Month: July 2014

Yesterday, a Murderer Died in Arizona

I’m not religious; at best I could be described “agnostic.” Just putting that out there so it can’t be construed I thump the bible out of any personal deference. However, even as a “non-believer,” one has to recognize that there are many quotes from the bible which are profound and even relevant. Since it is a book that many ascribe to, and features prominently in the American judicial system, I think it’s entirely appropriate to provide this quote before I ask my question.

Matthew 7:1-3 (KJV)

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

These words are ascribed to Jesus. The message is clear: do not delude yourself into believing you possess the authority to judge another. Humans aren’t perfect, and you are as human as the person next to you. The implication is that only one authority has that power, and that is god.

“If you’re an agnostic, why bring this up?” you might ask.

I’m glad you asked that question, Billy. If you take god out of the quote’s context, the message is simply, “do not delude yourself into believing you possess the authority to judge another.” If you and I don’t have the authority, and there is no god to hold such an authority (or maybe there is, I have no idea, but it’s certainly not something which can be proven), then who does that authority belong to?

According to the law, that authority lies with the state.

The state is tasked, by the people, with maintaining the public welfare. We all likely understand (and if you do not, I will not be explaining here) why, in the public interest, people who have committed acts of harm to innocent people should be isolated from innocent people, to the extent that doing so will ensure safety for everyone.

Prison does this pretty effectively. Without getting into any issue of abuse or treatment in prison, putting someone in prison effectively isolates that person from innocent people outside the prison for the duration of their stay. To ensure the safety of the public from individuals who, as the state can best determine, threaten the public, the state need only put them in prison. Any other punitive measures taken against the individual who has caused harm would be superfluous.

Ready for another quote?

Mark 12:17,27 (KJV)

17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living…

And now I pose my question, which is simply this: Who put us here?

Maybe you believe a god of some kind is responsible. Maybe you give full credit to your parents. Or maybe in evolution, reincarnation, or Xenu. Maybe you believe in The Matrix.

It’s likely you believe at least one of those. Now do you also believe that the state or federal government created you? That it designed your genetic code or played a part in its determination in any deliberate way?

Do you belong to the state? Because the state, on a local or federal level, in certain cases, has the power to end your life.

Education, roads, firefighters, libraries, a postal service… these are things provided by the state. When you drive on a public road, go to a public library, or call on the fire department, you are freely submitting yourself to the authority of an organization. If they decide to stop paving the roads, to stop responding to emergency calls, to close the post office on sundays… well, it’s a bit dickish, but the state provides those things; it can take them away. You choose to enter that bargain, and in so choosing accept the responsibility, and the consequences, for accepting the services you then enjoy.

Included among those things we enjoy is state-enforced safety.

For the most part, the consequence is taxes. That’s a matter for another day. Another consequence is that we must follow the law. If you choose to break the law, you mark yourself as an individual who threatens public safety. It is then in the state’s purview to isolate you for as long as necessary in the interest of protecting others’ safety. That’s also part of the bargain.

However, in no way can you enter into a bargain with the state to provide you with life. At the very least it would require time travel, a power which not very many possess. It would also require a level of technology we don’t yet possess. That may or may not include time travel.

Last quote, I promise.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All (wo)men are created equal; that is, no man is inherently born with any inherent superiority, moral or otherwise, to any other.

All (wo)men are endowed by their creator, whatever you believe that to be, with the unalienable rights, that is, rights which cannot be denied, which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

According to the men who would go on later to create and ratify the laws we now observe (for the most part), your life, your freedom, and your pursuit of happiness belong not to the state, but to you, and only to you.

If you agree with that, then you disagree with the Death Penalty.

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Ok, Fine. America’s Kinda Cool.

For the second week in a row now, what I originally intended to write about was superseded by a new realization, and that realization is this: with all I’ve said about the U.S.A. by this point, it probably sounds like I hate it and everyone who lives in it and everything about it.

That isn’t the case.

