up-down spine flexibility) as well as walk like lizards (right-left spine flexibility; see Dawkins). The mangrove rivulus, the walking catfish, American eels, West African lungfish, four-eyed fish, snakeheads, grunions, killifish, the anabas, and other species leave the waters and come onto land for a while, breathing oxygen in the air through their skin or even lungs, flopping or slithering or squirming or walking to a new location to find mates, food, or safety. Why is it so difficult to imagine a species spending a bit more time on land with each generation until it never returns to the water?

“Half a wing” is not a thing. There are only traits that serve a survival purpose in the moment, like membranes between limbs for gliding. Traits may develop further, they may remain the same, they may eventually be lost, all depending on changes in the environment over time. Environment (food sources, mating options, predators, habitability) drive evolutionary changes differently for all species. That’s natural selection. When some members of a species break away from the rest (due to anything from mudslides to migration to mountain range formation), they find themselves in new environments and evolve differently than their friends they left behind. Coyne writes, “Each side of the Isthmus of Panama, for example, harbors seven species of snapping shrimp in shallow waters. The closest relative of each species is another species on the other side.” Species can change a little or change radically, unrecognizably, but either way they can be called a new species — in fact, unable to reproduce with their long-lost relatives, because their genes have changed too greatly. That’s speciation.

There is no question that the fossil record starts with the simplest organisms and, as it moves forward in time, ends with the most complex and intelligent — all beginning in the waters but not staying there. Single-cell organisms before multicellular life. Bacteria before fungi, protostomes before fish, amphibians before reptiles, birds before human beings.

If they wish, creationists can believe the fossil record reflects the chosen sequence of a logical God, even if it does not support the Judeo-Christian creation story (in which birds appear on the same “day,” Day 5, as creatures that live in water, before land animals, which appear on Day 6; the fossil record shows amphibians, reptiles, and mammals appearing long before birds — and modern whales, being descendants of land mammals, don’t appear until later still, until after birds, just 33 million years ago). Yet they must face the evidence and contemplate what it indicates: that a deity created fish, then later fish with progressively amphibious features, then later amphibians; that he created reptiles, then later reptiles with progressively bird-like features, then birds; and so forth. No discovery has ever contradicted the pattern of change slowly documented since Darwin. God is quite the joker, laying things out, from fossils to DNA, in a neat little way to trick humans into thinking we evolved from simpler forms (note: some creationists actually believe this).

Yes, the believer can simply claim these were all their own species individually crafted by God, with no ancestors or descendants who looked or acted any different. The strange fact that we have birds that cannot fly and mammals in the oceans that need to come up to the surface for air doesn’t engage the kind of critical thinking one might hope for. It’s all just a creative deity messing with animals!

Watching Evolution Occur

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Renee, an albino kangaroo at Namadgi National Park, Australia. via Telegraph

Most creationists are in fact quite close to accepting evolution as true.

First, they accept that genes mutate and can change an individual creature’s appearance. They know, for instance, about color mutations. We’re talking albinism, melanism, piebaldism, chimeras, erythristics, and so on.

Second, most creationists accept what they call “microevolution”: mutations help individuals survive and successfully reproduce, passing on the mutation, changing an entire species generation by generation in small ways, but of course not creating new species. They accept that scientists have observed countless microevolutionary changes: species like tawny owls growing browner as their environments see less snowfall, Trinidad guppies growing larger, maturing slower, and reproducing later when predators are removed from their environments, green anole lizards in Florida developing larger toepads with more scales to escape invaders, and more, all within years or decades. They understand evolution is how some insects adapt to pesticides and some viruses, like HIV and TB, adapt to our vaccines over time, and how we human beings can create new viruses in the lab. They acknowledge that humanity is responsible, through artificial selection, or selective breeding, for creating so many breeds of dogs with varying appearances, sizes, abilities, and personalities (notice the greyhound, bred for speed by humans, closely resembles the cheetah, bred for speed by natural selection). In the same way, we’ve radically changed crops like corn and farm animals like turkeys (who are now too large to have sex), and derived cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts from a single ancestral plant, to better sate our appetites, simply by selecting individuals with traits we favor and letting them reproduce.

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Wild banana (below) vs. artificially selected banana. via NBC News

The evidence presented thus far should push open-minded thinkers toward the truth, but for those still struggling to make the jump from microevolution to evolution itself, we are not done yet. The resistance is understandable given that small changes can easily be observed in the lab or nature, but large changes require large amounts of time — thousands, millions of years — and thus we mostly (but not entirely) have to rely on the evidence from DNA, fossils, embryology, and so on. Here are some points of perspective that can bridge the gap between small changes and big ones.

1. Little changes add up. If you accept microevolution, you accept that species can evolve to be smaller or bigger, depending on what helps them survive and reproduce. Scott Carroll studied soapberry bugs in the U.S. and observed some colonizing bigger soapberry bushes than normal; he predicted they would also grow larger, as larger individuals would be more successful at reaching fruit seeds. Over the course of a few decades, the bugs’ “beak” length grew 25%. That’s significant. Now imagine what could theoretically be done with more time. As Coyne writes, “If this rate of beak evolution was sustained over only ten thousand generations (five thousand years), the beaks would increase in size by a factor of roughly five billion…able to skewer a fruit the size of the moon.” This is unlikely to happen, but shows how little changes later yield dramatic results. Imagine traits other than size — all possible traits you can think of — changing at the same time and evolution doesn’t sound so impossible.

2. Genes are genes. This relates closely to the point above. If some genes can mutate, why can’t others? Genes determine everything about every creature. People who believe in microevolution accept that genes for size or color can change, but not genes for where your eyes are, whether you’re warm- or cold-blooded, whether you have naked skin or a thick coat of fur, whether you have a hoof or a hand, and so on. But there is no scientific basis whatsoever for this dichotomy of the possible. It’s simply someone claiming “These genes can mutate but not these, end of story” to protect the idea of intelligent design. Genes are genes. They are all simply sequences of nucleotides. As far as we know, no gene is safe from mutation.

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Octogoat, a goat with eight legs, born in Kutjeva, Croatia. via ABC News

3. Mutations can be huge. We’ve seen how humans can have tails, but we also see “lobster claw hands,” rapid aging, extra limbs, conjoined twins, and other oddities. Consider other mutations: snakes with two heads, octopi with only six tentacles, ducks with four legs, cats with too many toes. For the common fruit fly, the antennapedia mutation will mean you get legs where your antenna are supposed to be! Dramatic mutations are possible. Survival is possible. Passing on new, weird traits is possible. With evolution, sometimes groups with new traits totally displace and eliminate the ancestral groups; sometimes they live side-by-side going forward. If you came across a forest and discovered one area was occupied by two-headed snakes and another by single-headed snakes, all other traits being the same, wouldn’t you be tempted to call them different species? Declare something new had arisen on Earth?

4. We are currently watching evolution occur. Scientists have observed speciation. They’ve taken insects, worms, and plants, put small groups of them in abnormal environments for many generations, and then seen they can no longer reproduce with cousins in the normal environments because they have evolved. It’s easy to create new species of fruit flies in particular because their generations are so short. Evolution for other species is typically much slower, but significant changes are being observed.

Say you were instead on the African Savanna and came upon two groups of elephants. They are the same but for one startling difference: one group has no tusks. Like two-headed snakes, what a bold difference in appearance! Should we classify them as different species or the same? (Technically, they aren’t different species if they can still reproduce offspring together, but in the moment you aren’t sure.) Well, African elephants are increasingly being born without tusks. After all, those without are less likely to be killed by poachers for ivory. This is natural selection at work. Could not a changing environment and millions of years change more? Size, color, skin texture, hair, skeletal layout, teeth, and all other possible traits determined by all other genes?

Next, take a remarkable experiment involving foxes launched by Dmitry Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, which Trut is still running to this day. No, we can’t watch a species for 500,000 years to see dramatic evolution in action. But 60 years gives us something.

At the time, biologists were puzzled as to how dogs evolved to have different coats than wolves, since they couldn’t figure out how the dogs could have inherited those genes from their ancestors. Belyaev saw silver foxes as a perfect opportunity to find out how this happened. Belyaev believed that the key factor that was selected for was not morphological (physical attributes), but was behavioral. More specifically, he believed that tameness was the critical factor.

In other words, Belyaev wanted to see if foxes would undergo changes in appearance if they evolved different behaviors. So Belyaev and Trut set about taming wild silver foxes.

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Wild silver fox. via Science News

They took their first generation of foxes (which were only given a short time near people) and simply allowed the least aggressive to breed. They repeated this with every generation. They had a control group that was not subjected to selective breeding.

The artificial selection of course succeeded for fox behavior. They became much more open to humans, whining for attention, licking them, wagging their tails when happy. But there was more:

A much higher proportion of experimental foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur coloration, and changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. They also lost their “musky fox smell.”

Spotted coats began to appear. Trut wrote that skeletal changes included shortened legs and snouts as well. Belyaev said they started to sound more like dogs (Dawkins). Geneticists are now seeking to isolate the genes related to appearance that changed when selectively breeding for temperament.

Belyaev was right. And his foxes, through evolution, came to look more and more like dogs. This is the same kind of path that some wolves took when they evolved into dogs (less aggressive wolves would be able to get closer to humans, who probably started feeding them, aiding survival; tameness increased and physical changes went with it).

If such changes can occur in just 60 years, imagine what evolution could do with a hundred million years.

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Dr. Lyudmila Trut with domesticated silver fox. via WXXI

In the Beginning

It’s true, scientists are still unsure how life first arose on Earth. And because it is an enduring mystery without hard evidence, scientists with hypotheses and speculations openly acknowledge this. Note that’s a big difference compared to evolution, which scientists speak confidently about due to the wealth of evidence.

But one professor at MIT believes that far from being unlikely, nonliving chemicals becoming living chemicals was inevitable.

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat… When a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Researchers have discovered lipids, proteins, and amino acids beneath the seafloor, suggesting the chemical interaction between the mantle and seawater could produce the building blocks of life. From there, time and proper conditions could give rise to the first self-replicating molecule. Evolution would then continue on, spending billions of years developing the diverse flora and fauna we see today (a single cell leading to complex life under the right conditions should not be so shocking; as J.B.S. Haldane said, “You did it yourself. And it only took you nine months”).

Determining precisely how the first cell arose is the next frontier of evolutionary biology, and it is exciting to be here to witness the journey of discovery. New findings and experiments will wipe away “watchmaker” arguments used against the first cell. They will once again crush the “God gap,” the bad habit of the faithful to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge with divine explanations. I imagine in our lifetime someone will successfully complete Stanley Miller’s famous 1950s experiment, in which he tried to recreate the Earth’s early conditions and create life itself.

Yet lack of knowledge concerning the beginning of life in no way hurts the case for evolution. Evolution is proven, as definitively as whether the earth orbits the sun.

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Why I Am Not a Communist (Nor an Anarchist)

Having criticized the authoritarian communist states that arose in the 20th century, in particular the Bolsheviks in Russia for crushing worker power, and having also explored the basic tenets of anarchism (and how it is the father of the blasphemous bastard child that is anarcho-capitalism/libertarianism), I wanted to devote some time to musing over the merits of communism and anarchism relative to socialism.

While all anti-capitalist, these ideologies are not the same and should not be confused. I therefore include basic outlines (leaving out many different subtypes of each) before considering their relative advantages and downsides. I attempt to present each in their most ethical, idealized form (most free, most democratic, and so forth). Criticisms of ideologies should not be mistaken as disrespect for my Marxist comrades who think differently.

Communism destroys capitalism from the top-down. The government, as an instrument of the people, owns all workplaces and organizes the economy and the workers according to a central plan that meets citizen needs. Under this system, competition can be wholly and more easily eliminated, making the enormous pressure to put profits over people a thing of the past. Wasteful and redundant production goes away with it, meaning more workers and resources for more important tasks that build a better society (for example, no more energy and billions spent on advertising, instead diverted to education). Further, the national wealth can be easily divided up among the people, public sector salaries enriching all.

However, communism entails enormous challenges. It surely requires giving up the full freedom to choose your line of work – if your community or national plan only allows for a certain number of bookstores or bookstore workers, there may not be room for you. You would be rejected upon applying with the local or national government to open a new bookstore (as you would surely have to do for a plan, and thus communism, to function) or upon applying for a job at an established bookstore. Under communism, workers are supposed to “own” their workplaces because they “own” the State, but this is a rather indirect form of control that leaves some people wanting. You may have options regarding the work you do, but you will have to sacrifice your interests for the sake of the plan.

Of course, as long as you don’t find yourself under authoritarian communism, you would help decide the plan, at the ballot box. But how much would you help? That raises a second challenge: can communism function without representative government (or a worse concentration of power)? A common notion is that the workers, the people, would elect members of their worker councils to participate in the design and execution of the national plan (or elect representatives from their geographic community, as is done in politics today). So if you worked in auto manufacturing while waiting for a bookstore job to open up, you would run or elect someone for the honor and task of representing the American Auto Workers Council on the National Planning Committee. The representatives, using a broad array of data on what goods and services are need where, and what resources and workers will be needed to create and distribute, would craft a central plan for a certain number of years.

Can this enormous power be socialized further? We understand the risks of representative governance – concentrated power is more easily influenced and corrupted, and doesn’t give people a direct say over their destinies. Even with the disappearance of capitalist businesses, a small group of decision-makers would still face enormous pressures from countless localities, people, and organizations. We could see to it that the people have a direct up or down vote on the plan after the representatives craft it (or other checks and balances). But eliminating a representative structure entirely seems impossible. Imagine the daunting task of voting on how much corn the U.S. should grow in a given three-year period. On how many more workers are needed to produce a higher number of epipens. On how many homes should be built in a city on the other side of the country. (It very much seems that you must make this vote on national matters, rather than simply voting on what your local community needs. If each municipality democratically decided what they needed, these decisions would have to be reconciled at the national level, as there may not be the resources to do everything every community decides to do. Like the would-be bookstore worker, some communities will not get what they wanted, making the vote a sham. And, naturally, trying “communism” at local levels, where communities can only use the workers and resources within their communities, leaves massive inequities between regions. It might be possible to instead divide up the national wealth to each region somewhat according to its need and then let each decide how to use its allotted funds, but how much each city or town should get would also be impossible to sensibly sort out using direct democracy.)

Organizing an economy is a monumental task requiring mountains of accurate, up-to-date data. How difficult for an elected body of experts – a full-time job with a high risk of costly mistakes and turmoil. Can workers devote the time and study to make educated decisions on what to produce, their quantities, prices, and required manpower and resources, for an entire country? Would not voting itself, on thousands or hundreds of thousands of economic details, take days, weeks, or months? And if the people cannot be expected to plan the economy via direct vote, how can they be expected to make an informed up-down vote on a plan formulated by others? There seems to be no escaping representative government with communism. These challenges suggest this system may not be preferable.

Anarchism does away with capitalism from the bottom-up. Workplaces would be owned and run by workers, would federate to coordinate activities rather than compete, and local communities would make all decisions democratically. The State, as a hierarchical structure like capitalism, would be abolished. In this way, people would be free as possible from compulsion, authority, and concentration of power, enjoying individual freedoms as long as they do not hurt others. You’d have equal power to make decisions that affect you, joining in your local citizen assembly and worker council. Anarchism harkens back to the era of “primitive communism” we explored elsewhere.

Anarchists have differing views on whether capitalism can be dismantled after the State. Does the State have a vital role to play in capitalism’s eradication? Anarchist H.G. Wells, among others, thought only socialism could make anarchism possible:

Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.[1]

The challenge with anarchism is that, like “local communism,” it leaves communities to fend for themselves, meaning poorer peoples beside richer ones. Unless, of course, communities worked together, sharing workers and resources, in a movement toward the integration of larger and larger units and the necessary joint administration (however democratic), weakening local control and journeying down the path toward what are essentially nations. Further, if you avoided that, while a spirit of human oneness could indeed rise with the disappearance of nations, one wonders what is to stop factionalism based on community identity. Is pride and loyalty to a neighborhood, town, or city not predictable? One worries about true global solidarity. In the same vein, individual anarchist communities seem vulnerable to rivalry and conflict, especially if they differ in wealth, habitability, and so on. It all sounds a bit like the city-states of ancient Greece, albeit less capitalistic and more democratic. At the least, such a world seems more prone to conflict than one with a single government spanning all continents and meeting the needs of all people. Some form of State may be preferred for its ability to protect people.

Skeptics of anarchism may also see that statement as the answer to the question of crime, which, while being greatly reduced, is not likely to disappear entirely with the abolition of poverty (think of crimes of passion over infidelity, for instance). Yet anarchists typically despise the police – the personification of force, authority, and State violence. Can the police be made a thing of the past?

Socialist George Orwell wrote, “I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.” But he concluded, “It is always necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer it ruthlessly.”[2]

Here Orwell lacks nuance and vision – of community policing, proportionate punishment, restorative justice, rehabilitation, and so on – which do not require a State; they can be done on an intimate, local level. Skeptics can rest easy on this point. The relevant task of anarchism (and socialism or communism) is to build a more humane, peaceful, fair criminal justice system that does not morph into what came before.

Then there’s socialism. “I should tie myself to no particular system of society other than that of socialism,” as Nelson Mandela would say.[3] Socialism also eliminates capitalism from the bottom-up. As under anarchism, workers collectively own their workplaces, making decisions democratically and equitably sharing the profits of their labor, and such worker cooperatives can federate with each other to reduce competition and coordinate their creations and service. The State exists to serve various needs of the people, such as guaranteed healthcare and employment, and is in fact under the people’s direct democratic control (this was explored in detail in What is Socialism?). The problems with anarchism and communism can be avoided. Socialism is the human future.

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Notes

[1] New Worlds for Old, H.G. Wells

[2] The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell

[3] 1964 court speech, Nelson Mandela. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/12/nelson-mandela-epitaph-own-words-rivonia/

The Scope of False Sexual Assault Allegations

When conservatives are confronted by the rise of a “liberal” cause, many find and point to a small problem in order to discredit or divert attention from the immense problem liberals are attacking.

It’s an unhealthy mix of the whataboutism fallacy (citing wrongs of the opposing side instead of addressing the point) and the false equivalence fallacy (describing situations as equivalent [I’ll add “in scope”] when they are not). We observe this during talk on racial violence, when many conservatives pretend hate crimes against whites are just as common as hate crimes against people of color; see “On Reverse Racism.”

Lately, the fallacy was on full display as high-profile men across the country were accused of sexual assault and harassment, many fired or urged to resign. In this frenzy of allegations, some Americans see and cheer a surge in bravery and collective solidarity among victims inspired by each other and seeking justice, while others see and decry a male “witch hunt,” with evil women growing more bold about their lies, perhaps on the George Soros payroll. Where you land is a fairly decent predictor of your political views. Who was accused also determined for many which women to believe, with some conservatives supporting Republican Roy Moore through his rape of underage girls scandal but attacking Democrat Al Franken’s groping of women. Sadly, some liberals did the reverse. I know I witnessed a left-leaning acquaintance or two trying to discredit accusations against Franken, that he publicly apologized for, by slandering the victims. Still, it is typically conservatives (often sexually frustrated men) who, when they encounter liberals talking about rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and so forth, bring up false rape accusations.

One comment on a mediocre article Men’s Health shared on how to make sure you have consent from a woman typified this. There were of course countless like it, many poorly written: “And remember if she regrets it the next day you’re still fucked”; “I bring my attorney and a notary on all dates and hook ups”; “There’s no such thing as consent anymore, it’s a witch hunt. Just say no gentleman”; “Don’t forget guys… If you have drank 12 drinks and she has 1 sip of beer…… You raped her.” And still more angry with the article’s existence: “Men’s health turning into click bate leftist agenda”; “Did a feminist write this?”; “Did a woman write this?” It’s sad consent is a liberal, feminist scheme. But this comment got much attention and support, likely because people found it thoughtful and measured for some odd reason:

This is a touchy subject. Yes, respect women—We all know that. Have a woman’s consent—Yes, we all know that. Do not rape or sexually assault a woman—Yes we all know that. We respect the rules. However, there are some women that exploit and take advantage of the rules. It’s sad to say, there are some out there that falsely accuse a man of rape or sexual assault—ruining their lives. Being a man in today’s era, I’m afraid to ask a woman on a date. I feel sometimes a man needs a contract just to protect himself. Yes, this might sound objectionable and supercilious—but you can’t be too careful nowadays. We live in a different time now. Men: We need to change our attitudes and treatment of women. However, it’s okay that we protect ourselves—and we shouldn’t be demonized or vilified for doing so. I don’t want to be viewed or portrayed as the enemy, nor be apologetic for being a man.

An amusing writing. “We all know” not to rape, assault, or harass women? If the collective male “we” legitimately “knew,” such things would be a thing of the past and a primer on consent unnecessary. “We live in a different time” where men are “afraid to ask a woman on a date”! If you’re going to “protect” yourself in some way, you wouldn’t be “demonized” for actually getting consent in some formal sense; only if you used illegal and unethical methods to “protect” yourself, like the secret filming of sex. And where are these women asking men to apologize for being a men, rather than for specific behaviors or attitudes that make them uncomfortable, scared, unsafe, or physically violated?

This is a perfect example of the fallacy above. “Men sexually assault women and shouldn’t, but what about the women who make false accusations?” The latter part is clearly his main concern — he didn’t stop by to condemn rapists, he came with another purpose. They may not intend to or even realize it (some do), but when men (or women) do this they position false reports as a problem of the same significance or nearing the same significance as actual sex crimes. As if the scope, the prevalence, is comparable. That’s what taking a conversation on consent and redirecting it to one of false accusations does. It says, “This is what’s important. It’s what we should be talking about.” It’s like bringing up asthma when everyone’s discussing lung cancer. It deflects attention away from a problem that is much more severe. It’s a subtle undermining of the credibility of rape victims. It’s not wrong to discuss small problems, of course, but they should always be kept in perspective. It’s my view that comments about hate crimes against whites or false accusations against men that don’t include the enormous asterisks that these are minuscule percentages of overall hate and sex crimes should never have been uttered at all. In that way, we can think about others first. We can protect the credibility of real victims. We can remain rooted in the facts — not imply a small problem is large, or vice versa. Naturally, including those caveats undermines the usual function of bringing up these issues, but no matter.

Yes, lying about sex crimes in an issue that exists. Yes, there should be some legal punishment for such an immoral act (not anywhere near the punishment for sexual assault and harassment, obviously, because these are not in any way morally equivalent crimes). Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, which is why men are safe from prison until they see their day in court, even if they face social consequences like losing a job due to presumed guilt — which you can oppose on ethical grounds, but not so stable ground as you would hope, especially when a man is accused by a coworker, family member, or someone else in close proximity. Is it most ethical to oppose a firing until a trial and risk keeping a rapist around the workplace? Putting others in danger? Forcing a victim to clock in next to him each day? Or is it most ethical to fire him and risk tearing down the life of an innocent man? It’s an unpleasant dilemma for any employer, university administrator, or whomever, but ethically there’s not much question. One risk is far graver, thus the answer is simple. This only grows more axiomatic when we acknowledge the likelihood of events.

The prevalence of proven false accusations of sexual assault is somewhere between 2% and 8% of cases. The National Sexual Violence Research Center documents a 2006 study of 812 cases that found 2.1% were false reports, while a 2009 study of 2,059 cases and a 2010 study of 136 cases estimated 7.1% and 5.9%, respectively. Research from 2017 revealed a 5% false claim rate for rape. The Making a Difference Project, using data from 2008, estimates 6.8%. These numbers are mirrored in prior American decades and in similar countries. While we can acknowledge that some innocent people in prison never see justice, are never set free, since 1989 there have only been 52 men released from prison after it was determined their sexual assault charges were based on lies. This compared to 790 murder exonerations; the number of people in state prisons for murder vs. sexual assault/rape is about the same (though the former crime is far less common than the latter), making the low exoneration rate for sex crime convictions all the more significant.

Myriad definitions of both “false report” and “sexual assault” make the precise percentage difficult to nail down, and these statistics only address proven false reports (there are many cases in limbo, as conservative writers are quick to point out), but this research gives us a general idea. Reports of high percentages of false claims are typically not academic studies or have rather straightforward explanations, for example when Baltimore’s “false claim” rate plunged from 31% to under 2% when the police actually went through some training and “stopped the practice of dismissing rapes and sexual assaults on the scene”! It’s remarkable how legitimate investigations and peer-reviewed research can bring us closer to the truth.

In other words, when observing any sexual misconduct scandal, there is an extremely high chance the alleged victim is telling the truth. This is why we believe women. This is why they should be given the benefit of the doubt, not accused men. It’s why the moral dilemma for employers and the like is hardly one at all. Were precisely 50% of sexual assault allegations lies, it would still be most ethical to take the risk of firing a good man rather than the risk of keeping a predator around. But since women are most always telling the truth? Well, the decision is that much easier and ethical.

In the U.S., there are some 321,500 rapes and sexual assaults per year, and 90% of adult victims are women (you’ve probably noticed how “men are raped too” is used in a similar manner to all this). One in six women are rape or attempted rape survivors. For every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators (99%) will never go to prison.

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Which U.S. Wars Actually Defended Our Freedoms?

When pondering which of our wars literally protected the liberties of U.S. citizens, it is important to first note that war tends to eradicate freedoms. Throughout U.S. history, war often meant curtailment of privacy rights (mass surveillance), speech rights (imprisonment for dissent), and even the freedom to choose your own fate (the draft).

It also should be stated upfront that this article is only meant to address the trope that “freedom isn’t free” — that military action overseas protects the rights and liberties we enjoy here at home (even if virulent bigotry meant different people had very different rights throughout our history and into our present). It will not focus on the freedoms of citizens in other nations that the U.S. may have helped establish or sustain through war, nor non-American lives saved in other countries. However, it will address legitimate threats to American lives (such a right to life is not de jure, but expected).

As a final caveat, I do not in any way advocate for war. That has been made exceptionally clear elsewhere. While violence may at times be ethically justified, in the vast majority of cases it is not, for a broad array of reasons. So nothing herein should be misconstrued as support for imperialism or violence; rather, I merely take a popular claim and determine, as objectively as possible, if it has any merit. To a large degree I play devil’s advocate. To say a war protected liberties back home is not to justify or support that war, nor violence in general, because there are many other causes and effects to consider which will go unaddressed.

In “A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression,” I outlined hundreds of American bombings and invasions around the globe, from the conquest and slaughter of Native Americans to the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere today. It would do readers well to read that piece first to take in the scope of American war. We remember the American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and the War on Terror. But do we recall our bloody wars in Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and the Philippines? Since its founding in 1776, 241 years ago, the United States has been at war for a combined 220 years, as chronicled by the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG). 91% of our existence has been marked by violence.

How many of those conflicts protected the liberties of U.S. citizens? How many years did the military literally defend our freedoms?

Well, what precisely is it that poses a threat to our freedoms? We can likely all agree that what qualify as freedoms are 1) rights to actions and words that can be expressed without any retribution, guaranteed by law, and 2) the total avoidance of miseries like enslavement, imprisonment, or death. Thus, a real threat to freedom would require either A) an occupation or overthrow of our government, resulting in changes to or violations of established constitutional liberties, or B) invasions, bombings, kidnappings, and other forms of attacks. If you read the article mentioned above, it goes without saying the U.S. has much experience in assaults on the freedoms of foreign peoples. Much of our violence was the violence of empire, with the expressed and sole purpose of seizing natural resources and strengthening national power.

So what we really need to ask is how close has the U.S. come to being occupied or U.S. citizens attacked? How many times have either of these things occurred? We must answer these questions honestly. Should it be said fighting Native American or Mexican armies protected freedom? No, the only reason our nation exists is because Europeans invaded their lands. We will include no war of conquest, from our fight with Spain over Florida to our invasion of Hawaii. We killed millions of innocent people in Vietnam. Were they going to attack America or Americans? No, we didn’t want the Vietnamese to (democratically) choose a Communist government. Now, you can believe that justifies violence if you wish. But the Vietnam War had nothing to do with defending our freedoms or lives. Neither did our invasion of Cuba in 1898. Nor our occupation of the Dominican Republic starting in 1916. Nor our wars with Saddam’s hopelessly weak Iraq. Nor many others.

Using this criteria, my estimate to the titular question is that only four wars, representing 19 years, could reasonably meet Qualification 1 (some also meet the second qualification). These conflicts protected or expanded our liberties by law:

The American Revolution (1775-1783): While the Revolution was partly motivated by Britain’s moves to abolish slavery in its colonies, it did expand self-governance and lawful rights for white male property-holders.

The War of 1812 (1812-1815): While U.S. involvement in the War of 1812 had imperialist motives (expansion into Indian and Canadian territories) and economic motives (preserving trade with Europe), Britain was kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve on their ships (“impressment”). This war might have simply been included below, in Qualification 2, except for the fact that Britain captured Washington, D.C., and burned down the Capitol and the White House — the closest the U.S. has ever come to foreign rule.

The Civil War (1861-1865): Southern states, in their declarations of independence, explicitly cited preserving slavery as their motive. Four years later, slavery was abolished by law. Full citizenship, equal protection under the law, and voting rights for all men were promised, if not given.

World War II (1941-1945): The Second World War could also have simply been placed in Qualification 2 below. Beyond freeing Southeast Asia and Europe from the Axis, we would say the U.S. was protecting its civilians from another Pearl Harbor or from more German submarine attacks on trade and passenger ships in the Atlantic. Yet it is reasonable to suppose the Axis also posed a real threat to American independence, the only real threat since the War of 1812.

Had Germany defeated the Soviet Union and Britain (as it might have without U.S. intervention), establishing Nazi supremacy over Europe, it is likely its attention would have turned increasingly to the United States. Between the threat of invasion from east (Germany) and west (Japan), history could have gone quite differently.

German plans to bomb New York were concocted before the war; Hitler’s favorite architect described him as eager to one day see New York in flames. Before he came to power, Hitler saw the U.S. as a new German Empire’s most serious threat after the Soviet Union (Hillgruber, Germany and the Two World Wars). Some Japanese commanders wanted to occupy Hawaii after their attack, to threaten the U.S. mainland (Caravaggio, “‘Winning’ the Pacific War”). After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. did not declare war on Germany; it was the reverse. Japan occupied a few Alaskan islands, shelled the Oregon and California coasts, dropped fire balloons on the mainland, and planned to bomb San Diego with chemical weapons. Germany snuck terrorists into New York and Florida. The Nazis designed their A-9 and A-10 rockets to reach the U.S., under the “Amerika Bomber” initiative. Also designed were new long-range bombers, including one, the Silbervogel, that could strike the U.S. from space. Hitler once said, “I shall no longer be there to see it, but I rejoice on behalf of the German people at the idea that one day we will see England and Germany marching together against America.” While an Axis invasion of the United States is really only speculation, it has some merit considering their modus operandi, plus an actual chance at success, unlike other claims.

19 years out of 220 is just 8.6% (we’ll use war-time years rather than total years, erring on the side of freedom).

Qualification 2 is harder to quantify. U.S. civilians in danger from foreign forces is a far more common event than the U.S. Constitution or government actually being in danger from foreign forces. We want to include dangers to American civilians both at home and overseas, and include not just prolonged campaigns but individual incidents like rescue missions. This will greatly expand the documented time the military spends “protecting freedom,” but such time is difficult to add up. Many military rescue operations last mere weeks, days, or hours. The Centre for Research on Globalization’s list focuses on major conflicts. We’ll need one that goes into detail on small-scale, isolated conflicts. We’ll want to look not just at the metric of time, but also the total number of incidents.

