If you were young and watching television in the U.S. in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, “westerns” were a staple of Saturday morning programming. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and more. In these shows it was not unusual to see a moral, rather than a legal problem, being resolved. Sometimes the problem at hand involved extortion. Somebody, through force or underhanded legal maneuvering, got “the upper hand” on somebody else and was threatening their home, livelihood, and/or possibly their life itself. Whatever the situation there was a clear right and wrong about what was going on. Viewers knew it instinctively, viscerally. Legality may or may not have entered the scenario and may not always have been on the side of “right”.
The children who watched these dramas were the generation that recognized the wrong in the Vietnam war and took to the streets. After the war ended a new generation came on the scene, new TV shows, new movies showed up. The messages were not at all the same. But somehow, I would say proving it’s innate place in our lives, the desire for morality in our world has been increasingly showing itself. Right now, even though rarely reported in the U.S., the “Yellow Vest” movement is sweeping a lot of the world.
Back to extortion. Merriam-Webster online defines “extort” as: “… to obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power…” As this definition clearly implies, the power, the process, used in extortion may or may not be “legal”. And that whether the process in place is “legal” or not does not define whether or not extortion is taking place.
A lot of us have experienced extortion at some time in our lives. Whether it was a sibling somehow extorting our dessert, a bully on the playground demanding lunch money, being robbed (yes, robbery is extortion), or possibly having “protection” money extorted, a lot of us have experienced extortion. Incidentally, blackmail is just another form of extortion.
Most of the time I think we see extortion in terms of someone threatening to do something harmful to someone else unless that person gives them money not to. Sometimes it’s phrased as a service, such as “I will protect your business and you give me money each week.” The unspoken reality is that the “protection” the victim is buying is, in fact, from the seller. It is the seller of the “protection” themself that will smash or burn the business if they aren’t paid. That is what makes the difference between a “protection” racket and the tax money we pay to have police services in a community.
However, what about the cases in which someone is going to withhold something essential to another person’s life unless that person pays them an extremely large, inordinate, sum of money? Is that extortion?
One form of extortion I can remember from the old westerns was the case where someone dammed up a river or stream which ran through their property and withheld essential water from ranchers or farmers downstream. Unless, of course, they “paid up”. As I recall there wasn’t necessarily a law allowing or disallowing the action, it’s just that it was clearly wrong. It involved bullying and cruelty and the audience instinctively and viscerally knew that.
Let’s say we’re on a road trip and we’re going through a desert and we need gasoline. There is a gas station but the price of the gasoline is X times what the gas stations outside the desert are charging. If it’s one and a half or even twice what the stations outside the desert charge, we may just pay it and feel glad the station was there. One thing is that the delivery of the product to the station in the desert was possibly more expensive than to the other stations. But what if it’s 300, 500, or 1,000 times as much as anywhere else? What if we have to sign over our house to pay for the gasoline? Isn’t that extortion?
There are at least two methods which jump to my mind that can be used to determine the price of any product. The first I’ll call the barter or trade value system. If there is a value system which has become internalized through repetition through the centuries, this is it. A product or object had the value of it’s natural material worth combined with whatever time and craftsmanship went into turning the raw material into the finished product. A piece of wood carved into a bear was worth more than just a piece of wood. In the market place others could see the product, had some idea of the time and craftsmanship, and knew the reality of what went into whatever they had for trade. Maybe a jar of pickles would bring a carved bear home. Fair trade was honored and recognized around the world.
Of course scarcity of a product could also dramatically affect it’s value. Along with the reality of how essential the produce is to sustaining life. A quart of water from a rare well in the desert could undoubtedly fetch much more than the same quart of water at a lakeside in most places. People understood this and generally accepted it. Some undoubtedly tried to exploit this reality and attempted to manufacture a shortage, produce scarcity. Such is the case with diamonds today. People might fall for it initially, but over time the truth would become known and, historically anyway, the perpetrator could well face some harsh consequences.
