Unknown Track

It’s been a while.

This summer has seen wars launched, both political and literal. It has seen missiles and rockets launched, most often at defenseless innocents. It has seen the human rights of women, girls, and unarmed men thrown down while the rights of corporations continued to be elevated above those of humans. It has offered distractions from misery and distractions from reason. That’s two months of a summer much like any other summer. 

In Washington, the Republicans have become so obsessed with the business of reelection that they have convinced themselves that digging their hole a little deeper will somehow lead to an exit on the other side of the Earth. We should try avoid the mistake most of those we like to call "journalists" make, which is trying to apply some sense of earnest belief to congressional Republicans’ actions. There’s only cynicism to see here, folks. Move on. Move on.

With the modern marvel of gerrymandering (see: Florida), Republicans know their majority in the House is secure. That there are no Senate districts to gerrymander is the reason Republicans’ hope of securing the Senate are remote, but they know that, too. The parliamentary foot dragging, the attacks on Obamacare, the lawsuit: these are nothing but distractions. The right wing already got what it wants, an underfunded federal government incapable of enforcing the laws on the books. They aren’t campaigning to pass new laws, they just want to maintain the underfunding they have now so they won’t have be accountable to anyone. 

And it’s working, but for how long? Campaigning on fear works, but only as long as the stakes are low. Yes, we’re likely to see the status quo for another electoral cycle, or five, but underfunding means things will break and at some point the American people will recognize the real threats getting close to them. You wouldn’t want to be a Republican politician when that day comes.

Fear, of course, is the weapon of choice for politicians all over the world. Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is almost entirely a product of fear-mongering. The idea that ethnically-Ukrainian Ukrainians wanted to seek out and destroy ethnically-Russian Ukrainians is a myth born of centuries of Russian dominance, and abuse, of Ukrainians. There would never be a Rwanda-Hutu-Tutsi-like genocide in Ukraine, but for an ethnic group suffering from a two decade long post-Cold War hangover, Putin’s cure has been a tonic. Russians are powerful again, a people and a nation to be feared and respected, wherever that people and nation may be.

Of course, winding people up and giving them lots of weapons can have consequences, as anyone who lost loved ones on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 could tell you. Russian news agencies have tried, in vain, to blame the unreasonable Ukrainians for the deaths, but the missile was Russian, where’ve it was fired from. Putin wants to stay in power. Putin wants control over the oil and natural gas pipelines running through eastern Ukraine. Putin wants naval control of the Black Sea. Putin wants glory. In the short term, he’ll get it all; in the long term, he’ll return Russia to the parts of the Cold War nostalgic Russians have chosen not to remember, such as government oppression, economic isolation, and being international pariahs. The 2018 World Cup may remind more than a few of them of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, with boycotts and economic humiliation.

Israel doesn’t have to worry about either of those, at least for now. Their economy is small and what they produce wouldn’t make or break an economy the way a collapse of oil and gas would. Their abuse of Palestinians has gone on so long and with such consistency it could passed off as a chronic condition. Too often, it has been. 
That is, to some small degree, the fault of the Palestinians themselves. Frustrated and angry, they have allowed their political leadership to fall into the hands of violent fear-mongers, no better than the fear-mongering leaders of israel but with less money and fewer, smaller weapons. Their bitter war against Israeli oppression has become a lifestyle unto itself. What would happen if tomorrow Israel gave them everything they need? What would they do if Israelis offered to share everything they have, an equal partnership in the future? Odds are, the Palestinian couldn’t know how to handle it, and that just plays into the hands of Israel’s leaders, whose only real goal seems to be holding on to power.

Years from now - decades really - the bill will come due for what Israel just did to Gaza. Two or three generations will have to pass for the stench of it to wash away, and that would only happen if the more powerful partner in this mess stepped up and made peace happen. They won’t. They think we’ll forget. They count on it.
When was the last time we thought about the military junta in Egypt? When was the last time we thought about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria? When was the last time we thought about sweatshops in Bangladesh and cyber-espionage from China? We can’t remember everything. Our social evolution as a species is based on not having to. We externalize it, and we hope, especially when it’s sunny outside and there’s some flirting to be done, that someone else is paying attention on our behalf. Between ice-bucket-challenges and wondering if there ever really was song-of-the-summer this summer, we could almost be forgiven for ignoring what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri or the Bronx or somewhere even closer.

The killing Michael Brown is still as unsettled as it is unsettling. Like any crisis, it has exposed things long ignored and kept at arm’s length. It’s also a case study on the dangers of applying short-term thinking to long-term problems. An unarmed man shouldn’t die at the hands of the police. It just shouldn’t happen. Ever. Non-violent protesters in what is so often touted as “the freest country on Earth” shouldn’t face police in armored vehicles and military riot gear. That shouldn’t happen. Ever. 