But first, we will use the CRG list and its year-based metric to consider Qualification 2. The following wars were meant, in some sense, to protect the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. They do not meet the first qualification. Conflicts listed in Qualification 1 will not be repeated here. Five wars, representing 36 years, meet Qualification 2:

The Quasi-War (1798-1800): When the United States refused to pay its debts to France after the French Revolution, France attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

The Barbary Wars (1801-1805, 1815): The United States battled the Barbary States of Tripoli and Algiers after pirates sponsored by these nations began attacking American merchant ships.

The Anti-Piracy Wars (1814-1825): The U.S. fought pirates in the West Indies, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

World War I (1917-1918): The Great War nearly found itself in Qualification 1. After all, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II made serious plans, in the 1890s, to invade the United States so it could colonize other parts of Central and South America. During World War I, Germany asked Mexico to be its ally against the U.S., promising to help it regain territory the U.S. stole 70 years earlier. However, invasion plans evaporated just a few years after 1900, and Mexico declined the offer. The Great War appears here for the American merchant and passenger ships sunk on their way to Europe by German submarines (not just the Lusitania).

The War on Terror (1998, 2001-2017): It is very difficult to include the War on Terror here because, as everyone from Osama bin Laden to U.S. intelligence attests, it’s U.S. violence in the Middle East and Africa that breeds anti-American terror attacks in the first place. Our invasions and bombings are not making us safer, but rather less safe by widening radicalism and hatred. However, though this predictably endless war is counterproductive to protecting American lives, it can be reasonably argued that that is one of its purposes (exploitation of natural resources aside) and that killing some terrorists can disrupt or stop attacks (even if this does more harm than good overall), so it must be included.

36 years out of 220 is 16.4%. Together, it could be reasonably argued that 25% of U.S. “war years” were spent either protecting our constitutional rights from foreign dismemberment or protecting citizen lives, or some combination of both.

But we can also look at the total number of conflicts this list presents: 106. Four wars out of 106 is 3.8%, another five is 4.7%. Let’s again err on the side of freedom and split the Barbary and Terror wars into their two phases, making seven wars for 6.6%. Adding 3.8% and 6.6% gives us 10.4% of conflicts protecting freedom.

Any such list is going to have problems. What does it include? What does it leave out? Does it describe the motivation or justification for violence? Does it do so accurately? Should recurring wars count as one or many? Does the list properly categorize events? This list labels U.S. forces violating Mexican territory to battle Native Americans and bandits as repeated “invasions of Mexico.” If Mexican forces did the same to the U.S., some of us would call it an invasion, others might rephrase. And couldn’t these incursions into a single nation be lumped together into a single conflict? Oppositely, the list lumps scores of U.S. invasions and occupations of most all Central and South American nations into a single conflict, the Banana Wars — something I take huge issue with. The solution to issues like these is to either create a superior list from scratch or bring other lists into the analysis.

Let’s look at “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad,” a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). It is a bit different. First, it includes not just major conflicts but small, brief incidents as well, and it’s smarter about lumping conflicts together (no Banana Wars, no Anti-Piracy Wars, but the U.S. incursions into Mexico to fight Native Americans and bandits are listed as one conflict). Thus, 411 events are documented. Second, even this is too few, as the list begins at 1798 rather than 1776. Third, it does not include wars with Native Americans like the first list. This list is highly helpful because the CRS is an agency of the Library of Congress, conducting research and policy analysis for the House and Senate, and thus its justifications for military action closely reflect official government opinion.

We will apply the same standards to this list as to the last. We’ll include the nine conflicts we studied above if the timeframe allows, as well as any events that have to do with civilians, piracy, and counter-terrorism. We will thus modify 411 events in this way:

– 38 incidents/wars that involved “U.S. citizens,” “U.S. civilians,” “U.S. nationals,” “American nationals,” “American citizens,” etc.

– 9 incidents/wars related to “pirates” and “piracy” (does not include the rescue of U.S. citizen Jessica Buchanan, already counted above, nor Commodore Porter’s vicious 1824 revenge attack on the civilians of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who were accused of harboring pirates)

– 6 official conflicts: the Quasi-War (“Undeclared Naval War with France”), two Barbary Wars, the War of 1812, and two World Wars (the Revolution does not appear on this list due to its timeframe; the Anti-Piracy Wars are included above, the War on Terror below)

+ 1 Civil War (it must be added, as it is not included on this list because it did not involve a foreign enemy)

– 27 incidents/wars related to combating “terrorism” or “terrorists”

That gives us 81 events that match Qualifications 1 and 2. 81 out of 412 is 19.7% — thus about one-fifth of military action since 1798 in some way relates to protecting Constitutional freedoms here at home or the right to life and safety for U.S. civilians around the globe. Of course, were we to only look at Qualification 1, we would have but three events — the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II — that preserved or expanded lawful rights, or 0.7% of our wars since 1798.

The CRS list does not break down some incidents into times shorter than years, and documenting those that are by days, weeks, or months is an enormous chore for a later day. Thus the estimation for time spent defending freedom will have to come from the CRG list: 25% of the time the military is active it is involved in at least one conflict that is protecting freedom. Also, just for some added information, there are 20 years on the CRS list where there is not a new or ongoing incident. That’s since 1798. This is almost identical to the 21 years of peace since 1776 in the CRG analysis. So of the 219 years since then, we’ve spent 91% of our time at war, the same as the CRG list since 1776 (or trimmed to 1798).

(A list created by a professor at Evergreen State College goes from 1890-2017 and has five years of peace. We’ve been at war 96% of the time since 1890. It lists 150 conflicts, with only 3 having to do with rescues or evacuations of Americans [2%], 11 having to do with the War on Terror in Arabia and Africa in 1998 and after 9/11 [7.3%], plus World War I [0.6%]. That’s 9.9% for Qualification 2. Throw in another 0.6% for World War II, and thus Qualification 1, and we have 10.5% of conflicts since 1890 protecting freedom. Because this list begins so late, however, we will not use it in our averaging. Doing so would require us to trim the other lists to 1890, cutting out the piracy era, the Revolution, the Civil War, etc.)

Averaging the percentages from the two lists relating to total conflicts gives us 2.3% for Qualification 1 and 15% for Qualification 2. 17.3% all together. Trimming the CRG list to begin at 1798 yields about the same result.

In sum, it could be reasonably asserted that the U.S. military protects our freedoms and lives in 17.3% of conflicts. (If we take out the War on Terror for its deadly counter-productivity, which I would prefer, that number drops to 10.8%, with 17% of war years spent defending American freedom.)

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Even Better Than ‘Angels in the Outfield’

Remember the movie Angels in the Outfield? It’s the classic story of Roger, a foster kid who prays for God to help the Angels win the pennant so that his dad will come back. (Sounds like one truly twisted deal, but Roger’s dad wasn’t at all serious. If we’re being honest, Roger seems old enough to have known about figurative language.)

If your memory is as decrepit as the cheap VCR tape of this movie in the box in your basement, this image may help:

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Jesus, Roger looks uncomfortable in this picture. I don’t remember him being on the verge of tears in this scene. This looks like the beginning of an episode of Law and Order: SVU. CHUNG-CHUNG.

This is the scene in which Roger and his best buddy J. P. meet the indelibly cheerful Angels manager George Knox, who grows from skeptic to believer about the whole angels-playing-baseball thing (Roger is the only one that can see them). When Roger does see one, he’s like:

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That’s where that hand motion comes from if you ever see people (me) doing this during a baseball game. The Royals once used the theme music to the movie when someone hit a home run, and I could never understand why I was the only one at Kauffman Stadium doing this while it played.

Also: That moment you realize Roger was played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt of 500 Days of SummerInception, and Dark Knight Rises.

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Angels in the Outfield is truly the greatest baseball movie of all time (bite me, Kevin Costner), therefore I in no way compare the Kansas City Royals to it casually. But without question, in every arena the Royals’ story rivals and surpasses Roger’s. This is such big news, I’m surprised more media attention hasn’t been paid to it.

KANSAS CITY’S PAIN IS GEORGE KNOX’S PAIN

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George Knox hates to lose. Can any clip better represent the boiling rage lurking beneath the skin of every Royals fan, just waiting to detonate, through all the miserable seasons of the past years, when Kansas City was the laughingstock of Major League Baseball?

A clip of a nuke wouldn’t suffice. It has to be George Knox marching through a locker room of two dozen half-naked losers and absolutely destroying their fruit and meat platters. That is the pain Royals fans felt after every season–no, every game–before the Royals’ meteoric rise.

And this is Knox after becoming manager rather recently. Multiply this rage by 29 years, and you’ll understand Kansas City’s agony. There’s no comparison.

Even this bloody movie made us look like total twits. Why does this guy not slide? What is he doing?

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MIRACLES CAN HAPPEN

Roger’s story is fictional, with fictional managers, ballplayers, and angels. At least, I hope angels don’t look like this:

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Honestly, this angel looks like either the uncle you pray to God won’t sit next to you at Thanksgiving or the aunt that’s visibly ready to call your favorite music the work of Satan before you even tell her what it is. Not really sure which one at this point.

But the Royals’ story?

This isn’t a movie. And no players appear to defy physics as an angel lifts them into the air. It’s simply incredible baseball. It’s real life. That’s an important reason the Royals’ story is better.

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Consider last year: Riding Jeremy Guthrie’s 7-inning shutout to beat the White Sox 3-1 on September 26, clinching their first playoff berth in 29 years. Four days later, staging a roaring comeback against the Oakland A’s in the do-or-die American League wild card game, down 3-7 but leveling the game in the 9th inning, eventually winning 9-8 in the 12th, after nearly 5 hours of play.

Sweeping both the American League division and championship series, earning the most consecutive wins in MLB postseason history. Making it to Game 7 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, but experiencing the most painful of defeats.

And this year: Winning their first American League Central title since 1985 on September 24 against the Mariners. On the brink of elimination in Game 4 of the AL division series against the Astros, down 4 runs in the 7th, and smashing in 5 runs in the 8th inning and piled on more in the 9th to win the game 9-6. They won the series in the next game.

Winning Game 6 of the AL championship series versus the Blue Jays by Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on Eric Hosmer’s single, with closer Wade Davis shutting down the Blue Jay’s comeback threat, a runner on first and third.

And last night, Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, verses the New York Mets. Alcides Escobar’s inside-the-park homer, the first in the World Series since 1929, the year the Great Depression began. Winning 5-4 after 14 innings, the longest game in World Series history.

Could all this possibly be topped by the story of guys who only made it to the postseason with divine intervention in sparkling pajamas?

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No. They’re cheaters.

Also, that’s Matthew McConaughey being picked up there. Swear to God. As he later said from the driver’s seat of a Lincoln, “Sometimes you’ve got to go back…”

Adrien Brody is also a ballplayer in this movie. McConaughey, Gordon-Levitt, Brody, Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd…seriously, is there anyone this film doesn’t have?

THE SMARMY SPORTSCASTER

It has actor and concept art model for Mr. Incredible Jay O. Sanders. He plays Ranch Wilder.

Roger and George Knox had to deal with Ranch Wilder, the “voice of the Angels,” who makes it clear throughout the film he very much wants the Angels to lose. He hates George Knox, and is constantly being a Debbie Downer about the Angel’s postseason prospects.

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Royals fans get Joe Buck.

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Buck took a lot of heat during the 2014 World Series for what Royals fans perceived to be bias, in support of the Giants…and one pitcher in particular.

Ranch Wilder got fired. Buck is still going strong, back to call this 2015 World Series.

This just makes a better story. No one really seemed to mind Ranch Wilder’s Angel-bashing in the film. He was only fired because he left his mic on when he really went berserk.

But Kansas City’s story has more conflict, more passion and intrigue. Buck is back, and a lot of KC fans are enraged, enough to start petitions and even call the games themselves.

THAT ONE FAN THAT GETS A LOT OF SCREEN TIME AND NO ONE KNOWS WHY

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Remember this guy? He’s that one fan in the crowd the movie focuses on, and likely the only human who has ever needed to professionally wax the sides of his neck.

He thinks Roger is crazy for seeing angels, he accidentally sits on Christopher Lloyd’s angel character, takes a baseball in the mouth, and at one point screams, “Hemmerling for Mitchell?! Go back to Cincinattiiiiiiii!” Classic quote.

Why is he always on screen? Why does he get so much attention? Why is that so obnoxious? In a way, he’s kind of the movie’s version of…of…

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Marlins Man.

This mysterious and no doubt totally loaded figure has been spotted behind home plate throughout this postseason and the one in 2014, and works his way to other sports championships as well.

Always on screen, he is the one fan that gets any attention. He gets national attention! Yes, he donates a ton of money to charities, but what of the other 37,000 people in the stands? What about their stories? He leaves them in the dust.

It’s all an intentional thing. He picks his seat so he can be on camera. He loves to rep his completely irrelevant team, which has hopefully fired its graphic design staff by now.

Because he’s desperate as a toddler for attention, I think he successfully one-ups the blowhard from Angels in the Outfield. And anyone who disagrees with me is, to quote J. P., a “Nacho Butt.”

PUSHING THROUGH THE LOSS OF A PARENT

As mentioned, Roger is a foster kid. About two-thirds into the movie, his deadbeat dad–the same one who said if the Angels won the pennant he and Roger could “be a family again”–abandons Roger for good.

“Sorry, boy,” Dad of the Year says as Roger rushes up to him, excited to tell him about how well the Angels are doing. Dad pats Roger on the cheek and walks away, leaving Roger to try to croak out “Where are you going?” before he begins to weep.

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If you’re a kid from a stable home watching this movie, it truly influences you, seeing someone your own age abandoned by his father. Not to mention Roger’s mother died, as did J. P.’s dad. Their stories are fictional, yet you know in the back of your mind while watching that millions of children experience abandonment, foster care, homelessness, or have parents deceased or in jail. The movie, unlike the vast majority of children’s films, makes you think about the suffering of others and how to persevere through pain.

And if a fictional story about this is powerful, how much more so is real life?

Sadly, three Royals lost a parent this season.

Mike Moustakas lost his mother Connie on August 9, while Chris Young lost his father Charles on September 26. As reported by The Kansas City Star, Young pitched the next day to honor his dad, and went 5 innings without giving up a hit.

Edinson Volquez pitched last night, in Game 1 of the World Series. His father Daniel died just before the game, and Volquez’s family requested that Royals manager Ned Yost not tell Volquez until after he pitched.

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In other words, the world knew of Volquez’s father’s death before Volquez.

Through all this, the Royals have persevered. Moustakas said after the game, “For all the stuff that’s happened this year, to all of our parents…it has to bring you closer together.”

Eric Hosmer said, “It’s just another angel above, just watching us and behind us through this whole run.”

A HAPPY ENDING?

The Angels in the movie won the pennant (we’re kind of left to wonder about the World Series). Roger and his best friend J. P. get adopted by George Knox and live happily ever after.

I don’t know if Ned Yost will adopt any players, nor if the Royals will finally, after 3 decades, win it all. But there is one thing I know to be true, that applies to touching movies and real life alike:

“It could happen.”

ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, Milton Davis Jr., Danny Glover, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 1994, (c)Buena Vista P

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A Star Wars Redo

Full disclosure here: I have a massive incentive for this idea of remaking Star Wars episodes I, II, and III to take hold and become reality.

A couple years ago I made a bet with my closest friend, whose name just happens to be Luke. Should the prequels not be remade in my lifetime, I must leave all my wealth and possessions to him when I die. If they do get reboots, Luke has to buy my movie tickets when we go see them together. Seems fair, amiright?

That is how confident I am that Disney will begin remaking the Star Wars prequels at some point. Not before the new trilogy is completed in 2019, of course, but perhaps in the 2020s, 2030s, or 2040s.

But in order to encourage the dissemination of the idea, which is actually quite popular among the Star Wars fans whose childhoods were absolutely ruined by George Lucas’ stupidity, I thought it would be wise to lay out a simple argument in support. You know, just in case helping prevent my future wife and children from being left with nothing wasn’t enough motivation for you.

My argument has three points, none of which should be all that controversial.

1. FILM STUDIOS LOVE REBOOTS, ESPECIALLY IF THE ORIGINALS WERE SH*T

Sometimes, studios take god-awful films and have another go. Remember the absolutely abysmal Fantastic Four from 2005 with Chris Evans and Jessica Alba? Disney tried its luck (failing spectacularly) in 2015. They redid the origin story, this time with Micheal B. Jordan, Kate Mara, and Miles Teller. Remember Hulk, then The Incredible Hulk within 5 years? These are examples of film studios taking bad films and trying to breathe new life into them.

Sure, sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. Think Star Trek or Batman Begins. And sometimes studios take good movies and redo them, just for kicks. Just for a cash-grab. Remember Spider-Man(2002) with Tobey Maguire? It launched the modern era of superhero flicks. But by 2012 came The Amazing Spider-Man, which retold Peter Parker’s origin story.

No film, no matter how recent or how wonderful, is safe from reboots. Film companies see a market, and they supply. We rightfully gripe about movies whose classics are beloved and well-made, but is anyone pissed we went from the Tim Burton Batman films to those of Christopher Nolan? Sometimes, a story deserves a retelling. There is clearly a Star Wars market, quite larger than that of Fantastic Four, and as the prequels are nearly universally despised, there would be much excitement if the story of Darth Vader was to be retold.

Studios, there is a fortune to be made. And fans, with The Force Awakens, hasn’t Disney proven it can produce a decent Star Wars film?

2. THE PREQUELS WERE SOME OF THE WORST MOVIES EVER MADE

If you’re one of the few who actually like the prequels and (somehow) think their quality rivals that of the original trilogy, I’m sorry. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been more wrong about something. I’ll give you a pass, as you’re likely 9 years old. But let me give you a preview of the future thoughts you’ll have when you actually understand something about what makes a good movie and what makes Bogus with Whoopi Goldberg.

The Star Wars prequels:

  • Had dialogue that sounded like it was written by some of your fellow 9 year olds (Obi-Wan says, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Read it a few times, you’ll get it).
  • Relied overwhelmingly on CGI environments and characters, making everything feel fake.
  • Used two awful actors for Anakin Skywalker, though it’s difficult to decide whether Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen was worse.
  • Handed decent actors like Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, and Natalie Portman miserable lines and one dimensional characters and expected them not to be boring.
  • Created extremely unlikeable good guys and entirely boring villains: Anakin Skywalker, Jar-Jar Binks, Count Dooku, General Grievous, Nute Gunray, and so on.
  • Had frighteningly stupid characters: Mace Windu said, “The Dark Side of the Force surrounds the Chancellor” but sounds surprised when Anakin tells him the Chancellor is a Sith; the Jedi think a prophecy about bringing balance to the Force sounds awesome when there’s thousands of them and only two Sith; Anakin doesn’t know what “democracy” means and thinks people “can be made to” agree on issues; Qui-Gon can’t use the Force on Watto to convince him to use Republic currency, but instead of just using the Force on someone else to do a simple currency exchange, Qui-Gon enters into complicated and risky bets on podracing (credit: Mr. Plinkett; see below).
  • Featured a plot so poorly thought out it’s painful:
    • Palpatine tells Nute Gunray to invade Naboo (why is Nute listening to this hologram? What’s in it for him?) so the Senate will impeach the current chancellor and elect Palpatine (who’s from Naboo and therefore was sure to win with a “sympathy vote.” Why the f*ck wouldn’t Palpatine just wait for the next election, then use the Force to get votes? He couldn’t wait a couple more years?
    • Then, in the next two movies, we see Palpatine create another unnecessary crisis. He has Nute’s droid armies go to war with a clone army that he also controls, using the conflict to stay in power longer and also wipe out the Jedi. Why the f*ck wouldn’t he simply use one army to just destroy the Jedi? Why is he destroying the galaxy he wants to rule? Think about a simpler, less destructive solution. A massive, mysterious force appears, wipes out the Jedi in a couple months to a year, and the people of the galaxy, devoid of their protectors, turn to Palpatine to keep them safe. It’s a better story because it’s more believable — the bad guy acts in a way anyone who isn’t an imbecile would act.
    • And of course, Anakin goes from someone who is simply unhappy with the Jedi for asking him to be a spy and not letting him be a master to someone willing to kill them all (children, his friend Obi-Wan, everyone) just so he can get “powerful enough” to “uncover the secret” to keeping Padme alive. Killing Tuskens or Mace Windu in a moment of anger, chaos, or fear made sense, but Anakin being so evil and selfish he’d kill everyone he knows and loves just for the chance of keeping his wife alive? The transition to that stage was hopelessly forced and awkward.

For more, watch Mr. Plinkett’s reviews of each prequel movie, they are absolutely hilarious (minus some bizarre kidnapping scenes) and effectively tear each movie the new one it deserves.

3. OBJECTIONS TO A REBOOT ARE FAIRLY PATHETIC

My third point addresses possible objections to the idea of remaking the Star Wars prequels (“Hey, the prequels were pretty damn good!” has already been addressed, you ignoramus. Unless you mean the Auralnauts versions, that is). Most of these objections come from some article on FuriousFanBoys.com.

  1. They won’t remake the prequels, they’re canon! Don’t be an idiot. The word “canon” means absolutely nothing to Disney. Remember how violated you felt when they dismissed the Expanded Universe like a left swipe on Tinder? Canon is something you care about. You will of course say the comic books, novels, and video games aren’t as “canon-y” as the films themselves, and if that helps you sleep at night then keep telling yourself that. You know in your heart Disney doesn’t give a sh*t. They care about profits.
  2. Disney doesn’t have the rights! They will. 20th Century Fox may own the first six movies now, but those rights are slated to pass to Disney, for most of the movies by 2020. Then it’s all fair game.
  3. Remaking the Star Wars prequels will mess up The Clone Wars and RebelsIn case you’re unaware, these are cartoons set in the prequel era. Yes, this is an actual argument posited by thinking human beings. I encourage you to see #1 above.
  4. Disney won’t spend money on reboots over new movies like Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, plus all the spin-offs like Rogue OneSure, for the time being. But in 20 years? 40 years? You really think they won’t ever decide to profit off fixing the biggest f*ck-up in film history for the most obsessive fan base of all time?
  5. The prequels make money! Yes, FuriousFanBoys.com assures us, the DVDs of Episodes I-III are such “big sellers” there would be no financial incentive for Disney to reboot the trilogy. I’ll leave aside the fact the writer doesn’t bother to provide a source for his claims, but assuming it’s all true, I don’t think he quite understands how this whole money-making thing works. Let me spell it out for him: Disney…could…make…even…more…money…
  6. If we allow the prequels to be remade, what’s to stop them from remaking the original trilogy? Basically nothing — in fact, there’s nothing to stop Disney from remaking the original trilogy even if the prequels aren’t rebooted. In the same way there’s nothing to stop a redo of the miserable prequels, there’s nothing to stop a redo of the originals… Or is there? The only real force to prevent such a thing is fan backlash and a pitiful sales forecast. If that happens when Disney considers rebooting the prequels, the project may be scrapped. If it happens when Disney considers rebooting the original trilogy, the idea may be abandoned. A reboot of each is in the realm of the possible, but one is much more likely to actually happen because the backlash will be slight and the sales forecast delightful (hint: it’s the one that blows).             

Every Star Wars fan has his or her own ideas about how the prequels should have gone. Arguing for remaking the Star Wars prequels is good enough for me (and I encourage you to sign this petition if you agree), but I like the idea of a love triangle between Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme (mirroring the Luke-Han-Leia triangle of the original), giving Anakin a reason to try to kill Obi-Wan in a fit of jealous rage. A great way to fall to the Dark Side.

Whatever is created will be far superior, in each and every way, to the human waste George Lucas offered. Belated Media’s videos on the topic are decent. The future is full of possibility, and it’s hard not to be excited about that after watching.

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Capitalists Speaking Frankly

Capitalist interest in preserving and profiting from the economic power of the rich was verbalized in a 2005 Citigroup equity strategy report called “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances.”[1] It was never meant to be public.

Its language reveals the wealth and position of its writers, who head their sections with phrases like “Welcome to the Plutonomy Machine,” “Riding the Gravy Train,” “How to Play Plutonomy,” and “the New Managerial Aristocracy.” It is enlightening because it is honest: the authors point to capitalism as what births plutonomies—economies powered by the super-rich—in their analysis of how investors can profit from the great consumption of the wealthy. They believe the “wealth waves” created by new technology, productivity gains, patents, and “capitalist-friendly” governments are “exploited best by the rich and educated of the time,” creating a massive wealth gap. They write, “At the heart of plutonomy is income inequality.” They insist “society and governments need to be amenable to disproportionately allow/encourage the few to retain the fatter profit share. The Managerial Aristocracy…needs to commandeer a vast chunk of that rising profit share, either through capital income, or simply paying itself a lot.” The workers who made those profits possible be damned.

It is clear the Citigroup executives are wary of changing attitudes among the citizenry:

Perhaps one reason that societies allow plutonomy is because enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant. Why kill it off, if you can join it? In a sense this is the embodiment of the ‘American Dream’. But if voters feel they cannot participate, they are more likely to divide up the wealth pie, rather than aspire to being truly rich.

This neatly summarizes the way the conservative dogma of rugged individualism protects the interests of the upper class. How right Marx was when he noted, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”[2]

In a 2006 follow-up report entitled “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer,” the corporation noted how the rich get richer “at the relative expense of labor,” how wages for workers are kept low (you have to “keep wage inflation in check”) while the capitalist owners reap more profits than they used to:

We believe that the rich are going to keep getting richer in coming years, as capitalists (the rich) get an even bigger share of GDP as a result, principally, of globalization. We expect the global pool of labor in developing economies to keep wage inflation in check, and profit margins rising – good for the wealth of capitalists, relatively bad for developed market unskilled/outsource-able labor.[3]

Capitalism, the capitalists understand, transforms the hard work of the many into the wealth of the few. Good for capitalists, bad for labor. The document also revealed Citigroup’s fear of the citizenry demanding greater income equality:

Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks…the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfrachisement remains as was – one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich… We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments.[4]     

The minority is always fearful of the majority. They know, as Marx wrote, that

…the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.[5]

Citigroup would soon see their fears realized with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and a louder dialogue about the income inequality and wage theft of capitalism.

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Notes

[1] http://delong.typepad.com/plutonomy-1.pdf

[2] Marx, Communist Manifesto, 26

[3] http://www.correntewire.com/sites/default/files/Citibank_Plutonomy_1.pdf

[4] http://www.correntewire.com/sites/default/files/Citibank_Plutonomy_1.pdf

[5] Marx, Communist Manifesto, 18

The Imperium

Chapter I

We never knew life apart.

As boys, we used to race down the green hills toward the docks. Climbing up on the thatched roof of a waterfront shop or finding an empty pier, we would sit and watch one colossus after another glide slowly nearer the land. The smaller ships they protected, grasshoppers, pulled up to the piers, and the crew and dock workers and slaves instantly became one unit of thought and action, quickly bringing aboard new cargo. Where goods went aboard, men disembarked, crowding to register with port officials.

A colossus rarely made port. We would run to the end of a pier, as close to the warships as possible, and dangle our feet above the water. A colossus was a fortress. They were so large, having more than one at the dock ground grasshopper movement to a halt.  It was more efficient to have the smaller ships dart in, load their goods, and transport provisions back to their colossus protector.

This meant sailors on the big ships were bound to the sea. There was rarely time given them to enjoy land. The life of a seaman was brutal. As much as I was mesmerized by the red and black sails, I wanted nothing to do with the Fleet.

“You’re stupid,” Mark would say. “Imagine being a captain of a ship like that!”

“Yeah, I would just love to protect trade ships for my entire life, and never get a mate. Did you know that? They’re stuck on that ship forever, until they’re old and weak. No mates!”

“Spend enough years as a captain, then I’ll be Viceroy of the Fleet.”

“The glory is here, idiot.”

“I heard the Fleet doesn’t go two weeks without blowing apart pirate ships.”

“Yeah, forget that. We’re being trained for greatness in the ranks. You know what Lord Balthazar calls us?”

Mark grinned. “Yeah.”

“So act like it.”

“You’re a toad, Zecharias.”

I slapped him in the back of the head, hard. Mark grinned again, his dirty blond hair sticking up like reeds in a pond.

After the excitement of watching the ships had worn off, we would walk back five or six miles under the bright morning sun. Back to the tall castle with waves crashing high against the seaside wall, where we knew Grio would be waiting for us.

Grio was our battle trainer, and although he had beat both of us more times than we could count, he was one of our closest allies. The old man was strong, the veteran of a hundred battles, with more scars than freckles, and one ear absent. When we were five, he told us the tale of when he lost it, and we asked where the battle took place. The next day, Mark and I stole some provisions and a horse and rode over twenty miles to the famous battlefield, hoping to find his severed ear. When we returned in defeat the next day, Grio explained it had long since become part of the earth. Then he beat us hard for stealing.

The old soldier was compensated well for training us, a fact that caused many soldiers to resent him. Grio hadn’t intended to make enemies when he agreed to teach, but it worked out well for us, because he was suddenly on our side and had little choice in the matter. For his new assignment, Grio was given the rank of ciebenn-commander, the seventh most powerful man in the empire. Having lost his mate to Disease around the same time, he was also given first right, a rare guarantee that he would receive a mate automatically, bypassing the Lottery.

Grio taught us more than how to ride, draw a bow, or strike with a sword. When we were six, we went to him in the stables, as he banged an iron shoe onto his warhorse, Perluck.

“Boys,” he said, not looking up.

“Ask him,” Mark whispered to me.

“Ask what?” Grio muttered, eyes locking with mine.

Fantastic, I thought, feeling adrenaline. Mark was always the adventurous one, why didn’t he ask? Probably because the two-headed dragons that lurked in the mountains were like kittens compared to Grio.

“Why do the men hate us so much?”

Grio laughed. “What kind of question is that, boy?”

We had often heard the nasty murmurs of soldiers. They despised us. We kept to ourselves as much as possible, interacting with each other and our trainer. Though we tried not to bother the men, they whispered about us or taunted us.

We ignored it for as long as we could, figuring it was simply their nature. Soldiers were selfish and mean. A lot of them had the insatiable need to kill. There were stories of men going mad if they went too long without spilling blood.

But we began to hear other things. Recently, a particularly wicked man elbowed me harshly on the temple as he passed by in the corridor. “Keep behind me, pigblood.”

There were other names, too. Heathen. Savage. Foul-breed. None of it made sense to us.

So here we were. I didn’t answer Grio.

“Is that a question a man asks?”

Mark looked down, and I fought not to look away from the master’s scowl. Grio motioned with his hammer toward the courtyard.

“Look out there, boys, what do you see?”

Hay and mud and cobblestones. Soldiers at the gatehouse. Men lounging on the steps, gambling.

“How many other little boys do you see out there?”

“None, sir,” Mark said quickly. That was Mark, diving in for the easy answers.

“But we know some,” I said. “Like Myles, and Andersen. And Peter.”

“Are they being trained by the ciebann-commander?”

“No,” Mark said.

“When those boys are through with their practice each day, where do they go?”

“To their mother and father,” I said.

“Their father, who is an Imperial soldier. And their mother, who came directly from the Fatherland.”

“We don’t have mothers or fathers,” Mark said. “They all died.”

“And the Imperium killed them. They were natives, living like moles in the mud, when our ships arrived. But your fathers were the most ferocious savages the Sovereign had ever seen. They killed many. They evaded capture for decades. Even in death, they haunted his dreams. So instead of killing you off, he ordered me to train you.”

It made sense. Inheritance was more than eye color.

“They don’t like us because we’re sons of the enemy.”

