Oh, Yeah… This Thing.

Here’s the deal. Keeping track of current events is a depressing thing to do. Rarely do things seem to be getting much better, and a realist recognizes that “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is the sort of wishful thinking that invites false hope which invites even more despair once expectations inevitably collapse.

Bearing all of that is made harder when personal issues intervene. I’m only just now recovering from a paralyzing emotional shitstorm that began shortly after my last article. And that’s the most you’ll be hearing about that.

(“You” of course being my vast audience of four or five people.)

I’ve long since lost the motivation to complete my last series, or what was intended to be a series, but fuck it, let’s power through.


Step One: Draw Down (Pt 2)

We’re still talking about reorganizing the US military, but I’m going to go down a little side street to talk about gun control. It’s relevant, trust me.

Deaths from gun crime are a major problem in the U.S. Our gun homicide rate hovers around the company of countries generally described as “developing,” or “third world.” Graphs of the US gun homicide rate compared to other Western countries generally look like… well, like this. Gun ownership rates between the US and other developed countries are pretty similar, if less dramatic.

But hang on a second. Look at these two again, side by side.

DeathOwnership

The two western countries closest to the US in terms of gun ownership are Finland and Switzerland, yet despite having around 50% of our gun ownership rate, they have less than 20% of our homicide rate. Why do you think that is?

Finland and Switzerland have something in common which is distinct from the United States: compulsory military service.

You see, all that gun control stuff I said was just a dirty bait-and-switch! I’m actually all for the Second Amendment. I think the intent behind it when the Bill of Rights was established is as relevant today as it was in 1789. Jefferson probably didn’t say

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” – Definitely not Thomas Jefferson

However, he most certainly did co-lead a violent resistance movement that used guns to overthrow the enforcement mechanisms of an authoritarian government.

Consider that Americans are being extra-judicially executed by the drones and police which allegedly protect us. Consider that the US government uses torture, pervasive and unqualified spying, and has a history of engaging in other incredibly disturbing practices. We have every reason to be afraid of our government, and every right to defend ourselves from it. Yet, as corporate influence marginalizes the power of popular sovereignty and gun ban laws attempt to rob Americans of the most efficient means of protecting themselves from hostility, there is less and less that the so-called “common” American can do to keep a comfortable buffer between themselves and the possibility of officially-sanctioned abuse.

I’m not arguing that there’s a vast IlluminatiJewishLizard-conspiracy to disarm us so that the New World Order can go into effect. However, if in twenty years US officials are encouraged to persecute pro-eco or anti-corporate activist “terrorists” by monopolistic corporations upon whom they depend financially, and the risk of doing so is completely negated by said activists’ inability to defend themselves physically or monetarily, what exactly is going to deter them from acting on that encouragement?

An armed populace is a pretty good deterrent against those kinds of shenanigans happening willy-nilly.

(Before you call me crazy, keep in mind that in 1995 if you said the US government was going to kill US citizens with hellfire rockets fired by robots while monitoring their communications with a technological capability that puts 1984 to shame, you would have been called crazy, too.)

However, what is definitely crazy is allowing anyone to have a gun with no training or background checks and expecting everything to be hunky-dory. That brings us back to Switzerland and Finland.

I would hypothesize, and would very much like to find a study which disputes or corroborates, that a citizen who is well-trained in the proper use and safety of a firearm is dramatically less likely to abuse that firearm. Overwhelmingly, urban centers are the source of the highest gun crime in the US, where access to guns is easy (due to the high national per capita rate) and exposure to traditional American gun culture (usually recognized more in rural communities) is low. However, we do know suicide with firearms is rising in rural areas now, and decreasing in urban ones. I’ll get back to that later.

Access to guns will never be resolved, especially in the South, which has a notoriously porous border with a country where armed drug gangs have territorial command. We can solve the training problem, though, by mandating compulsory military service for every American citizen (men and women, excepting conscientious objectors and the demonstrably unfit), via the re-institution of local militias, which could be mobilized only by the federal government.

How would we handle that? Well, remember the couple hundred thousand military personnel from my last post forever ago? Think of it now as a 450,000-strong federal militia training corps.

The military would work full time training militias, while also regulating federal standards of fitness, marksmanship, and equipment use and maintenance. Outside of those minimal regulations, militias would regulate themselves according to their financial means and community, strengthening their local identity. This would ensure an impressive statistical level of readiness for national defense, but also an incomparable moral one as well. In the unlikely event that the United States is attacked, the invaders will be facing an army which is not only a huge percentage of the population that has been in reserve for years, but will also be directly defending the territory it has been training in, and likely lived in, for much of its members’ lives. That’s a pretty daunting prospect.

Also, since mandatory military service would funnel most of the population through a process of mental and physical health evaluation, it would provide a broad opportunity for physicians to identify and diagnose key mental health problems that lead to suicide and other kinds of gun death, allowing for early, preventative treatments that might otherwise never be confronted.

Finally, since the federal military would be entirely devoted to training militias, if the government wanted to, say invade Iraq, it would have to conscript the only available forces, which would be the militias. Since militias would be most loyal to their locality, and established and employed at those locations, it’s unlikely they would be very motivated to be uprooted from their lives and deployed elsewhere. Additionally, since only limited numbers would normally be required for deployment, many militias would not be tapped for conscription, putting the government in the unenviable position of deciding which militias to single out. You can imagine the outrage such an incident would cause.

Basically, before the government made any foreign commitments it would have to make a really, really strong case for it, and need to enjoy popular support for a long time.

So in conclusion, re-instituting militias might, as far as I can tell:

  • Reduce gun homicides to rates more comparable to other Western countries with similar gun ownership rates and compulsory military service, which would mean a potential reduction of around 80%.
  • Increase the readiness of the national defense by about fifty-four times (going by current active and reserve personnel numbers).
  • Increase the likelihood of detecting mental and physical health issues among people who might otherwise go undiagnosed
  • Increase the potential morale of defense forces via natural, personal investment in their locality
  • Decrease the likelihood of costly adventures in foreign countries

There are a couple of issues I can foresee. One is funding. However, if Americans are predominantly allowed to use the firearms many of them already have, and perhaps given incentives to donate or share them with other militia members, we will be looking at significantly low costs. Additionally, existing military equipment, outnumbering a reduced military force, could simply be proportionally redistributed to militias which are trained to use it. Local selection processes could funnel members into required roles.

As for identifying mental health problems, that’s a moot point if there is no effective apparatus for treating those problems. That’s my next topic.

Step One: Draw Down (Pt 1)

Putting it simply, we need to reduce the size and cost of the military. However, the mere suggestion of a draw-down is almost guaranteed to be balked at in this country. If you remember early last year when SecDef Hagel announced personnel cuts for the Army (keeping in mind that we also have a Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force), you may also remember the ensuing outcry. The Army is an interesting target for historical comparisons, because unlike personnel in the Navy and Air Force, the infantryman’s role has remained largely unchanged since WWII. But there’s a quote about the matter that always bothered me. There are a number of reasons why, but the primary one is that it misrepresents, and deliberately, a number of things.


