A Nation of Used Car Salesmen and Fractured Tribes With Guns

It’s that time of year again.  You don’t know what I mean – nor need you know.  I do and I remain faithful to the minor burden I laid on myself so long ago I really don’t recall doing so.

The “why,” the meaning, the seeming futility: “Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

“הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל
הָֽבֶל:”

all of that – I do it to talk to myself, my Self, and HaShem, my G-D beyond all knowing.  Take stock, bear witness, lament, argue… to no point now, perhaps for ears not born (perhaps not) – I speak to the wind.  It goes where it goes and takes on its own life, its own meanings I cannot fathom.  There may be no home for these words, no understanding.  I do not know, so it is done for its own sake and value.

Hunter S. Thompson, in the age of Nixon, uttered some simple words, a judgment, that proved prophetic:

“The polls… indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote.  And that he might carry all fifty states.
“Well… maybe so.  This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes […], is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.”
from ‘September,’ Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1973

A note about “prophetic words”: The value of actual prophets — the Nevi’im — and lesser, everyday “prophets” is not in whether their messages come to pass.  Christianity, in general, misinterprets this, being unfamiliar with Judaism in general, and mis-instructs any culture it affects, even should that culture become secular, even agnostic or atheistic.

Prophesies, their value, does not lie in whether they come true.  That is not, in general, the standard nor is it why the message or messenger was sent.  No, prophetic utterances are warnings:  “This is what will come to pass if you do not change your path.”

Amos, for example, was sent to prophesy “against” Israel – to warn and deliver a terrible, terrifying message:  To call his people back from devastation and the abyss.

Yonah (Jonah) was sent to Nineveh — enemies of Israel, people whom Yonah (Jonah) himself despised, if not feared, to warn them of their doom.  The Ninevites were not Jewish, were cruel, and were at war with Israel: Yonah personally would desire nothing less than their collective death… hence attempted to avoid delivering the message.  But he wound up doing so… and the Ninevites repented and avoided being destroyed.  No, they did not convert, change gods, culture — they sincerely lamented the evil they did and stopped doing it.  That is all that was required of them… or anyone, really.

So, the prophesy did not come to pass.

Yonah (Jonah) was an effective prophet, a success in spite of himself, his ego, his own conscious preferences.  The message he brought was heeded; the terrible events predicted did not come to pass.   If the warning is heeded and the prophesy does not happen — well, that’s the main point of getting such messages.

Even if one has no religious beliefs whatsoever, does not even believe in the reality of such beings as Deity, thinks the scriptures of any and all communities are myths at best and stupid falsehoods at worst, I think one can grasp that “prophesies” as a metaphor are real things and meaningful.  A warning, one who speaks against his own people, not out of hatred, but out of care, out of a desperate hope for an unlikely but better future than the one obviously on the horizon — I think that can be grasped by any intelligent person from any background.

Hunter S. Thompson delivered such a warning.  Probably without seeing the depths hidden within it — that is the way these things go.  Truth chooses the strangest vehicles through which to make an appearance.

A nation of used car salesmen — an entire people who are liars and con artists — with enough money for weapons to murder anyone who bothers them, questions the legitimacy of their feelings, desires, their hustle, greed, hatreds, and prejudices.  That was his warning, his consistent warning.

His own generation failed to take it seriously enough being far too optimistic and convinced of their “rightness.”  And, so, The Boomers sold out, became little Nixons… and worse.  They put Reagan in office and the movement to laissez-faire capitalism, the worship of money and fame coated in the veneer of “Christian morality” – “family values.”  Until we finally ended with Trump, a cheap-suited, bloated Nero-wannabe.  A nihilist willing to support any and every group of white trash nationalists — even Nazis, even to the point of wrecking the institutions of a liberal democracy, this constitutional republic, hollowing out law, fragmenting the people further against one another based on little more than “identity politics” and the lie of race.  (Just take a genetic test to find out where your tribe came from to find out with whom you really belong, which gang to join.)

All for what?

So each group can fight like starving dogs in the streets to murder or subjugate the others while Trump and company loot the country, do as they please, and die famous with a tomb larded up in golden kitsch.  All intending to dispose of the others and seize power so that they, too, may “do as they please.”

A nation of used car salesmen and fractured tribes with guns.  Guns we will turn on one another in a massive spasm of violence, eventually.

A people who find nothing common among themselves, no unifying, truly valuable beliefs to rely upon, reject reason, dialogue (not debate – dialogue) — that people is damned to murder one another.

That is all that is left, followed by a military dictatorship to impose obedience.  Obedience to some monstrosity of an officer’s authoritarian commands.  Perhaps an officer or junta backed by a foreign dictator… called Putin, probably.

The end.

With humor.  We’ll doubtless laugh insanely as we cut our neighbors’ throats, this being the age incapable of seriousness.  The irony will not be lost on us; we will not care, as irony for its own sake is all that seems left to most of us, believing nothing exists apart from our limitless, aimless desires that is actually of value: standards to be lived up to, burdens to be voluntarily taken upon ourselves….  No, nothing except whatever we can get away with and dress up in some parody of a story.  Preferably a “morality” tale involving “victimhood” to rationalize each gangs’ vicious choices.

***********

I wrote more; it did not “save.”

You get the point. Or you do not.

6 February 2018

Richard Van Ingram

 

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A Question for My Readers

I’ve thought about doing this for years, but was never certain anyone would listen.

If I created a weekly/bi-weekly podcast, would any of you listen?  An answer yes or no will suffice.  Just write a message to this post at the bottom.

Of course, I speak English, USA version, and would use my lecturing voice and attempt to be clear and entertaining.  An episode would be 15 minutes or 30 minutes — 15 if bi-weekly, 30 if weekly.

Second question, if I did a podcast, what sort of content would you appreciate?  The sort of things I express here?  Commentary on a particular sort of topic?  Give me some feedback in the message if you would.

That’s all for the moment.

Thank you,

RVI

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A Meditation on Capitalism

It’s just heartbreaking
I should have known that it would let me down
It’s just a mind aching
I used to dream about this town

It was a sight to see
The place to be,
Where the living is easy
And the kicks can always be found

It’s such a shame about it
I used to think that it would feel so good
But who’s to blame about it
So many creeps in Hollywood

I’m in this dumb motel
Near the ‘Taco Bell’
Without a hope in hell
I can’t believe that I’m still around

Ain’t nothin new in my life today
Ain’t nothing true it’s all gone away

I’ve had too much cryin’, seen too much grief
I’m sick of tryin’ it’s beyond belief
I’m tired of talking on the telephone
They’re trying to tell me that they’re not at home….

SUPERTRAMP

from “GONE HOLLYWOOD”

Breakfast In America

There’s the events that get on you and then there’s the events that become you, become a part of you.  You can wash the first sort off eventually, but the latter won’t be leaving short of carving the meat off your bones and grinding the bones to molecules — and the history of it will remain forever.

History remains even after we forget and are forgotten.

I learned long ago, that though my dramas and comedies are everything to me, that is because I am housed within them — and no one else.  The players in my reality, at best, inhabit their own worlds on the periphery of mine just as by reading this I become a minor, and brief, visitor for a moment on the outskirts of yours.

They and the world are not me — they do not live my existence thus my dramas and comedies are not as intense or are nothing to them at all.

Should I leave anything behind for you, it will be an impersonal idea that might, eventually, be incorporated into your beliefs and, thus, become a lens through which you interpret reality — but then it will be your belief, part of a constellation of such that is yours, not mine.  Not subjectively, but perspectively.

Be careful which theories you take in and believe.  Those become part of who you are and make you who you are by motivating your vital faith and judgment.  Show care for who you are.

But my ideas and beliefs arise in the course of my comedic drama that is my living.  Just as yours do.  We do not share the same experience and thoughts and dreams, but our lives as humans does have a similar constitution and structure, abstractly.  We are not wholly alien one to the other — each of us is, as Ortega y Gasset taught, an “alter ego” — another “I.”

Or, as the Stoics of old taught, we are each a spark off the Fire, lights from Light, brothers and sisters all for all our individual and cultural differences, each due respect, each due care, mercy, justice, each due many things or the right to pursue our destinies with a measure of due freedom.

Authoritarianism, capitalism, fascism, racism, even communism when it becomes totalitarian and departs from its democratic socialist roots and becomes purely materialistic in every way — all these “isms” are ideas, theories, invented by humans, imperfect humans.   And they become matters of faith every bit as much dogmatic and oppressive as any religion at its worst.