“Because we’ve been given special privileges their own sons won’t get,” Mark said.

Grio continue clanging. “You understand.”

“But we’re just as much Imperials as anyone else,” I protested.

Mark raised his pointy chin. “We’d give our lives for the Sovereign. We’re loyal.”

Grio lifted the hammer and pressed Mark in the chest. “Of course you are, lad. But there are some who would turn their backs on the Sovereign himself to protect the purity of Imperial blood.”

We nodded.

“They don’t want pigbloods around,” Mark said.

“They want to kill us, don’t they?” I asked.

“Many would love to. But they know you’re the Sovereign’s pets. For now, at least. When you come of age, it will be another story.”

We looked at each other, and we could see fear. Did the old man notice? I couldn’t tell.

“We’ll make it,” I said, wincing because it sounded more like a question.

“You’ll look out for each other. And most importantly, you’ll listen to me.”

* * *

We spent the next few days suspicious, wary. We carefully avoided soldiers, and we never went anywhere alone. We left our room together in the morning, and returned together at night. But after a time, being six, we relaxed and pushed these things from our minds.

Training took up much of our days, and when it was over in the late afternoon, we were exhausted. We would eat in the Great Hall and nap on the warm hills for a few hours, until our strength returned. Then we would ride our horses bareback across the fields, or strip naked and go for a swim in the ocean, or hunt rabbits, or try to tame wild dogs, or pretend we were the sorcerers who lived in the forest and have battles with charms and curses. We would sit in the trees and watch patrols go by. Tall, shining soldiers, marching toward the villages to make sure all was well.

Mark and I occasionally went to one of the nearby villages. We joined the village boys in a game in which we kicked a leather ball into a post at either end of a field. It was exciting fun, but our dark red tunics set us apart from the other boys, and when their parents noticed, they forbade their sons from playing with us. We were, to them, also sons of the enemy.

“I wonder how they would feel if they knew,” I spat. “We’re probably their kin.”

“They’re toadskins,” Mark said. “They’re no kin of mine.”

We watched the patrols march into the village streets, watched the people grab their children and shut themselves in their thatched houses. The only living things for the soldiers to see were chickens, darting to get out of the way of clomping hooves. Sometimes the men would break into a home and harass the residents, looking for weapons, stealing food. The villagers were slaves, giving two-thirds of their harvest each year to the Imperial granaries. Such a tax was necessary to keep the armies marching, the empire growing. The patrols kept the Imperial presence constant; it was rare for a village to go a week without seeing the enemy walking the streets.

“We’re lucky the Sovereign kept us.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “Better masters than slaves.”

We returned to the castle, walking behind the patrol. At night, we lit candles in our room and sat on a bench in front of the window. The stars gleamed. Imperial lore taught that every man who died in battle became a star. The empire of earth was the empire of heaven. Endless, eternal.

The sounds of night were not just owls and wolves. We could hear cackling laughter, sounds from no human tongue. We knew what they were, and we were very afraid.

* * *

We witnessed our first battle when we were seven. We rode with Grio and a cavalry of one thousand men to the front. Grio, whenever he went out, never failed to comment on the glorious country.

“Look at it, my boys,” he would say. “Have you ever seen such a land?”

We had never known another, but we shook our heads anyway.

“The Fatherland is fifteen hundred square miles! Can you imagine how small that is? This land goes on forever. Thirty years, and we’ve only conquered a small piece of it.”

“Why did we leave the Fatherland?” Mark asked.

“I told you before. Overpopulation. Too many people, too few resources.”

“How long did it take to get here?”

“Eight months.”

“Will we ever see the Fatherland, Grio?” I asked.

He snorted. “No. Soldiers are needed here. The day we stop transporting goods back home is the day our race starts to die out.”

“But at least we get plenty of reinforcements, right?” Mark asked.

“Most of the young men are conscripted and sent here. Once they arrive, they learn the art of war. This accomplishes two things: it slows down population growth there and strengthens our army here, allowing us to take new lands and send resources back.”

We rode on, until we reached a village. Revolutionaries had cut down an Imperial scouting expedition two weeks prior. We saw peasants taking up arms, mostly bows and spears, and waiting behind a spiked wooden fence.

We stayed on a hill with Grio, who explained to us tactics and maneuvers, and watched the village burn.

* * *

Confront your fears. That was the most important thing Grio taught us.

So one autumn night, Mark and I did just that. It had been four or five hours since the evening feast. Mark had stuffed himself, and had dozed off. Probably on purpose. I shook him awake.

“Let’s go.”

“Ugh.” Mark threw us covers over his head.

I tucked a small knife into my belt. Mark sat up and laughed.

“All the good that’s gonna do!”

“I got one for you.” I tossed a blade on his bed. “Want it?”

Mark made a face and took it.

“Come on,” I said.

Mark slipped into his shoes. We opened the thick wood door and were in the hall. I wasn’t sure why exactly we snuck around. We were allowed to come and go as we pleased, like anyone else. But neither of us felt like being harassed by soldiers at that moment. We were trying to mentally prepare for what we would face.

We walked through darkness until we came across a torch on the wall. I grabbed it and we continued on. We reached the stairs of the south tower and went down, down, down. Through the belly of the castle, to the underground dungeons.

Crossing the threshold to the prison, we were struck by the most terrible smell imaginable.

Mark gagged, clutching his mouth with one hand and his chest in the other, as if he was about to have a heart attack. “Sova!” he swore.

I covered my mouth with one arm, and brought the torch closer to my face, trying to breathe in the aroma of burning cloth and oil.

“It’s waste,” I whispered.

“Yeah, you think?”

We crept down the first few steps. “That is terrible,” I said.

“Leave the torch here.” He pointed to an iron fist on the wall, and I slid the torch into it with a harsh scrape.

“Shut up!”

“You shut up. Come on.” We kept our hands on the cold wall and dropped down another thirty steps or so. We could hear voices. We were almost at the bottom of the stairs when we could make out the rows of cells. They were endless.

Only one, very close, had a light flickering. Its iron grate was open, and the voice came from there. We were close enough to see figures now.

I motioned for Mark to sit, and we did, perhaps ten steps from the bottom.

“It’s funny,” Mark said.

“What?”

“Some things down here are alive. Some things are dead.”

“And some are somewhere in between?”

He smiled nervously. We watched the five figures huddle around the small flame.

“My bones are aching. Anyone else? Anyone else feeling that?” The scratchy voice echoed down the rows of cells.

“Patrick, don’t you ever shut up?”

“I did once. It was one summer…three hundred years ago.”

“Har dee har har.”

“Gods, I’m cold! This little torch isn’t hot enough.”

“What do you want to do, make a bonfire?”

“Now there’s an idea.”

“There’s nothing to burn down here.”

“Except slaves.”

“Now there’s an idea!”

We had never been so close to the demons before. We had seen them several times during the night, and only once under the sun. One of them was a ghost, a gaunt old man with white eyebrows and stubble, bulging eyes, bare feet, clothed in rags. The rest were human, or had been once, the skin and muscle now gone from their bones. Skeletons, with dark, empty eye sockets and rattling joints.

On that night, all we knew was the cackling sound of their bitter laughter and the fact we were seven and they were the walking dead.

I could see Mark’s eyes were wide with both terror and fascination, feelings that clutched me too as my pulse pounded in my head.

“Why is it we’re stuck down here each and every night, when the other soldiers have warm, comfortable beds?” one of the skeletons asked. This one wore white armor. The skeleton next to him wore black. They huddled together, as if friends.

The one named Patrick was completely naked. “It might have something to do with that horrid stench you’re giving off.”

The one in white raised his humerus and sniffed, the sound a sharp whistle. He cackled. “It isn’t me!”

The final skeleton was naked but for a big black helmet. He shook his head. “We’re here because somebody has to keep an eye on all these prisoners. We’ve got a job to do!”

“Worst job in the empire,” the one in black armor complained.

“Watch your mouth, or I’ll report you for treason!” the helmeted one snapped.

“What are they going to do? Throw him in the dungeon?” the ghost said. They all cackled at the helmeted one.

“Silence, all of you! I’m the only one who takes our responsibilities seriously.”

“You’re the only one stupid enough to think we actually have responsibilities,” Patrick spat. “They have us assigned here to keep us out of the way.”

“He’s right,” the one in white muttered.

“Now, see here,” the helmeted one thundered, rising.

Patrick grabbed hold of his clavicle and yanked him down. “Ah, pipe down you arrogant piece of horseflank!”

“Horseflank? Why, you flesh-loving weasel!” He cracked his hand against Patrick’s skull.

“Oh, not again,” the one in black said, holding Patrick back.

“Unhand me!”

“Every night,” muttered the ghost.

“Look at you two, squabbling like children!” the one in white laughed.

“If you weren’t already dead–” the helmeted one began, gnashing his teeth at Patrick.

“–I’d kill you,” the rest said in wearied unison.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Patrick said.

The helmeted one crossed his legs and stared into the fire. There was a moment of silence.

I looked at Mark and he grinned at me. My fear was subsiding too. We were safe in the stairwell, and these demons obviously weren’t expecting visitors. Hearing them bicker like that, I was less afraid.

“You know what we need?” the ghost said.

“More power?” Patrick said.

“More women?” the helmeted one asked.

“More wine?” asked the one in white.

“More gold?” asked the one in black.

“No, no, no, no,” the ghost said, laughing. “More power!”

Patrick glared and clacked his fingers against his cheekbone.

The helmeted one leaned back contemplatively. “Hmmm…more power, you say?”

“What we need is a plan,” Patrick said.

I grinned and shook my head. Mark’s eyes were drooping. I tapped him on the shoulder and motioned up the stairs. He nodded, and we left together.

Chapter II

We spent the next three years experiencing very predictable days, with only new, exciting adventures springing up irregularly. Just training, training, training. We witnessed a dozen battles, but soon the front was so far away, Grio didn’t want to make the long ride there and back. He said it was because it meant too many days missed training, but I suspected it was because he was getting older.

Mark turned into a capable marksman; I was better with a sword. We both had strengths and weaknesses that I felt complimented each other. Together, we were mighty.

“Don’t be a fool,” Grio barked at this. “One day, one of you will die, and when that happens, you won’t want weaknesses. Figure out what they are and purge them.”

One day, Grio took us aboard a colossus, and gave us some basic instruction in sailing and naval warfare. It was our first time on a ship. Mark was out of his mind with delight. I was seasick.

One of the sailors let Mark hold the helm, and he laughed his head off.

Every so often, in the dead of night, we would sneak back to the dungeons and listen to the skeletons argue and plot. It was comforting to know that we were not the most despised creatures at the castle. The men hated those five even more, mocking their low intellect and status. We learned the names they had given themselves: the helmeted one was Regis, the naked one Patrick, the ghost Ghosty, the one in white armor Skeleton the First, the one in black, his brother, Skeleton the Second. Soldiers also ridiculed their jester-esque names, especially Ghosty.

We never let them see us, and later we would talk and laugh about what they had said that day. Eventually, we had our personal favorites.

There were two events to look forward to every year. There was the Lottery and the Feast of the Founding. The Lottery was the arrival of the Fatherland’s finest women. The brutal journey to the Imperium often left a boat half-empty by the time it arrived. Disease, sea serpents, and corsairs made sure of that. Ships full of beautiful girls were the most tempting target for pirates. The women had been taught to kill themselves if they ever fell into enemy hands.

A woman was given to a mateless man at random, and became his property. We weren’t yet sure what the whole mating process entailed, but, like all children, we sensed something mysterious about it.

“Some men will kill another just for looking at his mate,” Grio told us.

“But not if he’s a superior,” Mark said. “That would get him killed, right?”

“Right you are, lad.”

“Can a superior steal someone’s mate?” I asked.

Grio shook his head. “That is the one thing they cannot take from you. A commander will be executed for that.”

“Good thing, too,” I said.

“Why?” Mark asked.

“Because it would happen all the time. There’d be chaos.”

Grio laughed heartily. “You speak the truth, boy.”

The Lottery took place in the Great Hall, in the fall, where every soldier gathered for a feast that lasted twenty-four hours. Even the skeletons attended, hidden in the back so as not to terrify the newcomers. One year, a girl saw them and died of fright.

The women sat to either side of the Sovereign’s throne. The girls wore the most expensive gowns and paint from the Fatherland. They had been selected from a young age to prepare for leaving their homes and families forever, for crossing the ocean, for belonging to a man they had never met. The paint couldn’t hide their emotions. Some looked thin and exhausted from the journey. Some looked proud and excited, having spent their entire lives without male company. Many cried.

All the soldiers, however, had a grand time, with ale and good food. The Sovereign himself handed out the brides to the lucky men.

The Sovereign, Lord Balthazar. Many words had been used to describe him. Cold, brilliant, bloodthirsty, admirable, terrifying. The one who had conquered the New World and built the Imperium. A wrinkled face. Brown beard slashed with white. Glistening silver armor. He wore no crown, but rather the black cloak of the Sovereign. His word was law; he was both loved and feared. Beside him stood Kalia, his silent and gorgeous wife.

The Feast of the Founding was the celebration of the empire’s birth, in the spring. That year was 0132, the first two digits representing which Sovereign ruled, the second two representing the year since the Founding. The celebration was three days of duels, with three fights on each day. Blood was shed on the cobblestones of the massive Courtyard; the duels were to the death. Each night there was a gathering in the Great Hall, to honor the victor and glorify the Imperium with song and cheer.

Such celebrations were the best of times. That year was no different, until the second night of the Feast, when Zeinn-Commander Tiberius, second only to the Sovereign himself, stood beside the throne to read the names of tomorrow’s first-round fighters.

He read our names.

The music of drums and tambourines and fifes stopped. The men turned at their tables. Though their mouths were of stone, their eyes sneered. I saw a flicker of surprise pass over the Sovereign’s face. Then it disappeared.

Grio, between us, slowly rose.

Silence.

“Speak,” Lord Balthazar said.

“My Lord, this is madness. They are only ten years of age.”

Tiberius stepped forward. “If I may, my Liege, since I am curator of the duels. This match-up, like all the others, was demanded by popular vote. In thirty years, we have never revoked such a decision.”

Grio bared his teeth as he spoke. “My Sovereign, you instructed me to train these boys to be great warriors. Now you would have one of them die?”

A frown tugged at Balthazar’s mouth.

Grio pounced at it. “Such a terrible waste!”

It only then began to sink in what had just happened. I had been too stunned to think or feel. Images of clashing swords with Mark flashed through my head. We had done it every day for years, but had never been trying to kill each other. This couldn’t be right. This couldn’t be happening. We were only kids!

“This will give us the opportunity to see which one most deserves your time, Grio,” Tiberius spat.

If it came down to it, would I win? I was better with a sword. That wasn’t fair. Had that been planned? It didn’t matter. I couldn’t kill Mark.

I looked at Mark. Head bowed. Staring at his dinner.

“My Sovereign, at least let it be to first blood. Do not waste ten years of toil, and throw away a life that will bring victory and glory to the empire,” Grio said.

A murmur rumbled through the Great Hall. They didn’t like Grio praising us like that.

“We have our laws,” Tiberius said.

Balthazar raised his hand. An instant hush.

“The laws stand. They fight to the death.”

The men were satisfied, smiling as they turned back to their wine and venison. The music resumed quickly, louder than before. Tiberius smirked. The Sovereign’s face was a stoic mask as usual. I heard the skeletons cackle somewhere. The celebration continued.

Grio’s knuckles relaxed and turned from white to red. He sat.

Mark and I looked at each other, and I felt like we were both more worried about old Grio than anything else. He took deep, raspy breaths.

“I should have seen this happening,” he growled. “Of course they would do this. What would make them happier than seeing the pigbloods cut themselves to pieces?” He pressed a fist to his forehead. “Sova.”

I could think of anything to say. What could I say? It’ll be fine? Don’t worry about us?

“Has anyone just not fought before?” Mark asked.

“You won’t do that!” Grio roared. Mark was shocked.

“Don’t you understand? If you don’t fight, you forsake your honor forever. You’re branded cowards. You will never fight. You will never lead. You will never command. It’s just about as effective as killing you. I’ll be reassigned and your training finished.”

Grio pounded the table as he rose and left.

Mark and I glanced at each other, then away. There really was nothing to say.

* * *

Until we crawled into bed and were unable to sleep.

“Even if we’re cowards, we’d be alive,” Mark said.

“Yeah, only we’d be exiled.”

“Really? You think so?”

“Only soldiers live here. We’d have to leave. Hope a village would take us in. We’d lose Grio.”

“So what do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t kill you, Zecharias.”

“I know.”

“Why didn’t the Sovereign stop this?”

“He didn’t have a choice, I don’t think. He didn’t want to look weak. He wants us to grow up and be heroes, but he can’t throw away the loyalty of his men. He can’t break his own law.”

“I thought he could do whatever he wanted.”

“Well, he could if he wanted to. But he can’t protect us like that, when everyone else hates us.”

We listen to the crickets in the fields. Mark turned toward the wall.

“For the Sovereign?” he asked.

The famous battle cry. Used when men went to war. We used it when we played in the fields, pretending to hack apart revolutionaries.

I closed my eyes. “Yeah. For the Sovereign.”

* * *

From the moment our swords struck, I knew I was going to die. I would have to let Mark kill me.

There was a wild look in his eyes. I was only a year older than he, but sometimes it seemed like more. He was so afraid, not of being hurt, I suspected, but of hurting me. We were both scared. But he looked so young then.

We were in the Courtyard, surrounded by thousands of roaring men. People packed the balconies and battlements. We had an area to duel about fifty paces by fifty paces. At the front of the crowd, the Sovereign sat, flanked by four guards. To his left, Tiberius, and then each commander according to his rank. Old Grio was about in the middle, the lone commander standing. Sweat dripped off his nose. He rubbed his hands viciously, grimacing as we exchanged blows.

We had started off fairly timidly, so unlike our practice sessions. The bloodthirsty crowd didn’t like that very much. They jeered and shouted, and soon our attacks and parries grew more violent.

It was so hot that morning. We wore no armor. This wasn’t about staying alive. This was about dying.

Mark crashed his blade downwards onto mine. My arm was growing tired. Mark was strong, no doubts there; the same arm he used to draw a man’s bow wielded that sword.

But I was much faster, with better reaction time, and a better knack for predicting the next strike. I turned aside each attack fairly easily; Mark had to scramble when I went on the offensive.

I couldn’t let Mark win quickly. Most of the men knew I was better than he was. I would have to make it a longer battle, then make a critical mistake. Mark, in the frenzy, wouldn’t have time to think. It would just happen. His sword would bite into my throat or my heart or my groin, I would bleed out quickly, and it would be over. He’d drop his sword and rush over to me, and we’d hold hands as I left the earth. I wondered if I’d become a star. Probably not. This seemed too senseless for that. Why did it have to be so hot?

Mark’s face was contorted. Clenched teeth. Burning cheeks. Breathing hard. He was swinging erratically. What if he wears himself out, I thought. If he passes out from exhaustion, I’ll have to sever his head as he lies there.

We were dancing around a few half-broken cobblestones. That was my chance. I could stumble over one of them, just as Mark lunges. I could do it. I could end this.

I never got the chance. In an instant, the screams of delight from the crowd turned into gasps of horror. Then nothing.

Sweat stung my eyes. Mark and I stared at each other, our blades raised. What was going on? Everything had stopped. We took a step back from each other, slowly lowering our weapons.

It was Grio!

There he was. He was standing in front of the chair to his right, in which the sechts-commander sat. Apparently Grio had unsheathed his sword and plunged it into the man’s heart. Blood sprayed from the wound onto Grio’s chest, neck, and face.

I didn’t even know the sechts-commander’s name. Gracchus, maybe? I think that was it. Grio had just murdered him in front of everyone!

Gracchus shook and lay still. The spray of blood fell to a steady flow. Grio pulled his blade out and took a step back to view his deed. He had killed a superior.

The silence was incredible.

The Sovereign rose from his seat. His hand shook with anger as he pointed it at our trainer.

“Traitor,” Balthazar hissed. “Guards, kill this man.”

The guards stepped forward, and the crowd came alive, roaring the most terrible things I had ever heard at Grio. The noise was deafening. The old man moved closer to us; the guards readied their pikes and inched nearer.

Grio looked Mark in the eyes, and gave a little nod. He looked me in the eyes, and did the same.

He turned to face the guards, turned his wet blade towards himself, and fell forward. There was a horrible slash as the sword pierced his chest and ripped through his back. He lay still on the stones, blood rushing away from him in all directions.

Again, everything was still, until the Sovereign moved. He turned and left. His guards hustled after him.

Within a quarter-hour, the Courtyard was empty. Mark and I alternately stared at the corpse at our feet and the one in the chair behind us. I noticed I was still clutching my sword, and it clanged loudly when I let it go. Mark looked at his own sword, then let it fall.

* * *

Grio had saved us, that was for sure, but so had the Sovereign.

“What do you mean?” Mark asked.

It was night. The sounds of feasting and music rang from the Great Hall. We sat on the battlements of the castle walls, munching on bread and cheese, sharing a bottle of wine. After today, we needed it.

“Grio basically spat in the Sovereign’s face, but he got what he wanted. The Sovereign could have made us continue the fight.”

“Instead he left.”

“Signalling it was over. He let Grio challenge his authority and win.”

“So he wanted us to live?”

“We’re supposed to be his heroes.”

Mark nodded, and passed the wine to me. I took a swig.

“We’re alone now,” he said.

“I suppose so.”

“What are we going to do?”

“How should I know?”

“You’re always the one with a plan.”

“Well, I do have one idea.”

“Out with it.”

I smiled mirthlessly, and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. “Get to the top as quickly as possible. They’ll think twice before killing superiors.”

* * *

After Grio died, the Sovereign himself personally took over our training. We weren’t as alone as we had thought, and for that we were much relieved. We also swelled with pride. He was the Sovereign, after all, devoting as much time as he could spare each day (usually about an hour or two) to craft us into great warriors.

We bore no resentment over the fact that if Grio had not taken his own life, Balthazar would have had him speared. Grio had been like a father to us, but we understood that the laws were everything. The laws prevented chaos. The laws had built the greatest empire on earth. Breaking the law, even for a good deed, would never go unpunished, would never result in anything but death.

Balthazar spent as much time explaining our laws and history as he did watching and critiquing our exercises and duels. At first, we had been greatly intimidated by him. He had seemed a cold, silent force. But much to our surprise, we found that when he was with us, he enjoyed telling long stories and would talk forever about his battles and victories.

Mark and I never spoke of it directly, but we would look at each other and both knew that the Sovereign was proud of us, or at the very least, was eager to see what we would become, what we would do for the empire.

We even got to go in the throne room! Wide balconies extending on all sides, each with a large fountain. Massive grey columns and lush red carpet, leading, pointing to the iron throne made soft with purple pillows. Guards, like statues, everywhere. Colossal maps and charts off to one side, commanders and strategists crowded around, arguing. Dancing girls a snap of the fingers away. A domesticated wolf asleep in the corner. Balthazar’s wife, Kalia, always had a bright smile for us.

We boys sat on the rug, Balthazar on the throne, all three of us dining on berries and grapes served by slaves.

“What were our parents like?” Mark asked.

“Ferocious,” Balthazar said, throwing his hands up in emphasis. He tossed aside his bowl and leaned forward. “Your fathers used to live in a fortress of wood and stone not far from here. Their king was killed in battle, and they took over the resistance against me. In the last battle, as the palisade fell, they charged out against my army, probably with the last five hundred fighting men they had.”

“How many did you have?” I asked.

“At the time, about three thousand.”

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“Your fathers probably killed a hundred of my men, each.”

“Wow!”

“When it was over, your fathers and fifty other survivors fled, using rivercraft they had stealthily built during the siege to evade me. I had lost over a thousand men.”

“Quite a resistance,” I said, trying to sound grown-up.

Balthazar shook his head. “It didn’t end there! They hid in the forests. They hid in the villages. They hid in the mountains. For twenty years, they organized revolutions against us. Every patrol I sent to track and destroy them never returned.”

“Until ten years ago,” I said.

Balthazar smiled. “We found them in the mountains during a particularly harsh winter. A storm had destroyed their homes. They had frozen to death.”

Mark and I looked at each other. For once, I had no idea what he was thinking.

“They had essentially buried the two of you with anything they had, to keep you alive longer, hoping other members of the resistance would find you before the end. We found you first.”

“What about our mothers?” Mark asked.

“They were there, too, at the end.”

“No, I mean, who were they?”

Balthazar looked surprised. “I haven’t the slightest idea. Girls from their kingdom, I suppose.”

“What were our fathers’ names?” I asked.

Balthazar laughed. “I wish I could tell you, boys, but I don’t remember. I doubt anyone does.”

Chapter III

The skeletons never stopped scheming. They hatched many plots and plans, but more often than not they fell apart over bitter arguing, usually over who would lead or how the riches or power would be divided once they were successful. At times, though, they acted. They got organized some months after Grio died.

“Tonight’s the night, boys,” Regis said to the others in their cell.

Patrick rubbed his hands together. “Yes, indeed. The era of the skeletons has arrived.”

“As long as somebody doesn’t screw up,” Skeleton the Second snapped.

“Come on!” Patrick said. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“Plenty. What if someone suspects it’s one of us, and comes down here and discovers you’re missing?”

“No one comes down here,” Ghosty said.

“Unless they have a reason.”

“We’ll hide,” Regis said. “If they can’t find any of us, they can’t count us.”

“And there’s something else,” Skeleton the First added.

“You two are quite a pair of downers, aren’t you?” Regis said.

“Well…perhaps so. But what makes you so sure they’ll react the way you want? I mean, they’ve seen us. Why should they be scared?”

“You guys are brainless cowards,” Patrick muttered.

Skeleton the First smiled. “Brainless, yes, but that goes for all of us.”

Regis bent and picked up a heavy shovel. “We’ve already been over this. We’ll put on quite a show. They’ll be scared out of their minds, and the Sovereign will be bye-bye.”

On the stairs, Mark whispered to me, “Now I see why he keeps them down here.”

I nodded. The skeletons would never stop vying for control. Most of the men were power-hungry glory hounds, but the skeletons put them all to shame.

“Now let’s get moving!” Regis roared, so loud it startled us.

Adrenaline poured through my veins. They were gathering shovels and torches, and heading this way! I grabbed Mark’s tunic and pulled him up. We skittered up the dark stairs as fast as possible. In the hall, we hid in a doorframe, and watched the skeletons march by.

“The first thing I’m going to do as co-sovereign is put our names in the Lottery!” Ghosty said.

“You’re a ghost. How would that even work?” Patrick said, and they all cackled uproariously.

“Humph. Speak for yourself!” Ghosty shot back.

Their voices and the flickering of their fires grew fainter, and we slid out of the doorway and walked casually after them.

Eventually, the skeletons stopped speaking altogether, avoiding detection. They were sneaky, I had to give them that. They could vanish on a whim. They didn’t even realize we were following them, and they were still hard to track.

Soon, we were in the Courtyard. We stayed in the shadows of the Great Hall and watched the skeletons clamber up the ladders and onto the battlements.

They threw their shovels over the towering walls. Then they jumped off!

Mark and I sprinted up to the battlements and peered down into the night. The torches were tiny now. The skeletons picked themselves up, from a fall that would have probably killed more men than it maimed, and continued on.

“Where are they going?” I asked.

Mark shook his head. This was the south side of the castle, opposite from the sea. There was nothing in that direction except grassland.

“The cemetery is that way,” Mark said.

That’s right! “They have shovels.”

“They’re digging someone up. But why?”

“I don’t know. You don’t think…they’d dig up Grio?”

“Grio’s not buried there.”

“He’s not?”

“The Sovereign had him left for the crows and wild dogs.”

Of course. Traitors weren’t buried. “I hadn’t realized that. Well, at least it’s not him.”

“Yeah, I’d hate to see his body desecrated,” he said sarcastically.

“Fair point.”

The spots of lights stopped, and the skeletons got to work.

* * *

They dug up Sechts-Commander Gracchus. Within an hour, four of five had scaled the wall, their fingers like claws, and disappeared. Patrick was left behind.

But soon, he approached the gate, dressed in the jewelry and burial robes of the former sixth most powerful man in the empire. His face was shrouded. Mark and I stared in fascination from the Courtyard shadows.

The guards at the portcullis raised their spears.
“Who goes there?” one shouted.

“I…” rasped Patrick. “I live.”

His fingers, caked in mud, clacked around the iron bars. He threw back his hood.

The guards shouted and jumped back.

“Do you know who I am?” Patrick asked, spitting dirt from his mouth.

The guards eyed each other nervously. “Could it be…” the one stammered. “Gracchus?”

Patrick coughed, spat again, and smiled. I had to admit, he was decent actor.

“Open this gate,” he commanded.

The guards were slow to respond. One took a step forward, the other a step back. The former said, “I’m getting Tiberius” and all but ran across the Courtyard.

The last guard swallowed, unsure.

“Open it, swine,” Patrick barked.

He reluctantly obeyed.

Within minutes Tiberius arrived. A crowd of men trailed behind him.

Tiberius eyed Patrick suspiciously. “Gracchus?”

“I am he. Only…changed, somehow.”

“Changed?”

Patrick held up his hands. “I feel strong. Powerful. As if my whole life before was just a dream. I can’t explain it.”

Tiberius snorted. “Perhaps you can explain your resurrection?”

“I…I was among the stars,” Patrick gasped, as if remembering.

Mark stifled a laugh. A murmur of interest rippled over the crowd. Tiberius held up a hand for silence.

“A light so bright,” Patrick said, “I could be seen across the universe. I could hear the voices of everyone who ever died. I was both in my place in the heavens, and everywhere at once. Then…”

The men inched closer.

“Then I realized something. Every star, everyone else was…happy. At peace. And I was not. I felt turmoil well up inside me, because I had no glory. I had been taken from the empire, from the earth, in a senseless act of betrayal. I could not stay. I would not. So I hurled myself toward the earth, clawing my way through the protective fire. The next thing I realized, I was no longer clawing down, but up. I was digging through splinters of wood and dirt and stone, and at last…I broke the surface. There I was, in the cemetery.”

Tiberius’ face changed. Was he buying this?

“But there’s more,” Patrick said. “I can feel it. I feel I can do anything I like. As if I could raise my hand, and bring forth…anything.”

He raised his hand, and a pillar of fire erupted from four of the castle towers above us. Each one rose forty feet in the air, roaring and dancing. The men shouted. Mark and I pressed ourselves against the wall, trying to stay in a shadow. Huge grins spread across our faces.

After a moment, Patrick closed his fist, and the fire vanished.

Tiberius cleared his throat. “An amusing trick. But this realm has no lack of sorcerers.”

Patrick laughed. A hearty, human-sounding laugh, not his usual cackle. “Sorcery! Please. This is more than that. I was a star, a god. I have brought myself back to life, to fulfill a higher purpose. I have mastery over death.”

Tiberius shook his head. A fat man next to him chuckled, and said, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Patrick smiled, stepped forward, and patted the fat man on the cheek. “You will, Otho. You will.”

The skeleton then twirled and raised his finger. He pointed it at the fat man.

There was a nervous couple of seconds. Tiberius shook his head. The fat man smirked, brows raised expectantly.

Then, Otho gasped. His veins bulged a sickly golden color, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed in a large heap, dead.

The soldiers backed quickly away from Patrick, shouting in panic. Tiberius himself drew away. I was shocked, and Mark’s jaw hung loose.

“Behold!” Patrick shouted. “Does anyone else wish to question my divinity?” He waved his finger menacingly.

