Retail!

It is time that we all come clean here with each other about retail. Strip malls and minimum wage have pretty much swallowed our entire society and our entire planet. I know that this sounds a bit bombastic, but when you are in the mood to drop some Truth Bombs, this is what happens. We have been so busy rolling up our sleeves and getting down to the dirty details that we have forgotten to think and reflect on our actions, on our very way of going about things.

We all know the phrase associated with retail and low paying jobs on being asked a question: “Hey, I only work here”. It reeks of lazy ignorance; a slovenly teenager slouching through life, dying just to get home, smoke some pot and watch Adult Swim. Or whatever. I’m just trying to nail down the stereotype to illustrate it. Because it is false. I have worked a variety of minimum wage jobs in a variety of circumstances in a number states over a number of years. Thus, I think that my experience is valid and forceful, if not comprehensive and exhaustive.

This stereotype of the “I don’t know; I only work here” employee is a product not of lazy idiots, but of the system of minimum wage/retail/profit maximisation economic system that we have embraced since the Reagan years. For all of you out there who shop a lot, but still seem to misunderstand the way our economy works today, let me enlighten you. Retail leans heavy on the managers and supervisors, who effective are the store in question. The basic employee shows up to a repetitive, cog-like job, like checking out customers or straitening cloths or what have you.

Employees receive no real training; if they do, it is largely a “drink the cool-aide” sort of training that is closer to propaganda than anything else. All the real training happens “on the job”, i. e. when a customer asks a question. My point is that it is the retail system itself (which yearns to get rid of all employees entirely) that generates the the alienated, lazy, ignorant employee.

Too many part-time minimum wage workers are college educated, responsible, hard-working, dedicated and motivated to account for the extreme paranoia that both Corporate offices and customers show towards these employees. I know that it takes to qualifications or real skills to become a retail sales clerk; I know that it requires no experience and requires hardly any intelligence at all; yet retail jobs are remarkable taxing psychically and emotionally. To be blunt: retail jobs are soul crushing.

Retail means “fancy shopping warehouse”. It means profit-maximisation for the Corporate Office; this means minimising wages and employees as much as possible. Retail is efficiency towards profit and profit only. And all I want you to realise is that this is a system and this is system has strengths (profit maximisation for the shareholders) and weaknesses (its soul crushing, its employees are paid little). A different system would have different strengths and weaknesses (say a system where wages where maximised somehow).

I would like to suggest that there is a subtle collision between the Corporate Office and the Customer against the Employee. Employees are the face of the legal fiction that is the corporation; thus when the corporate retail system generates mistakes, errors, and general shoddy-ness, and the customer quickly becomes frustrated or angry (they feel like they are getting the run-around), this is taken out on the Employee. This is implicitly encouraged by the retail system as the actual individuals that are capable of making a change in the policy are totally isolated from the Customer in question.

TV adds constantly refer to customer service, hospitality. They insinuate that here, unlike all the other minimum wage paying places, there is real customer service: “Our employees actually do care!” They don’t. Not because they are lazy, but because they are under-trained, under-paid, see no opportunity for advancement, and are simply running the clock to go home. The system engulfs people in contexts that are emotionally, mentally, and economic that, on a basic level, cause the “Bad Behaviour”.

There is a huge gap between leadership and simple ‘management’. I have personal experience of truly awesome management; they understood that their job was in large part to keep their employees happy. Each employee was personally valued and even had a profound sense of personal development. However, these high quality managers are few and far between. Most feel and seem to sincerely think that there job is simply to designate tasks, make sure the rules get followed and the work, done. They play a parent to the employee’s child.

Obviously, individual personality makes a big difference here. I do not deny that there are a lot of factors that go into management (not to mention the challenges; I know from personal experience), but I have had some truly surreal experiences. But I have had too many examples of “rules for rules sake” thinking, with all the implicit distrust that comes with it. There is often a total lack of perspective; a certain disconnect from what might be called the immediate context.

For example, I was told off (after being observed from CCTV) for reading a book behind the cash register in a bookstore that was totally empty of customers. “It’s our rule,” I was told. I wanted to respond: “No, this is your rule. You have chosen to enforce it despite the fact that we are alone in this cavernous warehouse of a store with no one in it.”

I still have trouble imagining what was going through this General Manager’s head, going so far as to spy on me, then take the book from me and return it to the shelf himself. A control freak? Anal retentive? A good, old-fashioned sociopath? Does he spend his evenings flossing his teeth and remaking his bed over and over again, chasing the perfect fold? Maybe he finds it simpler and easier to simply all the rules all the time instead of pondering and/or arguing about exceptions and contingencies. Either way, it represents a pretty astounding dedication to rules, rules which have very little value or reason for being. Who is harmed if I read a book? What exactly is the problem? Is reading a book in a bookstore with no one in it bad customer service? What exactly is customer service, then, and how was my reading a book – with legitimately nothing to do  – a violation of customer service, even if there are some people in the store?

The fact that nobody is harmed (certainly not the company’s profit margin) should alert us to the fact that “rules for rules sake” is symptom of larger things in our society. It reveals something about our automatic assumptions and our train of thought. I have met and worked for too many managers exactly like the one mentioned above for this to be a one-off encounter. So why the obsession with rules and a fear of breaking them due to context and circumstance?

