Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Some Thoughts on Power and Control

A friend of mine recently wrote that he was focused on “isolating and removing those elements in my life where others have power over me; financial, emotional, physical, mental, etc.”

I responded as follows:

It’s pretty much impossible to operate in this world without entering into power relations with others (unless you want to become a hermit, something that has sadly disappeared from the world). We live in a society in which mechanisms of power operate at every level.

That being said, it’s important to distinguish between situations in which people have power over you (which, unless you are in prison or the military or a religious order or a child, is fairly rare for people of a certain class living in non-authoritarian societies) and situations in which obligations are created between yourself and others.

Even situations of employment, to the extent that they are not abject servitude or outright slavery, involve elements of exchange — my time and skills for your money and the opportunity to participate in a project directed, more or less, by someone else — and obligation (I have committed to this, you have committed to that).

My assumption is that you are struggling not so much with questions of power but with questions of control. You don’t feel in control of your time, your resources, your relationships.

It’s probably worth thinking about that and why that might be. Along the way, you will have to come to terms not only with power, but also with weakness and vulnerability. All the gurus of success and strength and manifesting power don’t want to deal with this and, in fact, relegate weakness and vulnerability to a “victim mentality.”

I recommend, on the contrary, wondering why an ego feels threatened and out of control, and experimenting with what it might mean to be completely powerless, not in the sense of being a victim, but in the sense of being someone whose entire mission is to serve others.

Here’s something else to consider.

The other day I wrote on Twitter, “Everywhere I see more successful versions of myself.”

An acquaintance saw that and reached out to see if I was ok and how he might help me be more “successful.”

Along the way, he asked what “success” meant to me. I wrote: “…to have and maintain a sense of openness and equanimity towards others and the world.”

As you can see, this has nothing to do with “success” in terms of prestige, fame, or accomplishment.

That being said, it does have something to do with power, specifically, the power to understand myself and work with those habits, behaviors and attitudes that stand in the way of openness and equanimity.

Power, Simply

I believe there is no legitimate power or illegitimate power. There is only power.

If you view a particular instance of power as ‘illegitimate,” it’s probably because you are on the other side of it.

Even legitimate power—say, the power granted a rightfully elected president by a constitution—depends on the power, pure and simple, whose exercise made said constitution an arbiter of legitimacy in the first place.

For example, the conquest of the territory now referred to as the United States of America bestowed legitimacy on the constitution of these United States. The only thing that bestowed legitimacy on the conquest was the fact that it occurred.

Were the conquered able to reverse their fate, the result, however gratifying, would be a power no more or less legitimate.

Life Lessons

So, this morning, I was writing in my diary on the subway and I thought, “If I were to die, and someone found this book, what would I want them to know?”

  • There are always more options than you realize or are actively considering.
  • Giving is good.
  • The system obeys its own logic. It is not a human logic.
  • Our conscious perception of reality is a product of our nervous system. Ensuring that this product reflects the inputs as accurately as possible poses its own unique challenge. The other challenge is not always falling for this product and forgetting that we have conjured it forth.
  • There’s nothing wrong with lying, per se. There are no rules, strictly speaking, but telling the truth, as difficult as that can be (given, in part, the difficulty of knowing the truth with certainty), is often easier to live with. It can also, at times, be downright heroic.
  • You will be wrong about this and that. Admit it.
  • Everybody is on some trip, though not everyone consciously so. This trip is an archetypical paradigm, a “way of living” that may have been sketched out explicitly for us (in church or school or work), or inferentially in song and story. It could be a power trip, an ego trip, a rebel trip, a mother trip, a father trip, a blues trip, a business trip, a science trip, a slacker trip, whatever. Recognizing you own trip qua trip can be helpful as can recognizing the trips of others. However, our overblown sense of individuality and personal novelty makes it difficult to accept that we are on a trip (we can, in defensiveness, immerse ourselves, lose ourselves, in it), so pointing it out won’t exactly win you any brownie points.
  • Compassion towards others should be your default setting. Realize that they are on their trip or running their script, their programming, or simply living out their limitations, acting out, acting against something invisible, unconscious. And that they are doing so deliberately, as it may happen, as you yourself may be doing.
  • Trips run the game.
  • When somebody is coming at you, being rude and aggressive, it can be hard to remember that this is a trip they are on (it can be almost as difficult as realizing this is a trip you are on). You are going to feel like you need to defend yourself (in fact, you may actually need to), and you will want to respond with your own form of rude aggression. Choose another option.
  • Feelings change. Life is longer than you expect. It’s all over before you know it.
  • Be hard on yourself. Give yourself a break.
  • There are infinite, though not unlimited, ways of doing anything.

A Veteran’s Day Thought

We honor the men, and more recently women, who have given their lives in our nation’s wars. In some cases, we can even say, “without hesitation.”

We do not only honor the fallen. We honor all those who have risked their lives in service to their country. Sometimes they have done so valiantly against well-armed foes. Sometimes they have done so less valiantly against ill-equipped and poorly trained young men impressed into unwanted military duty. And, indeed, sometimes they have done so in the perpetration of acts that resulted in the deaths of innocents, the destruction of their property, the maiming of their bodies, the scarring of their minds.

Nevertheless, when someone has served, that service lends them an indisputable aura: “This person is special. They have done something special. They have done something selfless. They have sacrificed.”

Such feelings, such values, seem ancient, if not timeless. The violence in which they have been willing to indulge, the violence to which they have been willing to expose themselves, open themselves, bestows upon them a privilege. This privilege is, on the one hand, bestowed as an expression of gratitude. It says, “Your willingness to risk your life in defense of my life, our way of life, our country, is something to be admired, applauded, and, yes, rewarded.”

