Exploring a Maze Sprawling in Space, Composing, 27/04/2017

Taking a break from the super-intense confrontations with the impossibility of our ideals tonight. You know, when I started this blog, I wanted, in part, for it to be a look at my writing process. But the last post felt like I was rehearsing the manuscript for Utopias.

Let me try to explain what I mean. One of the book’s most important arguments will explore the tension between our ideals and their practical impossibility. It’s the central tragedy of all political aspiration.

Anyone who says they want to do something with their life that has a net positive effect on their community feels this bind. That holds no matter what your own ideals are – religious, progressive, conservative, atheist, and even nationalist.

So if an argument leads me to consider one aspect of that bind – reality’s resistance to our ideals – I’ve gained knowledge of another wrinkle in that concept. And given me another point on the map in relation to the others.
• • •
A couple of months ago, I wrote about my idea for a book about Stanley Kubrick. The director as an example of the fearless materialist with a growing conscience. Well, some of the research arrived.

It was a bit of an impulse buy, but I started getting into some commentary from Roger Luckhurst. It’s only a couple of years old, and has plenty of references I can look up on my own later. Since I’m not out to write a book on the ‘current state of Kubrick scholarship’ or anything dry as dirt like that, I’m looking for sources with useful ideas in relation to my own.

He has some ideas about how Kubrick articulates space in his films that I think could be useful. Here’s an example – Luckhurst contrasts how The Shining the book and the film move in space. The book, like traditional gothic literature but set in the late 1970s, has a classical haunted house structure. The secrets and malevolent spirit of the hotel is in the basement – a descent.

But in Kubrick’s movie, the story plays out as a series of mazes. The Overlook Hotel and grounds all play out vertically in the film. Oh, there are multiple floors in the building, there’s an elevator, there’s a staircase. But the camera moves horizontally – Steadicam tracking low to the ground, tracing a path.

Kubrick took a gothic novel and put it on a flat plain. A very violent thing to do to a text, yes. One of the many, interlocking, awkward reasons why Stephen King hated Kubrick’s film. Probably the most subtle.

But the most revealing. A haunted house story has traditionally been a matter of descent into hidden quarters. Most stereotypically, the basement and catacombs under the haunted house (or castle), are where terrible, scandalous family secrets are kept. Quiet corners. Buried as if dead. So as to be mourned and forgotten. Alienated and separated from the living. Now set free.

But Kubrick flattened all that out on one plane. The dead are with us. So is the evil. The evil that we do to each other can never be buried or locked away. To become monstrous is a real human capacity. Even of father to son.

That’s the horror story.

To Be Incorruptible VI: Pushing Democracy’s Limits, Composing, 26/04/2017

This set of six posts turned out to be pretty important for my thinking as I put together the outline of Utopias. So I thought I'd lay out the basics of the idea and the contents to go back through.

One: Virtues of Free People
Two: Deliberation
Three: Virtues for the Public
Four: Introducing Patriotism
Five: Violence for Refuge
• • •
In Machiavelli’s time, democratic patriotism was limited to the walls of a city. It was a spirit that grew from within a community’s bonds of familiarity as an extended family.

The patriotism of the free in Renaissance and Medieval Italy is that of a tribe ruled by its members – the guilds and assemblies were literally the voice of the people. But if you weren’t already a member of that community, you were an interloper. If you were Venetian or Milanese, Florence could never be your home.

Refugees from a natural disaster had no hope of receiving refuge from a neighbouring country. We’re close to returning to that morality today, since the scale of the refugee crisis has overwhelmed so many of Europe’s welfare state institutions.

Not to mention that European cultures haven’t come nearly as close as they should to eradicating their own racism.

But there remains much in Machiavelli’s thinking about how to guard against corruption in our society. Even as, in the pressure of our globally networked community, we need to grow beyond the small horizons of his culture’s communitarian values.

Patriotic immigration is possible, and its successes – though not perfect – demonstrate that an open community built on the creative power of diversity is stronger than a homogeneous, closed one.

I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
I’m thinking of modern southern Ontario, and what seems to be the case in Swedish cities like Malmö and Stockholm. An open city with a variety of people can call on more social networks, powers, ideas, and intelligences for public service. Democratic patriotism is the spirit of building a community from differences.

Machiavelli wrote that a society of free people – free from tyranny, governing its affairs through open offices and moralities of universal respect – is the strongest bulwark against corruption. Against the social, political, and institutional rot that collapses a society into tyranny and chaos.

A successfully free society has institutions devoted to protecting the freedom and dignity of its people. A free people are devoted to these institutions, and has a strong civil society encouraging people throughout their lives to stand up for their dignity.

Such a society grows their population through patriotic immigration – integrating newcomers by building the society together, negotiating their dignity in good faith with all. A free society treats its neighbouring societies with a parallel respect – such a state doesn’t make enemies, but allies and partners.

A free society has, as its fundamental political principle, that no one be subject to the will of any other, except to help them develop each other’s dignity and capacity to live a good life. There are no hermits or egotists – no jerks – but a society of friends.

A deeply, profoundly free people would be devoted to the public good to such a degree that even the super-rich of society would give almost all their fortune to the public treasury. They’d give it willingly, happily, knowing that it would benefit their compatriots.

None of this “taxation is theft.” I’m talking about there not being a need to tax at all because people will give of their own spare fortunes to help others. That’s the ideal of a free society.

It sounds utterly impossible. But it seems a society which genuinely and universally held to this principle in all their thoughts, hearts, and souls, would be a truly incorruptible society.

Will you be a pessimist? How can you not?

To Be Incorruptible V: If You’ve No Shelter You’ll Have No Peace, Research Time, 25/04/2017

Continued from previous . . . I find a lot that’s valuable in Machiavelli. But there are limits, of course. Someone like him writing in the 1530s is in a very different historical position than someone like me writing in the 2010s.

I mean, the reasons why are obvious, of course. But I want to call attention to one reason in particular – it’s not as if there weren’t plenty of good ideas in the same tradition of materialist radical democracy in the intervening five centuries.

However much I value Machiavelli’s concept of patriotism as devotion to the public good of your community, other questions related to the nature of the community generate troubling answers. Not a reason for rejecting Machiavelli as a whole, but a reason to be careful with how his thought might influence you.

Here’s a serious problem of the 2010s that Machiavelli’s writings can’t break through – the boundaries of a community. Globally, there’s a near-universal political crisis over the nature of the border.

I draw a sword against conspirators;
When think you that the sword goes up again?
Never, till Caesar's three and thirty wounds
Be well avenged; or till another Caesar
Have added slaughter to the sword of traitors.
For decades, we’ve been troubled over the dangers that come from borders in trade, and investment fall away. The erosion of borders in these cases has encouraged explosive social problems as terrible inequalities entrench themselves.

The most intense iteration of border erosion facing the West is state attempts to control the movement of people. Most in our faces is the refugee crisis – literally millions fleeing horrifying wars and oppression across North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Many crowd into slums and makeshift camps like the squalid tent cities at Calais.

