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Political Distance

A bit of musing on the lack of real choice in the 2012 election, trying to make sense of the choice we face.

With the election’s temporal location quickly converging with our own, this post examines the political proximity of the two major candidates.

One way of picturing the difference is conceiving of a Cartesian plane, one which a society moves around in. It may be roughly similar to the so-called political spectrum (Wikipedia: Political Spectrum), or maybe not. Maybe instead of a plane, it’s a linear space, a motion picture, showing society’s position at each frame, which is animated over time.

In reality, that space is simply a set of nodes representing the various states of society. We have a graph. The graph interacts both with our actions and the natural world, constantly producing new states of reality. There are small decisions, like sipping water, or one human’s life (compared to the scale of society). Big decisions, like spending whatever portion of our resources on devices of war compared to devices of exploration.

In any case, what direction and distance each candidate wants society to walk in, and where they would like us to end up, is one measure of their political distance. Not that they could agree about where we are in the first place.

In wilderness survival, a lost person is meant to seek out running water. A stream flows to a river. A river flows to a larger river, and eventually to an ocean. Society tends to build up around water. Follow the water down, and you’ll find your salvation. Not to mention people need water anyway, and running water tends to be the best place and form to get it as clean as possible in the wild.

Maybe there is a political equivalent to streams and rivers? Maybe we could tell our leaders to follow them down? That’s maybe a topic for another day.

Today I find interest in the unexplored terrain. The fact that both major candidates agree that so much of the land is not worth visiting. And that we must stick close to familiar ridge lines.

For example, the mass incarceration of humans. For example, the laws governing copyrights and patents. Military budget. Energy production. Transportation and population densities.

So there are some differences. Or, take one where the gap is wider, the laws governing immigration. Even for the more sensible candidate on that issue, it is not a coherent idea of where we are or can go.

Economies are the aforementioned streams and rivers of this landscape. People emigrate for economic reasons. They already follow the flow. Without ending the flow caused by poor conditions at the source, and the desire for cheap labor and contraband at the destination, the dams will not hold. Improving the aqueducts will only reduce the flow so slightly.

Neither candidate will stand to eliminate the war on drugs, which is akin to using forced human labor to carry the water, at gunpoint. Increasing the contraband production locally would reduce that economic stream, but at the price of increased pollution in the local economic water supply. Reducing the vigor of the local economic waters, too, would make them less appealing to the laborers that immigrate unlawfully. But it again harms the lands here.

So, even though one candidate is quite ahead on the issue, he is equally unwilling to take the real, full path to the destination.

At best, he calls for better aqueducts, will will prove inadequate.

Still, slight progress is plausibly better than regress or stagnation. The closer we approach real solutions to our problems, the more likely we will gain a vantage of the true destination.

Getting Past the Reflexive Response

One of the phenomena we see in discussions of changes to society is a purely reflexive response. We see this both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the way the issue is couched. Reflexive responses can kill whole families of ideas, and we should seek to minimize their influence.

One of the phenomena we see in discussions of changes to society is a purely reflexive response. We see this both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the way the issue is couched. A guess is that the responses tend to be more negative, that reflexive responses in general tend to be “no.”

New York City, a city in the US state of New York, recently enacted a law against certain food establishments selling soft drinks containing more than 16 fl. ounces (approx. 0.5 liters). Many people had a reflexive response against that move. The belief that both individuals and businesses should have the right to make that sort of decision, rather than government, fired rapidly in the mind. This was followed by the section of the brain containing the term, “nanny state,” jumping up and down, yelling, “me! me! me!”

While I think a reasonable person can disagree with the implementation of the ban, it’s harder to make a case against the idea that people should drink less fizzy sugar water. But let’s set that case aside, and just focus on the reflex.

It seems like the reflex is a combination of the brain having existing wiring for the type of argument and a tendency to take a defensive posture against change. We see the same disposition in many subcultures, including political and religious ones.

In the case of soft drinks, people have encountered dietary arguments for years from vegetarian, vegan, and similar dietary movements. The anti-smoking arguments also follow similar lines. With recent studies showing correlation between social connections and things like weight gain and diet, even the second-hand smoke arguments have a home here.

