The Social Contract: Part 2

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May 202009
A few years back, I used “fear” as my theme to teach my regular history course.  It wasn’t long after the World Trade Center, et al. attacks, and it seemed that anxiety and fear were so pervasive in our culture as a result.  It’s understandable, and I thought it might be useful to my students to look at how Americans had dealt with fear in the past.  Are there typical responses for us?  Is there any continuity to our reactions?  What did the people before me do when they were in this situation?  This was the only class I’ve ever taught backwards, by the way.  I started with September 11, 2001 and let the students talk about their reactions to that.  Then, we started backing up to see how people responded to the AIDS scare, Three Mile Island, the Cold War, the turbulent ’60’s, polio, the atomic bomb, race riots, and other situations.  I don’t know that we came to any conclusions, but I think it helped them sort out what they were feeling a little.
I would’ve thought that by now, we as a country would no longer be operating so much out of fear, but it seems to still dominate our thinking.  We’re so afraid of some rag-tag terrorists half a world away that we’re willing to throw out our liberties and compromise our principles.  We’re so afraid of turning socialist that we’ll gladly let big business fuck us over just to prove we’re good little capitalists.  We’re so afraid that the godless heathens are taking over that we force public displays of religiosity on the citizenry.  We’re so afraid of our neighbors that we want to carry concealed weapons in public — even to look at Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon.  If the 20th century was the era of progress, this may end up as the age of fear.  I keep wondering when it was exactly that we turned to chicken-shits.  I’m really not sure.
Part of it I blame on those freaking progressives in the 20th century.  Americans still believe the progressives’ lies that we can eliminate pain and misery and create a well-ordered society.  Because this remains the ideal, we aren’t good at coping with the less tolerable reality.  We turn on our neighbors, our allies, and most certainly strangers.  No longer do we agree with Lockean notions of the body politic and government.  We don’t bind ourselves to our fellow humans as an act of faith and search for justice.  Now, we look at government as the great defender whose job is to punish those we fear — by whatever means necessary.  I think this is probably a natural reaction, and most likely fits America much better now than the pontifications of the Founding Fathers.
I have never been Lockean in my views, by the way.  I am a product of my times:  I don’t have that kind of faith in my fellow citizens or respect for the human impulse.  In reading various philosophies of history, I found that I fit much better with the naïve sophistication of the 14th century than the modern age.  I can’t buy into Locke, but I am completely on board with Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406).  His view of society is thus:  it is necessary, as, individually, we are incapable of besting nature.  By joining together, we can protect ourselves from the beasts of the wild and raise enough food to sustain human life.  Cooperation brings food and security;  however, human beings have a natural propensity for aggressiveness and oppression.  It is necessary, then, to develop a mechanism for restraining the members of our societies to keep them from turning on one another.  This requires a sovereign (state) with the authority to protect us from our peers.  Thus, solidarity and power are the essential elements for a working society.  You can see, then, that I’m no optimistic humanist.  I am as wary of my fellow man as another.  In this sense, I am a part of my age and a product of the same influences that touch my peers.
I like to think, though, that my hostility is not prompted by fear but rather an honest distrust — well earned, I might add — of human beings.  History is full of examples of oppression and injustices forced on one person by others.  I am a student of history;  therefore, I am well versed in the contemptibility of humankind.  Of course, this could merely be a weak justification for my bleak worldview and negative theory of politics.  I may actually just be a Southern Baptist.
 Posted by at 9:33 pm