There is a lot of subtle things going on here: distrust of the employee in a moral sense, the need to eliminate any reason for people to complain (a whole other blog post in and of itself), the need for the employee to be a station in a Fordist assembly line (and therefore my need to be mentally engaged is a problem), the ease of enforcing rules instead of reflecting on them (The Good German Syndrome),  and a heavy does of traditional Calvinist assumptions about work simply expressed in their contemporary American/business form (which does not make them any less Calvinist). It is exactly the same problem as to why American sales clerks cannot have stools to sit on; and why they need basically a doctor’s slip if they want to wear tennis shoes or have a bottle of water, coffee or tea to sip on.

I have been to too many other countries where the clerk gets to sit on a stool (and where everything works just fine) for you to tell me that the stool would result in poor customer service. I can respect rules, and respectfully break them and bend them without Things Falling Apart. The fact that we need to control our low-level employees speaks volumes about our rather prison/punishment-oriented mindset about things. Work needs to be work; and corporate America is only too happy to oblige us in our strict moral assumptions to their own massive benefit. I am reminded of a recent news story where a ski company dynamited little huts associated with people smoking pot in them; this in Colorado where pot is legal. To me, this is a striking example of a company enforcing a certain set of moral values and assumptions for the sake of brand image. Note the lack of perspective; the whole thing was quickly carried to its logical extreme: dynamite. All in the name of someone’s morality which is questionable at best. Hard-ass-ness just doesn’t work.

In many retail situations, such as an angry, unreasonable yelling customer, or a rule-crazed manager, the correct response, we are all told is to “not take it personally”, and “be like teflon” and to “move on”. That’s fine. I understand that; I have followed that logic many times myself. But our lives our made up of our instances. It is what we choose to do at these instances which to a very large extent dictate our lives. Are we sure that “being like teflon” is not being a push-over? A sheeple? What about CCTV, ostensibly meant to deter shoplifting, which in practical, everyday reality is used by management to spy on its employees, and their potential moral laxity. The logic of “teflon” allows the system, the unconscious assumptions of people, in other words, to continue unchanged. The same logic goes on and on and perpetuates itself because it encounters no resistance.

This has run rather long, for that I apologise. I have only one more point which I want to ram home. It is the customer’s mindset: the “why” we shop retail at shopping malls. As the clerk manning the till, I have come to see customers as simply a long procession of self-helpers (“Thin Thighs in Thirty Days”, “How to Get Rich in Three Easy Steps”, “How to be More Happy Everyday!”, “How to Be a Business Executive and Conqueror the Universe”, “How to Be a Good Husband/Wife” and “Get Organised and More Productive”) haplessly tortured by social expectations of perfection they don’t understand and oddly don’t question.

There is – forgive the rhetorical bombast here – a certain implicit savagery to the whole retail proceedings. I’ll just say it: we like retail because we can annonymously abuse the staff. We are always right; we can criticise without fear of being criticised in return. We feel superior. Self-righteousness in its true social expression. Far too often – to a crazy extent, it is the customer which has generated the problem. You, the customer: your mindset is a much the problem, if not more so than mine as the employee. The customer gets to display a odd mix of arrogance and ignorance, which always going hand in hand, and come out the other side with an apology, a discount and ten minuets of being the centre of attention.

The bizarre psychology of the impulse buy: junk on display, which aims to prompt the ejaculation: “cute” by the shopper. only out of its context of ‘glamourous suggestion’ do we realise that it is junk (like in the bargain bin or once you put it in your house); a cliche. It is dehumanising for everyone.

The longer I work at these bottom of the barrel jobs, the more people tell me the typical Horatio Alger line: I have to “work hard” too get ahead; that it will teach me humility, that I need a “real job”.  Its a mindset which has little to do with economic reality.  It is really about protecting identity and personal comfort zones, not about me getting a job or there being a healthy economy or society or individuals. The eerie circular logic that repeats over and over and only points to itself, kept because it satisfies emotionally. It sounds very tone-deaf to me anymore.

Do we really want our society to be like this? Endless parking lots and strip malls? Anonymous employees and customers; implicit hostility and misunderstanding? We are headed full-steam towards a Wal-Mart society. Do we actually think that this is a good thing?

Advertisements

“Citizens”: A Review

Simon_Schama,_Citizens,_cover

I think the word that I am required to use here – by law, no less – is “magisterial”.

The book is 875 pages,each chock full of ideas, events, facts and emotion. This is serious, “high” history in the tradition of Gibbon, Norwich, and Massie. There are all authors given to enormous historical tomes that span huge topics like “Venice” “The French Revolution” “WWI”, etc in one book. Yet possess some magic for making it all come alive and come together in a historically rigorous narrative.

You might be surprised to hear this, but how one writes history is a controversial topic, or at least one of some debate. You see, ideology and politics are involved here. In the nineteenth century (book-ended with Napoleon and Nietzseche) history was seen as a general slow progress towards higher level of civilisation, with most events being dominated by “great men”. You know: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Voltaire, Newton, Napoleon; all those big names that you recognise.

