The Case for “Hashtag Activism”

I’ve never seen myself as an activist.  I was born on third and spent a lot of my life thinking I’d hit a triple. As I’ve started to learn about privilege — all the benefits I receive in the society I live because I’m a white, able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male who learned English as his first language and who has never had any serious bouts of mental illness or hard financial times — I’ve started to think more seriously about why I’ve never been an activist.

The thing about privilege is that by possessing it, you’re blinded to its impact. White people don’t easily see the advantages afforded to them as white people, black and brown people do. Men don’t immediately see the advantages afforded them by their gender, women (and all gender non-conformers) do. Able-bodied people don’t see the advantages afforded to them by their luck, people with handicaps do. I could go on.

The most effective and important place I’ve learned about privilege in all its depth is from people I’ve never met personally, on Twitter. In the context of a casual place I started visiting to see dumb jokes and discussions of techology, I would see glimpses of perspectives different than my own. Sometimes I’d pursue them, sometimes they just appeared for me to notice or ignore.

Twitter in specific — and social media in general — is such an effective space for genuine transformation of opinion and understanding because it is so casual and ambient. Its rare — at least as a quiet and privileged person — that someone is confronting me directly. Instead I see them caring about a topic on which I’m not informed. It’s a safe place for me to ignore them, if I’d rather, or pursue what they’re talking about if I choose.

The activism of marches and sit-ins and strikes is important. Essential even. But it’s not the only way to transform people or situations.

When the only media was mass media, the only way to galvanize attention was to make a scene so big that no one could deny it or ignore it. The only time the civil rights activists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were able to talk to those whose passive acquiescence to the status quo sustained it was when they made the evening news.

Today, smaller and less-reported demonstrations, events, and opinions can go quite far, among a network of sympathetic ears. And at the edges of a network of sympathy — to the plight of black men in America, to the casual violence so frequently suffered by (trans)women, etc — are interested but ignorant eyes and ears.

The change engendered by “hashtag activism” is much slower than the sort that can be spurred by large demonstrations. It is a slow opening of those people at the edges of a an existing network of concern. But if or when they’re converted, then the network has grown by a small but important amount.

This a slow process, and one largely invisible from the outside. But its significance, power, and importance is easy to miss, deride, and understate. This sort of “activism” won’t change the world in a year, or even a few, but it certainly has value.

Practical Philosophy

What Do Your Thoughts Mean?

One of the subtler but more important things that has changed in my life is that I’ve stopped believing my thoughts. It’s not that I can’t think. No, I’m not saying I’m no longer able to productively puzzle through hard problems — if anything I’ve gotten better at that. What I mean is that I’m much less prone to identify with and believe in my thoughts.

Part of this topic I’ve covered before: I explained how there is no right and final thought. I really do believe that a large part of what shifted for me was that I came to see that when I was just feeling off or low, I could never use thoughts to guide myself out of it. I literally used to sit up for hours and think and think and think hoping I’d finally find the thought to assuage all my dread or doubt or whatever. It never came.

And so, thanks to that and my study of Buddhism, I feel pretty confident that my thoughts aren’t the answer to my thoughts. The real antidote to negative or angry or disappointed thoughts is instead just feeling them in the body and not doing anything about them. I’ve gotten better and better at seeing them and just waiting for them to naturally diffuse.

It’s one of those startling things you don’t realize: thoughts just kind of drift off. If you’re like I was, that’s hard to believe. I’ve felt bad for days about some situations, if not weeks. Just in a real funk. But what turns out to be true is that it wasn’t a single thought or feeling that lasted that long. It was my continuation and revisiting of those thoughts that lasted. I’d remember the initial thought, use it to wind up higher and higher into a frenzy, then it’d soothe down, but then, troubled by the disappation, I’d build back to a frenzy… on and on for quite some time.

I was listening to the NPR podcast Invisibilia recently, and in the episode “The Secret History of Thoughts” (starting around the 10-minute mark) the narrator, Alix Spiegel, made a point about the shift in the way that pyschologists deal with thoughts. It really clarified this whole thing for me. The basic argument is that the history of Western psychology’s disposition toward thoughts looks like this:

  1. First came Freud. And Freud believed in thoughts. He believed that every thought was not only true, but was “the tip of an iceberg.” That underneath everything you thought were profound, important, and consequential drives that you had to master to understand yourself. So people would do years on the couch, puzzling at things they were thinking or had thought in the past, searching for significance and meaning.
  2. Then came cognitive-behavioral therapy. Aaron Beck and his descendants believe that thoughts aren’t inherently meaningful and can be corrected. People are prone to a lot of negative and defeating self-talk, but they can most effectively cope by explicitly refuting the thoughts they realize are wrong. Exposure therapy — slowly taking a person afraid of heights to higher and higher ones as they realize they need not fear this height — is a typical CBT tactic.
  3. Finally came mindfulness. Mindfulness — and its long history in meditative Eastern traditions like Buddhism — tells us that thoughts are mostly inconsequential noise. Some may be worth working with, but we shouldn’t even bother with those that aren’t helping us. Our experience of the world is just our experience of all of our five senses, and the thoughts that our brains throws in. Just as we don’t think things we smell are important or revealings of our inner self, neither are our thoughts. So we just work on seeing our thoughts as thoughts.

I’m a bit dubious of this narrative. It serves my prejudices well and paints my perspective in an unquestionably favorable light. But it does represent the basic way I’ve transitioned in my understanding of thoughts, and how I’ve dealt with those that aren’t helpful.

As I first remember, I’d deal with problematic thoughts by analyzing them deeply. Staring at them hoping to find value and use in them. Then I’d try to talk them down: to add enough rationality or contrary thoughts to counter-act or diffuse those negative thoughts. Today, I mostly just watch them, and (most of the time) they just float away.

Moving between these three stages isn’t easy. But the structure gives a clear progression of possible ways of thinking about thinking. And it’s a progression I’d been slowly making for a while. You are not only not your thoughts, but your relationship to your thoughts matters far more than the thoughts themselves. You don’t, as they say, have to believe everything you think.


The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

Practical Philosophy

What Good is Anger?

Hearing someone lash out in anger, near me but not at me, often makes me contemplate the foolish impotence of anger in modern life. Anger is a very intense feeling, and it’s so common there must be something to recommend it. But I often struggle to find that benefit.

The Downsides of Anger

The most potent and sure thing about anger is that it’s spurred on by a feeling of sharp intense pain. I think of it a bit like a hot coal, surely burning someone. And who’s it definitely burning? The person possessing the anger.

Now it may be the case that an angry person is able to successfully transfer some of that seering pain onto someone else. Surely there are many stories of the weak being made to suffer the anger of the powerful — whether that be through wars between peoples, or the prototypical angry father lashing out at his helpless wife or children. But even in those circumstances, there’s scant evidence to support the idea that the initially angry person is made less angry by having spread their frustration around.

Aside from the obviously problematic transference of anger, it’s got another really bad quality: the angry mind is off-balance; a roiling cauldron of unreason that’s ready to do stupid things. How many dumb choices throughout history were made because someone was angry? When anger made it impossible to reason correctly? Almost certainly too many to count.

So, what good is there to be found in anger?

There are a couple upsides to anger. The most potent is probably evolutionary: anger is a clear and animalistic corrective to slights to an individual. Imagine a pack of monkeys where the most powerful male has dispropiatate breeding rights to all the females in the group. If he doesn’t get angry when his dominance is threatened, he’s likely to not be dominant for long. And so he’d have fewer offspring than those males more jealous in the protection of their role and power.

That sways me: anger is an effective low-intelligence impulse to beneficial social competition throughout the history of life. It also, in a more subtle but not trivial way, impels even meaningful correctives to problems of injustice in modern societies. While we idealize the struggle against British rule of India, for civil rights in the USA, or against apartheid in South Africa as rooted in a deep sense of love for justice, we’re being foolish to pretend that all three of those moments weren’t fueled by righteous anger.

But in those three movements, there is the paradox of anger in modern human society. Those movements are remembered fondly by people on both sides of them not because of the righteous anger or impulse to violence that started them. The troubled and largely unsuccessful history of the America’s militant Black Power movement (and specifically the Black Panther Party whose manifesto you see above) — rooted more deeply and completely in righteous anger than its predecessor — makes clear that while anger is an effective impulse to create action, it’s not a very successful way to fight systemic injustice in the long term.

The Strategic Use of Anger

The civil rights movements that are most fondly remembered on all sides — from those in power, and those fighting that power — were not violent or overtly angry. They were quiet and slow and deliberate. They thus allowed the powerful space for learning and understanding the scale of the injustice. They allowed the oppressors a period for growth (or culture-driven democratic replacement), and made space to cultivate wide understanding of complex ideas like love, justice, and forgiveness.