“What is it you want?” hissed Tiberius.

“Hmm.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “What do all gods want? Power over men. The empire above is the empire below. I’ve returned to bring glory to the Imperium. We shall bring the entire world under our banner, and build a kingdom that will last for a thousand years.”

A few men nodded their agreement.

“But of course, a kingdom cannot have two kings.”

Tiberius’ eyes grew wide in horror.

Patrick smiled. “I want you to go kill the Sovereign.”

No one knew what to say. The only noise was an owl far off.

“We’ve got to do something,” I whispered to Mark.

“Yeah, before it’s too late. This prank has gone on long enough.”

“Who will do this? I assure you, if you refuse, I shall kill you all where you stand. Would you rather serve a Sovereign…or a god?” Patrick hissed.

The first soldier to step forward was a young man named Ivan. Patrick pulled his sword out from under the burial robes and tossed it to Ivan.

For a moment, Ivan locked eyes with Tiberius. The zeinn-commander shook his head slightly, warningly.

But Ivan eyed Patrick and turned. Half of the group fell in behind him.

We had to scream out. We had to stop this. We jumped to our feet.

Ivan made it ten steps.

He collapsed on the cobblestones, writhing, his flesh glowing golden. Then he lay still.

Patrick’s face told us something had just gone horribly wrong.

“You’ve killed him!” a soldier shouted.

“He was following your orders!” another spat.

“Wait!” barked Tiberius. He marched over to Ivan’s corpse and knelt by the sword. He bent his face low, and sniffed. “Poison!”

Patrick was scared. “Uh, no, no, see…I looked into his soul, and saw deception!”

“He’s got poison on his hands,” Tiberius roared. “He’s no god!”

The skeleton scooted backwards. “Now, listen, there’s a simple explanation for this–”

Tiberius pulled out his sword and charged Patrick.

The skeleton managed to shriek, “Regis, help!” before the blade smashed against his skull.

* * *

The skeletons were back in the dungeon, this time in a locked cell. That wouldn’t hold Ghosty, of course, but he really had nowhere else to go, and freeing his comrades would only bring about more trouble. So he sat there with them.

It was hard to punish the skeletons. You couldn’t starve them, you couldn’t torture them. They could be demeaned and degraded, but that only kept their spirits low for so long. Soon they were ranting, arguing, and plotting again.

Balthazar hadn’t been as furious as we had expected. The skeletons had been with him forever, and he knew they never stopped angling to overthrow him.

“Why do you keep them, then?” Mark exclaimed. “Why not banish them?”

We stood in the warm sun on one of the throne room’s balconies.

The Sovereign laughed. “They have their uses, from time to time. Only a fool would give up soldiers who can’t die.”

We nodded.

“They’re clever, too, I guess,” Mark said.

“And you’ve never seen them fight,” Balthazar said. “They can be savages.”

On the grass outside the castle walls marched twenty blindfolded men, their hands bound behind them. They were the men who had turned to follow Ivan last night. Some fifty archers lined the battlements above them. A great multitude of others gathered to watch.

Balthazar raised his hand, and the archers skewered every last one.

Chapter IV

Soon I was 16, and Mark was 15. By that time, we had both made our first kills.

We were being integrated into the ranks, but luckily we were kept together. We mostly went out on patrols, and Mark’s abilities with the bow earned us a small measure of grudging respect among the men of the Red Fist, since he often returned with the most game to eat.

There were 21 men in the Red Fist. It took us months of patrols, but we made an ally or two. Fedor and Cassian were good men, not much older than us. I had figured this would make them more likely to despise us, what with the special attention we got, but I was wrong. They did not go out of their way to be friendly, not wanting to anger the rest of the group, but when we spoke they treated us with civility.

We of course had plenty of enemies. Our patrol leader, Cosmas, was an old, hard man, who cared about racial purity more than anyone I’d ever met. He called us “the heathens,” and made us ride behind everyone else. That was fine with us, that way we could talk without him hearing. Blasius was a revered swordsman, with long black hair and piercing grey eyes. He eyed us with contempt, and when he spat, it was usually in our direction. Paul the Terrible was one of the biggest men we’d ever seen. We once saw him lift a dead horse singlehandedly and throw it. He had very pointy teeth, and bared them at us whenever we spoke. Our pubescent voices annoyed him to no end, and he usually led the way in ridiculing us about it.

Our first kills came on our third patrol. The Red Fist had inspected two villages along the coast, some fifty miles west of the castle. As we rode back, the ocean on our left, a band of revolutionaries ambushed us. There were seven of them on horseback, twelve on foot. They were dressed in rags, probably runaway slaves. But they were well armed.

Those on foot attacked first, appearing on a hillside and hurling javelins into our midst. We were taken off-guard, but no one was killed. Only a horse was pierced through the neck, its rider thrown off into the sand.

My heart leapt into my throat.

“Splinter formation!” barked Cosmas.

We drove our heels into our beasts’ flanks and galloped toward the enemy. We broke into three divisions of riders, pulling apart. The first two maneuvered to hit the revolutionaries from two directions. The third group was reserve and rearguard.

The revolutionaries launched their final wave of javelins. One Imperial, Gallus, was struck in the heart. A second, Lucas, had his tricep slashed. Another horse was pierced and its rider went flying.

The revolutionaries on horseback charged to meet our nearest division, and clashed swords in a chaotic foray. The enemy on foot pulled out swords and prepared to meet the wave Mark and I were in, bearing down on them like thunder.

I unsheathed my sword with a loud ring. Mark was one step ahead; he pulled back an arrow and shot a man in the throat. I caught a glimpse of his shocked expression an instant before I hit the wall enemy soldiers.

A sword flew at my left ankle, and instinct alone allowed me to block it. But I couldn’t counter. My horse, Relic, one of Perluck’s descendants, was still surging forward. A revolutionary was suddenly on my right, blocking a blow from Blasius’ sword, his bald head turned and exposed. I didn’t hesitate. That’s what Grio had said. Never hesitate.

I brought my blade on his head as Relic and I charged past. I narrowly avoided a spray of blood, and I turned in the saddle to see the man’s open head fall to the ground.

Blasius caught my eye. He gave me a glare before cleaving an ear off a revolutionary’s face.
Sorry for stealing that one, I thought sarcastically. My pulse was racing. I couldn’t believe I was in a battle. By the Sovereign, I had just killed someone! My stomach twisted. I had trained for that my entire life, but I had not been near ready.

The battle was over. The enemy was either dead or dying.

We had lost Gallus, and Victor, who had broken his neck when he was flung from his horse. Lucas bled from his arm. Paul the Terrible had a nasty cut across his calf. Another man helped him off his horse and they began treating the wound. Other than that, we were fine.

Cosmas wiped blood and sweat from his forehead. He dismounted and spat on a revolutionary, whose throat was cut but still lived. Cosmas stabbed him in the heart.

I looked up at Mark, who was gasping for breath. He grinned, holding up two fingers and his bow. Two kills.

I saluted with my sword. I looked at it. Smeared with that man’s blood and brains. I gagged, but glanced away and pulled myself together. I couldn’t let the men see me shaken.

We all dismounted and cleaned our blades. Mark and the other archer, the ancient Uri, retrieved any salvageable shafts. We took Gallus and Victor and tied their bodies to horses, of which we now had seven more, and got ready to continue on.

We burned the bodies, so revolutionary allies wouldn’t be able to identify the remains.

* * *

Mark and I didn’t talk about our kills. We were soldiers, it was our job, and that was the end of it. There was no point in discussing it, anyway. There would be more kills, many more.

We had only been on patrols for six months when the Red Fist was reassigned to a campaign Balthazar called his Grand Strategy.

“The time has come to master the wild,” Balthazar told Mark and I, pointing from the balcony to the Endless Forest on the horizon.

For over thirty years, the Imperium had felled trees from other, smaller forests in the empire, but now these sources of lumber were diminishing. It was too inefficient to continue avoiding the Forest. We needed new ships, new houses, new buildings. The Imperium was constantly growing, and it needed fuel.

“We have hundreds of new slaves waiting to be put to work,” Balthazar growled. “We are wasting bread and time on them.”

But they could not get to work until the Forest was made safe, for it was the home of what we called the Swarm. These were frog-like creatures over four feet in length that preyed on deer, wolves, foxes, hawks, snakes–anything that moved in the trees or on the ground below. They shot hot venom from their throats, which would kill seconds after touching bare skin, and then tore into flesh with tiny, sharp teeth.

“The worst part is,” Grio had told us when we were three, “they attack from the trees, sometimes a thousand at a time. We gave up trying to kill them after the first battle. For every one we managed to shoot or stab, we lost ten men. We have no idea how far the Forest goes, or how many there could be. It’s a wasted effort.”

Mark and I both used to wake in the night in cold sweats, nightmares of the Swarm plaguing us, bringing tears to our eyes.

“We’ll have to drive them back deeper into the forest,” Balthazar mused. “We needn’t eliminate them, just train them not to go beyond a certain point. Like a dog that learns not to beg when he is hit, so they will learn not to approach us.”

“How many will you devote to the campaign?” I asked.

“The revolutionaries have been crushed on the southern and eastern fronts. We’ll be solidifying our borders with more permanent defenses and outposts, and hold position, so we can concentrate on the Forest. I’m prepared to send in two thousand men if necessary. Though I am confident we will not need nearly that number.”

“We’re ready to serve, my Lord,” Mark said.

Balthazar smiled and slapped him on the back. “Good boys. The Red Fist will be expanded into a division of one hundred men. You’ll be a part of the first army in.”

Mark and I look at each other. We were ready. Since our first, we had been in three other battles. One had been quite large: we tracked down and engaged a revolutionary force of fifty men, all on foot. The Red Fist killed forty of them. Blasius was extraordinary, slaying thirteen men on his own. I had three kills, Mark had five. We lost seven men, including Cassian. The ten revolutionaries who survived were captured, imprisoned, tortured, and returned to the Imperial slave masters and hard crop labor.

Balthazar turned to us and gripped both our shoulders. “I’m looking forward to seeing how you fare.”

* * *

The campaign in the Forest lasted three years.

I had hoped, at first, that being so close to the castle would allow us to sleep in our warm, familiar beds at night and march out to battle each morning. But Balthazar had other ideas.

The Swarm didn’t allow anyone to get very far into the Forest before striking. We could not give up the day’s gains. Each foot farther past the edge of the Forest was invaluable. If we retreated, we would pay dearly the next day to make up the ground.

The Forest was thick, the trees towering and mighty. Sometimes it was hard to swing a sword without accidentally lodging it in a trunk. That got some men killed.

The toads were very difficult to see, being black and green and perching motionless above the canopy. Often, it was the smell that gave them away.

“It’s good because it takes away their surprise,” I said.

“It’s bad because you know there’s five hundred of them,” Mark quipped.

They would come raining down, often dropping from a hundred feet or more. We soon fashioned spikes on our shields, so we could cover ourselves and kill whatever landed on us. The instant the toads hit the ground, they were spewing poison like arrows from a bow. We were well protected, but if your hands or face were hit, you were dead. Soon members of the Red Fist, and indeed the whole army, were given leather gloves. The Swarm was highly intelligent, though, and soon learned to aim between the eyes.

When we knew they were coming, we usually were the victors. Archers would shower the trees with barbs, so a smaller wave of the toads reached our line alive. Those that did we fought with sword or spear.

But when they surprised us, as we marched or made camp, it was devastating. Without shields, or protection from swordsmen, the archers were often massacred disproportionately. After six months, archers were made to carry shields with stakes on the base, so one could slam the shield into the earth and use it for protection as he drew his bow. Mark became so fast at this, he could pull it off in a single second. Mark later fastened a blade to the tip of bow, so he could stab anything that got too close. Some scoffed at this sign of “cowardice,” but others copied it.

The losses were astonishing. The deeper we advanced into the Forest, the more men fell taking each step. Two thousand men were dead by the end of year two. Another fifteen hundred would perish before it was over. Corpses, their poisoned veins bulging a goldish yellow, littered the woods. We had slaves come behind us and cart the bodies to the cemetery.

I’m not sure how many toads we killed, but Tiberius and the other commanders estimated anywhere from six to ten thousand. It was much easier, for Mark and I, to kill creatures than men. We became calloused to it, and very efficient at it. Mark’s shot became almost legendary, and I competed closely with Blasius in each battle to slay more toads. I usually lost by a few, but the fact I was keeping up with him surprised many and angered some. Some men gambled on our competition. Blasius despised me.

Not only did Mark and I distinguish ourselves as truly dangerous warriors, we learned how to think like commanders. We hated Cosmas more and more for taking foolish risks and not listening to our suggestions. I think the fact that we didn’t die enraged him a bit more each day. But I take pride in the fact that I came up with an idea that set the Red Fist apart, after he finally listened to me.

After Balthazar deemed the skeletons had been locked up long enough, he sent them to the Forest, and they were assigned to our division. The Sovereign had been right: they were savages on the battlefield. They could leap and climb like the toads and, immune to the poison, just kept stabbing away. The Swarm quickly learned the best defense against the skeletons was to pile on top of them and make them immobile. This didn’t work too well on Ghosty, but for the others, it was effective.

I went to Cosmas in his tent.

“Get out of my sight,” Cosmas muttered, not looking up from the map on his desk.

“I have a tactic, sir. The skeletons can help us.”

Cosmas spat. “Balthazar must think so low of me, handing me both heathens and the undead. What did I do to deserve such insults?”

“The toads have made a habit of crushing the skeletons to slow them down. In our last encounter, I saw at least ten pile onto Regis and just lie there.”

“So what?”

“Sir, had the archers been ready, they could have dropped all ten. They’re sitting targets.”

“It was the heat of battle, pigblood. Archers were fighting for their lives.”

“My point is, we should use the skeletons as bait. Send them out ahead of us, get the toads to swarm them, then have the archers fire from a distance. If the toads crowd as they have been, our men won’t even have to aim.”

Cosmas frowned, his eyes darting back and forth. If I had been anyone else, I would have been commended. He steepled his fingers and motioned toward the tent flap.

“I’ll consider it,” he growled.

I bowed in salute and went off to find Mark and tell him about my idea.

* * *

It took a few weeks, but eventually Cosmas had the skeletons advancing ahead of us.

“Sure, now you need us,” Regis laughed.

Skeleton the First said, “First it’s ‘Get to the dungeons, you worthless devils!’ But as soon as there’s a war going on, it’s ‘Help us, help us, help us, skeletons! We need our immortal friends!’”

The others laughed.

They were being loud, but that was all right. It was their job to attract attention.

“What business is this war of ours, anyway?” Ghosty whined.

“Shut up, Ghosty,” Patrick said, but then turned and shook his fist at us. “But he’s right, you know!”

“That’s right,” Skeleton the Second quipped. “We have no wages, no pleasant accommodations, no ranks or titles, no women, no nothing. Why should we fight? What’s in it for us?”

Regis rubbed his chin, then raised his sword. “This is our chance for glory!”

“And who will glorify us?” Patrick asked. “The Sovereign? Those men back there? Nonsense.”

“When this war is over, we’ll be back in the cells,” Skeleton the Second grumbled.

Regis straightened his helmet. “Well, then, just enjoy the fresh air! Ahhh.”

Mark and I grinned, but none of the men seemed amused. Were we the only ones who found the skeletons so funny?

The trap worked better than I had hoped. Soon there was a sudden movement in the trees, and probably a hundred toads descended upon the skeletons.

“Eek!” screamed Ghosty in surprise.

“To arms, boys!” Regis roared. “For honor! For glory! For the Sovereign!”

“For us!” Patrick barked, slashing a toad in the throat.

They were peppered with poison.

“It’s so slimy!” Skeleton the First wailed miserably, before he was buried in toads.

Regis sliced off an arm and a leg before he too disappeared in black and green flesh. Skeleton the First and his brother hacked apart several more, until the Swarm came together as one and crushed them. Ghosty kept on swinging his knife, as toads leapt through him.

From our line, Cosmas raised his hand, and Mark, Uri, and the other archers unleashed a hail storm into the pile. The toads struggled to dig their way out from under new corpses, to no avail. The archers kept firing. An arrow passed through Ghosty, who clutched his chest in horror.

Very quickly, the Swarm was dead.

* * *

The end came after another division discovered the toads did not belong to a single Swarm. Imperials witnessed one group of toads viciously attacking, and devouring, another. These rival groups could be identified by color and size.

It took many months of planning and mapping, but soon Tiberius had an idea of where the territory of one group ended and another began.

So we burned sections of the Forest to force rival groups together, and the results were astounding. The Swarms tore themselves apart. Their numbers diminished; we built outposts and fortresses, and burned the areas around them to prevent toads from using trees to attack. In the open, the toads were vulnerable and easy to repel.

Of this Endless Forest, a hundred miles now belonged to the Imperium.

Chapter V

In three years, we had spent maybe a total of twenty nights back at the castle on leave. It had been agonizing, knowing home to be so close, sometimes even hearing celebrations and feasts.

It was good to be back.

That same week, however, was marked by an attempt on our lives. To this day, we are not sure who it was.

Had we not stayed up late discussing the future of our careers, we would have surely been stabbed in our beds. As it was, we had stopped speaking twenty minutes ago, and I was about to drift into a deep sleep. Luckily, Mark was much more awake than I, his mind no doubt racing with thoughts of rising through the Imperial ranks and commanding men and ships.

When our door creaked open a few inches, a knife flashed in the moonlight. A bow was instantly in Mark’s hands, and an arrow pierced the intruder’s large, hairy forearm.

He screamed and cursed.

Jolted awake, I swept up my sword from under my bed and leapt to the door, Mark kneeling on his bed with another arrow drawn.

The man was gone, leaving behind only a few drops of blood on the stone floor.

That night, we did not sleep. We built an iron lock for our door.

* * *

The first part of that year, with myself 19 and Mark 18, saw the Red Fist return to patrolling the empire. We also did our fair share of slave collecting, choosing from the villages the fittest men and women to serve at the castle, work the mines or the lumberyards or the farms, or build ships and structures. By Balthazar’s reasoning, the more work we could create, the more subjects could be made slaves, and fewer would be able to join the resistance.

The revolutionaries were weakening. The Sovereign had halted advances on the front, and increased the size and frequency of patrols. When it could be ascertained, any village that aided the enemy with shelter, food, or weapons, would be subject to random executions. One village Balthazar had burned to the ground. This chokehold helped the situation greatly.

When we were with the Red Fist, Mark and I took turns sleeping. Any of the men could slit our throats, without consequences. Cosmas would certainly like to. He had been trying to get us transfered to another patrol. Blasius would most love to kill me, I suspected, and it wasn’t just because I was a foul-breed anymore. Paul the Terrible seemed to accept our presence more once our voices stopped cracking, and had even gambled with Mark over whether or not Mark could bullseye certain targets. He usually lost his money.

Uri, all of a sudden, turned into a close ally. Tall, skinny, and bearded, he was pushing eighty years old, but could still ride and shoot with the best of them. All Uri cared about was skill. He respected Mark’s aim to such a degree, he probably wouldn’t have cared if he was a woman. The young Fedor started being more openly friendly, joining us for meals, cards, or duels, but was soon transferred to another patrol. We probably had Cosmas to thank for that.

The skeletons, for their extensive service fighting the Swarm, were finally off prison duty. They were allowed to rejoin the regular army for drills, guard duty, and patrols.

We would often join the Sovereign in his throne room to discuss the ins and outs of overseeing an empire, or ride with him when he wanted fresh air or to hunt. His commanders, especially Tiberius, hated this, but speaking ill of us to Balthazar was most unwise. We were like sons to him. The rumor was that Kalia would never be able to give him an heir. Surely, he could take another wife if he so chose, but it was obvious to us that Balthazar loved her very much. So he came to see us as his own, despite the fact we were an inferior race. He, too, seemed to care more about ability than blood, and for that, we respected him a great deal. He had saved us when we were young, not only from death but from slavery. And from then on, he had looked out for us, trained us, praised us.

“Whatever blood you have in your veins,” he said to us once, lounging on cushions at the bow of his extravagant luxury boat, “it has produced two of the finest soldiers at my command.”

He had felt like spending some time at sea on this beautiful autumn day, and we had gone with him. So had a small army of guards and two colossus warships.

“Thank you, Lord,” I said.

“Eventually Tiberius and the men will come to terms with your presence. They will value your place in the Imperium, I promise.”

We watched the waves crashing against the rocks and the north castle wall, the seagulls circling and flapping every which way.

“I hope so, Sire,” Mark said.

Balthazar waved his hand. “Come, come, I already see it happening. You’re both young and already there are few who would cross you without thinking twice. You survived the Swarm, and so many did not. You’re more dangerous than you realize.”

His words lifted my spirits. Mark and I did want acceptance, we did want respect.

“We’ll just continue on then,” I said.

Balthazar stroked his beard. “Precisely. Keep doing what you’re doing. It won’t be long before you will be leading them in battle, and they will follow you loyally to the bitter end.”

* * *

It was less than a fortnight later that everything went to hell. All the hatred and tension came to a sudden and violent head. The Lottery for the year 0141 arrived, and Mark’s name was pulled.

I’m sure you can imagine the scene in the Great Hall. Thousands eating, drinking, lusting after the hundred gorgeous women that stood beside Balthazar at his throne. The skeletons climbing on top of each other to get a better view of the prizes. Mark and I sitting with Uri and a few of the others in the Red Fist, laughing over our adventures or arguing over who had the most kills.

A slave held a cauldron, from which Tiberius ceremoniously pulled out a piece of parchment, unrolled it, and read loudly the name of the lucky man. Then the music roared, the crowd shouted in congratulations, some men cursed their misfortune, some women cried out in fear, and Balthazar rose to take the hand of the next woman in line and hand her to her new husband.

“Long live the Sovereign!” the men would cheer.

As soon as this was complete, the two were considered mates. Slaves rushed in and refilled drinks and plates between every drawing. The music then stopped, a hush fell over the room in gripping anticipation, and Tiberius reached into the cauldron again.

Mark nearly choked when he heard Tiberius gasp his name.

The response was immediate. The soldiers screamed their displeasure with a ferocity I hadn’t heard at any duel or in any battle. They rose from their seats and shouted and shook their fists at Tiberius. Cosmas was so wrathful he was turning purple; he shattered his plate and goblet. A few men kicked over their table and stormed out of the room. Blasius and others spat on the floor in protest. Paul the Terrible, vile and bloodthirsty, was probably the first one with a blade in his hand. The ringing noises meant others were pulling their own swords from their sheaths. They lifted them above their heads, roaring. More tables smashed to the ground, more glass broke.

The women were confused and terrified. The skeletons were beside themselves with laughter. Tiberius took a step back in fear, even as Balthazar’s guards stepped forward.

Mark slowly rose to his feet, and I did the same, my hand on my sword hilt. Soldiers all around us swore at us, spewed in our faces, shouted in our ears.

I watched Balthazar. He reached over and grabbed Tiberius, yanking him nearly off his feet. The Sovereign hissed something to him, clutching his throat. Tiberius gasped for air, his eyes bulging in terror. Balthazar head-butted him in the nose, and Tiberius fell to the ground, blood gushing.

I understood then. Mark was 18, and eligible for the drawing, but he was never supposed to be a part of it. A reaction like that meant Tiberius had failed the Sovereign. Tiberius was supposed to make sure the Lottery planners kept Mark’s name, and indeed my own, out of that cauldron. Tiberius was valuable to the Sovereign; he would probably live. The planners, probably not.

Balthazar rose to his feet. The ruckus and violence did not stop.

Mark shot me a glance, and began shouldering his way through the men. He was pushed and heckled. He dodged a blow, but pressed onward. I began to wonder if I’d be able to make it to him in order to save his life, so I followed him.

And there she was. Standing next in line was a goddess among women, a petite brunette girl in a blue dress named Chloe. This was Mark’s bride. Be it luck or fate, her beauty only exacerbated the situation. It threw the men into a greater rage. Now she watched the scene with large, fearful brown eyes, utterly bewildered at what was happening.

For a moment, Mark seemed stunned by the girl.

Then the unsheathing of more blades jolted him back. When he turned, I could see it in his eyes. It was that hard look, the one he gave right before unleashing an arrow. The girl was his. No one was going to take her from him.

Seeing Chloe, I couldn’t say I blamed him.

Mark yanked a short sword from his belt and bellowed, “I will fight any man here to protect what is mine!”

The men cursed at him, pressing forward. More weapons flashed in the firelight. I stood next to Mark and raised my own blade; a few men swore, as if they had hoped I wouldn’t get involved. Yeah, right.

“Silence!” roared the Sovereign.

The Sovereign raising his voice usually meant someone was about to die. The din died out, but no one lowered their weapons.

“We will have order in my Hall,” Balthazar said.

“My Lord!” It was Cosmas.

Devil, I thought. Stay out of this.

Balthazar motioned to him to step forward. “Speak, Cosmas.”

“My Sovereign, for too long your soldiers have been in a state of confusion. Torn between our loyalty for you, and our love of the law!”

Agreement swept through the multitude.

“You decreed, forty years ago,” Cosmas continued, “that any Imperial man who mated with a woman of impure blood would be put to death.”

Rumbles of approval.

“He would be put to death for breaking your law. And the woman, she would be put to death as well, to ensure no half-breed ever walks this earth!”

The crowd shouted in triumph.

Cosmas raised his arms and quieted them. “How, my Lord, can we simply allow the opposite? How can we hand one of our women, hailing from the Fatherland, bred for this service, to a…a heathen?”

Cosmas spat at our feet, and the men screamed in agreement.

“Kill the pigbloods!”

“Protect the bloodline!”

“The Sovereign betrays the law!”

Balthazar spotted who screamed that last one. He pointed to an overweight, red-haired man and said, “Guards, take him to the Courtyard and cut out his tongue.”

The guards leapt forward, arrested the soldier, and dragged him toward the massive doors.

“Wait!” the man shrieked. “No, wait, please!”

“Oopsies,” Regis said, and the skeletons laughed.

The doors slammed shut.

Mark turned to Balthazar. “My challenge stands, My Liege, if you will allow it. I will fight to the death any man who wishes to.” He whirled on the men. “If I am a heathen, come and kill me. The girl will pass to the next man drawn. If I should slay you, then I am an Imperial, and I take the girl as my own!”

A smile tugged at Balthazar’s lips. He nodded his agreement.

“We accept the duel!” Cosmas barked. The soldiers clanged their weapons and cheered.

“Send forth your challenger,” Mark said.

Cosmas waved someone over, and the crowd parted for him. It was Blasius.

I swore under my breath. Mark, what have you done?

In an instant, the crowd moved as one, pushing back to give the duelists space, slamming tables and chairs against the far wall. Dishes and instruments and food clattered on the floor. Chloe and the other women, amazed, mortified, moved behind Balthazar’s throne. The Sovereign sat, grabbed an apple from his plate, and bit into it.

Blasius pulled forth his sword and examined its sharpness. He looked at me, not Mark, and smiled.

So that’s how it is, I thought. You’ll kill my best friend right in front of me. I wanted to slash my blade across that smile.

Mark seemed unfazed.

“His downward cut is fast, but he’s slower on the thrust,” I whispered to Mark.

“Don’t think you know more about his style than I do,” he replied. “You’ve watched him fight while fighting enemies off yourself. I’ve watched him from a clearer vantage point.”

“He’s right handed, but left footed. Don’t let his footwork confuse–”

“You’re not really building up my confidence, Zecharias.”

“I think he was hurt once on the–”

“Right knee.” Mark rolled his shoulders and loosened his neck. “You worry too much.”

“We’ll see.” I gripped his shoulder. “Finish him quickly.”

Mark glanced at Chloe. She looked away.

You’d better root for him, I thought. You could do a lot worse. In fact, if Mark died, she would do a lot worse.

Blasius and Mark raised their blades, and all was still.

Then the distance between them disappeared, and the Great Hall echoed with the clanging of their weapons. They danced back and forth before the throne.

The men rubbed their sweaty palms together in anticipation. I noticed the Sovereign doing the same. Then I noticed myself doing it.

Blasius was stronger than Mark. His blows were painful to block. Mark offered few hard strikes of his own. He let Blasius expend energy trying to finish the battle fast. He had no intention of finishing Blasius quickly. He let Blasius chase him around, pounding with the heavy sword.

A quarter of an hour passed. Blasius had started the race too hard, and he knew it. He had broken into a fierce sweat. Mark seemed energized and light on his feet. He was the weaker swordsman, but was younger and had great endurance. I couldn’t believe it, but he was holding his own.

Blasius slammed his blade down so hard Mark almost lost his own. Mark jumped back and, wincing, switched hands.

I swore. That wasn’t good.

The skeletons cackled, expecting a fatal blow.

Blasius seized upon the opportunity, and struck with such a might that when Mark’s sword blocked it, it fell back, and the tips of both swords smashed onto the floor. The two were suddenly inches apart. Mark reached with his right hand, snatched a knife from Blasius’ left hip, and stabbed him in the chest with it.

Blasius gasped.

His sword fell. He stared at Mark, at his chest, at me. Then he collapsed.

Mark slid his sword, clean as could be, into its sheath. Balthazar’s expression was like stone. He rose, took Chloe’s hand, and passed it to Mark’s.

The speechless men parted, and the three of us left.

Chapter VI

For the first time, Mark and I weren’t always together. The night of the Lottery, I found Fedor and shared his room. Very soon, I realized, Mark would probably move from the castle to the Imperial village outside the walls. Soldiers with mates were allowed to construct their own homes to raise families.

Chloe was cold to Mark. He related a conversation to me they had one night, on the battlements.

“I want to go home,” Chloe whispered.

Mark couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Being pretty is a curse in the Fatherland. I was taken and put in a Protectory when I was a little girl. My family was allowed to visit me, but I was never allowed to leave, except on special occasions and holidays. Even then, I was never apart from my teachers.”

“Sorry, Protectory?” Mark had said.

Chloe laughed mirthlessly. “You have no idea what happens before those ships reach this shore and you have your little prize drawing, do you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“A Protectory keeps girls secluded from the outside world. From men, from work, from the sun. From scratches and sickness and family. It’s meant to keep us young and beautiful, unattached and unloved. So we can be shipped like the finest horses here to you.”

“Oh.”

“Oh,” she mocked. “I will never see my family again! I had a loving mother, and two little sisters.”

“Perhaps…perhaps you will see them again. Your sisters.”

Mistake. Chloe whirled on him.

“Don’t say that!” she screamed. “Don’t say that! I don’t want them to go to a Protectory. I don’t want them sent here. I want them to stay with Mother. I never want to see them again, don’t you understand?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”

But Chloe had slapped her hand over her mouth. Mark heard a muffled curse escape her lips.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Forgive me for screaming. I won’t do it again.”

“It’s, it’s all right. You have reason to be upset.”

“You’re not going to do anything about it?”

“No, of course not. I’m not about to beat you.”

Chloe was relieved. “All right.” She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

“They train you to expect that over there?”

“We know what the men here are like. Most of our schooling was about how best to avoid angering our husbands, how to serve and entertain them.”

Mark grimaced.

“They’re cruel, cruel, and they’ll beat you, every night unless we teach you,” she muttered.

Mark couldn’t help smiling.

“Something our teachers loved to sing,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Mark said, touching her shoulder. “Really, I am. I understand why you’ve barely spoken.”

She looked away, staring into darkness. “I spent my whole life dreading this. Years and years and years. At the Protectorate, we didn’t celebrate birthdays by how old we were, but by how many years we had left until we were eligible. And now I’m here. The nightmares have come true.”

“What can I do? To make things easier?”

She turned away. “I want to go home.”

