We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are the most famous novels in the dystopian genre. However, both novels were inspired by a 1921 Russian novel, We, by mathematician Yevgeny Zamyatin. Although Zamyatin belonged to the Bolshevik party, he soon became a bitter critic of Soviet oppression. We is a satire of Soviet totalitarianism and was the first novel to be banned in the Soviet Union. After angering Soviet authorities by smuggling We to the West, Zamyatin requested exile, which Stalin granted. We wasn’t published in Russia until 1988.

We depicts a society that emphasizes uniformity in all aspects of life. Citizens, called numbers, live in glass apartment buildings and go about their daily routine in accordance with timetables that choreograph their movements. They are permitted some private time and can draw curtains for privacy. Amorous visits require paperwork to be given to a clerk assigned to each building. Nature exists entirely outside the glass walls of the State, as do “primitive” humans with “fur.” We focuses on the experiences of D-503, the chief builder and engineer of a soon-to-be launched spaceship intended to introduce races on other planets to the glorious ways of the One State. Though he considers himself to be a loyal citizen, he falls in with a group of rebels who want to sabotage the spaceship and destroy the State.

The novel is challenging to read. It’s narrated by D-503 and takes the form of a journal intended to be read by alien races. However, D-503 becomes psychologically fractured as he tries to maintain his identity as a loyal citizen while falling in love with the mysterious I-330, one of the rebels. Moreover, We's prose is often lyrical and uses mathematical concepts poetically.

The Dutton paperback version of We is available here as a free PDF.

Wendy Davis and Personal Narrative

In regards to the the Wendy Davis affair, why do politicians try to cultivate a personal narrative about their struggles and triumphs? More often than not, the reality doesn’t match the narrative. I was raised by a single mother who, unlike Davis, didn’t go to college, let alone Harvard, and who, unlike Davis, didn’t have an ex-husband making six figures. So her claim that she was a struggling single mother rings hollow. Nonetheless, I don’t care that she didn’t have the same experience as my mother. Politics is about policy, not about a politician’s experiences. Whether we agree or disagree with her views on abortion, for example, has nothing to do with her personal narrative.

In general, politicians have different life experiences than most Americans. Every president has either gone to Harvard or Yale; hence, every president has experienced a certain level of privilege not experienced by most voters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because public policy is not about the experience of any one person or one demographic. Playing to a particular audience and claiming empathy with that audience is just another form of demagoguery.

Debunking Anti-Fruitcake Bigotry

Knock-Knocking on Public Bathroom Doors

When I go to a single-stall public bathroom and find that the door is locked, I back away from the door and wait. That strikes me as being a reasonable and civilized response. However, when I’m in a single-stall restroom and other people find that the door is locked, the response is not so civilized. At the least offensive end of the response spectrum is the jiggle-and-knock. The person using this method tries to open the door, finds it to be locked, and then knocks. The most charitable interpretation of this behavior is that the person is letting me know that someone else is waiting. Still, I might have just entered the restroom, and letting me know that someone is waiting only makes it more difficult for me to conduct business.

Even worse is the person who employs the jiggle-and-knock-knock-knock technique. This person knocks at length after jiggling the door. Let me be clear: I am not going to let this person in. Nor am I going to answer this person vocally; if the door is locked, he should infer that the bathroom is occupied. I do not need to confirm this fact by saying “occupied.” On the other hand, if my silence implies to the knocker that no one is in the bathroom, how does he think that he’s going to get in?

Perhaps the knocker thinks that I should give him an estimate of how long I’m going to be. Let me be clear about this as well: I’m not going to respond vocally in medias res, as it were. Ever. I’ll be out when I’m out. Also, I often don’t know how long I’m going to be, and I want to avoid conversations like the following:

"Hello?"

"Yes?"

"You said you’d be out in five minutes."

"The situation has changed and my initial estimates didn’t hold. Give me another five minutes, and don’t knock on the door or jiggle the handle."

The worst culprit, however, is the person who jiggles and knocks and then attempts to open the door with brute force. One such culprit did this for several minutes, terrifying me and forcing me to ponder how I would defend myself in flagrante delicto, as it were, should he break the door down. He stopped, but then I wondered what was going to happen when I opened the door. I can only assume that door breakers have to go so badly that they’ve lost their human reason and are now nothing but insensate beasts. The prospect of meeting such a beast is alarming. Fortunately, he was gone when I did open the door. Having transformed into a beast, perhaps he found a tree or bush to accommodate him.

So let’s hear it. Do you jiggle-and-knock? If so, why?

Closing the Distance Between Ourselves and the World

It’s become common to see people peering at a computer screen in one form or another, heads drooping, whether they’re indoors or outdoors, working or walking, or relaxing in the sun. More than once, I’ve seen everyone within my sight peering down at a smartphone or tablet. More than once, I’ve been one of these people, and I even find it strange now to sit down in a coffee shop or restaurant without my tablet.

