Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Turning on the AC during the Fog of War

I saw two different things today both of which were emblematic of the real problem in this country.

The first was something I’ve seen before that is one of those perfect horror stories for use at cocktail parties, but only as a way of trying to defuse the real rage it brings on. Before I explain what I saw, I have to set up the context. So here in the nations capital we have been having the perfect weather that only comes for 2 weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall, and makes California-philes like myself forget for just a moment what a bummer this ‘city on a swamp’ is. The weather is perfect: 70 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity at about 40%, sun shining, flowers blooming literally everywhere even in the little plots of ‘nature’ at the strip malls. It’s gorgeous out, and really this is only about the 4th or 5th day like this, so it’s still quite easy to appreciate. So I head on over to my local Starbucks on my way to school, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a woman in an SUV, a really big V8 Toyota Sequoia, with all her windows up, running the engine, just sitting there in the parking lot, doing her bills apparently. So I go into Starbucks, get a latte, sit down for a while, read a bit, then head back out, and what do you think I saw? The same woman, in the same SUV, with her engine still running easily 10 minutes after I went in. I assume that she had her windows up, and engine running so that she could experience the joys of air conditioning, on the first golden day in 6 months. On my second pass I also noticed that she had a nice ‘support the troops’ magnetic ribbon (no more bumper stickers for the wealthy Americans – when the political winds shift you can throw out your old convictions without even a mark remaining on your beautiful Toyota Sequoia and who cares if your just casually throwing out magnetic metals?)

Since I’m not sure that it’s completely transparent just how incredibly horrible that is I will spell it out. Here sits this woman who is all about ‘supporting the troops’ burning up precious fossil fuels, polluting our air not just with gasoline fumes, but also with toxins associated with air conditioning, when the weather outside is gorgeous! Not only apparently would she rather that other people fight and die to preserve her right to waste gasoline, and not only is she not even remotely concerned about driving an extremely inefficient vehicle, but she has gotten so inured to the realities not only of the causes of the events swirling around this country but even inured to the basic facts of the weather. I have been in cars heated up by a day in the parking lot where even on perfectly cool days, their owners would rather take a 5 minute drive with the windows up and the air conditioner on – though in 5 minutes the AC can’t really change the temp in the car – than roll down the windows! Americans have gotten so used to their privilege and so committed to ‘not connecting the dots’ between those privileges and events in the big world, that it never occurs to them how extraordinarily self centered, ignorant, and effectively, deliberately in your face it is to keep on consuming, even when that consuming doesn’t even improve the situation in the slightest, and then turn right around and demand more and harsher military actions to prevent the world from expressing what is real in response to that consumption. The worst part I suppose is those poor soldiers in Iraq who are fighting and dying so that this woman can have air conditioning on a perfect day, while she sits around in her air conditioned stupor talking about how she ‘supports them’. Sure yeah, you really support them alright. You support them right into their graves.

The next thing I saw was some graffiti on a bathroom wall. It said “All terrorists must die” or words to that effect (I think it was more gutter level). And then someone else had written “Yes – that means Bush because he’s the real Terrorist”. And then someone else had written “Idiot” about the 2nd guy. What’s behind this? These words were observed on a college campus in the middle of Virginia. The odds that the individual who wrote them had ever known anyone who was harmed by a terrorist is extremely low. The most likely chance of him knowing someone harmed in the ‘War on Terrorism’ would be if he knew, or was himself in Iraq, in which case the person he knew was harmed by people defending their own country – in whatever confused way – from the naked aggression of US power, and in particular against military targets and so was in no sense a terrorist. So we see how the American people have come to see ‘terrorism’ all around them, in their fantasies of righteous rage they imagine enemies everywhere and fantasize glory in defeating them. And it is a fantasy, the fact is that for citizens of the United States of America, at this time in history, a vanishingly small portion of deaths in this country are in any way related to terrorism. I am far more concerned about the welfare of those I know for a multitude of other reasons (including driving on freeway, heart attacks due to smoking, and lung disease due to air pollution!), and looking out over the next century think the only reason my relatives will be harmed in any terrorist related way is if they are a part of the US military, or present at or near US military actions, engaged in promulgating this unilateral attack on the ¾ of the worlds population. Absent that, and absent the impetus to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists that the ‘War on Terror’ has stirred up, we could easily be quite unlikely to ever see an actual live terrorist in our whole lives.