Some ideas are so deeply flawed that to put them into effect in any way will inevitably lead to the destruction of one’s brothers and sisters who instantaneously are redefined as wholly “other.”  Some will do this by inspiring direct action and violence in some form, such as fascism and communism did in the 20th c.  and capitalism at times still does and has since the 18th-19th c.

Authoritarianism and American capitalism, now approaching laissez-faire levels of libertarianism again, also do violence to those caught within their grip by substituting materialist values for ethical virtues, materialistic myths and aspirations for spiritual aspects and the psyche of humans, control and repression for free inquiry and doubt (the mother of all questioning, seeking).

Rather than the gulag or the firing squad, we find ourselves almost literally ignored to death and marginalized by poverty or ostracism if we stand apart from the dominant system and seek something better, even if we have no notion at the start of our search what would be “better” — only that this way is not conducive to a good human life, a life of living together while, at the same time, being ourselves.

Where and when I live, the system is designed, by default, to crush one’s existence and assimilate one into the mass aimed primarily at the production of capital by any means and protecting those who have amassed a great deal of it.  We are sold glittering lies and promised fame and glory if we “cooperate” and work hard; and most of us, in spite of our original dreams, our vocations — our destinies, our particular call from Fate — wind up selling out in order to merely survive, to have insurance, food, a place to live, a small measure of stability, the possibility of not experiencing our final years in utter poverty and misery.

We are enslaved and we enslave ourselves to an economy elevated to the status of a god.  Moloch walks amongst us in these days, Pluto-Hades bringing Hell to Earth and he has many priests and priestesses to see his work is done, his commands are spread – by commercialism, consumerism, by television, by internet, by technology, and, if necessary, by the barrel of the gun.

An idea — capitalism — that was to serve humans for the betterment of human life has taken on a life of its own, using us to keep itself functioning and growing; what Georg Simmel would have called the “more-than-life.”  Every other “ism” did the same and largely failed or had to be combatted by means of literal weapons and war — but capitalism is far too devious to be abolished by war.  It lives off war, profits by death as well as by the enslavement of the living.  It commodifies everything and everyone, and if it cannot appropriate the values of life, it opposes them, creates a shining substitute, or renders the opportunity to actualize such nearly impossible.

Revolution is too late, always was,  and is led by the power-hungry or the foolish, the “true believers,” the dogmatists who, themselves, promise an impossible shining future “at some point” far-off in the imaginary future to the desperate, who are cannon fodder.

This thing run amok will not be combatted by blowing oneself up, worse ideas, past “isms” that were stillborn or never deserved to see light of day, religious extremism and enthusiasms, or any similar self-destructive nonsense.

We must reform ourselves, as humans, and learn whom to become, the right people to be, and begin to take off the chains of corrupting beliefs  we voluntarily submit to.  This is a process that will take decades and decades of labor, education, and example by taking on and bearing burdens, responsibilities, and we must do it by choice, not any other way.  Slowly, deviously perhaps, we must slip the chains of restraint and enslavement around the capitalist beast and make it do what it was designed to do: serve human needs, values, lives — actual humans, not abstractions.

This is a great work with much detail to be filled in, not merely by me (who am I alone), but by you and as many of us as are capable of using and employing our creativity, our imaginations.  This state of affairs was imagined into being; it can only be undone by imagining it into a different form.  Theories, ideas, beliefs serve us and are for the good of all humans — not the reverse.

So, there you have my thoughts fore this day.  Make of them what you will.  It’s your choice.

It was always, and always will be, your choice.

31 May 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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Integrity and the Damnation of Money; or, I Didn’t Sign On For This

I see my future shuffling
A shakey step at a time
I got no choice but careful
Thank God I’ve done my crime
The tools I see on tv
Can’t stand it when they fake
A prick’s a prick at any age
Why give one a break?

I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live live live live live

The soul is in the eyeball
For anyone to see
I’m better than a Pepsi
I’m cooler than MTV
I’m hotter than California
I’m cheaper than a gram
I’m deeper thar the shit I’m in
An’ I don’t really give a damn

I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer now
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live live live live live….

Iggy Pop

“I Wanna Live” from the album NAUGHTY LITTLE DOGGY

Let’s face it.  as non-materialistic as I am, the rest of the world I live in is not and it will not bend to adapt to me or anyone else.  I do not do things that make money — not much, at any rate — and I owe a great big student loan with an extortionist’s level of fees added on to jack the price up so high I can’t repay it.

I’ve had periods of disability because of my illness, which I will not rehash as it is boring. (Just read other posts on the blog if you’re interested.)  I’m just coming off being underemployed at an abusive work situation at a used book store, of all places, and now I am an adjunct philosophy instructor again.  Which pays about the same amount but at least is satisfying and somewhat appreciative of my abilities, such as they might be.

But before that, from about June of 2009 till October 2012, I grew increasingly depressed until I couldn’t leave the house or even stay awake most of the day.  I lived off my modest retirement until that ran out, then my wife supported me, which I am ashamed of — and she largely still does as I hardly make an adult’s living and here I am pushing 50.

I nearly died twice in one year — once of an abscessed tooth that went haywire and then of pancreatitis brought on by out of control diabetes and triglycerides that made my blood about the thickness of mucilage.  That one put me in the hospital for a month, about a week of it in the ICU, and my kidneys almost failed.

Fun times.  Had to be fed through a tube for about three months and was on insulin awhile.  And then there was and continue to be the specialists and the drugs, added to my meds for bipolar disorder.  None of this was free nor is it free, and I went back into therapy a couple of weeks ago to boot — insurance may or may not reimburse some of that.

But being chronically ill in America is not only a full-time job in itself, it requires a couple of full-time jobs to pay for as none of this free and no one really cares if you die or live under a bridge mumbling to yourself — and the cops might lock you up for that.  And legal services cost money, too, or maybe you get a public defender with a case overload who just plea bargains your insane ass into a few years in prison.

And no one cares about that, either, so long as you are out of sight, in an overpacked prison run by gangs and rapists and murderers who would literally screw an old man like me to death.

That’s the worst case scenario, I guess.  It’s not a fantasy — it happens to mentally ill people where I live all the time if they can’t get their meds, work, pay their bills, and wind up homeless.

But back to the financial “shit I’m in” all because education in America isn’t free, either, or even subsidized much anymore.  Had it been, I’d have a PhD in philosophy and actually might be making enough money to pay those damn loans off.  I might not, too — and I don’t live in that world and, as previously stated, no one’s changing the rules of the game to suit me.  People like me don’t make the rules or even influence them in America; people with money do, corporations with money do, banks do, and they have lobbyists to get their legislation written.  Thus, I can’t even go bankrupt on a student loan debt — they’re eternal.

We have people here who molest children.  There’s a statute of limitations on molestation charges — if you don’t report the incident within seven (7) years, the perpetrator goes scot free even if you have incontrovertible evidence of the deed.  There is no statute of limitation on my student loans, however.  I committed the crime of trying to earn my Phd in Philosophy and was struck down by bipolar disorder, my son’s premature birth, a divorce, homelessness, and then I worked a part-time job as a van driver for years (at minimum wage, which was pretty damn minimal back then).  Hell, I barely had enough to buy groceries or by a hamburger out once in awhile.  Eventually, after a friend let me sleep on his couch for nearly a year, I got up enough cash from a cousin to get an affordable one room apartment.

And so on.

I couldn’t plan one day to the next, much less repay the $20,000 that has bloomed into $40,500 since 1994.  Later, I took care of and paid the bills for two other chronically ill family members and myself, wrote an occasional newspaper column for ten ($10.00) dollars a pop every couple of months and held down three jobs besides, a total of 80 hours a week.  I slept three hours a night on average for years, caught catnaps on breaks.  And, and, and.

I hustled for my family and I don’t regret any of it.  That’s what one is supposed to do and I’d do the whole thing over again, gladly.  I even paid some back on the loan, had  and have my income tax returns confiscated — haven’t seen one in years.  Don’t care.  “Don’t really give a damn,” as the man sang.

I continued my education on my own, continued to read, write essays, apply what I learned, became an adjunct instructor part-time for two universities at night.  I still learn, I still teach myself, and teaching others causes me to learn new things and exposes me to new perspectives, new situations provided by my students — they are invaluable to me and teach me so very much each month.

Now the collection agency in the employment of the Bank that bought my loans is going to garnish 15% of my meager wages — a lawyer friend of mine (who cares for me for some reason far more than I dreamed) volunteered, pro bono, to help argue my case to see if I can’t at least get a reduction in the payment as almost all my money goes to my own medical expenses with a little left over for gas, food, and some nicotine gum to keep me off the cigarettes.  Staying off cigarettes keeps our insurance from going up by $1,500 a year.

