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Everyone is a genius

September 18, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is the transcript of a video I made, which you can watch here.

In my last video, I talked about the problems with equating IQ and intelligence, and tried to give a broad view of what intelligence is. But I don’t usually talk about intelligence. I think it’s really overrated. I would rather have wisdom, happiness and critical thinking. But we don’t learn those things in school. In fact, we don’t learn those things anywhere unless we take control of our own learning. If we pushed aside all the things holding us back, we would have amazing abilities. If you google it, you’ll find a million explanations of how to be smarter by people who are presumably smart themselves. But none of the ones I’ve seen have focused on the systems we live under. Change those systems, and we’ll all be smarter.

Do you consider yourself a genius? Probably not. Most people are more modest than that. But what sets you apart from people we consider geniuses? “Genius” usually means the person had the opportunity to become famous because otherwise we wouldn’t have heard about them and been told they’re a genius. People get called geniuses for making lots of money, even though sometimes that just means they had access to money in the first place. For our purposes, genius might mean the person has worked long and intensely on something and knows it really well. That’s what the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is about. The most important part of that book is at the end, where he basically says with the right opportunities for everyone to learn and grow, there would be no more outliers. We would all be geniuses.

I don’t want to go too deep into the economic and political systems that restrain us, because that’s what most of my other videos are about, and it would make this video much longer. Suffice it to say I think it’s obvious that if you don’t have money, you have no freedom. If you’re in jail, you might have a couple of books. If you’re working all the time, you have no chance to do what you want. There are a million other constraints imposed by the systems we are forced to live under. It may be that we will have to tear down all oppressive systems at the same time, not just change schools or reform the police or feed the homeless or call out racists, and hope it’ll stick. I want all people to be geniuses, to reach their potential, and that will require major social change. But I think it’s worth it. If you’re not convinced, I’ve got lots more videos that explain in more detail. Here I’m going to talk mostly about the limitations placed on us in childhood that we carry our whole lives, and throughout I’ll be giving examples of things you can do about it.

I’ve made a whole playlist on school available here. It’s all about how school works, what it does to a child and why, and how to educate children better. I suggest you watch it first because I’m not going to repeat myself here. But I am going to talk about school. It’s the main institution holding kids back from growing into geniuses. Of course, most people are forced by their work schedules and the law to send their children to school. And I really sympathize because I don’t know how you can get around those constraints. Maybe organizing with your neighbors? I don’t know what resources are available to you.

Some people like the idea of school because it forces kids to learn but kids learn so much more when they’re not being forced. If your question is, how do you force children to learn, you’re asking the wrong questions. This video is about freeing the child to pursue their passions and thrive that way. Sure, there are some basic things they should learn, like, I know it’s a cliche but, reading, writing and arithmetic, which are still essential, but it begs the question to say they need to go to school to learn those things. A child could happily play math games for hours, and because it’s fun and engaging, they’re learning way more effectively than if they were bored. There are all kinds of educational resources you can find online that make learning easy and fast. For example, you could teach them science and the scientific method, which could easily be made fun; plus keep in mind Carl Sagan said it’s even more important to learn the history of science than the method. You can learn all that together. You can spend a day or a month on some medieval scientist, replicate their experiments and then re-enact the trial where they were condemned to death for saying the moon wasn’t God’s nose or whatever.

A lot of skills don’t even need teachers. For example, kids need to know how to use a computer and navigate the internet, but if you have kids, do you teach them about technology, or do they teach you? Did you ever have to sit them down and tell them how to use a phone, or did they watch you and figure it out that way? It’s like language: they observe because they want to do it too, and as soon as you let them, they can begin to master it. Kids nowadays are landing planes with their phones. Anything can be like that if we get all unnecessary constraints out of the way. And there are way more constraints than you might realize.

For one thing, I don’t think we should be telling kids they’re smarter than other kids. In my experience, a lot of the people who were called smart in school and have grown up are really just better at justifying their beliefs. They believe the same things as everyone else but they are better at explaining why and coming up with reasons why they’re right and their opponents are wrong. But that doesn’t make them right. Intelligence as measured by grades and IQ scores doesn’t necessarily lead to truth. It often just leads to confidence. If the school system deems you intelligent, it might just mean you’re better at absorbing propaganda. Where is the prize to the kid who questions the textbooks, or questions the teacher, or questions rituals like the pledge of allegiance? No, they’re called trouble makers. Questions, critical thinking, working together, any application of intelligence outside the curriculum, is not allowed. School is not an environment for geniuses. It’s where genius goes into a coma. Most people are so crippled by school they don’t realize what they’re capable of so their genius never wakes up.

