In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, Bernie Sanders recently went on Fox News to discuss his vision for America. I say “recently” in the sense that Blog for Chumps is updated only ever infrequently, so this is about as Breaking News as you’re going to get. I’m only going to focus on the one section that I’ve set up in the hyperlink there, when Sanders is asked, if he likes high taxes so much, why doesn’t he take the initiative and pay more? Be the Leninist vanguard of the Keynesian welfare state!

Sanders, despite the positive reaction from the crowd, actually answers this question rather poorly. He states that he pays what he is obligated to pay, and then turns to whataboutism to ask for Donald Trump to release his tax returns to see if the President is following those same obligations. Of course, the question was not about meeting obligations, but exceeding expectations in order to conform with the ideology that Sanders allegedly espouses. Namely, higher taxes on the wealthy.

There is a much better response to this question: ignore it entirely and respond to the underlying ideology that drives it instead.

Social change is not an individualistic concept. Slavery was not abolished because one slave owner decided he didn’t think it was such a great idea anymore, and then everyone else fell in line like plantation-owning dominoes. Democracy didn’t come about because some monarch took it upon himself to diffuse his absolute power. Democracy is by definition a collective concept; imagining an individual shifting the gears of government, on their own, toward a government that literally requires the will of demos, is patently nonsensical.

Voting

I live under a monarchy. I’m going to cast a ballot, and just hope that everyone else follows my shining example. NO OTHER EFFORT REQUIRED! YAY FREEDOM!

There is a prevailing myth about Rosa Parks that she was just some random woman who had had enough, and her stubbornness ultimately lead to the dissolution of the segregated seating on Montgomery transit. Yet Parks was already an active activist and member of the NAACP before her refusal, and then she engaged with the activist community in a lengthy bus boycott to overcome the racist practice. Her decision and the consequences that followed were heavily steeped in collective action.

It’s neither individuals nor their actions that change the world. It is when individuals organize into groups that they become effective. The Civil Rights movement overturned segregated buses, just as revolution brought about democracy. Bernie Sanders paying more in taxes would do absolutely nothing to implement his goals. The question is attempting to twist hypocrisy into a situation where the very premise it is pushing is meaningless. However, there is an even darker side to the way this question (and those like it) is framed.

What this question is suggesting, beyond twisted hypocrisy, is that individual action is the solution to social problems. Billionaires just need to start changing their minds about a system that privileges them indiscriminately, and income inequality will become a thing of the past. The peasants can just wait for the king to give them rights. The slaves can wait for their masters to have a change of heart.

slave master

I tire of owning people. I guess you can have your freedom…

Immanuel Kant famously wrote that ought implies can. You are only morally obligated to make change in situations where you are actually capable of doing so. If individuals can’t change the world, then it’s not their fault. Poor people certainly can’t impact policy on their own, so they just shouldn’t worry about it. The moral duty to change the world falls entirely on the corporation, I suppose, since corporations are the only entities with the means to do so.

Individually, maybe, we bear no responsibility for the world, but we are useless as individuals. Collectively, however, we are capable of much, and that is where the responsibility lies. Here’s what Sanders should have said:

“I assume you’re asking this question because you want to frame me as a hypocrite. However, you’re assuming that anything I do makes a difference. The reason I’m sitting here talking to you at all is because I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a grassroots campaign, years in the making, that has relied almost entirely on a collection of regular people who believe this kind of policy is needed. My taking of any action on my own means nothing; it’s what we’re doing as a group that’s making a difference. In fact, in even asking this question, you’re asking the American people to look to me, or people like me, to improve their lives by, in this case, individually paying more than is legally required in taxes. Don’t do anything else, just wait for ol’ Bernie to pay more in taxes. That will start the revolution! That’s not what they should be doing, and shame on you for suggesting it! What they should be doing is joining this movement, join a union or an activist group, and push forward change that doesn’t rely on any one person to make a statement. ”

