politics–us

from white guilt to American anger

I have a friend from the Chicago bike community, Carl Harris, also known as Chopper Carl (I showed him this piece before publication, so I have his approval to use his name). I see him around on occasion, but we’ve fallen out of touch the past few years. We both still connect with the bike community, but neither of us is as active as we were.

Carl is a clown, always cutting up and joking around, modifying bikes in goofy ways and giving them funny names. Back in the day he built a bike trailer with a stereo, and he used to ride at Critical Mass and kick out the jams for all the people. Such a fun guy.

One evening a few years ago we were biking around after Critical Mass, and we went to his place, out on the West Side of Chicago. He wanted to show me some of the stuff he was doing with his computer, adding a hard drive and changing some stuff around. He used it to manage his music collection.

At some point he mentioned he wanted to make some change, I forget what, and I said, ‘I think that’s a BIOS setting.’ And he said, ‘I’m not smart enough to mess around with the BIOS.’ To which I replied, ‘if you’re smart enough to do all the stuff you’ve already showed me, you’re smart enough to mess around with the BIOS.’

That interaction didn’t register with me for a few days. Who the hell says they’re ‘not smart enough’ to do something?

Later that evening, we rode down to my place. We rode past the high school he attended years before, a West Side school. I asked him what it was like. He said he kept his head down and stayed out of trouble.

At this point, I shouldn’t have to mention: Carl is African American. His place was in poor shape. His neighborhood was rough. He was working as a bike mechanic at the time.

And it struck me, as I turned the story of that evening over in my head: Carl was a smart guy. He was like me. And the difference between his path and mine, his opportunities and mine, was not vast, but it was substantial. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, got a decent education (largely at taxpayer expense), had a bit of luck, and had a reasonably impressive resume at that point. He grew up on the West Side, and managed to keep his intellectual curiosity alive under adverse circumstances. I don’t know all the details of his story. But I had had better opportunities than he did, and made more of them than he could.

I saw myself. If I had been born in another place, with a different skin color, my brains would not necessarily have gotten me this far.

Now, I don’t want to paint Carl as a victim. These days he’s married, and he preaches the Good Word at a church on the South Side, and he plays the Hammond organ. I see from Facebook he’s gotten into ham radio. He’s still curious, always learning and tinkering.

He’s made a life for himself, and I want to be clear I respect his accomplishments. But he could have had more opportunities to develop his fertile mind and capitalize on his capability. He’s not a dumb guy.

And I realized he wasn’t alone.

Now, I think racial oppression and suffering are awful and unfair. It breaks my heart and makes me sad. But I live every day with pain and I get up and do my thing, and I see lots of African Americans do too.

What’s worse in my mind is the wasted time and potential. There is capability wasted, and there is brilliance unrealized. We are wasting these people’s time.

This was where I started to get angry, on behalf of my friend and others like him. And this is the place I think a lot of white people need to get to.

Race is a bullshit concept. I mean, I’m not trying to erase anyone’s distinctiveness. I respect African American history, heritage, and contribution. But local adaptations humans have developed over time don’t mean anything deep about the potential of the people with those adaptations. It doesn’t stand up to modern biology. And to feel ‘white guilt’ is to accept that logic–that there’s some significance in the color of my skin and yours. ‘I feel bad about what “our people” did to “your people.”‘

No. We need to see through these artificial distinctions. These may be African Americans enduring injustice, but the ones I know are a whole lot more American than they are African, and they deserve the same opportunities everyone else does. We should feel the same indignation and solidarity we would over their oppression we would if they were white. And we need to identify the self-fulfilling prophecies baked into the lie of ‘race,’ and find ways to turn them back.

It’s a platitude to say, ‘inside we’re all the same.’ But if it’s true, what does that mean? It means Freddie Gray was not just a loss to the African American community. He was a loss to the American community. He had a right to live out his little life the same as I do mine, and everyone else does theirs. And just because his skin was darker than mine doesn’t mean I should put his suffering and death and lost potential in a different category than mine.