Your natural talents don’t matter so much if they’re not nurtured. But with the right environment, all those kids could be experts in their chosen fields. Our brains change a lot over our lifetimes. They change with everything we experience. So whatever we’re born with, the right stimulation can bring out our potential. The brain of a child in an interesting and fulfilling learning experience changes in a very different way from that of a child sitting bored at a desk, or likewise, a child who’s too poor to learn anything other than picking through garbage for something to sell. These children are stifled. Their brains don’t reach their potential. Some of them might get the chance to grow up to be geniuses but many won’t, because they didn’t have the right environment, the right care and attention or the right opportunities to learn. That’s not their fault. I don’t even blame their parents. The problem is the systems they grew up in. It’s the systems that need to change. You may be familiar with what Stephen Jay Gould wrote in the Panda’s Thumb: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Or just fell asleep in classrooms. As you may know from the most popular TED Talk ever, a child’s creativity is at its peak before they go to school. School proceeds to squeeze the creativity, along with the joyful spirit, out of the child. Again, if you’ve seen my whole playlist you will know why, but even if not you can probably figure it out: School tells you what to do and when and how and discourages asking why. We are naturally curious, but school tells us to stop asking questions and get back to work. We’re naturally social, but we get punished for talking to or working with others. We are natural scientists, but scientists need room to experiment, not desks they’re not allowed to move from. And we need to move, walk, run, jump and play. Kids make up their own games when you leave them alone. In fact, even in a boring class they’ll make up games. But they’re not allowed to be creative or have fun in class so the teacher tells them to stop and listen. Kids could be exploring their abilities and interests, but they aren’t. They’re doing whatever the government, the schoolboard and the teachers tell them to do, and parents either don’t know any better or don’t have a choice.

Leaving aside questions of how useful algebra and the Bronte sisters are, students aren’t even necessarily learning them; they’re trying to pass tests. The main incentive of the teacher is to get their students through the next test, just like the main incentive of the CEO is to post good results in the next quarterly report. I think for the most part you don’t need to measure a child’s learning and I certainly don’t think all learning has to revolve around tests on paper. Where’s the class on creativity? Working well with others? Critical thinking, systems thinking, lateral thinking? Not available. Wait till university, kid, and then, maybe. Kids at school are told only to look for the single correct answer to the question set by authority, so they learn to look for a single correct answer and to seek a pat on the head. I haven’t measured this, but I bet a year of reading books and Wikipedia, playing strategic sports and complex video games and taking online aptitude tests (because those are examples of things that stimulate your brain) would teach you more than you would learn from 6 years in elementary school, and you wouldn’t have to continually alternate between bored and stressed out.

We also need to recognize the limits placed on children in the form of expectations for their futures. They are expected to think only about how they’re going to make money. From the youngest age, we ask them “what do you want to do when you grow up?” It seems innocent but think of all the implications: You’ve got to get a job and you’re supposed to only have one job that you train for and you’re supposed to start thinking about that job now, as a child. It’s not really about what they want to do. Because if what they want to do doesn’t make enough money, they’re supposed to forget about it. How do you want to make money? Not what would be useful to yourself and the world. Just make some money. That’s how you should determine your worth, too, by how much money you have. Find one thing, get good enough at it, then try to make enough money to buy a house and the rest of the middle-class dream, and maybe you can find time for yourself some afternoon in the future. Don’t rest. Feel guilty for resting. You should be monetizing your hobbies, you know, to turn something you like into more work. Even your health doesn’t matter, so live off ramen and stay up late to finish that assignment or project, maybe every night, as long as you accumulate qualifications and don’t get fired. Just make money and you can buy health. Then, at 65 you’ll finally be allowed to stop working for someone else. That’s what they’re told their lives are supposed to be.

Consider how limiting that is. We’re not saying “work together to solve social problems; here’s how to do that”. We’re telling kids what matters is building your resume and competing with your peers for jobs and money, with the only goal being unfathomably far in the future. In other words, work within and for the existing system and try to ignore everyone else. It’s so ironic when people say “children are our future”, and then train them to work for the present. The future is going to be really challenging for these kids. The ruling class and their supporters will try to maintain the same political and economic system and that’s going to require a lot of violence. Americans are seeing the beginnings of that violence now. Someone told me the other day 2020 is the first year of the twenty-first century. I agreed. So why are we still teaching 20th century subjects in a 19th century school system? Presumably to maintain the status quo. To do that, they have to limit kids as much as possible. And expectations are a huge part of that. Kids could be envisioning a better future and then working towards it with the rest of us, you know, if their lives didn’t belong to the government.

What’s the value of being labeled a genius within such a restrictive system? My parents and teachers used to tell me I was smart or “gifted” as a child. Then, when I got older and finally started using my brain for thinking rather than memorizing, they told me I was wrong and should shut up. However smart or gifted kids are, they’re still not allowed to learn anything outside the limits of the curriculum, so in effect they’re not allowed to think. So what does it do for you to get called smart as a child? It raises everyone’s expectations of you, so now you’re under pressure to keep up a high standard of grades. No one tells you grades don’t even matter until your last couple of years of high school and then only if you’re going to university. But they’ll be expected to go to university, even if they have a different idea of what they want to do, because they’re supposed to accumulate qualifications, which of course, are only means to making money. After that they’ll be expected to get a job and make lots of money and pay off the loans they took out with the hope they would be making lots of money. Most don’t, so they begin their quarter-life crisis. They aren’t where they were told they should be, so the reality of the world hits them hard. Some people take whatever shitty job is available, including McDonald’s, smelling of french fries all day to make some shareholders richer, or selling drugs, however dangerous it is, because no one else around is hiring, or even joining the military, fighting in imperial wars because it pays better than anything else available to you.

Some people get depressed and even suicidal because they were trained for a world that barely even exists anymore, and they were expected to be millionaires. Well, sorry, not everyone can be millionaires. Capitalism doesn’t work that way. Maybe kids should know that. But of course, they never study the system the way it actually works, so they grow up to watch videos like this and scoff. “The system!” They’ve been told their whole lives the system enables everyone to be free and rich and if you’re not it’s all your fault, so they believe it. Really you should never have been taught that stuff in the first place, and you should have learned to demand and assess evidence. We can unlearn it but it’s hard because we’ve accepted it as truth for as long as we can remember.