I go to Machiavelli thinking there might be an answer to this question in his book on the strengths and safety valves of democratic society. I don’t find the answers I want. Machiavelli, living in a time of wars and invasions, sees in the movement of desperate people only more invasion, violence, and war that desperation has driven to extremes.

Most often, in his era and in the time of Republican Rome, Machiavelli encounters refugees as literal invading armies. If some natural disaster rendered a city-state unliveable, its leaders and people would invade another country’s territory and set themselves up.

War was the only response to what we’d today call a humanitarian crisis. Yet he does describe a material root of the erosion of human capacities for kindness as well as our state borders.

Returning to his golden age of Republican Rome, Machiavelli sees the root of the fear of refugees in what – during that ancient era – were the most common causes of whole cities uprooting themselves.

Resource wars. A drought would ruin a harvest, or a flood would wreck too much farmland, and a city wouldn’t have the material to support itself. All they could do was invade their neighbours and hope to plunder enough loot to sustain themselves.

A battle over scarce resources, made more scarce by massive disasters, would bring ordinarily peaceful cities into deadly conflict. Their means of survival itself was at stake. Life was inescapably fragile. Risk was great, and likely perceived to be greater in the moment.

If there isn’t enough to keep everyone alive, our peaceful ideals can all too easily be pinched into nothing. A flame between two calloused fingers.

It was a catastrophic drought in the late 2000s that drove Syria into upheaval. A time when, in a state with tight borders, there was no longer enough to keep everyone alive and prosperous.

A New Intelligence, Doctor Who: Smile, Reviews, 23/04/2017

Since Doctor Who started again in 2005, it’s had to do with a very different television environment than the one it started in, and the one where it operated until its first cancellation.

There’s an enormous list of the changes in television’s ecology and economy since 1963 or 1989. But I want to concentrate on only one this week: the need for story arcs.

Doctor Who began as a serialized anthology show. There wasn’t any connection among the stories other than the characters in them. That variety and discontinuity was built into the fundamental fabric of the show – stories only lasted a few episodes, and were explicitly serialized together. Then the TARDIS moved on to a wholly new story and supporting cast.

"Smile" is as philosophically sophisticated as the best Doctor Who
stories, and also conforms to a classic story structure of the show.
The Doctor and his friends land on a planet where some
complicated situation is in progress, and they have to figure out
what's going on as well as the best way to fix things.
But by 2005, the most prestigious television worked as serialized novels. Each episode worked as a story on its own, but also fed into a larger narrative development as all the characters interacted.

Doctor Who had never really worked like that, and never really could. The foundational reason why the show has lasted so long is because it’s never had an endpoint built in. There’s no culmination, no rising action from the beginning of the show to some eventual end.

Yet we’ve become accustomed to thinking about television in this way. The most difficult part of any conversation I’ve had since 2005 trying to get newcomers to the show into Doctor Who always comes back to one declaration.

I have to grab them by the sides of the head, bore holes into their soul with my eyes, and say:

“You do not have to watch the whole thing from the beginning to know what’s going on!”

Unfortunately, Doctor Who is still caught in this quandary. A show whose key premise is that it’s in a totally different story and setting every episode or two has to be jammed into our need for story and character arcs. Different seasons have dealt with this differently.

Russell T Davies did it by planting little easter eggs in all or most of a season’s episodes, which would tease the finale’s story. The Eccleston year’s Bad Wolf was diegetic and metafictional. Tennant’s first season included a reference to Torchwood in most episodes to tease the season finale and Captain Jack’s spinoff show.

My problem with Davies' first easter egg story arc was that it simply
felt too contrived to ground an entire season's dramatic climax.
Tennant’s second year got less metafictional, and integrated the easter eggs with the character arc of how Martha’s travels affected her family. Stories set in the present would feature a reference to the new PM Harold Saxon and show his operatives using Martha’s family to get closer to the Doctor. All leading to the finale’s epic confrontation.

Donna’s story arc in Tennant’s third year was simultaneously Davies’ most subtle and most shoehorned season narrative. Her run-in with the Doctor was both a matter of coincidence and portentous prophecy. It wasn’t mentioned in every episode, but Donna’s relationship with the Doctor was depicted as a potentially universe-shattering event.

But Davies’ arcs all had the same structure – Little clues and key lines scattered through most of the episodes leading up to the big reveal of their nature in the finale. Moffat complicated that structure in Matt Smith’s first year – revealing the nature of the cracks mid-season, complicating their impacts on the leads with Rory’s disappearance, and resolving the mess in the finale.

More than any other part of Doctor Who, the Smith era has to be watched like a conventional prestige television show. So much of the Pond Family story unfolds in small and big reveals in different episodes throughout the whole series. You can easily think of the Smith era as having the overall narrative of the Doctor discovering his role in this family.

Capaldi’s first year saw the most explicit and best season arc of post-comeback Doctor Who – Clara and Danny’s doomed romance.

Clara’s home base at Coal Hill School and her relationship with Danny put her at the forefront of that season. Its dramatic narrative was about her own conflict between her love of intergalactic adventure and her love for the stability and hearth Danny offered. The season also featured a thematic narrative – each story featured a different angle on the ethics and morality of being a soldier.

Since I've been talking so much about the complicated story arcs
of most companions in the post-2005 series, I'm glad that Bill is
shaping up to be a more traditional Doctor Who companion. She's
a distinct personality, and will develop as a character throughout
this season, but she's very straightforwardly a cool person who's
a good friend to the Doctor as they travel around together having
wild adventures.
With Capaldi’s second year, those up-front season narratives dropped away. There was neither a strong dramatic storyline nor the easter egg approach of the Davies years. Instead, we explored a theme and followed a character arc. We looked at the benefits and disadvantages of an immortal life, and saw the dangers Clara faced through her growing recklessness.

What are we seeing this year?
• • •
There’s a plot, most definitely. The Doctor and Nardole have a duty to protect a mysterious vault under St Cedd’s University. But I also see a thematic arc taking shape, even just two episodes in.

It’s the farce-turned-deadly-serious I discussed last week in my philosophical review of “The Pilot.” In this case, the interactions between the human colonists and their Vardi droids and swarms provide the catastrophe sitting at the centre of “Smile”s story, which I can’t discuss without warning you how many massive

SPOILERS!!!

are incoming.

How does this miscommunication happen? It’s based in the ontology of the Vardi, literally what they are. Thomas Nagel once wrote that we could never understand what it was like to be anything but human, because we were unable to imagine any form of perception other than our own – a human body in the world.

But there’s something Nagel – and the strain of philosophy of mind he inspired – didn’t understand about the power of human imagination. We ourselves can’t experience the world as, to take Nagel’s example, a bat would.

Despite first appearances, this photo actually includes billions of
Vardi, not just two. This is a very important point when it comes to
understanding precisely what they are and are becoming.
However, we can understand how a body would experience the world by examining its body, its perceptual apparatus, and how it interacted with the world. So let’s do that with the Vardi.

