Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Dustbin of History


"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." –Henry Ford, 1916 


Aldous Huxley mocked the quote above in Brave New World, and it has come in for a fair amount of ridicule in many quarters. But, in the century since Ford made his pronouncement, our culture has largely agreed with him. We think our situation is unprecedented and that the future will be even more unprecedented. According to the myth of Progress, Technology has freed us from the earthly concerns that complicated and, usually, immiserated our ancestors’ lives. We have, in effect, slipped the surly bonds of History and are on our way to touch the face of God. 

This may be why history is possibly the most neglected subject in our schools, which is saying something, given their overall piss-poor state. But this historical blindness also serves the interests of Empire. We don’t want our children to know how we really came by all this wealth and power. In most cases, we don’t even want to know ourselves. Such inconsequential matters are best left in the Dustbin of History. We’d rather believe that our good fortune is the result of our predecessors’ heroism.

But, as the Empire declines, the level of self-delusion and ignorance required to preserve this fiction grows. For instance, during the Cold War, the U.S. was able to control the Middle East’s oil through client regimes: the Shah in Iran, Egypt’s military dictatorship and the Saudi royal family. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve needed direct military intervention to keep a firm grip on the region, with rapidly diminishing returns and growing blowback. It’s more difficult to maintain the facade of imperial benevolence at home when Americans are killing and dying abroad in conflicts that have an increasingly tenuous connection to national security.

Another factor is the continuing impoverishment of the American middle and working classes. Our loyalty to the imperial project has essentially been bought with its proceeds, but now more of that wealth is being diverted to the rich. As our share in the imperial bonanza shrinks, we’re less willing to go along with the program and more willing to see the evil in it. We, the “internal proletariat,” see our own circumstances reflected in the plight of the “external proletariat,” those who have been exploited for our enrichment. Throughout history, these groups have made common cause to topple empires and will likely do so again to bring down the U.S. version. 

But good luck finding anyone in power aware of this probability. The Memory Hole is now so big in elite American circles that it threatens to swallow our past whole. Each day’s newspaper is printed on a blank canvas, nearly free of context, as if the world were born yesterday. The media strip our world of its historical baggage, erasing imperial crimes and restoring the Empire to a state of Edenic grace. There is some history, but it has been refreshed, revised and edited to fit the current imperial agenda. The fall of the Soviet Union may have saved us from the overt social control of Orwell’s 1984, but it didn’t kill the propaganda machine that still shapes our reality and, thus, our behavior. 

The interests of Empire and Progress thereby dovetail. They both need us to ignore the past. “Don’t look over your shoulder,” they warn. “Something may be gaining on you.” For Progress, the shadows stalking our steps are Death, Decay and Decline. Progress tries to ease our fear of mortality by promising that our legacies will be carried on forever through the immortality of our society. History is the enemy of this faith, littered as it is with the ruins of civilizations that asserted their own invincibility with similarly unshakable certainty.

For Empire, the chimera nipping at our heels is the ghost of our victims: the Native Americans we steamrolled in fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, the Southeast Asians we carpet-bombed to defeat the Domino Theory, the Middle Easterners we assassinate via drone in the oxymoronic (and officially abandoned) Global War on Terror. Our imperial guilt must be continually repressed by assurances of our good intentions. This requires a thorough whitewashing of history, a process that is renewed each day in the mainstream media and chased with a flood of mind-numbing entertainment to drown any lingering doubts.

The Empire’s days are already numbered when it’s forced to shift from diplomacy to military action as its primary means of retaining power. This renders its propaganda transparent, inducing a crisis of faith among the imperial citizens and convincing many of them to withdraw their moral support from the imperial project. Very few will remove their material support, due to their dependence on the imperial system, but their moral objections are enough to create a “brain drain.” Having become disillusioned with the Empire, many of its most gifted citizens will therefore avoid careers in politics or civil service, leaving the ship of state to be steered by people whose loyalty outstrips their intellect. (Insert your own George W. Bush joke here.)

Luckily, the elite are chockfull of people with little interest in or knowledge of History. It’s a subject that seems to have no effect on their lives. Like the Too-Big-To-Fail banks, they’ve been protected from the consequences of their actions by the transfer of those costs onto the rest of society. They prefer the official imperial history, the sanitized version that glorifies their greed and flatters their vanity. The truth is considered rude conversation in polite society and is gratefully forgotten or swept under the rug.

Thus the Empire descends into anti-intellectualism. Leadership becomes a matter of following your “gut instincts” and ignoring the cowardly, four-eyed naysayers. The mainstream no longer has anything but contempt for “eggheads” who question the wisdom of its leaders with facts. Special scorn is reserved for those who suggest that the Empire is treading a well-worn path of self-destruction. History, showing as it does the folly of the elite, must be wrong. At this point, only the obedient and dim-witted are allowed into the inner sanctum to sing the Empire’s praises.

