Identity and Social Constructs

Younger than 10 years old, people generally don’t consider most realms of identity. Some issues regarding sex are considered since children tend to naturally gravitate towards similar interests and sex often weighs heavily on childhood interests.

Once we hit puberty, we become a new type of social creature. We try to discover where we belong, who we are, where/who is our tribe, what ought we desire in life, how will we get what we desire in life, etc. To this ends we experiment, explore and try to carve out a niche for ourselves in the world. For some people this seems relatively simple, while for others it seems such a monumental struggle that can end with suicide.

Often a girl will try out being sexy, cute, quirky, tomboy, and a myriad of other attributes to find out what can stick and work productively at getting attention and finding a sense of belonging. However, that is just one small aspect. The same girl will explore the role she plays to her peers, her family, and every other realm of life. Is she an intellectual? Is she a jock? Is she an artist? Is she sweet? Is she a rebel? All questions and attributes the person is seeking out.

While this search is natural and necessary, it is also total bullshit.

This pubescent (and post-pubescent) search for identity is a negotiation of individual desires with artificial social constructs. The individual must live in society and they need an avenue to build their lives. This means they must negotiate with these social constructs to fulfill their desires. To fully live outside of these constructs is to live outside of society. We must all learn to navigate these waters.

One of the worst things about our journey in this realm is that we are often force into atmosphere with rigid hierarchies, forced association and general inflexibility. This makes it so pressure is high and the consequences seem dire. This makes identity seem so incredibly important, rigid and dire … when it doesn’t have to be.

All identities are bullshit. They are artificial constructs that we are using. Ideally we can use them productively, and ideally they can be flexible, forgiving, and voluntary. As we age and exit forced atmospheres usually the social pressures lift and our identities become less important. We choose our associations and our identities become flexible and much less meaningful. Hopefully, we start seeing identity merely as an artificially means of accomplishing our desires rather than an actual thing we must conform ourselves to. Of course, it doesn’t happen this way for everyone.

I often tell people I happen to be male, but I don’t feel like a man. When I say this I always get a huge look of surprise as they almost anticipate me revealing the new identity I’ve been hiding this whole time. I let them down when I tell them that “man” isn’t a feeling. No matter what I feel I will be a biological male. No matter what I feel, the social construct of “man” will be artificial and bullshit.

I’m not trying to proclaim the end of identity. I’m trying to point out the artificial nature of identity. I advocate a world of voluntary association, role flexibility and individualism where we use identity merely as a flexible description rather than a pigeon hole. I don’t feel like a man because I would have to concretize what a man feels like and I have no desire to pigeon hole myself or anyone else. Biological male means something. The identity of man means nothing.

I pity most people who get lost in identity. These are people pigeonholing themselves. These are people who can’t accept themselves. These are people who can’t negotiate who they are and how they feel with society and so they abandon themselves and opt to become an artificial construct.

At points in our lives we all have felt lost without identity. However, when we have been content with our social lives and liked ourselves most of us have been able to look at identity as a meaningless construct. Identity is only meaningful for someone who is lost. It is a false map that leads you to the wrong destination.

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Economic Systems Transform Culture, Not Vice-Versa

I believe conservatives, classical liberals, constitutionalist, and many libertarians have reverse causation and false historical sentiments in forming a mental construct of how great societies are made and sustained (by their own definition).

There are people who believe that innovation, entrepreneurship, risk taking, hard work and individualism are a result of culture. I think they are wrong. While there is some semblance of a symbiotic relationship between culture and economic system, I believe history shows that culture is the much weaker force and the economic system is the vastly more significant causal mechanism. Essentially, economic systems transform cultures, but cultures rarely transform economic systems.

