Monday, July 30, 2012

God or No God?

A (comparatively) brief response to this debate

Contrary to Christopher Hitchens, I don't believe that religion poisons everything.  I am more cynical.  I think humanity poisons everything -- human stupidity, if you want to be more precise.  D'Souza is right to point out that we keep religion(s) around for a reason: they let us do our human thing better, a thing which has historically involved lots of lying, manipulating, prostitution, and murder.  Religion helps us do these things better, just as it helps us express our good side, too.  (We do have one, and it does turn up in religion, pace Hitchens.)  Get rid of a handful of stupid religions today, and you would have a bunch more cropping up to replace them tomorrow.  The bloodthirsty devotees of Thor or Shiva become bloodthirsty devotees of Christ or Allah.  People eager to spend lots of money can choose between Mormonism, Scientology, and evangelical megachurches (or pay a top-notch astrologer: if they want to seem scientific, they might consider hiring an economist like Paul Krugman). 

Skepticism is no safe haven: falling for one scam doesn't make you immune to the rest of them (not even if you go around calling yourself an atheist).  Marxism is as much a religion as any other -ism, as far as I can tell, and its record is about par for the course.  (People are Marxists, so Marxism accomodates their human needs, including the ever-present need for stupidity.)  The heaven-on-earth-without-religion that Hitchens dreams of is in some sense most definitely a hopeless fantasy: it ain't happening, as far as I can tell.  And yet I remain convinced that Hitchens has some important things to say.  Question your stupid ideas.  Doubt them.  Do what seems morally right, even when you don't have a Bronze Age myth handy to justify yourself (or especially when the myth tells you to do something that historical experience proves to be completely idiotic, like steal other men's wives and then lie to them about it).

Contrary to Dinesh D'Souza, I am not convinced at all of any kind of intelligent design in the universe that atheism cannot accomodate.  Part of this comes from my personal form of atheism, which is much less "muscular" than Hitchens' (for what it is worth, note that atheists are even less correlated than the LDS: we don't have a Sunday School, and there is no standard curriculum or doctrinal confession; this is one of the nice things about being atheist, in my view).  I am quite comfortable admitting ignorance, and stupidity.  I am not invested in one stupid idea being better than another stupid idea.  When the earth ends as another race of life watches, it won't bother me if they understand physics (and literature and the rest of it) very differently than I do.  Why should my words be the last words on the universe?  Why should the "right" answer to life, the universe, and everything be hiding somewhere in a labyrinth of after-dinner ramblings by a couple of well-dressed primates?  I don't know.  I don't really think that there is a compelling reason that human reason must yield easy objective truth about the nature of the universe.  I am too much of an empiricist to find logic terribly compelling, particularly the kind of logic that demands my acquiescence to propositions I am never really in a good position to test empirically.

The argument for intelligent design (ID) falls apart for me on the fact that it deconstructs itself.  What does intelligent design look like in the human world that we experience every day?  Contrary to popular myth, it is not true that all modern machines leaped full-grown from the notebooks of Da Vinci.  They evolved, with one engineer contributing this and another one offering that, and another two or three cobbling something together that sort-of half-way worked (until it didn't: all machines break down).  To coin a phrase, the Platonic demiurge never even made shoes ex nihilo, let alone the whole cosmos.  I honestly cannot believe that I ever found ID folks credible, even as a kid, and I don't see how I am ever going to again.  When confronted with inexplicable phenomena, I am much more comfortable saying "I don't know" than coming up with elaborate theoretical explanations (whether these latter involve molecules or gods or God or magic tarot cards or pixie dust or whatever -- I doubt the whole lot, equally: my answer to those who claim explicit knowledge about how the world works is and will always be, "Let's wait and see!").

Last of all, D'Souza's simile comparing God to the guy everybody in the village knows is totally lame: history debunks it completely.  Forgive me for quoting myself:
Let's say my friends tell me that there is this guy named Pete. Pete wants me to be nice, they say, and he will make things go my way if I send money regularly to a certain PO box. I am intrigued, so I start being nice and making payments. Then, my friends come and tell me that Pete wants me to rob a bank. I protest that this is not nice. My friends come up with all kinds of arguments showing me that robbing the bank is necessary: the clincher is that Pete cannot make things go my way if I don't trust him absolutely. I inform my friends that I am not willing to become a bank robber for a man I have never met. They ask me if I am willing to give up all the blessings I have incurred sending money to Pete. I ask them, "What blessings? You mean the same ones I used to get before you even told me Pete existed?" (Being nice is a good idea, even if you don't have an imaginary overlord recommending it to you.) And our conversation is over, unless and until Pete deigns to reveal himself and give me convincing reasons why the bank must be robbed. My friends can strike me dumb as a sign-seeker if they want, but that just proves that they are thugs (the same way Pete would be if that were his only response to my inquiry about the bank job). To make the analogy complete, imagine that I make some new friends who tell me that Pete's real name is Bob, and he wants me to move to LA and take up surfing. Then, other people tell me that my friend is a woman named Chris, and I should be selling Mary Kay products door-to-door. Everyone knows (passionately) that Pete, Bob, and Chris exist, and that they care (passionately) about banks, surfing, and Mary Kay. But I cannot ever meet them face to face. Until I do, our relationship is going nowhere: I cannot have a relationship with someone who cannot talk to me more clearly (and kindly, not to mention coherently) than God does.
I grew up believing in angels, gold plates, and prophets who spoke face to face with God.  But I have never seen an angel.  I have never hefted gold plates.  I have never heard anything more than ordinary human speech from any mouthpiece of the Lord (in my own faith tradition or any other).  If God is so obvious, then why do people see him (her, it, them!) so differently?  From a historical perspective, God is all over the map.  He is human, or not -- or worse, both human and not human.  (How is that even possible?  Many dusty books confirm that God's servants have labored long over this paradox, while nations of unwashed masses festered around them in squalor and ignorance. Was God more interested in hiding his nature than helping those nations with some basic hygiene?)  He is male, or female, or both.  (He is a singularity!  He is a plurality!  He is a singularity indwelling in plurality, and if you say the hocus-pocus wrong, then he will smite you!)  He loves people.  He hates people.  He is all-powerful: nothing can touch him.  Or he can be bound by arcane rituals.  He needs nothing.  He needs more money, now!  He wants us to be skeptics.  He wants the skeptics to burn in hell.  You can follow this chain of non-sequiturs (or paradoxes, if you prefer) all through history, where God is now this, now that -- now the most moral being you can imagine (in the Gospels), now the most immoral (in Joshua or Job).  There is no intelligent design there that I can see, and I spent many years looking.  Even if I were to bump my head really hard and believe in ID again, I would still have to become a Deist (with Thomas Jefferson) rather than find myself arguing that the Holy Inquisition was a necessary part of some greater good that an omnipotent and benevolent Father wanted for his children.  If God exists and that is how he blesses his children, then the real question I should be asking is who's the Devil?  Are you sure he's a really bad guy?  Why? 

At the end of the day, I think deity and religion are here to stay among humans (for the immediate future, certainly).  They are natural, evolved outgrowths of our condition as social primates with very large brains -- an accidental side-effect of matter existing, just as we are.  I don't buy all the arguments D'Souza makes about its being unlikely that conditions would just exist such that life appears.  When you think about it, I could be so many different places in the world right now (Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Chicago, Salt Lake City, my apartment, my office, a cafe), and yet I am right here in the library basement, typing.  It must be a sign (that the invisible pink unicorn who lives on the dark side of the moon really is pulling on my marionette strings!  I knew it!).  Life is mysterious.  The mystery doesn't suddenly become wholly explicable when you call it God, any more than it does when you call it a pink unicorn or a Big Bang or any other word in any language you care to pick (or invent for the purpose).  Personally, I don't mind people referring to the mystery of life as God.  I don't mind them referring to it as a pink unicorn, either.  I have recently taken to speaking of it as Dame Fortune.  The number of names you could come up with is infinite.  But they are just words.  They don't necessarily give you any useful insight into the vast unknown, the Cause(s) behind all causes (assuming such a thing even exists: why should our primate brains contain real windows onto that impossible vista, that we are forever seeking and never finding? what if the brain asks bigger questions than it can ever answer?). 

