Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 7: Closing Statements

On July 4th of this year, I announced my withdrawal from the political process this election cycle. As news, this isn't very important or interesting to most folks. I am, after all, no person of power or influence in this society; just a jazz musician, poet, fiction writer, and sometime essay writer on culture. But enough of my friends were disturbed that at least one asked me to remain engaged. And as I've never been one to shirk my civic duty, I felt that the least a person can offer, when saying they won't vote, is an explanation. For the last month or so, I've done that on this blog.

My opinions have been public knowledge for months now. Few have argued with me, and those who have tried to talk me back into voting have made no compelling cases. The usual appeals to the sacredness of the vote, and those who sacrificed for this right,  have no meaning when the vote is for evil either way. Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony didn't sacrifice so that I could vote for such candidates. They would likely understand that my conscience answers to a higher power. And anyhow, much of Dr. King's tactical thought was derived from Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, which I have quoted extensively this election season, and which emphasizes the right to abstain from voting in an unjust system. In many ways, Thoreau exposed the system back then, and the reality hasn't changed since.

Let those whose conscience dictates they vote do so. Let those whose conscience dictate they abstain do so. If this nation lined up to confess its sins as eagerly as it lines up to support one of these unethical and immoral candidates, our nation would be a better place almost immediately.

God Bless everyone this election day. Americans: Try loving your neighbors as yourself and loving your enemies. Demand goodness and moral consistency from your leaders. We might really build a good society that way. Thanks for reading.


 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 6: Pro Wrestling Style Politics

I haven't watched pro wrestling since the mid-80s (back when it was still called the WWF, rather than the WWE), but even a 12-year-old could tell the outcome was predetermined, and the media emotion covering it was more or less scripted--the moral indignation was contrived,  inconsistent, and superficial. That the script was just about the same every Saturday morning made it predictable enough to watch with glee rather than horror. Psychologically, one might like to fantasize about hitting someone with a metal chair (though it's not good to do), but it's always nicer to know that, in movies and pro wrestling, it isn't actually real: such is the cathartic effect of drama. The catharsis, however, only works if it isn't real.

Our election script feels disturbingly similar this year, and because it is being portrayed as reality, isn't cathartic at all.

We're given a cartoonish, exaggerated villain who makes scary and dangerous runs at achieving his nefarious goals. Various morally compromising revelations are made against our hero (or heroine), who must battle back against all odds (though none of us really think the odds are against them), and we have the predictable turning point. A great deal of WWF coverage back then was devoted to pre- and post match hype, consisting of blustered recriminations and self-adulation. The verbal 'debates' between bouts were so idiotic, either side could claim victory (and both did). The same holds true here: winners of the 'debates' are declared by the media, often in contradiction even to the third rate bluster we've just witnessed. The polls read whatever the pollsters want us to read, and the political analysis seems so shallow, unrealistic, self-referencing and narcissistic that I'm honestly no longer sure our votes even really count--and I think we should seriously start questioning it.

This year gets odder the farther we go: the country feels to me like the Poughkeepsie Civic Center circa 1984. It's Hulk Hogan vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Hulk is the "good guy" because even though he used to be a "bad guy" he's actually a "good guy" now (and that's all the moral reasoning we're gonna ask for or get). Rowdy Roddy is bad because, well listen to him! He's all nasty! Of course Hulk is nasty too, but that's cuz he has to be! He's fighting Rowdy Roddy Piper! But don't worry folks, we all know who's gonna win in the end. This was just to get your blood pumping and make sure you're committed to the action.

The question for the electorate: Was the WWF of the '80s a prophetic work of performance art, warning us of the political climate to come? Or was it just a useful template for the parties?

I once ran into an ad man, brought in to help a friend's business start up. He said that, once upon a time, advertising used to be naive: they would acknowledge that the competition offered a decent product too, and that the customer actually had a choice between goods. The ad man felt this wasted time and endangered the attention of the customer. An improvement, in his eyes, was when a pivot occurred to "good vs. evil" in marketing. The genius of our current marketing trends, he concluded, was we've finally reached the ultimate in advertising, with one last innovation: successful companies have made advertising have the emotional effect of "evil vs. evil", and that marketing your business as the stronger evil, you can really get them hooked, with no rational arguments needed. (Think about that next time you watch a car commercial).

Interestingly enough, the pro-wrestling world seems to have morphed over these lines since I was a kid. So have our politics.

To choose the lesser evil is still to choose evil. In fact it's to participate in evil. It's a no win situation.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Poetics of Militarism

Military recruitment videos aren't the place anyone goes to experience art that plumbs the depths of the human soul or speaks profound truths to our historical situation, so subjecting them to poetic analysis can seem excessive to the ordinary American, who has been trained to think of poetics as an elitist luxury rather then a central necessity of life. But one of the goals of this blog from its inception has been to argue for greater poetic literacy. Without understanding the poetic function, which is inherent to all human beings and a necessary capacity we must all develop, we are easily manipulated and used. That our current educational system is hyper-oriented towards STEM training while virtually ignoring poetics, rhetoric, music, philosophy, and art is not only alarming in the sense that our current generation won't be "well rounded" as people: it's more directly a threat to their freedom, in that they will be completely ignorant to the very real powers of propaganda, persuasion, and coercion that are common practice in this world. Without poetic analysis, we are left at the mercy of rhetoric we can neither decipher nor effectively oppose. We are left adept at manipulating gadgets, but incompetent to reasonably dismantle obvious rhetorical lies.

