J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: December 2013

A Revolution Is When Fringe Thinking Becomes Common Sense


In this article from The Baffler, anthropologist/author/anarchist David Graeber makes the point that a “successful revolution” has less to do with protestors taking over the government, and more to do with previously fringe/radical ideas becoming common sense, within a short period of time. The article’s powerful closing line:

And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

This got me thinking, what was considered fringe thinking ten or twenty years ago, but is currently entering mainstream thought? The following probably seem like common sense/conventional wisdom to a person in their twenties, but anyone holding these ideals in the “greed is good” 80’s was definitely outside of the zeitgeist.

  • gay people should have equal rights
  • intelligent animals (dolphins, whales, elephants, apes) should not be used as slaves or slaughtered for body parts/meat
  • environmental/ecological collapse is possible if our natural environments are treated as economic externalities
  • the national security apparatus has more to do with control of citizens than it does with the protection of citizens
  • food, shelter, healthcare, and education should be basic human rights, and not conditional privileges to be granted based on hard work, morality, cleverness, inborn traits like ethnicity, etc.
  • the value of work should be based on how much it benefits other people and humanity, not on profitability
  • extreme income inequality erodes social trust and pits the poor against the (shrinking) middle class
  • mass incarceration creates more criminals and does not increase public safety in the long run

Attitudes vary by country. The U.S. is fairly enlightened when it comes to gay rights, but is behind on healthcare as a basic right (Obamacare is a small step in the right direction, but saddles middle-class families with unaffordable premiums). In terms of mass incarceration the United States is in a league of its own (not in a good way). Japan is behind on cetacean rights; Thailand is behind on elephant right; China is behind on environmental regulation, and so on. But none of the ideas are “fringe” — Americans who visit England and happen to break a leg are pleasantly surprised when they get no bill for services, and wonder “Why not in the U.S.”?

So what ideas are currently fringe/radical, but might enter the mainstream in ten or twenty or one hundred years? I would suggest the following are plausible:

  • animals with any sort of conscious awareness (insects and some fish probably excepted) should not be used as slaves or slaughtered for body parts/meat
  • depopulation is more of a risk to civilization than overpopulation
  • extra-terrestrial communities (moon base, Mars base, orbiting artificial worlds) should be established as quickly as possible to improve humanity’s survival chances
  • machines that are probably conscious-aware should have legal rights
  • state benefits should not be means-based, but universal (allowing societies to share wealth without violating Murray’s law)

We can see Steven Pinker’s expanding circle of empathy taking humanity to places that seem strange now, but may make perfect sense later.

Of course, even if the long-term trend is towards more cooperation and compassion, short-term collapse and cultural regression is just as likely. Consider the millions of starvation deaths that resulted from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the political and economic events (and xenophobic attitudes), that led up to the Holocaust.

Still, there are hopeful ripples in the way human beings are thinking about alternatives to consumer capitalism, which is Graeber’s main topic. Not every detail of the “sharing economy” vision is worked out, but green shoots are visible. Wage slavery and the ruthless exploitation of human labor no longer make sense to most of us. The tide is turning.

The Pursuit of Happiness Is Meaningless Without the Pursuit of Justice

Where’s the Justice League when you need ’em?

Ambushed By An Article

Yesterday morning I was happily drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, when I came across this disturbing article by conservative think tanker Arthur Brooks.

The piece starts off as a bland rehash of “the latest” happiness research (trotting out studies from the seventies). Nothing new, but nothing offensive either. Towards the end, the piece takes a sharp right turn as Brooks champions free enterprise as the solution to both personal happiness and global poverty. The bogeymen of socialism and collectivism are trotted out as the usual enemies. Perhaps as an apologetic concession to liberal NYT readers, Brooks does acknowledge that social mobility and economic opportunity are on the decline in the United States (at least as compared to Canada and the Scandinavian countries — ironically all collectivist social democracies). The whole piece is a confused mess.