By losing any patience with dissent, the Empire and Progress seal their fate. To understand how the process plays out with Progress, all that is needed is to change “political elite” to “scientific elite” and change “four-eyed” and “egghead” to “wild-eyed” and “loose cannon.” The open debate that once ensured a rigorous formulation of policy (or theory) is replaced with an echo chamber in which the mistakes of the past are repeated and reinforced in a positive feedback loop. Proving George Santayana right yet again, the elite are doomed by their ignorance of History to take their place in its Dustbin.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Endless Frontier

At the Archdruid’s suggestion, I’ve been reading Overshoot by the recently deceased William Catton. I can see why JMG was so inspired by the book. It’s beautifully written and extremely enlightening, even though I’ve already encountered many of the same principles in The Archdruid Report.

Catton talks about how Europeans found a seemingly limitless bonanza when they subjugated the peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia and exploited their labor and natural resources. This was the foundation of JMG’s “civil religion of progress.” It appeared to them that, with the right technologies, they could grow their economies forever and, ultimately, conquer time and space.

In a sense, the USA was founded on the idea of our infinite bounty. It subsidized “the land of the free” by endowing us with the material basis of independence. This Horn of Plenty promised freedom from tyrannical governments. We didn’t need to grovel to a king or the local baron for our daily bread. The land was too big to be fenced in by enclosures. It was an Elysian field of dreams that could liberate us from the constraints of the Old World. 

We no longer had to be herded into cities or villages with the rest of the unwashed masses. Instead of staying in the crowded settlements along the Eastern Seaboard, Americans could move west to the Frontier and escape the social and physical demands of living in community with people of different religions, ethnicities and philosophies. 

The New World offered us the space to be free of our neighbors’ rights and beliefs. It negated the need for compromise. Our suburbs, towns and homesteads are spread far and wide across the landscape to provide us privacy and “breathing room.” We’re basically trying to escape each other. In this atomized society, consensus is an elusive goal. 

In the past century, the physical space has largely been replaced by cyberspace and “safe spaces” offered by the intellectual ghettos of fundamentalist religion, dogmatic academia and special-interest websites. We protect our theories from challenge and refuse to contribute to the mainstream, denying our gifts to the larger community. Our contributions have been rejected before, and the pain of that rejection has discouraged us from speaking up in the public square.

The endless frontier also freed us from concern over scarcity. We could formulate any grand scheme we wanted without worrying about exhausting our resources. If it failed, we would always have the resources to dismantle it and replace it with something grander. It isn’t hard to see how this indulgent attitude has led to intellectual laziness. If there are no consequences for failure, there’s no need to be rigorous. The Archdruid has noted our tendency not to think in terms of whole systems. I would also call it a failure to think holistically.

The myth of limitlessness has had profound aesthetic consequences. Our country is littered with them. They are the physical relics of the belief in our omnipotence. We thought we could throw up any huge, plastic monstrosity of a building we wanted. If it didn’t work out, we could just tear it down and replace it with something better, bigger or, at least, less offensive. Or, if our displeasure with the edifice is not shared by the rest of the community and it remains standing, we can withdraw into our Fortresses of Solitude, losing ourselves in the virtual realities of TV and the internet, perhaps lobbing verbal grenades at the monstrosity’s creators from the safe distance of online forums.

But the endlessly rapacious consumerist ethic reaches its fullest expression in our personal appearance. Ironically, we try to conserve our physical strength and emotional stress-load by maintaining a casual attitude and appearance, even in public. We lazily throw on any old thing before we leave the house, sparing ourselves the effort of dressing to the nines. We’re notorious for “letting ourselves go,” indulging in food and sedentary lifestyles until we’re obese, often morbidly so. 

Like the fabled grasshopper, we indulge our impulses and mortgage our future in favor of instant gratification. If we think about the future at all, we assume there will always be an infrastructure to support us if we’re unable to care for ourselves. We also assume that we’ll have the financial resources to afford this personal care, whether it’s provided by human attendants or machines.

It reminds me of an excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone about the Tea Party’s hypocrisy. He attends a speech by a Tea Party politician in Kentucky who is addressing senior citizens, many of whom are in personal scooters that Medicare paid for. They’re unaware that Medicare is a government program. They have no inkling of their dependence on the government and fellow taxpayers. 

They thought they could treat their bodies like a garbage dump by stuffing their faces with junk food, filling their lungs with cigarette smoke or lying on the couch all evening watching TV after staring at a computer screen all day. It never occurs to them that they may need their fellow Americans’ assistance, financially or physically, when the consequences of those choices take their predictable toll.

We also expect society to adjust to us emotionally, failing to show empathy for our fellow citizens, who are under the same stresses we are. We assume there’s a bottomless pit into which we can throw our anger, resentment, bitterness, sadness. We don’t know or care that all these slings and arrows eventually find their mark in someone. Usually, it’s the person who expressed the negative feeling who’s wounded, but we all suffer, even when the victim suffers alone. 

We seem to have come to the end of the spatial frontier. Much to our chagrin, we’ve found our (relative) freedom from physical limits and other people to be as empty as the Americas our ancestors found. But really it’s the closing of the psychological frontier that scares us. We hate the idea of being stuck in the same headspace with our co-workers and neighbors. We hate the idea of having to compromise with them. We assume there will always be a way to escape our present community and the limits it imposes on us. Unfortunately, the digital frontier is proving just as hollow as its physical precursors. 