That would make [the Army] the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II.


Ok, first of all: before it entered World War II, America had a draft. It was the first and last peacetime draft in American history, and authorized the conscription of any males between 21 and 35, up to just under a million troops. In the preceding decade, the United States was not ignorant to the threat of war rising both from Europe and Japan, and the 400,000 Army personnel authorized between 1939 and 1940 before that draft were a direct response to that threat. Even in the midst of rising conflict until that point, however, the regular Army capped out at around 280,000 troops.


The quote is deceptive for an additional reason. Up to and during WWII, the US Army did not use military contractors.


Contractors generally serve in logistical and auxiliary roles for the military. They do laundry, food production, construction, security, intelligence, and even foreign training. The estimated ratio of deployed personnel to contractors ranges from 10 to 1 to 2 to 1, but the thing to remember is that everything contractors do now was once done by regular military forces.


Those 280,000 Army troops authorized before WWII included not just the roles soldiers perform today, but every element of the logistical chain of the military, including everything that the billion-dollar industry of defense contracting does now. What is characterized as essential forces, in numbers, of the US Army does not include the thousands of contractors in use. Yet, a few hundred thousand soldiers prior to WWII was deemed enough, even including the requirement for such auxiliary services among the standing military.


What this means is that, while Spain was being bombed by the Luftwaffe and Japan was invading Manchuria, and even while Germany was invading and annexing its neighbors, the US Army and its entire chain of logistical and other support networks (which included the Army Air force, as there was no Air Force beforehand) stood at 280,000.


There are a number of factors that mitigate this number. The population of the United States during that period was less than half of what it is now. Technology at the time did not permit for, let alone require, investment in weapons and vehicles that became essential later in the war, nor those that have been developed since (like helicopters). However, technology has allowed for cheaper or even automated solutions to old problems, and the geographic borders of the United States have remained largely the same. 280,000 soldiers, called to action in an emergency, would still have to defend the same surface area today as they would have then.


One of the keys to the viability of that is the proportionality of warfare, specifically in the engagement of defense. In tactical terms, and especially in the matter of intercontinental warfare, it is generally accepted that an attacker must have numerical superiority over defenders of a holding or defensive position, presuming the defenders use the geography or other infrastructure to their advantage. The ideal, however, is 5 attackers to every defender. This means that even with only 280,000 troops, the US Army could have viably opposed an invading force of 1.5 million and had a reasonable chance of holding them off. Even then, the standing army of 280,000 was never intended to be the sole armed force in the event of war, and the Protective Mobilization Plan in effect during that time accounted for the rapid organization of a 2,000,000-man Army if it were necessary. The 10-million-strong army ideal for taking and holding the United States in the event of the Plan being acted upon simply wasn’t available.


It’s ironic that we call our defense budget a “defense” budget when it predominantly employs, trains, and equips soldiers, sailors, and airmen in numbers far above what is actually necessary for a peacetime standing army dedicated to domestic defense. Including the hundreds of thousands of defense contractors that our defense budget employs, total ground forces alone total closer to around 900,000 personnel, or early WWII draft levels.


But let’s examine the 440,000 number from Hagel again. It does not include the over 500,000 members of the reserves and National Guard. However, included in that number is over 60,000 Army personnel stationed abroad, not including those in Afghanistan or Iraq. Even including the personnel still engaged in Desert Storm II, we’re looking at an effective domestic defense force of 380,000. That’s still 100,000 more than what was deemed necessary in the late 30’s during an approaching world war.


Yet, there is no sign of the immediate threat of WWIII breaking out. It is not just out of military dominance that the threat of invasion is tiny, but because our primary military rivals are also simultaneously our close economic allies. It would require a tremendous global political upheaval before Russia or China even contemplated attacking the United states. 280,000, let alone 380,000, is a wartime footing approaching a stance towards national defense in the event of an immediate war, but there is absolutely no serious threat of invasion. If a force this size, plus our thousands of contractors, is not necessary for defense, then what sort of force do we have? Well, obviously it’s an attack force, an imperial force. The United States military resembles an imperial military.


This arrangement is necessary to maintain the US’s global position as top-dog: politically, economically, and of course militarily. Foreign bases operated by volunteer, career military men and women, in addition to prolific use of contractors, or mercenaries, is the bread and butter of an empire. But what has being an empire gained us?

We have cheap access to resources and goods. While these things may seem nice, they are in fact a symptom of the US’s dependence on a consumer economy. A consumer economy is not sustainable over a long-term period, and it’s a primary factor in our present economic situation, but we’ll get to that later.


The bottom line is that what we love about our huge military is also what’s likely to lead to our country’s downfall. Factoring into that the tremendous amount of waste in the defense budget burdened upon our national debt and our still struggling economic climate, we simply can’t afford to maintain the military we have. Given the domestic situation in regards to dwindling rights to privacy and protections from law enforcement, let alone unjust law, and rampant political and economic dysfunction, we have no business spending so much money and manpower on a force that exists largely to project our waning power onto the rest of the world. We need to tighten the belt and get back to basics.


During the 30’s, one of the core concerns of the government was maintaining at least 100,000 Army officers for the purpose of training a raised army in the event of war. 100,000 is two-thirds of the entire invasion force of the Normandy landings on D-Day, and seems more than adequate as an emergency reaction force, but accounting for population growth it would be wiser to double it to 200,000. What I propose is maintaining 200,000 trained personnel for the Army, 200,000 for the Navy and Marines, and 50,000 for the Air Force while leaving the Coast Guard untouched. That would put the entire armed forces under the umbrella of a number currently proposed for the Army alone, and would cut budget costs on personnel by three quarters. Eliminating contractors from the equation and proportionally decreasing spending on component materials and technologies.


And in the event of a war or impending invasion, where immediate national defense is urgent, who would make up the rest of the armed forces? It might be argued that less than half a million troops might be a tempting target to, say, China, with over 2.2 million active duty personnel. The answer, I think, is compulsory military service. With 120,000 million men and women fit for military service, the United States is uniquely poised to defend itself if the citizenry should ever need to take up arms.


But more on that next update.

How the Terrorists Won

And Other Uplifting Stories from the 21st Century

Hello, Internet. It’s been a while.

Well, let’s get to it.


So, let’s indulge certain world leaders and acknowledge at face value that there is a literal “war” on “terror.” Terror, of course, being a poetic substitution for “terrorism.”

