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.

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