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Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the category “Politics”

A Response to A Defense of Moderate, American Socialism

we the peopleThis essay is a short response to the great recent analysis on Socialism in America by my colleague on Wrath-Bearing Tree, Adrian Bonenberger. I was looking for ways I could critique his points but it is hard on the merits, I guess because we share more political opinions than I might had thought. Here are a few of my comments that variously qualify as minor quibbles, or just my own comments expounding on what he has written.

We agree that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for President, and without ennumerating all the specific reasons why, it is enough to realize that he offers the best policies on basically every pressing issue as well as the most consistently honest and incorruptible character–a rare mix in politicians today or at any time. As a proudly self-identified Democratic Socialist, we can place him in the company of such men as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela (not to mention other Very Intelligent People such as Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Marie Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon, and many others–much better overall company than J.P. Morgan or Donald Trump, in my opinion). We also agree that Socialism has long been a highly pejorative word in America, especially since the first Red Scare in 1918, rising in popularity during the Great Depression, and being finally blacklisted and virtually outlawed for good during the Red Scare after WWII for the next six decades. The time has finally come when Socialism is no longer a dirty word, but is increasingly becoming accepted as a positive and possibly essential solution to many of America’s biggest problems.

On Education, I agree that it is more important that education is universally available than who supplies it. I am not against private school, and I actually work at one. I believe, though, that public school should not only be available but free for everyone. In an America where even education and our great university system has been corporatized and privatized, this is an important point. Schools and universities produce our future citizen-voters, our innovative ideas, and our culture. Contra your point, I do not know of any philosophers who have seriously claimed that ignorance is better than knowledge. Ignorance very truly does lead to either dictatorship or, something only slightly less malign, a system of plutocratic control by a tiny fraction of the richest citizens. The great John Dewey, perhaps the most influential American philosopher in the fields of education and democracy, argued that that a working democracy could not exist without an educated populace.

On Regulation, I think you hit the nail on the head. One of the biggest complaints, and weaknesses, of Libertarians is that Government restricts freedom with too many burdensome regulations. Obviously no government is perfect or without corruption, but as you say, the regulations in large part exist because the status quo ante gave us things like child labor, poisoned food (see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), poisoned air (compare pictures of 1970’s L.A. to 2016 Beijing), poisoned water (look up Cuyahoga River fire), wage slavery, even real slavery. Socialism fought for and delivered solutions to some of these problems (and some other more minor ones like weekends and public holidays), but many more remain.

On Taxation, I would just like to add that while our tax dollars are often misspent, they also buy things like highways, trains, space exploration, the Internet, a working postal system, a strong military that has kept foreign countries from our soil for 200 years, national parks, and many other things I can’t think of off the top of my head. The thing I’ve never been able to understand is that most people who can afford to pay taxes to support their society do everything they can to avoid paying taxes to help their society. This is due to pure greed and selfishness. It is well-known that the top tax rate during America’s most prosperous decades ever was above 90%, and the economy and the middle-class grew together. As the top tax rate declined to a low point of 28% (with an effective rate much lower for the rich, a large part of whose wealth is not taxable), the middle-class has shrunk and the economy has become unstable. There are different conclusions to be drawn about tax data, which can always be skewed in any direction you want it to go really. The point is that taxes are necessary to guarantee a working society for everyone, so if you accidentally pay a tiny fraction of someone else’s school tuition or hospital bill by mistake then you have to live with that gross unfairness. If you don’t like it, move to a tax-free country like Somalia and see if you like it better. I do not think that raising taxes on the rich is a panacea, but it is a great first step.

On the Free Handouts and Lazy Freeloaders point, I would like to add that this is probably the most pernicious and also most difficult to dispel myth, and the one that keeps many misinformed people voting against their economic interests. It is in the interest of the rich to appeal to people’s innate prejudice or racism in order to pit the middle class against the poor instead of themselves. We all know the myth of the lazy black people, which has caused ignorant white people to blame supposed “welfare queens” and policies such as affirmative action for all their problems. If it weren’t black people, it would be immigrants. There is always someone else to blame rather than the real culprits, even while working-class whites, now deprived of union protections that made the country more prosperous now are increasingly depending on welfare. The fact is that the biggest freeloaders and welfare queens in America for the last 40 years have been Oil companies like Exxon and Shell, Arms producers like Raytheon, Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, multinational corporations like Walmart, Chemical and Agricultural giants like Dow and Monsanto, Airline producers like Boeing, and many other fabulously profitable and destructive companies that enrich shareholders while robbing the people and denuding the planet.

On Socialism as Totalitarianism, I would just like to add a small point about the nature of socialism. It helps to imagine it not as a monolithic idea, but, like Capitalism, a gradable ideology that can become as moderate or as extreme as it is allowed by the political situation. To those who say that it is an unworkable and naive system, it already works well in many countries around the world, including the United States. “Socialist” Norway, for example spends 20% of government revenue on social projects while in the USA its 18%. For the total economy, somewhere around 35% is socialized in the USA while its somewhere around 45% in “Socialist” France. I can tell you, by the way, that life in Norway and France is good, as it is in “Socialist” Italy where I live. Not perfect, but good. Socialism in America today is so appealing especially because we have drifted so far into unregulated and predatory capitalism that socialism becomes a moderate ideology which can bring “balance to the force”, as it were. Life is not “good” for a huge growing number of working poor in America who are being exploited by a capitalist system which cares nothing for them, and where income inequality has grown so extremely out of control that literally the richest 62 individuals in America are worth as much as the bottom 50% (that’s 160 million people, by the way). Socialism in the Soviet Union or China was really not socialism at all, but an extreme totalitarian oligarchy that simply continued the ancient traditions of despotism in those countries after overturning the old regime. Left to its own largely deregulated devices, Capitalism in America and the world has evolved into an extreme neoliberal oligarchy that aspires for even more power and money than the planet’s resources can supply. Like a deadly virus, it must be stopped before killing the host. Whether that happens with relatively mild socializing reforms and limits, or with a more traumatic revolutionary overthrow of the current system, modern capitalism will be brought down. I hope it is something closer to the former, only because the latter brings with it a much higher probability of violence, anarchy, and a worse system than before.

It’s Still Not Enough: Comments on the Paris Climate Accord

image.adapt.960.high.paris_climate_protest_01aThe long-awaited Paris Climate Conference just ended and is widely reported to be the most successful and ambitious international climate agreement ever. The most important and cited number from the agreement is the goal of limiting the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is ambitious and a better result than even many of the most optimistic observers had predicted. It’s still not nearly enough.

