Category Archives: Politics

Politics

Choosing restraint

In this essay I challenge our celebration of freedom of choice and offer a case for choosing restraint, instead. I argue that we need to rediscover appreciation. Because, in the words Abraham Joshua Heschel, “humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”

It also contains stories about living in the wild, banning advertisements, being threatened with a gun, pollinating flowers, saying grace, and herding goats.

I spent a long time writing and thinking about it, and I think it has turned pretty well. I hope you will take the time to read it.

It is somewhat longer than my usual blog posts, so I’ve split it up into six parts, which I’ll post here one by one to get people interested. You’ll find the first part below.

You can also read the whole essay in one go in whichever format you prefer:

 

CHOOSING RESTRAINT

 

We celebrate our freedom of choice. But in fact it is our options that control us ― not the other way around. There are so many options available to us all the time, inviting us to choose them.

Go to any convenience store or supermarket. Go down any shopping street. Sit at your computer or take out your smartphone. Watch TV or go to the movies. In all of these places your attention will be guided. You will be reminded of all the options at hand, offering instant gratification:

These ever-present reminders of these options reinforce our use of them. They become habits. And so we indulge ourselves all the time: Why not have a sugar boost? A coffee fix? Check out the latest news or gossip? Or how about a quick look to see if your latest status update has received any likes?

The wealth of options available to us ― choices to consume various products, mostly ― all but paralyse us. For instance, the average American supermarket stocks 30-40 different kinds of breakfast cereal. And almost just as many different kinds of peanut butter: Do you want smooth or chunky? Or extra chunky? Or do you prefer creamy? Or crunchy? Do you want regular, natural or organic? Or perhaps a reduced fat variety? And what if your preferred combination of natural and creamy isn’t available? What is your second preferred option?

As we become unable to analyse all of the options on offer, we come to suffer from what psychologists call “decision fatigue” — as we have more decisions to make, our decisions become progressively worse. We can either agonise over every single choice we make to ensure that we pick the right option (and generally feel less satisfied because we are now acutely aware of all the options we didn’t choose), or we can just pick the options that we have some sort of emotional or habitual connection to.

These are typically the options that address our weaknesses and vices rather than our strengths. These are the options that appeal to us on a habitual, subconscious level. And whenever there is a lapse in our awareness. Whenever the barrage of options overwhelm us and opens a chink in our mental armour, we follow the habitual impulse to give into these small temptations. And so we find ourselves choosing to buy things and do things that we know are bad for us. We pick options that we don’t really want, but which are so alluringly easy to choose.

These options tempt us in ways that are so hard to avoid. They make us smaller and weaker than we really are. Than we can be.

And yet with every choice we make, we are constantly reminded that these are our own choices. And that we only have ourselves to blame when we make choices that are bad for us. It is our fault. Our weakness. Our addiction.

But that is a lie.

When everything we see is highlighting a certain set of options, urging and cajoling us to choose between them, it becomes fiercely difficult to choose something else.

It’s very difficult to avoid having your train of thought hi-jacked by billboards and advertisements when you enter a public space. Most of us are probably so used to it by now that we don’t really consider how ridiculously violating it is to have your personal, mental space flooded with unsolicited messages reminding you of your own weaknesses. The street artist Banksy said it best:

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it.

But it gets even worse if you make a conscious decision to avoid some of the things that talk to your weaknesses. For instance if you choose

That you don’t want to watch TV because it makes you spend your time slouched, entertained and unaltered.

That you don’t want to eat fast food because it makes you tired, fat and lazy.

That you don’t want to use Facebook because it makes you care way too much about imaginary internet points and not enough about meeting people face to face.

No matter what reasons you offer, you will soon find yourself to be considered (and feeling) preachy and holier-than-thou.

Because if you choose to refuse something for reasons like this, then what does it say about the people who haven’t made the same choice? Does it mean that they’re choosing to be slouched, fat and unable to engage with other people face to face?

Of course not.

It just means that they are not willing to give up those options entirely. Either because they genuinely like them, and don’t see them as all that problematic (there is always a balance to strike, it seems. Soul food, for instance, is supposedly good for the soul, but not necessarily good for the body). Or because they don’t want to be seen as preachy and holy. Because they don’t want to be forced to explain why they’ve opted out every time the topic is touched upon. As the carnivore joke goes:

– “How do you know if someone is a vegetarian?”
– “Don’t worry, she’ll make sure to tell you.”

We don’t like anybody else to remind us of our own weaknesses. We all fight that fight every day. And similarly, most of us don’t like to remind others of their weaknesses. It’s their choice, after all. We are all adults. We should be able to make our own decisions. We are all free to choose who we want to be.

