May 2011
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by Jonathan Wallace

It appears to me as I get older that the core question in life is: am I a free person or a tool? This is not as easy to know as it appears, for we may believe in one while really being the other. I am convinced the world in fact is full of tools, who believe themselves to be free.

To define my terms in less pejorative language: To what extent is each of us the subject of our own drama, as opposed to being an object in someone else's? Are we actors, or acted upon? Do we ask what happened to us, or do we feel that we happened?

The difficulty of this analysis is that it is so hard to know what freedom is. It is a word that gets used, yammered really, until it lacks any content. It is something we are told endlessly we have, that we rarely feel in our skin, that almost nobody can define. Also, you can live in a free country, without feeling free, due to commitments you have made, or which have been imposed on you, without your ever really having understood how they relate to freedom, or to a loss of it. An even greater complication is that if the relinquishment is voluntary, then it is not really a loss of freedom; as Robert Frost said, freedom can mean "feeling easy in the harness".

Sometimes the best way to get a handle on something is at an almost microscopic level, analogous to understanding rules of the universe by deducing them from interactions of particles observed in a cloud chamber. I propose that a way to get a handle on our freedom or lack of it is to ask what things can be required of us, or taken from us, without anyone ever having asked our permission.

A first draft of this essay was entitled "toolhood", but i realized that the "hood" suffix implies an elevated or exalted (and so often masculine) state, such as brotherhood, manhood or knighthood. The "ness" suffix, which implies that the subject is, so to speak, an object, seemed more appropriate.

A personal history of toolness

It often seems appropriate to begin a Spectacle essay with an account of my personal relationship to the topic. That allows a combination of (I hope) colorful and detailed anecdote with any necessary disclosures about my personal prejudices on a topic. The purpose of such essays is to get a conversation started, not to reveal an epic, universal truth.

As a Caucasian person whose parents were well-compensated doctors, I grew up in what I regarded as America's central milieu, the "great middle class" which we were led to believe had created the country and for which it was operated. However, born in 1954, I also started life in an era of dulling conformity and sameness, of hostility to any divergence.

I attended public school through-out (as the oldest, I have described myself as "the child before social mobility") and hated the tedium and regimentation I found everywhere. In the early '60's, we were required to wear starched white shirts and ties to school every day; there was mandatory school prayer in auditorium each morning; one teacher (a pregnant young woman) took an hour out of classroom time to lecture us extemperaneously on the evils of Soviet communism; everybody's parents were the same, and lived in similar houses in the same neighborhood (though ours was the largest); there weren't any black children until busing began circa 1962. It was a white bread and mayonnaise life, and one I couldn't wait to escape. They taught us the same history, in the dullest possible way, every two years. The best metaphor I can give you for the lectures we endured about American democracy is a vision I had as a child, of people marching in lockstep chanting "free-dom, free-dom" until the word became completely meaningless.

The democracy which they taught us about had no visible application to us. The teachers could intervene in your personal life in any way, search your belongings, confiscate anything and make snap disciplinary decisions with no kind of process. My formative experience about justice was being harangued by the principal when another child attacked me, and not being permitted to explain I was the victim. The teachers were not permitted to hit us, though I did see one slap a black child soon after busing began. Later, when we held school elections, these were completely rigged Latin-American style, as we learned in the late sixties when one student ran on an anti-war campaign and was removed from the ballot.

It all got me thinking about the things people in authority can do to us, or take from us, without permission. When I helped other friends to lead anti-war demonstrations at my high school in 1970, the principal threatened expulsion, but my not usually brave or protective father backed him down with a counter-threat of litigation. On Wall Street that same week, construction workers came down off buildings and beat protestors, some of whom were permanently crippled, while the cops watched. We were all frightened of something called the "Tactical Patrol Force", which had the reputation of covering their badges with tape and then wading into demonstrations with nightsticks flailing. During the five years or so I wore my hair shoulder length (I would love to wear it that way again, but it would look ridiculous on a balding 56 year old), cops felt entitled to stop me without probable cause and order me to empty my pockets, in derogation of what I only learned later were my Fourth Amendment rights. On the last night outside the Fillmore East in 1971, a cop refused to intervene to stop a biker from beating a hippie: "We don't care what you do to each other, so long as you leave us alone." A moment later, the police themselves rioted, and started beating people in the crowd randomly.

