Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, 2012

What's the right way to greet someone on Memorial Day? I mean, is it okay to wish the other person "Happy Memorial Day"?

"Happy" just doesn't seem the right sentiment for a day that is dedicated to remembering those who died fighting for the nation. If you lost a loved one to one of the nation's wars, you probably aren't all that happy today. I wouldn't be, anyway. I might be proud, I might be thankful, but there would always be a part of me that would be sad and maybe angry that that person wasn't a part of my life any more.

That's all I had to say about that. But as I was walking along earlier, when that stray thought crossed my mind, I realized I was bugged by a tangential issue that I had to mention.

When the hell did it become unpatriotic to object to this nation's wars of choice?

You know how the argument goes: if you were, or are, opposed to the war in Iraq, say, a sizable minority of people in this country are quick to accuse you of disloyalty, or worse, of hating our volunteer military who are, in case you hadn't noticed, a hell of a lot more selfless and dedicated to their country than you are, Mr. (or Ms.) Not-In-Uniform.

That is such a staggeringly stupid argument, it astonishes me that the people who make it have enough brain tissue to breathe unassisted.

I know, mine is not a charitable attitude. It certainly doesn't make a good starting point for reasoned discourse, which is the only way we're going to increase this country's overall intelligence. I confess to being irritated beyond endurance that the aforementioned argument is taken seriously by anyone, so I'm in no mood to be broadminded and patient. Yet in the spirit of national comity, and on the off chance some of those who believe criticism of our nation's less felicitously chosen conflicts is taboo give two figs and a damn what I think, let me explain why the argument is so blindingly boneheaded.

First, stop and listen to what the critics are saying. They're — oh, why be coy: we're — not saying that the soldiers are morally defective. We're saying that the soldiers are being misused, that their deeply admirable contribution to our nation is being squandered.

Do you see the distinction?

Of the many asinine legacies of the '60s counterculture, it's hard to top the idiocy of young privileged hippies denouncing their less fortunate contemporaries in uniform as "baby killers". The only good to come out of that ugliness was the belated recognition of just how stunningly moronic it was to blame the foot soldiers for being where they were told to be, doing what they were told to do.

We know that the folks carrying the hundred-pound packs don't choose where they are deployed. That is a civilian decision. That means it's really our collective responsibility — "our", as in all of us who have the right to vote.

So when we criticize "the Iraq War", we are criticizing the civilian dipshits in Washington, D.C., who masterminded that fiasco. We are loudly proclaiming that it was a terrible, terrible mistake to have embarked on that conflict. ("Mistake" is a grotesquely genteel way of putting it, by the way.) And when it comes right down to it, we're criticizing our fellow countrymen (and -women) who were so goddamned eager to take us into that idiotic conflict in the first place. We thought it was pretty fucking obvious that we were being stampeded to war by disingenuous politicos (hello, Dick Cheney; greetings, Paul Wolfowitz; and salutations to many more). The rest of you just weren't listening.

But we can argue about that another time. The point for today is, it's way the hell past time for those of you who still buy into the "criticizing the war [whatever war it is] is unAmerican" argument to stop. That argument is beyond weak sauce; it doesn't even rise to the level of horseshit or bullshit, both of which are far more useful. That argument, in fact, is itself unAmerican and unpatriotic because it's an attempt to suppress free speech — speech that might well be needed to correct the dishonesty of the ones driving us into the next ill-chosen, unnecessary, unaffordable and morally unjustifiable war.

So stop equating criticism of the conflict with criticism of the troops. They're not the same thing, and nobody's dishing out the latter: it's only in your overheated imagination. If you're so eager to stick up for the soldiers, think long and hard before agitating for the next military incursion far from our shores. Spare the troops and their families the agony of enduring more wars we don't need to fight.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Not dead, just down

Several factors have conspired to keep me from blogging as frequently as I did. One is that I stopped using my primary browser a couple of months ago because it has abysmal memory management, but the replacement I've been trying out has, um, issues with a number of sites I frequent, Blogger being one of them. Another factor is my having gotten back into the habit of reading books, a glorious pastime that my previous job kept me too busy and tired to pursue. Unfortunately, my choice of books has left me in a thoroughly discouraged state of mind, another factor contributing to my silence.