The 1.5 degree figure is enormously out of whack with the actual national plans submitted by each of the signatory nations, which would allow out least 2.7 degrees of warming even if all measures were implemented (and that is, of course, a significant “if”). Add to the fact that the conference was heavily influenced (and partly sponsored) by fossil fuel industries and that the words “fossil fuels”, “coal”, or “oil” appear anywhere in the document, and you can see that there are at least a few reasons to be skeptical of the positive press the agreement has received.

Among committed environmental activists, there are mixed reviews about the agreement, and different schools of thought about the necessary solutions to save the world from becoming one big, real-life Mad Max movie. While reasonable people would obviously agree that the results of the conference are better than nothing, no one who studies environmental issues thinks the agreement is anything more than a toothless statement of non-legally-binding promises that continue to explicitly put profit and national interest above the livability of our planet.

Naomi Klein has written one of the most talked about and controversial books about global warming causes and solutions in her recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. As stated in the subtitle, she claims that the cause of our problems is the system of global capitalism itself, and the solution is to usher in a new system that values local environmental sustainability over the endless, all-consuming, and all-destroying system economic growth at all costs. It is a compelling argument, and I’m sure that she is right on some level.

Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist who is responsible for galvanizing opposition to the infamous Keystone XXL pipeline (which was defeated), comments that the terms of the Paris agreement are only a starting point which should give activists renewed vigor and moral imperative to hold international leaders to their words. Basically, to refuse to let the politicians and industries off the hook for weak, slow, and unenforceable promises to pollute slightly less than usual.

Real change always comes from a combination of bottom-up activism and top-down leadership. This is especially the case for such an enormous world-wide problem as warming climate, which will create the biggest and most dangerous environmental changes our species has witnessed in the last 70,000 years or so (since a huge volcanic eruption almost wiped us out and led to a genetic bottleneck in the last wave of migrations out of Africa). Top-down leadership exists or increases only in direct proportion to the amount of activism and public outcry that force political leaders to act. Their natural impulse is generally not to act, or to act only for the benefit of themselves or the most deep-pocketed lobbyists; in order to keep up and increase the momentum for better national and international climate policies, environmental organizations and activist groups must put more and more pressure on politicians to uphold their promises. The success of the Keystone pipeline campaign was symbolic as a turning point for activists to see real-world results and to begin to turn the narrative against the use of fossil fuels. Other examples include the protests and kayak blockade of Shell’s latest arctic drilling rig before it was set to explore for oil under the Arctic Ocean (the project was cancelled, along with all future explorations in the frozen ocean due to the changing political and economic calculus away from fossil fuels), and the ongoing battle against natural gas fracking by citizens who refuse to accept polluted drinking water and daily earthquakes for a few cents of savings at the gas pump. It goes without saying that people are responsible for their own elected leaders, so if our politicians do not lead on climate change or even acknowledge its existence, it is on us to vote for new ones who do promise to lead (this obviously eliminates any Republicans from being worthy of consideration in America). For interested readers, here are just a few actions one can take to affect climate change and lower your ecological footprint.

On Eating Ecologically

Besides becoming a vocal activist or voting once every two years, there are various things people can and must to turn the tables away from catastrophic warming. The bottom-up part of the equation goes beyond just turning off lights when you leave the room. It will require real sacrifice and a totally altered sense of priorities by those of us most responsible for pollution and global warming in the rich industrialized nations. One example is change of diet. Meat consumption must be reined in dramatically. This is not an option, but a necessity. When even that paragon of steroid-induced, action-film machismo who is Arnold Schwarzenegger starts saying that people need to eat less meat, you know it is beyond debate. Global livestock production is an enormous contributor to global warming through methane and nitrogen emissions, not to mention being a hugely inefficient use of our resources. It takes something like 100 times the amount of grain and water to produce one kilo of meat than it does to just eat the grain. I have been strictly vegan for several years (I wrote about the reasons why in greater deal here), and many other people will have to give up meat and animal products as much as possible in order to make real progress towards a more sustainable future.

On Saving (and Spending) Money Ecologically

Another massively important thing you as citizens and consumers can do besides voting every couple years is become actively interested and involved in how you spend your money. That could mean moving your bank account away from a big name-brand corporation that invests in things like fossil fuel development and arms producers towards small, local credit unions or other ethical choices. In Italy, there is a very good bank called Banca Etica that I use, and there are similar options in other countries if you look. Food shopping is a daily event where you can make a big impact. Switching to organic fruits and vegetables, buying local products as much as possible, and generally not buying anything from multinational name brand companies has a two-fold effect: it helps the environment and the economy (which is linked, obviously), and it takes away money from the companies who contribute most to environmental destruction. For example, organic produce ensures that soil-killing fertilizers and fauna-poisoning pesticides are not used, as well as helping to resist the forest and soil-killing monocultural agriculture practices that have boomed in the post-war decades.

On Being a More Ecologically-Minded Consumer

If you are buying wood products, look for the FSC label which helps ensure that that forestry is done on a sustainable basis. If you must eat seafood, look for the MSC label which helps protect against overfishing (but, again, best to avoid all fish). Inform yourself in general about what you buy so that you are not contributing in some small part to things like the massive destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia and other countries for the sake of palm oil. Do not buy products with palm oil at all, which means cutting Nutella from your guilty pleasures. If you look, there is always a better option available, and savings of a few cents do not outweigh the ruination of natural habitats. In many respects, your dollar is more powerful than your vote, so use it properly. Without even mentioning the big tickets items (such as investing in green energy, green cars, and green houses), these are just a few indicative examples of what individuals can do in their daily lives to help inch gradually towards a collective global solution.

Do you know anyone who has been personally affected by a hurricane, flooding, forest fire, or drought in recent years? That answer will increasingly become yes for everyone as these events become more common, more powerful, and more destructive in the coming years, decades, and centuries. I want to live, and for my children to live, in a world where those existential threats are as minimized and controlled as possible, even if they are in large part locked in due to warming that has already occurred. This is no longer a drill, an option, or a belief; it is an imperative by us humans who have created these changing conditions. The Paris Conference agreement is undoubtedly a positive first step, though it is already a couple decades too late. It is also a weak and tentative first step that needs to quickly become a leap. It goes without saying that this is the death knell for the fossil fuel economy; if it means we also have to find a more sustainable alternative to rampant global capitalism, so be it. Nothing can continue to grow forever unimpeded, neither an interconnected world economy nor, if we do not take the proper steps to increase momentum after the historical Paris Accord, a species like homo sapiens.

