edit: The first commenter made a very salient point, that my train of thought is quite incomplete at the end. There were a few paragraphs missing – hopefully I’ve managed to remedy this.
I have not often strayed into discussing the directly political, but I am gradually understanding that if I want to pretend to be an agent of change, I have to face facts. The slow, creeping resignation that changing society means more than just changing minds has forced me to stop and take stock of what I really believe when it comes to the role of government and the purpose of law. Politics isn’t easy conversation, but I’ve found that practice truly does make genuine discussion more viable over time. Primal emotions are accessed very rapidly as core values are placed at odds, and my knee-jerk response to toss away respect for others has to be tamed in light of the very constant reality that I really won’t find many people in the world that agree with me about everything. It’s the joy and curse of individuality.
It’s strange to rediscover what it feels like to have a moral zeal for something like, say, global warming – an issue I once believed wasn’t happening at all – and to now find myself gravely concerned for the future of the human race because of it. I’d changed my mind about it a few years back, but I didn’t quite get the “big deal” factor until more recently. It started by watching nature documentaries (if you want to feel emotional about global warming, watch a polar bear try to hunt walrus because it can’t find land), but relentlessly consuming TED talks and working with brand new ecology manuscripts every day has exposed me to a lot of really potent research. Statistics are cheap, but having a glimpse into the excruciating amount of detail and thought driving the process gives meaning to otherwise anonymous numbers.
As that old fire of urgency is kindled, I find myself asking what to do. Part of my recent perspective shift stresses that I am just one person among many people, an infinitesimally small dot in the overall scheme of the universe. I firmly hold to the principle of live and let live. Yet, if certain things are as true as I believe they are, I would be failing my convictions to not seek to influence the institutions with the most potential and theoretical capability to conduct the necessary change. I am not comfortable with the idea of proselytization or of seeking out converts, but I am confident enough in the truth of my beliefs that they can survive – and even thrive – in the heat of rational discourse.
The unfortunate reality is that rational discourse doesn’t scale well. The Internet is the closest we’ve come to making structured and informed debate possible en-mass, but the future is not currently looking bright for the democritization of information. Sweden is turning its back on Julian Assange, three-strikes bills are vigorously persisting in France and New Zealand, Australia and China have maintained and strengthened their Great Firewalls for several years now, net neutrality continues to be left out in the cold, and America is now considering its own federal blacklist. The situation looks bad; most people don’t know, and many of those that do, don’t care.
I’m not the first young person in the history of our species to feel like the world is going down the drain. It’s a symptom of youth to feel the drama of humanity as being overwhelming and imminent, which is also why young people move fast and get things done. Knowing this, I feel a pressure to start moving, but in what direction? There seems to be a limited number of options for expressing dissent in an effectual manner. Really, I’m not much for protest. Moving and inspirational as it might be, established institutions have no incentive to listen if the people protesting don’t hold a critical part of their power. In some cases, the people do have the necessary influence – boycotts against businesses are extremely effective (sup Rosa Parks), but only if those businesses aren’t a monopoly. Comcast is an excellent example of what happens when people protest against monopolies: nothing. In a similar, but darker vein, there’s evidence to suggest that last year’s protests in Iran actually made life worse overall – the government simply had no reason to give a damn, and they had all the power necessary to shut the resistance down. In short, it appears that outright protest only works when alternatives exist. For the institutions most in need of change, that is not the case. Regardless of how many political parties we have (or don’t have), at the end of the day there’s only one government for each nation. That’s the one we have to work with.
For a while, libertarianism looked like a possible solution. Businesses are robust and agile, capable of adapting to a large variety of challenges across an extremely short time span. By contrast, government is lumbering and slow, out of touch with the Zeitgeist and disabled by its own tapestry of red tape. There is a very real appeal in the notion that money is voting. It means we get to vote with every purchase we make. A critical flaw exists, however. Most of the world does not have money, and their poverty and powerlessness is the fuel by which the world’s wealthiest operate. They don’t care, and they have no incentive to because they already have all the capital they’ll ever need. That is the nature of a financial morality. It’s not that corporations are objectively more evil than the little guy; the farmers cutting down the tropical forests of South America might not be a part of a large organization, but their impact on the health of the rainforest is at least as alarming as BP poisoning the Gulf. We’re all responsible, in one way or another. We live in a globalized world, now.