The goals of schooling follow the goals of the ruling class who decide how schooling will go. They want obedient, police-fearing taxpayers who don’t question that they’re forced to work for someone else until they die. Their entire lives are structured by people who think of them as pawns and they learn to accept it in school. Is that really why you send your kids to school? Is that what you want them to be? If not, don’t send them to school. Or at least stop caring about homework and tests and grades and start listening to them.

There are so many things you could be doing or learning that rarely get taught in school. Like, why do we never learn how to learn? Let me give you some tips on that. First, apply what you learn. For example, if you want to know how to build a house, you can get people to teach you, maybe even through Youtube videos, but you have to apply what they tell you to do, not just watch. By the way, that’s an example of choosing to follow authority, rather than being forced to accept it.

But if you’re reading a book and you want to remember all you read, that’s different from construction. You don’t remember the history of US foreign policy by building it. But you can still apply what you read. You can ask questions while you read! Please ask questions while you read. It helps you engage with the material. Especially questions beginning with “why”. Asking why a lot is a good habit to get back into. Everything you read you can fact-check, and that will help you remember. You can look for patterns, and that will help you remember, and there are definitely patterns in US foreign policy. You can compare what you read with other sources on the same topic, or compare one country’s foreign policy with another’s. You can make charts and mind maps to visualize things. You can use your imagination to remember things–picture what you’re reading about. Let your mind create a whole movie if you can.

That’s a really brief introduction to cognitive psychology–how to learn, how to remember, how to acquire a new language, how best to make decisions and solve problems, etc. You can break all this down for kids without getting them to read dry textbooks, like by making the right cooperative games and then debriefing afterwards–what did you learn, why did you do it that way, can you think of another way, etc. This is the kind of thing you do in corporate teambuilding exercises and that’s because it works. But schools aren’t allowed to play games that lead to important life lessons like teamwork or vision or strategic thinking, because those things are not in the curriculum. School is supposed to be serious, a serious place where kids do serious work and learn to be serious. Fun facilitates learning. But it’s not allowed. Neither is movement. All of us, especially kids, think better when we get the chance to move and exercise. Sitting at desks for long stretches is bad for our bodies and our brains.

We should revamp the whole idea of teaching. You don’t learn just because someone tells you stuff. That only works if you’re opting into the class, like choosing to watch this video, and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll remember. With a channel like this I’m a lecturer, except being online changes the nature of a lecture to your advantage. You can rewind or pause to take notes or look things up or use your imagination to remember or apply what I say to your life and your kid’s life. Teaching depends on the student. A student at a beginner level needs you to hold their hand. My teaching experience is mostly in teaching language, and if you don’t know any English or whatever language, I’ll get you repeating after me and doing exactly what I want you to. If you’re already at a high level, I might barely even talk. I might just listen, ask and answer questions, make corrections and suggestions. I might suggest a book that is challenging enough for you, then follow up every day or every week to see how you’re doing. Because students might be at all different levels and abilities regardless of their age, teaching should not be one-size-fits-all. But in a big enough class, it has to be. Employees of the school don’t have the freedom to give students a real education.

What would teaching look like and what would your role be if, from the age of 7, your kid thinks they want to be a comedian? They would still learn the basics of life but instead of a lot of things they don’t need and don’t care about or just don’t care about yet they would learn how to be funny. You can study comedy. There are books and videos and classes. If they learn it and practice it they could make a career out of it starting way before the age of 18 or 22 or whenever they would otherwise finish an unnecessarily long stint in school. That’s what it should mean to be gifted. Not that you’re good at taking tests. And all of us have a gift or I should say gifts because there’s no reason you should assume you can only excel in one thing. But instead of nurturing individual gifts we set up all kids to be doctors. You like gardening and cooking? Yeah, we don’t have classes in that, sorry. Art? Yeah, you can take one elective a year. A sport you love to play? Maybe AFTER school and AFTER all your homework. Or what if they love chemistry? Imagine a child or better a group of children studying chemistry, conducting experiments, following their curiosity for years before going to university or wherever the next level is. We’d call them chemistry geniuses. Really they’re just passionate and you moved out of their way.

What if you think your child should be learning Shakespeare instead of doing what they want? Well, it’s great to encourage them to read. Show them Shakespeare. If you know Shakespeare you can teach it to them, or else you could find someone who knows it, maybe just a Youtube channel. If the child likes it, keep going. If not, they can learn something else. There’s just as much value in deconstructing rap as there is Shakespeare, if not more, because it’s from now not 400 years ago. But most schools would never do that. They don’t care about what the children want or what would be useful. They care about tests. That’s their institutional incentive. Schools are ranked by how students perform on tests, so teachers are ranked on how students perform on tests. That doesn’t leave room for asking kids what they want, what they’re good at, or what their opinions are. In fact, it makes it certain they WON’T learn what they want to learn and they WILL be bored.

