Saturday, November 28, 2015

Whose Apocalypse Is It Anyway?

An interesting bit of symmetry has come into focus regarding the conflict in the Middle East. I have written before about the power of true belief – call it radicalism, fanaticism, whatever. You can find it on this blog – the post dated Dec. 27, 2014, “Fools, Holy and Otherwise”. The point was that there is something about a cause – and the less “realistic” the better – that attracts people, especially young people, who are looking for something worth fighting for. And when true believers go up against the Establishment – which is characterized by materialism, cynicism, and “realpolitik”, and dominated by old, bald white guys (let's admit it), they tend, other things being equal, to win, simply because their fervor serves as a force multiplier – i.e. their pure energy can overcome those who are primarily seeking political, military, or material gain -- or to at least hold on to their power base.

We can see this down through history – smaller forces defeating (at least for a time, and sometimes permanently) larger forces, and it's always based on an idea... an inspiration. And I'm not claiming that the cause is always just; that's not the point. It's more about the power of ideas, right or wrong... and the relative impotence of tired, worn-out regimes. Many examples come to mind, such as the Jewish rebellion against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire (you can cross-reference this with “Irony” if you like)... the Moslem conquests of the early days... the Crusades... the American Revolution... the Civil War... the Bolsheviks... the Nazis... the Viet Cong... and now ISIS. In all cases, the cause was deemed worthy, and worth fighting for, even unto death, to say nothing of destruction of the old order. “Counting the cost” was not on the agenda, in other words. Even the death of innocents was, in most cases, considered to be part of the price that must be paid (can you say “collateral damage”?). One can even claim that revolution per se – regardless of the time and place – is characterized, at least at the outset, by this mind set. It is, in other words, a part of history, and conflicts that don't possess this trait (World War I comes to mind) eventually come to be seen as unfortunate, unnecessary, and truly wasteful.

People of our time commenting on history will often say something like, “Thank goodness we aren't fighting religious wars any longer.” But I say that religious wars are the only ones worth fighting! Or, substitute “wars of ideas” and you pretty much have it covered. And is there any doubt that what we are fighting right now in the Middle East is a religious war? And don't bother to say that ISIS doesn't represent “real” Islam; their beliefs are as real to them as the beliefs of any other revolutionists or crusaders were to them.

A recent AP news story described ISIS as having “apocalyptic appeal”. The concept of apocalypse is all about the ultimate destiny of the world, and of mankind. It's about a process – but that process has a goal, which is setting the world right, either in anticipation of the final judgment (the religious version) or of achieving heaven on earth – a Utopia to last a thousand years (recall, if you will, the Nazis' vision of the “Thousand Year Reich”). For a goal like that, is any sacrifice too great? It never seems to be. And this, among many other factors, is why we find ourselves baffled when it comes to fighting ISIS – and why remnants of the Roman Empire were so helpless in the face of Islam... and why the British were so stunned by the American Revolution... and so on.

And yet we have, on “our” side, something of the sort as well – a real, home-grown hotbed of fanaticism that is as dedicated to its cause as the Islamists are to theirs. They're called Christian Zionists – and they overlap to a significant extent with the Neocons, and, I daresay, with the Tea Party... and also serve to energize the campaigns of nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates. Their theme, as we are, hopefully, all aware of by now, is that Israel is the key to “salvation history” and must be supported, and protected, at all costs – even unto the destruction of our own economy and our political isolation on the world stage.

This phenomenon has been extensively documented in a number of books, and I suggest, for starters, one entitled “Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism” by Victoria Clark. From a summary of the book (on Amazon):

Guided by a literal reading of the prophetic sections of the Bible, Christian Zionists are convinced that the world is hurtling toward a final Battle of Armageddon. They believe that war in the Middle East is God’s will for the region. In this timely book, Victoria Clark first explores the 400-year history of this powerful political ideology, laying to rest the idea that Christian Zionism is a passing craze or the province of a lunatic fringe. Then Clark surveys the contemporary Christian Zionist scene in Israel and in the United States, where the influence of the religious fundamentalists has never been greater.

Clark engages with Christian Zionism directly, interviewing leaders, attending events, and traveling with Christian Zionists in the Holy Land. She also investigates the Christian Zionist presence in Israel. She finds that the view through the Christian Zionist lens is dangerously simple: (the) War on Terror is a mythic battle between good and evil, and Syria and Iran represent the powers of darkness. Such views are far from rare—an estimated fifteen to twenty million Americans share them. Almost one in three Americans believes Israel was given to the Jews by God as a prelude to the Battle of Armageddon and Jesus’ Second Coming. Clark concludes with an assessment of Christian Zionists’ impact on American foreign policy in the Middle East and on America’s relationships with European allies since the attacks of 9/11.

Now – the question we should be asking is this: If all of this is true (and I don't doubt that it is), are we to accept it as a perfectly natural historical development – inevitable, if you will, given that we as a nation identify our own founding as based on ideas of, if not explicitly religious, then at the very least a Utopian sort? Or to put it another way, did our founding as a secular society highly informed by Protestant or “Enlightenment” ideas inevitably lead us to this pass? The book provides convincing evidence that this is the case. The irony, of course, is that even though this nation was founded on, basically, humanistic and materialistic principles, theology caught up with it – starting with the second through the fourth of the “Great Awakenings”. (The First Great Awakening predated the Revolution, but certainly laid the conceptual groundwork for those to follow.)

And so, if this is all perfectly natural, and inevitable, does that make it OK? Are we to, ultimately, throw ourselves on Israel's funeral pyre, assuming that all of this comes to naught? Or perhaps it won't; perhaps there will, ultimately, be a victory that all can revel in and that will make all of our sacrifices seem worthwhile. We seem to be standing on a cusp of history – a time of great testing – where a conflict of ideas will determine the future for many generations – nay, centuries or even millennia – to come. If we are satisfied with this, and willing to pay any price, then by all means let us “let loose the dogs of war”. We already have an enemy that is not only willing, but strangely able, as evidenced by recent events. It may, in fact, be too late to back down – as it has been so many times before. All I'm suggesting is that we become, and remain, conscious of all that is entailed here; it is truly a “big f------ deal”, in the immortal words of Joe Biden. If we think of it as being anything less, and are not prepared for all of the possible consequences, then we are sadly mistaken. We have achieved that state of “fearful symmetry” -- the difference being that the other side is fully aware of it, whereas we persist in pretending otherwise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Won’t They Ever Learn? (NO)

So… in the wake of the Paris attacks, and the newfound respect for the notion of actually controlling immigration -- i.e. who gets to cross our borders and settle down -- we have at least two Republican candidates for the presidency proposing some, let’s say, startling ideas.

From the Sunday paper (an AP article) -- “… Ben Carson said… that he wants to expand the government’s surveillance operations aimed at potential terrorist threats….”  “’… I would be in favor of monitoring a mosque or any church or any organization or any school or any press corps where there was a lot of radicalization and things that were anti-American…’”  And, tellingly, “He did not expound on just how an administration would determine what constitutes ‘radicalization’ or ‘anti-American’”.  “Carson added that funding for FBI surveillance activities should be increased.” 

In the meantime, Donald Trump said “’I want surveillance of certain mosques‘” and “has also voiced support for closing certain mosques as a way to contain the terrorist threat…” 

OK.  Nothing new about harassing the many for the sins of a few; we have only to consider German-Americans during World War I and Japanese-Americans during World War II.  But that’s not my point.  When it comes to government surveillance, monitoring activities of religious groups and journalists, and focusing on “radicals” and “anti-American” activities. it’s already happening.  Have these guys already forgotten the IRS harassment of conservative non-profit organizations?  Or the NSA monitoring of communications among individuals and organizations considered threats to national security?  How many times, of late, have liberals in politics and journalism equated conservatives with terrorists -- even in the context of the “climate change” issue?  And let’s not forget various snippets of guidance coming from the Justice Department and the FBI warning local police departments about the terrorist potential from “right-wing” and “anti-government” organizations, and even from home schoolers! 

No, the kind of thing Trump and Carson say they want is already here, firmly in place and being implemented 24-7.  Of course, the targets of this around-the-clock intelligence operation are not the same people Trump and Carson have in mind, but it hardly matters.  The government has been given the tools -- largely by Congress, which means by both major parties.  Whenever the government begs for funding in order to fight against “the bad guys”, they get it -- because everyone assumes that the ones the government identifies as bad guys are the same ones they do.  Oh yeah, give the government anything it wants, and the hell with the Bill of Rights, because this is an emergency!  It’s an “existential threat”, and all the other scare words and phrases that are used to energize the process.  Problem is, even if today’s “bad guys” are the ones you had in mind, tomorrow’s bad guys might be your constituents -- or you.  And then what? 

How many Catholic politicians voted for ObamaCare, only to find that part of the long-term agenda is to insist that Catholic hospitals perform abortions, or be put out of business?  Oh, right, there is “wording” in the law that supposedly keeps that from happening, but we all know how laws can morph over time -- and add an executive order here and there and you have, once again, something those who voted for it in the first place wouldn’t recognize.  (I'll mention in passing the use of RICO against anti-abortion protesters.)   

It’s the same old scam over and over, and the Republicans fall for it every time.  Set up a straw man, present it as “the” enemy, get everyone to rally ’round the flag and vote the government basically unlimited powers -- but just in this one area, mind!  And only on a temporary basis!  And, surely common sense will prevail, etc.  Well… when it comes to “temporary”, all you have to do is count the number of New Deal agencies that are still alive and well, and causing untold waste, fraud, and abuse.  Any tool that the supposed conservatives provide to the liberals/statists/totalitarians in order to deal with an alleged enemy, or threat, will eventually be turned back on them.  Want to limit freedom of speech in order to deal with communists?  Now it’s aimed at “talk radio”.  Want to keep communist and radical leftist political parties out of the election process?  Now it's the Tea Party and the libertarians.  Is the press too socialistic?  Too communist-inspired?  It’s the “right-wing” press and media that we’re supposed to be concerned about these days… because everyone knows there is no daylight between them and the KKK, and those guys are nothing but “home-grown terrorists”.  And as far as things being “anti-American”, well… doesn’t it depend on whose definition of “anti-American” we’re using?  According to Obama, it’s anti-American to want to restrict the entry of refugees from any country, in any number, and for any reason.   

