Addressing a Difficult Topic: Security vs. Liberty, Privacy, Freedom

Here is our food for thought. The topic is the core issue of the Bush administration and Post-9/11 American politics - the undermining of freedom and privacy in the name of protecting our country from attack.

I think it's important to first discuss a little bit the real threat of attack on America. First of all, how real is the threat? As it turns out, the thought amongst non-Bushies seems to be "not very". However, while the threat is not as great as our government would like us to believe, it is simultaneously true that it may actually be greater now than it was before we began our war on terror. According to a (likely non-scientific, but still potentially valid) study done by Mother Jones magazine, using the MIPT-RAND terrorism database,

"The rate of terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups and the rate of fatalities in those attacks increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq. Globally there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) and a 237 percent rise in the average fatality rate (from 501 to 1,689 deaths per year). A large part of this rise occurred in Iraq, which accounts for fully half of the global total of jihadist terrorist attacks in the post-Iraq War period. But even excluding Iraq, the average yearly number of jihadist terrorist attacks and resulting fatalities still rose sharply around the world by 265 percent and 58 percent respectively."

So what's the message here? Be afraid? No. The threat of terrorism in the US has NEVER been very high, by any stretch of the imagination. The chances of dying via terrorist attack, in this age of increased terror threat, is difficult to estimate. However, people have tried. If we were to assume an attack on the scale of 9/11 were to occur every year in America, an individual's odds of dying in one of those attacks in their lifetime would be roughly 1 in 1300. To give a little perspective, the odds of drowning or dying in a fire are 1 in 1100. Odds of being a victim of run-of-the-mill, every day homicide? 1 in 210. Heart disease? 1 in 3. But we still spend a laughably small portion of our national budget on the "War on Heart Disease", and police around the country complain about being woefully under-funded. Meanwhile, we continue to pour billions into Iraq in the interests of staving off this, relatively speaking, unimportant threat on our well-being.

However, humans are notoriously bad at using these sorts of ratios to effectively judge how much we should care about any given issue. First, consider that as our perceived levels of threat from a specific source increase, our ability to make rational decisions, specifically about policy on how to deal with that threat, decrease. Next, consider that the easier it is for us to come up with an example of a threat (anecdotal evidence), the more we perceive it to be a likely threat against us. Combine these two, and you have a country far too willing to begin subverting it's own freedoms in the interests of fighting off this perceived danger, no matter how real it might actually be (or not be).

But let's set that issue to the side, and focus on the core of the security vs. liberty problem. The seed article for this post makes a point of arguing that freedom and security are not mutually exclusive, and I absolutely agree. Additionally, they do not even require a reduction in one to have more of the other. They can, and almost must, exist simultaneously in order for either of them to really be worth the trouble. But in order to deal directly with what has become the national assumption about the relationship between these two, let's pretend that freedom and security are on opposite ends of a sliding scale, and we have to choose where to place our country.

Here is where we have our deepest divide. It has become clear since September 11, 2001, that the neo-conservative groups, the conservative groups, the right wing of our country, and especially the Bush White House, have thrown their lot into sliding that dial further and further toward the security end of the spectrum. The core assumption would seem to be that even if the American people are forced (even against their will) to give up some of their freedoms, that will ultimately be in the best interests of the people because they'll, at the very least, be able to remain alive. Ignoring the fact that in many ways these freedoms are working to ensure our safety in their own way, as life is anything but safe under a fascist regime (because let's face it, if you're not with them, you're against them... which is certainly a mindset I see becoming more prominent in America lately...), we have to consider whether a increased chance of losing that life is worth being able to live it more freely.

If we assume that security and freedom are contrary forces, then we find ourselves essentially stuck with a question which will sound something like this,

"Is the ideology of freedom, liberty, and privacy for all citizens more important than the lives of however many citizens may necessarily die, whether through attack, defense, or terrorism, as a result of not instituting protection policies that would undermine those ideologies?"

While that is an ugly way to phrase the question, and I know that politically a lot of people would hesitate to take a stand on either side of that question, it is one that we must address.

This is certainly not a NEW problem. It is one that seems to reach all the way back to Aristotle's writings on ethics. Ultimately, I think Aristotle would suggest we need to consider which of our two choices, security or liberty, provides the greater good for the greatest number of people. If we look purely at the numbers, a country of 350 million people (and growing daily) all allowed to enjoy their privacy, freedom to live how they wish, and the various liberties that we have been promised as citizens of our country seems to be the obvious choice. Even in the face of hundreds, or thousands, of deaths as a result of allowing that freedom to continue.

