Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oil and the Casino Economy

At night I regularly listen to AM talk radio from the United States. And lately the most common topic of conversation has been the price of gasoline. Talk-show hosts rant and rave as do their callers, pointing out, probably quite rightly that soon the price of gas will cripple the US economy and cause great suffering to many people. Some callers are fond of pointing out that the roots of this problem in the US can be found in the history of the Reagan Administration which effectively put a halt to sponsorship to alternative energy research. “By this time,” they like to say, “we would have been completely energy independent if not for Reagan.” Maybe so, but largely irrelevant now. Meanwhile, in an exercise of pure public relations, the US senate calls in Oil Executives and grills them on the hill as if the head of Mobil or BP really sets the price of Gas, and as if, even if they did, the Congress would do anything about it anyway. But what is remarkable about all this is that I have never once heard, whether on talk radio or on television or in print, any one in the US offer a single solution to the problem. A talk radio host in Boston is attempting to get everyone in the US to put a sign in their car that just says “I am mad about the price of Gas.” This is the extent of acceptable activism in the US. But of course, besides the long term solutions of shifting energy production and usage to clean renewable sources, the only real solutions to the price of Gas in the US and elsewhere are things that people are not even willing to talk about: to wit; nationalize oil production and breakup the cartel of OPEC. People in Venezuela pay ten cents a gallon for gas because of a nationalized oil program. Now, first of all, I understand that in the long term, such a solution will not address the important environmental issues. But what I am really getting at here is that as capitalism begins to spiral out of control in many parts of the global economy, the very solutions that capitalism has made available are ones that people will not consider because prevailing ideology has managed to take real solutions off the table. Marx was careful to point out that a mode of production creates the very conditions for its evolution. In this case capitalism has created profoundly useful structures of production and distribution but the casino economy makes the delivery of certain goods (food is another prime example) unworkable. The solutions to these problems are simple; it is time for society at large to take control of certain systems of production and distribution in the interest of everyone. In the past six months most of the gains on global poverty made in the past decade have quickly eroded due to oil and food prices. But it is not want of supply that is the issue, it is the casino economy that is the problem. When the economy no longer serves the interest of people, it is time for people to take control of the economy.

Wait until gas in the US is ten or fifteen dollars a gallon and suddenly it will become patriotic to talk about nationalization.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Support the Troops Continued

We know for certain now, due to an accidental release of information, that the Canadian forces are handing child soldiers over to the Afghan secret police. This is being done in direct violation of international agreements and is an abandonment of the principles of human rights. It is also being done while there is a UNICEF centre in Kabul that is prepared to take this child soldiers and treat them in the manner that international agreement demands. Instead they are being handed over the secret police who are known to have been engaging in torture!

Support the troops? I don’t think so.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Romanticism and popular culture

The German Philosopher Theodor Adorno open his book Aesthetic Theory with the provocative observation: “It goes without saying that nothing about art goes without saying anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Although made over forty years ago this clever remark expresses the modern confusion about art that continues to prevail long after Adorno’s demise. I believe that the roots of this confusion extend back to a fundamental change in the function and status of the arts in age of Romanticism, a change to which our psyche has never properly adjusted. The Romantic age was the end of traditional art which functioned largely as process of craft and ushered in the age of art as an individual endeavour. Cut loose from the explicitly religious and public aspects of its functioning, and being slowly separated from the exclusivity of aristocratic sponsorship, art became, I believe, something distinctly different from what it had been. For the Romantics and those who came after them, art was a more personal expression and an investigation into the inner life of the self. Being a process of self-exploration, art immediately began to suffer from a crisis of identity at a social level and artists have, since that time struggled to produce work that serves the individual function of exploration while, at the same time, speaking to an audience in a meaningful way. Thus the more personal and esoteric an artist’s aesthetic investigations are, the more alienated they are from their potential social function, while, on the other hand, the popular culture industry has taken over the functions once fulfilled by many artistic endeavours prior to the Romantic age. Just as no one in the Renaissance would question the legitimacy of, say, the production of Michelangelo, no one today questions whether Steven Spielberg has a meaningful role to play in society. On the other hand, artists who often devote a lifetime to intimate and intricate exploration of the individual and her place in society and history lacks social legitimacy unless she manages to capture a mass audience or is defended by an increasingly smaller group of critics and intellectuals who speak for the importance of the work.