And so on.  Again, give them the tools and they’ll use them against you.  I want to call up Trump and Carson and say:  The way to fight big government is not by making government bigger, you dummies!  You have to dismantle it all -- piece by piece, brick by brick… even the parts you “like” once in a while, when they agree with you and act in your interests.  You can’t complain about SWAT teams arresting home schoolers and organic farmers but then turn around and give them anything they want when it comes to drug dealers and immigrants.  You can’t complain about government efforts to suppress free speech but then advocate denying it to Moslems, even “radical” ones.  If you want mosques monitored lest they teach “radicalism”, and then closed if they do, then don’t complain when the government starts pressuring Christian churches to stop teaching against things like gay marriage, or just about anything else that is the political flavor of the month -- i.e. to stop “preaching hate”.  The day may come when Christian churches are threatened with closure (rather then just losing their tax-exempt status) for holding positions that oppose those of the Regime. 

It’s easy to applaud when the Regime beats up on the other guy… but then when you wind up in the cross-hairs, what principles are you going to appeal to, since you’ve long since given up on principles, and on thinking in those terms. 

And as far as this election goes, well… the Republicans are doomed; I’ll say it again.  But at least recent events have convinced them to sign off on increased government powers, regardless of the Constitution… and that was, of course, the idea all along.  This way, the debate is no longer between big government and not-as-big government, but only about big government Type A and big government Type B -- but in the long run there is really only one type, and it’s Type T for Tyranny.     

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Empires Without Borders

As a kind of sidebar to the previous post, I have to point out that the dissolution of our borders does not signify the end of our empire -- of our long reach (military, economic, political) around the globe.  Just the opposite, in fact.  What it represents is a certain stage in the rise and fall of empires.  They begin with a secure and stable home base -- a city, region, country, whatever… and a surplus of resources, which makes “expeditions” possible.  Poor countries don’t go empire-building, in other words.  You have to have more than you need of something -- manpower, weaponry, natural resources, technology… but also less than you think you need of something else -- land, other natural resources, power and glory, and so on.  And, your neighbors have to be in, for whatever reason, a somewhat weakened position.  So the pressure mounts, and before you know it Germany is invading Poland, or England is colonizing India, or the U.S. is striding onto the world stage in World War I.  But regardless of the many varieties of empire-building (which includes old-fashioned “colonialism”, now dreadfully out of fashion), you can be assured that, at the early or expansionist state, there will be a stable home base -- a base of operations and a stable political situation with an enthusiastic, or at least mollified, citizenry, that doesn’t object to the horrendous waste of resources that military campaigns typically represent.  If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, it is the first refuge of politicians who seek their own power and glory at the expense of the country and its citizenry.

But this is just an early stage of the process, albeit a stage that can last for a considerable time.  But eventually there is a turning of the tide -- empire building and the maintaining of empires seem to get more expensive over time, probably because resistance grows among subject peoples, but also because corruption grows within the empire, sapping resources at an ever greater rate.  At the same time, the price to be paid on the domestic side grows as well, until we find out we’re spending more on “foreign policy”, AKA the military, than we are on domestic needs.  Once this tipping point is reached, the process accelerates until you wind up with, basically, an empire with a hollow center -- that is, an apparently powerful span of influence and control “on which the Sun never sets” but a homeland in political disarray, economic distress, and social and moral chaos.  This is the point at which we find ourselves at this time, and as the demands of empire continue to increase -- as they inevitably do -- the hollowing-out effect will become more severe and more obvious -- and more of a political issue.  (Please note that, so far, there has been no serious questioning of the magnitude of our military expenditures -- probably because both major parties are completely committed to empire, as are the media.) 

Another symptom of this particular stage of things is that, as I discussed previously, borders start to dissolve and we become ever more helpless in the face of invasions (however characterized) -- often, but not necessarily, originating in the same places we colonized and thought we had control of.  So you have this paradoxical situation where we continue to exert ourselves world-wide -- with our most advanced technology going into war-making… er, I mean “defense”… and yet, on the domestic front, all we see, hear, and read about is a rising tide of social chaos, economic distress, welfare-ism, entitlements, anarchy in urban areas, moral dissolution, and a general feeling of unease and existential angst among the citizenry. 

And yet, this may not be so much a paradox as an inevitability -- a natural stage of development, which in the broadest sense represents a decision, or innumerable decisions over many years, to prefer war and empire over domestic prosperity and well-being.  The fact that we are, and have always been, an ideational society (as opposed to one firmly rooted in race, ethnicity, faith, and a sense of place) only serves to aggravate the situation; there is, basically, nothing stopping us from carrying our Utopian quest to the four corners of the globe (yes, that’s technically nonsense), because what’s good for us is good for everyone else on earth, or at least ought to be, if only they would see things our way, and if they don’t, well, we have cruise missiles and drones and so on -- the great pacifiers.

But again, why should an empire increase but the place of its origin suffer?  Why should we be invading other countries while, at the very same time, ours is being invaded (albeit by different means)?  I think it’s because once our ideas -- our idealism -- becomes outward-directed, there is no turning back.  Whenever the subject is brought up, whoever brought it up is accused of “isolationism” and thus kicked out of the marketplace of ideas.  It becomes “empire or bust”, just as so many covered wagons in pioneer days were inscribed “California or bust”.  To quote JFK, we “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in the interest of empire (although he didn’t put it quite that way).  Well, that marvelous bit of rhetoric gave us Vietnam, and all the follies since then have followed the same pattern.  The common element is that as empire increases, domestic standard of living decreases -- or at least fails to live up to its potential, defined as “what would things be like if we weren’t always fighting a war somewhere?”  And don’t talk to me about some trickle-down economic effects of war -- war may be the health of the state, but it’s the death of the economy in the long run, as we are seeing in our time.  Only the elite who are masterminding the whole business come out ahead. 

For what is a border, after all?  It’s a statement, basically -- a way of saying “we live here, we built this, we have our traditions, we’re doing things our way, and if you want to join us kindly get in line, we’ll accept as many newcomers as we can short of over-burdening our economy, disrupting our society, and watering down our traditions and legal system.”  Yes, it represents an “us” vs. “them”, and this is considered very poor form these days.  Because, after all, we believe in “fairness”, don’t we?  And “social justice”?  And there’s that poem on the Statue of Liberty, etc.  So we have to suspend judgment as to how many newcomers we can take, and absorb -- “all are welcome”, not because we are such principled and compassionate people, but that we have forgotten our principles and forgotten that charity begins as home. 

It’s a hard saying, I know, that open borders represent political and social decadence rather than humanity and compassion, but I believe it to be the case.  Yes, we have always accepted immigrants, but standards were in place, the bar was set high, and the gate was narrow.  If we take anyone in for any reason -- or for no reason at all except that they showed up -- we are saying, basically, that we’re no different, we’re no better, and we have nothing worth defending.  (But at the same time, we have unlimited resources, which seems a bit contradictory.)  And this is just groovy for the people who want to get in, few of whom, I’m guessing, give a tinker’s damn about our history, traditions, laws, or culture.  They’re just looking for sustenance and shelter -- perfectly natural human needs -- or, perhaps, for what is called “opportunity”, even though we’ve pretty much fallen into despair on that count of late.  Or, yes, they may be infiltrators seeking to bring the whole system down -- but who can tell?  Is there a DNA test for “terror”?  So we are being undermined by people who only want a chance, but also by people with malicious intent.  We have the huddled masses and the destroyers.  And the question becomes, with all of this going on how much longer can we sustain the American Empire?  Is it really possible that, one of these days, “America” will consist entirely of military bases overseas with nothing but an economic and social desert at home?  Because if you project current trends outward that’s what you get.  I don’t think it’s ever gotten to that point historically -- something has to intervene first.  The question is, what will that something be? 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

We Won’t Always Have Paris

The attacks in Paris seem to represent a high water mark (to date) of the combined invasion of and attack on Europe originating in the Islamic world.  The first, and most politically fraught, question, is this:  Are the supposedly needy refugees/immigrants who are being welcomed with more or less open arms into Europe the same people who are committing the terrorist attacks?  The liberals would answer, with indignation, “No!  Of course not!” -- the point being that the refugees are trying to escape from the same people who are terrorizing their home countries and Europe.  But then we read stories about terrorists who enter Europe under the guise of refugees -- and of the possibility that a similar thing could happen here if we admit refugees from Syria.  So there’s the dilemma.  When humanism and compassion come up against self-defense, we have usually chosen self-defense first -- but those days seem to be over. 

And I’m not just talking about the massive social, economic, and political impact of hordes of (mostly undocumented) migrants.  Aside from the terrorism issue, this represents a truly historic phenomenon, comparable to many other great migrations and invasions down through the millennia.  And not the least amazing thing about it is that resistance has been nil -- comparable to our own situation with regard to immigrants coming across our southern border. 

And why has resistance been nil?  Don’t tell me it’s only about humanistic or compassionate motives; if that were true would we, and certain European powers, be bombing the same people on their home turf?  (Oh, wait, that’s called “collateral damage”, right?)  Would we be playing a major role in creating the refugee problem in the first place, by helping to prolong conflicts in places like Syria?  Would we have freed up radical Islamists in Iraq to persecute Christians and drive them out of the country?  So no, forget about humanism and compassion as prime motivators.

Economically -- well, there are arguments, mostly made in the privacy of executive suites, for allowing unlimited numbers of refugees from south of the border -- AKA cheap labor -- to come here.  The counterargument has to do with the welfare state and entitlements -- but of course those expenses are paid by the taxpayers, who have, basically, no say at all in the matter.  Of course, there has always been a suspicion of “foreign elements” on our soil -- going at least as far back as the influx of Irish refugees from the potato famine, and that was before the Civil War.  “Yes, they’re Catholic, but doggone it, we need cheap labor to build the railroads, so let ’em in, they’ll all be ’absorbed’ eventually.”   