SANDERS

No idea if I’ve captured his cadence or speaking style, but who gives a shit. I think I just want Bernie Sanders to refer to himself as “Ol’ Bernie”

 

I am a drug and alcohol counselor. I am at least okay at my job; clients will occasionally tell me they feel better after having spoken to me, which is as good a metric as any, and the odd client might even stop using drugs and/or alcohol if the stars are aligned just so. It’s a complicated career in which the measures of success are vague, yet regardless of whether or not I’m successful (whatever that means), a new client will always come in. This new client with their new idiosyncrasies are, more often than not, fundamentally similar to the old one. The tide comes in, the tide comes out, then, as per the pull of the moon, the tide comes back in again.

There will always be drug addicts, right? One must imagine Sisyphus happy in order to avoid the soul-crushing burnout of facing off against the boulder of the opioid crisis. And yet, even in the name, its immutability is questioned. It is called the opioid ‘crisis’, not the opioid ‘way of life’. A crisis is temporary. Solutions are possible. Causes can be identified.

Of course, a crisis can simply be an act of God or a natural disaster. There might be those who argue that nothing can be done about this crisis since its causes are out of our hands. Fentanyl is a thing now, so people will just die more because of it. There is some merit to this argument: Fentanyl is certainly deadly and more prevalent which is going to inevitably lead to more deaths. As any consumer advocate would tell you, the solution to a deadly product is of course a well-regulated market, but this ignores why people might seek out Fentanyl in the first place. Even if people take healthy doses of untainted heroin (or meth, or crack, or all the other drugs now laced with Fentanyl), this still doesn’t change the tide.

There are several theories about the causes of addiction. Trauma is a big one, and yet trauma is not preordained. The trauma of neglect is often predicated on poverty which can be alleviated through wealth redistribution (consider that there is more than enough housing for everyone, despite large numbers of homelessness. Similarly, we have enough food to feed the planet. Supply is not the issue, distribution is), livable minimum work standards (since many of those in poverty do indeed work), and so on. Trauma based on domestic abuse can also be curtailed if we shift masculine culture away from domination and violence.

There is also the lack of connection that drives addictive behaviour. This connection has been driven out of society by the cultural forces of individualism and competitiveness, and can just as easily be reduced by the imposition of their opposites. Solidarity with coworkers and neighbours, an emphasis on community values, respect for nature, and a reignition of hope; these too will reduce the need for the synthetic connections induced by narcotics.

Of course, there is also simple education. Not the education that tells us that drugs are bad. Drugs are actually amazing. Drugs offer solutions to problems when nothing else seems to have worked before. An individual, often having gone through trauma or who is suffering from mental illness, does not know how to cope with that trauma or illness. Along comes drugs, and all of a sudden the baggage associated with those things don’t seem so awful now! What needs to be taught are healthy coping skills as well as information on mental health that will help identify and then deal with these developmental dangers before addictive alternatives become the norm.

You may note that none of these things involve cognitive behavioural therapy, nor harm reduction, not even admitting you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable! The methods of dealing with those in addiction (with their varying degrees of effect) are only ever reactive, and ignore the systemic issues that produce drug addiction in the first place. Social fixes ought to attack the root of the problem rather than focus on managing its aftermath.

One of the stories I tell myself to endure the Sisyphean drudgery of endless addiction is the story of the curmudgeonly old man and the beach full of starfish:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

This metaphor does help me feel better about the work I do, because ultimately helping one person live a better life is a worthwhile goal. It matters. However, the metaphor fails because a tide is by definition unstoppable, and drug addiction is not. The starfish have not been washed up onto the beach by some immutable fact of nature, they have been pushed by cultural ideologies, economic oppression, and brutish stigma.