Anger’s use, then, is in sensing and finding the places where wrongs are being committed, and being sharply aware of them. Anger’s risk is that it convinces us that it knows the most effective response to that wrong. And if history shows us one thing, it’s that the violent and angry response, even if justified by the facts, is unlikely to lead to meaningful stable change in the long term.

Practical Philosophy

The Two Most Important Truths I Know About the Universe

Here’s something I know: both of the following seemingly contradictory statements are profoundly and undeniably true.

  • I am utterly inconsequential to the universe. It is so incomprehensibly large and vast, its time scale so unfathomable, that it is utterly certain that I don’t matter.
  • Everything in the history of the universe, this entirely galaxy, this entire solar system, this entire planet, and all the people and creatures that have ever lived on it have led to this. This thing — right here, right now — when I’m sitting here writing this, and you’re sitting reading it.

To me, this is a remarkable and important pair of facts. Continue reading


The Problem with Revolutions

Revolutions are an appealing idea. On their face, they present the opportunity to start fresh. To wipe away the old order and replace it with one that is clearly better in all aspects. Whether at the level of countries and politics, or your life and your habits, they are massively appealing when first encountered.

But any deep inquiry into the nature and course of revolutions should quickly lay bare some very critical roadblocks. First and foremost, any revolution must inherently govern the same territory that was managed by the old regime. People think they can start fresh on New Year’s Day, forgetting that they’ll still have the same basic thought patterns, tendencies, and mental habits they had before. The brain is malleable, but like with soft soil your habitual paths will have made a noticeable groove; it takes hard work to wear away old trails. It will not be easy-going the first time you endeavor to cut across all the old ruts.

At the world-level, it’s easy to miss the fact that any revolution that cuts off the metaphorical head of the snake will still exist within the environment the snake inhabited. In more traditional language: allies, interest-groups, and citizens will still have the same basic interests in a new world order that they had in the old one. Businesses will still want a stable and friendly regime, the military will still want its power and toys, etc. The reason the military is currently prevailing in Egypt is that the military previously prevailed in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak may have been the head of the snake, but the tree upon which he rested remained in place available for anyone who it likes to climb.

The language of revolutionaries is easy. It is nice, and clear-cut, and simple. Those things are bad and these things are good. Because of this, it’s a terrible way to actually see the world, but a great way to misunderstand it. The soft revolution that Barack Obama promised in the 2008 election never materialized because one cannot make a new world by words alone. The only way to truly forge a new order is to systematically disassemble all the interest groups that made up the old order. To do this quickly (that is: in a revolutionary way) almost always requires either killing people or making them scared for their life and safety.

And that’s a thing I absolutely abhor. All sane freedom-loving people similarly abhor it. But those revolutions that succeed require a strong force of violence–either physical or psychological–to carry them through. And this is certainly no guarantee of long-term success. China was a brutal and suppressive state for much of the mid-twentieth century, making it one of the most durable and ideologically pure communist revolutions carried out. While it still exists in name, anyone who thinks that the Chinese Communist Party today rules over a country that the party’s founders would have appreciated is a fool.

The “revolutions” that succeed, and are looked upon fondly even after the newness have worn off, are barely revolutionary. The only notable revolution I can think of that one could meaningful call a success in the fullness of time is the American. But it’s worth making clear that the American Revolution was only revolutionary insofar it it was a revolt against a very small feature of the existing power structure. The Americans were largely satisfied with the basic political landscape in which they existed, they just didn’t like the nature of the head of the snake. Nothing about the day-to-day life of Americans changed much after the revolution, save for the location from which taxes were applied and protections offered.

Other revolutions, the Eastern European “revolutions” of 1989 come to mind, which eschew violence and succeed are held against feeble regimes. I’d even argue that it makes less sense to think of 1989 as a revolutionary moment, than as when it finally became clear that the Bolshevik revolution could not last. The militaristic psychological control exercised by Communist bureaucrats to keep themselves in power–the only thing that made it appear to last–had run out of believers to enforce it.

In the fewest words possible, the anti-revolutionary case is this: revolutions do not work. They are enticing, they are exciting, and they have no ability to forge lasting change. Neither in personal nor political life will any sensible person ever ask for a revolution. Because sensible people know that the world is complacent, lazy, and uncomfortable with change. Sensible people know the world is too complicated for revolutionary language, revolutionary ideas, or revolutionary soldiers to achieve a lasting and praiseworthy impact.


