Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Contemplating opposites

Consider these gestures:

Open hand, palm forward, middle space: Live Long and Prosper

Closed fist, back of the hand, extended middle finger: Fuck off and die.

I always thought of the Vulcan salute as a nice gesture, but I only realized very recently that it is totally the Anti-finger. You're really giving someone the middle space when you Spock them.

Another reason men like fighting

The action hero is often a man of few words. Granite jawed, taciturn, he lets his fists or his weapons speak for him.

I keep getting activist emails asking me to call various government officials on the phone to advocate urgently for some desirable course of action. I never do, because I really hate pestering strangers. I'll send them something they can read, or not read, but I hate actually speaking to them. I'm sure a lot of guys would rather shoot someone than talk. You know, shoot first, ask questions later. Questioning a dead opponent, you get to provide responses that suit your viewpoint.

Not that I'm itching to shoot anyone. I prefer to avoid them entirely, after offering suggestions that might help them decide to abandon undesirable behaviors on their own. But that's just me. More aggressive types will grab their weapon of choice and go try to settle things.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Killing and dying for what you believe

Praise the heroes who risk their own death to inflict death upon the forces of evil. Praise the people of principle who die proudly rather than submit to the beliefs they know are wrong. Praise the bravest of the brave, who die while performing acts of courage in the many conflicts that humanity has to resolve. Dealing death and receiving it are indispensable parts of a virtuous life.

Sacrifice does not have to be instantly supreme. You can kill or die by gradual steps guided by high principle. You can dismantle civilization a brick at a time, taking time to throw those bricks at deserving targets as you go along. All the while, blows and insults will be raining back on you as part of the grand melee.

The blows need not be actual. Acts of government and commerce can advance various beliefs, forcing compliance or death on whole nations and continents. It takes time, but it's worth it. It all rests on the basic principle that one must willingly kill and die for what's right. One must sacrifice. Let one's own life become more uncomfortable for the sake of taking down our foes. Take pride in your strength and courage to withstand the destruction of a sinful institution, even if the process leaves you poorly fed, unsheltered, bankrupt, maimed or dead. Don't blame the process of killing and dying for beliefs. Blame the opposing beliefs that force you to this extremity. Blame evil. Resist evil. Fight evil.

Don't be overly critical of the very few who seem to live very well, while exhorting the masses to soldier on in hopes of that better day when the good guys finally come out on top. You can come up with many plausible explanations for why they enjoy that status. Maybe a god likes them. Maybe they're just that much smarter and work that much harder than the rest of us. Maybe they really are jerks, but their logic makes sense so we should do what they say.

Species of social insects make war. The defenders fight, knowing that each of them will die. Individual survival does not matter. Colony survival is more important. They don't have flags, let alone coffins. They do not exhibit individuality. They do the right thing, win or lose, because it's their only chance. But it's not a noble fight for freedom. They are not free going in or coming out.

The word freedom is claimed by every person and group to represent their perfect world. Show me a people anywhere on the planet that does not call itself "freedom loving." No one says, "we want to live as slaves and minions for a small minority of overlords who can use us mercilessly for the glory of something or other." Even if they actually do live that way, they dress it up in fine language like submission to the will of God, or a sacrifice for some greater good which might not seem so good to everyone.

Nature is a free-for-all. Cruise through any natural environment and you will find life forms on top of life forms inside of life forms next to life forms, doing their thing and evolving -- successfully or unsuccessfully -- to be able to keep doing that thing, or a thing descended from it. Humans have been the same way, hampered increasingly by our creativity and inventiveness.

At first, creativity and inventiveness conferred advantages in the fight for global domination. Fast transportation and communication, combined with improving weapon technology, allowed certain groups to control large amounts of territory. It's all relative. Humans didn't go right from dugout canoes to aircraft carriers.

Unfortunately for global domination, with increased mobility and faster communication comes a greater ability to get to know each other. Along with this has come a certain distaste for widespread armed conflict. As the many wars raging at any given time will attest, this distaste is hardly universal. But it's gotten a strong enough hold to give humans a chance to interact a bit more politely and develop a sense that the little planet on which we live is going to serve any group better if all groups view it as a shared resource.

Evolutionary survival often hangs by a slender thread. What snips at our thread right now is the belief in too many people that it's better to destroy the whole thing for the greater glory of some deity or principle than it is to share it with "those people." Noble sacrifice is better than a compromised life. Live free or die. And take as many others with you as you have to. Kill them all. God will sort them out. Crap like that.

A world of truly free people would probably have less institutional violence, because the principle of individual freedom would supersede the formation of institutions that could order groups of people to fight each other. Hard to say whether there would also be less small-scale violence. The principle of respecting another person's freedom would preclude killing them, but the unrestrained expression of an individual's freedom might lead to a transgression that resulted in deaths.

Free people have to remember that they have no right to anything beyond arm's length. Go further and you are infringing on someone else's freedom. Say that you have a right to whatever your strength and guile can seize and you have diluted the principle of freedom to substitute the same old battle of competing would-be tyrants. Is life a mellow wander beside each other or an endless war? Is freedom best expressed by pushing as far as you can before you are forcibly stopped, or by renouncing the need for such things?

