We used to chase roadrunners. Actually, I don’t think “chase” is the right word. We rode our dirt bikes around the dirt roads and trails, and sometimes a roadrunner would jump out and run along in front of us or alongside us. We never wanted to catch them or hurt them. We just liked seeing them.
It’s kind of like when dolphins escort a ferry you’re on. It sort of gives you a warm feeling to take the trip with them. The roadrunners made us think of the cartoon, of course, but we never worried about the coyotes. They only came out at night, anyway, and I don’t think they really had any particular interest in roadrunners in the first place.
So we liked to see the roadrunners and the rabbits that would run along the trail. I don’t think I ever saw a roadrunner get hurt, but rabbits had a habit of running into the spokes or under the wheels. It’s no fun having a rabbit run into the spokes of your wheel. It’s a bloody mess, and not at all pleasant for a boy who’s squeamish. Other people, of course, would just pack them home, skin them, and have a little fried rabbit for dinner, but that was never to my taste.
So, those were the main animals we’d see, except for the copperhead snakes. I don’t know why they like to stay in the trails, but they do, and they’ll fight to keep the spot. We had thick boots, of course, but they always gave me a little shiver, anyway. If you’ve ever felt that thud against your boot, you know what I’m talking about. That’s just involuntary.
All this happened at the cow lease out on farm road 942. You’d only drive down 942 if you owned land there, leased land there, or wanted to buy drugs. If you ever saw a car pulled over on the side of the road out there, you could pretty much bet any money it was someone waiting to buy drugs or sell drugs.
I was never a customer or a dealer, but I thought it was a pretty bad arrangement they had. If I knew what they were doing, surely the local law enforcement knew what was up. It was just so obvious, because no one had any other reason to be stopped on the side of the road, unless their car was broken down.
It was years before I found out law enforcement definitely knew what was going on, because they were in on it. They were an integral part of the East Texas Drug Distribution Network, such as it was. I know now what I never suspected then. If an out of towner came in and tried to sell drugs on 942, that person could be guaranteed a night in the Polk County jail, and Polk County hospitality might not live up to the stories you’ve heard about southern hospitality in the US.
The Polk County Sheriffs were really nice people, but that description pretty much applies to locals only, see? The whole area was sort of overseen by the Ku Klux Klan, and you’d be naïve to think the local cops weren’t part of the KKK. In fact, if you went the other direction on 942 from where the cow lease was, you’d come to a dirt road that led off to the left.
If you turned down that road, you’d see a big banner that said, “Welcome to Klan Kountry,” or something like that. It was both a welcome and a warning, depending on who you are. I was pretty much local and had lots of kinfolk around there, but I still found it intimidating. The area was familiar to me, all right, but I never did feel at home there. What’s more, I never wanted to feel at home there. I like having friends, you see, but I guess I prefer people who are a little more open minded.
So I drove around and enjoyed the roadrunners and rabbits and such, but I kept to myself mostly, and I learned to never really trust anyone. And I learned to never really feel safe. Don’t get me wrong, I could pass for one of them easily enough, but I had to focus. I had to watch what I said and how I walked.
It was easy enough to fall foul of their good graces. Any suspicion that you were a heathen or a pervert, rather broadly defined, would be enough to put you at risk, so you had to be careful how you walked and how you dressed and everything. This is why you can’t trust what you see in East Texas. Some of those rednecks who look like KKK members are actually liberals, atheists, gays, and so on, but the closets in East Texas are larger and more securely sealed than in other places you might have been.
And that’s why stuff kept going down, you know? Steve would get a little high and start shooting his mouth off. Oh, man, he had a black girlfriend when he was in Tennessee. He thought organized religion was for sheep, man. Che Guevara was his hero, or at least he really liked those posters with his face on them. And what’s the big deal about sex, anyway? If it feels good, go on and do it. There’s no God to tell you it’s wrong.
