The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Circles of Identity, Circles of Violence

Globe on FireThe worst humanitarian disaster in the world today is almost certainly Yemen, which is under siege and bombed every day. There is a famine, people are dying every day, and there is no let-up in sight.

For years, there were terror attacks in Iraq virtually every day; bombs going off in markets, and so on. Then someone would, say, attack the London Underground and the West would go into paroxysms of grief.

We care about violence in direct proportion to how much we identify with the victims. We identify with fellow Westerners far more than we do with non-Westerners. Let there be an attack in Western Europe (not Eastern Europe) or an English-speaking nation and we cry and talk about racism and fascism and intolerance and go on and on and on.

And meanwhile Yemenis die. Iraqis die. Afghans die.

One might say “all deaths matter” but we don’t act that way. Some deaths definitely matter more than others, some violence definitely matters more than other violence. When Saudi Arabia, aided by the United States, bombs the hell out of Yemen, well, that doesn’t much matter.

When some right-wing fascist shoots up a mosque, we go into paroxysms for days.

All lives, and all deaths, are not equal, they never have been.

Which is, I guess, like saying, “The sun is hot.” Everyone knows this, we just, too often, pretend otherwise. We pretend we care about people who aren’t like us, who aren’t members of our societies or societies we identify with.

And maybe we do. A little bit. A very, little bit.

Identification is in the running for the first evil; the first sin.

Oh, it’s entirely understandable: humans are tribal. For much of history, the most dangerous animal to a human was another human, and we compete for the same resources. Our near-competitor is other humans (with insects coming a close second, ever since the agricultural revolution).

It is human to identify: We put ourselves first (my body!), our families second, our friends third, our tribe fourth, and everyone else a distance thousandth.

But much of what is human is evil or self-destructive. Much of what is human is especially evil or self-destructive when it scales to billions of people.

In a world where humans are a few million or even a few hundred million people, what we do doesn’t much matter. Oh we can and did cause ecological collapses. We can and did cause genocides. We can and did wipe out entire species (including, basically, all megafauna). We’ve always been cannibalistic locusts on two legs.

But when there are billions of us, when we live in each others pockets, and when what happens in the Amazon, the Congo, or the Arctic bounces back to effect us almost immediately, when what happens when a country like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen becomes a failed state, or when a country like Saudi Arabia becomes a fantastically rich, fundamentalist state exporting its particular ideology all over the world, well, our identities are ramped up into weapons far more deadly– more so than they were when our ancestors wiped out the European aborigines, or most of the Native Americans.

Identity tells us not just who to care about, it tells us who to kill.

And we are very good at killing.

The irony is that identities are very close to arbitrary. You didn’t choose where you were born, or who your parents are, so you didn’t choose your culture or your nationality. As for religion, most people worship the religion of their parents.

We kill each other fighting over characteristics we didn’t create (you didn’t create Christianity, or Islam, or Hinduism, or, America, or Russia) and which almost none of us chose.

This is bug-fuck insane. If you change your religion, you are still you. If you change your nationality, you are still you. We are killing ourselves or identities which are, well, crazy to identify with. (This will strike most people as radical, but no, your religion or nationality is not fundamental and if you think it is, you are nuts.)

Or we divide ourselves up over frankly absurd biological characteristics: the color of our skin, or our sexual characteristics.

None of this makes any sense.

And the consequences are severe: Because we do not take care of everyone, because we are scared of each other, we treat each other badly.

The simplest and surest rule of human nature is this: People who are abused tend to become abusers. People who are treated well tend to treat other people well. Oh, this isn’t a 100 percent rule–there are always exceptions, those people who were abused and turn into saints, those who are treated well and are still bad…but overall it’s a rule that works.

Evil redounds. It doesn’t always, or even often, redound directly on those who do evil (the world would be a better and simpler place if it did), but it does hit other people.

Evil leads to more evil.

Good leads to more good.