Finally the other ‘authors’ of graffiti that responded to the first one, demonstrate how strongly polarized our society is becoming. The ‘self righteous, stick your head in the sand’ defenders of the right wing takeover have long since decided, as a point of honor actually, that silly things like facts, and realities, and truth, and the perspectives of others are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is ‘loyalty’ to the powers that be (even as those powers shift and change). On the other hand, the aggressive, finger pointing, blame throwing, of the ‘opposition’ asks us to believe that some how the stupidest president in history, and his scowling, nasty side kick/master somehow did this all by themselves – that if we can just get rid of George W. Bush, all of our problems will just magically go away.

In general this country is absolutely entranced with the ‘great man’ theory of history. That’s why the media obsesses so much about individual perpetrators of terrorism. The idea that if we just ‘got’ Bin Laden, Zarkawi, and the evil tyrants that are in charge of Iran, or indeed the evil tyrant that ran Iraq, all of our problems would just dry up and blow away, is nonsense of an incredibly delusional sort. (Saddam is gone, but the problems remain) While on occasion one man can make a difference in what unfolds in a limited area, the US’s need for enemies to hate, and excuses to invade, and it’s love of military might is a far more sweeping historical phenomena. Indeed the very paucity of actual terrorists is only a transient fact in the face of such naked aggression against the self-determination of others that has become the hallmark of US international activity over the last 50 years or more.

The fact is that there were huge forces at work, and the machinations of large numbers of people were required to create the alignment that is the ascendancy of George Bush. It was obvious at the time of his first run for office that Bush was selected by the Republican party not for his smarts, successful track record, deep knowledge of either domestic or international politics nor for his long standing efforts toward the goal of political power, but rather, and quite plainly because he was electable. They needed a face, a smile, a joke that could sway the deeply reactive, and largely uninformed American electorate. And they found those qualities in George W. Bush. The truth is that his incompetence is the greatest gift the left ever got. If Tricky Dick had come back it would be much, much less clear what was going on. Things like the outing of Valerie Plame could easily have been handled with more finesse – and then where would we be?

This is probably as good a time as any to clarify that in my opinion one doesn’t need to believe in, or not believe in, conspiracy theories. Nor does my basic point that the War on Terror is the Cold War meets The War on Drugs require that those in charge actually plan the kind of self-reinforcing cycle that it really is. The reality is that the people of this country, through their knee jerk emotional reactions, and jingoistic know nothing attitudes, and love of violence for it’s own sake, are the only real force needed to drive the war on terror forward. Any politician who isn’t willing to get on the band wagon and lead this herd where it wants to go, finds that no one is willing to follow – ask any number of people from Al Gore, to Michael Dukakis. It’s not that either the Republicans or the Democrats are ‘bad’ or are failing us, it’s that the mass of people have a set of emotional responses and pre-ordained beliefs about how the world is, that they are not willing to investigate or change. Of course I can sit in my V8 automobile and run the AC on perfectly fine day when oil prices have doubled in 2 years, and of course I am quite happy to vote for more troops to make sure that I can continue to do so. And the idea that there is anything at all about my behavior that is open to question is only an invitation to a fight. The idea that the Democrats are going to save us, or that if they don’t that means they are ‘bad’ or failures or whatever, is the same basic drive that is moving us away from democracy in the first place – the belief that in a democracy what happens is not reflective of the people. Which is a deep fantasy.

We have to understand something. In a monarchy if the king rules badly, ignores information, promotes friends rather than competence, then things go badly, and everyone gets to blame the king. And more importantly, Kings who want to govern well quickly begin to realize that they have to, in plain terms, grow up. But in a democracy there is a deep and subtle problem. Individual power centers, special interests, try to manipulate the mass of people in order to get what they want. Whether it be businesses or government or whoever, people attempt to manipulate information so that the democracy gives the special interests what they want. More importantly because blame is so nebulously diffused the responsibility for what happens is difficult to take on individually. Furthermore in free market society, where everything is valued only for how well it sells, short term, emotionally reactive, and primal motivations are used to keep the sales up. The result of all this is that people are free not to grow up, not to understand how what they do affects the system. Finally because they don’t grow up, the information gathering and dissemination systems (the media and the government) are more and more prone to tell people what they want to hear. The Bush administrations manipulation of intelligence is just a symptom of a much larger societal process in which we refuse to hear things that we don’t want to hear. Why because we don’t have to grow up. The failures of the media and of government aren’t isolated, and they can’t be blamed on nefarious individuals with either sinister motives or lack of ability. They are extremely capably motivated to provide to the public the exact things that will pay the bills. And those things are lies, con-games, and ‘happy stories’ that put us to sleep, keep us free from guilt, and responsibility, and make us feel not just happy, and fun, but deeply morally right. Whether on the left or the right, we all believe the fundamental story of our time – it’s someone else’s fault.

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