The Social Contract: Part 1

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May 172009
I miss the Republicans.
I really do.  These social-conservative fascists that have replaced them scare the bejesus out of me.  They are political wolves parading under the guise of Republicans.  I wish the formerly-known-as would reassert themselves, retake the party, and force the fascisti to the margins.  By passing themselves off as the voice of conservative Christians, the new pseudo-Republicans have managed to gain power in Oklahoma — a place where the populace is long on knee-jerk emotionalism and short on reasoned analysis.  The people voted with their hearts and faith and handed over the government to those bent on creating an all-powerful civic octopus whose reach extends into every nook and cranny of our lives.  There is no privacy here.  There is no individual prerogative.  There is only authoritarianism.  The saving grace at work here is that those in power have so underfed the monster with insufficient tax revenues, that the beast is too weak to have real dominion.  And, yet, the tentacles flail and clutch at any vestiges of personal liberty — as if searching for something on which to feed.
This week Senate Bill 1102 passed both houses of the Oklahoma legislature and will now be sent to the governor for consideration.  The bill requires those convicted of certain misdemeanors to submit DNA samples for the state database.  The crimes covered include eluding a police officer, being a Peeping Tom, “outraging the public decency,” and destruction of property, among others.  If passed, those who commit any of these crimes will have to provide Big Brother with their genetic make-up — the most personal information a person possesses and most invasive demand a government can make — because, what?  They broke a window or knocked over a fence?  Talk about unreasonable search and seizure!  I hope there is legal challenge to this bill because I do not see how it could be in the least bit constitutional.  It is an unwarranted extension of the government’s nose into the private affairs of citizens.  The “War on Peepers” is not a legitimate justification for such an intrusion.  Further, I am certain that the “outraging the public decency” part is a pathetic and evil attempt to create a registry of homosexuals in the state.
In the back of my mind, I vaguely hear Ronald Reagan intoning:  “Government is the problem, not the solution.”  Unfortunately, the fascisti-as-Republicans who now dominate the Oklahoma legislature are drowning out the old small-government mantra of the Republican party.  Now, I’m no Republican, and I have no adoration for Reagan and am *not* advocating his approach as the right and true path for government.  I’m merely saying that I could align myself on some issues with the Republican party that distrusted government and wanted it to stay out of their affairs.  As a libertarian on the left, I had commonalities with the libertarians on the right.  Now that they no longer dominate the Republican party, I am left with a gang of thugs I cannot brook nor ignore.  They are the mortal enemies of freedom and anti-Americanists wrapping themselves in the stars and stripes for camouflage.
The rustling noise you hear is the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves, so far have we drifted from their Lockean theory of government.  Under this, free individuals make a social contract with one another to establish a government over themselves in order to end the state of war between them and to protect their liberties and properties from encroachment.  The government is in this view a tool of the people — a means for ensuring justice for all.  Today, the people are tools.  The fascisti use the government to dominate them and take away their liberties and properties, and the citizen-toolery eagerly re-elects these “representatives” and fills their campaign coffers in order to make a stand against abortion, same-sex marriage, science, and Spanish.  And, so, enforcing social conformity replaces promoting justice as the proper role of government, where the social contract binds us to the very folks we war against.  And, Leviathan, as the good book says, is “a king over all the children of pride.” (Job 41:34)
 Posted by at 9:53 pm
May 052009
For years, my personal beef with al-Qaeda was that after 9/11 I had to put up with all this uber-patriotism being shoved down my throat.  Every time I went to the ballpark to watch a baseball game and had to sing God Bless America instead of Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch, I wanted to kill those bastards.  I cussed them every time I saw a gas-guzzling SUV with a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker on the back or whenever I had to endure politicians wearing American flag lapel pins on TV.  I purposely resisted all the empty patriotic blustering.  I refused to salute the flag and insulted the office of the presidency every chance I got.
It was important for me to separate myself from the xenophobic lemmings about me.  I have never considered myself a patriot and am not insulted when people accuse me of being un-patriotic.  I hope I am.  According to the dictionary, a patriot is a person who undertakes efforts to further or strengthen the power of a centralized government.  I have enough of a libertarian streak that I have no wish to participate in any of that nonsense.  I believe in using the government as a tool to achieve certain aims, but I always distrust it the way I do poisonous chemicals.  They can be effective, but indiscriminate use can be fatal.  Too much patriotism leads to fascism.  Me and authoritarianism get along like dingoes and babies — which wouldn’t be so bad, except the government always gets to be the dingo.  I rant and rave when I have to give my fingerprint to get a driver’s license, but in the end I submit because Big Brother calls the shots.  At the airport, I am as hostile as I can be without qualifying as “uncooperative.”  You can, by the way, tell the screener what you think of what they do — as long as you let them scan you.  Anyway, I don’t believe in giving the government one inch more of authority than it needs.
Last weekend, though, I was visiting the evangelical horde and I made a sarcastic reference to the secession movement.  My operating assumption is that all rational people (i.e. non-extremist radicals) concede the ridiculousness and foolishness of the secessionist twaddle.  This is a given.  My friend, however, threw me a curve ball.  Secession is the way, he said, if our country continues on its march toward socialism.  I couldn’t even talk.  I was beyond angry.  He was smug in his sedition.  I told him if we didn’t change the subject, I would leave.
On my way home later, I wondered about how angry I get at the secessionists.  What they’re talking about is treason!  They’re threatening to tear our country apart!  It infuriates me.  And then it dawned on me:  Deep down inside, I love my country.  It has nothing to do with stupid flag pledges or blind allegiance to the government.  When push comes to shove, ideologically speaking,  I am committed to our country and the Constitution.  As much as I make fun of it and disrespect it, I also hold it dear and the serious proposition of undoing it, is untenable to me.
I am, in fact, a patriot.  Who knew?
 Posted by at 5:04 pm