Really, we must assume that deaths will occur no matter how much security we institute (bad, assuming it also means reduction of freedom), but freedom (liberty, privacy) will always be used if they are available (good). So it seems that while we will never entirely eliminate the bad, nor can we even be sure that a lot of our actions would even have much effect, we can certainly be sure that allowing people those freedoms they would otherwise lose is going to inevitably allow for good. So not only will more people get more 'good' (the ethereal commodity discussed by Kant and Aristotle), but we can also be nearly 100% certain that movement toward freedom along our posited freedom-security scale will create more good. On the other hand, it seems that movement toward more security will inevitably reduce good, but may or may not actually decrease bad at the same time. I also don't think it's inappropriate to argue that while security could have the effect of reducing our chances of death, it also seems to simultaneously increase our levels of stress about our chances of dying. The manner in which this 'security' is pursued by our current administration includes a very powerful propaganda machine which is careful to assure that all Americans are deathly afraid of the disembodied, ever-present threat of terrorism. I would also be inclined to call that a 'bad'.

Certainly one could argue that freedoms can be used for bad things, but I think that's the point at which we must begin to rethink how far we are moving in that direction as well. Complete anarchy would likely lead to an increase in the odds of being murdered, as well as lesser evils like theft, assault, etc. There are obviously many more potential arguments on the side of security - if we can't feel secure, can we really feel free? Though again, do we really feel secure when we are? I would say our present situation seems to suggest the answer is 'not necessarily'. But, I think it's important to consider that I am not arguing that we should pursue either extreme-absolute freedom or absolute security. It just seems that past a certain point, the removal of freedoms no longer warrants the level of protection offered by the security.

When it comes to deciding where that middle ground is, where the proper point should be that we settle at, I feel it is important to err on the side of freedom rather than security. If we were talking about security from a more real, impending threat upon the lives of far more people, perhaps the dynamic would shift drastically. However, as we sit now, the threat of terrorism is being used as an excuse with a universal political adaptor, and it is not nearly as present as many would have us believe.

The bottom line is that on the national level, we must choose freedom of all above the lives of comparatively few. It's not a pretty thing to say, but unfortunately sometimes real answers don't agree with being socially polite.

And let's face it, we're killing ourselves in much more efficient and creative ways than any religious zealot is ever going to manage.

Voting, Cynicism, and the Right to Complain

This post is related to this article, the basic idea of the disenfranchised non-voting public of America.

Recently, I had a pretty passionate discussion with a close friend about the merits of voting in our country, and the reasons to vote and not to vote. Every argument I heard from this is present in the article linked to above, but there is one other which undercuts my most immediate response:

Defending non-voting in bars across this great land, I often hear the ultimate "shut up"—that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about politics or society. The reality is the exact opposite: By voting, you are playing a game whose rules are that the majority vote winner gets to control the reins of government, in all its unspeakable power. If you complain about the results of the game you chose to play, you're just being a sore loser—or winner.

Interesting! I hadn't thought of it in that light previously. However, let me take an opportunity to respond to this and the other arguments posed in this article. To this one directly: We live in a country which holds itself to be a democracy (in reality, it is a democratic republic, but that's not the point). As such, our government is meant to be representative of the population in a very direct way - the decisions of the body Congress are meant to be decisions made BY US, via proxy. Granted, the satisfaction ratings with both president and congress have been dismally low for years, so it is still fair to say we are a democracy? Maybe they're not representing us very accurately, but the fact that they represent us is still the idea of our system, and while I am often known to tout some pretty socialist ideas, it's the best one we've got right now.

The point to this is: if you live in America, whether or not you like what our government is doing, you are represented by it. Choosing not to vote does not remove you from the American population, and more importantly, it does not spare you the burden of guilt for the decisions ultimately made in your name. Moreover, I'm not sure I would even go so far as to say voting for an alternate candidate than the one who ultimately creates that burden of guilt frees you from it either - as Abraham Lincoln said: "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it."

We must recognize, however, that in any group there is going to be division on how people believe the choices should be made. Voting is our way of supporting an IDEOLOGY by which we think those choices should be filtered. Perhaps single person that we place into power is not perfect, and the weird American idea that our leaders must be flawless angels handed down from above like some sort of divine God-King (or, potentially, God-Queen) seems like an obvious fallacy in and of itself. However, what we are voting for is not necessarily a person, but a person as an avatar of a certain philosophy on how the world ought to be. (Presumably, this is why we expect them to be perfect - these philosophies do not involve adultery or accepting bribes.)