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Greatest Generation ruined war

The so-called Greatest Generation ruined war for everyone who came afterward. By trying to get it over with, the combatants in World War II developed such super-weapons that no rational person could advocate for war once these doomsday bombs existed.

The eager fans of warfare nowadays who idealize the Second World War and want to see grand mobilizations of force like that should be allowed to have their own great war, but they can't. The time line that spanned the climax of conventional war and entered the Nuclear Age has already run. Those glorious fireballs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last and greatest expression of unlimited warfare. They set a standard we cannot afford to maintain, let alone surpass. The days of the grand existential struggle ended. The days of limited war began. Over all hangs the specter of nuclear murder-suicide.

So what's left for the fantasizing adolescent who wants to be a hero with a gun? Your life will be expended in a Police Action, or a surgical strike, or a hobbled, endless march through irreparably damaged failed states. How deeply satisfying.

If the architects of the Second World War had known better, or if we'd been lucky enough to fail at unlocking the deadly potential of the atom, we could have had that bloody and devastating invasion of Japan. If, at the end of it all, we still only had propeller aircraft, oil-fired warships, large but conventional explosives and brave men willing to take these weapons into battle, we could simply take a few years off to mop up the blood, bury the dead, shore up the walls and raise a few more kids before getting back down to the serious clash of cultures that should end with one -- and only one -- victorious.

Without nuclear weapons we could have had World War III with the Soviets. We could have killed Vladimir Putin's parents, so we would have a different person to deal with now. But of course "now" would be totally different. Maybe our forces would have faced the same fate as Hitler's and Napoleon's, leading us to withdraw, if not capitulate. Or we might have teamed up with the Russians to overrun China in a sort of reverse-Mongol-horde scenario.

Alas, we came out of the war under the shadow cast by the upward billow of atomic incandescence. Weary veterans came home eager for peace and a future without massive conflicts and huge slaughter. Those guys didn't know how good they had it, did they? Imagine that: a unified world settling disputes by courteous and rational exchanges of ideas. Crazy.

It obviously didn't work, but you have to give them credit for floating the notion. The warriors of our greatest conflict thought they were settling something for good. They used every tool at their disposal to put that thing to bed. War: been there, done that, done with it.

We insult the memory of people who fought to defeat tyranny and end the need for the wars tyranny breeds when we either practice tyranny or pine nostalgically for a past or future in which we are finally free to bump each other off as we see fit. I offer that for whatever it is worth to a species tearing at itself as it fouls its planet.

Another massacre, the usual exchange

Following another mass shooting, the debate follows the familiar pattern. The advocates of gun control ask why this does not -- finally -- spur lawmakers to action to implement regulations that will keep deadly hardware out of the hands of people who will misuse it. The passionate defenders of guns respond with their usual arguments against restricting access to weapons.

The gun lovers are right when they say that restrictive laws will inconvenience law-abiding citizens far more than they will impede bad people who will get their killing hardware outside of officially sanctioned channels. Evil finds a way.

The saddest part -- after the actual slaughter of innocents -- is the passionate devotion gun lovers display toward the tools of killing.

Gun control attempts to solve a behavioral problem by regulating equipment. The guns themselves do serve a function, but the problem lies in the willingness to use them in a certain way. The mental and emotional climate moves steadily toward a more paranoid population. You can't call it a society, and it's certainly not a community. It's just a bunch of people living in forced proximity, getting on each other's nerves.

We are learning to fear each other and to broadcast our opposition to the multitude of viewpoints we know conflict with our own.

I've certainly gotten to the point where  I automatically distance myself from anyone with a coiled-snake sticker on their car. Many of them are nice enough, even treating me with great courtesy when they pass me on my bicycle. But the signal flag is flown by misguided libertarians who want to be free to use their wiles to claw their way up in a culture based on personal advancement to the detriment of everything else.

The coiled snake can appear by itself or in a group of stickers ranging from one or two more to a multicolored collage of xenophobia. The accompanying stickers can say things like "Shoot protesters," "Imagine No Liberals," and worse exhortations to take positive action to rid the world of viewpoints the owner of the vehicle feels should be eradicated.

The libertarian Utopia is a wild land dotted with the personal forts of sovereign citizens. That might be better for the environment. As humanity devolves through isolation and the collapse of collective culture, our life spans will shorten and our population will drop. Eventually, we will settle into equilibrium with our environment.

On the other hand, if this pure application of philosophy gets diluted by personal weaknesses and alliances, you just end up with a species choking on the pollutants released by its job creators and feeding each other hot lead. We're pretty close to that now.

Monday, September 07, 2015

In from the cold, shut out in the crowd

What could be sadder and lonelier than to retire from espionage? The initial relief at being able to relax vigilance must be followed almost instantly by a sense of isolation and loss. Even if you know people who are still behind the scenes, the code of conduct forbids you to share their inside knowledge.

Whatever secrets you possessed grow stale very quickly. And whatever truth you may have thought you possessed might have been manipulated by the even more secret society inside what you thought was the inner circle you inhabited.