In 2003 the US government released its “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” In it is outlined the national strategy for “victory” against terrorism. The primary goal is stated as this:

“to stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, its interests, and our friends and allies around the world and ultimately, to create an international environment inhospitable to terrorists and all those who support them”

According to the report, there are four intermediate objectives required in order to accomplish this.
1. Defeat terrorists
2. Deny them sponsorship and support
3. Diminish the conditions which engender terrorism
4. Defend the security of our interests at home and abroad

Now aside from the clear hard-on for ‘D’s here alliterated, what do you notice 12 years later?
1. Terrorists are more proliferated now than when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
2. Terrorists enjoy increased support from around the world, including from our own alleged allies like Kuwait, as well as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China.
3. The Middle east has become exponentially more unstable, with civil conflict among many states creating prime conditions for breeding more extremism.
4. We have suffered through the Boston Bombing, the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, and numerous terrorist attacks upon our allies in the Middle East and the European Union.

In other words, every single objective of this strategy has failed. I’ve talked previously about how the attack on Iraq itself counter-intuitively encouraged this failure. But Al Queda, too, had a strategy, although of course it was for the advancement of terrorism.

In 2005, Saif al-Adel, al Qaeda’s military commander at the time, revealed Al Queda’s 7-point strategy for the 21st century.
1. “The awakening,” 2000-2003, in which the 9/11 attacks were the first wave. The purpose of this phase was to provoke the US into declaring war on the Muslim world.
2. “Opening Eyes,” 2004-2006, in which Iraq is converted into a hotbed for terrorist activity and an active way-station and base for recruits.
3. “Arising and Standing Up,” 2007-2010, plans for an increase in terrorist activities, especially attacks against more stable Middle eastern nations like Israel and Jordan, with a particular emphasis on Syria.
4. For the years of 2010-2013, Al Queda planned to bring about the end of dictatorial governments in the Middle East, like those of Syria and Egypt, as well as undermining the US economy using cyber-terrorism.
5. Between 2013-2016, Al Queda hopes for a literal establishment of the “Islamic State,” or caliphate, wherein the Western image will be weakened so much that support for Islamic fundamentalism will rise exponentially.
6. From 2016 onwards, the new “Islamic State” will provoke or inflict national violence against “non-believers” in the pursuit of enforcing Muslim beliefs on the entire region.
7. Al Queda foresees victory in 2020, after a two-year war in which the Western world finally admits defeat by the Muslims of the Middle East and, presumably, withdraws totally from both overt and covert capacities.

It’s sobering to remember that this was released in 2005, and had probably been in the works for at least half a decade. While some objectives are, generously, a pipe dream by terrorism defined as Al Queda alone, expanding the objectives to encompass all terrorist activity shows where the organization possessed startling prescience.
1. It goes without saying that the 9/11 attacks worked. The US invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, with the predictable result of getting stuck there for more than ten years.
2. Iraq has been completely destabilized, and Al Queda in Iraq, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations which were nonexistent under Saddam’s regime now flourish.
3.-4. Al Queda’s third and fourth phases eerily predict the Arab Spring and ensuing end to, or challenge of, dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as their emphasized focus on Syria, where Al Nusra Front and ISIS (both local outgrowths of Al Queda)  have made significant, well-publicized gains since 2010. The economic defeat of the United States precluded any need for cyber-terrorism, as its own military adventure served the same objective, and with little need for effort on the part of Al Queda.
5. The name of “ISIS”, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is predicted. While the group exists more as a guerrilla force than a government entity, it’s startling to realize that its existence is owed in no small part to the plans and predictions of Al Queda ten years prior. The US’s predictions for Iraq and Afghanistan ten years ago were significantly less astute.
6. Although this phase is planned for the future, there’s already evidence that ISIS’s designs include such activities, and has begun to encourage them.
7. It’s hard to say what exactly will be the case in 2020, but the future isn’t looking particularly bright.

Strategy, independent of tactics, determines the victor in war. Strategy is more than a simple prediction of victory, but a description of the means to achieve victory in terms which can be interpreted broadly, but implemented specifically. As such, there is some leeway in judging the success or failure of each strategy in the Middle East, and around the world.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say that the strategy of defeating terrorism has had any success. If anything, the US’s means of achieving that goal has actually contributed to its own defeat. Invasions and military actions in the Middle East have inflamed an already unstable region, united opinion against us, and crippled our own economy, which has resulted in an unprecedented rise in terrorism around the world.

For terrorism, US activity has been a boon, as has been the growing animosity to Muslims around the world. Western reactions and backlashes to these activities, exhibited in the rise of right-wing ideology engendered by terrorist activities, increasingly isolates and radicalizes Muslims domestically and abroad. This leads to greater recruitment of terrorists, as more Muslims see solidarity in joining with those who oppose increasingly reactionary Western governments and populations.

This, like the US and the Middle East, like Israel and Palestine, is yet another recursive loop of foreign policy, where so-called enlightened powers play into the most bold-faced and basic guerrilla strategies of extremists without recourse to real international political or economic pressure. Throughout the course of the war on terror, we have framed victory as a mere matter of search-and-destroy, and of exporting our ideas to other countries in an attempt to stabilize in one lifetime what centuries have wrought, as though those countries could not survive without our wisdom or guidance.

The truth that has emerged is that these very strategies bring about more terrorism. And if our war on terror has simply sewn more terror, what can be done? Clearly we need a new strategy. I am sick and tired of seeing these same strategies, the same tactics, used again and again by the United States, in the name of high-minded ideals like freedom and democracy, when in actuality our actions serve only to engender further animosity abroad by representing us in the most myopic and unenlightened possible light.

I have an alternative strategy to propose. It’s not a simple fix, and it is unlikely ever to be implemented, but I believe if we do not significantly change the course of this country, it will be a footnote before long, a tragic tale of the rise and fall of the first, and last, global democracy.

Argo Check Yourself [Bonus]

My last post was not only late, but lame. I’ll admit it. Had a bit of a WordPress-deleting-half-my-draft at the last minute fiasco, half-heartedly rewrote what was lost to try to make my personal Friday 11:59PM deadline, etc, etc. So here’s a bonus.

Last week, Ben Affleck went on Bill Maher, ostensibly to promote some kind of new project he’s part of. Maher brought up one of his favorite topics, which is the inferiority of Islam to “liberal”-ness, and Affleck, putting it gently, made a complete fool of himself. His arguments against Maher were emotive bile and, as Sam Harris phrased  it, “intellectually ridiculous.”

Over the last few days, however, there’s been a small outpouring of public support for Affleck on the internets, and between Affleck and Maher/Harris I can understand why. Beyond his being a popular celebrity, though Affleck provided no rational arguments to back up his anger, his anger was not at all misplaced. Maher and Harris are bigots.

Their argument is essentially this: “liberal” principles, like tolerance, non-violence, and equality cannot conflate with Islam. They are mutually exclusive, because Islam exclusively promotes only intolerance, violence, and inequality, and even if only (“conservatively,” as Harris puts it) 20% of Muslims are “radical,” ultimately, the inherent anti-liberal-ness of Islam marginalizes the potential for any of the remaining moderates to exercise liberal values.

