Sunday 8 November 2020

The law of diminishing utilitarianism

My fellow Americans,
yes, it's true I am an American. A US American. It's something of which I am neither proud, nor ashamed. It is what it is.
It's also true that as a so-called ex-patriot, a term loaded by the nations that wield worded weapons they dare declare diplomatic, and as a legal resident of another nation for two times the length legally set forth to claim the same national status of its own native born, I have had a choice that today transcends terms of five US American presidential election cycles. It's a choice I have not made.
It's a choice I only once considered. I contemplated it just long enough to become acquainted with the language, as legal as it is loaded, which states that, as a matter of my circumstance, it is required of one to renounce the national status of one nation to take on that of another. Nowhere in the public documents of the nation of my birth is there alternate terminology for the action required.  Renunciation.

The only exceptions to this requirement are, 1), the one you've most probably already heard of, laden with the legend of state sanctioned religion, the institution of holy matrimony, and, 2), another rather burdened with the duty assumed of official appointment, the ambassadorship. The former of these is followed with suspicion, the achievement of the latter, though not as official as you might think, must meet a much greater threshold.

If I were, for example, a professional entertainer of international renown, I might fulfill expectation enough to apply for dual nationality as an ambassador of both nations by the example of my profession. I hope it not crass of me here to note that, as such an example, I would more likely be a dual resident earning an income in the highest taxable bracket of both nations. We all know that it's a privilege to pay tax, particularly when you see its revenue regarded for the best things in life two times over.

Not once over the course of these five presidential terms have I considered the renunciation of citizenship of the United States of America to be something of value any more than a mere turning in a one passport for the acquisition of another. Contrast that practical attitude with the implications of renunciation, and I believe it renders the motive not only impractical but saddles it with suspicion.

I heard the President-elect last night declare with discernible pride that those 71 million voters who cast their lots with the tweeting President were not enemies. On the contrary, he implied, they were Americans. That is, more directly speaking, they are not our enemies, they are Americans. If you find it overly sensitive of me to take the allusion of ownership of the US American nationality to amount to a refuge from potential American hostility, I apologize. I mean you no harm.

Indeed, the vast majority of citizens around the world who witnessed this same language likely took it for the familiar framing for the familial. The implications were of reconciliation, not hostility. I, too, have that choice. That I would choose, in spite of my familiarity with this straightforward manner of speaking, to interpret between the lines could itself be construed as hostile.
So let me be clear: Like the President-elect last night, with this speech I bear no ill intent or hidden agenda. I only analyze the language with which I am familiar.
In conversation not long ago about how the increased degree of separation of personal familiarity is inversely related to the level of mourning at someone's death, it was agreed between a friend and myself that, yes, this conversation around the terms of just such a recent death, was a merciful distraction. The friend, however, was one degree closer to the person directly affected, a sibling who'd just lost a spouse. As a friend of this friend, I was just a friend of the suffering sibling.
I say here "directly affected" because we don't know how the spouse feels, having just died. Some say the dead are in a better place. Others insist, when it's over, it's over. Let us leave aside entirely for the moment the ones who entertain that eternal torture is not to be ruled out. Let's take it as a given that the most afflicted person would be the person with the closest relationship to the dearly departed.
I don't have to tell anyone with long enough life experience that the level of sadness will vary, this time corresponding directly with the level of love, to take an abstract measure of fondness, or the extent of loss of convenience, among the uncomfortably measurable things. And for many, another abstraction is the selfish discomfort one feels at the sadness of another in mourning, in that way of not knowing how to act, or what to do or say.
So my friend and I agreed that evening that the distraction, ironically in this case a meta-analysis of the very thing we were distracting ourselves from, was welcome. Indeed, it was a cathartic relief. That whole "talking about it" thing. I think it's like breathing. Letting things flow might be some kind of universal virtue.