History has already happened, and while it is tempting to spend a great deal of time mourning the mistakes and injustice of the past, we have to keep moving forward. The reality of our existence today is that people will always do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. For a fisherman, if that means fishing until the nets come up empty, that’s what he’s going to do. He has no incentive to care that Bluefin Tuna are on the brink of extinction, because he has a family to feed. Perhaps if he knew how important the fish were to the ecosystem of the oceans, and he had an alternative source of income – another way to provide for his family that didn’t come at the cost of nature – it wouldn’t be so much of an issue. This isn’t just idealism. It’s an observable quality of human nature and the chief lesson of sociology: humans are fundamentally social creatures, and the culture we are raised in is the menu of opportunity from which we can choose. As we distance ourselves from nature, surrounding ourselves with objects made by us which exist solely for us, we become responsible for what these creations press us to become, even as we are unaware of the true depth of their affect upon us.
American individuality scorns the idea that we are controlled by anything and anyone but ourselves, but history and biology tell us a very different story. Much of our personalities and behaviors were determined long before we were born. The seeds of our identity were planted by our ancestors, and we never had a say in any of it. We have been born into an exceedingly complex system of overlapping social forces – friends, families, religions, cultures, and governments – that have existed for all of recorded history, and will go on long after we have died. We can pretend that we are self-made (an idea which is itself an influence upon our ideologies and behaviors), but when all is said and done, we are the product of an equation whose formula we do not fully know or understand. However, we’re presented with the chance to tweak the variables that determine the outcome of future generations.
I’ll set the backdrop for my next point with a personal note. When I was younger, I had very elaborate fantasies with epic outcomes when I anticipated serious conversations – arguments with parents, debates with friends, or confessions of affection to crushes. In my imagination, I’d deliver a sick burn, a witty retort, or something entrancingly romantic. The other person would be shocked and surprised and everything would change. More often than not, however, my nervousness overcame my hubris, what came out at the time of reckoning was half as good as I wanted, and the other person was not nearly as dumb as my fantasy required them to be. Though I was robbed of the epic victory I longed for, those exchanges were still meaningful and important, initiating growth and change in small and unforeseen ways. Similarly, I often desire to see swift and revolutionary change in the world. I imagine an epic turning point with every law that is passed. The goodness of life itself is at stake with every bill that is won or lost. The despair of watching the recent election was twice as strong as the joy I felt at the release of the quarter-million diplomatic cables. This imbalance pushes me to demand immediate change. How can we wait while the world goes wrong and injustices are being perpetrated across the globe? Needless suffering is going on everywhere, greedy men are increasing in power – I can start making the world a better place right now! Yet, that change is simply never going to happen overnight. Realistically, it will be slow, mixed with victories and setbacks over a long period of time. That’s the trade-off of living in a society where it’s not okay to murder or censor people I disagree with.
I didn’t always believe that laws meant much. Since I spent most of my childhood on a computer, on the Internet, I never felt like anything I did was under the jurisdiction of what the big-wigs of the government had to say. My life consisted in activities that were still unregulated and unknown to the general populace, and the communities I participated in were hostile to any legislation that placed limitations on expressions of technical skill or the sharing of any information, period. The Internet, to me, was untouchable by the authorities because the individuals creating and sharing content were always a step ahead of the opposition. I don’t think I was alone in this attitude, either. Discussions about upcoming legislation were filled with mockery and dismissal. Politicians were all weak, easy to make fun of, and swiftly undermined. That changed, for me, when the founders of the Pirate Bay lost. And lost again. The bureaucracy actually had power to take something away that I cared about which once seemed invulnerable. As my favorite Cracked writer, David Wong, once wrote: ”Yes, it turns out there’s a reason the Wild West didn’t stay wild. The gunslingers loved it, but the other 99% of the world wanted laws and security and highways. And they were the ones with the money.”
I wondered why more people didn’t care. The defeat of the Pirate Bay wasn’t sad because I wanted free stuff; it was sad because it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology we’ve created. The men and women responsible for governing our societies, even in Sweden, were not educated in the details enough to understand what was at stake. How could they make the appropriate decision without the necessary information? I realized that this was not just the plight of tech law, but of all law. Everywhere, legislation has been driven by greed, religious idealism, and a vague notion of “common sense”, rather than real research, hard science, and critical analysis.
The world is exceedingly complex. Even the most brilliant minds end up being experts in just a handful of subjects amidst an overwhelmingly diverse landscape of potential knowledge. Human society consists of layer upon layer of unwritten and unspoken rules that must be delicately navigated just to find stability, and conquered to achieve progress. These systems are not self-evident, and without assistance, we are little better than Neanderthals smashing alien technology against a rock. We need education. Education is to progress as food and water are to survival.
