Monday, November 26, 2007

1993: Crash and Burn

Freedom is a drug with different side effects for everyone. Some thrive, others panic; some take advantage of the opportunity, and others take advantage of the loopholes.

I got my first taste of freedom when I got my driver's license. At age 16, my parents were reluctant to give me that freedom - they had their reservations about turning over as valuable a piece of equipment as our 1982 Chevy Malibu to me - but they were also tired of making the 15 mile trip to school and back twice a day. (There was a bus route, but my extra-curricular schedule made that impractical.) It wasn't just the car, though; even on days that the car was not an option, I started riding my bike to school. And that, in its way, was even more liberating.

Freedom is scary. It can be as terrifying to let go of a child as it is to suddenly find yourself in free fall, without the nets of childhood. But there is a deep, satisfying joy in conquering that fear.

I had a pretty sheltered upbringing, and being a rather unfocused, daydreaming kind of kid, my parents were worried about the dangers of unleashing me upon the city. I found the whole experience exhilarating, and when the dangers they had always feared never materialized, I began to test my limits. It wasn't just in the area of transportation. I started to question all of the assumptions and boundaries I had been raised with... and discovered that many of their fears were unfounded. Many things I had been taught -- such as the mental capabilities of people from other faiths -- were downright wrong.

Freedom is a song. Ditching my old, preconceived notions meant discovering new joys. My self-imposed censorship of all things secular (before 1988, even some Christian rock was too racy for my taste) had always meant denying my attraction to modern, popular music. Changing my definition of "evil" meant I could embrace a whole world of wonderful things. The drum and bass, piano rock, the limitless possibilities of the guitar...

I won't elaborate too much, but suffice to say, I discovered a lot of things that gave me joy. Things that were taboos, sins, and pitfalls according to my upbringing. All of those rules that were there to protect me crumbled slowly away, and I found that there was a lot of leeway in life. There were no restrictions that I couldn't find a way around.

Freedom means being allowed to make the wrong choices, too. Yeah, I did that. It was fun. At 18, I got an apartment, had my own car; felt like a real Bohemian. Truth is, there are no real Bohemians in suburbia. I was really just a jerk.

My friends and I partied, we cut class, we stretched the limits of our finances, we got and lost jobs. Compared to my childhood, it was life with no boundaries - but no one can live like that forever. I was lucky. Nothing truly tragic happened, even though the choices I made were bad ones and I showed no respect for those around me. I hurt some people, and cost some people a bit of money. But I never did anything that could have landed me in jail. Never did any permanent damage, except maybe of the psychological variety.

Freedom's just another word for "nothin' left to lose"... and that was 1993. All of those bad choices came back to bite me. The car died, the roommate left the country, my long-time girlfriend rightly dumped me for someone else, and the scholarship was taken away... The White Suburban Country Song played out live.

I had no cushion, no chances left. My only options were of the fall-back variety. I moved back in with mom and dad (none of us were very pleased about that), walked 5 miles to a crummy retail job at a dying chain store, had to quit school, and lost track of all of my friends. It wasn't rock bottom by any stretch; I started out with too many advantages to be crying about my situation, and I knew it. But I could see the bottom, and there weren't many ladders around.

Freedom isn't free. Never let anyone tell you that the military "gives" you anything; just like real socialism, the military life provides you with your basic needs, but at some pretty steep costs. I guess calculating those costs depends on how much you value those freedoms.

I didn't really know the ins & outs of enlisting, but I knew I was down & out. It was peace-time, which made the decision easier. And I didn't have a lot to leave behind. So I took the plunge. I made the choice in early 1994, when I was 22 years old, and I've been lucky. Luckier than at least 30,000 other Americans who probably made similar choices in the decade after I left the military.

Freedom is relative. The word has always been bandied about in this country as a justification for all kinds of behavior. But it all boils down to this: you make your choices, and you live with the consequences. You may not understand what the consequences are when you go to make that choice, but that argument doesn't impress the universe.

Don't feel bad about that... the universe is notoriously moody.

NextPart One: How did THAT happen?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Recycle Your Box

This one pissed a few people off. Posted Saturday, November 24, 2007, I still pretty much feel this way, and I am still hoping for an opportunity to demonstrate that I am as Centrist as I feel I am. Perhaps I should write a follow-up about that...

It is not easy being one of us. Whatever it is that I am, that is. One of the non-branded, non-affiliated, un-marketed.

I know I confuse people with my opinions. No one really understands what it means to reject the options that are forced upon us, and ask for something better. Everyone is constantly trying to fit us into one of their pre-defined, factory stamped, UPS-coded boxes - because then they feel safe and in control.

My tendency is to blow off the trappings of the Boxes, and deal with the substance of things. I don´t pay attention to the clues I give off when I express my distaste with things of a political nature, especially. That is probably why I was recently accused of being a Democrat. Yuck.

