Driving us apart

Long-time cromrades may remember that I took part (mostly as a spectator) in Occupy Vancouver last year. The general theme of the Occupy movement was an invitation to examine the state of inequalities and inequities in our supposedly fair and meritocratic capitalist system. The thesis advanced by Occupy is that this system was not in fact fair, and that regardless of party affiliation, the political system was set up to benefit the elite at the expense of the majority.

Of course, one of the major criticisms of Occupy was that it was almost entirely caught up with examining the problems from a purely political standpoint, and showed little interest in examining the other root causes of social inequality – racism, sexism, classism, and various other prejudices that have put the fairness of the system to the lie for generations. It was only when those problems began to visit themselves on the people who didn’t ‘deserve it’ that is was suddenly an issue in need of a national response.

That being said, Occupy did push income inequality to the forefront of political consciousness. Which is why a story like this gets reported now: [Read more...]

A truly remarkable election, a truly remarkable story

So there was an election last night. Maybe you heard about it. I decided to take on a bottle of scotch and let the election results decide whether I was drinking in triumph or in bitter defeat. At it turned out, the lesser of two evils prevailed, which is good news for America and the rest of the world.

There was sincerely, non-cynically good news last night too, as Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, and Tammy Baldwin all won elections against opponents who represented the ugliest aspects of the body politic. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “god’s will” Mourdock lost their races as well, as did Allen West and Joe Walsh. This is all suggestive of an America that is happy taking a step back from the precipice of insanity that is the once-fringe-now-mainstream of the Republican party. There are a lot of ugly things that happened around this election as well, but we can talk about those next week. Events have once again conspired to rob me of blogging time, but I do want to highlight an important thought.

Elections are viewed through a lens of Hollywood-style horse race struggles between two opposing ideas, where one side “wins” and the other side “loses”. The fact is that this election is, at least at an aggregate level, a preservation of the status quo of Washington politics. It is no exaggeration to point out how deeply corporatized both parties are, and we don’t have to look too far to see a laundry list of things that went almost entirely undiscussed in this election: secret and illegal wars, climate change, domestic spying, curtailment of civil liberties, housing, affirmative action programs, increasing economic inequality, deepening poverty, and the disproportionate effect the economic crisis has had and continues to have on Americans of colour are just a few examples that jump off the top of my head. [Read more...]

#Occupy: the answer to an important question

When the ‘Occupy together’ movement started nearly a year ago, the media narrative almost immediately pivoted to bafflement (either pretended or genuine*) over what ‘the point’ was. Occupy, without a pre-determined raison d’être aside from “shit’s fucked up“, and lacking an official spokesperson to boil down the issues into bullet points that would be ready by the print deadline, actually required people to really dig in and collect the relevant facts and a cross-section of sentiment within the movement. This, incidentally, is also known as “being a fucking journalist”, but I will save you my diatribe about how terrible media organizations are** for another time.

Now Occupy is a lot of different things – a social justice movement, an experiment in anarchic self-governance, an attempt to introduce income inequality into the political mainstream discussion, an expression of contempt for the political status quo – depending on which direction you turn the direction of your analysis, you can probably come up with a lengthy list. The headless organized chaos that typifies Occupy necessarily leads to the formation of a movement that intentionally fails to resemble any of the top-down structures we’ve come to expect in human interactions (at least in this part of the world).

When I was participating in the protests in Montreal, I had a realization. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a ‘sudden’ realization, since I’ve been talking about Occupy for a minute. Whatever it was, I put the pieces together and realized that at its core, Occupy is the answer to a question. The question, and I think it’s a fundamentally important one, is this: how do we respond when those we elect betray our trust? I don’t think there are too many people who look at the political realities right now without a bit of practiced cynicism. After all, being cynical about politics is as old as the hills. But when our response starts and stops with witty rejoinders, we sell ourselves and the world short. After all, some things need to be dealt with: [Read more...]

The darkness before dawn

It is more or less inevitable that, in any discussion of turmoil within a social movement, there will be those who archly perch atop some combination of a high horse and a fence, raining down tongue-clucking pronouncements about how the mere existence of dissent is the reason why they will never get involved. I suppose if one was being charitable, one could interpret this as an impulse to avoid conflict. After all, not everyone wants to jump into the midst of a fight, and I can certainly sympathize with that impulse. Some people simply want to exist and be at peace without having to ‘pick a side’ between factions that should be united in purpose.