When we see socialism implemented in a culture with a history of positive virtues, we see those positive virtues disintegrate. When we see capitalism implemented in a culture that is predominantly petty, lethargic and uninspired, we see positive virtues emerge. When the economic system is mixed, we see a mixing of positive and negative attributes (as we see in the West today). I don’t believe you will find culture being the inspiration. Teaching work ethic in a socialistic economy is like teaching work ethic to a slave … who are you benefiting? Your inspirational values will seem like delusional bullshit.

A large perceived flaw with this analysis is that it can’t explain how capitalism ever starts.

I think capitalism is purely an accident, usually it doesn’t start. There have been several point in history where centralized control collapsed but markets still operated. In that period of time, no one was able to grab the reigns of power but peaceful transactions were highly profitable. Later, philosophers came in and acted like they were leading the parade. In short, I think the enlightenment explanation is wrong.

I don’t think liberty and capitalism will be born from people readopting the ideals of the enlightenment. I think liberty and capitalism will be born when centralized powers collapse, no one is able to grasp the reigns of power, but peaceful transaction is highly profitable.

Conservatives, classical liberals, and the other people I previously mentioned want to say that our soul determines our society. I think our society determines our soul. While at the individual level this doesn’t have to be true, there can be high variance in environments and personality to lead people in all sorts of directions. However, when we speak in terms of large amounts of people, the variance gets averaged out into the incentives people live under.

This is uncomfortable for some people to accept because it can make you feel like things will merely have to play out and you don’t determine the course. I would suggest people embrace that attribute and maybe even find some solace in it. We can still determine our own course.

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Depopulating Palestine, Dehumanizing the Palestinians

One might have thought that, in the wake of the Nazi regime’s systematic crimes against humanity last century, dehumanization would have become unthinkable once and for all. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. It has shamefully continued unabated, the assorted perpetrators including, with tragic irony, those who themselves were victims of Nazi dehumanization.

Dehumanization is an apt term because it consists of more than merely murder, massacre, torture, blockade, dispossession, humiliation, and the like. It consists of the very denial of the humanity of the victims and their cultures; it may include attempts to wipe them from the archives and from anyone’s memory. This denial makes simple physical destruction easier: cruel treatment on a mass scale would seem to require that the victimizer view the victim as subhuman, as verminous, as something that infests the surroundings, as something unworthy of the consideration one normally gives even strangers about whom one knows nothing.

The case of the Palestinians is hardly the only case of dehumanization in the post-World War II era. Off the top of my head, I think of the African victims of the European powers (the mistreatment of whom got underway well before the 1930s), of Maoist China, of South Africa, of Rwanda, of Darfur, of Cambodia, of the Central African Republic. What seems to distinguish the Palestinian case (which of course began before World War II) is the sophistication, duration, and outside support of the effort to deny the very existence of people, Muslims and Christians, who have lived for a long time south of Syria and Lebanon and north of Saudi Arabia between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

No one better vocalized this denial better than a former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who famously said:

There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

A libertarian approach offers a perspective that tends to get overlooked by conventional analysis. Examining whether the Palestinians as a group constitute a “people” deserving of “national” self-determination or liberation can yield useful information, but that question cannot be fundamental because whether or not “Palestinians” qua communally conscious people lived in “Palestine” before the Israeli statehood movement (Zionism) got underway, we do know this: individual human beings who were not recent European Jewish immigrants legitimately owned property there.

We have no good alternative to methodological individualism; human beings come in individual units. So the individual and his or her rights — including the right to land justly acquired — must have primacy. However important a person’s identification with an ethnic, racial, or national group, or lack thereof, may be, it has no bearing on the question of rights. A “Palestinian” can have no more rights than an unattached atomistic individual or one who identifies as an Asian, an Arab, or a Nabulsi. Therefore, individual self-determination must precede communal self-determination if the latter is to be valid because group rights make sense only if they extend from and are consistent with members’ individual rights.