We will never get to see what Freddie Gray would make of his life. His death is a tragedy and a crime, and I hope justice is served in his case. But you don’t have to kill someone to rob them of years of their life, or what they could make of those years. And African Americans aren’t the only ones who should be angry about that.

NSA data collection

There are a lot of things wrong with the NSA conducting mass surveillance. One aspect hasn’t gotten enough attention, I think.

The governing doctrine, as I understand it, is that the Fourth Amendment search and seizure rule doesn’t apply to data collection. It only counts as a ‘search’ that may or may not be ‘reasonable’ when they actually look at the data and attach identities to the actions tracked.

They’re asking for a lot of trust. But not just trust in the present.

I don’t know how long they keep that data, but keeping it is cheap, and the agencies involved are known for keeping records a long time. That means even if you trust the current administration with it, you’re also trusting future administrations as well.

Thus: say you are a woman who called your doctor and then called Planned Parenthood. You might trust the Obama Administration with records of those calls. But what would a Santorum Administration do with that data? I’m sure there are hypotheticals a conservative could come up with in the converse.

One of the ways Americans avoid slippery slopes is to not grant powers on the basis of personal trust. You don’t grant power to an Obama Administration that you wouldn’t trust to a Santorum Administration, or vice versa.

It’s bad enough that this policy exists and could be expanded upon by future administrations. But that’s compounded by the archiving of the data itself. Who knows what policies will be applied in the future to data the NSA has now?

an open letter to Dan Savage

Dear Dan,

I support you and tend to agree with almost everything you say. I’m a big fan of ‘It Gets Better’ and the podcast and new MTV show and your entire media empire.

I think you’re about something bigger than fighting bullying or sex-positivity or gay rights or any of that. You’re about sexual rationality for Americans. What would it look like if Americans had a well-adjusted, sane, reasonable, honest, rational sexual culture? How would such a culture accommodate all the odd wrinkles of human sexuality? How would we think about ourselves, and interact with others? I get a dose of your vision a couple times a week, with your great humor, and it’s improved my life.

But that’s a radical project. American sexual culture is utterly screwed up, and a lot of Americans spend  a lot of energy on protecting that screwed-upness. You know that. And while I endorse you ‘getting up on your hind legs’ and confronting the hatred and bigotry, there are different ways to do that.

It’s not a stretch to compare that confrontation with the movement Martin Luther King led. In some ways, this fight is actually greater. White folks in America thought differently about African Americans after the civil rights movement, but they didn’t have to think that differently about themselves. They didn’t have to accept aspects of themselves they’d long rejected. And while white couples do not have black children, gay children are born to straight families every hour of every day.

But when MLK upset white people, there was no tit-for-tat in his responses. There was truth telling and unconditional love. He was unwavering in his  dedication to the ideal that the people who so hated him were his brothers and sisters, and that only when everyone understood that would we be truly free.

Truly free. Isn’t that what you really want, Dan? Freedom from the ignorance and fear that clouds our sexual culture?

And that’s a tough standard. It’s hard to give unconditional love to people who hate you. I don’t think it’s something you even aspire to. I don’t think it’s anything you’re working on.

Remember, Martin Luther King is not a liberal icon today, he’s an American icon. People across the political spectrum must recon with his memory. The people who would condemn him today are at the far end of the margins of political life in America. He didn’t get there by telling people they were full of shit. He told them they were wrong, but he did it with love.

And I know you didn’t ask to be Martin Luther King, but remember, he didn’t either. When Rosa Parks got arrested and people asked if they could have a meeting at his church, he didn’t say ‘yes.’ He said, ‘let me think about it.’ I don’t think that role is natural for anyone.

If I’m right about your ambition, I think you need to think long and hard about how to get there. Catty and bitchy and pointing and laughing are fun. I enjoy them too. But it’s my feeling that you need to up your game.

money hacking: problems and pitfalls

This is the fifth article in a series. The previous ones are

I don’t want to represent myself as a guy with all the answers. More to the point, I value skepticism and uncertainty deeply. Caution and a sense that things can go wrong is important. I’ll talk a lot about trust here, and it’s important too, but doubt is a core value for me. Anyone who says they have the final answer to all our economic problems is either shortsighted or dishonest.

