When conservatives attack: how to deal with political abuse

In the Twitter/blogo/Facebook-sphere, every now and then we come across an angry conservative who dishes out not just every fallacious propaganda technique in the book, having been well schooled through years of watching Fox News, but flat-out insults.

It can be very hard, if not impossible, to resist the impulse to engage with them. Adrenaline is fired into our system; we feel compelled to defend ourselves. If you don’t engage, sometimes they take that as a victory and trumpet that you’re “running from the truth.” If you do engage, they twist your argument around Bill O’Reilly style and pronounce a victory anyway. You lose either way. So what’s the best course to take?

When I was phone-banking for Obama, the staff advised us to just move on if we find ourselves on the line with a conservative: that our energy was better spent on lukewarm supporters or people on the fence. However, this was during the crunch-time of a campaign; is there no hope of changing people over the long term?

To me, the question isn’t about the possibility of change or not. I see nothing wrong, for instance, in a healthy debate with a William F. Buckley-like pen pal, even if both of you walk away unchanged. You may come away with a greater understanding of both his and your own arguments, or at the very least, it might just be an entertaining, challenging exchange.

But when the other person comes out swinging, it’s a different issue. There’s no good reason to subject yourself to abuse. It will only hurt. There is no way to change this person—either their political views or their behavior, no matter how patient or ingenius you are. From what I can tell, these types seem to be prime candidates for a borderline personality disorder diagnosis due to their lack of sympathy and manipulativeness, and any medical professional will tell you that the only way to deal with these people to get the fuck away. Block them immediately and don’t give into the temptation to lay into them—thus becoming one of them and getting locked in an eternal battle that you will never win.

One could argue that engaging them is not for their sake, but for that of your audience, who may include those who are on the fence and whom you could win over. I guess you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether slim chance is worth the mental and emotional wreckage. To me, it’s not.

More likely, the main reason you feel tempted to engage them, even at the risk of emotional fall-out, is the “political junkie” effect:  reward circuits in the brain that are activated when making political counter-arguments “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’” Undergoing a great amount of pain in order to get one’s fix sounds an awful lot like those rats in that experiment who crossed highly electrified panels to hit the button that induced pleasure in their brains. Don’t be like those rats. It isn’t worth it. It’s a bunch of sturm und drang without effecting any actual political change.

It may hurt to “lose” by fleeing the argument, but you haven’t lost at all, of course. If the feeling of having “lost” persists, see it as a lesson in humility. “Give” them the win. You’ll find you haven’t lost anything in doing so. You may even feel a bit generous.

If you keep hearing their invectives echoing in your head and maybe even start to believe them (a classic sign of having encountered someone with borderline), think of yourself as a psychiatrist with a mental patient who can’t help their vicious outbursts. Just as a psychiatrist wouldn’t take seriously any of the harangues directed at them by their patients, you have no need to take any of those from your encounter seriously.

And lastly, pray for them. You don’t have to believe in god for this; in Buddhism, it’s called metta meditation, whereby you just stir up feelings of loving-kindness in yourself towards that person. And I don’t mean that you should pray for them to “see the light;” pray for their well-being. They’re human just like you, with susceptibility to illness, death, and all sorts of struggles. After all, they’re probably in the 99%, too. They’re sick and need help (the fact that people with those disorders are some of the least likely to seek treatment, and when they do, it’s rarely effective is besides the point). These people spend much of their lives consumed in anger, and anger is painful; have compassion for their being continually caught up in that turmoil. Humanize them, in counter to their having demonized you. It may be difficult at first, but you should soon find that it acts as a soothing antidote to the adrenaline that the exchange has sent coursing through you.

You will now have the time and energy to get to more important and effective activist work.

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It could happen to you: why we must stop indefinite detention

Last Saturday, two accounts from former Guantanamo detainees came out in the New York Times, one after five years, the other seven. They are horrifying stories, in which these two innocent men are detained for little reason, interrogated, beaten and tortured.

Although Obama banned waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques shortly after he assumed office in 2009, not only has indefinite detention remained in force for non-citizens—Obama signed its extension to American citizens into law. (I agree that the law should apply equally to citizens and non-citizens—God didn’t grant more “God-given rights” to Americans than to everyone else—but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.)

