Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Vikki Law on Gender Violence and Police

December 21, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Seeking

The post I was going to put up today is not quite ready yet, but I came across this video of Vikki Law over on the INCITE! blog. (I was lucky enough to meet Vikki and attend one of her talks at the NY anarchist book fair. She rocks.)

When someone asks you how to handle violence without police, send them this.

Thinking Horizontally

October 13, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

We are so programmed to think hierarchically that, when faced with some kind of conflict, most people automatically look to create a higher authority.

The legal system is the perfect example. You have a problem, you go to the higher authority of the court. If that doesn’t work out, you appeal to a higher court. And then, when those few asshats on the supreme court make a final decision, it’s all over. Done. Problem resolved. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

When the top of the food chain makes an awful decision, the response from people is that we need to create an even higher authority to keep them in check. But that higher authority will only abuse its power as well. A United Nations with real teeth, or a functioning worldwide criminal court whose authority outstrips the supreme courts, will not resolve the problems. They will only create new ones. Then people will start clamoring for a yet higher authority to keep them in check.

And around and around we go.

That doesn’t mean that we shrug our shoulders and give up on resoving conflict. It means that we have to think horizontally instead of vertically. If I have a conflict within my community that cannot be resolved, why can’t I take it to another third party to mediate? And when they have a conflict they cannot resolve, they can do the same. Conflict resolution does not have to come from someone who cannot be challenged.

The fact is that many conflicts cannot be resolved. They can only be managed. There is no possibility that we could ever devise a system of rules, regulations, and boundaries that would ensure nobody will ever fight over land, water, or other resources. In fact, making those structures rigid usually makes matters worse.  People move.  Things change. What might have seemed like a perfectly rational way to manage something 100 years ago, makes no sense now.

Part of dealing with the problems we face is getting out of the hierarchical mindset. Instead of asking how you can create a higher authority to overrule those whose actions you do not like, ask yourself how you can create systems for problem solving and accountability between people and groups of equal power.

Thinking vertically has gotten us into this mess. It is thinking horizontally that will help get us out of it.

Proving It Can Be Done

May 05, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism

People often ask me how I became an anarchist, but I’ve come to realize that it was really more of a discovery than a conversion. I think most people hold anarchist beliefs. The click moment for me was when I actually began to believe that I could live in accordance with my beliefs.

When I talk to people about anarchism I often get the response that it sounds great in theory, but it would never work. People don’t think it is possible to organize without hierarchy. They point to all the scary people out there that they can’t trust. They look at how we can’t even speak to one another, much less actually work together to solve big problems.

The first two criticisms are easy to respond to. There are plenty of people out there who are organizing without hierarchy – from pickup games of basketball to cooperatives. And if you think your neighbor is scary, wait until your neighbor gets elected and sends your kid to war. The people who want to be “leaders” are always the absolute last people who should have power over anything.

That last one is tougher to respond to. There is no denying that we have a really hard time speaking to each other. And if you can’t even speak to each other, then you sure as hell aren’t going to be able to resolve conflicts. But it isn’t that we are incapable.  It is that we have been trained from birth to do all of the wrong things.

We don’t discuss things, we debate to see who scores the most points. Everything is broken down into heroes and villains. Nobody wants to hear an ill word about their hero. Nobody wants to hear a good word about their villain. If we read something written by someone we like, we ignore the weak arguments or fuzzy assumptions. If we read something by someone we hate, we look only for what is wrong and refuse to acknowledge any good points they might have made.

That’s assuming we are even willing to read things by people we hate. How many people only preach to the choir? How many people make sure that all their news comes from those with their same ideological leanings? How often do we let all our knowledge about another group of people come from media or politicians or some other filter with their own agenda – rather than talking to those people directly?

Where the rubber hits the road is where anarchists can show that it is possible for people from different backgrounds and belief systems to actually work together. We have to show that it is possible to resolve conflicts without coercive authority. And that means that we have to be open-minded enough to at least talk to people. It means we can’t be dogmatic. It means we have to acknowledge that nobody is right 100% of the time and nobody is wrong 100% of the time. It means realizing that you will never find anyone who supports everything you support. It means no more guilt by association. It means we should stop making assumptions about a person based on one thing they said or on the fact that people you don’t like agree with them.

