Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Peter Kropotkin certainly challenged conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom smells. Conventional wisdom is the rotting corpse of desiccated thought. Conventional wisdom gave us Vietnam. Iraq. Conventional wisdom is groupthink, It is crowdsourcing. Conventional wisdom is our system where 40% of workers are a $400 bill away from a financial crisis. Emerson wrote that “society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” (Ralph sends his apologies for his 19th-century sexism) Mr. Emerson goes on to assert that for the sake of our daily bread, each bread eater sacrifices his liberty and culture. 

Culture? Do the shackles of conventional groupthink, whoops, I mean wisdom, lurk within the culture of compulsory schooling? For thirty years I didn’t teach history, I taught “school”, as my late friend John Taylor Gatto would say. And what is school? School teaches conformity, obedience, dependence. Gatto wrote that it is difficult to make self-confident spirits conform, especially if their parents have given them unconditional love. School teaches conditional love. Report cards, certificates, rewards, punishment. Walk into a classroom in an NYC public school and read all the rules posted on the walls. Points gained for answering a question. Rules for going to the bathroom. Emotional dependence on approval. Intellectual dependency on receiving the right answer. Conventional wisdom says we need more school. College as the ticket to the good life. Really? An admissions official at Harvard said that the admissions process has created a nation of hoop jumpers. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t buy into it. Just tell me how high to jump, sir, please let me in. Conventional wisdom, for $50,000 a year, just to learn obedient thinking.

Emerson goes on to write that it is easy to live in the world if you just go along with conventional wisdom. It takes some grit to keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude in the  “midst of the crowd.” The crowd is conventional wisdom, solitude is treading a path where everyone might not agree. The Taoists tried to tell us, there at the beginning. 


It is said that the Tao Te Ching may be the greatest classic to challenge conventional wisdom. Do we flourish best when we are left alone by authority, such as the Chinese Communist Party, the official repository conventional wisdom? Or do we need to be told by Party officials how to flourish? Wu-wei. Follow your inner guide, who resides in your secret place. Reject imposed authority, conventional wisdom.

At this point, I should confess that I, like everyone, rely on conventional wisdom a lot. My grandfather taught me the conventional way to dig up a potato when I was four. When I reached the age of reason I questioned his religion. I’ve been an outsider ever since. I walk into a room and reflexively think that whatever you are for, I’m against. That includes this course. It may just be a nasty habit

To reject conventional wisdom is to live on the tightrope of uncertainty. There are no definitive answers anyway. We try, we fail, we try again, but we need to open up to a universe that has wisdom embedded within it. The universe may just be a conspiracy to push everyone to fulfill their inner truth. And yet this wisdom is a tightrope we must tread carefully, not only because it changes with Time, but if we impose desiccated conventional wisdom, we fall into the abyss.

Free Machine: a new framework for anarchic thinking?

Can organizations like help us counter the domination of Big Tech?

On their website, poses the following two question drawn straight from the river of anarchy:

How do we create space to envision a future that is based on democratic values: one that will be equitable, abundant, and sustainable? And how do we encourage individuals and communities to see themselves as having a crucial role in achieving this future?
AlphaGo delivered a Sputnik moment
Can we organize a public alternative to Big Tech?

Hardly anyone is offline for very long these days. We are addicted to media and their connected devices. We are subjected to the blur and blend of entertainment and information. We have drowned in a tidal wave of distraction by corporations who have designed these weapons of mass distraction…to sell us stuff. The sheer ubiquity, and our reliance, on the feeds from our phones and tablets and netbooks, has made them, in effect, an Overton window. That is, these media and tech conglomerates plop their images and content into our minds in such a way that they have become authorities determining what is possible and what is acceptable. Since these companies are an integral part of what Chomsky called the state-capital complex, we can’t assume that the goal of amassing wealth will have benign outcomes for the average person.

The directors at Free Machine have devised a game called Tomorrowland that helps us to start thinking about all this as a people, helps us to answer the two questions above. As a group, we imagine ourselves as a city council and thrash out how we move toward an objective, four of which are neatly summarized in the chart below:

One of the reasons I decided to study the history and philosophy of anarchy was to discover ideas and techniques to help us move toward that Eden. The current of anarchy is present whenever illegitimate authority is challenged. The courage of determined people in the face of plutocrats and dictators may help us in our quest to democratize the amazing revolution offered by artificial intelligence.

