Work: SERIOUS AND ABSURD PART TWO (NSFW)

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Part one of this essay can be found at Chris O’Connell’s Intellectual Plane and Pardon me, but… .

As mentioned in my previous blog, the average person spends more time with work colleagues than they do with their friends and loved ones.

Furthermore we live in a society that is increasingly managerial and obsessed with abstract concepts of professionalism.

There’s a big difference between being professional and getting your work done to a high standard versus the appearance of being professional. Since the former is hard to do, most people tend to attach great importance to the latter.

It’s easy to appear professional. You wear the correct uniform. You keep workplace conversation revolving around banal topics and you pretend that what you are doing is serious business even if it amounts to pointless paper-pushing.

To show just how much you’ve sold out to corporate artifice, its best to talk about corporate brands.

True story.

I once walked into an office where the conversation concerned which store-bought frozen French fries were best: McCain brand or Green Giant.

My initial response was “Who gives a flying fuck?” Even if I did care about the quality of French fries I hardly consider it a subject worth discussing in a corporate environment! What does it matter? Furthermore, if you’re attempting to sound like a food connoisseur, why the flying fuck would you buy pre-made frozen fucking French fries?! If you’re serious about food quality, by goddamned bag of potatoes, cut them up and fry or bake the motherfuckers until they satisfy your palette.

But that might be too difficult for most “professional” people.

Regarding the workplace conversation in question, my attitude was deemed “unprofessional” as was my response to that rebuke. When I pointed out that while human characteristics like humour, joy, hard-work and efficiency were frowned upon in that particular workplace, jaws dropped open like marionettes. If we were so “professional” I argued, why were we not discussing the company’s future prospects? Why were we not formulating ways to improve our processes so that we could better achieve our goals as individuals and as a company? There, where humour was viewed with suspicion, why in such a supposedly serious work-place were my daily goals and targets being impacted by straight-faced discussions about irrelevance?

No one could give me an answer. To be fair, looking back at that episode, it occurred to me that my colleagues might have been trying to make the best out of a shitty situation – but I doubt it. Lacking in imagination as most “professionals” are, my colleagues had mistaken process and etiquette for substance and productivity.

I don’t consider myself the smartest person in the world. Like everybody else I’ve done some pretty dumb shit in my time and chances are I’ll probably do more dumb shit throughout the course of my life. I’m also a goal-oriented person. I go to work so that I can achieve something banal so that I can earn money and have available time to spend with friends, loved ones, my many interests like writing – all of which are far more important to my life than wage slavery. My vision of the workplace is more humanist than professional and I think it makes me a better leader.

Yeah, you read that right. The guy mouthing off about motherfucking frozen French fries holds a position of authority at his job.

But bear with me for a moment. Which is better: actual achievement or the appearance of achievement?

Some might argue that true professionalism calls for a balance between the two but I simply call that common sense. On top of that most professionals in recent decades don’t really achieve anything concrete. Managers especially.

The late Peter Drucker in his seminal work Principles of Management argued that managers are key to the healthy functioning of a business. But he wrote that book back in the 1950’s when managers actually knew shit! In fact they knew a lot of shit because they did a lot of shit! Most CEOS in the 50’s and 60’s had engineering degrees. They could actually build things, unlike the dense motherfuckers with MBAs found in most boardrooms today.

The process of building something useful, especially when that construction involves contributions by other people forces the individual to learn about humanity- theirs and that of others. Management training courses treat human beings as abstracts and while I’ve met a lot of unimaginative, stupid and soulless people during my life, none of them were abstract! They had flesh and bones, hopes and dreams, prejudices and vices. The best people I ever worked with and for were first human and humane, and professional second. More importantly they got shit done and I never recall having conversations with them about frozen fucking French fries.

I don’t take myself all that seriously and I’m baffled by anyone who takes themselves seriously. Serious people are usually seriously fearful people. They seriously distrust those around them and in a workplace that leads to serious discord and unhappiness for everyone involved. Serious people claim to be realist but above all they are obsessed with abstract protocols that don’t matter for shit in the real world. In every job there are people who believe that the process of the company is more important than the company’s goals. They place a huge emphasis on numbers and methods, particularly when those methods suit their delusions of importance. There’s something pathetic about someone ascribing moral virtue to pointless protocol. I know I’m being harsh here, but if you are someone whose life revolves around basking in the reflected glory of abstract nonsense not of your own making, then you’re a fucking loser!

I’ve never formally studied how to be a leader because truth be told, I don’t care for authority. I accept that some authority must exist in the world, but I demand that said authority be wielded with kindness, generosity and vision as well as resolve and common sense. If that doesn’t occur, I’m inclined to tell said authority to fuck off.

Tyrants tend to be fearful people who distrust others. A practical dimension of management leadership is the ability to delegate. But how can you delegate effectively if you don’t trust the people you work with? In addition how can you ensure that the work you delegate will be done well, if you’re an asshole to your staff?

Call it laziness on my part, but I’d much rather work with people who want to work with me and who will own their responsibilities without bullshit, then work with people I have to micromanage. I’ve got better shit to be doing with my time!

Another important dimension to successful leadership is one’s acceptance that from time to time you’re going fuck things up. I make mistakes because I’m human and flawed. Consequently I’d rather have my staff feel that they can make their voices heard before letting me lead them down the road to Fuck-up-istan and its capital, Disaster-Town. As Master Splinter would say, the teacher must also learn from the student.

At the end of the day, we need to hold genuine respect for one another first as human beings and as employees second. I’ll never be a parental figure to any of my staff or liked by everyone, but I’m pretty confident that even those who dislike me understand that I try to be fair, even when I’m less than perfect.

