A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation who military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and seance, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

A Gift From Me To You

Today I asked my students, “What are you doing? Like, seriously, what are you doing?”

It didn’t take them long to get it. Some understood within seconds, others took a few seconds longer. One of my students presents as severely autistic, but even he understood the severity of my question.

What, in fact, were they doing? Not just right now, but also, only right now: what were they doing with their lives?

I only asked because the night before, I asked myself that same question. I was not being judgy. I did not ask it with a harsh tone. Sitting on the back porch, looking up at the stars, I simply wanted to know: what was I doing with my life.

I’m grateful to be able to say I was proud of my answer.

I am talking to people.

I talk to my wife as often as I can.

I talk to my daughter about everything we can imagine.

I talk to my boss; I talk to my coworkers — I consider all of them my friends, and some of them among my closest friends.

I talk to people I haven’t seen in days, weeks, months, and years, family members, high school and college friends, people I once met somewhere and only for that once.

I talk to people on Facebook when I’m able, even if only by liking what they’ve shared.

I talk to my students in honest and authentic ways about anything I think might help.

I talk to you — whoever you are — to let you know you’re not alone.

I’m proud of what I do. I get to talk to people as openly and as honestly as I can about anything and everything that any of us can imagine (with our fluid imaginations…get it?).

I asked my students that question because I wondered if they believe they have a gift, and if they do,  if they’ve discovered how best to use it.

My daughter’s fifth birthday is next week. On Sunday, we took her to her first concert, the Grand Point North festival on the public lakefront in Burlington, Vermont. One of her favorite bands appeared on the setlist, as did one of mine. It seemed like kismet, and so my wife and I decided to make the concert her birthday gift…

(for the record, I would have taken her to the festival even if one of my favorite bands wasn’t playing, and I told my wife we could leave the show well before the time limit she had set for the evening, which meant I missed more than half of my favorite band’s set — I’m not complaining, I’m just saying…I didn’t get my daughter this gift just because I wanted to play with it too 🙂

…and she loved it. She was a little hesitant at first, but once her favorite band started to play, she loosened up, and by the end of the night she was dancing on the lawn, swinging glowsticks, and chasing a red balloon. In addition, she got to have two bowls of ice cream at two different times during the night; she ate her favorite food — cheese pizza (made entirely from Vermont-grown and Vermont-harvested ingredients, though she didn’t know it) — while sitting on the rocks and watching the Sun set over the waters of Lake Champlain and the peaks of the Adirondack mountains. She got to throw large stones into the lake for a really long time. And she spent an entire evening with her mommy and daddy, who are genuinely her two most favorite people on the planet.

It was an evening that was wholly gratuitous. She received all that the world had to offer her — music, food, family, community, and the natural beauty that comes from the interaction of water, the Earth, the sky, and the Sun — in a word: she received love.

It cost her nothing. She asked for nothing. And it was simply given.

That is what it means to have a gift. She received that gift from us, and now, rich with the world’s extraneous grace, she is prepared to offer it to someone else.

Everyone has a gift like that.

It’s that thing that comes out of you that seems to mean something to someone else. That gratuitous grace that is yours to give.

That’s your gift.

And every day you should do two contradictory things with it: give it away and cultivate more of it to grow.

So now, rich with the knowledge of your gift, I ask you, “What are you doing? Like seriously, what are you doing?”

Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.

Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.

An Open Letter to a Catholic Friend

A friend of mine recently published a column in one of our local newspapers decrying the morality of atheists. This man is a good friend of mine and he knows very well that I am an atheist.

I had the good fortune of having this friend tell a classroom of students that they better keep their eye on me because I am a very dangerous man. He laughed when he said it, and I took both his words and his laughter as a mighty high compliment.

He also gave me an A in his class, the topic of which was how to write an argumentative essay. If I know how to write an argumentative essay at all, he must, in all faith, receive his due.

Throughout my college years and well beyond, we have remained friends. We do not see each other as often as I think we would like to, but I do believe we think well of each other.

