Author Archives: wortmanberg

On Privacy

Social norms are enforced partly by an understanding that one or more people may threaten society’s interests by exposing it to unacceptable risk. The nature of the risk need not be existential; it could be moral, legal, or cultural, or any other type of risk that does not include literal destruction but is believed to be dangerous or off-putting enough to require prevention. This understanding warrants supervision of the behavior of others for its conformity to social norms or expectations. Whether this supervision, or any judgments made when it is exercised, are justified in given circumstances is debatable. It is not debatable that it is justified in principle, because it is necessary for social self-preservation. At best, it protects society from harm; at worst, it enables public scolds, moralists, or political oppression.

Universal public attention to everything people do, however, even if it is justified, is constricting. They “who are in the highest places, and have the most power, have the least liberty, because they are the most observed”, said John Tillotson, a contemporary of David Hume, but one need not be in the highest places to suffer the liberty-diminishing effects of observation. The constriction is felt in any society, even in societies that do not explicitly privilege liberty as a value, because people are different in countless ways. They are individuals as well as members of a group. As such, they cannot justly be made to conform to social norms to the letter in every conceivable situation, or even in any substantial percentage of them.

Privacy exists because of this fundamental antagonism between society’s values and the people in it. Its job is to create a zone of freedom from social norms, where people may live independently of those norms without having to answer for it, even if it may sometimes tend to violate those norms. Privacy is a political compromise (small “p”), based on the only partially social nature of human beings, and the desirability of individual freedom. As Snowden said, privacy “is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”

But what Snowden omitted, and what privacy advocates rarely, if ever, say, is that this entitlement to determine who we are and who we want to be is originally anti-social. It starts out directly at odds with a society’s legitimate prerogative of ensuring a measure of conformity to social norms and expectations, even though privacy may later paradoxically be affirmed by that same society as valuable. Privacy is therefore implicitly a critique of social norms, since its existence, and its desirability, implies that such norms, while necessary, are not sufficient for life to be lived fully, or worse, can actively prevent people from living full lives. Privacy thus can only with difficulty be reconciled with even valid social interests, even though it also exists to protect people from invalid social interference, and even sometimes intervenes to protect social interests, as when a person is encouraged not to be naked in public.


On Love

Love fundamentally is a positive feeling of warmth, affection, and of depth of connection to another person(s), though its intensity varies, and it may also be commingled with other emotions or mental states, such as envy, admiration, glee, or sorrow. In the case of romantic love, love is particularly susceptible of intensified impressions through physical intimacy, not that physical intimacy will necessarily lead to such impressions (it might do the opposite). Love also precedes any and all social definitions, in no matter what society, of how it ought to be experienced, what should happen when it is present, such as “commitment”, and what types of relationships it should lead to, though society invariably will have its say on these questions. But love starts as and remains essentially a strong, affirmative feeling of connection. If love exists, it has at least this property. If love has supreme value, it is this property which confers it. But watch out: love, as Nietzsche claimed B. Constant said, is also “of all sentiments the most egoistic, and, as a consequence, when it is wounded, the least generous.”


R.I.P. Mr. Garner

That the question has been raised at all of whether the cop who choked Eric Garner to death will be prosecuted for it, further undermines the law’s credibility. As in countless cases of police abuse, in which society’s putative guardians act outrageously in violation of the principles that originally entitled them to be guardians, the issue introduces a double-standard like a specter: the police shall not be prosecuted though they be agents of the law and subject to it like everyone else. Prosecuting police for crimes they commit admits the principle that force does not rule and that the police can thus be wrong under rule that subordinates force and limits it only to what is necessary to protect previously agreed-upon codes of conduct embodied in law. Prosecution would diminish an unwritten understanding that the police, notwithstanding their technical subordination to law, are the ones who are really in charge, to whom complete submission is at all times required without exception, even when they abuse their authority, or act without it altogether. Therefore, prosecution of the police cannot be done.

Garner challenged police authority before he was killed. He was seen to do this on Youtube immediately before his death, and was reported to have been previously “combative” because the police had harassed him for petty offenses. Onlookers cannot be permitted to become emboldened similarly to question police authority because of the necessity of preserving the political balance of power that currently exists between the police and general public, and exists in any society that is ruled by force and is only theoretically constrained by law, i.e., the force that has real force at its disposal controls, or as the Haitian saying goes: constitutions are made of paper, bayonets are made of steel. There is a parallelism between the Garner homicide and when George W. Bush refused to agree with the Taliban after 9/11 to extradition proceedings to have Osama Bin Laden delivered to the United States. As Noam Chomsky observed at the time, if a mafia don seeks to collect a debt, he doesn’t get a court order, even if he could, because that would acknowledge the existence of a higher authority and there isn’t one.