Republican Reactionaries and the Road to Fascism

FILE PHOTO COMBO OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

(Article originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

The Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote the following lines in his great work On Liberty: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Mill, a Member of Parliament with the Liberal Party, was a proponent of almost unlimited personal and economic freedom–a platform that is actually a traditionally conservative one, and which has some parallels with Libertarianism. The problem with the Republican Party is that has not been fulfilling its role as the party of order and stability for quite some time (let’s say the Eisenhower years, which were really just eight years of very moderate Conservatism sandwiched between four decades of Liberal dominance). It has degenerated into a radical party that wants to conserve nothing except the sundry privileges accumulated to its business allies, at the expense of a majority of its own members and the population at large. Due to the unfortunate fact that America only sustains two political parties, that one of them has become a completely disordered mess is creating huge ramifications for every aspect of public policy and the general welfare. Let us discuss in greater detail the specifics of the problem and some possible solutions.

Disclaimer: I do not consider myself conservative on any issue except regarding the environment, and I am strongly against almost every aspect of the current Republican Party platform. On the other hand, I do not by any means consider myself a supporter of the Democratic Party and I think the stink of political corruption wafts from them almost as much as Republicans. It does happen that I find much more overlap with some Democratic policy positions than their rivals, but for the most part, given the limitations of the aforementioned two-party political system, I believe it imperative that Republican power and control remain as limited as possible at least until its existential crisis abates. I will state my reasons for this below.

Though I am not myself a conservative, I actually want the Republican Party to fix itself and solve many of the problems besetting it; I am not afraid of Conservatism, but I am afraid of even more political power falling into the hands of a deeply radical and reactionary party that is fighting hard to reject the reality of the modern world and to deny truth, even in its scientific and purely objective forms. Even though it does not hold the office of the President (though within the Executive branch it is likely that a large majority of legal and law enforcement personnel are in fact Conservative), the Republican Party controls the other two-thirds of the Federal Government (both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court) and roughly that proportion of state and local governments. My argument is not that it is inherently bad in a democracy that one party should control a majority of political power at any given time. In a true democracy this should be a common enough event and one which can be reversed at any time if said party loses favor with enough citizens. In those cases, the voters oust that party as a referendum on its actual governance. Soon enough, the tables inevitably flip and it happens in reverse.

No, my argument, rather, is two-fold: (1) The way political power is allocated is actually deeply anti-democratic (due to the corrupt process of gerrymandering districts in Congress; the Electoral College for the Presidency; and the unelected, life-serving terms of the Supreme Court); and that (2) the Republican Party is not upholding its role as the conservative party of order and stability, à la Mill, but increasingly committed to tapping into the negative emotional space that bubbles under the surface of society from whence springs fascism and authoritarianism.

Looking again briefly at my first point, both parties are equally to blame for the undemocratic nature of American politics, as are voters themselves for not demanding change (this will be the only time I will cite the common mainstream media canard that “both parties are equal;” they are not, as we will see, except for the not altogether insignificant lengths to which they both go in corruption and cheating to win–it must be said, however, that Republicans are much more successful in the latter). It is a result of several factors, including pure luck, that the latest beneficiary of the gerrymandering lottery was the Republican Party, which happened to have a good election result in a low-turnout midterm election of 2010, which came directly after the decennial census, and thus gave more redistricting power to that party for the next decade (until the next census, which will again benefit one or the other of the two parties).

Quick note on voter turnout: Obama was elected in 2008 with an overall voter turnout of 57% of the voting-age population, and that is the highest percentage since the 1960s! In the off-year midterm elections the percentage of voting-age population has held steady at around 37% also since the 1960s. Keep in mind that the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate, nearly half of state governors, and similarly high numbers of state legislatures are all elected during these midterm years, which means that barely over one third of population ever cares to have a say in creating a representative government when there is not a president on the ballot. Voter apathy and ignorance is a plague on democracy, and the fact that only just over half of citizens bother to cast a vote is beyond shameful. As for the Republicans, it is well-known and readily admitted by them that they benefit from lower voter turnout. To this end, they actively conspire to reduce voter turnout by any means necessary, especially in places with higher populations of minorities, students, and other groups that generally vote for Democrats. A few of their tools in the lowering of voter turnout toolkit include: requiring only certain types of ID for voting wherever possible, limiting the places where people can obtain these IDs, limiting the time of voting to a single Tuesday in November when people are working and which is difficult, especially for poorer people, to take time off work to vote. Election Day should be a national holiday as it is in many other democracies (here is a petition, for example, calling for the President to make Election Day a national holiday), and at a minimum expanded to an election week so everyone has a convenient opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

To further illustrate the extent of undemocratic elections and gerrymandering, consider connections between the following facts: Obama was elected twice with over 51% of the national popular vote each time, yet Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 by a huge margin, despite receiving one and a half million less votes than Democrats. Then, Republicans held control of Congress in 2012 despite receiving about half a million less votes than Democrats. That half-a-million-vote deficit somehow earned Republicans 38 more seats in the House of Representatives, and the explanation is gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, Obama won by 5 percent, but Republicans somehow still won 13 out of 18 House seats; in Ohio, Obama won by 2 percent but Republicans somehow still won 12 out of 16 House seats; in North Carolina, Democrats won 51 percent of the total votes but only 4 out of 13 House seats. It is the same story in many other states and, with a few exceptions, has benefitted mostly Republicans.

The problem is compounded if we consider the highly undemocratic nature of the Senate, in which, for example, a senator from Wyoming represents something like 200,000 people while one from California represents something like 20,000,000 people, and where even a minority of 40 percent of these already unrepresentative senators can block legislation from proceeding. This is just a brief outline of a few of the systemic problems afflicting the increasingly sickly nature of American “democracy,”, and it is something that highly troubles me. You see, the best guarantee of a continuing free and open society is a well- or at least moderately -functioning democratic apparatus, but some of the trends have been moving away from this, and this is by design of political operators. When democracy breaks down, it has the potential to enter a downward spiral exploited by demagogues and to end up somewhere no one intended originally: a dictatorship, fascist or otherwise.