Pandemic, Schmandemic

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May 022009
One of the interesting things about being a historian is that your ears often perk up at minor news stories that relate to your interests which other people miss.  It is only because of my historical proclivities that I noted a story sometime last year about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
Medical experts had always been stumped by how that epidemic affected healthy young persons who are usually the most able to fight off a virus.  Instead, in 1918, they dropped like flies in the primes of their lives.  Recently, researchers had gone back to look at the data once more to try and come up with a better hypothesis to explain this than generation-skipping resistance.  They noted that the symptoms of the victims resembled bacterial infections rather than viruses.  After going back and examining preserved tissue from victims, they were able to determine that these actually had died from a bacterial infection — bacterial pneumonia, to be specific.  The patients had contracted the flu, which weakened them and made their respiratory tracts vulnerable to infection, and then they came down with pneumonia on top of that (mostly likely spread at the hospitals victims went to for treatment).  In those days, there were no antibiotics, which would’ve combated a bacterial infection.  Without such treatment, millions of victims died. Today, we have the benefit of antibiotics and better awareness for treating viruses generally.
Last year when this story came out, it was buried in the back page because an influenza epidemic was the last thing on people’s minds.  I’m sure the only people who bothered to read the story were historians and medical professionals.  It was chance that I noticed it, and I read it only to update my knowledge on an event that I sometimes touch on in class.
Cut to today, when all over the news you hear fear-mongering stories about swine flu.  Everyone’s up in arms.  Their memories are short, so they’re all worked up.  They forget, first of all, that this is not our only experience with swine flu.  It actually hit in the 1970’s and did not come anywhere near epidemic status then.  Drawing on that experience, you wouldn’t be too inclined to get worked up about this “threat” then — particularly since the casualties are so ridiculously low.  Would to God people were so distraught over the AIDS crisis in Africa and wanted to do something to help the MILLIONS of orphans there whose parents have died from that disease.  (By the way, I discussed the recent hysteria over the swine flu with my mother, who recalled the previous go ’round.  She noted that as a child, she was inoculated against polio, smallpox, and other illnesses.  Of all the vaccines she was given, though, swine flu one was the only one to make her sick.  It made her miserable.)  Anyway, without regard to our previous experience with this virus, the talking heads on the news have constantly raised the specter of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic for comparison here.
Nowhere in any of the current reports have I seen mention of the news report last year about the real cause of the 1918 epidemic.  Nor do they mention that subsequent flu outbreaks that were not accompanied by bacterial infections had significantly lower mortality rates — in keeping with our normal experience with the flu.  It’s the flu, people!  Relax.  If you keep up with your history, you can have an informed knowledge of the actual risks here.  History can be useful — but only if you use it.
Oh, and here’s the link to the news release from last year from the National Institutes of Health so you can read it for yourself:
 Posted by at 10:33 am