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The Military-Industrial Complex: Deceptively Simple

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
— President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

“How do we protect not just the freedom the Internet affords and the new opportunities to advance human welfare that technology enables, but also our country, our future, our children, our people?

“And the key, in my mind, is to ensure an alignment between a defense that leverages our strengths—like our robust and independent business and academic communities—and that reflects our nation’s values and longstanding traditions…and a defense that is effective in a changing world.

“How to align all that, and how we achieve that alignment isn’t new. We find the alignment in open partnership…by working together.”
— Secretary of “Defense” Ash Carter, April 23, 2015

In 1901, Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus: A Story of California used the image of the tentacled sea creature as a metaphor for Southern Pacific—itself a symbol of industry in general—is as simple as Norris’s political views: as soon as the railroad monopoly, then one of the most important industrial forces in the country, came to town, its tentacles stretched across every aspect of life. Nobody could escape its corrupt clutches.

Like many writers of his time—and, frankly, like many writers of today—he saw the systemic problems, he saw the complexities, but he failed to grasp a clear solution. Ragingly anti-Semitic (the villainous S. Behrman is a composite of real men who were all as Christian as the day is long, but because he’s the Southern Pacific’s sole financial wizard, why not make him Jewish?), imperialistic, and socialistic, Norris’s novels try their damnedest to portray the American experience with objectivity and complexity, but they’re skewed toward his personal politics and feelings. I don’t fault him for writing what he believes, even though I disagree with that. I do, however, fault him for missing the point:

“Private” corporations can’t buy their way into government-upheld monopolies without the consent of government officials.

Who takes the bribe that allows monopoly to flourish? The government official. Who employs police (and sometimes military) to protect the monopoly? The government official. Who arbitrates and rules on court cases between the monopoly and a private citizen? The government official. Who, ultimately, rejects any semblance of integrity, honesty, and objectivity in order to be “in the pocket” of the monopoly? The government official.

A monopoly cannot exist without a government willing to receive payment to protect its survival. Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting paid lip service to citizens’ concerns about industry gaining too much power over the people, but it did little to mitigate industry’s power over the government. The first two decades of the twentieth century taught politicians that they needed to do a better job of hiding their complicity in the increasing “corporatism” of the United States, without actually doing much to alter it. They had to make the monopolies less obvious, ironically by using tactics pioneered by the railroads: shady holding companies, which traced back to the same group of wealthy owners, held as subsidiaries numerous rail companies, building companies, supply companies, engineering companies. They feigned competition to present a veneer of non-monopolistic behavior. When one company fell out of favor—as Central Pacific did, rather quickly—the Southern Pacific made a grand show of “absorbing” it, even though they were technically already part of the same holding company owned by the same group of individuals, who got even richer through this demonstration of business savvy.

The Depression, rightly, created a huge amount of distrust between industry and individual. When workers relied on somebody else for their livelihood, put up with a bunch of bullshit just to eke out that living, and then had the rug pulled out from under them because a handful of rich people did a handful of rich things that tanked the American economy in an instant…of course they’re going to blame their employers, and industry, and even the wealthy to some degree. (I say “to some degree” because I’m fairly convinced, by the popular entertainment during the Depression and the enduring popularity of “old money” FDR, that there was less animosity toward the rich then than there was in the crash of 2008; I think, with no real research to back me up, this might be a result of having a much more rigidly defined class system at the time. Old Money, East Coast elites were fine; it was the damn nouveau riche who fucked it all up.)

When Milton Friedman—who worked with the FDR administration on New Deal policy—and Anna J. Schwartz researched their ambitious, almost century-spanning economic history of the United States (from 1867-1960), they discovered what really caused the Depression—exacerbating what would have merely been a bad but short-lived recession—was the Federal Reserve’s poor policy decisions. That was more than thirty years after Black Tuesday. In 2002, Ben Bernanke (who would chair the Fed from 2006 to 2014) said in no uncertain terms: “Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” Whoops.

Throughout my relatively short life, I’ve become acutely aware of economic bubbles. In trying to understand why our benevolent government would allow such obvious, short-sighted cycles persist, I came to realize a very startling fact: the bubbles exist because the government wills it. The bubbles burst because they’re naturally short-lived, nobody in government is smart enough to look any further down the road than the next election; everybody in the financial industry—regardless of what they think about the bubble, if even they are smart enough to see it—wants to take advantage of easy, “cheap” money; and the clients served by financial institutions are looking for a scheme that’ll get them rich—and quick! A high school student with a C average can figure that out (I know, because I did).

Think of the Dust Bowl. Everyone remembers the benevolence of FDR, doing everything he possibly could to help the farmers ravaged by poor weather conditions. What few think about is that the “wheat boom” that created the Dust Bowl…was also created by that same benevolent government, which two decades earlier had artificially doubled the price of wheat to encourage speculators to buy land in the strip spanning Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Texas, where amber waves of grain seemed to grow as if by magic…until they didn’t.

