Saturday, October 31, 2020

Streets 6 - Align


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So that’s the first question asked: How did we get here?

To recap:

I live on a street. Perhaps you can relate.

The street is my street. The house is my house. I live in it. And yet if my suburban house were standing alone in a Michigan forest with me and my family in it, with no other houses nearby, my house would be a bizarre curiosity. Anyone buying it would have to take on the additional effort and expense of living in a wilderness. My house would be very hard to sell, and it wouldn’t sell for as much money as it would in my city. Indeed, it likely wouldn’t sell. The expense and effort and risk of living in such a way would be too prohibitive to manage, even among those who can afford houses.

(As an aside: It occurs to me that an ultra-modern house in the middle of a wilderness is one signature of modern ultra-wealth: a picture of one’s individual ability to live independently of any other—an illusion, yes, because even this picture relies on hidden supply chains, but the picture the illusion presents is of an elevated human individual having cut the offensive tether of our inextricable social connectivity. Which some might call The American Dream.)

Fascinatingly, this means it’s everybody else that gives my house most of its value—considerably more than I do. The value others add to my house is the greater value. It would be impossible for me to add more as an individual to the collective than the collective provides me through our natural human system. There exists a great and inextricable human interconnectivity that reaches its way everywhere, into everything: a natural human system.

A natural human system is natural. It grows out of something natural that no human ever built or bought or created.

A natural human system is human. It’s the way a society delivers the full momentum of its intentions to other humans, in a way that is shared, foundational, generative, invisible, automatic, inextricable, configurable and inherited.

And a city is, of course, people. Everybody around me. Everybody, actually. The ultimate natural human system is nothing more or less than our entire planet.

The configuration of a system reflects the true intentions of a city, because they reflect what actually happens—good and bad, just and unjust.

And the cumulative effect of both the good and bad are inherited, whether we intend it or not.

And so we all belong to one another, by which I mean: at the deepest levels of reality, we are all responsible for one another.

End recap.

Photo of a single house covering most of the land mass of a small island in the ocean.
Yours for only $12 million and helicopter fees.

Now seems like a good time to acknowledge the fact that I don’t just receive value from everybody else for my house. I also create value for my personal house by my individual choices. And, while these choices mostly bring value to me and my property, if I make good choices about my property, which benefit me, it will contribute to the value of all the properties around me. My personal maintenance and enhancement of my property benefits, to shrinking degrees, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and the world. It matters.

I feel I should acknowledge this truth now, at this precise point, because I think my previous conclusions will have been extremely offensive to some people—especially any who have decided that the idea of a shared and interconnected life doesn’t exist, but rather the only value that exists is value that we ourselves create through our own personal choices and intentions—and so I’d like to assuage them.

I’m talking to the individualists now. Huddle in, individualists.

You do create value for society through your individual choices. Your decision to be a hard worker, for example, makes society better than if you had decided to be a drunken loafer—provided the work you do assists society rather than drains it for your own gain. Your decision to not personally show overt conscious intentional bigoted hatred to people in your life different from you does make the world better than if you had chosen to do so—provided it isn’t only a show.

Thank you! Well done!

And, also, to validate: Yes, we do create value for ourselves through our choices. We do earn things for ourselves by our ingenuity and determination and effort and skill. Our intentions matter. Our choices matter. Our decisions matter. What we personally individually think matters. Our achievements are real, and they matter. By working hard, or by making more wise choices than unwise choices, we frequently can create better circumstances for ourselves and others than we otherwise could, albeit within a range of possible circumstances constrained by any number of factors, including what choices the city decides should be available to me.

Rejoice, individualists! Celebrate the individual!

So yes, when I choose to (for example) maintain and enhance my home, I increase its value for myself, and I also help maintain value for the houses around me. That decision matters.

924 Bel Air Road sold for $94 million in October. House includes a nonfunctioning helicopter from the TV series “Airwolf.” Photographer: Berlyn Photography
By my math this belongs to someone who works 9,500 times harder than the average American.

But see, we’re already getting into trouble, aren’t we? Because if my positive choices positively affect those around me, then it stands to reason that I’m also receiving the positive effect of the cumulative choices of everyone around me, too, right? And it comes to me automatically? And the effects of choices made before I was born play into this overall value? And my existence here, in my house on my street, and the value I receive, is all part of an overall strategy enacted by a collective group of people, reaching back generations? And we know (unless we deliberately choose not to know it) that overall strategy included an inheritance of unjustly diverted value, which afforded me a wider range of available choices than other people, yet a narrower range than some.

