New Podcast Episode: East Bay Hike with Plutarch, June 11th, 2017

Title page of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579, first edition

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

I’ve been planning to read the whole of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans for some time. I’ve also been longing for a really good stretch of the legs, especially after this last week of office work and a Saturday selling off more of my belongings in preparation for my move to Scotland. (Sorting and selling off most of the artifacts of my life and of my twenty-plus years of small business ownership has been a tedious process. If the ashes would turn into dollars to fund my education and travel, I’d gladly set it all on fire at this point and be done with it.)

It occurred to me yesterday that I could do both my hiking and my reading on my free day tomorrow! So I downloaded Lives from LibriVox onto my little portable audio player and plotted a good long Bay Area Ridge Trail hike similar to one I did two years ago…

Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

East Bay Hike with Plutarch, June 11th, 2017

Title page of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579, first edition

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

I’ve been planning to read the whole of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans for some time. I’ve also been longing for a really good stretch of the legs, especially after this last week of office work and a Saturday selling off more of my belongings in preparation for my move to Scotland. (Sorting and selling off most of the artifacts of my life and of my twenty-plus years of small business ownership has been a tedious process. If the ashes would turn into dollars to fund my education and travel, I’d gladly set it all on fire at this point and be done with it.)

It occurred to me yesterday that I could do both my hiking and my reading on my free day tomorrow! So I downloaded Lives from LibriVox onto my little portable audio player and plotted a good long Bay Area Ridge Trail hike similar to one I did two years ago. This time, my start in Anthony Chabot Regional Park would be from Lake Chabot Golf Course on the lower east end of the park since I can get there more easily without my car than to other trailheads down there. The hike is about 28 miles long, with about 4,200 feet of climbing and about the same descending all told, and goes from Oakland north to San Pablo. The hike goes through 8 regional parks and nature preserves: Anthony Chabot Regional Park, Redwood Regional Park, Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Siesta Valley Recreation Area, Tilden Regional Park, Tilden Nature Area, and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. I’ll hike through winding creek canyons, oak forests, redwood forests, eucalyptus groves, an ancient volcanic site, and chaparral.

This morning, I walk north and east from Lake Chabot Golf Course shortly after seven thirty, then enter Chabot Regional at the end of Grass Valley Road in south Oakland, near the San Leandro and Castro Valley borders. I take Jackson Grade east and down to Brandon Trail, where I turn left just before the sweet little stone bridge that crosses Grass Valley Creek. I head north along the east bank of the creek.

Stone Bridge over Grass Valley Creek, at Jackson Grade and Brandon Trail, Anthony Chabot Regional Park, Oakland

Plutarch’s first story tells of Theseus, founder of Athens, who rampaged around Ancient Greece like the personification of Dante’s nine circles of hell, punishing wrongdoers by inflicting on them the same species of violence they’d wreaked on others. He was quite bloodthirsty in his righteousness, slaying men and animals alike in the goriest ways possible, parading their carcasses around as warnings to the would-be wicked. But hey, all in the name of justice and glory, right? After all, according to the honor code of Theseus’ culture, a man was nothing until he’d proved himself by feats of courage, usually involving slaying an enemy. But in pitting his strength only against those who harmed and oppressed others, Theseus can be thought of as a sort of combination of Robin Hood and Dexter, the fictional serial killer/forensic scientist who directs his blood lust only against other serial killers he’s proven guilty by means of his science. But like Dexter, Theseus’ life of exploits didn’t end well, though for very different reasons. As well as a brave one, Theseus was a vainglorious and randy man, and his reputation as a hero was undermined over time by his increasing rapaciousness, concupiscence, and mistreatment of women, especially by the abduction and rape of Helen of Troy.

Looking back at Macdonald Trail, across Grass Valley Creek, from Big Bear Staging Area, where I cross Redwood Road to enter Redwood Regional Park

It’s a beautiful morning here in Chabot, sunny and a little cool. The blustering winds of yesterday have given way to occasional gentle breezes. The poppies are still closed. The cottontails hop across the trail: they emerge in the cool of the morning and the early evening and are as plentiful as, well, rabbits. Tall thistles are in bloom, and wild mustard, and lupine, and tall dandelions, and a flower that looks like Queen Anne’s lace, and sweet-smelling cones of pale pink flowers on a species of tree I can’t name. There’s a plentiful grass tipped with seed pods that arrange themselves in structures that look like rattlesnake tails, bending the stems over with their weight.

