Saturday, December 27, 2014

Fools, Holy and Otherwise

They came from far and wide... by ship, train, automobile, on horseback... some even on foot. They were young, idealistic, and inspired by an idea... a movement... something that promised to change the world for the better. And when at last they arrived at their destination, they had guns thrust into their hands by the communists and Freemasons, and were sent out to fight Franco's army and the Catholic Church.

The event was the Spanish Civil War, and the individuals in question were part of a children's crusade – more-useful-than-average idiots who were seen, by the cynics rehearsing for World War II, as a propaganda medium as well as cannon fodder. And they had the enthusiastic support of the folks back home, wherever “home” happened to be. (Remember, this was in the 1930s when communism, especially of the Soviet variety, was seen by many in this country as the most promising model for the future of mankind. The New Deal was just the first step.)

But why bring up this dreary and depressing bit of history now? Because I was reminded of it by reading about the successful recruiting efforts of the Islamic State – soon to be known as ISISaFAWKUYB, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and For All We Know Under Your Bed – the latest bogeyman in what appears to be an unending parade of “terrorist” organizations. (Our propaganda apparatus seems to be able to pop these outfits out like litters of puppies every few months. No one has ever heard of them until they show up on the evening news.)

But here's the point. They are a military organization, for certain – although how “terrorist” they are depends on what side you're on and where your interests lie. They have apparently managed to grab on to vast stretches of territory that were supposedly defended by the crack troops trained, armed, and funded by our own military and the American taxpayer. (I guess it worked about as well as any other government program.) And they are also, apparently, engaged in just a little of what we used to call “hearts and minds” work (before that term became synonymous with massacres). And, of course, they are energetic, bright-eyed, and absolutely certain of their beliefs and of the ways in which they act upon them. And thus, in these respects at least, they resemble pretty much any revolutionary movement down through history. Those movements tend to attract the young, who are idealistic and tend to see things in absolute, black-and-white terms (substituting politics and “ethics” for religion, in most cases).

But for ISIS, religion is an absolute, so you can't expect their movement to attract too many poli-sci majors from large American universities. (They're too busy worrying about “sell-outs” -- first Russia, then China, and now Cuba. Thank goodness North Korea is hanging tough!) What they do attract, though, are Moslems or those with Moslem aspirations who are looking for.... let's call it “purity”. Purity, lack of compromise, and militancy – combined with that great connective tissue of all successful revolutions, cohesion (or fellowship, companionship, “comrades in arms”, however you want to think of it -- “Those were the days, my friend”, etc.). That is, they are looking for something that most modern armies of conscripts and/or mercenaries don't have – a raison d'etre, a cause, something to believe in, something to make sacrifices for.

And are these motives bad? They are certainly common enough – maybe essential – in the history of religion; how many saints can you name who were “moral relativists”? And at some point after the Reformation these motives were shifted over to politics – the new religion to replace the old. Enough has been said about the “religious” nature of political movements, starting with the French Revolution and going up through Communism and Fascism. And now we again see religion as a prime motivator, violating all standards of political correctness. True belief is a force to be reckoned with – a “force multiplier” in military terms. And it's great when you agree, but scary and bad when you don't. But in any case, it does tend to unite people, at least at the early stages of a movement, until the pragmatists take over, followed by the cynics. You see this basic trajectory in the Soviet case; the Third Reich didn't last long enough to run through the entire cycle – it was born fanatical and died fanatical. In our own case, the pragmatists were in charge from the beginning; when the cynics started to take over is a good question, but I would put it, at the very latest, at the start of the Vietnam War era. Everything from then on has been politics – skillfully disguised, at times, as patriotism to make it more palatable to the unwary, but pure politics nonetheless.

But there's another point to be made. What ultimately appeals to youth, and to older people of a certain disposition, is not deep philosophy, or even ideas – it's revolution per se. It's the process – the stimulation – the excitement – the savor of storming the battlements (literal or political). People have been known to radically change their ideas and political points of view, but remain revolutionaries; one can call them shallow, but that would be like calling someone who enjoys driving but doesn't much care where he winds up shallow. There are people who are built for this sort of thing, and, quite frankly, even the most half-baked ideas can stimulate them to action if they're presented in the right way (with, ideally, the proper iconography – think media, film, TV, radio, posters, etc.). The most skilled promotion of revolution can be entirely content-free – all process, no product (or as Mao put it, “continuous revolution”).