For my second point, the Republican Party will receive fully 100 percent of my accusation, which is the following: The Republican Party has abdicated its role as the conservative protector of order and stability in a de facto, if not de jure, binomial political party equation. The winds of political change and fortune have always blown hither and thither in modern states, with periods of reform or even revolution followed by periods of relatively ordered, if not perfect or universally free, stability and order. I am of the belief that revolution is highly counterproductive unless it happens in a society already ruled by a heavy-handed dictator or where rights are so trampled on or non-existent as to drive the people to desperation (witness the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, for example). This is not the case in America or in any other Western country. I also believe that, so long as things remain imperfect in our society (which will be for the foreseeable future), the best course of action is incremental but constant reform in order to improve the healthy functioning of all aspects of society for the largest number of people.

Therefore, so long as things are not perfect and there exists no immediate threat of dictatorship, I see no need to fight for the preservation of order and stability that is the raison d’être of traditional Conservatism. On the other hand, I very much want the opposing side of the political spectrum to be represented by pragmatic and reasonable persons who clearly embody the case for Conservatism as a bulwark against violent revolution, in the tradition of Burke or some other such theorist following in the wake of la Terreur. I understand that there is a certain intellectual case to be made for Conservatism, though I personally find it distasteful to follow its logical consequences, which is that the status quo will not improve and perfect our society, but rather, it will only hinder and further corrupt it. I also think the nature of Conservatism is itself arbitrary and hypocritical, in that it makes choices about what to conserve and what to do away with; such choices often spring from personal greed and short-term gain. I respectfully decline the intellectual allure of Conservatism, with the key word being “respect”. I understand and sympathize with my fellow liberal-minded and progressive reformists of the following quotations: John Stuart Mill, again (I previously wrote on Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy here), who said in a debate with a Conservative MP in 1866, “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honorable gentleman will question it;” Mark Twain, who said, “Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals;” Franklin Roosevelt, who said, “A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward;” and John Kenneth Galbraith, who said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” (Quick aside on the last quote: it cannot be denied the influence of the charlatan philosopher of greed and selfishness Ayn Rand on Republicans; the newest Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has repeatedly cited his dogmatic belief in her creed, and he is one of many).

In all of these quotes there is, in my opinion, more than just a grain of truth, but it is perhaps the humorist Twain who said it best (just as the comedians of today are the ones doing the most to expose political hypocrisy and idiocy): Today’s Republican Party not only worships dead radicals, the foremost being Ronald Reagan, but its members have become thoroughly radical and reactionary themselves. Radical in the sense that they want to completely upend a system which has been incrementally built up over decades, especially since the New Deal of FDR, by extreme and sweeping measures; and reactionary in the sense that they want to radically change the system to return to the status quo ante, which basically means to go back to a time when the government was weaker and indifferent to the suffering of huge numbers of citizens, and when industrial barons had a free hand to monopolize and control most of the economy. This is to say, the state of the world directly before Europe’s great failed experiment with fascism. The combination of radical reaction is the most dangerous I can think of in a political party, and one which leads to state or corporate fascism (compare these quotes by Mussolini: “Fascism is reaction” and “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”) Here is an abbreviated list of examples of the Republican platform that reveal it as the furthest thing from a conservative party of order and stability, but rather one that has become wholly hypocritical, corrupt, logically inconsistent, radical, reactionary, xenophobic, anti-science, and anti-humanistic:

One: 97 percent of scientists agree, but the Republicans stand alone even among the Conservative parties of other developed countries in rejecting the existence of climate change or completely discounting even the possibility that it has been even partially caused by human activity. A conservative position should be to protect and conserve the planet and its people and resources as much as possible, no matter the cause or extent of the problem. Nowhere in the preservation of order and stability is it called for to totally deny reality. This one is easy, but of the utmost importance given the lengths to which Republicans go to protect the outdated fossil fuel economy at the cost of the future inhabitability of our planet.

Two: Through the efforts of past activists and the policies of a few prescient politicians (both Roosevelts, to name two), America built up a large, prosperous middle class that enriched the whole society and ensured relative peace and prosperity more than had previously been seen. A conservative position would be to maintain the policies that had helped build up and protect the majority of America’s workers and society. The Republicans, rather, have long since become economic radicals favoring policies that take from the middle and lower classes to benefit the rich, all under the guise of the now widely-discredited but still spouted ideology of “supply-side economics.” At one time, even thoroughly “establishment” Republicans like George H.W. Bush (probably also the last non-reactionary Republican) called out this hoax of a policy as “voodoo economics”, but today the belief is as much an article of faith as any that you will find in the Republican platform. Any number of changes to the tax code advocated by Republicans will all make the fabulously rich even richer at the expense of the now-shrinking middle class and the growing and perpetually undiscussed lower class (which we’re told is not supposed to exist in America).

Three: A truly conservative party would seek to protect the individual freedoms that are enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, but on all sides these freedoms are perverted and exploited for corrupt political gains. Freedom of Speech, the most sacred of our rights, has been, in a gross twist of logic, expanded by the Supreme Court to include money itself, in the case of political donations. This, in a very real sense, makes Freedom of Speech not free at all, but very expensive and weighted towards the rich and powerful whose agenda is further enrichment and preservation of an unjust system. A true conservative would want to preserve the sanctity of “one person one vote,” even when it goes against her interest, but in reality the radical anti-democratic apparatchiks have enabled money to further corrupt the already (as we have seen) undemocratic system of American politics by allowing unlimited money to flow into endless campaigns by highly vested billionaires. Just as a Wyoming and California Senator are highly unrepresentative by definition, now every politician has become exponentially more unrepresentative, seeing as they are free to completely ignore the will of most of their natural constituency in favor of a handful of wealthy donors and corporate interests. This is in no way a conservative system. It is one that is on the road to something far worse than merely corrupt democracy: a corporate plutocracy the likes of which have been unseen in this country since before WWII (the most egregious example being the reactionary billionaire Koch brothers, the wealthiest men in America taken together, buying up elections, politicians, think tanks, universities, anything they can get their hands on, in order to achieve complete corporate control over government). Incidentally, as stated earlier, Mussolini would not recognize a meaningful distinction between “corporate plutocracy” and fascism as he understood it.