Morally, we have rights by virtue of our personhood, not by virtue of our inclusion in a subgroup of persons. The idea of rights not rooted in the individual literally is nonsense. Among other things, this means there is no Jewish land, Palestinian land, or land with any other ethnic, racial, or religious qualifier. There is only legitimately and illegitimately acquired land. (In this connection, see this remarkable video of Khaled Sabawi, which focuses on his attempt to reestablish individual property rights in the West Bank through formal registration.)

Thus, even had Golda Meir been right, the establishment of Israel as it took place would have been no less a crime against the territory’s indigenous inhabitants. Likewise, even if one could show that the non-Jews driven from Palestine at gunpoint in 1948 had only recently migrated from elsewhere in the Middle East (which one cannot), this in itself could not justify their expulsion.

But in fact, notwithstanding fabricated and wholly discredited “histories” of Palestine and Israel, it is now uncontroversial to state that the establishment of Israel saw hundreds of thousands of indigenous individuals driven from their ancestral homes and hundreds of others massacred by recent European immigrants (many of them atheists yet nevertheless claiming to be Jewish) with a tenuous connection to Palestine or ancient Israel. H. G. Wells posed a reasonable question: “If it is proper to ‘reconstitute’ a Jewish state which has not existed for two thousand years, why not go back another thousand years and reconstitute the Canaanite state? The Canaanites, unlike the Jews, are still there.” (Quoted in Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, “Pseudo-Travellers,” London Review of Books, February 1985.) What did Wells mean? The Gilmours explain:

The modern Palestinians are a people of various ethnic origins, descended from the conquerors of Palestine since early Biblical times. Their ancestors are the Canaanites and Philistines who, unlike the Jews, were never deported. They remained in Palestine (which took its name from the Philistines) and their descendants formed, and still form, the core of the indigenous population. In the seventh century, the Muhammadan Arabs brought with them their government, their language and their religion, and a majority of the inhabitants accepted all three. Palestine and its people became Arabised. Yet they remained the same people. There was little racial change in the population because the Arab conquerors were so few in number.

Evidence for this comes from an interesting source, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president (and also an historian), in their 1918 book, Eretz Israel in the Past and in the Present. As quoted in Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi wrote:

The fellahin [Palestinian farmers] are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured Eretz Israel and Syria in the seventh century CE. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go in for settlement. Even in their former habitations, the Arabians did not engage in farming.… They did not seek new lands on which to settle their peasantry, which hardly existed. Their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material: to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.

Sand tells us that “historical reason indicates that the population that survived since the seventh century had originated from the Judean farming class that the Muslim conquerors had found when they reached the country.” He then continues with Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi’s text:

To argue that after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt Jews altogether ceased to cultivate the land of Eretz Israel is to demonstrate complete ignorance of history and the contemporary literature of Israel…. The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with the sweat and the sweat of his forebears…. Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remained unchanged.

Sand comments that “this was written thirty years before Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, which asserts that the whole people was forcibly uprooted…. Although the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam, they had done so for material reasons — chiefly to avoid taxation — which were in no way treasonous. Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland.”

Sand notes that Ben-Zvi’s 1929 book, Our Population in the Country, took a more “moderate” position on who the fellahin were: “Obviously it would be mistaken to say that all the fellahin are descendants of the ancient Jews, but it can be said of most of them, or their core.” Ben-Zvi also added a second reason for their religious conversion: in Sand’s words, the “fear of being displaced from the soil.” Sand writes that Ben-Zvi’s later book

maintained that immigrants arrived from many places, and the local population was fairly heterogeneous, but the traces left in the language, place-names, legal customs, popular festivals such as that of Nebi Musa (the prophet Moses), and other cultural practices left almost no doubt that “the great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.”

History supports this thesis. Sand’s book documents that neither the Romans in the first century CE nor the Arab Muslims six centuries later exiled the Jews:

It must first be emphasized that the Romans never deported entire peoples…. It did not pay to uproot the people of the land, the cultivators of produce, the taxpayers…. They definitely did not deport whole populations in the countries they conquered in the East, nor did they have the means to do so — none of the trucks, trains or great ships available to the modern world.