Police culture in the United States is one of fear. Officers are trained to expect the worst. Often enough, they actually face it. Freedom to own weapons means criminals own weapons. Expectation that police will fire their weapons means criminals fire theirs. Expectation that a potential criminal will potentially shoot first leads under-trained, over-armed men and women to shoot first to keep from being killed. We all know what happens next.

It’s this fear of killing and being killed that has law enforcement spending its taxpayer money on military hardware. Everywhere in the country state and local law enforcement agencies see things they can’t control and look for fast, easy solutions. Somebody’s going to make money that way. Selling fear, somebody always does. Again, though, he question is asked: For how long?

Soon enough, the people of Missouri will have had enough. “No more!” they’ll cry. The American people will have had enough of congressional Republican cynicism. They, too, will cry, “No more!” We’ll hear it in Iraq. We’ll hear it in Nigeria. We’ll hear it in Ukraine, in China, in Israel, in Mexico, in Bangladesh, and everywhere else policy is driven by short-term thinking.

Or not. We’ve started so many things that we can’t ever hope to control, so often without regard to where or when they will end. We mark it down, “unknown track”, watch it for a while til the threat passes from us onto someone else, and go on our way.

"No More!" Perhaps if our real journalists cried it out first it might just catch on.

- Daniel Ward

(Reblogged from political-cartoons)

The Pride Of A Nation

It was hardly the kind of thing wars have been fought over. It was an angry, childish attack, an impulsive bite at the shoulder of an opposing player. No penalty was called - the referee was looking the other way - but  the only way the video could have been more clear would be if he had drawn blood. That Uruguayan forward Luis Sanchez did not draw blood from Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini plays no small part in Uruguayans’ desperate defense of their star player.

At first, Sanchez’ defenders blamed the Italians, who flop shamelessly, Chiellini being one of the worst offenders. It’s an understandable defense,  but then there’s that video. Nobody bought it, so they turned to attacking the British tabloid press, who love tearing people down and anything involving biting even more, but, again, there was that video.

Finally, with their simple and not so simple denials flying in the face of a video playing again and again worldwide, Uruguayans turned to the denial of last resort: he is a national hero.

If this seems strange to you, it shouldn’t. This is the World Cup, a sporting event that may well have eclipsed the Olympics in worldwide prestige. This is the star of the Uruguayan team, a global ambassador for the country in a very real sense. Denial was always going to be the response. It must be a lie, because if it isn’t, who are the people of Uruguay? Are they a nation of biters? Of cannibals? Are they a nation to be laughed at? They have their pride, and when it comes to pride, an absurd lie will always be preferable to a humiliating truth.

The thing about pride is that it’s personal. We take our individual humiliations and fears and give them power over us by attaching them to something bigger than ourselves. That gets us in all kinds of trouble, sometimes with far greater consequences than a World Cup match.

One hundred years ago today a man let his pride drive him to commit murder. It was an angry, childish attack. It was impulsive. Few if anyone saw it happen, but there was no doubt he had done it. In fact, he told anyone who would listen.

The man was a Bosnian Serb. The man and wife he killed were the heirs to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Bosnia was a part. To him, they represented an insult to his pride, a target for all of his life’s failures. He had reduced his choices to living with humiliation or seeking the instant gratification of an assassin. To absolve himself of his crime he wrapped himself in a Serbian flag.

And then millions died, killed by weapons and disease, killed by the pride of their own leaders who could not back down from promises made that they knew they should not keep. Pride led nations into war, and pride drove decision-making once they got in.

Today, that murderer is a national hero in Serbia. There are statues of him in Serbian Bosnia. Twenty years ago, when Bosnian Serbs were killing Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims, his bloody example was one they aspired to. He represents national pride to a people who have lived in the shadows of other nations, people who have lived in poverty and who have had to watch other nations rise above them. 

Today, one of those more powerful nations, the United States, is considering whether or not to reenter a war it started in Iraq. That war was sold on national pride, just as reentry is being sold on protecting that first lie. Just as war in the Balkans spread, war in the Middle East now threatens every country on Iraq’s borders. This is where national pride ends.

We don’t have to worry about that with Uruguay. They’re just contending with national embarrassment. For now, Luis Sanchez has been suspended. Suspensions end. His professional team, Liverpool, will probably take him back. He’s only 27, so his national team will surely take him back. In a few years, if people even talk about what he did at all, it will be one of those things where even his most ardent supporters will admit, “Yeah, he did it,” and then change the subject; the ones sickened by it will only shake their heads and do the same.