But because someone has a different culture, or religion, or nationality, or skin color, or genitals, we think it’s ok to do them more evil, and less good. We think it’s ok to care more about the evil done to people we identify with, and care less about people we identify less with.

And in a world with billions of people, that doesn’t work. The evil we do thousands of miles away comes back to us.

Further, our identification with humans above all other life is also a problem.

If we cared about what was happening to other species, to other animals, we could have avoided the worst of climate change and environmental collapse. Because, we, humans are not yet taking it in the neck, we don’t much care; we have done, effectively, nothing.

But there is already an apocalypse among animals, with species dying every day, in the fast mass extinction in Earth’s history.

This was a warning sign.

But they’re only animals, we don’t identify with them, so, well, whatever.

In a world with billions of people, we will only have a good world, a world worth living in, and maybe even a world we even can live in, if we either identify with no one or everyone. Either we recognize that humans, and life, are a web supporting each all of us, and that our good lives require all of us, or we will create hell.

Or rather, given that climate change and ecological collapse are now irreversible to some extent, we have already created hell, it just hasn’t been completely delivered by nature yet.

Preferential identity, for us as a species, is an evil. Most religions and nationalities and ideologies, putting some people above everyone else, are evil. Perhaps they have done some good in the past. Perhaps they do some good in present. But overall they lead to evil, and cannot but lead to evil. (As most recently, nationalism did.)

No one wants to believe this, but most people identify with nationalities or religions or cultures or skin color or whatever. They identify with crap that either clearly is not them, or which is meaningless (who cares how much melanin you have?)

Until we fix this, every fix for our problems as a species will be temporary: a band-aid on a gusher.

So it has ever been.

Does it have to ever be?

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – March 17, 2019


Water Wars And the Great Indian Die-Off


  1. Joan

    Thank you for this post, Ian. I have pondered and struggled with this for years. The only workable assumption I have is that maybe we are running up against some kind of limit of human intelligence, at least on a mass scale. There are individuals who get it (those who understand that humans exist within the context of nature, and that the characteristics of one’s meat suit are not defining aspects of the soul), but those individuals are scattered and outnumbered. I’m not sure there will ever be enough such individuals in any one place to really change the tide. That may not be an option that is available to us.

    I think that in a century or two, humans will have returned to the idea that we exist within the context of nature. Our current era may be viewed as some kind of Icarus age. Because of fossil fuels, humans were able to treat the rest of the world like a machine and temporarily get away with it. But then we burned up all the black magic in the ground (per se), and thus our civilization had to fall. Maybe future humans will get one of these things, but not both. Even if humans understand the necessity of nature in the future, I have my doubts that tribalism will ever cease.

  2. ponderer

    I don’t think its identity, I think it’s agency. There is not enough of an association with those far away evils and our personal actions. If we all had to agree to support SA against Yemen, it would never happen. It’s very similar to what Congress has done by giving the war making powers to the executive. They absolved their responsibility and their agency, so they don’t have to consider all the bad things that result (or be held accountable for them). Another example is the Holocaust, Hitler offered to send the Jews (white, European) to any country that would take them, but none did. It happens to be brown people today, but I don’t think that is key. That also brings us back to a militia versus a standing military. We don’t have to participate in the evils our military does, we don’t even have to think about it (well some of us). If these things were in a referendum, a yearly authorization, I don’t think they would happen. At the very least I think we would have much more debate about them.

  3. +++-

    Culture of some kind is inevitable, just as language is, as humans require both to form functioning societies. Cultural differences, if they exist, will always result in some degree of friction as people in one culture will inevitably see some of the things people in another one believe and do as absurd, baseless, or wrong.

    This is the inescapable contradiction underlying the soi-disant \”liberal hawk\” perspective of the past two decades, there\’s no way to demand violent intervention any time one\’s sensibilities are offended and advocate for the peaceful coexistence of many disparate cultures.

