Thursday, April 13, 2006

Will finished his first draft, so I figure it's fair game to revisit the billionaire thread for a minute. It's with a bit of a sense of futility that I do this, for reasons that will quickly become apparent, if they aren't already obvious to you, my gentle reader.

The problem I want to talk about is the question of whether it makes sense to call someone who is a billionaire selfish. The reason I think this is an interesting question is that I think calling people unpleasant names is hurtful to one's self and one's acquaintences. So you should have a good reason for doing it. Why is it hurtful? Because thinking about unpleasant things is upsetting, detrimental to one's peace of mind. We have to think about unpleasant things - I'm not suggesting that we avoid doing so. But if we have to do so, I think it needs to be constructive, or else it's just needless pain.

So in one sense the question of whether billionaires are selfish is academic. If they feel selfish, and that feeling makes them unhappy, they should do something about it. If their existance is unpleasant to me, that's too bad - they have as much right to exist as I do. To the extent that they undertake to harm me, or others, in order to acquire their wealth, I have the right, if not the ability, to seek redress, but as long as they aren't undertaking to harm me, I really don't have any recourse. And if their existance is unpleasant to me in the abstract, that's my problem, not theirs.

So then we can narrow the topic to billionaires who do harmful things in order to become wealthy, or to remain wealthy. We can argue about what things are harmful, and what are not - there's even a case to be made that simply sitting on wealth is harmful, although I have to admit that I'm reluctant to go so far.

And now we come to the use of force. If you are a billionaire, you have a great deal of force at hand. If you want to fight a billionaire, and you aren't yourself a billionaire, you need to find a powerful ally. The usual ally we choose for battles like this is a government. But governments are fickle allies. Their job isn't really to champion our causes - it's to make sure that nobody gets too badly hurt, and that there's a certain dependability to transactions that occur between their citizens and other citizens of their own or other countries.

And here's where it gets sticky. When I try to enlist the government to fight people with a lot of power, those people can do a few things. They can attempt to fight back directly. They can attempt to subvert the government using bribes of various kinds. Or they can try to convince the people who hold the reins of power to side with them, not with me. In a democracy, this is easy. You buy ads.

To me, it looks like a fair amount of subversion is going on - you see sweetheart deals with various governments in power, where someone uses access they bought through campaign financing to get something of value - tax credits for "coal enrichment" that's really just spraying piles of coal with creosote before burning it, for example. Avoiding having to pay for external costs like the cost of the pollution caused by the product they sell to make their billions.

But what's most successful is going straight to the people, and this is what is really frightening. And this is what leads me to make the claim that calling a billionaire selfish isn't useful. The reason I say it's not useful is that name-calling is such an easy tactic. There's no depth to it. Anybody can do it. It works through plausible repetition. And that means that it works better for people with a lot of money than it does for people with no money.

Anything that truly addresses our social ills has to go a lot deeper than that. There has to be content. Constructive content. And the content has to have equanimity. It has to apply to everybody, not just to billionaires. And it has to come from the heart, from personal experience and practice.

It's been really depressing watching politics over the past, well, my whole life, I guess. There's so much name calling, and so little substance. So little actual speaking truth, to power or to each other. So very few Malcolm X's. So very few Gandhis.

When the people change the world, the way we change it is the way Gandhi did. The way Martin Luther King did. The way Stephen Biko did. The way Ken Saro-wiwa did. Satyagraha. Not speaking truth to power - just speaking truth to everybody, and having no fear of the obvious consequences of our words, if our words are just. Living a true internal life - a life consistent with the world in which we want to live. Being willing to have a gun pointed at us and fired, and not shoot back, if that is the best way to make the world a better place.

So why the feeling of futility about writing this? Well, the sixteen people who read my blog, if I dare be so optimistic, might agree with me, but what good does that do? And where is the stand for me to make? The only stand I even know how to make is to do my own practice, and behave as well as I can, and try to help the people around me in ways that I can, and try to avoid hurting them. Anything beyond that, any grand political plan, seems like so much sophistry.

So if I have any optimism for the future state of the world, and I do, it rests entirely on the hope that if I can effect real change in myself, I can be a part of the changing of the world, not by forcing anybody to do anything, but simply by infecting other people who know me with the spirit of change. If enough people quietly practice Satyagraha on their own, in the daily little stands that they make, where nobody gets hurt, but many smiles are smiled, then maybe there's some hope for the future.

8 Comments:

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

I wrote a rushed response. Blogger didn't want to post it. That's just as well. A thoughtful one will come sometime. Back to the second draft of the book!

Thursday, April 13, 2006 3:55:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Muahahahahahaha! My clever plan succeeded! :')

Thursday, April 13, 2006 4:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Stephen Jacob said...

There may be more than 16 people who read your blog. :) I read it via LiveJournal using a syndication of the RSS feed of your blog. That presumably doesn't show up on your list of friends/readers/whatever-blogspot-calls-it. :)

The LJ feed (I was the one who "syndicated" it, so blame me!) shows you as having "5 readers" on LJ. I'm not sure who other than me, but probably numnums. =)

There could well also be others reading your blog through RSS feeds using different services/clients.

Thursday, April 13, 2006 7:29:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

As noted on my blog, when I get to the subject, World On Fire may be mentioned.

Thursday, April 13, 2006 9:26:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Oh, man, you're wrecking my Google AdSense potential here, SJ. This is going to be costing me pennies every month when I finally get around to setting it up. I'm doomed, I tell you. Doomed.

But thanks for the cheery demographic note. At least I will have an audience for my descent into ad-revenue-based poverty.

Actually, I have no idea how to find out how many people are reading my blog from the Google end anyway. I know Will reads it occasionally, probably to make sure I don't say anything heinous behind his back, and Mark Miles reads it, and I get the occasional private flame from my dad, so I know he reads it. One of these days I should go see how the google statistics work, if there are any. In my copious free time, of course.

Thursday, April 13, 2006 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Do your worst, Will. I really didn't express myself here very well anyway. But I sure can ramble, can't I?

I'm thinking for my next trick I might just try writing some really bad fiction that doesn't try to make any philosophical points at all. Then if you comment you'll be giving me free advice - how bad can that be? :')

Thursday, April 13, 2006 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Ted, I'm prob'ly the worst person to give advice about blogs, but I have two principles: Don't try to find out how many people are reading you, and do whatever interests you. If that includes fiction, go for it!

Thursday, April 13, 2006 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Well, I succumbed to the urge to revise my writing. Three paragraphs instead of umpty-gazillion - a big improvement, I hope. But I'll get to that fiction thing any day now.

And by the way, given that I'm still reading your blog something like a year after discovering it, either I have no taste, or you are qualified to give advice about blogs. :')

Thursday, April 13, 2006 12:25:00 PM  

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