Friday, August 10, 2007

I'm putting this in my blog because it got kind of long. It's the continuation of a thread on Will Shetterly's blog. The gist of it is that I said that while I agree with him that when you look at things in terms of racism, you fail to see the underlying problem, I don't agree with him that the underlying problem is "the rich."

I reacted pretty strongly to what Will said. He said something really nicely, and then when he was done saying that thing, he blamed it on "the rich." It occurred to me a bit later why that might have been. It really is the case that we are blinded to the real problems of the world by our perceptions of division. So we see race, instead of seeing the underlying problem, whatever you want to call it.

What I object to is the idea that there are some people who are trapped in this, and others who aren't. I know plenty of rich people, so maybe I have a different perspective on it. Rich people are just like you and me, only, frequently, more clueless.

They are more clueless for a number of reasons. First, their success. They think it's because they're smarter or better in some way than other people, but once you've actually met them, you can see that this is not so. Generally speaking, they aren't much different than anyone else. I think Trading Places really had it right, even though it was played for comedy. When rich people think they're smarter (not all of them do), it's because the decisions they've made in life have happened to work out well for them, or because they were more fortunate due to their dynasty, and therefore think that they are genetically superior.

In reality, their good fortune is the expression of a bell curve distribution, not prescience. In a bacterial culture, there will be spots where there are more nutrients than other spots. The bacteria who are in the spots with more nutrients will do well and live longer than the ones who are in the spots with fewer nutrients. There might even be some jockeying for position. But ultimately each individual's position is simply an expression of the underlying situation, and it would be silly to say that the bacteria in the nicer spots were meaningfully different than the bacteria in the worse spots.

It's a bit stark to compare humans to bacteria, but I do it because I think it illustrates the problem well. The bacteria don't know why they're fortunate or unfortunate. They didn't engineer it. And in order for them to do anything meaningful about the circumstances of the other bacteria, they have to completely transcend the usual bacteria way of doing things. They pretty much have to stop acting in terms of natural selection and competition. And they can't even just start being stupidly altruistic - that won't do it. Bacteria that can share resources and build resources without poisoning their environment are very different creatures than the bacteria we see now.

I'd like to be able to say that rich people are rich because of their hard work and honesty, or because they really worked smarter, or something like that. I know people who are very well off who got well off that way, not through nefarious means. But we all know of people who got rich by nefarious means too. So while you can find rich people who are hard working and trustworthy, I don't think it's reasonable to say that's why they're rich, any more than it's reasonable to say that rich people are all rich because they're crooks. There are rich crooks, and poor crooks. There are rich people who are honest and trustworthy, and there are honest and trustworthy people who work hard all their lives and never make it out of poverty, or actually work themselves *in* to poverty.

Rich people are like other people in another respect. Some are assholes. And some are really nice people. But what they aren't is prescient. So they are no more able to manipulate the world to make it more to their liking than you are. Sure, they can buy more stuff, and they can cause more harm. When they try to do good, they have more resources at their disposal, and when they succeed they can succeed brilliantly. And when they fail, they can fail spectacularly.

So they have more power in that sense. But look at Iraq. I honestly think Bush expected a good result from his actions there. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think so. The problem is that Bush has had so many stupid decisions accidentally go right in his life that he has a completely warped idea of his ability to effect change in the world. And that's why we're in a quagmire in Iraq.

Okay, I strayed a long way from racism, but my point is that this idea that there's a rich person's conspiracy to keep the poor folk down is just as wrong as the idea that there's a rich person's conspiracy to keep poor people divided by race. Sure, you can find people who work to make that kind of thing happen. But the reason that we're all down in the muck, screwing up so badly, is because we're *all* deluded about how things work. It's not that the poor are deluded and the rich are not, and are trying to keep it that way.

Why get upset about this? Because as long as we keep thinking "that other guy is the cause of my situation," we can never truly take responsibility for improving our own situation, and we can never allow anyone else to improve their own situation, nor truly help them to get what they need to do so.


Blogger Jym said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 9:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jym said...

=v= While I agree it's no good to paint "the rich" with such a broad brush, the dynamic that was alluded to exists. There are those whose wealth and power are derived in some part or in large part from exploiting others, and keeping those others divided into factions is a well-known strategy.

Racism has its roots in fear and ignorance, but institutionalized racism requires organization.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 9:59:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

My point is not that there are no crooks. It's simply that the problem isn't "the rich."

As for institutionalized racism, and your theory that counteracting it requires organization, if that's true, why do you participate in critical mass? Isn't critical mass about solving problems through disorganization? I hesitate to say anarchy because of the bomb libel ("bomb-throwing anarchist").

My dispute in this whole thing is that I don't see any way to get rid of the institution as long as you keep focusing on the institution. It's like any organism: when you try to kill it, it defends itself.

On the other hand, if you eliminate its ecosystem, it has to adapt or die. I think that if you want to solve the problem, the way to solve it is to eliminate its ecosystem, so that it's forced to change, not to try to force change on it directly.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 10:48:00 PM  

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