Thus art now lives in a continual state of limbo. Art as an in-depth investigation of the individual’s inner life and of how the individual interacts with society will perhaps always exist in a dubious state. On the other hand, popular culture not only satisfies many people’s needs for entertainment, it also sooths people, diverts their attentions, and, perhaps most importantly, often serves to legitimize prevailing ideology, in a similar, if magnified, way that church sanctioned art in the Renaissance did. Adorno suggested that popular culture functioned to create a process of pseudo-individualization, which I take to mean a false sense of unique individual experience but in fact functions, in large part, as a kind of mass hypnosis. This is not to put forward an elitist theory that claims that there is nothing of interest in popular culture or that no popular work of art can speak to the intimate demands of the human experience. However, there is a clear, if sometime apparently arbitrary, delineation between art that lives in the shadow of the great Romantics and art that serves a more popular and social function.

The problem is that I believe that appreciation of Romantic art and the work that follows its basic motivations, requires a relatively high degree of sensitivity, a fairly solid sense of individual identity, and often times a high degree of [self]education in the humanities. There are great discoveries to be made in the realm of art as a psychic exploration but in an age of pseudo-individualization these discoveries will continue to lay mostly fallow in the soil of the human sole.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Revolutions, failures and successes.

The assertion of the modern Western identity flows from the age of the American and French Revolutions. Here is where we find the declarations of political rights in which people finally revolted against the arbitrary use of power. Before the age of revolution, the wealthy and powerful classes possessed nearly all the political power in society while the mass of the population took no meaningful part in political life. The nineteenth century saw the steady expansion of democracy, judicial equality, and political accountability. But along with the expansion of political rights emerged the gradual realization that political rights were not nearly as meaningful as people expected unless they were accompanied by the expansion of economic rights and a fair distribution of wealth. Thus from a symbolic beginning in 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the second half of the 19th century also saw a kind of economic revolution, the greatest manifestation of which was the birth of the modern trade-union movement.

The first revolution was the cry for liberty; the second was the cry for equality. I say this because regardless of one’s political stripes, it is essential to understand that without organized labour, the fundamental rights of collective bargaining, and a fair distribution of social wealth, political rights not only mean little, they will gradually break down under the weight of social injustice and turn any genuine democracy into a bastion of corruption and a democracy in name only.

In the 20th century these two revolutions melded into very socialist and communist revolutions that began as cries for both liberty and equality. And this is where a number of interesting historical parallels begin. Just as the French Revolution regressed into the terror, the communist revolutions went badly off the rails of both liberty and equality. And the cynicism of the post revolutionary generation in the early 19th century is repeated in the cynicism or our generation; there is a terrible foreboding sense that reform is impossible and that any striving for genuine liberty and equality will end in the very opposite of that for which we began to fight.

There are other, deeper, parallels to be considered too. One is that while the revolutions fell short in many respects, they also compelled many outside their direct purview to adapt to the changing demands of populations. So, for example, while in many ways the Russian revolution failed to deliver its principles to its own population, many workers in the West benefited directly from the fear it created in other ruling classes who realized that they may suffer a similar fate to that of the Russian aristocracy if they failed to deliver some basic economic rights to their workers. (This is very similar to the way in which all workers benefit from the victories gained by any one particular trade union struggle, because it sets an example and a standard for the whole of society.) Another, more negative, parallel can be witnessed in the way that once the initial shock of the events have passed and the cynicism has set in, the very victories that have been so painfully gained are slowly chipped away. Thus, in our own society, just like much of post-revolutionary Europe, the gap between rich and poor is gradually widening again, trade unionism is slowly dying out, and general economic equality is getting worse. With these events we can find a great empathy for the radicals of the early 1800s who battled with many of the same problems. I personally, have a great deal of sympathy for Shelley and Byron who saw the prior generation of Romantic poets turn away from the principles that drove the French Revolution forward. I feel a similar nausea when I see people turn away from the principles that drove the reforms and revolutions of our own times and gradually slip back into the degradation of economic inequality. The increasingly uneven distribution of wealth in societies all over the world means people will have fewer choices; they will have less control of their lives, their work-places and their futures.