Over the years I’ve been told by others that I need to moderate my work-place conduct and in some cases they were right. Overall, I aspire to an approach that would please both Peter Drucker and the cartoonist Scott Adams: I get my work done but I have fun doing it because when it comes to work, you have to get your life back any way you can.

Though I’m nowhere near as intense as the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from BBC’s The Thick of It I must confess that a small part of me views him as spirit animal. It’s not the psychotic anger or the bullying aspects of the character that appeal to me but the no-bullshit approach concerning etiquette combined with his cynical understanding of the shallowness of work and society resonates with me. Most of all, I find him hilarious.

A warning to anyone about to view the following link: There’s a lot of adult content so for the sake of nearby children and snowflakes, you might want to turn the sound down a bit.

Or not.

I don’t really care!

    The Best of Malcolm Tucker

VICTIMHOOD (PART 1)

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**First published Chris O’Connell’s Intellectual Plane (Copyright March 2017)

I sometimes wonder if in politics (and other aspects of life) victimhood is as relevant as heroism, wisdom and knowledge. Indeed I suspect it carries greater weight than the last two.

In contemporary times the Far Right elevates victimhood to a level of an art-form. American White Nationalists complain that the domestic culture is under threat (clearly they haven’t heard of Hollywood, Disney, American Literature, DARPA, alternative energy, or the myriad of megachurches across the US). They claim their jobs are being taken by foreigners or handed out to minorities who may or may not be qualified for the role – at least according to White Nationalist rhetoric. Popular culture is increasingly representative of liberals, Jews, (insert other race or political affiliation here…) at the expense of Western Culture, and so on and so on, Ad Nauseum and without any basis in reality. Yawn.

The Liberal Left and the Centre (such as it exists these days) and other political interest groups are every bit as skilled at playing the victim card. A recent phenomenon in universities is the so-called “safe space” – areas of the campus where debate is off limits lest someone should get offended. That reasoned discussion regardless of perspective and source is key to a healthy functioning democracy is apparently secondary to catering to the emotional needs of those with thin-skins. The term “snowflake” is being bandied around a lot these days except unlike snowflakes which are complex, intricate structures, there is little behind such sensitivity other than an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s opinions.

Reinforcing the unhealthy obsession with causing offense is the term “cultural appropriation”. This term is defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. That ideas and shared experiences between human societies are part and parcel of human experience apparently slipped the minds of those who coined this silly term. True, not all these experiences have been positive as anyone with even the briefest familiarity with imperialism can attest. However, like it or not as Edward Said so eloquently stated, we are all the products of empire.

If we were to fully resist the ideas of cultural appropriation today the individual would be trapped in a form of stasis unable to perform even the most basic activities without fear of offending someone. Let’s suppose you like pizza but you have no Italian heritage: Well too bad! That dish is the creation of Italian bakers who first developed the concept nearly a thousand years ago. Following the line of cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion eating such a meal would be offensive to Italians, most specifically Neopolitans, Abbruzzans, Apulians, Campanians and other Italian regional populations. And let’s not forget that the modern state of Italy only came into being in 1861 -so really, only Southern Italians should possess the cultural right to eat pizza and not Northern Italians from Piedmont, Lombardy and the Tyrol.

We could take the absurdity of the cultural appropriation argument further. Suppose pizza consumption was limited to Southern Italians and then suppose an individual or group of Southern Italians enjoys using peppers as a topping.

Uh-uh, no way!

You see peppers were first cultivated by South American indigenous peoples, most notably the Incans and the Aztecs who were conquered by the Spanish Conquistadores. As well as peppers, the Spanish returned from the New World with potatoes, corn and squashes (including pumpkins, but since Halloween or Thanksgiving are forms of cultural appropriation that should be resisted we won’t need those anyway) so any non-Amerindian (specifically South American Amerindians) shouldn’t eat these foods.

Granted these examples are absurd but then so is the idea of behind cultural appropriation itself. If anything, those who decry that idea are advocating an ideology that if taken to its logical conclusion would economically, morally, culturally and (needless to say gastronomically) impoverish all of human society.

Moreover, many of the cultural values which both the Far-Right and the Extreme Left are so concerned about losing, aren’t innate to the respective societies in the first place. It would no doubt surprise the average member of the far-right British Nationalist Party to learn that his or her cherished traditional Sunday dinner of roast beef was actually brought to the British Isles by the French. Or that St. Patrick who the BNP venerates as a Briton who supposedly brought civilisation to the “heathen” Irish was likely born in North Africa.

Similarly, the high-minded modern day secular socialist might be shocked to learn that most of what they espouse was first promoted by English religious sects such as the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers in the seventeenth century.

The point I’m trying to make here is that all cultural experiences are relevant. They are part of the human experience and part of who we are as human beings. Those who seek to cherry pick as in the case of White Nationalists or the anti-culture appropriation crowd do so not out a desire for social or ethnic justice but to sow division and xenophobia.

If we are completely honest there are no perfect societies nor has there ever been a society that has not at one time or another orchestrated some kind of violence against another society. The Ancient Greeks and Macedonians who founded so much of Western art and philosophy also engaged in localised tribal wars as well as genocide towards non-Greek peoples. Should we moderns forego 2,500 years of said cultural influence as a result?

Should we also forego the influences of other significant cultures such as China and the Islamic world? Perhaps Western educational institutions should remove key mathematical theorems from curricula because they are derived from the work of Islamic scholars like Ibn Ghazi? Or perhaps Christian, Islamic and Jewish theologians should halt their studies because of the influence of Zoroastrianism on the development of the Abrahamic faiths?

The potential for silliness here is astronomical.

*

VICTIMHOOD AS A BUSINESS

It continues today through the revival of silly extreme ideas on both the Left and Right, in particular libertarianism and anarchism.