Americans have not faced a currency crisis in living memory. We collect dollar-spewing securities for our retirement and accept dollars in exchange for things. We accept that inflation is a fact of life, and we try to protect ourselves against it. But we don’t really worry about what currency we’ll use to fund our retirements. We imagine the dollar will always be there.

That’s trust. We trust in the operation of our currency and our economy. We trust it like the air we breathe. Literally: we’re a little concerned about air pollution, but most folks don’t get bent out of shape about it. We’re a little concerned about the economy, but most folks don’t plan to stop accepting dollars anytime soon.

trust

I said it before: money is an agreement. And the foundation of all agreements is trust. When the agreement fades into the background of our consciousness, it’s a sign of trust. When it jumps to the foreground, usually that’s because the trust is being questioned.

If we want to operate our own currency, we must deal with the problems that could violate trust or call it into question. We must take responsibility for a host of issues, so people can trust its operation:

technical integrity: any system needs to be correct, secure, and reliable. It’s not ok when you can’t get your money because a system’s down. It’s not ok when people can hack the system and steal it from you, or create it arbitrarily. It’s not ok when your personal information is shared or exposed without your knowledge or consent. There are a lot of really basic issues that you only think about when something breaks. We need to think all of them through and address them reasonably well before anything breaks. ‘Good enough’ is a very high standard.

economic integrity: in a monetarist system, the money supply needs to grow (and shrink) with the value produced by the economy. That relationship needs to be protected, or either inflation or deflation will result.

In Greco’s you standard, the currency is backed by various issuers within the system. They have an interest in sustaining a high level of trust in their currency. Doubt in a particular issuer may or may not lead to doubt in the entire system. They need to issue only as much as they can stand behind. That can be regulated.

If the amount a merchant is allowed to issue is based on circulation through their account, we will need mechanisms to ensure that there is real value being exchanged. A pair of fraudsters could pass money back and forth between accounts to drive up their circulation and increase what they can issue. This would only have short-term benefits for them, but that short-term mentality is known to occur in human beings, and it would be a liability for the rest until they figured out what was happening. Better to prevent it.

In a commodity-based system, any accounting of a commodity needs to match the supply of the actual commodity being traded. Again, that relationship must be guarded.

operator integrity and transparency: it’s been said that the best way to rob a bank is to own one. That also applies to currency operators. There are probably a million scams you could run by issuing your own money. Any currency operator who won’t talk about that possibility openly is not someone you should do business with.

A system is only as good as the people who operate it. There’s no way around that. You have to trust some human beings, be they bankers or currency operators. Currency operators must keep a very high standard of conduct. They must be subject to the same rules as the rest of the merchants working in the economy. That includes any rules they enforce. They may need to establish independent authorities to ensure the perceived and actual integrity of the system they operate. Additionally they must keep open and transparent records of their own transactions so trust in the entire system can be sustained in the community.

cultural integrity: Any system that depends on feedback from its participants needs that feedback to be fair. Any Web 2.0/true information age-currency system is going to use such feedback. That system needs to allow a community to judge the value its members provide fairly.

timing and government interference

 I’ve said it elsewhere. I think what I’m proposing is legal, at least in the US. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. If such a system were successful and spread virally and rapidly, I would not be surprised to see opposition from government and various vested interests. The question is, could it improve people’s lives and self-determination enough that they would stand up for it? Could we make such opposition politically un-viable?

The success of any currency project started right now would be a matter of luck. There are a number of needles that must be threaded. The one thing that gives me confidence is the fact that anyone who protects the old system will be paid in its currency: dollars. And if the dollar system is as corrupted and weak as it appears to be, something will have to break out and take its place. I have a few ideas about what that should look like, but that doesn’t mean my vision will win this particular lottery.

