Thursday, October 29, 2015

Iraq Redux, Reflux, Upchuck

Many of you may not know this, but the United States has resumed combat operations in Iraq.  It seems that the US is deathly afraid that it will lose its fragile hegemony in Iraq and Syria which it won by breaking one of those countries and attempting to break the other.  (Oops, I mean, the U.S. is ramping up its efforts to achieve its "elusive" goal of destroying ISIS.)  Oh, and by the way, I made another mistake.  The U.S. isn't actually using the words "U.S. troops in combat."  Unless, that is, they are asked the sort of direct questions that leave no wiggle room.

I am greatly comforted in knowing that our great military is "defending our freedoms!!!" in such a selfless way, just as our brave policemen are fighting a rising tide of violent crime brought on by the fact that citizens have been posting YouTube videos of police being unnecessarily violent against innocent people.  If only we could ban those videos!  Then the police could really do their jobs.  And it's comforting to know that the folks who run things now are serving us a second helping of a war for which most sensible people have lost their appetite.  (The Iraqis certainly did not ask for a second helping.)  It's also interesting in a perverse sort of way to realize that many of the American patriots who are now joining the military are likely to suffer the consequences of a really bad decision.  Willful blindness is not helpful for survival when you've decided to play on a freeway.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

This Is How You've Lost Me

Many years ago, just for fun, I took a creative writing class at a community college.  In that class we read an excerpt from a story which was part of Drown, an anthology written by Junot Diaz.  (The part we were assigned was the part where Yunior, the protagonist, got carsick while riding in a van with his father.)  A long time after that, I read that Junot Diaz had written another anthology titled, This Is How You Lose Her, in which Yunior was again the main character.  That anthology was an examination of the life of a young man, inwardly sensitive and looking for genuine love, yet outwardly macho, whose machismo led him to sabotage all his relationships with women by using them as objects and cheating on them.  At the end of the road, the pain of multiple rejections caused him to introspect and face the reality of his character and cultural influences, and to own the consequences of his actions.

Here's a disclaimer: The summary I have just sketched is a condensed version of other summaries of the book.  I haven't read it personally, other than skimming excerpts of a couple of its stories, because although I could see the strength and talent of Diaz in the story I read for the creative writing class, I found his style a bit too gritty for my taste.  Yet the central premise of This Is How You Lose Her is intriguing in light of current events.  I am thinking of "The Cheater's Guide to Love," and wondering how widely a cheater's reputation spreads among his potential victims once one of them catches on to the fact that he's a cheater.  I am also thinking of how rare it is that people who look at others as objects to be exploited ever come to the point where they are genuinely, healthily sorry for their actions.  I am also thinking of the perspective of the characters who were cheated by Yunior: were there ever any instances in which two or more of them met and began to compare notes on him as a way of making sense of their own experiences?  (In order to find out, I guess I'd have to read the book.)

That last question is central to today's blog post.  Each of us deals with diverse characters in the course of day-to-day life.  And sometimes those dealings involve conflict between individuals.  Each side in such conflicts has his or her own story, and frequently each side tries to recruit a "jury" of his or her peers to render a favorable judgment on his or her side of the conflict.  But if you're a member of such a potential jury, and you have been trashed by one of the parties in the conflict, your experience will color your judgment of each side's claims in the present conflict.  Let's say then that a few of Yunior's exes met by chance, and that they all knew a woman who was currently involved with him (and being cheated on by him).  If she complained to her acquaintances about his cheating, whom would they be more likely to believe?  Her or him?

In the same way, there now exists a dispute which involves more than individuals.  It now involves entire nations.  I am referring to the struggle between the West and those nations who have refused to submit themselves to Western economic domination.  The United States is the chief protagonist for the West, and Russia has begun to emerge as the chief protagonist for the other side.  The two most recent conflicts between these sides have involved the Ukraine and Syria.  In these conflicts, in addition to armed combat, there has been an information war.  In the early months of 2015 it became clear that Russia is winning the information war, and that the United States is none too happy about this.  Concerning military action in Syria, Russia has strongly extended its winning streak, with an increasing number of people ready to believe the Russian side of the story even here in the United States.

What is the American side of the story? It is that Syrian President Bashir Assad is a threat to peace and democracy who has committed horrible atrocities against his own people and who has sought to suppress the birth of genuine democracy in his own country.  Therefore the United States felt compelled to involve itself in Syria by arming rebel groups and bombing Syrian forces loyal to Assad.  Oh, and by the way, there was also this terrible Islamic threat that sprang up out of nowhere and was guilty of great atrocities, so we had to bomb them as well.

And what is the Russian side of the story?  Namely that the United States intervention in Syria was an illegitimate action designed to topple a legitimate government in order to gain geopolitical advantage, that ISIS was a threat manufactured entirely by the United States to destabilize the entire Middle East for American economic and geopolitical advantage, and that the real objective of American and NATO use of force ostensibly against ISIS was to destroy targeted Middle Eastern countries in order to facilitate the installation of puppet governments favorable to American economic and geopolitical interests.