That’s the argument on the “capitalist” side.  On the liberal side, the argument (again, discussed mostly behind closed doors) is that immigrants = voters, and liberal/Democratic voters at that, so it’s OK.  Thus, you have a united political will for once -- both establishment conservatives and liberals approve of unlimited immigration, although the capitalists won’t admit it in public.  (The liberal argument, as in Europe, is based on humanism and compassion -- qualities they seldom display in any other context.)

And as for people who fear that they’re going to lose their age-old culture -- or at least have it watered down beyond recognition -- they are given smug and patronizing assurances by those in charge.  There is nothing to worry about!  And besides, you’re just being racist.  Or intolerant, or bigoted, or reactionary, or “fascist” (still a big-ticket label in Old Europe).  Right.  Except -- there are already vast tracts of European cities and suburbs that have been given over to total occupation and domination by Moslems, who are perfectly happy pursuing their own lifestyle and living by their own rules, no matter how much those clash with the law of the land.  They have, in fact, acted as colonizers, except that they entered the scene at the bottom rather than at the top.   

And as to whether that could also happen here, well… how about so many of our “inner cities”, which have been implicitly declared no man’s lands by law enforcement (especially in reaction to the recent controversies over police-citizen relations)?  The bottom line is that it’s difficult to enforce the law in the midst of an anarchistic culture, or one that has a heritage of laws of its own.  Much easier to retreat to the suburbs where they can bug people about letting their grass grow too long.   

So the bottom line for us (in the U.S.) is, if you want the cheap labor and the voters, you have to take the criminal activity and the burden on the welfare system.  Period.  And apparently, this sounds like a perfectly fine bargain to our ruling class.  In Europe’s case, it might be about cheap labor; I doubt if it’s about votes because Europe is already the socialist paradise we aspire to be someday. 

But the question remains -- how is it that we’re defenseless?  And how is it that Europe is even more defenseless?  (I have yet to hear of trains full of undocumented immigrants leaving Juarez and crossing over to El Paso on an hourly basis.)  I feel that -- like for many other issues -- there is something deeper going on here… something instinctive, primordial… something the people affected have no idea of. 

What is it that distinguishes the current crop of immigrants/refugees from the, let’s say, “natives”?  It’s the same thing that has distinguished all invading hordes across the ages -- energy, determination, and sheer numbers.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why the flood of humanity across our southern border is a comparatively recent problem?  The border has been there, in its present configuration, since 1854.  And yes, there have always been people sneaking across.  (Remember when they were called “wetbacks”?  That‘s right up there with tacos and sombreros and Speedy Gonzales.)  And is this flood only about economics -- about the comparative standard of living of Latin America vs. the U.S.?  But that’s probably not as radically different as it used to be.  Perhaps it’s better communication -- TV, the Internet, movies -- that has inspired people to leave everything behind and seek a better life in El Norte. 

I’m sure all of these factors play a role, but I submit that a lot of it has to do with pure population pressure, and especially with the fact that -- to over-simplify a bit, certainly -- they reproduce and we don’t.  Or, we don’t reproduce at anything like the rate at which they do.  So it boils down to something almost as simple as elementary physics -- the differential energy -- therefore pressure -- levels of gases, or water pressure.  There are just too many people trying to get in, and too few trying to keep them out.  And it’s not just a matter of technology, or even “political will” (gravely lacking in this case).  It really is a kind of irresistible force.  (And our border is far from being an immovable object.)  We’ve seen it time and again in history -- invaders usually stick around.  They settle down, become more peaceful… but nothing is ever the same. 

We share, with the Europeans, a kind of pathology -- call it a cultural suicide wish.  We want to be “welcoming”, and “compassionate”, and so on -- but behind it is an unstated premise that our respective cultures have had their day… the experiment is over (the “American experiment” in our case and a kind of cozy form of socialism in Europe’s case)… and it’s time to explore new options -- to welcome fresh blood, vigor, and new cultural offerings.  And when you add to that the spectacle that we are helpless… stupefied… paralyzed… in the face of this new wave of humanity, one really not seen in either our history of that of Europe for many generations… you get the current situation. 

And as for the argument that our Western culture is robust, and enduring, and immune to takeover by mass numbers of the unwashed -- well, all I can say is that in that respect the war is already over, and the other side has won.  By which I mean, our own cultural revolution and that of Europe -- both originating in the 1960s (when else?) -- have done their work.  The long march through the institutions has been largely accomplished, with only a few lingering holdouts (think:  “talk radio” and the Tea Party for us, and the neo-nationalistic “right-wing” political parties in Europe).  Our resistance has been weakened to the point where just about anything could have taken over -- but the Islamic influx was probably not exactly what the revolutionaries had in mind.  For them, the plan was to infiltrate and weaken “traditional” society with its history, customs, religious faith, and mores, so that the home-grown radical element could take over -- and this has, in fact, happened to a great extent if you look at our politics, domestic policies, and of course that Great Satan, political correctness.  But guess what, the elements that took over our culture and that of Europe turn out to have an Achilles heel, namely that although they have great resistance to counter-revolution from within, they have little or none to invasion from without.  They softened up the battlefield only to find that there was a powerful invading army coming in right behind them, taking advantage of much of the same rhetoric and many of the same arguments that the revolutionaries used to such great effect. 

So the argument that we somehow have built-in resistance because we’ve been here longer, and we have a history, and there are more of us than there are of them (so far) -- I call this “voodoo demographics”.  It’s the notion that there is something magical in the way things are -- the status quo -- that, all by itself, will suffice… that now that the revolution is, basically, over with, we can just sit back, relax, and be frozen in place, and not have to worry about any external threats.  (In this, the revolutionaries of the 1960s have become the real conservatives of the 2010s -- things will stay the same from here on out because Utopia has finally been gained, and it is so right, and just, that nothing can prevail against it, either from within or anywhere else.)

The Islamists, of course, have a different idea -- and they are nothing if not students of history.  They were turned back from Europe, by a hair, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and the Ottoman Empire was dealt a death blow by World War I, and ever since then the Moslem world has been on life support owing to oil and very little else.  But hey, radicalism thrives on adversity, right?  Happy people don’t start revolutions -- and they don’t uproot themselves and take off for unknown lands by the millions unless they have a pretty good idea that, in the long run, they can better their lot -- or, alternatively, restore the Caliphate which will now include the lands they were wrongfully deprived of centuries earlier.  The shame of colonialism must be avenged! -- and, by the way, the French are as guilty as anyone else when it comes to throwing their weight around the Third World. 

The U.S., of course, is a new project for the Islamists, and there is, after all, that ocean in between… but they are over here anyway.  And don’t they call us “Franks”, which harks back to the Crusades?  Aren’t we seen as an extension of Europe, and, to add to the insult, the foremost supporters of Israel -- the ultimate thorn in their side? 

So here we sit, like the latter-day Romans… gazing over the wall at the barbarian armies, but too busy eating, drinking, and being merry to take any of it seriously.  Yes, we have our history, our traditions, and our battered faith (where it survives at all), but they have a kind of energy and determination we don’t understand -- and, perhaps, haven’t understood since the time of the Crusades, when we had the upper hand (at least for a while) and they were the helpless ones.  It’s already true that Europe, as has been pointed out, is basically a museum, with very little similarity between past glories and current decadence.  I have seen the remnants of Islamic glory in Spain; how long before all that is left of Christian glory in Europe is remnants?  And on our side of the “pond”, how long before the American Experiment succumbs to similar pressures from the lowly whose only strength is that of determination and sheer numbers?  We were overcome by a different breed of radicals, but even their days now seem to be coming to an end.  In this, we can take a certain ironic comfort.       

Saturday, October 24, 2015

I Second the Emoticon

It has become a truism, a stereotype, and widely regretted – the picture of a crowd of 20- and early 30-somethings each staring at their own personal screen, of whatever size, and apparently oblivious to the world around them. They are engaged, certainly – but with a world mediated by electrons, or perhaps consisting entirely of electrons, as opposed to the here and now. And stories abound of traffic and public transportation accidents – some fatal – attributed to “texting” or some other untimely use of electronic gadgetry.

And this does, in fact, seem to be the status quo, as any stroll down a city street, or stop at a diner, or outside a public school or college, will verify. There is no denying that this is how society – at least of the youthful variety – presents itself in our time. But the question is, what does it mean? The conventional wisdom on the matter is that it represents increased isolation – egotism – me-ism... and, in a sense, is a kind of societal autism – vast hordes of people wrapped up in their own private world and blissfully ignorant of all else.

And yet, is it really about private worlds? If so, why is the technology referred to as “social media?” It seems that the folks in question are, in a sense, more connected than ever – with the entire world, in fact. Their reach exceeds their grasp, certainly... but can they really be accused of personal isolationism? We all laugh (silently, by and large) at the fat guy in his mom's basement, surrounded by mountains of pizza crusts, who spends all of his waking hours on the Internet. Well, he is physically isolated; that much is certain. And in terms of direct social contacts – the pizza delivery guy hardly counts (even assuming that he's the one who answers the doorbell, and not his mom). And yet in a sense he is reaching out to the world (even to fantasy worlds); he is engaged, he is interacting... and, perhaps most importantly in this age of anonymous violence, he is causing no harm.

Try this on for size. What would this guy have been doing 20 or 30 years ago? (And don't tell me this type didn't exist back then; they always have and they always will.) Would he have been down at the local Elks Club, enjoying brewskis with his lodge brothers? Playing poker? Coaching a Little League team? Making sandwiches at a homeless shelter? My answer is: No. He would have been just as physically isolated back then as he is now, but without even the Internet as an outlet. He would have been more passive – watching TV for hours each day – or, possibly, engaged in some solitary hobby (or for the truly brave and daring, ham radio). Would he have been happier then, or is he happier now? Who can judge? Happiness is, after all, a subjective thing, and it's, unfortunately, highly contingent on how we compare our situation with that of others. One advantage – if you will – of social isolation is that it creates a lack of any basis for comparisons of this type. And when someone retreats into their own world (or a world created by others that they have claimed a small part of) they may wind up being, and feeling, quite reinforced for that decision. They may become, as some psychiatrists have speculated, quite happy – ecstatic, even – in that world; the world the rest of us live in, and from which we derive our values, including self-valuation, scarcely exists for them.