But we only have freedom of choice to the extent that we are free to define our options. And we rarely consider all of the options that are available to us. Instead, the options we tend to consider are guided by the norms and expectations of the society of which we are part. For instance, we don’t really consider a life without advertisements — simply because of the vast social consequences that such a choice would entail. We would have to opt out of society altogether to avoid them.

And so, when we celebrate our freedom of choice, we gloss over the fact that this freedom of choice is shaped, to a large extent, by products, services and retailers that invite overindulgence, even addiction. That some options are indeed a lot easier to choose than others.

This raises the question: Which options are being left out? Which options do we come to ignore as our attention is guided towards indulgence?

We don’t see the option that says “None of the above.” We don’t consider that we always have the option to withhold our choice or even pick something not on the list of available options. In this way, what is at stake here is more than the personal freedom to be who you want to be. It is an ideologically driven celebration of choice. And it doesn’t allow us not to choose. Because at its very core is what the farmer and author Wes Jackson calls a refusal to practice restraint.

See, we have never had to worry about restraint before. As hunter-gatherers, we hunted and gathered as much as we could and as much as we needed. It is speculated that the first people in Northern America and Australia killed off all of the megafauna there within a few hundred years of their arrival ― because they couldn’t restrain themselves. It was just too easy pickings.

With the advent of agriculture, we have begun a trajectory of exploitation, where our only restraint has been the technology at our disposal. At present, we have optimised our technological exploitation of the Earth’s resources in a way that seems certain to lead to the brink of depletion.

Simply put, we are running out of the stuff that is necessary to sustain us. It is a tragedy of the commons at a global scale. We cannot sustain infinite growth, infinite options, infinite freedom of choice on a finite planet. And so, it seems certain that the only way that we can prevent collapse is if we can learn restraint. We have to acknowledge the limits of the planet that we all share and depend upon.

We don’t like to acknowledge these limits because that will force us to limit our freedom of choice. It will force us to recognize the fact that we can’t have it all. We don’t want to be told “No”. Because, in the broad scale of history, we have never taken no for an answer.

That is why Wes Jackson sees this moment as the most important moment in human history, including our walk out of Africa: It is the moment where we have to learn restraint. Where we have to start living within our means — hopefully while retaining the knowledge that allowed human civilization and the exploitation of all those resources in first place.

In this way, we are faced with a fundamental challenge to the way we have come to see ourselves: Of all the options available to us, are we able to choose restraint?

 

***

 

This is part one of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here, or read the next part here.

On secrets

They say knowledge is power, and that power corrupts. These are easy things to say, but it can be hard to fathom their full meaning.

Recently, I came across a quote from Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

The quote is from Ellsberg’s memoir “Secrets”, and it is something that he told Henry Kissinger just before Kissinger was given his first high level security clearance. I think it does well to describe how knowledge, and secrets specifically, can change how you relate to other people.

“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

….Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning. As I’ve said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.

On political leadership

I think our great failure to find good political leaders today is a deeper issue. I just read a quote by Laurens Van Der Post in which he said: the reason we don’t have leaders is because we don’t want them, that we’ve entered the era of wanting to be self-led and self-directed. I think he would credit this to a rise in human consciousness.

I don’t think we will ever find a heroic leader that will satisfy us again. So we’re in this transition time of wanting a different politics.

I would say that what we want, as it’s clear in a lot of surveys that Yankelovich and others have done, is for our institutions to give us back the authority and the means for taking care of the major issues of our day in our communities, in our schools, in our local health-care facilities, whatever.

I also think that we still have a lot of politicians, as well-intentioned as they are, who just get swept into the dynamics of our political system which turns them very quickly into self-serving, difficult-to-take-a-stand leaders.

Margaret Wheatley

On symptoms and illnesses

In December, I attended a seminar run by Vibe Strøier, one of the leading lights in organizational psychology in Denmark. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a consultant, helping large organisations deal with organisational change.

As she described her experiences and her approach (which I might write more about another time), it struck me how much of her work focused on helping managers and their subordinates cope with changes that they hadn’t had any say in. Put in another way: She helped people deal with the manifold stresses and pressures that were caused by the structures of authority in which they were embedded.

For instance, she used Heidegger’s notion of Thrownness, which describes how we are thrown into a world full of things that we have no way of influencing, to help middle managers accept the limitations of their position — under pressure by managers, subordinates and customers — and focus on the things that they can actually change instead. In a way, it is quite similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which has spread through its association with Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would seem that the working life of a mid-level manager in a large public sector organisation is comparable to the personal crisis associated with something like alcoholism. Which is sad, indeed. Because that would imply that it is just as impossible for a manager to change the power structures in which he is placed, as it is for an alcoholic to not be an alcholic any more (and as they say, once you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking alcohol but you’ll always remain an alcoholic).