This stunning fact, support for which Sand found among historians specializing in the area, undermines the official narrative that the modern state of Israel was founded and peopled by long-wandering exiles who finally returned home. Sand explains in various lectures that when he was researching his book he was shocked to find no books about the Roman exile in the Tel Aviv University library. When he consulted the experts in the university’s department of Jewish history, he said he was told, “It wasn’t exactly an exile.” Thus was vindicated the American Reform Jewish movement, which declared in 1885 that it did not regard the Jews outside of Palestine as constituting a diaspora longing to return “home”: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” In 1841, Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism reports, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, spoke for his co-religionists when he said, “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.” In our time, the idea of a diaspora is disappearing. Jane Eisner, in the Jewish publication The Forwardsays “the negative connotation of ‘Diaspora’ formulated in classic Zionism is fading — with so many Israelis living in Los Angeles and Berlin, how could it not?” She’s pro-Israel, yet she writes, “Let’s leave behind the outdated notion of Diaspora.’” (A few years ago the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Berlin had the “world’s fastest growing Jewish community.”)

The early Zionist affinity for the indigenous population of Palestine faded, Sand writes, when people began to resist the encroachments by the European Jewish newcomers. Sand writes:

From that moment on, the descendants of the Judean peasantry vanished from the Jewish national consciousness and were cast into oblivion. Very soon the modern Palestinian fellahin became, in the eyes of the authorized agents of memory, Arabian immigrants who came in the nineteenth century to an almost empty country and continued to arrive in the twentieth century as the developing Zionist economy, according to the new myth, attracted many thousands of non-Jewish laborers.

The upshot is that since before Biblical times, people have lived continuously in Palestine. Every emissary who scouted the area for Theodor Herzl and his new Zionist project reported the same thing: Palestine was not “a land without a people,” contrary to the claim made in the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.

As the Gilmours point out, Ahad Ha’am, a “spiritual Zionist” who had spent time there, reported in 1891, “‘Palestine is not an uninhabited country,’ and has room ‘for only a very small proportion of Jews,’ since there was little untilled soil except for stony hills or sand dunes.” Ha’am and others warned the Zionist movement to respect the indigenous population.

Thus if there was to be a Jewish state, most if not all of the non-Jews would have to go. “Only in a very few places in our colonialisation were we not forced [sic] to transfer the earlier residents,” Ben-Gurion told the 1937 Zionist Congress” (Gilmours). His militias would “be forced” to transfer many more a decade later.

To repeat, it’s a secondary matter whether these individuals thought of themselves as “Palestinians” or whether they perceived themselves to be living in a country called Palestine. They were individuals with rights, and they were dispossessed and made into refugees when they weren’t murdered.

As individual human beings, they obviously cared about their homes and communities, whether rural or urban, and thus could be counted on to resist proposals that they be “transferred” — expelled — from their homes to somewhere else — even to places where people spoke a similar language (though the dialects might differ) and practiced the same religion. To assume otherwise is to see these individuals as less than human.

In fact, though, we can find signs of “national” (for lack of a better term in the context of anti-colonial resistance) self-consciousness at different times and in different stages of development. “Islam and the Ottoman Empire were the broadest and most meaningful socio-cultural and political entities, but there developed a type of proto-national sense regarding Filastin, as it was termed, from the seventeenth century on,” writes Khaled M. Safi, a historian at Al-Aqsa University. Safi quotes a distinguished historian of the Arab world, Albert Hourani (“The Fertile Crescent in the Eighteenth Century” in A Vision of History: Near Eastern and Other Essays, 1961):

Since the central [Ottoman] Government could no longer control the Empire, it could no longer serve as the focus of loyalty and solidarity. Thus we can observe in the course of the eighteenth century a strengthening of the communal loyalties which had always formed the basis of Ottoman society, and a regrouping of the peoples of the Empire around those authorities which could give them what the Imperial Government no longer gave: a defense against disorder and a system of law regulating the relations of man and man.