Although I feel that compassion alone should be enough for us to act against indefinite detention (and it is for some, as evinced in the many protests against Guantanamo over the years), unfortunately, it’s clearly not typically strong enough a motivator for most people, or Guantanamo would have been closed long ago. It’s only human; we’re wired to act primarily in our own best interests. We may feel that what’s happening in Guantanamo is unfortunate, but we’re not going to take a day off work to go to a protest against it or call our representatives; that would be boring/pointless/a pain in the ass. Others actually support indefinite detention (and even “enhanced interrogation”) as an unfortunate necessity in the war against terrorism. As disparate as the ideals of these two camps are, they have something in common: they are not taking seriously the real possibility that it could happen to them.

“No, no,” you might think. “I’m not even close to being suspected of being a terrorist. I’m white, after all, and an upstanding pillar of the community.”

John Walker Lindh was white. So was Timothy McVeigh. Racial profiling is, of course, going on in terrorist investigations, but don’t think that just because you’re white, you get a free pass.

Moreover, the definition of terrorism is expanding. Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the label of “terrorism” was expanded not just to animal activists who blow up laboratories, but even to those who merely sneak into places to videotape abused animals.

“So this is just a concern for crazy, tree-hugging lefties, then,” you say. “I would never be in an animal rights group, so what do I care?” Well, how easy would it be to expand this to pro-life groups? They’ve blown up abortion clinics before; what’s to stop the government from calling any non-violent civil disobedience they may participate in terrorism, too? The AETA sets a dangerous precedent: now the government can declare your group a terrorist organization (or, even if they don’t use that exact word, to apply the same laws to you). Why would we want to leave the system open to that possibility?

“But I’m completely politically apathetic!” you say. “I’m sure I’ll never be involved in any political organization!” Well, that’s another problem entirely. Moreover, as the accounts from the former Guantanamo prisoners make clear, it takes precious little to arouse their suspicion, so even you are not safe.

Is this fear-mongering? In a way, yes, but only to the extent one would engage in while negotiating a contract. You don’t draft a contract with the assumption that the other party will always do right by you. You have to take into account every possible way they could screw you over and make all the necessary precautions. The making of laws is no different. The risk of not doing so—such as your losing years of your life for absolutely no reason—is too great.

What might the necessary precautions be in this case? Maybe we need to call for the elimination of the entire Suspension Clause (which allows the writ of habeas corpus to be suspended “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”). Or maybe we just need stricter definitions of all the terms of the Suspension Clause so that Congress cannot take advantage of it by saying that the threat of terrorism is never-ending, thereby putting habeas corpus itself into indefinite detainment.

Unfortunately, even a threat to oneself is often not enough to motivate people into action against it. That is, after all, why many people don’t save for retirement or prepare for natural disasters (or fight climate change). It’s another unfortunate quirk of human nature; we’re primarily wired to “live in the moment.” The whole “frog in slowly heated water” or “First they came for the Jews, but I did nothing” thing has become so familiar it’s practically lost all meaning.

However, luckily, we also have a certain amount of logic to supplement or, in some cases, counter our natural drives, and we have the laws and retirement funds to prove it. We must take action—and I don’t mean signing an internet petition; I mean calling your representatives or protesting in the streets—to give the prisoners of Guantanamo a fair trial, reverse NDAA and AETA and even write new legislation to ensure that such things can never happen again.

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The ethics of grocery shopping; or, why I went to the Occupy Los Angeles General Assembly

TL; DR: I got so frustrated over trying to decide whether I should go to Ralphs or my local coop that I went to the Occupy LA General Assembly instead.

I spent half an hour debating with myself over whether I should buy groceries at Ralphs or the Santa Monica Coop. It’s much more complicated than it sounds; each one has moral and tangible implications, and if you want to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” these implications are important.

I literally wrote out the pros and cons. I know, I sound like a ludicrous tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal Rush Limbaugh and his ilk make fun of. But if compassion and long-term thinking makes you a ludicrous, tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal, then SIGN ME UP.