So the law enforcement, you know the ones who dealt drugs?, didn’t really like Steve. They kind of followed him around and gave him a lot of shit. It pissed him off, but he also kind of liked it. He had enough family around there to sort of protect him from real harm, but he didn’t have enough connections to avoid constant harassment. Or at least that’s what he thought.
So he’d go to the bar in Seven Oaks and talk trash all night while sipping beer and slipping out for a few hits off a joint from time to time. Everything seemed okay. It was all right. The local women liked Steve well enough. He was good looking, and he could make them laugh, so everything seemed fine and dandy. He was in the catbird seat.
And, hey, no one ever knows how things are going to turn out, do they? And no one ever really knows what causes what or who wants what. I mean, some people don’t think Michael Hastings crashed his car. Not everything gets solved. Sometimes you’re just left to wonder. You just move on with your life, and tell yourself you’re free. I mean, it’s not like you live in some kind of God damned communist country or anything. Is it?
If you’ve studied bioethics, you know that the principles of bioethics are autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. You also know that autonomy, especially in the early days, got most of the press. I was one of the people who saw bioethics and ethics generally, really, as a matter of respecting autonomy. And I still think it is typically wrong to do things to people that they wouldn’t reasonably want done.
As it often happens when changing points of view, I first began to question the value of autonomy in the most extreme cases—those where someone had no autonomy at all. How do you show the proper respect to a cadaver for example? How should we go about respecting the autonomy of someone who is no longer conscious and may never regain consciousness? It seems that showing respect for a person’s life may not always mean respecting the person’s autonomy.
Even in those cases, though, we still try to preserve the notion of autonomy by calculating what would have been correct for that person if that person were a conscious being with autonomy. To what would a rational person want or be entitled? And here is a bit of muddy water already. Kant described respect for autonomy as respect for universal laws, not respect for individual wishes, for respecting someone’s wishes might only be to help them use themselves as a means (see: physician-assisted suicide). For Kant, respect for autonomy would mean that no one could morally choose to die, so certainly no one could morally help someone to die.
But we don’t adhere to Kant so closely, do we? So, respecting someone’s autonomy has come to mean respecting that person’s wishes by getting their consent before doing anything to them or not doing anything to them, as the case may be. But even having someone’s full-throated consent does not make it okay to do whatever we please, and we mostly recognize that. We have laws against doing things to children, for example, or to people with limited cognitive abilities because we recognize that some people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
We spend a lot of time trying to identify vulnerable populations, but my problem comes with trying to figure out who might not be subject to exploitation. It seems to me that even the most mature and intelligent people in the world are subject to exploitation at least some of the time. I can think of many examples, but one example is certainly whenever anyone gets sick.
I would say that anyone with even a minor illness has lost a degree of freedom. If I have something as simple as a stuffy nose, I will make decisions I would otherwise not make. You know, I may decide to give money to some stranger who promises that some chemical or other might make my breathing easier. If I will give away my money to avoid slightly congested breathing that will likely correct itself in a short time, what might I do to avoid rapidly approaching death?
If I’m frightened enough of dying, and most of us do want to avoid an early death, I might agree to almost any treatment dangled in front of me, and I might go to extreme measures to procure the treatment. Getting my consent to give me my only chance of relief seems a little strange, which is why neither healthcare providers nor their clients pay much attention to the whole informed consent process in routine cases. We generally go to healthcare providers with the intention of making use of the services they provide.
Yes, I know patients do need the information that makes up the “informed” part of informed consent, and sometimes genuine decisions must be made in collaboration with the doctor or other caregiver. Even in those cases where decisions must be made, most patients assume the doctor is in a better position to know what choice is best. Which is why so many of us respond with, “What would you do, Doctor?”
What we don’t say, though, is, “No, I don’t want any treatment. I only came in because I had a bit of free time and thought I’d spend it in an examining room.” It is only suffering, whether minor or extreme, that drives us to see a doctor. And it is that suffering that makes us vulnerable to exploitation, and that vulnerability renders the concept of free consent or undiminished autonomy questionable.