I’ve quoted Milton Friedman elsewhere: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

There are a lot of ideas one could support this way, and a lot of possible reactions of the government to their spread in a crisis. If we can manage to enable people to sustain and improve their lives in the presence of a crisis, I wouldn’t assume hostility.

Though one other danger might be co-opting: government entities might join a you standard system, but would need to abide by its rules. If, for example, some municipality (or nation) were to legislate some special status for itself (for example, like the equivalent of legal tender), it would undermine trust in the whole system. That should be resisted. Perhaps interest-based lending is useful for some things: financing wars comes to mind.

possible outcomes right now

So if you were starting a currency project now, I’d imagine there would be several possible outcomes:

facebook success: you build something that navigates the obstructions listed above and succeeds massively, taking over the world. This could be great news for you or anything you built, but questionable at a systemic level. It might replace an old intellectual monopoly  with a new one, unless it supported a variety of monetary models. It might also establish a real business monopoly too, unless it was based on an open federation of services, like email;

local success: what you build doesn’t take over the world, but it does succeed on a local level. It helps that local community survive the coming transition, and serves as an example of community self-sufficiency;

good failure–communities learn new tools: the Netscape outcome. Your partial success invites more effective competition, that effects the change you set out to make. You don’t get to take over the world, but maybe your ideas do.

The other risk here is that the design space for currencies is much broader than the design space for browsers, so maybe your ideas take over, but maybe someone else’s ideas do. Maybe their ideas are better than yours, but maybe not. The best man does not always win;

good failure–career transition for you: the Marc Andreesen (founder of Netscape) outcome. For something big to happen, individual people have to take risks. Their expectations matter. So, even if you try and fail, you care about what happens to you. This is the individual version of the ‘good failure’ story above: what you build doesn’t quite work out, but it has a big influence. At the end of the process, you’re no longer just a coder (or whatever role you had before): you have changed the world and you have a new role in it;

bad failure: total fizzle. Your ideas don’t catch on, the transition happens, no lessons are learned, or the wrong lessons are learned. The new economic world has none of the tools you built. You must make your way in it with the rest of us, with the same resume you had before.

doing nothing

All this is predicated upon the belief that risks associated with establishing an alternative system are smaller than the risk of doing nothing. That’s a belief I do espouse. Of course the power elite might respond to the viral breakout of an alternative system with a heavy hand. But by the time such a system got on their radar, the idea of an agreement based, community-initiated system would have spread dramatically. So if (when) the shit hits the fan, they’ll have new tools in their back pocket. They’ll have an alternative to heading for a bunker in the countryside. They’ll have a civilized choice.

Doing nothing seems to me like the bigger risk. The current system is an intellectual monopoly, and it’s showing its flaws, and it seems to be producing catastrophes every few years, and they’re getting bigger as time goes on. Maybe utter collapse will come when Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in August. Maybe it will come when Greece or Portugal or Spain defaults. Maybe it will be the catastrophe after that.

Or maybe utter collapse isn’t coming at all. Maybe we’re just witnessing the acceleration of a system that produces catastrophes by its design. Maybe people need to just get tired of it and take matters into their own hands.

The most important thing is education: people need to understand that it’s possible. It’s possible for them to take charge of the way they account for the way they produce value. It’s possible, and here are some ways to do that.

The next thing is trust. They need to learn to be trustworthy to each other. They need to learn to rely on each other, and build a web of trust that doesn’t rely on some distant authority with its own problems. The bottom line is this: when people build trust together, they can build wealth together.

money hacking: my politics

This is the fourth article in a series. The previous ones are

So I feel uneasy about the near-to-middle term economic future. I feel like there are a lot of challenges we face as a society, and we’re going to have to go back and rethink a lot of things to get through.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. I do have political sensibilities behind this. They’re kind of… unusual.