Now, this may be an extreme case (but not by much). All I'm saying is that “social media”, while paradoxical in many ways, may not be having the isolating effect they are accused of having, by the more – shall we say – naturally extroverted media types. Extroverts -- “party animals” -- just don't get it. They will use the Internet, and social media, as tools, but as far as turning into addicts, no way – they far prefer the flesh-and-blood companionship of other human beings. And this is, in fact, the personality type that has been dominant throughout history, for millennia – ever since “history” began, and probably before. It is only in the last generation, quite literally, that we have experienced the “revenge of the nerds”, where the geeks seem to have taken over the world, or at least large portions of it – Bill Gates being the prime example and the “god above all gods” in that portion of the world where humans interact with electrons (said portion growing larger with each passing day).

And yet, there have always been species of humanity other than the dominant type, and society has generally had a way of accommodating them and using them to its advantage. Wise management indicates that people's strengths should be reinforced more than their weaknesses are punished. And you will not make loners into social butterflies by depriving them of electronic gadgetry and social media. What we are seeing, in my opinion, is actually a kind of blossoming effect, where people who had little or no way of connecting with others without experiencing extreme discomfort can now do so. (Or, as someone once said, an imaginary playmate is better than no playmate at all.) What this means is that our “shy” or “asocial” types (by traditional standards) can now venture out into broad daylight – with fear and trembling for certain, but they carry with them an indispensable tool – a crutch, perhaps, but nonetheless it constitutes a kind of umbilical cord... lifeline... “bubble”. They can venture into dark corners and be less afraid, because they have their own personal help line.

But why is this? -- because it's not obvious. Why would carrying some electronic gadget into the wild and threatening real world make one feel safer? It's not as though one can call 911 and report feelings of low self worth. What it is – it seems to me – is a kind of longing for company, and companionship, and belonging, and even affiliation (as in “I'm a member of _____”), but that longing has always been thwarted by the down side – having to deal with social ambiguities and the messiness of personal relationships and interaction. Power games, status games, people saying things they don't believe – these are all very confusing and disorienting to certain types of our fellow human beings (call them “Autism Spectrum” types or whatever, but they are who they are). (I've often felt that “hell on earth” for these folks has to be the “cocktail party”, where it's all about social dominance, status, small talk, game playing, and who can talk the loudest... and nothing even remotely genuine.)

So what is accomplished by opting for “social media” over real society? You get to sort out the good from the bad – the pluses from the minuses. You get to connect with like minds, or even soul mates, with minimal risk. (It's so much easier to exit an Internet page than to exit a party!) You get some of the satisfactions – though certainly not all – of social contact and interaction, while minimizing the damages (to yourself, and possibly to others as well).

So it seems to me that the “bottom line” of social media has to be considered on the plus side, because it does expand opportunities for vast numbers of our fellow citizens. Now, having said that, it's also true that for the, let's say, “marginal” types, who are perfectly capable of interacting in traditional ways, social media can become an easy out – a kind of handy escape route with which to avoid responsibility and to achieve emotional isolation. An emoticon is a sterile, shorthand substitute for an elaborate array of facial expressions, body language, and verbal expression – so yes, it can be for people in a hurry, but is can also be for lazy people and yes, it can be habit forming. It's a miniaturized form of emotional isolation – the ability to express a feeling, or a pseudo-feeling, or a feeling that you think other people think you ought to have but you don't. And – most importantly of all, perhaps – it protects you from feedback – from contradiction... from getting a message that your feelings might be foolish or “wrong”.

And the emoticon is just one of countless tools, appendages, and garnishes that enhance the appeal of the social media. There is also the appeal of total anonymity – available in some applications, not in others. So in a sense, these social media have created, or carved out, a new life style and a new demographic – a silent minority, if you will, who have finally found a voice. And yes, they may shape behavior in some respects – rewarding actions that are compatible with the social media world and punishing others, so that the participants become, in a sense, creatures (if not creations) of the social media. (But aren't we all creatures of technology, communications, and information to some extent? No sense picking out one group and accusing them of being any more passive than the rest of us.)

But as far as causing a major upheaval in the distribution of personality types – no. I don't believe this phenomenon can turn sociable people into isolated wallflowers, hunched over a tiny screen at a corner table in Starbucks. What it may do is expand their options – introduce more (previously unknown) levels of interaction into their lives – and how can this be bad? And it may even be a shield, of sorts, against some unpleasant realization – like, how ultimately dull and uninteresting your date is, and what on earth are you going to do for the rest of the evening? The answer is, you whip out your respective gadgets and all is well. (And we've all seen this on any number of occasions; no sense denying it.)

Any discussion of this type – where a technological revolution of some sort is met with ambivalence – has to at least include the question, would you go back? Would you be willing to wave a magic wand and make it all go away, then have to deal with the consequences? It would take a hard-core Luddite to answer this in the affirmative when it came to social media – and I, for one, am not about to do it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ayn Rand, Call on Line One

Who hasn't indulged in fantasies that begin with the words, “If I were president...” -- or dictator, tyrant, whatever? Who hasn't made a list of things they would do on Day One of their presidency? Well, I don't know about you, but my first order of business would be to dissolve, disband, cancel, and basically demolish the worst piles of bureaucratic do-do in Washington, and at the top of the list – and, let's face it, there is plenty of competition for the top spot – but really, can there be any doubt? The top of the list would have to be none other than HUD – the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is a child of LBJ's “Great Society” -- and, by the way, where is that Great Society nowadays? Have you seen it lately? I certainly haven't. I think it died somewhere in Detroit – or maybe Chicago, Baltimore, or even Washington itself. It was, of course, a liberal pipe dream – the notion that if you throw enough money in the general direction of a problem, that problem will go away... and the problem in question in this case was “urban blight”, “inner cities”, “decay”, and so on – all of which had powerful racial implications. The reflexive action in the glory days of “urban renewal” was that all you had to do was tear down the “ghetto”, build “projects” or subsidized housing where it stood, and... well, this was not part of the original vision, but it's the way things turned out – move all the surplus population out to suburban “developments”.   (Urban renewal always results in surplus people, simply because planned developments, even of the high-rise type, wind up holding a lot fewer people per acre than the old, ramshackle ghetto tenements.  So the surplus have to be warehoused in outlying areas.)  And to see how that all turned out, I offer four simple words: Prince George's County, Maryland.

See, the conceit at that time was that “ghetto” -- AKA “black neighborhoods” -- automatically equaled “misery”. What the liberal think-tankers and urban planners failed to see was that these neighborhoods, as scruffy and edgy as they were, were nonetheless home to coherent communities – to cultures – not of the lily-white kind, but of a kind that, in many ways, met the needs of those who lived there. Tear them down, and build sterile apartment (both low- and high-rise) developments in their place, and you not only fragment the communities and the culture, but you create something much worse in their place – you, in effect, warehouse blacks in new ghettos, which turn out to be much more violent, dysfunctional, and drug-ridden than the old ones because they totally lack psychological, cultural, and physical roots. You create what, in effect, are prisons without walls (except for psychological ones).

And there is nothing theoretical about this – it happened, time and time again, in cities across the country, and rare were the ones that managed to successfully resist the Godzilla-like rampage of the urban renewalists. The bottom line, when thinking about outfits like HUD, is: If you seek its monument, look around – in cities like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, and so on. But as always in politics, the rhetoric overcame the reality, and once people realized that their birthright had been confiscated and replaced with a mess of pottage, it was too late.

This is all by way of background. Objectively, HUD is the most ill-conceived, most totally failed, wasteful, and fraud-prone of all government agencies. It has failed not only the country and the taxpayers, but the very people it was supposedly designed to serve. It has been instrumental – perhaps essential – in creating a permanent socio-economic underclass mired in poverty, drugs, and violence. It needs to be laid waste, and its mass of bureaucrats driven from the seats of power – by which I mean, throw them out of D.C. and close and lock the gates behind them. And no “bumping” -- i.e. moving into slots in other agencies based on seniority. Out! Period.

But! On rare occasions, a glimmer of wisdom emanates from even the darkest corners of the collective state. A recent “discovery” -- not that the information wasn't already there for all to see – concerns people living in subsidized housing whose income exceeds the level required to qualify for said housing. In other words, they earn too much to qualify for this particular variety of handout. And of course the initial response from HUD was to say that, well, you can't just throw people out of public housing because their household income rises above a certain point, because “evicting them could destabilize their progress toward self-sufficiency.” In other words, they might be earning decent money now, but who knows how predictable or stable that is? They might wind up back at poverty level any minute, for any number of reasons. We have to be sure that this higher income level is for real, and not just a momentary phenomenon – like, someone won a lottery or something.

Well, isn't this true of a lot of people? I mean... a person may be middle-class today, but then lose their job, or make a bad investment, or lose a lawsuit, and then they find themselves in the strange new world of poverty, and instantly qualify for subsidized housing. In which case, why not provide subsidized housing to everyone, just to insure that no one falls through the safety net? You see where this is going.

Well, as it happens, HUD reversed itself on this issue, and is now “urging public housing authorities across the country to kick out tenants who make too much money to qualify for government subsidies” -- which, I guess, means that said authorities have to get hold of everyone's tax return... or at least the returns of the ones who drive a Jaguar to work every day. (And by the way, who earns close to $500,000 a year and yet is satisfied to remain living in subsidized housing? Who are these people?)