    The paradox is that things like the deterrence doctrine, denounced as appeasement by the \”liberal hawks\” who celebrated its demise, were what made it possible for polite discourse to include stinging criticism of other nations and cultures to begin with. Without those sorts of clear bounds in place any such criticism becomes a potential call to arms. At that point there can be either no criticism at all, or no coexistence at all. SJWs vs. ultra-nationalists. Madness.

  4. bruce wilder

    I agree with ponderer: agency, not identity per se, is the problem.

    Individual humans, individually, are all over the spectrum of careless, foolish, impulsive, fearful, greedy, violent, but most people are also capable of empathy, compassion and affection.

    But, we are social creatures. We are individually puny and, frankly, stupid creatures. We do what we do in hierarchical social organization. For better and worse.

    The truth is, we need social association (community) and hierarchical authority to do well, to thrive, to, yes, behave ethically.

    You say religious and national identity are arbitrary and that is true enough. They are artifacts of social and political organization. And, political organization we need. We apparently are not very good at it, particularly at present scales. Political organization, I mean.

    Political organization seems to attract the worst people to the power the organization creates, or maybe the power corrupts the elite, and the hoi polloi appear to be clueless much of the time about what to do to get better leadership.

    We, humans, are really bad at politics.

  5. Daniel A Lynch

    “So it has ever been. Does it have to ever be?”

    Evolution is slow, bombs and climate change are fast.

  6. anon y'mouse

    we “need hierarchy to behave ethically”?

    then why were some of the most ethical societies one in which hierarchy probably did not exist, to any degree?

    we *might* need hierarchy to have the kind of civilization that we have. but that has not been one unending stream of good.

    smells like “myth of Progress”.

  7. Kater Murr

    There\’s a telling error in this piece. The War in Yemen is US led. US(and UK) provides the jets, satellite targeting via navy vessels off coast, has black ops and mercs on the ground, and runs torture centers inside Yemen. The War on Yemen is led by the US and assisted by other NATO powers. KSA is a willing proxy. Casual racism, of the liberal academic variety, leads many to posit Saudi Arabia as the backward monstrous kingdom taking the lead in Yemen when the war has been ran by the US(CENTCOM) since the Obama administration with its drone strikes and JSOC Military raids that slaughter women and children indiscriminately(Bombing Mosques, Wedding Parties, as it has done Afghanistan, etc). But do go on with your righteous outrage that echoes the Joker in that horrendous Nolan Batman film that glorifies cops, billionaire millionaire contractors, and Patriot Act surveillance powers.

  8. Willy

    We, humans, are really bad at politics.

    As a whole yes, but some more than others. The thinking wee folks found here are better at standing apart and debating, often minutia for the sake of “nuance”. But the tribal mob wee folks are better at all shuffling together in a tightly bound mass. Somebody must be leading the direction of these masses. And I’m betting they’re pretty good at it.

    Political organization seems to attract the worst people to the power the organization creates, or maybe the power corrupts the elite, and the hoi polloi appear to be clueless much of the time about what to do to get better leadership.

    Power games always reward the winners. And winners usually have the most weapons. And the best weapons are best kept hidden until the moment of attack. So to play well one must become what we define as “corrupt”. I’m thinking that such skills are more important in directing the shuffling masses than is minutia for the sake of nuance.

    But you already knew all that. I’m thinking we need to figure out more ethical power game winners.

  9. Ian Welsh

    Ah. Those brown people in Saudi Arabia. Incapable of taking the lead in evil. Must be led to evil by whites, rather than the coordination role in bombing being US because the US military is far more capable of coordinating bombing.

    Yes, those brown Saudi Arabians: they lack the robust white ability actually make moral choices, but can only follow where whites lead.

    Racism comes in a lot of varieties.

  10. +++-

    Obama was white?

  11. Hugh

    It is ahistoric to ignore the Saudis’ decades-long obsession with Shia Houthis in Yemen or their use of external enemies to redirect internal jihadist tensions outward. MBS has simply upped the levels of the monarchy’s standard survival strategies exponentially, an indication of just how unstable the KSA is and is becoming.