That is a lot easier said than done. It is hard to have a conversation with someone who seems to hate everything you most value. It is hard to confront people’s prejudices. It is even harder to confront your own. Sometimes it isn’t even content, but style that seems to be the most difficult. Some people take a super logical approach to discussing things and seem cold and heartless. Other people meander through their stories and anecdotes, driving the superlogicals off the deep end.

We are all going to fail miserably a lot of the time. But we need to at least try. Our ability to create a different kind of world depends upon our ability to develop skills in communication, conflict resolution, and horizontal organizing. We know how to make revolutionary change. We don’t know how to make change that lasts and that doesn’t reproduce the same oppressions we fought to get rid of. Once we can learn how to resolve our own problems – without calling daddy, or the cops, or Smith & Wesson – the jig is up.

If we can manage to bring seemingly incompatible people to the table and actually accomplish something, then the naysayers will see that it is possible.

Is Universal Possible?

September 02, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Politics

A couple weeks ago, I went to a forum at Cato called Are Liberty and Equality Compatible?.  (Cato, meh.  Free lunch, score!)  The short story is that James P. Sterba was trying to find a way to squeeze a liberal philosophy into a libertarian mold.  What he came up with was this:

1.  Libertarians believe in negative liberty.  Nobody should be aggressed against/interfered with.

2.  If the rich should have the liberty to enjoy their excess without being interfered with, then the poor should have the liberty to take what they need from the rich without being interfered with.

And presto chango, a positive liberty becomes a negative liberty.

Clearly, nobody at Cato was buying this, not even the leftists in the room. But if anyone had been buying it, Sterba would then have tried to convince them that what we are really talking about is a conflict between different equal liberty principles.

The rebuttal was from Jan Narveson.  I’m not going to go into the whole back and forth.  You can watch it on Cato’s site if you are interested.  I just want to talk about one of the core elements of Narveson’s (common) argument.  He believes that we need to look for principles that all people can agree to, based on their rational self interest.  And he thinks the non-aggression principle is the bees knees.

But can everyone really agree to that principle?

In the context of our argument of rich v. poor, non-aggression only goes so far.  At some point, non-aggression no longer serves the rational self interest of the poor.  Non-aggression against United Fruit Company was an absurd prospect for a land-starved Guatemalan.  Sterba could have made a stronger case that a certain amount of equality (or at least basic needs being met) is a prerequisite to widespread adoption of the non-aggression principle.

More importantly for this discussion, define aggression.  There are some people who think it is aggression to break a bank window (even though the only consequence is a few hundred dollars from the bank’s coffers).  But some of those same people don’t think it is aggression to pay off corrupt officials in order to buy huge swaths of productive farmland in Africa and then ship the products to Dubai while the Africans in that country starve.

And there are people who think the exact opposite.

Of course, the six hundred pound elephant in the room during that discussion was property.  One of the reasons we can’t agree on a definition of aggression is that we can’t agree on who gets to use what resources.  Land is one of the most contentious issues in the world, as is what lies below it.  Those conflicts are not going away any time soon.  Maybe never.

I like principles.  I spend a lot of time trying to root out what principles people are operating from.  But I’m not sure we are going to get very far if the plan is to convince 7 billion people to define aggression the same way and agree not to do it.  And while I pick on the core libertarian principle here, I could write this post about universal human rights and come up with an equally skeptical conclusion about universality.

Universal may not be possible.  And if it is true that universal is not possible, then what?

Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You

March 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization

On Monday I wrote about how car contracts work and how people end up getting screwed.  The logical question, and the one that started this all, is why doesn’t the legal system work for you?  And the answer is…it isn’t meant to.

Who writes the laws?  Legislators.  Who are the legislators?  They are wealthier than you.  They have more powerful friends and relatives.  And, most importantly, they have a steady stream of lobbyists at their doorstep.  Ford Motor Credit Company, for example, spent $7,230,000 on lobbying in 2009.  What are the chances, do you think, that those lobbyists have no effect on what the law says?