That help I will be eternally thankful for — it is a light in the darkness, even if it doesn’t succeed.  I can’t ever repay it properly.

All I want to do is live a little longer in some sort of peace with myself.  I want to be creative, I want to teach philosophy and live philosophy.  I want to write and keep my two websites up so I can share art and words and ideas with anyone at all who cares.  I want to make my comic books so that I can sell them cheaply to anyone who appreciates them — I’d give the damn things away for free if printing costs  weren’t an issue, and I like to see my “art” in print, not .pdf format.

A man out of time and place who never was very useful and never learned to be useful to anyone — that’s me in a nutshell.  Who in America needs an artist, or even a comix artist and writer?  A writer of essays — the dead art for people with attention spans longer than a gnat’s?  A philosopher — who in the hell needs a philosopher here in the land where people have abandoned the notion reason is a worthwhile enterprise and are even beginning to undercut their own faith in science?  The very science whose extraneous fruit is the technological paradise they live within that shields them from the onslaught of nature and plagues, that allows them to control and see things at long distances, that gives them their much vaunted military might?

Compared with all of that, well, I’m a microbe on a speck of dust floating in Grand Central Station: nothing and no one to be noticed at all.

Perhaps my little drama with the student loan debacle will turn out to be manageable.  Or not.  I can attempt to influence them and that is all.  It is in the hands of a collection agency that could really care less about my life or history or anything else — just “the money.”  The Dollar Almighty.

But people, I am deeper than the shit I’m in — and no collection agency or bank or government or even death can remove that reality.  I was here, I am here for the moment, and I may live a little longer yet and continue to do my work wherever I am, as useless as it is to this age.  That’s my calling, my vocation.  I can’t really do anything else and have integrity.

And life without integrity… well, as Socrates said, there are worse things than death, and that is one of them.  The worst of them.

25 May 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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Individualism vs. Egoism: They Are Not the Same

The Problem

 

What we are seeing in the streets and hearing on the airwaves of our country at this moment has roots that run far deeper than categories such as “liberal” and “conservative,” or movements such as the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party or the far right of the Republican Party.

 

This root is a fundamental tension between what the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called concord and liberty [see the book Concord and Liberty, 1946, W. W. Norton); and further, on the side of liberty, there is a secondary problem: the antipathy between atomistic egoism or selfishness and genuine individuality.

 

The latter problem is the more pronounced at this point in the history of the United States and makes the issue of how to live together with common purpose (concord) while protecting the rights of select minorities (liberty) impossible to address.  So, let’s face the issue of egoism and individuality and see if we can’t sketch it in a way so as to make it less abstract.

Hobbes and Psychological Egoism

 

Atomistic egoism is a theory which has it that human beings are fundamentally disconnected from one another, complete and whole unto themselves, in need of nothing or no one apart from themselves except by free choice to further their own selfish aims and desires.  Ethically, this theory takes a couple of forms in the history of modern philosophy.

 

The first is Thomas Hobbes’ notion that humans are “by nature” selfish – we are beings who cannot help but act in our own self-interest and only in our own self-interest.  No matter how disinterested we think our actions are, the reality is that we are, at best, lying to ourselves.  Mother Theresa, in devoting herself to lepers and AIDS victims, the poorest of the poor and the outcast, with no hope of recompense, for example, was secretly, in her heart of hearts, motivated by some self-interested motive: winning the Nobel Prize, gaining a platform to spread her message and gain attention, or to attain the blessings of God and ascend to Heaven after death. (This example was taken from James Rachel’s The Principles of Moral Philosophy. )

 

Everyone is like this, according to Hobbes.  No one does anything without some expectation of repayment for it, and this is simply the inescapable reality of human life.  Now, paradoxically, Hobbes’ version of egoism has it that the best, most realistic, way of getting what you want and getting your repayments involves cooperation.  We choose to give up some of our liberty to, say, steal from one another in order to create a working market within which we can trade and bargain without fear others will steal from us in return.  His version of the Golden Rule was something akin to this: Do good unto others so they will be contractually obligated not to do ill to you.

 

We, then, do not do good or virtuous things because they are good and virtuous things in themselves – no, we do them because they tend to maximize our opportunities for repayment and getting ahead.  We do not do good things for others because we care for them or see humanity as deserving of special respect, nor do we do it to become good people or good at being people – no, we do it to make ourselves marketable and assure we will tend to get our way.

 

Several things follow.  There isn’t necessarily any incentive to do anything for anyone who cannot further your private aims.  Children, for example, especially infants, are incapable of repaying one for anything – they take but do not give in return.  Animals, as well, usually lie outside this circle of selfish repayment – my dog may give me pleasure by his company, but yours may give me absolutely none.  And when you are not looking, if I decide to poison him to get him out of my misery, it cannot be said I did anything wrong – I did not owe the dog anything nor did it further my aims.

 

The poor may do nothing for me, as well.  I and my society may benefit in the immediate more by allowing them to starve to death or shorten their lives by withholding access to healthcare than by assisting them and extending the full benefits of civil society to them.  If they rise up and complain, it may be easier for me and my society to put down their complaints by force than give them a full voice in decisions about how resources are to be distributed.  Or I may propagandize them to have that segment of society believe they have as much as they deserve or that they can earn better treatment only by working harder.  I may never see that it is in my best interest to share power and wealth, much less that there is such a thing as a fundamental human right to anything except to be selfish, and that those with power can override the desires of the weak.

 

Moreover, this selfishness is sanctified by psychological egoism’s appeal to “human nature.”  I cannot help but be selfish; nor can anyone else.  This means that selfishness is ordained either by God (if one is so inclined to believe in God) or by nature – there is no court of higher appeal to claim humans should base their morality on something better than their inherent selfishness.

 

In fact, anyone who claims we have motives other than self-interest is simply deluded.  If I show that a certain soldier dives on a grenade to save five of his buddies, and say that he lost everything in the performance of that action, did not gain anything, and received not even pleasure from it, the psychological egoist will begin to look for the “payoff” – it MUST be there somewhere.  Maybe he believed that he’d go to Heaven if he sacrificed his life.  If I say the soldier was an atheist, the psychological egoist will search for some other selfish explanation such as the selfish gene theory of Richard Dawkins, and so on, ad infinitum.

 

No matter what evidence you bring to a psychological egoist, she will always interpret it as evidence to support her theory and cannot conceive of a different explanation.  And this, oddly, is the fatal flaw in the theory – it has the hallmarks of a flawed theory.  A good theory is always able to posit what its opposite would look like – what it would take to prove the theory itself is wrong.  If I have a theory: All swans are white, it’s easy to imagine what it would take to show a theory is wrong – I can imagine green or purple or blue swans.  This doesn’t mean I actually see any multihued swans, but if I ever find one, such as the black swans of Australia I was unaware of when I made my theory, I would know my theory is incorrect.

 

Hobbes and his school cannot conceive of any moral motive other than selfishness.  Present all the evidence of probable non-selfish acts and motives, and they will reinterpret then to fit their theory.  Ask them what a theoretically non-selfish motive would look like, and they have no answer other than they are unimaginable.  And this makes the theory fundamentally and fatally flawed as far as logic goes.  It may have an emotional resonance for certain people, but good ethical theories are hardly constructed mainly of feelings and wishes.

 

Combine this with the unacceptable, or at least questionable, moral and social consequences of the theory – that we are not obliged in some way to pay attention to the needs of the weak, any minority, or to pay attention to correcting or avoiding injustices when we receive no immediate benefits – and this form of egoism has little to recommend it for rational people.

Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism

 

The second form of egoism, however, is more difficult.  It is also probably the more virulent strain in our contemporary society thanks to the novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand and her influence on the Libertarian Party, strains of the Tea Party movement, and in all likelihood many other far right groups ranging from militias to some Christian fundamentalist organizations where one often hears echoes, strong and faint, of her teachings.

 

Rand’s egoism is what we call “universal ethical egoism.”  It does not say humans are, by nature, selfish; rather, it claims that all humans ought to choose to be selfish – to be moral, one must be selfish in one’s choices and actions.  Anything else, and one has, in effect, sold one’s soul to “the collective” and has allowed oneself to be used – or worse, one uses others in order to live.  Laissez-faire, utterly free market capitalism is equated with ethics: All of one’s interactions with other humans are nothing more or less than business deals.

 

We should bargain with one another with the motive of getting the most for ourselves (and ourselves alone) out of each interaction without regard for the needs of others.  The needs of others are the other’s problem, not ours – unless we need the other person to meet our needs; in which case we may assist them, but only with a view of an ultimate payoff.

