Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's in a name?

So most of us here, we're Dualists, in this sense.* We like to think of the universe as something that contains things. We name the things we see, and we build concepts around the names we create. I have a car, see the ocean from my window, etc. There are two levels of error (see what I did there?!?) with this way of operating:

  1. There really isn't a car or an ocean. These are just terms that we're applying to assorted groupings of atoms, which are random assorted groups of other things, and so on. If, over the course of many years, I replaced every part of my car at some point, would it still be the same car? What if i replaced all the parts at once?
  2. Even if we accept that there are in fact things out there in reality that are distinct and ought to be named, we can also make the error of mis-naming them. Pluto was once thought to be a planet, for instance. There are clearly defined rules for classifying the thing we call Pluto as a thing we might call a planet, and, as best we can tell, Pluto fails to satisfy the rules. This came up recently under the discussion of what, exactly, a job is.
The names that we give things affect the manner in which we think about them. The name and thing that I want to spill ink over today is the modern nation state (in the Westphalia sense). I am, for example, a citizen of the United States of America. As a result, I possess some theoretical sort of American-ness. There are a complicated set of rules about who has it and who doesn't. The big one is location of birth, but there are a bunch of other ones.

American-ness isn't really correlated with any other common way of describing people. Most Americans speak English. 3/4ths are white. About that many are Christians, but they split between Catholic and a bunch of different Protestant sorts. Beyond that, most demographic measures fail to hit even 50%. One couldn't say that American-ness means city-dwelling or suburban-dwelling or rural-dwelling, since there are Americans that do all of that. American-ness doesn't suggest a particular ethnicity or profession or age or income or gender or political leaning or level of education or hobby or interest.

American-ness isn't a really good proxy for anything. Even the things that describe the majority of Americans (white, Christian, English-speaking) apply to large non-American populations too.

Still, American-ness is very important.

There's government that takes my money and provides me with services just because of my American-ness. There's a military that's protecting my ass and blowing shit up in my name just because of my American-ness. There's a tall, handsome fellow who claims to be my President just because of my American-ness, even though we've never met and I didn't vote for him. There are a bunch of folks who make rules that apply to Americans, and another bunch of folks who enforce those rules, but only among Americans.

The US Congress represents my American-ness but little else. There are 535 voting members, I got the chance to vote for 3 of them, and I actually voted for none of them. Most of them share my gender, race and language, but none share my profession or religion. I'm not related to any of them. They're all older than me and they all make more money than me.

Still, they got to decide that folks with my combination of Young-ness, American-ness and Male-ness ought to be required to throw their name in the hat for conscription. They decided that it's okay for me to get drunk but not okay for me to get high, presumably because the latter is in some way incongruent with my American-ness. They decided that when I reach a certain age I can receive Social Security, and they decided that at any age, I'm obligated to pay money in taxes.

Really, these legislators and their enforcers, they care a lot about me. The care about what education I receive as a kid, they care about the age at which I retire, they care about the kinds of cars that I can sell to other folks with American-ness, the kinds of foods that I can sell, the kinds of things that I say about the foods that I can sell, the kind of drugs that I can use, the kinds of places that I can go, the kinds of things that I can wear onto a plane, all sorts of things. All of this because of my American-ness. A clone of me without my American-ness wouldn't get the benefits, wouldn't pay the taxes and wouldn't be subject to the rules.

If my doppelganger were Dutch, that reason alone would qualify him for independence in making the drunk vs high decision. If he were German, he'd qualify for making the decision about how fast to drive. If he were English, he, unlike me, wouldn't qualify for the decision about whether or not to purchase a handgun.

Nothing about being born on American soil is guaranteed to prepare me for choices involving handguns and guaranteed to render me incapable of making choices involving drug consumption and driving speed. American-ness is arbitrary. Fake. Made up. It doesn't mean anything other than American-ness.

The fundamental problem with all of this (1 above) is that NO -ness of any sort is really important. Not American-ness, not Jew-ness, not Black-ness, not Christian-ness, not Software Developer-ness. They're all imaginary divisions.

Beyond that (2 above), even among the unimportant -nesses, this American-ness isn't really important. It's not particularly important to me. When I think of the -nesses that define me, I think of my hobbies, of my profession, of my interests, my education, my friends, my relatives, my views. American-ness exists independently of that. If I meet someone who went to the same school that I did, or who came from me home town, or who I'm directly related to, or married to, or friends with, or who writes the same kind of software that I do, I feel a certain connection. American-ness doesn't provide that connection.

Yeah, but who cares?

Well, when those legislators that don't represent anything but my American-ness talk about "poor" people, they almost always mean "poor for an American." Poor-ness is a very important thing to discuss in the halls of power, but it's almost never considered independently from this American-ness. This is of course silly, since being poor is a -ness that actually means something, whereas American-ness is a -ness that has no meaning.

Imagine how policy debates would seem if you took the implicit American-ness filter out of it all. Which of these makes sense?

1) Tax folks in the top 1% and use the money to buy healthcare for the bottom 20%.
2) Tax folks in the top 0.001% and use the money to buy healthcare for the folks whose income is in the top 11-13%

Well, 2 seems silly. I mean, what's so special about being in the top 11-13% that makes them so much needier than the folks in the bottom 87%? Well, American-ness. You can be in bottom fifth of those with American-ness while still being in the top fifth of those with human-ness. To folks living in the REAL bottom 20%, our little discussion must seem as silly as Americans talking about whether or not Bill Gates should really be helping Steve Jobs with his medical bills.

This nation-ness goes beyond health care though. We're at war with this thing that they call Afghanistan because of these folks that they call the Taliban, who had a guy called bin Laden, who thought he was at war with this thing called the United States because of the actions of a few of those non-very representative Presidents and legislators that I was talking about. I read someone on the internets, who had this to say about that (bolding mine):
"The Taliban were and remain nasty characters. They treat objects like women and look at what they did to those lovely Buddhas. On the other hand, although they had achieved temporary superiority in the ongoing internecine conflicts that have roiled in Afghanistan ever since the first foreigner imagined that Afghanistan was a single country, they were never exactly the sole legitimate rulers of the Afghan nation."
Well, yeah, good point. Why are all the bickering factions of Yugoslavia and India and Korea and Ireland separate nations now whereas the bickering factions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Spain aren't? There's really no easy answer to that. Nation-ness is a pretty damned arbitrary thing.

It's an arbitrary thing, but in many cases, it's the minimum addressable unit. Congress can't declare war on OBL or the Taliban. OBL can't declare war on Bush I, or even everyone who voted for him. The Kurds can't set up an embassy in DC. There are no congresscritters debating Obama's healthcare package who were voted in by villagers in Africa or Southeast Asia and who are literally dying for fresh water or mosquito nets or antibiotics.

This isn't the fault of the Democrats or the military or anything like that, any more than the unemployment fracas from earlier was the fault of the individual bureaucrats who were involved. These folks are victims of their institutions. They only have freedom to act within a certain framework. This is a job, this is a nation, these are the rules that apply to jobs and these are the rules that apply to nations.

That said, it's still important to step back every once in a while and realize that the words we use to model reality sometimes do a pretty shitty job of actually, you know... modeling reality.

*(for more reading on this sort of thing, see the discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair Maintenance on what, exactly, a motorcycle is).

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