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Sticks, Stones, and Nukes

It is thought the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima resulted in the deaths of approximately 90,000 to more than 100,000 people most of whom were non-combatants. In Nagasaki, the second target, at least 80,000 casualties resulted. During the Cuban Missile Crisis large Soviet cities were targeted with hydrogen weapons to be delivered mostly by ICBMs with less than 30 minutes of flight time from US silos. Large American population centers were likewise targeted by the Soviets. It is certain that with such little warning millions of people would have been killed on both sides.

Warfare began with sticks and stones and until modern times, counted casualties in ones and twos, then hundreds, then thousands and generally involved only actual combatants. Until weapons such as cannons and longbows it was also usually a matter of one-on-one personal combat. Today a crew of two has the power to kill millions of people thousands of miles away most of whom would be innocents. The power to kill millions of human beings in one fell swoop was once unimaginable and today military personnel in the US, Russia, and China sit around the clock at their underground consoles with exactly that capability.

When I served as a launch control officer in the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereafter I don’t recall conversations about the ethics or morals involved in expending nuclear weapons. Our concerns were about lawful orders and technical matters not moral or ethical issues. Philosophical considerations would not have served the purpose of reactive or proactive national defense in the face of what was believed to be an imminent Soviet threat. We were the front lines of deterrence and took that responsibility seriously. It is true, however, some officers and airmen did ask to be relieved of their assignments as launch personnel because of their religious beliefs. I personally assisted a few airmen to find different assignments without prejudice.

I managed to carry out my duties as a launch officer for several years because I believed mutually assured destruction was the deterant. Our unhesitating willingness to launch was what kept nuclear war at bay.  Had there been a nuclear exchange I would be safe in my underground launch control center while it was certain my family would be annihilated, not an easy circumstance to live with but we all did. Ultimately there would have been no safe place anywhere from the effects of a nuclear exchange. There would have been no escape not even for those secured in underground bunkers. Eventually everyone would have to emerge. And, as John Kennedy warned, the planet would be uninhabitable.

Recently the disaffection of Minuteman missile crews standing alert has been a major scandal. Cheating on tests was apparently rampant as was sleeping on the job. The crews were bored perhaps by inactivity. Minuteman crews have meals prepared for them topside, above ground sleeping quarters, all in all pretty cushy arrangements compared to the Atlas and Titan crews of the 60s. I have no doubt the lack of a clearly defined threat or tangible enemy was a contributing factor. Of course the Air Force was alarmed and perhaps shocked as more and more questionable behavior was exposed. The immediate remedy was the removal or retraining of the officers involved. Efforts were also made to render the living and work situation more tolerable. The other day I read in the news crew members are being awarded medals apparently not for facing down an enemy but, it would seem, for overcoming ennui. I hope it works. The air and missile crews of the Cuban Missile Crisis received not even a thank you – what we did was nothing less than what was expected. What we got was more training, more testing, more alerts – doing exactly what was expected of us. Minimum passing grade on tests remained 100%. That was then – this is now.

Over the years I find myself thinking more and more about my own thinking during those tense days. I remain secure with the correctness of my decisions at that time and, at the same time, discomfited by them. On the one hand, how could anyone go along with mutually assured nuclear destruction while on the other, how could we have not?  Several years ago my wife and I wrote a screenplay about that time and its dilemmas titled “Commit” after the name of the last button on the launch control console, a command from which there was no reversal – once pressed the missile was committed to launch, a hydrogen warhead would be on its way to target. The screenplay won a prize from the Page International Screenwriting competition in 2011and was recently performed as a table read in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the story was well received by most of the audience.

Interestingly, for some, especially the younger crowd, I got the feeling the events described in the screenplay were abstract and, for them, the likelihood of nuclear war so remote they could have just as easily been listening to a reading of Beowulf. That disconnect I think expresses the crux of the matter. The general awareness of warheads underground in the Northern Plains attended to by increasingly disaffected crews paints a picture both dangerous and encouraging. The danger lies in the existential weariness in facing hypothetical threats compared to the reality of the Cold War. The encouraging aspect is that we have averted nuclear war for decades and now there is a growing international awareness of the nihilism represented by such warfare. There would be no winners only losers – nothing would be gained, civilization would be lost – we would be back to sticks and stones. If there is hope for civilization, abolition of nuclear weapons is the first step. May we live to see that day, it’s the world I want my grandchildren to live in.