So let me restate in short form: If you are American, and you take advantage the rights and privileges afforded to you by being American (which is inevitable if you live here), then you are also a part of the government system whether you like it or not.

By no means am I trying to pitch that old rhetoric, "If you don't like it, get out". I just want this to be recognized: Our government is what provides us the American lifestyle (and our economy, but that is regulated and tended to by government), and if you are living in the American lifestyle, in American borders, on American soil, call yourself an American, or even are subject to American law, then you have a stake in how that lifestyle is dictated, how that law is laid down, and what is done in our name. Abstaining from a vote does not remove this burden, as this burden is one that we accept implicitly by accepting those rights and privileges as a citizen. What abstaining from a vote DOES, however, is give a nod to the government, and to the voting body of the population. It is saying, "I trust you to go ahead and make my decisions for me." It is putting your name down for a thumbs up to whatever happens, be it good or bad.

On the other hand, even if your single vote doesn't necessarily decide the contest, it does mean that you recognize your responsibility. It says that you are doing your best to direct the massive, unwieldy body of our country in the right (from your own perspective) direction. Obviously, all political parties think they see the right direction when others do not, but what's at stake at THIS PART of the discussion is simply the right to complain if the overall body of the government doesn't listen to you. What are the odds of the entire body politic listening to your single voice? Very slim. But it still purchases you the philosophical justification to complain when things don't go your way, and to at least say that you stood up and played the voice of reason. If you are too cynical to even take a few moments out of your life, stand up, and try to take your say in a system that you are a part of whether you like it or not... well, I'm not saying you don't have the right to be disappointed when things go badly. But if someone who DID take the time to try tells you your bitching doesn't hold a candle to theirs, I don't think you have a leg to stand on.

Let's step back a bit, to the idea of the government listening to a single voice out of the 350-millionish of us in the country. While it may be true that my single vote does not make the deciding difference in the presidential vote, it is also true that the whole mass of voting public is composed of those same single votes. If ALL of those were not cast, then it would make a hell of a difference. If anything, this argument seems to be very short-sighted and shows a major weakness of the human rationale when dealing with big numbers. It is an old philosophical problem, the problem of the heap. If a single vote does not make a difference, then my adding one vote does not make a difference. So if one vote doesn't make a difference, then if I add one more, still no difference is made. If I add one more, still no difference is made. If I add one more, still no difference is made. Follow this train up to 300,000,000 votes, and the argument would still maintain that they would make no difference. It's also an argument that can be turned around: If 300,000,000 votes make a difference, but removing 1 vote won't make a difference, then 299,999,999 votes also make a difference. If I remove one more, then 299,999,998 votes make a difference. Follow this all the way down, and you can see why it's a fallacy to support.

And no, my vote does not inspire 5000 others to vote the same way, but saying that harboring the type of cynicism that inspires one to avoid voting does not have an overall impact on the population is flawed even in its very statement: This article was written to explain why people do not vote. In it's form, it argues why people SHOULD not vote, and in doing so is becoming a vocal form of that cynicism, which can then inspire others to take the same stance. Additionally, the take-away message of this form of cynicism seems to be "If you don't try in the first place, then you can't fail." And really, who wants to support the idea that trying is just the first step to failure?

Now to nail a final point down on the topic of the "mathematical miracle if our vote actually decided the result of an election". It would be a far more incredible miracle if a LACK of vote decided an election. If given the choice of whether to vote and have a minuscule chance of making a difference, or having an absolutely 0% chance, I think any rational being will choose the former. The math just makes sense... .0000001% is always going to be more than 0%. Moreover, if you have a genuine fear about the future of our nation, and our ability to shift to a more sustainable lifestyle, taking even that .0000001% chance is going to do more than the alternative.

Lastly, I can certainly appreciate a push to get people doing something more directly good with their days: Pick up a piece of trash, or call your mother (for goodness sake), but are these things mutually exclusive with voting? Of course not . The real cost of voting is quite low - a few minutes of your time. And while I'm not one to argue that a few minutes of any person's life is without value, do we as humans really spend all of our lives doing things with even the most remote possibility of making a difference on the scale of a national election? The religious right turn out in droves to enforce their Christian views in this country - if you want to stand up against this, then show up just for the sake of showing up, and for god sake encourage others to do the same. If nothing else, the internet should show us how important a single person can be when they try to get their message out to the world. It is a massive body composed of individuals - the power of the individual is small, but the gestalt of millions of individuals is more than the sum of those individuals.