Four: a conservative party would theoretically continue its protections of individual rights in the case of personal choices that do not come under the purview of the government in any case: personal issues like couples’ reproduction rights, everything involving an individual’s sexual life, and personal drug use. Counter-intuitively for the party of supposed “liberty” is that Republicans overwhelmingly concentrate their rhetorical (if not legislative) energies on the non-issues of abortion, gay marriage, and a disastrously counter-productive “Drug War”, even while saying at the same time that they do not want the government involved in their lives. It is an improbable twist of logic to say that government should be as small and weak as possible while simultaneously calling for it to mass regulate the most personal and individual choices humans can make in life. For those so-called conservatives opposed to regulating drugs on the basis of its expanding the bureaucracy, the drug war as waged now has the secondary consequence of necessitating a massive police, intelligence, and diplomatic apparatus that rivals counter-terror efforts. This sort of circular logic (we need to fight the drug war to keep bureaucracy small and insurance costs down so we need to spend billions of dollars on a big bureaucracy to fight the drug war) is characteristic of America’s hypocritical, mendacious, small-minded and ill-conceived conservatism.

Five: Republicans never stop insisting that they want “smaller government” (there is an influential power-broker and tireless advocate for tax cuts named Grover Norquist who once disturbingly said he wanted a government so small that he could “drown it in a bathtub”) while at the same time not realizing that the military is one of the biggest and most expensive components of the government. True conservatism would advocate a strict imposition of order and stability, especially regarding foreign policy and the threat of war. In reality, most Republicans are loudly, stupidly, and thoughtlessly in favor of war whenever and wherever possible, disregarding that war itself is the biggest and oldest creator of disorder and instability. To pile on the madness, many of these people are what are known as “chickenhawks”: politicians who always want to demonstrate America’s martial prowess, despite never having served in the military and not caring at all for troubled veterans or any drawbacks to endless war-making.

The issue at its heart, like most of these, is not conservatism, but of who profits and benefits. The Republican Party, as much as it talks about social non-issues as mentioned above, is, in fact, wholly owned and controlled by corporate interests, one of the most significant of which is the oft-cited but still very real “military-industrial complex.” Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney (two infamous chickenhawks, by the way) may have helped their friends, families, and allies to profit greatly from an illegal war (Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iraq again), but that does not make them conservative. It just makes them corrupt and immoral.

Six: In the same vein, even if war were necessary (as it very rarely may be), a conservative would want to at least protect and reward its own combatants. Republicans, however, have without question or reservation paid untold and unknown amounts of taxpayer money into the hands of private arms producers and contractors, but cannot seem to even take care of its own veterans, many of whom are deeply troubled and impoverished, using every opportunity to deny benefits for one reason or another—blaming servicemembers and veterans for creating their own problems is the usual conservative canard. The Department of Defense is by far the biggest and most expensive war machine in the world, and Republican claims of fiscal conservatism are washed away in a flood of rampant waste, fraud, and abuse that envelops the nearly $1 Trillion-a-year Defense industry. The Department of Veterans Affairs on the other hand, like many government agencies, has been willfully underfunded by Republican budget scribes in order to create a problem where none existed before (the same fiscal strategy taken with the US Postal Service, as well). The result—for veterans or federal workers or any of the other tens of millions of Americans directly dependent on federal jobs, contracts, or support—is disastrous at an individual level of homeless, injured, unemployed, and suicidal veterans and their families.

Seven: America has long built up, concurrently with its middle class, an enviable education system, including world-class universities, that has benefitted society as a whole, both in America and around the world. Conservatives should ideally want to preserve this seemingly wonderful and unpolitical network of classrooms and laboratories for tomorrow’s leaders in every field. Republicans, on the other hand, have fully and unabashedly inflamed and empowered the anti-intellectual potential that exists on the margins of every society from ISIS all the way up to Europe and America. In doing so, the Republicans long been at work behind closed doors, slashing funding for public schools and universities, doing their best to gut political opposition to their platform while empowering the type of lazy satisfaction with stupidity and ignorance that one always sees in countries beset by dictators. All the while, they have looked the other way while tuitions skyrocketed due to lack of public funding and student debt skyrocketed due to increased tuition, locking whole generations of young people to lifetimes of debt servitude to private lenders. Moreover, they have made education itself into a political battlefield and actively vilified teachers who protested the short-sighted change of focus and funding for schools. This is in keeping with the modern-day know-nothingism of the Republican Party, whose politicians decry science, public education, and academic “elites” at every opportunity even while most of them have themselves attended Harvard or Yale.

There are numerous other examples to be made (private prisons, unions, roads, trains, infrastructure, oil subsidies, renewable energy, gun violence, systemic racism, minimum wage, unequal pay between the sexes, immigration, agricultural subsidies, free trade, health care, the lobbyist/politician revolving door, post offices, national parks, capital punishment), but I think I have made my point clear for the time being. As I said, I am deeply troubled by the series of events that has led to the current iteration of the Republican Party as it is reported on a daily basis in the (corporate, for-profit) mainstream news. The level of fear-mongering, especially after the Paris attacks, and open racism and calls for violence is so rampant to enable the rise of unquestionably fascist Republican candidate Donald Trump. I will restate that I do not by definition support the Democratic Party for its own sake, or hold them to be innocent of all the charges leveled against the Republicans above, but their moderate level of corruption pales in comparison to the cyclopean walls of corruption and reaction built by the recent Republicans.

The Republican Party has not only shown its inability to properly govern the country during the Bush administration, but it is currently showing its inability in the many states where it controls the levers of government to enact its deeply reactionary policies. It is only an undemocratic system which has allowed this in the first place, but it also goes against the desires and economic interests of a huge majority of citizens themselves, both conservative and otherwise. The danger is that further control by this irresponsible and radical group of power-brokers will entrench and further worsen the situation to the point that we will cease to live in even an ostensible democracy, but rather, we will wake up one day in something like a dystopian vision of a technologically, culturally, or politically fascist state. The solution, as always: more interest, engagement, and activism by citizens and voters, and not just once every four years but on a daily and local basis. We get the government we allow.

Are We Still Charlie Hebdo?: The Growing Dissonance between Extremism and Free Speech

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

(Article originally published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

I started preparing this essay a month or two ago to collect my thoughts about the after effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how the limits of free speech are being tested as extremism and intolerance increase in Europe and America. Now, the latest attacks in Paris on November 13th have made me reevaluate my original thoughts and given them new urgency, but have not substantially changed my views. The key issues I will discuss are the nature of Daesh, the refugee crisis, climate change, media hypocrisy, right-wing extremism, and free speech. These are complicated issues, obviously, with many interwoven factors at play, and I will do my best to make sense of the situation as I see it.

