Posts Tagged ‘racism’

IQ is overrated

September 7, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of a video you can watch here.

Today I’m going to tell you why IQ doesn’t matter. Our emphasis on IQ is mostly based on a poor understanding of intelligence and the brain and what an IQ test is. I’ve always thought the claims made about IQ were pretty spurious but I’m surprised to see we’re still talking about it as much as ever.

I’m not going to go too deep into the history of IQ testing because you can read books and watch other videos on it but we should probably start with some basic history. About a hundred years ago, Alfred Binet started the IQ test at the request of the French government. He designed the test to predict which kids would do well in schools so you could give assistance to those who probably wouldn’t do so well. Binet himself argued IQ tests were a poor measure of intelligence, and he was right.

We think of IQ as being synonymous with intelligence, but it isn’t. IQ is merely another score on a test. Do you think all the test scores you’ve ever received were a perfect explanation of your abilities in that subject? What if they asked stuff you hadn’t learned? How could it be about intelligence, as opposed to knowledge? An IQ test measures a couple of types of intelligence, mostly visual-spatial abilities, math and language skill. Are those our only abilities? The only abilities that matter? The only abilities that indicate intelligence? No, no and no.

The idea of intelligence is hotly debated among psychologists but it should be clear that writing a test is not the end of the debate. For example, if you were really tired when you wrote the test, you will get a much lower score. So you’re not as smart as others for the rest of your life because you were tired that day. What if you had been bullied or abused recently? Are you going to get the same mark? No. So why do we put so much emphasis on testing? Do we live in some sci-fi dystopia where everyone is sorted into career tracks based on their performance on paper? No. Testing for IQ is not necessary. It doesn’t indicate the reasons for getting a low or high mark. Parents and teachers can identify those kids who need help and should probably help them with regard to their specific problems, and in fact, that’s what they do anywhere they’re not forced to act according to stringent rules.

Your performance on IQ tests depends on a lot of factors outside your brain, like how much uncertainty you’re living with. Imagine you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or you think your landlord is about to kick you out, or you’re afraid you’ll get beaten up by bullies or your parents or teachers or the police. How are you supposed to perform under those conditions? On the other hand, give an IQ test to a child who is well cared for, well fed, goes to the best schools or can afford the best tutors, you’re likely to get a higher result. It’s not for sure the relatively advantaged kids will always outdo the less advantaged on tests, because we’re individuals. We can only talk very generally about this kind of thing. No one could reasonably expect one of the millions of kids who get no education of any kind, who can’t read because they had to help their parents all day, or work in a factory, or work in a mine to get anything on an IQ test. However, any of these kids could be geniuses by our standards. They should be healthy from the womb. They need happy, safe conditions at home growing up. They should get a variety of opportunities to stimulate their brains, and by the way, that’s not the same as schoolwork. The point is, test results do not reflect intelligence and intelligence is not fixed. It’s conditioned by a million factors, not all of them in your DNA.

Intelligence is partly inherited, but we don’t know how much of an individual’s intelligence comes from parents, teachers, communities, friends, media, etc. so all we know is there is some correlation between the IQ of parents and their children. There’s also a correlation between the parents’ income and their children’s IQ. That shouldn’t be surprising. Elderly people score lower on IQ tests, because of the effects of aging, but so do people with myopia, or short-sightedness, and psychologists don’t really know why. More questions are raised by the Flynn effect. Researcher James Flynn found IQ scores have risen consistently ever since they’ve been measured. Our great-grandparents by today’s standards would have average IQs of about 70. So what would those tests have told us? We know they’re not accurate. There are too many variables in an individual’s life, including major social changes, that affect how smart they are by whatever measure.

Science, especially social science, as I touched on two videos ago, has often been used in the service of the dominant powers and ideas of the time. Even when the powerful don’t find a new idea particularly useful, there’s still the chance it will pick up steam among the rest of us. It’s tough to question everything all the time so we come to accept things as scientific fact when they might be totally baseless. Sometimes we learn a bit about concepts that in science are much more complex than we realize, but they’re handed to us as finished articles. Intelligence is one of those things. We don’t all mean the same thing by intelligent. I usually don’t even use the word because it’s so imprecise. The way we use it is like most of the words we use: defined by the culture, not by some scientifically derived certainties.

Psychology is not the same kind of science as, say, physics. It’s much harder to test and draw firm conclusions. There is no consensus among psychologists on the definition of intelligence, let alone how to measure it. I’ve found with most concepts in social science you can observe them for yourself, maybe with the help of theory. What I talk about in these videos you can observe for yourself and compare what I say to the real world. You can do the same with things in psychology, because it’s about the brain and you have a brain. We just probably shouldn’t assume everything we observe is universal reality, and make allowances for our cognitive biases. You can learn about your cognitive biases, and about how memory works, how observation works, and other interesting stuff from psychology. But that’s not how IQ is used. IQ is used to limit people.

IQ tests do not measure everything psychologists consider intelligence. Where is the test for creativity? Why is that less important? Well, it isn’t less important; we just don’t question the claim that the IQ test measures intelligence. Well, does it measure our ability to plan and strategize? No? So those things aren’t important? Or they’re not considered intelligence? Says who? Actually, psychologists have come up with various types of intelligence. Creativity and strategic thinking could be considered types of intelligence and they’re extremely useful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is pretty interesting–not the final word on things but it does make some sense. The different types of intelligence he identifies include the things that are measured by the IQ test, like logical-mathematical skills, but it’s much less limited; although in my opinion, any time you measure and classify things you’re limiting them, like taking a frog out of the pond and sticking it in a jar. But along with the logical-mathematical and visual-spatial there’s things like emotional intelligence, self-awareness and even being in touch with nature, which you can believe is a form of intelligence or not but the term refers to a convergence of brain functions working to make sense of some aspects of the world. Is that not what intelligence is?

Language proficiency, another intelligence, isn’t one thing at all. It depends on long- and short-term memory, processing input, responding, following a million grammar rules, accumulating vocabulary, deploying it eloquently, and so on. So there’s language skills, there’s also interpersonal intelligence, which again is lots of different things, and there’s the relationship between the linguistic and the interpersonal intelligences, because we can call them separate intelligences but how separate are they, really? I have to be able to relate to you if I can write a book or give a speech. They’re overlapping categories. See how complicated these things are? It’s hard to talk about intelligence without making assumptions.

Remember our language can be quite simplistic. What we call skills and intelligence and talent and so on are the use of various parts of our brain working in concert. Even during the most basic functions, like listening to this sentence, trillions of things are going on in your brain. You’ve got 86 billion neurons and contrary to popular belief you use them all. You think we can measure that activity accurately? You really think if you take a test on paper, for criteria chosen long before we understood the brain like we do now, that tests for something different from what we say it means, then assign a number to the result, and say that is your overall intelligence relative to other people, you really think that would reflect reality, measure the complexity of our brains without limiting them, revealing some kind of important, useful fact? Can we use the results for something other than to rank and classify people and retroactively justify those classifications?