That is the boom-and-bust cycle: government, without any semblance of forward thinking, takes an action; private industry (and the individual) capitalizes on it; a huge yet obvious problem bursts the bubble; and government is left to solve the problem, indirectly hurting more people and spending more money than if they had simply not tampered in the economy to begin with. The cycle repeats when, in their desperation to please the people (by which I mean “win reelection”), they create the next bubble through incentivizing: lower interest rates, tax cuts, “partnerships” with government institutions, massive bailouts—all to ensure the initial success of the next short-lived bubble.

But there is one government-created boom that has not yet busted, and not for a lack of trying: the military-industrial complex. The most insidious, pervasive octopus in the history of the country continues to grow in spite of itself, for one simple reason: unlike the more short-sighted economic bubbles, the U.S. will never run out of wars to make up and then go fight.

If the Fed is what got us into the Depression, it was the military-industrial complex that got us out. FDR’s New Deal policies loosened the economic jar, allowing government and private industry to collude and “partner” at an unprecedented scale. And yes, this collusion scaled back after World War II—but not at all to pre-war levels. Eisenhower, quoted many paragraphs ago, was one of only nine five-star generals in the history of this country. He spent his entire career in the military before being elected the country’s commander-in-chief. At the end of nearly fifty years of military service, he warned us of the greatest economic danger in the history of this country.

Nobody acted. People listened, yes. His farewell address became a famous statement on problems like government overreach, public-private circle-jerks, and the continued problem of the government putting all its eggs in the wrong economic basket. But just like trust-busting, the only noticeable effect the speech had was on increasing secrecy in the military and intelligence communities: what kind of money they got, and how it was spent. Over time, these secrets have become public information—but still, nothing is done to stem the tide. Nothing changes, other than marginal increases and decreases in the overall military budget.

The tangled tentacles of the military-industrial complex cover every aspect of industry and society. It’s the one unofficial monopoly the government is allowed to have, because it’s shockingly easy to shut down even the most passionate anti-military arguments: “You’d put your political ideology ahead of the safety of Americans?” “Defense” money can be funneled to all sectors of the economy; even the fucking entertainment business leases actual equipment from the actual military, engages actual soldiers and officers as actual consultants, and creates war movies to excite and glorify American military prowess.

There is not an aspect of the economy untouched by military-industrial complex dollars. As the rube-like economist William Lazonick accurately observes, private industry indirectly benefits from military research and innovation. It’s not a conspiracy theory to say that any job you can name, there’s a chance a part of it traces back to indirect military-industrial complex money. You don’t have to be working for Lockheed-Martin for it to impact you.

The iron bubble of the military-industrial complex can only be penetrated by the fantasy of world peace. If the economy’s flagging, a new threat and a new war will lead to an uptick of dollars pumped into the “private” economy to keep us afloat. Don’t be fooled again: the U.S. pulled out of the recession of 2008 by way of the military-industrial complex (we’re only this year returning to the level spent in 2007, before the collapse), not the cheery “shovel-ready” projects that put America back to work. It is an endless cash cow that keeps on giving: every bullet fired, grenade hurled, installation blowed up, plane crashed—all of it requires more spending, to replace what was destroyed and to find and build new means of destruction. All of it requires “private industry” to contract for government dollars, which is a strong incentive to make sure a strong “defense” is constantly necessary.

This country has done a great job of guaranteeing that, starting with the Soviet Union. The Red Menace seemed to be a real threat, especially after battling the Nazis—who took a similar statist ideology to its grotesque logical extension, giving us an idea of exactly what we might have been up against if the Soviets had taken over Europe as Hitler had planned to—so it seemed reasonable to fear that if we fell behind scientifically and militarily (as the whole of Europe had), we wouldn’t be able to fight them overseas or at home. Eventually, all the money spent just stopped making sense, but the spending itself didn’t stop.

Luckily, the Soviets’ last gasp at relevance also created a hotbed for our next major threat: terr’ists. Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower presents a harrowing portrait of the ways in which the USSR and the USA secretly (and not-so-secretly) tampered in the affairs of countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia led to September 11th and the current freak show in the Middle East.