But the privilege enjoyed by service men and women also reflects a fear. Its bestowal also says, “Your willingness to enact deliberate violence against others (soldiers, partisans, their supporters, their families, etc.), frightens and intimidates me.”

Whenever a veteran or an active-duty service man (or woman) asserts their privileged status as a sign of authority or to lend moral weight to their particular viewpoint (which may or may not be shared by others in the service), an unspoken threat echoes along with their words. It says, “I’m a trained killer. I have shown myself willing to kill and indifferent to death. Bear this in mind.”

Which is another way for me to say that, although I opposed the draft and compulsory military service in my youth, the creation of an essentially private army, rather than a public one, means that the privilege of which I speak belongs to an ever smaller subset of society.

Better it would be, in my humble opinion, if such privilege were distributed equally throughout society reflecting a shared burden adopted willing by all citizens. In such a case, actual acts of valor would truly distinguish individuals, rather than the fact of having chosen, for whatever reason, to serve.

Death Undoes Us

It does.

Putting It Another Way: Music, Money, and Piracy

In a recent post, I talked about issues surrounding music piracy—i.e., the reproduction of music without the consent or compensation of the artist and other interested parties—in light of a column published by David Byrne in The Guardian.

In this post, I would like to put my views another way for, in the past, I fear I have too cavalierly dismissed lamentations over the rampant piracy of music.

Why should you be able to make money from musical recordings at all?

The ability to record and distribute or broadcast recordings of musical performances was until very recently in the many millennia of human music making impossible. Given the relatively brief span of its possibility, I often pondered why would anyone think that it would be forever possible, especially now that the ability to reproduce and distribute recordings has become ubiquitous and trivial.

The fact that you can magically copy musical recordings without altering their format (by, for example, going from vinyl to cassette or even cd) has changed the reality of what a recording is. It has gone from an artifact (record) to a formula, an infinitely reproducible mathematical model.

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It’s Just Not Natural

It always puzzles me when people dismiss homosexuality, or frankly, any particular human behavior, as “unnatural.” 

It puzzles me because people who hold this view are not thereby saying that homosexuality is physically impossible. Indeed, its physical possibility is a necessary pre-condition of its being either denounced or proscribed. But this then begs the question:

How can something that is physically possible be “unnatural”?

In other words, if a particular behavior can be observed in the natural world, we must admit of its “naturalness.” Since sexual interactions occur between members of the same sex in at least one species (ours), and possibly others, homosexuality is, ipso facto, natural.

So what is really going on when humans claim that a particular human behavior goes “against nature”?

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David Byrne, David Lowery, Creative Content and Money

I can’t remember when I first read David Lowery’s impassioned polemic directed at an NPR intern all the companies who profit from the exploitation of musicians and other creative artists, but I decided to revisit it after reading David Byrne’s more recent lamentations on streaming services and the sorry state of artist compensation in the modern age.

Byrne’s piece bothered me primarily due to this conclusion/claim:

…the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. Writers, for example, can’t rely on making money from live performances – what are they supposed to do? Write ad copy?

His argument boils down to this: Unless people can make a living creating art (or, more awkwardly producing “creative content”), then art will cease to exist.

Believing, as I do, that humans are creative by default (though that creative impulse may, sadly, be acculturated out of them over time), I found this claim preposterous.

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How the World Works

We all carry around with us an idea of how the world works. This idea isn’t necessarily super detailed, but it does lay down the general guidelines for what we deem possible in the world and what we deem impossible.

For example: I am an atheist. This means that I don’t believe it’s possible that a supernatural being may, from time to time, intervene in human affairs (in response to a petitioning with prayer, for example), if for no other reason than that I believe such beings to be, all interventions aside, impossible.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that no matter how sophisticated one’s notion of the world’s machinations, there is always something that one just doesn’t yet get or know about the world.

If we ever experience something like a revelation, then, what gives such revelation its jarring force is the way in which it reveals a fundamental and unsuspected truth about how the world works: that the imagined impossible is, astonishingly, possible.

And sometimes the realization of this possibility is nothing short of apocalyptic.

The Question of Zion, by Jacqueline Rose

The argument, in nuce:

  • The messianism at the heart of Zionism means that the fulfillment of the dream is also its apocalyptic end. Catastrophe and the culmination of a destiny, ordained from on high, fall together.
  • Zionist nationalism, which views itself as destined, represses its own contingency. In doing so, it negates any potential national claims of the indigenous people and brooks no dissent with regard to its legitimacy. To question the latter is to attack it.
  • The militarism that has become emblematic of the Israeli state is a response not so much to the suffering of the Holocaust but to the humiliation and shame associated with the Holocaust (and the pogroms that proceeded it). A strong and aggressive Zion is the only way to blot out this shame and undo the legacy of Jewish passivity and powerlessness. Survival becomes the overriding value of the state, justifying any means employed to ensure it.

Which is not to say that this book serves simply as a critique or dismissal of Zionism. Instead, we find something like an archaeology of it. Rose takes pains to find within the history of Zionism itself critiques of its messianism (Sholem), nationalism (Buber and Arendt) and its militarism (today’s refuseniks).

In the end, we’re left with a portrait of Zionism that is complicated, internally contested, utopian and tragic. As such it allows us to see how statements such as, “Zionism is racism” or, alternately, “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism,” freeze Zionism into one of its aspects and concomitantly erase all others.

It should also be noted that this book was published in 2007. Since then, of course, Israel has withdrawn from Gaza (with rather fraught consequences) but also continued to expand the settlements and, with Netanyahu once again Prime Minister, doubled-down (as far as I can tell) on the militarism Rose describes.