There are other kinds of intelligence that reflect clusters of functions, like musical ability. If you think those are skills as distinct from intelligence, then you’re probably still falling into the trap of thinking intelligence is a narrow, specific thing measured by IQ tests, and it isn’t. There seems to be a correlation between testing well on IQ or other intelligence tests and what’s known as G, or general intelligence, which implies that if you’re good at one type of intelligence you are more likely to be good at other types. But there is no consensus on G. And even assuming it’s accurate, it still doesn’t really matter. No one is a genius in all the ways you can be, and everyone who isn’t too disabled has talents and skills and the ability to improve them. If you hone your skills, whatever skills, you can be a genius. If you were informed by an authoritative test when you were young that you’re not smart, you might not try to hone your skills or just give up more easily. That said, even if you don’t take an IQ test, school will beat the spirit out of most kids some other way. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please see my whole playlist on education, which I link to in the description. If you really need to test a skill, go ahead. Just don’t test three skills and say that is now how smart you are.

In the age of science, we feel like we have to measure everything by these supposedly scientific measurements. But why do we have to measure intelligence? It’s poorly defined and even more poorly understood. Why do we have to rank children according to their intelligence, or for that matter, according to any of the tests we make them take? To inflate some heads and doom others to failure? People carry the nonsense they learned at school with them their entire lives until they unlearn it. Why do classify kids by vague, unnecessary, misleading labels? It’s like we’re TRYING to limit them. Here’s a better idea: Teach kids the truth about intelligence, which is that it is not fixed. Our brains are very adaptable and change every time we learn something. See? Yours just changed then. It’s called plasticity. You might also want to teach kids how to be wise, since wisdom is astronomically more important than intelligence, and that you need to do lots of learning to get there.

So why is the idea of IQ still alive? Short answer: Racism.

Quite soon after its invention, the IQ test was picked up by racists and used for their purposes. That shouldn’t be too surprising: Racist pseudoscience has existed in some form for hundreds of years. I don’t think you can talk about IQ without discussing its racist history, just like you can’t talk about racism as if it were an individual phenomenon with no history behind it. IQ was used to claim black and Latino people in the US were less intelligent than whites, and IQ results were used to sterilize tens of thousands of people in the US even into the 1950s because they were labeled mentally inferior. As we can see from the popularity of the book the Bell Curve, it is still used to justify racism. It’s easy to make things look scientific: look at all these tests we did. Now we’re going to extrapolate based on those tests and continue to speak confidently without recognizing our assumptions for what they are. Why, when extrapolating, did you choose to compare racial groups? Why was that important? There’s no historical context for explaining IQ differences, so what’s the point of averaging IQ across an arbitrary category like race and comparing results across racial groups? It could be used to provide yet another indicator of how poorly black or other people of color are treated, if you included a lot more analysis in with the statistics, but they didn’t, because the same people who want to know the average IQ of an entire race are only interested in proving that race’s inferiority.

The words we use for races are historical and cultural, NOT biological. They don’t correspond to anything in biology. Yet the assumptions behind the Bell Curve took self-identified racial categories as meaningful. Was that because many of the studies cited in the Bell Curve were financed by the Pioneer Fund, an explicitly white-supremacist, eugenicist organization? Oh, you hadn’t heard about that? Yeah, the author, Charles Murray, doesn’t usually mention that. But he does say his sources come from “some the most respected psychologists of our time”. Intelligence is not fixed and your IQ pretty much changes with your mood. Hardly a solid basis for reaching any conclusions about a person, let alone a group. And yet, Charles Murray got famous for doing just that.

It’s amazing what we’ll latch on to to prove our own superiority. I got a high result on an IQ test, so I’m smarter than you. Or if you’re racist, who cares what I got on my IQ test; I’m still smarter than you because I’m white. But these people simply don’t want to know how genes actually work. They think because someone looks different, they must belong to a group that is fundamentally different. Then, they build a body of science to try to prove it. But that’s not how truth works. That’s how pseudoscience works. Scientific racism is not scientific but just a way of justifying white supremacy. It’s about power. It ignores what we know about biology and psychology. No complex human behavior is caused by one gene. No group differences can be shown to be strictly environmental or genetic. When we start making assumptions about connections that aren’t there, our commitment to rational inquiry goes out the window. So statistics on IQ are almost worthless. They don’t tell us anything interesting about group differences. So why would Sam Harris invite a quack like Charles Murray to be on his podcast? Was it to explore both sides of the controversy? Well, if it was, he failed, since he called a number of Murray’s dubious claims “facts”.

There’s a lot that Harris and Murray got wrong in their interview. Murray says intelligence is largely fixed and genetic and measurable by IQ tests and retroactively proves racial categories valid, and none of those things are very likely. Harris and Murray seem to think nothing could be done to raise intelligence or IQ scores when actually the research shows all kinds of things raise IQ scores: different families, different neighborhoods, different friends, different schools, a teacher who actually takes the time out to help you or challenge you, more money, or even just a decent bed so you can sleep better. So far from being that a person, let alone an entire group that is systematically discriminated against, can’t improve their intelligence, it’s actually quite clear the right circumstances would do just that. Better education, such as the ideal education I map out in my playlist on education, boosts intelligence and outcomes related to intelligence. Higher incomes at home, which after all mean less uncertainty and more ability to cope with crises, lead to higher test scores. These are things we could easily change, by implementing better education or giving people more money. A lot of people assume we’ve been doing those things for 70 years or more, but we haven’t. That’s based on the myths we like to propagate about how since the Civil Rights Era, everyone is equal now, no one is poor and policies reflect that. So people like Harris and Murray do zero historical analysis and just take their assumptions for granted instead of looking at the many policies designed to keep people of color in poverty in the worst neighborhoods and keep them going to jail. If we’re talking about IQ in such conditions, we’re probably asking all the wrong questions. The real question is, how can we change those conditions that are holding us all back?

I have other questions too. Why would you want to talk about IQ differences among racial groups? Why would it matter? What would it reveal? Why would you want to talk so much about race, as distinct from racism? Why are you imputing meaning to something that basically means nothing? Is it because your whiteness is all you’ve got?

To wrap up, it’s not that there’s no such thing as intelligence but it’s really complicated, it’s full of misconceptions, and someone else’s intelligence shouldn’t matter to you. And as I’ll explain in my next video, we are all potential geniuses.

Is slavery still relevant in the US?

October 10, 2018 Leave a comment

White Americans, especially conservatives, love to talk about how slavery is simply not relevant anymore, and as such, black people need to “get over it” and “move on”. But is it no longer relevant? Or do they just want to feel good about the country they were born in? This incomplete guide to the enduring legacy of slavery might help high-school-history teachers answer the question.