I believe this because he and I have sat on his backporch for hours at a time discussing the merits and demerits of religion and atheism. He has brewed me perhaps some of the best homemade coffee I’ve ever had while arguing with me about the tenets of Catholicism. He has shared my writings on atheism with his local priest, and suggested (I imagine) that the priest write me a letter in return, which, in fact, the priest did.

Now in semi-retirement, my friend regularly escapes Vermont for Mexico, in part because he prefer the richness and depth of Mexico’s Catholic culture.

Earlier this week, my friend published an article in my local newspaper calling atheists immoral. I commented “Hahaha” on his Facebook page, and a while later, he clicked “Like” on my comment.

I decided, in the spirit of our long-running debates, to take his article as nothing less than a personal and friendly challenge.

While I had scanned the article before leaving my comment, I had not read it too closely, knowing that I didn’t yet have the time to give it my full attention.

But now I do. And I am no longer laughing. Not one bit.

My friend begins his article by establishing the relevancy of his topic to the world of current events, as he must do if he’s hoping to publish his words in a newspaper. The current event is recently-released research that, according to its title, demonstrates “Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice Against Atheists.”

The researchers find that, across the entire globe — across cultures and across nations — atheists suffer from prejudice when it comes to “employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.” It finds that this “prejudice stems, in part, from deeply-rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality.”

My friend summarized it in the following way: “a wide majority of people share a strong intuition that those who are lacking in religious convictions are likely also to be lacking in consistently moral behavior.”

My friend does not dispute the findings of the researchers, but he wonders what drove them to characterize their findings as evidence of “prejudice.” He believes, instead, that the research supports the intuitive conclusion that morality, indeed, requires one to have some form of religious conviction.

He then does what every religious believer must do when discussing atheism and morality: He invokes the four unholy horsemen of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao. This demonic invocation leads him on a bloody morality tour of twentieth century fascism, which he apparently equates with the apotheosis of atheism.

My friend then takes his reader a little deeper into history, reaching back into the 19th century to invoke the philosophical atheists of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzche, all whom he claims “set the stage for the bloody triumph of Modernism.”

He then equates atheism to the “shutting down of religion” and all atheists with his four unholy horsemen, whom he also characterizes as “haters of religion and God,” which, through the transitive property, would make all atheists “haters of religion and God.”

“In light of these facts,” he asserts, “it isn’t ‘prejudice’ to be skeptical of atheists’ abilities to be reliably upstanding and humane in moral behavior. It is not prejudice when our collective human knowledge is based on actual, well-documented experience and our use of reason to analyze events. That is not prejudice, that is common sense — or maybe even something called wisdom.”

All of which is to say that my friend, who knows I am atheist, believes that “our collective human knowledge based on actual, well-documented experience” supports the exclusion of atheists from the enjoyment of their human rights.

He believes that everything we know about atheists tells us to prevent them from obtaining employment, from having a voice in the public houses of our democracies, from celebrating events with their more religious family members, and from just generally feeling a sense of inclusion in humanity’s broader social sphere.

He believes that I should not be allowed to be a teacher who is responsible for inculcating the values of human culture into the hearts and minds of the next generation.

He believes that I should not have a voice in my town meeting, that I should not be elected to a public office, and that I should not be allowed to represent the interests and values of my neighbors on the floor of a House or Senate.

He believes that I should be made to feel awkward among my more religious family members, that I should feel even in the security of my mother’s and father’s home a sense of exclusion from everyone I was raised to love.

He believes that when I walk down the street I should lower my eyes from all that he says is sacred, and that I should feel, in my heart of hearts, cast out from the grace of my community.

This man who, with Jesus, promises not to cast the first stone, is aiming his rock right at my forehead and — if I have anything to say about it — the forehead of my daughter.

How dare you, sir?

How dare you publish under your own name in a record for all to see the hostile vile that, in all truth, led to the slaughters of the twentieth century?

You are too smart to not realize what you are doing.

You are attempting to make a sacrificial goat of atheists to cast out the demons (specters) that have haunted at least three generations of human beings. The evidence found by the researchers suggests, and your article prescribes, that atheists may be the most outcast members of human society, and yet you want your fellow man to cast us out even further, and to see that action as wisdom.

