Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Witch-hunts in the 21st century

In his book, "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches," Marvin Harris made the argument that the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages were not about putting down power threatening subversives as in the Inquisition, but instead creating them:
 My explanation of the witchcraft craze is that it was largely created and sustained by the governing classes as a means of suppressing this wave of Christian messianism. It is no accident that witchcraft came into increasing prominence along with violent messianic protests against social and economic inequities. —Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 225)
It became a way for the Church and state to divert attention away from themselves and deflect blame for tough times onto a powerless group of women:
The practical significance of the witch mania therefore was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form. Preoccupied with the fantastic activities of these demons, the distraught, alienated, pauperized masses blamed the rampant Devil instead of the corrupt clergy and the rapacious nobility. Not only were the Church and state exonerated, but they were made indispensable. The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of mankind against an enemy who was omnipresent but difficult to detect. Here at last was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector. Vital services pertaining to this life rather than the next were being carried out with sound and fury, flame and smoke. You could actually see the authorities doing something to make life a little more secure; you could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell. Who were the scapegoats? H. C. Erik Midelfort’s unique study of 1,258 witchcraft executions in southwestern Germany during the period 1562 to 1684 shows that 82 percent of the witches were females. Defenseless old women and lower-class midwives were usually the first to be accused in any local outbreak. —Harris, Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 237-238)
In sum:
  1. Times were tough and the people were suffering and starting to blame the rulers of that time: a corrupt Church and governing classes.
  2. A scapegoat was created to divert attention away from themselves and onto a powerless, group of women that they could easily defeat.
  3. The "witches" were deemed to be evil beyond imagination.
  4. The "witches" were tortured.
  5.  The witch-hunts self-perpetuated itself. The "witches" were tortured until two to three other supposed witches were named, supposedly at a sabbat.
  6. The population was kept in a state of "mass hysteria" or "culture of fear."
  7. The state declared itself the savior and protector of its citizens.
Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? If not, pause a moment before proceeding —it should come to you. Here's a hint:
Collins Dictionary definition of witch-hunt: "a rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public" —Collins
And the answer is the global war on terror. The GWOT (Global War On Terror) is nothing more than a modern day witch-hunt. Each one of the seven points above correlates perfectly to the GWOT:
  1. Times were tough and the people were suffering and starting to blame the rulers of that time: a corrupt government and elite class.
  2. A scapegoat was created to divert attention attention away from themselves and onto a powerless, "enemy" that they could easily defeat. i.e.a few men with beards and guns half way around the world.
  3. George W. Bush described terrorists as "evil-doers" and often described the GWOT as some momentous battle between good and evil.
  4. Terrorists and supposed terrorists were tortured.
  5.  The GWOT self-perpetuates itself. Drone strikes create more terrorists than it kills. Also, government agencies create most of the terrorists outright:
    "Terrorists" were indeed tortured. The US military would give a cash reward to anyone who "named" a "terrorist" —whether that person was innocent or guilty. Then, "US authorities relied heavily on information obtained from a small number of detainees under torture. They continued to maintain this testimony was reliable even after admitting that the prisoners who provided it had been mistreated." source
  6. The population was kept in a state of "mass hysteria" or "culture of fear."
  7. The state declared itself the savior and protector of the people.
From a Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet: Security signs that begin with "For your protection..." essentially end with "...we will restrict freedoms & invade privacy"
There is absolutely no doubt that if Marvin Harris were alive today (he died a month after 9/11), he would call out the GWOT as a modern day witch-hunt. The only difference is that terrorism is real. However, the response is grossly overblown and much of there terrorism is the direct result of US actions. This is no doubt intentional:
The Thistle and the Drone explains an important correlation: the United States uses drones almost exclusively against Muslim tribes with strong codes of honor and revenge [who were] living on the borders between nations—the tribes on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen, Somalia, the southern Philippines, Turkey, and Mali. —The Thistle and the Drone: The United States, Islam, and the War on Terror
Remember we're talking about a few men with guns and beards half way around the world as a national threat to the United States. Give me a break. The threat of being killed from a terrorist attack inside the United States is miniscule:

The GWOT has been described as a fraud or a hoax; however, the best and simplest analogy is that the GWOT is a modern day witch-hunt. This has proposed before. There are almost three million hits on google for, "war terror witch-hunt." Here is but a sample:
In 1974, Marvin Harris identified, "counter-culture" as the witches of his time:
The unexpected resurgence of attitudes and theories long held to be incompatible with the
expansion of Western science and technology is associated with the development of a lifestyle which has been given the name “counter-culture.” According to Theodore Roszak, one of the movement’s adult prophets, counter-culture will save the world from the “myths of objective consciousness.” It will “subvert the scientific world view” and substitute a new culture in which the “non-intellective capacities” will reign supreme. Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 243)
If this doesn't describe the current state of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party with their science-be-damned "global warming is a hoax" and "a woman's body has a way to protect itself from pregnancy via a rape," I don't know what does. Surprisingly enough, the "counter-culture" of the "left" that Harris describes has found a home on the "right" with the rise of the Tea Party Republicans. (Aside: Please don't take this as an endorsement for the Democrats. Each party plays the "good" cop to the other party's "bad" cop. Each party plays their role in what amounts to Kabuki theater on a grand scale.)