The origins of racism

Racism originated with the Transatlantic slave trade. No, slavery was not the first time anyone had been racist. The point is, all modern racism in Europe, the Americas and to a lesser extent the rest of the world was “invented” to legitimize slavery. The rich Europeans who wanted slaves naturally had an interest in pretending blacks were inferior, or not even human, as they would therefore be unworthy of respect, freedom or justice. They needed soldiers, slave catchers, plantation hands and so on, to make sure the slaves remained in their place, so not only the elites were made to believe in slavery. The whole white population would be made to feel superior to others, thus making them willing to help with slavery or at least turn a blind eye to it, and deflecting criticism of the elite to other races. (Moreover, the “Indians” they found in the Americas, as well as the Arabs, Asians and whatever other groups they met on their adventures of conquest, could also be subjugated if judged inferior.)

The racism that began with the slave trade has not died. It continues to exist in many forms. It is easy and necessary to point to the large number of right-wing militias that exist largely for the sake of starting a race war. They are killing people and spreading lies about people of color. It is harder but also necessary to see the subtle racism of everyday life. When the media tell us about whites who break the law, we hear about their home lives, their hobbies, their friends. When the media tell us about blacks who break the law, we hear about the severity of their crimes, and even (as if it were relevant) about other laws they may have broken. Blacks don’t get picked for jobs or promotions as often as whites. They get harassed by the police more often. They are more likely to get arrested, jailed or killed by a supposedly blind justice system for the same crimes as whites. These are not accidents. They are the product of centuries of actions by a white-supremacist state.

The history of the US is not one of slavery but then happiness and freedom for black people. It is bad enough that slaves were not given the land they worked their whole lives. Slavery was followed by sharecropping, segregation, eugenics, lynching, bombings, police brutality, incarceration and, at every stage, blacks being mocked for their wretchedness. (The Nazis got many of their ideas from the US.) When they have tried to fight back, it was considered proof that blacks are inherently violent, untrustworthy and unworthy of freedom. The same is true today. Look at how the media and conservatives talk about Black Lives Matter or Colin Kaepernick. They never gave them a chance. They never listened. They mock them by saying “what about black-on-black crime?” and tell them to shut up by saying “all lives matter”. Some actually use the word “terrorism” to describe an attempt by marginalized people to make others believe they are equally worthy of respect. And the same white people who say “all lives matter”, who never listen to black protesters and who hate Colin Kaepernick would balk at the accusation that they are racist. They seem to think the time of denying black people equal rights based on their skin color died with MLK.

White Americans have always been unwilling to acknowledge real problems in the US. They seem to have no idea, for example, that they are not free. There are laws restricting their every behavior, and police or other security forces breathing down their necks at every turn, but “we are free” because we have been told we are free. Racism is another thing white Americans have trouble seeing. Most conservatives will actually deny there is much racism against people of color in the US, to the infuriating extent that they believe white people are the true victims. But that is what happens when you get your information from other racists and not from the actual victims. You might think because you saw a video of some black people angry at whites that means whites are all going to be killed. You might have seen countless stories of black people committing crimes and very few of white people. You may take it for granted that white police who kill black civilians were acting in self-defense. White conservatives rarely acknowledge any racism by white people but revel in pointing out “race baiters” like Barack Obama (where he has said anything anti-white I am not aware) and Al Sharpton, who they seem to think is the king of angry black people.

White skin, black self-hate

In the US and all around the world, people are taught that darker skin is uglier, dirtier, a dishonor, a sad genetic accident. Why? Because white people have spread the idea, and because people in power in places like East Asia have an interest in keeping that idea alive. Darker-skinned people, especially women, tend to get the short end of the stick. Black and brown people end up hating themselves for their hair. Their hair! What could be wrong with “black” hair? But that is what happens when white supremacy spreads around the world. People of color in the US find themselves in the same culture as whites, so it should not be surprising many of them hate themselves and hate other people of color, while believing in white politicians, bureaucrats, bosses and preachers.

Slavery destroyed the black family and the culture of every person who was enslaved. The psychological effect of having your home, your culture and family taken away with you is immeasurable. These things last beyond the initially enslaved and turn into generational problems. But black people, both while enslaved and since then, have created and maintained a vibrant new black American culture. Afro-American culture created jazz, blues, rock n roll and hip hop, something the world should be grateful for. And yet, it gets mocked, ignored, delegitimized.

Slavers used to have no compunction about taking slaves’ children away from them. They did not treat slaves as human; why would they care if their slaves got upset? I cannot comment on the lasting psychological effects I am sure that heartless cruelty had. I can, however, point out that descendants of people who owned slaves still do not care about separating brown people from their parents, as the policy continues to this day at the border. They turn a blind eye or use words to justify it to themselves. They do not care that children are being separated from their parents, that children are being kept in cages, or even that the people in government are getting rich from it, because it has all happened before. It was considered normal. The racism created then to make people feel nothing for slaves continues as people feel nothing for “illegals”.

Indeed, slavery itself is still alive and well in the US. The prison industry houses nearly 1% of the US population. This figure is much higher than any other country in the world. Prisoners tell of all forms of abuse from guards, along with rape among inmates. But they are also worked as slaves, making peanuts for themselves and making a few people rich. Some whites have become so cold they consider abuse and slavery part of the punishment (for whatever crime, however minor or victimless). How could they object so strongly to a black person selling weed or a brown person crossing a border as crimes but have nothing to say about ruining someone’s life and making them a slave for the profit of the elite? Racism would seem to be the only explanation.

When slavery ended, the era of mass incarceration began. Whites occasionally went to jail for terrorizing black people, but police have never gone to jail for selectively enforcing the law. Black people are disproportionately jailed, particularly in places where slavery existed most prominently–in other words, where fomenting racism against blacks was most important for the elite. Is it just an amazing coincidence?

From wars for slaves to wars for empire

The Civil War was not the only one fought over slavery. Nor is it the only war who causes have been virtually erased in history lessons. Many of the US’s wars that took place during slavery were demanded by slaveowners who wanted to expand the legal territory for owning and catching slaves. The British helped thousands of slaves escape during the War of 1812. Slavery was threatened in East Texas by Mexico, so the US started a war with Mexico to expand the number of slave states. Countless wars on native tribes meant expanding the US’s territory, and was often related to slavery, such as the Seminole Wars that ended up annexing Florida. Slavers wanted more territory, so the US went to war. Slavers wanted to catch runaway slaves, so the US went to war. Each time, it killed people of color and expanded its territory. It should be obvious that the effect of these wars has lasted into the present, as (like all countries) war and conquest has given the US the territory it has today.

But these wars are also still relevant because the US is still making war all over the world. People used to profit off war then, and they continue to do so today. Indeed, the profit of the rich was usually the reason for the US’s wars, just like today. Once the US had finished expanding across the continent, it went to East Asia and conquered territory overseas. It now reserves the right to make war anywhere in the world on whatever flimsy pretext (eg. invading Afghanistan and Iraq because of a terrorist attack), and kill as many brown people as it likes. A white-supremacist state is not necessarily a genocidal one. It is one that can make war on non-whites for the wealth and power of the elite and its white subjects could not care less about the wars (or even encourage them), because only brown people are dying.

