Political Yeti: Of Ethics and Laws, Or Creating Something Better than the Bullshit Neo-liberal Kakistocracy Running Rampant in the 21st Century

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We hold no truths self-evident. There are in fact no Truths, in the same way that there is no Creator. There is a social contract, which is based on utilitarian principles. The rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few.

Not that there’s such a thing as Rights either. Nothing is unalienable; hence the need for a social contract. Which is what I’m starting to explore here.

It’s 2017. We live at the height of the neo-liberal nightmare. It’s probable that it will change dramatically in our lifetimes, but unfortunately it’s more likely to get worse than better. And with the twin specters of nuclear war and climate change, there are chances it can get much worse.

While many Americans see the rise of Trump as indication of end times, I suspect they missed their diagnosis by at least fifty years. (It’s been a nightmare at least since Nixon, and probably since the end of the Second World War. And honestly thinking about the presidents of the 18 and 19th century, it’s not like that was a golden age either.) The elites have been running things for a long time, getting their way for a long time. Number 45 isn’t a sudden sign of a sickness, he’s an inevitable point in the decay of a decadent society. I wonder if future generations, should there be any, will look back on now as the time that the sickness of greed overran all else.

Back to building a better society. The Jefferson quote got me to thinking. Obviously the Bill of Rights is outdated. Of course it is. Written in 1789, it predates The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by years and Last of the Mohicans by decades, for instance. And it shows its age. The Right to Bear Arms, for one, was meant for people to own muskets in order to defend against British. It was not meant for citizens to arm themselves with automatic weapons or wear pistols to Walmart. It sort of amuses/alarms me to think what Thomas Jefferson and friends would think of the NRA and its ilk.

Likewise the third amendment is an anachronistic snapshot. But what’s striking about the Bill of Rights, kind of like the 10 Commandments, is what is missing.

Compared with the 33 other member states of the OECD , the US ranks consistently at the bottom on health indicators and has the second highest child poverty rate. Of all these OECD countries, the life expectancy in only three countries -Hungary, Mexico and Turkey – is lower than that in the US, and only Mexico has a higher homicide rate.

In related news, compared with these countries, the US has the greatest concentration of wealth, as measured by the share of the wealth held by the top 1%. The US has been found wanting in many key areas and recommendations from the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights:

• Ratify international human rights treaties;
• Implement safeguards against torture;
• Combat racial discrimination;
• Continue progress implementing rights of LGBTI people;
• Combat racial discrimination;
• Ensure surveillance is consistent with international human rights law;
• Ensure due process for migrants;
• Provide for safe abortion;
• Reduce poverty;
• Ensure women are paid equally as men for the same work;
• End child labor on farms;
• End various forms of inequality;
• Abolish the death penalty; and
• Implement measures against excessive use of force by police.

Just that? Okay that seems pretty monumental. Let’s start with something easier. More basically, most constitutions around the world guarantee some very basic things, including:

“the right to shelter”;
the “right to safe work environment”;
“equal pay for equal work”;
“human rights”;
“the right to a free education”;
a “right to health care”;
“the right to work”;
“the right to dignity”;
the “right to join trade unions.”

Even that low bar is highly controversial and would be fought tooth-and-nail both high and low by many Americans. I suspect the American people are too controlled, the masses have too many opiates for any kind of major change.

So what do you think? How would you rebuild the Bill of Rights, if you were starting a new country? Because the ethical underpinnings of the Western World comes from a 3000 year old mythology, it might be advisable to incorporate some ethics into our legal document too. From a mishmash of “New Commandments” here are some that I think could be useful.

1. Respect Life. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
2. Be open minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
3. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
4. Every person has the right to have control over their body.
5. Treat others not as you would want them to treat you but how they want to be treated. Don’t assume that what you and others have the same expectations. There is no one right way to live. Think about their perspective.
7. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
8. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
9. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
10. Always seek to be learning something new.
11. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
12. Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or their color.
13. Do not ever even think of using people as private property.
14. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
Learn to obey before you command.
15. Make reason your supreme commander.
16. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
17. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
18. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
19. There is no universal moral truth. Our experiences and preferences shape our sense of how to behave.
20. Treat the earth and all that dwell there on with respect.

It’s not the concise ten, but on the other hand neither are half of them about which sky spirit to worship. And there is a bit of overlap. When we’re making our country, we’ll try to be more precise.

So that’s the start of my new country. A blend of new age ethics underscored by basic rights as defined by what most other countries do. What do you think?

