12 09 2010

Nine years ago yesterday, something awful happened in downtown Manhattan.  Whether it was the work of a small, dedicated group of terrorists who slipped through our defenses or a “Reichstag fire” has still not been settled.  While I find it hard to believe that the World Trade Center caught fire so readily and collapsed so neatly and completely without skilled assistance (including a building that did not get hit by an airplane but did contain surveillance equipment that could have told us who-knows-what), I also find it hard to believe that, in this Wikileaks age, nobody who’s in on the secret has spilled any beans so far.  Maybe it really was done by Israeli intelligence operatives.  They are some mean, dedicated mofos.

Speaking of mean, dedicated mofos, let’s give a shout-out to the US Congress for failing to pass a bill that would provide funds to help the thousands of people who are still sick today because they inhaled WTC dust.  Kudos to Bush’s EPA secretary, Christie Whitman, who announced that it was safe to work in the rubble without protective equipment. Kudos to the “support our heroes” Republicans who wouldn’t support the bill because it was  financed by closing a corporate tax loophole, and kudos to the Democrats who hobbled the bill by proposing it in a form that required a 2/3 majority to pass.  What a wonderful government we have, yessir.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  The rubble from the World Trade Center has been consigned to the dust bin of history, and is unlikely to ever be exhumed and examined, to the great relief of whoever is keeping whatever secrets there may be about this event.  In response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, because a bunch of Saudi Arabians allegedly attacked us, and the Afghans were allegedly giving them shelter, aid and comfort.

We never have found that pesky Bin Laden, in spite of all our vaunted high-tech surveillance and the presence of around 160,000 US soldiers, over 100,000 mercenaries, aka “private contractors,”  and the deputization of around 200,000 Afghans as soldiers and policemen–although, given the shoddy state of record keeping in Afghanistan, one of those deputies could very well be Ben Laden…but, I digress.  The country is relatively small, about 250,000 square miles, which means that there are nearly two foreign or Afghan soldiers per square mile of Afghanistan.  Many of those square miles are incredibly rugged, but others are flat as a pancake, with nowhere to hide. That should be enough “boots on the ground” to find whatever’s there, but Bin Laden, that former CIA asset, still eludes us, as do thousands of his supporters, aka a sizable percentage of the people of Afghanistan.  Yet another batch of mean, dedicated mofos.

So, the U.S. has sent 160,000 soldiers to one of the most isolated, primitive places in the world, and is trying to make it comfy for them.  When my father fought in World War II, he was issued  a blanket to sleep in and a tent to put his blanket in.  The war was nearly over before he got a real sleeping bag.  In Afghanistan, Uncle Sam is providing air conditioning for tents in the desert.  That’ll boost your expenses.  In fact, the war is costing the U.S. a million dollars per soldier per year.  This comes to about six thousand dollars a year for each of the approximately twenty-five million citizens of Afghanistan, whose per capita annual income is estimated to be about $800.  Gee…might they become a lot more peaceful and open minded if we withdrew our soldiers and instituted a guaranteed annual income of $1600 per person?  We’d save a lot of money, too, which we could really use over here, dontcha know?

Meanwhile,just south of Afghanistan, Pakistan is suffering from devastating flooding.  The immediate cause of this is an unusually strong monsoon, but what has made this worse is that Pakistan’s hills have been denuded by firewood seekers and grazing animals, so there is nothing to catch the water as it falls on barren hillsides and swells the country’s rivers.  Over 800 million dollars has been raised for Pakistan so far for immediate relief; more would be necessary to actually fix the deeper problem.  Eight hundred million sounds like a lot of money–but it’s the cost of maintaining just eight hundred of the 160,000 American soldiers in the region.  That’s one-half of one percent of the troops and the budget.  But we can’t spare it–gotta make Afghanistan safe for democracy, or oil pipelines and mineral exploitation in any case.  The US has kicked in the equivalent of just 150 soldiers from our Afghan expedition–a tenth of one percent.  That’s seven and a half dollars per displaced person in Pakistan.  Pakistanis are dying from malnutrition and bad water while U.S. soldiers eat steak and sleep in air-conditioned tents.  What is wrong with this picture?

US soldiers in Afghanistan are making enemies just by being there.  Scrimping on aid to Pakistan because we’re fighting a war in Afghanistan is making enemies by not being there.  In the Middle East, this contributes to the perception that the US would rather shoot Muslims than save them.  Here at home, where mass demonstrations against mosques are all the rage from Murfreesboro to Manhattan, Americans are likewise pouring gasoline on the fire of Muslim anger at our arrogance in imposing our secular/Christian, commercial way of life on them.  Some Muslims are indeed violent and misogynistic, but we lack the moral authority to inspire them out of those bad habits.  Not only are we pretty violent and sexist ourselves, but our secular, commercial, “Christian” culture is revoltingly shallow compared to theirs, in which spiritual considerations take precedence over commercialism.

“Secular/Christian”?  How can our way of life be both?  OK, this is the “deep green” part.  One of the changes in thinking that marked the emergence of Protestantism from Catholicism was that Protestants viewed a person’s path through life, whatever it might be, as, at least potentially, a “calling,” a spiritual enterprise, and identified material success in the world as a sign of spiritual success.  That is, if God loves you, He will make you rich.   Therefore, if you profess Christianity, and you’re wealthy, God must love you.  That is how secularism and Christianity can reinforce each other.  If you want to learn more about this, read Max Weber‘s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”  Weber was a prophet.