With the prospect of indiscriminately killing and torturing brown people, is it any wonder so many outright white supremacists are soldiers, along with police and prison guards?


It is clear the legacy of slavery is still alive. Descendants of slaves are treated as criminals to be jailed and re-enslaved, and mocked whenever they try to shed light on their condition. The territory gained through wars for slavery remains part of the state. The contempt for non-whites is present in political discourse. And when confronted with evidence of racism, privileged white people dismiss it. “I’m not racist,” they will say, as if that is the end of the discussion. They need to acknowledge the past or else continue to live with it. It is not because you are white that you are the problem but because you have internalized the values of a white-supremacist state. You learned to think one way and you can unlearn.

The point of this post is not to blame white people. What would be the point? They should not feel guilty but angry. They should not feel they are helpless because of history but stirred into action by the present. They could start by educating themselves, which consists mostly of listening but sometimes calling out racism among friends and pointing out the history behind the oppressive institutions of today. People are still trying to divide us, including rich elites giving money to far-right racists. We should unite against the dividers.

What it means to be white in America

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

So many white Americans don’t like to hear the words “white people”. That is because they think they are being attacked. Unfortunately, mere words calling white people out for their bullshit, puts them on the defensive, and they refuse to listen or learn anything. Their closed minds have created a dangerous situation.

The first thing so many white Americans don’t get when you talk about “white people” is what the word really means in America. White people have a history of genocide and slavery on a wide scale, all over the Americas, and that history is still relevant in ways so many white people ignore. Instead of coming to terms with it, they have paved over it in the history books, smothered it with conformity to civic customs as a basis for national unity and callously told the survivors to get over it. Acknowledging this past is the first step to understanding the way the US is today, and why people are talking about “white people”.

So many white Americans give excuses not to listen to someone who says they have been a victim of racism, unless the victim was white, in which case they somehow are able to sympathize. Anyone who implies there may be historical reasons black, native or other people might not have the same privileges white people do get told these bad things like slavery were a long time ago. Things are different now. We’re all “equal” now. Because “I don’t see race [because I don’t want to]”. Being white in the US means forgetting and not needing to remember, ignoring and not needing to listen, living in ignorance and not wanting to know.

One thing so many white people who try to win an argument will say is black people were involved in the slave trade. They bring it up even though it is rarely relevant. No one is saying you were part of the slave trade because you are white. They are saying you don’t understand what it is like to live as a person of color in a white-supremacist state, and you prove you don’t understand by arguing with them. They also say there have been slaves throughout history. Yes, and many other parts of the world also have problems due to unacknowledged history. But the descendents of slaves in ancient Sparta are not still suffering in the present. If the slavery we are talking about was in recent, relevant history, such as that of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is important to understand its legacy. If you use slavery elsewhere as an excuse not to talk about the legacy of slavery where you are, you are simply not interested in listening.

Think slavery doesn’t matter anymore? You’re wrong.

Why do they bring up black people in the slave trade? Because they think they are being attacked just for being white. They once saw a video of a group of black people saying “kill whitey” and thought there were hordes of people who hated them for being white. (Just like how they saw a video of brown people saying “Allahu akbar” and thought they needed to support war in the Middle East.) It’s a strange excuse not to listen. It’s like saying some Jews were paid to work for the Nazis during the Holocaust. It’s a tiny percentage compared to the rest who suffered. What’s your point? Very few people are saying being white makes you evil (far fewer, incidentally, than white people who hate anyone who is not white). Europeans created the market and some Africans took advantage of it, showing us that people are corruptible in any culture.

The other thing so many white Americans don’t understand is the enormous legacy of the events of the past 500 years. It is, quite simply, the elephant in the room. The history of the colonization of the Americas (and the whole world) is that of enslavement, massacre, taking land and building monuments to white people on top of it. Many millions have been killed during the wars that killed and drove the natives off their land and into wretched arrangements with the state. Those are the wars that created the vast territory of the US as it is today. Most of the native inhabitants have lost their land to European empires, followed by the states the empires left behind, such as the US, Canada and all of Latin America, and then in our day by corporations with legal claims.

The legacy of colonialism includes the strengthening of the empires of Europe so they could make war on far-flung people, then later with each other, and now on far-flung people again. It has meant the creation of powerful states and corporations that bleed people dry and kill them in the thousands when they resist. These states tend to have white-supremacist laws, given that most of them were created to protect the property of the rich white minority.

The people in power needed to justify the brutality necessary to carry out the project of colonizing the world so they, in effect, created racism as we know it. All states and empires have told the people in their heartland they were special. They created the opposing identities of “us” and “them”. That is, very briefly, the reason we have countries today: defining citizens or taxpayers or non-slaves in opposition to those being conquered. European empires have told their subjects they were superior to the far-flung natives because they were white. Over time, in their heads and in law, people who were defined as white got cut off from the rest of humanity. They were shielded from the worst excesses the state inflicted on people. They were expected to fall it line when it was deemed necessary to destroy an entire native town or round up runaway slaves. The same pact exists today: white people turn a blind eye to the state’s greater violence against minorities (or post a screenshot from Fox News to tell themselves it isn’t true) in exchange for the privilege of not getting the short end of the stick.

Slavery is not the only thing that has happened to black people in the US. Since the Civil War, blacks have been kicked out of government, kicked off their land, lynched, legislated out of jobs, rezoned out of residential areas, harassed, arrested, beaten, spied on, shot or given the electric chair for little or no reason besides the color of their skin. Do those things figure in your understanding of race in the US? Like all hierarchies, racial hierarchy must be enforced through words and laws and symbols. The South was not the only place with racism, either. Many Northern liberal towns had explicitly racist policies until as late as the 1970s. To the so many white people today who claim to be victims of racism, did these things happen to you or your family? When you say blacks are complaining about something only their ancestors suffered, you’re talking about their parents.

Yet so many white people wave a Confederate flag around, get angry about tearing down statues to Confederate war heroes and say it’s about “heritage not hate”. Do these people simply not know the history of the symbols they love? Do they not know those people fought to uphold slavery? Or are they lying, and they hate black people and wish them to return to their subordinate role?

white afraid slavery confederates

This denial of history is not only unfair to the survivors of the US’s original sin. It is a matter of life and death. An unarmed black kid gets shot in the street at night by a white guy. Imagine two possibilities. In the first, the whole city or even the country come together to condemn the killing and acknowledge the racism that it made it possible. In the second, millions of people rush to the defense of the white guy. They believe everything his lawyers and the newspapers say and call the boy a thug. If the former scenario had happened and the whole country opposed killing a child and using self defense as an excuse, the act of killing would seem less justifiable, fewer would get killed and people would feel safer. Instead, the latter happened, and keeps happening every week.