Hourani continued: “It was the pressure of these local forces which gave a new form to the relationship between the Ottoman Government and the provinces. All over the Empire, there arose local ruling groups loyal to the Sultan but possessing a force, a stability and to some degree an autonomy of their own. It was only through the mediation of these groups that the Ottoman Empire was still able to keep some sort of moral and material hold on its subjects.”

Palestinian consciousness, however, seems to have preceded the 17th century. The famous 10th-century Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, who was born in Jerusalem, describes Palestine (or Filastin) in great deal, including its lush farmland and nourishing natural waters, in his book, Description of Syria, Including Palestine. Nazmi Al-Ju’beh, an historian at  Birzeit University, writes in “Palestinian Identity and Cultural Heritage” that Al-Muqaddasi “uses the terminology ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinian’ with the clear-cut meaning of geographic belonging and identity.”

Later, inhabitants of Palestine resisted Napoleon’s army and in 1834, peasants there rebelled, unsuccessfully, against the taxes and conscription imposed by the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha. Such threats by perceived foreigners tend to create a communal consciousness. Safi concludes, “The revolt [against the Egyptians, that is, against other Arab Muslims] indicates the presence of an embryonic territorial and therefore social and political awareness.”

In the early 1920s, after the French (under the Sykes-Picot Agreement) forbade independent Arab rule of greater Syria, of which Palestine was regarded as the southern province, Arab leaders were determined to defend the independence of Palestine. The British of course would have none of that; it ruled Palestine under the League of Nations mandate system that incorporated the 1917 Balfour Declaration‘s endorsement of the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The victims of British and French duplicity, like their forebears, tended to develop, or rather increase, a communal identity. This identity was already solidifying as the Zionist plan for an exclusivist state became a reality on the ground through the eviction of fellahin and city dwellers from properties purchased by Jewish individuals and organizations; in Zionist eyes these were Jewish lands that had to be redeemed after their defilement by non-Jews. (Stephen Halbrook’s valuable “The Alienation of a Homeland” shows that only a small percentage of those properties were purchased from individual tillers of the soil. Most were acquired from absentee feudal landlords in Beirut and elsewhere who had never established ownership in a Lockean manner, that is, by mixing their labor with the land.)

The dehumanization of the Palestinians was manifest in the Western attitude that these individuals saw themselves merely as undifferentiated members of an Arab horde, indifferent to their immediate surroundings, that is, to their homes, towns, villages, farming communities, market connections, and ultimately their larger homeland, and thus would accept “transfer” to other Arab areas. No westerner ever thought of himself in such nonhuman terms, but thinking of Palestinians that way came easy. That’s the stuff of mass injustice, of literal and cultural genocide.

Realization of the dream of a Jewish state logically entailed the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians, who by the common standard of justice were legitimate owners of their land. Those who remained were made third-class citizens or even worsein the apartheid state. The countless micro offenses against those individuals were compounded by the macro offense: the destruction of their flourishing culture, communities, and country.

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Individualism, Liberalism, and Verbal Accuracy

If you value liberty and morality, please do not misuse the word “individualism” by suggesting that it has anything to do with anti-social behavior, and do not misuse the word “liberalism” by suggesting that it has anything to do with libertinism or welfare statism. Individualism – that is, the primacy of the individual over any collective – is a necessary precondition of social cooperation, and (classical) liberalism – that is, unconditional respect for individual liberty and private property – is a necessary precondition of a dignified and virtuous life.

The destruction of civilization starts with the destruction of meaning, so if you value civilization, do not play into the hands of its enemies by adopting their language. Individualism and liberalism are good – to realize this, it suffices to notice that their opposites are not community and self-discipline (those are their extensions), but conformism and enslavement. Know your friends, so that you do not unwittingly join your enemies.