What it came down to was that what I wanted—decent labor conditions and no insane executive salaries—was the longest drive away and the most expensive. I don’t begrudge paying more for good labor conditions and organic and fair-trade products: if all I did was cater to my bottom line with absolutely no consideration of other factors, I’d be no better than CEOs and shareholders who do the same. But the more I spend on my own groceries, the less I have to spend on charity (my god, I’m starting to sound like a parody of myself), and the idea of spending more than I have to on groceries just smacks of over-privilege to me.

Ralphs employees are in a union, but that apparently hasn’t helped them get pay and treatment comparable to those at, say, Trader Joe’s. (I know these websites aren’t exactly scientific surveys, and you might say, hey, Ralph’s’s average rating is labeled “OK”, so to get a basis of comparison, I checked out Starbucks’ average since I worked there for about a year. Starbucks’s rating is 3.5 out of 5, while Ralph’s is 2.6. I thought, my god, if working at Starbucks was hell on earth, what is it like working at Ralphs??

I was unable to find corresponding labor info on the Coop online, but it’s at least a consumer-owned cooperative rather than a mega-corporation whose CEO is raking in over $10 million a year, like Ralph’s.

I could have driven the extra miles to the coop, but that would have meant burning fossil fuels, which causes multiple problems we’re already very familiar with. I could have taken the bus, but that would have meant like an hour-long slog—each way—just to go to the grocery store.

A capitalist would argue that my desire to simply walk to Ralphs is a perfect example of the triumph of the free market: as relatively inexpensive and the most convenient choice, of course I  want to shop there. But the fact that its CEO is making millions off the beleaguered backs of his minions—regardless of how much that may benefit his customers—is not a triumph. It’s a travesty. In a dirty fight, of course the biggest cheater wins.

As I debated and debated the wisest course in this conundrum, it finally occurred to me that I shouldn’t have this problem in the first place. Good labor conditions should be ubiquitous; I shouldn’t have to debate over whether I should encourage the subjugation of my fellow human beings to low pay and cruel management or contribute to the destruction of our planet.

I realized that I really had no choice. Each choice was bad. The only logical course of action was to fight for a world where one of my alternatives was actually good.

So I didn’t go shopping. I went to the GA.

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Why I joined the Socialist Party

Who wouldn't? I mean, look at those guys. (NOTE: I do not advocate totalitarianism. I just really love that picture.)

TL; DR: Occupy Wall Street + NDAA = I join the Socialist Party.

I’d had an affinity for socialist ideas for years, but since that already put me on the left wing of the Democrats, I didn’t see any point in figuring out whether I truly was a socialist by definition. What was the point? The Democrats and Republicans were locked in a fierce, eternal battle, with the Democrats often losing, much to the detriment of our country. All I could hope to do was fight for the Democrats in the attempt to heave America ever so slightly to the left.

You could argue that my change of heart on the matter is all thanks to Occupy Wall Street. The website for Occupy Los Angeles (my local occupation) had a reading list that included Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I’d been meaning to read, and so I finally did. If you’ve read it, you know that Zinn is quite critical of the two parties, holding that they are both controlled by major corporate interests, like two brands run by the same company, without truly representing the will of the people. He even equates “bipartisan” efforts to the single state of totalitarian governments.

At the same time, the National Defense Authorization Act was going through congress, and all three of my representatives—all Democrats I’d voted for—voted for it in spite of the provision that allowed the indefinite detainment of American citizens, and Obama, whom I’d also voted for, had called off his threat to veto it. Now, I’m not even particularly obsessed with habeas corpus and due process the way I am with labor issues and poverty. But maybe it was the very fact that I’ve taken those rights for granted all my life that the idea of stripping them away (no matter how “legal” according to the Constitution) was unthinkable.

I reasoned that I could not, in good conscience, vote for anyone who voted for the NDAA, no matter what amendments they promised to work towards to ameliorate the offending provisions, and even if it meant risking that a Republican would take their place. Throwing not only my vote but my time, energy and money behind them (as I did during the Obama campaign) no longer made any sense.