I didn't dig any deeper to insist upon an honest appraisal of how emotionally affected had been my friend prior to the moment of agreement. Maybe my friend didn't really care for the spouse of the sibling. All I know is the emotionally troubled look on my friend's face prior to our conversation, a result of having just got off the telephone with the sibling suffering the loss. The emotional churning made visible by the troubled look could have been for the sibling alone. Apparently I knew just what to say, but I had it easy, being that I was face to face with a person one additional degree removed from the actual tragedy.
I can ask myself, as I might have asked myself then, do I really care? It's not an easy question to answer. This caring, again, is hard to put into concrete terms. It was a minor inconvenience at the beginning of our visit, albeit enough that I felt the need to find an out. Did my embarking on a discussion about the relative levels of concern amount to facing the issue head-on, or was it a craven cop out?
I certainly cannot say it was not an evasion, yet funnily enough I do so with the thought of what certain others I know might think about what I am saying now, as much as what I myself think about it. Is this seeing things through others' eyes an empathy of selfish convenience?
What is that thing that happens when thinking about someone else's sadness, someone you don't know even, by way of a depiction of a person that does not exist, that brings the well up from your gut and into your eyes? Is it hypothetical empathy?
I know these feelings in the moment of feeling them, and people who have known these momentary feelings do not need an explanation for them in that moment. Still, to describe them out of emotional context is a challenge and the only people I am aware of who endeavor to do so are journalists and politicians. If you ask me, no one uses hypothetical empathy for selfish gain any more than these.
I have no tried & true way to measure someone else's level of authentic concern for others outside their immediately cherished familiars, yet inside their sphere of influence. Assuming a state of wilful innocence, I ask how much selfish expedience is necessary for a functioning democracy, and to what extent is the same detrimental to its long-term continuation? And how much do I care?
Do I care any more than I do about the implications of the status of the paper that gets me across borders with relative ease compared to those who are treated with greater suspicion?
Assuming some degree of familiarity: If the pullers of strings for whom I've pulled strings deliver by way of whatever liberally idealized technocratic bureaucracy a collective compromise between my nation state's legal monopoly on violence and its corporate backers, whether or not the decision makers know full well that for the privileged of their dominion it's either a violence of pride, or inconvenient to think about, and the greed that, by the time it reaches their children, is rather more like an appliance they just can't do without, how can the resulting slave, or prisoner, or casualty on the other side of the abstract border between friends and enemies not receive it as the fascist marriage between violence and greed?
Whether they can define the source of their suffering in concrete terms or only feel the devastating personal emotion of its brutal reality is disturbingly similar to how many degrees of separation people of any nation happen to enjoy from the decision-making process they have chosen to represent them. To those who exalt the virtuous flow from the freedom of their ballot box, the results may not seem totalitarian in any sense, but it probably does to someone else.
There is a proverb wrought to poetry that begins "First they came for...". Ultimately it has been taken as a warning to look further afield for fascists, but it tends toward forever talk of what tomorrow might bring. Though it plays its part on the emotional level, its action is a functional one that states the following:
I know you don't care about that which you are not, but you will start to care once you find that that which you are is in desperate need of it.
Wrought here for my purposes, it would tell you that your friend's sibling's spouse is in dire straits. She lives in a country you've probably heard of but not been to. If you care enough to try to care, one of the larger donors of the person you voted for serves on the board of the company that advised the lobby for the president that appointed the general that ordered the massacre against your friend's sibling's spouse's trade union.
If a massacre in these terms is not familiar to you, imagine seals being clubbed for the manufacture of waistcoats worn in the boardroom. Not that the suit sporting the vest is a mustache twisting villain. There's a supply chain of distance between his sartorial style and the death that bequeaths it. Even if he does his own shopping, he probably wouldn't feel the tug of responsible consumerism any more than the person buying vegetarian sausage.
Now, that president, as far as you know, is not a brutal dictator, and has since distanced himself from the general's brutal undertaking, the result of a sequence of most regrettable decisions. He maintains, however, his original assertion that the union had engaged in illegal activity and its leader, your friend's sibling's spouse, sits charged with insurrection.