Ayn Rand, the poster-child for amoral philosophy once wrote that people choose to be victims. Rand might have been referring to herself. Rand’s philosophical outlook was shaped by family grievances. Her father’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks.

During her time in the United States, Rand promoted a selfish, anti-government philosophy at odds with post-war socialist policies being adopted by the US and other countries. Later feted by libertarian intellectuals and congressmen (Paul Ryan is a great admirer) Rand never seemed to grasp the shallowness of her thinking though she did grasp at self-awareness. Her diaries are a trove of insight into her cold personality and damaged psyche.

Despite her rejection of Soviet values, her literary characters (symbolic as she claimed them to be) were little more than reflections of the Soviet Union’s “Heroes of Socialist Labour” the Stakhanovites.  Though cast as the ideal symbol of individualism, John Galt the mysterious philosopher and inventor depicted in her most famous work Atlas Shrugged is an objectivist parallel to Alexey Stakhanov, the Ukrainian miner celebrated in Soviet propaganda throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Rand’s rejection of the Soviet Union and her embrace of laissez-faire capitalism was pathological in its intensity. But at the core of her zeal one can sense grief and loss as well as a profound desire to be accepted in her adopted United States. This is evident in her testimony to the House Committee of Un-American Activities and the paranoid vision of collective culture described in her novella Anthem.

Ultimately Rand translated her sense of personal victimhood into a lucrative career of writing fiction and non-fiction as well as public speaking. She also transferred her sense of grievance into disdain for homosexuals, Arabs, draft dodgers and Native Americans.

Following in a similar vein but with even less intellectual ability than Ayn Rand is the absurd Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopolous would like to claim the mantle of voice of a new rebellious conservative counterculture. Yet look past the thin veneer of pseudo-intellectualism and all one finds is a childish pretender.

Like Rand before him, Yiannopoulos is an expert at making money out victimhood. During his tenure as chief editor at Breitbart News he specialised in provoking both liberals and moderate conservatives with ridiculous and inaccurate pronouncements on subjects such as LGBTQ rights, women and minorities. That there is and was little factual evidence to support any of Yiannopoulos’s claims on any subject matters little to him so long as he generates a reaction from his audience.

Though a homosexual himself, Yiannopoulos has often stated his considered opinion that gays and lesbians should remain in the closet. He has described feminism “as cancer” and although not native to the US has argued in favour of stronger anti-immigration laws.

His contradictions and absurdities are the recognizable hallmarks of a victim. As a child Yiannopoulos was sexually abused and as an adult, he has simply transferred his anger and resentment over this experience into antagonising others. Yiannopoulos claims to be a devout Catholic which is ironic considering the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. However by engaging in bigoted behaviour, Yiannopoulos is simply acting out like many abuse victims who haven’t come to terms with their trauma. Many victims of sexual abuse will behave in a manner they feel will please their abuser or overcompensate in relationships with others. His statements against the LGBT community and women read like public cries for approval from the forces of reaction. Despite the Church’s stance on homosexuality his devout Catholicism reads like the desperate cries of child seeking acceptance.

Despite the controversy he has generated over past statements and despite the intended title of his biography (shelved by Random House due to his own childish remarks about pedophilia) Yiannopoulos is neither dangerous nor meaningful. All that he has managed to achieve is to generate an income by translating his victimhood into boorish behaviour and humourless spectacle. Were socioeconomic circumstances in a better state across the Western World, it’s doubtful anyone would have even heard of this ridiculous louche.

Sadly, the socioeconomic situation in the Western World isn’t good. Yiannopoulos has a following among eighteen to thirty five year olds who share his sense of grievance albeit for different reasons. This is a generation up to its eyeballs in university and mortgage debt and facing limited career options. As manufacturing and other high paying jobs have declined thanks in part to changes in technology and globalized outsourcing, those remaining jobs in retail, services and finance are neither well-paying nor spiritually fulfilling. The Internet, online gaming and social media serve as a steam release valve for these tensions. They also serve as a narcotic allowing the individual to wallow in their own sense of powerlessness and victimhood. Social media sites like 4Chan bring together constituencies that have been left behind by the world economy and left with few hopes or prospects that things can improve. In this environment it is small wonder that fringe ideologies such as Randian Objectivism or so the called “alt-right” are gaining ground. In an age of high personal debt, high unemployment, low rates of job satisfaction and reduced social mobility any ideology offering to change the status quo holds appeal. That any section of the society should feel impelled to support such authoritarian ideologies as espoused by Yiannopoulos – ideals that work to prop up and aggravate the status quo – is tragic.

*

It may seem throughout this piece that I am blaming the victims for their circumstances and that is not my intent. The point I am trying to make here is that while circumstances can be debilitating, the tendency towards victimhood without meaningful resolution is a passive response to real problems. Even worse clinging to victimhood as Milo Yiannopoulos does can lead the individual into demonising persons or structures that have nothing to do with the cause of their problems.

High indebtedness is not an excuse to hate women, yet as Gamergate showed, there is a constituency that would rather lash out at successful women than address their own personal problems. The same misogynist sentiments were heard throughout the 2016 US presidential election as were racist and inaccurate statements about immigrants and minorities. If the same level of antipathy was directed at the forces that are actually responsible for the state of victimhood faced by those eighteen to thirty five year olds, then there would be cause to be optimistic.

Despite the nonsense spewed from the alt-right, no right wing figure during the 2016 US election ever suggested cancelling the one point three trillion dollars of student debt currently weighing down the society’s youth. No figure on the alt-right has called for a reduced working week with higher wages and benefits. The alt-right is too busy doing what it does best: being a lickspittle to the rich. That alone should disqualify them from being taken seriously by any sensible person.