Now, I’m not accusing 9/11 of being America’s fault, or an attack we deserved, which as far as I’m concerned would be tantamount to suggesting that 12-year-old Yemeni girls deserve to be kidnapped and married off as ISIS sex slaves: the fact that religious nutjobs make non-religious excuses for their religiously motivated behavior doesn’t mean anyone deserves their vile attacks. A 100% fair, 50/50 oil deal transformed Saudi Arabia from a poor backwater into a rich country filled with modern luxuries; the fact that they have internal squabbles about conspiracies of western imperialism, and the result is that some have used the wealth that would not have been possible without us, against us—that isn’t an indictment of capitalism, the American way, or American hypocrisy. It just makes some Saudis—probably a lot, given the influence of Wahhabism—fucking assholes, and the only thing worse than an asshole with a lot of money to literally burn is an asshole with nothing. As Bob Dylan so cheerfully put it, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Rather, what I’m saying is that our tampering in others’ affairs creates a climate that allows them to feel justified in blaming us for their problems. It emboldens them to take action against those they blame, which gives us justification to spend money fighting back. No, I’m not saying 9/11 was an inside job, either; I’m saying the entire global infrastructure of American military and intelligence operations—which was borne of a desire to protect “our” interests abroad—has had a “positive” side effect: pissing some people off enough to lash out against us. Once the assholes in the Middle East cool it, surely some other angry ethnic group will come after us, and the cycle will repeat. The U.S. constantly sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong, is not wanted, and is ultimately resented for the perception (often truthful, sometimes paranoia) that we’re out to take over their countries and steal from them.

I think that, beginning in the 1950s, American interference abroad had shifted from the open racism (a need to spread democracy and Christianity to backward savages—by force, if necessary) of the first half of the twentieth century to a genuine but wholly misguided desire to prevent the spread of communism and endorse the spread of democracy and capitalism. The results have repeatedly blown up in our faces. I don’t think it was a consciously engineered effect. I’m sure this has been noticed by the powers that be and used as a means to remain in perpetual conflict—if we can’t manage perpetual all-out warfare—in order to justify spending more and more on military might.

The question is, how do we stop this?

If the military-industrial octopus controls so much of the American economy, the simple act of scaling back our military would have a devastating effect—and we wouldn’t have a military-industrial complex to prop us back up! At this point, I have to imagine every new President—maybe even every new Congressperson and Senator—has a secret meeting upon inauguration where they’re told, “The most we can scale back the military budget is 15%; otherwise, the whole house of cards is going to collapse.” So when it comes time to consider doing the right thing, which is separating the conjoined monsters so they can roam about Valkenvania in peace, a politician will do the bare minimum to appease his or her base—and luckily, one of the two parties loves raising military spending!

Part of what makes the military-industrial complex seem so…well, complicated, is the fact that there’s so much at stake. To change would mean mass unemployment, large companies going under very quickly, and the uncomfortable malaise that comes from having to carve out a new economic path.

In a rare switch from what I’d say under ordinary circumstances (for the military-industrial complex is far from ordinary), here is what I would suggest:

Drastically reduce the money spent annually on Research & Development & Testing & Evaluation & Procurement & Construction. Put it into a fund for unemployment insurance. This massive pool of money will pay 90% of the salary and benefits to any directly affected unemployed worker from a former “defense” contractor that has issued mass layoffs/firings of the proletariat, for a period of three years. If they can’t find a new job in three years, they’re on their own.

Over the ten years following this three-year grace period, shrink the military budget dramatically. I would even go so far as to recommend a Constitutional amendment, to prevent this from ever happening again, that would limit the total annual “defense” budget to a maximum of 1% of GDP in peacetime, with a ceiling of 5% of GDP if and only if we are in an official, Congressionally authorized war—and even then, only allowed in the form of bonds payable. Yes, we need to go back to the age of war bond rallies, because a full-scale war is unacceptable without the American people willing to pay for it—fully and directly.

To give you a frame of reference, the projected GDP for 2015 is around $18 trillion. One percent would give us an annual “defense” budget of $180 billion; five percent would give us a “defense” budget of $900 billion. The current “defense” budget is allegedly $630 billion. I’m not exactly being stingy by allowing a range 1% to 5%. The U.S. notoriously, up until last year, has consistently spent more by itself than the next nine countries combined (now, we only spend more than the next eight countries combined); we also notoriously have 4% of the world population while spending 40% of what the world does on “defense.” Even at 1% of GDP, we would still spend more than China, who has long been a distant second.

Unemployment insurance for layoffs will help, but they won’t solve the entire economic problem. Companies will go out of business. Investors will be hurt. Non-“defense”-contractor companies who abandoned R&D to rely on military innovations getting passed along to the private sector will have to find a new one, spend more money, and it’ll hurt them, too (but their laid-off workers won’t benefit from the special unemployment fund; they’ll be subject to the standard unemployment insurance for their state). Maybe I should worry more about this aspect, but I don’t. The funny thing about the profit motive is, it’s a real incentive to get people to figure out how to make money again. Private R&D will come back.

At this point, you’re saying, “Wait! You’re saying give the proletariat rabble unemployment, and let all the corporations go out of business? What kind of crazy commie talk is this? What would Ayn Rand think?”