I know not what weapons World War III will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones. – Albert Einstein

Let Us Now Praise The VA

  veterans-administration-logo

The Veterans Administration is a large and sprawling organization –  a bureaucracy by definition and like all bureaucracies, it has both faults and virtues. Speaking for myself I have had nothing but a good VA experience, great care givers, and excellent care over many years.  On September 10th of this year I had a heart attack and was taken by ambulance at my request more than 100 miles to the Albuquerque, New Mexico VA hospital. It was the best call I could have made. From the moment of my arrival through discharge three days and two stents later I received the best medical attention imaginable. The caring, professionalism, and attentiveness of the staff carried the day. Because of their dedication and professionalism here I am writing again, being productive – laying up block, building and now roofing an addition, splitting firewood, taking my daily mile and a half walks. It’s a new, slower normal but it is a normal – and thanks to the VA I’m alive to do it.

None of the foregoing, however, negates what seem to be legitimate concerns with the care and attention reported by others. To be sure, in a system as large and unwieldy as the VA, there are going to be problems – people are going fall into cracks, there are going to be good people and bad people employed in the system, and there are going to be people complaining no matter what. There will be people like me who think the world of the VA and those who hate it. No matter which side of the divide anyone is on, there are irrefutable truths which must be acknowledged and dealt with in a timely manner. First and foremost, the new Director needs all the support and input he can get from all of us and adequate funding from the US Congress, far too many members of which have never served in uniform.

Next, if this country is going to continue on its path of unending wars around the world, a solid and dependable veterans’ health care system must be in place for those sent into harm’s way, regardless of the cost. If we can afford $1.5 trillion for a fleet of F-35s, we can well afford to provide world class medical care for those doing the dirty work – to do less would be immoral. Consider for a moment the disparity between the $600 billion 2015 Department of Defense budget and the $168 billion allocated for the VA, which cares not just for those returning from current military adventures but vets going back to World War 2. I wasn’t born yesterday and am well aware that politics and morals are generally mutually exclusive. It’s going to take public pressure brought to bear by all those who appreciate and understand the sacrifices required by military service to ensure that Congress ponies up. American service men and women are not stateless mercenaries, they are serving this country, they are serving all of us.

Of course, better than any of this would be to heed General Eisenhower’s warnings and put an end to the war industry. Put $600 billion into public education, health care, infrastructure, and other socially necessary programs. Just imagine what this country could be like. Then and only then would we be truly “exceptional”.

What’s Next?

What was once American democracy is disappearing. It is being replaced by Authoritarian-Capitalism, a cross between an economic belief system and a trope version of Christianity which is hatching like those creatures emerging out of an astronaut’s body in the film Alien. Recently, in a secret meeting with his billionaire sponsors, a Congressman, Mitch McConnell, promised he will work to undo every Federal social program possible. In Mississippi the Chief Justice of that state’s Supreme Court told an audience the First Amendment of our Constitution applies only to Christians. Malthusian zero-sum Christian-Capitalism is reaching for a transformative end game. What kind of country are these people imagining?

The United States has always been about business and money even before it was a country, well before a “Revolution” that did more for business interests than for the general population, women, and people of color. Every 4th of July we celebrate the efforts of a group of wealthy lawyers and businessmen who created a country where their interests and investments would be protected and their prejudices regarding blacks and natives preserved. People who were not property owners, women, people of color, and aboriginals were explicitly excluded from the contract. This is not the version of US history taught in schools of course but it is the truth and it bears directly on what we are witnessing today, a realization of that foundational vision fueled by loathsome myopic greed enabled by increasingly more severe social control. Strike a fast food franchise for a living wage and you will probably be arrested. Today workers’ wages are at their lowest share of GDP since 1947 while corporate profits are the highest in 40 years.