My itchy eyes and runny nose tell me I forgot to take my allergy medicine this morning in my haste to start early. It’ll be a sneezy, watery day as well as an educational one for my head.

Entering Redwood Regional Park across Redwood Road from Big Bear Staging Area of Anthony Chabot Regional Park

I cross Redwood Road and Grass Valley Creek by a little bridge into Redwood Regional Park. As I cross the bridge, Plutarch has begun to tell the life of his second hero, Romulus, founder of Rome and for whom it was named, and some stories of his twin brother Remus. Plutarch introduces this account with a long series of summaries of alternate foundation tales from popular lore. He assigns various levels of credibility to each since each story appears more fantastic than the one before, but still includes them so as to remain faithful to the pledge he makes at the beginning of his Lives to be as historically accurate as possible. But I think he settles on this Romulus story because it fits with his chosen literary construction, and not so much because it’s any less implausible. Plutarch is aware of the latter, so he seeks to gain the confidence of his readers with the admonition ‘we should not be incredulous when we see what a poet fortune sometimes is.’ As you likely guessed already, Plutarch alternates his accounts of great Greeks and Romans in pairs, chosen because they play corollary roles in the history and mythology of each culture. Theseus was the storied founder of Athens, Romulus of Rome.

Commemorative marker on Golden Spike Trail running north along Grass Valley Creek, Redwood Regional Park

Romulus and Remus, for one of many possible reasons of court intrigue that Plutarch offers in explanation, were cast out as babies from their royal family, set afloat in a trough on the river like the biblical Moses, and left to the mercies of the rushing water and the wild animals, their flesh to become food for the birds. Instead, they were suckled by a wolf and fed by birds, especially woodpeckers, made sacred to the Romans by this kind act. The twins grew strong, bold, and handsome, conquerors of men and lovers of women. Now grown men, they overthrew one usurping and unjust tyrant, and instead of taking control themselves, they handed the city over to the rightful ruler. The only power they chose to wield was over a city they would found themselves.

A little later on in the story, I’m struck by Plutarch’s justification of the legendary rape of the Sabine women by the newly made Romans, a story immortalized countless times in art over the centuries. The commoners who left home to follow Romulus and Remus, out of admiration for their courage and just dealings, after a time sought to populate their new city by abducting women from the neighboring Sabine people. Plutarch shrugs his shoulders and writes, well, this violent act of mass rape and coerced marriage wasn’t really an act of barbarity or cruelty, but rather of necessity, since there weren’t enough women around actually consenting to marry them. And anyway, once the men had raped and impregnated and wed them, they were nice to the ladies thereafter. Yikes. As James Brown would observe, that was a man’s world, and the first Roman men of legend agreed, in the worst possible fashion, that it ain’t nothin’ without a woman or a girl.

The Abduction of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin, 1634–1635, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via W.C.

And besides, Plutarch continues in his attempts at exoneration, the budding new city openly offered sanctuary to all escaped slaves, to fugitives from the law, and to all other unhappy and dispossessed people willing to become members of the new society they were building from scratch. It’s interesting that Rome, which Plutarch praises as the pinnacle of justice, order, and noble accomplishment, is, as he tells it, also the product of abductors, rapists, and violent criminals as well as of enterprising seekers of liberty and a better life.

Redwood Bowl in Redwood Regional Park, a welcome water stop and bathroom break

Plutarch also tells of a certain philosopher and mathematician assigned many centuries later to fix the date of Romulus’ birth, based on accounts of an eclipse that occurred around that time and on other events in his life ‘just as solutions of geometrical problems are derived.’ Plutarch goes on to consider the validity of the idea that the lives of human beings could similarly be described and even predicted so long as the astrologer had all of the relevant celestial information about the positions of the heavenly bodies. Plutarch describes the controversy over that theory in terms not entirely dissimilar to naturalist determinists and their ideological opponents today.

