I woke up this morning to find out that a white supremacy rally had gotten violent and how one of the Nazis decided to run over the other side even after the group was dispersed by the Charlottesville authorities. @JuliusGoat voiced the communal outrage over this farce as eloquently as is humanly possible, and I was just feeling a little cathartic when I read about a hospital in India whose oxygen provider shut off the flow for an unpaid bill and killed more than 30 children who were relying on the stuff to live. Even for the news, that’s pretty damn depressing for a Sunday morning.
On the surface, these two events being reported in the same weekend seem completely unconnected. They’re on different sides of the planet, they involve two different regional groups. One is culturally motivated and the other is an issue of bureaucracy gone horribly wrong. But through a red haze of rage and sorrow, I’m motivated to write about how they’re the same many-headed monster. Once we know that, we can stop cutting off the heads and kill it once and for all.
I don’t consider myself a Democrat, or even committed to liberal ideas. In fact, I’m so far away from the spectrum in terms of political science and counterculture reading that I constantly have to explain things like “plutocracy” and “republic” to people, who look at me like I’m speaking another language. In college, I took way more writing electives than I needed to fulfill my degree in media with journalism courses, philosophy, comparative religion, and political science. And I think to some degree I realized intuitively that those subjects cannot really be extricated from each other, which leads me to propose the audacity I’m writing about today.
I make one simple proposal: that all the horrors of racism, extremism, and machine bureaucracy can be traced back to a problem with values. I’m not talking about advocating family values or any one set of values. I’m talking about the practice of having and transmitting values at all, which lies at the heart of all our problems today. As the late Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
When I graduated college, I discovered that the more you know about journalism and ethics, the less likely you will be hired by a paper. Because apparently having a direction is contrary to the reporting of news today. It just doesn’t sell publications, and the ink-scarred editorial veterans certainly don’t want an inheritor of tomorrow telling them what to do today. If young people wrote about the pressures we face dealing with what the older generation built, those venerable people sitting in plush corner offices would stop paying us to write about those problems. The value of a newspaper is a basic capitalist tenet: take the action that produces the most revenue.
Where did that value come from? Certainly not the American founding fathers, who hedged on journalism as a building block of democracy and not the economy. Yet today fortunes are made and lost on the power of journalism, and papers still report sensational news instead of the things that matter. Despite the efforts of a few valiant editors who uphold contrary values of objectivity, truth, and civil reporting, we are left with a media that a small group of people cannot trust to give them the most vital news of the day. And that’s how we end up with racists who don’t realize their own privilege, because it’s not curated for racists to consume. Bums them out. They don’t pay for it.
Values are the issue at hand. The value of capitalism has superseded the value of democracy when it comes to news. And in India, that value overrode the basic preservation instinct that is an important part of who we are as human beings. Capitalism convinced a group of bean counters that shutting off the oxygen to mewling newborns was a good idea. Let that sink in for a moment.
If your value system is the pursuit of wealth, making money this way is not only inhumanly cruel, it’s a gigantic hypocrisy. Newborns are an absolutely necessary investment to producing future wealth, because not only are they lifetime consumers, they are also lifelong wealth generators. That’s accepted even in the horrible Friedman school of economics that ruined so many countries in the 70s and 80s while claiming to be producing a successful free market. Hell, it goes all the way back to Henry Ford, who paid his workers enough to afford his cars. The concept of the public as the generator of wealth was proven true in the Nixon era and again in the Obama administration with stimulus packages and public works that supported and stimulated the workforce. The prophetic economist John Maynard Keynes advocated a strong policy of management through these very means to curb the natural tendency of a free market to produce long periods of high unemployment. In contrast, Reagan’s trickle down policies resulted in… well, nothing, because rich people got rich by hoarding cash, not spending it on things we can all enjoy. Like bridges, or hospitals.
Economists analyze capitalism as a flow of money, not an accumulation. Money paid to buy one thing goes to buy something else later, in an endless cycle that enables everything people need while not being an end in itself. But when the value prevalent in society is to simply accrue as much wealth as possible without thinking or indeed knowing what the consequences are, the flow is disrupted and no growth is possible. Smart businessmen move their accumulated funds elsewhere, usually sending whole countries into spiraling debt. In the best version of capitalism, the entrepreneur must spare a thought for social consequences. Pay into the community that supported you. That’s just smart business.
Bringing it back to the white supremacist movement, let’s be honest and admit that if white Americans weren’t looking at affirmative action and public projects from the depths of poverty, the alt-right wouldn’t even be here today. The last time we saw Nazis, they came from the same values: economic pressure and a sense of entitlement. A small group of Germans wanted their country back when they saw other groups doing well.
So how do you stop these virulent values from infecting Americans? Separate actions from values. Maximilian Kasy recently wrote a brilliant analytical piece on the liberal approach to arguments by prioritizing consequences over values. Coincidentally, this is also the scientific method in its most basic form. But, Kasy also recommends that we honor conservative values when we decide how to go forward. This is a mistake. These values are passed from father to son and held dear to people, but that is also why they do so much damage. They’re continued to be held even when they burn away at the people who hold them. As Keynes wrote,
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
You don’t appease Hitler, you don’t feed the Hydra. Look at the GOP: they just get bolder in moving the goalposts when liberals work with them. What liberals need is an Iolaus to cauterize each head as they cut it off. We can’t just stamp out a racist movement or convince every health care provider to do stuff for free. We have to fix what fed into the crisis in the first place. Health care is the problem? How do other countries manage it? People don’t have jobs? What industry needs a large workforce? And when people are fed, cared for, and socially invested, I really doubt the racists will have much to work with.
Whenever we see one of the Hydra’s heads, I recommend we ask ourselves: What Would Keynes Do?
Step 1: Assume the Worst
“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
Step 2: Accept Some People Know More Than I Do
“If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”
Step 3: Educate Others
“I do not know which makes a man more conservative – to know nothing but the present, or nothing but the past.”
Step 4: Confront Conservatives With Terrible Consequences, No Matter How Petty. Nip Values In The Bud Before They Zombify People
“It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
“The decadent international but individualistic capitalism in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war is not a success. It is not intelligent. It is not beautiful. It is not just. It is not virtuous. And it doesn’t deliver the goods.”
Step 5: Be Optimistic. There Are A Lot Of Fucking Heads.
“The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”