And this, as in so many other instances having to do with world affairs in our time, catches the international elite totally off-guard. They are, if anything, the ultimate pragmatists – it's all about the bottom line, and anyone who argues differently is some kind of dreamer. The bottom line may be money, or power, or some combination of the two, but it's always about the material and never about ideas – to say nothing of religious ideals. To give the best example in our own society, we have the Neocons, who are self-styled patriots and “conservatives”, but who relish power above all. Or, to put it another way, can we really call the people who are turning this country into a monstrosity patriots? Our home-grown liberals, on the other hand, have never been patriotic; they see themselves as “citizens of the world”... but when you closely examine their motives and actions, you see a lust for power and control over others as their prime motivation. I would say that the main difference between liberals and “conservatives” in our time is that the former use money to gain power, whereas the latter use power to gain money. And I don't call that a radical difference in world view.

So what does the Establishment – any establishment, any regime – do when confronted with belief? What does it do when confronted with “fanatics”, “absolutists”, “dogmatists”... or, in the current lexicon, “haters” (which is what you call someone who has strong opinions that differ from your own)? The tools are varied, and are wielded with great skill by the propaganda apparatus, AKA the mainstream media. First you ignore them -- “just a bunch of nuts”... “a fringe element”... “kooks”... and so on. Then when they seem to be acquiring some small measure of power and influence, you start with the hard-core labeling: “Fascists”... “Nazis”... “fundamentalists”... “ultra-(whatevers)”. That, and some form of impugning their mental health, patriotism, suitability for public office, suitability for possessing weapons, etc. Then you start to allow for “strong measures” -- regrettable, but these people are dangerous! And this is a crisis! -- on the part of the police, FBI, CIA, military, etc. (But never the Border Patrol for some reason.) Oh, and – lest we forget – they are always accused of oppressing women, gays, and “minorities” in general; turn that up a notch and you get slavery, child molestation, drug dealing... wow, these are real baddies, and anything we do to stop them has to be OK. (To hell with “just war” theory.)

And yet, on the other side of this great reality divide, there are people who truly believe that a new world is being created, and they want to be part of it. And we might understand, if we had any vestige of principles or belief, but since we are all pragmatists and cynics now, we don't, and so we wade into conflicts without having the vaguest idea of what we are doing battle with.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Credit Where Credit is Due, Part 1: They Call Me Cuban Pete

After six years of the lying, cheating, stealing, and overall farce that defines the Obama administration, it's refreshing to see one thing coming out of that den of iniquity called The White House that actually makes sense. Two, actually – or let's say one and one-half. The first is the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the “half” is the easing (but not total elimination – at least not yet) of prosecutorial zeal directed at users of marijuana. And some will say, well, this is, at long last, the “real Obama” -- returning to his roots as a community organizer, radical, liberal, outsider. Because, after all, six years in, what does he have to lose? He can offend anyone he wants to (and usually does) and get away with it, because he won't be running for office again, and maybe he wants to make a statement – especially one that will serve as contrast to his “inevitable” successor, namely Hillary Clinton, AKA Big Nurse. Maybe he simply wants to say that he hasn't totally sold out to the white male establishment. Whatever. I'd rather someone did the right thing for the wrong reasons than continue to do the wrong thing for whatever reasons. And in terms of the political and cultural distortions that have been a chronic infection in this society for decades, nothing stands out quite as starkly as marijuana “policy” and foreign policy when it comes to Cuba. They are holdovers from an earlier time; they were a mistake then, and they're even more of a mistake now. So pretty much any change is likely to be in the right direction – not that it will salvage the overall reputation of Obama & Co., but it will at least be part of his legacy. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, even a bad president can do something right now and then, if only by accident.

To take Cuba first. The breaking of diplomatic relations and the boycott were ostensibly based on Cuba's conversion to communism, “only 90 miles from our shores”, and the confiscation of American assets (both legal and illegal -- more on that below).  And the missile crisis that soon followed (assuming it really was a crisis, and this can be called into question as well) did nothing to reassure the populace that they had nothing to worry about from that pipsqueak, cigar-chomping, bearded dictator an easy boat ride from Key West. But there were communist or communist-inspired countries all over the world at that time, complete with Russian “advisors” and Soviet military “aid”; did we boycott them? Did we break diplomatic relations? Not that I'm aware. Was it just about the military threat? Well, when you're talking about ICBMs, it matters little whether they are coming from 90 miles away, or 900, or 9000. And we had deterrent; the arms race was on, with all the talk about the “missile gap” and so forth.