Panoramic view of Redwood Regional Park from West Ridge Trail

Following Plutarch’s account of a later attack of the Sabines on Rome, since the former didn’t take kindly to the earlier predations of the latter, and the subsequent betrayal of the city to its enemies, Plutarch makes another interesting observation. Julius Caesar once said that he loved treachery but hated traitors, just as all people hate and despise providers of things they need but are ashamed of needing. Plutarch offers these quotes and incidents as emblematic of the ways of the world. And we’ve seen this sort of this countless times through history following Plutarch. Christians of Europe, for hundreds of years, justified their persecutions of the Jews partly on account of usury. The objects of their hate were making a living providing the very loans the Christians relied on to build their wealth, but when it became more expedient to rob and kill their creditors from time to time, all bets were off. Slaveholders of the American South similarly despised and persecuted the very people who made their wealth and comfort possible, justifying their oppression on account of supposed inferiority as they quashed any attempt by their slaves to better themselves through education and work on their own behalf. And so on, and so on…

Amy and a stand of Matilija poppies at Skyline Gate of Redwood Regional Park. Two parks down, six to go!

Tiny pink buds seem to float among the starry leaves along Skyline Trail in lush Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve

After a good long climb, West Ridge Trail curves around to the right to become East Ridge Trail; after a short walk along this trail, I turn left at the Bay Area Ridge Trail, leaving Redwood Regional via the connector path, and crossing Pinehurst Rd., I enter beautiful Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve.

Skyline Trail, which winds through beautiful and lush Huckleberry, and which runs along Round Top Creek through much of Sibley Volcanic, the next park, is thickly lined with poison oak, in some places hard to avoid. The rainy winter and spring caused them to flourish, but I walk in trepidation. I had to pick my way with special care on Golden Spike Trail in Redwood, since that trail is very, very narrow, almost overgrown in places. The wildflowers that grow plentifully in spring, such as hound’s tongue, blue-eyed grass, and California buttercups, are nearly gone. Now, there’s lots of sticky monkey flower, Ithuriel’s Spear, blue dicks, mule ears, and many other flowers, as well as those I named earlier.

Plutarch wraps up this part of his Lives with a reflection on the sudden and unexplained death of Romulus and the deaths of other heroes and kings under similarly suspicious circumstances. He takes this opportunity to share his beliefs about death and the soul, and quotes the ancient philosopher Heraclitus: ‘A dry soul is best’. This quote is oftentimes interpreted as a comment on the immorality of drinking, but Plutarch interprets it as being about a soul burdened by its connection to a fleshly body, full of blood and fluids associated with the basest of needs and desires and with illness: saliva, semen, urine, phlegm, and so on. He believes that souls are defiled so long as they remain arrayed in flesh, and become pure and holy only when completely divorced from the body. Plutarch goes on to say that he believes all great and virtuous men, purified of flesh, go on to become immortal heroes, then demigods, then gods. In his ideas about the purity of souls, the corruptions of the flesh, and that at least some human beings have the potential to become gods eventually, Plutarch is in agreement with the Christians in some ways, and with the Mormons in others.

Panoramic view looking over Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, from an outlook above the steepest part of the climb out of the creek canyon

Lycurgus, illustration from William C. Morey’s Outlines of Greek History, Chicago, American Book Company, 1903

Then comes the story of Lycurgus the Lawgiver, the legendary Greek king who instituted the rigid militarist social system that remains emblematic of ancient Sparta to this day. Plutarch tells how a preceding king, Eurytion, had relaxed the severity of his monarchic rule in order to win the favor of his people. But the people, over time, ‘grew bold’ and rose up against attempts by subsequent rulers to strengthen their own power. Earlier, in his reflections on the comparative merits and demerits in the characters of Theseus and Romulus, he praised Theseus’ preference for increasingly democratic rule over Romulus’ evolution (or, devolution) into tyranny. Plutarch attributes excesses in favor of democracy to a generous and kindly spirit, and excesses of tyranny to pride and selfishness. Yet when he opens his story of Lycurgus with the destabilization of society following increased democratization, he seems to contradict himself when he earlier associates virtue with democracy and vices with tyranny, until we remember that in the first case, he’s speaking of the characters of individuals, and in the second case, he’s pointing out that democracy is not always the best answer for society at large. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would sympathize with Plutarch here, while Thomas Jefferson would side with the people. I think Jefferson would point out, as he does following the pandemonium following the first French Revolution, that excesses are bound to happen in any struggle against tyranny. As they settle into their newly won liberty, however, people’s better natures, which predominate in the souls of all free and educated people, have the opportunity and the desire to create a just and happy society.