The Vardi are robots, first of all. Programmed and designed to serve the human colonists. That was their initial programming as human inventions anyway.

This being a science-fiction television show, the original programming of artificial intelligences grows beyond the human designers’ scope of practice. The Vardi were programmed to serve the colonists, specifically to keep them happy. But look at what the Vardi physically are.

They’re the happy little emoji-speaking robots, yes. But they’re also the swarms of robots that perform many of the mechanical functions of the colony infrastructure. More than this, the Vardi swarms actually are the colony’s infrastructure.

The buildings of the colony city itself are composed of Vardi swarms locking themselves together in a massive organic skeleton of bone and glass. Its style is a stark contrast with the industrial pipes and grease-stained corridors of the original human spaceship around which it grew.

So the Vardi begin developing their own intelligence. But it’s an intelligence unique to their own body – not much in the way of individuality or identity, they’re a single mind across trillions of bodies – the grain-sized particles that lock together to constitute the city itself.

Analytic philosophy has a reputation for clarity and straightforward
vocabulary. So many doctrinaire and partisan analytic philosophers
I've met over the years have praised their discipline for the refusal
to tolerate unclear terms. But in the case of Nagel's writings on
perception, body, and mind, the debates follow his clunky and
mystifying vocabulary – describing the experiential perspective
of an organism as its "what-it-is-likeness." It's a rhetorical turn
that presumes Nagel to be correct that knowledge of a body's
perceptual and practical abilities is somehow separate from
our understanding of that body's own life.
The Vardi’s self-consciousness is of itself as a city. It understands itself as the colony, and individuality not as a separate unit and personality, but as a constituent of the unified body of the colony. Just like each Vardi swarm particle and droid.

So it would think of the humans as squishier droids. They walk around on the ground like the droids do, but ultimately they’re a part of the colony just like them, a constituent of that massive body.

Now, combine this with their original instructions, back when they were just a bunch of robots being built in a factory somewhere on an Earth running short on the ability to support human life. They were designed to serve the humans, to keep them happy.

Happiness, goes the Vardi’s servitude protocols, is the measure of proper human functioning. Their prescribed purpose is to keep the humans happy, keep them as functional constituents of the colony, serving their constituent roles well.

But because they articulate their existence as the whole colony, as a single city-body, they understand the humans as constituents too – as machines who best function when they’re happy. An unhappy human is a malfunctioning human. So they try to restore a human’s happiness when they feel glum or frightened.

The problem is that a self-consciousness that subsumes individual bodies into a whole of literally trillions is that the threshold of switching from repair to disassembly and repurposing is very, very easily crossed.

That’s why the profound but temporary communal grief from one of their leaders' funeral made the Vardi declare pretty much all the human colonists not worth repairing. If everyone seemed so stuck in this sub-optimal space, then such a profoundly holist self-consciousness would seriously conclude that they’d function better as mineral fertilizer.

A publicity shot from a scene in "Smile" that never made the final
cut, where we can see what the Vardi's killing looks like without
the video and CGI effects of the swarm. Continuing the lifelong
Doctor Who tradition of asking actors to take their bubble wrap
extremely seriously.
Hence why it took the Doctor’s reset and erasure of the Vardi’s servitude protocols to save the human colonists. After all, they were all so blinded into stupidity by their anger to think they could fight the swarm that composed the entire colony city-building with a few rifles.

The Vardi had to forget that the humans were supposed to be constituents of the colony. That way, they’d stop evaluating their happiness as a measure of their functionality in maintaining the whole.

The Vardi will continue in the colony as partners with the humans, as you can see when you watch the droid comforting the child who’d lost his mother at the start of the episode.

But this will come from a benevolence that develops from their holist self-conception – happiness will be, in the minds of the new Vardi, a function of social harmony among the colony’s living architecture and its human inhabitants.

The catastrophic miscommunication between the Vardi and the humans over what exactly each other was, has been repaired. Mostly.

And the story continues.

To Be Incorruptible IV: Directions of Force, Jamming, 21/04/2017

Continued from last post . . . Reading Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, you can find a positive, progressive concept of patriotism – knowledgeable devotion to work for the public good of your community and country.

This patriotism of the public good is the patriotism that progressives need to take back from the reactionary and nationalist forces who seem to have a monopoly on patriotism, at least when it comes to public relations. For most of my adult life, folks on the left have been tarred as anti-patriotic.

I came of age at a time when Americans and many Canadians had been overcome with hysteria after the September 11 attacks. We think back on this era with kitsch like Come From Away now, but at the time, a culture of 300,000,000 people were thrown into mass hysteria and rage.

Patriotism was a blunt instrument of intimidation and contempt swung blindly around the Earth’s furniture smashing the architecture of our fragile civilization. It justified the toppling of governments – however grotesque those governments were – and unleashing a never-ending war in the Middle East.

Patriotism was a personality-consuming devotion to country that justified the rapid inflation of the surveillance state. So many patriotic Americans believed the military could do no wrong.

I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.
As a result, there’s enough military equipment trickling down to police forces that every county with more than four cows got its own squadron of armoured personnel carriers, mortar-proof flak jackets, and enough crowd control gear to evacuate downtown Chicago at rush hour.

Patriotism today means that anyone who believes that maybe we should step back from militarizing your own country is a traitor. Patriotism is all-too-often becoming a victim of nationalism. Less than two decades after America’s most recent great trauma, love of country is flowering into hatred of Muslims, Hispanics, and African-Americans.

Machiavelli is a key figure in the tradition of Western thought that gives us a patriotic antidote to this hellmouth.

His patriotism is distinctly minoritarian* – punching up for your own power. Rather like the original American revolution, actually. Machiavelli’s patriotism is the spirit of revolt against oppression or control. It’s the spirit of the colony becoming a country, of a slave breaking her chains. The spirit of a new beginning.

* I’m saying this to emphasize Machiavelli’s connection with modern radical democrats, particularly Gilles Deleuze’s vocab, a radical democratic vision of reality itself. An ontology for free spirits.

Machiavelli’s patriotism is the creative energy of a new society coming to consciousness as they carve out a niche for themselves in a world of long-established powers. It’s national self-consciousness of a shared desire for freedom.

Patriotism is the desire that others respect and recognize your community as an equal. It’s the same drive as an individual human’s desire to be an equal in her society – only articulated on a cultural scale.

It’s an antidote, for sure. But it has its own problems.

To Be Incorruptible III: Our Best Wishes in One Voice, Research Time, 20/04/2017

Continued from last post . . . Before you can know if an institution’s structure and rules will lead people to make the best decisions, you have to know what kinds of decisions would be the best.

It sounds like I’m moving in circles. I’m not. I’m looking for presuppositions. The questions that need an answer if you’re going to develop a clear answer to the question you asked in the first place. So what makes a decision good for a community?

This is a question of the common good of a community. Well, what constitutes that common good depends on how we understand good. Are we thinking like a typical utilitarian? Not when we read Machiavelli. Nowhere in the Discourses on Livy does he perform the callous mathematics of a too-simple utilitarian.