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

Posted on November 10, 2019 by Kim Broadie

Chinese state security agencies are likely using the technology to target human rights activists, pro-democracy advocates, and critics of President Xi Jinping’s regime, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.

Ryan Gallagher, How US Tech Giants Are helping to Build Chinas Surveillance State, The Intercept, July 11, 2019.

Today’s New York Times website carries an article by Cade Metz describing improved facial recognition technology. Databases of faces compiled without the people’s knowledge. I fear age-old methods of resistance have become obsolete. It’s all adding up to total control.

After 30 years, the methods have become invisible

During the heyday of Empire, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire also appeared all-powerful. Unassailable. The notion of resisting the most powerful government on Earth seemed ludicrous. And yet there were courageous leaders in both the American Revolution, and the Indian independence movement that dared the impossible and succeeded.

Before I get to Mr. Gallagher’s article in The Intercept, I would like to call your attention to one who dared. In Peter Heeh’s excellent biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, he describes in detail the more obscure aspects of the early Indian independence movement. While Aurobindo Ghose is not as well known as Gandhi, he is revered in India as one of the liberators. Before he began his more famous spiritual journey, he was quite the radical mastermind plotting independence, swaraj, or self-rule for India. He designed a multifront campaign starting with journalism but also included terrorism, complete with bombs. The final stage would be total noncooperation. Thrown into prison, Aurobindo was almost executed. Gandhi carried on, but for him, it finished him tragically. In the late 19th century, overthrowing British rule seemed unthinkable to both the Indian political elites as well as the average person in the street. It was Aurobindo’s belief that once it was demonstrated that independence and self-rule was possible, it would become a fixed idea in enough people so that success became inevitable. Surveillance technology may make that belief obsolete.

Now, the Chinese Communist Party is cranking up state-controlled surveillance in a way that seems to be a throwback to the overt oppression of the 19th century European empires. No more Tiananmen Squares. Thanks to American innovation, they are using techniques almost unimaginably more insidious than the secret police of yesteryear. And who’s to say that the US government won’t emulate it, especially now that China is asserting itself as a global power? The point is that, with the surveillance technology that is being employed by the Chinese government, the methods Aurobindo used and encouraged in India would never get off the ground in today’s China. It does not bode well for dissent and adequate information in the US.

Blame the OpenPower Foundation. The Intercept article has described it as a nonprofit led by executives from Google and IBM. This sweet and innocent “driver of innovation” has arranged a collaboration with Chinese and American companies resulting in “Aegis”, a new, more powerful surveillance system. Let’s let Mr. Gallagher speak:

Aegis can provide “a full view to the virtual world,” the company claims in the documents, allowing government spies to see “the connections of everyone,” including “location information for everyone in the country.”
The system can also “block certain information [on the] internet from being visited,” censoring content that the government does not want citizens to see, the documents show.
Chinese state security agencies are likely using the technology to target human rights activists.
Aegis equipment has been placed within China’s phone and internet networks, enabling the country’s government to secretly collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and web browsing histories,

Ryan Gallagher, “How US Tech Giants Are Helping To Build China’s Surveillance State”

So far, it appears that the Chinese government is able to monitor 200,000,000 people. If you think it’s a little creepy for Google to ask you to review a place you just visited, imagine a government focusing on signs of dissent based on what you’ve, said, read, visited, or who you’ve befriended. Its companies are selling this technology to other governments, especially in the Middle East.

How could an Aurobindo, a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, or even a Thomas Paine mount massive resistance in the face of such a technology capable of nipping it in the bud?

What Do I Write About? Kim A. Broadie

Freedom, mostly.  Trite, abstract, meaningless? An empty box that needs to be filled in? A seed crystal moment about freedom occurred just prior to my retirement. Chantise, a fellow history teacher, stopped me in the hallway and said, “Soon you’ll be able to drink daiquiris for breakfast on the beach in Trinidad.” Is that freedom? Living like the aging Hemingway to round out a life as a teaching apparatchik?  No, an old Greek definition could be interpreted that freedom must have something to do with human flourishing, the fulfillment of one’s capacities in a life affording them scope. At last, my time was approaching.