When Lycurgus took power, however, he perceived a society that had become ‘effeminate’ (negative term in those days), weak, selfish, and corrupt through addiction to sensual pleasures and the small-souled desire to amass personal wealth. So Lycurgus set out to re-craft his Sparta into an ideal society. One of his first reforms was the redistribution of land. He observed that most of the land was held by a few, leaving much of it undeveloped and unfarmed, while many more people were poor and unemployed. He convinced the landowners, as Plutarch tells it, to give up some of their land, which he thus distributed evenly among the citizens. He then instituted more practices designed to reduce useless luxury, overeating, and other forms of excess which caused both poor health in the individual and envy between individuals. In fact, he convinced his subjects to perceive the appearance of wealth as a defect, something to be abhorred as a sign of petty, self-indulgent weakness. Lycurgus’ system of social engineering, instituted by both persuasion and force, was not entirely welcome to the Spartans, but Plutarch heartily approves.

Looking back on shady Skyline Trail in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, which runs along Round Top Creek

Looking back on Sibley’s volcanic formations rising above the trees, from Fish Ranch Road. Please excuse the shadow in the corner, I didn’t notice the cover on my tablet had been knocked askew in my backpack, slightly obscuring the camera lens.

Skyline Bay Area Ridge Trail crossing on Fish Ranch Road, looking north at Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Intensely blue starry flowers along Bay Area Ridge Trail through Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Yet Spartan society, so rigidly designed by Lycurgus according to his ideas about virtue and utility, was not egalitarian in the sense that we’d understand the term.  It was an intensely aristocratic society centered around a warrior elite, with an equality enforced only among that class. Wives were obtained by force, children were removed from the care of their parents at the will of the state, and deformed and sickly babies were put out to die of exposure. And as Plutarch so casually mentions, all of this equality of the ‘best’ in society, crafted by both positive and negative eugenics practices, and their strict training in virtue, sport, and war, was made possible by the slave labor of the subjugated helots. Plutarch does not seem the least distressed by this; in fact, he seems to accept this as a most natural state of affairs. He does regret that the helots were often treated harshly, even murderously, by their Spartan enslavers, but he insists that this institutional cruelty came only after Lycurgus’ rule by subsequent kings of lesser moral character.

Plutarch tells us next about Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. Numa was a was held in high regard by the people because he was humble, contemplative, lived simply, scorned money-making, and spent his time in study and in service to his people. After the death of Romulus, he was widely accepted as the best candidate to succeed to the throne, endorsed by Romans and Sabines alike. The original Romans and the Sabines, who had cohabited Rome in an uneasy, fractured peace, wanted a ruler who would deal as justly with one group as another. The senators who had taken over the government didn’t have the trust of the people: many believed they were corrupt and that they had, in fact, assassinated Romulus. So they decided to elect a king to keep watch over the Senate and to lead the inhabitants of Rome as one united people.

Hillside covered with sticky monkey flower in Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Beautifully patterned redwood stump near the meeting of Siesta Valley Recreation Area and Tilden Regional Park

So at 40 years old, having lived an already long life of virtue, Numa settled with reluctance, feigned or not, onto the throne. According to Numa, wielding power was not his dream: he preferred a life of mostly solitary contemplation. Plutarch, however, rather seems to describe the actions of a man secretly rejoicing in the power offered to him while coyly disguising his satisfaction. In any case, Numa was a philosophical man who believed strongly in social justice and had some earlier experience as an adjudicator. So he immediately got to work. He banished the huge retinue of servants the Romulus had gathered around him in his tyrannical old age. He instituted many reforms to gain the trust of the people and to promote peace, especially between the Sabines and the original Romans. The factional and ethnic conflict that had long plagued Rome threatened its stability and made it vulnerable to attack. So he found one inventive and one practical way to solve these problems: involuntary social mixing and censorship. He assigned individual members of differing groups to shared trades that would force interaction and cooperation that otherwise wouldn’t happen, and he forbade any references to belonging to particular cultural or ethnic groups. From now on, decreed Numa, all of his subjects were simply Roman.

I’m reminded here of a very interesting article I read about Singapore a couple of years ago, a nation which addressed a similar problem in a similar way. Singapore is a densely populated, tiny island country made up largely of immigrant workers and their descendants, of very diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Singapore maintains its relatively low level of interracial and interreligious conflict by assigning ethnic and religious quotas to all neighborhoods. By forcing its citizens to live, work, go to school, shop, and in every other way share their public lives by people of diverse backgrounds, Singapore hopes that everyone will be so accustomed to diversity that they’ll accept it as a matter of course. Or, even better, a matter of pride and celebration. I suspect that Singapore’s two Prime Ministers may have read Plutarch’s Lives.

