About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Danger of a Government That “Fears” Its People

 Fear and loathing

One of the primary justifications for a completely unfettered Second Amendment that I see on the Right is some version of the statement “We need to be armed so that we can make the government fear us, rather than us fear the government.” 

This is complete and total idiocy.

For a moment, let’s sidestep the fact that this is an explicit call to revolution in the United States, or at least a constant threat of potential revolution, and let’s examine what happens when a country “fears” its people.  (Spoiler alert: really bad things.)  Countries that fear their people are NOT bastions of democracy, they are lands of oppression, and places where the government’s fear of the people results in a reciprocal imposition of fear and an imperative to make the people fear their government.

Let’s break down why this is. 

First, a government that fears its people has to impose limits on the people so that they are not toppled.  These limits generally include:

  • Strict limitations on what people can say in public, or sometimes even in private, because you might speak against the rulers.
  • Establishment of a state religion (or lack thereof) to ensure that religious fervor is directed exactly where the state wants it to be, because priests and preachers have always been a thorn in the side of power
  • Control of the media to make sure that no opposing views are delivered to the masses, and now, this includes restricting or completely cutting off access to the World Wide Web and social media, so that people have no frame of reference to see what is actually happening.
  •  Bans on assembling in large groups for anything other than a state sponsored event, because lots of people in one place ramps up possibility that those people might try to stage a revolution
  • Prohibitions against the people airing their grievances to the government itself, preventing citizens from contacting them to tell them how much they dislike what they are doing.

In case you haven’t realized it, these things happen to be the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, which illustrates which of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights are actually the most important.

This leads to the second part of the oppression, in order to eliminate the freedoms listed above, you need to have a pretty draconian police state to stamp these out, including:

  • Constant surveillance of the population through the use of informants and secret police, so that they ensure that no one trusts anyone enough to talk freely.
  •  Suppression of all “non-approved” faiths to ensure that no one gets any idea that a Deity might want a system different than what they have imposed.
  • Establishment of a state-run media system that pumps out propaganda constantly telling the people how great they have it compared to everyone else in the world, and then blocking access to any source that might show this to be false
  • Bans on congregating in groups larger than a small handful of people, so that any time people start coming together, the police and the military have latitude to just start arresting, or even massacring them.
  • Blocking all channels of access into the inner workings of the government, which prevents many of the officials from knowing what is actually going on, because the rulers can never be absolutely sure that all of the people who work for them are totally onboard with what the regime is doing.

Now, let’s (briefly) look at a few places in the news where the government is actively afraid of the people.

First, we have Iran, where there has been a slow-moving revolution going on since September.  While the protesters have won a tiny, almost symbolic victory, with the elimination of the morality police, nothing has actually changed, as the laws they enforced are still on the books, and the regular police can still enforce them.  But these protests mostly haven’t frightened the government into reform, they have frightened it into incredible oppression.  The rulers are engaging in mass arrests, televised executions, and in a few cases, large scale massacres to frighten the population into surrender.  However, at this point, many people feel like they have nothing to actually lose, so this makes the government even more afraid, and increases both oppression and the possibility of astounding atrocities to bring the protesters to heel.  The more success they have, the more dangerous the situation becomes.  (It should be noted that I fully support the protesters, and hope they continue, I am just realistic about how far the government will likely go to remain in power.)

The second place to look at is China, where we have seen brutal suppression of the Uighurs, the people of Hong Kong, and even Chinese citizens living outside of the borders of the country. The Uighurs are being thrown into literal concentration camps and forced to renounce their Islamic Faith.  The Tibetans must accept Lamas chosen by the central government, rather than their own tradition, and when the Dalai Lama dies, they have said in no uncertain terms, they will dictate who will become the reincarnation of that leader.  The citizens of Hong Kong have been placed under a security regime that outlaws protests, or even large assemblies.  They have the power and authority to even dictate what Hollywood movies show, to ensure that these films conform to “Chinese Values.”  Worst of all, and beyond what most totalitarian governments impose, they even pursue Chinese Nationals who have left the country, through a system of secret police and police stations that can arrest and charge people in other countries, as seen by the arrest of five Chinese protesters by diplomatic security forces in Manchester.  To a large part, however, China masks its iron fist with a velvet glove, to try to conceal the actual brutality of the regime.

Finally, we will look at a country that fears only a portion of its populace, which is Israel.  Israel doesn’t fear everyone in the country, although they are starting to question the loyalty of the Liberal-minded Jews, they fear the “Palestinians,” a collection of indigenous Christian and Muslim residents of the country.  This example shows how a country that fears part of its citizenry can surgically remove rights from one group, while maintaining a veneer that those rights exist for everyone else.  The Palestinians have absolutely no right to free speech, free press, or free assembly, and their petitions for redress are completely ignored and even ridiculed.  While they ostensibly can practice their religion, their holy places, including the Dome of the Rock, are under constant threat of destruction, and their religious leaders are under constant surveillance.