The reason this is bigoted is because it ascribes a religious identity to social and political forces that have evolved from less-than-religious roots, in order to persecute that religious identity. It also completely ignores the social, political, and religious history of the west. Oh, Christianity is bad, Maher and Haris admit, but liberals won’t talk about how bad Islam is, too. However, Christianity is distinctly Western, and by also conflating Liberalism with Westernism (as Maher does) in opposition to a more commonly Eastern religion in Islam which is portrayed as exclusively anti-liberal, the implication is truly, Christianity is bad, but it’s on the side of the west, the side of Liberalism, so Islam is worse.

If you want to find a religious culture where religious fundamentalism is on the rise, where abuse of women is sanctified, where minorities are persecuted… well if you’ve been checking the links, you know where I’m going with this. Look no further than Cold War America.

It was in 1954 that the words “under god” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, largely by the initiative of the Knights of Columbus (a conservative Catholic national fraternity and lobby) and a Presbyterian minister capitalizing on the president’s recent conversion and baptism. America’s identity became inextricable from a conservative, Christian worldview that presented itself as a necessary deterrent to the “Godless Communism” of the Soviet Union. America even had its own version of an Inquisition.

Bible verses have been quoted to justify just about every kind of hate you can imagine, in varying degrees, in support of conservative, or at least decidedly non-liberal, agendas. Christianity has been a rallying cry against everything from bikinis to free speech, and while those practices have hardly ended by today, they reached a particular fever pitch during this period.

Yet, the next ten years saw the birth of modern liberalism in the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded most famously by an ordained Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. King did not only crusade for social justice, but for peace, opposing both Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. He hardly denied his religious roots, fervently quoting bible passages like “turn the other cheek,” and “those who use the sword will die by it.” King’s message was imbued completely with religious references and imagery, and yet his liberal message did not suffer for it. He managed to take the same book used to justify hate and persecution to weave from it a message of peace, love, and equality.

The Bible has everything from “women are forbidden to speak in church” to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the Torah, God orders the slaughter of women, children, and animals, and yet also forbids murder. These books are so old, so varied, translated in so many ways, that they can be used to justify pretty much anything. Which passages are chosen to justify social and political goals says everything about the person who chooses them, moreso than the religion they ascribe to.

So, now we get back to Maher and Harris. Two educated guys who proclaim to raise the banner of liberalism and casually judge others’ ignorance, have not taken the time to consider that their liberalisms, rooted in Judeo-Christian western history, could possibly have any parallel in the Islamic faiths, which are nothing but violent and intolerant.

“There is no compulsion in religion
“Clear proofs have indeed come to you from your Lord: so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm
“And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors

The bigotry here comes from not only maintaining deliberate ignorance against a peoples’ beliefs, but then using that ignorance as a springboard for their own declaration of moral superiority.

Sure, the Quran says some frightening things. But so does the Bible. It also says some nice, friendly things… like the Bible does. But acting like these religious forces exist in a political and social vacuum where they dictate only one inescapable, dogmatic interpretation is simply facile. There have been liberal movements in the Islamic world, similarly spearheaded by religious figures citing inspiration from Islam, bolstered by a synchronicity of changing social and political events. These events are not mere background color to some unyielding pattern of religious zealotry, but demand vast swaths of the tapestry of history.

In their arrogant mode of secularism, atheists like Maher embrace liberalism while willfully ignoring its roots in religion. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Martin Luther, adherents have brought about liberal reforms via their personal interpretation of religious beliefs, and it is in the ensuing dialog over religious values that liberal ideas have taken hold. The very idea that there is an objective ideal of morality comes from religion, and for atheists to decry and judge others on any moral platform, especially by equating religiousness with immorality, is hypocritical and, yes, bigoted.

But whatever. They’re just exercising their free speech, which is their right. And really I’m just aiming at the easiest targets, because people like Maher are merely symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the idea that morality must be enforced by a global power, namely, America.

During the Cold War, was there a giant superpower of a country breathing down America’s back, landing missiles in its cities, inserting commando teams or outright invading it in order to end the zealous rise of religious fundamentalism?

(The USSR certainly tried to stick its fingers in US affairs, but the give and take on that issue was pretty evenly-matched, and very much a matter of literal survival. So, provided you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, no, no one tried doing that.)

Let’s imagine someone had. Let’s say, locked in this struggle with a rival nation, some other, larger, more powerful nation existed and simultaneously tried to exert its moral authority on the United States through social, political, economic, and military pressure. Do you think there’d be some resentment? Maybe a little animosity? Do you think maybe those conservative, fundamental forces might gain even more support against the threat of submission to foreign ideals, while they’re already gaining popular support under threat from their rivals? That it might completely negate or reverse the sort of liberal forces that managed to rise during the 60’s?

The more the allegedly “liberal” antagonize those who do not ascribe to those beliefs, the more they harden the hearts of their opposition with their declarations of moral superiority. If they truly wished to spread liberalism across the world, it would be by demonstrating it through their deeds, not parading it like a crown. The best lead by example, not merely by asserting their authority as “teachers.”

Matthew 23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
23 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.
 

Ok, maybe a bit of a stretch. Couldn’t help myself.

That Good Men Do Nothing

I was going to write a post which would serve little but to belabor many of the same points I’ve already made, but structured in the manner of a frustrated cry of futility at the hubris of moving against ISIS.

Someone beat me to it. Days ago.

Seriously, read this. It’s everything I could have said and more, but better than I could have said it.

So now what? Well, I’m gonna wax a little philosophical.

 

Lately on this issue, there’s a lot of talk about moral imperative. ISIS is “evil” so it has to be stopped. And yeah, they’re bad dudes. They do outrageous and horrible things to innocent people. And even assuming they were not one of many violent radical groups who use beheading, torture, and rape as methods of population control, why shouldn’t it be a moral imperative to act against them?

There’s that famous quote. You know it. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

If we don’t act, doesn’t that mean evil triumphs?

There’s a fundamental assumption here, and it begs a serious question: How do we know that we’re good (wo)men?

In America, it seems to have become a presumption that goodness and action are inextricably intertwined. Or put alternatively, that doing something is always better than doing nothing. That quote might have something to do with it. But we often do not distinguish between “good” action and “rash” action.

“Good” is not a word that should be associated so quickly with any national agenda. Politics and morality don’t often mix, and when they do, it’s been pretty contentious. We need to stop identifying America, and ourselves, as “good” in every foreign policy decision we make. If we’re honest, we’ll realize our actions are at best benevolently self-serving. Why is it that ISIS and Bin Laden and Hussein have been fair game but Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey have been allowed to operate with near-impunity? Is there a scale of morality, a numbered list from “most” to “least” bad, and Al Queda is at the top, and ISIS is two names down? What about Hezbollah? North Korea? Where do they rank on the scale? China? Shouldn’t they be somewhere on the list since the Tienanmen Square Massacre and with all the other questionable stuff they do?

