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In the past century, the physical space has largely been replaced by cyberspace and “safe spaces” offered by the intellectual ghettos of fundamentalist religion, dogmatic academia and special-interest websites.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.