There’s this dualism between liberalism and libertarian conservatism in American politics that I’m unsatisfied with. In economic liberalism, there’s a focus on human value, and an idea that human beings deserve support and care. Society should provide a baseline level, a ‘safety net,’ that keeps people from falling into destitution, and it does that by some amount of redistribution of wealth. In libertarian conservatism, there’s an idea that society has scarce resources that need to be managed, so historically, we defined an economic game to manage those resources. Those who play the game well deserve to keep their rewards. (Never mind that the game we chose was predicated on uninterrupted, infinite economic growth, and stands in mathematical contradiction to the scarcity conservatives are concerned with. But that’s certainly not the fault of today’s conservatives.)

Both of these ideas presume the game itself. They presume a game whose rules aren’t completely understood by most folks in the debate. Liberalism has some amount of redistribution around the edges, but it presumes the same game as libertarian conservatism.

And it fails both sides. From a liberal perspective, redistribution has not lifted generations out of poverty. And from the other side, there is enormous (and growing) human potential lying unfulfilled. I think the problem is not just the game itself, but that there is limited room for establishing new games with new rules, that might solve this problem and others in better ways.

The debate about socialism versus capitalism feels very twentieth century to me. I’m much more interested in exploring the new possibilities information technology opens for us. I hope the previous articles give you a sense of what I’m talking about.

I’m interested in thinkers like Kevin Kelly more than Karl Marx. Kelly’s ‘Out of Control’ [free download] was formative for me. I think it’s best to approach economics as a branch of systems theory. Liberal though I may be, I’m not a fan of centrally controlled systems. I’m interested in self-organizing systems, games, new ideas and abstractions applied to economics. I want to add degrees of freedom to our civilization’s operating system, and help people find new ways to create more justice and prosperity together. Thus, open architecture economics.

in knowledge is power; in wisdom, humility

If you ever get an email from me, you’ll notice a line at the bottom: ‘In knowledge is power; in wisdom, humility.’ These are serious watchwords for me. Initially, I put them there so that if I said anything arrogant in the body of the email, people would have something to call me on: I’m more sensitive to my hypocrisy than my arrogance.

But as an idea, it took root and spread into my thinking about a lot of things. The deepest way to make it relevant here is: understand the limits of your ideas. There’s very little in economics that is not subject to legitimate debate. That doesn’t necessarily mean split-the-difference is always the way to go.

It also says this to me: pursue approaches that are experimentation-friendly. Maybe your bright idea works well in your head, but when real human beings in the real world start trying to use it to rip each other off, it will be tested. Economic ideas need a laboratory where real people can try them out in the real world.

This, to me, is a big failing of globalism as it’s currently conceived: it forces a uniform economic architecture on the entire world. It creates an intellectual monoculture. And if it’s flawed or ill-adapted to changing conditions, that architecture doesn’t accommodate new systemic ideas well. It doesn’t compare well with, say, the Internet. A neutral Internet allows lots of sophisticated, powerful systems to be built upon it: email, the Web, Bittorrent, and so forth. It’s designed to support new architectures and systems, without imposing a lot of its own priorities.

techno-economics

I think technology and economics are two halves of the same thing. Together they bracket the operational capabilities of a society. Talking about economics without considering technology tends to lead you to miss revolutionary possibilities; building technologies without considering their economic dynamics  tends to lead to, well, unforseen economic dynamics. I suppose people in the music industry have an understanding of what I’m talking about.

And when new technologies emerge for economic mechanisms themselves, you have an intersection of powerful levers for social change. Any economic theory that doesn’t take that into account seems badly incomplete to me.

forced understanding

I think one problem with the current economic order is its lack of forced understanding. There are a lot of details that the casual user of money doesn’t have to understand to use it. By ‘forced understanding’ I mean you have to understand things in a complete way to make use of them. For example, in Greco’s you standard, you are hit over the head with these details: how does money enter and exit circulation? How do I make use of those mechanisms to produce wealth? This puts a premium on understandability, simplicity, and good user interface design.

But it also makes a distinction between ‘understandability’ and ‘dumbing-down.’ The current system is ‘dumbed down:’ you get money, and you spend it, and you don’t need to care how it was born into the system, or how it will die.

But you’re also left scrambling to get it from those who have it. Ulimately, you’re at the whim of those who control its production for the system. Your sense of its abundance or scarcity is a matter of luck more than mastery. You might be a master of some skill that is in demand, but you have no handle on where that demand ultimately comes from.

