Back from vacation

July 31, 2010

The last seven months haven’t been so bad here at the collective house. We turned the front room into a library/reading room, landscaped the front yard, and organized the sound equipment in the basement. We also performed some minor repairs on some of our vehicles. I even found time last week to rebuild an old guitar using parts a friend gave me in return for helping him move.

All of this activity doesn’t explain why I haven’t made a post since January, however. Looking back over my old posts, I realized that I had become repetitive, and I needed a break, a chance to get away obsessing over the direction, or lack thereof, of this country. I also wanted to give myself an opportunity to formulate some ideas for posts about music and pop culture, as well as more personal things I’d like to write about.

So hopefully this will be the beginning of a new era for this blog. I’ve really missed writing and finally feel inspired enough to get back to it.


State of confusion

January 29, 2010

I didn’t get to see all of President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night – I had to go off to one of my increasingly scarce freelance sound gigs – but I saw enough to realize one thing: It’s over.

Not Obama’s presidency, which has at least three more years to go, but the hope that we can somehow turn things around in this country. Obama harped on his usual themes for American renewal – green energy, health care and financial reform, education – but it’s obvious that no one is really listening. We’ve entered what I’d like to call a period of reactionary nihilism, where an increasingly angry and alienated public turns away from dealing with the challenges of the future and turns instead to a warped mythology of the nation’s past, exalting a rugged individualism that never really existed and that certainly offers little in solutions to the problems of a modern, technologically advanced and  socially diverse society.

I’ve seen this movie before. A decade ago, I worked for a small newspaper in a decaying textile town, where plant closings had destroyed the citizens’ sense of community, identity and purpose. What I saw was 2010 writ small: a knee-jerk opposition to any investment in the future, such as better schools (“It’ll mean more taxes!”); fear of social change (One particular throwback took out an ad in the paper decrying interracial relationships); and a general sense that no future at all was better than anything that didn’t resemble the irrietrevable past. Destroying the village in order to save it, indeed.

This kind of thinking is endemic to late-stage declining empires – a fact Obama acknowledged with his reference to the growing power of India and China – as is the peculiar idea that military power will somehow offset economic decline. In fact, Obama has proposed freezing domestic spending while increasing military spending, the exact opposite of what we should be doing. As the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing proved, terrorism has decentralized to the point where it is militarily impossible to combat it; rather than rely on complex operations such as the 9/11 attacks, terrorists have adopted a strategy of recruiting unstable persons, providing them with minimal training and arms, and launching attacks from around the globe. Even though the majority of attempts will fail due to poor planning or incompetence, just the threat of them is enough to keep money pouring into U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, further draining resources from more pressing needs at home (Even better, such a strategy can inspire unstable individuals unconnected with a terrorist organization to act on their own, like at Fort Hood, inducing further panic and poor prioritizing of resources).

To maintain our quality of life, we have to leapfrog over our competitors in terms of developing a new paradigm, not remained trapped in the reactionary thinking of failed empires past. While Obama seems to know this, he hasn’t yet fully attempted to sell the American people on this idea. Perhaps he’s afraid of straying too far from the sunny (and often misplaced) optimism that has dominated president-to-public discourse in the post-Reagan era. He’s been more honest than most, however. But are people listening?

…same as the old boss.

December 2, 2009

President Obama, in the tradition of the Grand Old Duke of York, has decided that rather than march his 30,000 men up and down Afghanistan’s hills, he’ll keep them halfway up, which as any Boy Scout will tell you is neither up or down. What else to make of the strategy outlined in the President’s speech last night? He hopes to accomplish in 18 months what the U.S. and its allies were unable to accomplish in 8 years (or, for that matter, what the Soviets were unable to accomplish in 9 years, or the British were unable to accomplish in 50), an unlikely prospect at best. His compromise position is so half-assed that even an ardent critic of the empire such as myself wishes he had the cajones to just commit wholeheartedly to the mission, come what may.

Of course, that’s the one he can’t do, at least not within the political realities of this country. The U.S. public is already tired of the war in Afghanistan, and even a further 18 month commitment will probably try their patience. On the other hand, he can’t just bring the troops back home; that would leave him open to charges of “losing” Afghanistan. So he has to go through the motions, which might not be a bad thing except for all the soldiers and civilians who will die while this face-saving farce plays out.