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Cultural Marxism’s Fundamental Flaw

I just listened to a Munk Debate titled, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…” (found here). It was semi-interesting. Much to Stephen Fry’s and my own disappointment, “political correctness” was hardly discussed or debated at all.

Still, what was discussed had my mind bouncing around different ideas on race and gender. Psychologist Jordan Peterson made the point that only individuals have rights (and thus responsibilities), not groups, and when we assign groups rights without responsibilities (his opponents weren’t interested in doing so), disaster likely ensues.

I wasn’t quite sure why at the time, but this brought to my mind cultural Marxism. It was not a term used the debate at all, but it is a term associated with the idea of political correctness. And in fact, I’m not well versed on what it even means, so I did some searching. I read the introduction on the Wikipedia page, which wasn’t very helpful. Then I watched this video explaining cultural Marxism, linked to by the Mises Institute.

The foundational claims made by cultural Marxists seems to be that 1) groups exist, 2) groups act, 3) groups are either oppressive or oppressed, 4) group identity is mostly unchosen, but not always (eg. transgenders), and 5) group identity entails privilege, or not.

As a cisgendered “white” heterosexual male, I am a member of a number of groups that have historically and contemporaneously been categorized as  oppressive and privileged. The funny thing is, the only person I have ever oppressed is my cisgendered “white” heterosexual (I think) son. I oppressed him violently, actually.

Cultural Marxists would argue that cisgendered “white” heterosexual males have, at least in the Western world (and for heterosexual males, the entire world), been the group that has oppressed all others, those who identify with groups such as women, “people of color”, homosexuals, and transgenders. Seems inarguable as we survey the history of the West, does it not?

And as oppressors, they have enjoyed political and legal privileges not afforded these other groups. This also seems inarguable as we survey history. But there seems to me to be something wrong with this so-called “critical theory” approach to topics of oppression and privilege.

This brings us to what seems to be the fundamental flaw in cultural Marxism: the refusal to engage in methodological individualism. From the Mises Wiki:

Methodological individualism is the theory that social and economic phenomena can be explained by reference to the actions of individuals rather than groups or collectives. Based on this theory groups and collectives are not entities which can act in and of themselves but only through the action of the individual members of which they are composed.

If instead we approach the analysis of oppression and privilege under methodological individualism, what you see when you look at me as an individual who happens to be cisgendered, “white”, heterosexual, and male is not an oppressor of women, “people of color”, homosexuals, and transgenders. Never once in my life have I done any such thing (except, again, toward my son). Nor, to my knowledge, has my father (except to his children).

And when I look out at my group peers, I see nary an individual who has oppressed anyone (except perhaps their children, at some point). You see, I am not an oppressor, and when I was, it was only toward another single individual. It was never toward a group, nor any of the above listed groups.

For that I consider myself a good person, a good man. And I believe that there are many other good people, good men from “my” group, in this world. And not only my contemporaries, but throughout history. There have been many who have been good men, and most men have never wielded any political power.

Yet here are the cultural Marxists (and social justice warriors), in their fight against oppression and privilege, grouping good men like myself in with bad men just because we share characteristics. I find that sickening. Not only am I being grouped in with violent pricks, but violent pricks are and have been quite arguably the minority of “my” group.

And here as a supposed member of “my” group, I must feel guilty for it’s abhorrent actions and “check” the privilege I supposedly have, which having was never in my control to begin with. If you think telling me these things and making demands on me is going to be received with supplication, you are a certifiable idiot.

I don’t wonder why other cisgendered “white” heterosexual males get pulled into identity politics on the right. I know exactly why. It’s because they’re being accused of doing something horrendous which they have no recollection of doing as individuals. It creates resentment, which breeds radicalism, and when they live in a society ruled by one-size-fits-all policy, which we most unfortunately do, they just might feel like violence, either through the ballot box or not, is their only recourse.