Widespread mastery of monetary operations at a societal level seems to me like a good thing. If there’s a way to make that knowledge more accessible and useful, we should pursue it.

the information age

The information age may feel like it’s in full swing. iPhones, mp3s, music and newspaper and movie and publishing industries collapsing and reshaping, capital zooming through computer networks… there’s been a lot of change the last few years.

I’m of the opinion that it’s still in its infancy.

The Information Age can be described in a lot of ways, but the relevant patterns here are: industrial capacities in individual hands, and  flexibility. So, desktop manufacturing is beginning to get exciting: your Reprap/Makerbot will be a manufacturing plant. People are beginning to grapple with how to make big tools more flexible and accessible. Your laptop is now a mixing board and recording studio (and a million other things), you can rent a some space on a server and get your own radio/tv station or spread your own crackpot ideas to the masses (I resemble that remark!) The industrial is personal.

That logic can apply to the way you account for the wealth you produce.There isn’t a reason to delegate that to Wall Street and Washington anymore. It can be democratized. The foundational framework is here. It’s now a design problem: how do we take the means to manage an economy and turn them inside out? How do we make them easy enough to use without diluting their power? How do we make them as easy as money is now? And how do we do so and enhance economic integrity?

the holographic economy

When everyone has industrial capacities at their fingertips, the economy will have a holographic structure. If you break a hologram, you’ll find you can see its entire image through each piece. Much like a hologram stores its entire image in every part of its structure, I think the economy of the future will replicate fundamental production capacities across its entire structure. Global trade may be unrestricted, but people will meet their needs by using capabilities close to home as much as possible, and exchanging and sharing capabilities globally.

This economy will be more responsive to changing environments and cultures. This economy will be more resilient, responding to catastrophes through distributed capabilities. This economy will exploit economies of flexibility rather than scale.

But a holographic economy needs a holographic system of accounting for its wealth, a holographic, highly adaptive monetary system. It can’t have a hypercentralized financial capitol (Wall Street) organizing its investment (and siphoning off  an ever larger share for itself). As fast as Wall Street operates, it isn’t close enough to the real action to respond to more than crude quantified signals.

And information technology operates like crack cocaine for Wall Street: it’s not helping. Systems like high-frequency trading cause problems faster than humans can respond. I think Wall Street is basically becoming an economy for machines and not people. It’s informational in its capabilities, but industrial in its pattern of ownership and operation.

I’m essentially advocating a human-scaled, human-paced, human-serving information age.

The next chapter: problems and pitfalls.

Obama's kool-aid hits the spot

I sat at work last night, thinking about what to do with my evening. I could go home, like most nights, and work on a little project I will share here at some point soon, or… Obama is in town.

I had voted for Obama that morning, and I’m excited about him, but the undertow of habit is strong in my mind. So I struggled with debate for a while. But I managed to get myself up, treated myself to a rare cab ride, and made my way to the Hyatt Regency.

And after an interminable wait, being shuffled from ballroom to ballroom, I stood with aching feet in that crowded room in the presence of the man. These are my thoughts:

First, I projected my hopes and fears onto the loose framework of his message, just like everyone else does. It’s sad, I know, but I can’t escape the feeling that a good cult of personality is exactly what this country needs right now.

The challenges that face this country, this world, are very large. The excesses of the last century have left us with a financial crisis and an environmental crisis at the same time. Both multi-trillion-dollar problems that will take decades to resolve, and more than a technocratic laundry list of ‘solutions for America.’ They will require the utter transformation of American society.

I don’t say that lightly. I expect to lose and gain jobs in that process, change careers. I expect to watch my friends struggle, and my parents struggle in retirement. This is going be a dark time, a test.

And it’s going to require all hands on deck. This is it, folks. The party’s gone on very long, and the bills are coming due. There will not necessarily be a nuclear war, though that may happen, and not necessarily famine or plague, though those may be entailed. This could make the Great Depression look like a walk in the park.

