Monday, 13 June 2016

Mob Rule

This blog is not going to be very much fun to read. To be honest with you I'm pretty depressed and downbeat. For a change this is not simply a matter of my own circumstances but rather a reflection of what I see in the world. Its dull, grey and rainy outside as I write. When I woke up, about an hour ago, the dull ache I know so well was there somewhere inside my brain. Sometimes, in the past, this has meant that I am to be psychologically and emotionally fragile for the day. But today I think its more to do with a sense of frustration with society at large that I have been feeling quite intently for weeks now.

There are numerous world events affecting me at the moment. These are, let's be blunt, political things and they are vexing. One is the sight of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe where they imagine better lives and chances of survival await them. Many don't make it because the journey leads to their death. A few months ago there was a picture of a dead boy, maybe only 3 or 4 years old, washed up on some beach somewhere. The media seized on this and wailed and gnashed their teeth. "How can a little boy die this way?" they asked. "Isn't it sad?" they said. Then they moved on to the next thing. These people never seem to ask what could be so bad that the boy's parents, and those like them, would risk their very existence to try and get from where they are to where they want to be. Its just as if people are magicked up from nowhere and have no past lives or context for their actions. People don't think it through or look deeper. These people are just there.

Meanwhile, in the UK, and in related news, we are having a referendum to decide whether we wish to remain part of the EU or not. There are sharp and polemical fault lines in the debate where the vast majority of the written press, historically a factor in political debates in the UK, are in favour of leaving the EU. Virtually all of this press is owned by right wing people (most of whom seem to live abroad) who, let's be honest, viscerally hate the EU because it is something over which they have no control. Newspaper owners are used to being the ones with leverage rather than the ones who have to do what someone else tells them. Every day we have increasingly ridiculous scare stories to the effect that the UK is full of foreign criminals,  our borders (which it is claimed we don't control) are like open gates to whoever wants to come here and we will all be Muslims ruled by Sharia Law in a decade if we do not leave the EU. Throw into the mix the fact that we can blame the EU for wanting all our money and the Leavers have quite a strong mix of selfish concerns to use as a propaganda battering ram. After all, if you can claim that your opponent is letting in all the swarthy foreigners to steal your country AND is also wanting you to pay for it you might think you have a good case. 

This debate about "Brexit" as it is popularly called here is notable, however, probably for one main thing: the complete lack of understanding of the issues by almost everyone concerned with it, for or against. Nearly every "fact" pertinent to this debate is questioned (and questionable) and it is way beyond the ordinary person to even get a handle on the issues involved in being involved in a block of at least 27 nations who exist to deal with their existence in the world across national borders. One side says we shall be overrun by foreign hordes whilst the other says if you vote to leave then we will all be destitute in a decade. Its a debate to see who can scare people the most and so push them to mark their cross in the appropriate box come June 23rd which is polling day. All in all, this is a thoroughly depressing spectacle and a demonstration that, quite frankly, this debate is beyond regular people. Its too complex, too big and too important to be decided by the mass of people who are simply not equipped to examine the issues properly or thoroughly enough.

When this thought occurred to me the other day a light suddenly came on in my mind and it was fundamentally at odds with what our Western civilization has come to believe and stand for. This civilization believes that democracy, one person one vote, is the highest expression of political polity that there could be. It is a cornerstone of all such societies that all adults should be able to vote and this is based on the beliefs that everyone is equal and so should have an equal voice. No qualification is required to be this way. Simply be an adult and be alive and you can register and vote. In some places, though not I think in the UK, criminals in prison can even vote, their criminality is not thought to trump the fact that they are human adults just like all the rest. This belief in democracy, in one person one vote, is very deeply engrained. But what happens to this ideal when the mass of the population are uninformed or willing grazers of nefarious interests? Can the belief in one person one vote then be a tool for bad?

I'm starting to think that democracy is just ideological bullshit. For a start, I don't believe that everybody is equal and I certainly don't think that every viewpoint is equal. What's more, I don't think anybody else does either. I don't think that you reading this now does. Not, at least, if you think about it. Of course, we all think that some views and people can be better than others and, complicating matters, we don't agree on which are better and which are worse. This all raises serious issues and not least when the history of the human race (and, granted, people in general don't often tend to see the bigger picture because they are so wrapped up in themselves) shows that we as a species have been moving together more and more as history moves on. Our history is a history of moving to live together, creating huge cities of millions of people in the process. But when you are going to live cheek by jowl with lots of other people problems are going to arise. Police departments to administer our laws and bring people to justice are relatively new developments in the grand scheme of things. Before about 200 years ago there was no such thing as the police in any nation. This became necessary as a consequence of the coagulation of people in the same places.