It’s hard for me to imagine how awful it must be for young students who are now expected to sit in front of their computers listening to everything some teacher says, not allowed to look away or do anything else, regardless of how it numbs their brains. Students are still getting disciplined for inattention and disobedience, because that’s the whole point of school–disciplining kids to follow instructions and conditioning them to accept having someone tell them what to do their whole lives. And schools are even punishing students for the same nonsense as before. Parents are getting charged with neglect because their kids aren’t logging on to pointless online classes and a school called the cops on a 12-year-old who was toying with a Nerf gun. I’m sure his being black was just a coincidence. So putting school on Zoom is no more educational than having it in the classroom. If this is the best these schools and governments can propose, it’s even more urgent that you get your kids out. Please see the third video in my playlist on education for how to do that.

Now, I’ve been talking about how to create geniuses from birth, with no reference to what adults can do for themselves. Well, most of what I said applies to adults. They can still reject their indoctrination and follow their passions and form groups to learn what they want and answer questions and solve problems. They just won’t have as much time because of “adult responsibilities”.

There are many forces holding us back. Some of those forces are beliefs given to us as kids that continue to limit us as adults. School doesn’t just hold us back in various ways but inculcates harmful beliefs about ourselves, about what we can and should do, making us feel guilty for drawing outside the lines, or getting up without asking permission. That’s not education for liberation. That’s indoctrination for a life of service to the ruling class. So I say, reject their systems and the unnecessary constraints that come with them. Ultimately, the biggest barriers are in our own minds, set up by schools and parents and other authorities, but if they’re in our minds, that means we can get rid of them. This channel exists to help you free your mind of other people’s constraints. I hope this video (blog post, whatever) has helped with that.

Crime is not the problem

August 16, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of my video, which can be found here.

I made a video a few months ago about the law and why most people don’t actually care about the law and no one could possibly follow it. You might ask why I would need to make one about crime, since crime is just the other side of the coin. Well, even though literally dozens of people have seen that video, it’s possible the lessons haven’t quite permeated the culture yet. You might even want to watch that one before this one, because I talk about how laws are made (lobbying) and give lots of examples of the many foolish laws most people don’t know about but could still get caught for. This video is about why we should stop talking about crime, and stop using the word crime, and focus on what matters.

Law and crime are such big, important topics and yet most people don’t even question them. I never get a logical argument for why crime itself is a problem and why criminals are bad. It tends to be circular logic: they broke the law. You can’t break the law! Why not? Who says we should follow the law? I bet you don’t. If you think you do, again, please check out my other video because, well, no one does. The average adult commits three felonies every day without even realizing it. No one follows the law because no one can. It’s too complicated. The law governs every aspect of life. Everything is regulated. That means the state considers every aspect of life to be under its power. It considers your body its property. People get incredulous when I say that but it’s easy to demonstrate. The law says you’re not allowed to put certain substances in your own body, even if they would be good for you. And why not? Because they are competition for legal substances. And whenever someone gets arrested for weed or something equally harmless, someone says “police should be out catching the real criminals”. Sorry, but any time you break any law you’re a criminal. As long as the laws and the institutions of enforcing laws exist, those people are still criminals. But that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong. Who did they hurt? The problem is not crime but that we lump everyone who committed any crime in together, so criminals are anyone from someone smoking something Daddy Government says they’re not allowed to smoke to killers and abusers. Our language doesn’t distinguish between them, and neither do courts and prisons.

In another clear example of the state’s ownership of your body, the law says you’re not allowed to engage in sex work, so you’re not allowed to consent to exchanging your body for money. Well, unless, of course, you film it. Why? Because of some medieval religious morality? It was only a few generations ago the police were arresting women for revealing too much ankle.

Is that a reasonable use of your taxes? Well, it was a crime and those women were criminals. If you’re against all crime, you would presumably have applauded the cops for enforcing indecency laws back then and for throwing millions of black and Latino people in jail for getting high today. Then you probably excuse it all by saying, well, it’s the law, as if that meant it was right, and the police and the courts and the prison guards are just doing their jobs, as if their jobs should exist. I also get told it’s not the fault of the police or whoever, as if they weren’t responsible for their own actions and shouldn’t be expected to question anything. Their individual intentions get brought up when their intentions are irrelevant when the institution sets the rules. If you were a vegan and you worked for a slaughterhouse, would your personal beliefs play a role in your job? Would the people giving you orders and signing your paycheque take them into account?

But I’ve also been told that the institutions aren’t the problem either, just a few bad apples, so don’t think about the institution as a whole, don’t study its impact on its agents or on society. Just look at individuals. Blame the politicians, we’re told, since they make the laws, and then vote them out. Yeah, we’ve tried that but the new ones do the same things, because they have the same rich donors. They have to if they want to win elections, and other than raising their hands that’s pretty much their whole job. And I bet you already knew that. So why don’t we question the power they have, the power to make laws over us, the power to define crime. No number of elections will take that power away from them. People will believe in institutions for hundreds of years based on what they were told in school, and however wide the gap between carefully chosen words and the institutions’ results they never lose faith that one day it might live up to the words. Maybe I should start calling this channel the unquestionable, supreme truth of the universe that everyone should listen to. But then, I’m not taught in school.

The power to define crime is the power to create it. Why do you think there are millions of people in jail around the world? How many of those people ever actually hurt anyone with the actions they’re charged with? And how many of those need to be locked up? Why do we assume the state’s preferred methods of punishing them are legitimate? What if the victims prefer reconciliation or compensation? It doesn’t matter. They have no say in the matter. This is a democracy!