I believe the best society is the one that is built for self-improvement. The educated individuals – and I refer here to a holistic education, not just the skeleton of learning we find in America’s cubicle worker factories – are most capable of self improvement, and may even possess the ability to impart that power to their peers. All other challenges are distractions from the process of education, and should be resolved to enable them to participate fully and without restraint in their education. To achieve this, health care must be universally accessible and affordable. Transportation must be consistent and reliable. Food and water must be healthy and clean. Crime cannot be allowed to interfere with daily life. All of these are mundane and inglorious parts of life, but popular culture has helped us forget that the majority of humanity’s efforts are consumed simply in sustaining life. We talk about athletes and actresses all day, but it’s the plumbers and electricians, the teachers and professors, the engineers and scientists that actually have the biggest impact on our lives. As the unsustainability of our lifestyle begins to unveil, it’s apparent that we’ve forgotten how much it takes to make our world go round. Despite this, a mere fraction of our wealth in America finds its way towards public works. We are put afloat by the poverty of the third world, and year by year we’re emulating that poverty at home.
The world is in trouble. Our consumption is multiple levels beyond sustainable, and our habitat can only handle it for a few more decades before we start seeing a permanent global breakdown. Technology will not save us on its own – individual habits (in America and across the globe) have to change in order for us to prosper in the 22nd century. Education is the only way to bring that change. Therefore, whatever system of government enables the education we so desperately need is the swiftest path to prosperity.
This is why I am a socialist. Specifically, I’m talking about socialist democracies, such as might be found in Germany and Scandinavia. The many social support systems critical to guaranteeing opportunity are expensive, and extremely heavy taxation is necessary to properly fund them. Most of the systems we utilize and depend upon in our daily life are ubiquitous; institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, public transit, energy distribution, and waste disposal function as monopolies in free market scenarios anyways. The competition from the free market that drives the innovation and efficiency of businesses results in a frightening display of utilitarianism in public service sectors. The first priority of a hospital should not be to check an insurance card. Prisons should not profit from high recidivism. What these institutions need – aside from better funding – is regulation. The democratic process should not be pitted against market forces in the attempt to ensure quality human services. Making relatively unabusable services communal drastically increases efficiency while also simplifying the mechanics of funding and upgrading them as time goes on. Lastly, any public entity can be made completely transparent. I’m not a fool – I know that corruption will be found wherever power is to be had, but there’s a reason that Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are consistently found to have the least governmental corruption. That’s the power of having an educated public, capable of holding its leaders accountable.
All of these systems comprise a huge investment in citizens that may not pay off. It’s all done in the hope that citizens will take hold of their destiny, transforming into productive members of society. There will be freeloaders and swindlers, but no modern society has yet found a practical solution for them. They exist even in the poorest and most chaotic of nations. The exception to the rule is not an invalidation of the rule, and I believe a good education is the best safeguard against such villains. It’s a risk, but starting the relationship between citizen and state on a note of trust rather than fear sends a much more positive message – one of respect and humanity. It sets the stage for a more civil exchange. These countries are not perfect, and I am not claiming socialism is the panacea to society’s problems. America is a huge country with a diverse population, faced with problems on a scale that few other countries have to deal with. What works for one nation is not necessarily going to work anywhere else. I highly doubt that America will ever know socialism as Europe or Asia has known it. This doesn’t stop me from doing whatever I can to encourage what I believe to be the most efficient method of handling and distributing resources for the maintenance of human life in a manner that the earth is capable of supporting, while guaranteeing that future generations are prepared to keep humanity on the path of progress.
It’s not about entitlement. The argument that humans have a natural right to free everything is simply not valid. The human species is less than a stone’s throw away from chimps, and I am not about to argue that they deserve anything we have. No, my argument is meant to be logical. I am arguing for the well-being of the most influential force in our lives: the environment, as it exists both in nature, and with our peers. If we raise the bottom line, everyone benefits. Poverty drags everyone down. It is the greatest multiplier of all of humanity’s challenges: pollution, overpopulation, disease, crime, and so many other maladies of the world. We can overcome it with education, and by making sure people have what they need to succeed in that education. Without education, a child born in poverty is nearly always destined for poverty. It does not have to be this way, especially when that poverty was created by the over-consumption that now threatens the earth. We are swaddled in unnecessary convenience that comes at a price we don’t have to pay, but our children and grandchildren will.
I’m done with mystical platitudes and anachronistic principles. I just want humanity to live long enough to build colonies on Mars.
Wicked bumping dance track. Had it on repeat the whole time I was writing this.