Archive for April, 2011

Trying to make sense out of the stream of statements and press releases from Anonymous can drive you nuts. One moment they’re waxing all idealistic about North African revolutionaries or Bradley Manning, and the next they’re saying things like “Anonymous is not your friend” or “One thing you must know about Anonymous is, we only do it for teh lulz. We don’t care about your miserable life.”

Because of the hivemind nature of the group, in which everyone and no one speaks in its name, a certain amount of cognitive dissonance is probably inevitable. And yet I’m starting to suspect that what we’re seeing may not be simply a matter of competing agendas — that calling evil-doers to account on a global level and displaying a studied contempt for individual angst may be two sides of the same coin.

If there’s a paradox here, it’s much the same as the paradox inherent in the trickster figures who inhabit our most ancient myths. The trickster’s antics can be crude, outrageous, and even actively hurtful — yet they frequently have important and creative results.

In fact, mythic heroes of every kind are given to transgressive behaviors that would never be tolerated from any ordinary member of their society. They have sex with their sisters, insult their grandmothers, and are regularly lewd, vulgar, and obnoxious.

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I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

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After I posted the previous entry, Alexei remarked that he’d been impressed by the linked article about people responding to disasters with spontaneous self-organization. That told me I needed to go further into the subject — so here for consideration are the relevant paragraphs from “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim” by Johann Hari:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. …

On April 18th 1906, San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. … In San Francisco that week, all the city’s plumbers began — unpaid — to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organized into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. … It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after the disaster struck. San Franciscans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give away all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

These descriptions are mesmerizing — but they also raise a host of questions about the complex intersection of politics, human nature, and higher knowledge.

To start with, the response in San Francisco resonates strongly with the anarchist dream of a society run on the basis of everyone pitching in and doing their part. It’s somehow not at all surprising that when Dorothy Day grew up, she became a member of the IWW.

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