The news and pop culture make us think crime is a big problem when they don’t even define the word. Is crime anything I don’t like and think should be punished? Is crime violent and anti-social? Not necessarily. I think we should stop using the language of our oppressors and say what we mean. And maybe look suspiciously at anyone who wants “law and order”.

“Law and order” means increasing police violence, especially against the poor and people of color. In North America, many laws serve a racist function. We get told there is no systemic racism because the law doesn’t literally state it should be applied unevenly. So you’ve got to look beyond words at the results of those laws, and in the case of the US and Canada, they’ve made black, brown and indigenous people the targets of permanent police occupation, with all the fear and poverty and violence that come with it. In many countries, laws favor citizens, so migrant workers have no protection from predatory bosses and cops.

But laws don’t have to be racist. They just need to serve the people who make them. To keep the veneer of democracy, every law that people actually hear about is held up as having been made with the interests of the whole country in mind. But they never consulted us. They told us what they were going to do to us, they used propaganda to persuade us, then they forced it on us. Why would we think they did it for us? Does this system actually regard us as something other than taxpaying workers who are one mistake away from jail?

The same propaganda telling us we should care about crime also uses the phrase “the rule of law”, as if laws prevented crime rather than creating it. By defining activities as illegal, the state turns whoever was doing those things into criminals. When you’re a criminal, the state claims the power to lock you up and have complete control over your body. And when police, prison guards and private prisons are lobby groups, it actually pays for politicians to criminalize more victimless pursuits and lock more people up. We call them lawmakers but it would be just as accurate to call them criminal makers. That’s why those of us who care about freedom hate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris just as much as their Republican counterparts.

They’re prime examples of criminal makers. And some people actually want to vote for them.

Dealing with crime is the opposite of solving social problems. Stopping and harassing people, locking them in cages, attacking and killing them whenever they resist–this is violence. Why is it ok just because it’s legal? I don’t know all the causes of violence but I can put two and two together. If you’re poor but you live in a culture where your value as a human depends on how much money and stuff you have, you might resort to desperate measures to get some. So how about we make sure poor people have all their needs met? And while we’re at it we can stop admiring others just because they were lucky. And if you say the poor just need to get jobs and work harder, you need to clean the capitalist propaganda out of your head and start questioning what you’ve been told.

And I’m not saying poverty creates crime, because those are two really vague concepts. Does poverty necessarily lead to violence? Maybe. But more importantly, poverty is a result of violence. People are poor because they’ve had everything taken from them, including the support of a community. (I’ve made a video along these lines too.) And some people who’ve been robbed will resort to violence to get some of it back.

But why would we be more concerned with crime, in other words, whatever poor people aren’t allowed to do, when compared to the widescale violence of the state? Another cause of violence is empowering and encouraging people to use violence as agents of the state. Why don’t we compare state and non-state violence? We’re so distracted by a tree we don’t see it’s part of a forest. I find people who are most worried about crime watch or read a lot of news and TV. TV crime shows especially normalize police violence and turn us against its victims. But the news is hardly better. When you follow the news every day, the organizations whose reporting you consume, usually huge media corporations, determine what you consider important. If the news talks about individuals acts of crime, you’re going to think crime is a big problem. And if you look at surveys, you can see perceptions of how big a problem crime is bear no relation to how much there actually is. But we don’t look at the causes of those acts, at the effects of systemic violence, the disproportionate violence against certain groups, like black people, indigenous people, disabled people and trans people. We see racism and sexism as individual phenomena, rather than being embedded in the culture, and we think of them as irrational hatred, rather than calculated self-interest. We don’t think about how systems limit our thinking and our ability to solve problems. We don’t look at the capitalist system’s devastation of the environment, so we think climate change is inevitable. We don’t see how it’s all connected. Too many trees, no forest. In our situation, the idea of crime is meaningless. It’s a propaganda word to distract us and make us think anything we do the state has told us not to do is bad, and anyone who breaks the law deserves punishment. The state is going to continue to criminalize and punish everything we do to fight back to try to stop systemic violence. So why would we trust it to tell us what’s right and wrong?

The label of “criminal” is a stigma people who’ve gone to jail carry their whole lives, even though all adults living under the modern state break the law. Words like crime and criminal throw together everything from stealing a pack of gum to killing a hundred people. These aren’t differences of degree. They’re differences of type. And when we talk about violent crime, we’re still assuming all other things the state says not to do are a problem too, when they might not be. When we talk about crime we’re saying you should be at the state’s mercy whether you harmed someone or not, because the state says so. Maybe we should start thinking about right and wrong for ourselves, instead of outsourcing our thinking to the ruling class.

We don’t even actually stigmatize crime. We stigmatize getting caught. I could steal something and still get a job. But if I get caught and go to jail and have a criminal record, whatever it was for, companies won’t hire me, landlords won’t rent to me, banks won’t lend to me, etc. Some people remark that under capitalism the only real freedom you have is the freedom to starve in the street. But you don’t even have that freedom, because people living in the street are subject to laws against vagrancy and loitering and camping. Unhoused people get harassed, arrested and attacked as much as any group, because they are vulnerable and the police are bullies and they know not enough people will find out about their shitty behavior to do anything about it. I’ve always been told prison is about rehabilitating people to rejoin society. That has never been the intended purpose of any kind of state punishment, and if you want to understand the world you need to look at the history and results of the institutions you’re learning about, not the words used to justify them. Really, the result is the opposite of the rhetoric: the so-called justice system destroys communities and destroys people’s lives so they’re more likely to re-offend.