Poisoning a well might be one method of making water from another well more valuable. In the “old west” of the United States I think doing so may have resulted in the offender being hung if and when the truth became known. Producing scarcity, poisoning a well in order to increase the market value of the water from another well, is one more form of extortion.
The other method of determining the value of a product is simply one in which a product’s value is whatever a seller can get a buyer to pay for it. This means the more scarce, and/or essential, or simply desirable a product is the more valuable it is. This reality exists even when there is a level playing field and “fair trade” is going on. But today the reality is that fair trade has been replaced with marketplace manipulation. Scarcity can be manufactured, and too often is. Need can be manufactured. A common example of this is providing salty snacks at a bar to sell more beer. However, an even more common example, one that affects our lives and our planet much more seriously, is the auto manufacturers creating a need for oil products by only manufacturing vehicles which require them. An accompanying aspect of a culture in which a higher complexity of technology and skills are required to produce the products needed to negotiate the cultural reality is that the opportunities for extortionate business practices are more plentiful. Finally, desire for a product can be manipulated via marketing. In other words, manipulating scarcity, inflating prices and thereby, in fact, utilizing extortion have increasingly become business strategies.
So someone who is producing a product and simply and fairly selling it in the marketplace may easily be bankrupted by organized industries that manipulate the scarcity of and artificially inflate the prices of their products. And just as with the water from the well in the desert, if someone needs a certain product, such as extensive medicine and/or medical care, in order to save their life or the life of a loved one, too often they’re facing an extortionate reality which, on it’s own, too often threatens to destroy the very life the consumer is seeking to save. While the scarcity of wells in the desert is not manipulated by human beings, and, interestingly it is my understanding that often (but not always) such wells were kept freely available to all, that is not the case with many products today.
Today, far too often, products are controlled to produce scarcity and dire need has become a lever for extortionists to exploit.
But the discriminatory imbalance has roots far deeper than these aforementioned practices. Technology and an increased understanding of how human beings function offer means of manipulating the general public that were unavailable, if not entirely unheard of, a century ago. Today many methods of undermining the physical and intellectual functioning of a large population are both understood and at work in the U.S. and elsewhere. This means that any chance at “fairness” in the marketplace and life a person might have is often under attack before that person is even born.
Too often we see people, young and old, who are demoralized, filled with hopelessness. Increasingly widespread, this debilitating state of mind is often resulting from the following realities:
- Malnutrition and chronic illness: These go hand in hand. When food high in fat, sugar/high fructose corn syrup and carbohydrates are readily available while it becomes harder to access natural, vitamin rich nutritious foods, both malnutrition and chronic illness are promoted. There is a correlated diminishing of physical and mental functioning. In this condition, hopelessness and demoralization have fertile ground.
- A limited educational reality: Simply attending a school in no way guarantees the availability of a quality education that prepares one to face the reality of the world around them. The manipulation of information in textbooks (as well as media at large) often disseminates misinformation, self-defeating thought constructs and loyalties. People are often taught to embrace a value system which ignores basic realities about human existence and leads to, again, self-defeating behaviors.
- Poisoning: The ongoing exposure to toxins in the air, water, food and medicines which impair either or both physical and mental health and functioning. Small doses of bio-accumulating poisons any of which alone can be said to be insignificant and not a problem, when occurring repetitively become a significant impairment to the consumer ever having the opportunity of being a whole, healthy person.
- Chronic stress: Chronic trauma/stress (as well as severe enough acute trauma/stress) causes our brain to shut down. Roughly from the frontal regions, back and down, over time leaving us reacting from the “reptilian” area of the brain: fight or flight. It’s hard to process complex, abstract concepts, take advantage of opportunities that require complex behaviors, when we’re stuck in survival mode. Of course, being in a war zone inflicts both acute and, over time, chronic stress. Most people are aware that military personnel who have been in a war zone often experience stress/trauma related problems when they return home. However, it by no means requires being a war zone to experience sufficient stress/fear to have the same effects upon a person. What is there to fear when we’re not in an active, military, war zone? Mugging, rape, hunger, eviction, losing a job, not making enough money, disease, homelessness, shootings all these fears are seriously affecting many people; children, women and men, everyday in the U.S. The question is not why don’t these folks pick themselves up by their bootstraps. The reality is more precisely that these folks are too shell-shocked (to use a WWII term) to even recognize that they have “bootstraps”.