But if anything is to be said for the case of historical parallels, then this age of historical cynicism will not stand indefinitely, and even as our political and economic rights are being undermined a new kind of revolution is brewing that will assert the principles of liberty and equality in a new way. It seems to me that most conservatives (as well as most of the wealthy) understand very little about history. If you chip away at people’s political rights and allow an obscene increase in the uneven distribution of wealth, you get a more general breakdown in the political, social, and economic life of society. This breakdown will inevitably lead to a revolution in perceptions and from there to a revolution of a more literal sort. Make no mistake, at some point people will band together once again to assert their rights to liberty, fraternity, and equality!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Reductionism and the Right-Wing.

I have struggled with myself to understand the profound discomfort that I feel with the attitude, so prevalent today of the prevailing right-wing ideology. What is it that I feel to the very depths of my bones that is so wrong, so terribly corrupted, so utter inhuman, about these popular ideas? After much consideration, I have come to at least a partial conclusion. I have decided that it is not any one particular policy or position that I find so distasteful; rather, it is something to do with the manner in which they have reduced the abundance of the world. Everything about the modern right-wing ideology is offensively reductive. They restrict the rich diversity not only of the human experience but of nature itself. This is seen most blatantly in their reduction of all social and economic policies to so-called ‘measurable outcomes.’ Everything from healthcare to education is treated in terms of the crudest business model and reduced to inputs and outputs, as though you could measure normative values the way an accountant measures profits. You can see this in the contemporary obsession with standardized testing in education as though intelligence itself could be set to a formula. But of course education is no longer a social concern and even students are reduced to potential workers rather than growing individuals who can contribute in countless individual ways to the growth of our culture. Likewise, the citizen, once the central concept in democratic life and theory, has been reduced to the ‘tax-payer.’

But here is the rub; none of the most important things in life or society can be reduced to measurable quantities. Value cannot be measured. Education, for example, is not a number but a process of enrichment. We cannot reduce funding of education to an input-output model because its effects are moral, personal, and ideological. We cannot measure the investment return on normative standards, whether positive or negative. It is a deep perversion of the human and social soul to attempt to reduce health, education the environment, career satisfaction, or human happiness to a measurable quantity. This is, in my mind, precisely what it means to be human, to have values that are immeasurable and to look toward a better future that cannot be reduced to issues of measurability.

So here is what I have grown so uncomfortable with in the modern ideology; its proponents have abandoned one of the central aspects of their humanity – their illimitability. Thus when I look at George Bush or Stephen Harper, I see the soulless, mindless, heartless, autonomic creatures who have abandoned humanity and reduced individuals and society to a set rationalized functions that they think must always be measurable.

The way forward for people who oppose this reductive ideology need not be the creation of a complex ideology like those created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rather, we need to begin simply by rejecting the technical-rationalism that has colonized our moral and normative lives and we must embrace our illimitable natures. The world is infinitely abundant, don’t let men in suits reduce it to numbers and equations!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Shelley on Love

For your entertainment, a letter written by Percy Shelley to his friend T.J. Hogg June 2nd 1811.