The following U.S. Army recruitment videos, currently airing, serve as good examples of creeping militarism in advertising. They were launched in 2015, but I recently saw them pop up when surfing YouTube, and was shocked by their message. As works of recruitment propaganda, they are well executed. Stylishly filmed, they deftly blend a sense of epic majesty with the personal and heartwarming, and extend that to even the technical. Entitled "Narrative 1", "Narrative 2", and "Narrative 3", they work as a progression of thought. The music is patterned off of what is by now a well known cliche--majestic, open voiced orchestral music, with a reflective,  resolved, 'patriotic' sounding brass motif, culminating in a figure reminiscent of John Williams's Olympic Fanfare. This type of music is a staple of every Hollywood war film, generally used at a 'reflective heroic' moment in the plot. [note: for a more detailed discussion of the music, composed by Hollywood composer Mark Isham, read Jordan Newman's "Sounding Military Identity through US and Canadian Recruiting Videos." Ethnomusicology Review, Vol 18 (2013)].  It's worth pointing out that what we view as drama these days is mostly what people of past eras would have called "melodrama"--drama which is so thin as to need musical support for the emotions expressed on stage. In most of the films we consider classic, melodrama plays an important role. Remove the soundtracks from them, and witness how empty the dialogue and acting actually are. Once upon a time, this was understood. Now, more often than not, people uncritically accept the emotional experience, thinking the plot, acting, or camerawork was actually profound, when it would have failed without the extra boost given by the music. Musical ignorance ends up dumbing down a nation emotionally and cognitively.

This digression aside, these recruitment ads would fall flat without the music, and without the skillful montages depicting a little girl rescued, and attractive intelligent young recruits hard at work. Those are so skillfully weaved, that one barely notices the shocking message of the words.

The words themselves are carefully shaped little poems, using techniques well worn by American poets and script writers. In them we hear similarities to Whitman, Sandburg, and even Pinsky.

"Narrative 1" begins with a strong 'call and response' style opening:

The challenges facing the country never stop. 
So neither does the US Army.

This is followed by rhythmic listing, in threes, similar in cadence to Whitman:

We train, adapt, and get smarter. 
Every soldier, every unit, every day. 

And as so often with Whitman, there is a rhythmic pivot to emphasize the next, crucial line:

Not to keep up with change, but to drive it.

This is the shocking line of the ad. In the history of the U.S. Military, there have been many technological breakthroughs, it is true--and this ad emphasizes that with the imagery flashing before our eyes.  But the language is nebulous and elemental. "Not to keep up with change, but to drive it" doesn't imply technology or even military tactical theory but, especially in our recent political climate, something more like progressive campaign rhetoric. Now I don't wish to be misunderstood: there is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting change. But to suggest that it's appropriate for the military to drive it is very dangerous. The military's basic mission must be to protect and to serve. It cannot espouse a role of driving change without being in some ways antithetical to a free society.

The ad ends by retreating, quickly, from this point, and pivoting in message altogether:

Nobody knows what problems tomorrow will bring. 
But we do know who will solve them.

There is, of course, a logical inconsistency here. If the Army is going to drive change, someone in the Army will, at least in some ways, be able to predict at least some of the problems of tomorrow. There is a misdirection here that is not altogether honest or comforting.






"Narrative 2" dangerously suggests that the Army is the underpinning, rather than the defense, of the nation. It is arguably the tightest poem of the three videos, in many ways. It's three sentences, interlocked by subtle rhyme if not by reason, mask the jaggedness of the message:

Before there could be a nation
there had to be people willing to fight for it:
to take on the world's greatest challenges
whatever they might be.
So the US Army masters not only tactics and strategy
but also physics and chemistry
we make battle plans and create breakthroughs 
in medicine, science, and engineering. 
Our next mission could be anything
so we prepare for everything. 

Note the rhymes linking "be...strategy...chemistry" and at the end, the rhythmic surety of the last three lines, with their resolved sounding, identical suffixes: "engineering....anything....everything." That these devices interlock over various ideas gives the text a sense of cohesion that it doesn't actually have, logically. Rhetoric, which in many ways is the application of poetic diction to ideas, can sway our opinions without making rational sense. This ad isn't necessarily that bad (it can be read, as all poetry, in multiple ways), but it makes certain emphases that are not carefully separated from dangerous ideas--and should be in a U.S. Army recruitment video.   





The "Narrative 3" text reads (and sounds) like it might have been alternate dialogue for a less temperamental Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men--at least in some lines. The voice-over artist even delivers the first very similarly in contour to Jack Nicholson.

When it's your job to protect the world's greatest nation,
it's your responsibility to solve the world's greatest challenges.
This is why we search for the best and brightest,
why we train for every eventuality;
on land, in water, in the air, space, and even cyberspace.
We operate in a complex world, with one simple mission:
Win.  






In a very short window, this ad manages to flatter both the nation and the recruit, pivot to brag about the Army, then acknowledge the world's complexity only to immediately oversimplify to one, basic idea, framed outside of any ethical structure: to Win. If "Narrative 1" sounded like current left wing political rhetoric, this sounds like current right wing political rhetoric: to Win, unreflectively, at all costs. 

American society has been force fed the notion, enshrined in Vince Lombardi's insane dictum "Winning is everything, it's the only thing" for several generations now. In many ways, this saying has supplanted the common and more ethical, older American proverb "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." This final U.S. Army "Narrative" washes away any notion of ethical or moral concerns. Duty and honor are not discussed. Change and Winning are the goals, supported by the notion expressed in the middle video that the Army is the basis of the country; that the country--then and now--owes its existence to the Army. 

These videos are markedly different from the recruitment ads of the 1980s; the "Be All You Can Be" campaigns which emphasized self-improvement (socially, educationally, and financially) through Army service. Those tended to offer the Army as an advancement program: the recruit would help themselves while serving a worthy cause. That's not what these ads are. I believe they are creeping militarism.

We shouldn't expect that military recruitment videos be great works of art. But we should take seriously the poetic devices they use, what they suggest, and whether their "narrative" is true and healthy to the nation they ought to serve.    


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 5: Presidential "Debates"

Each election cycle there is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing from the media and intelligentsia that the election process,  and the country at large,  has been "dumbed down" to a dangerous degree. There is always a nostalgic sense that elections from just a few cycles back featured more intellectually capable candidates, or more substantive debates. Perhaps these guardians of the American Intellect have been around long enough to remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but frankly, I don't know if any disinterested observer of any intelligence would conclude that our televised presidential debates of the past several generations were won by 'substantive' arguments. They are more geared to photo-op style entertainment, and victory relies more upon posture, catch-phrases, and spin than upon serious issues of political philosophy, ethics, or morality. In actual substance, both parties resemble each other more closely than is generally observed. No matter who is president, we will continue a path of global economic expansion, social decadence, and militarism. The big differences will only be who gets the most power and profit. As Bill Clinton once (too accurately) mocked George W. Bush in the 2000 election, the debate seems more over whose fraternity will get control than serious issues.