So what was it really? Unlike most of the comparable cases, we felt that Cuba was, in some sense, our property – or at least it was within our immediate “sphere of influence”, and thus the Monroe Doctrine kicked in. But that wasn't the whole story by any means. Cuba was owned, all right – not by the U.S., but by the Mob. It was a border town writ large, bursting with gambling, prostitution, and all the other niceties that typify places where we have a “presence” but which are not, officially, our territory. And who, pray tell, happened to be president during those early years? John Kennedy, of course – and did his family have Mob connections? And did the Mob help put him in office with the help of Mayor Daley? And did the Mob expect him to “do something” about Cuba, take it back, and put them back in charge? I submit that these are rhetorical questions. And I also submit that it was his failure to take Cuba back that caused a whole lot of resentment in Mob circles, and which contributed to his demise. (There were many spoons in the pot on 11/22/63, but my guess is that the Mob's was one of the larger ones.)

So we learned our lesson with the Bay of Pigs, and the Russians learned their lesson with the missile crisis, and we wound up with a 50-plus-year standoff, with Castro thumbing his nose at Uncle Sam every chance he got... and college students putting posters of Che in their dorm rooms (as they continue to do to this day). So Cuba became a symbol of intransigent, in-your-face communism. Plus, we had a hotbed of Cuban refugees in Florida, and, with the possible exception of the Israel lobby, never have so few held so much political dominance over so many, particularly the Republicans, who morphed into the Neocons, who are still fighting the Cold War, because as long as a single communist, or even vaguely communist, country exists anywhere in the world, the Cold War is not over. Right? And this was despite Nixon's (a Republican!) opening up of China, even while Chairman Mao was still in charge. (Apparently a billion people on the other side of the world was less of a threat than a small island in the Caribbean.)

In the meantime, the more cynical, or pragmatic, or both, countries decided that Cuba was no big deal, and maintained diplomatic relations, trade, etc., while we held fast and gradually became more isolated in our fanaticism (as we are at present vis-a-vis Israel). And one would have thought that the breakup of the Soviet Union (with which we had diplomatic and trade relations, by the way) would have brought about a change of heart, but this was apparently not to be. Bush I could have done it... Clinton could have... Bush II could have... but no dice. And now comes Obama, and six years in, he, or someone, woke up and realized that we've been acting like a bunch of retards.

It also bears mentioning that boycotts seldom work. I say “seldom” because once in a while they do seem to work, as in the case of South Africa in apartheid days. (We haven't seen the final results when it comes to Iran, and now Russia, but I smell failure in both cases.) And it should also be pointed out that boycotts tend to hurt the ordinary people of the target country much more than the leadership or the elite. So doing it for the sake of “the people of _____” is pure malarkey.

And another thing – we always claim that our best weapon when it comes to “spreading democracy” is trade. The Russian bear is a mere cub compared to the big, brawny arms of American business – right? We say this, but we apparently don't believe it. I suspect that if we had not been so pouty and resentful all these years, Cuba would have risen out of the communist morass much faster – maybe completely by now. Fidel Castro would continue to be an icon, the way Mao is in China, but their economic system would be nothing like the one he envisioned and then created. (This is not a perfect analogy, given that he's still alive, but it would certainly have been worth a try.)

And what was more absurd than making friends with communist Vietnam, and granting them favored trading status, even though they defeated us in a war, but remaining stiff-necked with regard to Cuba? Yeah, I know – halfway around the world vs. 90 miles, etc. But Vietnam wasn't too far away for us to send our military over there to help a corrupt government, was it?

And I'm sure there are many other arguments besides. Even if it kind of made sense in the 1960s, it got old fast, and yet we held on because... well, because they shouldn'ta done that, doggone it! It's the principle of the thing, no matter how absurd or ineffective. Cuba was a thorn in the side of the American Empire, and it will likely continue to be for some time to come... and Obama is nothing if not an abject servant of that empire and all that it entails and implies. And yet, for some reason, he has seen fit to, again, make a statement. Maybe it's just to spite the Republicans – but that's OK too. Anti-communism, which was perfectly justifiable at one time, has degenerated into a racket; it's a war against something that no longer exists, or if it does, barely. We've got bigger fish to fry right now, and maybe this is part of what went into Obama's thinking.

It is also fascinating to consider that Pope Francis had a facilitating role in all this. One recalls the role Pope John Paul II had when it came to the breakup of the Soviet Empire. Of course, for the liberal media to give any pope credit for anything would be to commit the greatest of political offenses, and yet it happened.