There is no rhyme or reason to who is defined as “evil” and who is not; at least, there isn’t in a true moral sense. There is merely an illusion of moral superiority produced where political opportunity and arrogance combine. America does not truly champion causes of good. It champions causes of economic, social, and political expedience. In other words, America does not always act because it should, but often does because it can.

Assuming that the Bush Administration truly believed in its own moral imperative, one cannot deny that its decision to invade Iraq was based significantly on the determination that an invasion was feasible. America has not, and probably will not, invade Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, but Iraq was a prime target. American leaders believed that an invasion would be quick, painless, and result in a net gain for the US and the region (again, benefit of the doubt). Upon embarking on its great crusade, America claimed responsibility for its consequences, as they were the basis for its justification for invading in the first place.

Over a decade later, what have the real consequences been? Iraqi infrastructure has been crippled, millions have been displaced, and thousands have been killed or seriously wounded. AQI and ISIS have spawned and gained prominent footholds, feeding into violent civil unrest unlikely ever to end. If the United States had not invaded Iraq, conditions for many might have been bad, but they certainly would not have been worse than they are now.

Armed with this knowledge, can we say the invasion of Iraq was moral? Probably not.

Would restraint have yielded a more positive outcome for more Iraqis and Americans alike? Probably so. “Doing nothing” against an “evil” dictator in Iraq would have resulted in a more positive outcome than acting against him.

“Restraint,” that is, “doing nothing,” is not a popular word among presidents mobilizing for war. While it provides an opportunity for a reasonable exploration of potential consequences and a rational, national debate, it is not well-suited to the polarizing jingoism involved where a battle line has been drawn against something so extreme as “evil.”

The question is not whether ISIS are bad guys. Surely, they are; they might even be “evil.” But the United States, the same entity that has assumed the authority to define evil, has essentially created them. They are a consequence of a rash decision, to invade Iraq and arm Syrian rebels. But if the United States, in acting against evil, only sows more evil, what does that make us?

A good nation, a moral nation, would not act rashly, where rash action would result in more evil. A good nation would show restraint.

For all the talk of good and evil, of destroying terrorists and ending, in even more hyperbolic language, “terror,” there should be no illusions that the United States fights for the side of “good.” How do we even define what is “good” in a world where deposing dictators leads to more terrorism?

 

Wut

So in my last post, I began with an extended quotation from Osama Bin Laden, and then neglected to point out why I had chosen to do so, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. I’m going to address that, first.

That quote was taken from a transcript of a speech given to Al Jazeera in 2004. I would hazard to guess that many have already forgotten this, but there was a time when Osama Bin Laden was considered Pure Evil. Pure Evil to the extent where unironically fantasizing about his death on the presumption of inherent justice was pretty much a means of acceptable, national, self-gratification.

The man Bin Laden reveales himself to be in the statement was far more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon villain. He is cunning, even prescient, and though the strategy of his statement was certainly self-serving, there were also hard, essential truths to be found in his words. But America was not shown that man. We were not encouraged to understand who he was, or how he was made, or why he fought. We were simply told that Osama Bin Laden is evil, so he must be killed.

Aspersion of that caliber ideally necessitates a presentation of compelling proof. The 9/11 attacks were horrific, but even Bin Laden admits that they were. However, Bin Laden portrays the attacks as retaliatory for oppression perpetrated by the United States in the Middle East. Specifically, he accuses the United States of aiding Israel in the 1982 Lebanon war, in which 5,000-8,000 civilian non-Jews were killed both by Israeli forces, and the ensuing unrest unleashed by Israeli intervention.

This of course is at best a misunderstanding of the situation, and at worst a deliberate lie, as the U.S.’s role in the Lebanese war was relatively minor. However, its financial and military assistance to Israel is, of course, well-known. If the implication is that US support for Israel engenders the latter’s bold and reckless behavior in the Middle East, which has unarguably caused the death and displacement of many non-Israeli civilians, that implication is more or less correct.

In other words, Bin Laden’s argument is essentially this: Allied lives are threatened by a foreign power, and in retaliation, we will attack at the source of the nation that threatens us. There will be unavoidable civilian deaths and that is regrettable, but necessary, in order to hasten the results we desire, and when the adversary refuses to commit to any sort of military integrity.

I find that argument abhorrent, and most probably would, knowing its source in this particular instance. However, it is a similar argument echoed by US presidents and Israel itself.

It is also the same argument that underpins the bombings of Germany (300,000-600,000 civilians killed) and Japan (330,000-500,000 civilians killed), as well as much of Vietnam (50,000-180,000 civilians killed), Cambodia, and Laos, not to mention Iraq (100,000 plus civilian deaths, though not all from bombing). There is a fundamental hypocrisy at play here, where provoking attrition warfare against the United States is “evil,” but engaging in a war of attrition in the Middle East and elsewhere can be “noble” and “necessary.”

Of course, Bin Laden himself benefited from the sort of US military aid that Israel has enjoyed for decades, so he is, himself, also a hypocrite. Yet even the narrative of Bin Laden alongside the Mujahideen fighting Soviets in Afghanistan, supported enthusiastically by the Carter and Reagan administrations, is absent from the national narrative on the factors leading to 9/11.

To many now, that lazy explanation of the 9/11 attacks as a mere “act of evil” is as good as historical accuracy. Thirteen years after 9/11, America does not understand who the enemy behind 9/11 was.

Between the government and most media outlets, there has been little to no effort to faithfully characterize and analyze America’s enemies and why they fight. Undoubtedly there is more to their motivations than “being evil,” and to reduce any organization to those two words is a disservice not only to the people being mobilized to fight, but to the victims created by the engines of war once they are running at full steam. “Fundamentalist” and “extremist” are not sober rallying cries for war. Sure, extremism embodies zealousness to the point of what most would call “evil,” yet zealousness itself is not an engine upon which any serious threat can move when modern militaries scour space with satellites while straddling the globe… right?

Looking upon the build up (again) to what increasingly looks like Desert Storm III, I have a hard time dredging up the energy to feel as incensed and angry as seems appropriate. The painful lesson of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is still stained into the national fabric of America, and the degree to which the road to war against ISIS parallels that of previous historical blunders is positively stupefying. How can the entire country not recoil from this immediately? Haven’t we been through this before? Doesn’t anyone remember how we got here? How can so many people accept such insanity with straight faces?

ISIS, like Bin Laden and Al Queda, is not well understood, and certainly no effort has been made to comprehensively explain the group, its roots, or its motivations to the American people.

Let’s take a look at ISIS, again. The strategy of letting ISIS burn itself out and bolstering Iran in order to combat it have been echoed by others since my first post on the matter, but it’s clear the Obama administration has other, more traditional designs. The sorts of designs that have been tried before, with no evidence of success.

I originally intended to describe ISIS’s origins as a rebellion against the oppressive regime in Syria, grown out of Al Queda in Syria like an unwanted, mutant limb and armed by the United States against what was perceived as a common enemy in Bashar al-Assad. Oh yeah, remember Assad? The evil dictator alleged to use chemical weapons on his own people, the one Obama (surprisingly) asked permission from congress to attack last year?