People can and will tell whatever stories they want about life, the universe, and the meaning(s) of it all.  I find that fascinating.  I sure as heck don't understand it all.  I don't think I ever will.  And I don't think there is a magic key to the whole riddle buried in ancient mythology.  The myths might have some useful things to say about how to live well as a human, but they aren't the final word even there (as we continuously acknowledge every time we tell a new story instead of repeating an old one).  Why try to make the myths more definitive and authoritative than they really are, especially when we see how badly this has worked in recent history?  What makes us think we are any better than the story-tellers who gave us the religious past that some of us are ashamed of?  The Deuteronomists really screwed it up, but we're going to get it right?  The early Christians went off the deep-end, but we won't?  The Muslims are deluded fanatics, but we are dedicated freedom fighters?  The Soviets were deluded fanatics disguised as rational atheists, but we aren't?  The Founding Fathers were pro-slavery bigots who compromised to get what they wanted, but we are incorruptible?  Give me a break, people.  You are all full of it, every mother's son of you, and if you go out and found another church today, I guarantee it will soon be full of it too.  In the real world, honest truth does not come in the form of a convenient narrative (the tidy sort of narrative that orders all the causes with their proper effects and lays out how they all work together in perfect harmony, for all time).  The narratives themselves belie our constant attempts to misread them this way, as they persist in evolving and leaving evidence of that evolution (as new readers take old texts and make them mean things that their original authors never dreamed of: this happens all the time in every religion; when people say that you are not being true to the founding text, what they really mean is that you read it differently than they do).

Ah well.  I didn't sleep enough last night, and it shows.  Forgive this long, rambling post, gods of the Internet, and help me stay awake for class today.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Capitalism vs. Socialism: False Dichotomy

Upton Sinclair.  The JungleOriginally published in 1906, with many subsequent editions.  Below, I am citing the 2002 Norton Critical Edition.

I recently read this book for a class I will be teaching in the coming semester.  I found it interesting and disturbing.  In many ways, it embodies a false dichotomy that I see stretching all across the twentieth century (at least) and on into the present.  Here the dichotomy appears as "capitalism" vs. "socialism" -- with the capitalist being a profit-seeking thug and the socialist being a saint who believes in and supports values that cannot be monetized.

The novel's portrait of evil capitalism (profit-seeking by Chicago's ruling business class) is gripping, historically accurate, and very damning:  
It was a war of each against all, and the devil take the hindmost.  You did not give feasts to other people, you waited for them to give feasts to you.  You went about with your soul full of suspicion and hatred; you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with.  The storekeepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lamp-posts and telegraph-poles, were pasted over with lies.  The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country -- from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie (74).
There is a good deal of truth here.  I myself have lived out a little, tame version of the monstruous evil that devours Jurgis Rudkus and his family in Sinclair's book.  In the course of scratching other's backs so that they might scratch mine, I have done some things of which I am not altogether proud.  And I have certainly believed the noble lie of Plato, a lie that effaces the bad that our social institutions do so that we may love them -- and the good that they also do -- more.

For me, one of the most painful passages was the one describing how modern food processing works (if you do some research, you will see that while some things have improved since Sinclair's day, the fundamentals have not really altered that much: processed food is still mostly crap that no one should eat as a staple, unless he wants to die early and in pain):
There were many such dangers, in which the odds were all against them.  Their children were not as well as they had been at home [in Lithuania]; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, that all the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it?  How could they know that the pale blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides?  When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drug-store and buy extracts -- and how was she to know that they were all adulterated?  How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes?  And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?  The bitter winter was coming, and they had to save money to get more clothing and bedding; but it would not matter in the least how much they saved, they could not get anything to keep them warm.  All the clothing that was to be had in the stores was made of cotton and shoddy, which is made by tearing old clothes to pieces and weaving the fibre again.  If they paid higher prices, they might get frills and fanciness, or be cheated; but genuine quality they could not obtain for love or money (75).
Here is a neat little illustration of how profit simply does not work as a motivator.  People should make and get food for nourishment, not for money.  When money is the reason for dinner, we forget that quality is actually a concern -- that it cannot be made up for in terms of quantity or cheapness.  (I don't care how cheap wood-shavings are, or how much more I can get if I buy them for my kids instead of real food: they aren't palatable.  They produce death instead of life.  The cheap dinner that they provide isn't worth anything, no matter how much money someone else may make off it.)

Sinclair's description of the jailbirds worn down by society rings true today too, when the USA imprisons more people than any other nation on earth, and will do anything to save its morally bankrupt captains of industry (pillars of society, lords of creation, etc., etc.):
This jail was a Noah's ark of the city's crime --  there were murderers, "hold-up men," and burglars, embezzlers, counterfeiters and forgers, bigamists, "shoplifters," "confidence men," petty thieves and pickpockets, gamblers and procurers, brawlers, beggars, tramps and drunkards; they were black and white, old and young, Americans and natives of every nation under the sun.  There were hardened criminals and innocent men too poor to give bail; old men, and boys not yet in their teens.  They were the drainage of the great festering ulcer of society; they were hideous to look upon, sickening to talk to.  All life had turned to rottenness and stench in them -- love was a beastliness, joy was a snare, and God was an imprecation ... They could tell the whole hateful story of it, set forth the inner soul of a city in which justice and honor, women's bodies and men's souls, were for sale in the market-place, and human beings writhed and fought and fell upon each other like wolves in a pit; in which lusts were raging fires, and men were fuel, and humanity was festering and stewing and wallowing in its own corruption.  Into this wild-beast tangle these men had been born without their consent, they had taken part in it because they could not help it; that they were in jail was no disgrace to them, for the game had never been fair, the dice were loaded.  They were swindlers and thieves of pennies and dimes, and they had been trapped and put out of the way by the swindlers and thieves of millions of dollars (159-160).
In many ways, Sinclair's portrait of Chicago riff-raff reminds me of what many Mormons think about apostates from the faith, who are sometimes caricatured as utterly immoral, dangerous people merely because they are no longer members of the LDS church or do not believe simply in the truth of certain historical and/or intellectual propositions.  But Mormons are by no means the only people to separate the world into good and evil along false fault lines.  Many others among us, including many Americans today, turn a blind eye to immoral behavior when it occurs among "our set" as opposed to "the enemy" (who may be Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, homosexuals or heterosexuals, wealthy or poor, people of faith or people who explicitly renounce traditional faith).  The fact is that we are all human, and we all behave humanly.  No one is above his own humanity, no matter what group he belongs to.  And dressing crimes up in pretty clothes and legal language doesn't make them less criminal, any more than slandering your enemy with false charges makes him a guilty wretch worthy of whatever vile fate you may wish for him.

Along the way toward redemption (as a Socialist!), Jurgis encounters a preacher, whose spiel puts me in mind of the old Mormon endowment ceremony (before it was changed in 1990):
The evangelist was preaching "sin and redemption," the infinite grace of God and His pardon for human frailty.  He was very much in earnest, and he meant well, but Jurgis, as he listened, found his soul filled with hatred.  What did he know about sin and suffering -- with his smooth, black coat and his neatly starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket -- and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death-grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold! -- This, of course, was unfair; but Jurgis felt that these men were out of touch with the life they discussed, that they were unfitted to solve its problems; nay, they themselves were part of the problem -- they were part of the order established that was crushing men down and beating them!  They were of the triumphant and insolent possessors; they had a hall, and a fire, and food and clothing and money, and so they might preach to hungry men, and the hungry men must be humble and listen!  They were trying to save their souls -- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies? (218)
Jurgis' experience here is an exaggerated version of mine.  He was in desperate physical need.  I had desperate psychological (spiritual) needs.  Neither one of us did very well with the earnest testimony of the preacher who refused to be answerable in practice for the doctrine he preached.  Theory has to evolve with practice, or both become useless.  Really useful doctrine is the kind that evolves when circumstances require it to.  The doctrine of more wood on the fire works fine, until I have exhausted the capacity of my fireplace and am burning down my house.  I hold unshaken faith in that doctrine at my own peril, and whatever short-term warmth I provide in burning my house down by it is insignificant compared with the long-term harm (smoke inhalation, serious burns, homelessness, etc.).  Few successes can compensate for failure to survive.  I confess I don't appreciate commandments from people who have not been where I am and yet presume to dictate to me unilaterally from their experience, as though it were some kind of authoritative blueprint for mine.  My life is not a plan for yours, and yours is no plan for mine.  Don't tell me that I have to live precisely as you would or be damned: that is a lie, no matter how fervently you believe it, and it is also offensive (even when you studiously avoid "strong language" in presenting it to me: nothing says fuck you! like the kind of patronizing condescension that too often passes for Christian charity).  I am not saying that preachers should be rude, only that there is more than one way to be rude -- and that in my view, the greatest rudeness is to assume that other people are helpless morons whose vision of reality will never be worth anything until it coincides perfectly with that of the preacher.