Which side to believe? And on what basis does one make the choice?  Making the choice might involve much research, including reading Wikileaks documents authored by the governments in question.  It might also involve much tedious analysis of evidence.  But one thing would help greatly to shorten the process: if you as a potential juror in the court of public opinion had ever been trashed by one side or the other, remembering your experience would help you to arrive at a speedy verdict.  So if we look at Russia's claim that the intervention and use of force by the United States in the Mideast, and especially now in Syria, has nothing to do with the stated aims of the United States to "protect and promote democracy" and to "fight terrorism," we can ask whether the United States has on any other occasion used force for ulterior purposes which had nothing to do with its ostensible stated objectives.

The answer to that question is a resounding "Yes!"  I am thinking of the "War on Crime" and the "War on Drugs," wars which have been waged ostensibly to protect American citizens from supposed violent threats within its borders, wars whose actual effect has been to destroy lives, families, neighborhoods and communities by locking up a disproportionate number of people of color for very petty and nonviolent offenses, and in far too many cases, to lock up people who never committed any crimes in the first place.  As far as locking up innocent people, the following links should be an eye-opener:

Minorities (especially African-American) make up a disproportionate number of those incarcerated or sentenced to death in this country, yet the available data seems to indicate that the majority of prisoners of color in the United States are innocent. It is a real challenge for the innocent to prove their innocence and to obtain release from prison, because the criminal justice system purposely makes it hard for convicted prisoners to prove their innocence. Indeed, in 2009, the United States Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence.  And there is the continued slaughter of unarmed people by American police, who have killed 928 people so far in 2015.

It is also true in this country that most of the mainstream media is being used to spread lies and misinformation about the prevalence of crime among minorities and the necessity of harsh policing of minorities.  In this weekend's New York Times is a piece in which FBI Doofus (Oops! I mean, "Director") James B. Comey insinuates that scrutiny, criticism and video recording of police misconduct is leading to a rise in crime in "certain cities" which he refuses to name.  Another paper ran an article a few weeks ago in which chief pigs (Oops, I mean "police chiefs") at a national convention expressed frustration that citizen scrutiny and the threat of Youtube video footage of police brutality were hindering cops from "fighting crime."  My question is, if the police are fulfilling their ostensible goal of "fighting crime," then why should they object to scrutiny?  They should have nothing to hide, should they?  Unless, of course, they themselves are criminals, and their "ostensible goal" is really a pretext for destroying the designated scapegoats of a narcissistic country.

This country keeps trying implacably to trash certain scapegoated populations within its own borders.  (And I am a member of one of those scapegoated populations, being a Black male.)  So it's easy - oh, so easy! - for me to believe Russia's assertion that this country would trash other nations on a lying pretext, and that American media is full of lies.  It's also easy to believe that the United States would spend over $500 million to train mercenaries and thugs to overthrow a foreign government while refusing to spend any money to help the poorest of its own citizens or to clean up injustices within its own borders.  (Don't you wish you had a brand new ISIS Toyota truck?)  Doofuses like Republicans Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce are trying to recapture my "heart and mind" by spending U.S. tax dollars for better, louder media to fight Russia's "weaponization of information."  They refuse to do the one thing that might change my mind concerning this country and its real aims, and that is to start treating its own citizens differently.  In this they are utterly lacking in the humility and introspection that enabled Yunior to own his mistakes.

And this is how they've lost me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Export of Hedonism

The Russian military intervention in Syria has produced a lot of interesting fallout.  It is now becoming clear that the militants whom Russia is targeting were financed by the United States (via the CIA) for the specific purpose of overthrowing the legitimate Syrian government, and that most (if not all) of these militants are one and the same as ISIS, who have been responsible for much of the havoc wrought on the Syrian nation and surrounding regions over the last few years.  It is also becoming clear that the one of the goals of U.S. intervention in Syria over that same time frame was delusional, for the U.S wasted over $500 million trying to raise an independent militia (and state) who were "moderate".  The word "moderate" should be understood to mean, "friendly to the interests of the United States."

What are those interests?  They are, by and large, corporate commercial interests.  The goal of American foreign policy seems to be to create a world which is friendly to a economic order ruled by the United States, a world which doesn't mind being exploited by the United States, a world whose citizens come to resemble the citizens of the United States in their consumerism and utter dependence on the commercial networks established by the corporate masters of the United States.  Consumerism is but a facet of hedonism.  Temptations to hedonism are therefore used by the United States to export "democracy" to "markets" closed by national leaders unwilling to sacrifice their sovereignty to the United States.  The "opposition" movements which spring up in such countries are often composed of people whose hedonism has been successfully awakened, and who are thus enticed to grumble against their existing national order because of the lack of "fleshpots, leeks and onions and garlic."  Thus they are led to grumble against regimes which were often quite successful at meeting the basic needs of their citizenry.

We can see the export of hedonism in the British empire, where Britain legalized and fought to protect the opium trade in China during the 1800's.  We can see it now in Afghanistan, in that the growing of opium - forcibly ended by the Taliban prior to the U.S. invasion - is back in full swing, thanks to U.S. involvement.  These are but two of the fruits of the foreign policy of nations which have at one time or another called themselves both "Christian" and "defenders of freedom."  What they really meant, it seems, was the "freedom" to be made into addicts.