Oh, how the tables have turned.

I don’t know what the point is in even bothering to wrap my head around this anymore. It’s so ridiculous I almost don’t want to make sense of it all, at the risk of becoming crazy through the attempt alone.

Yet, I must. I’m going to try to get this straight.

The United States intervenes in the Middle East, arming militants against a rival regime in Afghanistan. Those militants go on to radicalize as they fragment into an extremist group that would later be known as Al Queda. Al Queda begins trying to attack the US and its allies in retaliation for US intervention in the Middle East. The US eventually responds by intervening in the Middle East, while it simultaneously arms militants fighting a rival regime who would later exploit the conditions of US intervention whilst radicalizing into an extremist group that would later be known as ISIS. ISIS begins trying to attack the US and its allies. And now, the president of the United States is proposing to re-intervene while arming more “friendly” militants in the hopes that this will be the act of intervention that somehow reverses everything that came before it.

Nope. Still seems as insane as before. The only appropriate question that remains in light of the inanity on display is, “Wut?”

In the Throes of Defeat

…it’s no secret to you that the thinkers and perceptive ones from among the Americans warned Bush before the war and told him: ‘All that you want for securing America and removing the weapons of mass destruction – assuming they exist – is available to you, and the nations of the world are with you in the inspections, and it is in the interest of America that it not be thrust into an unjustified war with an unknown outcome.’
But the darkness of the black gold blurred his vision and insight, and he gave priority to private interests over the public interests of America.
So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future. He fits the saying “like the naughty she-goat who used her hoof to dig up a knife from under the earth”.
So I say to you, over 15,000 of our people have been killed and tens of thousands injured, while more than a thousand of you have been killed and more than 10,000 injured. And Bush’s hands are stained with the blood of all those killed from both sides, all for the sake of oil and keeping their private companies in business.
Be aware that it is the nation who punishes the weak man when he causes the killing of one of its citizens for money, while letting the powerful one get off, when he causes the killing of more than 1000 of its sons, also for money.
And the same goes for your allies in Palestine. They terrorise[sic] the women and children, and kill and capture the men as they lie sleeping with their families on the mattresses, that you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.
Finally, it behoves[sic] you to reflect on the last wills and testaments of the thousands who left you on [9/11] as they gestured in despair. They are important testaments, which should be studied and researched.
Among the most important of what I read in them was some prose in their gestures before the collapse, where they say: ‘How mistaken we were to have allowed the White House to implement its aggressive foreign policies against the weak without supervision.’
It is as if they were telling you, the people of America: ‘Hold to account those who have caused us to be killed, and happy is he who learns from others’ mistakes.’
And among that which I read in their gestures is a verse of poetry. ‘Injustice chases its people, and how unhealthy the bed of tyranny.’
As has been said: ‘An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.’
And know that: ‘It is better to return to the truth than persist in error.’ And that the wise man doesn’t squander his security, wealth and children for the sake of the liar in the White House.
In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No.
Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.
Osama bin Laden, in a message directed to the American people (2004)

9/11 was an act of terrorism, and it was a tragedy. It was a tragedy because three thousand innocent people lost their lives in an event that was not only horrific, but preventable. As an act of terror, this devastating event was caused by a desperate group of people in typical guerrilla fashion for political reasons.

One of the greatest crimes US presidents have overseen in the wake of 9/11, aside from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the dismantling of Iraqi infrastructure and security, the use of torture, NSA surveillance, and extrajudicial executions of Americans and non-Americans alike, and the thousands of allied soldiers and innocent civilians killed in the pursuit of “freedom” and “democracy,” is the perpetuation of ignorance.

9/11 was a tragedy, but it was also an opportunity to reflect. It raised serious questions, like, “What would so violently motivate a handful of people from halfway across the world to blow themselves up in order to take 3,000 American lives?” “What have we been doing in the Middle East?” “Why have we been doing it?” “Have our actions been justified?” “Are the consequences worth the ire of a whole region of people whose daily lives are already fraught with uncertainty and violence?”

9/11 was the keystone for a transformation of America from a large, blundering young animal of a superpower into a wizened and self-aware global democracy. In seeking out the roots of 9/11, America would find a mirror and see its true face, and confronted with that, might seek to change, to become the force for good that it has for so long purported to be.

On 9/11 America was truly a great nation. It had promise and potential. It established national unity and a sense of moral vigor overnight, of a kind that dwarfs that of any other time in its entire history. America was set ablaze in a sort of heroic beacon of willpower and benevolence characterized by the monumental lamp beside its golden door. America could do anything. It had the motivation to excise its cancerous growths, purge itself of the parasites clinging to the back of democracy, and move forward into the 21st century a truly enlightened nation.

But on yet another anniversary of 9/11, that has not come to pass. America has hastened its own decline by ignoring the implications of its own history and clinging to the same reductionist and reactionary view towards the rest of the world that it held through most of the last century. This is a tragedy of another kind, for it is not an act of terror that has caused the death of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, American and Arab alike, but America’s own hubris.

9/11 was a booby trap; it was a cunning trap, and a murderous one, but it was only that. The enemy that administrations have characterized as bloodthirsty and savage, monstrous villains who “hate democracy” and “hate freedom,” were not stupid. 9/11 was not intended to be a crippling blow, but a trip line, a loop of thread upon which an unwise and unaware nation might stumble. And stumble we did.

From the same transcript of Bin Laden’s speech:

All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
All Praise is due to Allah.

And so, thirteen years since 9/11, three years since Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, what do we have to show for ourselves?

Is America more prosperous? Is it safer? Have we defeated Al Queda? Have we brought peace to the Middle East?

Is America more democratic, more tolerant, more free?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is “no.”

The inevitable question, then, is, “So who has won the War on Terror?”

Al Queda may be diminished, but it has already spawned a new, worse threat, one that is even more violent, more extreme. The Middle East is as unstable as ever, as is the American economy, and the certainty of our national future.

For all the money spent, the freedoms revoked, the suffering engendered, the lives lost, has it been worth it?

“The reward of suffering is experience.”

Yet, experience means nothing if it is not remembered.

To Raise the Minimum Wage, or to Not Raise the Minimum Wage: A False Choice

Fast food workers around the country went on strike thursday, protesting less-than-living salaries and employment conditions while demanding a $15 minimum wage as the national dialogue shifts once again to the prospect of what to do about the topic. It is hard to argue that current minimum wage laws serve the purpose of guaranteeing employees a first-world standard of living while working basic hours, as many today scrounge for the funds to feed themselves and their families while holding down multiple jobs, sometimes between two parents. As the insular monied elite continue to condense in proportion while the middle class stagnates and the poverty line rises, it’s clear that out of all persistent efforts to keep the country’s citizens prosperous, the minimum wage is, at the very least, severely failing in its job.