At one point, Sinclair introduces a senator singing the praises of "capitalism" (which Sinclair consistently portrays in a patently demonic light):
The eloquent senator was explaining the system of Protection; an ingenious device whereby the working-man permitted the manufacturer to charge him higher prices, in order that he might receive higher wages; thus taking his money out of his pocket with one hand, and putting a part of it back with the other.  To the senator, this unique arrangement had somehow become identified with the higher verities of the universe.  It was because of it that Columbia was the gem of the ocean; and all her future triumphs, her power and her good repute among the nations, depended upon the zeal and fidelity with which each citizen held up the hands of those who were toiling to maintain it.  The name of this heroic company was "the Grand Old Party" -- and here the band began to play, and Jurgis sat up with a violent start.  Singular as it may seem, Jurgis was making a desperate effort to understand what the senator was saying ... (271)
So capitalists are incoherent morons who advocate eating the poor for breakfast (and tell the poor to get over it and enjoy the process because it's good for them!).  But socialists, in Sinclair's view, are entirely different.  Cue the Socialist orator who converts Jurgis with this speech:
"It will be a movement beginning in the far-off past, a thing easy to ridicule, easy to despise: a thing unlovely, wearing the aspect of vengeance and hate -- but to you, the working-man, the wage-slave, calling with a voice insistent, imperious ... With the voice of all your wrongs, with the voice of all your desires ... The voice of the oppressed, pronouncing the doom of oppression!  The voice of power, wrought out of suffering ... The voice of Labor, despised and outraged; a mighty giant, lying prostrate ... And now a dream of resistance haunts him, and in a flash the dream becomes an act!  He starts, he lifts himself; and the bands are shattered, the burdens roll off him; he rises -- towering, gigantic; he springs to his feet; he shouts in his new-born exultation --" ... The audience came to its feet with a yell.  And Jurgis was with them, he was shouting to tear his throat; shouting because he could not help it, because the stress of his feeling was more than he could bear ... There was an unfolding of vistas before him, a breaking of the ground beneath him, an upheaving, a stirring, a trembling; he felt himself suddenly a mere man no longer -- there were powers within him undreamed of, there were demon forces contending, age-long wonders struggling to be born ... And when he could shout no more he still stood there, gasping, and whispering hoarsely to himself: "By God!  By God!  By God!" (291-292)
This passage describes a patently religious experience (much like many of my own personal religious experiences: here too I can identify with Jurgis, who is utterly swept away by the beautiful words from Sinclair's prophet of Socialism).  Further investigation confirms Jurgis in his new-found faith, whose tenets Sinclair lays out more matter-of-factly later on:
And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them, -- the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes, and the proletariat, bound into slavery by unseen chains.  The latter were a thousand to one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, and they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized -- until they became "class-conscious" ... Every Socialist did his share, and lived upon the vision of the "good time coming," -- when the working-class should go to the polls and seize the powers of government and put an end to private property in the means of production (296-297).
Jurgis is swept away with the wash of understanding that frequently accompanies religious conversion (again, in my experience too).  He gets the world now.  Everything makes perfect sense:
Until long after midnight Jurgis sat lost in the conversation of his new acquaintance.  It was a most wonderful experience to him -- an almost supernatural experience.  It was like encountering an inhabitant of the fourth dimension of space, a being who was free from one's own limitations.  For four years now, Jurgis had been wandering and blundering in the depths of a wilderness; and here, suddenly, a hand reached down and seized him, and lifted him out of it, and set him upon a mountain-top, from which he could see it all, -- could see the paths from which he had wandered, the morasses into which he had stumbled, the hiding-places of the beasts of prey that had fallen upon him ... To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinksi showed him that they were the Beef Trust.  They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people ... What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working-man, and also that was what they wanted from the public.  What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of the meat.  That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown ... it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit (299).
There is much to be said for Sinclair's (and Jurgis') Socialism.  The bit about profiteers devaluing life is demonstrably true (in history).  That "capitalist" society has problems (and had them, in Sinclair's time) is not something I would dispute.  But I am not convinced by the solution.  I instinctively gravitate toward the kind of skepticism exemplified by Jurgis' mother-in-law Elzbieta:
Jurgis was destined to find that Elzbieta's armor was absolutely impervious to Socialism.  Her soul had been baked hard in the fire of adversity, and there was no altering it now; life to her was the hunt for daily bread, and ideas existed for her only as they bore upon that.  All that interested her in regard to this new frenzy that had seized upon her son-in-law was whether or not it had a tendency to make him sober and industrious; and when she found he intended to look for work and to contribute his share to the family fund, she gave him full rein to convince her of anything (301).
I believe in good people, but I don't know about good systems, good dogma, good -isms.  They all sound so good when their most persuasive prophets present them.  Out here in the real world, Socialists aren't the only good speakers, and the rosy portrait Sinclair paints is belied by history, which has crushed every Socialist experiment in the last century with ruthless disregard for the religious fervor of men like Jurgis.  Where was Sinclair's Socialism when the Soviet regime collapsed, when former Yugoslavs began murdering each other pell mell?  These days, Sinclair's book strikes me as rather an accurate portrait of disease than any reliable sort of cure.  (Lewis Mumford comes closer to offering a kind of Socialist cure in Technics and Civilization, but even he was overly optimistic about the Soviet experiment.)

I think it is more useful to consider how capitalism and socialism are the same than to imagine how they are different.  As historical entities, both regimes exist as large organizations of human beings vying for power.  The twentieth century is not the story of how capitalism works and socialism doesn't: it is the story of how large associations of people become fragile and go bust, no matter what kind of -ism they carry around as their one true gospel.  The Soviet regime collapsed, yes, but so did Wall Street -- and the Eurozone is not far behind.  (In my view, the bailouts are all failures: the only safe future for the market is outside of monstruous companies whose survival depends on coerced input from clueless taxpayers, who might as well be held at gunpoint.)  The twentieth century is not about evil socialists losing out to righteous capitalists: it is about companies becoming too big not to fail.  You can call the tendency of companies to outgrow safe bounds whatever you please (capitalism, socialism, crony capitalism, protectionism, monopolism, free market economy, etc.), but it is what it is.  Dame Fortune doesn't care what you call your obese company (be it a government, a multinational, or a church) or what kind of rhetorical mumbo-jumbo you use to sell it to the saps who own shares (because they want to or because you forced them to pony up): she's gunning for you.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Conservative American Politics

A friend posted this image on a social media site and asked for feedback from conservatives.  The following represents my attempt to answer his call.  The original statements from the image are italicized and bolded: they represent a "liberal" caricature of modern American conservatism.

1.  Corporations are people.  There is much that I could say about this, but for now I am just going to talk about profits, which are the lifeblood of corporations.  Corporations are not necessarily evil for hunting profits: what else can they do? (Exhibit A: the Soviet empire.) Problems arise, however, when they mistake profit as the only end and (crucially) fail to consider the long term. (Keep an eternal perspective! Laugh, but there is something true here.) The fact that you make $100,000+ per employee per year for 10 years is absolutely fantastic until you lose $40 billion (or so) in one go, and the goose that lays the golden eggs dies. Your short-term profits are worthless when they have no long-term stability: worse than that, they set you up with false confidence -- leading to waste and practically inviting the savage vengeance of Dame Fortune. (Remember, no matter how sweetly she may smile on you today, that woman cannot be trusted.) Nobody who steps up to the bar with her is too big to fail -- not you, not your company, not GoldmanSachs, not the USA or the UN or God Almighty himself. (Exhibit B: Christ dying in agony on the cross.  Sidenote for Mormons: remember the parable Boyd K. Packer told about the debtor who had to pay through the nose and couldn't make it? I have often heard people ask who the ruthless creditor demanding pure justice was: was it God? Now I know: it was Dame Fortune.)  Understanding profit means knowing when to let it go (i.e. when it is not profitable), and taking your medicine when you really do fail (rather than taking another swig from that bottle and asking the dealer to give you another hand
: yes, she is really dangerously cute, and no, that is absolutely not a good excuse to stay in the game).

2.  Women who use birth control are sluts.  Again, there is much that I could say, but I am going to ignore most of it and talk about birth control.  Birth control is not free. But it is pretty cheap. If you cannot afford a few cents, then you are probably going to screw yourself (and everyone associated with you) over anyway. The world is a fun place, but with that fun comes responsibility. The taxpayer doesn't buy you booze or smokes: why should he buy you the illusion that sex has no natural consequences? You want to screw yourself: fine, go ahead. You want to go in with a little more preparation: be my guest. (As a conservative, I am not at all opposed to sex education: I think we should have more of it. Tell people exactly what happens, no holds barred, and let them make up their own minds about how to respond intelligently. Coddle people like puppies -- giving them free this and that -- and they will come begging for treats, or forget to beg because the cute little things seem like an unnecessary bother (until somebody gets pregnant: whoops? how did that happen?). Tell them where the danger is, and the ones with any sense will buy their own cheap protection. If Democrats want to set up private charities to distribute condoms, I am sure that Republicans will be OK with that. (I certainly would be.)