This is not commie talk. Free markets are free. The military-industrial complex is not; it’s the sneakiest form of socialism this country has ever seen, with our government fraudulently using the auspices of “private partnerships” to control the means of production for the “public good.” So fuck any and all “defense” contractors, and any and all non-“defense” companies drafting in the wake of the complex, that cannot survive without suckling the teat of the octopus. (Do octopi have teats?) After I’m done with them, they’ll have the same choice any American company should: adapt or die. If they die, good fucking riddance; if they figure out how to adapt, bully for them. I don’t care about them one way or the other.

But I care about the workers, in this case, because while I generally believe we’re all on our own, and that’s the way it should be, and I’m fairly unsympathetic to workers in a free society demanding higher pay instead of looking for another job or claiming we’re all under the thumb of Big Business and the solution to the problem is Big Government, this is a special circumstance: it’s Big Government that fucked these workers, not their former employers. So, in the infinite benevolence I keep hearing about, it must be the government’s responsibility to keep these (former) workers out of poverty, for a time, because that’s the right thing to do. (The fact that their regular paycheck from Uncle Sam will keep them from losing their homes and further eroding the economy doesn’t hurt, either.)

That’s what I would consider doing. We face a problem that seems complicated, but it’s really quite simple. So is the solution. What holds us back are politicians who, if pressed, would deny that this is a problem at all.

“Defense” Secretary Ash Carter is one of them. In his very, very, very long speech at Stanford a few weeks ago, he claimed to speak on behalf of the President when he spoke repeatedly of all the great, wonderful benefits of a partnership between the military-industrial money spigot and Silicon Valley. As you may know, Silicon Valley already benefits a fair amount from “defense”—those advanced weapons and drones weren’t created by wizards—but he’s talking more and more and more and more, and he’s pitching it as a great thing.

That’s a sign of things to come. What is required to eliminate the military-industrial complex from our country once and for all is a President with both the integrity and the far-sighted vision to do the right thing for the country, even if it’s the “wrong thing” for a short-lived presidency. Eisenhower, in warning us, came closest to doing the right thing—and at a time when it would have been a teensy bit easier to cram the genie back into the bottle.

But he didn’t do the right thing. No President has. No member of Congress or Supreme Court Justice has. With comments like Carter’s, I have a sinking feeling nobody ever will.

I suppose I’ll just keep on not voting, thanks.

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Atheism is A-OK

Welp, I read quite possibly the dumbest pro-atheist article ever written. Congratulations, sociologists Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman! Let’s take it point by point, shall we?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

So, the historical (and contemporary) plight of blacks, Jews, and homosexuals is roughly equivalent to the horrific discrimination atheists face every day? Because we can’t join the Boy Scouts? All right, that checks out. I’m with you so far… Wait a second. I just remembered trying to join the Boy Scouts isn’t the same thing as being denied employment or the right to marry. That makes this line of reasoning moronic. We can’t join a private youth organization, greatly reducing opportunities to be sexually abused at the hands of “mentally awake, morally straight,” typically ardent Christian adults—DISCRIMINATION!! We have the right to be molested and traumatized as children, just like all God-fearing American citizens!

Next point: we can join the military, but we may be labeled “potentially deficient.” Boo fucking hoo. That’s not exactly on the level of being outright rejected on the basis of sexual orientation, or having to live with the half-assed compromise of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Also, frankly, I think in military terms, the average atheist would be “deficient.” The entire purpose of the military—the reason for the psychological abuse inflicted in boot camp, and punishment meted out during service—is to encourage subjugation to the group. You are not an individual; you are a cog in a well-oiled machine.

In psychological terms, it’s much easier to “break” a person of a religious background, since all religions share a common purpose with military thinking: you are subordinate to the group/church/God/beliefs you either chose or were born into, just as you are subordinate to the orders and chain of command the moment you enlist. Not all atheists are rugged individualists like myself, but most tend to think for themselves and stray from conventional thoughts or ideas. They will speak out and buck the system. In military terms, they’ll hot dog. They’re much more likely to end up like James Garner in Tank than Adolphe Menjou in Paths of Glory. That, to military brass, would make them “deficient.” The military does not reward enterprise and individuality; such things lead to defiance of ridiculous orders from incompetent leaders, and where would the military be if that happened on a regular basis?

And let’s not forget the adage that there are no atheists in a foxhole. A “deficiency” of atheists in the military is their lack of belief in God or an afterlife, right? If they don’t think God will help them survive in combat, or if they don’t think they’ll go on to their reward, they may be less likely to make “heroic” sacrifices. “May be” is the key phrase, because if you’re fighting alongside people you genuinely care about, is your belief that there is no heaven going to make you any less likely to jump on a live grenade to protect your unit? It depends on the person, in the exact same way it depends on the person of faith. But I could see a very reasonable argument that atheists would be less likely to make heroic sacrifices, because frankly, we value life more. We don’t see it as an endless parade of misery, and that the worse it is, the better it’ll be in heaven. That is a bullshit ideology that leads to complacency and despair, the assumption that all humans are the ragdolls of a malevolent universe (or worse, a malevolent God), so why bother taking action to change it? After all, we can’t change anything. We have no control. Blech. What a load of garbage.