I’ll close this part of what will be a two part essay with some final words about feelings just in case anyone reading this is offended. These are from Gary Vaynerchuk CEO of VaynerMedia.

“Nobody gives a fuck about your feelings and you need to stop crying and adjust.”

And:

“If you actually spend all your time doing instead of dwelling, you’d be much further along.”

Lachrymose Limericks – Melancholy in Five Lines and Two Rhymes

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Prompted by my friend Mary’s limwrick’d thoughts on Siegfried’s fragility (like Achille’s heel, absurd in and of itself), I thought of Adam’s Marvin and Milne’s Eeyore sitting at the fire, under the stars, opining in verse lachrymose on their fate…  It is not a pretty sight, risible as it might be.

Lachrymose isn’t a sweet,
Nor does it come from a teat,
It comes of a blight,
Which results in a plight,
As can be seen in my life’s receipt.

Doomed said the witch to the pot,
Doomed said the king to the sot,
What’s in a name,
Is ever the same,
It’s why Abe, John and Martin got shot.

Sisyphus murdered his guests,
He saw them as no more than pests,
While Camus saw his fate,
As absurdly first rate,
No one came to the fellow’s inquest.

Sad though you think I may be,
I am sure that you don’t really see,
That your salty tears,
And implacable fears,
Are the thinnest reflection of me.

 

– so it begins –

John Henry Will Not Save Me

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The premise I found most disturbing in reading Whitehead’s “John Henry Days” was the List, the super-secret roll of press junketeers who are called on to crank out media fill.  It still haunts me. And every time I read some crap by some little wet behind the ears twit I have to take a moment and breathe, and ponder how that kid came to that juncture in their life. I want to find fault, lots and lots of fault, in someone, anyone, for filling our bitstreams with arrant juvenile nonsense, but the entire enterprise sometimes appears as Kabuki, a media dance, richly stylized, engaged in for the purpose of exploring the cultural themes on which the dance is constructed. If only.
 
Perhaps we should not blame those who are giving the kids a chance, nor chastise them for leaving it to their consumers to differentiate content (which we consumers so often are wholly unable to do, which doesn’t not offer much in the way of counter-pressure, does it?) Maybe I am just suffering, as so many antique cranks do, from a surfeit of papers graded – I suppose it is possible that when you wield a red pen, all the world looks like a hackneyed essay.
 
And why blame the kids, when we have “senior correspondents” and “seasoned experts” who are incorrigible in their myopic provincialism, grotesque in their wild posturing, and intemperate in their broken prose.

Mysteries Are Meant to Be Worshipped

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A friend recently argued that mysteries are meant to be solved, not worshiped,

Fritz Kropfreiter Protozoans move along gradients, the most pervasive of which is food. The rational, self-aware mind also moves along a gradient (call it truth, understanding, knowledge or meaning) not with some metaphysical goal in mind but simply to chase the (currently) unattainable why. Mysteries are not meant to be worshiped but solved.

I have to disagree (on a basis other than the fact that this is way too “meta” for me).

No, it’s specifically not that I think that worship of anything is a good idea, nor do I think the mumbo-jumbo that passes for 21st Century spiritualism is any better. I am talking about why we create “mythos”, as opposed to simply seeing what we don’t understand as something we don’t understand. Yes, I think this was what was on Fritz’s mind, but the fly in the ointment is our initial perspective, our frame of reference. We create a “limbic universe”, and then fashion tools (mythos) to address it.

Karen Armstrong, in The Case for God, spends a good deal of time arguing mythos (here is a precis), and dozens of bloggers wrestle with the concept on a regular basis (here is just one example). But no matter which way one looks at the “battle” over mythos, it is, at its core, a duel over the fictive, an argument over whether we can effectively populate the universe with ghosts of our own emotional and juvenile angst.

Understanding the delusional nature of mythos does not mean that one seeks to undermine every ecstatic experience, every transcendental moment; it only means that one understands that the source of that moment is not part and parcel of some arcane knowledge-infused alien. Indeed, the “wow factor” increases dramatically when we cease and desist from writing ourselves into some magical yarn from which the universe is woven. We don’t need 20th Century revivals of medieval; mystery plays to grasp our place in the world (at least some few of us don’t, the rest, well I suppose the rest go to church).

So, mystery, the invented fluid in which Homo sapiens comes to understand the numinous, is specifically fashioned to be the focus of ritual.  It is the life-blood of every religious action, from the killing of the bull, to the taking of communion.


Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Work: Serious and Absurd

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**Below is the first in a two part series of essays about work and life. The second installment, much less serious and NSFW (not safe for work),  is also available on this site.

Such is the screwed up nature of our society that most of us spend more time with people we work with than then we do with our loved ones and friends. Sadly the nature of modern employment is that much of what we do, be it at the office, the store, or on the road is largely pointless.

As the anthropologist David Graeber correctly points out, most of us are employed in “bullshit jobs.” There are many reasons for this, but the two principle causes are technological determinism and the moral and political failure of governments and societies to sensibly integrate and offset gains and losses caused by technological advances for the well-being of society.

Japan is one of the few countries to have attempted a balanced approach to technological changes. Prior to their amalgamation in 2001 into the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, state agencies such as the Industrial Science and Technology Policy and Environment Bureau were influential in seeking sensible solutions to problems caused by technology. The ISTP worked in concert with many private and public agencies to identify prevailing economic trends and developments in manufacturing and science. With this knowledge the Japanese gradually wound down industries that were becoming obsolete and provided retraining to displaced workers in order that they could find jobs in new areas of employment.

Consequently, many socioeconomic problems caused by technology were mitigated against or ameliorated. Combined with extensive funding for research and development, Japan’s cohesive approach to science enabled the Japanese to overtake most world powers in the economic sphere during the post-World War II period.