3.  College students are snobs.  College students are naive. Sometimes that naivete comes out as pointless partying. Sometimes it comes out as a giant tuition bill that the students' grandkids are never going to pay off (since it bought a degree in philosophy or art). You appreciate stuff better, and make better use of it, when you own it -- when you might lose it. Make college students work for their room and board, for the place they get in that class, and they will rise to the occasion: they will become smart and capable instead of blowing Daddy's money on beer and strippers (or an advanced degree in warmed-over rhetorical BS that Protagoras would have been ashamed to charge for). Note to teachers and (especially) administrators: this means that you have to keep your profits realistic (thinking more about educating people and less about your stupid football team: I don't care how many games you win or how pretty the uniforms and facilities are as long as your classroom performance sucks).

4.  Gay Americans are an abomination.  Conservatives by and large do a bad job when it comes to understanding gays. Give them all the crap you want, and it is probably merited. To understand where they are coming from, though, just think of the worst corporation you can and imagine how you would feel about employees of that corporation coming to your door and asking you to invest in their business. That is how many conservatives feel about gay people. They see a danger that isn't really there, but that doesn't make it any less scary for them.

5.  Poor people deserve to be poor.  Conservatives are guilty of preaching the prosperity gospel. But so are liberals. The fact is that there probably isn't a system possible in which somebody doesn't get run over. I still think the best way to prepare folks for that reality is letting them know what's on the line. Tell folks what the road looks like before you sell them a car and turn them loose to drive (and/or be run over). Capitalism isn't going to keep them from getting run over. But neither is socialism. Your best bet is to have a smarter driver behind the wheel, in my humble opinion. Don't tell people that there are safe bets, that it's always OK to go into debt for a house (or a car or an education), that their happiness depends on what somebody else does. The more disempowered people feel, the stupider they behave (out of desperation: they want to be in control; none of us is in perfect control, of course, but we compensate by having something we can do -- give people an option that isn't selling their vote or their soul to your and your political ideology, for goodness' sake).

6.  The unemployed are lazy parasites.  Conservatives are guilty here, too. It comes with the prosperity gospel. But telling people that they are on their own is actually kinder -- in many cases -- than encouraging them to place their hope in dead-end jobs doing piece-work for the next Rockefeller (who is going to be so much better than his predecessors because he is a Democrat or a Socialist or whatever). The truth is that most "jobs" in society these days are what ancient philosophers would have considered slave labor. They don't serve fundamental human needs. They don't free the souls of the people performing them (in most cases). They make people dependent rather than independent. What screams dependence more than crowds of scruffy young people hoboing around Wall Street waving angry signs: "Feed the dogs more, boss! We want some bigger scraps!" If you want to change the system, you have to man up and leave the bosses' table. If you don't want to be a slave, then don't do slave labor. Learn how to make it on your own (off the Street). And respect those people who for one reason or another find their bliss where you don't. It takes all kinds to make a world, and some of them are always going to be filthy scumbags (some of whom will be filthy rich). The most compelling weapon we can bring to bear against any corporation is not government regulation or sanctions or forced redistribution but non-engagement. You don't think Apple's outsourcing practices are good for the world? Then stop buying Apple products. Encourage other people to pursue alternatives to the stuff you don't like. Make your own companies. Build your own churches. Fly your own freak flag without trying to burn down everyone else's. Make your own hope instead of paying through the nose to get a cheap knock-off from some politician.

7.  Union workers are socialist thugs.  If you are going to have unions, then have unions. But remember that the purpose of life is best served when things (and people) work. Money does grow on trees -- and the trees need time, water, and nutrients that are freaking expensive (because they are precious). Your home doesn't magically double in value every 2 years (or 2 minutes, or whatever) -- and none of this changes when you have thousands of friends calling you "comrade" and paying dues to Jimmy Hoffa. Sometimes, the remedy (unions) can be as bad as the disease (management / capitalism). Most men would rather be their own master -- and would do a better job managing themselves than the Rockefellers or the Hoffas if they got the chance.

8.  Latinos are illegal until proven otherwise.  I think that many conservatives wouldn't mind making legal entry into the country easier -- though I am aware that not all feel this way (at all). The anti-immigration lobby is on the losing side of history, in my view, and I see no reason to defend them (or it). I like underdogs, but I will not be caught beating a dead horse, and this one has no chance.  

9.  The Bible trumps the Constitution.  Many conservatives are guilty of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the religious heritage of the USA. They try to impose themselves on the world and then cry religious persecution when the world (or the rest of the country) isn't having it. Give them grief, O Lord, for they deserve it (and have asked for it enough). The great thing about America used to be that I could believe whatever silly religious nonsense I wanted, and that you could too, and that we could still agree on the basics (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence -- neither of which says anything explicit about the Bible, except to provide that no religious test be used to keep unbelievers or heretics out of government). As far as I am concerned, you can be whatever you want to be as long as you allow me the same privilege and respect the law (which shouldn't be "Christian" law or "Muslim" law or "Jewish" law or any law other than good old American law -- which for all its flaws has a much better record than any religious code I know of).

10.  Global warming is a hoax.  Pretty much.  But conservatism doesn't demand waste as some kind of sine qua non. You can invest in clean energy, if you want. You just cannot make your neighbor do it precisely the way you would. Modeling good behavior wins you more points with conservatives than demanding that they pay more taxes and get rid of their old jalopies so that you can feel superior as you drive around in a nice Prius.

11.  The US auto industry should go bankrupt.  Speaking of old jalopies that are bad for the environment, yes, those stupid automakers should go bankrupt. If you want to make things better, then you have to let the bad ideas fail. GM is a bad idea. It has already failed. Keeping its ghost around to please the unions is a nice temporary gesture for old times' sake, but it is only making real economic recovery harder (since GM is taking up valuable resources that could be used to create a company that actually made something useful, something that would probably even be better for the environment than those overpriced junkers they have been turning out over the past quarter century).

12.  The US president is a Muslim agent from Kenya.  The Birthers are morons, nitpicking some spurious details that don't matter (at this point, they wouldn't even matter if they turned out to be true: getting Obama ejected from office on a nitpicking technicality is not going to fix anything wrong with this country; remember that the Hydra sprouted two new heads for every one that Heracles chopped off). The rest of us conservatives don't take them seriously. No one else should either.

This essay is neither a perfect reflection of my politics nor the articulation of a coherent worldview, but it contains the germ of many ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while, so I thought it worth preserving.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Life, Liberty, and Happiness

Thomas MertonThe Way of Chuang Tzu.  Abbey of Gethsemani, 1965.  ISBN: 0811218511.

As I was returning one of the last books I still have checked out from my soon-to-be alma mater's library, I could not help saving some more inspiration from Thomas Merton.  Without commentary (for now), behold:

"The Man of Tao" (pp. 91-92) 
The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Harms no other being
By his actions
Yet he does not know himself
To be "kind," to be "gentle."

The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Does not bother with his own interests
And does not despise
Others who do.
He does not struggle to make money
And does not make a virtue of poverty.
He goes his way
Without relying on others
And does not pride himself
On walking alone.
While he does not follow the crowd
He won't complain of those who do.
Rank and reward
Make no appeal to him;
Disgrace and shame
Do not deter him.
He is not always looking
For right and wrong
Always deciding "Yes" or "No."
The ancients said, therefore:

"The man of Tao
Remains unknown.
Perfect virtue
Produces nothing.
Is 'True-Self.'
And the greatest man
Is Nobody."
"Wholeness" (pp. 105-106) 
"How does the true man of Tao
Walk through walls without obstruction,
Stand in fire without being burnt?"

Not because of cunning
Or daring;
Not because he has learned,
But because he has unlearned.

All that is limited by form, semblance, sound, color,
Is called object.
Among them all, man alone
Is more than an object.
Though, like objects, he has form and semblance,
He is not limited to form.  He is more.
He can attain to formlessness.

When he is beyond form and semblance,
Beyond "this" and "that,"
Where is the comparison
With another object?
Where is the conflict?
What can stand in his way?

He will rest in his eternal place
Which is no-place.
He will be hidden
In his own unfathomable secret.
His nature sinks to its root
In the One.
His vitality, his power
Hide in secret Tao.

When he is all one,
There is no flaw in him
By which a wedge can enter.
So a drunken man, falling
Out of a wagon,
Is bruised but not destroyed.
His bones are like the bones of other men,
But his fall is different.
His spirit is entire.  He is not aware
Of getting into a wagon
Or falling out of one.