Such unpleasant thoughts arise under the circumstances, as they inevitably will when guardians transgress, and it is often hard not to believe that the improper use of force by society’s guardians, and their getting away with it despite the formal limit of law, is an essential feature of all human societies. A paraphrase attributed to Solon or some other very ancient Greek personage says: laws are like spider’s webs. They catch the small insects but large things break through and escape.

It is important that the cop who murdered Garner, and any future cops who commit violent crimes while wearing their badges, be “held accountable to the fullest extent of the law” so that this conception is denied. Garner’s death, in all its violent injustice, presents an opportunity to publicly reject the de facto validity of the principle that the police, or the executive authorities in general, may freely rule by force. The cops, naturally, do not want this principle denied but affirmed, because it thereby preserves their privilege of using force, and the social power this confers, and they self-interestedly mistake respect for authority for submission.

But the prosecution will not happen, unless enough outrage is sustained over a sufficient period of time that it would be untenable for it not to happen, because it not happening would risk too much social instability. The 1992 Los Angeles riots come to mind, even though they happened after a trial took place. In the United States in 2014, this kind of effective public indignation is difficult to imagine, and it is uncertain whether the executive authorities themselves have become so radically unhinged that they would never consider, even if only for prudential reasons, sacrificing one of their own as a token gesture to maintain the appearance that they are restrained by rules. It is not inconceivable that they’d prefer to ignite the powder keg, since they must believe that they would prevail in any openly violent conflict with a general public that has lost its patience.


Gibberish for the New Totalitarianism, and Tributes to Various

The farwan woild compunction of grounds and there, impact. Clagning via consorts cum gumshoe woe, then sorting. Damask counts threem then, maully. Oer pillad wallberch whereafter, flumbing.


After the Anniversary

The much-anticipated 50th anniversary of the JFK Assassination is now gone. There are many reasons that one may adduce to explain why the occasion was marked with such predictable outpourings, but it is the fact that the truth of the assassination remains mysterious, the culpability of Lee Harvey Oswald as against that of the government still in question, which fundamentally accounts for the multitude of museum panel discussions, mass oral histories, gala remembrances, poets laureate and not intoning ad infinitum about idealism lost, and James Taylor lilting at the Kennedy Library.

It may be scary that the government, or one or more of its agencies or instrumentalities, might have been involved in the killing, but it is more unnerving not to be able to know this as a solid fact one way or the other, once and for all. The protracted irresolution around the Kennedy assassination, even at a time when the U.S. government has never more openly listed toward tyranny, announces to a society that it has been incapacitated from collectively uncovering an essential truth about itself, no matter how ugly, and about the world in which it is situated. In a putative democracy, this revelation induces tension, because its members feel they cannot be completely who they are.


So Long, Money Knuckles

Former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, before leaving office, sat for an extended exit interview with New York magazine. I read it because I wanted to hear the mayor’s own summation of his elongated tenure, the third part of which, if not other parts too, were arguably made possible by the virtually unlimited billions of dollars he personally commands.

One would not claim that Bloomberg’s personality was even close to the most offensive among the well-heeled in public view, but the plutocratic dyspepsia he displayed, the source of his wincing managerial lances, was tough-going. At no time, either during his interview or while in office, did he ever show that his outlook was not handicapped by the scotoma of privilege. This basic fact about Bloomberg’s conception of public life was on view in his oft-repeated refrain against unappreciative critics, who failed to understand that it was the rich who take care of us all by paying all those taxes.

All that wealth, which one must credit him to a degree for having earned (“I can outwork you,” he says – I believe it), yet the sum of all that occurred to him to do on so many important fronts amounted to reducing the public sector in terms of its scope and prestige. Teachers were remanded to “rubber rooms”, public schools were further compromised by an obsession with standardized tests, whereas real estate developers were untrammeled, their only major setback, no thanks to the mayor, a scuttled sports arena supposed to have been built in Manhattan, thankfully defeated. Justifiably, Bloomberg is widely seen as having purchased a third term against the will of the voters, based on the politician’s pet theory that the city required his continued service for its own good. His manner of evicting Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, denying protesters a march permit before the Iraq War, and creating a “Guantanamo on the Hudson” during the Republican National Convention in 2004, at which 1,806 people were mostly falsely arrested, were of a piece with his coarse support for the NYPD’s “stop and frisk,” Bloomberg’s statement of position on civil liberties par excellence.