 

One, of course, may choose to help others with no possible repayment, but Rand saw this – charity – as not at all virtuous; and even bordering on foolishness.

 

Rand’s primary book on ethics, in fact, was entitled The Virtue of Selfishness.  For literally thousands of years, ethical theories based on the virtues, such as Aristotle’s or the Stoics’ or some forms of Jewish and Christian ethics, saw various virtue as a means to self-mastery and the development of habits designed to liberate one from mere self-centeredness and subjective passions and desires.

 

Rand, in a move probably borrowed in a horribly clumsy manner from Nietzsche — in fact, a misinterpretation of Nietzsche, turned the concept of virtue on its head.  Being a dogmatic atheist, she believed “virtue” had been poisoned from within by Christian and Jewish concepts of concern for the weak – which she believed consisted in chaining the strong and creative and forcing them to become the servants of “leeches” and the incapable.  The ultimate expression of this tendency in history was and is “collectivism”: socialism, communism, Marxism.

 

Therefore, her conception of “virtue” was to redefine it in terms of what she believed was the other end of the spectrum from collectivism: egoism.  The unfettered “free trader” who defined her own needs, obtained what she needed by any and all means short of outright lying and force.  The only virtue was to be “selfishness,” self-centeredness, the only value was to be freedom, as close to absolute freedom as possible.  For Rand and her sort, the individual is an ego – a self-contained, socially disconnected self, who is either out for himself (moral) or out to steal from others (immoral), with no middle ground possible.

 

Politically, as a larger social expression of this ethical principle, is the theory of laissez-faire capitalism.  For the Randians (and this is easily seen in the Libertarian movement), the government exists to do two things: protect the sovereign individual against the threats of force and fraud.  This sounds reasonable enough, but “force and fraud,” here, are defined in a very narrow way.  Protection from force can include protection from foreign encroachments – so the government must attempt to maintain a military.  But it also means the government itself cannot do much else: It cannot require anyone to involuntary pay the taxes required to maintain this military, or pay for police to keep the streets safe.  The belief is that self-interested people will voluntarily chip in to pay for these and the like.  And it certainly may never enact laws to regulate the free market or protect something like real civil liberties or human rights.

 

Laws against insider trading, laws against profiteering, laws to regulate health, product safety, and workplace safety and the like are all “collectivistic” because they limit freedom.  The belief is that the free market, left to itself, will take care of any problems that need to be taken care of through a sort of evolutionary process – fit ways of doing business will survive while unfit ways of doing business will fall by the wayside.  Alan Greenspan (yes, THE Alan Greenspan), a student of Rand’s in the 60s, wrote an essay in one of her books in which he optimistically states that companies in a completely unregulated free market system would never do anything to endanger their consumers because, among other things, their profits would suffer, no one would trust them again, and other companies would move in to take their consumers with more trustworthy products.

 

Let’s begin to examine how realistic some of these political and economic claims are before looking for the flaws in ethical egoism itself.

 

For a moment, let’s look to China.  Recently, there have been problems with tainted baby formula that killed or injured untold numbers of children – because the regulation of that industry was lax.  There were children’s toys, some of which made it to the markets of America, doused in lead paint which is known to cause retardation and other maladies – due to lax regulation of that industry.  The only reason these things were caught here was because of the allegedly “collectivistic” regulations on goods we enjoy here in the States, contrary to what Mr. Greenspan would have had us believe in the Randian essay he never disavowed.

 

Yes, eventually the market may have corrected itself even without legal regulations – but how many people would have to die or be injured first?  Which is more important: an unregulated free-for-all business atmosphere, or public safety, especially when individual consumers cannot possibly protect themselves against corporations hell-bent on quick profits at any costs?  Or are we to believe that some must die or suffer injury and lose their freedom for a greater good – absolute freedom for the economy?    Are those who die just random losers in the Social Darwinian lottery?

 

Moreover, after the time the economy was in the hands of people such as the Reagan Republicans and Mr. Greenspan, after the age of deregulation began, it is common knowledge what began to occur – the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 80s/early 90s; the housing bubble and burst that very nearly pulled the entire economy beneath the waves of a depression 2008; Enron and its cooked books that destroyed the savings of untold investors, and on and on.

 

Again, contrary to Greenspan’s utterly optimistic forecast as to what human beings with control of great deals of money and power will do if outside the reach of law and oversight, something else occurred: Some people showed that, out of sheer greed and selfishness, they will cash everything in, regardless of who is ruined in the process.  Most people, perhaps, won’t, but some people will.  And it doesn’t take more than a relative handful of these to destroy an economy and a nation in relatively short order in the 21st century – especially if their ethical belief is that they don’t owe anyone except themselves anything.

 

It is ironic that an ethical and political position that proclaims its opposition to force and fraud seems to unerringly create a situation in which corporate force and corporate fraud run rampant, with no way to reign them in or correct them other than praying the almighty free market fixes itself at some unspecified, even mythical, future date.

 

I leave speculation as to how many people would voluntarily pay income tax even to support the police and a modern military to a minimum: If the nation were run by individuals with no allegiance to anything except themselves, would they have any sense of responsibility to something such as a nation or law to begin with?  And if so, why, beyond purely subjective whim?

 

And here we arrive at flaws in the ethical egoist’s theory of morality.

 

First, the Randian egoist, an alleged free trader and complete “individualist” would seem to be playing a double game.  She counts on the fact that, in a libertarian society, not everyone would be a pure libertarian – many would never accept that form of ethics due to the fact that their more traditional philosophies or their religious beliefs run contrary to it; it is far from the dominant position in Western belief.  Many people, as now, would see the need to be responsible for others, for the common good, for the weak and unfortunate – the egoist would count on these people to take care of the ills and problems of civil society while the egoist could go free to spend her time and wealth simply looking to her own affairs.  Oddly, the egoist counts on living on the credit amassed by four thousand years of basic Western morality which do not enshrine greed and selfishness as virtuous.

 

If everyone decided to become an egoist at the same time, to use the standard Kantian method for testing whether an ethical theory is universal: Could the egoist live in the resulting world?  No one would have to cooperate with anyone else.  No one would have to tolerate anyone else.  No one would have a right to any good, service, or value she couldn’t individually grab on her own, with no assistance – including children and infants.  No one would have to hire anyone and could discriminate according to any personal whim.  No one would have to do anything as simple as help a child face down in a puddle from drowning.  And on and on.

 

Could we consistently and completely be egoists? Is such a world something we could live in as humans, with a thriving culture and a growing civilization?  Or is it a recipe for anarchy and then real tyranny?

 

I will add here that Ayn Rand despised Kant, and perhaps we can see why: He insisted that some moral rules are things which must be done or avoided whether we individually like it or not.  He also insisted that ethical principles must apply equally to everyone, by definition, if they are just (i.e. universal).

 

One is not certain Rand or her followers grasp that her version of morality is fundamentally unjust – it could allow some to be “more equal than others”.  Her theory fails to take things such as fortune – luck – which grants advantages to some and withholds them from others through no merit of their own and pretends that what each person has or gains is simply a pure matter of merit.  It fails to address how an actual world in which everyone was an egoist would ever function without some segment of people voluntarily not being purely selfish.  And this is probably no accident since the egoist is mainly interested in getting her own way and little else.

 

Another major flaw, then, is that ethical egoism can end in being a mask for ethical subjectivism – the theory that our personal feelings create right and wrong.  Rand often asked, “Whose morality?  Whose values?” when confronted with questions about the rightness of her theory – and thereby seems to fall into the subjectivist trap (though she insisted till breathless her system was “objective”).  The fact is, moral values, if they have any reality worth noting at all, are not “personal” – i.e. they don’t originate in some person creating them.  If a moral value has any value at all, ethically, it isn’t just a value “for me”; it is a value “for everyone” and can be discovered by rational argument.

 

Randians and Libertarians seem comfortable with the notion that it is completely moral to value anything at all, to devote one’s life to anything at all, so long as one doesn’t force it on anyone else.  (Except, of course, if the Randians come to power, they intend to enforce their morality by reforming all law and government and society in their own image.)  Which means that what one values should be chosen entirely in accord with one’s subjective, private desires, one’s feelings which are motivated by unexamined beliefs — opinions and prejudice.  No guidance can be offered by the ethical theory on this other than that everyone should have the complete liberty to do nearly anything one wishes, if one can.

It is easy to hear this subjectivist whine in the voices of our Tea Partiers: They incessantly demand to be freed from the responsibility to pay taxes for anything they happen not to like.  Healthcare, of course, they do not like; so they feel they ought not be required to pay for it.  And, of course, the more extreme don’t feel they should be “forced” to pay taxes at all.