Life and death are nothing to him.
He knows no alarm, he meets obstacles
Without thought, without care,
Takes them without knowing they are there.

If there is such security in wine,
How much more in Tao.
The wise man is hidden in Tao.
Nothing can touch him.
"When the Shoe Fits" (pp. 112-113)
Ch'ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.

His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere.  His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern
With what he was doing.

No application was needed.
His mind was perfectly simple
And knew no obstacle.

So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
"For" and "against" are forgotten.

No drives, no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.

Easy is right.  Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.
This is really good stuff.  I wish I had spent more time listening as a young man, and less time preaching, but I recognize also that regret is pointless.  Let it all go and do what the situation demands.  There are no demands that cannot be met.  The Tao always takes care of itself: just don't invest heavily in any particular outcome to its evolutions.  Apathy is an amazing psychological (spiritual) tool, unlocking the floodgates of human potential, removing artificial barriers to the Tao that we all carry alive and well inside.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Decline of the West?

Some thoughts on this article, attributing much of the problem with American values to single parenting, and a concomitant decline in moral values.

Quotes like this give me pause:
Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed. (That change received a burst of attention this year with the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which attributed the decline of marriage to the erosion of values, rather than the decline of economic opportunity.) 
We might be seeing a decline of values in modern north America.  (I am not yet convinced that we are.  Since at least the nineteenth century, the morals of the "working class" in the West have provided a freak show at which the better off have stared in alternate horror and fascination.)  But if we are, then the solution is emphatically not socializing marriage (or healthcare, or housing, or anything else, if we can help it).  Disrupting stable homosexual relationships -- devaluing them, attacking them (with specious "defend the family" arguments) -- does nothing to make fewer dumb heterosexuals go the way of Britney Spears (who seems to flout the Deuteronomistic narrative of people like Charles Murray by being at once wealthy and a tramp: maybe her children will be utterly ruined, or maybe they will retire happy with the hefty fortune their mother has piled up shaking her booty).

The people saving marriage are the ones making theirs work.  They don't have time to save yours.  That's your job.  As is deciding to have sex (or not).  No one can make those decisions for you.  There are no shortcuts.  Blaming the people who make what end up looking like "bad" decisions might make us feel a little better (for avoiding the trap), but it cannot really help those making the mistakes.  The most we can do is provide information, and accomodate others with as much grace and dignity as they will allow.

I don't despise single parents.  I don't think that they "failed" because they were somehow morally inferior to me.  (Heck, if something happens to my wife, then I am in the same boat -- not necessarily because I am a sinner, but because life is tough and we don't always have all the resources necessary for optimal human expression.)  I don't think it is useful to cultivate a moral outlook that pats the lucky winners (who were rich, went to school, and fell in love with partners who happened to remain alive, mentally stable, and still in love) on the back, and calls the losers (who lose for many different reasons) to a belated repentance: "Your life sucks now, because you are a hopeless jackass.  I thought you should know this.  You'll never be as cool as those of us who didn't slip up, but we'll generously let you have a place at our parties (where we celebrate our good fortune and lament the existence of miserable wretches like you)."  This is not the message that always makes it across, of course, but it is too often the way things shake out, in my (limited) experience.

Instead of fearing failure so much that we punish people (and ourselves) reactively, we really ought to cultivate success.  Not everyone gets it right the first time.  Not everyone gets two parents (or one) who care.  Not everyone gets sufficient food and shelter.  More important than assigning blame is learning how to recover from (inevitable) setbacks.  If you need to beat yourself up a bit, confess to a priest, and go through the whole sackcloth-and-ashes routine, then that is fine -- but it isn't going to help everyone, and I find its application in real life to be quite limited (much more limited than its widespread prescription would suggest).  Maybe if we allowed sex education ("hey, if you have sex all the time, i.e. inserting this tab of his into this slot of hers, then you should be aware that children are a common consequence") instead of pretending that such things are better ignored, then young people would think more before doing it.  Maybe if we modeled better relationships, they would have more to aspire to.  Maybe if we spent more time cultivating really useful relationship tools (empathy, honesty, openness, compassion) -- and less time teaching bad history ("eighteenth-century marriages were all ideal") and worse psychology ("God loves sinners, so he makes them miserable single parents") -- then we would see fewer marriages fail.

I am speaking past the article that triggered these thoughts at this point (as I may have been doing the whole time), but I think this is important (for me, if for no one else).  If we are experiencing the implosion of our culture, then what saves us will not be a heftier dose of whatever medicine we are already taking.  If we are losing our heritage as moral beings, then the answer is not more of whatever is already not working.  For me, the solution starts with radical honesty: what do we really know about human behavior? what is success? how do we cultivate it?  I don't believe those who pretend that there are easy universal answers to these questions that anyone can have for the price of tithing.  I think reality is more complicated than that.  I doubt these kind of pat solutions very much.  But I have faith in the human race.  We can rise above the challenges that face us.  The first step is to confront them directly, swallowing our fear and denying our desire to pass the buck to someone else (like the parents who don't get married, the priests who promise absolution for tithing, or the politicians who are always vowing to save the world in exchange for a few votes).

Bottom line: from my perspective, there is a lot more to success and failure (and life generally) than a deceptively simple "I do" (which I didn't even get to utter at my wedding, by the way).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

American Mercenaries

Shawn Engbrecht.  America's Covert Warriors: Inside the World of Private Military Companies.  Washington, DC: Potomac, 2011.  ISBN: 159797238X.

This book is fascinating.  It outlines the history of modern US mercenaries (which arose out of the armed forces' need for a supply train, and the lack of government companies prepared to step into that role: this reminds me of the private companies that used to bid on government contracts in ancient Rome; essentially, it is the same system, with the same benefits and demerits).  Engbrecht, who has served as an American soldier and a PMC/PSD mercenary, offers a unique and realistic window onto what actually goes on abroad under the authority of the federal government of the United States.  Some of it is heroic, in all the best senses of that word, and some of it is as despicable as anything you could imagine.  Like other people, soldiers (public and private) are human: some of them react badly to adverse conditions (which can be unspeakably harsh: Engbrecht is quite good at putting them into words, as good as anyone else I have ever read on war; I especially like how he uses verbatim quotes from extensive interviews with soldiers and mercenaries).

According to Engbrecht, the essential problem with PMCs up to this point in time has been the carte blanche that they have "enjoyed" since the Bush administration: they are not accountable for the bullets they shoot, the equipment they lose, or the people that they kill.  Some of them, mostly those with military training and good morale, are OK with this kind of freedom: they can be accountable to themselves without turning into marauding orcs.  Others are emphatically incapable and devolve into angry apes with heavy artillery.  They get drunk all the time (for reasons that make sense when you read Engbrecht's description of war: it sucks), wreck equipment, steal the taxpayers' cash (outright or through bribes and graft), and shoot at any Iraqi that steps within range of their weapons.  Engbrecht says that no army, public or private, can maintain morale without accountability.  I think he is right.  His plans to make PMCs accountable seem like good ones, insofar as they propose means whereby American mercenaries become answerable in the same way that American regulars are.  War is one thing that our federal government has learned how to do better than private militias, and the reason for this (recognized by Engbrecht) is accountability.  American soldiers know that they are on the hook for every bullet they fire, every dollar of public money they spend, every person (civilian or hostile) that they shoot.  While this does not make them perfect, it does render them much less wasteful and damaging to American interests than their private counterparts in the PMCs.  Engbrecht gives the numbers and the personal anecdotes to back this observation up.

A real problem with the PMCs is that they are run explicitly for profit.  Some friends may be sad when I say this, but it seems to me that there are situations where problems cannot be wisely monetized (or at the very least, something has gone very wrong in our attempts to monetize them to date).  Consider the following observation from Harvard-educated Kuwaiti businessman providing financial backing to one of the PMCs whose behavior Engbrecht found particularly atrocious.  Asked why he did not care about the crimes his mercenaries were committing, he replied as follows:
You would have to kill and report over ten dead civilians a month for the next two years before I even came close to spending what you suggest I dispense with now.  There is no financial justification in sending these men home [for blowing up civilians without provocation].  There are no criminal activities that they can engage in that I can possibly be held liable for as they are in fact immune from prosecution.  The truth of the matter is that it costs less for me to allow your men to continue to allegedly kill Iraqis than it does to replace them with those who won't shoot everything in sight.  A dead Iraqi has no monetary value to me, especially at the reported rate of one a month.  I would like to remind you that we are fighting a war and that casualties such as what you purport to have seen are sadly inevitable.  Besides, they are probably all insurgents anyway.  Therefore, you may fire one or two [of the unhinged cowboys] at your discretion to provide an example, but only after their replacements are here in the country.  As for the rest I strongly suggest you check to see if you are tough enough to deal with the kind of situation we have here.  This is a war and people die -- even civilians (111-112).
Money has relative value.  So does life, admittedly.  But for the sake of our souls (individual and collective), we need to find a way to value life that does not allow it to become as cheap as it appears here.  The Kuwaiti quoted above was a Shia Muslim, and the Iraqis whose lives he didn't value were Sunni.  The mercenaries he employed were a mix of Americans and foreign nationals.  All of them valued life instinctively, the way all people do, but they had managed to convince themselves that Iraqis were different, that their lives didn't matter, that they could be wantonly gunned down without consequence.  Engbrecht is right to call this out for a lie.  There are circumstances in which you are justified in killing another person.  Moral people do not identify these circumstances by profit margins: acceptable as these might be (arguably) for deciding what stock to purchase, they are no substitute for moral judgment in a shooting war.