Last year, I took a cruise with my parents on the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Despite the assertions of our Amero-centric media, the discipline of limits has produced great beauty and vibrant, healthy cultures in the Old World. The ignorance of limits in the New World has produced a lazy, wasteful, ugly culture that continues to dehumanize and alienate its inhabitants. Surely, we’ve been given enough signals in the past few decades to know that we’re on the wrong path.

There are endless frontiers, but not the physical ones we’ve been taught to believe in. There will always be unknown territories of the mind, body and soul, not just our own but those belonging to others. We need to find meaning in the exploration of those undiscovered countries and stop relying on material signposts to tell us when we’re pushing the boundaries of experience and perception, in other words, “living.” We must reclaim the Personal Realm or, as Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons describes it, “Human contact: the final frontier.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rival Realities

A few years ago, I was browsing the shelves of an airport bookstore and saw a book on World War II. Being a history buff and an especial aficionado of that particular war (like most red-blooded males in the West), I went in for a closer look. It honored the victors of a little-known battle in Italy, I think. The subject matter seemed pedestrian.

Knowing nothing about the events covered therein, I silently questioned the heroic nature of the battle and the victors, as I often do when presented with mainstream histories. But, for whatever reason, this specific reaction sent me down a rabbit-hole. It suddenly felt as if I was living in a parallel universe, an alternate timeline in which the American Empire is righteous, economic growth can go on forever and playing by the rules guarantees success.

Of course, these are fundamental tenets of our society. It’s only my rejection of them that plunges me into a fog of cognitive dissonance, rendering my world unreal. I suppose my mind is trying to protect my ideals from the constant attack they experience just by living in the US. Rather than abandon my principles (or the US), my brain has chosen to invalidate the world, thus disarming any outside challenge to my belief system.

Ironically, the sense of unreality increased my interest in the book. Now I thought of it as the history of a fictional universe, like The Silmarillion is to Middle-Earth. I’m not sure why that made it more appealing. Perhaps I was relieved not to have to worry about the author getting the facts right. Fictional histories can never be wrong; at worst, they can only be poorly written. And people usually don't die over fictional histories, while (purportedly) true histories kill people every day.

For better and worse, developing alternate histories happens to be one of the few growth industries left. The social isolation encouraged by Capitalism and abetted by fossil-fueled technologies has fractured our former consensus into a seemingly endless variety of narratives. This process has also been fed by the yawning gulf between the mainstream narrative and reality. As the Official Story loses credibility, we manufacture our own version of events to fill in the gaps.

How could we not? We need stories that make sense of the world so we know how to live, and the Establishment’s stories have clearly led us down the primrose path. My generation has been especially deceived. We keep hearing that the best way to pay off your student debt is by going to graduate school and taking on more student debt.  Unfortunately, even if you’re lucky enough to find a job that requires an advanced degree, you aren’t likely to make enough money to pay off your loans and achieve financial security at the same time.

There’s nothing wrong with manufacturing your own reality if you live in a vacuum. The problem comes when people with incompatible world-views have to deal with each other. George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin demonstrated the danger of these encounters, a danger exacerbated by our fetishization of guns. A 15-year-old boy lost his life because he did not fit in another person’s idea of a safe neighborhood. Relatively speaking, this is a minor example. The misconceptions guiding US foreign policy have killed millions.

But even as we step over the mountains of corpses created by our actions, we will continue to proclaim (usually with growing stridency) our righteousness. It’s a testament to the power of ideology. Though the heavens may fall, we will cling to our beliefs, especially if they’re what brought the heavens down. We become emotionally invested in our dogma, to the point that we will deny ourselves happiness, health and even life itself rather than renounce our philosophy.

But why? Why would we kill ourselves instead of admitting the error of our ways? It seems a high price to pay for pride.

The answer is that, in a very real sense, our principles are the underpinnings of our world. Without them, the heavens would certainly fall, along with the earth and everything in it. Of course, this destruction only occurs in the mind of the believer. But the mind is all we have to construct our world, so for the believer this personal intellectual apocalypse is a legitimate threat.

The believer cannot return to the mainstream, because it has become saturated with absurd propaganda that strains credulity. Adopting another alternate narrative is possible, but extremely difficult. As well as requiring the believer to abandon her quasi-religious faith, it demands that she give up her place in a peer group that has supplied her with a sense of belonging and purpose, two of the biggest spiritual voids in present-day “post-industrial” society.

But, if she wants to avoid oblivion, the believer must leave behind the security of a like-minded community and strike out on her own, braving the uncertainty and the loneliness of the unknown. This is a road that few choose to tread, and even fewer find enlightenment at the end of it. Most are forced off the path by its grueling nature and return to their erroneous beliefs or turn to a new creed with a similarly soothing (and fallacious) message.

I believe I’ve chosen the Road to Enlightenment and have paid severely for it. My mind is continually buffeted by the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream and the countervailing theories of competing alternatives. It would be a lot easier if I could accept the Official Story and the comfort and security of a middle-class American lifestyle that go with it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), my conscience won’t allow me.