To me, the most obvious flaw in our beliefs about crime is the double standards. The US military has killed tens of millions of people since World War Two, without trial, without even suspicion of wrongdoing. The people at the top get lucrative jobs and the paid killers get the admiration of millions of ignorant people. If I killed ONE person, regardless how long I spent in jail for it, I would probably never be able to get a job again, never even go into a store without getting called a murderer because I didn’t have state approval and a uniform, and no one told the public I was doing it for freedom. And I would inevitably get a much harsher sentence than the most ruthless cop or soldier, because different groups get different sentences. Black and brown people go to prison for years for selling drugs to willing buyers, while huge corporations who launder drug money get a slap on the wrist. Maybe violence, as distinct from violent crime, is the problem. Maybe we shouldn’t be locking people up just because they stole a pack of gum. Maybe we shouldn’t be selling people into slavery because they stole a pack of gum. Maybe caging and enslaving people is a bigger problem than whatever they were accused of.

Even the idea of the war criminal irks me. It’s a useful term for rhetorical purposes but it perpetuates this belief that legal equals good. We assume the rule of law makes things legitimate so we also assume war is only wrong, or maybe just worse, when a court declares it illegal. We call people like Bush and Obama war criminals and there’s no doubt they’re guilty of war crimes as defined by international law. But what if prosecutors couldn’t find enough evidence for the exact crimes they’re alleging, or more realistically, what if no one actually took war criminals to court? What if the state were selective about which crimes it punishes? Hard to believe, I know. It wouldn’t reduce the number of people Bush and Obama had killed and tortured. It wouldn’t rebuild the houses and schools and hospitals they destroyed. It wouldn’t house the countless refugees they created. The problem is not that a given war is illegal. The problem is some people have the power and even the incentive to kill millions of people because they get rich off it.

So please stop telling me things like “there are bad cops, but…”; “there are bad laws, but…” Stop using the law to justify violence and using crime to justify your fears and prejudices. Support criminals, not cops. Support lawbreakers, not laws. Let’s take our language out of the hands of the ruling class.

There is no “alt-left”

February 22, 2018 4 comments

The alt-right (or perhaps just the corporate media) have invented the term “alt-left” to smear leftists like antifa who actually do something (as opposed to progressives who just vote). They seem to think if you imply they are simply the left-wing version of the alt-right (whatever that would mean) they must be as bad as the alt-right. The problem is, the term is meaningless.

It might be useful to point the difference between right-wing and left-wing. These terms are somewhat hazy, but I might, after fifteen years of hearing the terms bandied about, have figured out the difference.

political chart compass

The standard “political compass” looks like the image above. The more libertarian (ie. believing in freedom for all), the lower down. The more authoritarian (ie. willing to impose one’s vision for the world on others) one is, the higher up on the chart one is. Right and left are less often defined but no less significant. Here is what they seem to mean.

The right wing believes different people deserve to be treated differently, and it is inevitable different people will have different amounts of wealth and power. The top right thinks it is fine to use force to keep these structures in place, while the bottom right thinks if you reduce the amount of force (usually by reducing the amount of government) it will (inevitably) mean inequality. That is why racist ideology is essentially right wing: it holds people should be treated differently, regardless of what they did to deserve it.

The left wing believes people are essentially equal and should be treated equally. People should have roughly equal social power. The top left thinks redistributing wealth and social power should be effected by authoritarian means, while the bottom left thinks the ideal is to eliminate structures of power and authority, as those are the root of the problem.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Tony Blair are not left wing, nor are the progressives and “liberals” who support them. They waged war all over the world, threw people in jail for selling and buying drugs, deported millions of people and gave trillions of dollars to large corporations. These are right-wing policies. The only reason they were ever called left wing is their political opponents were even further to the right, wanting more deportations, more incarceration and more war. Or perhaps more accurately, the people who hated Hillary, Barack and others like them did not realize how right wing they actually were. One could also argue these people are centrists: they stand for nothing.

Castro Tony Blair war left

The alt-right, being mostly in the top-right quadrant, are willing to use violence to remove from society those they believe do not fit in their vision for it. They want to ethnically cleanse whole countries of non-whites, non-Christians and leftists.

Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep, explains why “alt-right” is still a useful term.

Here’s why I call them the “Alt Right” instead of just “Nazis.” The Alt Right is a composite of a number of far-right tendencies including anarcho-capitalists, silicon valley neo-reactionaries, MRAs, Klansmen, and other forms of fascists. Broadly, it’s a fascist movement, but it’s a fascist movement of a certain character. Calling them the Alt Right makes a clear, descriptive identification specific, and shows that this is a discrete group, or rather group of groups, with a set of visible, self-proclaimed and established leaders.

Alexander might have added that many American conservatives approximate the alt-right position. Fascists know conservatives are easily manipulated by feeding their prejudices and do so through media such as Breitbart and Facebook pages.

You may have heard of the “[right-] libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline”. There are several possible reasons why many right-libertarians have joined the alt-right. (See this video for some of them.) One of them seems to be that racists have convinced libertarians only white people appreciate or can be taught to appreciate freedom. They have thus embraced Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas about “physical removal” of anyone who they say does not believe in freedom, which in practice is anyone to the left of them, plus Muslims, plus anyone from another culture. You will likely hear much more about “anti-communism”, as many on the right label all those to their left communists.