Who interprets the laws?  You may think that it is the judge who interprets the law, but that is not exactly true.  Judges are incredibly conservative.  They would much rather be shown a pile of precedent so that they can just follow those that came before them.  Some judges would like to use more judicial discretion, to consider what is fair, but that has become near impossible in a climate where everyone screams about “activist judges.”

A judge who may want to allow someone to file bankruptcy, ignoring a technicality of the law, will feel compelled to go against their better judgment.  Criminal judges have been restricted by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.  Over and over judges will tell you that their hands are tied by the law.

I don’t want to make judges out to be hapless victims in all of this.  One of the reasons that judicial discretion was challenged was because some judges were not being impartial.  The person who wrote the legislation that led to horrible mandatory minimum sentences was, he says, attempting to address racial discrimination related to who got out on bail and who didn’t.

Another problem with judges is that their positions have been politicized.  Many judges have to run for their office.  How knowledgeable about a judge’s history of rulings do you think the average voter is? And running for office means raising money.  Judges raise a lot of money from people who may later appear before them in court.  The other party may not even know about the relationship.  And even if they do know, it is not necessarily grounds for recusal.  (Justice at Stake is a good resource on judge related issues.)

And if you think you can avoid the perils of bad judges with a jury, think again.  The judge will determine what a jury gets to see and hear, if you get a jury at all.  Contrary to what you may believe from watching television.  You do not always have a right to a jury trial.  The right to a jury trial extends to criminal proceedings and civil cases in federal court.  Since many cases (all the car contract cases I was referring to in my previous post) are in state court, it will be governed by state rules.  What’s more, contracts typically contain language waiving your right to a jury trial.  They may even have language waiving your right to a trial period.  Check your credit card fine print.  Bet you have a provision requiring arbitration for disputes.

And you don’t have a right to an attorney either.  You have the right to hire an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, and it is not a case that involves possible jail time, you have few options.  You can put your name on a list and hope that you will be one of the lucky few to get legal aid.  Otherwise, sucks for you.  (More on that issue at the website for Civil Right to Counsel.)  And even if you do get an attorney, what kind of attorney will you get.  A bad attorney might be worse than no attorney at all.

If you have a bad attorney, one who is having a mental breakdown, you might end up convicted of a felony when you didn’t actually commit one.  You might find yourself on death row, even though your attorney slept through the trial. If you have a good attorney, on the other hand, there is a very good chance things will settle out of court and with a result far more to your liking.  One of the trial attorneys I worked for had such a killer reputation that she almost never had to go to court.  Nobody wanted to go up against her.

The attorney ends up being key.  Because in a system that is focused on intricacies of overly complex laws and voluminous libraries of precedent, the person who best understands how to manipulate those laws and precedents to their advantage wins.  The law then becomes less about justice and more about wit.  And wit is expensive – Johnny Cochran made $500 an hour.  Joe Shmo probably pulls in $200.  Of course, their paralegal charges you an hourly rate and so does the associate attorney doing research.  And let’s not forget the office full of legal secretaries and other staff that are navigating the ins and outs of procedural rules – from when to file your pleadings to what color ink you need to use to sign.

It is not completely outside the realm of possibility that a lay person would be able to figure out the law and outsmart an attorney.  But they would have to have a hell of a lot of time on their hands.  And they would have to have some basic skills in reading and research.  22% of U.S. adults don’t even meet basic literacy levels.  And the poorer someone is, the more likely they are functionally illiterate.  Add to that the general financial illiteracy of the vast majority of adults.  What chance do they have?

One of the fundamental principles of the legal system is equality before the law.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice it doesn’t exist.  In those car contract cases, when you treat a lone defendant as equals with the plaintiff – a corporation which probably helped write the law, has the best lobbyists money can buy, employs hundreds of attorneys, and donates to the judges reelection fund -it’s a joke.  Treating them equal is actually anything but.

