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.

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