Roots and Branches (Part 1 of 2)

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The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.  ~ Sir William Bragg (1862 - 1942)

Trying to fix a symptom of distorted thinking, rather than attacking the root problem, is usually a time- and resource-wasting mistake. As long as the distorting lens remains in place, new symptoms will emerge to replace any symptom eliminated or diminished. Strike The Root was created in response to that reality; STR exists, explicitly, to bypass the thicket of distractions Thoreau called “the branches of evil” and to stimulate actual change by going to the heart of the matter. For the most part, STR has considered that to mean exposing the nature of coercive government. I believe, however, that freedom alone is a broken idea; love and freedom together are really a single unit and must be approached as such.

When the classical liberal movement was gradually co-opted and replaced by groups of varying Marxist and libertarian leanings (among others), this fundamental duality of life love and freedom – became confused in the public mind, and understanding of the interconnected, interdependent, yin/yang nature of love and freedom was eventually all but lost. The result was 20th Century politics and the wars, democides, and (especially in America) erosion of freedom that continues today.

Repairing the duality of love and freedom is the true root issue for creating a healthier world. Time is an issue here because 21st Century technology will give the forces of un-love and un-freedom enough power to either destroy the planet or – perhaps worse – to create an advanced, global tyranny that will permanently end our chances for a free and compassionate world.

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Would-be reformers have been hacking at the branches of evil for centuries to little effect. Cut one branch and it eventually grows back. Kill off one symptom and it is reincarnated with a new face, stronger and more cunning than before. 

In that last sentence I am, yes, suggesting that natural selection acts upon neurotic symptoms and upon forms of initiated coercion, especially in the larger scale of society as a whole. Symptoms and forms that cannot survive in the world are displaced by those which can, and this natural selection makes for more sophisticated forms of neurotic-fueled, coercive evil over time – better-camouflaged or more aggressive or with more subtle or more “catchy” rationalizations. 

See if this (not entirely chronological) list of evolving excuses for systematic thuggery by government isn’t familiar:

- Barbarian rule by ruthless strongman: I have more weapons and soldiers than you. Submit or die.

- Military dictatorship: Same as barbarian rule, but with newer weapons and nicer uniforms. Submit or die.

- Emperor as divinity: I am a god; it is your duty to obey me. Submit or die.

- Divine right of kings: I am god’s representative on Earth; it is your duty to obey me. Submit or die.

- Democratic majority rule: I represent the majority; you must submit because it is only fair that you do so (and never mind that this same argument can be used to support outright slavery – the ultimate “majority rule”). Submit or die, perhaps, while resisting arrest; if you survive the arrest, you will be imprisoned.

- Enlightened socialist rule: I rule in the name of compassion; you are an anti-social ogre if you do not turn over most of your income to me so that I may care for everyone while enriching my supporters, family, and friends. Submit or die, perhaps, while resisting arrest; if you survive the arrest, you will be imprisoned. 

- Marxist (Communist) rule: A mix of Democratic majority rule (but with “majority” replaced by “the proletariat” and with all competing political parties outlawed) and enlightened socialist rule (but without the enlightenment). Submit or die, or perhaps be tortured or “reeducated” to submit, or slowly worked to death in camps.

There are many variations on these arrangements; Hitler’s bizarre and overtly racist National Socialism, for one example; any Islamic republic (e.g., Mauritania or Iran) for another. But in every instance, the tagline “submit or die,” however it may be phrased, remains the essence of the scheme. Systematic use of initiated coercion is everywhere the defining characteristic of the state as we have known it. To camouflage this and make it acceptable to the public, numerous strategies have been employed, with “we are ruling you for reasons of compassion (socialism) and with your approval (voting)” having become the most successful. It’s a clever gambit, but does nothing to change the nature of the state: submit or die

Here we see the truth that coercive Power – systematic initiated coercion, which by definition is imposed upon others by force or cunning – is diametrically opposed to compassion. Power requires not merely ignoring the suffering of others but often inflicting suffering or even death: Submit or die

This use of systematic initiated coercion to run society is a root issue; particular examples are mere branches. Some branches are more or less harmful than others, but they are branches all the same.

Voting for a different political party, or even working for a change from one such scheme to another, does nothing to address the root of the problem. We see this in every election or whenever one dictator is overthrown by another. Despite occasional bright spots, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!* is the definitive truth about regime change. Thus, war-mongering Democrats (Vietnam under Kennedy and Johnson; the Balkans under Clinton) give way to war-mongering Republicans (the Gulf War under Bush I; Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush II).

A particularly heart-breaking example (to me, at least) was the almost entirely non-violent 1986 overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines (see this for a fairly detailed account; see also Recognizing the Power of Nonviolent Action for another). How wonderful to see an evil dictator sent packing by a peaceful, unified effort from the people as a whole! But what happened as the corrupt Marcos fled the country, after having stolen so much of its wealth? If you said “the Philippine people merely installed another government rather than renouncing the use of coercive Power,” go to the head of the class. Philipinos have been suffering for that mistake ever since, in a variety of ways

Roots, not branches: that is where our attention must be focused. 

Next week’s essay looks at the root evil of widespread emotional damage: problems in the human condition stemming from harm to the other side of the love and freedom duality. (And yes: in most cases, choosing to see problems as being “on one side” of the duality is only a matter of viewpoint. Tyranny involves damage to love as well as to freedom, for example).

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* A horrendous live version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the song that made the lyric “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss!” famous, is available here, courtesy YouTube. If you’ve never heard the high-intensity original from Who’s Next, I strongly recommend it; it’s hard to believe the same band is playing. It’s a shame the Baby Boomers who rocked to this song did, in fact, let themselves get fooled again -- repeatedly. “This new politician won’t be an evil, corrupt, power-hungry monster! He/she is compassionate! He/she feels our pain!”

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 104

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.