* * *

Mark and I were riding across the fields, the castle a speck on the horizon, when he told me this. I had been six days since the Lottery. It angered me.

“She’s ungrateful,” I said. “Does she know how lucky she is she ended up with you?”

Mark picked a chestnut bur out of Bravado’s mane, and shrugged.

“Anyone else, and she wouldn’t get away with a word of complaint. She would get beaten, and hard too.”

“She knows it.”

“And she still complains like that? Maybe she does need a slap across the mouth.”

“Shut up,” he snapped. “That’s not your place to say.”

“Maybe not. But you killed Blasius for her, and had you lost she probably would have ended up with him. The last mate he had, he choked to death, you know.”

“Well, I won. Forget about everything else.”

“Well, the sooner you teach her a lesson, the sooner she’ll come to terms with her new life.”

“Shut up!” Mark shouted, so loud it startled Relic.

Suddenly, we were glaring at each other.

“That’s not your place. Don’t tell me how I should or shouldn’t treat her.” He spat on the ground in front of me. “You really think beating her will make things better? As if! You’re not an expert on the subject, and that shows why.”

“Calm down,” I said.

“She isn’t the happiest right now, but that can change. But not if I’m whipping her.”

“Fine, Mark, do whatever you want.”

“Thank you, I will.”

I wanted to both curse and slap myself in the face. Calm down, I said to myself. What do you care? We rode on in awkward silence; Bravado and Relic sensed something was wrong and pulled apart from each other, giving us some space.

I knew why I was angry. It was a combination of things. The past six days I had barely seen Mark at all, and had been bored, agitated, alone. I had spent some time eating and gambling with Fedor or Uri, but I grew tired of making small talk. After Mark had killed Blasius, tensions were high, and my conversations with them were awkward and forced. Despite their good-natured spirits, they were now more hesitant to associate themselves with me. I was also mad because throwing Chloe into the situation was going to make every day that much harder. I could relate to Balthazar’s anger; I wanted to find Tiberius and head-butt him myself. I couldn’t kill the planners, they were already gone. Not dead, but serving ten years as slaves in the mines. Balthazar had been right to keep us out of the drawing. We couldn’t earn acceptance and honor from men who burned with rage over heathens desecrating their women. They both loved and hated the Sovereign. He was a terrifying god to them, and every time they went to battle, it was an act of worship. But they hated the hypocrisy. Men had snuck out to the villages and found slave girls before, and Balthazar saw to it the woman was drowned and the man butchered alive. Perhaps the men were hypocrites themselves, obsessive about the bloodline, but furious they themselves could not break the law and take a non-Imperial as a mate. It took years and years of waiting for your name to be pulled from the cauldron. This made it all the worse, no doubt, that the very year Mark was eligible, he won. And won a woman so beautiful it was almost painful to look at her for too long. All this was racing through my mind day and night. Our futures were bleak. They would try harder and harder to kill us. Leading men in battle was a joke now.

But Mark wasn’t thinking of any of that. He was concerned with Chloe. Getting to know her. Making her happy. Enjoying her company. Despite her anger and coldness, it was clear she was highly intelligent and strong, and Mark liked that. (Which some men would find strange.) But he was ignoring the world around him! And she had the audacity to gripe, when she had no idea what Mark and I had been through since we were boys. She was sad because she missed her mommy. We were afraid to sleep, because we may not see morning.

* * *

We weren’t the kind to apologize. I don’t know if any Imperial has apologized, ever. We gave each other time and forgot about it.

A few days later I was resting on my bed before the action of the day, boots crossed and fingers steepled on my chest. Chloe and Mark had a quiet discussion on the other side of the room.

“We’re going to begin building this week,” Mark said, of their home in the Imperial village.

“Who’s we?” Chloe asked, smiling.

“Well,” Mark said, “I’ll be supervising about ten slaves. We can find another hammer if you like.”

“No, thank you. My teachers would sense it and hunt me down.”

“It’ll be a big house. Fit for a queen. You’ll like it.”

Chloe shrugged. “Anything will do, really. Anything is better than our tiny cells at the Protectory. How long will it take?”

“Four days, maybe five. It will be empty, but I figured we would move in anyway, if you wished.”

“Yes, please.”

I chuckled inside; this room was too small for two people, let alone three. I, of course, was usually locked out of it these days.

Mark put on his belt, and sat to tie up his boots.

“Where are you going?” Chloe asked.

He motioned toward me. “We’re heading to the docks. There’s a ship coming in. I’m hoping to find some furnishings among the imports. If I find some, I’ll have them hold them so you can come see and help me choose.”

Chloe nodded, and looked about, probably wondering what she would do to pass the time. Things could become boring quickly for a soldier; Chloe had to be losing her mind. Or perhaps she was used to it.

“Are you the decorating expert of this duo?” Chloe asked me.

I grinned, waving my hand. “Well, naturally. Every archer needs one.”

Mark kissed the top of Chloe’s head. I swung my boots over my bed, and we rose and left.

* * *

We watched the grasshoppers unload their goods. It was a grey day, with a chilling wind. We stayed clear of the icy spray of the waves, our hands clasped behind our backs to shield them from the wind.

“So you’re moving out,” I said. It was a hard thing to imagine, after all this time, and I regretted it deeply. I had tried not to think much of it, but today that had been made impossible.

“I suppose so. Will you move in with Fedor?”

“Probably so. He’s the only one who won’t gut me.”

“Yeah. I’ll be making this house a fortress, I can promise you that.”

“Good. And you and her seem great.”

Marked nodded, his eyes remembering the tension between us.

“I’m happy for you,” I said. “Really, I am. And quite jealous.”

Mark smiled wide and slapped me on the back. “It’s only a matter of time, Zec.”

“Nonsense,” I said, laughing. “You used up enough luck for both of us. That won’t happen again. Not if Tiberius wants to live.”

“You never know. Perhaps the Sovereign will only see it fair.”

I shook my head. “Never. Never going to happen.”

“Things can change. Laws can change. We’re living proof.”

He was wrong, but there was no point in arguing over it.

We watched the grasshopper depart, back to its colossus.

* * *

When I made it back to our room, Chloe was dead.

There she lay, naked and bloody on the bed, glassy eyes wide and horrible. I was alone; Mark had dropped by the stables to make sure Bravado was being well cared for.

Gods, I thought, my throat tight, my body numb.

She hadn’t made it ten days.

I couldn’t move. It didn’t matter. There was nowhere to go. Mark would come up those stairs and down that hall in a few moments. He would see me frozen in the doorway, would look over my shoulder in puzzlement. He would see his wife, butchered. He would scream, shoulder past me, reach for Chloe, but would be unable to touch her cold, wet skin. He would collapse on the ground, staggering back against my bed, the horror and agony on his face washing away, replaced by pure, pitiful shock. Breathing wildly, he would cover his eyes with his hand and weep.

And so it was. I dropped to the ground and held Mark as he wailed.

Chloe stared at us. I reach over and closed her eyes, and also cried.

Mark didn’t say anything till nearly a half an hour later. He rose to his feet suddenly and bellowed, “She was innocent!”

His voice echoed down the hall. On and on and on.

“She did nothing, you cowards! Why didn’t you send her home?” he roared. “You could have just sent her home!”

* * *

After we buried Chloe in the area of the cemetery meant for women and children, Mark stayed in our room for three days. I brought him food. I even brought him a waste pail. I was relieved we weren’t assigned on a patrol; Mark never would have gone, and his punishment could have been severe. He spent his time either trying to sleep or trying to stay awake. He looked lost.

I had ventured out, talking to any allies I had, trying to find out if anyone knew anything. If they knew who had done it, they were skilled liars. They knew nothing. I spent as much time as I could in the Great Hall, in the Courtyard, in the shadows and around corners, hoping to catch a piece of a conversation. Where were the rumors that always ran so speedily through the halls of the castle?

I eavesdropped on the skeletons. Sneaky, suspicious, spying, if anyone had heard anything, surely they had. But I grew impatient with their prattling about gold and silver, that had once seemed so funny. So I left my hiding place and approached their table in the Great Hall.

“The mighty Zecharias!” Regis said.

“What brings you to us?” Patrick asked.

They all wore smiles. They found the bickerings of mortals so amusing.

“Mark’s wife is dead. I want to know if you know anything.”

“Such a shame, too!” lamented Skeleton the First. “She was fiery!”

The skeletons cackled.

I was angry, impatient. “Have you heard anything?”

Skeleton the Second clutched his hand to his breast. “Well, it wasn’t us!”

“That’s right,” Ghosty said. “We’re the only ones who couldn’t care less.”

“Don’t kill us!” wailed Skeleton the First.

Gales of laughter.

I snatched Skeleton the First’s goblet from his fingers and bashed it across his skull with all my might. There was a sickening crack, and he and his chair crashed to the ground.

“Ow!” he shouted.

“Stop wasting my time! If you know something, out with it. If not, say so and let me be on my way.”

“It’s unwise,” Regis sneered, playing with a knife, “to make enemies of immortals.”

Skeleton the Second snickered as he helped his brother back up.

Patrick smiled wide. “We may know something. But it’s not going to come free.”

“Nor cheap!” Skeleton the First snapped.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“How much you got?” Regis said.

“Answer me first.”

Regis pondered for a moment. “Hmm, five pounds. Gold. Each!”

Cackles.

I turned and marched away in disgust.

“It really is too bad,” I heard Patrick say.

“Yeah, she was hot!” said Skeleton the First.

* * *

I returned to Mark on the third night to find him sitting on my bed, his short sword on the floor. He had destroyed his bed in a fit of rage. He shuddered and wept. It was no matter. I had given him my bed and slept on the floor anyway. The bed had been unused, neither of us having the stomach to sleep in it. It was just the same that it was in splinters.

“This is my doing,” Mark said.

“It’s just a bed.”

“No, Chloe. I never thought…”

“They would go this far?” I sat next to him. “Sure you did.”

It was I who hadn’t thought of it. We were the pigbloods. We were the targets. We had to look out for ourselves. Why hadn’t I considered her safety? What a fool I was!

He wiped his sleeve across his nose. He nodded. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Yeah.”

“I should never have left her alone.”

“Forget that. If you hadn’t left her alone today, you would have had to tomorrow. Our next patrol. Our next war. You didn’t have a choice, you never did.”

“I didn’t even give her a blade. I could have taught her to use it.”

“Against a soldier?”

“It would have helped. Don’t tell me it wouldn’t have helped,” he snapped.

I nodded. “I guess it could have.”

“I should have moved faster on getting a house built. I can’t believe I delayed.”

I gripped his shoulder. “Mark, stop. Stop with the ‘I should have’ nonsense. You can’t think like that.”

“She didn’t even lock the door,” he hissed. “Why didn’t she lock the door? Did I remind her to? I can’t remember.”

I let go of his shoulder and sighed.

“Did you hear anything?” he asked, avoiding my gaze.

“No, nothing. I’ll keep trying.”

“Doesn’t matter. I know who it was.”

“You think so, huh?”

“Yes, I do.”

* * *

Trying to talk Mark out of taking a weapon wouldn’t have just been impossible, it would have been a grave insult. An Imperial was never without his sword. Mark’s was in his hand when he kicked in Cosmas’ door.

“By the gods!” Cosmas barked, rolling off his bed, diving for his sword. Mark kicked it away from him.

Cosmas raised his hands. “I’ll see you both in the dungeons for this outrage!”

I slammed his door shut. As if we wouldn’t be punished if no one else heard. As long as Mark didn’t kill him, I was confident we wouldn’t be executed. We probably would serve time. I just had to make sure Mark didn’t do anything stupid.

“Be careful what you say,” Mark said, shaking. “We may be the last faces you ever see.”

Cosmas spat at his feet. “You dare threaten me, heathen!”

Mark raised his blade to Cosmas’ neck. “Did you kill her?”

He threw back his head and laughed.

Mark kicked him in the gut, and he collapsed, doubling over on his bed. Mark’s blade cut ever so slightly into his cheek.

“Did you kill her?” Mark bellowed.

Cosmas tried to laugh even while gasping for breath. “You…you don’t know?” He looked at me. “Neither of you know? How?” He found his lungs again and roared with laughter. “It was the Sovereign, you fools! It was Balthazar!”

Chapter VII

Sova.

We had left Cosmas as he was.

Back in the room, Mark glared at his boots, his hand over his mouth, as he thought. I paced about the room, hands behind my back. Mostly, I was guarding the door, wary of Mark escaping.

The torches flickered, our shadows danced. We held our positions for over an hour, before Mark spoke.

“I’m going to kill him.”

Of course you are, I thought.

He looked me in the eye. “I’m going to kill the Sovereign.”

I leaned against the door. “Not if you want to live.”

“Why would he do this?”

I frowned. “The Sovereign cares about the bloodline. The law was his. If we never have mates, our impurity dies with us.”

Mark rose, and tightened his belt. He bent low and grasped his bow and quiver. He flung the quiver over his shoulder and clasped it.

I didn’t move.

“When I say I’m going to do something, I do it,” he said.

I shook my head.

“You can come with me, or stay here. Either way, stand aside.”

“I won’t do that,” I said.

Mark’s eyes flashed. “Would you protect the man who killed her?”

No, I thought, and I meant it. “Balthazar can burn for this. But not at your hand. You’re not thinking clearly. You do this, and you are dead. Your death will be long and painful. They will invent new ways to torture you.”

Mark raised his chin, undeterred.

“I can’t let you do that.”

“You think I don’t know the consequences?” Mark snapped. He took a bold step forward, right up to me. “I will kill him.”

“Stand down,” I hissed.

Our hands drifted to the hilts of our blades.

“That’s the right idea,” Mark whispered. “You’ll have to kill me to stop me.”

“I have no intention of killing you. We can just dance until you’re too exhausted to stand.”

Mark hesitated. He knew I was right. I did it every time.

He sighed. “I don’t have the stomach for this place anymore,” he whispered.

I was surprised.

That was it then. He was leaving.

Could he escape? I doubted it.

“They will never stop hunting you,” I said.

Mark nodded. “You can’t watch me forever. You can’t guard that door till we’re both old and weak. I will kill the Sovereign. And I will run. When I die, I die. That’s it.”

There was no doubting his conviction. I looked at the ground, and sighed. I stepped away.

Mark smiled and clapped me on the shoulder.

Then he was gone.

* * *

Within three minutes, I was in the doorway, looking around our childhood room for the last time. Then I turned and followed him.

I quickly realized he must have taken off at at a run. I quickened my pace. Up the endless stairs.

My heart racing, I reached the top. A colossal tapestry of a battle was in front of me. It hailed the birth of the Imperium, forty long years ago. The hall to my right would lead to the throne room. The hall to my left would lead to Balthazar’s chambers.

Left.

I slowed my pace, listening carefully. Nothing.

The hall curved lazily. The torches were angled so the shadow of anyone approaching could be seen from the end of the hall, at Balthazar’s door. There would be no sneaking up on the guards.

The guards were dead on the floor. Three bodies had one arrow puncturing something vital. The fourth man had required two.

Mark had worked fast.

Balthazar’s door was open.

There was Balthazar, writhing on his bed, Mark’s short sword in his gut.

I stepped inside.

“You took her,” Mark hissed in the Sovereign’s face. “You took her for yourself, and then you killed her.”

Balthazar’s wife, Kalia, was nowhere to be seen. Had she escaped? Had the rest of the castle been roused?

Balthazar gasped, turning white, blood and spittle squirting from his dry lips.

Mark pressed down harder on the hilt. “You could have sent her away, you devil!”

I grimaced, and not for Balthazar’s pain. I looked back down the corridor.

Mark’s flaring eyes filled.

Balthazar gnashed his teeth, like a dog in defiance.

Mark pulled forth his sword in a shower of crimson and stabbed the Sovereign higher, in the heart. Balthazar’s eyes bulged, his throat gurgling, choking. His face froze, and his body lay still.

The deed was done. Mark only noticed me then. He freed his sword from the corpse and wiped it on the sheets. Then he gazed long and hard at the scene.

Come on, stupid! I thought. I stepped in and quickly took him by the arm, pulling him from the room.

“We’re getting out of here.”

We hurried down the empty hallway.

* * *

We were dead. Mark had killed us.

It didn’t matter that we had escaped. It didn’t matter that the castle somehow slept quietly that night, while Mark and I snuck to the stables to get Bravado and Relic. It didn’t matter that we had managed to silently kill the guards at the portcullis. It didn’t matter that the castle didn’t stir until we had raised the gate and were galloping for our lives.

It was only a matter of time before they found us.

Mark had killed one of those guards, I had killed the other. Now we both had Imperial blood on our hands. As if I had had a choice in the matter. As if I would have chosen differently if I had.

We rode hard south, throughout the entire night. We avoided Imperial outposts and subjugated villages alike, but kept to the roads as much as possible. They would try to track us. Ourselves and our horses had to be the only ones who knew where we had gone.

Hour after hour passed by.

We said nothing. There was nothing to say.

As the morning light peeked over the hills, we took shelter in some woods that the Imperial slaves were nowhere near ready to fell, but were not too close to the front.

Our old lives seemed far away, so we slept.

* * *

“If they don’t get to you first, I’ll kill you for this.”

Mark was barefoot in a stream, washing his face and hands. I knelt and took a long drink. The water was cold and delicious.

Mark sat. “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Not with words, anyway.”

I slapped him on the back, took off my boots, and stuck my feet into the stream.

Bravado and Relic waited patiently. It was the late afternoon, and they knew night would come and we would ride.

“What will we do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You’re always the one with a plan.”

“Yeah, you see what happens when you make them?”

“Well, then, I’m counting on you.”

* * *

We were the first Imperial outlaws.

Tiberius ascended to the throne, and his first act as Sovereign was to put a bounty on our heads. 300 gold pounds, each. All patrols had a new mission, to find and destroy us. Messengers were sent in all directions; all outposts and villages were alerted. We couldn’t trust the villages. Yes, they despised their overlords, but that didn’t guarantee anything. 600 pounds of gold was a tempting fortune for a peasant. We spied a time or two on a village to hear news and gossip. Balthazar’s death had spurred a massive celebration among the oppressed masses.

We moved around the forests, making a new camp every couple nights. We didn’t have to worry about hunger or thirst. The woods were full of game and mountain streams.

We had two things to worry about: being tracked and dying of boredom. It was a rough couple weeks, though it gave us plenty of time to reflect on what had occurred and what we would do next. Everything had happened so fast. We agreed we would work our way south, and try to make it past the Imperial boundary to free land. The empire was large, but we could not hide forever. Not with the weight of the legions bearing down on us.

I had plenty of thoughts of my own that I didn’t share with Mark. I held a different view of the grounds on which we had betrayed Balthazar. I nearly considered it unjustified, though I wouldn’t dare utter such things to Mark. I say this because Balthazar taking an innocent life was not exactly out of the ordinary. Sometimes he ordered the death of innocent people, sometimes he did it himself. It was mostly to terrorize his subjects. He would randomly execute villagers. We saw him do it once, with our own eyes. This happened over and over throughout our lives, and we thought nothing of it. It was our culture. It was for the empire. Now it was different. Now, to Mark (and thus to me), it was personal. As if all Balthazar’s actions before had been just, and this one deed in a long life of violence was evil. I thought of these things often. After days of lounging in trees, with nothing to do but swat at insects and ponder, I wondered if we were hypocrites. But perhaps that wasn’t it at all, perhaps we had simply been calloused to it, had habituated to it, and it took Chloe’s death to shake us awake.

I didn’t know if Mark thought along these lines, and I didn’t ask. He still blamed himself. I grew tired of trying to change his mind. It was little use. But he was satisfied in his vengeance; he felt he had done the right thing.

“Sometimes betrayal is the right thing to do,” he told me one night. “Grio taught us that.”

And perhaps he had. Only Grio had betrayed to save a life. Mark had betrayed because a life had been taken. Grio’s deed seemed far more noble. We had only caused more death, soon to include our own.

After three weeks, someone found us.

It was a group of revolutionaries, and our encounter was by complete accident. There were fifteen of them stalking the woods, and they heard our horses moving around our resting tree. Thinking it might be deer, they approached.

Mark sat in his perch, his bow drawn. When they looked up and noticed us, five archers drew back their own arrows. I just hid as much of my body behind the trunk, which would do nothing when they decided to surround the tree.

There was an ugly silence.

An older man with a red beard and an ax crossed his arms and stepped forward. Mark aimed for his heart. He was a massive man, tall and wide; it would be difficult to miss.

“I’d ask you your names, but we know them already,” the man said.

“And what about yours?” I asked.

“What is it to you?”

“It would make things even.”

“Then I’m Basil.”

I nodded.

“You have quite the price on your heads,” he said.

“Dead or alive, from what we’ve heard,” Mark said. With a touch of pride, perhaps?

Basil snorted. “Well, we have no interest in Imperial gold.” He waved at his archers to stand down. “I’m sure they would let us walk away in peace with our reward, eh boys?”

His men chuckled.

“Get rid of your weapons and armor,” I said. “Put on a guise. They wouldn’t have to know you were revolutionaries.”

Basil roared with laughter. “I appreciate that advice. But I suppose they would believe simple peasants killed two of their finest warriors?”

“You could say you came upon us while hunting. We were asleep, and you slit our throats,” Mark suggested.

Basil laughed and shook his head. “What would we do with the gold?”

“Give it to your poor,” I said. “Or use it to bribe soldiers. That works more often than you would think.”

Basil raised his hands. “Ha! If you were so set on meeting Death, why didn’t you just wait around after you stabbed Balthazar? Or better yet, gone down fighting?”

“Death isn’t on the top of the priority list at the moment,” Mark said.

“Well, while the gold is tempting, no reward is high enough to warrant turning you in. An enemy of the Sovereign is my friend.”

The group murmured their agreement.

Basil waved to us. “Why don’t you climb on down? We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Waiting for us?” I asked.

Basil smiled. “For twenty years now.”

* * *

Basil’s group had set up a permanent camp nearby, in a depressed area of the woods surrounded by trees so thick you had to turn sidewise to maneuver inside. They had been on their way back when they found us. The camp was empty; Basil said they never left anyone alone.

The group was surprisingly welcoming. After all, who knew how many friends or relatives Mark and I had slain. It turned out that the two twins in Basil’s band, Robert and Roderick, were second cousins of Mark’s. They weren’t much older than us. A few of the revolutionaries, most notably Basil and an old swordsman named Junius, had known one or both of our fathers.

It was night, and we feasted on deer and rabbit stew around a small fire. The band had rigged up a contraption to dissipate the pillar of smoke rising from the flames. Men (and indeed women, for there were four among us) would take turns lying on the ground (with a pillow under one’s head), pushing a lever wedged against a rock. This action spun three blades that were propped high over the fire, scattering the smoke. Mark and I would each take a turn that night.

“Your father,” Junius said in his slow, raspy voice, pointing at me, “Viktor, he was quite an animal on the battlefield.” He tried to laugh. “He refused to carry a shield, preferring two swords. I thought that foolish, but he did all right. A shorter, lighter one in his left hand, a broadsword in his right. He would block with his left, and then thrust with his right. If I recall correctly, Viktor married Laurentia just a few years before the invasion.”

“Beautiful woman, your mother,” Basil said. “I knew it and I wasn’t even a man yet!”

Junius rolled his eyes. “She was also skilled with the bow. Our women fight with us.”

I nodded my thanks. I had many more questions, but for now, just knowing their names was significant.

Junius pointed at Mark and said, “Like you, Josiah was a bowman. Well, a longbowman, actually. There were none better. I once saw him pierce an Imperial’s eye, then the other, at almost three hundred paces!”

Basil and the others chuckled.

“Hogwash!” one muttered.

“Don’t impugn my honor,” Junius snapped. “I saw it with my own eyes.” He turned back to Mark. “Anyway, he married Marlena, the night before the final battle.”

“Very romantic,” Basil said after a gulp of wine.

“And Basil knows romantic,” a man named Thomas quipped.

The group laughed, and so did we.

“Your fathers were good men,” Basil said. “They would have fought to the bitter end.”

“We old men like to say that only the winter storms could bring them down. No Imperial could,” said Junius.

“That’s right,” Basil said. “I wish they were still here. There’s still much work to do.”

Chapter VIII

After that first night, there was no more talk of continuing south.

We journeyed with Basil, who noted that the Imperium searching for us had given revolutionary groups distinct opportunities to inflict serious damage. The revolution had surged again. Across the empire, native forces were rallying. Imperial patrols came under more frequent ambushes, especially in the woods as they searched for us. Slave prisons were being attacked and razed. Since the Imperium enslaved the youngest, healthiest subjects, freeing them en masse meant production slowed for the enemy and revolutionary ranks swelled.

Mark and I knew we could not run away, could not leave the revolutionaries to fight on their own. They were our blood; they needed our help. We had spent our entire lives serving the empire our fathers died fighting. This made me sick to my stomach. Why didn’t it before, Zecharias! If only we hadn’t been boys, wrapped up in a world that was not our own, and unable to see it!

This was our chance to make things right. We had been the oppressors; we chose to become the oppressed. Tiberius had taken the throne, and he would be just like Balthazar. And when Tiberius died, his successor would be just like him.

We would help free our fathers’ land.

Within days of meeting Basil, Mark and I took part in an attack that became legendary. We freed nearly one hundred slaves from a busy lumber mill in the eastern province of the empire. A coordinated assault with another revolutionary group meant that we had a force of forty-five against sixty Imperials. Not many of us had horses, but Basil’s group managed to block most of the Imperials from reaching their own in the stables near the mill. And when we attacked, the slaves rose up with saws, or even simply planks of wood, and hacked apart their oppressors.

Mark killed nine men. I killed twelve. The revolutionary forces lost twenty men and women; twenty-eight (former) slaves died; the Imperials fought to the last man.

Mark and I stood out, not only in our kills but in our attire, as we still wore the Imperial uniform.

“I’m keeping mine,” Mark said to me later, as we rode near the head of our band, just behind Basil.

“For sentimental reasons?”

“You’re funny. A funny man. No, to remind the Imperials who trained us to kill.”

“I like it.”

* * *

Each group of freed slaves was organized into bands of fifteen to thirty, and armed first with Imperial weapons, then weapons secretly created by village smiths. The bands then elected a leader and became an autonomous unit.

Word of our involvement in the resistance spread quickly throughout the land. From what we heard, it caused a great deal of excitement.

The first thing an uninformed man or woman heard was: “They’re two of the Imperium’s fiercest warriors!”

It was followed by: “They’re our sons, they were stolen from us.”

When we met with other groups of fighters, or when three or four of us snuck into a village to relay information, our presence was celebrated. We provided as much information on Imperial tactics, positions, and commanders as we could.

“This is invaluable,” they would all say, and pour us a drink.

* * *

Soon Basil’s band all rode stolen Imperial warhorses. We were a much more mobile, dangerous force. Which was fortunate, because after only a few weeks as revolutionaries, we met the Red Fist in battle.

It was a strangely hot day, though the skies were dark and threatening a storm.

There was no ambush. It was simply a chance encounter, the Red Fist on patrol and our band riding west to deliver stolen swords to a unit that badly needed them.

As Basil, Mark, and I looked out across the plain at the Red Fist, we noted we were quite evenly matched at twenty. Suddenly, the enemy raised their weapons and emitted a terrible shout, full of wrath and cursing. They could see us. They could see our uniforms.

I saw Cosmas point his sword at us and spur his steed. “For the Sovereign!” he bellowed. And here they came.

Basil hefted his ax. “Attack!”

We charged.

Lightning struck on the horizon, and thunder boomed alongside the thunder of hooves.

I pulled forth my sword.

Robert and Roderick, whose horses carried most of the stolen swords, took hold of these weapons and hurled them like javelins into the enemy formation. An Imperial was decapitated, his head and body tumbling from his ride.

Mark let loose an arrow. It hit the breast of a horse, which wailed and crashed to the ground, taking the next two riders with it.

The Imperial archers sent shafts into our midst. A woman was hit in the heart. Thomas was struck in the forehead. An arrow narrowly missed my neck. As we charged nearer, I knew it was Uri who fired it. I saw him string another, a savage look in his ancient eyes, but this time shifted his focus to Mark.

Mark saw him, and drew back his own arrow.

They hit each other. Uri was thrown off his horse with a scream, his stomach pierced. Mark was hit in the shoulder but managed to hold on. He pulled Bravado back to a trot. The rest of us dashed onward. I heard Mark roar and risked a glance back to see him pulling the arrow out of his body, tearing his flesh.

Slowly, he strung the arrow, and sent it back to the Imperials.

That was when our forces met. Cosmas was upon me, and our swords struck. Our horses circled each other aggressively as we exchanged blows. Cosmas clenched his teeth, hammering upon me with all his might. He was full of hatred and malice, but was not the best of swordsmen. I countered his attacks easily.

Suddenly, a horse rose up behind me, and a second attacker swung for skull. I half-turned and blocked it, a loud clang right in my ear. Cosmas lunged; I turned his aside. The second attacker was a man named Sabor, whose skills with a blade were paltry at best. I crashed my blade to the right against his, and quickly to the left to stave off Cosmas.

Cosmas laughed, spittle flying from his lips, as they pressed me. Relic saved my life, continuing to back up in the chaos to keep me from having to turn around and defend my backside and my front.

I blocked a strike from Sabor by, rather than meeting his blade, slamming my sword onto the top of his guard, above the hilt. This broke his hand, and I sank my weapon into his heart before a scream of pain escaped his throat.

Cosmas and I crashed blades for but another few seconds. I deftly forced his steel away from his body and slashed him across the mouth. Blood sprayed in his eyes and he let loose a pitiful cry. He swung his sword blindly, and I cut off his arm at the wrist. He screamed, and then I killed him.

Relic rushed me to the next opponent, and on I fought.

The two biggest men on the field, Paul the Terrible and Basil himself, had inevitably found each other. They had killed each other’s horses and dueled on the ground. It ended when Basil drove aside Paul’s defense with his ax and head-butted him. Basil cleaved upward, biting through Paul’s armor and destroying his ribcage and the organs they protected.

In the end, there were eleven of us left. Junius was among the fallen, taken out with an arrow.

The Red Fist was gone.

* * *

In response to the surge of revolutionaries, Tiberius reorganized patrols into small armies. When it was learned we were with them, the search was discontinued and efforts focused solely on finding and destroying revolutionary bands. And the next few weeks saw this happen quite often.

He had whole armies guarding slave groups now. Basil led us toward the mountains, hoping the slaves in the mines would be less protected.

As we hiked through the rocky wilderness, darkness spreading, we realized we were being tracked. Birds that had risen as we passed and settled back down would take flight again a few miles behind us. Mark and I broke off from the group and stealthily circled back.

It was the skeletons.

The incredible thing was, they were on foot. Horses, after all, wouldn’t bear them. They had the advantage of requiring neither nourishment nor rest, but it was still a stunning feat.

Their footsteps were deathly silent, but they couldn’t help squabbling.

“Now see here,” Regis snapped. “Six hundred pounds divided evenly between us. That was our agreement from the beginning.”

“That was if we took them both alive,” Patrick said. “Naturally, the one who actually kills them takes a larger share!”

“He’s right,” Ghosty said.

“Shut up, Ghosty,” Skeleton the Second said. “Patrick knows that was never a part of our agreement. Dead or alive, we split it equally.”

Skeleton the First counted on his fingers. “Let’s see, that’s six hundred…into five is…is…eh…”

“A hundred each, idiot,” said Regis.

“A hundred ten,” Ghosty corrected tenderly.

“A hundred twenty,” Patrick spat.