Many will argue that the minimum wage needs to be renewed and updated responsibly in order for it to have a positive effect. The problem is, even when that is the case, raising the minimum wage can have a negative impact on overall employment. Specifically, it results in a net loss of jobs. How many jobs? No one knows for sure how much a $15 minimum wage would affect employment, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates about 500,000 (at most 1 million) jobs lost. That may not seem like very many when wage increases affect millions of workers, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

In addition to slightly lowering employment, a higher minimum wage results in altered employer behavior, especially in smaller businesses. Intent on maintaining profit levels, companies respond to higher employee overhead by cutting costs and raising prices elsewhere. Employees are made to work harder while their hours are cut. The price of food goes up; the price of shipping goes up, increasing the price of goods. All of this translates to… a higher cost of living.

The degree of increase in cost of living is hard to determine, but it’s certainly a reality. What is produced as a result of a minimum wage raise is this self-defeating loop: wages increase, cost of living increases as inflation increases, the higher wages buy less, soon they can no longer afford the cost of living, which raises when and if wages are raised again. Keep in mind that minimum wage is hardly enough to really meet the standard of living, so the system results in a constant game of catch-up, where millions of people will barely be making ends meet until the day they die: it’s not hyperbole to use the term “wage slavery.” The act of increasing the minimum wage cannot be enacted in isolation, and affects the entire structure of every business which complies. It’s naive to assume that giving a blanket raise to 20-30% of the country (including not only minimum-wage earners, but those within range of minimum wage also likely subject to wage increases) will not cause an economic reaction.

Now, let’s get back to those jobs. 500,000, even a million, may seem miniscule. Let’s spread a million lost jobs out over the course of a year, so just over 80,000 a month. At its best, the country has managed to create just under 500,000 jobs a month, and at its worst just over 200,000. Accounting for that loss, the average range decreases from 120,000 to 390,000. That might not seem significant, but consider that since the financial crisis, the country lost around 11 million jobs, and is still struggling to recover from that loss. The country’s ability to return to pre-2008 levels of job creation depends upon keeping the creation rate high. With a high rate, we could return to those levels as soon as next year. With a low rate, we may not until nearly 2020.

Think now of the millions of people who have lost their jobs, are struggling to find work, and depend upon that job creation rate in order to attain a civil standard of living; it’s the same struggle made by those working at minimum wage today.

A democracy should not sacrifice the few for the sake of the many, let alone the some for the sake of the others. Hopefully I don’t need to expand on my last article to explain why slavery is bad for exploiting minorities (and incidentally, guess which ethnic groups are most likely to get the proportionally shortest end of the stick in all of this).

And yet, you know what? Barring any other solutions, we need a higher minimum wage immediately. Even $10 an hour is not a proper living wage, and the fact that America calls itself a first world country by forcing so many people to make do on so little while working so hard is nauseating.

The minimum wage is a band-aid measure, at best first-aid, but even if it is meager and inadequate, that doesn’t mean you should simply let an open wound fester. The less financial security more people have, the more that risk falling into poverty, a rut that is very hard to get out of, and one which benefits very few people indeed.

So once minimum wage is given first-aid, then what? I and others would suggest something radical: abolish it.

I’m talking about basic income.

While only small case studies have been done, BI has incredible potential. If everyone who would otherwise be subjected to poverty is given a stipend which annually adjusts to the cost of living, poverty might just disappear overnight. Remember how higher wages result in a higher cost of living? If companies set their own wages (although competitively, in a market where work must truly be incentivized) they would cut their overhead enormously, generating much higher profits while permitting lower prices on their goods.

Because employers benefit so much from what is essentially a government subsidy to offset their overhead, it’s only fair that they pay progressive taxes towards what is essentially a security fund for workers who, without that stipend, would otherwise amount to serfs. They would also benefit indirectly from the annual net increase of American GDP due to the reduction or elimination of poverty to the tune of as much as $500 billion a year.

I’m not the first one to come up with, let alone argue for, this idea. In limited practice, the cons have proven to be few and the pros to be many. Instead of using the opportunity of a national dialogue to regurgitate a tired and painfully incompetent means of ensuring prosperity for all Americans, perhaps we should try shifting it to something else.

Something that might, just possibly… not suck.

America Seriously Needs to Reconcile with Its Past

No, this isn’t another hackneyed “don’t forget history” thing. In fact, historical events are currently being invoked as the country has an opportunity to analyze Ferguson, Missouri while it, apparently, calms down. However, the major event which underpins the crux of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting and the ensuing backlash is one which America has yet to properly address, and it is slavery.

There are other factors, of course. A gamut of economic, social, and political influences spanning from the 21st century to before America’s founding have come into play in various degrees. But… that goes without saying for just about any protest, and usually, most shootings.

Many of these various other influences should be addressed, and for at least some, attempts have been made to do so. Yet slavery, especially, is long overdue. It occupies a strange place in history where it was too traumatic and too far reaching to be resolved merely with time, and yet is such an encroachment on the feel-goody presumption of America’s moral superiority that it nonetheless fades, for all intents and purposes, from the public arena of conversation, like an unsightly wart.

Americans may insist that it is not white-washing, and that the nation has dealt with the whole issue. Generally they point to a smattering of glorified “milestones” and well-intentioned but highly contentious Band-Aids which, really, a society that had truly come to grips with its history would have already established.

I’m actually going to do something a bit unusual here. Remember the film, 12 Years a Slave? While it’s all but forgotten post-awards season, a week from now will be the anniversary of its first release, and it’s a perfect example of the refusal of American society to address its history in a sincere way. And while I believe the film was well-intentioned, it nonetheless exists as an outgrowth and representation of this problem, and as a single piece of art which many have seen, it is a more universal common point of reference than most other things I could use. If you want, you can simply call me lazy for it. It won’t hurt my feelings.

Obviously, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Although I personally believe its Best Picture win was undeserved (Her was an infinitely more coherent and sincere), it is nonetheless a film which begs to be viewed at least once for its few affecting scenes and the overall intense, if brief, degree of significance it was accorded in pop culture upon its release. Short story is, although discussing a movie that came out a year ago based on a book almost two hundred years old: SPOILERS.

There is no endemic racism in the world of The North as presented in 12 Years a Slave. Northrup drifts easily between social circles, his blackness causing no issues for him since, as far as the movie portrays, he’s relatively successful, he’s educated, he’s skilled, and he’s not poor or a criminal, so he garners not only the immediate empathy of (mostly white) audiences but of his white peers.

God forbid he should be large or muscled-looking, or that he should be presented doing Northrup‘s other profession, farming, which involves a lot of physical labor and very little of the finery in dress or mannerisms found playing the violin at a dinner party. Northrup is not portrayed as a large black man aggressively reshaping the land, but in the least threatening way possible, as a refined musician. If the pleasant-to-neutral attentions of his white peers in the beginning of the film are due to a social understanding that as a performer with an instrument considered delicate, or even feminine, he is considered nonthreatening, that point is not made by the film itself.