Another formative experience was my first day of college, when a subway delay made me late to a class. I walked in profusely apologizing to the professor who smiled and shrugged: "Mr. Wallace, it is entirely your own affair." It was the first time anyone in the education system had ever treated me as a free human being.

One of the gravest things the system could do to you was to draft you to fight in the Vietnam war. A lot of our attention went to avoiding this, both as a moral issue and as a selfish personal one. Even at the time I vaguely understood that refusing to serve and going to prison, or even fleeing to Canada, was a courageous stance, while filing the dishonest letter saying you had asthma was not (the doctors we knew all wrote these letters for each other's children). It has been a very entertaining spectacle over the past twenty years to see how many of the warlike politicians on the right successfully avoided their own Vietnam service (George Bush in the national guard, Dick Cheney with a student exemption).

However, my view of the draft has also become more nuanced than it was. In the 1960's, we were obsessed with our rights, and spent almost no time thinking about responsibilities. From some graduation speech or another, I originally learned the precept that responsibilities are the currency we pay for rights, and I have been a huge fan of the idea ever since. I no longer think that a universal draft is an evil in itself; I think that a nation which provides you with rights and protections should be able to call on you to protect it in extremity, but not necessarily to die in pointless Asian landwars or protecting business interests in foreign countries. The best way to handle this would be to have universal service--I think it would make us better citizens--along with a rich tradition of dissent and even courageous refusal to serve in unjust wars. Like most things, military service is ambiguous, neither an unalloyed good or evil. It can represent the height of independence, of personhood (grabbing the musket from the closet and going out voluntarily to fight the British invader) or the height of tool-ness (becoming cannon-fodder in a senseless war serving an oligarchical interest).

For most of my adult life as a member of the middle class, I have felt like an independent actor. Along the way, I have learned some minor lessons that putative freedom embodied in Constitutional rights does not always translate to personal freedom in the world. When I left my first law firm to go into solo practice, I invited another associate to be my partner. She did not have the freedom to leave the firm we both hated, because she had $7000 in credit card debt and couldn't take any financial risk. (Today, that seems like an amusingly small amount, but in 1981 it seemed much greater.) Ever since, I have seen banks and credit as a social force ensuring conformity and a lack of risk-taking.

Another almost universal truth in the law and business world in which I lived from 1980-2000 was that most people were very careful about expressing personal views, especially minority or controversial ones, for fear of displeasing employers or customers. I was very lucky, when I began publishing the Spectacle in 1995, to work for someone who (though he greatly disagreed with many of my views) respected my expression of them. My mother, on the other hand, who had lived a rather unconventional life (medical school in the 1950's) was afraid of nonconformity. Her advice to me when I started publishing my essays online: "Be careful." On the whole, I believe that I have been able to live most of my adult life as a free man and independent speaker, to a greater extent than most people I know. I have published statements on the Internet that most people would only make in very private conversation, such as my assertion in 2000 that George Bush wasn't smart enough to be President; and I have said these things without a second thought, even though I knew the Spectacle had readers in the .gov and .mil domains.

On the other hand, at all times in recent American history we have seen extreme examples of the crushing of private citizens because of their views, and will see more in the increasingly polarized political environment of today. I wrote an article about two examples, Norman Finkelstein whose tenure Alan Dershowitz prevented because of the former's anti-Israeli views, and Debbie Almontasar, fired as head of a bilingual Arab-English public school because of a comment she made about the original definition of the word "jihad". The First Amendment protects us against government intervention, not against the individual or mass action of private citizens. The dichotomy I experienced as a child, between lip service to "freedom" and actual mind-numbing conformity, is still a major factor in American life. The main difference between the early sixties and today is that we have now fractured into two nations fighting for the reins of power: one which is strikingly similar to majority white Americans of the Eisenhower era, and the other infused with the culture of the late sixties, including respect for personal rights, skeptical, secular, antiwar and pro-abortion.