The Value of Mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about writing something on this topic ever since I left a relevant internet comment at I site I like. But it was David Brooks column on “The Limits of Empathy” that finally spurred me to do it. It spurred me by being so exactly half of the point, while completely missing the second half. The half Brooks gets essentially right, is this:

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

Precisely. It’s an undeniable truth that people think about doing the right thing far more than they do it. If I did the right thing even half the times that I’ve thought about it but not done so, a non-trivial number of people would hold me up as some kind of personal moral hero. It is so easy to see what the right action would be and so hard to actually carry it out.

But Brooks’s answer to this problem, “sacred codes”, is deeply flawed. I’ve never seen any set of codes that was resilient and multifaceted enough to be much use at all among all the messy problems and circumstances that so often serve as our excuse for inaction.

More so, codes have this very real problem of being unbending. You fail to follow the code a few hundred times and you’re likely to reasonably stop even aspiring to it. Codes like the Ten Commandments have been failing for thousands of years precisely because they’re so deeply codified and unadaptable. If every Jew and Christian in America took seriously the commandment that “thou shall not covet they neighbors goods”, America would be a drastically different place. But instead most of them aren’t even aware that it’s on the list.

This is fundamentally the reason that mindfulness practice, being here now, is so important. As I said in that aforementioned internet comment:

The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our minuscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone thinks they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.

Empathy is something most people do intellectually. They have the thought: it must have sucked to be a Cherokee. They did everything the white Americans asked of them, many of them became better citizens and Christians than the average white Georgian who was their neighbor. But because they wanted a national identity and were the wrong color, they were pushed hard, behind Andrew Jackson’s saber, off into Oklahoma. We can easily understand this without internalizing it. Knowing these facts, and grasping that it must have been terrible only gets you half the way to responding adequately in such a situation.

You must, if you truly want to act in an empathetic way, internalize the struggle of the Cherokee story. You must, yourself, feel what that must have been like. To have your treaties torn to shreds and your people treated like mere obstacles to other men’s goals. And then you must keep that story with you well enough that you never forget what it feels like to be on that side of a confrontation. So that you can act with the understanding of what it was like to be a Cherokee when you turn your mind to the question of, to take an example, Palestine.

This is not an easy thing. And it’s harder still when you’re actually confronted with an angry Israeli complaining about the explosives that get hurled over the wall and disturb her family’s peace. But no set of rules will make it any easier to do the right thing. Especially when you’re constantly distracted by the thought of dinner, that beautiful girl you saw the other day, how much your finances have suffered for this trip, and your childrens’ questionable life-choices.

What’s needed is for you to sit there with the woman’s anger, the parallels between the Palestinian story and that Cherokee one you feel so well, and your understanding that at base all people want the same things and to frankly and empathetically bring her into full contact with the entire reality of the situation. Only be being completely present with all those realities can you lead others to that place of full comprehension and carry out a wise response.


Money as a Game

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the idea of “gamification”–yes, it’s an atrocious word but a useful concept. I’m sure there’s value in thinking about how we can bring the most successful aspects of games into the concrete world of physical people and objects. I know there are many activities I should be doing that I’m not. Many tasks that the right game-like inducements could make automatic, and maybe even enjoyable.

It was while considering this that it crossed my mind that money is the most successful game idea that exists in the culture. Now certainly to say that money originated from the world of games would be, at best, generous. More likely, it’s just flat out wrong. But the thing that’s interesting about money–and the possessions that we understand to be it’s correlates–isn’t how it came to exist but what it represents about human psychology and games.

Before I get too far, I want to be sure to acknowledge that money is hardly a game when you don’t have enough of it. Possessing money represents a tangible ability to to feed, water, shelter, and clothe ourselves and our families in a safe and easy way. But for the majority of people in first world, this is no longer the way it operates. Any country rich and egalitarian enough to assure that none of its citizens go hungry, homeless, or uneducated effectively eliminates the survival value of money. Even outside of such a society, any income above the locally defined poverty line is beyond sheer survival. It is in these situations that it makes sense to talk about money as a game.

One of the most powerful aspects of money as a game is how score-like it is. Just like the score you rack up as you progress through a level in Mario or a game of Tetris, net worth is a concrete signal that you can use to judge whether you’re advancing our falling behind. Very unlike personal relationships, or professional or personal development, money is almost always transparent. You never have to wonder where you stand with money. You can easily identify that you’re $200 richer than you were a week ago, but there’s no easy way for you to know that you’re 200 points better at not being a jerk.