And we’ll be grateful for it. We should be.

- Daniel Ward 

The Wars We Choose

Be careful what you wish for…

These words of caution get thrown around a lot, usually after something has blown up in somebody’s face. There’s a bit of schadenfreude to it, which is a natural reaction to people whose short term thinking has created a mess for others to clean up.

This week delivered two examples demonstrating the end result of American right-wing establishment wish fulfillment. Each began as a war of choice, the wars’ successes pegged on controlling warriors filled will rage, a rage born of a fear and hatred of being controlled. Having employed such a foolish, short-sighted strategy, each war is now ending in humiliating defeat.

The first war was in Iraq. Islamist forces allied with fighters in neighboring Syria have taken effective control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and are meeting little resistence as they march towards Baghdad. The American-trained soldiers of the Iraqi army are overwhelmed and uninspired. They’ve faced an insurgency of their own people unlike any they faced under Saddam Hussein. They’ve spent the past decade being targeted by their own people just for wearing a uniform. They’ve shown increasing signs of simply giving up and walking away.

It would be nice to think  those who bamboozled the American public into invading Iraq found this troubling. They seized upon and stoked fear and hatred of Muslim terrorists. They tied an invasion of Iraq to the seemingly legitimate war against the Taliban in Afghanistan to push it through. The impending failure of Iraq as a state should trouble them, both morally and logistically. Alas, for them the invasion was as far as they thought things through, and enough time has passed for them to blame others for not fixing the problems they created.

This is how they think: the plan was perfect, it was simply executed by lesser men.

Which brings us to Eric Cantor, soon to be former-Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, and the second war of choice.

No sane person could possibly claim that Cantor is anything but a right wing, anti-regulation, anti-accountability Republican. He has never worked well with others in Congress. The exceptions have been ones willing to go along with what he wants. He’s a bully, and oh, how today’s Republican Party establishment loves bullies.

So, how then to explain his primary defeat to a “Tea Party” Republican, an economics professor who seems not to like talking about policy (or economics)? Some have tried to blame Democrats. Some have tried to tie his defeat to President Obama, saying either that Cantor was seen as too close (?!) to the president or that he simply failed to get rid of him.

What these desperate, panicking Republicans probably want to forget is that Cantor welcomed the Tea Partiers to Washington just four years ago, when their rage-fueled victories gave the Republicans the House majority. Cantor loved them. He pandered to them. He used their under-informed rage to try to push through spending cuts that he and other establishment Republicans hoped would gut federal oversight and accountability.

Up until yesterday, it seemed to be working. He helped shut down the federal goverment and had a Democratic president back on his heals. The congressional Republican mantra of “compromise means giving us what we want” worked, at least at first, and it did so because of the unwillingness to compromise at the heart of Tea Party politics. The wave of right wing Tea Partiers took out moderate Democrats then moved on to moderate Republicans. Cantor’s right-wing base had to be confident of more victories to come.

Over-confident, as it turned out. Cantor, no doubt, never guessed his seat might be in danger. His internal campaign polling had him winning by 34% (he lost by 11%). He was powerful, popular, and raking in contributions from Wall Street. It’s that last part that seems to have been his undoing. In stoking hatred of “big government”, he and those with him chose to ignore that big business is hated just as much

Cantor thought he was using them. That’s as far as he thought. The right-wing’s goals in using Tea Party rage have been short term: Step 1, use anti-government rage as a weapon to destroy government’s ability to govern; Step 2, use what is left of government to stuff heaping wads of cash in your pockets; Step 3…well, they never get to Step 3.

In their fantasies, Step 3 is the promised land, where no one is ever accountable and where everyone looks out only for himself and is happy for it. This is aggressive selfishness, and one of the hallmarks of aggressive selfishness is short term thinking. They want easy, simple solutions to difficult, complex problems. If they have to think about consequences, such as what might happen to other people or even other people who can’t directly offer anything to them, that just ruins the fun.

Eric Cantor never imagined that in burning down his neighbors’ house his own might catch fire. However he analyzes his mistakes and errors of judgment, he won’t be learning any lessons. No, in the fullness of time he will find others to blame, perhaps some lesser man or woman on his campaign staff or even the poor, uninformed judgment of the lesser voting masses of Virginia.

He will assuredly turn to them again. He has resigned his leadership position and will likely spend the next seven months setting himself up for Virginia governor or senator, whenever one of those comes up for election. He does, after all, still have a sizeable campaign war chest.

If the numbers don’t look good, if the mood of the good people of Virginia resembles the mood of the good people of Iraq, Cantor can always find a job working for his true constituents on Wall Street. They’d surely give him a hero’s welcome.