Sources
Bill of Rights needs Revising
10 better Commandments
New Commandments

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6 responses to “Political Yeti: Of Ethics and Laws, Or Creating Something Better than the Bullshit Neo-liberal Kakistocracy Running Rampant in the 21st Century

  1. So much to talk about. For example:

    We hold no truths self-evident. There are in fact no Truths, in the same way that there is no Creator. There is a social contract, which is based on utilitarian principles. The rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few.

    I’m not sure I’m wholly comfortable with “The rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few,” for example. Rather, I’d prefer my utilitarianism to be about maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. But even then, how we define happiness and suffering is difficult. People are attacking that scholar Tuvel by saying her writing is “violent”—using a word like “male genitalia” is apparently violent if you talking about trans people, now, in some circles.

    Not that there’s such a thing as Rights either. Nothing is unalienable; hence the need for a social contract. Which is what I’m starting to explore here.

    Well, I’ve always taken it to mean, “We proclaim the useful fiction of rights, and the rules by which we read this fiction include that some of those rights are inalienable.” The advantage of a rights framework, in 2017, is that it invokes outrage where a “violation of the social contract” doesn’t, exactly. We’re pretty accustomed to violations of social contract, but, say, “human rights violations” draw real ire.

    It’s 2017. We live at the height of the neo-liberal nightmare. It’s probable that it will change dramatically in our lifetimes, but unfortunately it’s more likely to get worse than better. And with the twin specters of nuclear war and climate change, there are chances it can get much worse.

    Not to mention the growth of illiberal democracy (pioneered by South Korea, among others!) and, apart from climate change, the general toxification of the planet. (Like the air we breathe over here, or the vast amounts of formalin in the Han river.)

    While many Americans see the rise of Trump as indication of end times, I suspect they missed their diagnosis by at least fifty years. (It’s been a nightmare at least since Nixon, and probably since the end of the Second World War. And honestly thinking about the presidents of the 18 and 19th century, it’s not like that was a golden age either.) The elites have been running things for a long time, getting their way for a long time. Number 45 isn’t a sudden sign of a sickness, he’s an inevitable point in the decay of a decadent society.

    That’s something I’ve wondered about, but I also think he can be an accelerator, depending on how badly things go. Things could fall apart much more quickly because of what’s going on now—the number of unprecedented shit going down at the moment—and it’s far from guaranteed a collapse would allow for the rebuilding of something better; collapse doesn’t always end in ruin, after all. Sometimes it ends in prolonged catastrophe. (Something more like what we get in, say, the CCP’s long-term control, or what people ended up with in Myanmar. It’s not all the decline and fall of Rome, or the fall of mid-century European fascism.)

    I wonder if future generations, should there be any, will look back on now as the time that the sickness of greed overran all else.

    I don’t know. I think it depends how far in the future they are, and how much history they read. Chances are, I think, they’ll see the whole American take on things as being akin to the Georgian era in England: people sort of clueless about economics, being screwed and impoverished by bankers and rich elites, but also actively fighting against the very things that might have improved their lives. (Health care now, the Bow Street Runners in 1750.)

    Back to building a better society. The Jefferson quote got me to thinking. Obviously the Bill of Rights is outdated. Of course it is. Written in 1789, it predates The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by years and Last of the Mohicans by decades, for instance. And it shows its age. The Right to Bear Arms, for one, was meant for people to own muskets in order to defend against British. It was not meant for citizens to arm themselves with automatic weapons or wear pistols to Walmart. It sort of amuses/alarms me to think what Thomas Jefferson and friends would think of the NRA and its ilk.

    Ha, no kidding. And of course anyone remotely like Jefferson in America today—playing the violin, speaking French and reading Latin—would be attacked as an “elitist” anyway. (To say nothing of wigs and stockings.)

    I was trying to write about Korea’s election, and how the winner, though he’s a “leftist” in Korean terms, also basically spouted homophobic crap during one of the Presidential debates. Human rights lawyer, “progressive” candidate, but he said, “I oppose homosexuality; I just don’t think they should be discriminated against.” WTF does that mean?

    That got me thinking about the whole issue of rights in Korea. South Korea’s actually really good in its record on supporting human rights in votes at the U.N.: anti-discrimination for LGBTQ people, anti-racial discrimination, anti-sexual discrimination against women, upholding the rights of children, the whole shebang.

    But in fact, there’s been little effort to safeguard the equality, safety, and rights of any of those groups in actual practice in Korea. The HIV and drug tests you’ll be forced to take when you arrive here? They violate your human rights (as ratified by South Korea at the U.N.) *and* the rights granted to all in South Korea by its constitution, and that’s just one example. South Korea has failed to actually follow through on many of those human rights treaties that it has ratified, or to abide by them in new laws.