 

[I take this argument from Rachels, mentioned earlier.]  Yet we know, by the simplest use of moral reasoning, that some moral values exist that are, indeed, universal, and to which everyone should give assent.  We know, for example, there has never been a culture in the world that has ever allowed murder: All cultures define some segment of their populations as “innocent,” people off limits to being killed without very good reason.  Differing cultures draw the lines differently, but all cultures contain a group of people who are off limits to being killed.  All cultures value truthfulness – there are always times and places where one is expected to speak the truth.  This value is the very foundation of such things as communication and law and even commerce.  All cultures value the care of children – in every culture there is some segment of children defined as important enough to care for and raise to adulthood.

 

And there are many more such values.

 

Further, it is relatively easy to see these values were not created by anyone.  It is not as if all human cultures just accidently made up the same moral rules – that is suspicious on the surface.  Instead, certain moral principles are the precondition of humans living together as humans in society.  Just as humans require air for biological life, we also require certain moral values to be present to fully flourish as human beings and live together.  (There are also moral values we require individually, not socially, but I’ll stick to the social values as they are more easily seen.)  We no more created air and then sprang into existence than we created moral principles and then created societies.

 

If, then, there are objective, universal moral values such as I have argued for here (following the example of many ethicists), their existence certainly does not depend on our feelings and subjective desires.  To be more precise: Our desires and feelings only take on morally praiseworthy dimensions when they accord with these objective values.

 

Even more: We must abide by these principles even if we don’t feel like it at times or if it would be easier to avoid them.  And if an egoist wishes to claim an exemption for herself from abiding by these values in order to pursue her own private list of desires, she will have to do one important thing.  That is, she will have to make a good rational argument why she is special, why she deserves to be treated differently than every other human.

 

And if she can’t do that one thing, she will either have to give up her subjective list or she will have to admit she isn’t rational or reasonable in her demands and she does not care.  At which point, the rest of us will be able to see what manner of barbarian has wandered into our midst.

True Individualism

A true individual is not an egoist.

A true individual is involved in both a private sphere and a social one, not one to the exclusion of the other. She recognizes she has both a private life, a creative area of freedom and intelligence with its obligations, and an external life, with its obligations to recognize the inherent value of other human beings.

What Rand and her followers have never grasped is that it is possible to do things for others, “altruistic” acts, without losing oneself, without failing to take care of one’s own needs as well. Morality is not a matter of acts either being completely selfish or completely self-sacrificing: There is a middle ground where one can and should care for one’s self while also caring for others and one’s society.

Returning to the idea of the virtues, as the Stoics saw them, there isn’t even always a clear dichotomy between doing something for others and doing something for oneself in some sense. Being generous benefits both the giver and the receiver – the giver becomes a generous person and the receiver has her needs met. This is because the real moral value – generosity – is valuable in and of itself. Aligning oneself with the value perfects one and assists one to do a good job at being a human.

The same goes with being just, courageous, temperate, prudent, with seeking wisdom, with being merciful, slow to judgment, and so on. Each of these is simply good, and to do these things consistently makes one good and also increases the likelihood one’s community will be a good one to live in.

The true individual grasps the moral ramifications of Ortega y Gasset’s metaphysical formula: “I am I plus my circumstances.” The individual is not a disconnected atom, merely an ego, an abstract “I.” Instead, she is always an “I” in a circumstance, a world, and her life is one of interaction between her interior life and the world around her… and included in the world are other people and their lives.

There is much more to say on this, but, perhaps, this essay has gone some distance in defining some of the basic issues facing us at this time in the political realm. I maintain, however, that unless we strongly address the ethical issues underlying the political ones, the political and social world will continue to unravel.

(Originally written 31 March 2010. with editing  and updates 9 May 2015.)

Richard Van Ingram

Richard Van Ingram 1988
Tom Paine, Richard Van Ingram 1988, etching

 

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The Tea Party, Anti-Government Militias, and the Mass-Man (updated)

Prelude

Once upon a time, there was a country, a place of great learning and thought, which underwent many social reforms, including the establishment of universal health coverage.  The government was lead by liberal reformers.  Conspiracy theories abounded, including: foreign powers were attempting to destroy the nation; that minorities had undermined the social structure and laws and were plotting to take over the country from within.  Citizens and former soldiers began to form private militias and political clubs to oppose the elected government and one another, and ostensibly to protect their class interests.  There were economic troubles that went from bad to worse – the citizens were fearful and anxious.

 

This country was called Deutschland – Germany .  The year was 1919, just after the disasters of the First World War, and the government in power was not Hitler’s NSDAP (the Nazi Party), which was little more than a gang of street thugs at the time.  No, it was The Weimar Republic led by the Social Democrats.

 

(A side note for those presently under the influence of the Tea Party propaganda that claims universal healthcare was a Nazi phenomenon – it wasn’t: it was a moderate liberal position established by law in Germany 11 years prior to Hitler’s rise to power).

 

For those readers who have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “liberal,” allow the writer to remind you that, in political terms, these German political liberals had far more in common with the British (after whom they modeled their new government) and the Americans – both with liberal forms of government in the 18th c. meaning of the word “liberal” – than they did with Marxists.  In fact, the German Communists hated them.  The extreme right-wing despised them and gave birth to the anti-Semitic paramilitary movement called the Freikorps, which prepared the way for the rise of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung – Storm Troopers – the Brown Shirt militia that fought in the streets and helped put him in power.

 

The real opposition to “liberalism,” in modern times, has not come so much from some vague thing called “conservatism” – which is truly a problematic term requiring far more examination as American mainstream conservatism itself clings to and depends upon liberal ideas – but from totalitarians, dictatorships, and from people willing to sell their freedom (political freedom is a modern liberal idea) in order to, ironically, be set free from the imaginary horrors of liberal democracy and constitutionally established law through force of arms.

 

The Problem Of The American Militia Movement

 

In times of crisis, violence is a seductive solution to human problems.  But if only it were that simple, that an appeal to violence was only some abnormal tool resorted to by human beings when they feel threatened.  It would also be an easier thing if we could say humans are simply violent by nature; then we could say, “Of course humans are seduced by violence, we’ve no real choice in the matter.”  Yet, neither of these is the case: Humans often have other tools in their repertoire besides violence for the solution to vital problems and the fact that we have ethics, laws, and civilization to, in part, oppose the resort to violence militates against the idea that we are simply “violent by nature.”

 

There remains for us questions: Why do humans pick up arms?  Are there better and worse reasons?

 

And, for purposes of this essay, I am interested specifically in the present-day mania in the United States for forming private militias and the political factions which use the language of uprising and revolt for their own benefit.  As mentioned at the outset of this writing, these things have happened in the world before, using Germany of the 1920s as an example, intimating that the outcome was not a good one for that country.

 

What does the formation of militias, then, signify for our own country, our own immediate circumstances and for the future?  What does it say about the times, the dominant beliefs floating in the collective mental atmosphere of our country – their truth or falsity?

 

Our Present Circumstance

“To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. [….] This means that there is a renunciation of the common life based on culture, which is subject to standards, and a return to the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which. . . urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life, also inevitably leads to one single process of intervention: direct action.” [Jose Ortega y Gasset, 1930, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg.74]

Though the philosopher Ortega was speaking specifically about the European situation of his day, he also diagnosed a universal symptom that arises in history when population levels increase and the masses mistake their unexceptional private desires for principles capable of leading societies and running states: they forgo giving reasons and thinking; they leave off reminding themselves why laws and traditions and institutions of all sorts they suddenly feel constrained by were established in the first place; they ignore the obligation to educate themselves appropriately and practice self-control; they support their feelings desires with mythologies and rumors, “what people say”; and, in the end, they resort to threats and the imposition of their collective will by a resort to violence – what Ortega calls above “direct action.”

Our situation in the United States is not, at this moment, as desperate as that of Europe when mass movements eventually led to the installation of “strong men” and totalitarian governments – Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco; no, we are not that far along . . . yet. But how do these things begin, movements that erode, cripple, then topple governments, including liberal democracies and their constitutions? Is that what is happening here, in America, in the early 21st Century?

Last week, we read this:

“OKLAHOMA CITY – Frustrated by recent political setbacks, tea party leaders and some conservative members of the Oklahoma Legislature say they would like to create a new volunteer militia to help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.

“Tea party movement leaders say they’ve discussed the idea with several supportive lawmakers and hope to get legislation next year to recognize a new volunteer force. They say the unit would not resemble militia groups that have been raided for allegedly plotting attacks on law enforcement officers.