I’d go so far as to contend that a large part of the much-maligned use of money and material wealth to define success is that people can easily identify material progress. Being less of a jerk is so frustratingly unquantifiable that one has to be hugely better at it for people (including yourself) to even recognize that you have any skill at it. But I can clearly tell that you’re a better businessman than me because you own a million dollar home, drive a BMW, and own this whole restaurant we’re sitting in. But without being almost as unassailable as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama, you won’t see how hard I’ve worked to be less of a jerk.

Beyond the ability to know the score with money, it’s got a powerful reward system built into it. If personal development were as easy to score as money, we’d only be halfway there. The other half of money’s advantage is the pleasure that it can offer us. I need a way to get between points A and B: for essentially zero dollars I can walk, for around $200 I can get a bicycle for travel. For around $2000 I can get a beat-up but functional car, for $20,000 a nice new one, and for $200,000 a rare, intricate, and delightful one. This fact has powerful effects on the incentives for the pursuit of money beyond mere score. While we could endlessly discuss the merits of the type of pleasure imparted by say, a new Ferrarri, no one but a fool would reasonably contend that it gives equal pleasure to possess as a simple bicycle.

Wealth also provide a level of the social, cultural, and locational access that many people never see. It is undeniably a qualitatively different experience to be living on $20,000 per year than it is to be living on $2,000,000. Two million will afford you not only the ability to buy free time at will, but also the chance to take that free time in any manner you please. Want to take a few weeks off to see the sights of Kenya with your 10 closest friends? You can. This purchasing of experience is not only wise (research indicates it gives more long-term satisfaction than purchasing things), but is inaccessible to those of lesser means. One wouldn’t even take the time to consider the possibility of an African safari if they and their friends made less than $25,000 per year. This reward mechanic, which is native to money and difficult to imagine importing, is at least as important as it’s scoring value.

Before we finish, it’s worth considering the meta-game of money. There’s a saying much loved by the economics-minded (and damn hard to refute), “You optimize what you measure.” There’s an idea very much in vogue in the last decade “Gross National Happiness.” These are both deeply related to the meta-game.

Because we can only optimize the things we’ve quantified, and we can only quantify rather concrete things, most measures of performance and progress that are used today (and have been used for almost 500 years) to gauge the success of a town, county, or country relate to how well they’ve optimized their money score. This is thus what politicians make their reputation on and what makes countries into magnets. Much of this emphasis on countable measures of development is deeply valid, one clearly is much more likely to have a better, easier, and more enjoyable life in a country with a notably higher GDP per capita. Clearly the Renaissance-era Italian city-states which valued commerce and wealth were better places to live than the backwaters of Scotland. Today, given an even choice, most people would rather be an average citizen of the United States than Chile.

There is much to recommend the use of GDP (or GNP, PPP, etc) numbers. Without them we’d have almost nothing with which to gauge the success of competing countries, methods of leadership, or manners of economic progress. But there is manifestly much they leave out. While China’s a freer place than it was 50 year ago, it’s also true that it’s not the nicest place to live among all it’s economic neighbors. This basic fact is the reason that people are currently infatuated with notions like “Gross National Happiness”. While no one has yet successfully used it this way, it’s possible that if it were ever actually quantified in a universally agreed upon way, GNH could represent a new way for government schemes and governors to be judged that would better represent the whole panoply of things we humans value.

Perhaps there would be great value in striving for such a measure, which would allow people to measure how satisfied they are along all aspects of their life. Certainly a world that sweated GNH points would be qualitatively different than a world obsessed with GDP. But because any attempt to measure GNH would be inherently limited to the factors it decided to value, the notion that it would be an inherently better scoring system deserves skepticism.

And finally, we circle back to this: if you’re looking to create a better achievement scoring system for the world and its people  to judge themselves, you could do a lot worse than emulating the benefits that money has so long provided. If we mean to be serious about this “gamification” business (and not just bullshit it), money seems a good place to start.

politics, world

Every Nation is an Illusion

Emiliag (ASA)An ornate white sign with the single word, \

A Bolivian province, Santa Cruz, held a referendum over the weekend. Unsurprisingly, voters in the oil-rich area supported greater autonomy–and keeping a greater portion of their oil revenue–from the central government. At least a few comments on the topic centered on the fact that Bolivia is an imagined community to which citizens feel only a weak allegiance. I, as you can see, felt compelled to say something about the topic.

It’s pretty had to argue against the fact that every nation is an illusion. The community of “Americans” is only as real as your belief in it. So too as the community of “the French,” “the Algerians,” “the Saudis,” “the Japanese,” or “the Mexicans.” It’s often forgotten that the history of “civilization” has been dedicated, with varying rapidity and skill, to creating cohesive nation-states. Slowly kingdoms sought to forge a coherent identity for their subject, and a sense of loyalty to far-away rulers that would otherwise be seen as strangers.