And don't expect “academe” to be celebrating any time soon. Castro remains one of their heroes, standing high on their pantheon, and as long as Cuba stood “alone” against the forces of capitalism, it was considered an admirable – nay, ideal – society. (Can you say “free medical care”, boys and girls?) But with the likely welcoming of Cuba into the global... OK, North American... OK, our economy, there will inevitably be compromises and “sell-outs”, the way there were with China. So the heroes of the revolution will turn out to have feet of clay after all, seduced by the great American shopping mall. Sic transit gloria...

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Parliament of Fools

Oh, the indignation! The outrage! That sinking feeling that you've been made fools of and rendered obsolete, and you may as well pack up and go home, and leave the job of running the country to the people who are already in charge, and quit pretending you have any say in the matter. Yes, this is the “feeling tone” we're getting out of Congress these days, and even though it's nothing more than feelings, it's quite on target. Congress is obsolete, but their obsolescence is of their own making, since they have always found it more politically expedient to cede their Constitutional powers and privileges to the sitting president (whoever it happens to be at the time) and to the Supreme Court (by refusing to redefine its scope, which it has the right to do) than to take responsibility. The courage to speak up and defy the president might be found in, say, 1 in 100 at best – the rest are all too eager to robotically raise their hands in the best Supreme Soviet style, and to sign pretty much anything that's placed in front of them. And as for the theory that the American people elect the best out of their number to represent them, well... how many Congressmen are the slightest bit more intelligent, rational, and non-impulsive than the average voter? I prefer to think most politicians are sent off to Washington just to get them out of our face (and to get them to shut up as well).

There has to be a theory somewhere that explains all this. All I know is that we regularly send people to Washington because they appear to have ideas... some of them seem downright bold; courageous, even. But the minute they get there they're grabbed up off the street and taken in a windowless van to some underground surgical facility where a plate is implanted in their head which turns them into petty, thieving, submissive, compliant nobodies. It's like something out of a “body snatchers” film. And when asked to explain their transformation, they mumble something about “compromise” (also known as pleasing no one by trying to please everyone).

In the meantime, the presidency rides triumphant, having accreted unto itself virtually all of the meaningful and significant powers and privileges that the Constitution explicitly assigns to Congress – and much more besides. So Congress becomes a rubber stamp in the best Warsaw Pact tradition, and you will hear nary a whimper about this from anyone in that “august body” (but more than a whimper from people on the outside). And it's not as if Congress has ceased to “make laws”. It's just that their laws typically originate somewhere in the executive branch, and the ones that don't are subject to, first, veto, and second, being completely ignored by the president and his minions. And as if that weren't enough, the Supreme Court reserves (un-Constitutionally, I might add) the right to declare any law passed by Congress null and void, which they do with alarming frequency. So much for the delicate and exquisitely-designed “separation of powers”.

So what are we talking about here? A flaw in the Constitution, or a flaw in human nature? I say both. The Constitution was a marvelous document as long as men of good will were in charge, but it started, fairly early in our history, to fail various stress tests, chief among them being wars. Wars have a magical way of turning presidents into dictators, and when the war is over not all of those dictatorial powers are returned to whence they came; a good deal are held onto because, well, it's good to be king, and you never know when they'll come in handy again. And anyone knows it's easier to rule by diktat than by vote; tyranny is for lazy people.

But does Congress take this lying down? Not a bit of it! They pass various “war powers acts” which are designed to restore the balance of power – but those acts are ignored, and there's nothing they can do about it. Any American president determined to be a “war president” can ask, paraphrasing Joseph Stalin, “How many divisions does Congress have (compared to me)?” And the answer, of course, is zero. And this doesn't bother anyone in Congress on a day-to-day basis; they would just as soon someone else take charge and thus be responsible, accountable, and blamable when things go wrong. The ideal for a Congressman is to be elected, go to Washington, and go into a state of suspended animation until it's time to campaign for re-election; that way he avoids making mistakes and taking blame. His record is pure and spotless, because it contains nothing – but that is apparently preferable to taking risks. (And, please note, the voters agree with this premise, or at least behave as if they do. They would rather send a bland nonentity to Washington than someone with ideas, because ideas are – somehow – threatening.)