“”Is it scary? It sure is,” said tea party leader Al Gerhart of Oklahoma City, who heads an umbrella group of tea party factions called the Oklahoma Constitutional Alliance. “But when do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?”

“Thus far, the discussions have been exploratory. Even the proponents say they don’t know how an armed force would be organized nor how a state-based militia could block federal mandates. Critics also asserted that the force could inflame extremism, and that the National Guard already provides for the state’s military needs.” [Sean Murphy and Tim Talley, Associated Press, 12 April 2010, “Okla. tea parties and lawmakers envision militia,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100412/ap_on_re_us/us_tea_party_militia]

However, there is this most curious sentence in the Constitution of the United States from Article II, Section 2:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States. . . .”

So, assuming that, even if the 2nd Amendment did say citizens were to be armed in order to form “militias,” in context, it looks as if these military bodies were intended to serve the United States in times of extreme crisis, and that their one commander was to be the President of the United States – not politicians, governors, and not private citizens from a Tea Party movement. Also, in context, as the AP article states, it has come to pass in our country that the National Guard has now occupies the role of what was intended by the term “a well regulated militia” in the 2nd Amendment.

Yet the Tea Party representative claims that the right to bear arms was allowed by the Founders for the express sake of the various states to defend themselves from the Federal Government – as if the Federal Government, by definition, somehow is worse or less responsible or trustworthy than state governments: Federal Government is equated with tyranny.

“…[W]hen do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?” he asks in amazement. What exactly is it that this man means when he says this? Since the Civil War it has been a settled question in our country that the states are not entirely autonomous, that they may not secede from the union, and that they must abide by federal law. If they have legitimate complaints about federal laws, the states have recourse to the federal courts and must abide by the decisions of the judicial branch like everyone else.

States and citizens do not, under our system, have the right to form a private army independent of the Constitution, free from Federal oversight, to “somehow” “defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.”

Because the “somehow,” the only way such an armed group could achieve their ends, will be by taking to the streets with guns to apply direct action – that is, by imposing their will, not by rational argumentation, which they have foresworn, but by threats and violence.

It is not as if this Tea Party movement has exhausted its rights to free speech or has been prevented from exercising it – even to the point of being allowed to abuse civility and sense in exercising it. It is not as if this movement has been prevented from spreading rumors that: President Obama is not an American by birth; he is a closet Muslim; he is a socialist; he is a Nazi; he is a communist; he is a Marxist; he will enslave us all; he is the Antichrist; he is destroying freedom; he hates America; he is trying to create a one world government; and so forth.

No, these people, with their “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and placards and even racist signs are allowed to gather and march and use the internet and collect monies and run politicians for office. Many people do not like what they say or how they choose to say it. To be perfectly honest, I do not: the Tea Party hasn’t heard a crackpot theory it won’t stoop to adopt to use as fuel for its anger, as far as I can tell. It is utterly irresponsible in its use of political speech, it is uncivil, hateful; its methods of “discourse” – such as shutting down Town Hall Meetings by yelling and making threatening or sarcastic remarks en masse – are not fit for children, much less adults entrusted with citizenship. But no one is attempting to shut them up, least of all the government, federal or otherwise.

Yet, groups of them are bringing out the guns and joining or creating militias. They feel threatened, they say; their freedoms are under attack; America is in danger; the Constitution is being violated; the alleged independence of the states is being molested.

A New York Times/CBS poll of Tea Party activists on 15 April 2010 revealed, among other things:

“The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.

“They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.

“Asked what they are angry about, Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.

““The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”” [Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, The New York Times, 15 April 2010, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/us/politics/15poll.html]

And:

“Ninety-two percent believe Mr. Obama is moving the country toward socialism, an opinion shared by more than half of the general public.

““I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville. “He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”” [ibid]

Yes, these are older white people, wealthier than most, a group whose members probably attended some college somewhere. What did they study? What did they learn? How much did they forget or reject out of deeply held prejudices? Their answers in this poll and the representative quotes in this article show nothing but irrational fear and a deep suspicion of anyone who pays attention to the racial problems in this country.

They are terrified they are losing control of the nation, frightened they may have to share power, horrified that their taxes may be spent to make society more equitable and more stable for the people as a whole. They are fundamentally angry that they will be made to take responsibility for the problems arising from poverty – they are over 50% more likely to make over $100,000 a year and will be damned before anyone asks them to take on any burdens of living in a society.

Unsurprisingly, they see plots everywhere. Plots to install “socialism,” plots to give power and money to black people and the “undeserving” poor, plots to force them to support Islam, disarm, bow to the authority of some vague “world government.” Speeches by people such as Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, a Tea Party favorite, have even gone so far as to whip up anger and fear of the Census by telling people that the intent of it was to provide the government with information to start a mass round up with the objective of tossing conservatives into concentration camps.

Is it any wonder, according to the poll and reporting on Chris Matthew’s show, “Hardball” on MSNBC, that 24% of the Tea Party believe that violence against the government can be justified?

Given such convictions, the entrance of some Tea Party factions into the militia movement – as in Oklahoma – should be unsurprising.

Though the philosopher Ortega was speaking specifically about the European situation of his day, he also diagnosed a universal symptom that arises in history when population levels increase and the masses mistake their unexceptional private desires for principles capable of leading societies and running states: they forgo giving reasons and thinking; they leave off reminding themselves why laws and traditions and institutions of all sorts they suddenly feel constrained by were established in the first place; they ignore the obligation to educate themselves appropriately and practice self-control; they support their feelings and desires with mythologies and rumors, “what people say”; and, in the end, they resort to threats and the imposition of their collective will by a resort to violence – what Ortega calls above “direct action.”

Our situation in the United States is not, at this moment, as desperate as that of Europe when mass movements eventually led to the installation of “strong men” and totalitarian governments – Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco; no, we are not that far along . . . yet. But how do these things begin, movements that erode, cripple, then topple governments, including liberal democracies and their constitutions? Is that what is happening here, in America, in the early 21st Century?

Given such convictions, the entrance of some Tea Party factions into the militia movement – as in Oklahoma – should be unsurprising.

Some Side Notes On The Militia Movement

 

The broader militia movement, groups of loosely associated or independent groups of armed people generally on the far right-wing of the political spectrum, of course, pre-dates the Tea Party.  In fact, many of that movement’s general beliefs seem to be influencing some Tea Partiers, not the other way around.

 

In recent times, relatively speaking, the far left had its equivalents: the Yippees; the Weather Underground; the Symbionese Liberation Army.  The government cracked down on these, at times with good reason since they were committing acts of domestic violence and attempting to foment violent revolution. But the right-wing militias, since their rise in the 1980s out of the survivalist movement, have, by and large, been allowed to gather weaponry, train, and predict a day when the country will be overrun by foreigners, or the Constitution will be suspended in a national emergency by an overreaching president.

 

Some of these militias are white supremacist gangs, neo-Nazis predicting a soon-coming race war they intend to win (among these are groups such as the National Alliance).

 

Other groups have some sort of extreme religious, eschatological interpretation of history that predicts a confrontation between the “true believers” and the “forces of evil,” usually identified as the United Nations and the Federal Government.  (Note: The recently arrested Hutaree Militia in Michigan which planned to kill police officers and spark a general armed uprising was of this sort.)

 

Some groups have roots in tax protest groups that arose decades ago, such as the John Birch Society, seeing all taxation as “confiscatory,” legalized stealing, and are preparing to protect their property against government intrusion and redistribution of wealth, which they see as socialism or communism – even though the Constitution gave the Federal Government the ability to tax the populace from the start and was amended in 1913 to allow specifically for an income tax.

 

The particular doctrines of the groups are many and vary widely.  However, all of the militias, regardless of individualized beliefs, share certain features.  They are 2nd Amendment absolutists – they believe there can be no legal restriction on the ownership of any sort of weapon whatsoever: anything else is tyranny.  They see the world in bifurcated terms – it is Us, the righteous, against Them, the infidels, the evil, with no possibility of shades of right and wrong.  And the “Them” are plotting to herd people into some sort of “New World Order” or “One World Government,” leftist/socialist in nature.

 

They see the world as requiring, eventually, armed struggle against government, because government inherently limits absolute freedom to do whatever one wants.  All groups, while praising the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, seem to have plans to change the Constitution or do away with it entirely should they succeed in their armed struggle, replacing it with “God’s Law” (which only they understand), fascism or Nazism, some sort of anarchistic individualism, or a severely limited national government with power shifted to states, counties, or towns; and so on.

 

These smaller, diverse groups plowed the fields that now bear the fruit of the Tea Party movement; and it is a return to the origins of their faith rather than a new development when Tea Partiers begin, as in Oklahoma, to discuss the creation of anti-governmental militias.