The comparison between the alt-right and the left grows even weaker when you consider leftists are quite open about their beliefs, while the alt-right lie at every turn. Deception, just like racism, power and violence, is integral to fascist ideology. The left is not the same. For all the hate socialists, communists and anarchists take, they are quite open about who they are and what they believe. That is presumably because freedom, justice, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and so on are noble virtues, and giving all power to a white-supremacist elite is not.

Charlie Kirk socialism

The idea of the “alt-left” comes from horseshoe theory, the belief that the more extreme one’s politics get, the more one comes to resemble the other side. This theory is nonsense. The extreme left would never accept the enormous concentrations of wealth that have created so many problems in the world. The extreme left would not tolerate racism, discrimination against disabled or LGBT etc. people, class society, wage labor or slavery. I am thus bottom left and have nothing in common with the top right. There is no horseshoe.

the true political compass

Themes of Power in the Great White Hype

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Easily my favorite Samuel L. Jackson role is that of the Reverend Sultan in 1996’s the Great White Hype. Indeed, this often overlooked movie is one of my favorites, and the Rev is largely to thank. An imposing figure in gold and a turban, owning the screen with his wide grin, the Reverend Sultan is a boxing promoter clearly modeled on Don King. He understands and wields power as effectively as anyone in Game of Thrones, just in a different context.

It is easy to think the central theme of the Great White Hype is racism. The story revolves around a heavyweight boxing champion, played by Damon Wayans (in a role slightly reminiscent of Mike Tyson), who has become so good no one wants to pay to see his fights anymore. The Rev solves the problem of falling ticket sales by finding a white guy to challenge the champ. The Rev uses racism–not the vicious kind but a more subtle, competitive version that is easy to deny–to whip up interest in the fight and sell tickets in one fight between the champ, James Roper, and the man who beat him as an amateur, named Terry Conklin. His strategy works. White and black Americans become divided (again, not viciously; the fighting stays in the ring) on which fighter they support, and all are inflamed with the excitement of “their side” beating the other.

The subject of race is reasonably well explored for an average-length comedy that doesn’t preach to you. It is not treated as a simple division between black and white or whatever other color. We see how clever people use racism as a tool to blind others and then lead them in a certain direction. “It ain’t about race,” says the champ on hearing of the Reverend Sultan’s plan, “it’s about boxing.” The Rev laughs in his face. Divisions among black people are touched on here and there, as when the champ says “A white contender? The two words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.” And the challenger gets named “Irish” Terry Conklin because “it’s boxing: it just means you’re white.”

But to end our search for themes there is to miss the point of this movie. Racism is a tool to divide people and motivate them, but motivate them to do what? Divide and conquer is an old a strategy for getting people to do what you want, and it works. The people fork over their money in return for the thrill of competition. I cannot help thinking arbitrarily dividing the masses is a story that, though (or perhaps because) it is so common as to be essential to modern-day political power, is not clear enough to people. People do not realize how divided they are. They are unaware how these divisions sap their empathy, break up their community and make the prospect of solidarity in the face of power harder. They compete with each other in ways ranging from supposedly harmless sports to total war, fighting each other when they should be uniting to guillotine their kings and banish the aristocracy.

Power is always at risk. People are always trying to take power from you, and the more you have, the more you have to lose. Power is certainly a means to an end, as it means more of some of the luxuries of life (including people surrounding you willing to kill to protect you). But it becomes an end in itself. Powerful people constantly pursue and expand their influence. It is their 24-hour job. They often become paranoid, so even if their power is secure they could feel the need to lop off a few heads for good measure. They may find ways to imprison, kill or otherwise incapacitate more of their enemies. They may find ways to enlarge their armies, bring in more gold, build more castles or force more peasants into servitude. They might do all those things on the same day.

On that note, let’s go back to the Reverend Sultan. The man is the center of the boxing world. He lives in a palace with all the finest things. The Rev covers all his bases. His chosen title alludes to both Christianity and Islam and implies someone holy and trustworthy but also a man of power. All that in two words. The first thing he says to the media is “Glory be to God, all praises to Allah, God bless America”. He creates and cultivates this image so he can be all things to all people, much like a state that claims to represent everyone, uphold various rights, manage the economy, provide healthcare and education and keep people safe. He talks smack in front of the cameras but in person is steady, charming and intimidating, as the situation calls for. After he breaks his promise to the champ at the beginning, he, with the aid of his employees, puts on a big act to convince the champ of his contrition. Though the champ is never quite convinced, having dealt with the Rev’s bullshit before, this tactic works. It calms the champ down. The Rev proceeds to explain his plan to “create” a white contender for the heavyweight title. The champ is sold on the idea.

The Reverend Sultan came a long way

He is a skilled manipulator, painting a picture others want to believe in. Terry Conklin is skeptical when first informed of the Sultan’s plan. “I give my money to the homeless.” Terry puts his motivation in front of him for the Sultan to use against him.

“Good,” replies Sultan, “because if you take me up on my proposition and [fight the champ], I guarantee that you will personally wipe out homelessness in America.”

He tells Terry, “You can still kick [the champ’s] ass!…He’s scared shitless of you,” later confiding to Terry’s trainer, “When the bell rings, he’s dog meat.”

“This could be the fight of the century,” Sultan claims, but Terry sees through it:

“Yeah, right, until the next ‘fight of the century’.”