If anyone doubts this, consider the presidential debates since 1980. Does anyone remember anything substantive about any of them? Let's consider who 'won' the debates and why, just based upon generally accepted popular memory.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan scored a rhetorical victory, showing no profound political or philosophical depth, by muttering "There you go again." It was without substance, but 'won' the debate.

In 1984, Reagan once again routed his opponent by not holding his opponent's 'youth and inexperience' against him.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush told the lie America wanted to hear about taxes.

In 1992, Bush was foolish enough to check his watch (for some reason it's difficult to find a YouTube link for this), and Bill Clinton felt our pain.

In 1996, Bob Dole couldn't convince "Soccer moms" that he knew who they were, while telling them he cared about their vote.

In 2000, Al Gore failed to intimidate George W. Bush, play-ground style. This major faux pas was enough to convince America that Bush had won the debate, it seems.

It's hard to imagine a series of debates more focus-group tested and safely played than 2004. The major concern of both candidates seemed to be to avoid 'gaffs' or faux pas. They succeeded so well that none of us remember much of anything at all about them.

In 2008, Barack Obama sidestepped issues of human rights, science, and anthropology by saying they were above his pay grade.  That was good enough for the electorate!

In 2012, Mitt Romney revealed his strategy for women voters: binders of women!

In 2016, Donald Trump is attempting the Jerry Springer style, and Hillary Clinton is taking no risks of substance.    


People of America, these are not real debates. We should demand more, but if social media is to be believed, we actually ask for even less. These are media spectacles; shallow popularity contests. And because they are run by the major parties, who insist on the format of the debates, and ensure no real challenging issues or actual point by point follow ups, we will continue this until the electorate refuses to participate.

Ultimately, our 'debates' are merely another chance for candidates to tell the public why their plan to make us richer and destroy our enemies surpasses their opponent's plan, which is inevitably dedicated to those same goals. The goals themselves are never seriously challenged, and the electorate seems not to care. Contrary to this, I personally believe the electorate does care, but are funneled to these goals throughout the entire election process. We keep choosing the 'lesser of two evils' all the way to the endgame of our ethical dilemmas being all but completely ignored by the time of the general election. And we accept this outcome cycle after cycle. The end result is informative: we are the most powerful and richest nation in the history of the world, and yet this is what we're discussing. Shouldn't we be more reflective and responsible than this?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 4: Foolish American Proverbs


The respectable man...adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving he is himself available for any purpose of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of the unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. 

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience


If you don't vote, you're a part of the problem and You have no right to complain about our government if you refuse to vote are two foolish proverbs, that have been predictably leveled at me over the last several weeks. As someone who has voted in every presidential election since my coming of age (dating back to 1992), and nearly every local election as well, I can't be accused of apathy to the voting process, and confess that I am by this point immune from such nonsense, but surprised by how such phrases are uncritically thrown around, and how many otherwise intelligent people accept them without scrutiny. These proverbs are uttered constantly, every election cycle and in between, but I have yet to meet the person who, having once said them, can defend them.

Taking the Second Foolish Proverb first, let's do something radical. Let's actually consider whether it's reasonable to assert that a citizen has no right to complain about the government without participating in the voting process. 

On a purely legal level, of course, the proverb isn't true. The first amendment guarantees our right to complain, whether we vote or not. Because of this, my firm belief is that, if I'm found railing against our system of government on this blog come Wednesday November 9th (a likely bet), no jackbooted goons will break down my door and take me away. This is admirable, and says something positive about our system to this point. It also shows that our proverb is wrong on a concrete level. But what about the other implications? Suppose I concede the proverb actually means that, reasonably speaking, one who disengages from voting is forfeiting their chance to effect the system. Is that also true? What does history say?

As usual, the history of slavery and women's suffrage are instructive in separating Mythical America from Real America. Is there any serious student of American history who would suggest that the opinions and actions of all women and most black Americans prior to their political enfranchisement were useless, ineffectual, and without justification? Would we seriously suggest that Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe had no right to complain, as they had no right to vote? And would we dare to suggest that these two monumentally influential women had no effect on the nation because they didn't participate in the voting process? Is the sum total of our political life the casting of a vote? Or does it entail much more than that? On a deeper level, is to be an American really only about casting a vote once every four years? I raise these questions merely to demonstrate that the proposition is ludicrous. Not only do I hold that their opinions mattered, and were of political importance surpassing many of the thousands who actually voted, I believe that the opinions of others in the world beyond the United States mattered then, and matter now,  to our political situation. Voting isn't necessarily the summit of political activity for the average citizen, and it surely isn't the only legitimate activity.

Beyond this, my contention since this past July 4th has been that the two parties in America have throttled the people and our process with immoral and corrupt choices. It is emphatically not by playing along with their system that we make a positive political contribution, but by withholding our participation in outspoken, meaningful, creative, and constructive ways. Once again, it is essential to realize and embrace the fact that politics lies beyond mere voting: it is about voices in the public square, at town meetings, opinions being freely shared through any and all means, and putting pressure on our political leaders to actually embody the values we hold, independently of their coercion and manipulation. Voting is only the final stage of ratifying chosen power, and only has legitimacy (in a democracy) if there is a willingness of the electorate to participate at high levels.
 
Consider for a moment if our drinking choices were as limited as our political choices. Imagine a country where only Coke or Pepsi were ultimately available. If you ask for root beer you are told "Well, Barq's is owned by Coca Cola, so you get Coke by asking for root beer." You insist that you'd rather have root beer, only to be told that asking for root beer means you must really ask for Coke, because the two big soft drink companies who own all the drinks in the nation have decided to stream line their businesses (similarly, if you wanted Gatorade, you'd be told to request Pepsi). Imagine you get more irate, and demand a root beer. The waitress then brings you a Pepsi--your penalty for not even asking for Coke. This is our political system, and its range of choices.