Believe me; I’ve tried to drink the Kool-Aid, but I couldn’t swallow it anymore. I kept going back to the corporate well long after I’d accepted that I would be just another cog in the Machinery of Death. But, no matter how much I repressed my revulsion at the side effects (or direct effects) of my jobs, my body would keep rejecting that path.

This is the fate of many of us on the Left. We’ve rejected the mainstream narrative, thereby ostracizing ourselves from the mainstream society. We see the world through different eyes and cannot relate to many of our countrymen and -women. We’re alienated from our nation as “disloyal” subjects. Our estrangement usually takes the form of anger, desperation and despair, further isolating us. (Most people don’t relish approaching strangers in any of these states of mind.)

The Establishment forces us to go it alone or band together to preserve our ideals. But this doesn’t mean political opponents must always be at each other’s throats. That belief is the result of propaganda meant to keep us separate and paranoid and easy to manipulate against each other.  I must admit that I’ve played into the hands of the Powers That Be by buying into that lie. It seems like, when I adopted them, my radical politics came equipped with insecurity and an us-against-the-world mentality.

We need to stop playing this Power Elite-sponsored game of “Whose Reality Is It, Anyway?” and realize that a lot of people out there may not share our beliefs, but we still share a country and a world. Many of them even share our hope for a better world. Instead of defining ourselves by our differences, we need to look for common ground. That’s where we’ll find the solutions to our problems.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Nuremberg Redux

The furor brewing over the film American Sniper was a long time coming. I’ve felt the rumbling in my soul for years. It’s a topic I avoided broaching for fear of re-opening the spiritual wounds of our soldiers and inviting right-wing death threats. But I think it’s time to wade into the fray. Better now than later, when our emotional dependence on the Empire may overwhelm any moral qualms we harbor over its methods.

This is a fight for the soul of America, between those who would face the crimes that have been committed in our name and those who would defend those crimes at all costs in the name of Old Glory. This fight will be ugly, because it threatens many Americans’ emotional attachment to their country - a.k.a. “patriotism” - and many other Americans’ conscience. It’s sad that so many of us are emotionally dependent on the idea that the USA is “the shining city on the hill.” But that’s the price we’ve paid for our luxuries.

The American Empire has stripped us of the social support networks we used to rely on. Those institutions that were refuges from economic competition - family, religion, unions, fraternal organizations - have all been weakened and sacrificed to Capitalism, increasing our reliance on Big Brother and Big Business. As a coping device, we replace these support structures with an idealized conception of our home country, imagining it as a father- or mother-figure. The American “Homeland” is a disturbing echo of Imperial Germany’s “Fatherland” and Tsarist Russia’s “Motherland.”

To compensate for the decay of our social and emotional lives, the Empire has provided us with creature comforts, dazzling entertainments and labor-saving devices to make our lives easier. Only a morally bankrupt society would confuse “easier” with “better,” but we’ve gone along with it, happy (or at least resigned) to exchange the chance of spiritual fulfillment for the security and stability of physical comfort. Unfortunately, as our goodies slip away, we’ll have no social network strong enough to support us when the imperial bill comes due, and that day may be coming sooner than we think.

The Empire is crumbling, and, as a result, our economy is in a long-term phase of contraction. We’ve been robbed of that share of the American Dream we thought was our birthright. Rather than let the rich have their wealth reduced by this process too, our politicians have taken from our slice of the shrinking pie to keep the wealthy in the manner to which they’ve grown accustomed. We’re understandably upset about this, but we feel impotent to effect political change. Instead, we lash out at convenient – i.e., weak – targets, such as immigrants, Muslims and other groups with marginal status in the US.

The government has harnessed this rage, and the poverty that feeds it, to fight our wars overseas. Growing economic inequality creates many willing, if not totally gung-ho, candidates for the military. The unreasoning fear and hatred of Muslims and Arabs that has enveloped the country since 9/11 provides their motivation. Islamophobia also offers domestic political cover for our government, because it would be impossible to summon sufficient popular support for a massive military campaign if we knew the real mission objective. That objective is control of the Middle East’s oil, not just access for ourselves, but determining who else gets to use it.

With this control, we would wield even greater global power. Like all power, it is self-justifying. Our leaders do not seek this leverage to protect us. They seek it for their own aggrandizement and out of a paranoid sense of patriotism. In their minds, any slip in American supremacy is a threat to the security of the Homeland and must be prevented by any means necessary. They can justify our wars in the Middle East and our decades-long support of dictators in that region as an effort to keep their oil under our control. If the oil fell into the “wrong hands” - meaning “any hands but ours” - they believe we would be subject to the same oppression we’ve imposed on them, either directly via military action or by proxy via brutal client regimes.

This is the psychology of empire: We must subjugate others to keep from being subjugated ourselves. But this is merely a geopolitical extension of the human habit of ascribing our own flaws to our enemies. Jung called it “projecting the shadow.” The bigwigs in Washington can’t deal with the lust for power that lurks in their own souls, so they pin that evil on the Russians, the Chinese and anyone else who prevents them from ruling the world. But we all possess this impulse. Luckily, other people check our power and prevent this instinct from reaching full flower. 