Panoramic view facing east from Seaview Trail, Tilden Regional Park, with Briones Reservoir and Mt Diablo

San Francisco, Treasure Island, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, and the Bay as seen looking west from the Seaview Trail in Tilden Regional Park

Statuette of a running girl, Spartan, about 520 BCE, British Museum. Note her bare breast, short skirt, and saucily exposed thigh. I think Lycurgus would secretly like this sculpture very much

Plutarch admires both Lycurgus and Numa. Like Lycurgus, Numa instituted his vision of a virtuous society through strict social regulation. They both believed it was the government’s job to protect the people from enemies within as well as without. Therefore, both instituted strict behavior codes for citizens as well as ways to promote peace and defend their people from military attack. Plutarch, who values virtue over liberty, generally approves of their social engineering systems but has a few problems with both as well.

For example, he’s shocked by Spartan women mingling freely with young men in public, wearing short tunics that left their thighs visible, permitted by the Lycurgian code. Plutarch seems sympathetic to or at least intellectually satisfied with Lycurgus’ theories about the power of sex to unite sympathies and strengthen social bonds. But Plutarch really dwells quite a bit on the topic of publicly bared Spartan female thighs with so much delighted horror that methinks he doth protest too much. Plutarch doesn’t, however, seem to pass judgment on the sexual practices of Spartans, which include lover- and spouse-sharing, homosexual sex and erotic play, child lovers, and coercive sex, all of which have been mostly censured and banned by law and religion since Plutarch’s time.

He approves of Numa’s restrictions on women, such as banning them from appearing and speaking in public, and of the policy of marrying them off very, very young so their husbands can instill complete obedience in them as they grow up. Yet Plutarch criticizes some of Numa’s policies when it comes to punishing crimes against women, finding them merely arbitrary in some cases and not punitive enough in others. He believes Numa could have done more to protect women’s virtue in this area. In matters of gender and sexuality generally, it’s not sexual practices that provoke Plutarch’s moralizing, as it was for so many governments and religions succeeding him throughout the centuries. He seems bothered only by practices which run contrary to his own conception of the primary feminine virtues, which, according to Plutarch and Numa, are modesty and obedience.

Wildcat Canyon, panoramic view from the entrance to the park from Tilden Nature Area looking northeast

As I enter Wildcat Canyon Regional Park from Tilden Nature Area, Plutarch has recently introduced me to the ancient Athenian lawmaker, poet, and ruler Solon. I’ve heard of him, but remember little. I’m about 23 miles in with another five or so to go. My feet have been very sore for the last five miles already and I’m limping. But I’m happy, and in a dreamy, almost hypnotized state at times from my regular, ceaseless footfalls. I discovered it’s no good to stop: as soon as I let my feet rest, the blood rushes into them and then it’s more painful to start again than it was to keep them a little numbed by constant use. Besides, I need to meet my ride home, and I’m behind time since I had paused so often to take pictures and slowed down so many times to tap out my reading notes.

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, view looking northwest from Nimitz Way

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, looking northwest along San Pablo Ridge Trail

I forget my feet for awhile as the wind picks up. This is usually the case on the ridge trails in Wildcat Canyon. I’ve been in winds so strong up here they suck the saliva right out of your mouth and whip it onto your face. Keeping your mouth closed doesn’t save you from this indignity, however, because the winds perform the same action on your nose. Yuck. It’s not quite so windy this time, but I can see rain in the distance, and know I may not be dry at the end of this hike. The sky, land, and water are spectacular from up here, at this time of day, in this weather. I pull on a lightweight wool sweater and this, with my shorts, keeps me perfectly comfortable temperature-wise. The wind is swaying the golden grasses like a wavy sea, and they’re glowing and shimmering in the varied light. The sky is blue, white, silver, and steel gray, and gauzy curtains in the same shade indicate scattered rainfall. After quite a time on long, level Nimitz Way, I take San Pablo Ridge and Belgum Trails, curvy and hilly, exciting in their winding, rising and falling changeability but hard on my weary knees on the downhills. I think the shoes I wore on my last hike like this were better.

