Posts Tagged 'civilization'

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 2011 and 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

Barbarians Within the Gates

From the start the human race has been at odds with itself struggling between two distinct polarities – barbarity and civilization, the Yin and Yang of of human nature and experience. This polarity has forever been the root struggle between evolution and devolution, between community and savagery, civilization and barbarity, decency and vulgarity. Naked apes evolved materially from stone axes to swords to nuclear weapons, from animal skins to three piece suits and private jets. Wardrobe styles and technology changed but not base instincts. We are simply well-dressed technologically advanced apes.

While Arizona legislators are busying themselves with prohibiting undocumented  persons from using public toilets, a Baptist pastor in Troy, New York, is giving away AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for church attendance saying: “This is exactly what we have always done for the last 2000 years since Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.” Baptists handing out rifles for 2000 years! Jesus walking the shores of Galilee with an AR-15! Even religion has been highjacked and far from ministering has served to exacerbate becoming itself an expression of barbariity. This kind of madness cannot be made up.

The polarities of the human condition have not changed. Barbarians are still among and within us starting wars of conquest, grabbing wealth, asserting social and political domination. Aggression takes the form of unrelenting insatiable greed. Daily life remains a struggle between the quest for a humane civilized world versus those whose quest is social control, accumulation of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and disregard for the human condition.  Virgil’s 1st C BCE observation that for some there is an unrelenting quest for “empire without end” remains as true today as it did then.

We must ask, where do today’s barbarians want to take the world? What kind of future do they envision? Do hungry children and sickly elders without health care populate Paul Ryan’s visions of the future? Is this the stuff his dreams are made of? The barbarians argue that government, which many of us believe to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, has no business helping people, even the least fortunate among us. What kind of unmitigated gall does it take to publicly assert income inequality does not lead to the destruction of a society when history is one story after another of civilizations falling to exactly that dynamic. In matters of civil liberty as defined by the Constitution and Bill of Rights and with no foreign nation threatening us, elected and not-elected officials cast aside the guarantees of our foundational documents with secret judicial tribunals to make us “safe” from ourselves, locking people up without due process. Our democracy is fast becoming illusion and delusion.

There’s more of course, the list could go on. We could examine the motives of the billionaires funding long lists of so-called foundations, institutes, think tanks, political action committees, ad nauseum functioning as destructive propaganda machines. A well funded all out assault on the American social contract is underway striking at voting rights as well as social programs. If the coalition of Koch funded organizations were a separate country we would have declared war on them a long time ago. Daddy Koch worked for Joe Stalin, one of the evil butchers of all time, and made a fortune doing so; his money is a gift that keeps on giving, a case of inherited moral infantile paralysis. The barbarians are at the gates with an abundant army of insecure moral cripples desperate for attention and recognition to do their bidding. But why? Why now? To what end?

This country is already in dire straits conducting endless purposeless wars around the globe, wars which will never yield “victory”. Purposeless because the underlying motives are never what is publicly declared. The obvious purposes lie in sustaining a powerful arms industry and petroleum interests. We intervene because we don’t “like” one side or the other, we violate the rights of the indigenous people to self-determination to further global ambitions of powerful economic interests, wasting our national treasure, sacrificing our young men and women while reducing our once thriving middle-class to servile and semi-servile status scraping by to make their monthly payments.

While the roles of the unemployed grow so does the number of lobbyists per legislator in the Nation’s capital – something on the order of 20 per legislator at last count. America is for sale in Washington DC where legislators and lobbyists can relive themselves without looking over their shoulders. There are many among us in positions of power who are morally still swinging through the trees.

Midnight in the Land of Fear and Greed

In his 1896, “The Law Of Civilization And Decay,” Brooks Adams states: “Thought is one of the manifestations of human energy, and among the earlier and simpler phases of thought, two stand conspicuous – Fear and Greed. Fear, which, by stimulating the imagination, creates a belief in an invisible world, and ultimately develops a priesthood: and Greed which dissipates energy in war and trade.”  I wonder what Adams’ take would have been on today’s United States, driven by both fear and greed.