So what I’m actually doing through my choices is choosing whether or not to align myself with this invisible, automatic, inextricable, shared, inherited system of value, negative and positive, just and unjust, value and harm, within which I find myself. In so doing, I actually recognize the existence of an interconnected society.

Or I choose to live in an unsustainable lie, that insists I did it all myself.

I’m sorry, individualist. I tried. Reality intruded, as it inevitably does.

Listen—there is enormous value in the power of individual choice. It matters.

I’ll say it again. The individual is something that exists, and each individual is crucially important. (We’ll get to why presently.) It’s just that the effect of individual choice, as much as some individuals might insist otherwise, isn’t the only thing that contributes to reality, nor is it the most powerful contributor, nor could it be, nor should it be—any more than it would be possible (or even a healthy option if possible) for your personal house to be more valuable than all the other houses in the city combined. There is also collective value. It contributes more. It’s the context that makes most individual choices possible. And we’re all associated with it.

Your individual choices simply aren’t the outer bounds of human interconnectivity.

And then there’s this: you chose to be a hard worker, and a profitable one. But notice what that must mean. It’s something easy to miss unless you have eyes for it. Do you see it?

It means that being a hard worker was an available choice. It means that profitability was an available outcome of that choice.

Did you personally choose for those choices to be available? No.

It was an available choice because the shared, foundational, generative, invisible, inextricable, configurable, inherited natural human system within which you live, from which you partake far more value than you could ever give, provided you that choice.

The city decided to make that choice available to you (and many others), because it decided it needed there to be a someone who does what you do, and that someone turned out to be you. Isn’t that great?

Question 1: What if not everybody had the same choices as you?

Question 2: When did you choose to have a body and a mind that functioned well enough to do the work you do?

Question 3: When did you choose to be born in a place and within circumstances from which you could develop that body and mind to do what you do?

Question 4: The people who don’t have a body or a mind that function as yours, the people who weren’t born in a place with the opportunity to develop them … when did they make those choices?

Question 5: Can you stop providing value? We live in a society that clearly believes that you can, because it clearly measures human value by the metric of profit, and people can certainly become profitable—indeed we know that all people eventually will become unprofitable, eventually. Or is it possible that profitability is only one metric of value, and even the least profitable person provides incalculable value along other metrics?

Question 6: If you can stop providing value ... should you then stop receiving value? Can you stop receiving value? What would we think of a society that tried to make sure you did? What do we make of a society that believed that, because of your perceived worthlessness, you should now die? What should we say about a society that insists you can, or have, stopped providing value? Should we say that you, because of unfortunate circumstance, or bad choice, or inevitable decline, have stopped producing profit, are therefore worthless? Or should we say that this is a society that has made itself deliberately ignorant of all other ways of calculating human worth?

If choosing to being profitable is the only way you receive your value … what happens if you’re no longer able to make that choice? What if you are one of the unfortunate sort of person, like me, who owns a body that over time will get old and sick? What if you’re like me, and you live in a dynamic world of unpredictable change, in which the reality today isn’t the same as the reality tomorrow, and some force arrives that constrains the available opportunities upon which you staked your fortune? What if the career you’ve chosen can be done by a robot? What if the illness you specialize in treating is cured? What if the value you provide is overtaken by human innovation?

These questions matter, even if you’re motivated only by self-interest. Even if they don’t apply to you, some day they will apply to you, and to everyone you love.

Because here's the crucial thing: the value you provide will eventually be overtaken in time, either by innovation or by age or illness. The realities of forward human progress or the realities of a temporary human body will get you, one way or another.

This is inevitable. So, given this inevitability ... what kind of world do you want to create?

If you lived in a world in which every person is considered a part of the human family, and valuable for that fact alone, and fully as worthy of receiving the good and value, then an innovation that replaces your life's work might be exciting, if your life's work was devoted to solving a problem that is now solved. Or, even if the innovation removes from the society the tangible financial value of what you do, the natural distress of that would be curtailed, because you'd live in a world where profit and production was not the measure of your worth, and in which far more metrics for value than profit existed. If the thing that were no longer financially necessary were merely a job to you, then it would be the opportunity to do something else. If it were something you'd have done even without getting paid, then maybe you'd go on doing it anyway.

