Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Yesterday on KQED's Forum program Michael Krasny hosted a panel talking about Graffiti in San Francisco. I thought a lot of these folks were talking around the right idea without nailing it.

One panelist had previously been a graffiti artist and was now a professor of Chicano studies. He thought we needed to engage the kids more (I thought, yep), give them avenues to express themselves (uh oh). Then he got off on a diatribe about how our culture oppresses these kids, is private property really moral, that sort of thing. Michael cut him off and he didn't go there again. It's a shame. I think the issue of private property is the right one. Kids join gangs to get power. Gangs are tribes. We want to belong to tribes.

Most of us, especially teenage boys, want to find our place in the world. We want to assert control. We want to find out who we boss around, and who we are going to have to obey.

Prehistorically, we joined tribes to gain power. A small tribe can have a readily understood structure, so you can figure out how to improve your position in the tribe. Then you can improve the tribe's wealth by asserting ownership of the environment. If that stuff is currently owned by someone else, you steal it. Sometimes this involves tribal warfare, like going to a nearby tribe and killing all the men and boys there (drive-by shootings). This take-and-take-back is what establishes tribal boundaries. It appears to have worked well enough in the past with Amazon-jungle-like population densities.

Here we are in the modern world, where this kind of behavior involves unsustainable mass slaughter (e.g. Iraq). Nowadays, there is an awfully big mega-tribe with an unfathomable structure. I'm trying hard to find my place within this mega-tribe. It's not fair, the power structure excludes lots of people who aren't born into the right families.

Lots of those people are trying to find a way around the mega-tribe. The tribe will tolerate some of this behavior. It will absorb some of it, changing the tribe itself, changing the identities of the winners and losers within the tribe. Heck, Open Source is like that, a subversion of the intellectual property regime that has served so many others so well.

But the tribe can't change too fast, or too many tribe members lose out. That's not in our interests. If you want to change the rules on private property, if you want to be a squatter, or a graffiti artist, or (for that matter) a Chinese businessman who sells unlicensed copies of designs originated elsewhere, you'll affect too many comfortable tribe members and we will come down on you, hard.

It seems petty to arrest and jail a ten-year-old tagging the side of a Safeway in San Francisco. One panelist talked about councelling for these kids. Sounds good, but any councelling is going to have to involve waking them up to a set of unpleasant realities, so they can get on with working within the structure of the mega-tribe:

  • They really are oppressed. This condition will not change in their lifetimes.

  • We really will keep sticking them in jail if they try to assert their rights over the ones we unjustly inherited.

  • The system for remedying their situation ("democracy") is malfunctioning badly, and there is very little they can do about it without a lot of thought and selfless action. The latter is not going to improve their personal situation.

  • There is no obvious legal route for them to get rich. If they work hard within the existing system, they can join the middle class, get a mortgage, and become indentured to the international capital system like the rest of us. And they'll be discriminated against the whole way.

    For those of us born to better circumstances, we need a clear-eyed understanding that we can't afford to discriminate against very many other people for very long. Eventually they'll figure out how to organize against the existing structure. We need more of the people of the world, especially those who live closer to me, to have a clearer path to at least some measure of personal fulfillment. Since there isn't enough material wealth to go around, and our media spends at minimum 20 minutes of every hour hammering home the message that unlimited material wealth is a baseline requirement for happiness, it seems to me that the message that our media is sending is opposed to my interests, and those of most owners of private property.

    I doubt I'm the first one to figure this out. Maybe this is why the sons and daughters of the rich have a greater tendency towards philanthropy: it's better to give some of it away than have all of it taken from you.

    And of course, it sure isn't all the media's fault. I just can't think of anything else right now.

    Mood: grumpy.

    Side note: remember to pray for those folks in Louisiana tonight. Maybe when they rebuild New Orleans they can put the whole city on piers, like Venice. Seems more reliable than pumps, and as Venice shows it's quite romantic.
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