If, truly, by nature of coincidence you really were the friend of this person's sibling's spouse, it would likely startle you. If any of the other particulars happened, inconveniently, to be your uncle Joey, it'd complicate things. If you're one of the many anyone elses, you will have fallen asleep before you care. The ellipsis in the aforementioned proverb only meets the target of its message if the target can imagine itself somewhere along its other proverbial aspect — the slippery slope.
Like, even if you don't care that there is an industrial population of mink in Denmark that exceeds the population of Danes, you might start to care if it turned out that the dreaded COVID had infected the cramped animals by way of a prospective vaccine-immune mutation, that the mutation had jumped mink to a dozen known people, and that flights from Copenhagen continue unabated to the international airport nearest your formerly favorite cinema. If you feel a queasy déjà vu and hence a failure to learn from recent history, as recent as this year of hindsight, then you're not alone. Ignoring deadly inconvenience to the business of doing business is not just a game for tweeting presidents.
Do you care? Me either. Nor can I claim to care in any immediately emotional way for the drone victims of the Tuesdays of presidents past and present. And it would be inauthentic indeed to say that I truly care about someone fallen victim to a disease after mining the mineral needed to run the machine I use to type these words. Does my equation mean it should be natural for me to care more about victims of my own, forgive the term, fatherland, if they happen to be, you know, A-mer-i-can?
Now, the patently obvious nature of the police state at home in America, as if it hadn't been in the 1950s and 60s or any other era, the apparent incumbency of the tweeting president to taunt those who fear it, might be enough to call this fascism... once someone closer than random people on television are affected. Maybe a friend's sibling, more likely a sibling or a friend, most probably a spouse, and without a doubt yourself.
But a nation cannot be fascist unless enough people can agree on that language. Maybe its war department secondarily functions as such when the compromises of state meet the needs of its economy's largesse. But isn't that pretty much the way of the world?
History would seem to instruct us that the rhetoric must be in direct resonance with the brutality for a state as a whole to be fairly defined as fascist. The unencumbered rhetoric of the tweeting President seemed enough for many to consider the term, but still stop short of it. In the press it is couched more in terms of being a threat to democracy.
None of this speaks to the tendencies of a military machine that acts by expedient order of its civilian authority and all the way down through its chain of command, or the prevalent ideology of a police force with a lone blue uniform who shoots a guy eating his corn pops because he was in the kitchen of a known criminal, who wouldn't be a criminal if his activity had not been defined as such by his nation's legislature.
Arguably as many as 74 million Americans are feeling the freeing flow of a collective breath of relief. Many of those have taken to the streets in exaltation. Some of this is a manifestation of the relief. Some few are just relieved to be relieved of the regularity of the reporting on the tweets and couldn't care less about much else. For those clad in all manner of the red, white & blue and marked in a way to display the names, they were not just against the administration of the tweeting President, but for the administration of the President-elect. How connected they feel, and will feel, to the functioning of their future government depends on degrees of separation maintained by, and between the same and themselves.
In his speech last night, the President-elect spoke of unity, not separation. He will work in the interest of the voters of his opponent as well as his own. That'd be 146 and a half million at least, an American record. Reconciliation is the order of the day, but the language was explicit enough to recognize reference to the enmity generated by the tweeting President. One would be naive not to recognize that the record number of voters is due to an antagonistic symbiosis. There may be as many who see the incumbent as their exclusive advocate as there are those who apprehend him as a uniquely dangerous adversary to their there-to-fore way of life.
I don't care to engage in the pornography of fear that is reflexively delivered by the press. Anyway, as they too will ultimately explain of themselves, I'm sanguine as it relates to a peaceful transition of power known to me for more than just the past five presidential terms. While the tweets will tell of legal challenges and tales of illegal votes, a plurality of functionaries from across the earth have made it clear who is recognized as the lawfully elected leader of the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed free world.
As to the future of what we call democracy and how unified the people of the nations feel with the representatives placed above them, those they have chosen and those they have not, it is really a matter of how many degrees exist between the folks of the nations and those nations' functional compromises. Just how many degrees can there be between these functional states and slipping into the state devoid of redemption? What's the decisive point at which I should care? The answer "now" seems convenient enough. Yesterday's over, though if I care I could try to learn from it. How about tomorrow?