With this record, Bloomberg’s mayoralty is instructive on the issue of money in politics. He provides reason to doubt the idea that if lobbying money were to disappear tomorrow, politicians who now take lobbying money would suddenly change their votes or legislative designs to advance interests that they had previously ignored or that the inflow of such money had previously obscured. Michael Bloomberg was more completely free from any conceivable effect of lobbying money than any elected official in U.S. history, yet on policy questions he was virtually indistinguishable from the contemporary mainstream of the Democratic Party, or “moderate” Republican Party, both lobbied to the hilt. Bloomberg provides an occasion to look at this issue again.

Bloomberg installed bike lanes and despised guns: even the skunk has a white stripe on its back. The skunk, the spirit animal of a chief executive who sprayed a blustery, moralizing ordure whenever his stinking paternalistic visions of efficiency and health were not properly embraced. Yet, no one could have really expected a skunk to lower its tail from its taut, vertical pose when under attack. The blasts and seeping emissions alike still waft, through the ghostly portals of that citrus bed of nails which once covered Central Park, a lavish $21 million private gesture of fellow fantastically privileged confreres, never to be amortized on the public cultural ledger because to some it might have looked comely. Today, the thought of its conch-shell formations of flapping sheets on clotheslines will only serve to divert rumination from the swan song attack of the 13th richest person in the world on the city’s allegedly biggest problem, public pensions, a ludicrous notion which his allegedly populist successor already seems to be embracing. One step closer to the powder keg we go, Money Knuckles, you symptom of the times.


Why Monogamy Can’t Commit to Polyamory

Polyamory, so-called ethical non-monogamy, is the practice of having more than one sexual or intimate relationship at the same time with the knowledge and consent of all persons involved. Over the past 20 years, polyamory has become an increasingly successful and assertive social movement, one result of dissatisfaction with monogamy’s long-standing insistence that sexual exclusiveness necessarily be linked to fidelity.

Polyamory directly challenges monogamy by seeking to relax the quintessential restriction that monogamy imposes on desire, i.e., sexual exclusiveness (abolition of which is every monogamist’s fantasy), and by rejecting monogamy’s claim of cultural supremacy or moral superiority because of its exclusiveness.

The gauntlet thus thrown down, or laid sweetly on the table, less traditionally-minded monogamists will react haltingly to polyamory, even if they like it. Monogamists envy polyamorists their freedom from sexual and emotional confinement to a single partner, because they have suffered from it, but they waver at all that this freedom may imply for the integrity of monogamous relationships, not least their own. They surmise that the spouse or significant other they have (or would like to have) could not possibly be as significant to them, not in the same way, if they “opened” their relationship, and vice-versa. They doubt that polyamory could distinguish itself from previous failed attempts at “free love.”

It is also believed that monogamy, whatever its flaws, has captured a depth of connection or commitment between people that is unique, even if “everyone” is doing it, and that it has a certain weight other relationships lack which should be preserved. Skepticism among monogamists arises at the thought of losing that uniqueness and weight toward generalized, less committed associations without preferences, the logical extremity of which is the meaningless promiscuity exemplified in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, its inchoate form on view in contemporary “hook-up” culture. The question, in short, “Polyamory sounds lovely, but will we risk what we have and want to keep (or would like to have and keep) which could be lost, for a new way that isn’t obviously superior?”, initially has no clear answer.

Polyamorists can answer these points proficiently; I, a monogamist, would never argue with them. Whatever their reservations may be, monogamists who would be open-minded, and honest about monogamy’s problems, particularly around sex, have a duty despite their hesitation not to interfere with the development of polyamorous norms, even though it may be attended by hooey (Have you heard the word “compersion“?).

There are exponents of polyamorist tendencies, however, buoyed along continuously of late by any number of questionable theoretical tracts, like Sex at Dawn, who, though they may claim to respect monogamy’s virtues in the abstract, move too quickly to dispense with monogamy altogether, because of its stark disagreement with what Bertrand Russell called the “generally polygamous instincts [of] uninhibited civilized people.” They are the inheritors of free love, and will be liable to its errors. But polyamory has distinguished itself as a whole in its consciousness of and respect for the tradition that it simultaneously severely critiques. I suspect that, for better or worse, polyamory will meet with more cultural success, but that the conflict between the two preferences, monogamy and polyamory, is hopelessly fraught and will never be resolved. Or polyamory will fail simply because it is too much work.