Strøier clearly says that what stresses people out in big organisations is having to deal with an opaque power structure that can (and often does) turn their working life upside down without giving them any say in the matter. But even so, she focuses on helping people cope with having to work under the existing conditions (presumably because she finds that it is infeasible to change these underlying power structures).

To me, this poses some fundamental questions:

  • Are you are working to cure the symptoms or the illness?
  • Are you dealing with the underlying structures causing these afflictions or the immediate consequences that they cause?
  • Is it better to be pragmatic and give up an idealistic attempt at changing the bigger system in order to alleviate the immediate suffering?
  • When do you make a stand and fight to make big change happen, and when do you settle for small improvements?

Thinking about this, I find that this is something of a false dichotomy: You can fight to make big changes happen, but most often, what you will get is a lot of small improvements. The key is in the compromise. As Saul Alinsky wrote:

To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.

A free and open society is an ongoing conflict interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum. Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.

But the thing is: To get even those 30 percent ahead, you have to start out unreasonable. You have to demand it all. You have to go for the big change. If you just accept things as they are and try to make them tolerable, they will never improve. In fact, most likely, they will gradually get worse.

Four Yorkshiremen in reverse

Today, I came across an interesting blog post by Dave Snowden who apparently is something of an expert when it comes knowledge management (whatever that is).

Snowden writes about the dangers of rose tinting — that is trying to map out a route to some ideal future instead of working in the present and relating to the real problems at hand.

His point being that idealists tend to be unable to embrace dissent and learn from it, and so they seek and encourage confirmation rather than conflict. That means that when a group of idealistic, like-minded people get together, it can easily devolve into a sort of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch in reverse, where they encourage each other to develop bigger and bigger utopian fantasies that can encompass all needs and suggestions and thus avoid any dissent.


Drawing of the four Yorkshiremen found on Wowox.com

I’ll be the first to admit to having a utopian bent, so for me this is a welcome warning. I do try to be realistic about the scope of what I’m doing. I find the mental image of “Four Yorkshiremen In Reverse” to be a rather powerful reminder of the danger of such rose tinting.

Snowden goes on to say that you won’t change things by lecturing people on how old fashioned their thinking is. This is similar to Euan Semple’s credo that “to rescue someone is to oppress them.”

Instead of lecturing, Snowden suggests that you put people “into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves it’s sustainable.”

That is certainly something to ponder.

Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

I read a lot of superhero comics growing up. And so, I was intrigued when I came across David Graeber’s brilliant essay Super Position, which dissects the super hero genre — comics and movies both — in order to expose the world view these stories propagate.

Most superhero stories follow the same basic pattern: a bad guy begins a project of world conquest or destruction. The hero finds out about it and seeks to stop the bad guy, and eventually succeeds at the last possible moment. Everything returns to normal until the next bad guy (or even the same bad guy) shows up with a new plan.

It’s a variant of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Man in hole” theory: Man falls into hole. Man struggles to get out of the hole. He succeeds. The end. In short: Trouble occurs, and the hero needs to rise to the occasion to fix it. As Graeber writes:

These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own (..) In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas.

Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.

Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

It is easier to imagine yourself as a superhero fighting crime than it is to imagine yourself living in a society where there’s no crime to fight. And it is even harder to imagine how you can help bring about such a society.

It is easier to fight the symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s easier to give to a charity than wonder why charity exists in the first place. As the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.

In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.

And so, our efforts tend to be humble: A party. A conference. A rally. A culture centre. A food coop. A co-working space. A magazine. A website. A free software project: Projects that can be started up with a minimum of money with a little spare time. Not just to minimize the risks of failure but also to minimize the risk of ridicule.

But even though these projects are humble, we must remember that every such effort is monumental: They are acts of imagination. Attempts at creating something new that challenges the status quo. Something new that we want to be part of. Something that we can point to and say “We want more things like this” instead of always opposing the things we don’t want. Such projects allow for bolder dreams and higher hopes. It gives us the courage to imagine. And to act.

David Graeber on the consensus process

… consensus, unlike voting, is not just a way of making decisions. It’s a process. Coming to a decision is just the final step. If one respects the process, the “spirit of consensus” as some like to say, the exact form of that final step is not all-important.

(..)

.. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what this “spirit of consensus” was really all about. It was clearly not just about decision making. It wasn’t even just about conduct during meetings. It was more an attempt — inspired by reflections on the structure and flows of meetings – to begin to imagine how people can live together, to begin – however slowly, however painfully – to construct a genuinely democratic way of life.

(..)

How often does the average American actually sit down, even with a group of four or five people, and try to make a collective decision in which all have equal say? True, children often do it while playing.

But, for adults, the experience of democracy is largely limited to decisions involving food, or maybe movies. For the college-aged, it probably does, indeed, happen most often when ordering a pizza; for older people, mainly when choosing restaurants.

