Thursday, December 15, 2016

Trial by Combat

Occasionally an old trial-by-combat law is found to remain on the books - but no one takes them seriously. Why not? Wouldn't head-to-head, armed combat be an efficient means to determine guilt and innocence?

If you don't believe in the efficacy of trial-by-combat in rendering justice then you obviously don't think that there is a god making sure that the good guys always win. You might even be accustomed to such phrases as, "only the good die young," and, "nice guys always finish last."

Why is it, then, that we so readily accept a trial-by-combat philosophy of history? We obviously have a bias to do so given that modern society is, in the broadest sense, the result of a series of war victories. If you are American then the American Revolution serves as evidence that an empire has no right to subjugate a colony. The American Civil war is easy - slavery is wrong from every angle. World War II? Hitler.

Obviously empires, slavery, and genocide are terrible things. Those that fight against them are heroes. A more detailed study of such conflicts, however, reveals that war typically isn't entered into for such simple, noble reasons. The path to war is usually very complicated and entails many compromises and whispered promises.

If all men were created equal then why were so many of them still held as slaves while rich landowners were liberated from foreign taxes? Was the American Civil war truly over slavery or were there also deeper economic motivations? As bad as Hitler was, why did the U.S. stay out of World War II until Hitler declared war on them?

Overall, those wars have been the easiest to rationalize; to reduce to a single, noble cause. Even if motivations were much more complicated, that doesn't make the simple, noble simplifications false - but it does reveal a bias that is used to colour our view of other conflicts.

Few laymen can even begin to layout the basics of The Spanish-American War or World War I. Then there is Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to consider. All sold on relatively simple White Hat/Black Hat stories. With bombs still falling in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more either dropped or still dropping on Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Somalia - Americans need to ask themselves if they believe in justice from trial-by-combat.

As Nazi SS officers looked at each other, hats decorated with a skull and cross-bones, some of them must have wondered, "Could we be the bad guys here?" A quick Google search of "CIA scandals" has to spawn the same question for many Americans.

American apologists typically point to the prosperity of their country as evidence that they really are the white-hats. Americans have won so many wars and been economically rewarded. Has America been economically rewarded for their efforts? By whom? A god that makes sure the good guys always win? If so, then you must believe in justice from trial-by-combat.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Cycle of Identity Politics

The term 'identity politics' has been thrown around a lot lately. It is a term that is often misunderstood and misused. Identity politics is a strategy of garnering the support of very specific, often marginalized, segments of the population: gays, blacks, creationists, or the disabled - for example. It seeks to coagulate support by seeking out strong affiliations.

One party might seek the support of racial minorities while another might seek the support of Christians. The voter must decide with which affiliation he or she most strongly identifies. For a fundamentalist-Christian African-American this can pose a paradox and the resolution typically lies in the degree to which the respective parties address the needs of the voter's respective identities.

Traditionally, political parties represent business (right) or labour (left). Labour is, and will always be, the largest demographic, so the right garners their vote by convincing them not to bite the hand that feeds them. Hard working labourers are told that reducing taxes on big business will result in more jobs - in better paying jobs. They are told that better work conditions will result in fewer work positions.

In recent decades, however, that sales-pitch became harder and harder to sell as big business flourished while labour stagnated. That is when the first big identity fissure was cracked open in the US with the courtship of fundamentalist Christians by the Republican Party. The electorate has since been fractured into a myriad of identity groups like a slab of peanut brittle.

Identity politics has given voice to ever more marginalized groups of people. This phenomenon can work for the greater good when it extends recognition and protections to such groups - thus reducing their disadvantage. It becomes problematic when it distracts from the plight of the base - the working class.

Both Republicans and Democrats have moved in leaps and bounds to the right - towards big business interests. While 51% of American workers now earn less than $28k per year, 30% of American workers earn less than half of that. The Republicans continue to warn them that if they demand more they will end up with less. The Democrats, on the other hand, tell them that everything is fine - rhetoric that rings hollow in the ears of a worker who is earning less than they did 20 years ago.

While the multi-fractured identity groups have been making gains, the biggest group (labour) has been coming up short. Donald Trump actually identified this - so it seems that even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while. While it seems to many that all he did was rage against marginalized groups, he would have never garnered such widespread support if that had been the entirety of his message. He correctly played the labour identity against marginalized identities. He spoke to the working class and told them that all their woes were to blame on the marginalized classes.

This left much of the electorate facing the same paradox as the fundamentalist-Christian African-American. With which group do you best identify? Which of your respective identities is being best addressed? If you were a Muslim earning a six-figure salary then Trump had nothing to offer you. If you were a Muslim earning less than $20k per year then you actually had to parse the situation carefully.

So, as much as one might support racial/gender/abilities equality, employment and wages remained a trump card. The two sides aren't mutually exclusive but by failing to address labour the Democrats made them exclusive. They told you that if you voted for the despot who promised you jobs then you were a racist, misogynist, xenophobic bigot. In not admitting to the working class that wages really have stagnated, they failed to connect with them.

Identity politics has cycled like a fractal projection. The smallest fissures are now visible as part of a macroscopic structure. It is now clear that all the marginalized groups are just outcroppings of labour. Regardless of how one identifies by race, sexuality, gender, or religion - at the end of the day we all need to put food on the table.