And what about these nations themselves? Well, they haven't really been around that long either. Go back a measly 2000 years and the map of the world is unrecognizable. Countries, as we know them now, don't exist and won't for centuries. And yet, here and now, we can have political campaigns by people claiming to "want their country back" or "make their country great again". These people don't seem to realize that the countries concerned are mere historical particularities. Nothing is or was ever set in stone about them. The ideas of these countries are figments of various people's fevered imaginations, ideals they wish to espouse or promote for reasons both good and bad. This leads to what I often call a "pulling up the drawbridge" mentality and I can see it in both American and British political debate. Within this mentality your ideas of your country are literally a castle in your mind and your opponents are those who threaten to invade it. So what do you do? You pull up the drawbridge and deny access to all those you don't like. This might be by building walls or withdrawing from political and economic unions. The thought is the same. I stand back and stare. What does it matter what country you come from? A while ago none of these countries existed. America, hilariously, is actually a country that was basically stolen at gunpoint by the white people who came from Europe. Some of their descendants now claim to want "their" country back! The lack of self-awareness or broader historical awareness is staggering. I ask simply "Does it say anything important about anyone what piece of land they were birthed on?"

Let me be clear here. Everyone alive has a cultural and social background and we are creatures that are formed and developed by such things. I don't want to belittle that because many of us find it important and we can't really do any other since we seem made that way. But we should not confuse this with a belief that, in abstraction, what country you were born in is remotely important. Countries are mere time-conditioned entities that come and go on a constantly moving timescale. The same democratic belief which informs us that everyone is equal and so deserves an equal vote also tells us, if we apply it honestly, that an American is worth no more than a Jordanian and a Russian is worth no more than a Chilean. We are all just people. Donald Trump would not agree here. He tweets with the hashtag #AmericaFirst on his tweets. So presumably he sees the world as a contest between competing nations. Maybe he thinks that Americans are inherently worth more as people. I don't know. In the UK those in the Leave camp seem to be made up of a large proportion of people who think that the problems of people from other countries are something they can and should ignore. Such "other" people certainly should not be allowed to share in what's "ours". This issue of nationality is thought to say something fundamental about a person as a person. But does it? Does a line on a map indicate who matters and who doesn't?

There is much pressure in the modern world to conform and to buy into the narrative. I don't know what it must be like to be Arab-looking in America or the UK today but I imagine it can't be good. The narrative is increasingly pushed that such people are "our" enemies and are a danger. "They" want to kill us. "They" want to take over. Media organisations are quick to hijack such discussions, discussions which are only ever powered by soundbites that coalesce into a sort of narrative of "things that are understood". This narrative is more often than not highly questionable if not full of outright untruths. But it doesn't matter now. Its common knowledge. The people in general, even if they don't fully believe it or overly think about it, are used to hearing it and habit is, more often than not, enough to convince people of things. (Just one reason I don't watch or listen to regular news or read newspapers.) This is why various news organisations just plough on and on with the same thing. Say things often enough and people come to believe them. Or, at least, some will. And maybe that will be enough. In UK context this means that people regularly overestimate how many EU people are in the UK or how much of "our" money it is taking. They are told that hordes invade us daily. The truth is always rather less than it has been painted. But conventions are created and conforming to them becomes expected. It becomes harder and harder to stand out against the crowd even as it becomes more and more necessary to do so. 