‘But if I don’t vote Democrat, I’ll just be wasting my vote and the Republicans will win!’ my conscience cried. This is, indeed, a serious concern, which is why I’ve long thought that we desperately need instant run-off voting (IRV). The fact that it hasn’t been implemented it in even one federal election in spite of how incredibly simple, fair and rational it is is, to me, a frightening testament to the stranglehold the two major parties (i.e. the plutocrats) have on the system. Of course they haven’t implemented IRV; that would mean allowing the competition to become a legitimate threat to their control.

But doesn’t that then mean that I should continue to support the Democrats until we have IRV? No. Firstly, there’s the usual folk wisdom in support of voting for third parties: the odds that you’ll be the one deciding vote in a major election is basically nil; it’s not a wasted vote since it shows how many people don’t support the two major parties, etc. But more convincingly, imo, Howard Zinn asserts—and he has tons of historical examples to back it up—that real change comes not from the ballot box but from direct action by citizens. If this is true, then you may as well vote according to your conscience and devote most of your energy towards non-electoral activism.

I decided that I would no longer allow myself to be bullied into voting a particular way because otherwise the “bad guys” would win. Just as the Republicans held funding for social programs hostage in exchange for extending tax cuts for the wealthy, so does the Democratic Party hold a quantum of justice and equality hostage in exchange for voting them into office.

At the same time, I’d been reading up on the mechanisms involved in social organizing, and one article mentioned that the first important step in a movement is defining what your goals are (anarchists may note that this is exactly what a leader does first, and thus what every individual has the responsibility to do instead of just following the crowd as I had done for so many years). And so I realized that it was time to figure out what I thought the best possible society would be and to decide once and for all whether I really was a socialist.

Although I knew for sure that a strong welfare state would be great (as amply proven by Sweden, Norway, et al), all the examples we have thus far of countries that have attempted socialist or Communist systems have, unfortunately, turned into totalitarian governments. At the time, I had not yet encountered anarcho-socialism, but I did check out Looking Backward, a socialist utopian novel, which, instead of merely showing how super-duper amazing a socialist world would be, gets into the nitty-gritty of how it could actually work. I reread the Communist Manifesto, which I hadn’t revisited since the ninth grade, when I hadn’t yet worked a day of my life. It resonated with me much more strongly this time around.

Throughout my reading, it was as if I was going down a checklist on what I agreed with, and my mind just kept going check, check, check. Lest you might say, well, of course you agreed with these glowing, sugar-coated portraits of socialism, I’ve read glowing, sugar-coated portraits of libertarianism, too, and they did not quite meet with the same warm welcome. Atlas Shrugged made me fit to be tied; I found it practically a handbook on how to be a sociopath.

Some things you read lock into your mind, make you recognize what you suspected all along, which you know to be true. And there are other things that just make your bullshit detector go off immediately. Everything I read on socialism made me feel the former rather than the latter.

Moreover, I found the Socialist Party’s history in America, most active in the 1910s, worthy of being proud of, especially in the writings of Upton Sinclair and the formation of the unions, and I wanted to be a part of it. It had been a glorious surge of populism that was cruelly dismantled by the corporatocracy, including the distractions of World Wars I and II and the deliberate inculcation in the public an irrational fear of socialists, or, in other words, the fear of their own power and rights.

In admitting to myself that I was indeed a socialist, and that I would go public with it, I felt what I can only describe as what I imagine it feels like to come out of the closet: a sense of relief and honesty as well as fear of not being accepted. However, the response so far has been surprisingly positive: one of my friends was horrified only because I wouldn’t be voting for Obama, but immediately rationalized, “Well, he’ll win California anyway.” My sister was actually glad I was no longer in the Democratic Party, which I was surprised by, and she mentioned that she’s an independent, which I didn’t even know. A friend of mine “liked” the announcement of my new party affiliation on Facebook. I know that sounds ridiculously petty; I wouldn’t mention it except for the fact that she’s a corporate attorney whom I had no idea would be supportive of it.

But these are close friends and family, and due to the strong stigma against socialism and the threat it bears against the powers that be, part of me is afraid that there might be tangible repercussions from my membership. Who knows, if the wrong person at work (where many people, especially those in high places, of course, are conservative) finds out, I could find myself out of a job. However, if that’s indeed the case—if there’s that little de facto freedom of speech in this country—then that’s all the more reason to be a member of the party.

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