Yes, not all white people were or are rich, and yes, they get shot by police too. Yes, some people of color are rich nowadays. But to think you have it bad because you’re white in a country with a history of white supremacism is a slap in the face to the people of color you are not listening to. Start listening to people who tell you they got turned down for an interview because they have black-sounding names. Start sympathizing with someone who went to prison (especially for a victimless crime like taking drugs) for something a white man got a slap on the wrist for. That person might not be able to get a job either because, even though they were told they had “paid their debt to” a society that did not love them, they still do not get treated equally. Start believing the huge numbers of people who get repeatedly harassed by police because they are black or brown, whether in a non-white-majority neighborhood, because the police are always there harassing people, or in a majority-white neighborhood where white people are scared of people different from them so they call the cops. Start talking to people about a court system and a prison industry that puts people of color away (and works them in slave labor) in far greater numbers than white people. Justice may be blind but the law, the police, the judge, the lawyers and the juries are not.

black child arrested handcuffs

Do you really need context?

And why do so many white people have no qualms about all the people of color shot by police? They always seem to be able to find some way to justify the death. Every time a cop guns down a person of color, so many white Americans take to the comment sections to say why they support the officer and support law enforcement no matter what it does. Some of them actually send large sums of money to killer cops, as if to tell them “thank you for getting rid of one of them. Sorry some people disagree.”

So many white people have reached the point that racism against minorities simply does not exist. Every case that could provide evidence for racial bias is swept under the rug. You hear them say “fake”, “liar”, “he deserved it”, etc. And they have the nerve to get mad at the inconvenience when the things they tried to sweep under the rug keep popping out again. White people were openly racist until the 1960s or later, and now they claim not to see race. They seem to think this claim insulates them from the consequences of 500 years of colonization. The same people actually despise people of color so much they can’t bring themselves to agree that black lives matter. Whenever they hear the phrase, they shut the speaker up with “all lives matter”, as if they were trying to prove they didn’t understand, they didn’t want to talk about discrimination against black people and they wanted an entire race to shut up about its problems. To claim racism is over, or that white people are victims of racism, when you refuse to listen to people of color living with the violence you don’t know about, is the height of ignorance. Do you want to remain ignorant, not understanding (or pretending not to understand) why millions of Americans are angry, and what part your whiteness plays in their oppression?

There are white militias around the US training for a race war they are hoping to instigate. They are killing people already and are vocal about the fact that it is because of their race. That is the consequence of all this racism so many white Americans refuse to see. Many of them have infiltrated law enforcement and the military. But still, people of color are expected to shut up. So many white Americans have the arrogance to tell people of color to get over their grievances, no matter what happened to them, no matter how recently, no matter how obviously the product of racism, because to so many white Americans, there is no racism against people of color. When people of color protest, they get told to stop protesting, or start protesting something else, or protest in a different way that does not inconvenience anyone, and go get jobs. Meanwhile, so many white Americans are still grieving for 9/11, which happened 17 years ago in a city they had never visited to people they had never met.

The first thing white (and other) Americans could do is learn about and acknowledge the history of the United States. No, you did not learn about it in school or on TV. Learn from the perspectives of people who are not the winners or the beneficiaries of history.

Next, you could use the knowledge you gained to understand the reasons why things are the way they are today. How did Columbus pave the way for the world as it is today? What about all the other empires that have invaded the continent since then? How did the slave trade create the Americas and modern racism, how did it aid in the development of capitalism, how did it lead to the wars and conquests of the United States and why might black people still want to talk about it?

There was nothing inevitable about genocide and slavery. Let us apply a little knowledge and imagination to how things could have been better. Not all white people wanted to kill natives or thought it right to own slaves. Some of them even ran off to join indigenous people, preferring the relative peace and freedom to the rigid laws of the settler states. What if more white people had refused to turn guns on natives, or had fought on their side? What if more white people had set more slaves free, or at least shamed and shunned everyone involved in the trade? What if, instead of believing the divisive rhetoric, white people had seen themselves as people too, and never attacked the natives at all? What if they had lived side by side and integrated with them? Think of all they could have learned from each other and how much more harmonious the present would be. Americans often talk about how much freedom they have, but the US could really have become a Land of the Free if it had eschewed the central state for the decentralized model of some indigenous people. If they had simply had different ideas, different attitudes, things could have been much better for all concerned.

But since genocide and slavery are the truth of history, white people need to understand. The ones in the comment sections claim to understand, but they do not, and their failure to listen is the reason they feel attacked.

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

Changing the culture by changing the focus

April 14, 2015 4 comments

I have been the head admin of the Facebook page Shit Troop Supporters Say since its founding a year ago today. I have a lot to reflect on. It has been an interesting year.

Occasionally I think it is mean picking on troop supporters. Calling out the average flag-waving support-muh-troops guy for not using logic or knowing history is like making fun of a five-year-old for not understanding quantum physics. (And of course some troop supporters do know those things, so it is best not to stereotype.) But then I remember five-year-olds aren’t the ones beating the drums of war, encouraging murder without trial and torture without evidence. They don’t support the police no matter what they do and then claim to believe in freedom. They don’t tell people they don’t deserve to live somewhere because those people were from the wrong part of the world and didn’t pay the fees, and then tell themselves they believe in freedom for all people. Neither do 5-year-olds refuse to learn the history of the regions and conflicts they are so sure someone needs to bomb. People who have taught millions of 5-year-olds to share and play nicely with each other are willing to lend their unconditional support for actions that cost them thousands of dollars and kill thousands of people who posed no harm to anyone.

Calling out the politicians, meanwhile, which is what troop supporters and liberals (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, of course) tend to suggest, is a good catharsis but not much of a plan for change. I think focusing on politicians might merely reinforce the status quo. Voters often say they don’t trust any politicians, but when election day comes they nonetheless feel it necessary to cast their vote for someone they don’t trust. There are good reasons you can’t trust politicians and they are mostly related to the requirements for winning in politics.

People who say we just need to change politicians but not blame soldiers for signing up seem to have this fantasy of politicians who will not send the troops into harm’s way on principle. But politicians do not have principles. They have tools and they have enemies. Signing up to carry out their orders requires you to understand that.
One group that does not seem to receive enough focus might be those the politicians work for. It’s not you, by the way. They are much richer than you. The people at the top of the business world are the ones really benefiting. So why do people always talk about politicians? Because voting and complaining about politicians is a brilliant way to let the masses let off steam and keep their eyes on the wrong people, like yelling at a poster on your wall.

So Shit Troop Supporters Say looks at how the elite benefit, but we also look at what troop supporters say. Why? Because as a huge and assertive part of the population, troop supporters are the people unquestioningly believing, reproducing and thus legitimizing or making true the beliefs that keep the wars going. That means a big part of the culture is based on a nationalist-warrior mythos that leads to all kinds of unnecessary violence.