Why bother with drug counselling? It does help, but it will never stop the tide.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems like old news, despite the fact that its consequences are a series of ongoing tragedies across the globe. However, the Iraq war is important because it represents the quintessential farce of American intervention abroad. Not because of the false pretenses that began the invasion, not because of the war profiteering of private mercenary companies and arms manufacturers, not because of oil market manipulation, not because of America’s previous support for the dictator, nor any other controversy that makes the doves among us shake our heads in disbelief. The farcical nature of the Iraq war is embodied in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

Maximilien Robespierre was a vocal member of the Jacobin Club during the French Revolution that overthrew King Louis the XVI, and boy, did he have opinions about overthrowing tyrants! In one instance, there was a movement to provide ol’ Louis with a trial. Robespierre had this to say:

When a nation has been forced to the right of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature in relation to the tyrant. How can the tyrant invoke the social pact? He has annihilated it. The nation can still keep it, if it thinks fit, for everything concerning relations between citizens; but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely where the tyrant is concerned; it places them reciprocally in a state of war. Courts and legal proceedings are only for members of the same side.

If government is the structure which defines the laws, and a government which is popularly considered illegitimate is put on trial under the basis of its own laws, a contradiction appears. Now, Robespierre is discussing the revolution within his own country, and America intervened in Iraq, which means that the laws to which the Iraqi government were held to account were not its own. A civilizing mission to instill sovereign democracy is founded upon an act that essentially removes Iraqi sovereignty by imposing foreign determination. Now, Saddam was tried by a tribunal of five Iraqi judges, but their biases make it unclear as to the extent of American persuasion. If there is none, the problem reverts to its original form. The idea of a lawful resolution in an act that is by definition unlawful is nonsensical, doubly-so when those intervening are associated with neither. Which brings us to point number two.

Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts. If it is for their salvation that they take arms against their oppressors, how can they be made to adopt a way of punishing them that would pose a new danger to themselves?

The very nature of a trial implies a possibility of innocence. If King Louis, and Saddam Hussein for that matter, could be innocent, then what of the revolution that deposed them? How many families incurred death and dismemberment for the innocence of their respective despot? The dyad of a revolution and a trial is paradoxical because one type of judgement cannot exist side by side next to the other. If the police needed to kill thousands of people (with varying degrees of culpability) in order to arrest one man, putting that man on trial would delegitimize the entire institution of policing. How could Iraq possibly be invaded if Saddam Hussein was presumed innocent, a necessity in any fair trial? In one stroke, a trial abolishes all validity of the revolution and essentially resurrects the rights of the tyrant.

But of course, the American invasion of Iraq wasn’t a revolution. It was a civilizing mission to bring democracy and human rights to a beleaguered people. Trials are civilized. If Saddam Hussein had simply been executed, it would have been nothing more than a coup. The story matters in order for the appearance of legitimacy to be maintained, even if the actions taken necessarily contradict that legitimacy. The War on Terror (with its apparent function of producing more terrorists) can continue under the guise of America’s benevolence, if a bit bungling at times. That is the story of America.

The interesting thing about Donald Trump and his administration is that the dog-whistle that has been an intricate part of American politics for so long has finally been abandoned. No longer are immigrants taking our jobs, they are wild bands of invading criminals, rapists, and animals. No longer do we need to frame Muslims as a binary between moderates and extremists, they are all extremists. No longer are countries invaded “for their own good,” but now it seems like Donald Trump is going to invade Venezuela just because he wants to.

Previously, Trump has stated explicitly that countries that receive the beneficence of American intervention should recuperate the country with oil. Perhaps now that he is president his rhetoric might have changed, but no. His pick for National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has gone on record saying that the goal in Venezuela is to get American oil companies investing in and producing Venezuelan oil. John Bolton, notably, replaced H.R. McMaster who was against military intervention in the region. I don’t want to say that the Iraqi invasion was solely about oil because I’m certainly no scholar on the subject and have seen conflicting accounts, but the invasion of Venezuela will be because those directing it have said it will. No more false pretenses, I suppose.

The veneer has finally been scratched away. The farce has reverted back to the tragedy. Given Trump’s propensity to say and do openly what was merely under the surface for so long, I’m curious if and when Venezuela is invaded, whether or not Maduro will get a trial.