Americans, who would be outraged with such a  soft drink policy, are yet so pre-conditioned to accept whatever their political system tells them, they won't even question this very scenario when their vote yields the same result. Yet instead of the stakes being the cravings of our taste buds, they are related to wars around the globe, public welfare and safety, and the future of our children.

All of this leads us back to our First Foolish Proverb: If you don't vote, you're part of the problem. If ever there was a false proverb in our current situation, this is it. The people who vote, especially those who can't stand either Coke and Pepsi but go along with it anyway, are the real problem. By not demanding a change, and by a refusal to withhold their consent, they perpetuate the system.

No sane American would say that unless you are willing to be coerced, lied to, and abused, you have no right to speak out against coercion, lies, and abuse. No sane person would suggest that unless you play along with coercion, lies, and abuse, you are a part of the problem. But that's what our foolish political proverbs say, and they are repeated uncritically by voters and leaders each election. Why would we accept as a matter of government what we wouldn't accept from any other aspect of our lives?





    

Friday, September 30, 2016

Conscientious Objection (Part 3: Militarism)

Mel Gibson is now in the throws of promoting a new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, and is very quick to make abundantly clear that, while he objects to war, he admires the warrior. And he'd better speak this way if he doesn't want his career absolutely destroyed. If there is one thing we've learned since 9/11, it's that neither the government nor the American public will permit bad things to be spoken about the American Soldier--even if a situation like Abu Ghraib once dominated the headlines for months.

Part of the reason for this is pure fiction, even if people don't realize it. The fiction runs this way: the soldier isn't responsible for the poor decisions of their government or commanders. They are doing their job, which is de facto heroic.They signed up to defend the nation, and their conscience is clear so long as they do their duty, which is to follow orders. It is the job of others to figure out what the moral thing is on a global, political, or military scale. In short, our myth paints the soldier as one with little or no moral choice or conscience in the matter, and plays on our collective memories from when soldiers were drafted, or found themselves caught up in the winds of a storm larger than themselves. Like the men by the fireside in Henry V, we suggest that the soldier's conscience is utterly clear: it is the King who must bear the guilt if the war is immoral. 

This might have been more true, once upon a time, though even Henry refuses to accept this burden in Shakespeare's play. For us, it isn't very true at all. There hasn't been a draft since Vietnam, so it doesn't really apply--the conscience of everyone who enlists must be weighed, on their own, and there is no coercion involved. Granted the government may have gotten us involved in these wars for the right or wrong reasons, but that is for each soldier to decide using their own conscience, before enlisting. If you claim to be against the war, but for the soldier, at this point in history, you are at least in some ways talking out of both sides of your mouth--and you should have the decency to be honest as to why you consider the cause they are endorsing with their lives to be immoral. I have no idea what Mel Gibson's new movie is like. Perhaps it does justice to the the morally confused environment of our times. But if it merely glorifies the soldier while condemning war, it's more Hollywood nonsense. Having said this, part of the reason our current cultural situation is so confused lies in a creeping militarism that neither party has any desire to stop. A couple of days ago, I pointed out that the abortion debate is a useful wedge issue for Republicans that they have never really been committed to changing.  The anti-war, peace movement occupies a similar place among Democrats.

While Democrats have maintained a popular image of being the party of peace, the facts simply don't support it. Over the last quarter century, as we have fought the unending wars of the Middle East, our two Democratic Presidents have certainly been critical of Republican hawkishness, but they have never been shy about using military might in whatever ways it suited them. President Clinton seemed to use that power almost arbitrarily during his administration, so much so that he sometimes even appeared to use military strikes to cover his oval office scandals. President Obama, while running on a platform of peace, has not extricated us from the region, and will probably go down in military history as the political leader who pivoted from modern to post modern mechanized warfare, launching the full fledged era of drone attacks. Obama's legacy is the more troubling. Clinton can always claim he inherited a disastrous middle east police from George H.W. Bush, but Obama's decision on drone warfare was made without any public debate as to the ethics or morality of the practice. It might very well go down, along with the mechanized warfare of WWI, as one of the most inhuman developments in the history of war.    

Compounding this, to the vast majority of Americans, the wars are not real. We have a vague sense that they are being fought "for our way of life" or "for our freedom." A great deal of this might be self-inflicted gibberish by our neo-colonialist leaders, especially during the second Bush administration, when neo-conservative theories of imperialism were a major part of the administration's ascendant political philosophy. But on the whole, the wars don't touch us. We're vaguely grateful someone else, or someone else's kid, is the one being blown up, or on the Wounded Warriors commercials. The NFL accepted millions in payment from the Armed Forces to stage touching, seemingly spontaneous outpourings of affection for our troops, and we lap it up. It's part of the psychological and overly sentimental bargain we have: we will cry for you, and we will support you, regardless of our party affiliation, and regardless of whether or not we're against the war, if only you will let us play our video games and not have to do it ourselves.

But the wars are real. They are real for the people in the Middle East who have been dealing with the consequences of them for the last two decades. They are real for the refugees. And they are real for the soldiers themselves, who haven't necessarily been given all the information they needed before signing up for this supposedly glorious cause. We have a moral obligation to make them real. 

This nation has not had a draft since Vietnam. There is a reason for that. Vietnam was an unpopular "police action" (the preferred euphemism for war that never got a full declaration of war--in other words, a war that wasn't declared by Congress, representing the people of the United States). For this reason alone, there is no wonder there was such a public backlash. To be drafted into a war that wasn't acknowledged as such, by a government that hadn't made a convincing case to the American people and hadn't sought their approval, was an insult to our system of government. It didn't even bother keeping up appearances. The lesson the American government should have learned was clear: Get A Declaration of War. Instead, they decided the real problem was the draft itself. Better to sweeten the pot for soldiers, make sure the G.I Bill served them well, and to make sure that, unlike during Vietnam (whem many soldiers were mistreated upon their return to American society) they are treated gloriously at football games, and at every other turn. It is a powerful recruitment tool to tell a young man who has never felt of value that he will always be treated with dignity and respect by his community after his service. What is never talked about is the morality of our cause. The government never deals openly with ethics, never discusses the moral dimension of our nation's use of force. The discussion is always dominated by American economic interests or fear mongering.    