But foreign countries are not the only places that have feared their people.  The United States at a few points in its history has as well, and these have not been bright points for Liberty.  First, we have the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were a response to the undeclared war with France at the same time.  At this point in US history, the Constitution was still very new, the government was not particularly stable, and the great powers in Europe were still looking to squash the new nation.  Several prominent politicians and press people were arrested and prosecuted under these acts.

Next, we have the period of the Civil War, when Lincoln was afraid that Rebel sympathizers in the North might work to undermine the Union forces.  To prevent the dissolution of the United States, he unilaterally chose to go to war, to prevent the people from questioning this, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, detaining thousands for years without trial, to prevent this from gaining widespread knowledge, he shut down newspapers critical of him, and blocked others from being able to be distributed via the Post Office.  While these actions were understandable, and probably even necessary, when examined through the lens of the Civil War, they still were profoundly un-Constitutional, and they were still the acts of a man who was afraid of the general populace of the country.

After this, we have the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918, which were responses to the government’s decision to enter World War 1 on the side of Britain and France.  This decision was not particularly popular in America, which had a very large German population with large swaths of the country where the first language was actually German rather than English.  This suppression of speech and the media was in response to the real danger that civic unrest over the war would undermine the United States participation in it.

Next, we have the utterly abhorrent imprisonment of the Japanese in concentration camps during World War 2, alongside the Alien Registration Act of 1940, which regulated speech of so-called “extremist” organizations.  Again, these acts were in response to fear of the population overthrowing the government on behalf of the Axis, which wasn’t an unreasonable fear, given the Business Plot of 1933, which planned on overthrowing the US government and replacing it with a fascist dictatorship in the mold of Mussolini’s Italy.  It should be noted that the Alien Registration Act was the instrument used by McCarthy at the beginning of the Red Scare and was later enhanced by the MCCarran Internal Security Act of 1950.

To put this all together, through both international in domestic examples, we can see the response that governments have when they “fear” their citizens.  Fear of the populace inevitably leads to authoritarianism, if not outright dictatorship.  And given that a government will always be able to have superior weaponry, this renders the Second Amendment moot, at least for the point the absolutists tend to put forward.  A government that fears people will increase surveillance, limit freedoms, control the populace, and ultimately oppress the masses to remain in power.

So, what should we want, if we don’t want a government that fears, and consequently, oppresses us?

We want a government that respects us.  Respect is not the same as fear, and in fact, is functionally the opposite, as people rarely respect someone they are afraid of.  We should demand that the government treats us like adults: tell us the truth, no matter how unpleasant it is; allow every single citizen to vote in every election, and in fact encourage that, trusting that the people are smart enough to select leaders to guide the country; listen to us when we say that something is not right, rather than come up with insults to belittle us and minimize our ideals; and finally, try, as much as possible, to craft solutions that make everyone a little pleased, rather than perpetuate the concept that a compromise should make everyone a little angry.

And guess what, if we knew we had a government that respected the citizens, all this idiocy about why we need guns would evaporate overnight.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Right To Choose Applies to Nations As Well

National self-determination. 

I’m getting extremely tired of listening to the Left try to blame the entire Ukraine crisis on the West. They always start out with a version of the same line, “Of course Putin is a monster, but he was pushed into a corner by the West, the Clintons, NATO, etc., and additionally Ukraine is also corrupt and evil and no better than Russia at its core.” While these people acknowledge that Russia is currently committing atrocities, they engage in three lines of thinking that are straight out of the Putin propaganda farm. 

 The first is the classic “whataboutism” that Putin loves so much. Basically this says that we cannot legitimately be outraged about Ukraine because we have been silent in Palestine, silent in Rwanda, silent in Kurdistan, silent in Myanmar. Basically, the core of this is that if we are now upset about Ukraine, we are just showing how racist we are. While we do need to acknowledge we have dropped the ball here, there is also a magnitude of difference at play here. Not to minimize the other atrocities, but here you have a nuclear armed global power invading a recognized sovereign nation with the deliberate attempt to subjugate it. All of these other cases are much muddier, and to be very honest, a lot less clear cut. They are also atrocities that are impacting hundreds of thousands, whereas Ukraine is currently affecting millions, and may spill out into the tens or even hundreds of millions. Additionally, we cannot forget the Holodomor, which was a genocide on par with, or possibly even worse than the Holocaust. (While the consensus seems to be about 3.9 million deaths, some scholars put it as high as 12 million.) The magnitude of this crisis pushes it into the center of conversation. 

The second line of thinking is about the Ukraine being corrupt, as if that makes this more legitimate, or at least means we shouldn’t get involved or be that upset. I have some bad news for you all, EVERY government is corrupt. ALL of them. This does not render a country unworthy of aid or consideration, nor does it give any sort of cover to a military invasion, because at the end of the day, it is the people who suffer. And further, in this particular case, the more we allow this to continue, the LESS likely it is that Ukraine will clean up its act. The oligarchs have fled the country, and properly supported, the citizens of Ukraine can possibly try to make sure they don’t come back. But that will take OUR support. 