Harris' concluding thoughts on "counter-culture":
Within counter-culture’s freedom to believe, witches are once more as believable as
anything else. This belief, for all its playful innocence, makes a definite contribution to the consolidation or stabilization of contemporary inequalities. Millions of educated youth seriously believe that the proposal to kiss away the corporate state as if it were an “evil enchantment” is no less effective or realistic than any other form of political consciousness. Like its medieval predecessor, our modern witch fad blunts and befuddles the forces of dissent. Like the rest of the counter-culture, it postpones the development of a rational set of political commitments. And that is why it is so popular among the more affluent segments of our population. That is why the witch has returned. Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 257-258)
I couldn't recommend enough, "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches", to anyone interested in culture and the psychology of societies. Every chapter is filled with entertaining stories of how culture developed in different parts of the world and the lessons we can learn from them today. CPWW is as every bit as valid today as it was almost 40 years ago.

If Marvin Harris were alive today, he would surely recognize the global war on terror as the "witch" with "counter-culture" playing an auxiliary role as part of the right's propaganda machines. Certainly, the witch has returned: The global war on terror is nothing more than a 21st century witch-hunt.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

On principle

Legal activities and health insurance companies

(Written in 1995)

Purveyor (

Suppose the company or business you work for announced a policy wherein the company's health insurance carrier would not provide health insurance to employees who ski, snowboard, hand glide or ride motorcycles. Your employer and the health care provider could claim that those activities increase the likelihood of the individual being injured or killed if he or she engages in any of those activities. Effectively your employer and the health insurance company would consider those activities "reckless" behavior and an unreasonable risk, hence proscribe coverage.

What would you do? Would you stop skiing, sell your motorcycle? Would you conceal your hang gliding? What would happen if you or a family member were somehow injured and the company found out you are a snowboarder and voided your coverage? Does this sound implausible? It is not, and companies such as Sturm-Ruger Company, which is one of the biggest gun manufactures in the world and virtually has such a policy. Sturm-Ruger's company health insurance policy does not cover activities such as "parachuting, sky diving, bungee jumping, motor vehicle, boat or aircraft racing, piloting of [a] hang glider, ultra-light or experimental aircraft, operating or being a passenger of a three-wheel vehicle, operating a motorcycle without wearing a helmet." What activity is next?

My immediate reaction is why not just add owning or shooting a gun and/or hunting with a firearm to the list of non-insured activities? Isn't gun ownership too a "reckless" behavior and an unreasonable risk? Doesn't owning a firearm increase the possibility of the owner being wounded or killed by a gun? I wonder how Sturm-Ruger Company would feel if Volant Skis, or Harley Davidson implemented a company health insurance program that inhibited gun ownership?

The very nature of providing insurance is that the provider takes a calculated risk that there will be more money paid in, than paid out. Health insurance carriers are in business to make money and, therefore, will attempt to put limitations on what is an acceptable claim so they make more money. In fact, company executives are required, by law, to do whatever is necessary, legally, to be profitable. But, insurance companies can do it because they can, thus potentially becoming quasi-governmental? When insurance companies venture into this area they arguably can and do infringe on our personal freedom to engage in very legal activities. Effectively, insurance companies if allowed to remain in business without regulation, then those companies will soon be able to do what government can't: Very pro-actively, control our behavior.

The Federal Government, and in some cases the States are too, limited by the Constitution and Bill of Rights from enacting laws that proscribe individual prerogative(s). Suppose Congress colluded with the insurance industry to mandate helmet laws. (For example: South Dakota v. Dole, S.Ct. 1987 offers insight into Congressional leverage of this nature) So too could Government and business scheme to inhibit gun ownership, etc. A provocative notion?

Congress, to be consistent when regulating what insurance companies can and can't do with regard to personal freedom, must accept that America may have to swallow some unpleasant pills in order to swallow some that are, so to speak. Much like the very laws that Congress itself fashions, liberty has a societal cost. I suggest to the Sturm-Ruger Company: If you do not want insurance companies to inhibit gun ownership, then you must, out of principle, not want insurance companies to inhibit, hang gliding, snow boarding or motorcycling since you are treading on a very "slippery slope." I suggest to all businesses and corporations that have or are considering policies which inhibit activities or behavior that are quite legal: "be careful what you ask for, as you might get it."