When I think about the times ahead for us, I imagine lifting a school bus over my head. That’s how hard it looks to me, what it’s going to demand from me personally, to get through the next few years. And I realize it will take that from more than me: it will take that from every American, and a lot of others besides.

This is the context in which I hear his words: yes, we can.

It’s going to require the depth of vision he demonstrated in his early opposition to the war.

It’s going to take his understanding that Islamic extremism is not the greatest challenge our country faces in the twenty-first century. It’s not even second.

It’s going to require a politics of hope, because the politics of fear could lead to the loss of liberty for this country, and the loss of the dynamicism we desperately need to get through to the other side of what we face.

So this is the substance of Obama: not the laundry list of policy proposals. Though the moral courage, integrity, and commitment to change are important. The depth of vision thing is central, his essential intelligence, and so are his leadership qualities.

FDR had a cult of personality. Abraham Lincoln might not have had one in the moment, but the nation came to understand his contribution after he died. They led us through our greatest trials, and it made a difference. They had something special. I think Obama does too. And I think it’s exactly what we need right now.

blowing Ann's cover

I admit it: I love the Yes Men. Comic brilliance.

And they have an ongoing project–and I think it’s their biggest–a deep-cover prank so brilliant, it blows my mind. I don’t say “it blows my mind” lightly: my mind is not easy to blow at this point. But when I finally figured this out, I had no other way to describe it.

I’m speaking, of course, of the career of Ann Coulter.

Doubts? Just to be clear, let’s review one of the Yes Men’s prank methodologies.

The Yes Men represent themselves as members of an establishment organization, perhaps not explicitly right-wing, but serving a right wing agenda: perhaps some Bush-aligned government office, perhaps a world trade group.

Make an appearance at an appropriate public event, usually a conference. They’ve made several news show appearances, on BBC and CNBC. Perhaps a trade conference, perhaps a Heritage Foundation meeting. Get the confidence of the audience.

Give a speech. Work up to some proposal or statement that is completely outlandish, but based on the premises of that organization. Package it in a presentable, acceptable way.

Conservative audiences have been fooled into accepting slavery, using “Justice Vouchers” to allow repressive regimes to trade for the right to abuse their citizens, or a scheme for rationalizing death for profit. Their hidden biases are exposed, and they are discredited.

Ann? Ann targets a different crowd. She’s less focused on issues around globalization and injustice, and more focused on exposing the hypocrisy and gullibility of many on the religious right. She targets cultural conservatives more than social conservatives.

But the approach is similar: rehabilitating Joe McCarthy? Calling John Edwards a faggot? Or this page of quotes? Or this gaffe? How can you take her seriously? The point is, some actually do. They don’t get the joke.

She’s been at it longer than the Yes Men have. But it’s clear she has been an inspiration. And what does it mean to be a Yes Man, really? After all, you too can be a Yes Man. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them collaborating more directly in some way soon.

Now, being as I’m fairly liberal, why would I blow poor Ann’s cover like this? Well, I don’t really think I am: she has a committed audience. They might not like what I’m saying, but they won’t believe it anyway.

On the other hand, there are others who think they oppose her, who also don’t get the joke. Fellow liberals who find her infuriating. I was one of them for a while. I figure there’s no harm in letting them in on the prank. It is pretty funny.

Further, though I’m generally liberal, I’m also honest, and there are conservatives I respect. Honest disagreement is an important part of my politics.

Most of the conservatives I respect find her more infuriating than liberals do. And while I may oppose them in certain contexts, there’s no reason to be cruel. Besides, I think she illuminates an important distinction within conservatism: people who have a commitment to authentic American values, and people who will fall for fascism the first time they get scared. Terrorism’s low-hanging fruit: people terrorized-waiting-to-happen. And I think it’s import to know where we all stand with regard to that.