But the final thing, and the part that most upsets me, is the argument that really, the West caused this: that years ago, NATO should have refused to let the Baltics, or other Eastern European Nations, join. This is Colonialism at its worst, because Colonialism isn’t just about using the might of empire to control territory, it is about the patronizing attitude of a greater power towards a lesser power regarding their own agency. Colonialism is about deciding what is best for a country or a group of people, rather than listening to what those people actually want. 

So, to illustrate this, and to show the inherent cruelty of what many pundits on the Left are saying, I would like to create a little analogy. This analogy casts countries as a group of people: we have three sisters, Estelle, Livia, and Leitha; we have their friends Paula and Bella; an old man, Russ Sr., his son Sven, and grandson Russ Jr.; a neighbor, Nate, and then Nate’s Uncle Sam. Let's begin the illustrative story. 

Many years ago, three sisters, Estelle, Livia, and Leitha, were taken in by an old man named Russ Sr. He took them in to, in theory, protect them, but actually, he exploited them, making them work for him. This sad situation existed for many years, until Russ Sr. died unexpectedly. The three sisters escaped, along with a friend, Bella, they had made while living in Russ’ house. For a few years, everything was going OK for the sisters, even though their friend Bella decided to move in with Russ’ son Sven.

Unfortunately, after a few years, Sven made a deal with a bunch of other people in the neighborhood and forced the three sisters to move back to the old house, and serve him the same way they served his father, except he was even more cruel, forcing them to stop speaking their own languages, stop them from celebrating their own heritage, and making them conform to exactly everything Sven wanted them to do. Sven also was especially cruel, making some of their other friends, like Paula, live the way he wanted them to live, and forcing them to cut ties with all of the friends Sven didn’t approve of. Even though he didn’t make these friends move fully into his house, he made them live in his fenced compound. Eventually though, Sven also got sick and died, leaving HIS son, Russ Jr. in charge. 

As before, the sisters, their friend Paula, and some of their other friends got out in the chaos surrounding Sven’s death. Bella moved out of the house as well, but she decided that she wanted to stay in the fenced compound, even though her family and friends tried to help her to leave. However, this time, the sisters wanted to ensure that they were never forced to go back to Russ Jr.’s house, so along with their friend Paula, they approached their neighbor, Nate, and asked him to keep them safe from Russ. 

Now, the sisters knew that Nate wasn’t necessarily a great guy, he could be a bit violent himself, and his Uncle Sam was really problematic, but they knew that Nate would keep them all safe, because they were certain that Russ was afraid of Nate, or at least knew that it wasn’t wise to piss Nate off. Once they got protection, the sisters and their friends started to thrive. They threw off all of the old rules that Sven required, they started speaking their own languages and started to really live their best lives free from the abuse they had been suffering. 

When looked at as if these countries were people, we see that the Soviet Union and Russia’s treatment of a number of countries in Eastern Europe was very abusive, and these countries wanted to ensure that they were not abused again. This meant that they had to find something to protect them, otherwise, they would eventually be reabsorbed, as had happened twice in their history. They were asserting their own right to self-governance, just like a person fleeing an abusive situation has the right to seek protection. 

And this is the core of why this statement that the West should never have allowed these former Eastern Block countries to join NATO is so problematic. If converted to people, it is saying that a person who escapes a brutal, non-consensual, and abusive relationship is not allowed to seek any protection to remain safe. They need to continue to allow their abuser to have access to them, just to ensure that abuser doesn’t start beating up everyone in the neighborhood. It means that we are happier for someone to be abused, than to confront the abuser and try to make them stop. 

And yes, countries are not people, but sovereign nations have the same right of self determination that a person does. 

This is where colonialism comes into play. These pundits are saying that they know better than people and the governments of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Ukraine. They are willing to sacrifice the independence of sovereign nations to appease a dictator. We saw this happen when Neville Chamberlain allowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and other regions to be captured by Hitler in the interest of peace. Like Putin, Hitler originally stated that the countries he was conquering were simply to reunite parts of Germany, with German people and German Culture, into one country. Putin makes the same statements about Ukraine today. 

And through it all, the pundits on multiple sides of the political sphere still blame the West for this situation. They have effectively refuted the right of these countries to have their own self-determination, and the ability for them to choose who they wish to align to. No one in NATO, or the EU, forced these countries into membership, they freely and democratically, chose this path. For the West to have refused this right of self-determination is fundamentally no different than Putin trying to force Ukraine in to alliance with the Russian Federation at literal gunpoint. 

Nations have a right to choose their own path, this is fundamental. If these choices upset their neighbors, they still have that right. Russia could have made joining its federation enticing, made a better offer to these countries to induce alliances. They did not, and now they are reaping the consequences. 

Where this will end, I do not know. However, I do know that these countries had a right to choose their own paths, whether it angered Putin or not. And as the side that is supposed to be about individual rights, we should be standing with Ukraine, not blaming this on the West.