The idea of personal freedom and individual rights carries a cost of doing business. A society such as ours much accept the disturbances which accompany our civil liberties, in order for our society to remain free. People will be killed by guns, people will be injured on motorcycles and people will get sick and die of cancer from smoking. Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell doesn't agree with helmet laws for motorcyclists, yet he has indicated a desire to enact gun laws. Isn't that an inconsistency? Couldn't gun ownership too be encompassed within a substantive right of personal choice and privacy, as well as within the second amendment, proper? Constitutional and legal principles should be neutral in order to be principles, or else they are nothing more than situational, moral caprice.

Sturm-Ruger, and their insurance carrier made a business judgement, and if there is a principle involved such as insurance companies having carte blanche ability to specify what they will and what they won't cover in their policies. If that is the principle, then companies that manufacture guns, like Sturm-Ruger had better watch out since their ox too, may soon be gored. Sturm-Ruger had better be prepared for another company or group to implement an unprincipled value judgement that Sturm-Ruger might not agree with. Alternatively, Sturm-Ruger could demonstrate, and remove the inhibitions included in the policy. I wonder how many motorcyclists own handguns and rifles. I do. And you can bet that as of right now I won't buy that .44 Ruger Vaquero I covet. How about you?

You may credibly argue that without the policy inhibitions proffered by Ruger, that the cost of health insurance would go up for their employees. Not so, Congress can regulate the insurance industry by way of the commerce clause, and part of that regulation is looking at the profits generated by the industry. It is true that the insurance industry is a very profitable one. That industry can and should be made to sacrifice a little profit in order that society's freedom(s) remain a bit more intact.

I suggest that Government, businesses and companies apply principle when venturing into the area of personal freedom. Or it is only a matter of time before your ox is gored!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Glenn Greenwald at Yale Law School - "With Liberty and Justice for Some"

At the 59:54 mark:
One of the things that you can tend to do is to be very critical of US political culture and US political history and it's all very well deserved but a lot of times that can obscure the parts of US political history that are actually positive and encouraging and from which you can draw a sort of inspiration. And so there are all kinds of instances of the abuses that you're talking about that still persist in all kinds of pervasive ways that have been improved or in some cases more or less overcome. And part of what I try and do when I think about the injustices or corruption that we face in a contemporary way is to look back at those historical lessons. And I think you can draw historical lessons not only on an intellectual level but also in terms of political strategizing and political communications and you can use those values that animated that advancement, to try and do that now.

And so I think you know the history of African-Americans in the United States, the history of women in the United States, all have this kind of principle at its core which is the principle that i am appealing to when i talk about the rule of law or the fact that were all bound by the same set of rules and conventions. Not because I have this pollyannish view about the rule of law is...I'm well aware of the fact that law has always been an instrument...of tyranny, right? If you enact unjust laws then law becomes a weapon of oppression and not of bringing about justice but this kind of framework that has been embraced about what America is and what it means and what has driven it, whether it's accurate or not is something that is a kind of political value that is embedded in all of us.
And so, I think, by appealing to that value even if you don't really think that it's been embraced sincerely, at all or usually, is a really important tactic for getting people to see that what you're advocating isn't something exotic or foreign to them but something that's very familiar to them.
At the 73:35 mark:
I spoke at Brooklyn College earlier this week and I talked about civil liberties in the United States and the Constitution and what these civil liberties are. And several of the questions, in fact, probably like almost half of the students afterwards asked me something along the lines of, "Look, you know you write about the need to restrict and confine state power all the time and like the Constitution and the way the role it plays in this. But there's also this private sector abuse and corporate power that's becoming increasingly central in our lives that the Constitution doesn't deal with at all. So why do you defend this document or praise it or hail it or talk about the need to enforce it or the rule of law when it only constricts state power when increasingly corporate power in the lake is becoming as threatening, if not more so?"

And, I mean, of course it's true, that the Constitution doesn't constrain corporate power, financial wealth, private power for exactly the reason that I said that the founders were really people who liked inequality in the private sector because that was where their power was for. What they were really worried about was confining and restricting the democratic process about majoritarian mobs, as they saw it, couldn't threaten their supremacy in that private realm.

So the document itself, even the Constitution, sort of like the rule of law, was not only violated sometimes but it can only be used for bad ends but in some sense was created to serve the purposes exactly the opposite of the ones that it claims they serve but it's still worthwhile, strategically, to invoke the mythology surrounding it to say, "This is what you constantly insist are the values that are being served the way in which this is functioning" and then demand adherence to it even if that mythology has been insincerely created and then disseminated for all sorts of cynical ends. It's a way, it's a tactic more than it is anything else of demanding adherence to these values that at least ostensibly that are supposed to govern what we do.

Update: Pertinent articles on the lack of rule of law