This conception, while not exactly in-favour in academia, has its ideological decendants and off-shoots that if they do not exactly claim that history is the record of “great men” bending the world to their will, then they at least strenuously deny the opposite.

The rival idea, the academic name is “structuralism”, argues that history is an open-ended process, produced by large institutions. In more ideological terms, this means a very sort of socialist and even a classically Marxist perspective. This is a world where economic class is everything; the “Base” of the economy dictates the “Superstructure”. Structuralism has also fallen out of favour, being replaced successively with “post-structuralism”; and even post-structuralism has been extensively modified and riffed off of by the likes of Michel Foucault and others.

Meanwhile there is still a debate over the role of the individual in history. The chain of causality and the problem of free will make it almost impossible to disentangle where one man’s will begins and ends. In practical terms, there is no answer here. It is safe to say that the “great men” in history where simply the right men at the right time in the right place. Instead of bending the world to their vision of the future, they can be accurately seen as men surfing a series of much larger forces and processes.

On the other hand, it is clear that the individual does matter. Individual choices matter. We might be trapped by our socio-economic context, but it is possible to break out of these contexts. This, combined with the human cognitive need for narrative, sequence and order implies that as history will only make sense to us as a narrative, we might as well tell it as a narrative.

Thus, Simon Schama aside from being an astute historian and talented writer, displays an sagacious knowledge of the historiography of the the French Revolution and the intellectual history that has shaped political and historical debate. I greatly appreciated this aspect; it enriches the book and increases its value. It makes me feel comfortable saying that Schama’s book here is probably the Gold Standard of histories of the French Revolution.

Schama’s basic technique is to paint a portrait of key individuals, such as Lafayette, Talleyrand, Robespierre, Danton, Louis XIV, etc. He copiously quotes from private letters. For example, he quotes from several private letters from a typical deputy to the National Convention, which vividly depicts the shift from slightly a naive, cheerful nationalist/royalist with a faith in human reason to an “ultra”; a radical democrat, convinced that a royalist plot to over through the Republic is everywhere.

The French Revolution emerges as a maelstrom of violence; mob riots, propaganda, political terror, war, and the sinister operation of the guillotine. A crisis in the elite (the aristocracy and the royal Court) matched up with a series of draughts and famines; people came to believe their own increasingly extreme rhetoric, and even after a republic was declared, it was easy for demagogues to outflank those in power with ever-more radical rhetoric.

The whole thing dissolves in a bloodbath, really. But I gained a new appreciation of how the French Revolution is also the height of the power of political theatre; controlling the mob was everything for about three solid years in Paris.

What strikes me about the French Revolution is how modern it seemed at times. Louis XIV is crowed with the same old medieval babbling formulas for absolutist monarchy; but the Revolution itself unleashes not just things like “nationalism” and some “democracy”, it is the reveal of new ways of thinking and doing things; ultimately, new ways of organising and thinking about society.

Thus the political terror of the French Revolution is eerily predictive of the 20th century totalitarian horrors and Revolutions and political terrors. From the Dictatorship of Virtue to the Committee of Public Safety; these eerie bureaucratic names echo our own experiences today (like “Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security”). The problem then and now is that the theoretical logic cannot account for the basic realities of life. The price of food is the price of food, regardless of the purity of the Revolutionary government. Traitors are thus seen everywhere to account for the shortages, the failures, and the disappointments.

Robespierre_exécutant_le_bourreau

Schama ultimately steps back from heavy analysis of the French Revolution in terms of “lessons for today”. He contents himself with his in depth, yet swift narrative-driven account, which ends promptly after the Thermidor (the end of the Revolution and the beginning of a series of popular dictatorships of various forms, most notably Napoleon).

It is a very accessible book, enjoyable and insightful, and I would recommend it to the lay person and the most jaded, suspicious academic alike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Laughing Monsters”: A Review

tumblr_n8i3jyFS471rxrxxxo1_500

Dennis Johnson seemed to emerge a few years ago with his best known book, “Trees of Smoke”, a tough, surreal and simply one of the best Vietnam War novels ever written, standing proud along side Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried” and Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. For some reason, I assumed that Dennis was a one-hit wonder with “Trees of Smoke”.

I was wrong. He has produced quite a range, and “The Laughing Monsters” is his most recent work, and at about 230 small pages, I am forced to assume it is a novella. It won the National Book Award. Which actually means something, unlike being a ‘New York Times Bestseller’ or being the winner of the “Ritz-Paris-Hemingway Award”, which is/was real, but means little.

I’ll try not to rant and rave here: “The Laughing Monsters” was excellent, and at the risk of some serious hyperbole, I think it is the “Heart of Darkness” of our time; of the time of the War on Terror. Think Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” meets Hemingway’s “For Whom Bell Tolls”, with a dash of “Zero Dark Thirty” and a hint of “The Last King of Scotland”.

Let me explain. Our protagonist – Roland Nair – mysterious, but obviously a spook; an operator of some kind, for someone – is back in Africa after ten years. 9/11, the War on Terror and events in Iraq and Afghanistan have intervened. He meets up with Michael Adriko, a former child soldier, a commando for the US Special Forces; perhaps a mercenary. Adriko is charismatic, lucky, skilled; beautifully mad and colourful. Nair is hard-bitten, flim-noir-ish, clever and cynical. Both are plagued by their respective demons. The color of their skin deeply marks the characters, a weakness or a strength depending on the situation.