My first day of this new life occurred in the dead of winter. Everyone had gone to work, leaving me with time and space in an empty house in one of the outer boroughs. The small, still voice that had been silenced through all these years of external demands now made an entrance onto the stage of my mind, causing vertigo. 

Sometimes we just have to stand up for ourselves

After 20 years of teaching history in New York City high schools, I can’t help but be obsessed with who we are and where we are headed as a people. Old John Dewey wrote way back in the ’20s that industrialization, as it existed in the United States, was not compatible with democracy as a way of life. Professor Dewey envisioned democracy as an anarchic moral ideal balancing freedom and equality. What would he think today about a data-driven society being utterly transformed by AI? How is it all turning out for the average person? These are themes I want to write about, to get involved in some way.

As a recent Frontline documentary makes plain, the general ledger seems tilted toward the downside of AI in a way reminiscent of the early Industrial Revolution in Britain. There, they said, it took 9 decades for wages to start rising. In the United States, where automation has occurred, it has been a silent job killer, diminishing the overall standard of living by 10-15% over the past 20 years. Routine work for human beings is disappearing forever. One sociologist said that the #1 job in the DC area was a cashier. Mostly women who are disproportionately represented in marginal jobs anyway. She then pointed to an image of a McDonald’s self-ordering panel to say that the displacement of cashiers has begun. 

It is easy to see why analysts say that AI tips the scale on the side of capital at the expense of labor. Yes, we are thrown back onto the old dualism. Wages have been decoupled from productivity. Hence increasing inequality. Gaping inequality is incompatible with individual freedom. That much, at least, is confirmed by history. Added to that is the exploitation of our personal data as the new natural resource, the new oil, also called surveillance capitalism. Cotton was the oil of the Old South, built on slave labor, financed through Wall Street. Stockholders require expanding profits, and given the symbiosis of total bureaucracies of governments and corporations worldwide, how long will it be before the social credit system employed in China becomes THE universal instrument of suppression? Who is standing up for the little guy? This is what I want to write about.

My first writing project was an attempt to discover the real reason why Vice-President Wallace was kicked under the bus by FDR and the Democratic Party in 1944. Not only did this good man resurrect US agriculture during the depth of the Great Depression, but he also used his position at the War Board during World War II to spread the New Deal to workers in Latin America who supplied the US with material for the war effort. He was once the most popular politician in America, after Roosevelt. He expressed a vision of the world after the war as the Century of the Common Man. What we got was the American Empire. During a time of racial tension, he promoted civil rights for African Americans. He was crushed because he wouldn’t buy into the Cold War build-up of the military-industrial complex. The alliances between government and industry back then continue today, with huge military contracts going to Google, and Microsoft, who recently won a new cloud contract with the Pentagon. Taft-Hartley was passed to suppress unions. The clock has turned back to the 19th century.

And then along came Matk Janus. Mr. Janus filed a lawsuit against his public union because his union advocated policies he didn’t agree with. He didn’t want his dues to fund those policies. The Bradley Foundation has funded templates to state legislatures and also litigation efforts like Janus to gut organized labor. When the Supreme Court decided in favor of Janus, unions took another beating. Government and technology are beating workers back into serfdom. 

Eudaimonia: to flourish. The daimon in ancient Greek meant one’s inner spirit force, that which needs to express itself. How could it, when the average income of a household in Saginaw is $16,000, a town which used to build cars?  Truckers in the ‘80’s used to earn the equivalent of $100,000. Now it is $40,000, and their jobs are being replaced by self-driving trucks. Gig workers are not considered employees by the companies they work for. What is to be done?
I cannot write merely personal reflections. The task, as evidenced by this course, is to use this global platform to crowdsource ideas and ways average people and groups could band together, inject into the bloodstream of the world culture our determination to bend this new world, these new technologies, toward a more egalitarian flourishing of individuals. Or, we could wait for Bill Gates to fund a new idea, laudable as his projects are. History is replete with such examples. I am reminded of George Orwell’s descriptions in Homage to Catalonia about the atmosphere among the anarchists in Northern Spain during their Civil War. He wrote that everyday relations were transformed; communal decision making. Workplace democracy anyone? Another world is possible. Let’s try.

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