All of these four items increase the probability of the need for medical care and therefore render the individual more susceptible to extortionate practices in the medical marketplace. By design or default we have succeeded in producing a cultural environment which too often impairs both the physical and psychological ability of individuals to recognize, develop and/or access opportunity. In fact, our culture is presently producing a caste system of “haves” and “have-nots”. A system in which being born into one or the other caste carries with it advantages or obstacles which, by design or default, work to maintain the status quo.
Those who were fortunate enough to be relatively whole human beings when they became young adults, who were able to recognize and utilize opportunities that existed to them at that time, who went on to have jobs that pay a living wage (or that when combined for a couple pay a living wage) often still find themselves trapped by debt. Living in a world in which costs rise much faster than wages. Many are working to pay the bills on a month to month basis. Again, we find people experiencing the effects of the relentless erosion of stress upon their being.
So here we are.
It can be hard, maybe impossible, for those who were born after 1980 to fully grasp the concept that life wasn’t always like this in the U.S. There used to be more jobs that paid a living wage. The ruthless, extortionate thinking that pervades the housing, health insurance and medical related industries wasn’t always there. Really. There used to be a very prevalent realization that WE are in this together. How many people who were born in the early 1950’s really kind of thought that “U.S.” meant “us”. Maybe the attitude of solidarity was to some greater or lesser extent an artifact of the mindset which supported the Allied effort during WWII? I tend to think so.
It’s not that the culture in the U.S. was perfect at that time. There were problems, some serious ones: racism, economic disparity. But the attitude was different, it was “yes we can”. The primary focus was on solving the problems to have a whole, prosperous nation. There was a widely held, underlying assumption that everyone should have a truly honest opportunity to obtain a living wage, live “the good life”.
Then something happened.
Looking back, I think it was when the momentum toward greater peace and pervasive prosperity, more focus on building and less on destruction, became the target of assassination along with John F. Kennedy. A cabal seeking inordinate power and wealth carried out a coup d’etat right here in the U.S. of A. It was so unthinkable that, well, few people seemed to think it. The “lone gunman” explanation was much more palatable.
Simultaneously, the evening news, again right here in the U.S., began, or increased, it’s role of indoctrinating a nation with the propaganda designed to promote the agenda of the new ruling cabal. I think the felt realization of the profound loss that had taken place is the reason why so many around the world wept when J.F.K. was shot down. And a fervent hope that the dream might not die with the man is why his picture continued to hang in so many homes around the world. It is also why the effort to uncover the truth of that day persists even now.
But while John Kennedy died, the dream did not. The dream wasn’t born with J.F.K. and it didn’t die with him. He was a torchbearer of the flame for a brief while. And he wasn’t the only one. Martin Luther King, Jr. also carried the flame and also was shot down. And there have been and are, other torch bearers. The dream goes on. The dream has existed for centuries, millenia. Quite possibly it has been around longer than life on this planet.
What is the dream? A culture which nurtures and brings out the best in those blessed to be a part of it. A culture in which the abilities of thought and invention are given to realizing goals and dreams birthed in and organized by love and caring. A culture which embraces inclusivity and recognizes the inter-relatedness of all. A culture no longer occupied with manufacturing scarcity and which no longer engages in war and destruction organized around exclusivity, greed, hate, and fear.
I know there are those who consider this dream foolish, unrealistic. Just as there were those who thought the dreams that man might one day build machines to fly through the air and dive to the depths of the oceans were foolish and unrealistic.
Think of it: even the ideas that the Earth is round, or that the Earth revolves around the sun were at one time considered foolish and unrealistic.
When we realize the strength that comes with our unity, when we finally make the decision to genuinely care for ourselves, we can achieve beauty and wonders for ourselves, our loved ones, our human family that exceed all but our most far-reaching imagination.
And maybe even exceeding that.