So no, unless I’m totally mistaken on the details, I don’t consider myself a cultural Marxist. It’s fundamentally flawed because it fails to recognize that groups are imaginary and that only individuals exist and act. And further, it seems to call for political solutions, which are by definition violent, and in this case, violent toward individuals by virtue of group identity. No, thank you.

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“Avengers: Infinity War” Is A Cosmic Battle of Individualism vs. Collectivism

WARNING: this post contains spoilers.


“Whoever destroys a soul [of Israel], it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – The Talmud

One of the oldest wars in history is the conflict between the ideas of collectivism and individualism. Collectivists have always been willing to sacrifice other people for the sake of group well-being, and there have always been individualists willing to stop them.

This battle has found its newest dramatization in the epic new Marvel movie Avengers: Infinity Warwhich brings our ass-kicking Marvel superheroes together for a showdown with the villain Thanos. Thanos is out to acquire the Infinity Stones, elemental stones which will give him control over existence itself – and which will enable him to carry out his mission of “restoring balance” to the universe by killing off half of its population.

Throughout this film, we see that a defining characteristic of our Avenger heroes is a stubborn belief in the supreme value of individuals and a stubborn refusal to sacrifice human life, even when collective human survival seems to be at stake.

Loki gives the Tesseract/Space Stone to Thanos in order to save Thor. For much of the movie, Red Witch fiercely resists the idea of hurting Vision, even though the practical course is to destroy the Mind Stone embedded in his forehead. Starlord can hardly bring himself to kill Gamora, even though letting her live risks the revelation of the Soul Stone to Thanos. Gamora chooses to reveal the Soul Stone to Thanos to save Nebula’s life. Dr. Strange gives up the Time Stone to Thanos to save Tony Stark (who he doesn’t even like).

On the other hand, to Thanos, individuals are utterly expendable. He has a utopian vision of a “balanced” world, and he has no problem committing genocide to make that possible.

Thanos’ collectivism expresses itself in a backwards view of the world which many viewers may not immediately catch on to. Despite the film’s scenes on the devastated and once-populated Titan (which attempt to make Thanos’ mission seem sympathetic and reasonable) there are literally zero cases where eliminating half of a population by genocide improves productivity and wellbeing for the other half. And so far, there have been zero cases of rising world population leading to worldwide death and destruction.

The world’s population has increased by more than 2 billion since 1983. If Thanos was right, you would expect that we on planet Earth would be in dire straits.

On the contrary, by the World Bank’s measure there was a decline of 74.1% in extreme poverty from 1987 to 2013. Even if you don’t take the World Bank’s figures for granted, extreme poverty seems to be falling by other measures, too.

Why is poverty falling? There’s no simple answer to that, but there’s not much reason to think that additional humans are making things worse. And even a basic understanding of division of labor should make us realize that humans tend to become more productive and wealthier as they join larger and more complex networks of people. Given peace and freedom, that’s usually what happens.

Thano’s backward (and unproven) view of the world stands in contrast to human reality, and it also contrasts with the reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark is an individual human being who has been instrumental in creating wealth and technology to lift millions, if not billions, out of poverty. Prince T’Challa and his sister Shuri help to lead a society that is wealthy, prosperous – all while protecting the lives of individuals.

All of the Avengers are remarkable individuals who contribute enormous value to the world by means of their individual strength and freedom and ability. Their existence (and the existence of real remarkable individuals) is a signpost to the unexpected truth that there is no conflict between individual self-realization and collective well-being.

Everything the Avengers represent proves Thanos’ philosophy wrong, but it’s left to the viewer to see that. It’s my hope that people come away from this movie seeing just how deeply flawed Thanos’s worldview is.

Reality vindicates the quote at the beginning of this piece. To save one life really is to save the world entire, more often than you might think. Let’s hope that the next Avengers movie reflects the victory of that idea.

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