Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

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.

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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.
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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.

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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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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.

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On Religious Tolerance

When we are asked to “tolerate” the religious views of others, the assumption is that we harbor no religious views of our own or, at least, that such views do not lay claim to absolute truth.

In other words, calls for religious tolerance (and this includes the “freedom of religion” ensconced in our Bill of Rights) tacitly imply that all religions are equally valid, which is just another way of saying that no one religion is the true religion.

Of course, at least in the case of Christianity and Islam, such an insistence is baked into the religion itself. For this reason, asking Christians to be “tolerant” of (in the sense of neither criticizing, mocking nor lampooning) Islamic doctrine, or vice versa, is tantamount to asking them to disown (or at least relativize) their own creed.

That many believers are in fact willing to do so, thus accepting the relatively modern perspective that one’s religious beliefs are a matter of personal preference, rather than universal obligation, testifies to humanity’s willingness to favor social bonds over dogmatic, doctrinal fidelity. It also suggests that many people understand their religious identity to be as much an accident of birth as their native language or particular ethnicity.

That others are unwilling to do so and, in fact, ready to persecute and attack adherents of rival faiths or be martyred in the name of their own, strikes us as both hopelessly antiquated and, if seen as an act of principled, unwavering devotion, oddly heroic.

Which does not mean, however, that such “heroism” need be tolerated.

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Controlling Content

A friend of mine reminded me of a post that I wrote many years ago (five, by my reckoning) with which I no longer entirely agree.

The post was entitled, “Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now” and it’s main line of argument was that people should not try to control where their content appears on the web.

My reasoning was threefold. First, if people are citing your content, or, really, reproducing lengthy citations from it, on their site then (a) that may fall under the doctrine of “fair use” and (b) as long as they are attributing it to you and linking back to the original, that should be fine.

Second, I invoked John Perry Barlow and asserted that “giving it away” was the wave of the future and that companies should share content freely and focus on making money from inimitable products or services. As an illustration, I referred the Grateful Dead’s willingness to allow taping at their concerts while charging for attendance at said concerts.

Finally, I argued that, since every page on the web is literally one click away from any other page, the very notion of a “site” is questionable. That is, in a sense, the web is the site, so quibbling about where content appears (on this site or that site) misses something fundamental about how the web works (or, more accurately, how the very nature of the web calls into question the absolute location of any particular piece of content).

Dissenting from Myself

As I mentioned, I wrote the original piece a long time ago and my thoughts on copyright and control of content have in the interim shifted somewhat.

For example, a little over two years ago I started working for an online publisher and came to experience first hand what it’s like when someone scrapes your content and publishes it in it’s entirety to their site (and not always with proper attribution). Aside from blatant issues of copyright infringement, there is an actual business impact to this sort of thievery to the degree that the stealing site reaps the SEO reward of your content, on the one hand, but can also bring Google penalties down on your site for publishing “duplicate content.” (If any SEOs are reading this and I’m getting this wrong, please school me in the comments.)

My thoughts on digital copyright have also been influenced by Robert Levine’s book Free Ride, in which he convincingly argues that, rather than a question of free speech or freedom of information, the people calling most vocally for “freedom of content” are actually huge businesses (Google and Apple, among them) who sell services or products that benefit from unlimited access to content. If you can fill an iPod with music you downloaded illegally from the web, or use Google to find such music, the argument goes, then the content creator’s loss is the gain of Google and Apple.

Finally, I think that, underlying my argument, was the notion that “content is going to be stolen, so don’t build your business around ownership of content,” which is really more an expression of resigned acceptance than an actual argument.

All That’s Solid

We live in a world in which things that used to be concrete—books, records, movies, etc.—and relatively difficult to reproduce and distribute, now exist as configurations of electricity that can be replicated at will and accessed from anywhere. The obstinacy of matter that once offered some protection to works of imagination, intellect, technical proficiency and physical prowess, has evaporated.

We are in the midst of dealing with the repercussions of this technological turn of events and the end is not yet in sight. Organizations and individuals are experimenting with a variety of methods for tracking, tagging and getting paid for access to content, but there is no perfect solution yet that can prevent people from “taking” whatever content they like. In fact, these people can easily feel little guilt for doing so because, in the end, they aren’t “taking” anything at all; they are merely copying or reproducing, as I said, a “configuration of electricity.”

Should someone who has recorded a piece of music or written a book or produced a film be able to control access to their work? I believe that they should.

Can they now? Not entirely.

Will they be able to do so in the future? I am not certain and tend to think that, if the work can be copied and distributed electronically, then it will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, beyond their control.

Image from the Public Domain

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The Trouble with Capitalism

When I was a student, I was a communist sympathizer.

I say “sympathizer” because, while I was never a Communist Party member, I was sympathetic to the critique that capitalism was a system based on exploitation and that the ends of capital were pursued by national governments in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of colonialism and imperialism, to the detriment of people in the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere.

(Before you accuse me of being naive about the crimes of communist regimes from Stalin to Pol Pot, please read this post. Generally speaking, I believe that one party rule is a recipe for corruption, incompetence and, at worst, outright gangsterism. I am also opposed to “utopian” politics and, in fact, see utopian inclinations in every political ideology right, left and center.)

I was reminded of these sympathies this morning while reading the New York Times (noted running dog of imperialism and propaganda tool of the CIA).

Exploitation and Disenfranchisement

First I read that corporate profits, as a share of national income, are at their highest point since 1950, while personal income is at it’s lowest point since 1966.

As a way of explaining this state of affairs, the Times wrote:

With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers.

In other words, even though businesses are enjoying record profits, they are using unemployment as a hammer both to keep wages low and drive greater productivity from those “lucky” enough to have a job. If that isn’t a case of “exploitation,” I don’t know what is. (I believe that it also gives the lie to GOP contentions, dating back to the Reagan era, that policies which benefit business lead to lower unemployment and “benefit everybody.”) Read the rest of this entry »

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Narratives Over Numbers?

On the Sunday when the Patriots were due to play the Ravens in their conference championship game, I picked up the Sunday Globe and saw this story about Ray Lewis. When I read the following paragraph—

But in the years since, Lewis has been a tale of personal redemption and a case study for image rehabilitation. He has become an ambassador for the game, a mentor both in and outside of his locker room, and a motivational speaker with far-reaching appeal beyond his sport.

—I knew the Ravens were going to win that game.

The funny thing was that, going into it, I had taken for granted that the Pats would win. I don’t follow sports, so this was little more than gut-level regionalism.

But when I read about Ray Lewis’ path from infamy to the brink of glory, in this his final year in the game, I realized that the NFL wanted to push a redemption story and that this narrative would be more compelling than anything the Patriots could muster (except perhaps the chance for the rest of the country to indulge in some Schadenfreude and once more exult in their defeat).

Of course, the Ravens won.

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