But the point about “de-stabilizing their progress toward self-sufficiency” -- well, that's pure bureaucratic-speak. A non-liberal (a species that does not exist within the confines of HUD) would call it “punishing achievement”, and it's an interesting point. If one accepts that it's the government's job to establish, and guarantee, a certain minimal standard of living – including housing – then the question shifts to one of who should qualify. And we all know (or should) that household income is far from static – it can go up or down, quite drastically at times, depending on the various fortunes of those who contribute to it. And aside from the stability question, do we really want to punish people for doing better? This question comes up all the time in the more general discussion of welfare, of course – the notion that we not only “punish” people by forcing them to seek employment, but also punish them if they should happen to land a decently-paying job – to the point where many in the dependent class (who are not as stupid as their liberal overlords would like to think) have figured out that they're better off not working. (As usual, liberal social policy is predicated on the premise that the recipients of government – i.e., taxpayer – charity are stupid. And while this may occasionally be the case, it's much more likely that they display a steep learning curve when it comes to gaming the system. If there are any “chumps” in our society, it's not ghetto dwellers, but wage earners who persist in voting for politicians who intend to squeeze as much cash out of them as possible and turn it over to someone else.)

Let me tell you a little story that has some bearing on the matter. During my time with the feds, there was a program by which a minority- or woman-owned business would receive preferential treatment when it came to contracting. It was not so much a matter of lowering standards as of eliminating, or reducing, some of the bureaucratic red tape that characterizes the government contracting process – identify a bidder as minority- or woman-owned, and you wound up on a fast track. “Other things being equal”, they would land a contract more readily than other bidders – and, of course, there were plenty of ways to game the system, but that's not the point I want to make.

In one particular case, we starting using a woman-owned business for certain types of support functions; they were a new outfit, and no one knew at the time whether they would work out. (They were, in fact, one of those proverbial “kitchen table” outfits started and staffed, at least partly, by housewives.) Well, as it turned out, they were very good at what they did – so good, in fact, that we kept renewing and expanding their contract year after year, until... and this is where the self-defeating nature of the bureaucracy comes in. Because of the terms of the contract, they became too successful – too big, too stable, too much cash flow. It was no longer enough to be woman-owned; they had passed the milestone at which that no longer mattered. So from then on they had to compete on an equal footing with everyone else – which would still have been OK, because they were very good. But, lo and behold, along came a new cohort of minority- and woman-owned businesses, all hungry, all anxious to establish a spot at the government trough, and guess what, the formerly-disadvantaged outfit started to lose bids to the new, still-needy ones – and some of those were, quite frankly, wildly incompetent and staffed by idiots. (It was at this point that we realized how really lucky we had been with the first outfit.) So, basically, we had to start accepting sub-standard work in the name of compassion – and this, I would say, typifies government operations at all levels. (And one might say, well, but isn't every government program a jobs program, after all? And where does quality of work fit into that? The answer is, it doesn't. But on any given day it's more pleasant to be working with competent people than with clueless ones.  And it's more satisfying to turn out, or at least oversee, a good product than a mess.  But this would be -- I hasten to add -- an atypical attitude among the bureaucracy.)  

So you see, preferences... set-asides... quotas... etc.... giveth and they taketh away. And quality of work is no object. As I've said before, every government program is a jobs program – no exceptions! But within that iron rule, some people wind up more qualified for jobs than others, and it has very little to do with experience, competence, or anything else other than being in the right place at the right time (and the right gender, race, ethnic group, and size – and, soon, sexual preference).

So to get back to HUD – I actually understand their point about not punishing achievement, even though they'll never call it that. Someone down there on 7th Street SW has a brain that functions to the extent of questioning why people should be rewarded for non-activity but punished for self-improvement. And yet, overall, the government juggernaut, which is designed to provide jobs, will be scantly swayed by this rare insight.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Don't Bend With the Wind, ** Be ** the Wind!

While making my annual visit to my college alma mater (which shall remain nameless, to protect innocent and guilty alike), and wandering around the bucolic and eerily quiet (in anticipation of the barbarian hordes about to descend the following week) campus, I had to reflect on a subset – if you will – of the “do history make men or do men make history?” question which I've dealt with extensively in previous posts. This particular subset is of the collective type, and it refers to a specific college in the American Midwest – an area known to be a rich substrate for populism (good) or the “tea party” (bad – according to the mainstream media). (I've also dealt recently with the varieties of populism, so won't repeat myself on that issue.) This school in particular prides itself on being, not just a “trend setter” -- because that sounds, and is, a bit on the superficial and ephemeral side – but in the socio-political vanguard – not just at present, but historically, going back to before the Civil War. (How many small towns have a half dozen Underground Railroad historical sites?) Yes, the narrative – I might say the conceit – is that this particular place has been first and foremost in virtually every significant historical event, movement, process, or phenomenon for over 180 years – with the stipulation that, of course, “significant” is synonymous with “progressive”, “liberal”, “socialist”, “collectivist”, “totalitarian” -- well OK, those last two are implied but not often made specific. It is a place of “gentle persuasion” -- up to a point, beyond which it can descend into a gloves-off hotbed of protest, rallies, and sign-carrying – most of which is open to question, since they are “preaching to the choir” as long as their efforts remain campus-bound.

So yes, this small school in a small town in the Midwest turns out to be the axis mundi – the birthplace... the crucible... the fountainhead... of all that is good, pure, true, and enlightened – by comparison to which all other places must be found wanting. And this virtue is not one of mere assent, oh no! It is the virtue of creativity... of origination... of being indispensable in history. If it were not for this place – or so the myth goes – so much of what we call “progress” would never have occurred, and we would still be mired in the darkness of medievalism, superstition, and countless other political and thought crimes.

Well, that's quite a claim, I must say – and, I hasten to add, it's never made explicit in quite this way, but is strongly implied, to an overwhelming extent, in all “mission statements”, “visions”, and particularly in historical narratives – not to mention the selective memories of both students and faculty. It is, in short, inescapable, whether one is a student there or just passing through (and I have done both). So the question inevitably arises – well, is it true or not? Can something this small exert that much power and influence? And if so, why doesn't it get more credit in the media, and among mainstream historians and political scientists? They have no problem giving Harvard credit for pretty much everything that has ever happened, but this place seldom merits more than a footnote. Is that fair? Or does it reflect reality?

And I'm not even going to try and answer that question. I'd prefer to concentrate on a more grass-roots perspective, as a former student and current observer. What an institution – of any sort – claims, and what its members actually do from day to day, may not always seem to match. My observation as a student was that the other students were being blown about by various political whirlwinds, which made it seem (to them, at least) as if they were “activists” -- i.e. “doing something” -- whereas they were, basically, quite passive and reactive. Not only passive, but, in many cases, infantile. By which I mean rigid, impulsive, dogmatic, and prone to tantrums. Surely this can't have been a hotbed of creativity! When the average emotional age is pre-kindergarten, you're not going to get much more than a herd of intelligent, but brainless, baa-ing sheep – and that's exactly what I saw on a daily basis back then.

But then, where did their political convictions – held with incandescent fervor – come from? Their parents? Doesn't seem likely, especially given the “generation gap” of that era. High school teachers? Maybe, if they had attended one of those “red diaper baby” schools in the New York City area. From books? Mmmmmaybe. (But this assumes they were already well-read when they entered, and I saw scant evidence of that.) Whatever the reason, these characters hit campus on Day One of freshman year already loaded for bear – primed for political activism – thoroughly indoctrinated in the wisdom of Marx, Engels, and Chairman Mao (and probably Stalin too, but it would have been a bit awkward to admit it). They were already fully-formed community organizers, activists, propagandists... really a marvel to behold. But were they creative? Did they have any original ideas? No. They were, basically, political cannon fodder -- “useful idiots” as the saying goes. But did this deter them? Not a bit. They imagined themselves up there on the ramparts, waving a red flag, staring the fascists in the face. (And we have to remember that, not even 20 years after the end of World War II, in which capitalist America had defeated fascist Germany and Italy, fascism and capitalism had conceptually merged in these pea-brains, and become, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.)

I should add, as a sidebar, that although “political correctness” had not yet been so named, it was already standard operating procedure there back in the mid-60s, with any speech that didn't line up properly with Marxist theory being promptly shouted down. This much, at least, has changed very little.

What has changed is the subject matter, or orientation, of the infantile tantrums. And it comes as the latest point in a very long trajectory. In the early days (far before my time), the causes were just even if there has been some self-serving historical revisionism since. Eventually, abolition, racial equality and women's equality morphed into broader progressive causes, which, again, at least had some philosophical and moral validity, not to mention political momentum. In my day (said in a creaky voice punctuated by weak coughing) it was all about the war in Vietnam, the draft, and profiteering – nothing creative or unique about that, but the validity question was never in doubt.

(I would say, regarding the previous discussion, that the causes were better then the people promoting them. It's not that the war in Vietnam wasn't illegal, unjust, and immoral – because it was all of these. It's that the people objecting to it were offering Maoism as a realistic and viable alternative. They still saw the Soviet Union as the shining city on a hill.)

So... what is the issue of the day that has everyone tied in knots and in a state of high hysteria around campus? Why, it's none other than “micro-aggression”, and “triggers”. I've referred, in a previous post, to the fact that our campuses these days are full of pathetic creatures oozing around like eggs with no shells, just waiting to be stepped on or offended in some way. And the rule – conceptually similar to witch hunts – is there is no word, phrase, or action, no matter how apparently harmless or well-intended, that is off limits when it comes to some sad, sick soul reacting to it as if they'd been splashed with burning pitch. Things have gotten to the point where, to quote a recent article by Walter Williams of George Mason University, “30 students and the campus therapy dog [paid, undoubtedly, in “fair trade” wages] retired to a 'safe room' with soft music, crayons and coloring books to escape any uncomfortable facts raised by (a speaker sponsored by the Young Republicans – yes, they do exist there, and I imagine they could all fit into a Smart Car).”

I'm sorry, but students were made of sterner stuff in my day. Yes, they may have been delusional and easily swayed by demagogues, but at least they weren't afraid of their own shadows. Political correctness was in vogue, but the response to “offensive speech” was typically to shout back with something equally offensive, not to curl up in ball on the floor, piteously whimpering.