    Which is to say that the US may fail to ratify treaties and sign on to agreements, but even if it did so, that’d be no guarantee of follow-through. So, as you say, “Most constitutions around the world guarantee some basic things” like these:

    “the right to shelter”;
    the “right to safe work environment”;
    “equal pay for equal work”;
    “human rights”;
    “the right to a free education”;
    a “right to health care”;
    “the right to work”;
    “the right to dignity”;
    the “right to join trade unions.”

    … but I wonder how much follow-through actually exists on those promises. Certainly where we live, there’s a right to join trade unions, but the government and businesses have constantly resorted to violent (and illegal) suppression of unions. Yeah, even now. The right to shelter: people are removed forcibly from their homes in shiny redevelopment programs in Seoul pretty routinely. Equal pay for equal work, yes, but women don’t get promoted to the official position where they’re ostensibly doing “equal work”. As for dignity: I wouldn’t know where to begin to ask how one measures it.

    Even that low bar is highly controversial and would be fought tooth-and-nail both high and low by many Americans. I suspect the American people are too controlled, the masses have too many opiates for any kind of major change.

    This seems true. And that sort of opiates have also been exported to a lot of the rest of the world, unfortunately.

    So what do you think? How would you rebuild the Bill of Rights, if you were starting a new country? Because the ethical underpinnings of the Western World comes from a 3000 year old mythology, it might be advisable to incorporate some ethics into our legal document too. From a mishmash of “New Commandments” here are some that I think could be useful.

    Uh Oh. The problem with these is… well, let’s look at your #1 commandment:

    1. Respect Life. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

    Progressives see that and think, “The environment. Species diversity. The future. Climate change.” Conservatives? They’re going to see, “Abortion should be illegal.” Respect Life, that wording, is going to point inexorably there, and even if you point at #4 and #5, they’ll insist that Respect Life means Respecting Unborn Children’s Lives, too.

    Some of the other commandments seem to fall prey to the intentional fallacy: how do we know someone’s perspective *is* valid? How do we know if someone’s freely admitting and regretting wrongdoing, versus playing us? And are you sure there’s no wrong way to live?

    I’m pretty sure there are. For example, the Gorean (as in, Gor novel real life slave-owner) who preys upon sexual/physical/psychological abuse survivors, convincing them to “choose slavery” instead of working to help them get the treatment that might allow them to overcome their traumas. Or, you know, the K.K.K. member. I frankly don’t give a fuck about the perspective of a K.K.K. member.

    Which is why, though I like some of the commandments you suggest, like #2, 3, 7,) the New Age values break down for me: no, not everyone’s perspective deserves a hearing-out. I’ve always thought that New Age values are, basically, all carrot and no stick. They’re a perfect terrain for the sociopathic exploiter.

    (And it seems out brains are especially susceptible to misinterpretation of intent and values of others. Great podcast on the subject:

    I really dig YOU ARE NOT SO SMART, and I think it points at a lot of the pitfalls. I also think the prof interviewed in it also might be sort of over-eager to characterize all people’s thinking: I don’t think people who are to my left are all too idealistic, or all people to the right are too lacking in compassion; I think in more sophisticated terms about my own and others’ values and positions; I think maybe brighter people fall for it less, and in different ways. I also think the internet has made it evident that far-right people ARE lacking in compassion. (But also that far-left people can be just as unhinged and lacking in compassion.)

    Part of that is that the left-right dichotomy is a dinosaur too: we ought to be reconstructing political policies in terms of what works. (In the real world, treatment *clearly* outperforms punishment for drug addict recovery, for example.) I think Ross (in the podcast) also avoids the question of stupidity. Not stupidity as in, “You disagree with me, you’re stupid,” but actual stupidity: when a person has apparent limits to their ability to recognize facts and adjust their beliefs to account for them.

    I think, though, you may be skipping an important starting point: the utopian vision. The U.S., as a nation, was created on the basis of a utopian vision, and compared to the inertial monarchies that dominated elsewhere, it achieved some actually astonishing things.

    I was in Australia in 2010 for a conference where Kim Stanley Robinson gave the keynote address, and the recording was up for a while. Sadly, it seems to be gone, which is disappointing because I feel like his address encapsulated what would make sense as a 21st century utopian vision. It amounted to, “Well, we could get by doing the socioeconoecopolitical equivalent of sitting on the couch and eating synthetic fried chicken while watching sitcoms, but… isn’t that a fucking sad, pathetic, awful existence? Isn’t there something more alluring, exciting, and worthwhile about finding a better way through the century—asking or demanding more of ourselves?”