I can see where someone would make that mistake. After all, I spend a great deal of time criticizing the current American regime; the Republican controlled Congress that has worn the country down since 1994; the misguided incompetence of the Bush Administration; the mystifying workings of the Supreme Court. But all of this easy criticism means that the so-called opposition never gets equal time, and as FOX News has programmed us to believe, if I am not spending equal time bashing Ted Kennedy, then I am somehow biased... Heaven forfend.

Well, yes, I guess I am biased. So what? Find me someone without a bias, and I will show you someone without an opinion. But no one bothers to figure out what my biases actually are; instead, they determine that I am disagreeing with them, and therefore must be on the so-called Other side.

I find it to be extremely disingenuous that the same people who will dismiss my criticisms as biased often follow their dismissal up by telling me - proudly - that they get all of their information from extremely biased sources: FOX news, Talk Radio (tm), or some similarly slanted publication. They will often compound the blow to their credibility by telling me that Bill O´Reilly is not a conservative, or that NPR - my choice for news on my commute - is a leftist organization. If you believe either of those statements then you seriously need to go check out Political Science for Dummies or something, because you don´t understand what the words ¨conservative¨ or ¨leftist¨ mean.

What I find ridiculous about these arguments is that the people arguing with me are so busy attacking what they see as ¨my group¨, that they never seem to recognize that I have not aligned myself with a group. Rather than addressing the substance of my criticism, they put me in a box with their perceived enemies, and waste my time trying to convince me that their box is better than mine. They don´t get that my point is often, ¨Hey, these boxes are convenient for framing bubblegum poll questions and building colorful graphics on the TV news, but if we are going to solve any of our problems, the boxes need to go.¨

It is really easy to tell when someone is boxing you, rather than listening to you. You might learn that the President is lying about something, and express disgust; they will respond that Hilary is trying to take away your money and give it to brown people. This is called a non sequitor. Say you realize that all of the billions of dollars in spending ¨on the troops¨ has actually been going to pay for contractors with no oversight or accountability; they might then point out that John Edwards got an expensive haircut. This is called misdirection.

It reminds me of 7th grade algebra class when I pointed out to a classmate that she had made a mistake in a formula that we were working on as a group, and she sneered at me that she could at least pick out matching socks. True, my socks that day were slightly mismatched, but I was still right about the algebra. In my mind, the Republicans are the idiot classmates that ignored me and went with Suzy´s answer - costing us points on the exercise - and the Democrats are the teacher who dithered on the sideline telling me it was impolite to call a girl a name like that.

The issues at stake these days are a little bigger than getting a math problem wrong. We need to decide how to fix the mistakes made over the last six years, and confront the inevitable shortages in resources that are going to start hitting us as the rest of the world realizes that they don´t need to support our habits of over-consumption any more. We need to deal with our problems intelligently and not as a pack of squabbling teams of marketing experts. Marketing is great for selling things, but not for making tough decisions.

Meanwhile, I will continue to defy your attempts to box me in, and will kick in the sides, whether from the inside or the outside.

Box THAT, suka!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Ambivalent Cheerleader

This was originally posted Sunday, November 11, 2007, in what seems to have been a follow-up to Recycle Your Box.

I used to enjoy mindless patriotism and expressing unthinking adulation of my "team". That has all changed over the years, but I still like to think I'm a team player. But the question now is, what teams are we talking about?

I was a Reagan Republican all the way in 1984, mainly because of his stance on abortion, creation over evolution, and whatever other issues I was aware of at age 12. I didn't understand apartheid or terrorism, had no idea what was going on in the Middle East, and could care less about economic policies. All I needed to know was that Communists were the root of all evil, and I was as quick to snap the flag at the ass of anyone who dared to differ from my opinions as Bill O'Reilly is to shout his Neilson ratings at anyone who dares question his journalistic integrity.

When I hit high school, I discovered a wonderland of "school spirit": letter jackets, school colors, pom-poms & pennants, and loud cheering. I loved all the trappings and uniforms. I was in "hog heaven", as my mother would say. And I brooked no dissent with the idea that our school was "the best", whatever that meant; I was as in-your-face as the most repugnant fan could be. I'd argue with a fence post, if it contradicted me. My school, my church, my political party; all were superior to yours.

But eventually, I learned that there is a word for a person like this: asshole.

Life has a way of presenting difficult puzzles to us, and the puzzles I was handed made me realize that the causes I championed and the opinions I held so forcefully didn't fit in with the real world. I saw firsthand how little good extreme solutions actually do when confronted with a situation as serious as teen pregnancy. I began to learn about subtlety and gray areas, and I came to see that most of the articles of faith I held so dear were based on nothing, and weren't as important as I had been taught, anyway.