So I don’t think autonomy can shoulder the moral burden it is expected to carry. In fact, autonomy may not mean anything useful at all. Respecting a person’s wishes, especially in situations where wishes are so easily manipulated, may not be of any moral value at all.
No one can question Plato’s writing and rhetorical abilities. He was a superstar of the ancient world, and the fact that his dialogs have endured for millennia attests to the fact of his beautiful writing. Of course, Bertrand Russell found it ludicrous to praise Plato’s ideas based on the quality of his writing, saying, “That Plato’s Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people, is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history.” Other famous thinkers of the ancient world weren’t as lucky as Plato; although their reputations survive somewhat through the words of others, we often have no copies of their original works or just a few remaining fragments. It may be that Plato was simply such a great writer that his works were preserved while the works of others were not, or perhaps other factors played a role in which works were saved and which were lost.
According to the biographer of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, the Cynical philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (no relationship to the biographer), also wrote a number of books.* If he actually did, none survives today. The biography is here. The Cynic is infamous for masturbating in public, going naked, eating in the market, and carrying a lamp around in the middle of the day. As we don’t have the original works of Diogenes, we can’t be sure which of these stories might be true and which are apocryphal as they reflect how others saw him, not necessarily how he presented himself. The lack of surviving texts may be down to Diogenes himself, at least partly. When Hegesias asked to read some of his writing, he reportedly replied, “You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.”
So, it seems that Diogenes, like Socrates before him, valued face-to-face interaction over the more passive learning that comes from reading. It is worth noting that Diogenes was a student of Antisthenes, who was in turn a student of Socrates. Although Antisthenes was reluctant to accept Diogenes as a student, Diogenes considered Antisthenes, not Plato, to be the true successor to Socrates.
According to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Antisthenes enjoyed a comfortable and aristocratic life until the death of Socrates. After that, “He would have nothing but simple goodness. He associated with working men, and dressed as one of them. He took to open-air preaching, in a style that the uneducated could understand. All refined philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known by the plain man.” Also, “There was to be no government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion.” Diogenes, it would seem, followed the lessons of his teacher to their logical extremes, which lead Plato to describe Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”
When studying the history of philosophy, we generally follow the lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. We could just as easily follow it from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes. With the former approach, we find justification for authoritarian rule over the ignorant unwashed masses constantly threatening the fabric of society. With the latter approach, we find a rejection not only of authority but of all the values that drive the totality of social regulation and empty social status.
It should be no surprise, then, which works were preserved. We know Socrates primarily through the works of Plato, which painted Socrates as a victim of ignorant Athenian leaders who rose to positions of power through a democratic process and not on their own merit. Threatened by the wisdom of Socrates, the thoughtless and insecure leaders sentenced Socrates to death. In response, Plato promised order could be secured under the direction of educated and dispassionate leaders who would tame the rabble, leading from their own realm outside the cave of illusion and delusion. The Cynics, on the other hand, would cause disruption, encouraging the working people to believe that they could take control over their own lives even without the aid of book learning and academic discipline. The Cynics valued reason, but not the well-healed reason of the aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle.
Further, the Cynics encouraged citizens to question the value of everything that is supposed to motivate the working class. For Plato, workers driven by their appetitive elements would produce more goods in order to receive rewards to satisfy their hungers and desires. Diogenes rejected the value of expensive clothing, food, shelter or anything else, and often lived off what he could get through begging. Having almost no possessions and no desires for any more, how could anyone take control over him or threaten him with anything? When Perdiccas threatened Diogenes with death if he didn’t appear before him, Diogenes reportedly replied, “That is nothing strange, for a scorpion or a tarantula could do as much: you had better threaten me that, if I kept away, you should be very happy.” As Todd Snider said in his song, “Looking for a Job,” “Watch what you say to someone with nothing. It’s almost like having it all.”