Around the time the Iraq War began, Rep. Charles Rangel (D, New York) called for a draft to be reinstated. It was seen as a cynical move, simply to create protests on college campuses and blunt the support for the war, and failed to gain traction in the hyper-patriotic aftermath that was post 9/11 America. For what it's worth,  Rangel, a Korean War Veteran, has continued to push for draft reinstatement all the way into the years of the Obama administration. Would we be able to maintain these wars if, instead of NFL tear jerking ceremonies, our main experience of the wars was the fear that we or our children would be drafted and sent off to the desert or the mountains of Afghanistan? What if the G.I. Bill was removed, and the draft restored? Would our nation feel the wars more profoundly, and would they be so supportive of the idea? What if Colin Kaepernick was burning a draft card rather than kneeling? 

Conservatives are quick to point out what they consider to be leftist plots to "buy" the population with free stuff (free healthcare, free education, free food). But there is more than one way to buy a population. What about free wars? All the government asks is that you don't think about them, and that if you don't approve of the wars, at least adore the soldiers. 

My point is neither to condemn nor praise the American soldier. There are different reasons for enlisting, and this system has now offered a great deal of carrots and propaganda, with very little discussion of reality. Instead, I'm pointing out a basic deception of our system. To suggest the soldier has no moral obligation to think through the morality of wars we are engaged in is wrong. A soldier's conscience is their own.  As Shakespeare's King Henry tells us, the night before Agincourt:

Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.


My further point is that your vote will not stop the wars, nor will they usher in an era of real discussion about whether or not we should continue down this road of American Empire (which we now are). The system is too strong and set, and both parties are behind it. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Conscientious Objection (Part 2: The Voting Game)


All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority.  

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

The act of voting is a powerful psychological activity. Under different governmental systems, the electorate's reasons for voting can take on different shades, as the very meaning of voting can be different. In a direct democracy, via referendum, while powerful personalities may have argued for various positions, the vote itself tends to relate directly to a concrete issue. However complex that issue--whether it is levying a tax for the public schools in Cuyahoga County, leaving the European Union, or placing a stop sign by the gas station of a small town, the issue has a certain clarity, a certain solidity. The benefit of this solidity is that the vote, in itself, actually accomplishes something by ordering a prescribed activity. The voter understands that they are casting a vote for a direct action (or inaction). Who takes or is denied that action isn't the primary consideration (though of course, it tends to become a secondary consideration).

Representative democracy is different because it always involves, primarily,  faith placed in another person. Whether I'm voting for Mayor, Senator, or President, I'm not voting primarily for a concrete action--however many promises that politician might have made during the campaign--but casting my vote of hope and trust in that person. There are obvious pitfalls of a pseudo-religious nature here,  and we see them every election cycle. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was perhaps the most masterful in recent American history for working in messianic imagery, but his was hardly alone. The presentation of candidates as national saviors is common. The opposition party almost always positions itself as saving the country from the worst four (or eight) years the country has ever seen (or close to it). Every election is always presented as the most crucial of our time. Non-religious materialists are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing. Generally speaking, no one is more of a sucker for a false messiah than one who doesn't believe in powers beyond materialist reasoning, because they are left entirely at the mercy of things that lie beyond the boundaries of their skepticism. And because our country is getting less and less religious, and more bound, psychologically and otherwise, to materialism, it behooves us to seriously consider the problems this will inevitably produce.

In his 2012 reelection bid, President Obama took a different tack. Perhaps after four years of actual governance he realized that playing the messiah role wouldn't fool anyone, or perhaps we got lucky and he is actually too humble a man to masquerade that long with any sense of comfort. Regardless, his reelection ad strategy was shockingly blatant and crude, culminating in this ad by Lena Dunham called "Your First Time." The ad was a copy of one run by Vladimir Putin for Russian elections, and reads like a young woman giving advice to other young women about who they should choose when losing their virginity. The connotation is clear: voting is like having sex; voting for the first time tends to be very important in how it binds you to that person. In retrospect, the shocking part isn't that the ad was run: it's that the ad is so accurate as to how people respond to their vote.

The two party system forces people into a series of bad compromises. It was ever thus, and it was always intended to accomplish this. But things are arguably worse now than they ever were in the past. Both parties are now products of the same basic power base. They share the same powerful money donors,  the same powerful institutions are behind them, the same basic foreign and domestic policies apply to both. If anyone doubts this, consider that we need to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan before we can find a president who wasn't an alum of either Yale or Harvard. If Hillary Clinton succeeds this November, that rule will continue. Both make promises on wedge issues they have no intention of keeping. Republicans claim they will do everything they can to abolish abortion, but they never do. Democrats claim to care about the saving the world from environmental disaster, but the very first votes they will sell out and ignore will be the environmentalists. And voters on both sides will routinely make excuses for the manipulative, false treatment they have received from the very party they voted for! Why?

The answer lies in Lena Dunham's ad. We've all known people who will defend the terrible person they're involved with, make excuses for an abusive spouse, say "my boyfriend isn't that bad...he doesn't really mean it that way." The fact is that we become apologists for our own bad decisions. We can't bear to think that the person we were foolish enough to give ourselves to was that duplicitous, that nasty, that we were such suckers in the first place. Besides, we think we still see the good in them. It must be everyone else's fault. Dunham is correct: voting psychologically links us to these people. Placing trust and hope in a person doesn't go away once they betray those hopes and dreams. It takes time, and it takes personal, self-confrontational honesty. In a marital or sexual relationship, one is generally forced over time to face facts. The stakes are too high, the situation is daily, and the problems too immediate to ignore forever. But in the case of politics, the problem remains distant, the people can be ignored, the blame can be caste without any need for reasonable discourse. This is probably why the American system makes politics so rude a topic of conversation. In other cultures, chatting about politics is not considered impolite, and it doesn't necessarily get so heated. In America, because it is dominated by the cult of personality and identity, it becomes too personal for casual disagreement.