“What is Passion? The very word implies an incapacity for action, otherwise than in unison with its dictates, What is reason? It is a thing independent, inflexible; it adapts thoughts and actions to the varying circumstances, which for ever change – adapts them so as to produce the greatest overbalance of happiness. And to whom do you now give happiness? Not to others, for you associate with but few: those few regard you with the highest feelings of admiration and friendship; but perhaps there is but one; - and here is self again – not to yourself; for the truth of this I choose yourself, as a testimony against you. I think; reason; listen; cast off prejudice; hear the dictates of plain common sense – surely is it not evident? I loved a being an idea in my mind, which had no real existence. I concreted this abstract of perfection, I annexed this fictitious quality to the idea presented by a name; the being, whom that name signified, was by no means worthy of this. This is the truth; Unless I am determinedly blind – unless I am resolved causelessly and selfishly to seek destruction, I must see it. Plain! Is it not plain! I loved a being; the being, whom I loved, is not what she was; she exists no longer. I regret when I find that she never existed, but in my mind yet does it not border on willful deception, deliberate, intentional self-deceit, to continue to love the body, when the soul is no more? As well might I court the worms which the soulless body of a beloved being generates – be lost to myself, and to those who love me for what is really amiable in me – in the damp, unintelligent vaults of a charnel-house. Surely, when it is carried to the dung-heap as a mass of putrefaction, the loveliness of the flower ceases to charm. Surely it would be irrational to annex to this inertness the properties which the flower in its state of beauty possessed, which now cease to exist, and then did mearly exist, because adjoined to it. Yet you will call this cold reasoning? No; you will not! This would be the exclamation of the uninformed Weter, not of my noble friend. But, indeed, it is not cold reasoning, if you saw me at this moment. I wish I could reason coldly, I should then stand more chance of success. But let me consider it myself – exert my own reasoning powers; let me entreat myself to awake.”

German Ideology

I was recently reading Jerome McGann’s book Romantic Ideology and he opens it with a discussion which concentrates on the different notions of ideology outlined in Marx’s German Ideology. It prompted me to look at Marx’s book which I haven’t read in fifteen to twenty years. It surprised me how much my response has changed over time. I am not nearly so repelled by what Marx so spitefully refers to as German ideology and not nearly so convinced by his arguments. Now, to be honest, over the past twenty years I have come to realize just how biased and disrespectful Marx was in his attacks on anyone with whom he disagreed, and this has tainted my appreciation of Marx. The truth of the matter is that as much as I respect the contribution that Marx made to modern thought he was very much part of the traditional, macho driven political discourse of the West, which is highly patriarchal, combative, and often lacks discursive honesty. In fact, given Marx’s attitudes in his confrontation with the supporters of Bakunin, I think we can safely, and sadly, say that Marx would not be out of place in contemporary politics. Having said that, I don’t think my opinion about Marx the man is entirely responsible for my changing views of German Ideology. For a number of reasons I just don’t find Marx’s idea of materialist view of ideology very convincing any more.

The biggest problem, the way I have come to see it, is that even if Marx was right, he was still wrong. Let’s imagine that Marx was correct in his formulation that almost everything about how we see and understand the world is a kind of superstructural edifice built up upon the material conditions in which we live. If so, then ideologies are, in the simplest terms, ephemeral constructs that pass away as material conditions change. As William Jameson said in his remarkable book, The Political Unconscious, even Marxism itself is a passing ideology that interprets the world according to its historical time and place. Or as Althusser, one of Jameson’s mentors put it; Everything is Ideology. But if this is so, then our thoughts have no transcendent capabilities. The problem is that, in the end, this is not a very useful philosophy. It would be as though we had conclusively proven the case for determinism. But then what? If we learn that all our acts are determined by material conditions and there are no emergent properties to consciousness, what can we possibly do with this knowledge? It is, in essence, utterly useless information. Similarly, if Marx’s approach to ideology is correct, what usefulness could we generate from this supposed wisdom? It is just a kind of ultimate disenchantment of our psyche.
Now, keep in mind that I do not believe that one must necessarily adopt Marx’s notion of ideology in order to accept a number of his other important political and economic ideas. I think that, despite what one may think, you could, for example, accept the idea that history is a motion propelled forward by a dialectic of class conflict without adopting an entirely materialist conception of ideology. And I am certain that parts of Marx’s analysis of Capitalism make a lot of sense regardless of whether our consciousness is entirely historical or may partly consist of emergent properties. In the final analysis, I think that this dilemma, like the problem of determinism, is indeterminable anyway. I just don’t think that human reason, if such a thing really exists, is capable of solving such a problem.