Unfortunately, the power of the US military is unmatched in the world, and our leaders are able to indulge their Nietzchean “will to power” to the point of mass murder. In this effort, they are encouraged by the rapacious appetite of Big Business for overseas riches, like minerals, fossil fuels and cheap Third World labor. They’re also abetted by the American public’s greed for comfort and ignorance of global geopolitics. We support the invasions and airstrikes because we want to keep our cozy lifestyle, we don’t know any better or some combination of the two.

The troops bear no more blame for their mission than the rest of us. We all contributed to the decisions to go to war, whether through our support for those decisions or our failure to oppose them effectively. Since the Vietnam War, there’s been a concerted effort to erect a moral barrier between the troops and their mission, and this is to be commended. But it does not absolve soldiers of personal responsibility for their actions. The “just following orders” defense didn’t work for the Nazis at Nuremberg, and it should not be employed in defense of our own military.

Nor should we rely on the “bad apples” argument. In case your memory needs refreshing, the Bush administration claimed that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq was the work of a few “bad apples” and not a systemic problem. The two soldiers who appeared in the photos associated with that scandal were publicly shamed and sentenced to prison stateside. But they were just extreme symptoms of an imperial campaign. Our wars are not noble, if misguided attempts to rid the Middle East of evil, occasionally sullied by the excesses of certain troops. The wars themselves are the crimes, and all who contribute to them are guilty, including we civilians.

Every salute to the troops sparks a sense of alienation in me. As a sports fan, I watch these on a regular basis on TV. But it’s worse experiencing them in person. I attended a college football game last season at one of the many schools that show athletics greater deference than academics. During a break in the action, the public address announcer directed our attention to a solider on the field who was attending the game as an honored guest of the university. Everyone in the stands seemed to be applauding, and many of them stood up as the soldier walked around the edge of the field and waved to the crowd. I thought, “What are we cheering for? What are we applauding? Are we really thanking him for his contribution to the deaths of over a million people?”

This is probably how it felt to be one of the few dissidents at the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. (I apologize for relying on the clich├ęd rhetorical cudgel of the Nazis. I’m not saying we’re as bad as they were, just that the military campaigns glorified by our politicians and media are, in reality, savage attempts to consolidate imperial power. I sometimes wish our media would stop summoning their memory so frequently, although I doubt doing so would keep their ghosts from haunting our collective unconscious.) It’s at times like those that I feel as if I’ve slipped into a parallel universe, an alternate timeline in which we are the Bad Guys and they are the Good Guys. It’s as if the Nazis won the war, conquered the USA and instilled their morality in us.

This is not to say our celebrations of the troops reflect the Nuremberg rallies’ bloodthirsty spectacle. Our ceremonies have been sanitized of those vulgar displays. The barbaric wallowing in the glory of battle has been replaced by admiration and gratitude for the soldier’s sacrifice. Rather than glorify their murder of the enemy, we honor their willingness to temporarily give up the comfort of the American lifestyle. We honor their choice to go into harm’s way and be subjected to the soul-shattering horrors of war in our name, in the supposed defense of our freedom and way of life.

But what we’re celebrating is essentially the same as what the Nazis celebrated: an imperial campaign of slaughter, torture and oppression that terrorizes millions of men, women and children who have done nothing to us. If anything, most of the victims of our wars oppose the same dictators and terrorists we claim to be fighting. The terrorism we’ve suffered in the West is nothing compared to the terrorism we’ve unleashed on the Middle East. In the battle of Islamic extremists vs. Christian extremists (America’s political and military leadership), Christianity is way ahead in the body count, and the lead grows daily. If this were Little League, the mercy rule would’ve been invoked long ago.

Despite the laughably lopsided score in the “clash of civilizations,” Democrats and Republicans still fall over each other claiming that their support of the Global War on Terror is “courageous” and “patriotic.” The only yardsticks they use to measure this support seems to be the passion of their verbal defense of the Empire and the number of times they’ve voted to send other people’s sons and daughters into harm’s way. If words and votes were as lethal as rocket-propelled grenades, then surely no one could question the bravery of the politician. Unfortunately, rhetorical and political combat bears little resemblance to the military kind. At the end of the day, they can retire to their finely-appointed homes and carouse with their friends in the lobbying and money-making industries. Soldiers don’t have that luxury.

For all the praise we heap on them, you think soldiers would be living the high life. In reality, of course, they’re treated like cannon fodder at home too. The government programs to reintegrate them into society have been an abject failure for decades. Our attitude toward the troops is upside-down. We applaud their criminal exploits and fall far short of healing their scars. We should be condemning their role as Defenders of the Empire and caring for them as human beings. Perhaps only acknowledging the evil of their acts will lead to true healing. Maybe only then can we find the courage to admit our true debt to the troops and help them regain their humanity.

But I can’t condemn the people who’ve fought in my name without acknowledging my own complicity in the imperial enterprise that has enriched me at their expense. I haven’t done enough to keep these wars from starting. I’ve been derelict in my civic duty. I may email my congressional representatives regularly, but I rarely call their offices. Even worse, I only participate in local and state politics through elections. This is the consumerist model of democracy. True democracy arises from regular engagement with neighbors and elected officials. 