I've called this section the voting game. Thoreau spoke of that game from the side of the voter: that we were basically treating the future of the nation as a game, and if our side lost, we were contented to say "Oh well. Maybe four years from now, I'll win the rematch." Thoreau pointed out that this showed many things, among them that electorate really only cared about making a show of their beliefs rather than practicing them.

But the voting game has another side. As I mentioned earlier, different governmental systems have different tinges to the meaning of their voting. But all governments want high turnout. The former Soviet Union had much higher voter turnout than we do. Not only was it good propaganda for the "People's Republic", but it helped psychologically wed the electorate to their system of government.

Our current system of government is like a bowling alley with two huge gutters and no lane. We, the electorate, cannot ever reach the pins, but we're all given a bowling ball and told we must bowl if we are to consider ourselves good, participating citizens. But the truth is the game is rigged: no third party can win, and as always,  one of the nearly identical parties will take over yet again come next year's inauguration. Our decisions will largely be made by non-elected officials, sometimes boiling down basic anthropological and societal questions to the vote of one, non-elected supreme court justice, appointed for life in another era, and the only remaining "swing vote." Anthony Kennedy, for many years on many issues, has been the only person in America with a real vote. Think about that. The reason: the Constitution says so. And because both parties have every reason to preserve the power structure as it is, and because the participation of the electorate is higher than ever and people are therefore buying into the system, the system has no possibility of changing.

Part of the answer is to realize that the Constitution simply must be altered to allow for a more free-flowing system, where power isn't locked in two parties which make anti-democratic rules such as the existence of "super delegates" (which exist only to make certain the power base remains the same, whatever the will of the people). And if people become too wedded to a party or a candidate through the process of voting, the first concrete step a citizen can take is to remove themselves from the voting process. If a majority of the electorate sees both candidates as unacceptable (which polls indicate in this election), they should by conscience refuse to vote. By doing so, the very first message sent would be that the president had no political mandate. Otherwise, the winner will claim one, and assert themselves boldly in ways the electorate will accept, having played the game.

This election and this system isn't a democracy. It's a casino. And as any gambler can tell you, the house never really loses. The only way to kill a casino is to not supply it with gamblers. The only way to stop this militaristic,  new-colonialist, mammon worshipping government is to first deny it legitimacy. After that, there will be other tactics. I'll get to them later.




         

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Conscientious Objection (Part 1: Introduction)



I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience


All valid civil disobedience begins with the understanding that an unjust law is no law at all. In the United States, this principle is usually applied to individual laws. Very rarely it will be extended to a set of laws, such as segregation or slavery. Almost never is it applied, at least in general public discourse, to the more foundational aspects of law in the broadest sense, which in our case would be the Constitution itself. In short, the nation is roughly divided into two camps: the so called Strict Constructionists and those who might be termed Social Evolutionaries. Missed in this dichotomy is a realistic assessment of the document itself. Strict Constructionists, by and large, tend to have an almost religious reverence not only for the document, but for the time in history and the men who created the document. Hearing them talk is almost to hear them preach, and their sacred text is the Constitution.

Social Evolutionists, on the other hand, by their very nature have less reverence for the document's original meaning, and seek to use a hermeneutic of change, altering whatever meaning might be assumed (latent or literal) to serve their social or political opinions of progress. Both sides unquestioningly accept it as the law of the land, and for the most part do not question whether it is just. The U.S. Constitution is, practically speaking, an unchallenged authority. Both sides shriek that the other has no respect for it, and both seek to wrap themselves in it. But does the document deserve this much respect?

It's beyond the purview of a blog to delve into the entire question, but for the sake of cutting more directly to our current situation, it's worth pointing out what the U.S. Constitution is not. It is not scripture, it is not some enlightened, transcendent meeting point between divine law and humanity. The framers weren't prophets, and their handiwork is not sacred. Saying this alone is likely to arouse fury in some quarters, but my opinion is that we really don't have any more time to waste, as a society, on pseudo-mystical nonsense regarding our legal documents. It's rather imperative that we begin thinking more reasonably.

A major step towards thinking reasonably about the Constitution was offered by candidate Barack Obama back in the election of 2008, during his famous Philadelphia speech. In that speech he referred to slavery as America's original sin. It's important for us to take this seriously, and realize several important facts about slavery in America, as they relate to our laws, and specifically the U.S. Constitution.

First, slavery was enshrined in the Constitution. It denied the obvious facts of biology, ethics, and the basic human decency of acknowledging African-Americans as people in the eyes of the law; going so far as to encode a method of false population statistics which would make it virtually impossible for them to obtain freedom under the law, ever.

Second, this enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution was a contradiction of the philosophy of the American Revolution, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. It was therefore a violation of any hopes we had to build a nation on true freedom, and in many senses a betrayal of the American soul from the outset.

Third, this problem was not solved by Constitutionally sanctioned means, but by the force of warfare and a suspension of Constitutional Rights (in other words, things got so bad under the Constitution that we abandoned much of it until we could force it to be amended). Call it America's "original sin" or a "betrayal of  the spirit of '76", but the Constitution itself was only altered to a more just reflection of human dignity by the force of the bloodiest war in our history.

Why is this important? Because, from the outset, we should be aware of the built-in potential flaws in our system, and the dangers of ignoring them. People in our society too often forget this, and equate law with morality and justice. It's important to remember that they are different, and that,  as stated earlier, an unjust law is no law at all.

Friends of mine have asked me to clarify my position, as to why I have chosen not to vote this election cycle. It has been suggested that I might be neglecting my civic duty by abstaining, and that any real influence I might have on making things better must be obtained by working within the election system. This may be true, but my evolving opinion on the matter runs contrary to it. Between now and the election, I will try when I have the time, to clarify why, and by doing so, live up to my end of the burden of public discourse--to do my civic duty, if not by voting, then by this mode of pamphleteering.

I believe that we must finally confront some severe problems with our system of government, and that voting only perpetuates the problem. The goal of future posts will be to justify this opinion. The discussion of slavery above was merely to make clear, to Strict Constructionists and Social Evolutionists alike, that there are times in a nation's history where we must go beyond both their categories, and address deeper problems than can be reached by staying in the system itself.