  12. alyosha

    .. identities are very close to arbitrary. You didn’t choose where you were born, or who your parents are, so you didn’t choose your culture or your nationality.

    Most of these are things each of us agrees to. Even the name our parents gave us – we weren’t born with it, it was programmed into us, along with an entire raft of teachings about identity. We were too young and powerless to resist the brainwashing, and so we agreed to it. Much of it was useful and necessary: don’t run out into the street, or you’ll become roadkill.

    Spiritual growth is learning to see past all of this, to realize its tenuous, and limiting nature. You have get past your tribe, past being a member of one particular species, past being a man or a woman, past being a member of this or that “club” (all of its members are there by mutual agreement). You have to see through all this conditioning for what it is.

    All of these are fictions, mind-creations to some degree. What is real is that each of us is life itself, expressing itself in human form. From an alien spacecraft floating above the earth, we’re not much different than a herd of caribou. Whatever individuality each member has, is miniscule, and delusional, compared to how overwhelmingly alike the herd members are.

    Moreover, beings aboard this spacecraft would not see lines drawn on the planet, in the way we have lines drawn on maps – these are yet more agreements that aren’t fundamentally real.

    An interesting experiment is to simply observe waking up in the morning. There’s usually a period of time, however small, as we’re waking up, where we still don’t know who we are. It’s as if all the things the mind was engaged with from the day before have to be reloaded. This includes our name, various identities, various problems and conflicts. That tells you all you need to know about how unreal and dream-like waking life is.

  13. Temporarily Sane

    Of course people aren’t as emotionally affected by the deaths of people they don’t know who live in a country thousands of miles away as they are when the victims are close to them. But do people really, genuinely care more on an emotional level, about people in, say, Paris gunned down by fanatics than they do about Yemenis being bombed into smithereens with our governments assistance? I’m not so sure.

    If graphic footage of Yemenis dying violently and the raw grief of the survivors appeared on every digital device in Europe and North America day in day out, along with a narrative that these are ordinary people trying live and feed their families just like you and your family etc. people would absolutely be affected on a gut level. But of course people being killed violently in our name and by our supposed “allies” never get the same level of sympathetic coverage that “our people” get when they are killed by our “enemies.” We are fed a constant diet of emotionally manipulative propaganda that consistently presents some people as worthy victims and others as “collateral damage” if they are mentioned at all.

    A bit OT but…. I am very wary of arguments based on a fixed “human nature” as if this is a settled issue. History shows that those who set themselves up as voices of reason, rationality and “science” always support the status quo. There is a whole cottage industry of “rational and reasonable” science aficionados on YouTube and they all end up supporting neoliberal capitalism or “classical liberalism” as many like to call it.

    The “race and IQ” fanatics of the right make mainstream neoliberal technocrats very uncomfortable because at some level they know that they promote the kind of “scientific” thinking that dehumanizes human beings and treats them as mindless objects. Justification for eugenics and genocide are only a hop skip and a jump away. Sam Harris comes to mind.

  14. +++-

    There is a whole cottage industry of “rational and reasonable” science aficionados on YouTube and they all end up supporting neoliberal capitalism or “classical liberalism” as many like to call it.

    Operation Mockingbird-style psyops would be my guess. Most are very slickly produced even when they\’re superficially cheap-looking.

    Kurzgesagt just released a video called ″Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos?″ Yay.

  15. Marcus

    I would agree that identity is a particular insidious phenomenon. Even or perhaps especially among those who deem their own identities exceptions to that rule because their identities are allied with the innocents and with good. About fifteen years ago a group of animal trackers and nature educators got together to discuss how they might apply their skills not only to saving nature, indigenous cultures, and young people, but also saving themselves from getting swept up in their own self importance. These were many of the people behind the revitalization that nature education experienced in the early 2000s. A firebrand of the discussion was a man named Paul Rezendes, a then-popular tracking teacher. One of my favorite quotes of his (imagine this in a thick Boston accent):

    “And again, we begin to think of people who exploit the environment as bad. They see us as bad. And again, the Moslems see the Christians as bad. And the Christians see the Moslems as bad. You know the scene. You didn’t even get out of it! You just put on a different hat and a different I.D.”