But if you live in the sort of world I live in, where value is determined by profit, then it’s death.

The good and bad choices you made, you made from the context of the range of available choices you inherited—and remember, the range of choices before you will change. 

And, very observably, not everybody gets the same choices.

Two Chicago police officers arrived with representatives from the Department of Family and Social Services and Streets and Sanitation Workers to take Smith and Moore’s tent on a rainy day in late July. The officers told WBEZ that tents are not allowed in the central business district. Odette Yousef/WBEZ
Read story. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

There’s the effect of individual intent. Intentional. Specific. Optional. Momentary. Tactical.

Then there’s the effect of collective intent. Automatic. Generative. Generational. Strategic.

They both matter. They both matter a lot.

One simply matters more, practically speaking.

The value of individual action matters more in only one way: you control it.

Therefore, the most important choice you can make as an individual is deciding how to interact with the reality of your place within society—which first requires acknowledging that you belong to a society, and acknowledging that you exist in the context of that society in ways your intentions will never touch, and acknowledging the value you receive, not just the value you give, and acknowledging the ways others don’t receive the same value as you. To acknowledge how you have received that value—and, crucially, to accept whatever responsibility exists for where you are and what you have, and recognize who has choices and who does not.

Let’s return to an example I provided in the last chapter. Suppose I’m driving and I strike an old lady with my car—let’s say on a totally deserted street, with nobody else in sight. I didn’t mean to—which matters, but surely you can see it’s not all that matters. If I’m sitting behind the wheel and the old lady is on the pavement, I have an opportunity that the old lady does not. I get to answer a crucial question with an obvious but difficult answer, which the old lady doesn’t get to ask. I have the responsibility here, because only I have opportunity to do anything about it.

In a practical sense that question really is the most important thing in the world, the entirety of your individual contribution, the sum of your individual value.

That question, again, is this:

Does this have anything to do with me?

Put it another way: do you want to admit you know who put your street there?

Try this: suppose you belong to a society that has done something good. Suppose you belong to a society that has organized in such a way that when the city decides, it represents the voice of all people as equally as possible.

Not all societies have done this, as I’m sure you know. In fact, in human history, this is a fairly recent idea, and its execution has been largely imperfect. In my country, which is the United States, it’s only been that way since at best 1968, when we passed legislation that finally recognized the truth that millions of people still refuse to accept—that Black people are human beings of equal value to everyone else—legislation that recognized them as the equal citizens they always deserved to be, and attempted to allow them to vote free of the many, many, constraints that had until then denied them. And in my country, this legislation made millions of people very very angry. They’re still very angry about it, it turns out, and they’ve taught many of their children and grandchildren to be very angry, too.

For most of human history the assumption has been that there are people that mattered most—and many many others who mattered much much less, and then masses of people who don't matter at all. The way it worked, we’d have king, or the landed gentry, or the patriarch, or the warlord, or the billionaire—and they will decide, and everybody else will obey, and that’s how it all gets done. We still have that situation in many places, even in places who have opted into this new innovation of equality, and in those places, the effects of those choices affect the people who live there the same way all collective action affects people, which is automatically and inextricably, etc.

But pretend for just a moment that you belong to a society that has chosen equality and enacted it perfectly. Everybody has a voice. For purposes of scale, everybody chooses representatives. But everybody gets to choose the representatives, without restriction.

In this hypothetical, you are born into a society that is dedicated to equality. 

And you are a part of it.

And you don't get to choose about that.

You can choose to not like it, but you're still a part of it.

If you don’t take direct action to abet it, you’re still a part of it.

If you don’t even know anything about it, you’re still a part of it.

Even if you’re actively working against it to change it, you’re still a part of it—though your choice to align against it may indeed someday change it, and that choice matters.

If you belong to an equal society your choice is not whether or not to be a part of an equal society. Your choice, if you are aware of the reality of your context, is whether or not to align with it, and in so doing, with the effort to preserve it or to change it.

The default, by the way, is to align with it. If you don’t know about it, then you are carried along in the current of your natural human system, which will do its work with or without your knowledge or consent or intent, even though you still participate in it.