Let’s begin with a brief look at what Daesh is (one thing I have learned from philosophy is that linguistic terminology matters; I don’t like the term ISIS because it was chosen by them and it disparages the ancient Egyptian goddess and Roman cult figure Isis; the term used by the French government and Secretary of State John Kerry is “Daesh”, which is more useful because it delegitimizes the group and they hate it). From what I can gather, the purpose of this self-declared Islamic Caliphate is to gain and hold as much territory as possible in order to establish a haven for what they consider pure Islam, all while making incessant war against neighbors and non-Muslims until their awaited apocalypse. For brevity’s sake, an apocalyptic death cult that happens to follow the words of the Koran literally. This long article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood does a good job explaining the rationale behind the erstwhile Caliphate. One of the conclusions is that, despite how it looks from Western eyes, Daesh is a very reasonable and consistent group of people; it just happens that their reasons and consistency spring from a bloody and black-and-white ideology deriving from 7th century Arabia. Up to now, Daesh has seemed content to wage war only in its own neighborhood of Syria and Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda (which was responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack), Daesh is not primarily a terrorist organization but an actual government, however illegitimate and doomed to failure. (It is also highly relevant that the two groups have long been feuding for the soul of Islamic jihad, and are in no way allied). The attacks in Paris could have two possible interpretations: Daesh is branching out to international terrorism for the first time, either out of desperation after recent setbacks or to further their apocalyptic aims; or, the attacks were claimed by Daesh only after the fact, and were actually carried out by desperate European-based sympathizers who were unable to reach Syria themselves. As far as its origins, it is not too hard to trace the rise of extremism wherever violence and instability holds sway. Four years of a bloody civil war in Syria, combined with over a decade of bloody war in Iraq, created the perfect conditions for an organization such as Daesh to thrive. One of the lessons of history is that, in spite of some rare exceptions, periods of violence and revolution do not suddenly end in peaceful and stable governments.

If we are to attach blame to the creation of Daesh, it must be said that the US and its allies bear no small part of it. First and foremost for the illegal and disastrously managed war in Iraq, but more indirectly from the decades of unquestioned alliance and support for Saudi Arabia, a country which has almost single-handedly allowed the extreme Wahhabi sect to spread and produce jihad across the Middle East and the World (the US has an extremely long history of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of business; Saudi Arabia is different from many of the historical examples in that the support continues today with virtually zero public backlash). There is enough blame to go around, however; do not think that I absolve the dictators and mullahs and imams who have themselves actually done the most killing (it is almost too obvious, but I don’t want to come under the familiar charge of being anti-American just because I point out the facts). The Saudi royal family, the Iranian Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guards, Israel and its increasingly hardline and rightward skew, the Palestinians who resort to violence and terrorism, Russia, and Britain and France and the greedy and racist colony legacy they created all play a part in brewing up the toxic sludge that represents the modern Middle East.

One group that does not bear any responsibility whatsoever for the Paris attacks or the existence of Daesh are refugees. Syria had a population of around 22 million before the war, and nearly half of these have been dislocated by force or desperation. At least four million have found shelter abroad, mostly in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. There are another three million refugees from Iraq trying to escape Daesh (figures here). The refugees seeking shelter from wanton violence and destruction of homes are not themselves terrorists trying to kill Westerners. As we will see, the big political winners from terrorism, besides the terrorists themselves, are the far-right political parties that wallow in and cater to extremism and xenophobia of any kind. This includes the French National Front, which will probably see yet another surge of support for its anti-immigration and Islamophobic platform. Every country in Europe and the Americas has a political party of this sort, which have generally grown both more popular and mainstream as the wars and and subsequent refugee crisis have grown in inverse proportion to economic stability: UKIP in the UK, Lega Nord in Italy, the Republicans in the US,  Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Pegida in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, True Finns in Finland, Jobbik in Hungary (which has been instrumental in physically stopping the largest numbers of refugees into the EU), and several others all follow the same rancorous script. Though these parties are comparatively small in some cases, they have an outsized voice and influence on the public and political discourse, which they help to poison. They must be denounced loudly and immediately as soon as they use hatred fear, and intolerance of other races and religions to further their selfish political and economic ends. It is encouraging to see, now almost a week after the latest Paris attacks, that there has in fact been such a large pushback against extremism. It must continue unabated, however.

On a deep level, if Europe and America want to ameliorate both the immediate and long-term situation in the Middle East, one of the two best things they can do is to accept many more refugees (as in, all of them). Countries like Germany and Sweden are acting responsibly and charitably in the refugee crisis. Every other country leaves something to be desired after setting extremely low thresholds for asylum applications and doing as much as possible to discourage refugees (and immigrants in general). It is not only the only moral and humanist solution to such a tragedy, but the best way to economic and political security. After all, no country benefits by having a failed state and terrorist breeding ground on its doorstep. In addition, Europe and the US should do much more to provide assistance to internally displaced refugees in Syria and Iraq, and create safe zones. Whatever is being done is not even remotely enough. It goes without saying that if the Middle East is ever to emerge from its miasma of retributive violence into something vaguely resembling the more modern liberal democracies that most of you (readers) enjoy, it will need a strong and educated middle-class. Not only does this generally not exist now, but every month of war, destruction, and privation over a huge swathe of this territory is preventing entire future generations from the possibility of ever attaining a peaceful and prosperous life. This is very important and typically gets lost in the fog of war and apathy.

Digression on Climate Change: It is well-known that there will be a crucial international conference on climate change in Paris next month in which virtually every nation in the world will attempt to come to an agreement on how to combat the warming of the planet. The stakes were already high enough, considering the consequences of continued indifference in the face of climatic upheaval, but the terrorist attacks in Paris occurring less than a month before the conference raises the pressure even more. It has long been well-known and documented by scientists and historians that environmental issues like deforestation, drought, overpopulation, and resource scarcity heavily contribute to human conflict. Before the outbreak of a genocidal killing spree in Rwanda in 1992, for example, the population carrying capacity was at the absolute limit, meaning that way too many people were competing for not enough resources (Jared Diamond discusses this and related issues convincingly in his book Collapse, which I reviewed here). In Syria, it should be noted that there were four years of extreme drought which ruined farmers and forced more people into overcrowded cities, all prior to the peaceful uprising by restive Syrian citizens against a repressive and indifferent government. It was only after months of peaceful protests and brutal government suppression that the real civil war started, and we know well that peaceful moderates do not long survive in bloody civil wars. Thus, the conditions were ripe for the formation of a group like Daesh. Though climate change’s very existence is denied by Republicans in America, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently spoke for the growing number of people who not only accept the reality of the crisis, but see the direct link climate change has on political and military conflicts. Lest you still see this as just a liberal fantasy despite overwhelming evidence, the Pentagon and military leaders in America and NATO see climate change as an immediate risk to national security as well.