But some people are listening and thinking. And some people already know and trust you. To those people who are actually listening you can show the long history of nationalist myths and racism in the US (or wherever you are from) and their legacies. You can show them the history of propaganda in the US, starting from World War One. You can show them how many statements made to sell wars have been misleading or outright lies, or how little truth the newspapers told about what was going on. You can show them how large groups of people can protect themselves by mutual aid rather than hoping hierarchical militaries will do it. If you can discredit the troop-supporter and war-supporter message by reaching those who might listen, especially people you know, you can change the culture.

But we can’t get there with the wrong approach. You don’t impress people by being arrogant, you don’t pull people in by being pushy and you make others turn their ears off when you insult someone. And most people are either not listening or not easily convinced. The latter need to hear the message clearly and repeatedly and the former are not worth your time. The only reason I would argue with the people you can’t reach is because others are listening, and then would only stick to the facts. I fear we lose many opportunities to communicate by simply using the wrong tone.

At any rate, I consider exposing the ignorance of support for war an important endeavour, one that requires research and patience and a little humour. I hope you will continue to support me!

“Political correctness is killing this country”

March 19, 2015 2 comments

(For Shit Troop Supporters Say)

It’s hard to believe how easy it is for troop supporters to tell themselves they are not being bigots right after saying something about how all Muslims are bad by saying something about “liberals” and “political correctness”. They just brush it aside. Islam isn’t a race, therefore I can make whatever hate-filled statement I want about all Muslims and not be racist. I’m not racist just because I said something hateful about a large, diverse group of people that I don’t understand, right? Nah.

People will say ANYTHING about a religious, ethnic or any other group about which they know nothing—Arabs and Muslims (same thing, right?) today, Asians a couple of generations ago and Catholics—boy, those guys were dangerous. When Irish and Germans began moving to the US in the early 1800s, Americans of previous generations heard about Catholic plots to take over the country and indoctrinate everyone in fanaticism. Blood was spilled in the name of this irrational fear, which lasted more than a century.

islamophobia racism nationalism war on terror

Today, troop supporters and others say things like “they are trying to kill us” or “they hate us for our way of life” or “they are trying to impose their laws on us”, “they” meaning everyone and everything in this amorphous group they call Islam. All they need is an anecdote here or there about how a Muslim did a bad thing somewhere in the world—or, for that matter, an anecdote about how someone did something bad to a Muslim—and the flame of hatred burns a little brighter. “Don’t you remember 9/11?” they say, as if all Muslims were guilty of the crime. “Why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?” They do every day. You just don’t listen.

They consider thinking in stereotypes sufficient basis for hating and killing anyone in that group and anyone resembling that group. If they actually questioned their beliefs by meeting people and learning their viewpoints with an open mind, they would find they were wrong. If they thought about what freedom really meant, they would stop forcing everyone they are suspicious of to conform to their rules and standards.

Again, it is hard to believe how ignorant these people are. I wish I were exaggerating. But I observe it every single day I visit the troop-supporter pages. They make sweeping generalizations with no basis in fact about a huge group of people and if you call them out on it they say you’re just a liberal who can’t face reality, and that political correctness is killing this country. You wouldn’t say it is your refusal to question your beliefs by asking questions and doing research that is leading this country down the spiral of an imperial police state? Do you not get where the state gets its authority to spy on people, militarize the police, detain whomever they want indefinitely without trial and make war on distant people with impunity? It’s from fear. Your fear of people you don’t understand. Whatever the state does to others, it grants itself the power to do to you. Your ignorance is their power. But hey, if you want to stay frightened and paranoid, you had better learn to love your enslavement.

Religion is not the problem

May 19, 2013 1 comment

Atheism is spreading. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to force others. They have no problem with the growth of the state (or if they do they do not voice their concerns), as long as no one lets religious beliefs guide it. Is that the right way to prevent the damage caused by religion? More importantly, does it strike the root of the problem?

Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.

-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often better understood as colonial, racist and nationalist in nature. Different forms of division and oppression tend to feed off each other. Religion is one means people in power use to oppress, of course, but it is also used by those on the bottom fighting for their rights. As long as no one has a monopoly on interpretation, people can use religion for “good” as well as “evil”.

Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?

Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. Since we agree slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery in your own city?

The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.

-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5-or-so billion Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.

-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.

Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. (Indeed, Islam forbids suicide and the killing of innocents.) Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.

-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. It matters to an extent who make the laws, but most lawmakers, now and throughout history, do whatever they can to further their own interests. The more laws and police to enforce them, the more restrictions there are on you, the more easily you can go to prison, the more money it is going to cost you and the more powerful the lawmakers and the people they work for get if the masses do not rise up against them.

-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.

-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent on or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.

Anti-religious statists also display hypocrisy with relation to the esteem the religious hold for the written word. They lament and mock following religious texts while believing in constitutions and the rule of law. What is a constitution but a legal holy book? What is a holy book but an old constitution? Those who say holy books are invalid because they condone war and slavery but consider more recently made laws legitimate (perhaps because of democracy) need to consider what principle their beliefs are based on. As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?

We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.

I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, such worrying almost seems quaint. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.

Are you a control freak or a pervert? The state is hiring!

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The state’s monopoly on crime over a given territory makes it necessary to eliminate its agents’ responsibility for their individual crimes. How often we have seen police take the stands to defend brutality and then get let off with a slap on the wrist. The state thus incentivises all manner of anti-social behaviour. Here are some examples.

Politicians’ main task is to steal one person’s money and give it to someone else. Sometimes they steal overtly, such as through taxation, and give it away just as overtly, as with bank bailouts. Sometimes the theft is far quieter or concealed as benevolence, as when they pass laws favourable to a few corporations that help them control markets by force, while telling everyone the laws are necessary measures in the fight against whatever the public is anxious about.

Politicians bill law legislation

Politicians want to garner votes for the next election, which is done by a) handing things out to interest groups and b) spending money to appear to get things done. A number of well-connected people can give them cushy jobs with huge salaries when they retire from serving the public (which goes for bureaucrats, too). Their job is, in fact, to represent those people, the elite, and make the public think they are serving everyone. They are chosen because they are so good at it.

The military engages in war, destroying homes, lives and ecosystems. No one holds the military accountable for its crimes, except occasionally when grunts are tried for crimes their superior officers encouraged, or the pressure of war made inevitable. In fact, not only is the military not made to pay for the damage it causes; people are led to believe it actually protects them from all the bloodthirsty foreigners who cannot wait to kill them. This lie makes the next war, or the perpetual struggle against evil, easier. (The state’s incentive to lie is so obvious I will not go into it here.)

Police investigation

Police have all kinds of distorted incentives. Their jobs consist in large measure of harassing, bullying, beating, kidnapping, spying and stealing. Many of them want to control people, which may be why they became police, or they may have acquired a thirst for it as they went about their duties. The War on Drugs has enabled them to break into people’s homes, steal money and drugs, and gun those people down. Even when the people had no drugs at all, the police do not get in trouble. Why not? Because the police did not find the police guilty.