We know this instinctively, I’d observe, we Americans. We’re very proud of having “freed the slaves,” for example, and for “saving the world in World War II,” and liberating concentration camps, and for founding the world’s oldest active democracy, and for the Civil Rights movement, and for being an economic superpower, and going to the moon, and so on.

We personally didn’t do these things. Yet we seem to understand that we’re a part of it, and we’re proud of that. It’s nothing we did, understand. It came to us automatically, inextricably.

Here in America, many of us like to inherit only the good.

This is our alignment.

This alignment exists on my street.

Now I’m going to ask you to stretch your imaginations again: suppose you belonged to that society that was not perfectly equal.

Imagine you belonged to a society that until fairly recently had not allowed women to vote, to own property apart from their husbands, to make decisions about their own bodies, to participate in society. Imagine that when the city decided, it did not represent the voice of women. Imagine the full weight of that inherited inequality.

Imagine you belonged to a society for which this was also true for people who were not deemed white. Or who were not property owners. Or who were not Christian. Imagine the full weight of that inherited inequality.

Imagine that, even though this society now did permit people outside the original constraints to make their voices heard, it still had preserved many foundational practices that took these inequalities as assumed, and which allow them to still reverberate through the presumptions of its narratives and its halls of power.

In this hypothetical, if you were a man, if you were deemed ‘white,’ if you owned property, you’d benefit from all this—automatically, and if you were a woman, if you weren’t deemed ‘white,’ if you didn’t own property, you would suffer just as automatically. In this hypothetical, you would belong to a society founded in inequality. If you were deemed ‘white,’ or a man, or a property owner, or any other vector of inequality that might exist that hasn’t yet been explored in this example, then you would benefit. If you were more of those things, you’d benefit all the more. If you were all of these things, you’d benefit the most.

You’d have inherited more value—much of it unnaturally diverted. Stolen from others, to whom it otherwise would have come automatically.

Here’s what could change that fact: nothing.

If you don’t take direct action to abet it, you’re still a part of it.

If you don’t even know anything about it, you’re still a part of it.

Even if you’re actively working against it to change it, though your choice to align against it does matter— because that choice may indeed someday help change it—it doesn’t mean you’re not part of it, or don’t participate in it.

If you belong to an unjust society your choice is not whether to be a part of a just society or an unjust society. Your choice, if you are aware of the reality of your context, is whether or not to align with or against it, and in so doing, with the effort to preserve it or to change it. And until you acknowledge it exists, until you admit your context within it, you can’t align against it.

We refuse to know this, I’d observe, we Americans. We reject the notion that we enslaved the people we’re proud of freeing, that our heritage doesn’t only include a fight that ended with slaves freed, but also a fight to keep them enslaved and expand the territory of enslavement. We refuse to admit that we’ve inherited not just the moral weight of the Civil Rights Movement, but also the angry, energized, powerful, violent, and murderous opposition to it. We credit ourselves with defeating the Nazis, but refuse any culpability for having generated the racist practice and theory that energized and inspired them.

We Americans are very offended at the notion that we should inherit responsibility for harm. All the more so, the more we still benefit from that legacy of harm; the more male, and white, and straight, and Christian and wealthy we are. We’re so opposed to the very question “does this have anything to do with me?” that we never ask it, and we reject out of hand any who ask it. It is for us a disqualifying question. We give ourselves license to ignore anyone who asks it, for the offense of having asked.

Here in America, many of us love to inherit wealth, but refuse to inherit responsibility.

This, too, is our alignment.

This, too, exists on my street.

If you are aligned with injustice, that alignment is a fact that largely overwhelms your intentions for doing so. Finding a non-racist reason for joining with a white supremacist political party remains a racist decision. Finding a non-authoritarian rationale for joining with authoritarians remains an authoritarian choice. If you decide to join with a Nazi party for economic reasons, you’re still nothing more than a god-damned Nazi.

And—your choice to oppose the harm and theft and abuse of injustice doesn’t free you from the responsibility you’ve inherited for benefitting from it—invisibly, inextricably, naturally. The attempt to free yourself from that responsibility reveals a deeper alignment with the injustice.

It’s not a question of being a part of the problem or part of the solution. We don’t face such easy dichotomies as that, no—it’s a question of whether or not we accept the extent to which we are already a part of the problem. Which we are, to the extent that we are beneficiaries of that problem.