His examples of noble behaviour discuss plenty of sacrifices. He praises, in multiple places, the decision of a Roman republican ruler executing his own sons when their actions and personal ambitions put the republic at risk of invasion or tyranny. Machiavelli is no stranger to cruelty to save the common good.

But this isn’t an everyday cruelty. The libertarian right is today’s most popularly powerful philosophy of freedom thanks to modern think tank networks. Think of how they and their founder philosophers think of cruelty in the name of the common good.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
For a libertarian, cruelty in the name of the common good is described with images of a Stalinist omnipresent communist state. Bureaucratic arms control whole industries, billions and trillions of dollars worth of people’s property is expropriated and collectivized. Even on a less grandiose scale, the act of collecting taxes is akin to theft.

This isn’t the kind of common good Machiavelli talks about when he describes the cruelty of necessary sacrifices. The sacrifices of Roman and Italian republicans are rare – they occur only at times of domestic instability, coups, wars, invasions from imperial war machines.

The common or public good, as Machiavelli describes it throughout the Discourses, is for everyone in society to stand before each other in equal dignity. Now, this does require some financial levelling. He describes the corrosive effect on society of too large a class of the idle rich.

These are people whose riches are so great that they encourage laziness and self-absorption. The super-rich are isolated from any association with anyone other than those they employ to serve them. Their money even isolates them from the need to be kind to others. Even the smallest altruism required for minimal participation in civic life disgusts them.

Such people are socially cancerous – their personalities degrade and insult the dignity of everyone around them. The only goods that matter to the idle rich are private goods, that which makes the rich richer. “It is not the private good but the common good that makes cities great.” That’s in Book Two, Chapter 2.

Contrast the private, egomaniacal goods that the idle rich seek with the public goods that democratic citizens seek – You see more clearly what the public good is.

Whatever the situation of your community, whatever problems you face in your economy, society, infrastructure, whatever – If you think with altruism and work together with your neighbours and compatriots, you’ll understand the public good and work toward it.

That altruism is the expression of the best patriotism. As long as altruism is at the heart of community action, you’ll fend off corruption and corrosion.

If you think only of your own personal good and see others only as means to your advancement, enrichment, prestige, and pleasure . . . The word you’re looking for is ‘tyrant.’

Now, this is fine for a clearly defined community. But at the borders, who is and isn't your compatriot gets slippery.

To Be Incorruptible II: Talking and Talking, Research Time, 19/04/2017

Continued from last post . . . You have to laugh. I can barely keep from laughing myself when I say it. To say that democratic institutions encourage trust among people seems ridiculous to someone living in 2017.

Democracy across the West is under siege from nationalists – UKIP and Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Breitbart wing of Donald Trump’s combover.

Nationalists who profoundly distrust everyone who thinks differently from themselves – libtards, SJWs, etc. Conservatives so ideological, they prefer making their own country a functional one-party state to any compromise in running things.

There are many causes for why our society has become, in Machiavelli’s words, so corrupt. I’m going to get to all of those. Reading the Discourses on Livy today is like a diagnosis of our own time in someone else’s history. The institutions of his world were so different, but share so much with our time in the causes of their collapse.

I have, when you have heard what I can say:
And know it now: the senate have concluded
To give this day a crown to mighty Caesar.
One thing at a time.

How would democratic institutions engender trust? Contrast the republican assemblies and elected offices of 1530s Italy with their rivals – absolute monarchies. In a monarchy, a single person is the seat of all state power, so access to the prince is the only way to take part in government.

Not many people can occupy that space – not much space around one man. So only a few people ever make policy and decisions. There are no checks on their power, virtually no time between a command and an order followed. Whole armies can move on the word of an individual. The word could be a solemn choice. Could be a whim.

That’s serious instability. The quick time between command and action makes a dictatorship look stable and strong. But commands could be, and too often are, whims. A command affecting millions requires a small gesture, same as a reversal affecting millions more.

Your life could be upended at any moment, all on the word of a king. You’re always on guard, as if anyone around you could become the enemy, as if you could be declared an enemy yourself. A tailor or a merchant could find himself a soldier or a prisoner as casually as we get our electric bills.

In such a regime, your own fear and anxiety obliterates the difference between soldier, prisoner, and citizen.

There’s lots of room in a parliament, though. Lots of perspectives, attitudes, personalities. Some are organized into political parties, some political parties can barely organize themselves. In Machiavelli’s day, city-state republics like Florence were ruled by the assemblies and elected leaders of workers’ guilds.

All these different people and groups must have their hands in the decision process of the government. The institutions of the state put all these different people in charge of the decision process. It’s literally their jobs.

This slows down the decision process immensely. Legislation, policy, governance activities – all require the input of so many people and offices that it takes a long time to get stuff done. Government may appear decadent and impotent.

Democracy is remarkably stable as a government because it takes so much time to get things done. Everyone – legislators, officials, citizens – can all deliberate and debate on matters of state. So we can at least do our best to understand the effects of everything we do. Governance by whim is practically impossible.

Democracy institutionalizes solemn, patient decision making in government because it forces so many people to be part of the decision process. But will they always make the best decisions?

To Be Incorruptible I: The Virtues of Free People, Composing, 18/04/2017

The series of posts I’m starting now is very important to my thought process putting together Utopias the book. I’ll be writing about an answer to the core question of utopian political thinking that I found reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.

I’m considering utopian thought at three scales. The most broad scale of thinking, you can call the problem: Figuring out the relationships of our ideals with real-world action, and what of those relationships are best for democratic life.

Make your thinking a little more concrete and it becomes a question. You’re focussing the problem around a particular inquiry. Reading and reacting to Machiavelli’s thinking, that question is: How can we change human nature so that no one will ever be corrupt again?

The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent.
Increase the concreteness of your thinking one more time. Now you have a hypothesis, a detailed argument responding to that question, an answer. Identify an answer to that question that Machiavelli offers in the Discourses.

I'm going to talk about one answer that he returns to at different points in that book – institutions that engender trust in each other throughout the community, a love of freedom, and a devotion to the public good.

Machiavelli considers those three values to be most important for maintaining a free society. People who hold fast to these values will always be virtuous people, whose lives will include a devotion to public service that strengthens their community.

Since he understands corruption inescapable in life, Machiavelli also concludes that these values won’t dominate a society forever. Spoken like a man who’s worked in government for years.

But you can encourage those values to grow in your society, and promote them in daily life. Institutions – basic frameworks of your community life from birth to death – can boost these values so that people will naturally fall toward them.

I’m not talking about the state in a modern sense, but any powerful organization whose structures and actions shape public morality. It’s been churches or shamanic traditions, groups of elders, elected leaders, any propagator of moral ideas, imperatives, and virtues.

Education is only the most obvious of the institutions that propagate values. Here’s one example that Machiavelli makes pretty explicit. I’ll even give you a direct reference this time – Book One, Chapter 59.*

* If you want to read the book, don’t be intimidated by the number of chapters. They average maybe three pages apiece.

