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Reducing World to Good and Bad Leads to Trouble

"Incredible how the top dog always announces with such an air of discovery that the underdog is childish, stupid, emotional, irresponsible, ... incapable of learning - but for god's sake don't teach him anything! - and both cowardly and ferocious. The oppressed is also treacherous, incapable of fighting fair, full of dark magics, prone to do nasty things like fighting back when attacked, and contented with his place in life unless stirred up by outside agitators. ... Once I learned the tune I stopped believing the words - about anybody."

- Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree, Jr., 1973

In Kent we've heard those tunes and believed those words about Underdogs since May 4, 1970; they're still being hummed: "They destroyed private property," "outside agitators were responsible."

We're now hearing those tunes from our southwest border: "Remember, Illegal is illegal, whether it's a bank robbery or a person who sneaks across the border illegally, and we need to deal with it as harshly as we can."

After a bruising spring, with an earthquake in Chile, a volcano in Iceland, a mine disaster in Appalachia and an oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, Americans celebrated Memorial Day with food, flag-waving parades and prayers for soldiers lost in elective wars. In the Middle East poor people went hungry, mourned civilians killed in those wars, (90 percent of all war casualties today are civilians - the majority women and children) while being buffeted by powerful economic, political, technological or natural forces over which they have no control.

Then on Memorial Day a Turkish ship manned by civilians without firearms and carrying humanitarian aid to blockaded Gaza was boarded by Israeli soldiers in international waters. Nine civilians were killed; the Israelis claim self-defense. This caused hardly a ripple in the U.S. media, and the Top Dogs' same catchy tunes started circulating: "They deserved it," "that's the only way to deal with those people," "innocent" people do not carry knifes and clubs." Our president expressed mild regret, while suggesting that an investigation conducted by Israel alone would be adequate to manage the situation.

To reduce the complexity of the world we live in to manageable dimensions, we like to reduce everything to immutable binary oppositions: Everything is zero or one: on/off, right/wrong, good/evil, true/false, male/female, God-ordained/work-of-Satan, loving/hateful, secure/dangerous, pure/corrupt, worthy/unworthy, human/non-human.

These binary oppositions cause a lot of trouble. They tempt us to sort instead of think, to dismiss instead of examine; they make it easy to refuse to negotiate, and to despise those who disagree with us. They divide us into Good Guys and Bad Guys, Top Dogs and Underdogs.

We should be wondering whether a world where the Top Dogs are furnished with robotic weapons, nuclear warheads, advanced technologies for murder, mayhem, oil extraction and communications media can be managed at all.

We should be wondering whether, in a world in which "terrorists" (or anyone accused or suspected of being one) can be targeted by the CIA for extermination or torture, stripped of constitutional rights and protections, or put on a "no-fly" list, (but not prevented from buying guns) we can even be human, trust one another, help one another, govern ourselves and manage human affairs rationally, fairly, sustainably and humanely.

Most people don't like the way the world is going, but instead of trying to fix things, keep singing the same old songs. We want to be rich, powerful, popular, in charge, free to carry a gun and shoot it, to have the power to keep Underdogs (poor people, women, brown people) under control, to get rid of Bad Guys, to use the earth's riches for our cars and comforts.

Tiptree called the tune: "We can't live with _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite demons: terrorists, socialists, insurgents, illegal immigrants, Taliban, Palestinians, Israelis, Islamists, political activists, students, abortionists, gays, feminists, "other" ). It is therefore just and necessary to kill them, injure or disable them and/or destroy their livelihoods in order to _____ (insert your favorite noble purpose: get rid of them, teach them a lesson (though by definition they are incapable of learning), pacify them, free them from ____, control them, bestow on them ____ (democracy, law and order, salvation, "other")"

This should make it easy to settle everything by lining up well-fed Top Dogs on one side with stun-guns, Tasers, drones, radio-guided missiles, robotic warriors, cluster bombs, nuclear warheads, giant aircraft, ships, earth-movers, satellite communications and commercial media - plus all the oil and money needed to manufacture and deploy them - and hungry, barefoot Underdogs on the other side with knives, rocks, bottles, clubs, sharpened sticks, IEDs and homemade rockets.

I'm disappointed that President Obama has failed to manage the world. But I fear it's because the world we have constructed out of our old tunes and words is fundamentally unmanageable. It has badly skewed systems of communication, catchy tunes instead of news, too much information and too few community-based information tools to manage it. The present world is too large, too fragmented, too polarized, too unequal, too full of techology for war, too driven by fear and hate, too reckless with natural resources and human life and too committed to the old, deadly words and tunes of our Top Dogs.

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