And now we arrive at personal responsibility.  I’ve managed to live without ever signing a car contract.  It is true that other people could too.  It’s true that some of the people who defaulted on their contracts just wanted a shiny new thing and didn’t really consider whether or not they could afford it.  But it is also true that many of those people just hit unexpected hard times and had the misfortune of living in a city with one of the worst public transportation systems.  And many of the people who get all high and mighty about personal responsibility don’t have any better understanding of financial instruments or the law.  They just have enough money not to suffer for their lack of knowledge.

More importantly, the real lack of personal responsibility is within the system itself.  The purchaser of a car is responsible for their actions on the day they sign that contract, but the salesman isn’t.  He’s protected by the magic of limited liability and faceless bureaucracy.  His neighbors will not shame him if he is irresponsible in his sales.  None of the people who work at the car company or the finance company or the courthouse are going to have to face the friends and neighbors of the person who gets steamrolled by the process.  None of them have any personal responsibility.

So what do I think?  I think, first and foremost, we have too many damn laws.  I think we should get rid of the vast majority of them.  As I’ve said before, we need to stop the knee jerk law passing every time something seems wrong.  Maybe something does need to be done, but it doesn’t have to mean passing a law.

I think a person should always have a right to a jury trial – something that is only practical if we don’t have so many damn laws.  Contracts should be verbal, as well as written, and video taped so that we can see exactly what the understanding of all parties was.  Precedent should be, if anything, a vague guideline and not a noose.  People who cry “judicial activism” should be made to suffer a Kafkaesque year of actually experiencing the legal system.

We need a massive grassroots effort to improve literacy (including financial literacy).  Conflict resolution should be the number one priority in education (yup, even before literacy).  People who screw people over by using their cleverness, whether in manipulating the law or inventing “creative” financial instruments, should be shunned for the anti-social deviants they are.  And we should all absolutely refuse to accept any more specialized language, specialized knowledge, and intentionally confusing bullshit from anyone.  Ever.

If it’s inaccessible, it should be unacceptable.

Finally, I tried to come up with a more widely palatable answer or short term solutions to the political/corporate clusterfuck where all these terrible laws come from.  But I just can’t.  The only solution is to take things into our own hands and stop giving our power away to those people.  So long as we keep thinking that the next politician will be better, we’ll keep having monstrous laws passed that nobody reads, much less understands.

Over-Reliance on the Law

February 08, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Over the weekend, a friend of mine posted a video (below) about a Fox news report that was squashed.

Several years ago, Fox reporters were working on a story about Monsanto and rBGH.  Monsanto, upon getting wind of the story, had their attorneys send Fox a letter threatening to sue.  Fox wanted to squash the story, but were afraid the reporters would tell the world.  So instead, Fox management beat the story into a form that Monsanto would like better.

The reporters were eventually fired for not being willing to lie in their news report.  The Fox station attorney sent them a letter confirming that is why they were fired.  The reporters understood this to be a retaliation claim.  They believed they would be protected under the whistleblower statute.  But the courts ruled that a news show lying on the air was not illegal and therefore there was no whistle to blow.  Ergo, no protection for the reporters.

All of us discussing the post agreed that it was appalling.  The poster suggested that we start a campaign to make lying by the news stations illegal.  It was an instinct I understood, but all I could think of were the potentially disastrous consequences.

If we want to see what happens when it is easier to sue a news organization, look no further than the United Kingdom.  Libel laws there are much different than in the United States.  And corporations are taking advantage of those laws to sue newspapers and bloggers.

News organizations afraid that they are going to be sued are likely to self censor.  In fact, this very Monsanto incident is the perfect example of the kind of self censorship that news organizations are practicing.  Monsanto threatened to sue them, presumably for libel.  And rather than risk the expense of a court battle, Fox’s response was to cave to the threat of a lawsuit.

While this Monsanto case is disgusting, how would yet more laws that people can be sued under help rather than cause even more self censorship?  And even if there was no danger from self censorship, how could we be sure that honest mistakes were not prosecuted?

This is not just an issue of a free press or of free speech.  It is about how we are handling all of our society’s problems.  Our first instinct is – We must do something!  We must pass a law!  It has gotten to the point where we can’t walk out of our house without breaking a law.

Every time we try to resolve a problem by passing a law, we give up that much more of our power.  And we tip the scales that much further in the direction of the wealthy and specially educated.