People also have received reinforcement from something like sipping on a soft drink while having positive social interactions, so much that some may be able to tell you that they enjoyed a particular flavor of drink during a particular interaction (not unlike people remembering specific times with specific types of alcohol).

The notion of giving up something that seemed to add to an experience is threatening. It usually takes several nearby nodes in the network making a change in order to encourage more nodes to change.

Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY, is another example of a mantric argument that is conjured when a reflexive response occurs. Windmills are often opposed as a reflex.

The notion of job security has paralyzed whole sectors of the economy, as we become afraid to modernize and shift economic focuses because of large blocks of employment. That is, we place employment as a higher importance than the economic functionality that would ensure it.

There are reflexive responses when someone denigrates a prophet, or when a community perceives a travesty of justice, and so on.

How do we get past these reflexes? How do we get sane arguments that don’t run into walls of no-from-the-hip?

My hunch on this is that society, or whatever group seeks to have good arguments, assigns advocates regardless of belief. Just like high school debaters, people can advocate for causes they don’t necessarily believe in. It gives an opportunity for new ideas to prosper in a way that doesn’t stigmatize initial advocates too severely (which risks blanching future dissent, leading to further totalitarianization of a group).

Likewise, increasing opportunities for interaction and shifting of social links would enable more nodes to recognize opportunities for different behaviors. Although anecdotal (in that I haven’t looked for any research that backs this up), I find it likely that part of the positive impact of World War II on the US economy stemmed from the mixing of all those young people, along with their exposure to diverse social orders across the globe.

At any rate, reflexive responses should be seen for what they are. We shouldn’t let them kill good ideas, but should allow ourselves to entertain the idea without fear that it will consume us. Society needs to learn how to do that.

Hegemony in the (Tech) World

This is another discussion about culture stemming from the ongoing dissatisfaction in the open source community at large over the bad culture that exists in the computer industry (and far beyond it).

This is another discussion about culture stemming from the ongoing dissatisfaction in the open source community at large over the bad culture that exists in the computer industry (and far beyond it).

I’ve been lucky enough to more-or-less avoid direct contact with the dominant culture in Western technology. But I can understand that culture’s existence in the wider culture. It’s not about women, but about dominance. And it will continue until an alternative culture supplants it. Outlawing it, banning it, these do not suffocate it.

Cultures develop very rapidly. Culture is basically an instantiation of an expectation. If you visit your grandmother, and she answers the door wearing a leather jacket, jeans, and combat boots, then that particular instantiation of the grandmother-grandchild culture probably just took a weird turn. But it could be that your grandmother is a biker, in which case her answering the door in slacks and a blouse would get you diving in the hedges and calling the invasion of the body snatchers hotline.

One of the key problems in changing the culture is that many members of the dominant culture that you interact with aren’t alone in their daily lives. So even if you get them to see the light, by sheer inertia of returning to their regularly scheduled programming, they will readopt the bad culture.

Indeed, many will have initially adopted the persona of a member of that group in the presence of others of that group, in order to fit in. But once you’re expected to think of jokes of a certain type, your brain rewires itself a bit. And you’re supposed to get them out there fast, before the other guy, to show your own dominance within the group. So now you’re losing your natural tendency to analyze your speech before expressing it.

The company you keep ends up keeping you. Everyone becomes a copy of a copy of a copy. The first rule about the culture is that you do not talk about the culture.

The code of silence in the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk isn’t to prevent the spread of the fight clubs. It’s to prevent the members from openly discussing what they are engaged in. They can tell non-members about it in the sense of spreading the culture, but never have a metatalk about it.

And I think that’s key. If an infection is deep enough, the best that the body can do is to build around it, wall it in. To truly remove it requires opening it to the air and light and pulling it out completely.

So talking about it from the outside helps a bit. But ultimately the discussions have to happen on the inside. The purveyors the various cultures must themselves come to understand their own culture, instead of ignoring that it is controlling them without them having any real say in it.

It’s a difficult thing to do. If you try to raise the issue from within the culture, the same defense mechanisms that are harmful to outsiders will be turned on the rule breaker. It will be a light attack at first, and persisting will only make the threat more real.

It’s probably best to go for one-on-one discussions of the culture with the purveyors for that reason. Less feeling that they have to enforce the culture in that setting, and one-on-one cultures of their own develop rapidly.