“Which is a hefty prize for everyone,” Regis muttered.

Patrick shook his head. “Whoever makes a kill should take two hundred pounds. Two of us will get two hundred, the others divide up the rest.”

“Ridiculous,” Regis said.

“Or,” Skeleton the First piped up gleefully, “if one of us kills both of them…”

“Four hundred,” Patrick said, smiling wide.

Skeleton the First squealed in delight.

“No, no, no!” Regis barked. “I’m the leader of this brigade. We stick to our agreement.”

“We’ll see about that,” Patrick sneered.

“Indeed we will!”

The skeletons then decided to stop.

“We’re drawing close. By tomorrow night, we’ll be sneaking into their camp and stealing their heads,” Skeleton the Second said.

“And then back to Tiberius,” Ghosty whispered.

“To collect our reward!” Skeleton the First screamed.

Skeleton the Second slammed him on the head.

Mark and I quietly made our way back to Basil, and told him.

* * *

When the skeletons began moving again in the frigid morning, they were suddenly faced with not one but four trails to follow. After a solid half-hour of debating whether or not they should split up, they decided to stay together and take a shot in the dark.

Mark and I were now tracking them, to see if they would pick a false trail.

They did.

“Onward!” Regis commanded. We watched them disappear through the trees.

“Let’s get back,” Mark said.

I caught his arm. “What, you don’t want to see this?”

He grinned. “Yeah, all right.”

We hung back a while, then followed them.

Miles later, the skeletons reached the point where Basil’s band had turned around and doubled-back. It was directly in front of a large rock face with a big cave opening. The rock wall and the ground at the skeletons’ feet were black as night.

“Oh, oh no!” Patrick gasped. “Regis, is that you?”

Regis covered his face. “By the Sovereign! That smells awful!”

“Wait…” Ghosty said, eyeing the cave.

Skeleton the First sniffed himself and shrugged sheepishly.

“It’s coming from in there!” Ghosty declared.

There was a rumble from the dark.

“Eek!” Skeleton the First said.

“Well, time to go,” said Skeleton the Second nervously.

“Sova!” Regis swore. “Mountain beasts!”

From the rock emerged what the Imperials called Dualies: two-headed, flightless black dragons, as long as some warships. Four ugly heads gnashed their teeth at the intruders.

Patrick shrieked, “I’m too young to die!”

The Dualies sent forth quick bursts of angry flame. The skeletons turned to run, but one of the dragons leapt behind them, its heads encircling them, swaying back and forth menacingly. Mark and I watched in horrified fascination. No one was sure what could kill the skeletons…but this might be it.

Regis grabbed hold of Patrick, Skeleton the First grabbed Skeleton the Second, and Ghosty whimpered fearfully, holding himself.

“It’s not fair!” Regis bellowed. “It’s not fair!”

The Dualies stopped, eyeing the skeletons curiously. They sniffed and peered, prodded and nudged.

“Wha–what’s happening?” Skeleton the First asked.

“They know we’re not food!” Ghosty said cautiously.

“I think they like us!” Regis said.

“It must be my rugged good looks,” Patrick said.

“They’ve just never seen anything like us, idiot,” Regis snapped.

Skeleton the Second carefully reached out a hand and touched one of the beasts. It eyed him but offered no reaction. The dragons turned and rested by the cave entrance.

“We’re alive,” gasped Skeleton the First.

“What do we do now?” Patrick asked.

“Now,” Regis declared, smiling evilly, “we see if these beasts can be tamed!”

* * *

As it turned out, they could.

To say our plan backfired, however, would be premature.

When we realized the skeletons were staying put for a while, we rode off to report to Basil. When we returned, we were amazed to see the skeletons climbing up onto the backs of the beasts. They had worked faster than either of us could believe.
Regis cackled hysterically. “The traitors don’t stand a chance against these babies!”

Patrick, behind him, scoffed, “Think, you imbecile. Why would we even need to go after them now? With these beasts, we can seize the throne. We should make for the castle!”

“He’s right!” Ghosty said.

“Yes!” shouted Skeleton the First.

Regis laughed. “Well, Patrick, you old fool, when you’re right, you’re right!”

The skeletons seemed surprised for a moment. How it could be that there was no argument brewing? Then they cackled greedily.

“All right,” Regis said. “We storm the gates. Onward!”

They spurred the Dualies forward, and were on their way.

* * *

Standing next to Basil and Mark and the rest of the band, we watched the dragons speedily making their way down the rocks and cliffs in the distance.

“If they lay siege to the castle, this is an opportunity like no other,” Basil said.

Roderick said, “It’s our chance to stab the heart.”

“There’s no guarantee they’ll have to,” Robert. “Those demons might trick them into opening the gates.”

Basil turned to us. “What say you to that?”

This is madness, I thought.

But I said, “The Imperials won’t open the gates for them.”

“Agreed,” said Mark. “They’ll have to strike.”

Basil smiled. “Then both the Fates and the gods have favored us today.” He turned to face his band. “We’ll have to split up. Each man will ride like Death’s behind him. We must reach every command post, every village, every unit. We will gather at White Burrows.”

Robert stepped forward. “Sir, if things go wrong, we will be fish on a hook. The army will ride out and destroy us.”

“That’s the risk we take,” Basil said. “We’ll either fight and live or fight and die. Either way, we fight. Let’s get organized. Tonight’s the night.”

Chapter IX

Relic thundered out of the last location I was responsible for alerting, a small mountain village called Clover. We galloped under the afternoon sun. It was strange, riding alone. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever done it before.

My mission complete, it was time to head for White Burrows, one of the last villages south of the castle. My heart pounded just thinking of what was to come.

The revolutionaries had never had the numbers or equipment for a large-scale assault. Taking the castle would require siege weapons; villagers could barely churn out a few swords without getting caught. Anything bigger was impossible.

But until the castle fell, there was little chance at freedom. But was it possible? Or were we all marching to our deaths?

I wondered how far Mark was from the gathering point. He had been sent to reach our allies in the eastern province; he was sent farther than probably anyone else.

As Relic trotted down a lazily sloping mountain path, a clearance appeared in the tree line, and I could see the castle by the sea on the horizon.

There it was. A tiny burst of flame!

The skeletons were already at work.

* * *

As the sun set, White Burrows witnessed what no one else ever had: the full might of the revolution.

I was stunned. Mark and I simply could not believe our eyes.

Thousands upon thousands of revolutionaries, battle-hardened and armed to the teeth. This was so much larger than we had ever known or been led to believe. When bands of ten to twenty stalked the empire and pestered patrols, an organized army of this size was unimaginable. The Sovereign had lied to us, lied to everyone, about the threat of the resistance.
Perhaps this wasn’t madness after all.

The battle between the skeletons and the Imperials was still raging. The Dualie Regis and Patrick rode swept the battlements with flame, keeping archers at bay. Most that rose to take a shot were blasted and fell burning and screaming from the wall. The two heads on the beast of the other three smote the portcullis, which glowed orange and red. The doors had long since been reduced to smoldering ash. The iron portcullis was all that was left. Once the dragons broke inside, there would be a slaughter.

Did any skeleton or Imperial noticed the gathering at White Burrows? Who knew. If they did, it changed nothing.

Mark and I rode out of the village with Basil, who was placed in charge of a division that included his band and ten others. The army was marching resolutely forward, a few columns with old war banners from long ago, ragged blue and gold lions flapping in the wind. The only sound was the pounding of boots and hooves as we journeyed across the plain.

The sun was beginning to set.

“It was a beautiful day today,” Mark said.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, it was.”

“Tomorrow will be just a pleasant, I imagine.”

“Perhaps so.”

“Let’s be sure to be there,” Mark said, grinning. “Tomorrow.”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

The Dualies’ work was done. The portcullis melted away, curling and contorting and collapsing. The skeletons let out a savage cheer.

“Attack!” Regis shouted, and they disappeared inside the castle. We saw fire, smoke, and arrows, and heard screams.

We maintained our steady pace. We had to be fresh when we struck. Our enemies would be exhausted.

The grassland seemed so much larger than I remembered.

“Six pounds silver says I kill Tiberius,” Mark said.

“Wasn’t one Sovereign enough for you? Greedy fool.”

“You in?”

“Yeah.”

And after a few quiet moments, I asked, “How’s the shoulder?”

“Usable.”

By the time we reached the castle, the sun was about to disappear behind the hills.

There were a few archers that decided to focus on us, rather than two dragons loose inside. Shafts pierced faces and thighs, shields and earth.

That was when we roared. The army pulled forth their weapons and raised them, screaming, craving the blood of their oppressors.

And in we went.

The horses galloped, the men sprinted. The columns poured through the broken gates and into the Courtyard where we had watched Grio die so long ago. There were charred bodies underfoot; revolutionaries and Imperials alike leapt them as they charged and smashed together.

Relic pushed into the fray. I blocked a blow and cleaved off an Imperial’s scalp, which spun like a discus and flicked blood in all directions. Mark hung back, looking to the battlements and sniping other archers. Many would see him and try to strike him first, and all of them failed.

I lost sight of Basil, but Roderick and Robert were hacking away nearby. I saw a woman on the ground kill two men with a single swipe, biting into one’s neck and the other’s skull.

Relic rose up and crushed a man. I cut into someone’s wrist, then his jaw. Our forces kept pouring in; the Imperial numbers were quickly diminishing. My sword struck aside a spear and buried itself into an enemy eye. Beside me, a revolutionary was hit in the chest with an arrow and disappeared from his steed.

All around, the hammering of blades, the crack of bodies striking the stones, the splash of blood, the curses of men, and the screams of the injured. It was the sound of slaves taking back what was theirs.

We took the Courtyard. We roared in triumph and surged forward, into the towers, into the corridors, into the stables, into the Great Hall.

Basil reappeared, blood soaking his ax and body, and rallied his division toward the Great Hall. We battled our way inside.

An Imperial sliced into Relic’s shoulder, and he wrenched away and wailed in pain. I swore and cut off the man’s head. Relic but pressed on.

A man leapt up onto the table and swung a broadsword for my head. An arrow pierced his throat and he collapsed. Thanks Mark, I thought. I slashed on the other side of Relic.

Imperials were pushing in from the corridors. Our progress was halted. And any minute, I expected four dragon heads to appear and burn us alive.

I dueled a particularly skilled soldier for several seconds, before gutting him. Blood and sweat stung my eyes; I tried to rub it away quickly. An Imperial was sprinting down the table, charging me.

For a moment, I was stunned. It was Fedor!

His eyes, so full of hate. He feigned a downward blow with his blade against me, and instead thrust straight into Relic’s neck.

Relic fell. I managed to dive away before he crushed me. I was barely on my feet when Fedor leapt off the table and smashed his weapon against mine.

I don’t know if I’d ever been so angry in my life. My blade moved too fast for Fedor to block more than twice. I cut into his flesh in three places, and he stared at me from the floor as he bled out.

Fedor, one of the only men I had called a friend at the castle. I had shared his room when Chloe had arrived. Gods, he was young, like me. Just another boy caught in a world where no other worlds existed.

I looked at Relic, who was dead. Another friend gone.

On I battled. With sudden reinforcements from another unit, we took the Great Hall. Then the two western towers. The eastern towers were proving impenetrable. Wave upon wave of revolutionaries went in, and were never able to make it more than a few steps up the stairs before javelins, arrows, and spears obliterated them.

Our division abandoned its mounts and fought up through the main structure toward the throne room, with the majority of our forces. Our losses were devastating. The corridors were narrow and stairs were a deathtrap.

Mark’s arrow whizzed by my head and pierced an enemy in the eye. I lunged and finished him off. Beside me, Robert took a pike in the chest. I cut off the fingers of his attacker, then slashed his neck. Robert’s corpse dropped to the floor.

I cursed. Where was Roderick? I wasn’t sure.

We made it to the throne room. It was littered with hundreds of black bodies. The skeletons rode the Dualies near the throne. One of the dragons was feasting, tearing someone to shreds. The armor and black cloak made it unmistakable: Tiberius.

We slowly approached, weaving between corpses, trying to ignore the horrendous stench. A few men leaned over and vomited. I gagged but kept hold of myself.

“Ah!” Regis exclaimed. “The mighty heroes return!”

The skeletons smiled wide, and the Dualies, blood drenching their four gaping mouths, seemed to smile as well.

“Surrender, if you value your lives!” Patrick said.

“This is our Imperium,” hissed Regis. “And no man, slave or slave master, will take it from us.”

Skeleton the First pointed at us and shrieked, “Kill!”

The Dualies rose up, leapt forward, and roared, spewing fire. We scattered, making for the balconies. Several men were torched, screaming and rolling on the ground. Others beat at them frantically with cloaks, but these good people were then vulnerable, and died too.

From the balconies, we could attack from three sides. We charged and stabbed at the shield-like scales. I cut into one of the necks over and over and over, as if felling a tree. I had to dive aside to avoid a pillar of flame from the other head, but Basil was instantly there to take my place, hammering with his ax and snapping off the neck. A geyser of purple blood exploded onto the floor. The other head screamed, a terrible, painful noise. Mark fired his last two arrows at the dragon bearing Skeleton the First, Skeleton the Second, and Ghosty. The barbs disappeared into each of the beast’s brains, and it collapsed. The skeletons screamed as they tumbled off and were quickly beat into submission by a mass of revolutionaries. Mark drew out his short sword.

I rolled underneath the final head, stabbing upward and piercing clean through. Regis and Patrick leapt off and raised their blades, but were surrounded and subdued.

The skeletons huddled together and sulked.

My arms were exhausted, my sword heavy. But within seconds, a man shouldered his way into the room and reported that the Imperials had rallied and had retaken the towers, the battlements, and the Great Hall.

“Our forces are diminished,” he said. “The remaining divisions are trying to hold the Courtyard to allow our escape. We must hurry.”

Basil swore, but there was no further hesitation. He motioned his ax toward the doors, and we swarmed back into the corridors. “Make for the Courtyard with all speed!” he bellowed. “If it falls, we’re trapped in here.”

I heard the skeletons cackle with delight.

We fought our way back. Imperials assaulted us several times, and one of them cut me in the hip before I killed him. But it wasn’t very deep; I ignored it.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. After battling so viciously to make it all the way to the top, capturing the throne room of the Sovereign himself, we were now running for our lives. The battle was lost. The Imperial forces were too many.

We surged out of the castle and into the Courtyard with our allies, many of whom were still on horses. Imperial archers on the battlements gave us hell. Our own archers were few, but we had a decent number of javelin throwers. Other groups of revolutionaries desperately exchanged blows with the enemy on the ground as they moved to surround us. We pushed forward as a mob.

“Retreat!” roared Basil, and other commanders. “Retreat!”

A horn blew somewhere, and we were racing toward the gates. I suddenly realized Mark was no longer beside me.

No! I thought. He couldn’t fall now, after all this. I turned and looked about in a panic. Next to me, a man was hit in the heart with an arrow. I would be next, I was sure.

There was Mark! He had somehow found Bravado, and was galloping toward me. I reached out a hand and swung onto the horse. The Imperials roared and charged after us, desperate to kill the traitors. Arrows and spears chased us. Men died all around us. Somehow we lived.

But Basil did not. He was hit in the back with a spear and fell.

The revolutionaries flooded out of into the plains. Those on horses grabbed at those on foot and hauled them up. We thundered away into the darkness, but were not pursued.

Chapter X

Mark and I sat on the end of a pier at the empty Imperial docks in the grey hours of the morning. Any soldiers, officers, sailors, or slaves at the docks had been called to the castle in the wake of our assault. There were repairs to make, bodies to remove, cobblestones to wash. The effort would take weeks.

Everything was still. The ships, large and small, sat motionless on the horizon.

We had removed our armor and shirts, washing off blood from our bodies. Mark scrubbed his sword. I had yet to do that. I was cleaning and wrapping the painful gash in my side.

Occasionally, I looked toward the castle, the high tide crashing against the northern battlements. So many had died. Basil’s death pained me. Mark, too.

“Lost my bow,” Mark muttered.

I snorted. “At least it wasn’t your horse.”

Mark remembered. “Oh, I’m sorry about that. He was good horse.”

“Yeah, he was.”

I grabbed my sword and started scrubbing. The crusty blood was thick.

“Roderick was put in charge of a band last night,” Mark said.

“I heard. He’ll do well.”

“A shame about his brother.”

“Yeah.”

“Will we serve with him?”

“We could form our own, you know. Many would want to follow us.”

“I’m not so sure, after last night.”

“That wasn’t our idea, Mark. Wasn’t our command.”

“We could have stopped it.”

Here he goes again, I thought. “We saw a shot, and took it. There’s no shame in that. We were close.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Close.”

We continued scrubbing in silence for a time.

“How many of us made it out, do you think?”

“Not sure,” I said. “Couldn’t have been more than a few hundred.”

“The Imperium will come down hard on the people. They’ll make sure this never happens again. And they need more slaves. They’ll take older folks and children now.”

I grimaced, my stomach churning at the thought. I hadn’t considered that. “We can’t let that happen.”

“We’ll keep fighting. Our strength will return.”

I looked out across the choppy waters. A colossus and a grasshopper seemed so much like the Imperium and the revolution, one utterly dwarfing the other.

Then I smiled.

“How much strength do you have left? Right now?”

Mark carefully rolled his shoulders and shook out his arms. “Last night was nothing. I could do that all day.” He grinned. “Why?”

I looked to the castle. “Because I’ve got a plan.”

* * *

We stood on the deck of a colossus, bodies at our feet. Mark took the helm. I was getting seasick, but I tried to focus all my attention on dragging corpses to the rail and heaving them overboard.

“And we just spent all morning cleaning our swords, too,” I said.

The day was still grey.

The waters were growing more violent as Mark turned the enormous vessel toward land.

The wind was with us; I took us to full sails.

“I don’t recall ever feeling so uneasy about one of your plans before,” Mark said.

“And I thought you were the one who was supposed to tell me not to worry so much.”

“Ah. Good point.”

We picked up speed. Our bow pointed at the castle, like an arrow ready to fire.

I moved to Mark and grasped the rail in front of the helm. Adrenaline pumped through me. The castle was growing large. I unslung some thick rope on my back, and we tied ourselves as tight as we could to the rail.

We shook hands.

“Well,” Mark said, smiling. “It’s been an honor.”

“Good luck, brother,” I said.

We held onto the ship until our knuckles grew white. The current was mighty. The colossus was charging faster. The wind picked up, whipping our hair into our eyes. The sea sprayed onto the deck and onto our cheeks. The deck creaked and groaned.

“This is it!” I said.

In seconds, the waves battering the battlements would be us.

“Hold on!” shouted Mark.

* * *

The colossus struck the castle wall with the most violent roar I ever heard, greater than any army or any battle. Mark and I were slammed into the rail and helm, torn out of our bonds, and pitched forward, slamming and rolling across the deck.

The port side of the ship barreled into one of the eastern towers, which collapsed on top of the next one. Stones rained to the ground like hail, crashing all around us. The colossus collided into the main body of the castle at an angle, driving through and obliterating its northwestern and southwestern corners. The castle shook and with a bellow collapsed.

The sound was deafening.

A great stone struck me in the shoulder and stomach as I held on for dear life. I heard Mark scream. I think his leg was crushed.

The ship rammed into one of the western towers and stopped so suddenly we were thrown. The top of the tower broke off and smashed onto the battlements below.

Nearly half of the colossus was gone, and the castle lay in ruins.

* * *

Within hours, the oppressed populace, men and women, old and young, fighter and storyteller, were walking or riding to the ruins. From every village in the empire, they came. When people heard the news, they dropped whatever they were doing and simply set out.

Roderick and the other revolutionary leaders took charge in rounding up and capturing any Imperials that survived the devastation.

There were few.

Midwives and doctors treated these men as best they could. And naturally, they helped Mark and I. We both had many broken bones, though Mark’s shattered leg was by far the worst of it.

The people labored for days to clear away access to the dungeons down below. When they finally reached them, the surviving oppressors were thrown into cells. The skeletons, who were already locked up for their treachery, remained where they were.

It was over.

Epilogue

Regis awoke. Something was amiss.

He peered around the dark cell. That was it! It was so much darker than usual. Normally, Ghosty’s glow provided–Ghosty. Where was he?

There was Patrick and Skeleton the First and Skeleton the Second, all sleeping peacefully. But Ghosty was missing.

A loud clang awoke them.

“Eh? What?” Patrick said, sitting up.

“What’s going on?” Skeleton the First asked.

They all looked to the iron door, which suddenly screeched open, a large black key in the keyhole!

And there stood Ghosty, triumphant.

Regis smiled.

They snuck out of the cell after Ghosty.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Just How Bad is American Poverty?

“I was already It, whatever It was,” Jack London wrote in 1905, “and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist.” He continued, in his essay entitled “How I Became a Socialist,” by declaring:

Since that day I have opened many books, but no economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.[1]

Huge numbers of people fall into the pit of poverty, which can be very difficult to escape. It is certainly not a mere 15% of Americans or thereabouts, as the government’s outdated “poverty line” would have it (the threshold for a single person is $11,500 a year, as if someone making $12,000 isn’t poor). In reality, 48% of Americans live in poverty or near-poverty.[2] This is expected, as 40% of U.S. workers made under $15 an hour in 2015 and 50% of all jobs in the U.S. paid $34,000 annually or less in 2013.[3] Though it varies slightly by state, $34,000 is about $24,000 after taxes, or about $2,000 in take-home pay a month. If you make minimum wage, you earn just over $1,100 a month if working full-time. Meanwhile, the median cost of rent is about $1,000 and climbing.

56% of citizens have less than $1,000 in the bank, and one in three families have no savings at all.[4] Individuals making low wages must spend everything or nearly everything they make on groceries, electricity, water, rent, and gas or bus fare right away. If anything can be saved, it is often wiped out by the typical hurdles of life that better-off people consider mere annoyances, such as broken down cars or doctor’s visits. 77% of Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck.[5] Millions have negative wealth due to loans, negative equity on homes after the 2008 housing crash, and so on.[6] Even when the economy is doing well, millions remain unemployed.

The work of the poor is often unfulfilling, unpleasant, even humiliating or dangerous. Many work long hours — 65, 70, 75 or more a week — or multiple jobs to make ends meet, seeing their loved ones infrequently. While they work, their children attend inferior schools (school funding is based on property taxes), often experiencing low-quality teachers, crumbling facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of books, supplies, and physical and mental healthcare. “I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms,” a Detroit student, Wisdom Morales, said in 2016. Poverty actually damages mental abilities and mental health in children and adults alike.

The life expectancy of the poor is over a decade shorter than the rich, due to worse health.[7] Factors include unhealthy food being most affordable, unhealthy air and environments, stress and depression, smoking, lack of healthcare, and so on. Many low-income people have to live in dilapidated apartments or houses infested with roaches, mice and feces, rot, and mold, sometimes without heating or air conditioning.[8] If you have a month where you can’t pay a utility bill, your water or electricity is immediately cut off. If you can’t pay rent, you are evicted.

Almost 50 million Americans rely on food stamps.[9] Even U.S. soldiers spend tens of millions worth of food stamps each year.[10] 65% of us will use welfare, help we must qualify for, at some point in our lives to get by.[11] There exists a population of 1.5 million households that live on $2 a day—Third World levels—due to unemployment, reduced hours, lack of knowledge concerning welfare programs, etc.[12] Some in these households sell themselves for sex, sell plasma, or sell scrap metal to survive.

Persons with disabilities have no minimum wage protection, and can make under $1 per hour.

Each year, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness at some point (while 18.5 million homes stand empty, waiting for citizens who can afford them). 23% are children; about 10% are veterans; over 40% are disabled; 20-25% suffer from mental illness; most homeless women are domestic abuse victims.[13] The homeless suffer humiliation, from being denied service at businesses due to appearance to cities criminalizing begging, loitering, and sleeping in public places or even private vehicles.[14] Benches and sidewalks are redesigned, at times with spikes, to drive away the homeless looking for rest.[15] When the temperature drops, homeless people die outside.

The percentage of workers over 65 doubled since 1985, partly due to the elderly not having enough money to retire and Social Security payments being too dismal to live on.[16] What kind of society allows its elderly to live in poverty? Or its children? One in four U.S. children are food insecure, meaning missing meals or malnourished with cheap, unhealthy food – ketchup sandwiches, for instance.[17] Anastasia Basil remembered:

I’d come home from high school and there’d be nothing in the fridge but a bottle of red wine vinegar and a head of lettuce. On the counter, there’d be a bag of potatoes and a bottle of olive oil from the Dollar Store. That was dinner, potatoes and lettuce.

In the wealthiest nation on earth, children of the poor go to school with extremely painful rotting or impacted teeth.[18] Education activist Jonathon Kozol, in Savage Inequalities, wrote of the slums of East St. Louis:

As in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, dental problems also plague the children here. Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I have interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They go to school with it.

Sometimes their teachers are alarmed and try to get them to a clinic. But it’s all so slow and heavily encumbered with red tape and waiting lists and missing, lost or canceled welfare cards, that dental care is often long delayed. Children live for months with pain that grown-ups would find unendurable. The gradual attrition of accepted pain erodes their energy and aspiration. I have seen children in New York with teeth that look like brownish, broken sticks. I have also seen teen-agers who were missing half their teeth. But, to me, most shocking is to see a child with an abscess that has been inflamed for weeks and that he has simply lived with and accepts as part of the routine of life. Many teachers in the urban schools have seen this. It is almost commonplace.

With low wages and no health insurance, seeing the dentist is a luxury.

Among advanced democracies, the U.S. has the highest rates of poverty, and is among the highest for infant mortality, among the lowest for life expectancy, living standards for the poorest among us, and wages (see A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare).

“As for the unfortunates, the sick, and ailing, and old, and maimed, I must confess I hardly thought of them at all [early on],” London wrote. “My joyous individualism was dominated by the orthodox bourgeois ethics.” But he experienced economic hardship personally, and travelled throughout America and Canada listening to people “all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses.” He continued:

And as I listened my brain began to work. The woman of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat… Just as I had been an individualist without knowing it, I was now a Socialist without knowing it… I had been reborn…

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Notes

[1] “How I Became a Socialist,” Jack London

[2] Half of U.S. Poor or Low-IncomeCBS

[3] http://www.thenation.com/article/almost-half-of-all-american-workers-make-less-than-15-an-hour/; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/why-cant-we-end-poverty-in-america.html?_r=4&pagewanted=all

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2016/01/06/63-of-americans-dont-have-enough-savings-to-cover-a-500-emergency/#2715e4857a0b19717426dde1

[5] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-01/new-york-fed-study-finds-15-of-u-s-households-have-no-wealth

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/health/disparity-in-life-spans-of-the-rich-and-the-poor-is-growing.html

[8] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article76429037.html

[9] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[10] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37259-us-soldiers-are-relying-on-millions-of-dollars-in-food-stamps-to-survive

[11] A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare

[12] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-surging-ranks-of-americas-ultrapoor/

[13] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/u-s-canadian-city-governments-ending-homelessness-by-offering-jobs/

[14] http://www.frontsteps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/DiscriminationReport20141.pdf; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/ten-facts-about-homelessn_b_5977946.html

[15] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/

[16] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/retirement/2017/05/10/punching-past-65-older-worker-rate-highest-since-1962/101447336/

[17] http://abcnews.go.com/US/hunger_at_home/hunger-home-american-children-malnourished/story?id=14367230; https://thinkprogress.org/ketchup-sandwiches-and-other-things-stupid-poor-people-eat-41617483b497/

[18] http://www.cpr.org/news/story/tooth-decay-silent-epidemic-especially-poor-kids-colo; Savage Inequalities, Jonathon Kozol

A Brief History of American Socialism

“Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.”

– Congressman Harold Velde of Illinois (1950), speaking to Congress in opposition to library services in rural areas (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)

The United States has a rich socialist tradition. It is an integral part of our history and saturates our modern culture. Each morning millions of schoolchildren rise from their desks, place hands over their hearts, and recite a Pledge of Allegiance written in 1892 by socialist Francis Bellamy, a New York pastor.

Many American children learn and love the popular song “This Land is Your Land” by socialist Woody Guthrie. One of the verses:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Millions of tourists flock to New York each year to see the Statue of Liberty, which is engraved with a poem, “The New Colossus,” written by radical Emma Lazarus. It ends:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Famous figures like Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, Malcolm X, Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, and W.E.B. Du Bois called themselves socialists. Same with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. Others, such as Mark Twain and Thomas Paine, espoused socialistic ideas without labeling themselves (the latter existed before the term). People like Francois Fourier, Robert Owen, and Étienne Cabet established socialist towns across the nation. One community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson (see Nichols, The S Word).

Before the Red Scare and McCarthyism swept the United States during the Cold War, socialism was not a widely vilified political ideology. Major individuals and organizations publicly espoused it, from the Congress of Industrial Organization to American churches (launching the Christian Socialist movement; as Marx wrote, “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge”).[1] The Scare has not yet passed, still gripping the older generation and conservatives, typically perpetuated by misinformation and fear-mongering. It has, however, begun to weaken, particularly due to Bernie Sanders and a surge in interest from a younger generation.

Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that American socialism fueled the progressive movement and broadened freedom for all citizens. Throughout our history, many of the loudest demands for black rights, women’s rights, worker rights, and peace came from socialists, communists, anarchists, and other elements of the radical left.

Consider first the labor movement. Radicals were instrumental in leading the charge against starvation wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, 12-16 hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, fines for tardiness, and so on in the 19th century and beyond. Solidarity was their battle cry. Troublemaking was their tactic: organizing, petitioning, striking, protesting, boycotting, picketing, sitting in, rioting. Socialist heroes like “Big Bill” Haywood and Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor helped win us the workplace rights we take for granted today.

Of course, worker strikes occurred in the 18th century—that is, before the socialist movement. Americans already had a keen understanding of how capitalism functioned. Shoemakers with socialistic ideas declared in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1844, four years before The Communist Manifesto:

The division of society into the producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to [a] distinction—that of capital and labor… Labor now becomes commodity… Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labor stand opposed.[2]

In 1860, Lynn participated in the largest strike in American history up to that point. 20,000 shoemakers went on strike in 25 towns throughout New England. The ideas that are the foundation of socialism—that the interests of owners and workers are not the same, that the capitalist few are a “non-producing” class growing wealthy off the labor of the many, the workers, the “producing class”—were already held true by American workers. They knew it from their own experiences. Thus socialism became fairly popular in the United States.

The quest for democratic, worker control of workplaces has also been underway for a long time. In the first recorded strike of U.S. workers, 20 tailors in 1768 left their employer and formed a cooperative. The Knights of Labor helped launch nearly 200 worker cooperatives by 1886, across the country and across various industries. “The Knights thrived for a decade but were eventually crushed by big businesses, which rallied to stamp out this new and disturbing breed of competition, refusing to ship goods made by cooperatives, sell machinery and materials to them, or issue them bank loans.” Still, the movement persisted, seeing a resurgence as African Americans sought economic independence (in 1907 there were 156 co-ops founded by African Americans), during the Great Depression, and in the revolutionary times of 1960s and 1970s.[3] Today there are still worker cooperatives across the country.[4]

In the spring of 1886, 200,000 Americans rose up in rebellion. American socialists organized and led labor unions and the Knights of Labor in a massive nationwide strike to push for an 8-hour workday, declaring a May 1st deadline for corporate power to yield. Violence sparked between protesters and police, and when a bomb went off in Haymarket Square in Chicago, the authorities hunted down and arrested the leaders of the strike. After a sham of a trial, four socialists were executed. May Day, International Workers Day, commemorates this event.