Scores of Americans are willing, out of Fear, to surrender freedom for the illusion of safety. Greed manifests in the relentless pursuit of profit by corporations, bankers and individuals through tax-evasion strategies and manipulation enabled by legislators gifted with PAC “donations.” The population dominating the economy promotes deregulation and tax relief for themselves, claiming “trickle-down” economics, which Kenneth Galbraith once characterized as allowing a horse to gorge on oats such that something will go through for the sparrows.

Corporations like Apple Computer utilize cleverly rationalized off-shore tax dodges, squirreling millions out of reach of the American tax system, thus withdrawing the energy represented by that money from the very society from which they derive their profits. The end result of this behavior is that the burden of taxes falls on an ever-diminished middle-class struggling to keep its head above water. Unless people believe in the fairness of the social contract as they live it on a daily basis it will be undermined.

The “priesthood” of the CIA, NSA, FBI, FISA, and IRS cite an “invisible world” they can’t tell us about but which they are a part of. Sounds like a religion, doesn’t it? Tapping your phones, reading, recording and storing your private e-mails and internet searches, photographing your mail, recording your book purchases, making “unintentional mistakes,” and storing all of this indefinitely without your knowledge or your permission, they are making you “safe” in the land of the free and the home of the brave. According to the Washington Post, “The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy.” We have descended into the same domestic spying we condemn elsewhere.

From the moment the first buckled shoe set foot on this continent, the United States has been a racist, classist, religiously bigoted  country dominated by business interests. Could it ever be different? This is a Darwinian world, and so long as there is a “getting ahead” or “having more” there will be people stepping on others to get their “more.” For their part, the polity would rather blame others – however characterized by disability, poverty, skin color, birthplace, intellect, or any quality that distinguishes them as “other” – instead of their own unwillingness to shoulder responsibility for social and economic equality, and they are encouraged in this behavior by the insatiable 1% and their puppet politicians.

What will our country look like if the sociopaths succeed? Will we be back to soup kitchens? People languishing in the streets and gutters? Will our world resemble the Middle Ages? Will there be rampant disease and lack of sufficient food, cleanliness, and health care? Is this the vision the oligarchs financing the assaults on social services, schools, and society in general have in mind?

Because, in Ronald Wright’s words, “… all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures there can never be enough to go around,” all civilizations throughout history have ascended and declined, evolved and devolved through a process of similar dynamics. This is not a new idea. Polybius, a 2nd-century BC Greek historian, noted the cycle of states as being growth, maturity and decay. This “rule” applied to sophisticated and primitive societies alike, especially those that invested heavily in their militaries and engaged in endless warfare, the Roman Empire being a good example.

The list of failed societies is long and extends to the furthest reaches of human history, and destructive energies of Fear and Greed drove those ancient societies to their collapse. They were, to paraphrase Shelley, the greatest nations that ever were. Beyond the boast, their greatness, subject to the resources of their commons, ultimately served them no further purpose; the wages of hubris.

Civilization is a recent development, something on the order of a mere six thousand years or so, consequently civilization remains, by any measure, an experiment. As with all experiments, there are no right or wrong answers—only results. The United States’ experiment is clearly at a crossroads in its history, the outcome of which is uncertain only to the extent of our collective ability to conquer fear and greed, to imagine, create, and maintain a just society. No small task.

 

Enough Already!

In physical science the term “saturated” means a system cannot dissolve more of what is being added the inevitable result being a falling out of or refusal to enter solution. I don’t know about you but I am nearly saturated by the daily tide of one miserable report after another chronicling the unrelenting assault on the American social contract. It has become nearly impossible to keep abreast of and assimilate the outrages. From one end of the country to the other, from border to border, conservative and neo-conservative led legislatures, national, state, county, and municipal, millionaires and billionaires all seem hell bent on turning this country into some sort of religious, socially retarded, antediluvian police state with voting restricted to churchgoing Christian white people who always have enough to eat. It’s a revolution of sorts orchestrated by wealthy sociopaths and their corrupt politician lackeys. How can this not lead to what Barbara Tuchmann called a “dementia of despair”?