And that’s exactly what this is: an attempt to hand off responsibility for the war to a Afghan government that can then shoulder the blame for the coming defeat, rather than the U.S. Technically, we can’t be said to have “lost” if we’re not actually holding the reins when the Taliban enter Kabul. The end will be the same, only more U.S. troops will have to die to achieve it.

And as some semi-famous fellow once said, who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?

A thousand cuts

November 30, 2009

President Obama seems ready to double down on the U.S. investment in blood and treasure in Afghanistan, despite indications that the center of world jihad activity is moving to Somalia – a nation the United States already tried and failed once to subdue. Then again, a terrorist operation involving 19 men with boxcutters could really be conceived and planned just about anywhere, so the idea that we can prevent another 9/11 through an increasingly expensive series of military expeditions seems dubious at best.

It does, however, play right into the kind of imperial overreach that will eventually bankrupt this nation, which is exactly what bin Laden is hoping. Who would have thought that 19 boxcutters would lead to the death of the U.S. empire, through a thousand self-induced economic and military cuts? Already some in Congress are calling for a semi-permanent “war tax” to fund these foreign quagmires, while conservatives call for taking the money from the proposed health care and other government programs – programs that are needed to help this country adopt to a post-imperial economy that is inevitably coming. As we learned during the Vietnam War, you can have guns, or butter, but very seldom both.

Still, no one in power seems willing to mention the “e” word – our empire, and its increasingly poisonous effect on our democratic institutions and economy in the homeland. What we have instead are the usual bromides about how the world “needs” U.S. leadership, and articles that pooh-pooh those who see in our present situation eerie parallels with the declines of previous world powers.

That, sadly, is to be expected. Every great power that went before – the Romans, the Greeks, the British – felt that theirs was the apex of human development and civilization, and could never be replaced or improved upon. Hubris, it seems, is a universal human attribute. However, nothing is permanent; compared with the above nations, the U.S. time at the top of the heap has been remarkably short, perhaps a byproduct of our cultural lack of patience with anything requiring long-term discipline and commitment.

And so we sleepwalk into our imperial twilight, our leaders either refusing to confront the issue honestly, or, in the case of those like Glenn Beck and his simultaneously laughable and frightening  100-year plan, actively working to prevent the kind of action that might allow us to transition to a post-imperial order in relatively good shape.


Wages of empire

November 12, 2009

It may come as a shock to U.S. workers struggling to get by in the current recession, but some economists are saying that the main stumbling block to economic recovery is that said workers are already overpaid, at least compared with workers in newly emerging economies in Asia and South America. This despite the fact that wages in the U.S. have already been stagnant for at least the past decade, particularly compared with the rising costs of health care and higher education. And now they want to pay us even LESS?

If anything, this should make it obvious that our present problems are not the result of a traditional boom-and-bust cycle, but rather a long-term decline in this nation’s imperial fortunes. We’ve never been particularly good at the empire business, but the leaders of our country seem to have forgotten that one of the main reasons to have an empire in the first place is to benefit the citizens of the home country. That’s why the Brits constructed monopolies designed to exploit the resources of the colonies while protecting their industries at home.

The U.S., on the other hand, has spent the last 20 years signing trade deals that accelerated job losses in this country, particularly in manufacturing industries. For a while we were able to hide the damage to our middle class way of life with a massive buying binge fueled by easy credit, but with the bursting of the housing bubble, it’s become clear this charade is no longer sustainable.

It’s more than just diminished expectations at home, however. The decline of our economic empire makes it increasingly hard for the government to justify the maintaining of our military one. Fuzzy-headed Wilsonian notions of spreading democracy aside, when it comes to our empire, most Americans want to know what’s in it for them. If building roads in Afghanistan isn’t going to result in more American-made cars driving on them, what’s the point? Why not, God forbid, spend that money on schools?

President Obama realizes that a high U.S. standard of living is integral to creating the notion of cultural superiority that underlies our military aggressiveness abroad, which is why he’s pushing health care reform and consumer subsidy programs to shore up our middle class. Unfortunately, this nation doesn’t have enough money to maintain our military posture abroad while preserving our standard of living at home in the long run – at least, not without the (conditional) financial support of China, our main economic rival.