Strikes only grew larger. In the fall of 1934, 421,000 textile workers across the nation went on strike for better working conditions. During World War II, there were 14,000 strikes involving nearly 7 million people.[5] One strike reached half a million people. Still today, the labor movement (Fight for $15, Occupy Wall Street, and so on) is often organized, led, and strengthened by Marxists.

The history of American socialism is also a revolution against slavery, racial hatred, discrimination, and segregation. For example, the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in a schoolroom in Ripon, Wisconsin (a former utopian socialist community) on March 20, 1854 by radical Alvan Bovay and 16 other socialists.[6] Many socialists, the most prominent being Karl Marx, condemned black slavery and were elated when Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1861.

Abraham Lincoln, while no socialist, had his sympathies in the right place. As John Nichols points out in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, Lincoln was close to socialist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley, befriended and allied himself with radicals who fled after failed revolutions in Europe in 1848 (some of them friends of Marx), appointed one socialist as his assistant secretary of war and another his ambassador to Spain, and even cordially corresponded with Marx about the American Civil War.[7] Lincoln said in his 1861 State of the Union Address:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them…[8]

Later, the labor movement sparked an interracial push for equality for blacks in many workplaces and leftist groups. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, poor blacks and whites often came together to strike for better wages, working conditions, and equal treatment. There were thousands of strikes in cities across the nation each year, and within them were sparks of progress. Blacks and whites were fighting the same battle, as losing limbs or dying on the job, dire poverty, and starvation were realities for millions of workers in Industrial America. Many realized their true conflict was not race but class.

Workers of all colors saw their employers grow rich, but were themselves given barely enough to stay alive, even though it was the workers themselves who created the wealth by creating the good or providing the service. And thus many unions and organizations integrated, like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, both of which welcomed blacks, women, Asians, and immigrants. Many of such institutions’ founders, leaders, and members, the lifeblood of the labor movement, were socialists, who called for “equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race”[9] (to quote an 1883 congress in Pittsburgh). One union, the American Workers League, was formed as an interracial organization in 1853.[10] The American Federation of Labor opened its doors to black members in 1929.[11] At its height the Communist Party had 80,000 members, 9% of them black.[12] In an America where blacks were drinking from separate water fountains and being tortured and executed at neighborhood picnics, small pockets of socialists across the country were building a more tolerant society.

Many socialists understood the relationship between race and class. Racism was used to justify further oppression and wage theft by the capitalist class. Just as emancipation would mean the end of free labor for slave-owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and others. In Communism and the Negro (1933), New Yorker Max Shachtman (head of the Worker’s Party) wrote:

The ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority…it affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a nigger.”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a nigger” who suffers.[13]

Shachtman declared, “White workers [must] become the most uncompromising champions of the Negro.”[14]

Now, this is certainly not to say all leftist unions and all socialists were pro-civil rights or accepted blacks as equals. Racism within their ranks stalled progress, to be sure. There was often intense racial hostility in the competition for work. Corporations often responded to strikes by hiring unemployed blacks to replace white strikers, since they could pay them dismal wages with less threat of resistance—the racial tension and violence this created damaged the prospects of interracial organizing. And racism served capitalists a second way: it discouraged workers of different colors from uniting and unionizing to push for higher wages or shorter workweeks. However, many saw the closing line of The Communist Manifesto (“Working men of all countries, unite!”) as a call for racial equality in the fight for class equality. It is telling, also, that the Communist Party of the United States ran a black man, James W. Ford, for the vice presidency in 1932—to put that in perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr. was three.

Socialist, civil rights leader, and labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph once said, “The Socialist Party was the only party that had a philosophy that took account of the race problem and whose economic analysis addressed itself to the solution of the Negro’s problems.”[15] W.E.B. du Bois said in 1908 that “the only party today which treats Negroes as men, North and South, are the Socialists,”[16] and fifty years later, “It is clear today that the salvation of American Negroes lies in socialism.”[17]

Malcolm X later commented:

You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political Philosophy is socialism.[18]

Stokely Carmichael posited:

If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you’re anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.[19]

And Dr. King said:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.[20]

Moreover, he declared:

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values… We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.[21]

Still today, many of the most passionate anti-racists, such as those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, are also socialists.

While white and black socialists pushed for racial equality, socialist women were hard at work across the country battling for gender equality. Marxist women were integral to the labor, peace, and civil rights movements (in 1937, while men conducted a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, plants, women armed themselves and fought police to protect the strikers[22]), but they are more so responsible for the freeing of womankind (something not all socialist men were happy about). They published literature, organized, and protested. In the 1915 suffrage campaign in New York, they distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets in multiple languages, and held hundreds of meetings. Radical leftists like Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and Mother Mary Jones (who co-founded the IWW), led the charge for voting rights, property rights, sexual rights, education rights, employment rights. Like some African Americans, they understood that a capitalist system that kept economic and political power in the hands of a few rich white men impeded their human progress.

Charlotte P. Gilman of Connecticut wrote a poem called “The Socialist and the Suffragist”:

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“My cause is greater than yours!
You only work for a special class,
We for the gain of the general mass,
Which every good ensures!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You underrate my cause!
While women remain a subject class,
You never can move the general mass,
With your economic laws!”

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:
“You misinterpret facts!
There is no room for doubt or schism
In economic determinism—
It governs all our acts!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:
“You men will always find
That this old world will never move
More swiftly in its ancient groove
While women stay behind.”

“A lifted world lifts women up,”
The Socialist explained.
“You cannot lift the world at all
While half of it is kept so small,”
The suffragist maintained.

The world awoke, and tartly spoke:
“Your work is all the same:
Work together or work apart,
Work, each of you, with all your heart—
Just get into the game!”

After 20,000 immigrant women garment workers organized and went on strike in New York City in 1909, they celebrated the first Women’s Day. A few years later, in 1917, women demonstrators in Soviet Russia helped topple a dictator, and March 8 became the day International Women’s Day would later be celebrated.[23] Many of the fiercest feminists and equality advocates in the modern era are of course radicals.

With their activity and leadership in the progressive freedom movements, socialists were quite popular, a force to be reckoned with. In the first decades of the 20th century, an estimated 1 million Americans read socialist newspapers. The Appeal to Reason, a socialist publication from Kansas, was one of the nation’s most widely read papers, with 790,000 subscribers.[24] The Socialist Party had nearly 120,000 members.[25] Socialist politicians served in 340 cities across the country, some 1,200 mayors, councilpersons, state congressmen, etc.[26] In 1910, Milwaukee became the first major city to elect a socialist mayor, Emil Seidel. The city had socialist mayors off and on for the next 50 years, popular because they rooted out corruption and improved public services like health care, education, and public housing. Victor Berger of Milwaukee became the first socialist U.S. Congressman in 1911 and served off and on until 1929; throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the two major parties in Wisconsin were the Republicans and the Socialists. Even the smaller Communist Party put men on the New York City Council. The first Communist mayor in America served Crosby, Minnesota in 1933.[27] Oklahoma had one of the strongest socialist movements, with 12,000 Socialist Party members, who joined other voters in giving over 100 socialists local political power in 1914.[28] Missouri had 135 Socialist Party locals.[29]

Socialist parties had significant influence over candidates and policies. Even decades later, when the Red Scare gripped America, people still favored socialist policies; Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle), in a letter to famous socialist Norman Thomas, remembered, “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it…running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000.”[30]

The most famous of all American socialist politicians was Eugene V. Debs of Indiana. He was the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1920, he garnered 6% of the national vote (nearly 1 million people), a percentage any modern third-party candidate would die for, and he did it from a prison cell.

Debs was jailed, like thousands of other Americans, many of them socialists, by the Wilson administration for opposing America’s involvement in World War I. In a 1918 speech, Debs had thundered, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” When the ruling class beat the drums of war, the loudest pleas for peace were often from socialists.

At his trial, Debs said, “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose it if I stood alone… I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.”

He was sentenced to 10 years, experiencing firsthand America’s sacred “freedom of speech” and its relevance during wartime. He was released early by President Harding, and died in 1926. Though not all radicals opposed the war (it in fact caused great division in the socialist movement), across the nation thousands of IWW members, unionists, laborers, socialists, and communists marched for peace, while the Department of Justice censored mail, raided meetings, broke into homes, and made arrests to root out these “disloyal” Americans. The government managed to destroy the IWW, but not the antiwar spirit. In Boston, for example, 8,000 marched on July 1, 1917, holding banners that read: “If this a popular war, why conscription? Who stole Panama? Who crushed Haiti? We demand peace.”[31]

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, American socialists and communists would continue to be at the forefront of peace movements during each and every war the United States entered. This continued into the 21st century.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

Notes

[1] Communist Manifesto, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2762617?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[2] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 231

[3] http://inthesetimes.com/article/17061/a_co_op_state_of_mind

[4] https://usworker.coop/home/

[5] Zinn, People’s, 397, 417

[6] Nichols, The “S” Word, 58

[7] Nichols, 66, 73, 80

[8] Lincoln, 1861 State of the Union Address, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29502

[9] Zinn, People’s

[10] Nichols, 179

[11] Nichols, 179

[12] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[13] Schachtman, Communism and the Negro

[14] Schachtman

[15] Nichols, 187

[16] Manning Marable, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, https://books.google.com/books?id=aw4eCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT108&lpg=PT108&dq=w.e.b.+du+bois+%22north+and+south,+are+the+socialists%22&source=bl&ots=dxvYm4T2L1&sig=CG5ioeCDBdppiVc2c7mXhm1v5C0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjbsLWP9anSAhVM82MKHQhpAWsQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=w.e.b.%20du%20bois%20%22north%20and%20south%2C%20are%20the%20socialists&f=false

[17] W.E.B. du Bois, “The American Negro and Communism,” October 23, 1958, http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b206-i015/#page/1/mode/1up

[18] Malcolm X, Remarks at Militant Labor Forum Symposium, May 29, 1964

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug8RJyLoz0

[20] King, Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence, 1967

[21] http://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/King-quotes-2-page.pdf

[22] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[23] https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/15/the-socialist-history-they-hide-from-us

[24] https://socialistworker.org/2012/07/19/the-appeal-for-socialism

[25] Howe, Socialism and America

[26] Zinn, 340

[27] Nichols, 132-133, 103-105

[28] Zinn, 340

[29] https://jacobinmag.com/2017/02/rise-and-fall-socialist-party-of-america/

[30] Letter to Norman Thomas (1951), Upton Sinclair, http://spartacus-educational.com/Jupton.htm

[31] Zinn, People’s

The Corporate Assault on Human Beings and Their Democracies

Political power, wealth, and business interests are all intimately linked. Rarely do we see one without the others, which can have devastating effects on both democracies and citizens. To paraphrase radical historian Howard Zinn, “The interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.”

I: The Corporate Assault on Democracy

To rise to the highest political positions, an official must have a great deal of money and be well-connected to established political players and business titans. While there are some upsets, the best-funded candidates win congressional elections 86-97% of the time.[1] The same is virtually always true of presidential races.

Corporate donors therefore have a tremendous amount of power. In the Citizens United case of 2010, the Supreme Court allowed corporations to give as much money to political campaigns as they like. Therefore the richest corporations have the greatest ability to help decide elections, leaving poorer businesses, unions, organizations, not to mention the common people, in the dust. (Many problems with corporate influence in government also apply, to a lesser degree, to unions and organizations, from the UAW to the NRA. Solutions like public financing of elections [or perhaps only allowing small campaign donations from individuals] and lobbying reform must apply to all entities.) The 2013 McCutcheon v. F.E.C. case then allowed unlimited individual spending on elections, further empowering the rich to choose candidates.

However, capitalists cannot always know who will receive the most funding nor foresee with absolute certainty the victor, so corporations have long given money to both sides to assure whoever wins will aid their interests (public officials are keen to pay back donors, especially to secure funding for reelection campaigns). A senior vice president of International Telephone and Telegraph put it best in 1960 when he said his company board would “‘butter’ both sides so we’ll be in a good position whoever wins.”[2] As the Center for Responsive politics reported on giving to the party governor associations, “High profile donors that give to both sides include Comcast, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Coca-Cola, AFLAC and Verizon. The majority of these corporations donate about the same amount of money to both sides with five corporations giving exactly 50%: Novartis Corp, Kolhberg & Co, KKR & Co, Jacobs Entertainment Inc. and Intuit Inc.”[3]

Einstein wrote in 1949 that there existed an

…oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).[4]

Corporations have methods of influencing public policy beyond candidate selection. They either are media companies or own the media (GE owns NBC and Comcast, Disney owns ABC, etc.), and fund think tanks, plus university departments and research institutes.[5] They threaten to move to other cities, states, or countries if politicians don’t enact laws that benefit them; their departure could mean ruin for local economies and working families. Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, Kansas, infamously held that city—and state—hostage in the early 2000s.[6] Corporations employ armies of lobbyists to bribe politicians with campaign funds to enact or oppose specific policies, such as deregulating industries or putting exemptions into the tax code. Armies of lawyers and accountants then make sure companies are effectively using the loopholes to whittle down their taxes. This has been underway for decades, and now the largest companies pay no taxes, and even get tax refunds. Tax rates for rich individuals have likewise been significantly reduced. See “Giant Corporations Are Not Paying Taxes.”

Corporations lobby to make sure certain unethical and illegal actions can no longer be punished. In 1966, for instance, “auto industry lawyers persuaded members of Congress to delete the criminal penalty from the motor vehicle safety law, even for companies who knowingly sold defective cars or parts—and willfully declined to recall the cars even after their use resulted in injuries or death.”[7] Increased product safety meant higher costs for capitalists, so it was important to minimize or eliminate criminal penalties once they decided to put workers or consumers at risk. Or take the deadly opioid crisis of the first two decades of the 21st century, in which pharmaceutical companies made a killing by ignoring government requirements to report suspiciously large orders of opioids (such as nine million hydrocodone pills over two years to a town of 392 people), which were going to shady pain clinics and thus to addicts. When the DEA began cracking down on this negligence, the pharmaceutical industry launched the usual bribery methods (lobbying, donations to politicians, job offers) to convince Congress to scale back the DEA’s regulatory and enforcement powers.

In addition to the trillions in subsidies and tax breaks they receive, corporations use the government (and taxpayer money) as a life raft when they run into trouble. In the 1980s through the early 2000s, the financial sector succeeded in deregulating the practices of Wall Street banks and insurance companies, allowing those entities to make predatory investments and loans with public money. It was fraud on an unimaginable scale: mortgage lenders handed out low-quality, high-cost (and overvalued) home loans to consumers. This reaped hundreds of billions in profits for the banks, but in 2008 destroyed the housing market when scammed borrowers facing enormously high interest rates and mounting credit couldn’t make their payments. These people lost their homes to foreclosure, millions of nice homes stood empty, and the demand for housing construction vanished. The housing market crashed, and with it nearly the entire national economy (the global economy took a hit as well). Americans who owned stock lost fortunes, the poor lost their homes, and the banks, which loaned and borrowed money from each other, collapsed like dominoes. Yet the government bailed out the largest financial institutions, handing over trillions in taxpayer funds to the very CEOs and boards of directors who created the crisis!

Corporate power players, after all, ran the Department of the Treasury. Former Goldman-Sachs executives, for instance, held many of the top positions in the department, per usual. (Phone records have revealed the heads of financial institutions like Goldman-Sachs, Citigroup, and JP Morgan can get the treasury secretary on the phone several times a day, something no ordinary American is privileged to.[8]) The corporatists would stop at nothing to acquire the fortunes needed to save their corrupt institutions. Bailouts have been common practice for a long time—in 1999, Noam Chomsky pointed out that over 20 corporations on the Fortune 100 list would not still exist if not for public bailouts.[9] Congress gave the banks a $700 billion bailout. Not only did they save their banks, the capitalists awarded themselves millions of dollars in record bonuses. Today, the same men still control the financial sector and the governmental body in charge of overseeing it. “Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud,” reported Charles Ferguson in 2011 (Inside Job), “not a single financial executive has gone to jail.” Finally, one did in 2014. He got a sentence of 30 months.[10]

Senator Bernie Sanders summarized the state of American politics well when he said, “Wall Street is extraordinarily powerful. Congress doesn’t regulate them… Wall Street regulates Congress,”[11] in the same way Populist Party orator Mary Ellen Lease summarized it in 1890: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.”[12] In the Trilateral Commission report of 1976, Samuel Huntington of Harvard, a consultant to the White House during the Vietnam War, wrote that the country was “governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment.’” He was not being critical. He believed there was an “excess of democracy,” recommending “limits to the extension of political democracy.”[13]

Corporations now design the very laws by which they must abide. Ralph Nader writes, “Few regulations are issued without heavy tinkering by corporate attorneys; the results are often obsolete before they are enacted” and “corporate lobbies have effected changes in the law that reduce or escape fines, cap damages under tort law, hold enforcement budgets down, appoint enforcers from their own executive ranks to head agencies, and pour money into the coffers of political parties and candidates.”[14] In 2013, 70 of the 85 lines in a bill on financial reform came straight from a draft created by Citigroup lobbyists.[15] Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bring together local lawmakers and business titans to draft legislation that ends up being voted on and thus benefiting the corporate designers.[16] Corporate influence leads to all kinds of lunacy, from Obama pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which allowed corporations to sue governments, including the U.S., if their policies interfered with corporate profits, to the weakening of anti-trust (anti-monopoly) laws, allowing corporations to swallow up or eradicate competitors.

2013 research from Political Research Quarterly showed that both political parties follow the whims of their wealthy constituents and donors, and during the 111th Congress Democrats were worse than Republicans in serving lower-income, majority interests.[17] A 2014 study from Northwestern University and Princeton University found that when economic elites overwhelmingly oppose a law, it only has an 18% chance of enactment.[18] Researchers concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” In 2017, Republicans were openly admitting that it was urgent to pass a new tax law or donors would abandon them. It is no coincidence that the Democrats who oppose Medicare-For-All get the most from the health insurance industry or that Republican leadership got huge corporate donations days after slashing the corporate tax rate.

Corporate executives are regularly installed in high government positions and set about serving the interests of private capital. President Nixon appointed a businessman to head OSHA who “was hostile to OSHA’s aims. One of his first acts was to order the destruction of 100,000 government booklets pointing out the dangers of cotton dust to textile workers.”[19] In 2013, President Obama announced that Tom Wheeler, former executive of (and Washington lobbyist for) cable and telecommunication giants, would be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler, after all, raised almost three-quarters of $1 billion for Obama’s two presidential campaigns.[20] A man who spent decades lobbying for deregulation for some of the wealthiest corporations was now head of the government agency responsible for overseeing and regulating the same industry. Within a year, Wheeler was leading the charge to further allow monopolistic practices among Internet, cable, and phone service corporations, and dismantle net neutrality regulations. A later FCC chair attempting to axe net neutrality, Ajit Pai, was a former lawyer for Verizon, one of the companies pushing for the same. Things of course reached an absurd level under President Trump. His secretary of energy was on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners and earlier said he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy. His head of the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t believe in climate change and was at the time suing the EPA over environmental and health regulations. His National Economic Council director, chief strategist, and treasury secretary were all Goldman Sachs boys. His education secretary favored private schooling without government oversight over public schools, and was in no way qualified for the job, but donated huge sums to the Republican Party. His Health and Human Services director was a Big Pharma exec.[21] Most all were extraordinarily wealthy.

Not only do corporate millionaires and billionaires become powerful politicians and federal agency heads, many public officials retire and join corporate lobbying firms. The politicians who once at least put up a façade of serving the public make millions using their political connections to influence legislation to the benefit of corporations. It is called the “revolving door.” It is a two-way street of corruption and client politics. In 1974, only 3% of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists, but now it’s 50% of Senators and over 40% of House Representatives.[22] A 2012 article from the Nation reminded us, “Politicians never have to disclose job negotiations while in office, and never have to disclose how much they’re paid after leaving office,” leaving corporations free to

…secretly promise [politicians] a million dollars or more in pay if they come to work for [them] after they leave office. Once a public official makes a deal to go to work for a lobbying firm or corporation after leaving office, he or she becomes loyal to the future employer. And since those deals are done in secret, legislators are largely free to pass laws, special tax cuts, or earmarks that benefit their future employer with little or no accountability to the public.[23]

The average increase in salary for a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist in 2011 was 1,452%.[24] This is just an example of the rich getting richer, however. In 2009, nearly half of all 535 congressmen were millionaires, with a median net worth of $1.8 million for senators and over $620,000 for house representatives.[25] In 2012, over half of Congresspersons were millionaires.

It also takes money to preserve political careers, a large part of the problem. Congressmen spend 25% to 50% of their time in office fundraising, possibly more during election years. Even congressmen who have no chance of being voted out of office still are required to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their party, to be used to support tight races. Thus politicians spend enormous amounts of time at dinners where donors pay huge sums of money per plate, or on the phone asking for contributions, instead of focusing on legislation the people desire.[26]

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks lobbying and corporate spending to influence law, and found the financial and real estate sector spent nearly $500 million in 2013 alone. The health care industry spent about the same. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone spent nearly $75 million on lobbying, the National Association of Realtors $38.5 million, Blue Cross/Blue Shield $22.5 million. Thousands of firms poured a collective $3.21 billion into lobbying. Campaign coffers overflowed with legalized bribes: the 113th Congress got $30 million worth of contributions from law firms, $16.5 million from real estate firms, $14 million from insurance powers. Nearly 130 senior staff (aides and advisors who work for lawmakers) of the 112th Congress were former lobbyists. In 2018, the Trump administration included 164 former lobbyists. The White House and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture have each employed over 1,000 people who were once lobbyists or went on to become lobbyists. The CIA, the Army, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Education, Treasury, Transportation—virtually every agency—is infested with officials with business associations and interests.[27]

This can have enormous effects. Take the construction of the transcontinental railroad, one of the most important achievements for the development of our nation. Railroad companies

became dependents on government, using their initial capital not to start construction, but to bribe legislators…the first transcontinental railroad was not built by laissez-faire. The railroad capitalists did it with government land and money…the Central Pacific, starting on the West Coast, got 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in loans (after spending $200,000 in Washington for bribes).

The Union Pacific railroad sold shares to congressmen at discounted rates because, as one congressman involved in the bribe said, “There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their own property” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)!

Indeed, the deals and favors border on the absurd. After Reagan removed controls on oil prices, essentially awarding $2 billion to the oil industry, twenty three oil executives donated over a quarter-million dollars to redecorate the White House living quarters; the owner of the Core Oil and Gas Company said, “The top man of this country ought to live in one of the top places. Mr. Reagan has helped the energy business.”[28] Lobbying is an extraordinarily important practice for oil and gas companies in the face of the environmentalist movement, as massive sums of cash help keep politicians in line with industry objectives and garner profitable subsidies. The industry spent nearly $41 million on politicians’ campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Total, the industry spent over $326 million lobbying the U.S. government. The government spent nearly $34 billion on the fossil fuel industry in the same time period, in the form of subsidies, a nice return on an investment.[29] University of Kansas Law School researchers found that for every dollar spent on lobbying, companies received $220 in tax breaks—a return of 22,000%.[30]

That is the corporate assault on our democracy. It is dangerous because in a democracy decision-making power is supposed to rest with the people, who send public officials to Washington to represent them. Those with greater wealth are not supposed to have more influence and control over the process. If the majority of the people want to protect the environment but oil companies do not, who should win?

II: The Corporate Assault on Human Beings

Yet the dangers of capitalist control of government are overshadowed by the physical perils of the profit motive (distinct from the theft that constitutes capitalistic exploitation). Corporate abuse harms and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people worldwide each year and can work against positive social goals, like ending drug addiction, establishing safer workplaces, or protecting the environment (we’ve seen elsewhere the damage capitalism is doing to our planet). Corporate abuse takes place to increase profits, and weak regulations and harmless consequences allow it to continue.

Profit is why corporations sell addictive, deadly cigarettes, which kill more people than all illegal drugs combined. Profit is why tobacco companies kept knowledge of cancer and other dangers secret.[31] Profit is why the National Football League tried to bury findings on CTE, the brain injury many players sustain.[32] Profit is why Big Oil buried its own findings that manmade CO2 was contributing to climate change.[33] Profit is why the quality of fast food is so poor, why much of it is packed with dangerously addictive levels of sugar, salt, and fat, as well as chemical additives and preservatives. Profit is why innocent people are dropped from their health insurance coverage when they get sick or denied insurance when applying for it, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year.[34] Profit is why energy companies want inefficient modes of transit and electricity, and therefore fight tooth and nail against cleaner, more efficient forms of energy, higher MPG requirements, and stricter environmental standards. General Motors and Chevron bought up and destroyed Los Angeles’ public rail system to make way for their products.[35]

Laws with no teeth allow corporations to dump toxic waste or install garbage incinerators in poor minority areas, and to poison our air, water, and soil with pollutants, pesticides, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) toxins. Profit is the reason drug companies “promote off-label or unapproved uses for their medicines through their salespeople and physicians,” resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year.[36] It’s why drug companies focus research and development on medicine for minor problems that have to be bought continuously over a lifetime, and focus less on drugs for diseases like malaria, whose victims have no money.[37] It’s why some companies research ways to make their products wear out faster, so people have to buy more—“planned obsolescence.”[38] It’s why oil companies sometimes conspire to hold back production to keep prices up—this has been done not just by Arabian oil cartels but also by American firms.[39]

Weak regulations are why employers casually violate rules for worker safety, leading to everything from lead and asbestos poisoning to maiming, blindness, and death. “In the ’80s, the Reagan administration essentially informed the business world that it was not going to prosecute violations of OSHA regulations. As a result, the number of industrial accidents went up rather dramatically…working days lost to injury almost doubled from 1983 to 1986…”[40] In 2014, Congress changed safety rules for truck drivers, raising the number of hours per week an employee could drive from 70 to 82—despite recent deaths on the roads caused by exhausted truck drivers.[41] Businesses had money to make. In 2016, Oxfam reported that American workers in poultry plants were denied bathroom breaks so often that workers had to wear diapers. Oxfam said that “the cost of cheap chicken in the U.S. is workers who face low wages, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness and face a climate of fear in the workplace.” It reported that

…unnamed workers from Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc… said that supervisors mock them, ignore requests and threaten punishment or firing. When they can go, they wait in long lines even though they are given limited time, sometimes 10 minutes, according to the report. Some workers have urinated or defecated themselves while working because they can’t hold on any longer… Some workers “restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees”…[42]

Workers and undercover journalists report appalling conditions at Amazon warehouses, where too much deviation from the breakneck pace will get workers fired, forcing them to urinate in trashcans and bottles to avoid bathroom break penalties, some collapsing from exhaustion and leaving in ambulances. There exist penalties for sick days (like at Walmart), and wages are so low some workers resort to camping near the warehouses. Walmart and Amazon have patented systems to listen to employee conversations and track hand movements in real time, respectively. At Tesla factories, energy drinks are distributed to combat exhaustion, and not even a raw sewage spill under workers’ feet will stop production.

Employers often find it more profitable to put worker lives on the line and simply risk paying pennies in fines (illegal immigrants can have it even worse). Nader writes:

Roughly sixty thousand Americans die each year due to workplace-related toxins and trauma. OSHA has an annual budget of $550 million to diminish the occupational disease, death, and injury epidemic, but only a portion of that budget is used for actual inspections and enforcement. Violations that pose a substantial probability of death or serious injury incur an average penalty of only $910.

60,000 Americans a year. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates over 650,000 workers around the world die each year from workplace hazards and toxins; 160 million people grow ill.[43] No, not all these deaths are due to capitalist negligence in the name of profit – accidents happen, and many jobs are dangerous by nature – but some are. For example, from 2009 to 2010, 137 Apple workers were poisoned by inhaling hexane, a chemical in gasoline used to clean the glass cases on iPhones. Apple favored hexane over something safer, like alcohol, because hexane dries very quickly, meaning faster production.[44]

If it’s not the employees at risk, it’s the consumers. In the 1970s, after defective fuel tanks in Ford Pintos were revealed to explode in some accidents, Ford calculated that it would be cheaper to pay lawsuit settlements ($200,000 for each case) than recall and repair the cars ($137 million). Ford did not fix the problem. 180 innocent people died each year from explosions linked to the defective fuel tanks.[45] In 2015, the Justice Department declared GM had intentionally misled the public about its defective ignition switches, which killed 124 people. At the same time, Volkswagen was found to have installed software in its vehicles that could detect and trick emissions tests.

None of this is new. As capitalism matured, industrializing nations saw horrific suffering as armies of poor men, women, and children were worked to exhaustion in factories, plants, and mines. Dying or losing limbs on the job and starving to death at home were the realities for millions of human beings during the Industrial Revolution. Ordinary people saw their employers grow rich, while they were given barely enough to stay alive. Victor Hugo[46] in the 1880s told the rich of England:

The workers of this world whose fruits you enjoy live in death. There are little girls who begin at eight by prostitution, and who end at twenty by old age. Who among you have been to Newcastle-on-Tyne? There are men in the mines who chew coal, to fill their stomach and cheat hunger. Look you in Lancashire. Misery everywhere. Are you aware that the Harlech fishermen eat grass when the fishery fails? Are you aware that at Burton- Lazers there are still certain lepers driven into the woods, who are fired at if they come out of their dens? In Peckridge there are no beds in the hovels, and holes are dug in the ground for little children to sleep in; so that, in place of beginning with the cradle, they begin with the tomb.[47]

In 1904, 27,000 American workers were killed at work; in 1914, 35,000 died in industrial accidents.[48] In the U.S. and across the world, workers had to organize, unionize, strike, protest, and riot for government regulations, for safer working conditions, decent pay, shorter days, weekends, the end of child labor, and equal opportunity and treatment for minorities and women.

At times the deaths of employees can be profitable to capitalists in a more direct way. “Dead peasant insurance” (or “corporate-owned life insurance”) is used when a corporation takes out a life insurance policy on an employee or former employee and receives cash upon his or her death. It was originally a way to insure the lives of top executives and buffer against turmoil and collapse in the case of an executive death, but it was later extended to cover even the lowest-paid employees because it was profitable to do so. Capitalism: A Love Story stresses this is a common practice in corporate America, with Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, AT&T, and Citibank among the many guilty firms. It tells the tale of Daniel Johnson, whose employer received $1.5 million upon his death, and explains how corporate owners compare worker deaths and insurance rewards against “expected mortality” estimates to increase the efficacy and profitability of the system. From a 2002 Wall Street Journal report we learned that when former employee Filipe Tillman died of AIDS, Camelot Music collected $339,302; when store clerk William Smith was murdered at work, National Convenience Stores collected $250,000; when nurse Peggy Stillwagoner died in a car wreck, Advantage Medical Services collected $200,000.[49] It is difficult to call our society civilized when corporations actively find ways to profit from worker deaths. Government regulation in 2006 required employers to get employee consent before taking out a policy and restricted the use to higher-paid employees. But this effort was weak, as it left a deplorable practice completely legal. In 2011, the owner of an oil-change business tried to hire a hit man to murder a former employee so the owner could collect $250,000.[50]

A 2016 CBS News investigation found mass fraud throughout the life insurance industry. Firms like MetLife, Prudential, and John Hancock didn’t pay death benefits to family members of the deceased who weren’t aware they were beneficiaries. Instead of honoring the deceased, who paid for the policies to make sure their families would have money in case something happened to them, the companies cancelled the unclaimed policies and kept the sums. Millions of such policies were wrongfully and knowingly cancelled, saving the companies billions. 25 companies settled lawsuits and paid $7.5 billion in owed death benefits. 35 more were under investigation that year.[51]

Clearly, the interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.