If you run your government on democratic processes, it will tend to increase trust in your society. Yes, today this sounds hilariously unrealistic. But the way democratic institutions are supposed to work, it makes sense.

I mean, I’ll tell you tomorrow, because it’s going to take a while to lay all this out. But I promise you, it’ll make sense.

When Words Become Actions Become Protocols, Doctor Who: The Pilot, Reviews, 16/04/2017

When Steven Moffat was establishing himself as a television writer and producer, he did so in the world of sitcoms. Moffat by default writes farce stories. We throw the term ‘farce’ around to describe any old horrible, ironically comical mess we stumble into.

Bill and Heather are actually the most important relationship in this
episode. It's the best example in Moffat's entire tenure, I think, of
his genuinely progressive perspective. He always tries to learn
from his fans, even his fiercest critics. And it feels good for young
queer women to see characters like them in their favourite shows,
and for concerns like theirs to be the pivotal points of their stories.
But the term has a precise technical meaning in the science of writing. A farce is a narrative based around a miscommunication – different people who are all interacting in a reasonably simple situation have, somewhere early on, misunderstood each other.

A very ordinary thing, slightly misunderstanding what someone else says. We do it all the time. Normally, we know we’re confused and ask for clarification, but sometimes we proceed thinking we know exactly what to do. In most of our lives, it turns out not to be important and everything goes fine anyway.

But when this happens on a sitcom, what’s misunderstood is some critical piece of information that throws everyone’s plans and lives into a total mess. We laugh because of the embarrassment (or failure to be so when you really, really should) of the characters.

Just think of the most intense (and ridiculous) example I can find at short notice in Moffat’s career. “The Girl With Two Breasts” from his biggest hit sitcom Coupling.

Jeff, the socially awkward Kramer of the group, starts up a great conversation with a beautiful woman who think’s he’s very attractive. But they share no common language. So, while they believe they understand what they’re saying to each other, they totally misinterpret everything the other is saying.

Watching someone else dig their own hole is a classic farce
scenario, but a big part of why we laugh is rooted in how horrible
it would be if such a terrible misunderstanding were to happen to
us in real life.
The most juvenile detail being that Jeff thinks her name is the Hebrew word for ‘breasts.’
• • •
The farce narrative is a default for Moffat, having shaped many of his storylines in Doctor Who around misunderstandings over a faulty communication or a difference in knowledge of the situation. It’s to his brilliance that he understands this one structure of plot well enough to craft from it intricate narratives, heart-wrenching drama, and hilarity.

Sometimes all in the same episode, when he’s at his best.

“The Pilot” isn’t nearly so complex or multilayered. But it’s intriguing for the insight this episode’s particular story gives into the nature of language and communication itself.

Let’s look at this situation in detail, understanding that there are going to be massive

SPOILERS

involved. We have a fairly ordinary situation. Working-class hipster girl meets cute blonde with confidence issues. Implied to be pretty intense depression, judging from the way Heather seems so tired of life.

Maybe this is just because of my own attitude to stories and fiction that
I love, but I'm not that invested as a viewer in the season arc about
the secret vault under the university where the Doctor's been camped
out like Chronotis for who-knows-how-long. I know we'll find out
later on in the season – probably sooner than later if the cracks back
in 2010 are any sign. I want to see what kinds of stories Bill's
character shapes.
When the liquid spaceship drive activated and read Heather’s thoughts, it read was what most dominant – I just want to get away from here, from everything. That impulse to flee from where she was, was the energy of an engine. Merging with the liquid ship, Heather’s drive to leave became the ship’s own pilot function.

In its purest sense, all semantic content is lost in communication from one medium to another. When I say something, I think of it in a particular way, peculiar to my own perspective.

Now, because humans are social creatures, we learn to think through communication and shared action. So our meanings are all similar enough from building them together all the time. Yet miscommunication is still possible. We’re all individual enough to be uniquely different from each other.

In a farce, there’s one such difference that makes all the difference in the process of the whole story. This episode – perhaps I should call it “The Girl With the Star in Her Eye,” whose tragedy is its true centre – is based on a miscommunication across a huge distance.

Humans think in terms of our personalities and interests. We’re subjects for ourselves, understanding our desires as the constituents of our personalities. So when we think and speak, we think in terms of wants and achievements.

Niklas Luhmann is the theorist who first understood how idiosyncratic
our meanings and thoughts really could be. He was a little too
pessimistic though, actually saying that communication as we
understood it is impossible. He thought so abstractly about systems
and environments that they were literally lines on diagrams. We
don't communicate our meanings like computers, by sending
packets across media. We communicate through affects, literally
prodding each other to respond in a way that's reasonably close to
what we want someone to do.
The liquid ship doesn’t think in this way at all. It has no personality – an artificial intelligence, it thinks only in terms of purpose. That purpose is to repair itself and fly. Thoughts that constitute purposes aren’t wants or achievements. They’re protocols, strategies for action.

So when the liquid ship hears Heather’s profound desire to leave her life, it understands a protocol to pilot itself from place to place. The liquid ship absorbs Heather and remakes her – she's no longer entirely human – her desires and egos are now also mechanical protocols for the functioning of a spaceship.

Just before absorption, one other desire at the forefront of her thoughts – her erotic desire to go with Bill. That’s why, when she becomes part of the ship, Heather essentially stalks Bill throughout the universe. Her desire has been turned into a protocol.

That’s why Bill is able to send Heather-ship on her way so easily. All she does is tell her goodbye. A spaceship – unlike far too many humans – is capable of taking no for an answer. Halt function.
• • •
You can even understand Moffat’s own reputation among Doctor Who fandom today as a farce.

Sci-fi fandom today is riddled with poisonous gender politics. Socially awkward men – radicalized into rabid misogyny in their 4Chan families – have lashed out in resentful rage at women who share their interests.

I will not make a joke about how much Nardole looks like a stereotypical
4Chan shitbag. I will not make a joke about how much Nardole looks
like a stereotypical 4Chan shitbag. I will not make a joke about how much
Nardole looks like a stereotypical 4Chan shitbag. I will not make a . . .
Smart or dorky women who like sci-fi are educated in progressive gender politics better now than ever, whether through school or through support communities after dealing with attacks from radical misogynists.

Politically progressive fans mean well. I can’t think of a nicer direction for society than becoming more equal, fair, and free regarding all kinds of gender power imbalances.

I don’t blame anyone for being quick to anger, given what women have to deal with from intentionally aggressive misogynist pricks. But well-meaning people get caught in the crossfire if they’re out of touch with the communities most on the progressive vanguard.

Steven Moffat was one of the people caught in that crossfire, and he came out looking like Sonny Corleone.

In real life, when farcical misunderstandings happen, the results are terrible and rarely funny at all.

When you're a creative producer Doctor Who, you do it best when you bring a singular creative vision to the show. That’s why we remember Verity Lambert, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Andrew Cartmel, Russell T Davies, and Steven Moffat as the most remarkable.