Critics will argue that Japanese socioeconomic policies aren’t without their faults and in many cases they are correct. However, it can also be pointed out to those same critics that most western societies in the same period endured considerably more social unrest, higher unemployment and slower economic growth. This occurred because western societies allowed technological advances to be implemented without consideration for wider consequences.

Worse, these sweeping technological changes have been brutally aggravated by political attitudes. A historic case in point is the Thatcher government’s treatment of coal workers during the 1980’s. In fact since the 1970’s concerning technology and economic changes, most western governments have out of lazy ideological convictions outsourced these problems to the marketplace with disastrous consequences. The free-market reforms implemented by the IMF and World Bank in the former Soviet Eastern Bloc resulted in enormous hardship to those populations.

Richard Nixon’s destruction of the Bretton Woods Agreement contributed to massive world-wide inflation. The collapse of the US/Canada Auto Pact – the bedrock of Canada’s postwar industrial growth – and its replacement by NAFTA has led to high unemployment, inferior and costly telecommunications, reduced public transport and an increase in illegal drug imports across North America. Many Mexican farmers, forced to compete with subsidized US counterparts have turned from corn production to the cultivation of cash crops like marijuana, heroin and cocaine.

Protest groups such as Occupy Wall Street and far right populist movements are as much a response to political problems as to socioeconomic changes caused by technology. Writing in 1995, the philosopher Jeremy Rifkin accurately predicted the rise of such protest movements in his book The End of Work.

There isn’t a blanket solution to these problems but sensible points made by Rifkin and John Maynard Keynes are worth discussing. To start Keynes predicted that technology would reduce the work-week to fifteen hours by the beginning of the 21st century and as David Graeber correctly notes Keynes was right.

Rifkin suggests that a twenty hour work week where employees are paid for forty hours would sensibly reduce unemployment, stimulate demand for consumer goods, increase workplace productivity, reduce poverty and unburden overstretched health care systems. The result would be a happier, more socially engaged citizenry and a wealthier society.

Something

Save Us This Day, From Edumacators

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I could not resist purchasing this (rewritten Third Edition addressing the dramatic changes in education since 1950) in no small part because I was laughing so hard at UAA Instructors advising students not to use Wikipedia in composing answers to short answer/identification questions on take home finals (as if they were going to find usable answers in the horrendous texts employed, or the equally useless lecture notes afforded to the students ). The book was waiting for me on the UAA Consortium Library cast-offs cart for the stated price of $.25 and, as I said, I could not (would not) resist.

From quoting Commager, “No other people ever demanded so much of education as have the American. None other was ever served so well by its schools and educators” (93), the book moves to more realistic appraisals of the issues education in the U.S. face.

No agency but the school can provide the systemic, disciplined intellectual training required. This is, and always has been, the primary, indispensable funtion of the school. The nation is betrayed if the school shirks this responsbility or subordinates it to any other aim, however worthy in itself. The school exists to provide intellectual training, in every field of activity where systematic thinking is an important component of success * * * [but]  [a]n increasing number of public schools administrators and educational theorists today refuse to define the purposes of the school in terms of intellectual training or of recognized disciplines of science and scholarship (103, misciting Bestor, the cite for which can be found below ).

And Bestor’s take?  Well….

An inkling of what the educators mean ·when they propose to bring the great issues of public life down tb the level of what they call the “real-life problems of youth” is afforded by an elaborate report on The SchoolJ and National Security, which the Illinois Curriculum Program has recently published. The first task of the social studies, according to the d1apter devoted to them, is to “reduce the tensions and meet the needs of children and youth.” There are some starry-eyed promises about developing “a constructively critical attitude toward foreign policy” among pupils who, of. course, are not to be burdened with any useless knowledge of history or geography or foreign languages. And when the report gets down to specific classroom work, it solemnly sug­gests that the schools can serve the nation in its present, hour of peril by asking its students to “make studies of how the last war affected the dating pattern in our culture.”

But perhaps the best way to approach the book is its review in Educational Leadership via Lewis Carroll.

One who seeks definitive answers to educational problems may he disap­pointed in this book. One who seeks an organized departure point for thinking through many of the issues of secondary education will find this source very help­ful. Unlike the discussion of curriculum in Alice in Wonderland, this text deals with Modern Secondary Education in a realistic, straightforward, practical man­ner. And, as the Gryphon said in a very decided tone to Alice, “That’s enough about lessons.”

Maybe we have something to learn from Alexander and Saylor?


Alexander, William M., and J. Galen Saylor. Modern Secondary Education: Basic Principles and Practices. New York: Rinehart, 1959.
Bestor Jr., Arthur E. “Anti-Intellectualism in the Schools.” New Republic 128, no. 3 (January 19, 1953): 11. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=14557231&site=pov-live.
Bishop, Leslee. “Significant Books: Modern Secondary Education.” Educational Leadership 17, no. 4 (January 1960): 257–258. Accessed May 2, 2017. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/jan60/vol17/num04/toc.aspx.

A Less Modest Proposal

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Recently some folk have gotten their shorts in a twist because someone has the temerity to suggest that killing a 200 year old whale is not necessarily a good idea. Efforts to address those upset have been very unsuccessful because any word to suggest that Native harvest of whales should be challenged is labeled racism (which it, by definition, is not).

There is way too much emotive baggage, way too little reflection on issues underlying our cultural prejudices. Tribalism is inherent in Homo sapiens… we are virtually hard wired to be tribal as that provided some selective benefit as we evolved from under the shadows of the thunder lizards , but now it will kill us all. The harvest of marine mammals is still (and will likely become more of) a widely debated ethical decision (much as has happened with respect to pigs) as no human will die of lack of whale meat. The question is one of cultural relativism. If I eat children should I be allowed to continue eating children? Really. Why shouldn’t I eat your child? Or just mash it up as a blood sacrifice to my gods (which, after all, is not atypical for Homo sapiens)? While Dean Swift was being ironic when he penned “A Modest Proposal”, the point he makes is still very poignant, and the taking of marine mammals is as close to the dominionism now infecting our political culture.