And I saw how easily people can turn something as insubstantial and silly as "team spirit" into something ugly and deadly. Let's just say that when I got around to reading "Lord of the Flies", I had faces from our varsity teams to go with each character. That's where I started learning a healthy distaste for organized groups; especially those that claimed to have the Answers.

Americans tend to see the world in false groups; groups of imaginary importance, which Kurt Vonnegut described in his novel, Cat's Cradle, as a "granfalloon". He also accurately described the attitude of the average American's world view in our WalMart-based society with a character who happens to be an American businessman traveling to a Caribbean island nation to set up a bicycle factory:

"He wasn't a terrible person and he wasn't a fool. It suited him to confront the world with a certain barn-yard clownishness, but many of the things he had to say about undisciplined mankind were not only funny but true.
The major point at which his reason and his sense of humor left him was when he approached the question of what people were really supposed to do with their time on Earth.
He believed firmly that they were meant to build bicycles for him."

So, when I came to make the decision to enlist in America's armed forces, I did so with the full understanding that I was voluntarily entering a granfalloon of mammoth proportions. While there, I met people with myriad backgrounds and a plethora of opinions, and while everyone differed on the particulars, we all pretty much agreed that the U.S. was a good place to live and work, and to raise a family. And whatever political, religious, or other "granfalloon" affiliations we might have, we were there to make sure that it stayed that way. Where we tended to differ most was the question of what the rest of the world was good for, but under the Clintons, you could always count on a kind of benevolent apathy to carry the day.

Then came 2000. The roughly 25% of Americans who cared enough to show up at the polls flaccidly chose between what they saw as the lesser of two evils. And in what was the most suspiciously close decision in our history -- I will point out that Rutherford Hayes had no relatives in the government of the state which handed him the presidency -- the Top Job was given to ... the letter "W".

I remember thinking at the time, "How bad can it be? Maybe he'll manage to do what he says he's trying to do. At worst, he'll provoke people into caring enough to vote in the future to avoid this kind of nonsense." I was wrong.

It has been much worse than anyone imagined it would be. True, we suffered a horrific attack; but it wasn't the first. If our collective heads had not been in our collective fundaments, it wouldn't have been such a surprise. I refer to both our leaders and our citizenry when I say that, by the way. Plenty of blame to throw around, as we have seen.

But the real damage it has caused is worse that the attack itself. We've suffered through years of incompetence, bravado, isolation, division, blatant corruption, and the erosion of the ideals that we were supposedly fighting for in the first place. I've watched our leaders lie to us, drive away our allies, torture people (guilt or innocence undetermined), and otherwise play right into the hands of our enemies.

They knew what Afghanistan would be like after watching the Soviets stumble there, but considered it justified if we were there to help. They knew what Iraq would be like -- Dick Cheney predicted it in 1994, almost to the letter -- and they knew that al-Qaida wanted us to go there, but they went anyway. And they knew full well that even the most limited forms of compromise on our treatment of prisoners would be a death blow to our credibility -- and they did it anyway.

And while I knew what any veteran can tell you -- that our general officers are political sycophants and that our junior officers are increasingly taught religious fervor over war-fighting substance -- the Decider kept claiming to trust them and their judgment on the ground, instead of letting "politics" micro-manage the war. It is telling that every General he has so trusted has since retired and come out publicly against the policies on the ground, which it turns out, were forced on them by the men claiming to trust their judgment.

So, what am I saying with all of this? That the government is evil? That America is bad? That everyone should vote Democrat? No. I'm not.

But I am saying that I don't support this team blindly. I don't believe that what we are doing is right, and we need change. We needed change at the top in 2004, but the Democrats gave us another crap candidate to "choose". And we need change from the bottom up, but the voting public is too ignorant and lazy to even begin talking about third parties.

I guess to continue the sports metaphors, I feel like I'm on the bench, watching the coach sacrifice every element of sportsmanship for a goal that won't win the game. I feel like the fans in the stands have only come to see blood, and could care less about the actual outcome. And I feel like every time I try to suggest the changes that might salvage something from the wreckage, I get accused of not being a team player. I'm tired of having my loyalty questioned simply for pointing out the fact that not everyone loves us, and that maybe that's not a good enough reason to kill them.

I should think by now it should be obvious to everyone in the world -- even the most hawkish and spirited American -- that we need to rethink our approach to being "the Superpower". Considering the effects of the Decider's policies on our economy, the reemergence of Russia as a robust threat, and the serious dangers of Overshoot facing our planet today, our days of being "fat, dumb, and happy" are numbered no matter what we do. It would be better to find ways to make the inevitable decline and fall a graceful one, rather than taking out as many as we can on the way down.

So, while I'm grateful for the sacrifices made by my fellow veterans, and I'm still proud of my part in all of this, past and present, it's time to stop making bad decisions based on granfalloons and team spirit.

And it's way past time to recognize that self-discipline is not just something to teach other people.