Like previous empires, the U.S. is attempting to offset its economic decline with increased military action abroad, not realizing that military power is subservient to economic power. What was lost in the back rooms of the World Trade Organization, however, cannot be regained in the hills of Afghanistan. To paraphrase Clausewitz, economics is war by other means, and it’s a battle that the U.S. appears well on its way to losing.

Mea Culpa

November 10, 2009

They say it takes a big man to apologize when he’s wrong, so I’d like to be the Butterbean of apologists and say that I’m sincerely sorry for every time I equated President George W. Bush, even indirectly, with one Adolph Hitler during my days in the antiwar movement. You see, as clever as it seemed at the time, it was dead wrong. Only Hitler was Hitler. That’s not to say that discussions of fascism and its history aren’t needed at times, but the absurd declaration that “this politician I don’t like equals Hitler” serves no illuminating purpose.

I should have been wise enough to realize that the overheated hyperbole that begins on one side of the political spectrum always travels to the other side. Now, of course, people are waving signs equating government-run healthcare with Dachau and slavery, and Obama with Stalin and Mao, as if we’re all going to be renamed Tobey or sent off to re-education camps. The parting on the left is now the parting on the right, as Pete Townshend once said, and we have nothing to show for it but longer facial hair.

This is nothing new, of course. Conservatives accused FDR of being a bolshevik in the 1930s, and Ronald Reagan created a cottage industry of leftists charging him with every sin under the sun in the 80s. None of this activity did anything to solve the problems that this nation faced at those times. People, it seems, will sign up for any rigid ideology except one labeled “pragmatic.”

We have a health care crisis in this country. It needs to be solved. To loosely paraphrase Lincoln, if it can be solved by the government taking over the healthcare industry so than so be it; if it can be solved be the government leaving the healthcare industry alone, than so be it; and if it can be solved by the government taking over some parts of the healthcare industry and not others, than so be it. The solution may be one-size-fits-all, or it could be a million smaller solutions aimed at specific demographics. We’re never going to find that out, however, as long as people argue from their own rigidly defined positions of what “freedom” or “community” are, and refuse to accept that a workable solution may lie outside their own political comfort zone, or may even come in part from someone in the opposite camp.

Absolutes only exist in the abstract; in the real world of messy human affairs, all sorts of compromises are required to make a society function. In a democratic country, we have deliberative bodies elected by the citizens to determine these compromises. In an (admittedly non-existent) perfect world, such deliberations would be carried out in a rational fashion, with all parties willing to give up something to gain something. In our present climate, however, everyone feels that any compromise on their absolute principles is an apocalyptic event that must be resisted at all costs. Hence the hysterical references to Hitler, death camps and slavery.

It would nice if politicians didn’t pander to this kind of thinking, and simply spoke in rational terms. When asked if they would raise taxes, for example, the intelligent response would be, “If it becomes necessary to increase spending on government services in this town/state/country, either due to the demands of the citizens for more services, or to respond to a catastrophic event, or simply to keep up with natural growth, the money will have to come from somewhere. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Politicians don’t want to stand in the unemployment line anymore than the rest of us, however, so instead they just make the unrealistic promise that they won’t raise taxes, knowing full well that it’s impossible to get something for nothing, and hoping that they’ll have retired before the chickens come home to roost.

A democracy can’t function when people live in political fantasy worlds, where they don’t have to pay for the services they demand or make the compromises necessary to deal with inevitable crises. It bothers me greatly to realize that my own actions encouraged the kind of thinking that makes such functioning impossible, and led in part to our present atmosphere of fear, suspicion and paranoia. If our country can’t get out of the mess that it’s in, then in many ways I have no one but myself to blame.

Ed Wood wuz robbed!

October 27, 2009

Poor Ed Wood. The director of such no-budget cult classics as “Glen or Glenda” and the (in)famous “Plan 9 from Outer Space” could only dream of the kind of financial success showered upon “Paranormal Activity,” the supernatural “mockumentary” that cost only $15,000 to make but has since grossed $62 million and counting. Then again, Ed didn’t have the internet or Youtube back in 1959 when “Plan 9” was released. 