Voltaire said, or is supposed to have said, something along the lines of “Though I hate what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This can be seen as an early defense of the right of Freedom of Speech, later adopted in the new country of America as the First Amendment to the Constitution. Although it would appear to be an unlimited right, it has been challenged over the years and its limits have often been tested. Nowhere are the limits pushed and tested as much as in the face of intolerance and violence, or the mere threat of violence.

Let’s now take a trip back in time and revisit the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of January 2015. Besides the murders themselves, an act of outrageous maliciousness, I was troubled by the reaction to the event by the media and the world at large. It need not be said that violence and murder are inexcusable under any circumstances; I say this anyway because it has been discussed around the edges of the event that because Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam and drew pictures of Mohammed, such a tragic outcome was somehow expected or even preordained. The mindset that produces such thought is one lacking in critical thinking skills, perspective, empathy, and intelligence. I can understand the series of causes and effects that can produce mass murderers, religiously motivated or otherwise. The killers were Muslim outsiders in a secular society that limited their economic possibilities, and often expressed prejudice against them, even by the government. They were also of Algerian descent, like a majority of France’s Muslims, which can only remind us of the lingering effects of the long and brutal Algerian war which ended only two generations ago. To understand broader context is not to excuse or even sympathize with violence of any kind. Most of the world’s peaceful Muslims will agree. Though they are often just as disenfranchised or economically limited as the killers, yet they do not curse the world and go on murderous sprees.

Another troubling thing about the media coverage and public outcry of the Charlie Hebdo murders is the total saturation of the news coverage itself and the unprecedented knee-jerk support for Charlie Hebdo by politicians who would condemn the magazine in their own country, and support for France by many of the same politicians who would never come close to supporting France’s culture of free speech. Thinking back to the worst massacres that we have witnessed in the last few years, there are several that stand out in my mind as even more appalling than Charlie Hebdo. One is the 2011 Norway massacre where a white right-wing Christian terrorist single-handedly killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in two separate attacks on the same day. Most of the victims were children and teens at a summer camp. Though this prompted an outpouring of sympathy and condemnation from around the world, there was not nearly as much as there was after the Charlie Hebdo killings, nor was there a show of solidarity in Oslo by world leaders and a viral slogan. Even more disturbing and tragic are the continued massacres and atrocities by the Nigerian jihad group Boko Haram (by far the deadliest terrorist group in the world), and specifically an attack only four days before the one on Charlie Hebdo in which thousands of people were reportedly murdered, with subsequent information saying that perhaps it was “only” a few hundred people instead (though no reporting has ever been able to confirm). This was an event mentioned in the world news, but quickly forgotten by most people even more quickly than they forget about the weekly school shootings in towns across America. A third incident which happened only three weeks before Charlie Hebdo was the massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban which killed 145 people, 132 of which were young children. There are two possible reasons why Charlie Hebdo was a much bigger deal for people around the world, much more well-known and publicized in the media, and attracted much more sympathy than the other three massacres I mentioned which were all much more violent: Charlie Hebdo’s victims were white Europeans who were killed in the name of free speech by French-Algerian Muslims, which means that white and non-white people from all across the political spectrum had reason to be shocked and angered. In the Norway massacre the victims were also white Europeans, but the perpetrator was counter-intuitively (according to the narrative we are used to hearing from the media) a white European male as well, thus diminishing the duration and strength of the shock and public outcry, while the Boko Haram attack four days before Charlie Hebdo was already out of the news cycle by the time of the Paris attack, most obviously because even though the terrorists were also African jihadists, the victims were black Africans, thus diminishing the sympathy and interest by a large segment of the western media and population that now openly condemns racism but still engages in it; likewise with the Peshawar attack perpetrated by the infamous Taliban on schoolchildren. This troubling comparison tells me that to much of the media and large parts of western society black and brown lives matter less, and that white terrorists are written off as exceptions while Muslim terrorists are seen as a representation of the entire world population of Muslims. The way these type of events are shown in the media is both a cause and an effect of these biased opinions.

One more bit of hypocrisy is the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was clearly and unambiguously an act of terrorism in which 12 people were killed in Paris, but many more people are killed every week by the US government in drone strikes, which must feel like terrorism to the people who live in fear. We know that missiles are rained down on supposedly high-value targets in uninteresting and out-of-the-way places like Pakistan and Yemen without any due process or guarantee that innocent men, women, and children will not be killed (they may be a majority of the victims for all we know, though all males are officially classified as “military-aged males” and assumed to be guilty). A detailed report by The Guardian has concluded that US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a total of 1147 people in hundreds of failed attempts to kill just 41 men. When a missile blows up houses and cars full of people and kills at least as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack, that seems like terrorism to me. And such violence is likely to create many more terrorists than were possibly killed in the original attacks (a fact conceded by former Air Force drone operators themselves), thus increasing the probability of more strikes such as the one on Charlie Hebdo in the future (and just as such attacks are likely to make more and more westerners see all Muslims as enemies or terrorists).

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted the trendy show of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” by millions around the world, which is not a bad thing in itself, but I am afraid that much of the solidarity was a superficial and knee-jerk response to the tragedy, not one which examined the sources and possible solutions to the set of circumstances that led to this attack and could lead to more in the future. From my personal point of view as a long-time resident in Europe, people across Europe as a whole are somewhat more thoughtful about such tragedies than the American people as a whole were after 9-11, but the fact that we have witnessed wars and terrorism in the past 14 years since then has created for many people a perspective either more empathetic or more cynical. At the same time Europe is still in the midst of economic troubles which have helped fuel the rise of a slew of right-wing xenophobic and anti-Islamic parties in every country, a large number of Europeans are also seeing that the absolute protection of free speech and tolerance is the only way to peacefully maintain an increasingly multicultural and globalized society. The question of tolerance is one that has not always been correctly understood or handled by either political leaders or citizens. There are limits to both tolerance and free speech, though it is admittedly difficult to tease out these limits, especially when faced with real-world tragedies that prompt unthinking reactions.