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, panoramic view with San Pablo Bay, Richmond, and Mt. Tamalpais in the distance (‘Mt. Tam’ to us locals) from the San Pablo Ridge Trail

Among many other things (I’m tired, and my attention is waxing and waning), Plutarch tells of Solon’s meeting with Croesus, and my ears perk up. I remember this story as told by Herodotus. Croesus (as in the saying ‘rich as Croesus’), receives Solon ostensibly as an honored guest, but really as a potential propaganda tool. He wants to impress Solon so that Solon will spread the word about the great riches, power, and glory he’s beheld in Croesus’ court. But Solon, like Plutarch’s other most admired heroes thus far, is unimpressed by such vulgar shows of wealth. The harder Croesus tries, the less Solon is impressed. Instead, he foretells the doom that such wealth is liable to bring Croesus. And sure enough, it attracts the notice of King Cyrus of Persia, who sweeps in with his army and takes all that nice gold and treasure by force. As he is about to execute Croesus, Cyrus’ attention is caught by Cyrus’ lament that he had not heeded Solon’s wisdom. Cyrus decides to spare Croesus’ life when he observes that Croesus has grown wise in turn. It doesn’t do to execute wise men so long as you are strong enough to benefit from their wisdom while keeping them in their place.

For the last mile or so, I hike in a light rain. It feels good. Then about 7 o’clock, I read my destination: Alvarado Staging Area of Wildcat Canyon near the northwest end of the park. I borrow a kind stranger’s cell phone, since mine is malfunctioning, and check on my ride, my always supportive and patient sister Therese. She’ll arrive shortly. I shelter under an oak tree, take off my shoes and socks (oh, sweet relief!) and watch the drops fall from a partly sunny sky. A young girl emerges from her house down the street and places herself in the rainfall in surprise and delight; we watch the water steam off the asphalt that, until a few moments ago, was warmed by the sun. My sister and her boyfriend Eric (who has also become my friend) pick me up and whisk me away to feast with them on papusas and beer. On our way, we see a rainbow glowing against the blue and gray to our left. It’s been a rich and thoroughly satisfying day.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Houghton, Mifflin, 1885

Graham, Daniel W., ‘Heraclitus‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta

Plutarch, Lucius Mestrius (c. 46 – c. 120), Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (1847 – 1920), Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4, recordings at Librivox.org

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration’. The Washington Post, June 25, 2015

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too!

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.

I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions for reform, posting blog pieces, and sharing videos bursting with righteous indignation. It’s exciting, it’s attention-getting, it makes the news. Historically, take-it-to-the-streets activism has been key in achieving the most important reforms (and breaking away to form our own nation in the first place!). The Occupy Movement, for one, was inspiring, and exciting, and it appeared that we were finally witnessing a harbinger of real change.

Sadly, it seemed to fizzle out before any substantial reform was achieved. Why? Because it wasn’t followed by practical action, which, of course, is much less exciting. Demonstrations of protest don’t do much lasting good unless they’re backed up by real, widespread change in attitudes, behavior, and civic engagment. Right now, the activist community is mainly pouring its energy into marches, inspiring songs, signs, slogans, and speech, and a few into blocking highways, smashing windows, and taunting riot police. But for actual reform to happen, we need to turn our collective accusatory gaze back on ourselves and realize we are the problem too…

How can we be the problem while we’re working and calling for reform? Because we keep supporting bad business through what we choose to buy, and we’re not reforming government by showing up at the polls.

It’s like protesting an assassination after we pitched in to pay the hit man and did nothing to stop him as he stole the getaway car.

For example, we’ve long known that many of our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are made in factories where people work terribly long hours for little pay, in conditions we’d never put up with ourselves. And we know that many or even most of our discarded electronics end up in some country, state, or town unprotected by regulations, or whose ‘recycling’ systems are really not effective in keeping up with the deluge, at keeping toxic heavy metals and chemicals out of the water supply, the ground, and the air. So we’ve signed online petitions and shared testimonies of abused workers on YouTube and Facebook. Yet we buy every new gadget as fast as they come along, throwing away our ‘old’ ones (cracked screen? doesn’t have the new games on it? too thick now since the new ones are 1/4″ thinner?) and buying a new one whether we ‘need’ it or not. When we purchase these things, we fund all operations of the companies that make them, and we send them the signal that we’ll buy them no matter how much their products pollute and how they treat their workers.