The last point in this paragraph is the craziest and stupidest: that atheists are “denied… the right to assume office,” on religious grounds. Freedom of choice, motherfuckers. There is, as the authors point out, no legal basis whatsoever preventing atheists from seeking or holding public office (except in a handful of southern states, which this article doesn’t even mention to bolster its retarded arguments—but it’s moot, because that’s their right, just as it’s my right not to live there). No atheist would be punished for running a campaign, except perhaps in wasted time, money, and effort. But we live in a country where everybody’s allowed to vote for the candidate they choose. If voters choose spirituality and faith over logic and reason, that’s their nightmare; it’s not discrimination. And atheists have held these rights since the Constitution was ratified, unlike many minority groups who had to fight for the right simply to run for office.

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The Theory of the Firm — Part II: Public Companies vs. Stable Economies

A Note to Readers: Because I am incapable of shutting up, I have made my latest post into a two-part series exploring the economics of tech innovation. Read part one.

Claim 4: Public Shareholders Haven’t Invested in Business Assets

At this point, Lazonick edges dangerously close to flat-out Marxism, particularly when he says, “The actual investors in corporate value creation are households as taxpayers and workers. Let’s run the corporation for them.” Eek.

He doesn’t come out and use the well-worn rhetoric, but the essence of the argument is that profit is merely surplus value, and surplus value must be returned to the worker. Where Lazonick diverges from Marxism is that he isn’t focused on it going to the workers of the greatest need, but to the workers of the greatest ability. Which is not an unreasonable position; it’s just argued in an unreasonable way, especially the part where said workers should add the unnecessary pressure of making high-level business and management decisions instead of focusing on all that cool innovation shit. Lazonick claims that the disconnect between how workers should be treated versus how they are rests in what shareholders actually are: “traders in corporate stock, not investors in corporate assets.”

Anybody who’s been reading this blog recently should know by now that my political mindset is geared somewhere between libertarianism and classical liberalism, and that I admire the work of Ayn Rand. Much of that, naturally, colors what I’ve written in this post. So try not to get the vapors here as I do a brief, Zack Morris-style time-out to say something shocking: I think publicly held companies, and the financial sector, cannot be sustained in a free-market (or even mixed) economy, and I believe recent economic troubles demonstrate that those chickens appear to be finally coming home to roost.

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The Theory of the Firm — Part I: On Government-Funded Innovations

A Note to Readers: Because I am incapable of shutting up, I have made my latest post into a two-part series exploring the economics of tech innovation.

I recently stumbled across this Q&A, reprinted and edited for Bill Moyers’s website (which is the version I’ll be working from).  I think it demonstrates a nice example of the short-sighted thinking of some economic thinkers.  Far be it for me to argue with a Harvard economics Ph.D, as a layman with little more than a casual interest in the subject, but doesn’t even require a sixth-grade education to see that his conclusions were poorly thought through at best, and dishonest polemics at worst.

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Whipped

Over the weekend, I watched a little film called Whiplash. I still don’t know what to make of it. It had many admirable qualities: excellent acting, visually interesting (especially for a movie that prominently features dudes banging on drums), surprisingly suspenseful (again, especially for a movie about banging on drums). I liked some of the cliché-defying choices, especially the aversion to the trope of the “knowledgeable friend” (i.e., an experienced band member who shows the newbie the ropes).

There was also a moment, late in the film, where I was pretty much convinced that it was going to have a frustratingly schmaltzy ending. When Andrew (Miles Teller) decides to see Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) play at a little jazz club, and the two talk like grown-up peers for the first time, I thought it was going to turn into that scene where Fletcher invites Andrew onstage to jam, just the two of them, as equals. Fade to black.

I’m glad it didn’t end that way, but I’m not sure I’m happy with its actual ending. I spent a great deal of the movie—far too much—wondering what it was all supposed to mean. I admired Andrew’s drive but hated him for being kind of a douchenozzle. His internal drive is wonky: he doesn’t want to be the best just to be the best; he wants to be talked about. Many of his actions in the film have more to do with trying to impress Fletcher than his internal drive to succeed, another symptom of his desire to please others more than himself.

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Bigotry, Discrimination, and Religious Idiots

My personal view is that bigotry and discrimination, for any reason, should not exist. I consider it heinous and absurd. It’s something that’s always been a part of the human race—there’s even evidence of it in prehistory—and is quite possibly a primitive instinct built into our genetic code. However, like so many primitive instincts: just because the detritus of our old-timey ancestors remains part of the fabric of our being doesn’t mean we have to embrace it. Our capacity for reason means that, unlike much of the animal kingdom, we don’t have to act in accordance with our “nature.”