The Character Of Our New Revolutionaries

 “…the mass-man of to-day [possesses] two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital   desires and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.  These two traits make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child.  [***] Heir to an ample and generous past – generous in both ideals and in activities – the new commonality has been spoilt by the world around it.  To spoil means to put no limit on caprice, to give one the impression that everything is permitted to him and he has no obligations.  [***] And these spoilt masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organization, placed at their disposition, like the air, is of the same origin, since it apparently never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things.

“[***]Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being; and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being.  [***] In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries.  This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses to-day towards the civilization by which they are supported.” [brackets mine; Jose Ortega y Gasset, “Revolt of the Masses,” pgs. 58-60]

Those who have chosen to take up arms ostensibly to combat the expansion of government fit Ortega’s diagnosis perfectly.  The Tea Partiers, older, wealthy, educated, fail to note that it was a very generous society indeed that made their position in life possible in the first place, else there would not be so many of them.  Social stability itself, which arose, in part, in this country by addressing the issues of poverty, and the social and political inequality that exists between the races played a large role in creating the circumstance that made their peaceful existence a reality.  And those things – and others like them – were established by acts of the federal authority, often dragging recalcitrant states, who were acting extra-legally (as in the case of Arkansas during school desegregation in the 1950s), from unjust positions towards more tolerable ones.

 

One wonders how many of the Tea Partiers benefitted from college grant programs and federally guaranteed school loans in the years when they were young.  One wonders how many are now kept alive by medicines that had their inception in government sponsored research.  One need not wonder so much as to how many of them benefit from Social Security or the protection of our legitimate military as the vast majority of Tea Partiers in the survey reveal they support paying taxes for both.  Which would be the height of hypocrisy if this segment of society were conscious enough to understand they are damning a thing out of one side of their mouths while clamoring to preserve it out of the other.

 

I mean this: The majority of the Tea Party are receiving or will receive Social Security benefits and Medicaid/Medicare, and they are satisfied with this, ecstatic, even, and do not support any cutbacks in these programs.  Yet, conservatives for decades, since the inception of these programs have called them “socialism,” Marxist, encroachments on freedom – just as they now call any move towards public health care and universal coverage the same things.  But the benefits of Social Security are such that its recipients are generally quite happy to receive them and benefit greatly from the program: even Tea Partiers, obviously.  But why is Social Security a good thing and no perceived threat to anyone’s alleged sovereignty, yet the new health care law enough to drive the same people to form militias or disrupt normal political discourse with threats and screaming?

 

One wonders, following Ortega’s theory, if it isn’t because these people grew up with Social Security and see it as “natural,” as something that is simply “there” to be relied upon and taken for granted, paying no mind to the thinking and political labor that went into establishing it, and the historical problems it answered.  And universal health care is a new thing and they have witnessed a part of the long effort, debates, negotiations, and fights required to get the bill through Congress – a process few if any of them are equipped to understand fully, in its broader context.

 

And, perhaps, health care reform has not solved many of the Tea Partiers’ personal problems.  That is one of the hallmarks of the mass-man, as Ortega calls people who place no special requirements or burdens upon themselves: they see the world as at their individual service – they have no conception of others or requirements of any sort from which they do not feel they immediately benefit.  They want to run society without taking on all the responsibilities demanded of genuine leaders: the ability to think beyond one’s personal desires, taking into account the needs of all members of society and the needs of the as yet not arrived generations; a sense of history and why institutions and traditions we have inherited were established in their various forms, and an understanding when these need to be reformed or replaced.

 

As long as he benefits, the mass-man is happy.  But the moment he is handed a responsibility for which he feels no personal need, the mass-man revolts under the pressure of having to bear a burden.  How dare anyone limit my freedom!  Don’t tread on me!  Yet, ironically, he is not content to yell his protests from the privacy of his home, leaving the problems of government and society to people truly equipped for the task.  No – he wishes to dictate how government should be run, how society is to be ordered, and, unsurprisingly, as he has no creativity in this area and has made no effort to educate himself, the mass-man’s loudest demand is that government and social institutions should resemble his own self-satisfied image: they should only benefit him alone and they should never make demands upon him.

 

And if he cannot have his way, he will wreck the institutions, he will scream in the streets, he will perhaps, in the end, resort to threats of violence and end in acts of armed insurrection and secession.

Last Word

 

I have little to say as to whether this will be the outcome of our present political tension in America.  I am no prophet.  Past nations and peoples have not fared well once groups began to choose to act in this fashion.  In the United States itself, we once fought one another in a destructive Civil War due to many of these tendencies – a war whose effects are still reverberating through the militia movement and even in the Tea Party rhetoric.

 

Or, perhaps, this group and its conservative fellow travelers will come to power.  What then?  How will they rule?  Who will they choose to rule?  Can a movement with such conflicted ideas about power and responsibility do anything with power except destroy the delicate work of years, just as we witnessed the Bush administration bend and break the law, wreck the economy, benefiting a select few, or fight a war in Iraq and conduct foreign policy based on personal motives and desires?

 

I think we are left with some somber questions.  And questions call for meditation.

 

Richard Van Ingram

Originally written:

16 April 2010

Post Script, 7 May 2015:

Little has changed since 2010 when I wrote the above essay, except I would say the situation has worsened overall.

 

The Militia Movement and anti-Federal Government sentiments have grown and deepened.  Many people, at this point, distrust President Obama — in no small part simply because he is half-black and they are half-out-of-the-closet racists.

 

Presently, I reside in South Texas.  As of last week, when the Patriot Movement discovered that our troops would be conducting military practice exercises in the Southwest this summer, they decided this meant that President Obama was “invading” the states; the governor of Texas, Abbot, purely paranoid and playing to the prejudices of the mass, has ordered the National Guard here to “watch” and “defend” the state against “invasion.”

 

One hates to tell him that, when Texas joined the Union and later, when it lost the Civil War, the “federal government” took possession of Texas and subordinated the state to its authority and Constitution.  America cannot “invade” America.   This place is rife with military bases and institutions — there are more than enough soldiers and equipment in this state alone to silence any rebellion quickly, even without summer maneuvers.

 

But I live in an absurd age, an age of absurdities.  Such is the case when the Mass Man begins to rule by appeal to mythologies and other irrationalities.  Reason and reasons are meaningless to such people.  They are incapable of hearing or thinking — only acting and reacting emotionally, subjectively, selfishly.

 

Secondly, the Middle East, among other locales, is falling apart.  ISIS, another gang, another mass movement devoted to destroying the very principles and accomplishments that have made their lives and technology possible, is destroying the hard-won cultural achievements of the lands that gave them birth.  We — the USA — are engaged in a struggle with them which will grow in intensity even as the internal struggles with a similar mental attitude at home splinters our tenuous grasp on unity and liberalism.

 

I speak of storms on the horizon in my essays — these are the rumbles I hear and the high winds I feel in the night as the destruction threatens to approach.  And the average person, being average, is unconcerned with anything other than his and her comfort and ease and entertainment.

 

I am not confident in the least this will come to a good or acceptable conclusion.  There will be more to say later — I’ve said more than enough for now.

 

RVI

Ayn Rand Vampire Queen of the Mass Man, Richard Van Ingram, 2013
Ayn Rand Vampire Queen of the Mass Man, Richard Van Ingram, 2013
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Underground Comix, Alternative Media, and You

I’ve considered the publishing industry and how it under-serves and even locks out alternative, underground, and independent artists for years. After turning the matter over and over in my head for all this time, some things have become apparent.

1. The American economic system is capitalist. It rewards people who play by its rules. Even if you believe these rules are unjust, unfair, stacked, or corrupt, that is the basic structure of the economic system.
I’ve beat my head against this system for most of my life, working jobs so I can make my art with no strings attached. But there are strings: The more I work for someone else to raise capital for my own projects, the less time I have for said projects. When I was young, I could work a full-time job all day and then stay up all night banging out art with my dream intact that someday, I, too, would someday have my dream recognized, lose the day job and make a clean living off my creativity.

I am 49, going on 50.   Like you, I have bills. I have responsibilities. I need insurance — and the older I get, the more support along those lines I need. By the time you’re 50, you cannot live as if you’re 20, unattached, bohemian, with all the time in the world on your hands to get that dream accomplished. No, by the time you’re 50, The system has got you: it monopolizes your time and can extort things from you, whittle that dream down to the level of a quaint hobby.