I’m an American, I see problems, I try to draw attention to them. Sure, the US does have big problems, and being a big influence on the rest of the world magnifies the scope, scale, and significance of those problems, making them more urgent to address than they might be otherwise. But the US deserves not only to exist and to thrive, but to take pride in its own culture and history, just as any other sovereign nation does.

…Just as long as the pride isn’t overwhelming and unwarranted.

So at the risk of sounding like a flag-waving sap, here’s a bulleted list of my favorite things about the USA.

1. Despite a wealth of negative stereotypes, Americans are diverse, generous, and hard-working.

As a whole country subjected to basic averages against other countries, the US is not the most diverse in the world, but it’s pretty diverse: ethnically, religiously, racially. Statistics vary as populations adjust, but on a global ranking the US is generally placed exactly in the middle on the diversity scale in every axis. Large portions of the country are homogenous, and statistics averaging those with diverse, dense population centers elsewhere in the country leads to a foreseeable standard of mediocrity. I say, in a characteristically Amurican fashion, fuck those statistics. And you know what else? The US doesn’t make a lot of “friendliest country” lists, but if you want numbers, how about this: Americans give more of their time and money than anyone else in the world. Consider also that America remains one of the best countries in the world to immigrate to. That might also have to do with why they work so hard: although a slipping opportunity, the American dream still exists. Look at how things like smartphone apps and youtube have socially mobilized individuals and entire companies to economic success, from relatively humble roots. That’s not something that can happen in just any country, and the spirit of it is quintessentially American.

2. The United States is the most innovative country in the world

Yeah, this stat comes from Bloomberg, but… still. Considering everything going against it right now, the U.S. is impressively still at the head of the technology envelope that it’s been pushing for over fifty years. That’s due in no small part to the U.S.’s open-arms immigration, which has fostered the likes of such obscure expat innovators as Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, and Nikola Tesla.

3. The United States is home to stunning beauty and geographic marvels.

In natural landmarks alone, America has unquantifiable (sometimes mankind-adjusted) wealth: the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, the Giant Forest. America is home to vast open plains, expansive mountain ranges, abuts three coastlines against both oceans, and is home to just about every kind of terrain you can imagine, both familiar and alien. So much focus is on Amercia’s tiniest, densest population centers and small towns that it’s easy to forget just how vast it is. The US comes in at just under the total land area of China, but measures at less than a quarter of China in total population. Much of the US’s open land is actually farmland, which maintains America’s position as the breadbasket of the world. This rich mix of natural features has enriched the United States, since its inception, with an incredible level of resource independence.

4. The United States has an incredibly dynamic, if brief, history

The United States is a microcosm of every significant social, political, and cultural development in the modern era. Putting your finger on the pulse of the United States at any time in its history will tell you tremendously about developments around the world, many of which were set in motion by the US itself. The rise of democracy, threats to democracy, the progression of ethnic, racial, and sexual equality, both World Wars, the Depression, the Cold War, globalization. The United States started out as a loose collection of tiny colonies hugging the massive flank of an enormous, unspoiled country that dwarfed and overwhelmed them. Those colonies rose among brutal and unforgiving conditions. The fledgeling nation had some help, but it struggled, it stumbled, it fell, it got up. At the end of the 19th century the United States trailed behind the rest of the “civilized,” developed world. By the end of the 20th century, it led the Western World, running far ahead of its peers. The history of the United States is the history of a nation-as-underdog, the little country that could, and it’s truly awe-inspiring.

5. The United States has created or fostered some of the greatest heroes of the modern age

A lot of people have called America home, and a lot of those people have been truly great patriots. I would define a patriot here not as someone who glorifies the United States for its own sake, but who glorifies the United States in how they choose to represent it. Some patriots grabbed America’s reigns and drove it forward; some patriots rose on America’s back; still others stripped away the gilding of its vast underbelly. Many have inspired, amazed, stirred change, pushed envelopes, caused controversy, and made us question how we view the world. America has produced revolutionaries, military commanders, politicians, inventors, scientists, writers, artists, poets, actors, journalists, reform leaders, social leaders, labor leaders, whistle-blowers. I couldn’t begin to make an exhaustive list of every American who could be described as heroic. Suffice to say that there are a lot.