And what is the response of the powers-that-be on campus to all this? Well, it should be to scrape these people off the floor and send them back home to mama. But no – that would never do. We have to not only “understand” and “accept”, but accommodate – up to and including the providing of special rooms to which the victims can repair in order to recover and heal from the trauma of hearing or seeing something they don't like (including, by the way, things that are part of the curriculum of classes they signed up for). (I hope that, at least, this group doesn't include any political science majors. If so, their career in politics is already over.)

It's tempting to say that this latest (and possibly terminal) madness is the reductio ad absurdum of a long history of liberalism... a final stage of decay. It's true enough that we are seeing the triumph of pure feeling – and not just the emotional will of the majority (nothing new about that) but the pathology of a small minority, which now reigns supreme. And again, it's relevant to ask where this all came from. Were they like that in high school? (Maybe they're suffering from PTSD based on bullying.) Or if not, how soon after they arrived on campus were they infected with this virus – and by whom or what? I suspect (witch hunts again) that it has a lot to do with mass hysteria – the way an idea, or meme, or a way of reacting, spreads through a group for no apparent reason. This is, after all, the basis for many events, both large and small, throughout history, so it can't be discounted. A college campus in a small town is a bit isolated, like the Salem of old... and yet we find this same issue everywhere, including plenty of much larger schools in large cities.

So, again, I say – it's all well and good to be in the vanguard if the cause is just, but that also implies some level of judgment and discernment – and independence of thought. What we're seeing here is certainly a sign of the times, but it has nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with passivity and fear. It may not be a logical milestone in the decline of liberalism as much as a milestone in the decline of strength of character and common sense. And I would add that what we are seeing is not so much trend setting as a symptom of a larger, society-wide pathology. One has to ask – is this the same society that defeated the Third Reich, and that stared down the Soviet Union? Could anything like this happen today? We're having enough trouble with Iran.

Again, it's the old, weary cycle of history, in which what seem to be trivial weaknesses rise up and become dominant. Even if we allow that America has greatly sinned on the world stage, it is troubling to see things deteriorating in this way. But has any empire handled its decline and fall with dignity? We actually – and ironically – have Russia as an example, and they came out of the Soviet era about as well as anyone could have expected – and better in many ways. Will we have the historical perspective to do likewise, or will we be fighting down to the last man, like the Japanese soldiers who hid out on Pacific islands for decades after V-J Day? Time – as they say – will tell.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Credit Where Credit is Due, Part 2: Not With a Bong But a Whimper

A while back, I pointed out that it's refreshing to see one thing coming out of the Obama administration that 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.

I dealt with the Cuba issue back in December -- on Christmas Eve, in fact.  So now we move on to the second of those small glimmerings of hope -- and, like the first, it is fraught with controversy, with the Republicans reliably being on the wrong side of the issue, nearly unanimously.  (Does this portend a conversion on my part?  Far from it!  I merely point out that even people who are wrong most of the time can occasionally get something right… and that people who have the right ideas at least some of the time can also be stuck in a quagmire of ignorance on other issues.)

The War on Marijuana -- where to begin?  And I call it that because it’s distinct from the War on Drugs… not that they aren’t both dismal failures.  When it comes to powerful opiates and other drugs, especially the ones concocted these days in secret laboratories and sold under any number of “groovy” or ironic names, but which seem capable of causing massive damage, there is, and always was, a grain of truth to the notion that society deserved some sort of “protection”, although what that was, and where in the cycle it needed to be applied, was another matter.  I will argue -- and I’m far from alone in this -- that drugs are, or should be, more of a public health issue than a legal issue, although when something has a sufficiently severe impact on public health then perhaps the law should step in (but again, in what way is open to discussion).  One suggestion, on the conceptual level, is that selling mystery drugs of unknown content and dosage, and with unknown side effects, is a form of fraud compounded by assault, and pretty much any libertarian would agree that it’s a proper role of government to guard against both fraud and assault.  On the other hand, selling something of known content (and therefore dosage), with known side effects, should be permitted if the side effects -- i.e. potential for damage -- are insufficient to deprive people of the freedom to acquire and use said substance, which would, I would say, be true in virtually all cases, if we are to call ourselves a free people.  This has been the policy vis-à-vis alcohol since the end of Prohibition (another dismal failure, with the only real winners being organized crime), and is certainly the policy for garden-variety tranquilizers, stimulants, and so forth (either prescription or non-prescription).  In these cases, substance “abuse” really is a public health problem, and is dealt with by counseling and extra-legal intervention.  It only gets “legal” when prescription drugs are falsely acquired (fraud again) or illegally sold (marginal assault). 

So, that’s one continuum -- call it the legal-to-justifiably-illegal continuum.  But even then, there is a maze of issues having to do with type and strength of drug (think:  cocaine in powder form vs. “crack”), type and severity of punishment, and who to blame.  It is this last factor that starts us down the road of socio-political-historical analysis.  For who is to blame if Person A sells something bad to Person B?  We commonly punish dealers more severely than addicts, but we still punish addicts; they are not just victims, but are to blame in some way -- but in what way?  If they were only making foolish decisions about their health (or financial situation) it would be an occasion for counseling.  And yet we have a way of punishing the “users” not just for doing something dangerous, but for displaying moral weakness or turpitude of some sort.  And this, in turn, is the product of a judgment on the part of not only the courts but of society in general -- there are weaknesses and vices that can be excused, and ones that can’t.  But what are the criteria?  Search as you might, you won’t find any that make any real sense.  It’s something that seems obvious because we live with it every day, and always have… but try dissecting it and you come up with a gaping hole.

My position (also not unique, but seldom expressed) is that we are dealing with a metaphysical problem -- an issue of reality, and whose reality is valid and whose is not.  And as in the religious wars of old, if your reality is invalid, it is insufficient to simply tell you so, or present you with alternatives, or even to prevent you from spreading your errors.  No, it is an occasion for punishment -- and what is our national heritage but that of a, basically, fanatical group of Protestants making camp on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the name of their own religious freedom, only to turn around in short order and deny that same freedom to anyone else they could get their hands on?  This is the essence of Puritanism -- to “purify” not only one’s own life, belief system, and mode of worship, but to purify the world (or as much of it as possible) by relieving it of error -- or, failing that, relieving it of existence.  To the Puritan, there is no intrinsic right to life, nor is there a right to be wrong.  Being wrong, rather, disqualifies you from citizenship in the community, and may deprive you of life if you’re wrong enough.

And I submit that the War on Islam is precisely that -- i.e. it’s our Puritan heritage out in plain sight.  It’s the same attitude, pursued in the same way, with all accompanying dogma and propaganda.  It’s Puritanism for our time, when it comes to foreign policy. 

But domestic Puritanism is every bit as bad, if not worse.  And yes, Prohibition was an example, and it ran parallel with the first (unnamed) war on drugs -- again, treating the issue as a legal/criminal matter right off the bat rather than a matter of public health or fraud.  And since Prohibition turned out to be our greatest domestic folly to date (but nominations are still being accepted), you’d think we would have learned, but we didn’t.

See, the essence of any social system is to, first, define itself, and then, by logical extension, define The Other.  The Other is that which does not conform, and which, therefore, has to be detected, rooted out, banished, punished, incarcerated, killed… anything, in short, that reinforces its status and at the same time attempts to exterminate it.  And whatever makes us think that our society, with its vaunted “traditions of freedom”, is any different when it comes to this very basic, primordial need of social groups?  We may be a bit better in allowing for gray areas, but we are no less zealous when, once The Other is defined, tracking it down and dealing with it.  If we look carefully into our tradition of “tolerance” (now redefined as “diversity”) we find that it operates reasonably well within well-defined limits, but beyond those limits is no more to be found than among ignorant, warring tribes in the most remote places on earth.

Now, clearly, there are many dimensions across which to draw a line separating the good from the bad… the acceptable from the unacceptable… Us from Them.  Most of these dimensions are painfully familiar -- in our history and in the present day.  Think about race, religion, gender, sexual minorities, the handicapped, the diseased (mentally or physically), age, personal appearance… and many more.  It all adds up to reasons to give people a jolt -- to subject them to “correction”… and the “ideal” situation is typically not so much to exterminate (think: genocide) as to keep people around as second-class citizens (or worse -- think:  our enormous prison population).  To keep them around as reminders or bad examples -- at which the authorities can point and say, to the citizenry, "Don't be like that person... or else!" 

Now, in more traditional societies The Other is defined, as mentioned above, by fairly objective traits.  Strangers, aliens, foreigners… all people who might be normal somewhere, but they aren’t normal here, and that’s enough.  Even people who have different creeds -- different religious ideas -- at least belong to a known religion or sect.  It has a name, it has places of worship, it has a holy book, priests, rabbis, imams, preachers… whatever.  Our society, on the other hand, has a chronic dilemma when it comes to defining The Other, because, to begin with, we fancy ourselves free and open, and welcoming to any and all of the oppressed, needy, persecuted, etc. from around the world (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”).  Not only that, but we take great pride in the fact that, no matter where from or what their original beliefs and values were, people landing on our shores are eager to “assimilate”, and, by and large, have succeeded in doing so.  But even that narrative has fallen on hard times, with more and more immigrant groups preferring to remain themselves -- think Hispanics and Moslems. 

But, again, traditionally -- in most of our history -- people have jumped happily into the great American melting pot.  And yet human nature dictates that there must be The Other, and there’s the dilemma.  That’s the point at which we discover that there remain lumps in that melting pot -- that some people, habits, beliefs, etc. are not so amenable to homogenization.  So blacks, while freed, remained second-class citizens, as did Hispanics, Catholics, Orientals, and others.  Legally, there was no difference; pragmatically, they were worlds apart.  And this satisfied the requirements of the ruling elite and its acolytes… and those who didn’t measure up seldom objected, since they were still better off here than they would have been in most other places. 