It’s clear, despite what some have said in the wake of Ferguson and other examples of overzealous police actions tinged with racism, that a great deal of progress has been made in the social psychology of this country since the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Don’t get me wrong; equal rights do not (yet) exist for minorities, but significant progress has been made. It will continue to be made as the “hearts and minds” of the American people are won. The systemic issues will slowly be rooted out as new generations of parents teach their children that superficial qualities don’t have to separate us. The human race is one species, and the only thing dividing us is how much of an asshole a person is.

The sitcom black-ish, for all its many faults, has deftly satirized this concept from the black perspective. Three generations of African-Americans, under one roof, illustrate the progress that has been made: old codger Laurence Fishburne fought for the rights his grandchildren take for granted, to the point that they can’t fathom Obama being the country’s first black President, much less understand just how terrible things once were. Anthony Anderson’s protagonist is caught in the middle: he is keenly aware of the battles fought by previous ancestors, and he wants his children to understand and respect that without undermining what social progress has been made. In an odd way, he (at least in the early episodes) yearns for a “separate but equal” divide, where his kids’ race is directly linked to their cultural attitudes, and he’s comically befuddled by their complete apathy regarding both racial divides and embracing the unique aspects of black culture.

Stephen Colbert has lampooned the claim of not “seeing” race, as well, and while he does a great job of showing the absurdity of such claims, the more important point is that racial differences still exist and are still seen; they just increasingly don’t matter, especially in larger cities. My theory is that the diversity of large cities exposes the various subcultures to one another, and while a person in a large city may still make unfortunate generalizations, they will begin to see people as individuals, rather than as representatives of a group they dislike. It’s the Archie Bunker syndrome, where he’s generally a right-wing bigot, but he lightens up considerably when individual members of a group he superficially hates “prove” themselves “equal” to superior white males.

This leads back to my personal disgust with bigotry and discrimination. I believe in the primacy of individuals, and I judge people based on who they are as people, not their skin color and/or country of origin and/or the genitalia they possess and prefer. I’m not afraid of judging people, because I know that no part of me—even the scary, subconscious part of me—sizes up a person based on these superficial qualities. I wasn’t raised that way, and my life experience has taught me that nobody’s character can be summed up based on these qualities. They’re irrelevant. Anybody who is willing to divide people based on superficial qualities, and the stereotypes that have developed around those superficial qualities, is an idiot. I also think anyone willing to put themselves into a group-shaped box and define themselves—and let others define them—based on superficial qualities is an even bigger idiot.

Plenty of people think this way, but it’s an absurd way of looking at identity. You are not black first and a person second. You are not a woman first and a person second. You are not a member of your goofy religious group first and a person second. You are simply a person. Yes, certain facets of your heritage and upbringing will make you different; these superficial qualities add to all of your other qualities to make you a unique little snowflake, not a giant ball of snow comprised of every other member of one superficial group.

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Movie Pitch — Snow Dogs 2: Snow Cats

Inspired by a screenplay by Jim Kouf and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin, which itself took is premise from Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen

We open in Miami. Dr. Theodore “Ted”/”Teddy Bear” Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has come home for the funeral of his adoptive mother, Amelia, with wife Barb (Joanna Bacalso), two young children, and several huskies in tow. His cousin, Rupert (Sisqó), picks them up from the airport and takes them directly to the wake. Tragedy turns to levity when the dogs excitedly play with the many children of the Brooks extended family, allowing the adults to reflect on the pure innocence and joy of the next generation. Although some family members are disappointed that Ted abandoned the family that raised him, they warm up to him and his new life.

At the funeral, Ted tosses an intricate Inuit necklace, left behind by his birth mother, onto Amelia’s casket while the others toss roses and dirt. Later, at the reading of the will, Ted is shocked by a new revelation: Thunder Jack, who had married Amelia before passing away, was wrong about being his birth father. His real birth father was a Nepali sherpa who had migrated to Alaska looking for freedom and opportunity. Amelia spent her last years tracking down Ted’s real father, but she died before she found him. She bequeaths everything she found before dying.

Luckily, Rupert has parlayed his successful dental practice into a sideline business as a part-time private investigator. (He considers a dentist to be the private detective of the mouth.) Ted, Barb, and Rupert are surprised by how close Amelia came to finding the right man. She had found the man’s name, but not what had happened to him after he put Ted up for adoption. Rupert learns that the father was accused of killing a man in a barfight, so he fled the country. He tracks him back to his Nepali village, where he has lived a quiet life to this day.

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Legalize It

I made the mistake of clicking on this article, which a friend shared on Facebook. It quotes President Obama as saying the following at an economic event in Cleveland: “In Australia and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money more than anything.” That’s a very interesting comment from someone who has raised more campaign money than any Presidential candidate in the history of the country.