So the next time you're considering whether to sit down and watch a few minutes of TV before you go somewhere, why not spend that time paying a couple bills and purchase yourself a couple minutes of your time in the future to get out and show that you haven't lost all faith in humanity.


The Fight For Obama Requires Fewer Euphemisms and More Truth (By Frank Schaeffer)

This post relates to this article.

While I know it's pretty lengthy, I encourage everyone to read this article because I have never before seen my feelings about the general state of our population in relation to how they make decisions stated quite so succinctly as the second point he makes about why there is a decision between Obama and Clinton.

That is:

2) We include amongst us an undereducated geographically ignorant nation-within-a-nation who are afraid of the world outside of our borders, terrified by the eternal "other," that perpetual "threat" that takes new forms but never changes -- from the late Saddam Hussein to the last Mexican to crawl over the border.

This is the strength of the politics of fear which has buoyed the Bush administration through out their 8 years, and assured that even while we as a country may hate them, we still have a very vocal, heart-felt push to support further candidates that will manipulate us in much the same way as they did.

Our president has become a laughing stock, not just amongst us but through out the world, and even as his final term wanes, the majority of us are simply holding our breath in hopes that congress and common sense will keep him from doing anything too extraordinarily stupid during his final months in office. Once the 2008 election is over, we can finally begin the healing process after what has been essentially 8 solid years of rape on our nation. Our trust in our government has plummeted, our faith in the system is gone, even our general feeling of security has been completely destroyed.

Not only are we now held in check, as a populous, by the ever-present fear of 'terrorism' from outside, but there is (to anyone who has been paying attention) this all-to-new fear of our very own government. While our media occasionally has almost sensationalist stories about how the FBI or DHS will pop up and detain people who aren't actually doing anything wrong, we still behave as though our basic civil liberties are not being undercut in a way they never have been before. I have never been one to subscribe to silly conspiracy theories, or to worry too much about the fall of our democracy into some sort of dictatorship, but that fear is starting to seem all too real. At the very least, I know that if it weren't for term limits, and if the Bush neo-con administration was put in for another 4 years, I would make it a very real goal to get out of the country as fast as humanly possible. Very little searching can reveal stories like these, many of which MUST worry even the most even headed.

Remember, Hitler was voted into office, voluntarily placed as dictator by the representative body of the people, and they re-convened dutifully every few years to renew that iron grip he had on the country. Also remember, the Roman empire that we often think of fell after being around much longer than America has. We are not invincible, and it's the blind ignorance of the people that allow frail, delicately-balanced systems like democracy (or a democratic republic) to fall, by infection of fear, into dictatorships.


First Post

I've always hated the first post on any blog or various other journal, because they always seem to be just about why the author is starting their particular blog, without actually getting down to any meat. Posting about why you're starting a blog seems to be at odds, almost by definition, with actually having a reason for starting a blog - theoretically, if you have a reason to start a blog, you already have something to write about and should just get down to it, rather than writing up some masturbatory paragraph about WHY you want to write on that topic. Frankly, who cares?

That said, I hope to keep this project up. I've always had an affinity for doling out advice, and for doing deep philosophical thinking on pretty much any topic that hoves into my field of vision. I have often grown tired of spouting these thoughts over and over again to multiple people - they often lose their punch after the first couple times, as I get bored with the basic concept and want to go on further, but one must always help others catch up to the thought before you can start bouncing around new ideas and progress with it.

So the basic idea here is to put all these thoughts in one place, whether they're inspired by real life events, news events, posts from other people, etc. etc. I would very much like to get feedback from people who may happen across this, providing food for further thought and maybe allowing progression of various trains of thought beyond where they could get just chugging along inside my own head.

I know that people I know are going to happen across this badboy, mostly because you have to start somewhere with getting people to read your bullshit, but ideally it will also get some feedback from people I DON'T know.

I will try to update regularly. Maybe a couple times a week? I should really force some designated time into a couple days in order to put something down. I know that things like this shouldn't feel like work, but until you really get into the habit of doing it, it really can.

I'll also try to hit on some hot, touchy topics, in the hopes that it will encourage some interest amongst the general populous.