I will not reveal anymore of the plot.

But there is a third character who’s presence and role in the book brings it up and beyond just a more sophisticated Tom Clancy escapade in Africa. Adriko is engaged to Davidia, a young American women. She is smart, fun, savvy; and a total bombshell (and yet a real and convincing character; clearly much more than a simple male fantasy stand-in).

Davidia is innocent, but not naive. Part primordial goddess, part femme fatale, she is nearly a living symbol of…what? Well, she represents, one sense to Nair and Adriko an escape from the fear, cynicism and brutality of Africa, of life; Davidia is the ticket out, the symbol of living the best kind of life.

Lastly, “The Laughing Monsters” provides a depiction of post 9/11 espionage during the Bush Administration. Terrorism and genocide lurk around every corner; the Chinese loom in the background, the Mossad is involved. Everyone is a spy.

My favourite section of the novel, and some of its best lines and moments comes from Nair’s encounter with the US Special Forces based in Africa, and a senior Bush official. The telling line is “We can doing anything.” Brilliant. It is a telling contrast between the American base (which feels a bit like a fort of Buffalo Soldiers out in indian country) and the various armed warlords and general plight of the land and people itself.

The climax is pure Conrad, pure Apocalypse Now. Totally satisfying, like scotch and steak satisfying; we encounter “La Dolce Vita” who is the priestess queen of genocide; the earth itself is poisoned and dying…are the laughing monsters Nair and Adriko? Or something else? Brilliant I say.

I will leave it at that.

One More Opinion on the State of the Union

Shall we call it the “I Still Believe” Speech?

Putting the traditional squabble over Michelle’s dress (who copied who? and does it matter?), the display of crippled heroes, and the incoherent, formulaic GOP response to the speech, I think it is Obama’s most important speech.

There some soundbites that were really good to hear on the environment and economic equality; the two biggest elephants in the room for decades now. The hug with Ginsburg; the general legislative and ideological offensive against the new, Republican House and Senate, these are very bright things. Finally, Americans got to see Obama as a truly liberal president, instead of being a Democrat.

This is important. Here’s why: it is a vivid illustration of the power of big money and big donors in politics. At the very least, it shows how far our political process has been captured by interest groups (both public and private). Second, Obama’s liberal offensive, seemingly at the moment of Republican triumph, will prove to be a gigantic political wedge in the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Politics, and election campaigns require a lot of money, so much money in fact, that elections represent massive competing interests groups. This is especially true after “Citizens United,” perhaps the most heinous and disingenuous name in politics since the “Patriot Act”. As such, the Democratic Party (and the GOP as well) represent a gigantic bloc of interests groups that appeal to a largely manufactured set of ideological beliefs, “liberal” and “conservative”. Liberals vote for the Democrats as the lesser of two evils, and conservatives vote for the GOP using the same logic.

Any politician, the President included (as his campaign is by far the most expensive), is beholden to a web of powerful interests and donors. Thus, as long as Obama faces an election, be it his own or an election of the House and Senate, he actually must reflect the wants of his backers; the big backers of the Democratic party. We should find this very alarming. First, an elected official should do what is best for the country, and second, when the first case is unclear, which is usually is, he should follow his own good sense. What we currently have is the worse case scenario, where the politicians is beholden to private, unknown interests.

Now that this last election is over, Obama is free of his reliance on the Democratic Party and the Party’s backers. This is why Obama, on the defensive since the passing of the Affordable Health Care Act, has at last began a liberal offensive.

A look back at the record of Democrats in the White House will show a surprisingly moderate (on social issues), conservative (downright Hawkish, often; remember “Only Nixon Could Go to China”) series of administrations. A true liberal in the White House is actually very rare. Jimmy Carter was one; we will include Roosevelt, and Obama’s final years might count as well.

In the long run, the most important things Obama is doing is 1) holding back the conservative tide in the House and Senate through the veto; 2) making real progress on the environment (blocking Keystone XL, the cap on carbon immersions, the environmental deal with China (which is hopefully only a first step), and the declaration of the Defence Department that Global Warming is now a threat to national security); and 3) thwarting the pressures of big cable companies over gutting Net Neutrality.

The simple fact that his approval rating has soared since the “I still believe” offensive started, might just be the proof various persons and interests groups need to start shifting to the left. The GOP’s policy of energising the “wingnuts” has been proven to be a tactic of desperation, rather than a reflection of what Americans actually think and believe actually.

This State of the Union Address will go down as the key-note of these liberal initiatives. Meanwhile, the Republican House and Senate will thrash and fume; man-made global warming has been denied again in the Senate, representing another step back from taking the real action that needs to happen now.

Hopefully this liberal Obama lasts.

“The Great Shark Hunt”: A Review

I would like to start a new category, a simple book (and perhaps a movie or two) review gig. I plan to write a review of every book that passes through my hands. And the way the timing worked out what, we’ll be starting with volume one of Hunter S. Thompson’s collected writings.