I stopped myself at five, but there’s one more thing to add, and although it is last, it is by far the most defining element of American culture: a profound love affair with independence.

“Freedom” is not simply a word. It is a philosophy, a determination that every individual is in fact an individual; no one is just a worker, nor just a citizen or a soldier, or any statistical number in the countless demographic labels one could cast from the population group.

Like no other country, America prides the rebel, the revolutionary, the loner, the savant, the one man or woman who stands up from a sea of convention and expresses themselves in a unique way. An American believes that everyone is a person who can make up their own mind and live their own life; anyone who infringes on that, be they a parent, a teacher, an arm of the law, or a president, is not empowered by any ultimate authority that overrides their essential right to be free. An American recognizes that what authority says is right may still be wrong, and America’s greatest literature, music, architecture, and films have challenged the status quo, eviscerated convention, and stuck a big middle finger up to powerful forces that dictated the way things “had to be.”

I hope you savored that mush, because I can only spare so much at any given time. It’s back to doom and gloom next week.

 

 

 

Wait, you know what? I forgot something.

The food.

Hamburjers

Fatty Dig Dogs

Papple Frie
Finger-Lickin Chickin's Pickin's

 

Since the industrial revolution, Americans have binged on lunch-break-quick, deep-fried, fatty foods. You really did need those calories in order to work fourteen-hour days seven days a week (see #1 and #4). That’s not so much the case anymore (well, not for everyone), but this frankly indulgent food has become a staple of American culture.

Sure, these things may be unhealthy, fattening ‘fast-food,’ nearly the opposite of the ‘gourmet’ dishes so many countries are proud of.

Fuck your gourmet. Shit’s delicious.

Germany: All Grown Up

Being the top dog can be very polarizing. Trust me. I know, ’cause I’m a ‘Murican.

When there is a country that affects the global economy, security, politics, and environment at a rate disproportional to the size of its geography or population, it makes sense that those who benefit from that influence will love the country, and those who suffer from it will hate it. For the time being, the United States is one such country.

Unlike many of the globe-straddling empires that have come before it, however, the United States defines itself by its civil superiority. Sure, it has the largest economy, highest military expenditures, and greatest degree of political influence of any country in the world, but it deserves those things. Y’see, the United States isn’t a simple inheritor of circumstances which have begotten such advantages, it earned them by protecting the free world from the authoritarianism of Nazis and Reds, claiming the role of Guardian of the Free World.

Or so some say.

For a guardian of civil democracy, there are some glaring problems. One of them is the political, financial, and military support the US has given to authoritarian or otherwise not very nice people. It has trained secret police in the use of torture and undermined democratic processes, and often ignored genocides, especially those not involving Europeans.

More recently, one problem is that the United States has not only participated in, but advances the field of government surveillance on innocent civilians. The US has done some pretty dark stuff to completely innocent people already, but the NSA’s activities reveal a brazen and flagrant disregard for basic civil rights on a level so huge that it leaks practically every month.

A number of countries have gathered to suckle at the teat of American prosperity, and the whitest ones tend to make out the best. But lately the United States has, like some sociopath adrenaline junkie, dragged its hanger-on friends into all kinds of dangerous and ill-advised hijinks and then generously shared the consequences. Then, like a creeper, it digs into their handbags and looks through their phones.

It’s beginning to look less and less like a win/win for the symbiotes attaching themselves to the deep-fried aura of American influence, and more like a win/not-exactly-lose. Sure, those countries have expressed their distaste with passive aggression, but for the most part, no one has dared stand up to say, “You know what? You’re really being an asshole. Stop. Seriously.”

That has changed.

Germany, the country that the United States had to “rescue” everyone else from (“twice“). Germany, blamed for two World Wars and regarded as the cornerstone of the Cold War. Germany, who of all the U.S.’s western allies has been demonized, caricatured, and outright treated like shit the most, Germany is the first to really have the guts to stand up and say, “Enough.”