It’s not hard to understand that tribes are a simplified form of the modern nation state. One can easily imagine a group of 12 people getting together and deciding they’ll band together to assure for their mutual security and future. The nation-state is essentially this process writ large, and sometimes without the decision being agreed to by all parties.

Before France became a country with defined borders and a set identity, there were no French people. There were Parisians, Normans, Provencals, and Corsicans (to name only a few). It was an intentional project and to press upon them their identity not as regional or tribal, but national. Language is a powerful way to do this. All French speakers can, by virtue of sharing a language, see themselves as a coherent national community. Another popular way to forge national identity is war. Starting a conflict between two recently conceived nations is an easy way to consolidate their identities.

The United States prides itself on being unique in the nature of its illusion. We love to assert that we’re special because no Americans–with the exceptions of the Amerindians we willfully forget–have historical claim to this land. We don’t look the same, often don’t speak the same, and yet we’re all American. “The Great American Melting Pot,” is the School House Rock lyrics that leaps to mind.

We’re taught from grade school that regardless of our ethnic, racial, or personal history we’re Americans because we believe in and belong to the community of Americans. We’re part of “the people” because we chose to be, even if decades and generations ago.

And though this is an obvious statement that “Americans” are truly an illusory, imaginary group, we tend to forget it. To forget that French people weren’t always French. That Pakistanis weren’t Pakistanis until 60 years ago. That Bangladeshis weren’t Banglideshis until 50 years ago. That Eritrians weren’t Eritrians until 15 years ago.

By some estimates, it’s taken 5000 years to create the set of nations we know today. And the map still changes. Kosovo became a country not six months ago. All of these nations are illusions, based on historical flukes, choices, and random chance. And I, for one, hope that we never lose touch with how arbitrary these division are.


OPW: David Callahan on Honoring Work

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” a quote from the book I reviewed Monday, The Moral Center. I do feel the need to apologize for bringing it up again, but I can’t seem to avoid it. In this excerpt, Callahan makes some interesting observations about the how attitudes towards work and collective struggle have shifted over time.

In arguing that welfare betrayed work, conservatives offered a simple solution: Get rid of handouts and make people responsible for themselves. The solution fit naturally with American individualism and the belief that opportunity is available for all.

Democrats face a harder sales job. Most liberal solutions to the betrayal of work boil down to some form of collective action, whether it’s getting more people organized in labor unions or using government to raise the minimum wage and expand the safety net. The problem, though, is that collective thinking–the notion that we are all in it together–comes much less naturally to Americans nowadays. Institutions like government that once embodied commons hopes are now distrusted, and not just because we loathe the Department of Motor Vehicles. Given the choice, many people would rather do their own thing than compromise their autonomy to work with others.

Meanwhile, the workplace has turned more individualistic and atomized. Far fewer people work in coal mines and steel mills and big auto plants–places where it was easy to understand one’s common interest with others, and where a fusion between the ideals of hard work and shared struggle was easy to grasp. Worker are more alone now, both physically and psychologically. The same trends that have undermined the value of work have also isolated people in their own predicaments–as temporary employees or independent contractors or some other fleeting figure in our seven-jobs-over-a-lifetime economy. Unions are virtually defunct in the private sector, not just because of union busting, which has gotten worse, but because it’s harder to organize a fragmented labor force.

The more alone we are, the more alone we feel. When the screws are turned on people, their reflex these days is to pull inward and individualize their problems. The losers in America have always been told to blame themselves, not the system, but now they do so more than ever, encouraged by claims that character defect lies behind every story of economic hardship. The solution to our woes, we are taught, is to focus ever more intently on our self-interest: Try harder, get up earlier, make smarter investments, take bigger risk–and oppose taxes or social programs that cut into our paychecks. The potential for a reinforcing dynamic is obvious. And widening insecurity fans an every-man-for-himself mood, it undermines common efforts to make things better, which leads to even greater insecurity and further insularity.

It doesn’t help that the media cover the wealthy around the clock, with endless stories of the self-made rich that blot out far less sexy statistics about downward mobility. People may know intellectually that the traditional virtue of hard work doesn’t count as much as it used to, and they may know that the deck is stacked more solidly against them. Yet it is easy in the age of Powerball and the Google guys for them to imagine that they will e the one who defies the odds.