America has always experienced a tension between rights and conformity; De Tocqeville noticed it in the nineteenth century.

At the end of the '90's, I experienced a business event in which I briefly became a pawn in someone else's game as decisions were made about my career in deep background, and other people's ambitions were considered as all-important, regardless of any damage to me. Of course, you don't become a tool just because you are in an adverse situation; I think I became one because the people who determined my fate did not believe they owed me any respect or obligation of truth.

Since 2008, as the real estate bubble collapsed, and the long-predicted "war on the middle class" began to affect me personally, did I begin to feel like a tool again. Someone appropriated forty percent of my net worth in a month or so, by gambling all our money on mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. All of my money was in safe stocks and mutual funds; I had never consented to anyone gambling my money in any kind of risky vehicle. The people who threw all our money away mostly did not suffer themselves, as they were personally betting the other side of the race. And there have been almost no indictments resulting, by comparison to the hundreds of bankers indicted after the 1980's savings and loan debacle.

Since my net worth took a hit, I have also personally experienced rising gasoline, electricity and food prices, and health insurance premiums which have doubled in just three years. I live in a very expensive county--we will probably have to move soon--and have paid $4.60 for a gallon of "cheap" gasoline, $7.00 for a pound of chicken breasts, $1300 for a monthly health insurance premium, and received a bill for an extra $1500 from the electric company due to its own failure to send me correctly "balanced" bills. It often feels like every time we turn around, someone is trying to take another piece of us. At the same time, I see what at times looks like a Tea Party tidal wave attacking Medicare and Social Security before I even get old enough to be entitled. I am lucky enough not to have a mortgage, but when I read about the millions of people who are underwater and losing their homes, I foresee a return in this country to a medieval model, in which there are barons and serfs, and almost nobody in between. The belief I had, that the middle class was the cornerstone of the country, is gone. I feel (and many of my friends also describe) the pressure of a huge hand on top of my head, forcing me downwards.

I read about billionaires like the Koch brothers, pumping billions of dollars into campaigns, to elect conservatives, and to reverse environmental and health care legislation, destroy unions, cut entitlements, to fight any regulation of Wall Street--in effect to consolidate their baronial status and to continue the downward slide of the middle class in America, and I take it personally in a way I never did before. Then I read that two conservative members of the Supreme Court, Justices Scalia and Thomas, regularly attend exclusive Koch Brothers events at the latters' expense. Last year, the Supremes handed down the fatal "Citizens' United" decision, blessing the often anonymous flow of billionaire dollars through-out the political process. The democracy which, for my entire life, has struggled with oligarchical forces, seems to be officially becoming an oligarchy. Fifty years ago, Supreme Court justices would have been afraid to attend a billionaire political event, all expenses paid. Today they do it with impunity.

I have a stock phrase I have used many times in conversation in a variety of contexts: "There is enough oxygen for everybody." My view of the Koch Brothers: they were not satisfied with the immense sea of oxygen they cornered, and now they are after mine as well. The thing I most want from government today is to defend me against their depradations--and government, even Obama's government, seems to alternate between protecting and fawning on the Koch's, or standing by inactive , just as the cops did outside the Fillmore East in 1971, while we all get mugged.

Toolness and the social contract

It is important to distinguish between scenarios in which our country can call on us to make great sacrifices consistent with our own strength, independence and dignity, and sometimes hard to distinguish scenarios in which we are treated as tools. The view of nationhood popularized by Ernst Renan, and drawing on Rousseau's social contract, defines a nation as a voluntary grouping to which we re-affirm our loyalty every day ('un plebiscite de tous les jours").