The question I ask myself is if these hordes fed half truths, lies and propaganda by those who want to influence others in their favour should get to dictate the circumstances of my life. This problem is not a new one and was, incidentally, considered in the formation of the USA. The problem is known as "the tyranny of the majority". The issue is that if a side can get enough people to agree with it then it wins. This is based on the idea, of course, that we are all equal. Numbers will out. But is this right or fair? All true democrats would say yes. But I'm starting to think no. It is not liberty if you must go along with any hair-brained, nonsensical or downright wretched idea just because any number of people you may well be right to consider selfish or degenerate fools think differently. This is the tyranny of the majority. Another word for it, in modern media context, is the "zombiocracy". There was a film a while back called "Idiocracy" that expresses pretty much the same thought. And we live in a world today where people with various nefarious intents use their wealth and influence to convince people to support certain ideas which are quite plainly detrimental to people at large. These people use democracy to their advantage. Because democracy is simply a numbers game they seek to buy off or otherwise persuade as many as possible to their side of the argument. Right and wrong, pure morality, has nothing at all to do with this and its important to note that. Democracy is not moral nor must it lead unerringly to moral choices. Its just a way of deciding things based on certain assumptions. America is a supposedly democratic nation and yet it seems to kill more people, at home and abroad, legally and illegally, than anybody else.

I increasingly come to think of society as a trap. Its certainly a game that some people play. In America tens of thousands of people are shot with guns every year. There isn't a month without a mass shooting (defined as 4 people or more shot to death by an assailant). No other developed country kills as many of its own citizens with guns as the USA does. And yet its people are seemingly happy to let this carry on. If you are an American who does not want to live in a society which is basically a large gun store and shooting gallery all combined in one its too bad. Democracy decrees you're "shit outta luck" to use the words of Dirty Harry. Too many Americans, and too many powerful ones, are of the opinion guns should be relatively freely available in a world in which, for any sane mind, the more guns there are, the more people will be shot by them. The tyranny of the majority kills. When you see the arguments of gun advocates in the USA it chills the bones. I openly wonder how people can both think this way and get so attached to an instrument of death. But they do and they are and their views are thought by the democratic process to be equal to and just as valid as yours. Let's examine one.

It is said by gun advocates that even if guns were restricted the bad guys would still get hold of them anyway. The inference is then that there is no point to their restriction as it would make no difference. Is this a valid point of view? I don't think so. Firstly, even if it were true, so what? People can get hold of drugs anyway but most of them are still banned. Their availability to bad people does not stop their restriction on other grounds and the spending of millions of dollars to restrict their dispersal. Women can get back street abortions but it doesn't stop many gun-toting people trying to ban them legally. Second, even if bad people could still get hold of weapons is that any reason to make the whole process much easier and legal? No, it isn't. Bad people will always break laws if they choose to but we don't have laws based on what bad people might do regardless. We have laws based on what we think is right and safe for society. There is clear evidence from around the world that gun restrictions limit deaths and not just from people killing each other but from people killing themselves. Guns are a major instrument of suicide as well. Less guns, less deaths. So for people to say, as an ex-friend I had to block kept saying yesterday, that this "is not about guns" is quite simply false. It is about guns because where there aren't any no one gets shot. In both Australia and the UK, both places where guns are highly restricted, there hasn't been a significant domestic mass shooting for over 20 years. A reminder here: there is at least one in America EVERY MONTH. So what, as an American, do you do if you don't want to live in that kind of society? Its seems to me there's not a whole lot you can do and certainly not quickly. Democracy is a numbers game. And that's all it is. If the gun-toting folk outnumber you tough luck.

I've been quite depressed recently by the number of people, old people set in their ways, grumpy at the "foreigners" who they think are changing "their" country, who have been coming out of the woodwork. "Freedom" from Europe is regarded by these people as "independence" from various phantoms they have conjured up. I see it at merely ignorant selfishness. It is clear that many of these people cannot discuss the subjects relevant to the discussion. They have been fed with their propaganda from their outlets of choice and have become firmly convinced of their unchallengable views. It remains possible that the Leave camp may even win the referendum and the UK's drawbridge would be pulled up. No one has remotely a clue what this would mean going forward but many don't seem to care. Much more important to them is a largely figurative opportunity to assert themselves no matter how ignorantly or unedifyingly. The chance to raise a rampant middle digit to some amorphous enemy seems compelling to them. And I think it stinks. Of course, I don't really have another way forward. The truth of Churchill's assertion that democracy is the "least worst" form of government is well borne in on me. It is just one more absurdity of life, one more dead end.  Democracy is not a good thing. Its a least bad thing. Its a corrupt thing, an abused thing, a means to bad ends. Our only comfort is that it is not something worse. It is the terror of brute minds manipulated by those with the power and finance to do so. In a very real sense it is mob rule. And mobs can always be led, at least for a while, by charismatic speakers.

Sound familiar?

PS I don't know what the answer is. 

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