“Paranormal Activity” doesn’t have a chiropractor standing in for an expired Bela Lugosi or a Swedish professional wrestler in it, but it certainly shares Wood’s lowball aesthetic, from bad makeup and over-the-top acting (the “previous victim” sequence could’ve come from a Wood production) to ridiculous special effects (the “demon” moving the bedsheets is obviously someone turning an electric fan on and off). Its riff on our narcissistic, “all cameras on me” culture is exploitation filmmaking at its most opportunistic, but shouldn’t a horror movie be, like, scary? My threshold for fear is pretty low (a viewing of 1972’s “The Blob” kept my 9-year old self cowering under the covers every night for a week), but I found my housemates’ “MST3K”-style wisecracking far more memorable than anything in the film.

I realize, of course, that this film is not aimed at me, and it’s not legions of 41-year old men who are driving its success. In fact, my crash pad-dwelling, Ouji board-playing contemporaries and I from 20 years back would  probably have found this pretty mind-blowing, but there’s little in it that my present, demonically-atheist self could relate to. It’s probably a bit sad that the real terrors of adult life – loved ones’ medical scares, financial problems, unemployment, etc. – have left me unaffected by things that go bump in the night, but hey, who said getting older was all fun and games?

The film’s lack of polish, however, doesn’t detract from its importance as a pop-culture moment. Much as the bloggers-vs.-Dan Rather dustup of a few years back helped to legitimize a new, decentralized media, the runaway success of  “Paranormal” is ushering in a new era of DIY filmmaking. Who needs big stars and big budgets? The younger generation has grown up in an atmosphere of “reality” TV and homemade internet viral videos, and “Paranormal” is, at its heart, an updating of classic exploitation filmmaking for the technology of a new millenium. So rest easy, Ed. Your legacy is in good hands.

An American’s war, and nobody’s fight

October 21, 2009

As President Obama faces tough choices on the imperial project in Afghanistan, he’s vexed by an old problem: Americans love to win wars, but aren’t particularly fond of fighting them, according to recent polls. While a majority of respondents support keeping the Taliban from returning to power, a (far slimmer) majority also oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. From a general’s perspective, it’s a bit like being in favor of defeating Hitler, but protesting the invasion of Normandy.

More troops doesn’t guarantee victory of course; it didn’t help the Soviets in Afghanistan, and half a million soldiers in the field failed to win in Vietnam. The very nature of imperial wars tends to abrogate the traditional notion of “victory,” anyhow. They’re messy, and often involve long, drawn-out campaigns against a succession of foreign interlopers and local uprisings. The goal is to retain control of the colony in the long run, not unconditional surrender on the deck of a U.S. battleship. The British were very good at this sort of thing; we Americans, not so much. What we call a quagmire is what the Brits called just another day of maintaining the empire.

So what’s Obama to do? If the U.S. “loses” Afghanistan, he gets the blame; if the U.S. remains bogged down in Afghanistan, he gets the blame. The one positive thing for him is that the U.S. no longer has a functioning antiwar movement capable of bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets, and short of a return to the draft, I don’t see that reversing anytime soon. Americans will make their displeasure clear at the ballot box, though, and Democrats are already sweating about the 2010 midterm elections.

Some say Obama should take a Churchillian stance and call for for greater sacrifice from the American people when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and rally them to the cause. Americans, however, long ago internalized a kind of double-think when it comes to government services and taxes, wanting plenty of the former while protesting any of the latter. There’s no reason to suppose that they haven’t done the same on overseas military engagements: don’t draft you, don’t draft me, draft that fellow behind the tree. Oh, and don’t send me the bill either. 

So, like Harry Truman in Korea or LBJ in Vietnam, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. What’s needed is an honest conversation on the empire and its effects – economic, cultural and otherwise –  both at home and in the areas under our influence. Then we’d have a better idea of the pros and cons of any given strategy. But we can’t have that conversation because – God forbid! – we “don’t have an empire.”

Flight of the manipulator

October 20, 2009

I don’t get it. Hoaxes and publicity stunts are as American as P.T. Barnum, and everyone’s getting upset over Balloon Boy? As hoaxes go, this one was particularly entertaining; for an entire afternoon, everyone (including yours truly) forgot all about shrinking 401ks, growing unemployment, the quagmire in Afghanistan and the health care debate and were glued to their TVs or computer monitors, wondering if there really was a six year-old boy dangling in the bottom of that balloon. It was just the kind of mass distraction a nation involved in the midst an imperial meltdown needs. Why, Falcon Heene could be this depression’s Shirley Temple.