But there was another level of alienation and division, and it was based on our status as an ideational society.  You could be, technically and legally, an American, and even behave as an American most of the time, but there was a further requirement, and an abstract one at that -- you had to “believe in” America the way people believe in a religion.  You had to be willing to, basically, worship an abstraction the way other people worship God, deities, a messiah, or even the stars and planets.  And part of believing in America was not just saluting the flag or singing the right songs on the right holidays or pledging the right pledges -- it was embracing the historic, social, and political reality of the culture, and forsaking all others.  Adopting and absorbing the narrative, in other words.  In a more typical society this step wouldn’t have been necessary, because people would have already made all the natural commitments that anyone could have expected them to make -- to race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, family, etc.  But in our society, these were all mere steppingstones… things that were only of value to the extent they were “supportive of” the overarching patriotic and nationalistic ideal.  (And anything not so supportive had to be lopped off and discarded, even as “identity politics” requires everyone to relinquish their cultural heritage, except for a few certified victim groups, and even their cultural heritage has to be sanitized beyond recognition.) 

But it doesn’t end there.  (Surely you didn’t expect otherwise!)  Ideas about America -- its God-given mission and destiny -- are one thing, but the thought-tyranny has to go even deeper, right down to people’s perceptions of reality in general.  (“Hate crimes” -- which are thought crimes by a different name -- are a recent invention; I’m talking about something that goes much further back.)  I’m not talking about the “mentally ill” here, because they are easily dismissed except for the most radical theorists.  (There may be some wisdom in madness -- there is certainly creativity there -- but it’s not typically a rich resource for a culture.)  I’m simply talking about the people who are in the world, and whose “reality testing” is sound enough most of the time, but feel that there is, or might be, something more, and who want the freedom to explore that possibility.  These are the people -- it turns out -- who were, back in the revolutionary 1960s, considered to be the most dangerous members of society… not the “draft dodgers” or war protesters… not the hard-core drug addicts… not the violent criminals… because, in some way, they shared the same overall perception of reality as most other people.  They were reading off the same sheet of metaphysical music, as it were.  No, it was the humble hippie with his long hair, beads, and bell bottoms who drove the establishment into a violent frenzy, simply because he refused to accept its version of reality; he had to find out for himself.  So the War on Marijuana, which had had racist overtones from the start, also acquired a new layer of Puritanism, persecution, and violence, and many were the hapless victims who were crushed under its wheel.   Suddenly it was no longer white vs. black, Protestant vs. Catholic, or any of the other traditional fault lines, but, most typically white vs. white -- or, Reality Type A vs. Reality Type B (or C, D, etc.). 

And did this new form of bigotry and persecution cause any uprising of protest among society at large?  Not a bit of it.  They were secretly (or not so secretly) glad to see the hippies “getting theirs” after daring to explore new metaphysical and epistemological horizons, and enjoying themselves in a most flagrant, unseemly manner.  (Who says the politics of envy is confined to minorities?)  So the establishment erupted in a show of totalitarian violence and cruelty possibly unmatched by any prior episode in our history, and certainly unmatched by anything that has happened since.  And while marijuana was not the only substance at issue, it was the most iconic because of what it had come to symbolize.  

To sum up, a racist society is hostile toward other races.  A theocracy is hostile toward other religions.  And an ideational society is hostile toward other ideas, but also toward notions of reality that are incompatible with the orthodoxy.  So in a paradoxical way, the hostility of an ideational society, even if the ideas involve “freedom”, goes deeper than the hostility of a more traditional society.  It goes, that is, right to the core of being… with how an individual identifies himself with respect to not only other individuals and society, but to reality in general… and, perhaps, to what he considers a greater, or higher, reality -- a hidden reality, perhaps, but one that is nonetheless real, and possibly more real than the one we are accustomed to, which may be illusory.  And this is the one thing an ideational society cannot tolerate.  It is an “existential threat”, not in the physical sense but in the philosophical one -- and if a few long-haired hippies could threaten the very foundations of our society by smoking a few joints, those foundations, and that society, must have been in a sorry state indeed -- in an advanced state of decay and deterioration -- which, some would have said back when the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, was very much the case.  We were as morally weak at that point as we have ever been, so it’s no coincidence that so many decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out”, and that the reaction was so desperate and extreme.  The society -- the nation --  was crying out for help at that time, but all anyone heard, or wanted to hear, was gunfire and the sound of prison doors closing.


And yet, the conflict waned, but did not cease -- it continues to this day.  But the most radical elements faded, as radical elements always do, to be replaced by day-to-day functionaries with no theories, just habits.  People turned to other things -- from exhaustion or, perhaps, sheer love of novelty over principle.  And the system had other things on its mind as well.  The war in Vietnam -- that great engine of the 1960s and early 1970s -- ended ignominiously, the hippies left the cities and retired to farms and communes across the countryside, and disco took over (funny how a culture can degenerate in the twinkling of an eye).  There was a truce of sorts when it came to the reality question -- not quite up to the standard of tolerance or “live and let live”, but better than open warfare.  But the system survived intact… people stayed in jail… irrational laws stayed on the books.  But a new cultural gray area had developed, populated by “new age” types who weren’t as engaged in open rebellion so much as cultural revolution of a generally quiet and gradual kind.  And this seems, at long last, to have borne fruit in the form of relaxed restrictions on marijuana, or even doing away with them altogether.

And I have to admit, I find all of this astonishing in view of the sordid history of the matter.  I always felt that the only way marijuana was going to be legalized would be by way of revolution (call it “regime change”), with blood flowing in the streets.  After all, that’s what took to eliminate slavery, right?  And yet it turned out to be more gradual, not unlike the campaign for women’s suffrage and child labor laws, and -- in our time -- for civil rights of many other varieties.  And of course the perennial question has to be, why did it take so long?  Why couldn’t courageous leaders at the national and state level have done something about this years or decades sooner?  The answer -- as in so many cases -- is that revolution does not -- can not -- come from above, but has to arise from the people.  It’s tempting to think that attitudes at the top changed, but it’s more likely that the mind of the people changed, and that the leadership is merely going wherever the wind blows.  The difference, I suppose, is that this can be done with an attitude of stubbornness, resentment, and foot-dragging (“kicking and screaming“), or it can be done with a more open mind and with respect for the wisdom of the people, and that is what seems to be happening in this case.  So without giving Obama & Co. more credit that they deserve -- they are politicians, after all -- we can at least give them credit for having a light hand, and for allowing certain things to happen, much the way we gave Gorbachev credit for not struggling mightily against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even if he didn’t especially care for what was going on.  And if they are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, doesn’t that beat doing the wrong thing for… pretty much any reason? 

Opiates of the People

In our disjointed political life, perhaps no symptom is as chronic as the claim that everything any politician does, or wants to do, is “for the people” (or “for the children”, assuming that “children” is a subset of “people”), when in fact nearly everything they do is precisely the opposite.  They are serving corporations, banks, foreign powers, special interests, rent-seekers, and -- last but far from least -- themselves, and any benefits that accrue to the average citizen are mere side effects.  What counts in politics is not results, but stated intentions, as witness the continued woes of “inner cities” after decades of rule by Democrats, who are full of promises but largely empty of results.  But that doesn’t matter, you see, because they “tried”, and they were “compassionate”, and were people “of the people”, whereas the Republicans, apparently, are an alien race from another galaxy determined to spread human suffering as far and wide as possible -- “compassionate conservatism“ being almost universally regarded as a contradiction in terms. 

So if politicians always have to represent “the people”, and be working day and night for the peoples’ interest, then so do political campaigns and political action committees.  No one can come out and say they’re for anything else -- at least not until they take office and are besieged by lobbyists, at which point they go from being populists to being experts in special pleading, and the political train moves on, leaving “the people” on the platform as always.  (The inner cities are far from the only example, but they are the most stark.)

We also have to consider that politicians of various stripes have a wide variety of opinions about “the people” -- about their wisdom, their way of life, their general worthiness.  Communists have, for nearly 100 years now, styled their dictatorships “people’s republics”, as if that everlasting cachet was sufficient to justify all enormities -- which, to easily-misled intellectuals, theorists, and academicians, it does.  No matter if a tyrant sucks the life blood out of the citizenry and confiscates everything of value in the country, he is still a hero to the left if he rules over a “people’s republic”.  (Who says language doesn’t count?  Language is everything.)

But really, haven’t all politicians, at least since the French Revolution, used “the people” as a magic key with which to acquire unlimited power?  Hitler and the Nazi Party were all about the “volk”.  The New Deal glorified the “common man”, picking up where the earlier Progressives had left off.  Who campaigns, or openly leads, on behalf of an elite -- of the rich -- of the well-born -- of the “1%”?  No one, basically.  And yet when it comes to despising, and even fearing, real people and their values and life style, it’s hard to match the liberal/socialist/collectivist elite of any society, including ours.  “The people” are great as an icon -- as subjects of a stirring mural or sculpture or folk song -- but for heaven’s sake stay away from the real thing (as Hillary Clinton invariably does)!  They might start making demands… asking questions… exposing some weakness in your arguments... calling you a hypocrite or an elitist.  Why, they might even be dangerous.  And one thing is certain, they will always be guilty of the cardinal sins of our time:  racism, sexism, homophobia, and now “transphobia”, not to mention general “hate”. 