So, Ann, I have to say: great work. Hilarious. Way to show those America-haters. Nudge, nudge,wink, wink.

a way out of Iraq

I think I’ve got an idea of how to extricate ourselves from Iraq. It might not be a good idea, but I think it’s better than Bush’s current plan:

First, draft orders for immediate and complete withdrawal, as fast as possible. If you gotta leave some equipment behind, so be it. Get them complete and initialed, to the point where a single presidential signature will start the process. Make it as few pages as possible, for the President to carry around. I’m calling this the sword of Solomon document;

Get all the regional powers together, everyone with an interest other than chaos. Exclude those who would profit by chaos. Their interests may conflict, but none of them will be happy with the hell-in-a-handbasket scenario. There are those who would be happy with that: don’t invite them. Include Syria, Iran, the Saudis, Turkey, Jordan, the Kuwaitis, and all the appropriate internal players: al-Maliki, al-Sistani, and so forth;

Threaten them with the document. “We are leaving. We can leave now, or we can leave later. The choice is yours. You have x number of weeks to make a deal. If at any point, I lose faith that you are going to come up with something that will be stable, lasting, and as just as we can manage for all concerned, including the Sunnis, I will sign this, and we will let you people deal with the mess.”

“We’ll work with you. We’ll provide support for peaceful directions. But we have to move in accordance with the patience of the American people, and we also have to do our best by all of the Iraqi people.

“And we have to deal with the realities of spheres of influence that will interact over time here. Better to be up-front and diplomatic now than shedding blood in the shadows for years to come.

“If partition is the direction of history, then so be it. Those who want a unified Iraq have to stand up for it, now. This is probably your last stand.”

It would require balls, and statesmanship–if the next president does have to sign the Sword document he/she will have to answer to the American people for $100/barrel oil. But you know, the president serving from 2008-2012 will probably be a one-termer anyway, so they might as well step up.

Liberty begins in the heart, not the law

Liberty begins in the heart, not the law. A mind clouded with fear cannot know it rights; it will not use them. A heart filled with hate will not respect them in others. So in these moments, when we are weak and thrown to hate and fear, we must return to that highest mind, the mind that gave us these rights inalienably, and our deepest heart, the heart that demands we respect them in others. By whatever name, we must reconnect with the universal source of dignity.

Only there do we find the strength to be free in difficult moments. Only there do we find a way to truly defy terrorism. And only from there can we truly defeat it.

The true guardians of liberty need more than guns and bombs. All human beings know hate and fear: true guardians of liberty know them, have them, but guard against their yoke.

In that mindfulness there is a gift. A liberation not only of will, but of spirit. And a liberation not only of spirit, but of mind. A wisdom and a sensibility emerges: is the building on fire? No? Then take a deep breath. Calm down and think. What’s the real threat here? How do we deal with it sensibly, rationally? How do we manage our minds to bring our best to the problem?

So look carefully at those who would lead you. Know that those who lead by fear are themselves led by it. They are not fit leaders of free people. They do not have what it takes to be free in times like these. They deserve your compassion, not your allegiance.

In every dictator, there is a scared little boy, too afraid to face respected equals; in every backslider in the cause of liberty, a panicked, overwhelmed individual, compromising when they know they shouldn’t. Fear puts these simple principles out of their grasp: it is as important to know when to trust as not to. A nation’s greatest power is the goodwill of its people. And while security is important, respect for human dignity and basic freedom is both the deepest foundation and highest expression of that spirit.

So when you choose your representatives in the coming election, ask yourselves this: what kind of civilization do they stand for? How deeply civilized are they? How well do they think when their civilized nature is tested? Do they fixate on barricades, or do they seek ways to leverage the best of our nature to make our world both safer and freer? Free people must demand no less.

the flag-burning amendment

Why is this a bad idea?

Here’s the thing: the flag stands for the country. The country stands for liberty. Which is more important, the symbol of the country, or the principle the country stands for? Is representing liberty more important than praciticing it?

It’s not such an important issue of itself. It’s important as a test of how people think. Do you care about symbols or principles, surfaces or depth?

This is why this news is upsetting. Not particularly surprising, but the rising vote count for this measure is a curious thing. I wonder why a senator would change their vote on this issue.