Oh wait, I almost forgot – Congress also has “the power of the purse” (and I'm not talking about hitting a masher over the head with it, although that might be more useful than what is actually done). The president can't do a thing – can't move a muscle – unless Congress approves the funds. Yeah, well... by the time enough palms are greased, and enough late-night phone calls are made, those funds generally get approved even if no given individual will say they approve. And in those rare cases when there's a “showdown”, and a threat by one or both sides to (Shudder! Shake!) “shut down the government”, Congress always buckles and the president always gets his way.

So really, Congress is powerless, hopeless, and ridiculous. It doesn't even have a clearly-defined mission any more – at least not one that can't be readily taken over by someone else (in the executive branch, with far more efficiency). But they have to be kept in business for the sake of appearances – because we're busy “spreading democracy” throughout the world, based on the premise that our system is the best ever devised by man, and besides, look at how well it works, etc. Besides, if the president dissolved Congress the way leaders in other countries can dissolve parliament, and established himself as dictator, he'd still have to deal with the courts. (But how many divisions do they have, hmmm? You can see how long a two-branch system would last – about as long as it would take the president to have the Supreme Court demolished.)

So if it's all for show, and everybody knows it, why all the fuss over the CIA? Well, you don't have to dig very far down to figure out that the fuss isn't about the CIA per se, or even about anything it does or has done, but whom they did it for, namely George W. Bush and his team of Eeeeevil (as Rush Limbaugh would say) Republicans. Do you honestly think Dianne Feinstein would be freaking out if these offenses had occurred under a Democratic president? Please. They wouldn't even be holding hearings. What they seem to forget, of course, is that the CIA under Bush and the CIA under Obama are.... mmmm... probably just about identical. “Oh, but Obama told them to quit doing those naughty things!” Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but it hardly matters. The CIA is going to do things their way no matter what, because they are accountable to nobody, and that includes Congressional committees and presidents. Oh sure, every once in a while they'll offer some low-level chump up as a sacrificial animal, but that's only to satisfy everyone and keep the pitchfork-wielding peasants at bay. The notion that Congress can “reform” the CIA is like saying that sheep can “reform” wolves.

And some will say, to be perfectly frank, that this is, maybe, the way things ought to be. After all, the CIA is full of smart, dedicated people who are not only much smarter than anyone in Congress, but probably much less corrupt (at least in the material, vs. moral, sense). And I am not one of those who believes that the CIA, along with other intelligence agencies, constitutes a “parallel government”. Most of what the government does matters little to them, or not at all. They don't mind letting it just fumble and lurch along on its merry way. What counts is power, connections, information – and, most of all, The Game. Give the intel guys a game to play, and they're happy. Start to criticize, or attempt to thwart, the game, and you get push-back, which is what is happening right now. Not only push-back, but push-back directed at the same wretches who gave them all that power (and money) in the first place, namely Congress. What ingrates!

So yeah, the CIA thing is just the latest in a long line of insults – the immediately previous one being immigration policy, and before that Obamacare, and waging war on Syria (which, fortunately, got vetoed by Putin – doing the job the U.S. Congress should have done). Obamacare, for that matter, has reared its misshapen head again because of the Gruber kerfuffle – which has added a new expression to the American lexicon. Getting “Grubered” is defined as getting lied to by the president in order to get a bill passed by Congress (them again!). And as to who to blame for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they've been going on so long that no one knows, any longer, who to blame – so they wind up blaming no one (an ideal outcome if you're a president or an ex-president). Unlike homelessness, which magically disappers whenever a Democrat takes over the White House, wars have a pesky way of lasting, and being highly visible (not to mention costly).

And it's not as if this is anything new. Who, among American liberals and Democrats, does not basically blame the Vietnam war on Richard Nixon, even though he inherited it from Johnson who inherited it from Kennedy? Someone who is only "anti-war" as long as they don't like the guy in the White House isn't really anti-war, are they? And someone who is only anti-CIA if we're talking about stuff that happened when someone from the other party was in the White House isn't really anti-CIA, are they? And the trouble with Congress – one of many – is that they are regularly subject to this sort of completely irrational, politically-based thinking... and they don't even realize it, or see it as a problem. “Of course we hate everything the other side does, and of course we love everything our side does!” It has nothing to do with moral absolutes, or principles, or even coherent policy. And yet we keep electing them, again and again. But maybe, at this late date, it doesn't matter, since they have given away any power they may have once had, along with all discernible integrity. Rather than rely on Congress to do the right thing and dissolve itself, maybe it's us who should be the realists and just pay attention to the president and his empire, and reserve Congress for occasional comic relief.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Wrong Stuff

The headline: “Top General: Americans Are Increasingly Lacking The Smarts And Fitness Needed To Join The US Army.” Here's the story:

What we're seeing here is a statement of frustration on the part of the guy whose job it is to recruit cannon fodder... oops, I mean... a crack fighting force to defend the American way of life against “terrorists” and other assorted baddies. Now, to begin with, there is nothing new about this problem; we've had it at least since the end of the draft and the beginning of the all-volunteer Army. And even prior to that we had the problem that a lot of the draftees simply weren't smart enough to successfully occupy positions in the Army, even that of the iconic infantryman, AKA “grunt”. One Vietnam-era answer for this dilemma was something called Project 100,000:

As it turned out, soldiers brought in under that program, AKA “Cat IV's”, numbered way more than 100,000 – more like well over 300,000. Why such a high number? One reason was that the military was morphing into a social program – give people a job, get them out of the ghetto, and so on. Good for the economy and all that. And was that program a success (aside from the negative racial overtones)? Most people at the time, and since, have said “no”.

So lowering standards didn't work, and when the Army became all-volunteer the recruiters really started to feel the pain, only alleviated in times of economic distress. (Desperation vs. patriotism as a recruiting tool – we still haven't quite decided which we prefer.) Add to this the fact that even the “simplest” Army jobs have become increasingly high-tech, with digitization adding another level of complexity to jobs across the board. The typical soldier trudging along with his backpack and gun in our time is carrying an array of computers and gadgets that make conditions in the Vietnam era and earlier seem downright primitive. And they have to know how to operate all that stuff. Add to this an increasing emphasis on small-unit operations, anti-terrorism, and operations in urban terrain, and cognitive and decision-making demands become even more severe.

So what's a recruiter to do? It's no wonder they feel helpless at times. But what this story reflects is not so much an immediate problem of how to fill the ranks as a societal phenomenon. According to MG Batschelet, the main issues are that too many of our youth are either fat or stupid (or both). Not that he, or anyone else in the Army, publicly expresses it that way, of course; that would be too insensitive. And even the obesity problem is described as something that the Army can deal with if need be. (It's amazing how much weight you can lose in basic training at a Southern post in the summertime.)

Then we have the problem described, euphemistically, as “moral disqualifications over an increasing range of criminalized behaviors”. Reading between the lines, my guess is that drug convictions constitute the bulk of these disqualifications. But note the expression “increasing range of criminalized behaviors”. Why is it increasing? Could it possibly have anything to do with the “War on Drugs”, which has, effectively, criminalized large segments of the population, mostly in the interests of the “corrections” racket (which I've discussed at length previously). When you create a nation of criminals in order to satisfy a political/economic agenda, you can hardly complain when so many people who might otherwise qualify for the military turn out to have “moral” issues. (And no, I don't think it has anything to do with sex. In our time? Please.) Even if we're not always talking about drug convictions per se, we would still be talking about ancillary convictions related to the drug trade, like petty theft.

And who was most complicit in creating this nation of criminals? Legislatures at the national, state, and local level... over-zealous police... fanatical prosecutors... Puritanical judges... the usual cast of characters, in other words. To confirm this, look no further than today's headlines.

But wait, there's more. We also have “erosion in academic qualification” and “declining high school graduation rates”. To sum up, “slipping educational standards of Americans is the most worrying trend for the future of the US Army”. Well, OK... so, whose fault is that? One has to remember that our public education establishment is entirely a creation of liberal politics – of a liberal, “humanistic”, “non-judgmental” attitude toward education, where just showing up is enough, everyone gets a prize, and no one is allowed to fail. (So many of our public schools are, in fact, little more than free day-care centers.) We've already seen the impact of these policies in the private sector, with the problems many firms have hiring qualified people. We've created, in effect, an educated elite (mostly in the “technology” sector) and allowed the rest to descend to the level of the “lumpen proletariat” -- few skills, low motivation, no hope, no change. And this has all been in service of a political agenda – maximize the number of people in the “dependent class”, thus maximizing the “mission” of government, thus aiding and abetting collectivization and totalitarianism, AKA the “welfare state” or the “nanny state”. And, bottom line, maximizing the power and influence (and wealth) of politicians and bureaucrats, and of their cronies in the “private” sector.

And this is all perfectly jolly – or so our politicians seem to believe – until it comes down to the military, where there's not as much room as there is in the private sector for inadequacy, incompetence, and failure. And then it suddenly becomes a big deal. Apparently, in order to protect the mass of civilian serfs, wage slaves, and tax receivers, we have to have a highly-skilled and “professional” military... composed of the same people. How is this supposed to happen? At what point do we find this parting of the ways between heroes and zeros?