In the end I find that I have begun to harbour a kind of instinctual objection to Marx’s notion of ideology. I am certain that we are, at least in part, prisoners of history. However, I can’t help but suspect that, at some level, we can access transcendental ideas, or at least transcendental feelings. The problem is that I think that these transcendental ideas are not necessarily accessible by processes of rational thought or discourse. And if this is so then we must look for other kinds of experiences in order to gain the greatest insights of humanity. Unfortunately Marxists, being children of the Enlightenment, are stuck in a rationalist paradigm and therefore give little credit to such Romantic ideas.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Some thoughts on Conspiracy

Although it is a common sport to ridicule anyone who entertains any kind of ‘conspiracy’ theory, I contend that many people who engage in such theories are undertaking a perfectly reasonable and rational enquiry. Those who refuse any conspiracy theory contend that if there is no hard evidence to the contrary, regardless of any unanswered questions, the official explanation must be the one that we accept. Those who are called ‘conspiracy theorists,’ on the other hand, take a two-fold approach to events. First they look to see if the official explanation seems unreasonable and unlikely, or if it seems that those accused of the undertaking could not very likely have achieved such a goal. In an effort, then, to look for more likely explanations, they then ask: ‘qui bono’? And if those who most benefited from the events have much greater resources to undertake such a goal, coupled with a long history of such deceptive undertakings, then the ‘conspiracy theorists’ contend that this is one possible, even more believable, explanation. There is nothing whatever unreasonable about such a line of reasoning.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say that you have two children, one is a fourteen year old girl that loves to socialize with a long history of deceptive practice, the other is a very precocious seven year old who loves to get into mischief. Your teen daughter wants to go to an all night party where there will be no adult supervision and where you have a good suspicion there will be lots of alcohol and drugs available. You idly and sarcastically tell her that when her seven year old sister can do algebra you will let her go to the party, then you forget the whole business. Later that day you enter your younger daughter’s playroom and find her chalkboard full of algebra in her own hand writing. Your older daughter is nowhere to be seen. When the older sister comes home you confront her with the algebra, she denies any involvement and demands that you fulfill your obligation and let her go to the party. What are you to do?

Now for this to conform to the kind of events that are subject to conspiracy theories it would have to be more gruesome and the younger sister would have to disappear or die before you could test her actual knowledge of algebra. But you get the point. Are we to believe, regardless of any hard evidence to the contrary, that the seven year old did the algebra? Is it a conspiracy theory to contend that it is reasonable to assume that because the older sister had the capacity to compel her sister to write certain algebra problems on the chalkboard, that she had a history of deception, and she stood to benefit from these events, that she is the most likely culprit? I think not. This, in a nutshell, is what many people who are marginalized as ‘wacko’ are doing in many cases of important events.

What strikes me as odd is that the even when there is a long history of such events, people are still reluctant to question official explanations. Take the death of Princess Di as an example. Now regardless of whether you believe that there was more to this death than what is found in the official explanation, why would anyone be reluctant to entertain the possibility of something untoward? For centuries members of royal families have been plotting against each other, so why are we unwilling to imagine that it continues to happen in our own time? Consider the case of Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline married the Prince Regent in 1795 but had a troubled marriage to the future king. Princess Caroline was treated badly by the Prince Regent and prevented from seeing her daughter by the Prince. Banished for a while to a private residence, she eventually left the country and spent years on the Continent. When the Regent ascended to the throne Caroline returned to claim her right as Queen. However, the King and the other royals had other ideas and plotted to prevent her from taking the throne. The House of Lords even passed the Pains and Penalties Act to attempt to prevent Caroline from becoming Queen. Law Lord Hearings ensued and it looked like Caroline would eventually be able to claim the throne. On the very night of the coronation Caroline suddenly became deathly ill and died several weeks later of an ‘unknown’ illness. During the time of her illness, poor Caroline was constantly spied on by an agent of the Prime Minister who reported directly to Lord Liverpool concerning any change in her condition. Now, anyone who believes that this death, so remarkably convenient for the King, was natural please stand up! Well since there is no direct evidence to the contrary, are we compelled to believe there was nothing untoward going on here? I think not. Now since the royal family was so nefarious all those years ago and were willing to off a Queen, why are people so reluctant to think that it could happen today?