We all bear the blame for these criminal wars, either through apathy or ignorance. For this reason, I cannot call our troops “heroes” for their military service. At best, I can only call them survivors of soul-scorching exploitation by our government and society in general. I owe them more support, but only because I failed to save them from the harrowing crucible of war. I owe them no laurels, only the kindness and care we should extend to any fellow human being who has been wounded, physically, psychologically or spiritually. 

I reserve the honorific of “hero” for the soldiers who’ve come to terms with their guilt and understand their direct participation in atrocities. The courage required to face one’s own crimes exceeds the bravery demanded by war. That kind of soul-searching is at least as terrifying and challenging as the combat that necessitates it. These troops are the conscience of the nation and deserve our admiration and gratitude. We should listen to their warnings and take their counsel in formulating our foreign policy. They are the tip of our moral spear. 

For those still in the military, I implore you to remove yourself from the Machinery of Death, before it cripples you physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve tried to remove myself from the imperial infrastructure by leaving the corporate world, but as long as I live in the US I’m still a part of it. This may be my most important message for you: You’re not making us safer; you’re making us less safe. You’re being used to further “U.S. interests.” Have you ever stopped to think what those might be? They’re not the interests of average Americans to be safe from terrorism. They’re the interests of the American Empire in protecting its own power.

Our society twists itself into knots trying to maintain the illusion of righteousness. We’ll destroy ourselves just to avoid looking in the mirror for fear of seeing the truth. Like the children of abusive parents, we can’t bear to think that our country could be horribly misguided and even evil. We’re afraid the truth would destroy us and render our lives up to that moment a waste. We can’t bear to face the possibility that all our love and works may have been spent in the service of a false idol. We’d rather die or continue serving a lie than face the truth.

But we have to trust that what we would lose isn’t nearly as valuable as what we have to gain. When we abandon the Empire, we’re not turning our back on our family or friends or country. We’re trying to save America from the moral abyss of the imperial system that supports our way of life. Our comforts come at the expense of the Third World. Only by dismantling the Empire can we atone for our sins.

In addressing this admittedly delicate subject, my hope is not to ignite a firestorm of controversy, but rather to shed light on an issue that our leaders are too eager to ignore. I’d like to provoke a debate on the morality of our wars rather than the tactics we employ in prosecuting them. With any luck, this will encourage filmmakers and the public to embrace movies that are willing to deal with the criminality of our military adventures. We can’t afford to continue burying the central question of war ­­­- Why? - under an avalanche of blind patriotism, because, eventually, we’ll all have to answer that question.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Shrinking Cage of Late Capitalism

It’s easy to focus on what we’re losing as the American Empire falls and the fossil fuels that support our lifestyle run down. That may be why the British TV show Downton Abbey is so popular in the US right now. It dramatizes the effects of the decline of the British Empire on the nobility. Just as they were dispossessed of their estates and castles, the American middle class is being stripped of our cushy jobs and comfortable homes in the ‘burbs. We may be looking to them for coping techniques.

But this week I’d like to talk about what we have to gain as Industrial Civilization goes the way of the dodo. The civil religion of Progress would have us believe that our society provides for us better than any previous civilization provided for its denizens. Even though our physical desires are being satisfied to a degree unheard of in the historical record, our social needs (and even many physical needs) have been denied to meet the demands of the Capitalist economy.

The primary sociological property of Capitalism seems to be its corrosive effect on social relations. With the help of fossil fuels, it has made us much more individualistic than even the hermits of fairy tales or the mountain men of the Wild West. We can meet the minimum requirements of survival just by sitting alone at a computer all day, pressing buttons. In many ways, this is the ideal vocation for a Capitalist worker. It isolates the individual socially, economically and spiritually.

In this situation, our only apparent dependency is on an employer, and that is mediated by money and Capitalism. In return for labor, the employer compensates the employee in the form of a salary or wages, healthcare discounts, retirement account contributions and other financial benefits. The social component of the relationship is incidental to its economic essence. You don’t need to form a personal bond with your boss, co-workers or customers in order to get or keep your job.

All other dependencies, physical and social, can also be paid for with money. We can buy food at the grocery store or at a restaurant. Even a personal connection with a server is expressed financially through tipping. We pay utility companies for heat, light, water, air-conditioning, phone service, internet access, etc. These relationships are almost completely impersonal, conducted by mail or the internet. If we require socialization, we generally find it at work or through activities with an economic rationale, such as volunteering, i.e., providing free labor, or taking a class, i.e., providing employment to a marginalized professional, usually an artist. 

By subordinating social relations to economic arrangements, Capitalism seeks to “free” us from social debts: personal services that don’t involve financial or material compensation. Money is supposed to buy us social, moral and emotional independence. This is the goal of many Americans today, to be “free and clear” of all debts and obligations, be they economic or social. We don’t have to worry about the sweatshop worker who made our socks, because we paid a fair market price for her product. The Free Market has determined fair compensation for the worker. If the worker is poor, it is her own fault for failing to exploit the Free Market to her advantage. The same dubious morality can be applied to all our relationships, even that with our parents.