Poor girl really does look like the monster from The Ring, though.
I'm actually surprised Phil Sandifer didn't mention this in his review.
Having a clear aesthetic vision for Doctor Who doesn’t always mean you’re the best-quality producer. Douglas Adams and Graham Williams’ years on the show were marked by consistent mediocrity, as it was yet impossible to find BBC writers able to match Adams’ skill and talent. The Letts-Dicks-Pertwee era produced some amazing train wrecks.

But they all progressed Doctor Who by adding to the cornucopia of what it could be, the styles and personalities it enfolded in its box. Adventure, camp, existential body horror, meta-fictional parody, punk, melodrama, farce.

Better a flawed but vibrant vision than violent nihilism, reactionary racism, shoving fandom’s head up its arse, or simply not caring about the show you work on.

As much as this was a near-perfectly executed piece of television, it’s mostly old hat. Steven Moffat has been doing this for eight years. Not only is he falling back on his old standard plot scaffold, he’s nicking transformed-girl imagery from The Ring.

I love Moffat’s work. I think he’s one of the best writers Doctor Who has ever had, and I think his vision was unique and fertile, opening up so many more spaces for what Doctor Who could do.

But it will have been eight years. Time to regenerate. What’s next?

American Philosophy and Canadian Potential, Composing, 14/04/2017

So as part of my research for Utopias, I started reading The Federalist Papers yesterday, and I want to tell you why.*

* I also want to apologize for having taken an unintentional break between posts. To be honest, I just haven’t been feeling too well this week. Nothing serious or anything – I just haven’t had the energy to write that much.

You know, instead of the portraits, I'm just going to use images from
the Hamilton musical when I want to throw up a picture of
Alexander Hamilton or James Madison.
First, it’s simply something I wanted to include. I’m on a streak of reading through thinkers in the classical tradition of politics, threading a fairly unique path of influence for my ideas in political philosophy.

Before the explosion of Karl Marx, I think the most important political thinkers in the Western tradition for my project make out a materialist approach to radical democracy.

There was Immanuel Kant’s vision of a world in progress toward perpetual peace in the enlightenment of humanity’s own powers of reason and calm thought. Some interesting ideas, but overall kind of a bust for me.

I found unexpected value in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of humanity’s immanent powers to build solidarity in communities. Same with Machiavelli’s vision of humanity as universally capable of the virtues to sustain a harmonious, free society. Even if we constantly fuck all that up.

The Federalist Papers are a central work of public philosophy for the foundation of a wholly new nation. The testament of those immanent powers, virtues, and horrifying mistakes in action on a scale of millions of people.

Second, while I don’t think it’ll become a major dimension of Utopias, I want to develop a way of thinking about the perennial problems of political philosophy that’s distinctly Canadian.

Hugh MacLennan was one of the first political thinkers to deal
with the nature of Canada, but he couldn't get past the old European
concepts that the new country gave you the opportunity to give up.
MacLennan saw the problem of Canada as being composed of two
nations, literally two solitudes. Not what could come from
bringing them (and many, many others) together.
This is probably a future project, but one of the questions I want to deal with in my work – whether philosophy, fiction, cinema – is the nature of Canadian identity. I think Canada as a country has the potential to be a model for all humanity as a democracy that harmoniously combines a totally open multiculturalism with the solidarity of communitarian virtues.

Now, that totally isn’t where we are right now. But I think contemporary Canada is best positioned of any country on Earth to move in this direction as we improve our democracy. And as far as I’m concerned, a perfectly multicultural and communitarian democracy is paradise on Earth.

But there hasn’t really been a work that hits perfectly on that essence of Canadian political philosophy. The Federalist Papers are the genesis of the distinctly American political philosophy. So let’s compare and contrast.

Third, it has to do with the circumstances of the book. Utopias is going to deal with some universal question of politics. How do we live together in peace? How can we build a society of equals that is also free? What is the kind of equality that really matters? What is the best kind of freedom?

But it’ll deal with those problems with the issues of my own time at the forefront. Political thinking today has to confront the resurgence of violent nationalism, a world of densely integrated and fast communication more populous than we’ve ever been, teetering on the brink of severe ecological shifts that can upend our whole civilization. And people are rattling nuclear weapons.

Worthwhile political thinking for the present and the future has to develop answers to those universal questions in the context of this unique situation of human history.

So who else in the tradition of those questions has developed a vision of the most free society based on humanity’s own power to build it our damn selves without having to rely on authorities or unthinking dogma?

Well, I’ve found that’s Benedict Spinoza, Niccolò Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Dewey, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Antongio Negri. I want to see if Alexander Hamilton or James Madison also deserve a place on that list.

I think they might.

“She Said Hang the Rich!” Research Time, 11/04/2017

We live in an era when inequality has defined the cracks and fault lines in our society. The American government is ruled by plutocrats who campaigned in the name of returning prosperity to the people, and their base is slowly eroding as those promises are revealed for the hypocrisy they always were.

One indelible image of the psychopathy and hatred of society that
consumes the super-rich is the story of Patrick Bateman. It was the
one hit of Bret Easton Ellis' whole career.
American society – Western society more generally, as well as human society around the planet – is under a lot of pressure from social inequality. Leave aside the racializing crimes of genocide like slavery and the forced relocation of indigenous peoples. They’ve left horrendous scars on American culture and character, but I want to talk about one particular vector of inequality today.

That's the vector of the distinction between the very rich and poor. American society produces multibillionaires who behave like entitled pirates whose riches give them the right to buy citizens and the government.

At the same time, it produces people who are driven so far into debt pursuing education and training, or basic medical care. The United States economic system essentially bankrupts its working people as they try to improve or save their lives. Even keeping an even keel too often results in a life of danger, drudgery, and suffering.

Into this social-political shit tornado comes the words of Niccolò Machiavelli, essentially, I told you so. In his philosophical meditations on Roman Republican history and the chaotic Italian politics of his own time, the Discourses on Livy lay out one way* where modern America has gone wrong.

* Of many concurrent, integrated, interdependent ways.

Today's title comes from the lyrics to a song I've been listening to
since I was a little kid, "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" by
Robbie Robertson.
Democratic government, writes Machiavelli, becomes impossible in a society where there are too many rich people. Now, he’s not necessarily talking about those who’ve become rich through building businesses and industries. These are people who are still working hard running enterprises that raise the public good.

No, Machiavelli’s talking about the idle rich. People who live so drenched in wealth that they don’t even have to do any real work. Actually, the problem isn’t just that they refuse to work for a living.

Even more contemptible and destructive to the common good are people whose absurd wealth isolates them from even the need to be reasonably kind to other humans in daily life. The smallest, most inconsequential act of altruism becomes an enraging imposition on their freedom.

Civic life isn’t empowering for these people. They’re enraged at any suggestion that they give anything of themselves for the common good, or that they owe anyone else in society any generosity. These are the attitudes that tend to come from having been raised in the perverse comfort of extreme wealth.

What to do about them? Let’s just say that Machiavelli doesn’t recommend very pleasant ways of removing these spoiled people from society, or from positions where they could endanger society with their piracy.