Imagine if the working class (note: if you work for money, you are working class) now began to question the value of cars, wide-screen TVs, sports, clothing, and “good” neighborhoods. And if the poor of the world adopted Diogenes’s views on citizenship, who would fight our wars? Diogenes gets credit for coining the word “cosmopolitan,” which is usually taken to mean citizen of the world. People who travel the world, speak more than one language, eat varied cuisine, and are not, to put it simply, provincial, consider themselves cosmopolitan, but this is not what Diogenes meant. Diogenes considered himself a citizen of the universe with no political allegiance and without political rights. He was banished from his home for defacing currency or something, and he was what would now be described as a “man without a country.” Imagine everyone being that way (John Lennon thought it should be easy, if you try).
Examined rationally, as the Cynics would have us do, virtually nothing we hold dear has any intrinsic value. We spend our lives working for trifles while ignoring anything that make us genuinely happy. When Diogenes was told it is a bad thing to live, he said, “Not to live, but to live badly.” We can live well, but we may be thought mad.
* Diogenes Laertius says, “The following books are attributed to [Diogenes of Sinope]. The dialogues entitled the Cephalion; the Icthyas; the Jackdaw; the Leopard; the People of the Athenians; the Republic; one called Moral Art; one on Wealth; one on Love; the Theodorus; the Hypsias; the Aristarchus; one on Death; a volume of Letters; seven Tragedies, the Helen, the Thyestes, the Hercules, the Achilles, the Medea, the Chrysippus, and the Oedippus.”
In response to injustice against members of various communities, those affected rise up, thank goodness, against the injustice accompanied by their allies from outside the community. Thus, the black community has white allies, the gay community has straight allies, women have male allies, and so on. I want to join all these communities in the struggle for justice, but I’ve never felt any connection with the word “ally.” Perhaps I over think things (I’ve certainly been told I do), and I can see why some people would see an “alliance” as a good thing, but I really think the idea of an ally preserves the concept of division and otherness.
The source of most oppression comes from this concept of otherness. Simone de Beauvoir told us, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, she says, “In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.” It is the distinction between One and Other that is the source of the problem. If the One becomes an advocate for the Other, does this change the balance of power? I argue that it does not. The ally speaks from a position of power on behalf of the less fortunate, often with the expectation that the weaker party will feel and exhibit an overflowing gratitude. At least, that is how it feels to me.
All the same, we can’t ignore our differences from others. It is important to preserve cultural distinctions, for example. Only the Deaf community fully understands the special problems faced by deaf people. Only the Native American community can understand injustices against Native Americans. And so on. What unites us in our struggle, though, is that we all are able to understand what injustice is. Those of us who are outraged, disgusted, and revolted by injustice, will react with those feelings every time we see it, regardless of the specific circumstances or characteristics of the victim. At least this is what I hope. When I react to injustice, I don’t do it because I feel someone deserves my sympathy or respect. I do it because I am offended by injustice. The specific qualities of the victim are not the source of my outrage.
This isn’t to say the specific qualities of the victim are not relevant, especially regarding discussions of how to understand and address the injustice. We need to have conversations so that we can understand each other. As Kwame Athony Appiah put it in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “We take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.” We must also understand the experiences of others. Through conversation, stories, art, music and language we can share experiences and enhance our ability to imagine the lives of others. By understanding the experiences of others, we are better able to understand that their experiences are morally inexcusable.
Affirming justice requires us to see the common humanity we have with others. Those who harbor feelings of innate superiority are easily enticed to barbarous behavior. David Hume notes that Europeans had such feelings of superiority over natives in America that it “made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even humanity, in our treatment of them.” He goes on to describe similar treatment of women, owing to the fact that men “have in all countries bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny.” Those who are able to disregard the humanity of others and have the power to force them in to submission feel entitled to exercise their power. It is my contention that the person who does not carry feelings of entitlement will be sickened by the abuse of others. When we recognize our shared experiences with others, feelings of entitlement dissolve. When we feel an innate superiority, entitlement is cemented in our psyche.