Of course, the Germany of today is not the Germany of 1939, let alone 1914. In a broad sense, the modern Germany is a child of the United States, born from the ashes of World War II, forged from the Cold War’s fires, and now emerging fully-formed as a nation that even leads its immediate region.

Germany has grown out of a dysfunctional home with a morbidly obese father and a drunk mother, gone to work in a troubled office, and has somehow, miraculously, turned out alright. In fact it’s better than alright; if the US isn’t careful, Germany could be the new United States of the western world.

The US really doesn’t have a right to the mantle of Guardian of the Free World. Perhaps it’s a mantle that no one should bear. This is a wake up call.

Well, really, there’s been many of those. The US keeps hanging up.

Obama and the US’s labyrinthine intelligence agencies haven’t responded to Germany yet. Here’s hoping they don’t simply yawn and roll back in bed.

Ukraine: Joining a Long Line of Incidents Feared, Now Forgotten

Ohhh yeah, Ukraine! Remember Ukraine? Yeah, that little country that “almost triggered World War III” a couple months ago. Hah. Yeah.

I’ll confess with ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever people are calling it today, I’ve not been immune to the frenetic, distracted focus of news media ADD. It’s been hard to stay heavily invested with the Ukraine incident, especially with hilariously irrelevant dinosaurs rising from their tar beds to weigh in with “sage” advice on how/not to proceed in Iraq. If current events are entertainment, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle certainly perpetuates that concept, then this has been a blockbuster year.

This blog is fairly new, so all three of the people reading weren’t subjected to my views on Ukraine when it was “relevant.” It’s safe to say now that Ukraine is not the site of the next Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or the next Invasion of Poland, but Ukraine is still relevant. Granted, if the United States and NATO had a memory worth speaking of it might not be, and that’s more or less the issue I’d like to address.

While people were invoking Austria-Hungary and Poland, the boiling incident in Ukraine reminded me of something more recent: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here was an incident where a tiny neighbor of a huge major power threatened to join a military alliance that disproportionately endangered the neighboring major power. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, that threat was armament with missiles capable of destroying American cities. This year in Ukraine, it was possible admission to NATO.

Military force was absolutely an option considered, strongly, by the Kennedy administration confronting Cuba’s armament. If the United States attacked Cuba, there is little doubt it would have lead to nuclear war. It was the prospect of this World War III that stayed Kennedy’s hand, just as Khrushchev observed similar caution. The United States and the Soviet Union had a lot to lose from Mutually Assured Destruction, but there were points where such a catastrophe seemed inevitable, and truly, small decisions made differently could have provoked just such a result. In the end, cooler heads happened to prevail.

The same reason that makes the Cuban Missile Crisis such a success is the reason why it is ignominious. It was not a great military victory, or a pronounced diplomatic success that resulted in a severe blow to the Soviet Union and prestige for the U.S. abroad. It was a dodged bullet. It was a visceral reminder of what the Cold War could, and in many respects, should have lead to, which was utter and complete annihilation. The Cuban Missile crisis was a non-event because the best possible result was a return to the status quo.

America has a tendency to forget these moments, these points in history where the United States has faced defeat, or where it has confronted the realities of policies that it willfully perpetuates. When the 9/11 attacks were committed, and the name of Osama Bin Laden rose again to the public consciousness, few remembered that CIA agents in Afghanistan funded the Mujahideen in Operation Cyclone, arming and equipping men who would go on to be known later by the name of “Al Queda.”

By 2003, talk quickly turned to an invasion of Iraq. Yet there were few conversations about the role of Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, in assisting Saddam Hussein two decades earlier on behalf of Ronald Reagan.

These are not secret, shadowy conspiracy theories cauterized from public record by an army of Hydra-esque footsoldiers working for the New World Order. This stuff is on the internet, in encyclopedias, it’s been on the news. The NSA thing is still fairly recent, so there’s not much excuse for Americans to claim ignorance about these incredibly important incidents of myopic hubris in American history.