No, according to the film, The North is simply just so enlightened that Northrup blends in and is accepted as effortlessly as if he were white. Even a slave owner treats him politely. It’s no surprise he was so trusting of the men offering to hire him; what would he be afraid of? He’s never shown experiencing fear or insecurity as a result of being faced with opposition to his blackness, even in an era where black people are being bought and traded as commodities not very far away.

Of course a distinction should be made here that the film alleges to strive for historical accuracy, and my concern is not to attack the veracity of that claim. I’m concerned with the way the film caters to modern stereotypes and indulgences, and how that has skewed the true message of its subject. The historical accuracy is secondary.

And yet this isn’t even accurate. Racism was rampant in The North. Even the white abolitionist had, in some ways, racist tendencies. So if The Enlightened North as presented is not historical, what is it?

Well… it’s an illusion. The Northern world of 12 Years a Slave is the same one we project onto American society today. A combination of selective memory and white guilt have propagated a narrative interpretation of unbridled and ceaseless progress on the front of racial equality, and for many white Americans, 12 Years’ illusion is indistinguishable from their perspective of the real world. There’s no real effort to confront the ugly reality of race relations which are still easily inflamed (as seen in Ferguson).

In this way the film caters to these white sensibilities. 12 Years provides us with a refuge in a racially tolerant fantasy land, to which our rationalization can withdraw. And here’s where the movie’s other most significant thematic failing lies: when Northrup finally returns to his home, the movie ends. He’s once more dressed in finery, he’s aged but otherwise indistinguishable from his former self, innocent of the realities of slavery, and as he joyfully reunites with his family, the message is not implicitly, “Here’s where we start,” the message is, “It’s finally over.”

12 years of slavery are presented as agonizing, painful, and full of suffering, but moving on is as easy as returning home. It’s as if slavery was not, in fact, an event which lead to the extended disenfranchisement of blacks from Jim Crowe to Stop and Frisk. It was horrible, but it was isolated, and all we need to do is hug our families and forget it ever happened.

The narrative espoused by 12 Years a Slave in this manner precisely reflects what most white Americans would like to believe, a narrative that they, in many cases, cling to.

But that narrative is not reality. I don’t have token milestones to point to, unfortunately, all I have are more statistics. Blacks are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. They are disproportionately shot and killed by police. They are disproportionately exposed to poverty and drugs. They are paid less. They enjoy less political representation and fewer educational opportunities. These are all things that society at large has the power to change, and yet it is reluctant even to address them.

I’m going to assume we all agree not to correlate blackness with inherent inferiority as a result of these statistics, and instead recognize them for what they really are: a mortifying reminder of the long-reaching effects of slavery.

When these statistics become proportionate, when the reality of a racially integrated society mirrors that of the illusion presented of Northern States in 12 Years a Slave, then we can say this chapter is closed. But that is not the reality, and it never will be for as long as we refuse to reconcile with these issues.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

That’s the third reference now, for those keeping track.

In an ideal world, the murder of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, would be a tragic but isolated incident. However, in reality it is simply yet another case where a police or security officer, empowered by a sense of authority, took the life of a black man (or child) into his own hands and expected to get away with it.

If one has the stomach for it, one can find videos of not only killings by police, but innumerable beatings and harassment. Often times these videos are taken by hidden cameras, without police knowledge, as it is fairly a common (illegal) policy for police to insist that cameras may not be used to record them. Often in sensitive situations they use every tool available to them, including violence, to prevent themselves from being recorded.

But even with video evidence of police brutality, cases are often dismissed while basic reports of excessive force go completely uninvestigated. Ostensibly the job of a police officer is to protect and serve the population, yet when a police officer violates that very mandate, why is there little to no accountability?

When police departments should, more than anyone else, desire to crack down on bad eggs, more often abuse and misconduct is covered up; perpetrators are protected, their names withheld, they’re put on leave (often paid leave), even for horrible abuses of authority.

I would personally argue that these problems exist due to a culture where deference to authority figures empowers internal attitudes among law enforcement officers of near-omnipotence. From that pedestal, they define their brothers and sisters in the Law, fellow officers and their families, as those to which they owe their allegiance and sympathy, and cast the people of their jurisdiction as “others,” especially those they presume likely to commit crime, with or without evidence.

Not that my personal understanding matters. What is important is minimizing, and if possible, eliminating, unnecessary police violence. A possible answer here, perhaps unintuitively, is surveillance.

http://www.parsac.org/parsac-www/pdf/Bulletins/14-005_Report_BODY_WORN_CAMERAS.pdf

Our constitutionally monarchial friends across the pond have recently begun pushing for a measure which would mandate the use of “Body-Worn Cameras,” or “Body Cameras,” for certain police officers. They’ve not only been trialled there, but here as well, with some dramatic results (as seen in the report above). Although the sample size is small, body-worn cameras on police seem to have a predictable effect: they reduce accusations, and by extension, cases, of police brutality.

The benefits are actually broader than that, including better evidence for prosecutions and money saved from a reduced need for investigation and court fees (assuming the department in question catered to such considerations faithfully before). The above report enumerates the various pros sufficiently, as well as some of the cons. The ACLU has weighed in with their justified concerns as well, but overall it appears body-worn cameras could be an effective and permanent answer to the intolerable problem of police brutality.

However, it comes back to the matter of surveillance. Is it too much?

I say, cautiously, no. Some day, body-worn cameras may be used by all police, and until that point their use should be overtly advertised to ensure everyone affected is fully informed. However, the mere presence of police officers tends to affect people’s behavior anyway, and when an officer enters the scene they make clear that direct government representation has been extended to the location. As an individual with the authority to invoke probable cause and conduct an arrest, and someone likely to report their encounters to a government database, a police officer, body-cam or no, is already a form of human government surveillance. What the camera alters, or truly, improves, is the accuracy and authenticity of the surveillance police officers already provide.

As fellow humans, police officers have faces and names. This puts them in a separate league from the faceless, nebulous agencies which spy on our emails and phone calls, generally without our awareness. They can not record anywhere, any time, at any range: they can only record more faithfully what they already see. Who holds them accountable? Essentially, the truth that they themselves personally record.

Obviously there are questions when it comes to the agency of officers to operate the cameras, and how to deal with unofficial police interactions (bathroom visits, personal phone calls, and the like), as well as encounters of a sensitive nature, like embarrassing but non-criminal encounters, domestic violence, and investigation of home interiors. However, these can be solved with reasonable and responsible policies and regulations, which the ACLU has also recommended.

Michael Brown’s death should not have happened, but it cannot be reversed. However, the justified response of anger to that death (and many others at the hands of police), if carefully honed to a precise and deliberate point, can help spearhead a campaign to search for meaningful solutions to this tragic problem and affect positive change.

Are worn body cameras one such solution? I say it’s certainly worth an earnest effort to find out.