Today’s  circumstances are the result of an illusory social contract wherein people believe they have some things they don’t – opportunity, freedom, and equality – they have been kept in line with a materialistic false hope of “making it big”. In fact they aren’t going to make it big. They probably aren’t going to make it small either. The game is rigged and in no small measure because people refuse to accept the truth having bought the propaganda that today’s conditions are democracy at work, to complain is un-American, and there is no such thing, says John Boehner, as inequality. When 1% of the population controls nearly 40% of wealth and the remaining population is systematical deprived of any possibility of advancement that is inequality. We are living in a “civilized” country where 13 children have been shot dead for every US casualty in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2012. In 2013, 6.8 million homes in the US lacked sufficient food to feed their families. Well we do have the fastest and most expensive fighter jets like the F-35 that cost $89 million each and, because of flaws, are not yet fully operational. Is this what is meant by American “exceptionalism”?

The ideological skids were greased for todays’ assault on the social contract by Lewis F. Powell, Jr. the Supreme Court Justice nominated by Richard Nixon in 1971. Powell authored the majority opinion in 1st National Bank of Boston vs Belloti which laid the foundation for today’s Citizens United decision establishing corporations as life forms equal to humans. Powell also wrote the infamous “Powell Manifesto” in 1971 for the US Chamber of Commerce which became the Right’s sacred text in which he described how the “system” must overtake Liberalism and ultimately control society. In the manifesto Powell uses the term “system” to depict those whose political beliefs and financial interests must be protected and promoted, the “Free Enterprise System”. In a 6,084 word document Powell used the word “system” 54 times. There was once another Lewis Powell in US history, during the civil war, he was an assassin.

What a dream – the American Dream, American “exceptionalism”. It’s a narrative that keeps things going. It’s the ultimate fantasy aside from sex and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. You’ll be living in a penthouse with a poor door to insulate you from the slackers who haven’t worked hard enough to “make it”. The US has more than 1.6 million children homeless and the highest rate of child poverty of any major country in the world, we also have more people in jail than nearly any country in the world – that’s certainly “exceptional”, isn’t it? But, really, “folks” the bottom line question is – what’s next?

“ … comes the Revolution.”

The Economist recently published an essay asking, “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”. Why has Democracy run into trouble and what can be done to “revive” it. What’s “wrong” with Democracy is not limited to economics. American Democracy, such as it is, is long overdue for scrutiny. When a state supreme court chief justice claims the 1st Amendment only protects Christians and the US Supreme Court declares corporations are entitled life forms, more is wrong than a just few aberrations. It’s a movement and not a good one for Democracy.

Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies – they are, in fact, antithetical. Democracy is about human beings, Capitalism about money. Democracy is about equality, Capitalism is about inequality. The former asks for cooperation the latter demands competition. There are consequences to this dichotomy; one economist called it the “Great Gatsby curve” where upward social mobility is thwarted by inequality. It’s telling that the criticism of Piketty’s, Capital in the 21st Century, has been feeble at best.

Democracy is a political belief system while Capitalism is an economic belief system posing as a religion. As John Foster Dulles once remarked, “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” Capitalism and Democracy are antagonistic. This isn’t complicated. Capitalistic success eliminates equality, establishes market hegemony, while redefining venality and greed as virtues. Democracy, on the other hand, binds a population into a sense of common good antithetical to the “whatever it takes” ethos of Capitalism.

Economist piece does not address the right-wing oligarchy’s attack on American Democracy lead by business-centric organizations such as ALEC, funded by wealthy underwriters such as the Koch boys and assisted by venal rent-seeking politicians. High on the ALEC agenda is curtailing voting rights. What better way to strangle democracy? As Nobel economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz pointed out, “in a system of one person one vote 100% of the people are supposed to count.” The right to vote can be and is being extinguished with gerrymandering and new voter ID laws at the state level. The voice of Democracy will be silenced when big money has its way.

A social contract is the essence of a society, which is to say it provides the generative syntax, the grammar of social conduct. All social contracts rest on foundations of social beliefs which, unlike religious beliefs, are tangible, provable, life as it is experienced on a daily basis. Traffic lights turn red and everyone is expected to stop. When the lights turn green we go. We believe others will respect the meaning of the lights because that is a covenant of the social contract. If drivers generally ignored this contractual requirement mayhem would result. Corporations shipping profits overseas to evade their fair share of taxes is clearly a violation of the “common good” social contract.

The goods of democratic social life lie in the commons. Greedy plundering of those commons is depredation and the core values of democracy – equality and cooperation – are destroyed. When this has happened historically people rebel, those in control become fearful, the social contract morphs into social control, and the soul of a society is stilled. Why is the US DOD funding Project Minerva, a large academic study, according to its summary documents, of “domestic situations … in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order”? Is the recent militarization of police forces across the country an anticipation of social disorder?