Most Americans can tell you how the US “kicked Hitler’s ass” in World War II, or how it trounced foreign soldiers to gain independence from Great Britain in 1783 (though they may remember the year as 1776). Most will remember the startling blitzkrieg of Operation Desert Storm (one, that needs to be numbered now), and some may even remember how the U.S. viciously screwed over Mexico.

What about the Korean War?

The War of 1812?

Then there’s Vietnam. While remembered much more than, say, Korea, it would be a lie to say it is analyzed or studied with anywhere near the enthusiasm or joyful scrutiny of World War II. Remember that, because I’m going to jump back in a second. For now let’s return to the subject of Ukraine.

Putin has backed off. Ukraine is now just another distant country in another civil war that we, from the safe distance afforded by most of a continent and a generous ocean, can ignore while watching the World Cup. There were important lessons to be learned from Ukraine. For one thing, it demonstrated that Putin is every bit as human and vulnerable as Khrushchev was in 1962. Despite his bellicose calls for violence, economic and political pressure got him to back down. The Russian cub reborn in 1992 is growing, but it still realizes it’s not ready to fight with the Bulldogs and Eagles. That will change, but for now it enforces a current analyses of the US and its allies as the most powerful force on Earth, at least so far. Still, Putin got the part of Ukraine, just as he got part of Georgia in 2008. One would be remiss not to recognize these as a disturbing pattern of concession.

The incident in Ukraine has also demonstrated that NATO continues to be a source of conflict. As Russia and China continue to grow in power and influence, the Cold War relic will likely continue to cause friction in the future. For now, NATO continues to justify its own existence, somehow. In the future, it may be more of a liability than an asset, if it isn’t already.

These may seem like small lessons, but they have great implications. Putin is going to stay in power for a long time, and his behavior under these circumstances grants a valuable look into his political methods and priorities. The U.S. and E.U. came very close to open conflict with Putin, and such a conflict could spark in earnest sometime in the future. Any information that could prevent such incidents from occurring again should be valued highly and remembered well.

I doubt, however, that America will remember. There have been huge mistakes, grievous mistakes, made because America has not remembered. I hope this will demonstrate what I mean.

A man, some would call him infamous though he was certainly highly intelligent, analyzed a fairly recent historical incident with which he was intimately familiar and came to these astute conclusions:

1. We misjudged the geopolitical intentions of [the enemy], and exaggerated the dangers to the US of their actions.

2. We viewed the people and leaders of [the country we intervened in] in our own experience.

3. We underestimated the power of [an ideology] to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

4. We were profoundly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area.

5. We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-tech military equipment, forces, and doctrine.

6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of becoming involved in large-scale military engagement in [the region of conflict].

7. We did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did. We failed to maintain national unity.

8. We failed to recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.

9. We erred in taking unilateral military action not supported by multinational forces and the international community.

10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.

11. We failed to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of issues at hand.

Iraq? No.

I was sneaky and made some omissions; you can find the original list here, from Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect.

That book was published in 1996, after thirty years of opportunity for analysis. McNamara was not a singular genius, and thanks to the Pentagon Papers, he did not have exclusive access to the only pertinent details that might reveal hidden truths about Vietnam. He was not the only person aware of these lessons, nor the only one capable of forming these conclusions. All it required was an interest in remembering history and a desire to learn from past mistakes.

On a global scale, Ukraine has lost its bid for historic significance, and has rejoined what most Americans consider a kind of poorly-understood cloud of obscurity most countries in the world fall under if they don’t directly provide us with military alliances, oil, and commercial goods, or share our language. Few Americans think about Cuba or Vietnam anymore, either. Ukraine could have been World War III or another Afghanistan. It happened to be a bullet we dodged. These incidents are not random happenstance, befalling our innocent nation. The U.S. is responsible, at least indirectly, for many of the conflicts in the world today. We may not have fired the bullet, but we provided the motivation to fire it, and NATO provided the ammunition.

It’s beyond trite nowadays to utter the oft-quoted phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but it is a perfectly valid observation. America refuses to remember, and miraculously, while it has suffered the consequences, it has escaped doom time and again. Maybe we’re just lucky.

Luck can’t hold forever.