    Oh, and as for the economics of such a nation—he pointed at a book I tried, years ago, to read. It was titled PARECON. (Participatory Economics.) It’s about a kind of capitalist economics that isn’t prone to wealth accumulation in elites, and which includes the participation and ownership of all involved. As Robinson says, “It’s all been very carefully thought out…” and laid out in terms of system and process. As he added, “It’s also VERY boring.” (The trouble with that being that dumb people who aren’t expected to participate in their economic system’s decision making process never notice they’re denied that role; when you try to get them to participate, they complain of boredom. They want the sitcom, couch, and synthetic fried chicken.

    Other worrying things for the 21st century:

    – Labor is not going to exist the way it did. Minimum income is being explored (even in parts of Canada right now) because it seems to be cheaper than the expense of dealing with the effects of unemployment and poverty, but that will be opposed in the US, too.

    – Religion as a monkeywrench for any change. Religion will be used as a tool to object to any change that doesn’t serve conservative values. How to oppose it?

    – The football game. I really think the problem with U.S. politics is that it’s a football game every four years, in which approximately half the country becomes hostage to the other half. I feel like the parties would work better if each ran its own independent government side by side. You’re a Dem., you get subsidized health care. You’re a Repub, you don’t. Repubs have to pay road tolls, Dems, you get a sticker showing you’ve already paid it with your taxes. Republicans could only deprive willing Republicans of birth control or abortions; Dems could only demand taxes from wiling Dem citizens. You choose one of two teams, and can switch, at a cost, at certain points. You can defect, of course—industrial and political espionage would be one way to smooth out the cost of switching: you can leave Repub and be a Dem if you bring us XYZ documents; you can be a Repub and leave the Dem if you produce 10 hours of media promotions for the Repub cause overt the next six months. I’m guessing the system would be gameable, but it seems likelier to test the effects of each party’s policies better—”Is this working for me?”—than the identitarian construction of politics does now—”Am I an X, or a Y?”

    – Stupidity. I really think the core and central challenge for this century will be reconciling ourselves with the fact a lot of people are really fucking limited, mentally. Even people we love and respect for other things. (The parent who slaves for years to house and feed and clothe their child can also be politically illiterate, gullible, and prone to consistently voting against their own interests, or in other words, a good provider can still be effectively stupid when it comes to politics, especially when we have deceitful politicians who know and exploit this fact for their own gain. Hell, by your perspective (and, to some degree, mine) most people are this way about most things, I’m guessing—since you think of the whole system in the US as a “Bullshit Neo-liberal Kakistocracy Running Rampant” where most people see it as the good guys vs. the bad guys, with differing values of good guy and bad guy.)

    But I will say, I’m curious to see what the underlying utopian vision is for this nation you’d be founding. I’m not sure, but I suspect it needs to be something that can be summed up in 20 words or so. Maybe a short paragraph.

    • Thanks for commenting, Gord. I was hoping you would.
      I didn’t say (but should have) that this blog post was a rough draft, a prelude. Something rougher than a rough draft. And your comments really helped me focus on what needed more expanding.

      For example, maximizing happiness is a much better way to put it. The example in my head was that the health care of the poor should outweigh the need for a car collection for the rich. I understand the limitations of utilitarianism but this blog post would have been 5times longer if I had started defining terms and qualifying assertions. Still I do hope to do just that as I think about this more.

      I don’t like the idea of rights because they create entitled citizens, and also I think lessen the idea that these are things that we are giving ourselves. Rights come from knowledge, and culture, and without those things life could be pretty barbaric.

      Democracy without education is a strawman. I might not go as far as Plato (Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.) but I think I would agree with John Adams (Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.)

      Any system will be exploited by the ruthless, the heartless, the ambitious and the greedy. Capitalism was a nice idea in theory, but it never worked in practice.

      I actually like Moon saying “I oppose homosexuality; I just don’t think they should be discriminated against.” I think it’s very promising and a sign of intelligence. It’s saying he understands laws don’t have to correspond to personal preference. Maybe he hates dubu jiggae but he’s not going to put a ban on it. Of course, it would be better for him to be completely open-minded, but I don’t really expect that from any politicians.
      You’re right that the discrepancy between “say” and “do” (as illustrated by SK) is a pressing concern. But in this instance I’m just trying to clarify what it is I want to say. The “do” aspect is a whole ‘nother thing.