“You’re a shrewd man,” says Sultan, knowing complimenting most people’s intelligence puts them off their guard, “but if not for yourself Terry, do it for the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like Terry, Jamie Foxx’s character (whose name is never spoken) falls to the Reverend Sultan. Foxx plays the manager of the top contender. He attempts to act boldly on several occasions and always falters under the influence–sometimes no more than a look–from the Reverend Sultan.

The character that I think best illustrates how the Rev wields power is Mitchell Kane. In an exemplary performance by Jeff Goldblum, Mitchell Kane is an independent journalist making a documentary about the Reverend Sultan. He appears to us several times at the beginning looking into a camera and narrating his report. It begins, “You and I are going to take a very close look at this boxing promoter, this exploiter, embezzler, charlatan and demagogue.” Kane is the only one outside the Rev’s inner circle who knows how dangerous he is. Anywhere with a “free” press is likely to have some radical journalist speaking truth to power, but they, like Mitchell Kane, go mostly ignored.

Kane attempts to blackmail the Reverend Sultan. He forces Sultan to arrange a meeting. But the meeting is not in some coffee shop or even an office. It is in Sultan’s home, on his turf and his terms, in his sauna. He naturally has the advantage.

“So what do you want?” asks Sultan jovially.

“I want to destroy you,” answers Kane, as if he has been wanting to say those words for some time. He hands over photographs of the Sultan in compromising positions with prostitutes. Sultan laughs as he goes through them. “I like you. You have a goal and you have the balls to reach that goal. You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”

“Flattery is not going to work. I–”

“No, no, no, I want to offer you a job.”

After an apparently long discussion, Kane exits the sauna to find his documentary crew waiting for him. He addresses the camera. “Some have said this upcoming title fight is built around racism. But…” The Rev had co-opted him, appointing him his new PR guy with a nice, new salary. As is sometimes the case, the journalist (or the academic, or the social worker, or the more highly skilled union employee) likes what the powerful guy has to offer and sells out. Kane is soon throwing out nonsense like “In the cynical age that we live in, it’s rare indeed when someone or something becomes so transcendent as Terry and this fight have become.”

Julio Escobar gives the Rev more opportunities to show how he wields power. Cheech Marin plays Julio, president of the boxing association and thus the guy in charge of ranking professional boxers. Naturally, the Rev has Julio in his back pocket. The Rev has the money, so he is in charge. We see an example of this power imbalance in every scene featuring Julio. In Julio’s first scene, the Reverend Sultan finds out Julio’s assistant is smart, so he hugs her and says “You work for me now.” Julio objects:

“Hey, wait a minute, she works for me!”

“Uh, Julio, she works for me.”

“Okay, fine.”

Later, the Rev meets with Julio after finding Terry.

“I want the WBI to rank [Terry Conklin] in the top ten so I can give him a title shot,” says Sultan.

“You know Reverend, over the years I have bent and greased and stretched the rules for you…but even I cannot rank a fighter who has not had a professional fight!”

“Now, what’s it going to take for you to make this happen?” asks the Sultan suavely. “Money? Sex? Drugs? …Power?”

“Yeah, power.”

“You’re fired.”

“Okay! Money, sex and drugs.”

The Reverend knows you do not ask someone for power; you bargain for it, you demand it, you take it, but you do not get it by simply asking those people actively wielding their power over you.

“Don’t pull your shit out if you ain’t ready to use it.”

In the next scene, at a press conference, Sultan calls him “the honorable, estimable, incorruptible Mr Julio Escobar.” If you want to lie, lie big: turn the truth upside down. Smother the truth under articulate, high-quality bullshit.

Controlling one’s image requires controlling the message and only admitting being wrong if it benefits you strategically. Part of being in power therefore means somehow avoiding answering the tough questions. We have all heard politicians do it: attacking the interlocutor’s character; “That’s not the question. The real question is…”; etc. While leaving the room of the press conference, a white man accosts the Reverend Sultan and shouts “Julio Escobar is a whore on your payroll.” This man speaks the truth. He must be silenced, his comment forgotten.

“That is a libelous statement and a racist comment simply because Julio Escobar is of Latin descent.” Both barrels. The Rev continues the deflection as the man shifts uncomfortably. “Are you saying something about brown-skinned people? Do you hate Jews and Negroes as well?”

“I am a Jew.”

“Then you’re an Uncle Tom!”

The Rev turned another man from one who literally speaks truth to power into a “racist” in a brief exchange of words, discrediting him in the eyes of his peers and shutting up anyone else who might make the same accusation as he did.

Image is reality, and in the following scene the Reverend is complaining about initial media coverage after the announcement. He is addressing his PR guy, Saul, played by Jon Lovitz. “Why are they saying these things?”

“Because it’s the truth,” says Saul.

“The truth needs to be shaped and molded and framed, Saul.” Sultan is describing how PR (propaganda) works.

With threats, intimidation and co-opting for people who might present him with a challenge to controlling perceptions and images, the Reverend Sultan shows us both how to use power and why people with power are so hard to dislodge. Of course, the Great White Hype is about the world of boxing, not the coercive power of the state. The power of the state is incalculably more dangerous, and as a result, political-power relations are far more competitive and even more lucrative for the winners.

So what happens to the Rev? Does he lose his empire, or does he come out on top? Do you need to ask? He is the only one in the movie who truly understands power. He’s not going anywhere.

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