The article also describes some of the punishments, “from fines to even jail time,” that citizens face in countries where voting is legally required:

In Belgium, if you don’t vote, you might not be able to get a public-sector job. In Bolivia, you won’t get paid. And in Italy, you might even not be able to get a day care placement for your child.

This caused me to reflect on my own views about voting and consider Obama’s hypothesis that “money” wouldn’t win in a compulsory election. And yet, here’s one way “money” might win: vote buying. Consider my situation. I’m both a huge cheapskate and a huge pussy. I don’t want to be punished economically for not voting, and I sure as shit don’t want to go to jail. I’d like to believe I have enough honesty and integrity to simply take my punishment as a form of civil disobedience. Yet, if someone approached me and said, “I’ll give you $500 to vote for my guy,” I might really struggle with that. Get $500 to obey a law I don’t agree with, or get punished for disobeying it?

I’d struggle with it. What about people who are significantly less honest than me? I could imagine a cottage industry of vote-buying built up around the heady combination of voters who don’t give a shit about the election and candidates able to raise far too much money to try to win elections. According to Double Down, the very dull book on the 2012 election, the President struggled very briefly over whether or not to take Super PAC money before essentially shrugging and saying, “Well, the other side’s going to, and we have to stay competitive if we want to win.” I could imagine the same statement being uttered by candidates faced with the choice to buy votes or not. What’s a little electoral fraud among friends? It happens in every election, and nobody ever faces consequences for it—especially not the candidates themselves—so what’s the harm?

The President’s “money” remark had less to do with the amount wasted on elections than on using the wage gap as an explanation for disenfranchised voters: “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups. There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.” Hmm… Young, low-income voters… I can’t see any reason why they might be susceptible to a bribe. Let’s also face the fact that the reason they don’t vote likely has less to do with disenfranchisement than with the feeling percolating among the young, especially after 2008, that they are not represented by either half of the two-party system. I’m too old to be considered “young,” but I feel that way, too. It’s the reason I choose not to vote. I’m not disenfranchised—when I go to my polling place, they’ve never even asked for identification; they just take my word for it that I am who I say I am—and I’m not apathetic. I would guess many non-voters, especially young ones, feel the same way.

Young people tend to be more wide-eyed and optimistic about the political process. With no evidence to back me up, I think, in much the same way Nixon’s tenure disillusioned young voters in the ’70s, the 2008 economic crisis had a destructive effect on the attitudes of the young. As time passed and it became clear that Obama’s administration would provide very little of the promised changes—even the one “big” change, the Affordable Care Act, is a mangled pile of garbage that primarily benefits the insurance companies involved in its construction—youthful activism evolved from the misguided Occupy Wall Street movement to…crickets. What’s the point of participating in a movement to effect political change if you no longer think change is possible? Even the act of voting itself becomes pointless when you know voting for a “third party” candidate or writing someone in will only help one of the two reigning parties. Requiring people who feel this way to vote is extremely dangerous to the democratic process. Low-income kids who hate being told what to do and feel unrepresented by the political machine, in this delightful age of sarcasm and irony, might be motivated to vote for the highest bidder as a slap in the face to the machine itself. Why not? If you truly view the two major parties as two sides of the same coin, who only differ on certain social issues, what’s to stop someone from taking a bribe to vote for the greater of two evils?

And what about the people who will simply remain apathetic? Aren’t these the same people who made all four Transformers movies among the top-grossing movies of their respective years? The same people who have made The Big Bang Theory one of the most popular shows on television? What attracts them to garbage? Effective advertising that shows them exactly what they want. Political ads do the exact same thing. They’re as dishonest as any other advertisement, and the product is just as crappy. But the sort of people who are susceptible to surface gloss, who don’t think deeply about entertainment, who just want a pleasant diversion, are the same sort of people who will not think too deeply about the political ads they see. They won’t fact-check claims about other candidates, or promises about what they’ll do. They won’t even think, “Politicians are inherently dishonest, so I should be skeptical.” They’ll vote for the candidates who spend the most to create and run ads. Money will win.

I wish I could blame the President’s statement about mandatory voting on naïveté, ignorance, stupidity, or even just a basic philosophical disagreement between the two of us. But the President is none of those things, and while we do disagree philosophically about many issues, that’s not the major issue here. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls,” he says, because he believes—perhaps correctly—that if voting were compulsory, those required to vote would vote for Democrats. Like so many political issues, that’s his main interest: not using this as a way to get people interested in voting and the political process, not using this as a legal means to prevent disenfranchisement (except for disenfranchising all those people who consciously choose not to vote—but who cares about them, right?), not as a way to force a more accurate and/or higher quality of representation… It’s just cheap trick to ensure continued Democratic victories. Party politics dressed up as liberal equality.

Party politics are the problem, not the solution. You really want people to get interested in voting? Here’s an idea: get better candidates.

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The Hitler-Stalin Tract

A few weeks ago, completely unrelated research led me to find two people, on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, saying roughly the same stupid thing for roughly the same stupid reason.