I recommend everyone who hasn't read Henry David Thoreau's highly important essay, "Civil Disobedience" (1849). While Thoreau's solutions may have veered precipitously towards anarchy (which I don't condone or think tenable), we shouldn't dismiss his diagnosis of many of the problems facing America in a structural sense, many of which are just as pressing now as then.

I hope readers of this blog will find the discussion worthwhile, and be inspired to serve our nation intellectually and otherwise, in a manner not being encouraged in the present political culture, which is a disgusting exercise in raw power grabbing and manipulation by powerful, immoral, and increasingly identical parties.




  

A Footnote to Our Raging Debate About Political Correctness

Political correctness is the attempt to impose a synthetic ethical system upon a post-moral society. It's basically just secular Puritanism. Trump and his supporters, by their rhetoric (or the rhetoric they are willing to support), only serve to point out they, too, are post-moral; just not the Puritanical kind. Neither side is interested in a serious discussion of morality---not on an individual, corporate, or national level. This election highlights our moral bankruptcy, and little else.



Would an Intelligent Pro-Lifer Vote for Trump?


When I read punditry like Fr. Dwight Longenecker's seeming attempt to either politically or ethically absolve citizens for voting for Donald Trump, I can't help but shake my head at the willingness to believe in platforms while letting history itself slide. So here is a rundown as I see it--a brief review of GOP presidents and candidates since 1980 regarding pro-life issues:

Ronald Reagan was pro-abortion when he was governor of California, and signed pro-abortion legislation. He flipped before the 1980 election, perhaps honestly, but perhaps because Carter had opened the door to its use as a wedge issue. He appointed three justices to the Supreme Court, two of whom turned out uncommitted to pro-life causes (Kennedy and O'Connor).

George H.W. Bush was never strongly pro-life, and his wife telegraphed that the issue didn't matter during the 1992 campaign. His supreme court appointees (Souter and Thomas) were split down the middle on abortion.

Bob Dole was a flip-flopper on abortion, and it was not a strong part of his campaign.

George W. Bush ran as a Reagan pro-lifer. But one of his first decisions as Commander in Chief was to waffle on stem cell research, the summer before 9/11. While he did tend to nominate those who appear to be pro-life justices, contrasting him to the first term of the Obama administration is instructive. He did not spend political capital on life issues in the way that Obama risked his political career on healthcare reform, using it instead on other issues until 9/11, after which he burned all of his political capital and more on war.

John McCain was never a staunch pro-lifer, and telegraphed as early as 2000 that it wouldn't be a major issue in his administration, should he be elected President. His strongest statements about the issue, from a pro-life perspective, were those times when he said he wouldn't remove Ronald Reagan's plank in the GOP platform against abortion. Not exactly abolitionist rhetoric.

Mitt Romney was pro-choice during his political races in Massachusetts, and changed his position when looking to the presidency. Anyone who really thought of him as sincerely pro-life can't have been a serious observer.

Donald Trump was a pro-abortion extremist until he jumped ship to run as a Republican. In many ways he's by far the least believable of the list.

So if you're a Catholic pro-lifer, and if you've caste your vote primarily on this issue for your voting lifetime, you might want to think hard. My opinion is that you're being used. I don't believe the Republican party really, as a whole, wants Roe v Wade overturned. I don't think they care much at all about it.

My advice: live the culture of life. Love your kids, love your neighbor. Be there for people in trouble, for the young woman in a bad situation, for the young man wanting to do the right thing: help them know the love of Christ in the midst of their trouble. Let them see that love is more important than career or standard of living, that no mistake or terrible situation is irredeemable. Be the solution. Be non-political about it. Don't get suckered. And stop shouting people down over a political wedge issue that your leaders never really solve in your favor. If you feel the burning rush of anger and self-righteousness coming over you like smoke over a battlefield...chances are it ain't the right way.


My Political Thought since July 4th

As a working musician, I've had a very busy schedule this summer and, as such, blogging has taken a real back seat. But several of my friends and acquaintances have asked me to clarify and add to my political opinions recently. On social media, I have become a rather vocal proponent for vocal voter abstention, while demanding reform of our system. A very good friend recently challenged me to consider our duty as voters. I feel this is a very important topic, and while time constraints preclude properly written posts, here are some quotes pulled from my Facebook posts and correspondence that might help clarify my evolving position.

From a Facebook Post published earlier this summer:

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the American two-party system is that it has managed to convince both ordinary liberals and ordinary conservatives of mediocre intellect (or less) that they are in fact extraordinary, highly intelligent, intellectually superior to those who disagree with them, original, and individualistic, when in fact they are uniform, unimaginative, predictable, and allow themselves to be ushered down a predetermined path on borrowed ideas they assume are their own. Almost none of them step back and question the fundamental assumptions of the system itself, and almost none of them ever realize that along with a manipulation of their ideals, self-image, employment circumstances, and fears, they are being mostly used for raw power on both sides (which don't look much different from each other, and who do basically the same things when they acquire power).


#ConscientiousObjection

From a July 4th Facebook Post:

At Mass yesterday, "America the Beautiful" was the recessional. We were at a parish where just about nobody sings anything, which is always awkward for a musical family, as we tend to sing everything...or at least the Dad of the family does (which probably embarrasses my kids). When in those silent parish situations, I try to sing anyway, but very softly (Mass isn't supposed to be a solo performance, and I have neither ax to grind nor point to make...just trying to lift my soul). Now I'm okay with "America the Beautiful", for what it's worth, as a tune...it's alright...not great, but hey...still, when we got to:

"O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!"

...I couldn't do it. I'm just not going to sing that. The history isn't anywhere near that pretty, and to sing it would make me nauseous. So I stopped. Oddly enough, behind us, bellowing away with a full, excellent sounding voice, was a guy who hadn't sung a word the entire Mass. He and his family sang every verse of this tune, though, with zest--as did perhaps a majority, finally, of this chronically silent parish. On his way out, the zealous patriot glared at me.
I've never glared at anyone for not singing the Gloria or the Sanctus, which, to my mind are infinitely more important (and more to the point, speak directly to the reason we're there on Sunday). Seems to me, people ought to make sure they know what they're actually worshiping. The worship of America is a pretty bad idea.