We aspired to this freedom, because we came to see familial relationships, friendships and other social obligations as more trouble than they’re worth. Their psychological and economic costs seemed to outweigh their benefits. They came with the strings of tradition attached, and we were no longer willing to submit to those restrictions. In effect, we traded traditional communities for feminism, free love and liberation from our family’s expectation that we will find a steady job, get married and have kids. Many communities have been built around this kind of freedom, but they remain few and far between in the U.S.A. 

Into this gap strides Capitalism, which is only too happy to oblige. It wants to banish social debts economically in order to dissolve the personal relationships that grow from them. Once the relationships have been severed, the “free” individual is only dependent on one thing: the economy, i.e., Capitalism. Each person becomes a single economic unit, a consumer who must meet all his needs and desires on his own. This maximizes consumption, because people are no longer able to pool their resources. Once we have been reduced to solitary consumers, we no longer have any social responsibilities.

But this “freedom" is an illusion. We are always dependent on Humanity and Nature for our continued existence, whether we know it or not. There are always debts we can’t repay financially to those who have supported us, are supporting us now or will support us in the future. Have you heard the one about the parents who billed their children for the cost of raising them? The point of the joke is those services can’t be quantified in money or any other material compensation. That’s social, emotional and spiritual work that can only be repaid in kind. Even if your children repaid their debt to you in money, no matter the amount, you would surely be poorer for it.

The decay of social relations has bred distrust of our neighbors, because we don’t know them anymore. It’s also easier for us to abandon our friends, family or neighbors, because we think Society, in the form of other people or Science or Technology or the Economy or the Government, will pick up the slack. When you get right down to it, we don’t really think we need each other. But our sense of self-reliance has been inflated by fossil fuels. The irony is we’re much less self-reliant than our ancestors. Without the infrastructure of modern life, the vast majority of us would be dead in a few weeks.

The social convulsions driven by Capitalist industrialization have repeatedly shaken our society to its core, like a tree being rattled by a machine for its fruit. Much of our humanity, as manifested in empathy, solidarity and charity, has been lost in the process. Ironically, Capitalism has gone a long way toward achieving Marx’s dream of casting aside the traditional institutions of our society: family, church, state, etc. These have all been warped and weakened by the demands of Capitalism, forced to conform to its ethic. 

We may love our kids, but we sacrifice them to a dysfunctional school system so we may be “free” to pursue our individual goals. We may be concerned citizens, but we treat politics as a spectator sport, waiting for political programs and candidates to be chosen for us and, at best only directly participating once a year. We may go to a Christian church for an hour a week to pay lip service to Jesus’ message of charity and love, but we spend the rest of the week in service of self, mostly gratifying our material and physical desires.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve sought refuge in Capitalism. Frankly, I’ve found companies to be more supportive than most of my friends. My employers have certainly been more reliable. It’s no wonder I’ve put so much faith in them. They do tend to come through for me more often. They often ask more of me than I’m prepared to give, and my friends have been much less demanding. But at least the institutions are usually there when I need them, even if they exact a pound of flesh (or soul) for the privilege. I’m much more emotionally devoted to my friends, and what they can give me is much more valuable than what the institutions can. But my friends’ unreliability makes me question the sincerity of their commitment to me. At least with institutions, I know where I stand. 

It took the entire Industrial Era for social relations to reach their current state of decrepitude, just in time for the rug to be pulled out from under us. We no longer have communities strong enough to escape the shrinking cage of Late Capitalism. It has fed on our growing dependence to become stronger, more invasive, more demanding, more controlling and less generous. We now find ourselves at its mercy as its jaws close on us.

We’ll have to rebuild our social networks to survive the collapse of Capitalism and Industrialism. Our ancestors were only able to survive the rise of these forces through the support of tightly-knit families, neighborhoods and grassroots organizations. They would not consider the exchange of our comforts for revitalized communities a great sacrifice. Nor should we.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Losing the Imperial Inheritance

For those of you who’ve been following this blog the last couple of weeks (or the last 9 years), you may have noticed that I’ve thoroughly vilified the system that furnishes us with a comfy, middle-class lifestyle. But why would I want to disassemble the Empire now? We’ve got a good thing going here! Surely it can still be counted on to deliver a comfortable life for myself and my progeny?

Therein lies the rub. Our lifestyle isn’t as comfy as it used to be, and it seems to be getting less comfy each year. In fact, I don’t think the Empire will be capable much longer of keeping us in the manner to which we’re accustomed. And that may be the most decisive factor in my political radicalization: the failure of the American Empire to give me the share of the American Dream that I believed was my birthright. 

I would like to believe that I would’ve been aware of and fought the evils of the American Empire even if I'd lived through its Golden Age, as my parents did. But my track record implies otherwise. Despite being aware of my imperial complicity for a decade, I’ve repeatedly returned to the corporate world, trying to preserve and then, after quitting my cushy job, recover that cozy corner of the American Dream I’d been looking forward to since childhood. If I’d managed to stay on Easy Street, I’m not sure I would’ve been willing to abandon my creature comforts in an effort to undermine the imperial system. 