“The Great Shark Hunt” is actually quite a large book, coming in at around just under six hundred pages. It is a mix of excerpts from his primary books, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Hell’s Angels,” and “Fear and Loathing On the 1972 Campaign Trail,” and spattered collections of articles of various lengths and for various magazines and publishers.

Thus it represents a fairly complex cross-section of Thompson’s writings. Earlier writings, which are tame, yet interesting. Second, his lesser-known articles which are still ‘classical’ Thompson, yet are not particularly notable, and lastly, the high/crazy well known “Gonzo Journalism” pieces.

I should probably try to explain Gonzo Journalism here. Essentially, its a heavily overhauled conception of “journalism” and a perception of “truth” that draws from Walt Whitman and a host of other poet-romantics. The idea then, is not to attempt a neutral/strict recording of facts or actions (which is immediately suspect), but rather, to describe the truth of the event in question. Gonzo Journalism attempts to report on existential truths. For example, Richard Nixon in Gonzo’s conception is not simply “The Republican Candidate for President” (say), but rather, a plastic and cruel man that personifies the viscousness of the American psyche in the turbulence of the Sixties and the Vietnam War.

Its a product of the Sixties and the idea that certain drugs are capable of “breaking through” ontological boundaries and revealing the truth of existence. We know this as “consciousness expansion” and there was a time when this idea was taken quite seriously by what we might call the elite of early drug culture. For example: Aldous Huxley.

The last element of Gonzo is that the journalist is and should be the protagonist or main/major character in the piece. Because the mere presence of a “normal” journalist effects events (actions and events are staged for the reporter; the press generates its own news etc); any attempt at “neutral” reporting is prima facie quite absurd. Thus the Gonzo journalist becomes closer to the truth by abounding pretences of non-intervention and neutrality. Gonzo journalism is about the “feel”, the “vibes”, and pits one man’s truth and experience against everyone else’s.

His truth is as true as any other’s truth. If that makes any sense at all.

The result is that Thompson’s best known works are crazed, drug-fueled encounters with mainstream America like The Kentucky Derby, Las Vegas, presidential campaigns, and big-time sports (football and boxing). The result is often bizarre, chaotic, over-whelming even.

But this is the entire point Thompson is after in his writing. I suspect that a majority of readers either dismiss Thompson as just ‘drug culture’ or just drug zany-ness, or they read Thompson for his shock-jockey style of writing. Neither interpretation is correct; far from it.

In the first instance, Thompson is trying to push you; he is trying to shock you and put you on the defensive. It’s a bit like a litmus test: he wants you to be able to speak his language (and therefore share his point of view). Frankly, the writings are largely indecipherable to “conservative” America: “flaky gibberish” to borrow Thompson’s own phrase.

Second, Thompson knows exactly what he is doing. And his encounters with mainstream America are attempts to hold up a magic mirror to the “soul” of America and show us how ugly it is. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” can be read as a hilarious drug binge in Vegas. But when you read between the lines, as it were, Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke is investigating the state of the American Dream. It is no coincidence it turns out to be a burned-out nightclub.

The crazed, surreal viscousness that is a hallmark of Thompson’s style is ultimately an try at describing the “truth” of American society in the early ’70s. It is powerful stuff; out of nowhere, Thompson is capable of going on a very heavy, extremely insightful description of what the American reality is. His drug fantasies simple mirror the militaristic/Wild West/conformist fantasies of mainstream America.

Thompson is funny, insightful, yes, very crazy, but right (oh-so-right) far too often to ignore.

Heroes

Jean Rostand famously said: “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

It’s one of those lines which ring though now and again, even though it is awkward over-generalisation. Rostand was apparently obsessed with the philosophic implications of man’s self-awarness, as well as its ominous physical/ecological implications. A quick tour of history seems to bear out this phrase of his.

It is in this light that I want to write about two recent social/pop phenomenon that have been gaining steam recently. This is the fracas over “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, and the growth of a General Patton cult of personality (especially sense the release of Martin Dugald’s “Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton”  .

Let’s do Patton first. George C. Scott’s Academy Award winning, 1970 movie, “Patton” put the General on the social consciousness in a big way. In the movie, Patton is larger than life, uncannily prophetic, and clearly an un-sung hero; a victim of his lack of political correctness. Put simply, it is an awesome movie.

Dugald’s book (which I should honestly state that I have not read, but have heard quite a lot about; I know quite a lot about Patton and WWII though) illustrates Patton’s life, and the mysterious circumstances of his death in the final days of WWII. Degrade insinuates that there was a conspiracy (FDR’s social/left administration looking the other way as the Soviets do the dirty work?) to assassinate the General and make it look like an accident.

“What happened,” poses Dugald, “to the driver of the truck that hit the General’s car?” And “Look at the tiny size of the hospital room where they took the General! Is this where you take your best general?” says Dugald. Patton wanted to use the Nazi army, and the US/UK forces in Europe to fight the Soviets then and there at the end of WWII(which was hugely impolitic at the time) and he wanted to be transferred to the Pacific theatre as well. Dugald seems to see this as evidence that the big political powers that be felt they had to take this trouble-maker out.