In this corner: Dinesh D’Souza, noted Christian right-wing crackpot, purveyor of intellectually bankrupt media (the “book” The Roots of Obama’s Rage, the “documentary” 2016: Obama’s America), and illegal campaign donation conspirator. In a really poorly written 2006 op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, he makes this argument about the [clicks on reverb] horrors of atheism:

These figures [pertaining to the death toll of the Inquisition] are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

In this corner: Reza Aslan, noted Muslim left-wing crackpot, purveyor of annoyingly readable but nevertheless intellectually dishonest media (the books No god But God and Zealot), and trumpeter of questionable credentials. In a frothy-mouthed 2014 missive against arch-nemesis Sam Harris disguised as an op-ed for Salon, he makes this argument about the [clicks reverb back on] horrors of a(nti-)theism:

Atheists often respond that atheism should not be held responsible for the actions of these authoritarian regimes, and they are absolutely right. It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils”—as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”—if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?

I think I’ve done it… I’ve cracked the code that will bridge the gap between the secular left and the religious right. First, you take the dominant type of far-left liberal (the ones who describe themselves as “spiritual,” don’t really practice any religion, yet keel over prostrate at even the faintest whiff of religious veneration from others; you know, out of respect), and the dominant type of right-wing nutjob (the ones who are one bad election away from holding rallies to burn every known copy of Dreams from My Father while reciting the Lord’s Prayer). You put them in a room together, and you say, “These other guys? They don’t respect any religions. And guess what? Neither did filthy pinko commies or—wait for it—the Nazis!”

There’s just one problem. All that stuff they’re saying about gleefully slaughtering innocents in the good name of atheism? It’s not, um… Well, it’s not actually true. It’s a few disconnected facts—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao slaughtered a lot of people; two of the three were atheists; and the jury’s still out on what the third really thought—jammed together to make a dishonest case against the morality of atheism. Both D’Souza and Aslan have completely different agendas. D’Souza strikes me as too much of an idiot to realize what he’s writing is even factually incorrect, but he wants to score points with conservative Christians (he may find this insulting, but he gets the long end of the stick here). On the other hand, Aslan—to whom I’ve devoted far too much blog space already—seems too smart for his own good. Pathologically committed to presenting Islam in its cheeriest, most peaceful connotation (to make even its most off-putting facets palatable to the secular left), Aslan knows exactly what he’s saying, and likely even knows how intellectually dishonest it is. It’s just that, when someone attacks his belief system, he needs to attack theirs right back. He can’t let people like Sam Harris hurt the Muslim brand.

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Addendum: An Illustrative Quote

I’ve become somewhat enamored of Aki Muthali, a fearless author who often takes journalists and pundits to task for what she calls “pseudo-liberalism,” which she defines as the illusion that personal prejudices are ‘liberal values’ and using it to persecute genuine liberals who promote justice, equality and freedom—ultimately aligning oneself with the conservative fringe that trample on human rights.” One of the thing that pushed me away from aligning with the left, other than a general disagreement on how to solve socioeconomic problems, was my observance if that kind of bizarre hypocrisy. One of the defining early posts on this dumb blog is called “The Protest,” in which I was forcefully ejected from an antiwar rally for questioning a charismatic speaker’s claim that protesting the war would protect Iraqis’ freedom.

Admittedly, I went to that protest mainly to meet women, but I did object to the war on the grounds that neither Iraqis nor Saddam Hussein had anything to do with September 11th (I never bought into the WMD/”imminent threat” hype, either), Saddam’s stranglehold over the country had the ironic effect of making it less prone to terrorist activities, and I saw the purpose of the war as little more than an excuse to (1) pilfer oil from a country we could control and (2) pick a fight with someone we thought we could beat, because George W. Bush and his cronies were a bunch of fucking pussies. However, I didn’t object to that war because I thought it would somehow enslave the Iraqis. That’s just nutso far-left thinking, the idea that American corporations enslave people and Republicans empower them to do so, and that such enslavement—you know, the sort that brings people jobs and economic infrastructure (see the recent history of Saudi Arabia for details)—would make Iraqis worse off than a dictator arbitrarily gassing them.

Point being, I observed the phenomenon Muthali forcefully and articulately describes long before she was on the scene. It was only recently that I really put my finger on why it bothered me, but I didn’t speak out. It’s not really in my nature to do so. Muthali’s blog on The Nation‘s website (this is, for those of you not clicking links, Pakistan’s English-language daily, not the American weekly) renders much of my own commentary moot, but she makes me glad someone is saying it. She’s also the one who emboldened me to write a four-part crankfest about Reza Aslan’s intellectual dishonesty. I’d been bitching about him to friends privately ever since reading No god but God, but I thought I was the only one who noticed how awful he is. Then I found Muthali. [Insert numerous heart emojis.]

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