I contend that far from being wacko, anyone who does not easily accept official explanations is, in many cases, being perfectly reasonable. And anyone who simply refuses to engage in a little bit of conspiracy theory now and then is hopelessly naive. Look at some of the most monumental events of the past few decades and ask yourself qui bono.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Global warming

I don’t know about anyone else but I find that the entire ‘global warming’ debate has become a little bit bizarre. Let me explain.

Now, first of all, I am willing to say that our society put far too much faith in science and scientists. Science, like any other social institution, is full of biases. Although scientists like to think of themselves as ‘skeptics,’ they are never skeptical about reason and rationality or the concept of objectivity. Regardless of the great work of philosophers of science like Weber, Kuhn, or Feyerabend, scientists still like to believe that there is something unique about scientific endeavour in as much as it is the only form of human investigation that is an objective search for the truth. This is, of course, nonsense, and if they had paid more attention to human thought they would have noticed that even great thinkers like Montaigne demonstrated the importance of true skepticism, even skepticism of so-called ‘rational’ thought.

Now, having said that, I don’t exactly know where I stand on the issue of global warming. I think it is clear that there is a fair degree of consensus among scientists in different fields that the global climate is changing and that certain things that we have done and continue to do are contributing significantly to that change. But when people start suggesting that it must be true because few or no ‘peer reviewed’ articles are being published which dispute this conclusion, I get a little suspicious. This, surely, must not be our guiding factor. The process of peer review in all fields, including science, is fraught with political pit falls. The fact is that the scientific community, like any community, once it feels that it has reached consensus, will go to great lengths to exclude dissenting opinions. In science this happened when the scientific community resisted the idea of plate-tectonics for years and kept it out of the main stream. And more recently, this exclusion was felt around the issue of the big bang theory which is finally coming under scrutiny in a way that it wasn’t only a few years ago.

I point these things out not to say global warming is untrue but only to say let’s be cautious about our reliance on science to be ‘objective’ or unbiased, and definitely let’s be cautious about the peer review process in any field.

I make these points in order to say that I am a skeptic of both sides and while I believe science is an important institution with an essential role to play in society, it is certainly not infallible. But what I find most bizarre about the global warming issue is the way that it has been politicized. I consistently see in print and hear on the radio and television, people who ‘deny’ global warming (a very poor choice of words I should say) and who suggest that the concept of global warming is some kind of left-wing conspiracy. Do other people find this strange? Right-wingers seem to want to label any and all environmental advocacy groups as motivated by some radical left-wing agenda. Now while this is ridiculous and demonstrably false, it is a very strange charge. Many on the right are attempting to smear environmental groups with this political charge and give the impression that there are environmental groups out there promoting ideas such as global warming in order to somehow profit from their environmental advocacy. But what these particular right-wingers are forgetting is the application of the simple rule of qui bono; who benefits? Environmental advocacy groups are uniformly non-profit organizations. No one in an environmental group is gaining anything in particular, and they are certainly not making huge corporate-like profits, by saying that global warming is occurring and is a result of human interference. Now, you could argue that there are a handful (and compared to other industries it is only a handful) of people employed my environmental groups who ensure their continued employment by advocating for certain political reforms in the interests of the environment. But this could only be a small number at best and would not explain the overwhelming numbers of people who make this argument. And why would so many people who advocate for environmental issues target the concept of global warming in particular?

This is the most bizarre part. Because while global warming may be controversial and hard to ‘prove’ in the normal sense, we know that there are thousands of pollutants being used all the time that have terrible adverse effects on the health of people and the planet. There is no debate about this. We know that vehicle emissions are harmful to our health. We know that benzene can cause all sorts of health problems. There is no debate on these issues when we compare them to the debates of global warming. Ergo, if environmental advocates were really pursuing personal gain they would surely be concentrating their efforts on these issues because it would be easier to advocate in this area and therefore easier to protect their jobs as advocates. The conclusion must surely be therefore, that there is no left-wing conspiracy and that advocacy groups are attempting to popularize the concept of global warming because they honestly believe that this is a looming danger to civilization as we know it. Now, it is fair enough to say that they might be wrong but to attempt to discredit them based upon politics or self-interest is absurd. On the other hand, the groups that most consistently deny global warming seem to be tied in one way or another to the oil and gas industry. This should tell us all something.