So if “the people” is a universal theme in politics, how to explain populism, or what might be called “people-ism”?  I mean, if it’s always about the people how can populists be even more about the people than anyone else?  I think the answer is that the populists are, at least at the beginning, actually sincere and non-hypocritical.  They genuinely want what’s best for the ordinary citizen, but this is where things break down.  For who is an ordinary citizen?  And who are his enemies?  Take the two most prominent populist movements of our time, the Tea Party and “Occupy”.  They are each for the people, but on closer inspection they are only for a segment of the people, and those segments do not overlap.  “Occupy” seems obsessed with Wall Street and the rich, but their only answer is more government regulation (including confiscatory taxation), which automatically means bigger government.  (They ignore the fact that it's precisely big government in partnership with big business that has created the situation they are protesting.)  It is basically a revolt of the allegedly disenfranchised against privilege, with the middle class being pretty much ignored except when they are acting as tools of the elite.  The Tea Party, on the other hand, is about the middle class being liberated from Big Government (which, basically, means from redistribution of wealth), with both the rich and the poor being pretty much ignored.  So each of these movements represents a segment that the other has no interest in.  And the rich don’t need representation, obviously, since they already have it -- in the form of bought and paid-for politicians.  The problem the Tea Party has with the rich is that they would all like the chance to get rich themselves, so they’re not about to suggest making wealth illegal, the way the Occupiers and other radical socialists do.  And the Occupiers, like so many of their communist/collectivist forebears, know that getting rid of the rich is only the first step -- one must also get rid of the middle class in order to achieve a true worker’s paradise.  It’s not so much that the middle class are an economic burden as that they’re a metaphysical burden.  To the purist who dreams of a class-free society, they’re an eyesore -- a non-necessity that must be eliminated as soon as possible (if need be, even with the aid of the rich and their political servants).  To put it another way, the middle class has no friends except itself, whereas the rich enjoy the esteem of the middle class (and the envy of the lower class), and the lower class has at least a claim on the guilt of some of the middle class (but not of the rich, who never feel guilty about anything).     

Populism of any sort is bound to fail in the long run, or even the medium run, simply because “the people” (or whatever one’s preferred subset is) have no political power.  Really, you might ask?  But don’t we still have elections, and the right to vote?  Right -- we need to talk.  Let’s just cut to the chase and say that the people have their leaders handed to them, and don’t have a whole lot of say in the matter -- and that those leaders are already working for someone, and it isn’t you.  As one political commentator once said, anything they allow you to vote on can’t be that important.  (And that includes, obviously, who’s president, governor, Congressman, etc.)  Plus, our very governmental structure makes it inevitable that a fool and his vote are soon parted.  We don’t live in a radical democracy where every question or issue is brought up for a popular vote.  We live in a republic, and therein lies the disconnect.  Politicians are ostensibly elected by the people, but once elected they answer to higher powers, simply because that’s where the power, money, and other privileges reside.  Winning an election instantly propels you into a privileged class, where you enter a protective, well-defended bubble, never to return to ordinary existence (which makes it laughable every time some candidate starts bragging about his or her humble origins -- they're trying to shed and escape those humble origins as soon and as thoroughly as possible).  It really is like something right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” -- the regular Joe you voted for yesterday comes back strangely changed… in a sort of trance… robot-like.  We see this effect right up the line, including presidents.  They get “the talk”, they get that plate installed in their skull, and they become living, breathing servants of the Regime… political zombies who are subordinate to stronger wills.  And this process has to start fairly far down the line politically, because, after all, it is from those grass roots and farm teams that tomorrow’s leaders come (after many rounds of meticulous vetting, you may be sure).  (You think it’s an accident that some political candidates “come out of nowhere”?  No -- they come out of somewhere… out of some political hatchery… some provincial hotbed of corruption… so by the time they appear on the national scene they are ready for prime time, thoroughly trained and conditioned like athletes, and ready for the rough and tumble.) 

Another bit of evidence is that populist movements tend to be short-lived.  Heard about any “Occupiers” lately?  How about the Tea Party?  Is it about to make a comeback?  Highly doubtful.  What typically happens is that people drop out from sheer fatigue or discouragement (“burn-out”), or they become co-opted by more establishment entities, or they go the other way and become more radicalized, confining their efforts to university and college campuses, obscure political journals, fringe “think tanks”, and (in our time) the Internet.  But their day is over, and all of the initiative is passed into other hands. 

But what’s wrong with populist movements -- their fatal flaws -- isn’t necessarily wrong with the people per se.  What’s wrong with the people is that, as I indicated previously, no one is actually interested in what they think, but what they ought to think.  So to the Soviets, every peasant, factory worker, and soldier was a sophisticated political, economic, and social theorist -- or should have been -- or will be, the minute he attends a few evening sessions with the political officer of the factory, collective farm, or military unit.  The problems arise when people turn out to have the same old ideas, values, and goals their ancestors had, focused on outmoded things like race, ethnic group, tribe, religion, family, and gender.  So clearly these things have to be dealt with first -- the table has to be cleared -- and the foremost instruments for accomplishing this are the media and the public schools (along with ancillary organs like libraries and social “service” organizations).  And every nation on the road to totalitarianism has come up with a slightly different formula for accomplishing these things -- with different degrees of severity and different concepts of reward and punishment.  But they usually perish or seriously decay before they fully succeed in getting human nature out of human beings.  Oh sure, some people fall into line and conform perfectly -- or at least seem to.  They turn into little goose-stepping robots and love and adore Big Brother.  And they are heartbroken when it all comes crashing down, and turn into what are then called “reactionaries”, which is ironic because they spent all of their prime years fighting “reactionaries”.  But they are typically in the minority; everyone else heaves a big sigh of relief (volume to be adjusted depending on who might be listening). 

In a society that is totalitarian in many ways but remains laissez faire in many ways, such as ours, the populism issue takes on different dimensions.  Genuine populists have no clout with the establishment… “for the people” hypocrites are in nominal control… and the elite for whom the “common people” are as dispensable as flies are actually in charge.  It is out of this witch’s brew that we are able to have endless wars that further enrich the already rich, but which “the people” nonetheless support simply because it would be shameful to do anything else.  (This comes under the heading of a cultural habit which is supported by a national mythology, and which gives rise to any number of cultural memes and tics -- like ribbons, flags, and bumper stickers.)  The problem the genuine populists have -- what frustrates them to no end on any given day -- is that “the people”, whom they like to think they represent and whose interests they have at heart, by and large don’t care.  They’d rather just plod along through the day, get stoned, drunk, or distracted by “entertainment” on the weekend, and not have to worry about “issues”.  So, ironically, populism always becomes a plaything of the minority, if it didn‘t start out that way.  And doesn’t some resentment eventually develop, like, I’m working my butt off for these people and they don’t even care?  I’ll bet it does, and I’ll bet that has a lot to do with the attrition rate among populist theorists and “leaders” (assuming that’s not a contradiction in terms, the way “anarchist government” would be).  And some will make the point that the people would be more interested in the issues  -- especially the ones that directly impact their quality of life -- if they weren’t so distracted by “games and circuses”.  And they (the critics) will convey the suspicion that these distractions are part of the program -- that they are the way in which the Regime keeps people pacified, placated, and anaesthetized.  True enough, and, to give one example, I often marvel at how readily the Regime dispatched the Black Power movement in years gone by.  The weapon of choice was drugs -- cheap, powerful, and the supply was virtually limitless (as it still is, for that matter).  The few radical leaders who didn’t wind up dead or in jail based on entanglement with drugs retired from the scene (to academics or quiet writing, or even mainstream politics in a few cases), hoping that the next generation would succeed where they had failed.  And what did the next generation wind up with?  Sex (abortion), more drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (rap, hip-hop, etc.).  Busted again.  Busted, co-opted, neutralized, and basically nutted.  So yes, the Regime has ways of dealing with troublemakers, and their spotlights are ever on the move, like in some old prison-break movie.

Here’s another concept to try out before we close.  It’s what I call the “moral watershed”.  In any society, no matter how advanced or well-founded, there will inevitably be some members who are moral actors, and not dependent on time, place or circumstance to remain so… others who are intrinsically immoral, or at least amoral -- morally neutral… and others who are easily swayed by clever arguments from either side, most of which boil down to money, creature comforts, and leisure time.  Let us say further that the proportions of these three groups varies with the particular society we’re talking about.  But let’s also say that this division cuts across all other divisions, like race, ethnicity, religion, social class, occupation, etc.  There can be moral, immoral, or indifferent people in any group, in other words -- not disallowing the high probability of some strong correlations. 

What’s important is not that this situation exists, because it is, I feel, universal -- you won’t find a society without it.  What counts is the side of the divide on which certain key people fall -- political and religious leaders certainly, police and the military, “capitalists” in advanced societies, and, in our time, “entertainment” and media moguls -- those who represent the propaganda arm of the Regime.  For any given level of society, who has the power, and are they moral or otherwise?  It’s a simple question, but one that has to be asked again and again -- as with the current controversy over policing in black neighborhoods.  And the problem is that things tend to default to the weakest link.  You can have a sound city government, but if the police force includes criminal types, all the good intentions of city hall don’t matter.  Or, you can start with a morally-sound military but then add morally-corrupt civilian overseers (yes, it can happen).  The result -- unjust and immoral military operations with the resulting frustrations, traumas, atrocities, etc.  Any number of other cases, both theoretical and actual, can be proposed.  The point is that we live in a moral “mix”, and while there is more than enough blame to go around, it tends to be unfocused because people don’t understand the roots of the problem.

Our society, it seems, has undergone a tipping of the balance at some point.   There may have been a time when we were a mostly (never entirely) moral people with leaders with high ethical standards and high standards of personal conduct.  (I say “may have” because who can ever be certain?)  But each national crisis has caused a falling from grace -- sometimes subtle, sometimes more dramatic.  The Civil War was a catastrophe from which we have yet to fully recover -- as witness the absurd controversy over the Confederate battle flag.  Then we have various imperialist exertions like the Philippines and Panama… empire-building (AKA “stepping out onto the world stage”) in World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the current array of wars, mini-wars, proxy wars, “conflicts”, and “police actions”.  Each of these set us down a moral notch -- or more than one -- and have we done anything to make up for these moral setbacks?  Could we have?  Was it even possible?  Or is it just one of those things that, once lost, can never be regained?  And when it comes to the moral watershed, it seems like more and more of our leadership and our culture on all levels has migrated to the other side, with predictable results -- pretending to do things, both foreign and domestic, based on principle, whereas they are based purely on politics and moral relativism.  And this may be a perfectly natural progression -- or regression -- and it may be unavoidable.  The issue then is, at what point do we decide that the American Experiment has run its course and it’s time for a fresh start?