I do not think you can create laws that will make people behave the way you want them to.  But the least you can do (as a legislator) is hold people responsible, in theory.  If you send armed mercenaries onto the battlefield to represent the United States (or her government, at least), you can hold them to military standards of professional conduct.  They won't all fall short of the standard: most of them will appreciate it as a useful tool, a familiar piece of humane civilization in a world of savage chaos where ordinary humanity seems to have come unraveled.  Respecting people's right to individuate doesn't mean letting do whatever they please, wherever they happen to be.  Groups of people, to be effective, are always going to have "laws" (morals, behaviors, written and unwritten codes by which they judge themselves and others, for better or for worse).  Engbrecht is right to argue for accountability, which is the essence of moral integrity, as I see it these days.  I answer for myself, for my actions, for my ideas, for everything that I am -- for better or for worse.  I don't pass the buck to somebody else ("war is rough!").  I accept it as my own ('war' doesn't shoot innocent civilians: people armed with guns do that; if I carry a weapon into a war zone, I am answerable for how I use it there).

Here are some of the stories Engbrecht tells that I found most poignant.  The first is from his own experience: 
There was one man I knew who on the surface appeared helpful and kind.  Somewhat obese, he was forever giving out candies to the Iraqi kids near our camp.  He was the original roly-poly Santa Claus type.  A devout Christian, he carried a small Bible with him and prayed briefly every night.  He seemed to be pretty solid.  One day, we overtook an Iraqi vehicle.  It was the typical rattletrap sedan, occupied by an adult couple with two grimy kids in the backseat.  In other words, they were no threat.  Insurgents do not bring their children along to wage war.  It was obvious they hadn't seen us, which is not surprising as we were doing about 2.5 times their speed and were well in advance of the main convoy.  We began to slow down, in preparation to indicate to the driver to move to the side of the road for the convoy to pass behind us.  Without warning, as our truck pulled abreast, Bob (I shall call him Bob) leaned out the passenger side window and speared the Iraqi with the muzzle of his rifle.  No warning, no wave, nothing.  Just harpooned him like a fish in a barrel.  The driver of the sedan, eyes wide and blood pouring from his face, hit the brakes as his car swerved to the side of the road.  As we pulled away, Bob fire two shots, one into the ground and the second squarely into the radiator of the vehicle.  Steam began to erupt from the grille while a very panicked family cowered behind the dashboard.  Upon questioning, he simply stated that he had thought he had seen a threat and had acted accordingly.  By the literal interpretation of the rule book, he was entitled to have done what he did.  But we had a hard time buying his concept of what 'threat' meant.  But that was becoming the norm as opposed to the exception, and no action was taken (116-117).

Bob proclaimed himself to be a former Special Operations Command soldier -- from First Ranger Battalion, no less, which happens to be my alma mater.  So, as old soldiers do, we conversed about the good old days.  Only problem was Bob couldn't recall the name of his company commander, first sergeant, or even the name of the drop zone where we made about 80 percent of our parachute jumps.  It quickly became evident that Bob was lying (118).

Bob was a bully -- nothing more, nothing less.  All he could talk about was combat, explosive devices, and threats.  He was scared shitless and, because he was scared, vented his fear on the innocent.  He had no right to be there, and yet there are thousands like him who consider the Arabs literally as "Untermenschen," meaning subhumans fit for the gas chamber.  His laptop contained a huge collection of war porn portraying violent death.  But he still gave candy to the kids on the other side of the wire, was perfectly jovial in the chow hall, and prayed to be a good person every night.  He was far too quick on the trigger and always aimed to destroy the vehicle, knowing full well it was all most Iraqis had.  Why?  Because the prick could get away with it.  Here, he was king.  For him to return home, he would at best be a shift manager at Burger King.  I believe power can be utterly evil.  When I look at him, I am reminded of how seemingly normal men became concentration camp guards.  Pat one child on the head and then shoot his parents.  Had he been born eighty years ago in Germany, doubtless he would have found his way to Auschwitz.  Bob was eventually quietly released and has since returned to the United States (118-119).
This account is eerily familiar to me.  Like Bob, I too have found myself in positions where I affected a kindness belied by my behavior.  I try to be kind to my kids, but I am sometimes short with them.  While there is a place for deviation (no one is perfect), there are standards.  I do not have carte blanche with my kids, and I should not.  I am answerable to my wife, to the rest of my community.  No one should ever have carte blanche.  No matter how good we aspire to be, what matters in the end is how we turn out.  I can preach kindness all day and even practice it a little (Bob gave the kids candy), but all my goodness goes out the window when I take those aspirations and turn them into vicious, unprovoked attacks on innocent people.

If I want to be a moral person, then I have to hold myself accountable to more than just myself.  I have to care about other people.  I have to apologize to them, when I should, and mean it.  It does not matter where I am in any hierarchy: if I am president of the country, dictator, or the leader of a religious sect, then my responsibility to others is the same.  I cannot pretend that the "mantle" of my authority gives me immunity from common standards.  I cannot say that people wouldn't understand, that people have to accept my decisions unquestioned because I am powerful and mean well.  I need to give reasons for my behavior.  I need to own it.  I need to recognize when it causes harm, and adjust accordingly.  That is what a good person does.

The next story comes from a friend of Engbrecht, another private military contractor interviewing a potential recruit for his company:
I recall asking him how long he had been in Baghdad and how much ammunition he fired off on a weekly basis.  My company was at that time getting into one or two serious fights a month so I had a good idea of what to expect as far as ammo expenditure went.  I nearly fell off the chair when he told me, in all honesty, about a thousand rounds a week.  That was more than what I had used up in the last four months, and I had been on the road nearly every day!  I was dealing with somebody who enjoyed dropping the hammer, and that was a very bad sign. 

I took a closer look at him.  He was a black kid from Detroit, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five.  Lots of gold.  Former Navy with an 'other than honorable' discharge.  He was also carrying three different Glock pistols on his body, in both .40-caliber and 9mm caliber.  Two on his vest and one in a useless ankle holster.  This was in addition to his custom AK-47 with a seventy-five-round drum magazine.  In all my years in the Ranger regiment, I had never carried more than one weapon.  I asked him why all the pistols. 

"In case they get too close or I am out of ammunition," was his response. 
"Why three?" 
"In case one or two don't work," was what he told me. 

I was pretty sure by then he was a gangbanger.  Just a punk who could pull the trigger when he felt like it.  If he did this shit back on the block in Detroit, he would be in jail.  But over here he was some kind of fucking hero.  The only people who carry a multitude of weapons are those who are scared shitless.  Lack of confidence in both yourself and your weapon so you make up for it by carrying multiple backups.  I had seen it before, but this case was extreme.  I asked him how many ambushes he had been in. 

"Four and a half." 
That was a new one for me.  "How did you get in 'half an ambush'?" 

He replied that he had been in the vicinity when an army unit got the chop up the road so he figured he was entitled to say that he was in a 'half an ambush.' 

We didn't take him and told him to go look for work someplace else. 

I only saw him once more, a few months later, just off a big intersection on the way to BIAP.  He was taking photos of a shot-up car full of dead Iraqis.  Probably his own handiwork.  I couldn't see any weapons on the bodies.  But there was nothing I could do, so we just drove on (121-122).
What stands out to me here is the remark on fear made by Engbrecht's friend: the bad recruit was afraid, so he packed way more heat than he needed and shot at anything that moved.  This fear is something that we all experience.  It is what causes us to react thoughtlessly, angrily, when people do things that make us feel uncomfortable.  There is some truth to the saying that fear makes cowards of us all.  It makes us forget about integrity.  We become so focused on survival that we lose our reason.  We lose the ability to see real threats, and we waste our time (and ammunition) shooting up civilians (or fighting against gay marriage).  We confuse a subjective experience ("I feel sick") with a categorical moral imperative ("Iraqis must die!" "gay people cannot get married!").  The competent warrior has faced his fear and conquered it.  Making his way through dangerous circumstances, he does not give way to instinctive terror and pour lead into every potential threat that presents: he saves his bullets for clear and immediate dangers (like the federal deficit, the housing bubble, the education bubble, the need for cheap and sustainable ways of living). 