I’m forced to admit that this historical period has catalyzed my awareness of the crimes on which the Empire, and my comfortable existence, is based. When you’re sitting pretty, you’re less likely to question the socioeconomic structure of your society, and you’re far less likely to indict that structure. After all, you deserve to be successful, right? You’re a good person, and you’ve earned everything you've got. That seems to be the default self-image of the middle class.

It’s much easier to condemn these luxuries as they slip away. When your bed isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, you’re more likely to lie awake and question the assumptions by which you’ve lived. You’re more likely to think that things are headed in the wrong direction and may never have been just and fair in the first place. When the luxuries your class once enjoyed are now enjoyed by others, it’s much easier to question those people’s worthiness and the justice of the system that is creating this new disposition of wealth. Of course, not everyone reacts to insecurity this way. 

Many people employ xenophobia to scapegoat marginal groups, e.g. immigrants and ethnic, racial and religious minorities. One or more of the “alien” groups is blamed for the “Real Americans’” loss of status. This often leads to the demonization and further oppression of these already-oppressed groups. It’s an approach that exploits the ugliest side of human nature and unleashes destructive forces that are not easily controlled. (For a prime example, see “Third Reich, The.”)

Unfortunately, the U.S.A. has a long, not-so-proud tradition of this brand of politics. We have a disturbing habit of fearing and then persecuting the most-subjugated groups in our society: slaves, immigrants, the poor, etc. Our history and the state of the economy have established the conditions in which this kind of movement could be reborn with a vengeance.

I’m pretty sure the path I’ve taken is the one less traveled, and with good reason. It’s the path that leads through the looking glass, and what’s on the other side is horrifying. You see the victims of the American Way of Life: the human beings killed in our “humanitarian interventions;” the children worked to death in the sweatshops that keep us looking hip; and the unborn poisoned by the toxins released in the manufacture of our gizmos. Worst of all, you see that their suffering is caused only by our greed, fear and ignorance.

The urge to blame outsiders for one’s own misfortune is strong and will likely get stronger as the Empire unravels. But the consequences of that choice are too terrible to imagine, much less to take the chance of resurrecting them from the darkest periods in history. We must face the demons that haunt the American conscience, or they will complete their conquest of our souls and turn our inheritance into a graveyard.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hypocrisy of an American Leftist

When I became a Leftist in 2004, it was by way of a rude awakening. Noam Chomsky’s lectures and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States pulled me through the looking glass. I realized our way of life is not primarily the fruit of our own labor, but rather is built on the backs of the poor, in the U.S. and across the globe, especially in the Third World.

I felt as though my parents, teachers and all adults had sold me a bill of goods about Truth, Justice and the American Way. My world changed overnight from one ruled by fair laws to one in which might makes right. Capitalism was transformed from an essentially peaceful outgrowth of human nature to a tyrannical system imposed and enforced through state-sponsored violence.

All my material comforts were now tainted by sin. In a desperate bid for moral purity, I purged myself of “unclean” possessions, those that had been manufactured through the virtual enslavement of the workers and/or degradation of the environment. I put all my sports apparel, much of which was Nike-branded, in a garbage bag and donated it for my roommate’s fundraiser. Thereafter, I sought out clothes, food and other products that claimed to have been grown organically or manufactured under humane conditions or made in an environment-friendly manner. 

For those of you who have embarked on this kind of quixotic quest, I probably don’t need to tell you what happened. Trying to change the world is exhausting when every effort that falls short of perfection feels like a failure. I was also lonely in my pit of guilt. I was surrounded by people going along with the status quo. Why did they seem OK with it? I felt like everyone around me was fallen and I alone had been saved from the ignorance that blinded them.

Eventually, I gave up my crusade. It seemed hopeless and had no appreciable effect on the global (or national or local) economy. The Machinery of Death kept chugging along the same as before, as if nothing had changed. To my extreme chagrin, the world was not transfigured to match my new perception. Despite my pleading, America did not change its imperial ways.  Unconsciously, I was probably hoping that the Empire would reform itself so I wouldn’t have to abandon my lifestyle and my faith in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. 

When the shock of my revelation finally wore off, it was easy to understand why so many of us go along with a system we find increasingly inhuman, onerous and even evil. All I had to do was ask myself, “Why do I go along with it?” The answer was obvious and awful, always lying just below the surface of my thoughts: Because it’s easy and comfortable, and the alternatives seem lonely, hard and pointless. 

So I’ve soldiered on as a member of the mainstream, unwilling to foresake my comforts and mostly resigned to my complicity in the Great American Crime of Empire. I still try to buy organic food and second-hand clothes so my money doesn’t abet sweatshops. But I’ve indulged in conventionally-grown food, sweatshop-made clothes and many other imperial luxuries in the intervening years. That’s not to say that striving for ethical perfection is pointless, only that stumbling along that path is inevitable, and I’ve found it counterproductive to beat myself up over my failings.

Much as we Leftists like to condemn the evils of the American Empire, we’re often loath to renounce the luxuries that it bestows on us. We’ve been enjoying those luxuries for decades, if not centuries. We no longer even think of them as luxuries, but essentials. However, if we want to repay our debt to Nature and the rest of the human race, we need to ask ourselves what is truly essential to life and what can be done without. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”