Let’s just say there is evidence of a conspiracy, simply some shady circumstantial murmurings that amount to nothing if we take a step back and consider the realities of that time and place. Using the German/Nazi army to fight Soviet Russian army was stupid then and should look stupid, racist, and buffoonish now. The Pacific theatre was in its endgame (the atomic bomb had been completed; battlefield fighting was a very different game) and it already had a prima-donna general: Douglas MacArthur. There can only be one.

This is the closing moves of WWII; the world is tired of war; Patton did not have the folk-hero status he does now, and in a military hospital filled with wounded, you use what space you have. The Soviets would not have been afraid enough of Patton to actually assassinate him; they regarded him as we should: a brilliant tactical general who was also a bit of self-important martinet.

Conservative America has done its best to turn the good General into a martyr, crucified by a nascent liberal/big government because he was not politically correct/utterly competent. Since Martin Dugald’s book, this has kicked into high gear, where before it was simply a murmur heard only at gatherings of armchair historians.

Chris Kyle’s story is more tricky. The movie “American Sniper” has already broken records in its sales for the opening weekend. Working at America’s largest bookstore chain, I can comfortably attest to the high volume of people buying copies of the book. Kyle is the highest “scoring” US sniper in history, at 234 kills (or was it 243? it hardly matters, does it?). Once I saw the book on the shelf, I knew that social war was brewing over Chris Kyle. And it has started.

Seth Rogan and Michael Moore have predictably tweeted the usual, attacking Chris Kyle and American’s lining up to watch and read about Kyle as Nazis/Nazi propaganda; Moore has called snipers ‘cowards’.

Before I go further, I want to luxuriate in the over-whelming sense of tone-def partisans yelling at each other with ears plugged with index fingers. Both “sides” have made of their mind. There is no debate, no space for a reasoned middle ground (much less people learning a lesson, one way or the other).

Conservative America is clearly ravenous for heroes. The Iraq War was from the beginning not fully understood or explained, but conservative America lined up for its patriotic duty, and after a decade of war, has little to show for it aside from PTSD, crippled veterans, a legacy of torture and militarism (America sure is not ‘safer’ by any means). It’s heroes (like Patrick Tillman (killed by friendly-fire, and therefore an example of military incompetence), General Petraeus (cheated on his wife; The Surge hasn’t worked) have been disqualified in one way or another (and calling all the soldiers “heroes” is frankly not that satisfying, nor particularly cinematographic). With Chris Kyle, it seems to be happening again.  “Chris Kyle was a soldier doing his job,” says conservative America. They do not understand why every figure must come under withering political fire from the left (Nazi, murdering psychopath, etc), especially sense it is these soldiers that are protecting America from terrorism.

The other side of the debate, the ‘liberal side’. Wants to see mainstream America pause for reflect on Chris Kyle. 234 kills is quite a lot of people, especially when you have pulled the trigger on each and every one of them. This lack of pause indicates rampant militarism, hero worship (a ethically debatable one at that) of the worse kind, and gun-culture gone mad. More than this, liberals crave a ‘realisation’ from the mainstream of the level of militarism extant in our society, and the huge costs, both physical, moral, economic that has accompanied this general growth. Consider how long it took the US to become involved in WWI and WWII (perhaps the most eminently justifiable war ever) compared to the rush to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chris Kyle, from the get-go, seems a dubious role model. He may have been a soldier par excellence, but if we approach Chris Kyle from the standpoint of thoughtful reasonableness, we should not put the man on a pedestal. If we want to talk about military heroes, they exist – Kyle is not one of them. Real heroes tend to be hard to find. Rare.

The power of conservative America comes from its high level of conformism, married with the extreme wealth, both from the Wall Street/Big Business wing of conservatism, but also from the age factor. This means that conservatives are older, and therefore more wealthy (they have worked longer, but also grew up in a more equitable time in American society (where the economy was growing not unlike China’s today in terms of amount of growth). It is really no surprise then when “American Sniper” breaks records at the box office and at the bookstore.

What should we look for in a hero? Hero worship is not going away. People crave personification of their fears, desires, hopes, dreams, etc. Statistics leave pretty much everyone cold. But a face – General Petraeus personifying The Surge – can make all the difference. It helps us to get involved; fired up. A proper hero and role model needs to be a complex person, who soars over the rest of us mere mortals in multiple facets of existence. I mean that a true hero is both a leader of men and great lover of women, but say someone driven to make a positive change in the world, or someone who has dedicated his life towards some truly worth great goal; not a mere sniper who as racked a lot of kills.

I will close with another adage. I do not know who said it, but: “Never meet your heroes”. I think that this is especially true in the case of Chris Kyle.

 

An Epic, Searching Quest to find Libertarianism

We have all been there. Hell, I said it myself for several years, wielding it like a wedge to set myself apart from conservatives and liberals.
And I think that, as good Americans, the majority of us think and want to be there.

“There,” of course, is libertarianism.

This word indicates a fairly broad range of ideas and policies, but a simple definition in terms of the political spectrum would be “socially and economically liberal.” The idea is that a small government, with less rules and less regulation (less “intervention”) will allow individuals to create a wealthy and happy society.