People often play on our fears to get us to do things that we might otherwise be hesitant about.  We are surrounded by prophets predicting the end of the world ("apocalypse now!") and demanding our immediate, passionate support in suppressing imminent threats to society -- including many threats that are entirely fictional when viewed in the light of sober reason.  As a result of my personal experiences, I have determined that fear is not useful in making long-term decisions (like how much heat I am going to pack around Baghdad, how I am going to view sex and marriage, what moral values I am going to live by and be remembered for).  Fear can get us out of a little jam fast when we might otherwise croak, but it is only a stop-gap -- even then, it is better to be a cool hand, as Engbrecht proves with story after story (including the detailed account he gives of a routine fire-fight between PMC mercenaries and Iraqi insurgents lying in ambush).  I strive not to be scared of government, of the "secular" left, the "religious" right, the police, the military, the mafia, the gays, the straights, or people in general: that doesn't mean that I am careless or fearless, only that I try to see past my fear (having learned by experience that it is irrational, as likely to harm me as save me).  I do what I think is right and let the cards fall, whether I am terrified or not.  I try to focus on cultivating the good I believe in, looking past the bugbears invoked by prophets of doom (who exist all over the place, not just in one organization or ideology).  Eventually, I will most certainly die, just like civilization and the universe: but that fact does not mean that we should blow everything up prematurely.  Life right now is good, more precious for being temporary and precarious.  Don't waste it being paralyzed with fear of the inevitable.  Meet your fate with a joke and a smile, having done your level best to live a beautiful, fearless life.

The last passage I am going to quote here from Engbrecht comes from one of the "good guys" in the mercenary trade -- one of the quiet professionals who did not shoot up civilians or steal money or otherwise debase himself in the horror that he survived.  I was really moved by his words:
Combat strips one bare.  There is no room for prejudice or preconceived notions.  Everything is subjugated to the one end: survival.  It does not matter that the man beside you is black or Hispanic or rich or fat or good looking.  Nor is it important what type of car he drives.  What is important is his ability to shoot, move, and communicate.  One gets to know one's comrades far better than one knows lifelong friends or even family.  Infantry combat is a white hot furnace that bonds men for life because the price of failure is death (190).

War does different things to different people.  Some become remote while others party as hard as they can.  I have found that I actually have become much more compassionate, generous, and overall more caring.  I stop to feed the squirrels and tend to seek intelligent, intimate relationships as opposed to having a revolving door on my bedroom (190-191). 

What a lost cause.  We have become a nation (or perhaps we always were and I just never caught it) of fat voyeurs vicariously living out their childish fantasies by viewing inane and idiotic reality television shows.  We equate material consumption and wealth directly to happiness, which is a colossal error as the two are completely separate entities.  We focus on the superficial -- the types of cars, breast enhancements, hair removal, the newest technical gadget -- all meaningless.  I am not even remotely materialistic anymore (191).

And the longer I stay at home the more I realize the less in common I have with everybody else.  For it is not society that has changed, it is I.  When one returns from far-flung fields of horror, a couple of things occur.  The first is that I am overwhelmingly grateful for what I have and the lifestyle I am able to lead, with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the first three chapters.  When one undergoes serious travail, the meaningless barbs of everyday life are pushed to the margins of importance.  But it is the second one that causes angst.  For in learning gratitude and appreciation for life, we become intolerant in the ways of a society that takes it for granted.  It is both the bane and the boon of great democratic civilizations: our forefathers have striven mightily to construct the foundations of just and free societies, only to have their grandchildren grow up to take them for granted ... the children are rich and fat enough to become consumed with the trivial and inane (191).

So I live in a big house by myself, rarely venturing to go out, alone in a sea of thousands, which makes it all more lonely still.  The hardest part is having to forgive society.  I cannot judge you for you do not know.  How can you possibly be expected to have more emotional depth when the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to you is having the air conditioner break for an afternoon?  I must forgive America for her being obsessed with the trivial, the mundane, the idiotic.  It frightens me that so few of you have ever had to fight for it, to viciously engage in mortal combat with those whose sole desire is to eliminate you from the face of the earth.  You may hear my words, but they do not register, for you have no scale upon which to to measure the reality of them.  I must forgive you because you do not understand.  And I am glad you do not understand because that means that you will hopefully never gaze upon a small boy trying to rearrange his internal organs that lay spread on the ground all around him.  I do not wish for you to see that, ergo I must forgive your ignorance.  Which makes me even lonelier, the mournful wolf padding softly through the snowy forest under a full moon, while the rest of the world sleeps.  With a bottle of whiskey.  I love you all.  Now fuck off and leave me alone (192).
This is pretty much my view of the world right now, though I don't have a soldier's excuse.  The last words are particularly poignant, capturing how I often feel towards the LDS church, my mission hierarchy, politicians, and even on occasion the academic institutions I have worked for: "I love you all.  Now f*** off and leave me alone!"  (The university has thus far been the institution most accommodating to my simultaneous need for communion and solitude.  I get free rein to go my own way, provided I turn in all drafts on time and attend classes.)  And the earlier words about forgiveness are spot-on.  Not to mention the wish that more of us looked for life beyond trivial materialism.  Philosophically speaking, I am a materialist, now, but not the kind of materialist who thinks that we should all shop till we drop.  I wish we could live sustainably, cheaply, at peace with nature and ourselves.  I don't demand air conditioning, automobiles, brand-name clothes, a cushy white-collar job, a nice house, an expensive education, or whatever other bread and circuses are currently on offer.  I am interested in other things: authenticity, integrity, sustainable wealth (which does not require all the props of modern business: you can be wealthy with few possessions, as long as you have the right tools and know how to use them).

I feel stripped bare quite a bit, these days.  Only I don't always have comrades in arms.  The closest thing are my friends and family, the people I interact with personally on a regular basis.  These are the people I would do anything to help.  These are the people who really care about me.  I certainly don't want to push them away: I value them, even (perhaps especially) when they don't see things precisely the way I do.  They matter to me in a way that society at large cannot, ever.  They are the faces that keep me accountable -- not the laws, or the police, or whatever other mechanisms society at large deploys to keep us all in line.  The reason I am as honest, faithful, and true as I am (not perfect, but striving) is because I care about these people.  I want to be there for them.  I want to help them -- really help them, not just have vague hopes or aspirations to help them.  I respect their autonomy.  I love them for it.  I respect them.  They are wonderful people, and I am proud to know them.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Apocalypse Now! Just Kidding.

A response to this article, sent to me by a good friend.

To me, it seems that things are not quite as black as Fr. Jacobse wants them to be.  I suspect some of the "culture rot" is just the religious right waking up to the fact that it is not perfect (any more than the secular left is).  To some extent, that is a good thing.  Maybe we will be a little less negatively focused on culture wars when it comes clear to more of us that we are often hurting more than helping (with our rhetoric about what is good, what is bad, and what we expect or demand from those around us who may not feel exactly as we do when it comes to marriage, clothing, music, or other fashion choices that don't necessarily have to be "evil" just because they aren't what we would do ourselves).  If churches were more focused on helping people live better lives, and less focused on beating up sinners (especially the sinners who aren't really hurting them or anyone else in an obvious way), then the world would be a better place.  Maybe the impending collapse of church power (which seems overstated to me) will help religious folk look inward -- minding their own beams a little more and caring less about their neighbors' motes.  I think that would be a good thing.

I suspect some kinds of freedom will still remain available for those with resources and guts sufficient to go for them.  (If you can make it in the wild, there is still a wilderness out there to receive you.  If you make enough money, society will leave you alone and/or give you whatever you want, as long as you don't want things that anger a lot of other people.  The people losing freedom are often those who never really had any to begin with: they are just human capital, poor chattel looking for someone to house them in a nicer shed.  Such people have been with us for a long time.  There might have been less of them during the Revolution, at the beginning, but even then they were out there.)  Personally, as long as I have the possibility of living a life that means something to me, I don't care what the laws are, what my neighbor thinks about sex, or what nonsense is trending among the masses (who are never going to be "safe" -- big crowds of like-minded people are always dangerous, historically).  It stinks that I must buy health insurance now and that it cannot be cheap, but at least I have some kind of job (for two years, anyway).  It stinks that I see no place for myself in the culture I grew up in, no nice place for myself in the society I grew up in, but in the end it's really OK.  I'll make do with what I get, just like everybody else, and I'll try not to cry too much about it.  Many people have lived worse lives than I am going to (even if I die murdered horribly today).  I am a lucky man, and I am doing everything I can to capitalize intelligently on that luck.  I am also an idiot, so this does not always work out great, but everyone does what he can.