The police in the US have begun to spy on people. The irrational fear of terrorism, encouraged by politicians, law enforcement and the media, all of which have something to gain, has legitimised spying on marginal groups. Muslims have been targeted in particular, as have activists. It is widely known (and statistically obvious) that police stop, frisk and frame racial minorities in huge numbers. Thus, the state legitimises racism—and gives it a gun.

TSA children terrorists

Lastly, TSA agents can do nearly whatever they want to your body. It is unsurprising to hear women say they feel disproportionately targeted by airport security, or to see children being felt up by people with badges. Laws that permit eliminating the rights of the many and the responsibility of the few has given perverts and pedophiles a great career path.

I am not accusing all TSA agents of being perverts, just like I am not accusing all police of racism. I am accusing the state of incentivising and legitimising these activities, and stealing from taxpayers to fund them. Find fuller explanations of the state’s crimes and how to end them in my book, available here.


September 4, 2011 6 comments
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
(I have written extensively on the problems of nationalism elsewhere. See here for the logic for individualism.)

The root of opposition to immigration, along with the root of war and other statist evils, is nationalism. Nationalism is the irrational belief that one’s country is superior to all others. It places the nation above the individuals that make it up, meaning that if for any reason the nation is in trouble, the individual must lay everything on the line for it. And it must go.

I agree with Professor Stephen Walt that nationalism is the most powerful force in the world today.

“[M]odern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity — in other words, to foster nationalism — because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations.”

And today’s strongest states, including the US and China, are ones where nationalism is mainstream and highly valued.

Do you feel pride in your country? Does your heart swell when you see a flag or hear a national anthem? I have trouble understanding why someone would feel anything. A country is not a person; it is just an idea. If you like the idea, live there. But why is it we feel deep affiliation with people from the same country rather than some other of the millions of characteristics that make us who we are? Why don’t we build the community of other people who like reggae? Why don’t we form armies to defend people of the same shoe size? Because we have chosen a different arbitrary distinction from others to kill for. To me, it’s all the same nonsense. And if your heart still thumps an extra beat because of a flag, well, as George Carlin said, symbols are for the symbol minded.

Reactions to the Olympics are a great example of why nationalism is ridiculous. Wow, my country won a gold medal. No. Someone from within the same line on a political map as you won a medal, through his or her own hard work. There may be nothing that is more obviously an individual effort than winning a gold medal at the Olympics (notwithstanding the coach, or the team, whoever is involved). The people from the same country have absolutely nothing to feel proud of. They didn’t do anything. Tribalists find validation in the actions of others from their chosen group, and weak people take credit for other people’s accomplishments. Besides, if I consider myself a citizen of the world (and by the way I do, it is not just something cool to say), shouldn’t I feel proud if ANYONE wins a medal? Whichever country wins the Olympics, it is my country!

We are too proud already. Pride in your own efforts leads to narcissism as much as collective pride leads to collective narcissism. But individual narcissism is not fueled by history text books that gloss over facts and make people believe fairy tales about how wonderful their country has always been. Like collectivism, individual narcissism can lead to war, but only when it comes from a psychopath in power and nationalists follow him blindly. I simply do not see anything to feel proud of aside from one’s own results. But maybe those results are only worth being proud of if they benefit others. So how about we consider everyone in the world when acting, rather than just our country?

Is it ever nationalism that motivates people to improve their community? I doubt it. Some nationalists have that sense of responsibility and some don’t. But if people are aware of the rest of the world, they are just as likely to go somewhere else to help people. Nationalism cannot be moral because it is exclusive, and morality depends on universal values. Obviously, there is nothing more moral about helping people in your own country than helping people elsewhere, since all people are of equal worth, equally deserving of the application of morality such as the non-aggression principle.

But to a nationalist, some people are simply superior. The people in our exclusive club are the best, and the people allied with our country are pretty good (though not to be trusted), and the people we are told are our enemies are evil. It is so easy to manipulate nationalists. Take Americans’ reactions to 9/11. It was immediately assumed that “our country is under attack”. Leaving aside the fact that there was only one attack and it ended, what connection did people in Maryland and Florida and Nebraska have with the people who were killed? None whatsoever. They might well have hated each other if they had known each other personally. And if they had died in car crashes, they would have been completely ignored. But instead, the people went into a frenzy of fear, anger and despair for people they never would have met. Likewise, what did American Muslims (and other minorities) have to do with 9/11? Still nothing. Yet the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 attacks on Muslims in the five months following September 11. Nationalism is used to spread hate, which is good for politicians but bad for minorities and taxpayers. Americans approved of the invasion of two countries that had nothing to do with the attack because they were told that the country and “national values” were at stake.

Those values are largely illusory, however, because they are things like freedom and justice, which people of all cultures want. And belief in the superiority, or just the distinctiveness, of our own tribe blinds us to the many, many things that make us all human and all equally deserving of compassion and respect and almost the same everywhere. And taking pride in an exclusive part of humanity ignores that fact.

The Adventures in Space programme and the Olympics are further products of nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is a big source of national pride, so some people are willing to put up with any number of billions of dollars (a number that is continually revised upward) taken to pay for it. Space travel used to be a source of pride, during the Cold War, when the Soviets launched a couple of rockets out of Earth’s atmosphere and the US spent tens of billions of dollars to feel good about itself again.

Nationalism is also about discriminating against minorities. Politicians benefit from providing the people with an enemy, because an enemy is a reason to give money and power to them. They will protect you from the Jews, Huguenots, Gypsies, or whatever group you have been told you hate recently. They might see others as “dangerous to our way of life”, competing for “national resources” or otherwise a threat to our precious possessions. To people who can be taught to hate others for what they are, power is a zero-sum game among ethnic groups. And all the civil wars we have seen have been caused by this kind of thinking, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Everyone different from us is a potential enemy.

As such, minorities, largely or entirely locked out of power, might take to terrorism to achieve freedom from an oppressive majority (separatism) but get tarred as evil terrorists who cannot be reasoned with. The truth is that they keep coming back because they have been denied their freedom. Nationalism requires the integrity of the nation state, which means that anyone wanting to separate must be eliminated. As a result, we get terrorism in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Israel and Spain, heavy repression in Tibet, a highly militarised standoff in the Taiwan Strait, and a strong state wherever terrorism can be used as an excuse to expand it. Nationalism on both sides created the separatist terrorists. As Ilya Somin notes, “playing with nationalism is like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high…[and] a small nationalistic flame can often turn into a conflagration that burns down the whole neighborhood.”

Governments also like nationalism because they want to be able to sign a deal at the top and assume that it is legitimate for the entire group each party represents. Nationalists believe we need representatives because we are a coherent community. A “free trade agreement”, for example, will contain various handouts to the loudest of special interest groups and it will be imposed over an entire national economy because some people at the top claimed to speak in the name of everyone underneath them. Nationalists might accept the agreement because, though the agreement benefits some individuals at the expense of others, it is all for the elusive “greater good”.