You believe that everything that went wrong with the Enlightenment experiment finds its home in its deal with the devil, whereby, to enjoy the fruits of knowledge provided by the discoveries of science, humanity had to allow for, at the very least, the non-majesty of God.

You see the four unholy horseman as usurpers whom were let into the city on the hill only due to the liberal logic of tolerance and equal opportunity, each of which were discovered at the intellectual height of the Enlightenment. You believe that your four fascist atheists snuck inside the city walls on the Romantic backs of your German philosophers before they finally seized power through a series of revolutions and counterevolutions, each more bloody than the next.

And now you believe that best thing humanity can do is drive these invaders back beyond the limits of your society and to use every (at least at this point) non-violent tool at your disposal: no right to employment, no right to a vote, no acceptance from the family, and no sense of belonging to a community.

By casting atheists from the Eden that humanity once was, you believe that the Kingdom of the Lord will finally return.

All I have to say is: Go fuck yourself.

I don’t need to defend my morality to you. I’ve sat in your kitchen. I’ve laughed with your children. I’ve broken bread at your dinner table. I’ve engaged you face to face with every ounce of good will I can imagine. And yet, you still pick up that rock?

It’s not rocket science: Be nice to each other. That’s the whole and short of it.

Everything else is just a language game.

The fact that you would equate me with “haters of religion and God” not only signals your inability to understand anything I’ve ever said or written, but it signals your inability to understand the wisdom of Catholic (Universal) love.

Catholicism teaches that God became Man in order to demonstrate what it means to love. In that demonstration, He shows that love radiates at its brightest when it is extended to those whom we have every reason not to love. With his Father’s words behind him, He shows what it means to not bear false witness against one’s neighbors, demonstrating this not only in the Roman and Jewish equivalents of a courtroom, but also in the public square, where he dares those who have not committed a sin to cast the first stone at the sinner lying helpless on the ground before them.

In what way do you take those basic principles of Catholicism to mean that humanity should spill their collective guilt on the pure white coats of atheists?

When Jesus teaches that the love of God can be subjectively experienced by putting ourselves at the service of those whom society has cast out, where do you find the logic to threaten my daughter’s ability to experience God’s grace through the embracing hug of collective human society?

That you would, for one second, judge my humanity by the measure of monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao is to stand on the highest rock to exclaim your love of the golden calf whose name is “the Word.”

Cast aside your idol and experience the grace of true human communion, the spiritual sensation that arises when you look into a suffering stranger’s eyes and see the face of God.

Now turn and look at yourself. In a flash of lightning, see your arm raised like Cane and your face flushed with anger. Oh, you coat it in the dispassionate language of Enlightenment thinking, with your markers of reason and evidence, but at its heart, your message is vile, and it judges me and my daughter with the verdict of guilt.

I say again, standing here with my fists on my hips (for I can do no other), how dare you sir?

I have every urge to slam the door you opened right back in your face, to cast you from the bosom of my communion forever, but I know, deep in your heart, that this is not your intention. I know that you know that I am a good man, and that I act honestly and earnestly to improve the subjective experience of those whom I am lucky enough to meet face to face (failing as often as I succeed, of course, for what am I if not human?).

And so, like a man often does, I turn back, and on my face, an earnest offer of forgiveness.

I only hope you are graceful enough to accept it, and smart enough to realize why it was required.

There’s more in your article to be debated. But before we can begin, you must realize the personal offensiveness of your error. Otherwise, you’re hardly worth the Word.

Communism at the Door

In the fall, I’m teaching a course on Communism & Socialism, so if you’re a regular reader of this blog, be prepared to read some posts on those subjects in the coming months. Plus, you know, the Patriots, God, video games, Heidegger, music, politics, the writing process, and other stuff like that. Anyway…

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels present, in effect, ten measures that the masses will take when effecting the Communist revolution. This post explores those ten measures.

1. Abolition of property and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

Marx & Engels are not being coy. The first measure taken by the Communist state will be to abolish private property. It’s important to understand why.

The Communist Manifesto is not a political platform. Reading it is not like reading Hilary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for the United States. It’s more like reading an essay on climate change. It aims not for prescription, but description: this is what is happening; this is why it is happening; and this is what will happen if things keep going the way they are.

The first measure abolishes private property not because someone from the government will knock on your door with a piece of paper and take your house from you, but because an angry horde of unwashed men and women who you’ve long forgotten existed will soon be smashing down your picket fence and taking your house and all of your belongings (which is exactly what happened to the last Czar).

The horde that takes it from you will not have their best interests at heart. They will not send you packing and then settle into a calm and peaceful repose in your living room, where they soon discuss the division of labor when it comes to accomplishing the chores of the house. Instead, they will come and go as they please, taking or pissing on whatever they like, and the property will be owned by no one. In this way, it becomes the property of everyone, piss and all.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

With the abolition of property, the horde of unwashed men and women, and now you too, are going to need someplace to live. The world already has enough structures, so you’re free to make yourself welcome in one of them. But if you want something that feels secure, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.

There is only one way to pay in a Communist state: with your labor. In Das Kapital, Marx makes clear that whenever we discuss an exchange value, all we can ever be talking about is the value of human labor (see Das Kapital for more). If you want your home to be secure, you have to either make it secure yourself or pay someone else to do it, but if you pay someone else to do it, you are now in debt to them the amount of labor that they have provided to you (see Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a great analysis of how most exchanges between humans in society eventually reduce to debt).

You could enter into an equal exchange where you do something for your security staff that they can’t do for themselves or you can pay them back by contributing your labor to the State. With an equal exchange of labor throughout the economy, your security force will know for sure that their labor will eventually return to them in some recognizable form.

The State, however, only exists to regulate this exchange. If people contribute more labor than they have coming to them, the State controls that excess of labor at a graduated rate to the laborer. The unwashed men and women don’t want anyone working too hard just to earn a wellspring of their labor.

This is not to say that people can’t work hard. But it is to say that people who are able to work hard need less support from their fellow men and women, and as they contribute in greater proportions to the development of society, so should they contribute in greater proportions to the security of that society; after all, who among us would not want to protect the society in which we’ve invested so much of our hard work?

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

The unwashed horde will not give a shit who your father is. Your inheritance is not property owned by your father; it is the carried debt of our extraneous labor. You don’t earn the right to lord over our debt just because you spewed from his seed; our debt to your father dies with him.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

You think you can run? You think you can hide? That’s no problem at all. Take your body wherever it wants. But your property — the embodied form of our extraneous labor — that stays with us.

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

Again, for Marx, capital reduces to human labor. Credit, then, is a surplus in human labor. If you have ideas for how to use some of that surplus human labor, we the people who contributed it (i.e., the State) want some say in what gets done with it.

Want to use our surplus labor to dump nuclear waste into one of our rivers? Not going to happen.

Want to use it create your own private exchange where others would be able to get capital (i.e., surplus labor) without having to deal with those of us who actually contributed it? Yeah, no.

Want to use it to reduce the costs and improve the exposure and distribution of regional artisanal beers? Well, hey now, that’s something we’d be happy to put our backs into.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

The great unwashed come, take your house, and tell you how much you’re worth. They don’t want to kill you (per se) and they don’t want to sell you to some slave trader. You are free to live in the world on your own, completely isolated from everyone else, but the moment you want to enter into any kind of economic relationship with anybody, the moment you want to exchange goods and services with your neighbors, then extraneous labor is worth what extraneous labor is worth, and after the great unwashed got done with you, you now possess no one’s extraneous labor but your own.

That’s the scene. So why the centralization of communication and transport?

Simple, a lone human individual wandering atop the surface of the Earth possesses no extraneous value beyond its body; it can only walk as much as it can walk, and it can only yell as loud as it can yell. The moment the human body attempts to move more efficiently than its physics allow or tries to reach an audience beyond those who can physically see and/or hear it communicate, it enters into a material relationship with its environment, depending on resources provided either by nature or the efforts of another human body (or of a thousand human bodies).

When you ride in a car, you ride on the backs of those individuals who contributed their labor to its existence — the drillers who retrieved the fossil fuels, the shippers who transported it, the miners who dug in the caves, the secretaries who coordinated schedules for such massive projects, the programmers who designed the GPS system, the engineers who rocketed the GPS satellites into space, the scientists who developed the polyester that forms your seatbelt, the factory workers who connected the bolts to the nuts, etc. .

The State (re: the rest of society that you depend on for your existence) wants to make sure that everyone in that process receives a square deal. In addition, it wants to make sure that those with capitalist intentions (i.e., with the intention of hoarding the extraneous value of everyone else’s labor) do not have two powerful weapons with which to dominate the economy: the roads and the communication network.

It is true that the centralization of communication and transportation opens the State to the horrors of propaganda and martial law, just as it would if they were centralized under the Capitalists. No one doubts this. The difference is that the State is not trying to steal society’s extraneous labor and use it for the benefit of individuals in a small and privileged class; the Capitalists, however, aim to do just that. Instead, the State wants to harness the power of that extraneous labor for the benefit of all those who contributed it.

7. Extensions of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands,and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

Without private property or a private exchange of human labor, the State comes into abundance and all may apply to receive their due. However, as a State that doesn’t reach utopia as much as conclude the economic slog of human history, the State (in the form of the people whose labor makes a real contribution) must prepare to survive beyond the current moment. It must invest some of its stored labor into improvements in the instruments of production: the factory that needs to stop polluting, the road that needs to be repaired, the river that needs to be dammed, the machine that needs to be invented, the medicine that needs to be researched, the field that needs to be tilled, and yes, the art that needs to be encouraged.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

I have a student who is a dishwasher, and his interest in Communism is the main driver behind why I’m even offering this class in the Fall. I have another student who is a hostess, and she’s the only other student who signed up for it. Both of them are in their late teens, and both of them, in different ways, are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

But they are a dishwasher and a hostess.

Do you think you’re better than them? Then why is the time you contribute to society worth more what they contribute? After all, we need dishwashers and hostesses more than we need, for example, financial sales agents. According to the latest data available, the U.S economy employed 506,450 dishwashers and 404,360 hostesses to 353,780 financial sales agents. We have more dishwashers and hostesses in our economy because there is more of that kind of labor to be done on behalf of society.

Unfortunately, very few people like to wash dishes. Plenty of people will give you a load of hooey about the meditative nature of the exercise, but most of us would prefer to spend our meditation time resting in a peaceful garden under a fruit-filled tree than we would standing in front of a steam-filled sink with slop on our aprons and gray water in our shoes.

With so few people wanting to wash dishes and so many dishes to be washed, we either need to draft an army (an industrial army) or invest some of our surplus labor into the development of a more efficient way to clean the dishes our society generates each day…and until our investment pays off, we may need to do both.

Luckily, with everyone receiving an equal value for their labor, those who come to the rest of us (i.e., the State) for employment will have plenty of tasks to choose from, with everything ranging from CEO of a mining operation to the lightbulb purchaser for mining helmets to the dishwasher who soaps the pots and pans in the cafeteria where the mining executives eat their lunch.

But just like how the Army doesn’t give you a final say as to where you go and what you do, so it will be when you apply to do a task for the State. As with the Army, individuals are responsible for recognizing the relative worth of each other, and we truly hope that you end up exactly where your talents ought to take you, but we also realize that sometimes a task that needs to be done and all that’s needed to do it is a body (in some forms of agriculture, for instance), and for those menial tasks, your body is no better and no worse than anybody else’s, so when you apply to do a task for the State, you have to realize that you may, in fact, end up with one of those unforgiving tasks, at which point, we trust you’ll soon prove your worth.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

In Marx’s time, there was a vast distinction between town and country. The town had the factories; the country had the food. They entered into a tense economic relationship with one another, with the country producing and selling its raw materials in exchange for commodified goods produced in the factories. The town made the toaster, while the country mined the metal, dammed the river, harvested the wheat, milled the flour, and transported it to the baker.

With all of that investment of human labor in a single piece of toast, it’s a wonder anyone can afford a slice. But if someone was able to, they’d be delivering the entire cost of that slice to the last person in that chain, who, after paying off the guy in line behind him, is left with any extraneous value created by that labor. As the first person in line at the payout and the person most responsible for overseeing the equity of that payout to the rest of the laborers who contributed to the ultimate form of that toast, the retailer is able to pocket most, if not all, of the extraneous value of that labor, keeping the others’ work for himself.

With more and more of the retail markets moving from the country to the town (don’t believe me? try getting good ethnic food out in the country), more and more of the extraneous value of labor makes its way there as well, allowing the people in the town to increase the value of their local community through investments in education, entertainment, transportation, or what have you, the effect of which is to draw more members of the country into the town in the hopes of living an improved lifestyle.

This ultimately drains the country of its labor, which then starves the town of its raw materials, which forces the people of the town to enscript an army to march into the country to till the fields, cut the forests, dam the rivers, and mine the mines, all of which will still go towards the benfit of the town (think District 1 vs. District 12 in The Hunger Games; also think of the army of scared slaves [aka, “undocumented workers”] we now depend on to harvest our fields).

Marx & Engels think the only way to stop the cycle is to distribute the factories out among the agriculture, to reduce the differences between the town and country. The only way to ultimately reduce the differences, however, are to eliminate them entirely. Since the differences between them are ultimately measured in population, Marx & Engels realize that an equable distribution of the population is necessary. No red states and blue states; just a uniformed and united State.

What Marx & Engels perhaps didn’t realize is that are other ways to unify the town and country. If the unfairness begins with the final exchange between the laborers and the purchaser of their extranerous labor, then perhaps all that needs to happen is to move that retail market out into the country: make the sons and daughters of farmers into retailers, give them a market to exchange the extraneous value of their labor with their neighbors, and create outlets and transportation routes to distribute the extraneous value of other people’s labor from one community to another.

This reveals the isidious nature of Amazon’s and Wal-Mart’s relationship to society. They’ve both contributed, by design, to the death of local retail markets. Both Amazon and Wal-Mart aim to become the sole retail market of the world. But Amazon and Wal-Mart exist nowhere; they are local to no market. That means a significant portion of the extraneous value of all of the world’s labor ultimately flows from a local material reality out into trans-local space: for Amazon, cyberspace; for Wal-Mart, multi-national space. They both bully the local retail markets out of existence, robbing the country of the opportunity to keep the extraneous value of its labor local, where it can be put to good use by those who contributed that extraneous labor in the first place.

10. Free education for all in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form (1848). Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

If everyone’s body is worth exactly the same until it proves otherwise, then everybody’s mind should be as well. The only way to tell if one person’s mind is worth more than another’s is to put them both through the same forms of training, allowing each of them to discover their unique talents through the way they apply them to the problems of society.

Education should not just be a catching up on what society has discovered and created. Our youngest and most energetic ought to put their energy towards solving the greatest problems facing our society. We should not use them to accomplish menial tasks that only require a body (with its army of workers, the State has plenty of bodies to dedicate to any task worth its labor).

At the same time, education must also prepare members of society for life within that society, and so students should dedicate some of their time to the means of production, in both body and mind. They should understand how production works, test their aptitude for different modes of it, and apply their passion to reforming it for the good of all.

Remember, too, that education is not just for the young. It includes professional education and training for adults who seek to improve their worth to society. Communists call for free education for all in public schools; not just free education for kids who can’t work yet.

~~

So…those are the top measures to be effected by the Communist revolution. Some sound pretty good, and most sound, I think, eminently defensible; but they all rest on the very first one: the abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to the public purpose.

Without that, the Communists have nothing.

But as I said above, when you read Marx & Engels, it’s less like reading an op-ed and more like reading a report on climate change. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.

Knock knock.