Personal Development Hijacked by Corporate Ideology

So why am I writing about it?

This blog is subtitled “Systems for Living Well.” I agree with many of Arthur Brooks’ conclusions about personal happiness (a spiritual life, strong relationships, meaningful work, and connection to community are all important). But I want to distance myself from Brooks (as well as bloggers like Steve Pavlina, Gretchen Rubin, Tony Robbins, and Tim Ferriss) who approach personal happiness and life satisfaction in a “bubble” context, ignoring social and political issues as if they didn’t exist.

Too often, self-help philosophies function as a justification for right-wing ideology. Ignore the bad cards life has dealt you, and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps! Pursue your passion and beat the economic odds! Be a winner not a loser! A credo of personal accountability ties in neatly to ideals of free enterprise and anti-welfare sentiments.

In a similar vein, advocating gratitude and forgiveness as spiritual practices is usually good advice (in terms of emotional health and personal empowerment). But the same philosophy can be twisted to imply that workers should be happy with (and feel grateful for) whatever is doled out by their employers, instead of negotiating for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, or fighting against corporate crime and corruption. It’s one thing to forgive the CEO of a Wall Street company that swindled tax-payers, so you don’t have to live with hate in your heart. But it’s another thing to lie down and let them do it again.

I believe in personal accountability, the value of hard work, establishing effective habits, practicing gratitude — all the same things that the Pavlina/Rubin/Robbins/Ferriss types are pushing. But I also believe that if we truly want to live well, we should fight against the injustices that prevent others from living well.

So what are the injustices we should be fighting against? Well, for starters:

Maybe, if I’m not happy, it’s because my conscience isn’t clear. Maybe I’m not working hard enough for the right for others to get a fair shot at the pursuit of happiness. Yes, we’re all responsible for our own happiness and sense of meaning in life. But if we ignore injustice, others may not even get the chance to pursue happiness.

Call To Action

To writers, bloggers, economists, psychologists, and social scientists who are exploring the topic of happiness, here’s what I’m suggesting:

  • Don’t be a tool for corporate ideology. In the discussion of personal happiness and life meaning, don’t ignore oppression and injustice, wherever you see it.
  • Allow for the possibility that the concepts of personal accountability and social inequity/injustice can co-exist.
  • Don’t only look at happiness and life satisfaction on a personal level, but consider social and economic factors that affect us collectively, and call people to action to fight against injustice, greed, corruption, oppression, and other realities that hurt all of us.

I do understand why self-help writers want to steer clear of these topics. If you write about political issues, you potentially lose half your audience (or more). And I want to give credit to Ferriss and Robbins especially for raising money for schools, fighting poverty, etc.

But it’s delusional to think that we can *all* pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and visualize (or optimize) our way to an ideal life, when income inequality is so high, and social mobility so low, and we live in an age of rampant unchecked corporate irresponsibility.

Please share your thoughts below.

Environmental Regulation = Clear Skies (Thank You Clean Air Act)

Clear skies in California.

Clear skies in California.

It’s cold outside. Crisp. You snow-state people might laugh, but temperatures in the thirties are unusual for the Bay Area (especially the East Bay). But what I was thinking of, when I dropped my daughter off for school this morning, was how thankful I felt for *clear* skies. If you’ve been following the news in China you know what I’m talking about. Air pollution is so bad that visibility is as low as 5 meters in some cities.

I remember similar stories about Los Angeles in the early 70’s (though I don’t think it ever got as bad as mainland China). Things got better after strong amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1970 and 1977.

Environmental compliance can be an expensive chore for businesses (I’ve helped a few on the reporting side of things). But once the changes to operations and systems are made, they’re done, and the result is a cleaner environment.

The alternative is the pollution dystopia the Chinese have created in their balls-out push for global economic domination. The good news is that the problem is fixable. The solution is not to wait for a windy day (the current Chinese strategy), but national legislation with high air quality standards and strong enforcement.

I would love to visit China someday. But not just yet.


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