If Critter A is hungry and he wants to eat another critter, he will run into some issues eventually, and he develops a credo that allows him to eat some (but not all) other critters. That credo, based largely on belief, is a matter of faith. You eat pig because you believe the pig is dumb, or you have some divine authority, or other excuse that applies to pig, but not dog, horse, or people. Many Neolithic and tribal cultures invent a mythology that results in their belief that their prey gives themselves freely to predator. This is, as suggested above, no far reach from dominionism.

Arguing that a specific cultural approach to life is inappropriate is not necessarily racist (and I think is rarely so, though humans are particularly inventive when it comes to being stupid). I think Female Genital Mutilation is horrific, yet I have no real qualms about Male Genital Mutilation… imagine that! Such cultural prejudices are endemic to Homo sapiens. At core it is now essentially a matter of faith. With the clash of cultures, questions will be asked, and I think that is appropriate – that is what Montesquieu was talking about when he discussed commerce, and the claims of “historical accident”, “cultural artifact”, or “religious tenet” can, and eventually will,  wear thin.


Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. 1729. https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/modest.html

The Real Theft: taxation versus the volatization of money

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Like other silly ideologies, libertarianism excels at creating slogans. Like libertarianism itself, slogans have the strength of an inflated balloon: there is an appearance of something solid but once the pin of logic is applied, what emerges is a lack of content.

One of the most common slogans of right-wing libertarians is the phrase “Taxation is theft.”

The phrase conveniently ignores the fact that in modern times what is allegedly being “stolen” isn’t private property to begin with. Neither is what is being allegedly “stolen” even real. More about that in a moment.

The phrase confirms the basic ignorance behind the purpose of taxation which isn’t to raise revenue. For that to happen, the government would have to charge the taxpayer interest on the money it created. What is the point of producing something for profit and loaning it out without charging a fee? If the government was engaged in that practice, we wouldn’t be talking about government taxation. We’d be talking about usury, an activity performed by every private commercial lending bank on the planet.

The purpose of taxation is to regulate aggregate demand. Since most people, (and we should assume most libertarians) are unfamiliar with the phrase let me put it another way.

When a government requests that each citizen provide a certain amount of a good or item each year, the effect is to create demand for that item. That item need not be money (which isn’t real to begin with). The item could be bananas, rubber, tin or diapers. If you think I’m mistaken consider the hut tax employed by the British in their African Colonies during the 19th century.

More importantly in modern times where tax is paid in currency (cash) the money that is being requested by the national treasury originated in the treasury in the first place. As the businessman and academic Warren Mosler succinctly puts it, “…the funds to pay taxes, from inception, come from government spending.”

Since the government issues the currency and requests that taxes be paid in that currency, the government has created a demand for that currency.

But why create the demand?

Because when there is a demand for an item, value for that item is created. In the case of money, demand for money creates a symbolic value for that currency. Taxation therefore is an intervention in the market-place for the public good.

And I say symbolic because as previously mentioned money is not real. It is a conscious agreement on measuring an abstract value. It can take many forms however the underlying value of money is determined by the abstract notion of trust. Here the history of Ireland provides a useful example.

In 1970 during a six month banker’s strike in Ireland where cash was in short supply, the Irish resolved the short term problem of cash-flow by creating their own currency. As journalist and historian Rutger Bregman notes the Irish:

… started issuing their own cash. After the bank closures, they continued writing checks to one another as usual, the only difference being that they could no longer be cashed at the bank. Instead, that other dealer in liquid assets – the Irish pub – stepped in to fill the void. At a time when the Irish still stopped for a pint at their local pub at least three times a week, everyone – and especially the bartender – had a pretty good idea who could be trusted. “The managers of these retail outlets and public houses had a high degree of information about their customers,” explains the economist Antoin Murphy. “One does not after all serve drink to someone for years without discovering something of his liquid resources.

In no time, people forged a radically decentralized monetary system with the country’s 11,000 pubs as its key nodes and basic trust as its underlying mechanism. By the time the banks finally reopened in November, the Irish had printed an incredible £5 billion in homemade currency. Some checks had been issued by companies, others were scribbled on the backs of cigar boxes, or even on toilet paper. According to historians, the reason the Irish were able to manage so well without banks was all down to social cohesion.

In essence what the Irish public did in 1970 is the same thing that governments do on a daily basis with banks: governments issue bonds which commercial banks lend to the public at interest, thus expanding the money supply. Taxation ensures a minimal level of demand for the currency, thus adding symbolic value to what is otherwise worthless paper. As a medium of exchange, money has value. However as the Irish demonstrated, it holds an abstract value.

Since money is neither a private good nor real, the argument that taxation is theft is nonsense. It is symptomatic of the poor health of a society when it starts believe that money is a concrete good. The result is cash hoarding and rent-seeking behaviours which undermine the practical value of money as a vehicle for meaningful investment in areas of the economy that promote growth. As economist and finance expert Rana Foroohar points out:

…only around 15% of the money flowing from financial institutions actually makes its way into business investment. The rest gets moved around a closed financial loop, via the buying and selling of existing assets, like real estate, stocks, and bonds.

In essence, most financial exchanges in the money markets are concerned with spinning paper to no practical use in the wider economy.

Like other narrow-minded ideologues, libertarians are either consciously or unconsciously blind to the greater injustice that occurs in the money markets: the volatilization of money.