We also know, from the wealth of scientific information gathered and presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and our own National Climate Assessment, that we’re polluting our air to levels that present great threats to the health and future food security of ourselves and our progeny. We’ve also seen how air and other pollution causes respiratory ailments and even death in humans and animals, from pre-1970’s, pre-Clean Air Act Los Angeles, California, to Beijing, China of today. So again, we sign online petitions and share videos and speeches, and call on regulators to crack down on corporate polluters, on factories (industrial and farming), auto manufacturers, and the trucking industry. Yet it’s the commuter cars we drive and the emanations from animals we eat every day that pollute the most. We drive everywhere we want to go whether or not we need our car to get there, and gobble up more meat than is healthy for us and for the planet, all the while insisting that gas and meat stay cheap.

And so on, and so on, and so on. We want one thing, but do another. We say we want the world to be one way, but our actions help guarantee it won’t come to pass. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here it is: we can’t justifiably blame corporations and the government for institutionalized racism, radical income inequality, pollution, climate change, poor wages and working conditions, poverty, and other social ills while at the same time we’re funding their operations, and are too politically apathetic to send more than a symbolic message by voting in the change we want.

There are two main ways we are undermining our own calls for reform:

We are a market-driven society, for better or for worse, and the market will always deliver what we want to buy, eventually. If we keep buying it, it will keep being made, whatever the good it does, or the harm. If we want things that cause harm, they will be made, ever more so as we keep buying them. And if we shop around for the lowest price, down prices will go, whether by benign means (improved technology) or not (driving down wages). Capitalism brings us wonderful things: safer and better machines for all kinds of purposes, warm comfortable clothing and plentiful food, information-sharing devices to educate and entertain, and best of all, technology that can better our lives while reducing waste. But it brings awful things as well: the supply and demand for plastic bottles and convenient packaging is trashing rivers and seas and killing fish; electronics, designed to quickly become obsolete and full of heavy metals, turns into masses of polluting trash our limited recycling systems can’t keep up with; plentiful, cheap meat pollutes the air and water and encourages animal cruelty; cheap fuel drives climates change and wars; cheap goods of all kinds drive down wages, degrades working conditions, and lead to overconsumption and massive waste. We know this, yet keep the demand going by gobbling it all up as quickly as they supply it.

Here’s an aside to my fellow progressives, liberals, and everyone who loves our world and don’t want to trash it: don’t pretend that recycling bins and boutique ‘green’ products will do the trick. Currently, recycling programs are akin to a cheap plastic Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. Most recycling processes create nearly as much, sometimes even more, pollution than new products and packaging created in the first place. (Read this fantastic article by Andrew Handley: informative, succinct, and eloquent.)

Secondly, we are allowing the few, most moneyed interests to take over our government with scarcely a murmur. The ballot box, historically the most powerful tool for voicing our collective will, is being abandoned. We are voting in fewer and fewer numbers every year, with depressing results. I understand the Russell Brand type of argument, to ‘drop out’ of politics as an act of protest against systemic government corruption. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. It may be the case, as he points out and as we discover anew every voting season, that many or all of the candidates aren’t terribly inspiring. We may find that many of the initiatives won’t seem to do all the good we’d wish. But consider these facts: historically, the reforms sought by the great activist movements mostly became law because they continued their march right to the polls, and either voted in those laws themselves through referendums, and the rest were achieved indirectly, by voting better leaders into office. And think of what happens when we don’t vote. As someone who considers myself politically progressive, I’ve been dismayed as here in California, such laws as Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage, because more people opposed to this unjust law (later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional) didn’t bother to get to the polls; ideologues, lavishly funded by a few interest groups, voted in droves while believers in liberal and progressive values (including many who held protest signs, I’ll bet) stayed home. For the same reason, capital punishment is still legal in California and marijuana use (other than medical) is not. I was also dismayed by the most recent general election, in which candidates that are aggressively status-quo and anti-reform were elected to office in droves. Why? Again: those who poll in favor of reform did not show up at the polls.

It’s true that too many candidates are overly motivated to please the interest groups that fund them, and don’t pay enough attention to the rights and the will of the average citizen. But that’s not just because of the money (initially provided by us, by the way, via the market): these candidates have been made well aware that we’ve grown a little too comfortable to make the effort to vote them out. So they make speeches to please us, and then we pass them around online and think we’ve done our duty. On election day, we stay home, and the next day, it’s business as usual.