The people who are most able to recognize their common humanity are those who have experienced injustice or at least recognized the possibility that they might. I don’t mean those threatened by the loss of their own power or privilege but those who recognize that we are all inferior in someone else’s eyes. The rage against injustice against other races or citizens in other countries is a rage against injustice that could befall anyone at any time. Often marginalized and oppressed groups recognize the oppression of other groups before the privileged can see. Declaring that someone is privileged, however, has its own hazards. A person’s oppression may not be readily apparent on his or her face or skin or other aspects of personal appearance. Religious, sexual, gender, and cultural differences are not always visible on the skin, but these differences often lead to extreme oppression and violence.
Occasionally, people are unable, flawed as we all are, to recognize their common humanity even with those with whom they have no discernible differences. Consider the bitter conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a 1996 interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, Professor George Izangola described the lack of differences between the two groups: “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” (I’ve taken this quote from PBS here.)
If some of us can deny the humanity of those who look almost exactly like us, then “otherness” is a phenomenon that goes beyond race and gender. We either recognize that we are part of humanity or we do not. One way leads to freedom and the other to fascism. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir declares that we are each in a subjective struggle for freedom but that we are defined in our relationship to others. Our struggle for our freedom entails a will for the freedom of others. She says the activist “exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.”
For Beauvoir’s activist, the constant push for freedom is a push for humanity. In this sense, an injustice anywhere is, indeed, a threat to justice everywhere, as the saying goes. The existence of injustice itself destroys the condition of freedom. Resistance is, she says, the annihilation of injustice. In an apparent paradox, I struggle alone but alongside and in relation to others. As your struggle is yours alone, my struggle is mine alone. Rather than acting as an ally seeking justice on your behalf, we must work together to secure freedom on our own account, which requires freedom for all.
Libertarian and conservative critics of progressives seem to endlessly repeat the same refrain that progressives are opposed to freedom and liberty. This generally baffles progressives as they see themselves as the defenders of civil liberties such as free speech, marriage equality, and religious liberty. Listing examples of the liberties they defend does nothing to quell criticism from libertarians, however, as the concepts of liberty that libertarians hold is quite different from the concepts of liberty progressives hold.
For libertarians, all liberty stems from property. In short, if you have little property, you are not entitled to liberty. Murray Rothbard, who wrote the introduction to Ron Paul’s book, puts this idea quite succinctly in The Ethics of Liberty, saying, “Human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of ‘public policy’ or the ‘public good.’” In other words, when progressives seek to ensure that all people enjoy the same rights, Rothbard and other libertarians claim this actually denies human rights as it causes some individuals to lose some of their property.
So, your right to free speech, for example, depends on your owning enough property to exercise your speech. Otherwise, it depends on the goodwill of some property owner to permit you to speak. As Rothbard puts it, “There is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.” And, of course, libertarians feel that all property should be privately held.
So, when Occupy Wall Street protesters are chanting “Whose streets? Our Streets!”, they are going directly against the beliefs of libertarians. Protesters have been evicted around the country on the basis that they are on “privately held” public spaces. You can try protesting conditions in Foxconn plants outside an Apple store to test how much freedom you have on privately held property. Progressives seek to establish publicly held property to ensure that everyone (or as many as possible) has an opportunity to exercise the right to free speech. The same applies to public airwaves and Internet bandwidth.
If you want to be able to speak publicly, you must be a property owner. To have a significant voice, you must own a great deal of property. When the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited political contributions were a matter of free speech, this is really the underlying theme to their proclamation. When George Carlin declared that the owners of this country were the only ones with any freedom, some regarded him as a crazy conspiracy theorist.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously helped distinguish between two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from interference from others. Positive liberty is the ability to act in the way one chooses. Progressives hold that liberty is meaningless to a person who has no means to act or make choices. Libertarians hold that all liberty is negative (freedom from coercion) and all rights are negative (no one is obligated to ensure that you have positive liberty).
When libertarians and progressives talk to one another, they should at least try to understand how the other is using basic terms such as rights and liberty. As for me, I completely understand why wealthy people would be libertarian. I find it much harder to understand why people who have little property (and that is most of us) would embrace these libertarian ideas.