At the extreme, when politicians and generals manufacture threats to the equally-elusive “national security”, nationalists buy in easily. They are thus more likely to sacrifice their money, freedom and lives for the nation. However, if the elites could not count on collectivist sheep, they would not have risked starting a fight in the first place. Journalists will often fall in line in times of “national crisis” (as if a real crisis could permeate or be confined to one country), as Dan Rather did after 9/11, equating “patriotism”, or unthinking loyalty to one’s country, with doing whatever the president told Americans to do. “I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning”, Rather said. In other words, he would give up the career of journalism, which means asking the tough questions and speaking truth to power, for that of cheerleading. Nationalism shuts up the minority that disagrees with the president’s war plans, calling them traitors and accusing them of siding with the enemy. Nationalism is thus a means for government control of the willing and coercion of the unwilling.

In the same vein, research finds that it only takes a few hours for us to be conditioned to fear and hate people only superficially different from ourselves. We do not need to know anything about someone else to discriminate against him or her; just being told he or she is different is enough. Being on a winning team (which to people who do not participate in teams or have achievements of their own could be a nation or race) is a source of self esteem, as is denigrating those on other teams. We can be given any number of reasons to believe we are better, and our criteria for what is good about a country tend to be entirely based on things we believe ours is best at. Freedom is the most important thing for a country; our country is the most free; therefore, our country is the best. This of course is uncritical ethnocentrism; and ignorant people fall into its warm embrace whenever the people on top need a favour.

One problem nationalism creates is that of borders—in effect, who owns what. Borders make sense when they are amicably agreed on by owners or negotiators appointed by owners. The borders of your property, for example, or unguarded borders in Europe that now demarcate cultural boundaries rather than the do-not-pass-or-we-shoot variety, actually delineate something. But when nationalism comes into play, and groups that, hundreds or thousands of years ago (before national boundaries were invented), used to control this territory, feel that it is theirs (and by extension, not yours), they are willing to kill each other to secure that border. These are our property and our people and our resources and our little lines drawn on the map.

But where is the logic of these boundaries? Even the idea that “we” used to control this or that territory, or have done for a long time, usually has no merit. Almost every (if not every) national boundary has been created by an empire. The empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, plus all the kingdoms that disappeared before the Treaty of Westphalia, all drew lines around their possessions. They needed to be clear what was whose. At the same time, these possessions contained people not native to the empire’s centre of power on them so they needed to keep them in line by inventing nationalities. Almost every (if not every) one of these borders did not reflect the cultural makeup of the people it enclosed: they were arbitrary. But when the empires left, instead of redrawing the borders, the elites decided they wanted to make everyone inside those borders think they were a cohesive group—a nation—because it would help them gain power. No government wants to relinquish control of part of its territory because it means less power; and less power is out of the question for anybody in it. So they invented myths about how everyone within the imperial borders has always been a nation, and since we are the political party who will help keep our nation together, support us. The story of post-colonial electoral politics in a nutshell.

Now, nationalism is an arbitrary expression of desire to kill and die for a space of land within whatever border the government claims to control, wherever the borders are, however many years ago they were set. Some form of tribalism is probably natural to humans, as we, like other primates, are territorial. First, however, we must not assume that something natural is something good. Second, man’s territoriality is an argument for individual property rights, not for nationalism. We all have something to defend against aggression, but to think we should defend an entire nation is to take the idea of property or tribe to ridiculous lengths. Your country is not your property. When I express this individualist point of view, collectivists ask me, “so what if one country was invading your country? Would you defend it with your life?” Quite simply, the answer is no. I would defend my friends and family to the death, and I would organise to ward off any attacks on other innocents as best I could. But my friends and family are all over the world. I have no deeper a connection to someone in “my” country that I do not know than I do to someone in Burkina Faso that I do not know.

Nationalism has always been dangerous, but now it is simply irrelevant. The only argument that is superficially plausible for the continuation of the nation state is the military and its defense of national security. It may have made sense when there were real threats to people from other nation states; hence the union of the Czech and Slovak people, or the Yugoslav republics, during the 20th century to protect against the predation of external empires. However, today’s national security threats are not from empires and foreign militaries (unless you are in the US or Israel’s crosshairs). Now, nearly all wars are intrastate, rather than interstate. The closest thing to national security threats from abroad are terrorists (whose threat is almost always a response to government-sanctioned military aggression), criminal organisations (which would barely exist if drugs, guns and prostitution were legal), and environmental disasters (rescue’s being entrusted to the same people whose main training is in weapons makes little sense; like the nature of the threat, rescue teams could be transnational). There are no national security threats because there is no national security. The nation itself is an illusion, and all countries are based on it. There is no longer any reason to have countries at all.

Though tribalism may be innate, in today’s world tribalist impulses are mitigated by the internationalisation of our society through our exposure to media, people and ideas from all around the world. Exclusive, outdated, national celebrations and traditions such as Independence Day are creations of the elites to sell loyalty to the state. The state and the nation are linked in the imagination, so when the state goes to war, it tells everyone that the nation is going to war. That is why we have the idea of “the national interest” and “national security”. Have you ever noticed that whatever the government wants happens to be in our national interest as well? Nationalism threatens to deny access to the rest of the world through narrow-minded protectionist policies that limit a country’s economic potential, and the creation of enemies that legitimises taking more money and more freedom from the people.

The idea of democracy promotion is related to nationalism, because it is based on a belief that our ideas are the best, because they are our ideas. Again, we are talking about ethnocentrism. Our culture is better and we want you to learn from us, then you will be better people. And as soon as a revolution breaks out somewhere they don’t know anything about, democrats say they are fighting for democracy. My guess is, they are fighting for freedom. Freedom to choose a few of the people who rule you is not real freedom. Real freedom means not being subject to rule by force by anyone. But our ethnocentrism blinds us, and leads us think they want a system just like ours. Maybe they want more freedom than we have. Maybe they only like the idea of democracy because they lack other ideas. After all, most people in the self-righteous rich democracies of the world tend to believe so fervently in the superiority of their system over all others that they have been forcing it down the throats of the rest of the world for decades. You should all be democracies like us, because we are America and so can you. If you want to help the people in a post-revolutionary state like Tunisia or Egypt, help them become self-sufficient, not as a nation but as individuals, communities, or whatever groups they want. Let them trade with whomever they want. Let them travel to any country they want. Help them build independent and voluntary businesses, charities and other institutions to deal with their problems. Teach entrepreneurship, medicine, and other things that healthy communities require. One thing they do not require is a new regime that does not know or care about them to tell them what to do. They can figure that out for themselves.

Why is it negative? Let us ask the hundreds of millions of people who were killed because someone loved his country. Nationalism is an arbitrary distinction created by elites to justify accumulating power, growing governments and starting wars, and if you do not know that, you do not understand nationalism. (Here is a primer.)

Nationalism is an outdated impulse based on our tribal instincts and has no place in modern society. It is another way elites divide us when we could move past such simplistic and dangerous divisions. Anarchy means no nations and no national rulers but cooperation with anyone who wishes to join us. It thus leads to understanding, respect and peace.