Access to the justice system, and results from the justice system, are dependent on how much money you have and how much understanding you have of legal codes, precedents, rules of procedure and a million other pieces of specialized knowledge that most of us do not have access to.

When we turn everything into a law, we turn everything into something that requires an attorney and a judge.  We empower those people at the expense of our own power.  If every solution proposed requires a law, then availing yourself of that solution requires an attorney.  Can you afford an attorney?  I can’t.

This post isn’t about bagging on attorneys.  I worked for attorneys for a decade.  And some of the attorneys I worked for were fighting the good fight.  They worked on civil rights cases and sexual harassment cases.  (I’m talking quid pro quo – you can keep your job if you suck my dick kind of cases, not ooh I don’t like the bikini calendar cases.)  I even did a millisecond internship with the ACLU.  But even the attorneys fighting the good fight cannot deny that the courts, for all the publicity that those few breakthrough civil rights cases get, are all too often on the wrong side of history.

There is no way to craft laws that can only be used for good, that cannot be exploited by those with the power and money to exploit.  The solution does not lie in empowering more attorneys and judges.  It lies in addressing those inequities of power and money directly.  It lies in taking back our own power.  It lies in coming up with solutions and problem solving mechanisms accessible to all of us.

Anarchy as Responsibility

December 18, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core

Conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility.  By that they mean taking responsibility for your own well being and perhaps that of your family and community.  But if you are not within the circle, what that comes down to is “fend for yourself.”

Liberals talk about taking responsibility for the less fortunate.  By that they mean donating time or money to organizations (that employ other liberals) and letting them help people in need.  But that creates dependency and doesn’t question the privilege underlying their altruism.

Anarchism, as a system based on cooperation, addresses the weaknesses in both liberal and conservative philosophies.

Like conservatives, anarchists think we should be taking personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities.  But where conservatives want to put up a wall, beyond which their responsibilities don’t go, anarchists have always understood that resolving our problems requires taking responsibility on a worldwide scale.

Like liberals, anarchists are concerned with the vast majority of people who struggle to have even the basic necessities of life.  But anarchists don’t want to install themselves in positions of power where they can met out drips and drabs of whatever liberals have been willing to give up.  Anarchists want to work side by side with people, questioning the hierarchies and privileges that cause those inequities.  We are not creating dependency, we are recognizing interdependency.

And anarchist principles work.

Worker managed coopertives are more productive than hierarchical models.  Community policing is more effective than conservative models.  Community involvement in schools means better results for kids.  Community involvement in budgeting means better allocation of resources.  The more people around when a conflict begins, the less likely that conflict will escalate.

These examples aren’t perfect representations of anarchism by any stretch of the imagination, but they do exhibit anarchist principles of responsibility and cooperation.  They demonstrate that we can solve our own problems.

Its easy to sit here and criticize our “leaders”.  But what did we expect?  Did people think we could just pull a lever every few years and then go back to watching American Idol?  If we want problems to be solved, we need to take responsibility for solving them.  And anarchism is a philosophy built around taking responsibility.

Liberals and Conservatives Fuel Conflict

December 04, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Conflict

An incident happened at my friend’s job the other day that perfectly demonstrates why liberals and conservatives are ultimately doomed to fail in their efforts to resolve conflicts.

One of the employees is a very young woman.  She’s not particularly mature.  It’s her first job.  She was getting upset because some of the other employees were showing up late in the mornings, leaving her the only one there.

To give you a bit of background.  This business was run by a woman who had only one rule, that there were no rules.  Employees had been led to believe that they had a very chill policy about being a few minutes late in the morning.  Nobody had ever been spoken to about tardiness.

This young woman, rather than speaking to her coworkers, went to the new management.  Management instituted a litany of draconian new policies for people who are late.  These policies don’t effect everyone equally, as some people have children or live farther away.  And one employee has an illness that makes things particularly hard.

I have no doubt that the manager primarily responsible for the new policies had good intentions.  In her mind, no doubt, she is looking after the complaining employee – a very sweet girl who I’m sure made a compelling case for paternalism.