The very thing that defines who you are as an artist and writer and thinker is less and less what you spend your time on: and life is time. If you’re working for someone else, who you are is an extension of someone else’s dream, not your own. And more often than not, their dream is called “MORE”: more money for them, more labor from you, more attention from you for a Byzantine system of rules designed to keep you in line, befuddled, passive, terrified of losing your spot at the money tit that drizzles less and less of that nourishing cash you started out seeking in order to be someone other than who you became.

The question becomes, at some point, will you make the effort to reclaim yourself or should you quit pretending you are really an artist? What are you willing to risk to get it done if you decide to subvert the system and become a capitalist in the service of your own work?

2. In America, we allegedly have freedom of speech; which, by and large, we do, I suppose. But one of the main points of the First Amendment is freedom of the press: In part, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” The fact of the matter is, you can go talk all you like on the street corner, usually, or you can run things off on your copier and pass them out in public if that floats your boat, but unless you own or have direct access to actual printing equipment or an organ that rolls off a printing press, your voice is stifled. In fact, an editor can cut you off or block you at any moment and for any or no reason whatsoever. It’s their freedom to publish, not your right to be published.

Oh yes, you can use the almighty Internet. But go take a look on the thing if you’ve never made a good study of it. It’s a trainwreck. Google will charge you cash to have the opportunity for a potential audience to, perhaps, click on it; and they may not be your niche.

Webcomics? Dear God. Yes, some of them are great, but do you think any of these people are making a living doing that? Damn it, people, this used to be a country where creative people made an actual living off their work and wits. The basic compact between audience and creator was this: the creator used her time and effort and mind to assemble something hopefully worth appreciation; she made her bet on that; the second part was, the audience experienced the work and showed their appreciation by paying the creator some cash so she could continue living and making things. Fairly simple arrangement. It’s how things worked when I started out, lo these many years ago prior to the Internet changing the “business model.”

Here’s how it works now: The creator does a huge amount of work and probably has to dole out her own cash for a website and SEO optimization, etc. In return, the audience wanders on by and consumes her work… for free. They may not even have the good graces to Tweet or FB post a link to her site at the very least in return for the effort. Nope. Look, enjoy, move on to the next thing. Does her website get reviewed by any roving bloggers? Maybe… maybe not. Depends on if you beg them and send them free swag.

Advertising the material is difficult, if not virtually impossible. Especially if you have no cash to pay the Google monster. Because this is capitalism and you’re really working for Google. See section 1 above for a recap.
So, how is the creator going to make any money at all? Put ads on her website and trash it up. And then you’re really just working for Amazon and diverting your audience away from your site. Make it a pay site — which works pretty well if you’re a nude model or burlesque performer, but not so much if you’re a visual artist and not well-known already.

Or you sell swag and printed copies of your comics. And that’s not a terrible option: use your site as a sort of “see it before you buy it” extended showroom floor and opportunity to communicate with an audience. After all, if your comics were in a shop, chances are folks could look at a copy before buying it and that’s fair. Like they say back in the mountains where I’m from, “Who wants to buy a pig in a poke?” I.e. buying things sight unseen is a pretty raw deal. Except now you’re just dispensing with the middleman called a shop owner — you are the shop owner. No one should be able to represent what you’re about better than yourself, and there’s no good reason in this age attempting to hide yourself or your work if you want to actually sell.

3. But I’m aiming this message mainly at indies, alternatives, and undergrounders. And I still haven’t fully broached that “free press” issue.

So, let’s do that now.

The stuff we do ranges all over the board in terms of content. We push the limits. Most of us are transgressive in one or another way; some make porn; some take controversial political stances; some explore uncomfortable cultural issues and gender politics; many of us are liberal, civil libertarians, or just plain out there and purely weird — often all at once.

We deal with pot legalization, government overreach, social stupidity and white trash evil. Our pictures will involve everything from nudity to graphic sexual activity, anger, violence, raw depictions of contemporary life down in the guts of the cities — the parts tourists avoid, and even more raw depictions of the neurotic/psychotic landscapes of the psyche. We satirize, we lampoon, we parody. We are rude, we are blunt, we are funny, we are obscene, we say exactly what we want exactly how we think and feel it ought to be said. We shock, we persuade. we defy.

Many of us are aging Gen Xers who are sick of the world we were handed and either want something better or think we’re locked into an apocalyptic doom trip: optimists, pessimists, realists, idealists, nihilists, existentialists, or just plain confused.

All that said, finding mercenary printers who will willingly put our material on pieces of paper with saddlestitch binding is not easy. Finding said printers who will do it affordably and do a good job is a damned laugh. This is risky stuff. And most of us can’t afford to make print runs large enough to tempt the bastards to take the chance without all sorts of content restrictions.

Distribution? Diamond ain’t carrying this shit unless you can come up with about 1000 or two books. And getting shop owners to carry it for fear of getting busted is fairly difficult: Why take a chance on crazy underground madness when you can rake in the shekels on a good, safe stack of Batman or Robin, the Boy Wonder, or Archie? Or just get your hip creds in via Fantagraphics’ books?

So far as bookstores go, Barnes & Noble is rumored to be on the skids and they aren’t carrying our material nohow, noway. If Taschen published it, maybe, but none of us are in that league. Taschen will collect our things after we’re dead and tell the tale as history.

Selling things through Amazon or Indyplanet has been, by my experience, a complete waste of time. Fan base isn’t big enough for either to push your books — and Indyplanet has content restrictions set at the level of readers who are 15 year-old striped assed baboons.

Those who own the presses have freedom of the press. Freedom to print whatever content they want within reason. Independent operators can do their own alternative distribution through something other than straight bookstores and comics shops.

We’ve got to reinvent the system and work it in our own favor.

4. I’m going to raise money by borrowing and a crowd funding campaign to buy a used cmyk printing press. I’m still looking for the right press at the right price I can run on my own, but I’ll figure that part out. I’m going to print my own books, propaganda, and posters with it and make it available cheaply to other select undergrounders. Print your stuff more cheaply than these rip-off artists online and charge you mainly for the supplies and my time, which will be inexpensive as I’m not looking to get rich — just live a normal life and keep the press running. Create my own job, help out the cause, and make this capitalist bullshit run in my favor for once. Maybe in yours, too.

As for distribution, I’m going to figure out where all these head shops get their stuff — hell, I’ll drive boxes of books out to them between San Antonio to Austin if I have to at the start. Work it and work it hard. You’ll have to figure out your own distribution as usual unless I can figure out something more organized eventually and offer a catalogue. I’m only one state away from Colorado and the pot biz is going nuts up there — getting hooked in to those shops would really be something, I’m thinking. A quick weekend plane trip to make some introductions and pass out samples might establish a beachhead. I’m thinking out loud just to show I think this can be done and isn’t a totally manic freak out on my part.

Written 2014

Addendum, 2015

5. Since originally writing this, I’ve lost hope that Colorado and the pot boom will offer an underground “headshop” alternative for media distribution.  Studying those who run the shops there, they are Capitalist pigs, like gold rush miners overrunning a free land to milk it dry before moving on to some other “investment.”

The age of the real headshop system of alternative media distribution is well and truly done and finished.  A thing of bygone ages.  The old underground culture is just that: old.  And I’m unsure if it can be revived or even reconstructed.  Certainly the pot boomers aren’t going to invest in such nor are they interested.

I raised enough cash to print the second issue of my underground comic “Loser Comix #2” last year and am selling it, but never got up enough to buy even a used cmyk printer — I’d need about $10-12,000 for that and, as intimiated, that’s beyond my reach, but a dream, a goal.  It can be done, but it will take years.  I can print a book for a couple of thousand bucks.  Printer – out of range.

I’m doing the traditional comic convention circuit this year as that seems the only direct route to readers of alternative media.  Even then, the content restrictions on the work at these conventions are often… inhibitory.  Extreme violence, of course, is fine — sexuality isn’t.  Unless it is women wandering around in skimpy eye candy costumes.  But the sight of a cartoon nipple might cause apoplexia.

Because this is Amerika, home of the free, land of the puritanical.

But that’s beside the point.  How are people supposed to be exposed to new ideas, new visions artistically and how are the makers of these things supposed to live and do better than work other jobs in order to bring their vision to their specialized public?

Creators need to speak with their potential public and the public needs to speak with the creators.  Hell, we artists and writers are just people.  Talk to us.  If you like our work, support us by buying and advertizing it around on social media.  Let us know what you want.  Contribute to our fundraising efforts.  even a couple of bucks is something and something appreciated.

LOSER COMIX #2, Richard Van Ingram 2015
LOSER COMIX #2, Richard Van Ingram 2015

You can buy this thing and see a wide variety of my art at Loser Comix .

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