A more precise accounting of libertarianism – true libertarianism, not neo-liberal economics, nor Tea-Party academic eyewash – places it just a beat to the right of anarchism. Its intellectual roots descend to us from classic liberalism (let’s say Adam Smith) but also from American religious-tinged utopianism, European academics who emigrated to the US (Leo Strauss’ Chicago School or economics and Ayn Rand) and far left socialism and its theories(Pierre-Joesph Proudhon, for example or the CNT in Republican Spain in the ’30s).

Libertarianism, is the academic term for what we mean when we say “the night-watchman’s state”. A skeleton a government which exists only to enforce a bare handful of laws; a referee who has adopted a very loose attitude towards enforcing the rules. As you can gather from the previous paragraph, libertarianism has a split personality between rightists and leftists. It is a bit muddled in its identity (more on this below). There is even a whiff of anti-modernism nostalgia about it.

Historically, there has never been a properly libertarian government (for the same reason there has never been a properly anarchist government). You can sense right away that there is a paradox here: a certain tension between people electing a government which promptly attempts to dismember itself.

This tension should give us pause, because it alerts us to an important point I need to make about “the State” and “Society”. They are not separate. The idea of “the State” is our German philosophical heritage speaking. Its Hegelian, Kantian, and smacks of ontological boundaries and Rousseauian ideas about the General Will and other Enlightenment utopia-fancies.

We live in a society, which to a vary extent attempts to organise itself through “government-tality.” So part of understanding the size of the government is in understanding the fundamental links; its organic one-ness with our larger society and economy. Thus part of understanding why we have “big government” in the US is acknowledging larger trends; the engines of our society.

Government-tality really got started during the early-modern period (approximately 1500 AD), with the first stirrings of the centralised, bureaucratic state (Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu etc). The simple reason for “centralisation and bureaucratisation” is the need to fund ever-larger and more professional armies. Taxation and the military are fundamentally and inextricably linked.

Fast forward about 450 years. Increasing centralisation and more efficient bureaucracy fuels a feedback loop of economic growth, taxation, militarisation, and technological advance. Ever-increasing military expense is justified by a growth of services provided to the tax-paying citizen; indeed, it is required because a well-managed citizenry provide more taxes for the military. Thus government-tality and “intervention” is part of the military-taxation imperative.

This reading could be challenged by some who would argue, classically, that military defence is a “public good” or a “service” and that “national security” and a “monopoly on legitimate violence” are the solid and sensible basis for governments. Fine. This argument is too abstract to mean anything though.

Let us consult the historical record and statistical reality to bring the idea of defence spending as a “public service” into perspective. Military spending has, since its inception been big business. Today we call it the “military-industrial complex” (remember Eisenhower warning us about it?). The result is that powerful, monied interests have always had a need to keep a certain amount of fear in a body of citizens; war is provoked and indulged for its own sake. Without hinting at conspiracy, I am merely noting that defence spending, while generating immense profits for some, requires a boogey-man so that people are inspired by fear to allow continued high-levels of spending.

Many nations spend so much money on their militaries that the result is nothing works in that society except the military. The result are juntas and dictatorships (I am thinking here of many nations in South America, Africa, and Asia). Militaries are often as dangerous to the citizenry as they are to potential enemies. The government-military link generates a zero-sum, highly-paranoid perspective that pretty much guarantees that politicians will launch wars simply because thats the easy thing to do.

In contemporary US politics, then, being an internally logically consistent libertarian means being in favour of a small military. Keeping in mind that the US spends more in military defence then the next five largest military budgets combined (this means Russia and China, as well as the UK and France) and that “terrorism” cannot be defeated with tanks, divisions of infantry, stealthy bombers or whatever, this means that the major obstacle to a small, libertarian US government is the US military, not social spending. I acknowledge that social spending is a huge part of the US budget, yet one cannot talk about being in favour of fiscal conservatism and small government and not immediately identify military spending as the chief culprit. It is as simple as that.

Let us get even more heavy here. The historical record of attempts to liberalise the US government and economy, the actual results of attempts to move towards a more liberal economy and more libertarian government, have been completely – let me emphasise this – completely to the benefit of big business, or to those who are already at least three standard deviations away from an average level of wealth.

Government regulation goes hand in hand with big business. They function as a sort of yin and yang of government-tality. Rhetoric aside, government stand ready to bail out the stock market when it invariably collapses. Arguments that anyone can and effectively is an investor in the stock market are ignoring a larger reality that most ownership of stock is in corporations, a handful of wealthy investor/owners and that wealthy investors (wether personal or corporate) are able to attract higher rates of return on their investment. In practical terms “Wall Street” is not something you or I are a part of. So unless you own enough stock in a company to merit consideration of your views at their monthly board meeting, you are, like most Americans, in the stock market simply to keep up with inflation.

Governments and big businesses are constant partners, in fact, they could hardly exist without each other. Corporations need complex legal frameworks to guarantee profits. Profits mean taxes; people who work 40+ hours a week are much less likely to be involved in the political process (statistically speaking, the US values leisure time the least in the entire world).