The problem is that every other employee was feeling beat down.  Moral sunk.  A small wall was put up between the other employees and the complainer.  A wall was put up between the employees and the management.  They’ve gotten over that incident, but their relationships will always be a little bit different.

It didn’t have to be that way.  The people at this place are all kind and conscientious.  Had the unhappy employee went directly to them, I have no doubt they would have changed their behavior.  They could have worked something out.  But that opportunity was lost.

If you believe, as I do, that the management had good intentions and were just trying to look out for the person they thought taken advantage of, then this is a great example of how liberals go wrong.  Liberals have good intentions, but they are constantly erecting walls with their paternalism.

If you are more skeptical and think that the new management was just exercising their authority, imposing discipline to get people in line, then this is a great example of how conservatives go wrong.  Conservatives think people are only motivated by consequences.  But all they create is fear, distrust, and resentment.

Liberals and Conservatives have been unable to resolve any of our fundamental problems, because nobody can solve somebody else’s problems.   The longer we rely on mommy or daddy to deal with things for us, the fewer problem solving skills we develop.

It doesn’t matter if you are approaching an issue with the intention to help people or to scare the piss out of them.  Putting a third party representative or authority in the middle of conflict degrades relationships and ensures future conflict.

Watching Your Tone

October 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

What’s the best way to communicate ideas?

There was a blogger I was following until recently.  We disagreed on some very fundamental issues, but I don’t read things for confirmation of my beliefs.  I read to be challenged.  And I wanted to understand her point of view.

She wasn’t an easy person to read.  She is young and full of rage.  She has, from what I can tell, good reasons to be full of rage.  And she has every right to use her space to scream and curse and yell and direct that rage out at the world.

The last thing I am going to do is be one of those people who tries to shut others up by telling them to watch their tone. But a reader is only going to stick around and be raged at for so long.

I edit the hell out of some of my posts.  Other posts I don’t publish at all, because I don’t see anything productive coming out of posting them. And sometimes I am torn about the self editing.

But I don’t just want to use my blog to vent.  I don’t just want to find like-minded people (although it is a big perk).  I want to debate.  I want to open my mind to new ideas.  And I want to explain myself well enough so that people who disagree with me will at least understand my position.

Raging won’t accomplish that.

I was reading a blog post today.  Fofi tells about how one trainhopper/hitchhiker advised her to get people laughing in order to ask them for money.  My father, the consummate salesman, gave me the same advice when I found myself having to sell legal services to attorneys.

People are more responsive when you put them at ease.

Unfortunately for me, I’m only funny once or twice a year.  (That might explain why I was such a shit salesperson.)  But I can try to get my message across in a way that people will hear it.  It won’t always work.  And it won’t always be possible.  But it’s worth the effort.

Conflict Resolution as Core Curriculum

July 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Conflict, Core, Seeking

When I tell people that I am an anarchist, that I imagine a world without hierarchy, they often dismiss me as naive. They cannot imagine how government would function without a dude in charge. They seem to find it even harder to imagine workplaces functioning without hierarchy.

If the skeptics provide any reasons, they generally point out conflicts that we currently resolve through coercion. Two people have a dispute at work, the boss makes a determination and coerces the parties to comply. Two countries have a dispute, and the more powerful country coerces the other.

The essential obstacle to a society based on cooperation is not that people have disputes, it is that we have so few tools to resolve our disputes peacefully. It isn’t entirely our fault. And it isn’t some malfunctioning human gene. It is that we have no training in dispute resolution or peaceful conflict management.

Amazingly, it is only in the last fifty years that conflict resolution has been brought into schools. And it is only since the 1980s that organizations like Educators for Social Responsibility have been promoting conflict resolution as core curriculum.

Despite the fact that conflict resolution has been shown to increase academic achievement and cooperation and to decrease violence and drop-out rates, too few schools have implemented conflict resolution into their programs.

Imagine if every school child (from kindergarden forward) had problem solving and peaceful conflict resolution as core curriculum. Imagine if it were given the importance of math and language. How much better equipped would we be for our relationships later in life?

It isn’t that people are hopelessly unable to resolve conflicts without violence or coersion. It is that we are not learning the skills we need.