One way to look at this trend is to see it as an intrusion of technology into our daily life, one that isolates us from the external world and encourages solipsism. Technology, on this view, is alienating. However, I want to suggest an alternative view, namely, that recent technology, far from alienating us from others, closes the distance between us and the world.

Heidegger on Distance and De-Distancing

In Being and Time, Heidegger points out that distance and space are not just concepts about the physical, spatial distance between objects; they’re also concepts about the useful orientation of objects in relation to our wants and needs. For example, our terms for the various positions of the sun—sunrise, sunset, midday, midnight—do not refer to where the sun is in space, but to where the sun is as a useful object for telling the time. We humans engage in what Heidegger calls de-distancing, that is, we close the distance between objects in non-physical, as well as physical ways.

To make this clear, let’s start with the obvious: one way to close the distance between myself and an object is to grab the object and bring it closer. Thus, I grab a hammer from a shelf, and the distance between it and myself is closed. I’ve de-distanced the hammer. However, not all acts of de-distancing close the physical distance between myself and some object. Suppose that I call a close friend who lives in Siberia and that we have a long, rewarding conversation. I’ve closed the distance between myself and that friend in countless, non-physical ways. My friend may live thousands of miles away in a frozen tundra—whereas my hammer is right here—but my friend is closer to me than the hammer, despite the physical proximity of the hammer.

Heidegger thinks that humans are fundamentally de-distancing beings in the non-physical sense. Let’s apply this idea to the computer age. The network of our relationships between ourselves and other things and people is not merely physical, and it is not even primarily physical; it is, to use a more modern word, virtual. My friends may be scattered physically across the globe, but they are not scattered in my virtual network of relationships. Hence, they are de-distanced in my virtual network. If I’m the core node in that network, then they exist not as distal nodes, but as proximate nodes, perhaps only a virtual micron away.

Facebook is a De-Distancing Tool

This, then, is my thesis: social networking de-distances our fellow humans, brings them closer to our central node, and mitigates their distality. It closes the gap between us and them. To update Heidegger’s term, it de-distalizes others. For the first time in history, much of the world, though as physically distant as it ever was, is very close. The airplane closed the physical distance between us and the world, but the computer closes the virtual distance between us and the world. For each of us, the world moves closer to the core node of our virtual network.

Hence, when we see people drooping their heads and peering into a computer screen, they are de-distalizing their friends and loved ones; they are de-distalizing the world, bringing it closer at hand. On this view, recent technology doesn’t alienate, but rather draws physically distant core nodes virtually closer to our own core node. If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that this drawing near lacks elegance by encouraging bad posture and eye strain. This, however, will change as technology becomes wearable and screens become holographic. In this new era, the distance between ourselves and the world will become negligible. Nonetheless, should the world bother us, we can shut it off—because the easier it is to close the distance between us and the world, the easier it is to restore that distance in the blink, perhaps literal, of any eye.

Is Health Care a Right?

One argument for government-backed health care in some form or another is that health care is a right. Although I agree that health care is a good and should be as affordable and accessible as possible given resource constraints, I want here to make an argument that health care is not a right.

The argument hinges upon the fact that a right entails an obligation. If S has a right to X, then P is obligated to recognize S's right to X. For example, if I have a right to criticize the current administration, then the current administration is obligated to recognize that right. Given that a right entails an obligation, then if health care is a right, the right to health care entails an obligation. That means that somebody is obligated to provide health care:

If S has a right to health care, then some party P has an obligation to provide health care for S.

Herein lies the problem. Health care is a complex good created by multiple forces over a long period of time. Its existence depends on a complex network of labor and resources. To say, then, that S has a right to health care is to say that S has a right to this complex network and to the labor and resources behind this network. However, no one has a right to anyone’s labor; S cannot demand that P labor for S. S and P may freely enter into a contract such that P provides labor for S, but S has no inherent right to demand P's labor. If a right to health care entails an obligation to provide health care, but no one can be obligated to do so, then health care is not a right. Let's make the argument explicit:

  1. A right entails an obligation.
  2. Thus, if S has a right to health care, then some party P has an obligation to provide health care for S.
  3. If P has an obligation to provide health care for S, then P has an obligation to provide labor for S.
  4. P does not have an obligation to labor for S.
  5. Therefore, P does not have an obligation to provide health care for S.
  6. Therefore, S does not have a right to health care.

Premise 5 follows from P3 and P4; P6 follows from P2 and P5. The key premise is P4, which is based on the general principle that outside of contracts, no one is obligated to provide someone with his or her labor. Thus, this principle trumps any putative right to health care.

Affordable and accessible health care is a desirable good, but it doesn’t follow that it’s a right. I suspect that many well-intentioned people conflate the desirability of some social good and a right to that good. Some people, for example, now argue that Internet access is a human right. However, just because something is good doesn’t mean that there is a right to that good.

Bill Ramey (MrBillwulf)

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