Just as there was a media double standard during the Charlie Hebdo massacre, likewise for the November 13th Paris attacks. The scale is much greater in the latter case, with at least 136 deaths and hundreds more injured. But the reaction was similar in that Daesh itself conducted other attacks on civilians in other countries within 24 hours of the Paris attacks, but with little reporting by the media and little interest by the public. 26 people were killed in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Baghdad, while 43 people were killed and hundreds wounded in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Beirut. Neither of those have the high death toll of Paris, but does it matter? After all, as I have shown, “only” eight people were killed in Charlie Hebdo attack but that was a bigger news story by ten or hundredfold than greater massacres of the same time in other countries. Some of this is cultural, and the fact that Paris is a central city in Western civilization, and one that many Western people have visited and feel a connection to. But still, does that matter? I love Paris as much as anyone, as well as free speech, and I hate terrorism and any kind of violence, but that does not make me feel more rage and frustration in either the case of Charlie Hebdo or the November 13th attacks as the ones in Beirut, Peshawar, Nigeria, Baghdad, Oslo, or the weekly school shootings in America. My rage and frustration is the same, and comes from the same source, directed at the same cause. I do not think Islam is the root of the problem, nor do I think that closing borders and blocking asylum and aid for refugees is the solution. These are just two of the ways I have complete and fundamental difference of opinion with the intolerant bigots in our own countries (such as my very own Congressional Representative in South Carolina, a Republican named Jeff Duncan, who blamed refugees and Muslims for the attacks before the blood had even congealed on the streets of Paris, or every single Republican presidential candidate and most of the Republican state governors).

Let’s look at some more case studies in tolerance and intolerance. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel once declared the idea of multiculturalism in Germany to have failed. I do not know if she was just trying to appeal to her conservative voters, but such a statement is irresponsible and untrue. This idea that immigrants cannot be integrated into a society only feeds the xenophobic bigots who have now become quite vocal and strong in most European countries. The fact that the rise of these groups has coincided with economic recession and unemployment is in fact no coincidence. Blaming outsiders is an appealing message to certain types of people who feel economic strain and see a threat to their traditional way of life. That does not mean that it is the fault of the immigrants, who are almost always under much more economic strain than their detractors, but of the political and economic elite who create the conditions that the people will either succeed or fail in. Whatever she meant by citing the failure of multiculturalism, Merkel has at least proven to be a courageous leader in leading the way for European countries accepting refugees. It is still not enough.

On the other hand, the right-wing nationalist and xenophobic parties have been spreading hate and intolerance. They grow stronger when people become fearful of violence and terrorism. It is well-known that toxic public discourse and intolerant speech by political leaders directly leads to violence by their troubled followers. It happens time and time again that some misguided soul takes out murderous aggression on an innocent party that had been vilified by some right-wing hate-monger. This point cannot be stressed enough. One clear limit to free speech exists at the first instance of violence, the threat of violence, or even the mere hint of violence. This goes not just for physical violence but for anything that qualifies as unnecessarily extreme aggression, intimidation, emotional bullying, etc. There is a paradox of tolerance, which is that one must be intolerant of intolerance in order to maintain a civil and open society (I have previously discussed this paradox at greater length here).

Let me indulge in a thought experiment, and let us imagine a growing fringe political party that doubles as a hate group. One of their keys beliefs is that beards are evil and unwelcome in their country. While this is a ridiculous position to hold, it is merely an opinion that happens to be small-minded and wrong (my sense of morality tells me that opinions can sometimes be wrong just as facts can). An invisible line is crossed, however, when the anti-beard group’s legitimately free speech turns to calls for violence, retribution, or even economic and social sanctions for people with beards. This is intolerance that cannot be tolerated in an open society, since it operates outside the bounds of civility and freedom from fear and violence that are the foundation a free society is built upon. In other words, though I hate what the anti-beard group says, I will defend their right to say, but only insofar as it is exercised as one particular opinion and way of life but not as a call for violence and intolerance against others who do not hold that opinion or other varying attribute (such as religion, sex, sexuality, skin color, or facial hirsuteness).

I would further argue that a fully democratic nation whose voting citizens are composed almost wholly of illiterate idiots is always preferable to a nation ruled by the most benevolent dictator but where freedom of speech is limited. The limits of democracy are seen insofar as its demos, or people, take active and informed interest in the decisions of the nation. So in the former case, though the ignorance or indifference of a sufficiently high percentage of voting citizens in a democracy could easily lead down the road to fascist dictatorship, the fact that it was firstly and presently still democratic weighs conclusively in its favor. This shows the promise and the limitations of democracy: nothing is guaranteed except what the citizens enable; everything is possible; but it can still be corrupted by propaganda and the preying on of the basest human emotions of hate, greed, and intolerance.

In the years after 9-11 in America, the people made the mistake of allowing fear and the illusion of security eclipse their freedoms. There is still much work to do to dismantle the security and surveillance state that was erected during those years of democracy in its lowest ebb. Similarly in Europe, leaders feel pressure from the right-wing parties that scream for closed borders and a stop to immigration, and for added security measures that will sacrifice hard-won freedoms for an illusion of safety. It must not be. Just as free speech must be protected at all costs, Western countries must not give in to the fear that terrorists aim to create. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is still true in that our society remains fundamental strong, free, and open, and there is nothing that terrorists can do to change that other than make us fear them so much that we remake our society in their image, and waging more endless wars of their choosing.

Wise men are able to say things that echo long after they are gone, and it’s the same once again with Voltaire, one of my favorite Parisians, who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” It was hard to miss the fact that one of the six Paris attacks was on a theatre on Voltaire Boulevard. Though this could be coincidental, it is not hard to imagine the attack planners targeting such a symbol of everything they hate: music and drama, philosophy, satire, reason, and enlightenment. The quote applies quite easily to the insanity that is Daesh, but let’s not hesitate to look at our own recent past. European civilization is easily the bloodiest in history, and that is why it is crucial for us to remember our own past in order to forge a new future.

Let me close with the words of another wise humanist and antiwar activist, Bertrand Russell, whose message to the future (which is the present for us) was the following: “The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

A Poem for Syria

While the people were shopping, the bombs were dropping,

while the tanks were rolling, the people were strolling,

while the babies were crying, the people were buying,

while the people were sleeping, the mothers were weeping.

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