It started with Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, which identified our nation's paralyzing conservative/liberal division as far back as 1996. Back then, it seemed things could get no worse, what with Republicans' poisonous rancor toward Bill Clinton -- and of course, things have gotten worse. But then, why should we be surprised? Some of us also thought that conservative extremism couldn't get worse than what we experienced under Reagan, who mistook roaring oil fires for a new American dawn and succeeded in killing the limited progress the nation had made toward weaning itself off of oil and exploring alternative energy sources. And of course, things have gotten so much worse since Reagan that even moderates look back a little wistfully at his two terms. (Like Nixon, Reagan's reputation has been enhanced merely by contrast with the thoroughgoing ineptness and stridency of his successors -- not just George W. Bush, but those whom the GOP has embraced, like Sarah Palin.)

I had been hoping Sandel would prescribe some bold, imaginative ways to fix the widening gap between conservatives and liberals, but he could only cite others' small, largely local efforts which, if you squinted hard enough, could be construed as hopeful for renewing comity between the two sides. His incisively observed text petered out with a whimper rather than a clarion call to action.

It's hard to fault Sandel, though, because the next volume I tackled was Harold Bloom's The American Religion: the Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. Bloom surveyed some of the most enduring and idiosyncratically American faiths, including Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Christian Science, and identified a couple of common features. They all focus quite intensively on revelation and salvation through a deeply personal connection with God, and they have something of a hangup with the end times. Bloom argues that the emphasis on the personal connection to God renders the core of most American Christian sects (including the larger and supposedly more mainstream Protestant denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention) profoundly different from Christianity as it is understood and practiced in Europe. It is so different, in fact, that Bloom contends that what most Americans practice isn't really Christianity at all, but is something closer to the (now heretical) Gnostic sects that last flourished in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ.

Your mileage on that last score may vary. Myself, after a lengthy detour through Hans Jonas' magisterial The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, while I can see the parallels Bloom drew, I'm not sure he didn't overplay his hand. However, Bloom's book remains valuable to me, if only because his frequent hints at the frighteningly strong hold that religion has on the majority of Americans were a valuable primer for the nigh-apocalyptic message of Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. I'm still reading the latter, but have gotten far enough to be extremely discouraged about the future not merely of the United States, but of the human race as a whole.

You can see, perhaps, why I've written about religion more than once since the beginning of the year. And that doesn't include my two entries about marriage, or the two about gay teens in a small town, or the brief mention of the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, or the one about Jay Leno being sued over a Romney joke that ticked off some Sikhs, all of which touched on matters religious in some way. Due to the happenstance choice of Sandel's work several months ago, religion has been on my mind.

Phillips, though, makes explicit what I've merely suspected: that American religious zeal is out of control and having dangerous, cancerous effects on our body politic. In particular, we can't afford either the preoccupation with the afterlife at the expense of the present or the deep-seated and thoroughly irresponsible rejection of rationality in favor of blind, intolerant faith. Phillips cautions that such overzealousness in the past has accompanied imperial decline. My concern is a whole lot bigger: the trend toward fundamentalism, the headlong retreat from and wholesale, contemptuous dismissal of science and reason by the devout is a worldwide phenomenon that could mire the entire human race in war, famine, disease, and ultimately a new Dark Age. And that's if we're lucky. The consequences could be a lot worse if fanatics manage to unleash weapons of mass destruction from which humanity is unable to recover as a species. It took an asteroid to wipe out the dinosaurs (yes, I know there's some controversy about that); it would be the ultimate disgrace to humanity if we wiped ourselves out by reverting to our basest and most parochial instincts after three or four centuries of (admittedly halting and often fitful) progress toward a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. And yet, that's what the surrender of our fate to holy writ, any holy writ, promises for us.