From a July Facebook Post, in response to a question from a friend about the efficacy of voter abstention:

From my point of view, neither Clinton and Trump, nor Democrats and Republicans, can be considered opposites in any meaningful sense of the word. Both are dominated by materialistic outlooks, both are ultimately militaristic parties, and even if they protest they aren't materialists in philosophic sheen, they are in practice. (If we judge by their fruits, we're looking at the same poisonous tree). 

To answer your questions about abstaining, and whether it is selfish or has any efficacy... Hypothetically speaking, if the choice is between Hitler and Stalin, abstaining is the only moral option, in my opinion--a refusal to give the election legitimacy is the only card left the moral voter. And while I wouldn't say we're forced into a Hitler or Stalin choice, exactly, both choices this year are so immoral I might as well be in that situation. To vote for a third party candidate would only be to validate the system another way. So, for me, it's not selfish but the the only moral choice. (I realize this thinking isn't likely to be popular, but I've never worried about that). 

Now, as to whether abstaining 'accomplishes' anything. In a practical, outward political sense, maybe not. But as a psychologically and morally freeing factor in an individual sense, I've already felt its positive effects. Since my 'Declaration of Independence' on July 4th, I've felt more free to comment on the injustices I see, because I'm not bound to defend the immoralities of either party which by voting for we all invested in, to some degree or another. I'm no longer engaging in the false hopes extended by these intensely dishonest parties in this rigged, dishonest system. What if everyone else made this choice? Then we might get somewhere on a societal level and it WOULD have an impact. But even if I persuade exactly no one to join me in moral withholding of their vote, *I* am more free...and even one person thinking and acting more freely in this society is a net gain.

[To be continued....]

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day

When both parties are immoral and corrupt, and the system is rigged such that any alternative vote only serves to benefit that same two party system, the only virtuous action seems to me to drain legitimacy from the system itself by refusal to vote, and by stating one's opposition to the system itself, clearly and without apathy.
If the majority of Americans (who, polls suggest, prefer neither party's candidate) were vocal and active about their disbelief in this corrupt system, rather than silent or abetting it by voting for the "lesser of two evils" (in a system where both sides look more and more identical, and increasingly evil), there might be a chance of good reform. As things currently stand, however, both sides use manipulative and coercive means to gain and retain power.
I was raised to believe that voting, beyond being a right, was a civic duty, and as a corollary, that one had no legitimate voice to complain about one's government without exercising that right. I now feel our situation is the exact opposite. To vote for either party is to participate against my own conscience, and to maintain a system by which truly just public and foreign policy is made impossible. In such a circumstance, the system itself needs to be altered or changed.
I've thought long and hard about our political situation for many years now, and even tried to enlist friends of mine to argue me out of what I've been seeing. I would have loved to become a good card carrying liberal or conservative. I'd even have loved to become a moderate decrying both extremes. But none of it will do. The corruption is obvious and unsolvable by the rules of the current game. By participating we give it legitimacy. By apathetic, cynical non-participation we ignore our responsibility, as adults and human beings, to work towards a truly just political culture, for the benefit of all people. One alternative to this, and the one I'm currently espousing, is active, critical non-participation with a healthy dose of civil disobedience, when the opportunity presents itself.
I think it's time for the American people to declare independence from a corrupt system. Happy July 4th.

Monday, May 16, 2016

SISSON AVENUE EXIT [1992] * A POEM




[ several different directions

will confess a similar story

(if they’re honest) that is,

but even if they’re not, ]


the wash of frozen slush, the wipers, the snow,

but the golden brown kind


                        [ we’ve all got problems of our own ] we like to

think in the sunset, shrouded (because of the clouds)

and

under the clouds, shrouded (because of the snow)

and

let’s not even talk about the windshield

mingling with the rush hour street lights

turning the snow a golden brown

the Sisson Avenue Exit is unique

because it goes in so many different directions,

looks like an exit to another highway (but not really)

it’s just that West Boulevard terminates here,

maintaining the median between the roads for just a second

inherited from the highway (or so it seems)

but that’s another trick of Hartford:

the Boulevard was here first

(though it would sooner die than tell you)

so you jockey for position in the lanes to grab the interstate

(you’re not leaving Connecticut, but you can’t resist:

the highway alters time and space

you’ll get to your apartment

or your home or your hotel

earlier than you thought you would

and you might never see this place {in time} again) the Sisson Avenue Exit

that is

in the snow that falls like golden slush there is a hush outdoors,

locked away from the radio stations in the cars,

on the median I saw a hooded figure, standing in monastic silence,

holding a cardboard sign

army parka, thick half-gloved fingers, and nothing but the hood


[ Vietnam Vet Will Work For Food ]


I wondered without wondering who he was and what he needed

but the traffic light turned green and red and yellow

and who are we to question when it does

that fellow on the median, a parka, a hood, only a hood, no face,

but a column of solid steam billowing forth like an invisible command,

nothing but a column of frozen breath pouring

out of him, pouring out of him upwards, pouring upwards out of him  

frozen incense from the thurible of his lungs,


Will Work For Food, the parka, the hood, at the Sisson Avenue Exit, 

to the interstate I went

though I wasn’t leaving Connecticut, and I’m turning around him, 

marking ninety degrees  

seeing him through every lens and various windshields, 

windows, rear view mirrors,

(he doesn’t watch me watching him the hood remaining motionless) 

I try to catch a glimpse of our humanity 

the column still pouring forth, stationary,

disappearing in the solid dusk above us


ask any of them who were there that night and they’ll tell you:

The Man, The Median, The Sisson Avenue Exit in The Snow 


if they don’t or won’t they weren’t paying attention

or they’re lying or we all have troubles of our own (some will avow)

but it’s still there all these years later, the incense billowing upward

in a single frozen column from his life,

still there at the Sisson Avenue Exit,

no matter what we may have meant or said.

















Copyright Eric Seddon 2016