I think the export of hedonism by Anglo-American society deserves much more research, and even several well-informed blog posts providing further elaboration.  However, I am fighting for my life right now in grad school.  So if anyone else wants to take up the topic, please feel free.  If you wish to write on the subject, I ask that your focus be on the role of the Anglo-American export of hedonism in the fomenting of revolutions and attempted regime change by the U.S. and its allies, focusing especially on the time from the beginning of the Cold War onward.  Thanks, and have a good day.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Sunk Costs of Stinkin' Thinkin'

Certain characteristics are common to all families who are characterized by substance abuse and addiction.  The central character is, of course, the addict, whose addiction and behaviors regularly cause damage to himself and to his family unit.  The pain of the damage caused is the sort of stimulus that would cause reasonable people to try to get to the root cause of the damage and to effectively fix it.  However, a family marked by substance abuse is not reasonable, for as the addiction of the addict progresses, so do his efforts to "train" the members of his family to avoid squarely and honestly facing the root cause of the damage.  Instead of looking for an honest, effective remedy, the family is therefore trained simply to try to control the damage caused by the addict while ignoring the root causes.

A straight-up discussion of root causes is usually off-limits in such families.  These families are not marked by very much honest self-appraisal and self-reflection.  Such self-reflection might provoke an existential crisis, otherwise known as "decompensation," so it is usually avoided like the plague.  Instead, when the family experiences the pain of a fresh episode of damage, they are also trained to look for scapegoats on whom they may project their frustration and anger for the pain they are suffering.  When the family encounters any honest outsider who is willing to openly name the root cause of the family's pain, the family will often unleash a barrage of blaming, scapegoating, projection, and creation of drama in order to deflect attention from the actual "elephant in the room."  As the damage caused by the addiction increases over time, so energy spent in damage control and blame-shifting also increases over time.  This energy and effort represents a sunk cost, that is, it represents resources spent in an activity that yields no genuinely productive results, resources which, once spent, can never be recovered.  Sooner or later the cost of damage control increases to the point where it can no longer be sustained, where the cost of further damage control exceeds the necessary pain of repentance.  At that point, in many cases, both the family and the addict can be said to have "hit bottom."

America's addiction to guns and violence reminds me of the dynamics of a family controlled by substance abuse.  Our fascination with guns and violence springs from the original sins which led to the founding of the United States, sins which this nation has enshrined and glorified rather than acknowledging them as sins.  Moreover, throughout our history, this addiction has led to regular episodes of ever more frequent damage, and ever-increasing pain.  Yet the discussion of the root causes of that pain is off-limits for many members of American society, who will react by blame-shifting, scapegoating, projection and drama creation whenever the subject of root causes is mentioned.

So there was another mass shooting last week; so we also see the attempt to honestly discuss root causes drowned out in yet another flood of drama and blame-shifting by people who would rather die than give up the "freedom" of their addiction.  But there is no discussion of the sunk costs of that addiction.  Yet people who seek to behave as adults should be aware of those sunk costs.  And people who have adult responsibilities involving the safeguarding of life and property have to be aware of those costs.

I am thinking now of the vast number of people addicted to right-wing Kool-Aid in this country who even today deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, who are unaware that some of the adults who care for them are required to take the effects of man-made climate change into account.  They watch Fox News and listen to their favorite talking heads in environments whose air conditioning was designed by members of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and they don't realize that for the last few years, ASHRAE handbooks and design guides have begun to address design of HVAC systems for a changing climate.  Why has ASHRAE done this?  Because they are part of design teams who have to design built spaces to withstand the damage done to our climate by our addiction to materialism.  If their designs are inadequate, this results in legal liability.

In the same way, those who design the built environment have, for the last several years, been forced to begin to design built spaces which mitigate the effects of this nation's addiction to guns and violence.  This can be seen in certain building codes such as NFPA 72 (authored by the National Fire Protection Association), which, several years ago, added a section dealing with requirements for mass notification systems in service buildings used by the public.  There is also the increasing attention to architectural design responses to the growing "active shooter" threat (see this, this, and this).  If active shooter incidents continue to increase in this country, I am sure that we will begin to see changes to State building codes requiring explicit design measures for all buildings in which people congregate, whether public or privately owned.  Some of these codes will require expensive retrofits of existing buildings and structures.  There will also be the increased costs of insuring and indemnifying such spaces.  This will greatly increase the cost borne by your average Joe Sixpack as he undertakes a journey to any built public space in his Chevy truck with his Confederate flag flying from the bed and his NRA sticker on his bumper.  He will grumble at the increased cost of going to places (and especially of being allowed entry into those places), yet he won't be likely to make the connection between his enjoyment of "freedom" and the increased cost of that freedom.  Meanwhile citizens like him who live in some of the other "developed" countries won't have to pay such costs, because they aren't all armed to the teeth and most of them aren't unstable.

Perhaps the discussion of monetary costs might actually persuade the masters of our addicted society to take a good look at themselves, because the human costs of our addiction to guns and violence has not had any effect so far.