In sum: so long as we put our own ease, comfort, and desire for luxuries ahead of our principles, we are stuck with the world that results. If our political system continues to grow ever more corrupt and our laws fail to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and the environment, yet we don’t vote the bad politicians out and the good laws in, we are to blame too. If corporations and other businesses make harmful products, endanger and underpay their workers, funnel all profits to a few at the top, and pollute, deforest, drive species to extinction, and hasten global warming, yet we keep buying their products, it’s our fault too. If police precincts become ever more militarized and continue to employ overly violent and coercive tactics on the streets and in the interrogation rooms, and we don’t vote them or those that appoint them, out of office, then we’re giving our tacit consent. If our political leaders, prosecutors, and judges continue to make, enforce, and uphold laws that are contrary to our constitutional rights, our best interests, and scientific evidence, and we keep putting them in office (or do nothing while special interest groups put them in office), then we aid and abet them with our neglect.

So what do we do about it? Do we all become ascetics, deny ourselves all pleasures that might conceivably cause harm, subsist in ‘hobbit homes’? Do we obsess over politics, wring our hands in despair daily or cast them in air as we give up in hopelessness? This doesn’t seem tenable: we want an easy, pleasant life filled with hope, comfort and plenty for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, for everyone.

Yet if we want our progeny and the rich, vibrant, diverse world of living things to survive and flourish, we need to change our habits. Our main stumbling block is this fact about human psychology: it’s extremely difficult for us to act idealistically when the long-term ramifications of our actions are not emotionally, immediately apparent at the time. But be it easy or be it hard, we need adopt new and better practices, or the world we love will suffer from our neglect. I’m as stuck in bad habits as much as anyone else, so I’m not playing a blame game here. When it comes to consumer waste: I’m lucky in that I worked in a salvage and recycling operation for some years, and that experience turned me off from enjoying shopping for cheap gadgets, and made me more frugal and more likely to preserve the tools I have for as long as I can repair them and make them work. (There’s nothing like working in a resale warehouse, or salvaging quality reusable goods from a mound of broken cheap crap and trash at the dump, to change one’s perspective on material goods. Now, in the rare occasions I go to Target or a department store, I perceive mostly a mound of thinly disguised future garbage.) But I continue to buy too many things with unnecessary packaging, I still drive my car more often than I really need to, and I buy and eat too much factory-farmed meat. When it comes to politics and law enforcement: I usually don’t do nearly enough homework on the issues or on candidates before I vote, and I miss valuable opportunities to make a difference by engaging in local politics, where individuals can have the most influence.

Let’s make a pact to honor our activists, and to join their ranks as true ones, by living out our desired reforms. Let’s stop buying water and drinks in plastic bottles and packaged goods so long as there’s an alternative; if enough people do this, companies will pay heed and provide their goods through better delivery methods. Let’s stop buying so much stuff, period, and divert our money to businesses and institutions that deliver quality goods that last and public goods that all can enjoy. (Less malls and big box and discount retailers, more small businesses, quality goods made to last, public works, humanitarian projects, and museums.) Let’s stop glorifying wealth and the trappings of wealth more than its due. Let’s vote in every election, for candidates and referendums that best represent our values: if we demonstrate that we will only vote for those that deliver on their promises for reform and will vote them out if they fail, the political arena of competition will shift as it favors less corruption.

Let’s put the act back in activism.

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Sources and inspiration:

Ariely, Dan. ‘The Long-Term Effect of Short-Term Emotions‘. Mar 23, 2010. DanAriely.com

Brand, Russell. ‘On Revolution: “We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition”‘ Oct 24, 2013. TheNewStatesman.com

FlorCruz, Jaime. ‘Listen Up Beijing. This is What You Can Learn From Los Angeles About Fighting Smog‘. Dec 9th, 2014. CNN.com

Handley, Andrew. ‘10 Ways Recycling Hurts the Environment‘. Jan 27th, 2013. Listverse.com.

Parsons, Sarah.’Electronics Recycling 101: The Problem With E-Waste‘. Inhabitat.com

Silverman, Jacob. ‘Do Cows Pollute As Much as Cars?HowStuffWorks.com