The social contract in any society is large and messy. In spite of being riddled with contradictions and conflicts social contracts do manage somehow work. But when contradictions accumulate, disenfranchisement and inequality erode social bonds. Elected officials now take to television to chastise people who want to see a higher minimum wage – people who work 40 hours a week but can’t feed themselves let alone a family. Candidate for Senate Karen Handel of Georgia believes minimum wage laws should not even exist. The United States is a country where a basketball player earns $30 million a year against $43,000 a year for a firefighter who risks his life to save lives and protect property. Which service does the society value most? How does anyone morally justify $26.7 billion in bonuses for financiers who oversaw the destructive financial collapse that caused incalculable losses to pensioners and small savers across the country who have no recourse and no way to recover?

There is social contract theory and there are social contracts as they are lived. Contradictions add up they accrete, they harden attitudes and perceptions of social and economic injustice. Ultimately there are no longer shared perceptions or shared interests to bind the contract. Modern Dickensian squalor consists of people being forced out of their homes because of financial circumstances they have no control over or, as in the case of Detroit, the water supply is cut off to people’s homes because they can’t pay their utility bill.

Bernie Sanders points out, “There are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our nation’s history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the world.” Relegating large numbers of people to the “poor door” slides society towards incivility and rebellion. When the middle class is reduced to poverty and their vested interest in an orderly society is no longer viable, they will revolt. They always have. What has gone wrong with Democracy is that it has been conflated with Capitalism. The notion of American exceptionalism has been rendered false. We are, after all these years, still struggling to meet the challenge of our Constitution -  “to form a more perfect union.” The outcome is yet uncertain. As an old friend of mine used to say, “comes the Revolution!”

Sleep Walking Away From Democracy

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public have little influence over the policies our government adopts. … America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened”, concludes a recent Princeton study. Threatened by the Supreme Court, by Congress, by wealth, but even worse by apathy and indifference.

“O sleep, O gentle sleep, … Nature’s soft nurse …” so said Shakespeare. Nature’s soft nurse indeed. For many sleep is the best way out.  Look the other way, be numb, don’t notice – don’t identify with what is being done to others. It’s always “others” – not me, not us but “them”, those “others” are the ones affected, it won’t happen to me . Martin Niemoller, a German pastor, witnessed the Nazi round-ups first of Jews, then Communists, then trade unionists, then social democrats.  Niemoller said nothing until: “When they came for me there was no one left to speak out.” Can’t happen here. Can’t happen to you. That’s what you need to believe. George Carlin once said: “The American Dream [is] so called because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

How do we describe much less understand people like the Governor of Oklahoma who signed a law banning cities in that state from setting minimum wage laws? Not far behind, in Louisiana lawmakers banned consensual same sex activity but left legal necrophilia. In Nevada a rancher who has for years been using government land to pasture his cattle without paying has declared, as far as he is concerned, the US government doesn’t exist. Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand fan, whose college education was paid for by his father’s social security death benefits now denounces those benefits as “socialist”. Not to be outdone, our Supreme Court has gifted corporations and money with human status creating a veritable United States of Money. How to explain these challenges to common sense?

The definition is psychopathy a condition in which people do not experience remorse or empathy, qualities associated with fully functioning human beings. Callousness, pathological lying, and superficial charm are part of the package. There are certain professions which attract people with these qualities lawyering being one and politics another which may be why so many politicians are also lawyers. In the 113th Congress, there are 128 lawyers in the House and 45 in the Senate.

  Unless people make their voices heard, especially at the ballot box, a plutocracy where money speaks more loudly than working people is here to stay. Republicans understand this very well and this is why they are creating ever greater barriers to voting wherever they have a majority vote in state houses.  These politicians stoop even to prohibiting people from using toilet facilities while having to stand in hours long lines waiting their turn to vote. Republican state house legislators, like their counterparts at the national level, are agents in the destruction of democracy and they don’t care who knows it.

Truth today depends on who has the money and who is willing to take it. So long as there is relentless rent-seeking at all levels of the social ladder the powerful will always have minions to do their bidding. Just ask Sheldon Adelson who spent $93 million in the 2012 election or the Koch boys’ $28 million expenditure to undermine Social Security. This is how plutocracy works and how democracy fails. 