It is bizarre too that anyone would come to the conclusion that because they believe global warming is not happening or is not occurring because of human interference in the environment, then this means that we don’t need to make radical changes in our energy use and our production of pollutants! Isn’t it enough for these people that everyone agrees that fossil fuel usage and various toxins that we use are causing myriad health problems? People can deny global warming all they want but even if they do they must admit that we are still killing ourselves with all the toxins we are using. There is no peer review issue at play here. You don’t have to like or dislike David Suzuki to believe that we have serious problems.

By all means, be as skeptical of science as you would about any set of beliefs. In fact when you consider that technology has surely caused as many problems as it has solved, skepticism is an important responsibility. After all, scientists created the atom-bomb and told us that red meat is good for us. But for all of my skepticism of science, I am significantly more skeptical of people who advocate for the oil and gas industry and people and politicians who attempt to marginalize environmentalist by accusing them of being left-wing conspirators.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Should we support the troops?

I wrote this a while ago and was really unsure whether to post it because I think it is such an inflammatory opinion that in our present state of creeping fascism it could be a dangerous opinion. But I decided to post this because, in the words of Coleridge; "Truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times, when to speak the truth is dangerous." Like many on the left, I opposed the Taliban long before it was a pet project of Western governments. But as a prelude to this post I should make it clear that I don't believe that the military effort in Afghanistan is really motivated by its stated goal of fighting a brand of dangerously 'radical' Islam. Rather, the war in Afghanistan is part of a wider effort of the West to control the Middle East. If the West really wanted to undermine 'radical' Islam they would concentrate all of their efforts creating a viable and prosperous homeland for the Palestinians and pressuring countries like Saudi Arabia to be more democratic thus undermining the fundamental constituency of this particular ideology. To say that the war in Afghanistan is an effort to undermine 'radical' Islam is like a fire department saying that they are going use gasoline to fight fires from now on.

With that said, I offer you the following opinion.

I grew up in the United States during the Vietnam era and I have vivid memories of the public debate surrounding the war. One particular experience stands out in my mind. I recall an eager young teacher once asking my class what it meant to be ‘patriotic.’ After a number of my peers gave her standard answers about loving one’s country and supporting its principles and causes, the teacher asked us a question that really stuck in my head: ‘Don’t you think,’ she said, ‘that being a patriot might sometimes mean disagreeing with something your country was doing?’ Now, while this question doesn’t not seem particularly revolutionary today, at the time it was something of a revelation to me.

But despite my continual hope that what this teacher said was true, I have been consistently suspicious of overt patriotism or nationalistic sentiments. I have usually been more sympathetic with Thomas Paine’s quip that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But Paine was writing in a time that was, in a number of ways, more radical than our own despite the fact that he lived two hundred years ago. Paine and many of his contemporaries wrote things that today would be shunned from public discourse. For example, just recently I was reading an essay by Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by many as the founder of modern feminism, in which she quite seriously contended that the very existence of a standing army was contrary to the principles of democracy. Very few people would take such an idea seriously today.

Instead, during my lifetime I have watched the standing of the military in public life go from a low ebb during the Vietnam era to the level of blind enthusiasm today. Even ‘left-wing’ politicians fall over each other to assert their ‘support’ for the military as though it is an institution of saints that can do no wrong. During the late 70s and most of the 80s, western populations were so suspicious of military efforts that most of them were conducted covertly or by ‘proxy’ forces such as the Contras in Nicaragua. But today the status of the military and its nationalistic escapades has quite successfully been restored. This resurrection has largely been achieved by ‘personalizing’ our military efforts. One important part of this strategy is the so-called embedding of journalists into military outfits. This is a simple psychological strategy by which journalists are put in a situation in which they would acquire a natural sympathy for the soldiers around them and this would be reflected in the way they reported on the war. It is, after all, easy to demonize an enemy who is shooting at your pals. As for the rest of the population we have been inundated by the phrase, ‘Support the Troops.’ This notion popularizes the idea that regardless of how we might feel about any particular foreign policy, the troops are just a bunch of great guys doing their best and putting their lives on the line for you and me. Of course it is never that easy and the fallout from this slogan is that it becomes increasingly easy to demonize anyone who opposes the actions of our armed forces. Almost our entire population has fallen into this little psychological trap that allows the worst kind of patriotism to worm its way back into society until it has become so overwhelming that no one would publically announce that they don’t support our troops.