At a still deeper level, we are falling victim to good, old-fashioned Christian dualism–good and evil, Devil and God.  “We who are saved are good, those who are not saved are evil.”  If we are saved/good, any “evil” must be “out there–our own mind is pure because we are saved, so somebody else is the problem.  This has been a consistent theme through American history–some group has always been demonized, starting with the Native Americans, then witches, Quakers, Irish, Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Negroes, Chinese,  Jews, labor organizers, Communists, hippies, gays.  Now it’s Islam’s turn.

Nor can we ignore the fact that the real villains in American history–the ruling class–have distracted the masses into these foolish prejudices to preserve their own power. And no, I am not just pointing to another “enemy out there.”  We are all deeply enmeshed with those who rule us.  It’s called “the American way of life,” and the sooner we admit that it is, in fact, negotiable, the easier it will be  not just on  us, but on the whole planet.

music:  Jackson Browne, “Soldier of Plenty


13 07 2008

We took a wrong turn, initially, quite a while back.  You can argue about which was the first mistake.  Herding cattle? Agriculture?  Patriarchy?  Monotheism?  Urbanism? Christianity?  Industrialism?  Capitalism? Disco?  Someplace back in this litany of buzzwords, some ideas arose and became prevalent that are not so succinctly categorized.   At the turn of the twentieth century, two classic books, Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” and Thorstein Veblen‘s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” codified insights into Western society that remain true today.

Weber delineated how the spiritual/monastic urge in the human psyche, denied its traditional outlet by the Reformation, adapted itself to daily economic life by making the acquisition of wealth a holy task, and, complimentarily, a mark of divine favor.  All the passion, discipline, and asceticism that once went into seeking union with God, he observed, now goes into the practice of business.  In one remarkably prescient paragraph, he states

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (Page 181, 1953 Scribner’s edition.)

Well, the day when” the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” is just a hundred years or so away, at the rate we are going, and we are already starting to see what happens to that “irresistible force” when it runs out of the fuel it needs to enforce our allegiance to it.

Thorstein Veblen looked at the other side of the same coin and wrote about what he termed “conspicuous consumption”–the use of wealth to show off one’s good fortune–i.e. God’s favor.  I recently, out of some cross between curiosity and boredom, read a fashion and home decorating magazine, which featured in its center spread a model who was wearing clothing valued at about $5,000, which happens to be about a third of my annual income.  The theme of this particular issue was “going green,” and it’s obvious the editors saw no irony in their fashion feature.  Most of the magazine seemed predicated on the idea that if you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it.  You could call it a modern-day tract on the virtues of Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Here’s a quite relevant quote from Veblen about clothing:

So also the servants, both of the chieftain and of the divinity, must appear in the presence clothed in garments of a special, ornate character. The characteristic economic feature of this apparel is a more than ordinarily accentuated conspicuous waste, together with the secondary feature…that this court dress must always be in some degree of an archaic fashion. Also the garments worn by the lay members of the community when they come into the presence, should be of a more expensive kind than their everyday apparel. …. there is (also) required a certain ceremonial “cleanness” of attire, the essential feature of which, in the economic respect, is that the garments worn on these occasions should carry as little suggestion as may be of any industrial occupation or of any habitual addiction to such employments as are of material use.

As a matter of fact, the $5,000 outfit was described as being “”for the Creative Professional.”  QED?

What Weber and Veblen pointed out over a hundred years ago has just gotten more entrenched in the last century.  Whether or not something “makes money” has become the major arbiter of its worthiness and value.  Our culture’s non-conceptual religion, then–the ultimate measure of goodness–is making money.

And that’s why God made sub-prime mortgages.  Bankers did not want to be bound by the limits of the material world in their efforts to “make money”–to bring financial liquidity into existence.  So, instead of just loaning money and collecting loan payments, they started selling the loans, then selling bundles of loans, bundles of bundles of loans, and so on.  They were more interested in making loans than whether the loans could be repaid, for they thought they had found a way to duck out of taking responsibility for bad loans.  Did they understand that they were playing “hot potato,” that they had launched a pyramid scheme which was going to collapse sooner or later, and leave a lot of people, quite literally, out in the cold?  Perhaps.   They aren’t talking just yet, but sooner or later, the story will come out.

Meanwhile, we are slouching towards financial Armageddon.  The world economic system is based on the U.S. dollar, which is increasingly worthless.  The U.S. has material needs that it is increasingly unable to supply, caught between increasing competition for scarce resources and the falling value of our currency.  Because our high-priest economists have not factored in either the depletion of the natural world or the rising costs of every kind of pollution from carbon dioxide to pharmaceuticals, we are faced with an environment that is increasingly poisonous and increasingly expensive to mend–and we don’t have the money to fix it.

We can’t do much about many of our early mistakes.  Animal domestication and farming will, for better or for worse, continue to be part of the human repertoire.  We may be able, in some ways, to advance beyond patriarchy to a more egalitarian social system, with a more mystical, pantheistic, personally experienced spirituality replacing the “because-He-says-so” dictats of mainstream conceptual religion.  Disco, thankfully, has collapsed of its own dead weight, but if we are going to fix the brokenness induced by urbanism, industrialism, and capitalism, we are going to have to dethrone the implicit religion of economics and apply our mystical, personal experiences to a political agenda that recognizes that we are inseparable from the natural world, and can only be whole, happy, and healthy when that balance is maintained.

music:  James McMurtry, We Can’t Make It Here Any More

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