      I think you and I disagree about respecting others’ viewpoints. I think I’m on team don’t punch Nazis. But something I wanted to incorporate is the idea that people who are intellectually violent, people whose ideologies are founded on fear and hate and anger, should be seen as a failing of the society around them. That ancient Chinese idea, as far as I know. Maybe it’s the hippy in me, but I can’t help but think if I was raised like they were, I’d be the same way. And someone punching me wouldn’t do anything expect make me double down on my beliefs and give the puncher some kind of ideological boner.

      As to the wrong ways to live, I’m not a complete moral relativist. That commandment doesn’t exist in a vacuum apart from the others. But it is a good reminder in a country where people get actually angry at their neighbors for not cutting their lawns. It’s mostly a warning against being smug and judgmental, but perhaps should be phrased better.

      I left the Utopian imagery aside on purpose. This isn’t some shining island on a beautiful sea. It’s scaffolding, it’s a rough draft in need of constant revisions. We make our best guess now but the emphasis is on the transitory nature of the guess. So I don’t have a logline for this society, other than that which you yourself said: maximizing happiness for the masses. (with further elaboration on all those terms, of course).

      That side-by-side government idea is fascinating though. It’s a little like I was thinking with virtual countries. Maybe that is the direction we can look toward.

  2. Interesting and timely blog. I was discussing with someone the other day how I think Trump is less a cause (insert the thing[s] you think he’s caused) than an outcome.

    His rise seems analogous to a long-term, 3-pack-a-day smoker who develops lung cancer.

    “Oh why me?” they opine…”Well,” says the doctor, “because you smoked three packs of Camels a day for 40 years.” “OK…fix me!” Out comes the surgery, the chemotherapy and other poisons heavily marketed to cure the smoker with cancer.

    America is like the smoker with cancer…”Oh why Trump?” we opine. “Well,” says the critic, “Because you’ve been fucking up your government and rule of law system for a long time.” “OK…fix me.”

    Unfortunately, cancer surgery and chemotherapy seem as likely to kill you as fix you…if they fix anything at all. You will lose a lung or two. You may lose hair, teeth and not be able to eat much for months. You will puke. Daily. It will be painful. You will hate it. You may not make it through. You will never be the same.

    The poisons offered in response to Trump seem equally unpalatable…from corporate shills and authoritarian warmongers like Clinton…to crazy right-wing religious lunatics (hundreds of possibilities here)…to a host of MOAB-wielding generals, naïve new-age political preachers (Hello Jill Stein, you silly goose), social media moguls (Jesus fuck!) and idiotic movie stars (“Hey, if Trump can win, anyone can win! Right?).

    None of the poisons offered actually target the cancer….or the peripheral diseases America suffers from (e.g., oppressive and predatory capitalism, corrupted elections systems, media hegemony and for-profit disinformation, Citizen’s United, the war on drugs, the rise of authoritarianism on the left and right, etc. etc. etc.).

    We are one unhealthy fucking monster of a country. On every level. Bloated and couch-ridden with the TV blaring 24 hours a day…refusing the chemo and going nowhere. Fast. Just give us the cancer…it seems easier than taking the cure. Unfortunately, 64 million of us are dumb enough to think the cancer is the cure. 68 million of us think the cure to cancer is more cancer. Problematically, a hundred+ million of us don’t give a shit at all.

    I’m pretty sure we were supposed to get it right by now. Having read Madison’s notes (twice) in graduate school—among a host of other political/theoretical tracts—I’m pretty sure the outcome of the American Experiment was not supposed to be a Ken Burns video and a Somalia-like, state of nature…where, inevitably, strict religious orders will become dominant.

    From nonsensical ideologies that have no interest in fixing our political system and culture…to ideologies that are explicitly intent on destroying it, the Doctor seems to have arrived empty handed.

    At this point, it might be better to believe in reincarnation than a cure for the cancer that is eating at our vital organs…and a prayer that karma doesn’t make us a dung beetle next time around.

  3. Yup, you know for years I’ve advocated breaking the PNW free from the cancerous Fed. Even then, just starting fresh is going to be the only way to go. It would be really hard to argue that this experiment hasn’t failed in every meaningful way.

    • Oh, and the thing about two political systems: I think I heard Bruce Sterling riffing about the idea once. I’ve always thought it’d make an interesting setting for a novel about domestic political and economic (and scientific) espionage. Been thinking about that all the more (i.e. a LOT) in recent months.

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