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Notes

[1] http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2008/11/money-wins-white-house-and/

[2] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 548

[3] https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2010/11/democrats-and-republicans-sharing-b/

[4] Einstein, Why Socialism?

[5] http://time.com/4148838/koch-brothers-colleges-universities/

[6] Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, 86-88

[7] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[8] Maass, Case for Socialism, 93.

[9] Chomsky, The Common Good, 73

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/magazine/only-one-top-banker-jail-financial-crisis.html?_r=0

[11] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/18/1092100/-Bernie-Sanders-Congress-doesn-t-regulate-banks-banks-regulate-congress-Must-see

[12] Zinn, People’s, 288

[13] Zinn, People’s 559-560

[14] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/29/business/dealbook/29lobbyists-documents.html, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/10/citigroup-bill-passes-house/

[16] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2002/09/ghostwriting-law/

[17] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/08/19/oligarchic-tendencies-study-finds-only-the-wealthy-get-represented-in-the-senate/

[18] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/the-us-no-longer-democracy

[19] Zinn, People’s, 575

[20] http://business.time.com/2013/05/02/tom-wheeler-former-lobbyist-and-obama-fundraiser-tapped-to-lead-fcc/

[21] http://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a23922/donald-trump-cabinet-appointments/; https://www.axios.com/alex-azar-made-millions-in-the-drug-industry-1513307070-2fdf898e-f5a1-409e-a7bf-53d5535a5f1b.html

[22] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/books/review/this-town-by-mark-leibovich.html?pagewanted=all

[23] http://www.thenation.com/article/166809/when-congressman-becomes-lobbyist-he-gets-1452-percent-raise-average#

[24] http://www.thenation.com/article/166809/when-congressman-becomes-lobbyist-he-gets-1452-percent-raise-average#

[25] Alan Maass, Case for Socialism, 106

[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylomy1Aw9Hk

[27] http://www.opensecrets.org/influence/; https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2018/07/revolving-door-update-trump-administration/

[28] Zinn, People’s, 577

[29] http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-industry-influence-in-the-u-s/

[30] http://archive.news.ku.edu/2009/april/9/taxlobbying.shtml

[31] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/big-tobacco-kept-cancer-risk-in-cigarettes-secret-study/

[32] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-nfl-worked-to-hide-the-truth-about-concussions-and-brain-damage-excerpt/

[33] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/even-oil-companies-know-global-warming-is-man-made/

[34] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/14/free-market-healthcare-is-immoral/

[35] Chomsky, Common Good, 59

[36] Nader, Seventeen Solutions

[37] Imagine, 181

[38] Imagine, 181

[39] Zinn, People’s, 549

[40] Chomsky, Common Good

[41] http://socialistworker.org/2014/12/18/washingtons-presents-1-percent

[42] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-11/poultry-workers-in-diapers-as-bathroom-breaks-denied-oxfam-says

[43] http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/eurpro/moscow/areas/safety/statistic.htm

[44] Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, 232

[45] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 74

[46] How socialist was Hugo? See http://isreview.org/issue/89/enduring-relevance-victor-hugo

[47] Hugo, “The Rich”

[48] Zinn, People’s, 327

[49] http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/april_19.htm

[50] http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2014/06/26/does-sneaky-boss-have-life-insurance-on/

[51] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-life-insurance-investigation-lesley-stahl/

The Ethics of the N-Word

When I wrote “Why Black History Month Isn’t Racist But White History Month Would Be (and Other White Conundrums),” I summarized and closed with the following sentence: “Because you know your history and because you are a decent person.”

Of all white conundrums, “Why is it OK for black people to say the N-word but not white people?” is probably the most embarrassing. The answer to this question is of course identical to the conclusion of the prior article, but I did not include the infamous racial slur because it seemed like the topic deserved its own piece. Further, while the answer is the same the question is a bit different. The last article concerned why white people shouldn’t celebrate their race the way many black people do. That had something to do with whiteness — what should white identity really entail? White people being able to freely say racial slurs has nothing to do with whiteness. Only blackness.

Asking why it’s “not OK” for whites to use the N-word is really asking why it isn’t socially acceptable. Asking why something isn’t socially acceptable is asking why a majority opinion exists that this something is immoral. What’s socially acceptable is always rooted in ethics, from slavery to the age of consent, and thus the question is actually “Why is it immoral for whites to say the N-word but not blacks?”

Morality concerns what does harm to others. Our answer is thus self-evident. Whites who use the slur do more harm (psychologically, emotionally) to black folk than other black people who use it.

“It’s like a knife,” Ice Cube told Bill Maher after Maher used the slur. “It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people.” Maya Angelou described it as a “poison.” Human beings, she said, “are worth everything. Women are better than being called the ‘b’ word, and blacks are better than being called the ‘n’ word… You are better than being called the word that would deny your humanity.” It is astonishing that some white people seem confused that a term historically used to mark blacks as subhuman, worthy of oppression, rape, and murder, might cause emotional distress, from embarrassment to rage. (It’s not actually astonishing; white people have a long history of lacking basic empathy and critical thinking skills.) The slur causes such pain that physical dangers like knives and poison often accompany its description.

While some African Americans use the N-word and others despise it so much they do not (Ice Cube and Angelou, respectively), in either case the word coming from a white person has a different connotation because of our history. That is obvious and hardly complex. Even if the user considers himself or herself an antiracist or speaking without racist intent, the impact needs to be considered as well. It’s what ethical people do. They think about how their actions affect others; for the N-word, the impact of a white user is simply not the same as that of a black user, even if some black people are also bothered when fellow blacks use the term.

If what’s immoral is based on what causes harm to others, we know then that varying amounts of harm translates to varying degrees of wrong. Ethics exist on a continuum, a sliding scale; they are not black and white. A poor man who steals $25 from a rich man to buy a meal because he is hungry has not committed a wrong as grave as a rich man who steals $25 from a poor man because he is greedy. The intents are quite different, and while the financial loss is the same it hardly has the same impact. A woman who kills a rapist in self-defense has not committed so grave an immoral act (in fact, none at all in my view) as a woman who kills her husband to cash in a life insurance policy. Different intent, even different impact: though the loss of either man may cause pain to their family and friends, one scenario rids the world of a rapist.

Knowing ethics are situational, it’s easy enough to imagine a continuum for the immorality of the N-word, from least wrong (or perhaps not wrong at all) to most wrong, such as:

  • A white person quoting a black person criticizing the word or a white racist using the word (as a means of education)
  • A white person using it when singing hip-hop alone in a car (only potential harm exists: frequent use of the word privately could lead to public use)
  • A white person using it in a joke or mimicking its use as a term of endearment among black people (these contexts cause emotional and psychological harm)
  • A white person using it to degrade, vilify, oppress (overt racism, extreme emotional and psychological harm)

Other scenarios could be conjured. While some will object, insisting these are all equally immoral (or disagree on the order — perhaps the first and second could be switched, as the first one is public and might cause more harm), emphasizing that the use of the N-word is on an ethical continuum is key to demonstrating why it’s not OK for white people to use it, why it isn’t a double standard, hypocritical, all that intellectual laziness.

Imagine the scenarios we would put before those above. These would be situations even less unethical, perhaps morally acceptable. For example, a black person singing along to hip-hop, using the N-word as a term of endearment with a friend, writing a song that includes it, etc. None of these carry the harm or potential harm that the examples featuring white folk do (even though they may carry some, such as upsetting other African Americans who do not use the term, influencing white folk, and so on).

So we see how different contexts and different speakers cause varying degrees of harm, which changes the immorality accordingly. To be moral, we whites must be cognizant of the pain we can cause. You do not use the N-word because you know your history and because you are a decent person.

(Here I must acknowledge my bias. As a white writer interested in race, I often am in the first category for whites above, quoting others word-for-word so as to preserve the full power, whether wickedness or wisdom, of the N-word. I do not censor the words of James Baldwin:

What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears, and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me… I didn’t invent the nigger… I’ve always known that I am not the nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?… You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.

Nor do I censor — whitewash — the true wickedness and hatred of whites who use the slur to tear down and demean black people, such as when a Baltimore teacher, in addition to calling her black students “idiots” and “stupid,” screamed that if they didn’t take schoolwork seriously each would end up a “punk-ass nigger who’s going to get shot.”

There are times when the N-word is redacted not to protect black people but to protect white people. Not all readers will agree, but I think there are moments when quoting the word — in writing; verbally falls elsewhere on the moral continuum — can remind whites of its evil, its pain, in the same way exposure to the true barbarism of our racial history can deeply impact white people and change them in positive ways. In a time of white denial, such an education of the word’s full power may be helpful.)

But even after understanding the moral difference between users of different colors and accepting that whites should not use the term, whites may yet have a remaining conundrum: “Why do black people use the term when it’s hate speech targeting them?”

While again emphasizing that many African Americans detest the word no matter who says it and would never say it themselves, we need to understand that appropriating derogatory labels is a very human thing to do, almost to the point of being predictable. Victims often seize the hate speech of perpetrators and adopt it because it strips the latter of their power.

There are many examples in world history of this. “Yankee Doodle” was originally a song used by the British to mock the American troops during the Revolution (yankee itself was likewise a term of derision). The song was quickly appropriated by the Americans. Next, observe what the GLAAD Glossary of Terms notes of queer: “Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.” Impressionist was created to mock Monet and others who didn’t paint in an ultra-realist fashion. If a sneering art critic inspires the reclamation and redesign of insults, why wouldn’t white supremacists? A jesuit was originally someone criticized for using the name of Jesus too often. Suffragette was first intended to mock militant women. Nasty woman became a badge of honor in 2016, as did deplorable. For many African Americans, “black” used to be a pejorative, “negro” respectful, but now it’s the reverse. There are countless other reappropriations, varying in their degrees of popularity, from tree hugger to bitch. Parents even teach children to handle bullies in a similar manner. Adopting words meant to attack and insult you is a human trait that speaks to our resiliency, feelings of self-worth, and deep appreciation for irony and tragicomedy. Understanding this should erase white people’s assumptions that black people who use the N-word are expressing nothing but self-loathing.

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Petition Against the Militia

On the weekend of August 19, 2017, leftist activists organized two events in Kansas City, Missouri: a rally against prisoner abuse and a march against white supremacy. Though successful, these rallies were stalked by men dressed in camouflage and armed with knives, handguns, and rifles — members of a right-wing “militia” group called the “Three Percenters.”

These men were inspired by the “militia” that protected the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Confederates in Charlottesville, Virginia, the week before. They were not present to protect the Kansas Citians gathering for justice for prisoners and people of color, as they absurdly implied in the press and to passersby. They came to intimidate, no doubt with some hope a protester would break a window or step out of line in some fashion so they could murder said protester and call it justified. The Three Percenters circled the protesters during speeches and then followed them on their march.

The Kansas City Police Department allowed this. It could have kept these counter-protesters behind a police line, cornered off away from the crowd, as it did during a June 10, 2017 protest/counter-protest. But instead the “militia” was allowed to stalk the crowd. Videos even surfaced of a disturbingly friendly police-“militia” relationship, in which one Three Percenter says the KCPD asked them to come and another tells police they’d “keep you in the loop” concerning any altercations (highlighting what they were there for, to take matters into their own hands, the police a mere afterthought).

Because the Three Percenters were there to intimidate, because weaponry readied against unarmed protesters is both unnecessary and enormously increases the risk of altercations, violence, or death, because protesters felt unsafe, and because (as with a car mowing down protesters) it is only a matter of time before a “militia” kills a protester for no reason, we demand the following:

1. During future events, “militias” and other counter-protesters will be kept at a safe distance behind a police line. The police will not allow them to leave their area, circle the crowd, enter the crowd, follow the crowd, or harass or terrorize or intimidate the crowd in any way.

2. The KCPD will immediately release a public statement declaring the above is official policy and will be followed to the letter.

https://www.change.org/p/kcpd-keep-the-militia-on-a-leash

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It Can Happen Here

The chilling hatred white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-nazis displayed in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12, 2017, was an affront to human dignity — and at multiple times a literal attack upon it. On Friday night on the University of Virginia campus, students standing up against the “Alt-Right” were surrounded and assaulted. At the “Unite the Right” rally the next day at a city park, a rally participant ran over and killed Heather Heyer, a paralegal and anti-racist activist. He injured 19 others in the attack. Others severely beat Deandre Harris, an anti-racist protester and hip-hop artist, in a parking garage. Fistfights broke out elsewhere.

Symbols of white supremacist violence, genocide, and oppression were prevalent. Swastikas and Nazi salutes, Ku Klux Klan hoods and crosses, Confederate flags and burning torches. Chants like “Proud to be white,” “You will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “Blood and soil” (an old Nazi slogan) filled the air. Many enjoyed the privilege of walking around with heavy weaponry and acting provocatively without fear of swift and painful police retribution.

Yet standing against them, arm-in-arm and singing, were local clergy. People of all colors, genders, orientations, and beliefs worked together — truly, the American ideal — to show with their bodies and voices that white supremacy has no place in a decent society. Residents and visitors from around the nation, youths and workers, radicals and civil rights activists, they all marched through the streets together in the name of justice. Not all went home unscathed. One did not go home at all. But all did the right thing in that moment. History will look as admirably upon them as it looks upon the souls attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday 1965.

It is their example that Kansas City must follow. With our words and with our bodies, Kansas Citians must confront racial hatred in all its forms. What happened in Charlottesville can happen here.

Kansas City is still scarred by its history of oppression of people of color: from where we live to how long we live to how much wealth we have. Events in 2017 alone have left an open wound in our present. As documented, swastikas, nooses, slurs, vandalism, threatening phone calls, declarations of “white power,” Alt-Right literature condemning a diverse America, beatings, and a shooting by a man hunting Arabs have all been experienced in our city in the past eight months alone. The past few years is an even darker story. There is no question the same elements that made this weekend’s horrific events possible exist in Kansas City.

We will confront daily the legacy of Kansas City’s white supremacy, working for equality and prosperity for all people. All of Kansas City — especially white people, who have turned away in the face of injustice for too long — must address racial and other mistreatment or stereotyping wherever they see it and at the moment they hear it. All of us must be fearless in the face of danger. We must confront hatred with our words and our bodies. We will speak up and show up. Justice expects nothing less. History expects nothing less.

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How Racism and Illegal Immigration Benefit Capitalism

Both racism and illegal immigration have been enormously beneficial to capitalism.

In human history, the idea of biological inferiority only became widespread alongside the rise of the African slave trade, as traders and merchants needed a justification for the enslavement of millions of people who were neither prisoners of war nor individual debtors (the traditional justifications for slavery among Europeans). Perpetuating the myth that blacks were little better than animals allowed organizers and participants in the slave trade to reap colossal profits from free labor with impunity. Racism served the monetary interests of a certain few.

Even after slavery ended, racism was used to justify further oppression and wage theft by the capitalist class. Just as emancipation would mean the end of free labor for slave-owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and non-whites in general. In Communism and the Negro (1933), New Yorker Max Shachtman (head of the Worker’s Party) wrote:

The ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority… It affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a nigger.”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a nigger” who suffers.[1]

Racism served capitalists a second way: it discouraged workers of different colors from uniting and unionizing to push for higher wages, shorter workweeks, or more decent working conditions and treatment. There was racial hostility in the competition for work, and corporations often responded to strikes by hiring unemployed blacks to replace white strikers, as they could pay them dismal wages with less threat of resistance. The racial tension and violence this created impeded the progress of interracial organizing and helped keep the working class poor.

Prominent black leaders saw the connection between racism and capitalism. Malcolm X said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”; Stokely Carmichael said, “Racism gets its power from capitalism”; and Dr. King said, “The evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”[2] They knew that racism served capitalists’ financial interests, whether consciously or as a matter of course.

Illegal immigration has likewise enormously benefited capitalism, both in the U.S. and worldwide, in a similar way to how racism benefits capitalism. In the U.S. it is illegal to hire undocumented workers; employers do so regardless, particularly in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, restaurant, and service sectors.

Illegal immigrants are some of the most exploited workers in history. (See Amnesty Solves Conservative Criticisms of Illegal Immigration for more on this general topic.) With employers holding the power to fire or turn them in to the authorities, undocumented workers face dismal pay, harsh working conditions, and an inability to organize and unionize to improve their position. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, nor benefits, nor overtime, nor child labor protections, nor in most states injury compensation. In 2008 authorities discovered children as young as 13 working in an Iowa meatpacking plant, and beaten and bruised adults working 17-hour days.[3]

Alan Maass writes:

For corporations and the U.S. political establishment, immigration has nothing to do with making opportunities available to the world’s poor and suffering. Like slavery in an early era, the key is how immigration guarantees a pool of cheap and easily controlled labor.

If you look at the history of the United States, the idea that immigration controls and border security are about keeping immigrant labor out is laughable. For two centuries, one group after another was encouraged to move to the United States under conditions of illegality, and be the scapegoat at the bottom of the heap. Irish, Jews, Germans, Swedes, southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Mexicans, Central Americans, Muslims…[4]

Capitalists can increase their profits by taking advantage of millions of people, again whether intentionally or as a natural, inadvertent consequence. Capitalism benefits from a steady flow of illegal immigrants.

It is very interesting to note that in this case the ideology of anti-immigrant conservatives does not align with the interests of capitalist power. So often conservatism serves corporate interests, such as the hostility toward environmental protection regulations and the opposition to the minimum wage.

But here racism benefits capitalism in one way and hurts it in another. Virulent racism allowed for the super-exploitation of certain groups of people, but also created masses of racist people who opposed the arrival of blacks, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Hispanics, etc. throughout American history. Most all non-Western European immigration, legal and illegal, has been opposed because of bigotry at various times. The current anti-immigrant hysteria certainly has a racial component. In sum, while capitalism benefits from illegal immigration the same racism that also benefits capitalism encourages people to oppose illegal immigration, screaming for deportation, patrolling borders as vigilantes, and calling for the construction of massive walls.

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Notes

[1] Schachtman, Communism and the Negro

[2] Malcolm X, remarks at Militant Labor Forum Symposium, May 29, 1964; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug8RJyLoz0; Martin Luther King Jr., Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence

[3] http://www.alternet.org/story/94703/exploited%3A_the_plight_of_the_undocumented_worker

[4] Maass, The Case for Socialism

The Bereshit (Jesus in Genesis) Argument Has No Merit

On New Year’s Eve 2016, a friend introduced me to the term bereshit, Hebrew for “in the beginning.” It is the first word of the bible, and is believed by some to contain a secret message concerning the crucifixion of Christ. The bereshit argument is therefore also called the “Jesus in Genesis 1:1” theory.

The theory goes like this: Hebrew letters have special meanings, and when you examine the meanings of the six letters in bereshit (beyt-resh-aleph-shin-yud-tav) they form a sentence: “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I told my friend I was skeptical but would research it, and later came across this graphic and this video (minutes 10:00 to 17:00). Both assert the following meanings or associations of the letters: beyt (house, tent), resh (first person, head), aleph (God), shin (consume, destroy, teeth), yud (hand, arm, works), and tav (covenant, mark, cross). Beyt and resh, when combined, make the word “son.” So the bereshit sequence can supposedly be read “son-God-destroy-hand-cross,” or “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I reached out to some of today’s most respected and renowned Old Testament scholars to determine the merits of the bereshit theory. I also spoke to John E. Kostik, a well-traveled Christian speaker, who created the video. He informed me that proving bereshit theory was as simple as looking up the meanings of Hebrew letters, which have matching Hebrew words. “Bereshit begins with the letter beyt. The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is beyt!”

I remembered a question John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, posited to me earlier that day: “Why would no one have seen it for thousands of years?” So I asked Kostik why web information on it is relatively sparse and why many pastors and believers don’t know about it. He said that because the original language of Hebrew is not widely known, and because Jewish scholars do not view Christ as the messiah and therefore do not have open eyes, the spread of this knowledge has been limited. I asked for sources on the topic, and Kostik directed me to Jeff A. Benner’s work.

Like Kostik (and myself), Benner is not a professional scholar. He works for an engineering company and lives in a log cabin, but like Kostik studying ancient Hebrew is his passion. He documents his studies on his website, which he dubbed the Ancient Hebrew Research Center. While disappointed not to find a university professor with findings published in peer-reviewed journals, that was the source I was given so I pressed on.

The first task was to see if the ancient Hebrew word for “house” indeed had the same name as the first letter in bereshit.

I looked up these words in Benner’s dictionary of ancient Hebrew words, and consulted Strong’s Concordance to ensure they were accurate, which they were.

The definitions below with ancient Hebrew lettering are both from Benner’s site, with a Strong’s Concordance number to crosscheck. Definitions without ancient Hebrew lettering are from Strong’s Concordance alone. Hebrew words are read right to left.

(ba-yit): House. (The structure or the family, as a household that resides within the house. A housing. Within.) Strong’s 1004.

 (rosh): Head. (The top of the body. A person in authority or role of leader. The top, beginning, or first of something.) Strong’s 7218.

 (a-luph): Chief. (Accorded highest rank or office; of greatest importance, significance, or influence. One who is yoked to another to lead and teach.) Strong’s 441.

(sheyn): Tooth. (Hard bony appendages on the jaws used for chewing food and forming of sounds when talking.) Strong’s 8127/8128.

 (yad): Hand. (The terminal, functional part of the forelimb. Hand with the ability to work, throw and give thanks.) Strong’s 3027.

Not pictured (tav): Frowardness (perverse thing) or mark (from tavah, Strong’s 8427). Strong’s 8420/8420a.

These then needed to be compared to the letters themselves. Here are Benner’s descriptions of the early Hebrew letters:

 (beyt, today ב): image of a house, tent

 (resh, today ר): image of a man’s head

(aleph, today א): image of an ox’s head

 (shin, today ש): image of two front teeth

 (yud, today י): image of arm and hand

 (tav, today ת): image of crossed sticks

You will notice the names of these Hebrew letters are indeed virtually the same as the Hebrew words above. We will get back to this.

Initial problems with the bereshit argument become evident fairly quickly. First, assuming these letters represent the items asserted, bereshit reads “house-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark [or perverse thing].” Benner himself does not include “God,” “consume,” “destroy,” “works,” “covenant,” or “cross” as definitions!

If we open the scope of the meanings to include Strong’s (Exhaustive Concordance), that gives us:

  • House (court, door, dungeon, family, forth of, great as would contain, hangings)
  • Head (band, captain, company)
  • Chief (captain, duke, chief friend, governor, guide, ox; chief is actually not included under a-luph here)
  • Tooth (crag, forefront, ivory, sharp)
  • Hand (be able, about, armholes, at, axletree, because of, beside, border)
  • Mark (very froward thing, perverse thing, desire, signature)

And still the key words are missing. “House-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is not all that close to the original bereshit claim. Even skipping Strong’s translations and using only Benner’s, a wide range of secret messages can be conjured. “Family-leader-yoked teacher-tooth-hand-perverse thing” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible!

Key words necessary for the bereshit argument are simply assumed without basis. Aleph, while having to do with leader, has nothing to do with God, as confirmed by my scholars. Notice a noun is transformed into a verb in the conversion of “tooth” to “destroy”! It’s merely “inferring a verb,” says John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.

When I raised to John Kostik the fact that these words were missing, he sent me an image that depicted shin standing for destruction in another word, but could not provide a source. “Maybe common sense is to be employed,” he said, adding, “God doesn’t have to source everything through man. God is the source.” I pointed out common sense could also make shin stand for dental hygiene. I did not receive a reply.

You’ll notice “son” is missing here. As explained above, one must combine the first two letters to create “son.” Beyt and resh can join to form the word bar, son (Strong’s 1247). Thus, bereshit can at best be read “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” according to Benner’s definitions at least. Or “son-most important-tooth-hand-perverse thing” if you prefer.

Of course, opening the door to letter combinations, rather than moving bereshit closer to validation, can move it farther away. As before, many combinations and words, and thus secret messages, are possible. Beyt-resh-aleph could form bara’ (choose, Strong’s 1254). Resh-aleph could be used for the name Ra. We could combine shin-yud-tav to create shith (to put or set, Strong’s 7896). Yud-tav could form yath (whom, Strong’s 3487). Therefore, “The house of Ra is set” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible, if not superior.

“I actually find this use of the Bible scary,” says Mark S. Smith, professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, “because it ends [up] being made into meanings that its creators want, and not what the Bible really says.” A similar sentiment was expressed to me by Michael V. Fox, professor emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, John Goldingay (“One can prove almost anything by this method”), and Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary (“Sound[s] more like nonsense to me, pressing to [see] what is not there”).

Further, we must be sure to note there are no prepositions or verb tenses with bereshit. My example at best could be “house-Ra-set.” There is no “the,” “of,” or “is.” Same with “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.” There’s no “the” or “of” or “is” or “by” or “his” or “own” or “on.” Where do bereshit believers get any pieces beyond “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark”? One could just as easily assert the meaning “The son isn’t chief until his tooth and hand are marked.” Even if we had “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” there would still be room to create other narratives, for instance: “My son God destroyed when his hands formed a cross.” He crossed his arms and a city exploded. And of course, even if prepositions and verbs formed a complete “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross” there would remain the possibility that this was first discovered by some first-century A.D. scribe who then invented a story of Jesus to “fulfill the prophesy.” But no matter. While “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” would be intriguing indeed, “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is the best we have.

I reached out to ask Benner if he was a bereshit believer. He replied, “I personally do not believe that secret messages are encoded in specific words of the Bible.”

However, Benner’s website does associate letters with certain meanings. Yet the scholars I spoke to were adamant that ancient Hebrew letters should not be viewed as “standing for” something. Ron Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC-Berkeley, says of shin, “It’s just a letter of the alphabet. It doesn’t stand for anything except the sound ‘sh.'” This is because ancient Hebrew was never pictographic (where symbols represent things), it was phonetic (where symbols — letters — represent sounds).

Early Hebrew letters (Paleo-Hebrew) came from the older Phoenician alphabet (“phonetic” is not a coincidence), which had 22 letters, all consonants, just like its Hebrew offspring. The Phoenicians lived along the Syrian, Lebanese, and northern Israeli coast, and spread their alphabet across the Mediterranean regions, setting the stage for the development of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and later English.

In the phonetic Hebrew language the crossed sticks symbol, tav, represented only the “t” sound, as in “toy.” In a similar way, the Greek letter tau makes the “t” sound. English doesn’t generally spell out its letter names, but one could say the English tee makes the “t” sound. There is no evidence that the ox head, the crossed sticks, the man’s head, nor the others were actually used by the Hebrews in a pictographic way, where if one wanted to write the word house one would draw beyt. You had to use letters to form words, like  (ba-yit) above. And no one thought the word “house” contained the secret code of “house-arm-mark”! You were simply using three letters to make a “bh” sound, “y” sound, and “t” sound to make a word.

“The letters never really ‘meant’ those things” to the Hebrews, says Molly Zahn, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, “because the whole point of an alphabet of only a limited number of letters (22 in the case of Hebrew) is to represent sounds, not ideas.” Pictographic languages like hieroglyphics require hundreds — thousands — of signs to be at all useful.

Other societies, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, did use pictographic language for a time (think hieroglyphics and cuneiform), but there is no evidence the Hebrews did. The best evidence points to the first Hebrew writing system being an offshoot of the Phoenician script, which aligns neatly with the evidence that the Hebrew people themselves were an offshoot of the Canaanites, a group that included the Phoenicians.

Now, that does not mean the symbols used by the Hebrews were never used in a pictographic way — they were just never used in a pictographic way by the Hebrews. There is no evidence (“None whatsoever,” emphasized Victor H. Matthews, dean of Religious Studies at Missouri State University) that the Hebrews as an independent people used a pictographic language; they were likely already armed with a Canaanite phonetic language upon their formation. We thus arrive at this question of how it is the names of these Hebrew letters are essentially the same as the words of the everyday objects they were modeled on. This phenomenon has certainly made the bereshit argument seem plausible to some.

If we were to look back in time, before the Hebrews existed, before Phoenicia developed its groundbreaking alphabet, we would likely see the people of the region using pictograms of objects. As Zahn explains, they used the image of an ox’s head to mean an alpu (ox) and a little house drawing to represent a ba-yit. These were eventually used by the first phonetic thinkers to represent sounds, specifically these words’ first syllables, the “ah” and “b” sounds. A drawing of an ox came to represent not an ox but a sound, a letter. It was a sound and letter that would then be used to create a brand new, multi-letter word for ox. That’s the transition from pictographic to phonetic language. Alpu evolved into different forms — aleph (Phoenician, Hebrew), alpha (Greek), alif (Arabic); so did ba-yit — beth (Phoenician), beyt (Hebrew), beta (Greek, today more vita), ba (Arabic), and so on. So it should not be surprising that objects and letters modeled off those objects should have nearly the same names. This is not unique to Hebrew, either. The Arabic word for tooth (sini) looks like سن and sounds, and appears, remarkably like the letter س (sin). The Arabic word for hand (yd) looks like يد and is somewhat close to the letter ي (ya). Other examples in Arabic and other tongues are not difficult to find.

Some will of course, regardless of evidence, argue that the Hebrews, being “God’s chosen people,” invented the pictographs (and/or phonetics) themselves and disseminated them to other peoples. Or that regardless of how biblical Hebrew came about God nevertheless orchestrated events so that whoever wrote Genesis unwittingly put a secret message of Christ’s story in “in the beginning.” That even if an ox head in an ancient language doesn’t mean anything except a sound, we should take it to mean something. But given the evidence it must be concluded that the message could at best be “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” which itself is an entirely arbitrary arrangement, leaving out other possible symbol meanings and combinations of words to form new words, simply word choice made by Christians wishing to construct what is not there.

The final verdict on bereshit? To quote Tremper Longman III, professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, “It’s bull.”

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The Socialists

“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.”

India of My Dreams (1947), Gandhi

“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave [capitalistic] evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an education system which would be oriented toward social goals.”

Why Socialism? (1949), Albert Einstein

“How did I become a socialist? By reading.”

How I Became a Socialist (1912), Helen Keller

“If we are to achieve a real equality, the U.S. will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

Letter from the Selma, Alabama jail (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I was already It, whatever It was, and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist. Since that day I have opened many books, but no economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.”

How I Became a Socialist (1905), Jack London

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

Why I Write (1946), George Orwell

“Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?”

A Man Without A Country (2005), Kurt Vonnegut

“It is true, as I have already stated, that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent States. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of this world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty.”

In His Own Words (2003), Nelson Mandela

“Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.”

New Worlds for Old (1908), H.G. Wells

“I have become a Communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build a better world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

Why I Joined the Communist Party (1944), Pablo Picasso

“If being a communist or being a capitalist or being a socialist is a crime, first you have to study which of those systems is the most criminal. And then you’ll be slow to say which one should be in jail.”

Malcolm X Speaks (1965), Malcolm X

“I am too artistic to deal with money in any way, basically. I am a socialist who just happens to be getting this money.”

The Playboy interviews (1981), John Lennon

“The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it…running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000.”

Letter to Norman Thomas (1951), Upton Sinclair

“Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895), Oscar Wilde

“Socialism was reason.”

Timebends: A Life (1987), Arthur Miller

“The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

To Gustav Janouch in Conversations with Kafka (1971), Franz Kafka

“A completely socialistic result depends on who does the planning and for what ends. A state socialism planned by the rich for their own survival is quite possible, but it is far from the state where the rule rests in the hands of those who produce wealth and services and whose aim is the welfare of the mass of the people.”

If Eugene Debs Returned (1956), W.E.B Du Bois

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