Granted, father Richard Heene’s idea that he can make a career out of reality television has a certain oxymoronic quality to it; if you’re playing yourself on TV for a living, can it really be “reality?” Then, of course, you could have a reality show about someone whose career is starring in reality shows, after which the snake eats its tale, the Mayan cycle ends and the universe implodes. In a society increasingly detached from reality in everything from economics to foreign policy, absurdity becomes the coin of the realm.

Then again, as minor worker in the entertainment industry, perhaps I have a soft spot for the reality-impaired. After all, it takes a ridiculous amount of narcissism and self-delusion to believe that you’ll become a successful actor, novelist or musician where so many others have failed, and naked ambition often far exceeds the talent it has been enlisted to serve. At the bottom of it, non-gender specific cajones the size of church bells are prerequisites for success in show biz.

The street hustler with his sure-fire business proposition, the surly graduate student with the world’s greatest novel on his laptop, the open mic night strummer with his dreams of being discovered as the voice of his generation; I’ve seen hundreds of these, and been one or two of them myself. If, as Richard Heene did, you invested a great deal of time and energy in pursuing the All American dream of success through media saturation, desperation eventually outweighs any qualms you might have about (metaphorically) prostituting your family and taking a media-obsessed world up, up and away in your beautiful balloon.

Empire at a crossroads

September 28, 2009

Anyone remember the “Washington Consensus?” Anyone? Clinton? Clinton?… the Washington Consensus was a set of economic recommendations made to Third World countries, particularly in Central and South America, that emphasized free trade, open markets,  fiscal responsibility and repayment of foreign debt. These “recommendations” were usually enforced by the International Monetary Fund, as the price economically-troubled countries had to pay to receive further loans. Critics claim that the Consensus was really just a post-colonial resource grab, a way of opening third-world markets to Western-based international corporations and exploiting vast pools of cheap labor, and that the recommendations forced governments to cut much-needed social programs in an effort to meet the IMF’s debt requirements. 

My, how times change. In just a little over a decade, the United States has gone from being the one who set the economic rules to having the rules imposed upon it. Only a few years ago anyone suggesting that foreign governments would be able to set compensation limits on Wall Street’s high-flying financial wizards would have been laughed out of the room; however, that’s exactly what was discussed at the G20 summit last week. Also discussed was the United State’s massive levels of debt, with calls for the dollar to replaced as the world’s reserve currency; while not likely to happen next week, the discussion serves notice that the world is already looking beyond U.S. economic dominance. 

In other empire-in-decline news, it’s becoming obvious that the U.S. is running out of the national willpower and military manpower necessary to “win” the war in Afghanistan. The national willpower part shouldn’t have been surprising to any politician who has actually studied U.S. history; the American public has never had the stomach for the kind of long-term, open-ended imperial police actions that the British were willing to tolerate, and presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush have had to find this out the hard way. We want our wars short, sweet and unequivocally victorious. Now President Obama is having to rethink his Afghanistan strategy in the wake of public disaffection; with U.S.-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai looking increasing like a mid-season replacement for Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Obama faces a choice of continuing to support the Karzai regime and further alienate the American electorate, or draw down the troops and face Republican charges of “losing” Afghanistan. Either of these choices would undermine his ambitious domestic agenda.

To his credit, Obama seems to realize that the U.S. imperial heyday is over. Recent speeches in international forums have stressed the limits of U.S. power in determining the direction of other nations’ development, and have called for more international cooperation. Much of these calls for international cooperation, however, seem designed to garner foreign support for U.S. policy aims, such as interfering in Iran.

Obama’s biggest problem in dealing with our imperial decline, however, is the fact that most Americans don’t believe we have an empire in the first place, and therefore are unable to understand how it’s disappearance affects this country economically and socially. They’re convinced that U.S. hegemony is due to our nation’s traditional values of hard work and ingenuity, and the seeming inability of these values to maintain our dominant position in the world is resulting in a crisis of national identity. While our values certainly played a role in establishing our empire, it also had a great deal to do with the U.S. government policy, often covert, of undermining or manipulating any nation that seemed to provide a countervailing influence in the world. Now, however, many of those nations, such as China, have simply become too economically powerful to ignore, and are more than capable of directing their own affairs as well as influencing other nations. 

So the question is, will we as a nation come to accept this change, and adopt policies that help us prosper in a post-imperial era, or will allow ourselves to remain shackled to delusions of our former grandeur?