I think a growing number of folks today can sympathize with that approach.

A Discourse on Manitoba, Composing, 10/04/2017

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. It’s a book of commentaries on different events in the history of the Roman Republic, where a concept, principle, ethical guideline, or virtue becomes clear through examining a few examples from ancient Rome or his contemporary northern Italy.

I thought I’d try writing today’s post as a piece of writing in the same style.

I work in political activism and in organizing my local social democratic party, the NDP in my part of southwestern Toronto. So I’m interested in news and developments throughout the party around Canada. Here’s a little discourse, inspired by Machiavelli, on one lesson to be learned for democratic spirits everywhere.

Growing Accustomed to Power Encourages Factionalism and Weakness; Their Only Remedy Is Total Defeat

At a party last night, I met someone from Manitoulin, who told me
that she knows people so broken by their family's experience in
residential schools that they don't even know what indigenous nation
they come from – whether they're Cree, Ojibwe, or Iroquois. Wab
Kinew has come through this generations-long crime against
humanity as a strong, virtuous leader. He has the potential to
restore Manitoba's NDP to greatness, and maybe even begin the
long nation-building process of reconciling indigenous and
settler cultures in Canada, so that we can ask their forgiveness
as a people for our attempt to destroy them.
How the New Democratic Party develops in Manitoba is particularly important to the party as a whole. It’s part of the party’s heartland in the prairies, and the only voice in state government for progressive policies and philosophies.

As a province, Manitoba has a lot of disadvantages. Few industries are there, the economy has never been strong beyond Winnipeg, and many of its indigenous communities – a considerable minority of the population – suffer horribly from the trauma of Canada’s genocide machines of the residential schools.

During their 17 years in power over the provincial government, the NDP achieved a lot to build a more fair and equal society throughout Manitoba. Gary Doer was a wise and moderate premier, designing a more fair tax code to invest in healthcare and education institutions.

Doer’s great virtue was knowing how to consolidate the security of his party’s electoral victory in 1999, making modest yet transformative changes to the government to help Manitobans become more prosperous, defending themselves from economic downturn with government services they could rely on and lowering the tax burden of the poor.

Machiavelli’s analytic frameworks focus on the virtues gained from how you react to where fate has placed you. The roots of Doer’s wisdom were in his experience having taken over the NDP when they were in disarray as a party.

Howard Pawley had presided over a party that had descended into rebellion against him and his cabinet, and resigned in disgrace after an election defeat in 1988. Doer rallied the party members throughout the province, and his growing esteem in the eyes of the people slowly rallied enough of them to win after a decade in opposition.

Doer stepped down as Premier of Manitoba after ten years, a man loved by Manitobans and many more across Canada. Greg Selinger took his place. But Selinger had not been shaped by years of building his reputation through public leadership, nor had any years of rebuilding a party from difficult defeats shaped him.

Selinger had arrived at political prominence in the halls of power themselves. He’d grown accustomed to their comfort.

Greg Selinger was a man who was able to walk into power, and so
never understood how fragile power is when you inherit it from
inside its own halls. He may have won elections, but elections are
battles, just like the clashes of armies Machiavelli described. They're
determined by the virtue of combatants and leaders, but also by
contingent events and chance. An election is an institutional
legitimacy for your access to state power, but it doesn't give you
moral legitimacy in the eyes of the people. That takes politics.
Taking power for granted, he quickly revealed himself to have lost the virtues that his predecessor had gained through years of hard work rebuilding the nobility of the NDP in Manitoba, and building the nobility of his own soul. Selinger had never gained power.

The party membership may have voted for him to be their leader, but he had won the party itself no victories. Selinger became the Premier by designation, not victory over the people. Even those victories he did gain, he gained from the seat of power itself.

Selinger reversed his promise not to raise sales taxes, a decision that not only hurt the poor more than the wealthy; the act itself was a transgression against a vow he’d made to the people. The public coffers now had more funds, but they were raised on the backs of the poor and with hypocritical speech.

Selinger’s broken promise made the people reject him. Sensing their leader’s weakness, factions split the NDP caucus. Theresa Oswald, one of Selinger’s trusted ministers, joined with other party leaders to demand his resignation. But the rebellious faction never spoke of regaining trust with the people, instead framing their rebellion entirely in tactical terms.

Selinger’s popularity was so low, he’d be unable to win another election. They argued in terms of the NDP’s ability to keep power over the state, never about the true source of that power, the love and trust of the people.

That Selinger would lose 2016’s election was obvious, an inescapable fact. Now he’s resigned, and the factions themselves are adrift. Separated from the offices of power, they’ve lost the fuel that fired their faction’s engines.

Gary Doer understood that you only have a right to power when you
have earned it through the genuine trust of the people. That's not the
same as winning an election, even though election victory is the
institutional test to gain state power. Just because you can pass one
test on our peaceful battlefields of electioneering doesn't mean you
have a right to the power you gained. His remarkable actions as a
spokesperson for an enlightened, kind government for Manitoba
as opposition leader and Premier earned him that right, when they
earned him the respect of the people.
Now that the power of state control is farther from their grasp, the leaders of Manitoba’s NDP can now focus on the true task of politics – organizing and rallying the people to win their love and trust.

Wab Kinew is an NDP politician that, to my eyes now, holds the greatest promise for this, since there’s a dedication deep in his heart to forge an entirely new social compact between Manitobans and their state.

He’s a flawed man, but has the potential for greatness because of the idealism and strength of his soul. He’s survived the fires of Canada’s century-long genocide against its indigenous peoples without breaking. Such a person has potential for greatness, and the opportunity to rebuild a party whose fundamental values lie in prosperity and progress for all offers a long path of growing nobility.

Restore virtue to politics and you’ll earn the love of the people, who will join you for transformative acts that will bring prosperity, happiness, healing, and hope to all. This is the message of Machiavelli’s Discourses.

We Will Never Not Know War, Advocate, 07/04/2017

I’m pretty isolated from war and international brinksmanship in Canada – though I still remind people that we share a border with Russia. We just never think of it because it’s the top of the map.

Bashar Assad is immensely grateful for all the support he gets from
Western progressives, as he continues to bomb his citizens to support
obedience to his police state, while they defend him as Syria's
rightful ruler and government. You know what happens when you
ignore actual Syrian people's voices? You forget that the Arab
Spring was a democratic revolution, not some false flag.
But I watched the news Thursday night of the American missile strikes on the Syrian government air base which launched this week’s sarin gas attack with dread. But it isn’t the dread that’s becoming sadly typical of the Western left.

I’m morosely accustomed to a sad equation in left-wing political debates – opposition to one leads to apologies for another. I've seen it, for example, in so many of my fellow progressives’ uncritical embrace of even the most extreme BDS propaganda.

Such fiery BDS propaganda silences and sidelines the real voices of opposition to settlement policy inside Israel itself. Worse, it lets a principled opposition to Israeli state policy in the West Bank become a vile and twisted anti-Semitism.