    “If you’re a tracker, if you want to I.D. with that, then the whole world is turned into bad and good according to that. You make your enemies, you make your friends; whoever is satisfying your image that you cop to.”

    Meanwhile, there was another much more charismatic fellow at the meeting named Jon Young. Besides having a persecution complex about his own newfound fame (he kept letting everyone know how hard it was to be the only student famous tracker Tom Brown Jr. had taught the same way Tom Brown had been taught by the mythical Native American “Grandfather,”) Jon Young was also adamant that animal trackers were the chosen ones to save nature and the children of the world from the big bad modern society and its ignorant ways. And Jon was exceptionally gifted at saying all this while pulling on the heartstrings and name dropping different Native American elders that were popular at the time. Jon went on to help set up a few outdoor schools and mail order naturalist programs that were thinly-guised pyramid schemes that one of his students later explained as “learn the teachings so you can then start your own outdoor school and teach them.” In the present day, Jon’s brand of wilderness schools dominates across the entire world. And that’s just one example out of dozens for how a crafty individual leveraged identity within the wilderness skills/nature education scene.

    But I think this kind of ideological identity is so tantalizing because it fills the hole where our tribal identity belongs. And I don’t mean tribal identity based on religion or race or ethnicity or any of that; I mean tribe like the people, place, and lifeway that know me because they sustain me every day in a visceral, in-my-face way. Which is a thing that very few first worlders have ever experienced. In the comments I see people say “we” a lot about what we need or we are capable with, but what an alienated, disconnected we that is. I don’t think that we is capable of much of anything but the present (self-)destruction. Relationship has to come back to the forefront and if spirituality is supposed to allow us to bypass that need to be known by our people, our landbase, our tools, our children, and our neighbor’s children, than spirituality is just another anesthetic allowing us to burn the world and burn our raging desire to be authentically connected, same as when I lose hours upon hours looking at garbage on YouTube. Whether its the intelligence of the Earth, our subconscious, or simply cause and effect, at some point we will get brought together again to know each other on a sustainable level (and not a 7 billion person “global community.”) And it will probably be through the means of massive shared loss and the experience of both enacting and experiencing horrible violence.

    BTW that documentary is posted free online at if anyone’s interested.

  16. nihil obstet

    I mean tribe like the people, place, and lifeway that know me because they sustain me every day in a visceral, in-my-face way.

    This is something a lot of people miss about the rural self-described conservatives who have been voting Republican for the last thirty to forty years. They depend far more on family, church, and various associations for assistance in tough times than more mobile less connected people do. They fear the breakdown of the social bonds that they expect to help them if things go wrong — what happens if they get seriously ill, and no one attends church any more? or doesn’t take marriage “for worse” any more? They’ve been taught not to trust a welfare state, and what’s left is the tribe.

  17. scruff

    […]self-described conservatives who have been voting Republican for the last thirty to forty years. They depend far more on family, church, and various associations[…]

    There does also seem to be however a strange counter-current in this group, wherein what they proclaim they are worried about is the destruction of the nuclear family – which is itself in a current position of importance because of the destruction of greater communities. There is sometimes just as much community to be found in the far left anarchist circles as there is in conservative faith groups while – if I naively choose a point in time 15-20 years ago – having much less belief structure requirements.

    Speaking of community:

    In the present day, Jon’s brand of wilderness schools dominates across the entire world. And that’s just one example out of dozens for how a crafty individual leveraged identity within the wilderness skills/nature education scene.