The ambiguity can be illustrated by the difference between a soldier giving his life in Normandy and the Mekong Delta. In World War II, almost everyone knew what we were fighting for and felt meaningful, while in Vietnam, few understood why they were being asked to make ultimate sacrifices or felt any trust for authority. The draft itself is not an indication of toolness, any more than its absence today establishes we are not being treated as tools.

Like everything else in this ambiguous world, demands for sacrifice tend not to fall into easily defined binary categories, but along a spectrum. At one end, as I said above, we have American colonists eagerly grabbing muskets. At the other, we have pirate cultures such as contemporary Russia, where the government feels entitled to grab everything you have if you are too independently wealthy, or to kill you if you are too outspoken. A discussion of the circumstances under which a nation can take your wealth or your life, or ask you to give up or risk either, would be a lengthy article in itself. However, a litmus test to help determine what kind of situation we are dealing with could involve the simple question of the government's perception of an obligation of truthfulness to the individual affected, and the corresponding need for the individual's enlightened consent. The American colonists understood exactly what was happening and knew what they were risking, and did so willingly. At the other end of the spectrum, the state obviously regards people as tools, to be used and thrown away, and neither truth nor consent is an issue.

In the middle are situations which are clouded by polemics and confusion. For some of us, taxation is the price we pay for the benefits we receive from our country. For others today, almost any taxation or any government at all represents an intrusion and even an act of violent expropriation. Another way to look at this, and also a fit subject for a separate article, is that some of us seem to be trying to withdraw from the social contract, or radically change it. In Renan's world, this is perfectly acceptable. The real world problem is that there are no earthlike planets (unoccupied or otherwise) we can travel to in order to create nations based on new concepts, and since the American Civil War, secession and the easy creation of new ones here on earth is a very difficult matter.

Voluntary toolness

There are people who ask nothing more than to become tools: the "bottoms" in sadomasochistic relationships who find some fulfillment in surrendering their own will; and the people who flock to charismatic religious and political leaders and willingly surrender their lives and property without any hope of a personal reward other than spiritual (and who may also be acting from masochism). Every Al Qaeda suicide bomber is someone eager to become a tool. Al Qaeda doesn't feel it owes any obligation of truth to anyone including its own foot-soldiers, whose lives may well be expended on trivial tactical considerations while they are presumably told they are receiving martyrdom for some overarching and universal good.

However, I am more interested in manifestations of voluntary toolness in more recognizable Western societies where we are used to acting in our own self interest. One thing which is obvious and stunning in the current political environment, and which needs more study, is that hundreds of people will come out and demonstrate against things they need and which would clearly objectively benefit them: jobs, health care, mortgages, a social safety net. Literally, these last few years, there seem to be demonstrators whose signs could credibly say, "Don't save my house" or "I insist you allow me to be crushed by hospital expense". In this case, they have bought an ideology, that "Big government is bad and the things purporting to help you are a trick" which I believe originates in bad faith from people who are trying to use them as tools.

I have found that you can make a quick evaluation as to whether someone is a voluntary tool in a few minutes of conversation. If there are some respects in which they criticize or differ from the chief ideologues of their party, and show some intellectual independence, they are probably not tools. On the other hand, people who will twist and turn to justify every tenet of the party program, no matter how inconsistent, illogical or contradictory, are resoundingly tool-like.

The word the Framers used to describe circumstances in which large numbers of people become tools was "faction", which they feared more than anything else. The machinery of a republic, with its checks and balances, was instituted in part to protect our individual independence and self respect, and to avoid our tendency to be tricked into toolness. That seems to be breaking down in today's polarized environment.

Of course, anyone with a perfect understanding of the situation who fully and freely gives informed consent, is not a tool. Examples would be Nazi Party luminaries who had no illusion about what was happening, but chose to cooperate for their own benefit. On the other hand, someone who believes he is being cared for and protected by an authority which has no concern other than to trade his life or well-being for some other benefit, is the epitome of a tool. Films and plays in which a character says, "Oh my God, what have I done?" or has a similar "eureka" moment usually illustrate a last moment recognition, often when it is too late, that one has been a tool. Alec Guinness' dying exclamation in "Bridge over the River Kwai" expresses his understanding that his own rectitude and ideas of responsibility have turned him into a tool of the Japanese, building a bridge for them he would have done better to prevent.

Ideological justifications

Are we ever obligated to be tools?

One very disturbing element in today's environment is the apparent proliferation of arguments which, when properly decoded, say that we have some kind of moral or religious obligation to lie down and allow someone else to deprive us of wealth, health, income or life. This, in fact, is the most horrendous and undignified outcome possible, in which someone attacks you while claiming loudly you have an obligation not to resist. While union members in states like Wisconsin clearly understand that they are in a class war, the governor, the Republican party, and the billionaires backing them could not hope to pull off an attack on unions with such impunity unless they believed that a tool-like majority believes that the union members have a moral obligation not to organize.

Human toolness was official, public and codified in the feudal era, when serfs were the possessions of their masters, and during slavery, when as the Dred Scott court affirmed in its infamous language, black people were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

If you regard government not as "other" but as "us", as the way we organize to protect all of our dignity and independence, then libertarian arguments for less or no government can be construed as arguments that we are obligated to be tools (even though they masquerade as the opposite). Authoritarian and totalitarian governments have always presented themselves as champions of freedom; we can go directly to sources such as Goebbel's 1940 New Years Eve speech in which he said, "No power in the world will make us deny our duty, or forget even for a moment our historical task of maintaining the freedom of our people." We don't need Orwell to tell us how these kinds of rhetorical tricks are played.

In the movie "The Man Who Fell To Earth", a frightened man is maneuvered down a hallway by two anonymous, helmeted policemen, who murmur to him soothingly until they throw him from a window to his death. In today's dialectics, we are being told we have an obligation to suffer and submerge, literally to become bankrupt and die, rather than accept government assistance in paying for hospitalization, saving our underwater mortgages, or punishing those who took our wealth in bubble-related speculations to which we never agreed. But if a billionaire is the very model of a person who knew how to fight for and protect himself (or whose parent did), where would you legitimately derive an argument that any of us is obligated not to fight for and protect ourselves as best we can?

In past centuries, such arguments were essentially tautologies, even when they purported to be based on external evidence. The lord could say, "You should remain a serf because I have always succeeded in treating you as my property", blissfully unaware of Hume's insight that an "is" does not make an "ought" (and the somewhat related discovery, also popularized by Hume as I recall, that the fact that the sun has always risen does not really dictate that it will tomorrow). Similarly, the Dred Scott language about a lack of rights that the white man is "bound to respect", run through the neurolinguistic processor, has no more content than a declaration, "I win!"

In this category, I place all arguments for toolness based on the "natural rights" of billionaires, the Bible, or all other unconsidered and archaic rulebooks. The only possible pragmatic, real world argument I can see--email me if you can come up with another--is that " we need the billionaires". In this essentially libertarian view, they are the engines who drive all the benefits of society; without them, we will not have jobs, and therefore cannot partake in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Therefore, we must avoid pissing them off, because they will all leave and go live in Somalia or someplace else where there is no government. Therefore, if the Koch Brothers decide they require us all to be tools, we should fully and freely consent to our own toolness so as not to piss them off.

If this is the challenge, wouldn't you rather preserve your self-respect by calling the billionaires' bluff? Most of them won't leave for Somalia all that quickly, and to those who do, good riddance. I suspect (without nationalizing everything or creating a communist system) we can strike a better balance between capitalism and democracy, in which people will found and run businesses for quite substantial rewards, without being permitted to take our oxygen, to treat us as tools.