My goal is to live such that I don't have to be terrified every time apocalypse looms.  It seems to me that people often use the threat of apocalypse ("our culture is dying! we are under attack!") to galvanize mobs ("to the barricade! allons enfants de la patrie!") to do things that they (and their grandchildren) end up regretting.  Not that there is never a time to take a stand (even a violent stand), but I see no reason to make every blip on the radar a matter of life and death, good and evil, do or die.  We Americans accepted socialism a long time ago (when we ratified the Constitution, created the First Bank of the United States, let the North win the Civil War, and took Roosevelt's New Deal).  The results have not all been bad, as many descendants of former slaves will tell you: much as some of them may dislike living on Uncle Sam's dime in the hood, they would not rather be picking cotton under the overseer's lash.  And I see their point.  It is a pretty good one.  If some stupid Southerners could have seen it without a war, then we might still have some of the freedom they lost when they fired on Fort Sumter.  They gambled with their freedom, their livelihood, and they lost.  That's what happens in life.  We get stuff.  We gamble with it.  We lose, and our descendants have to do without the cool stuff we blew shooting craps in God's casino (where the house always wins).  C'est la vie.

Don't Wear Shoes!

I found a very interesting podcast about the problems with shoes.  Having spent a good part of the last 3-5 years unshod or in minimal footwear (everywhere), I can attest to the benefits the doctors mention (stronger feet, fewer injuries, old injuries rehabilitated).

When the burning bush told Moses to take his shoes off, it was on to something.

Monday, July 9, 2012

More Patriotic Musings

Eric Greitens. The Heart and the Fist. Tantor, 2011. ISBN: 1452630968.

My last post on this book got sidetracked into personal channels, but there is a neat point lurking throughout Greitens' book that keeps coming home to me.  Greitens' experiences illustrate a simple truth about politics: human beings work together.  We build peaceful communities through mutual trust grounded in shared ideas.  We defend those communities through mutual trust grounded in shared ideas: when the situation demands it, our defense is violent.  It does not matter what community we are talking about: all communities are alike in these generic features (being built and defended, violently when necessary, on mutual trust and shared ideas).

This insight makes me see a certain irony lurking behind things like (to pick a recent example) Barack Obama's remarks on the town-folk of rural Pennsylvania (and the Midwest generally):
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them ... And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Obama is trying to empathize in this quote.  He is trying to say something like, "Small-town rednecks are just human beings just like everybody else.  They actually make some sense if you stop to think about it."  I am sympathetic to this position, on the whole.  I too believe in the humanity of hill-billies (not least because many of my relatives come from the backwoods of Tennessee and Virginia, and the fact that I grew up on the edges of rural North Georgia).  But there is something funny in the President of the United States talking about people hiding behind guns and religion because they are bitter.  Why does the rest of the USA cling to guns (the federal government has serious hardware all over the world right now: Europe, the Middle East, and right here at home!) and religion (every day, lawmakers converge, courts meet, Wall Street opens for business, and American "religion" happens as people act on faith -- wisely or foolishly, successfully or unsuccessfully, mindfully or heedlessly).  Maybe we all cling to guns and religion because that's what people do?  Not because we're backward, or stupid, or bitter, or whatever?  The same forces that drive US Marines to take up machine guns and revere their marching orders drive hill-billies to take up twenty-two rifles and revere the Bible, the Constitution, and/or their local pastor, sheriff, or judge.  And this same thing is going on all over the world, with different groups picking up different weapons and different religious ideas (championed by different religious leaders, including a fair number of charlatans and scoundrels -- some of whom are undoubtedly American and/or agents of the US federal government).  Is it really likely that all of these groups fail to cohere because of bitterness?  Would we all be in bed with the Fed (or the UN, or whatever) if it had done better by us or our parents back in the day?  Maybe, but it seems unlikely to me.  I think the very nature of humanity is to splinter into factions small enough to be coherent as no large-scale organization ever is.  (People need face contact.  They need to interact with and be responsible to circumstances and other people immediately close to them.  I cannot live well deferring to authorities I never see who act in circumstances where I am never present.)  This does not mean that various factions cannot join together, making a conscious effort to improve certain things in their immediate environments, but it does pose a serious challenge to the naive kind of outreach that national politicians have a tendency to espouse.

On the ground, the American dream looks radically different to different people.  Some people see it as freedom (liberation from dictatorship, increased ability to pursue opportunities in their lives).  Others see it as enslavement (imposition of dictatorship, decreased ability to pursue opportunities in their lives).  With a nation as large and powerful as ours, this dissonance is always going to exist.  We cannot magically make it go away, and we would blow the whole thing up if we tried.  As long as people are safe, morally upstanding (living and letting live), and reasonably autonomous (we all depend on each other, but complete dependence is really dangerous -- to the dependent and to the person pretending to control his life), then we are doing well.  Things will never look great, because that is life.  Shit happens.  Hurricanes strike.  New Orleans gets wiped off the map.  Some Americans get thrown into combat situations in foreign countries (like Iraq) and go nuts, creating justifiable outrage at home and abroad.  Other foreign nationals do the same (some even drive airplanes into buildings in the name of sacred mumbo-jumbo that seems ridiculous to onlookers outside their clans).  It isn't that they are broken somehow.  This is humanity.  This is what happens, until we figure out new ways of being.  So far, no one has come up with a way that isn't "God and guns" -- even the best people (the ones enjoying and enabling the most peace) ultimately rely on this formula.  The difference between success and failure is not "what" we believe in (we all believe in God and guns), but how we believe in it (some of us serve God by giving others more useful autonomy and applying minimum force to keep security intact).

What separated Eric Greitens from stupid suicide bombers or Blackwater goons (on the American side) was not a lack of belief in God (Allah) and guns, but the way that he worshiped.  His God believed that civilians were an innocent and important resource, something to be cultivated and protected at great cost (up to and including his own death).  His gun was for keeping civilians safe, not for blowing them up.  His God protected life rather than destroy it (in the name of an afterlife that most of us find transparently specious: we would never blow ourselves up for promises of any heaven, no matter how wonderful).

If people (politicians included) really want to make the world a better place, then the solution is not to belittle other people's gods or take away their guns (making them feel desperate and threatened -- with some reason, as long as the rest of the world keeps its guns).  Instead, we have to understand them.  We have to get into their heads, see their god, see how he is like ours, and find some kind of common ground.  We need new approaches to religion, new ways of being different together that do not degenerate into wars between Shiz and Coriantumr.  This is not easy, but it is possible.  Men like Eric Greitens have walked the line where it is historically hardest to walk.  More of us (including politicians, even when it makes them "unelectable") need to follow their lead and do the right thing, for its own sake.  What matters is not which party rules, but what kind of people we all are.  If we are people of integrity, speaking idealistically for a moment, then any one of us is as good as another in any leadership position.  If we are not people of integrity, then it does not matter who wins (the presidency, the war, the election): the result will always be bad.

Resisting corruption is hard.  No organization is ever entirely free of it (as Greitens discovered).  But we must all be on board, for the long haul, no matter what.  If it makes us unpopular, unelectable, unsuccessful -- then so be it.  The reward to society counterbalances the shit that we have to take individually.  Being a real leader is about taking that shit.  It isn't about the lavish dinners, the medals, the Nobel Peace Prizes, the book contracts, or the rest of that fancy stuff: bad guys get all that, too.  A really good man might get some of those pretty toys, or he might not, but you can be sure that he will eat plenty of shit, no matter what.  People will hate his guts (when he tells the truth and it isn't pretty), and he will empathize with those people more than he does with fans who drool over him -- because their instinct ("be wary of the incorruptible man") serves society as it needs to be served.  The real hero invites scrutiny, because he knows that scrutiny is always in the community's best interests.  The more people question, the more they doubt, the more they think, the more authentic and human (or, as we say, humane) their reactions to real problems become.  When you have broken bread with people on both sides of the factional line (any line), then it becomes hard to have any sympathy for ridiculous caricatures of either.  People are people.  We come together.  We defend each other.  We can do this peacefully, or not.  We can do this thoughtfully, or not, but thoughtfully is ultimately better (inasmuch as it is more peaceful).  Greitens' book offers a really good window onto this reality.