- Daniel Ward

25 and 6/4

Twenty-five years. We place an enormous amount of meaning into that measurement. It’s more than it really deserves. At some point a long time ago somebody decided to break the passage of time into easily digestible, bigger than bite-size chunks of 100, and 25 just fits into that number cleanly, with no remainders. That’s it.

We give it so much meaning only because we hope it helps us get some kind of grip on the bigger numbers: 50, 100, or maybe the span of our single lifetime. It’s a milestone number, doing what milestones have always done, telling us how far we’ve gone and how much further we have to go.

We’re all guilty of it, or will be. At twenty-five years old, we ask ourselves what we have achieved, and somehow convince ourselves that we could have and should have achieved more. For most of us, 25 is just the beginning of what we might achieve, not the end. We might achieve something we’re proud of at 40, or 50, or 80. 

The truth of it is that we fear that we won’t last that long. We’re impatient with success simply because we death. No great mystery there. And yet, what we consider success in many ways defies the notion of living life to its fullest.

We’ll go on beating ourselves up every five years after 25, too, as though an achievement by 30 is somehow richer and more fulfilling than an achievement by 31 or 32. At 40, we’re supposed to have checked off certain responsibilities such as family and home ownership, as though responsibility is an achievement in and of itself. It’s expected of us. It’s what our parents did. It’s what our children will do. We feel powerless against the pressure to conform to these goals, and then we often feel powerless under the weight of what we must achieve to hold onto them.

This powerless feeling is not so different from addiction. It is a form of dependency. We find ourselves within a pattern of behavior we know and want to believe we understand. There is a comfort to it, a feeling of safety when we have returned to it, even as we suffer under it day after day. We submit to it. More often than not, we submit to the authority of those claiming to represent it, such as advertisers and governments. Usually in that order.

It takes courage to break out of this cycle. These goals - a family, a home, a car, a job that can pay for them - are good. Sometimes they are even great. They should not, however, be everything, all other things, such as personal freedom, forsaken for their benefit. Somehow, even in the midst of material happiness, we all know this without having to be told.

IN the 1950s, during the “Red Scare”, Americans - who could afford it - had the highest quality of life in the industrialized world. A family, a house, a car, and a job to pay for it were all any American could hope for. The threat of losing those, say, because you refused to cooperate with the government or were too outspoken against descrimination, was enough to silence many Americans.

The younger generation thrived. At least, the ones in the wealthy suburbs did. They enjoyed a level of freedom and opportunity their parents could only have dreamed of, and because of it this younger generation chafed at anything that might take it away. When they came of age and had things of their own to lose, most importantly their lives, they rebelled and made selfish self-preservation a virtue in Western culture, for better and for worse.

The achievements of that generation were many. Some, such as ending the war in Vietnam and fighting for clean air and water, were great, and some, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Wall Street run amok, were terrible. All the result of selfishness made a virtue.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Chinese government brought a bloody end to weeks of peaceful pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Those men and women who died - "hundreds, perhaps thousands" is the refrain - wanted a taste of that Western culture. China’s economy had not yet exploded as it has, so democracy was the way to get there. 

As we’ve seen throughout North Africa and the Middle East, democracy as an end is not necessarily the beginning of anything. Lots of things can be called “democracy”, and most of them will get you thrown in prison for saying they aren’t. If you’re lucky.

So, the people of China don’t have democracy. They can’t even speak the name of the day on which their hopes for democracy were so cruelly ended. The image of the man blocking the tanks, so popular in America, is almost unknown in the land where he was almost certainly executed. The day and the weeks leading up to it are a void in their lives, one they understand exists all too well.

What they do have, if they have the will to claw their way to the top and push others down, is the very kind of crony-capitalism that their “communist” party was founded to end. Of course, what did the Communist state become but a corrupt, nepotistic system. They all do, and a corrupt, nepotistic capitalist system is always what replaces them.

That the nominally Communist Chinese government has used Western materialism - the dream for a family, a house, a car, and a job to pay for them - as a means of holding onto power isn’t ironic at all. In many ways, China is where we, America, were 50 years ago. They are on the cusp of dominating the world economy in the same way America did back then. They are on the cusp of "policing" much of the world with their military, to preserve their way of life as much as anything, just as America did back then. And, like America back then, they have a generation about to know the joy and lack of responsibility that comes with unprecedented wealth, a generation raised with selfishness as a virtue and about to come of age.

As we look back today at Tiananmen Square and the solitary man bravely stopping a column of tanks before being dragged away, we should also look ahead. The next 25 years in China should look familiar to us, and China will look a lot more familiar to Western-style democracies for it. 

- Daniel Ward