Another way of putting this is that what the military needs – military “values” -- was, for many generations, compatible with what the larger society had to offer. But this is, apparently, no longer the case – and as I said, the situation has been building since at least the 1960s, the time when (coincidentally – ahem!) liberal ideas of “education” gained the upper hand.

So what's the answer? Well, on the side of manpower requirements it might help to re-think the idea of “perpetual war”, which is the basis for much of our foreign policy. It might help to get our troops out of every nook and cranny on the planet, and assign them to real defense rather than empire-building. That's on the “demand” side. On the “supply” side, it might help to reinstate standards in public education, including standards of competence for teachers – but that would involve waging another kind of war, namely on the teachers' unions, and who has the appetite for that? (One answer would be to draft them into the military. But then we'd only wind up with the same problem, or worse.)

And I guess we could make Army jobs simpler again – you know, go back to the Korean War era or something. Problem is, other countries wouldn't cooperate, to say nothing of non-governmental militarized entities like rebels and “terrorists”. Or – we could convert over to robots and drones at a faster pace, but we're already hearing murmurings that only “boots on the ground” can guarantee that we can hold a given piece of territory (to say nothing of taking it in the first place). (Or as one wag put it, how do you bomb people back to the Stone Age when they're already in the Stone Age?)

Yes, it is truly a dilemma – but it is one of our own making. A nation or empire that is hard on the outside (“force projection”) but soft on the inside (a vast leisure/underclass) is bound to fall; this has been the case since ancient times, and there is no reason why we should expect to escape this “iron law of history”.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why It's Impossible to Write Good Opera Any More

I was thinking about this at the most recent Pittsburgh Opera performance, of Verdi's “Otello”. And what I realized was that writing good opera – or pretty much any opera – is a dying art, and the question was “Why?” You look at other musical forms and yes, they evolve over time... some grow more or less popular... technology has replaced live performance to a depressing degree... and so on, but the forms remain alive and retain a certain currency. And it's not as if no operas are being written; that's not the point. They simply don't have the emotional impact – the salience – of operas of the, let's call it, “classic” period. And why is this? Has human nature changed that much in a hundred years? Can plays, musicals, movies, television, the Internet, etc. possibly have replaced opera, or rendered it obsolete? I think to answer this we have to ask what gives opera its impact – it's dramatic force. (And I am, of course, referring to “serious” as opposed to comic, or light, opera – not that those forms don't have their rightful place.) Because the stories that operas convey are, by and large, quite simple and straightforward. There are plots, schemes, and intrigues, but it's all quite out in the open as far as the audience is concerned; there are surprises, setbacks, and plot twists from time to time, but few real mysteries... and it all gets tied up neatly in the end, unlike the modernist infatuation with ambiguity. Heroes are heroes (there are no “antiheroes”) and villains are villains, and... well, here's where we start to catch on to the essence. The point is that operas are, in additional to being great art forms, morality plays – and without the moral aspect they would seem vapid and pointless... beautiful, but with no soul. But to write, or compose, a morality play, you have to have a sense of morality. And, you have to be able to assume that your audience does as well.

As an experiment, take the basic plot of any opera and think about how it would play as a film or TV program. Betrayal, treason, adultery, fornication, murder? Strip it down to its essence, and the jaded contemporary audience would be bored to tears, simply because these things, and many other offenses against morality (not to mention decorum), are taken for granted these days. One hardly notices. (Well, maybe one does notice in the case of murder, but we've even become jaded about that, at least as a moral issue versus simply a case of particularly bad manners. Murderers in our time are not considered evil or immoral so much as badly brought up; all they really need is a hug.)

The almost universal reaction to the plot line of a typical classical opera would be “What's all the fuss about?” And if you take an opera, and remove the music, and the sets, and the costumes, that's precisely what most “modern” people would say. Why is adultery, for example, such a big deal – even though it is a major theme in many operas. And the idea of a “fallen woman”? Please. (Are there any women in our time who aren't “fallen”? And as to men, well... we've always been fallen, so that's not as big a deal. Yes, opera exemplifies the double standard when it comes to sexual morality! Stop the presses!)

“Now wait a minute,” you might say, “people are no more immoral now than they've ever been. It's just more out in the open.” Well, isn't that “being out in the open” also a moral issue? Doesn't it compound the offense when people don't care who knows, or even brag about it? It's certainly true that the human race has had its ups and downs in the morality department; I don't think that we live in either the best of times or the worst of times.