In the left-wing approach to United States foreign policy, a principled opposition to American military intervention and global economic policy becomes a blind enemy-of-my-enemy support of anti-American authoritarian and nationalist leaders.

I’ve seen prominent writers and some of my own friends parrot Russian propaganda on Crimea, Ukraine, and NATO, and uncritically fawn over Rodrigo Duterte’s legalization of murder in the Philippines.

Do you know what precedent President Duterte has for his drug war by legalized murder? Hafez al-Assad’s crackdown on anyone suspected of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood after their uprising against him in 1982. Plus his near-complete destruction of the city of Hama, centre of the 1982 Islamist revolution against his regime.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone is one of the most prominent
current examples of the hypocritical progressive, a Western
politician whose support for Palestinian autonomy and sovereignty
has tipped into an oblivious hatred of Jewish people.
So when I see Trump reverse his long-held pro-Assad leanings and start bombing regime military installations, I increasingly fear that the Western left will start praising the dictator openly. Clueless TV pundits praise Trump for his “Presidential” stand protecting human rights with missiles? You’ll see much more disgusting love of police state dictators coming from the left soon.

And I say this as a leftist! As a card carrying* member of Canada’s social democratic NDP. I want the opinion leaders in the Western left to develop a complex understanding of our profoundly fucked up world. I have growing doubts that this will happen.

* If we still had cards. The New Democrats don’t have cards anymore.

An American Congressional Representative with a growing following, Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, secretly visited the Syrian government and met personally with Bashar Assad. She returned to the United States witlessly parroting his propaganda that the entire democratic revolution of 2011-2 was orchestrated by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other militant Islamist groups.

A pro-Assad left is growing in Western progressive politics, where anti-Americanism becomes the excuse to vomit his regime’s messaging without a critical thought. Now that Trump has become solidly anti-Assad, I expect this love of savage dictators to grow among his opposition.

Donald Trump may have been moved enough by children suffering
under Syrian government chemical attacks to bomb their military
installations, but he's not about to let them into the United States
as refugees. Refugees are all terrorists, don't you know?
Opposition to Donald Trump will fuel progressives’ abandoning their ideals to support a man who sits at the head of a state whose major civil service branch is a network of integrated secret police agencies. A man who arranged for horrifying Russian attacks on hospitals and bomb shelters as he pounded Aleppo to rubble. A man who authorized brutal chemical attacks this week in Idlib and four years ago in Ghouta to demonstrate the ruthlessness of his power over his population.

Gassing war refugees with sarin isn’t a military operation – it’s a policy of governance. It delivers the message to the whole population of Syria – You are mine, and I will do what I wish with you, and you are powerless to stop me; you are powerless entirely.

There are voices on the left saying the Ghouta chemical attacks never even took place. I doubt it will be long before there are apologists and conspiracists about Idlib.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Opposition to one authoritarian President and the destructive military and economic policies of one state doesn’t mean the others get a pass.

I don’t care how much someone may justify it in terms of ‘realpolitik.’ To hear anyone who calls herself a progressive spewing Henry Kissinger’s language disgusts me, and it should disgust anyone of conscience.

Staying true to your ideals means you don’t give anyone a pass. If you oppose Donald Trump, then you oppose Bashar al-Assad, Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi, King Salman, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Prayut Chanocha, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Isaias Afwerki, Yoweri Museveni, Reçep Erdogan, Nicolas Maduro, and anyone else who falls short of supporting universal democracy, freedom, and dignity.

It shouldn’t be that hard.

Patriot Acts, Composing, 06/04/2017

I’ve seen the term patriotism misused for such wretched, hypocritical, violent, utterly self-absorbed political stupidity that it’s easy to forget how important it once was.

How has the concept of patriotism been ruined for me? If I went into detail, we’d be here for days.* There’s George W Bush’s Patriot Act. Freedom fries. The dour and dorky monarchism of Stephen Harper’s War of 1812 propaganda. Danny Williams’ ignorant, oil-soaked nationalism. The ongoing trajectory of Trumpist white nationalism.

* Instead of just one day at a time.

There was a time, however, when patriotism was a form of liberation. That was Machiavelli’s time.

Nothing to see here, folks.
Throughout the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli discusses patriotism as the community spirit of a city’s populace. Patriotism is the fundamental social glue of a community. It feels strange to a democratic thinker of the 21st century.

Yet that’s how patriotism does work. He explores the nature of patriotism from a lot of different perspectives throughout the book. Here’s one that I think sets the concept in the most stark, visceral terms. It also helps understand how patriotism can be a force for good, and why it isn’t anymore.

Patriotism, says Machiavelli, is the spirit of devotion common throughout a community, that inspires the members to risk their lives and be prepared to die for their community.

Machiavelli lived his entire life in a long period of war, conquest, and strife in Europe. Italy’s proud principalities and republican cities were constantly under attack from the massive armies of three expanding European states. France, Spain, and Switzerland dwarfed Florence, Genoa, Milan, Torino, and all the others.

That’s the political context where Machiavelli explains the virtue of patriotism. A patriotic people, in this sense, will provide much better troops than the mercenary armies that Italian principalities often hired. Those mercenaries were usually overrun by the superior force of imperial armies.

The Italian cities that could defend themselves drew their armies from their populace, as Republican Rome did. Mercenaries fight to survive a battle and get their paycheck. Patriotic citizens with their backs to the wall are prepared to die to defend the freedom and glory of their country.

Today we have our gangster kleptocracies. Putin, Yanukovich, Manafort,
Kushner, Trump, and in my home country of Newfoundland, Williams.
Patriotism is the vigorous fire in your soul when you stride into battle prepared to die for your people. In the 1530s, it was a virtue. It was required to defend the existence of your city, its culture, its independence from growing empires and gangster kleptocracies like the Borgias and Medicis.

I’ve thought about Machiavelli’s concept of corruption, which he applies to cities, cultures, and countries. But then I contrast today’s perverse, oppressive conception of patriotism with the genuinely liberatory power of patriotism in Machiavelli’s day.

And I wonder, can a concept become corrupt?

Corruption has several meanings in Machiavelli’s thinking. One is the ordinary sense we give to the word today, of a political class defined by bribery, immoral acts, and hypocrisy. But there’s also the sense of decay, the malfunctions of aging, processes that normally give life flying into self-destructive whirlygigs and spirals.

As he uses the word corruption, the two meanings blur together. Not in a sense of confusion, but of being two aspects of the same phenomenon. Corruption is the mortality of a culture. As a society marches generation through generation, the devotion to public good fades away in its most prominent, powerful people and families.

As a people take their freedom for granted, they lose their feelings of brotherhood, see only self-interest where they used to see public good. The children of privilege, if given enough generations, become the arrogant resentment of greed. Gears shudder. Fanbelts fly. Oil drips and drips along the pavement.

Or perhaps, as I quoted John Dewey the other day, the solutions of today simply become the problems of tomorrow. The patriotism needed for survival of small cities against ravenous empires becomes poisonous and violent when expressed with cluster bombs, ICBMs, and sarin gas.

Or are even these ideas two aspects of the same process?