It’s as though a plague of locusts has descended on the country and I wonder if perhaps we have somehow brought this on ourselves. Have we have sinned like Sodom and Gomorrah such that we must now pay suffering these sociopaths?   Companies like Monsanto are determined to shove genetically modified foods down everyone’s gullet. As fracking contaminates water tables Nestle is spreading their gospel that no one is entitled to free clean water. And a cast of characters from the Koch boys to Rupert Murdoch are salivating for privatized public education buying governors and, in return, having their operatives placed  in state government education offices.

Orson Welles once said that he had all the “equipment necessary to be a politician. Total shamelessness.” Representative Louie Gohmert a Texas Republican compares the civil rights of minorities to the rights of “ the snail darter, various lizards, the lesser prairie chicken, …. and so many other insects, …”. Darrel Issah declares that President Obama “has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern time.”. And where else but on the Rush Limbaugh show? Mitch McConnell is deliberately, by his own admission, destroying the civil legislative process out of spite. And it isn’t just shameless  politicians stuffing their PACs with corporate money — that sort of dirty business has been going on long before it was institutionalized by Tammany Hall — it’s that it has since become expected, it has become a yawn. Corruption has become the norm — business as usual.

Beyond the corruption of individual politicians the country is now waking up to the reality that everyone is being spied on by our own government. I’m old enough to remember how we demonized the Soviet Union for exactly the same behavior, how their domestic spying was held up to inspire our domestic loyalty. We couldn’t let them to win the Cold War because then we would be living in  a surveillance state, a police state. We have become what we were once told we were defending ourselves against. The NSA is collecting your phone calls, your email, your online searches — your postal mail is photographed by the US Post Office, even your bookstore purchases are collected. And that information will be stored indefinitely. In fact they hold so much information about us that, at our expense, they are building a $1.7 billion facility in Utah to hold it all. Good Morning America. Wake up. You live in a surveillance state.

You are also living in a police state. Secret courts accountable to no one oversee the spying and the subjects, people like you and me, have no recourse. Watch footage of the policing of the Occupy Movement across the country. Helmeted cops wearing body armor in armored vehicles looking like an army of Darth Vader’s storm troopers, tear gas quickly deployed just as in the Vietnam War protests but more efficiently and thoroughly. Of course the protestors are also photographed for later identification. Do you remember Jamie Dimon, the JP Morgan Chase CEO, handing out a $4.6 million “donation” (Was it a bonus  perhaps?) to the New York Police Department during the 2012 Occupy demonstrations? Or how about millionaire John Boehner’s charming and disingenuous assertion that populist movements like Occupy are creating class-warfare in America. There’s some chutzpa for you. Good Morning, America. Are you yawning?

The American belief system and its social contract have been attacked, compromised, and damaged in significant ways and not by external enemies. Enemies are required to provide the glue to hold ideological structures together and in the past the enemies were external. Now we are become the necessary enemy – the necessary glue. We have become the suspects and we are not in charge. Perhaps we never have been in charge, perhaps it has always been a delusion. Who can say? Who can do more than ask the question? As Alasdair McIntyre observed, “our social order is in a very literal  sense out of our, and indeed anyone’s, control. No one is or could be in charge.” I suspect the President isn’t completely in charge nor are the dysfunctional on-the-take politicians in Washington DC and across the United States. You can be sure, however, someone somewhere is pulling the strings.

As enemies provide the glue of ideological structures, belief systems are the glue of social contracts. The problem here is that in thecontradictions lies a mine field of meaninglessness, a slippery slope to pervasive nihilism that overcomes people who have given up trying to make sense of the world around them. In other words, the “dementia of despair”. There becomes less and less to believe in because less and less proves true or is even comprehensible and this leads inevitably to disbelief. With the loss of belief, the social contract built on that foundation becomes fatally undermined and finally abandoned in the final chapter of dystopia.

I close this essay with a 1954 quote from General Dwight Eisenhower, a quote the 44th president ought to meditate on: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman and they are stupid.”Amen, Brother. Enough, Already!


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