(..)

It seems to me that the conception of “opinion” – personal opinions, public opinion – also follows from the absence of any real experience of participatory decision-making. In American schools, children are always being asked to express their opinions. It’s a heritage of the Deweyan tradition, a quite self-conscious attempt to imbue children with a democratic spirit.

The problem is that these opinions generally have no effect. Schoolchildren may be asked to decide, and express, what they think about everything from US foreign policy to the organization of gym class, but they are also perfectly well aware that these opinions have no influence on those actually making decisions, even within the school. This continues throughout life.

(..)

.. theorists from Rousseau to Rawls always assume that citizens start with a set of pre-existing interests (usually presumed to be basically material) and then see political deliberation – what an anarchist would call “process” – as the way they compete, compromise, maneuver, and generally try to get as much as possible of what they already know they want.

The notion of “opinion” fits perfectly with this logic. Opinions are also presumed to be pre-formed. At best, they can be manipulated or influenced. They can only be seen that way if no deliberation is really going on, apart perhaps from conversations in bars or over dinner. If one observes how processes of deliberation actually work, it’s completely impossible to see the actors as simply bringing pre-existing “opinions” or “interests” into some political marketplace.

In the process of deliberation – any political deliberation, really, though consensus process is designed to maximise this – everyone is changing their minds constantly, learning new information, identifying with different perspectives, reframing issues, measuring and weighing considerations in different ways.

(..)

“Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, let me try a different approach,” Alexis announced during one debate within Ya Basta!

“Why not?” replied Moose, “Hell, I’ve already contradicted myself at least three times just in this one meeting.”

From David Graeber: Direct Action — an ethnography, p. 318-320.

The development of democracy

I’ve started a new writing project over at the Borgerlyst blog. It is a longer essay on the development of democracy. Of course, there is no one model and understanding of democracy that can match all of the ideas that are related to democracy. So I’m trying to focus on a Danish context (the essay is written in Danish, too).

I’m writing the essay in installments, and there’ll probably be around 15 installments in total. I’ll publish two installments a week, and the first post in the series is up on the Borgerlyst blog now.

So why am I undertaking this project? I think we can learn a lot from how our current understanding and use of democracy has developed. It can help us explore the values that we have come to take for granted. But it can also help us see that the only constant element in democracy is that fact that it has undergone development and change throughout its history. Constantly evolving to match the values and conflicts in our society. And I hope such an exploration can help initiate a bigger conversation on the development of democracy in 21st century.

It is with great humility that I undertake this project. I’m no democracy expert. I am not writing this to expound some great truth. I am writing this to learn. And I hope that you’ll come along and learn with me. The text is in a continual state of beta. In development – much like the democracy that it endeavours to describe.

I’m writing this to show that democracy is not some single and simple model and solution to be implemented and maintained. It is an unending process that we have to develop together, learning from our mistakes as we go along. And as this history also will show, democracy can easily be lost once we begin to take it for granted…

Civic urges

Today, my friend Nadja Pass and I are launching the first part of our project “Borgerlyst”.

Borgerlyst logo

The word Borgerlyst is a Danish portmanteau of Nadja’s invention. It consists of the two words Borger (meaning citizen) and Lyst (roughly meaning lust, urge, delight, inclination). In short, a sort of civic urge. It is meant as a sort of play on the phrase ‘civic duty’. Whereas civic duty is all the obligations, rules and expectations society forces upon you, civic urge is something like the opposite.

It is the feeling that you get when you feel a positive connection to the society around you. It can both be a sense of privilige for being able to take part and act in democratic processes, but more often it comes across as a sense of positive indignation. Every time you experience something in your life that also affects others in the same way, and you think “this could be a whole lot better”, you’re feeling that positive indignation, a civic urge to improve the world around you for the benefit of all. And when you succeed in realising such improvements, you will feel a civic delight.

Borgerlyst as a project focuses on building greater awareness around such civic urges, and make it easier for us as citizens to connect with others who share our civic urges and initiate projects to realise our civic urges. We hope that by building a positive framing around such civic engagement and participation, people will be more likely to take positive action together, rather than resorting to skeptical complaining or cynical blame games whenever they come across something in need of improvement.

A fundamental idea behind Borgerlyst is the notion that neither democracy nor society will ever be perfected, but is in a state of continuous development. It is in beta. That is to say: We have certain structures and procedures that generally work but there is still plenty of room for improvement. It is an acceptable error state that depends on our being present and engaged. And the drive that keeps us engaged in this way is our civic urge.

Today, we launched our Facebook page and in the coming month, we’ll launch our website at borgerlyst.dk as well. The whole project is focused on Denmark and will be in Danish, but we’d be most happy if the project can be an inspiration for similar initiatives elsewhere. If you’re curious to learn more, let me know.