In a world of nations, overtly warring or not, national interests are going to require covert operations. But covert operations are antithetical to democracy. One has to hope that the secret-keepers for a so-called free country really keep the best interests of the clueless citizens at the top of their priority list.

The only way for the outside world to learn inner secrets is for someone on the inside to betray the confidence with which their fellow secret-keepers entrusted them.

Secret societies really mess up the world.

Secret societies are everywhere. Every agglomeration of humanity has its inner mysteries ranging from inside jokes to downright arcane and creepy rituals of dominance and submission. For many, the secrecy is accidental, easily overcome by sharing a welcome packet of essential starter information. Others require indoctrination and promise special rewards for loyal service. Insiders get to do things based on their perception of superiority.

Secrets make you special. Revocation of them demotes you to ordinary. And ordinariness just isn't cool.

Growing up in the land of dreams

The wealth and income gap in the United States is a real and damaging thing. The top bracket blames the lower echelons for being greedy and lazy. Many of the members of the sinking middle class blame a variety of villains projected for their benefit by the propaganda wing of the top bracket. Self-styled progressive thinkers point the finger at greed among the wealthy and ruthless business leaders.

My life began when the middle class was supposedly at its height. America was a prosperous and busy nation. But that middle class work force was mostly white, mostly male. Bloody battles were being fought, mostly in the South, to advance civil rights for African Americans. Women were struggling to be able to pursue their potential, unfettered by gender prejudice. The definition of a good life was expanding rapidly beyond just a white guy with a good job, a nice wife and a couple of kids, in a nice neighborhood.

During that same time span, a generation was born and raised with access to vividly depicted fantasies on film and television. These children of the fantasy era emerged into the work force in waves, each one more thoroughly indoctrinated than the one preceding it. One should hardly be surprised if a smaller and smaller percentage of each of them dreamed of some repetitive job in a factory when much grander adventures seemed so easily entered.

One day in about 1990, a scruffy man came into the bike shop where I worked. He said he worked for one of the traditional American bicycle companies. He regaled us with tales of drunks, druggies and derelicts working the production line. Maybe this was just the end of a  long decline or the last precipitous drop as the company struggled with a changing retail landscape. But it reminded me of stories I was told by a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 1980, about sabotaging a Coast Guard cutter to which he was assigned, so that he and his buddies wouldn't have to leave the harbor and all its pleasures ashore. They liked the paycheck, they just didn't care for the actual work. They imagined a more pleasurable life for themselves and placed no value on the mission of the Coast Guard or their role supporting it.

These are snapshots, widely separated in time. But in college in the 1970s the sense was very strong that we were preparing ourselves to go get an income. Students chose fields they thought they would be good at or perhaps enjoy, but many favored traditionally lucrative areas like business or law. There was a little carry over from the mostly synthetic moral underpinnings of the counterculture, and some sense that environmentalism might be important -- if only it paid better -- but mostly it was about making your pile.

The 1980s were only too happy to bolster those fantasies. Smart, sharp people deserved to be winners. The dignity of labor had already lost its luster. Work meant long hours in an office, not a reasonable span in a production facility with time to breathe built into the schedule. You want to work a menial job? Work it, pal. I want to see shovels and mops moving. You want more money? Find the time and energy to get another menial job, loser.

The United States has two main contenders to be the national religion: money and work. We worship the trappings of wealth and the no-nonsense human sacrifice of toil. A person can work admirably without gaining wealth or be enviably wealthy without working. But anyone in the mid range, particularly the lower mid range, who does not labor to exhaustion is a contemptible slacker.

It's a pretty lousy set of standards. But did it evolve naturally from the failed experiment of widespread education and more even distribution of the rewards? Did the middle collapse simply from wanting the wrong things? Sure, we're misled by fictional portrayals of all sorts of things. Yes, the imbalance of wealth and power needs to be corrected. But that won't last if the majority of people don't know what to do with themselves once they've got it.

Developing nations have the advantage of a visible slope to climb. A lot of obstacles stand in their way in the form of environmental degradation and government corruption. No one knows if they'll make it. But say they do. Then what? Aside from an aggressive space program so we can export our craziness across the galaxy, what's worth getting out of bed for, every day? We could reach the maximum sustainable lifestyle long before we figure out efficient interstellar travel.

I feel that the future should be built on tolerance of diversity coupled with diversity that works to be tolerable.

It's hard a to write a rule or two, because they're vague and subject to flexible interpretation. Then you write another and another for clarification, until you end up with thousands of lines of code just to cover all the potential variations. Laws are a programming language for the unruly computer made up of billions of human brains. Unlike a machine, we cannot be compelled to receive a fraction of it, let alone take it all in and abide by it. It goes against our nature. Some people might like to be programmed, but then who is in charge?

If we restored manufacturing in this country, who would work there and how well would they work? Was erosion of wages a result of more people vying for them? As reality and the dream move farther apart, what could sustain morale in a work force? These are the questions that will immediately follow any reform of the distribution of compensation.