Accepting we are already a part of the problem means we have to face a second choice, even less comfortable, which is whether or not to do anything about it.

Individualist, understand this: your alignment is the only real choice you’ve got.

It’s time for us to finally acknowledge who put our streets there.

It’s not all bad news for the individualist, though.

Individualist, here’s some very good news: The individual choice of alignment matters. It matters more than anything else you do. Here’s why: it’s the start of the good work of positive innovation.

Your choice is how what is broken gets fixed. It’s how what’s wrong goes right.

How? The same way you fix a street.

Remember: human intention has a momentum. Systems work the way people decide they should work. Which means that what people decide matters. To say something rather obvious, the only way systems change is if people change it. The only way they change is when people realize change is needed. And the only way they decide that is by changing how they are aligned relative to the existing system.

In my experience, streets go from one place to another place. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too. No matter where you live on your street, it still goes from one place to another place, and what those places are doesn’t change, unless you tear up part of the street and build a new one to somewhere else—a systemic change.

A system of injustice is always heading toward greater injustice. It has a slope to it, a path, a gravity. Think of a ball in a groove, or rain in a spout. Injustice is heading toward an unjust end as inevitably as water seeks the ground. A system designed to consume people for profit will always consume more and more people. To avoid this end, we can’t just put the ball back further up the groove; we have to change the system. To change the system, it is necessary to change our alignment with it.

And: this is true even if you’re motivated only by self-interest. Eventually a system designed to consume people will consume you, if you’re a person. Eventually you will become disabled, or sick, or old, or unprofitable, or something will happen—a global pandemic, to choose a random example—that will strain that system, force it to accelerate what it does to sustain itself, which is to consume people.

As an individual, you can be personally opposed to the system consuming you without actually being aligned against the system, if you don’t want to pay the price of changing the system. You can even be opposed to the system consuming other people without being aligned against the system, if you don’t want to pay the price of changing the system. That opposition is situational, not systemic; simply an opposition to where we are in the system’s progress, rather than an opposition to the system’s design. It’s a desire for deferment; to move the ball a bit further up the groove, move the rain further up the gutter. But the unchanged system will still always bring us to the same end. If we don’t change it, we can perhaps push the ball back up the channel … but we’ll inevitably find ourselves here again, and then somewhere worse.

Look where we are. Trump and all of it. Our system got us to this point. He released a new strain of that old virus, bigotry, which taxed that system, made it more vulnerable than it would have been. That virus must be defeated—but our vulnerability to viruses stems from a system founded in harm and loss, a cancerous system that consumes people for money.

The question of alignment is so vital, because it addresses the question of whether or not we desire the system itself to change, even it costs us something—and changing an unjust system does always have a cost, particularly for people who benefit from the injustice.

The costs are these: The loss of the unjust value, and the disruption that comes with change.

Here in my country, we do anything we can to avoid these choices. We’d rather reject the entire concept of systems before we face the questions that naturally come when you belong to a system. We’d rather die than face these questions. Increasingly, more and more of us are dying—increasingly of actual cancers and actual viruses, not because these things aren't preventable, but because the virus of racism has convinced so many of us to align with the cancer that insists that we don’t belong to one other, that life must be earned through profit, that those who cannot earn have committed an unforgivable sin worthy of death, and that violence redeems that sin.

As the intentional thieves who configured our natural human system divert more and more of the shared value of society only to themselves, cutting off more and more of it from more and more of us, those of us who still choose, because of the benefit we still receive, to align ourselves with the thieves, choose to align with the death.

Those of us who make that choice call this death “freedom.” Some of us call it “realism.”

It’s death either way.

The thing about an unjust system is, it’s unsustainable. An unjust system will need to be changed, systematically and dramatically, if it is to survive. The more unjust the system, the more dramatic the needed systemic change.

The thing about an unsustainable system is, it doesn’t sustain. You change it or it collapses. Virus and cancer: all either needs to devour a healthy system is for you do nothing—they’ll do the rest.

The only real choice an unjust society—which is an unsustainable society—has before it is this: a willing, guided change? or an unwilling, forced one?

The thing about systemic change to an unsustainable system is, it’s not optional. Change will come.

Death is a change, after all.

Time to ask the second question.

A firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Read story (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A.R. Moxon is a writer. His novel The Revisionaries, is available now, with the paperback edition releasing December 1, 2020.

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