There is one difference, though, and that is the one between immorality and amorality. Immoral behavior is what happens when people know right from wrong, but do the wrong thing anyway – and this is what happens, nearly always, in opera. The villains know they are villains. They may brag about it, regret it, or be indifferent, but they know they are violating society's standards of decency. Amorality, on the other hand, is what happens when people literally don't know right from wrong, either from bad upbringing or some profound psychological flaw. Then you have what are called “moral imbeciles” or psychopaths. (The only true psychopath in classical opera may be Don Giovanni, but I would have to go back and have a closer look in order to be sure.) The problem with psychopaths is that they aren't conflicted; they never feel the pangs of conscience because they have no conscience – or, at least, no functioning one. They aren't rebelling because they have nothing (a Freudian would say a Superego) to rebel against. The result, paradoxically, is that they are boring. They may be fascinating for a while, like some predatory beast, but since they have no depth they are much harder to relate to (let alone sympathize with) than someone who does wrong even though he knows it's wrong – in other words, the common lot of humanity up until recently.

Eventually we tire of psychopaths and relegate them to some sort of societal freak show. People more like us are more interesting, except that there seem to be fewer “people like us” with each passing day. And this is not to say that psychopaths have taken over in all areas and at all levels of society (with the possible exception of politics and banking) – but that we have lost our grounding... our anchor. When people are set morally adrift they may nonetheless behave in a pseudo-moral or ethical way most of the time, out of sheer cultural inertia, or because they retain a faint glimmer of Natural Law. But when society in general – especially the public “face” of society, as represented by the news and entertainment media – has a ho-hum attitude about morality, then it will seem silly to most people (Ayn Rand would call them “social metaphysicians”) to protest or do things any differently. (If people can get away with all sorts of things that would have been condemned in earlier times, why be a chump and “cling” to outmoded standards?) And from this perspective, any attempt, through art, to uphold traditional morality seems “hokey” or na├»ve, even if the means of expressing it are still honored and respected.

And yet – the paradox is that we, or some of us, still attend opera performances... and some may even agree with the moral positions conveyed. Not only that, but there are morality plays being performed millions of times each day in movie theaters and on the Internet (by “gamers”). So there is a thirst for morality – for standards – and yet it has for the most part been relegated to fantasy worlds, where things can still be black and white without threatening some political agenda. Applying standards to the real world is too daunting, too messy – impossible, really.

And one might say, but isn't opera fantasy? Hasn't it always been? Perhaps this is true if we're talking about Wagner, but I find operas in general (I mean the classical sort) quite down to earth – quite realistic, actually, if somewhat simplified and boiled-down compared to the complexities and ambivalences of “real life”. Not only that, but the music, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the staging all serve to amplify the moral issues – to bring them into sharp relief. (If a person is betrayed and sings about it, it has more impact than any amount of talking. A long, boring complaint using the spoken word becomes a memorable aria when sung.) It's no accident that those daytime TV dramas are called “soap operas” -- but they have suffered from the same moral erosion as the rest of TV, movies, etc. The bottom line is that morality is considered “unrealistic” in our time; to be, or feel, moral (in the vicarious sense) we have to escape reality.

So we have this fascinating phenomenon where we are, or can be, moral and upright in fantasy worlds but apathetic and relativistic in the real world. I see this as a kind of despair, as if to say that the world is off its axis and is beyond repair, so we may as well immerse ourselves in fantasy in order to satisfy that moral hunger, but resign ourselves to moral anarchy in the everyday world (which is rapidly shrinking as more people spend more of their time interfacing with fantasy).

If there's any good news in all this, it's that this moral hunger still exists for many people, no matter how limited its scope – which indicates, to me, that Natural Law is for real, and truly is “written on the heart”. But how depressing that it's considered irrelevant to modern life – even to the legal system, which has been taken over by moral relativism.

How we long to breathe the cold, clear air of truth, which includes a sense of right and wrong! (Because if truth is right, then untruth must be wrong. Right? Or is that just too logical?) And when we don't find it in society, or among our leadership, we satisfy that urge with fantasy – with pathetic “little liberties” that no government bureaucrat has yet caught us at. I would propose that the health of a society is correlated not only with moral behavior, but with the display of morality in entertainment and recreation. The more of our waking hours spent in morally neutral activities, the more danger we are in of further erosion, and of accepting even lower standards and worse “leaders” and exemplars in the future.