For those unfamiliar with the term this occurs when a bank takes its customers (those who deposit money in their bank accounts) funds and uses them to invest in abstract assets like stocks bonds and real estate, while simultaneously avoiding investing those deposits (through loans) to the businesses that create concrete goods services and most importantly jobs.

As noted earlier, only fifteen percent of the money from financial institutions ever reaches the real economy. The rest is creamed off in dividends and interest – rent seeking – by the non-productive sectors of society.

Not only does this represent real theft but a wider violence towards society.

But that might not fit so well into a libertarian sound-bite.


Further Reading:

On Warren Mosler and money supply: http://moslereconomics.com/wp-content/powerpoints/7DIF.pdf

On taxation in Africa during the Colonial Period : https://global.oup.com/academic/product/taxing-colonial-africa-9780199661527?cc=ca&lang=en&

On Ireland:http://evonomics.com/why-garbage-men-should-earn-more-than-bankers/

On Investment: http://evonomics.com/financialization-hidden-

War, Korea and reality: an historical reflection

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In my previous post “Reflections on War and Reality” I described how in the 20th century nationalist movements in South-east Asia used communism as a legitimizing philosophy. In particular Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Mao-Tze Tung of China interpreted Marxist philosophy in a manner that appealed to local nationalists thus garnering widespread popular support.

As a friend reminded me just before the article was published, Ho Chi Minh was well known to the United States and the West. He had implored the Big Four to recognize Vietnam’s right to self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Later he served as an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) during World War II. In the latter role he helped lead the anti-Japanese resistance in French Indochina. When the Allies refused to recognize Vietnamese demands for independence from France, Ho Chi Minh became the leader of a national resistance to colonial rule.

Ho’s story is worth revisiting since it contains parallels to a similar communist East Asian figure – one who like Ho would become a pariah in the eyes of the Western World. His name was Kim Il Sung and he would rise to become the first president of an independent North Korea.

Like Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung grew up in the shadow of imperialism. In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan. Kim’s parents were active in the anti-Japanese resistance but were forced to flee to Manchuria. There Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party and later joined the Communist guerillas in their fight against the invading Japanese Army. After a long and brutal campaign, Kim and some surviving guerillas fled to the Soviet Union. There Kim and his comrades were re-trained by the Red Army and Kim eventually rose to the rank of army major.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Kim returned to Korea and established the Korean People’s Army. With the support of China and the Soviet Union he took control over the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile South Korea became an independent entity led by the American trained and backed Syngman Rhee.

Both Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee were repressive strongmen backed by rival superpowers. Yet both men were representative of a broader Korean nationalism. Where they differed was how that ideology should be expressed and to what end: A worker’s dictatorship or a hierarchical capitalist oligarchy. Eventually, their differing visions led to all-out war between the North and South.

When a widespread insurgency against Rhee’s government broke out in the South in 1950, Kim saw an opportunity to untie the two Koreas. Initially the North possessed greater firepower and in a matter of months, they had conquered most of the peninsula. But for U.S. intervention, the North would have completely overrun the South. Instead, the U.S. President Truman sent an American Army commanded by the increasingly unstable Douglas MacArthur to Korea, supported by a multi-national force including British, Canadian and ANZAC troops operating under the auspices of the United Nations.

MacArthur and the UN Forces routed Kim’s armies, prompting China to intervene on behalf of North Korea. In turn the Chinese drove the American-led coalition back to the 38th Parallel, where a truce between the North and South was agreed. A full armistice between the two sides was delayed at first by an intransigent Syngman Rhee, who even went as far to say that should the US pressure South Korea into an armistice, he would order the UN and American Forces out of Korea so that the South’s armies could die fighting the enemy alone. Finally in July 1953, both sides laid down their arms.

However the stalemate at the 38th Parallel did not result in a peace treaty. Instead every morning since the armistice of July 27th 1953, officers from both the North and South meet in order to agree to another twenty four hour extension to the truce.

Relations between the two Koreas remained tense up until the 1990’s. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim proved more moderate than his father. In 1998 he initiated the Sunshine Policy intended to improve relations with the South. South Korean companies were allowed to bid on contracts in the North. A rail-service between the two states opened for the first time since the Korean War.

Relations with the West also improved. In an agreement with the Clinton Administration, North Korea agreed to curb its development of nuclear weapons. Relations between the Koreas, the US and China were on the path to normalcy. To help facilitate better relations, the US agreed to sell fuel oil and other commodities to the North.
However that agreement was never finalised. In 2000, US President George W Bush came to power bringing with him to the White House the Manichean world view of the neo-conservative lobby. Clinton’s agreement with Pyongyang was thrown out. In response North Korea resumed its pursuit of the nuclear bomb – and by 2006 it had procured it.

North Korea carried out four more nuclear tests between 2006 and 2016 and on each occasion the responses from its neighbors and the West were full of bellicose rhetoric. George W Bush described North Korea in silly terms. North Korea was part of the “axis of evil” he said and Richard Perle who served as on the Pentagon’s National Security Council regularly used the word “evil” when discussing North Korea with journalists. The hypocrisy of Perle, Rumsfeld and Cheney regarding the issue was striking considering neo-conservative connivance with dictators in the Middle East and Latin America under Reagan. As a Clinton Administration diplomat described the Bush Administration’s stance on North Korea, the Republicans didn’t have a policy on North Korea –they had an attitude.

The ideology of the Bush presidency trumped common-sense and objective reality when it came to North Korea’s actual nuclear capabilities. Eleven years after North Korea’s first nuclear test, Pyongyang hardly has an effective nuclear arsenal. What weapons it possesses are insignificant in number (perhaps a dozen) compared to those in the possession of the US and China (around 4000 and 600, respectively).