    Hooo, boy. You’re not wrong; I’ve met Jon Young a few times and been through the Jon Young education model and it really is only good at bringing up people who want to be instructors themselves (I was never one of these), but it also seems to attract people who don’t really want to fundamentally change the way they view the world. Lately there has been a blossoming of conflict-based identity politics in these groups along the lines that are being popularized in right-wing videos about what’s happening on college campuses. It can’t end well; it’s a sort of familial abuse pattern that’s growing within a place which – once, at least, when I was there – was really, really good at providing a community structure for rootless children like me. JY’s model was more than you’re giving it credit for, I think, but there definitely does seem to have been something weak at the core of it which you describe well. For a while, other – psychologically healthy – individuals came into the JY circle and laid down a path that was NOT all about identity, conflict and self-importance. I don’t know how that got usurped, or how we get it back.

  18. Marcus

    Scruff, great to hear from someone else familiar with those circles. When were you involved in Jon Young’s stuff? I’m certainly no authority on him; I’ve only worked with some of his students/former students and the documentary I made with him in it used archival footage from 2002 (though I’d say, for a public persona like him, I felt like I was getting to see a really raw side of celebrity that’s usually kept under wraps.) I’m much more familiar with the Rewilding community and in particular an outdoor school with its own cultish personality dynamics where I spent most of my adult life.

    They depend far more on family, church, and various associations for assistance in tough times than more mobile less connected people do.

    …wherein what they proclaim they are worried about is the destruction of the nuclear family – which is itself in a current position of importance because of the destruction of greater communities.

    I’d take it a step further and say the nuclear family is another one of those things that was never intended to replace tribal identity, as many are attempting to do today. How could just two people and their offspring (which they attempt to assimilate into their own beliefs and preferences) be anything but an anorexic simulacrum of a tribe of diverse perspectives, ages, relationships, and skills?

    Tribal identity, I’d say, is more about the give and take of not only concrete support but also relationship support – learning to coexist, enjoy, and evoke the best from others who are made up so differently than you that they threaten your personal identity. That’s the opposite of what insulated nuclear families do.

    I’m not saying this is an easy or even realistic ideal to strive for in the world as it is. I lived off and on for fifteen years in a commune where we kept trying to replicate the above while identity and power slithered around right under our noses setting up its own structures. I’m still processing my own part in it all and what was “real,” what were other’s lies, and what was my own self-serving story.

  19. Marcus

    And what “familial abuse pattern” are you talking about within that scene? Like a rebellious son type thing in the SJW movement?

  20. scruff

    Yeah, I noticed that your doc seemed to have some sort of connection to Teaching Drum, and began to wonder what perspective you had on another Rewilding personality who’s got some shady skeletons in his own closet.

    I was at one of JY’s offspring schools 2006-2010-ish. JY was gone by that point, only part of its DNA, and would come back twice a year or so to lead workshops and give talks. What really struck me about your description was the pyramid scheme comparison, because I was never self-confident enough to feel comfortable as an instructor and the lack of direction or support for anything *other than* becoming an instructor really bothered me.

    I do think that there are some messianic undertones to the JY offspring schools, and a fair amount of identification-based conflict. But honestly, I’m not sure I’m entirely against the “identify as a tracker” thing, because how else does one get people to radically change their relationship to the Earth?

    I’m with you on the nuclear family being entirely inadequate as a stand-in for tribe. It just seems to be yet another desperate attempt to find *something* to hold onto that lets people accept the horrible deprivations their societies have been subject to.

    I don’t know what you mean by the “rebellious son in the SJW movement”; by “familial abuse pattern” I was kind of envisioning the sort of abuse people can only get away with when committing it against members of their family, because when brought against strangers it drives them away and prevents them from forming co-dependent connections with the abuser. Within the community, however, there is such emphasis on forming empathic bonds and building relationships that when some members of your community start to treat others in the community badly based on ideological identity groupings, there’s the same sort of excuses and gaslighting that I see in family abuse contexts. *shrug* I dunno, I chose the word in the minutes I had left before I had to leave for work; it might not be particularly meaningful.

  21. Marcus

    Hey Scruff – I feel like going too much more in-depth might be off topic. I’d love to email if you have the time. Mine is “of many voices at g mail dot com” without any spaces.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén