synthetic zero



Addendum - October 13, 2001

I used to live in Berkeley way back in the mid-80's, when the far left already was dead, for the most part --- stand-up comics were already using phrases like "back when people cared what people 'in Berkeley' were saying." I suppose at the time the self-destruction of the left as a political force with weight in the mainstream seemed tragic because it was still relatively recent; now, of course, everyone has gotten used to it, the stench of the carcass has wafted away long ago. Yet, of course, most of the issues that were of concern to the left remain, and it is unfortunate that what remains of the left has such little visibility. Though, as I say, I disagree with them in some respects, though I have only spent so much time thinking about why. It is a disagreement I have had for many years, even back in my college days.

But back to the excellent points Ray was making, because unlike "the Left" or "Berkeley" he is actually alive and well, at least as far as I know (maybe Berkeley has been wiped out in a terrorist attack as I type this)...

So, yes, the question here is, what is the relationship between the cultural justifications for an act and its "true" underpinnings in economic imperialism or power politics? I suppose I go back to what Vonnegut always used to like to say: Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be. This applies, in the end, in both directions.

During the Cold War we made no bones about the fact that when it came to foreign policy, fighting what seemed to us to be a battle against Communism was far more important than upholding even the rudimentary shreds of any committment to human rights we might profess domestically. And, in point of fact, we committed all sorts of depravities in the name of national security, primarily abroad but also domestically (in the form, mostly, of not reporting on our crimes --- though inevitably the news would eventually leak out, turning public opinions, in the end, against such behavior). At the time, most people argued that our true motivations were not actually a fight against Communism but more a fight for American corporations (like United Fruit). And I don't doubt that protecting the corporate interests of United Fruit was a major part of our motivations.

But in the end, even we couldn't justify the continuation of our policy of propping up dictatorships at the level we had once the Berlin Wall fell. Suddenly, as if by magic, these governments began to fall --- belying, to a large extent, our claims that we hadn't been propping them up in the first place. Whatever additional justifications, the "true" reasons for our actions --- we stopped a lot of them once the putative reason for them disappeared.

I suppose what I am saying is that I don't expect that much from our government. I don't expect it to generate a utopian society, or to avoid grabbing for power or monetary influence, or to stop pandering to corporate interests. What I expect is that these activities will be moderated, or limited, or constrained, to a certain degree. So, to me, the question is not whether there are ulterior motives for our actions (there always are), but to what extent are these ulterior motives being constrained, and why?

To me, politics is not about achieving ideological purity, but it has to do with memes that get circulated within what is essentially a complex system. I do not believe in "the" reason we're doing things --- I don't think there is ever a single reason, or an underlying "real" truth. Every story about what we're doing is both right and wrong. However, there is something important about the official reasoning, especially in a society with some degree of voter feedback, and that is that whatever we do has to in the end roughly be constrained to what is acceptable to the official reasoning.

In other words, in a society with some voting feedback (I will avoid the word "democracy" since this implies a level of control by the people that is, of course, only a fantasy), the government does not have to be good, but it has to avoid violating the norms of our society to the point that it becomes obvious that the official story (for example, the story that we're a "free" country) is a sham. In other words, our leaders do not have to really be fighting for justice and freedom, they just have to appear to be doing so.

So it matters what we appear to be, and this is my point. Yes, the War Between the States was far more a war about economic power, about the rich industrial north in conflict with the agrarian south, and the justification we gave that it was about freeing the slaves was just propaganda. But ... it did actually end up freeing the slaves (though it took about a hundred years to complete that project even in a formal legal sense, and of course the consequences of slavery have hardly disappeared yet). The propaganda reason was, in fact, ultimately far more important than it "should" have been.

So when I argue that caring about the suffering of the Afghan people is, in fact, something that we ought to do, I am not at all saying that I believe this is, in fact, the only "real" reason for our acting abroad. What I am saying, however, is that such considerations ought to be part of the reasoning behind whatever it is we do --- not because I believe that our fearless leaders are actually going to be thinking about this first and foremost, but because this ought to be part of the standard which we (the people) ought to use to hold our leaders accountable. And, in fact, these sorts of memes have a habit of infecting even people on the front lines, strategists, commanders, etc.; regardless of whether it is our true motivation, in some sense, eventually, in a large system like "the world and all the people in it" you are what you appear to be.

It brings me back to the Prisoner's Dilemma. In classical game theory, the rational choice is to defect. So why don't people always defect? Because in the real world, if you did this, you would gain a reputation as a defector. To a large degree, that is the reputation we have in the rest of the world. We helped the Afghans, for example, then we abandoned them: a large reason for antipathy to us now. "Realpolitik" ignores this factor. It is not about being goody-two-shoes in politics; i.e., sacrificing our self-interest for some ideal. It is that defecting is a bad strategy, even from a Machiavellian point of view. It either hurts you in the long run, or it hurts your tribe, and that eventually redounds negatively on your own ability for your memes or genes to survive.

Any of us with political opinions never expect that our views will actually become the "real" policy; we throw the ideas out into the world in the hope that they will add to the conversation in some positive way. So the ideal that we will be a force for truth and justice in the world --- I will never expect this to be actually the case, all the way down, as it were. But it is important that this at least be part of the public standard for our actions, because when it isn't, large numbers of people in foreign lands suffer, and in the end, so do we.

I suppose I can summarize this by saying that if we can't do the right thing for the right reasons, we can at least pressure our government to do the right thing even if they also have ulterior motives. We cannot, actually, do this by imposing our system of values or government on others --- that has failed repeatedly in the past --- but if we truly see others as both human and other, we can, I believe, aid them in helping them to liberate themselves (and stop, of course, propping up repressive regimes --- or at the very least pressure them to stop being so repressive). And this can only improve our long-term security as well. Compassion and long-term, enlightened self-interest (where "self" is defined as our whole society and culture, not only individuals) can be the same thing.