But however unpopular it might be let me encourage everyone to retain the right not to support the troops. I contend that regardless of popular sympathies, such a declaration is not only within our rights but it is morally and politically coherent and can be discursively redeemed, at least within a public sphere that has not been blinded by patriotism.

The first reason that such an idea is defensible is that the very notion of supporting a state’s troops regardless of the foreign policy which they are enforcing is itself absurd, morally indefensible, and dangerous. If such a separation of soldiers and their military efforts is taken to its logical conclusion it means that we should support ‘our troops’ regardless of what they are doing. Thus if we were living in Germany in 1942 it would be ok to oppose the existence of death camps as a policy but essential to support the troops who were rounding up Jews, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazi Party. I believe that such an example demonstrates that members of the military and political and social implications of their actions are inseparable.
People who insist that we must blindly support the troops forget basic facts as well as the simplest lessons of history. The first thing these people forget is that the armed forces are a fundamentally political force, one of the essential jobs of which has historically been to control their own population. During the important revolutions of the modern era in which the population struggled for justice it has been the military that has been called out to suppress them in the interests of political and economic elites. The most recent example of this happened in Burma where soldiers indiscriminately killed Buddhist monks. Anyone who believes that couldn’t happen here today is irretrievably naive.

This brings us to the sad reasons that the above fact is true and the other important lesson of history that most people forget. The military is and always has been a brutal institution that functions on the essential ingredient of blind obedience. The armed forces create a psychological dependence that generates a kind of familial atmosphere of unquestioned loyalty. Soldiers do what they are told to do regardless of its moral or political content. Thus the entire course of human history is full of terrible acts committed by individuals who were simply following orders. It is the height of arrogance to believe that we are somehow above all of this and that our ‘sons and daughters’ are incapable of doing wrong. Examine this simple fact: there are few, if any, significant examples in history in which soldiers en masse refused the orders given to them by their superiors, whether it is the killing of Buddhist monks in Burma, the establishment of death-camps in Germany, the fire-bombing of Dresden, or the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The other day on a CBC radio show I heard a humorous iteration of this simple lesson of military order and obedience. The speaker, the name of whom I don’t recall, said it is absurd for military leaders to constantly claim in the public media that the troops support the present mission in Afghanistan. “They are soldiers,” he pointed out, “they believe whatever they are told to believe. If they are told to unload a truck, they passionately ‘believe’ in unloading the truck.”
In the case of conflict, soldiers are taught to demonize and de-humanize the enemy (even if that ‘enemy’ is part of their own domestic population) and they are thus brutalized and taught to brutalize in turn. This is not to contend that they are therefore incapable of good or morally upstanding acts. But even the most ethically righteous soldiers are constantly caught in a moral double-bind in which they must believe that their side is right and that those that oppose them are somehow morally degenerate. And of course those that oppose them must believe the exact same thing.

In the end, of course this entire argument relies on a complex political position that contends that whatever soldiers might want to be, in the final analysis, they are pawns in the state’s effort to assert its political and economic interests through military escapades which are always given some form of altruistic or even humanitarian spin. This position, which I believe to be rationally coherent and demonstrable, asserts that the vast majority of military efforts throughout history, and this includes those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are essentially politically and economically motivated in the interests of land, power, and money. And if one takes this position, then soldiers are at best the pawns of political and economic elites who are taught to use brutal force in order to fulfill these elite interests. This, I believe, extends to our own troops in Afghanistan who, despite any good they may hope to do, are part of a concerted neo-colonial effort led by the United States to gain effective control over the entire middle-east region and make billions of dollars for companies like Haliburton in the process. And the spin given to this neo-colonial effort is very similar to the one given to the original effort of Western colonialism; to save these people from themselves and bring them democracy.

This is why when someone tells me that they support the troops, I tell them that I don’t support them but I do pity them.