Of course, the question becomes why those who wish to avoid conflict so ostentatiously announce themselves to be above it rather than just butting out the way they claim to want to do. Standing up on a soapbox and doing the whole ‘plague on both your houses’ lecture is not a statement of non-involvement; it’s a statement of philosophical purity and superiority. “I would never lower myself to so crass a level as to care about something and fight for it. How vulgar!” It is the same spirit of false equivalence we are so often ‘treated’ to from faitheists who would hush Gnu atheists for being ‘too strident’ and ‘attacking’ religious folks instead of engaging in a sort of faux-ecumenical hand-holding exercise where we hold our noses and pretend each other’s shit doesn’t stink. [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Why we #Occupy

I have not written about the #Occupy movement in a while, owing somewhat to the disappointing failure of Occupy Vancouver to resurface at the beginning of this month. However, I have not stopped believing in the validity and necessity of the cause. I recognize that there is a Sisyphian task of convincing the general public – like a frog in a pot of gradually warming water – that there is an urgent problem that needs addressing. Most people would rather retreat to trite platitudes about ‘laziness’ and ‘entitlement’ and ‘handouts’ instead of bothering to take a moment and look around and realize that something is really rotten. The myths about hard work and achievement that this society was built on are hollow in the face of reality, but like so many other things, it is easier to perpetuate the myth than make the necessary change.

There are few people on television I find more odious and more historically unnecessary than Sean Hannity. I say ‘odious’ for reasons that I imagine are obvious to anyone who’s watched him interview anyone that isn’t Ted Nugent. He hops from ‘question’ to ‘question’ (they are actually not questions, but straight-up lies thrown at a guest who is not given a chance to respond before the next salvo is launched), reducing the interview to little more than a televised bullying session. I say ‘historically unnecessary’ because men like Hannity have always been around, arrogantly strutting and trying to pass their stereotypes off as wisdom. This is perhaps no better displayed than in this video: [Read more...]

The worst thing in the world (Thursday edition)

Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.

When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.

My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City: [Read more...]

Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

(snip)

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

(snip)

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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#Occupy: Not down, not out

One might think, based on the much-diminished news presence and the absence of physical encampments, that the movement known as Occupy has ended, or at least lost some steam. After all, they’re not really ‘occupying Wall Street’ anymore, and the police have chased away all of the physical presence of the protests here in Canada. We haven’t even heard a decent “mic check” make the news recently.

Of course, we must remember that most of the media attention has been focussed on the ongoing Republican presidential circus, and it takes a decidedly uncharacteristic (un-Occupy-like) debacle to warrant any media attention:

Officials surveyed damage Sunday from a volatile Occupy protest that resulted in hundreds of arrests the day before and left the historic City Hall vandalized after demonstrators broke into the building, smashed display cases, cut electrical wires and burned an American flag.

Police placed the number of arrests at about 400 from Saturday’s daylong protest — the most contentious since authorities dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment late last year.

For the record, Occupy Oakland is telling a very different story than the police are. Of course they would, but there’s no reason to believe that they are any less biased than the cops, especially given the shockingly bad behaviour that the Oakland Police Department has displayed in the recent past. [Read more...]

Whose revolution is it, anyway?

Anyone who has been paying close attention to the Occupy movement knows that “the 99%” is, in fact, several different groups. While it might make for good news reporting, #OWS is not a group with a unified message about corporate greed and income inequality. There is some truth to this narrative, but it is most certainly not the whole story. #OWS can more accurately be described as a collaboration between several different protest movements who have, for the moment, agreed to focus their attention on the overlap between politics and finance, because eliminating the problem will benefit all groups in some way.

There is an easily-drawn parallel between the affiliated causes of #OWS and the atheist/skeptic/freethought movement. They (we) are not a monolithic group with a singular goal – we are better described as a voluntary association of a number of disparate causes. There are freethinkers who wish to see the eventual disappearance of religion; there are others who simply wish religion was out of the public square. There are freethinkers who are activists because of the way religion treats women; there are others who fear for the security of the planet if fundamentalists control nuclear weapons. We do not have a single common goal, but we focus on religion (or, more generally, pseudoscience) because it is a common enemy.

The similarity does not end there, however. Just like religion does not harm all freethinkers equally – think of what an Iranian atheist faces compared to a Norwegian one – rising income inequality may be a universal problem, but there are some fractions within the 99% that, to put it bluntly, have more cause for concern: [Read more...]

Participation deserves more than a ribbon

When I first heard of the Occupy movement, I was overjoyed. “Finally,” I thought “some people who have been paying attention and have decided this shit is enough.” As someone who follows politics, it’s often disheartening to speak to my peers and realize that they are, far too often at least, completely clued out about what happening in our system. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I at least scan headlines to keep track of the major stories. Not so my friends.

It was encouraging, therefore, to see a group of people energized and passionate about not simply one issue, but the entire political process. They were gearing up to try and tackle the system as a whole, not simply agitate for the flavour of the month – be that pay increases or blocking a given legislation. As long as I’ve been following politics, it has begun to become abundantly clear to me that the problem with our political system is not the corruption of those who participate – it is the apathy of those who do not.

Democracy can only work to serve the people if those people are actively represented. In some cases, that representation comes from a heroically-benevolent elected official who understands and sympathizes with the issues facing hir constituents, even in those times when ze does not necessarily agree. Those kinds of examples are what people have come to expect, but because of the natural corrupting influence of power, they are rare. What is a much better system is to have full and rigorous scrutiny of the elected by the electorate. In order for that to happen, however, the electorate needs to be actively paying attention.

I am, thankfully, not the only person who thinks this: [Read more...]