The drive behind North Korea’s quest for nuclear capability is motivated less by military considerations than simple economics and domestic politics. North Korea suffers from a shortage of energy and trade. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s she has also suffered chronic food shortages. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a loss of a vital trading partner. China’s development of her own extensive coal and oil reserves has lowered the demand for imports of North Korean coal. South Korea too has enjoyed an economic boom.
Compounding matters is Kim Jong Un’s unpopularity at home. He is the first North Korean President born after 1950 and cannot claim the same lofty status as his father and grandfather.

What a sensible observer in the period of the Sunshine Policy and beyond would have recognized was the opportunity help end Pyongyang’s isolation. They would also have acknowledged the late Kim Jong Il’s admiration for China’s modernization efforts and interpreted his pronouncements as an opportunity to assist North Korea with meaningful economic reforms. Trade between the North and South might have been encouraged and with that trade a normalization of relations between the two Koreas and an eventual peace treaty might have occurred.

But instead of a sensible, measured policy towards Pyongyang, the US offered ramped up militarism. Under Bush, American troops participated in war-games with Taiwan, annoying China and by extension alarming North Korea. Instead of diplomatic overtures, Bush and the neo-cons talked of “regime change.” Once again the Hermit Kingdom retreated into itself.
Under Barack Obama, a measure of sanity was restored to US-North Korean relations, yet the fundamental issues driving North Korea’s quest for nuclear power were ignored by the West. Kim Jong Il’s death brought his son Kim Jong Un to power and with him a hardened attitude towards the rest of the world.

Yet looking beyond the bluster of Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric a picture emerges of a rather insecure and immature man, unsure of his position and willing to engage in compensating behaviors such as military displays and absurd pronouncements regarding North Korea’s military power. Sensible diplomacy with this in mind would do wonders for relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors.

But as in 2000, 2016 has brought with it another missed opportunity in the form of US President Donald J. Trump. Like Kim Jong Un, Trump displays a narcissistic insecurity and a penchant for bellicose and silly rhetoric. Neither Trump nor his cabinet possess the necessary understanding of history or the tact to address North Korea’s issues or concerns about its own security.

Like the administration of George W Bush, Trump’s cabinet makes up for a lack of policy with a cavalier attitude. This was on display Friday April 14th when with typical vague bluster Trump stated to reporters “North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of.” On Fox Business News he said “We are sending an armada. Very powerful” and of Kim “He is doing the wrong thing. He’s making a big mistake.” Incapable of self-reflection, Trump clearly missed the irony of this last statement.

These statements also indicate the idiocy of current administration policy towards Pyongyang. Threatening pre-emptive action against North Korea in the event of further nuclear weapon’s tests ignores the reality of Pyongyang’s weakness as well as overestimating the extent of US military power to deliver on those threats. Much of North Korea’s military infrastructure was built underground in anticipation of enemy airstrikes. North Korea’s topography is mountainous and heavily forested providing additional protection against any “precision” aerial bombardment. Limited airstrikes against North Korea would accomplish little. Meanwhile, Pyongyang possesses enough conventional artillery to level most of the South Korean capital Seoul in a matter of minutes. Civilian casualties would be enormous in the event of that bombardment.

There is also China and its formidable military to consider, yet the White House has stated that it is prepared to act with its allies against North Korea without Chinese support.
Yet all of the above can be avoided once the past is considered and the meaning behind Kim’s rhetoric is understood. However despite decades of bluster from North Korea, Trump the reality TV president seems unable to differentiate talking tough from being tough and to comprehend North Korea’s actual economic and military reality. A truly strong and sensible leader would work to de-escalate tensions and seek a long term solution to East Asia’s security concerns. However Trump, himself a blusterer, is playing the role of president instead of behaving with common-sense.

The moral vacuum that is the Trump Administration was put on display earlier in the week when Syria was bombarded by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles and the largest conventional bomb in the US arsenal was detonated in Afghanistan.

Like Bush’s war-games with Taiwan in the early 2000’s the effect of these acts on Pyongyang has been considerable. In the face of an equally insecure and narcissistic American President, Kim Jong Un feels compelled to escalate his own silly self-serving behaviours. His planned nuclear test, intended to coincide with the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday, is a show of force to prove to the North Korean population that he is a strong leader and equal to his grandfather. Seen for what it really is the act while disreputable is insignificant in the broader international sense. However in the mind of an immature US President, Kim’s nonsense is something to be taken seriously.

There is an irony that both Trump and Kim Jong Un share an identical characteristic: they are both unpopular in their home nations and fearful of their political legitimacy.

Like that of Vietnam, Korean history has been shaped and scarred by attitudes both foreign and domestic. The Ancient Chinese believed Korea to be a disobedient child. The Japanese condescendingly viewed Koreans as their “little brothers”.  The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 was aggravated by Western attitudes towards communism and local animosities between Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee. The current crisis between the US and North Korea is based on a dangerous combination of ignorance, insensitivity and boorishness. Assuming that there is a de-escalation of tensions, those who will claim victory will be Trump and Kim Jong Un for standing firm.

Ho Chi Mihn – 1946

Yet the true victors of this grubby fiasco will be China for winning the diplomatic victory and holding the moral high ground, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe, an outspoken Japanese militarist will use the crisis to drum up support for rebuilding the Japanese military along Imperial lines. From there arises the potential for a case to be made for Japan to possess its own nuclear deterrent to counter both China and North Korea.
Since Japan’s economy is faltering and its population dropping, Abe’s resort to militarism is a logical step for an unimaginative character who has failed to address Japan’s economic woes. These failings will be glossed over by his stance towards North Korea: another example of a politician acting tough.

In the meantime, and until the latest crisis is resolved, the fate of millions hangs in the balance – assuming of course that the reality of their predicament is considered at all by our political leaders.