This is not a naturally a “just world” it takes paying attention, hard work, and participation to make and sustain social justice. You can’t sleep through it.

Jazz – A Riff on Integrity

June 30th, 1960, Tanglewood, slipping in a side door and climbing to secluded seats high above the stage. Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Gene Wright, and Paul Desmond are warming up ahead of their evening performance. I remember Desmond’s notes rising clear, fully formed, beautiful, intimate, unmistakably Desmond. I experience that perfection still.

May 30th, 1977, Bear Creek, California. Paul Desmond died that day. A San Francisco station playing his music though the night. Pure Desmond – clarity, notes projected with perfect understanding of their shapes and relationships. His music an expression of absolute integrity. I sat up and listened until I fell asleep sometime before dawn. What has always made Desmond’s music beautiful for me is the integrity.

April 3rd, 2014, dense blowing snow out the window, a good fire in the wood stove, Paul Desmond in the background – thinking about virtue and integrity. I’m wondering why so few people, especially in high places, seem incapable of the virtues of personal integrity and intellectual honesty once considered essential to the conduct of a viable civil society. How long does any society have to live I wonder when there are so many liars and so many lies? A society based on lies cannot be viable and 4000 years of history give truth to this. We have always suffered rent-seeking politicians, morally corrupt judges and greedy businessmen but they were not then, as they are now, the dominant minority.

I’m reminded of the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain, cynicism was the coin of the realm. About the two major Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda it was said, “There is no truth in Izvestia and no news in Pravda.” amusing cynical take but not so amusing when applied to courts of law or Congress in a democracy where truth needs to be the vital currency. What happens when the foundational, “All men are created equal” is no longer a belief? When a court, in a God-like gesture, endows corporations with human status? How often can beliefs be disregarded before they are discarded? What replaces abandoned beliefs?

In the commons, integrity and intellectual honesty have all but disappeared, strangled by insatiable unrelenting greed by politicians, business people and judges. A judge excused a jail term for a wealthy man who raped his 3 year old daughter because, the judge said, he wouldn’t “fare well” in prison. Does she make the same allowances for not-wealthy people? Is this judicial integrity? Do society and children deserve this cynicism?

There is a high societal price for deceptive political calculation that highjacks hope but delivers alienation. There was that “hope and change” sales pitch for example that eventually revealed itself as shuck-and-jive-business-as-usual politics, regressive education policies, secret rendition and tapped telephones. Lots of us fell for it. Will we ever again be lured to the rocks of disappointment and cynicism because we wanted to believe? Cynicism is, by itself, likely the most dangerous and contagious disease in any society it undermines everything corroding all that it touches. Cynicism destroys belief, hope, faith, trust – all the necessary components of healthy viable societies, it bleeds any social contract dry.

Brooks Adams in his 1896 “The Law of Civilization and Decay”, speaking of 5th C Rome says, “Wealth is the weapon of a monied society; for though itself lacking the martial instinct, it can, with money, hire soldiers to defend it.” Updated for our times it could read, “… it can, with money, hire politicians and other people of low self-esteem to defend and promote it.” This idea is nowhere more articulately expressed than in the recent 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision allowing even more corporate money into the election process. What will be the ultimate consequences of corporations being made human by the Supreme Court? Where social integrity is absent, social commitment has historically taken its leave because people no longer believe.

When a populace no longer perceives a common good it devolves to everyone for themselves as a matter of survival. This cannot be denied nor, once past a certain point, can it be resisted. There is always a critical point in momentum that is irreversible when chaos supersedes order. If plutocrats think they can easily herd impoverished angry mobs they are paddling against a rip-tide of history. Human beings never long tolerate being treated as serfs when they have tasted better fruit.

From the top of the food chain on down our country is rapidly taking on classic symptoms of a failed society. I never thought the day would come when the UN would cite my country for human rights violations. This is a new aspect of our self-anointed “exceptionalism” wherein we are cited for jailing homeless people, torture and 23 other violations of human rights while berating other countries for doing the same. It must be understood, the social contract is at once experience, perception and belief. How can rational people not look back over 4000 years of one civilization after another rising and then falling to the same causes without seeing themselves? They must ask, where are our virtues? What happened to our integrity?


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