Monday, August 10, 2015

To Find a Solution First Identify the Problem

I've been thinking a lot about how to go about creating a more just & sane world.

Lots of folks are working in this capacity, and the people who aren't are wasting their time. I should know; I'm the king of time-wasters. In fact, I just quit 20 years of pay-the-bills jobs so I can stop wasting time and start making a difference in a bigger way. No idea how that's going to work out; stay tuned.


People are working in all kinds of ways to make the world a better place. Some of them are engaged in small-scale, local projects to help improve their city, their neighborhood, or maybe just their next-door neighbor. Peoples' "in" to social activism can be through criminal justice reform, or environmental reform, healthcare reform...when you start to examine our society so many areas seem ripe for major overhauls.

People lobby Congress, attend protests, and write letters to newspaper editors. "Clicktivism" is that branch of activism where you sign an online petition and consider your work done. Some people attend protests or candlelight vigils for the victims of injustice.

The "in" comes when you realize your small corner of the injustice world is not an isolated one. Environmental policy didn't just happen to be terrible. The financial system isn't stumbling happenstance into massive fraud, record profits and total immunity from prosecution. The healthcare system may suck for Americans but it's not some natural phenomenon, like tornadoes and earthquakes. The Drug War isn't a failed policy at all.

Injustice permeates the very fabric of society, when you really take a closer look. But on the subject of social justice activism, Thoreau called it:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.

As I have looked into various activist approaches one thing has begun to become clear. Every injustice you can name is simply a branch on a larger tree, a tree with rotten roots. Attempts to clean up the branches will never succeed so long as the roots are not clean and strong.

Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig's "in" was through copyright policy. [UPDATE 8/11/15: Lessig's running for president!] He argued a case before the Supreme Court for which he had an airtight winning strategy. Lay out the Framers' original intent and show how copyright law no longer applied to that intent and instead suppressed innovation. 

He lost the case, discovering in the process that the courts -- like every other major institution in the United States -- mostly support corporate hegemony over the rights and values of the citizens.

Realizing he couldn't win on the copyright issue, Lessig left copyright and Stanford behind and moved to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard to devote his life to exploring the broader issue of corruption in government. He founded Rootstrikers (which takes its name from the Thoreau quote above) specifically to address the root corruption at the core of our government, the rotten tree that prevents meaningful social justice from taking root.

Lessig seems to have become somewhat more radicalized following the suicide of his young confidante Aaron Swartz in early 2013. (Lessig has often claimed Swartz was as much his mentor as the other way around.) Swartz, a brilliant young activist and coder was facing decades in jail for a politically-motivated act of digital downloading, a charge that sounds ridiculous on its face but was clearly intended to chill his activism.

The term "Kafkaesque" is often used to describe a surreal bureaucracy incapable of reigning in its own faceless cruelty. But Kafka's beat wasn't surrealism; his description of bureaucracy was only slightly askew from the real bureaucracies of his day, which in turn functioned with exactly the same casual cruelty and oppression as those of today. The way the system destroyed Aaron Swartz wasn't at all surprising or unusual. The only thing notable about is is that it happened to a young man with a lot of very influential friends so his eventual suicide turned him into a worldwide martyr and shone some much needed light on the pervasive violence of our "justice" system.

What happened to Aaron Swartz happens daily to hundreds, thousands of people. Poor people, people of color (mostly both) are targeted for harassment and arrest and funneled through a criminal justice system that only occasionally lives up to its name. With just 5% of the world's population the U.S. has 25% of its prisoners. The same justice system that prosecutes murderers and rapists is also brought to bear against people engaging in consensual behavior the state has chosen to criminalize. People who have sex for money (without a camera present, at which point it's legal), people who buy, sell or use certain substances that aren't under the control of the pharmaceutical companies, people who gamble without using one of the large casinos as a middleman.

All these consensual crime laws are regularly violated by Americans across the spectrum, of course, but the criminal justice system is only generally a concern for lower-income violators, disproportionally those with what an old Jamaican pal used to call "my deep rich tan." So the full scale of the prison-industrial complex remains an abstraction to the relatively small percentage of Americans -- affluent & white -- who make policy, or who read about it in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

(To be continued...)

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