The big picture here is that if you are a committed libertarian you must be anti-military and anti-big business. Only then can you claim a logically consistent libertarianism. If you think current levels of military spending are a good idea, while social programs are dismantled, you are simply a conservative Republican; Tea-Partyism being simply a trend to bring wing-nuts into the sinking Republican ship.

Republican administrations are just as guilty as Democratic ones for increasing the size of government. One glance at the legacies of the Reagan and Bush II presidencies are evidence enough. Reagan rolled in neoliberalism into government and the economy. The result? Increasing corporate profit, the growth of the use of mercenaries (Blackwater, Xe, or whatever they call themselves now), and a shrinking, dying US middle class (do to the ultimate impressive of profit maximisation). If you are a libertarian, and you want to see small business and entrepreneurs thrive, then using the language of libertarianism as an excuse to vote Republican is not the answer. Quite the opposite will in fact occur, according the historical record.

Much like Bush II relied an exciting the social conservative base of the Republican party to win in 2000, the Tea-Party can be seen as an attempt to excite the socially neutral or liberal, yet fiscally conservative/neo-liberal wing of Republican voters. This is the Wall-Street/big business interests as well as the wing-nuts. Both of whom pretend a certain indifference on social issues (like abortion, for example). Yet libertarianism presupposes a freaky-left stance on these issues. Thus, being a true libertarian means that you believe that all drugs should be legalised, for example.

Most of the bile I read online or in mainstream news media confuses these issues freely. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to clarify our collective thinking on these issues. In a follow up posting, I will try to describe a properly American, true libertarianism would look like.

Terror, Torture, and a Texas plumber’s used truck

Having recently flown domestically in the USA, I open my checked bag to discover a note from the Transportation Security Administration. “Smart Security Saves Time,” the note said, citing the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 as the reason why my bag was randomly(?) searched. Any locks on the luggage will be broken, but that’s okay, because the TSA “sincerely regrets having to do this”. They do not have to pay for any damage.

This simple, official note complete with contact information (for packing tips!) is more interesting for what it does not say. There is a palpable tension in the document which stems from its silence on the real issues. How is this not a violation of the constitutional guarantee to privacy and unlawful searches? Is this random bag search merely an elaborate pretence so that any bag may be searched at will?

Maybe this random bag search is – colloquially – “small potatoes”, but still, I feel like there are important principals at stake here. It is too easy to do nothing. And I do not think that is a coincidence; and therein lies the significance of the TSA’s Random Bag Search policy. Does anybody else think that “Smart Security Saves Time” makes no sense at all? That it is a jumble of words that might hopefully keep people from complaining?

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s “interrogation-and-detension” programs, (let’s call it the ‘torture report’) has confirmed exactly what a lot of us has known, or at least strongly assumed and suspected all along. The CIA has been engaging in torture, and while apologists have deployed a web of euphemisms and disingenuous statements worthy of a squid’s ink attack.

And again, like the TSA’s luggage-search ticket, what is more interesting is what is not said in the document, and what has not happened in public opinion. The New Yorker has published a series of articles by Jane Mayer which do a great job of covering the major issues that the torture report has uncovered. Here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/torture-truth. And here: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/unidentified-queen-torture. There are several over-arching issues: Where is the Outrage? And how can we ensure that these deeds are not perpetuated, and that the people in the CIA will be brought so some sort of justice?

The history of modern torture begins with European society entering the ‘modern’ period. More than a tautology, my point is that the why of torture and even the why of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (beyond the stated reasons) has a long history. With the French Revolution, we see the beginning of modern terror and torture. By ‘modern’ I mean most closely the curious sense if frustration that results from attempts to force an abstract regime upon messy reality. The French Revolution could be described as the first utopian revolution to come to power; its inability to create a government and society that was truely a paradigm of liberty, equality, and fraternity was doomed to explode in extreme paranoia and violence.

In a more philosophical sense, terror/torture reflect a modern malaise, which is essentially of the discrepancy between our abstract ideas and personal perceptions, and the messy, complicated, and absurd reality that we all inhabit. Other examples of modern torture, most notably (I am sure there are other examples) the Nazis, the Soviets, the French in Algeria, and most recently the US in the War on Terror, all bear certain similarities that cannot be ignored.

For each example, we can point to a ruling ideology (Stalinism, neo-conservativism etc) that interprets the world in a rather black-and-white way, struggling to deal with circumstances that defy its own understanding. Asymmetrical warfare heightens this sense of paranoia and frustration. Deploying tanks and fighter jets against an insurgent network of shepherds or farmers is the ultimate clash between world-views. The gap between propaganda and reality can only be maintained by ever-increasing amounts of propaganda, fear and violence.

Reading reports about the CIA’s dentension-and-interrogation programs, one has a sense that torture was a motivated by a mixture of revenge, covering for the CIA’s failure to prevent or predict the September 11th attacks and the underlying sense that actually eliminating the spectre of Islamic suicidal terrorism or the terror networks would be essentially impossible. Let us be clear here: torture does not work. It does not produce reliable information. It produces a babel of false-information; information which is much more likely to be what the tortured thinks the torturer wants to hear than anything else (hence a wild-goose chase across Montana looking for al-Queida, for example). If I am being tortured about the possibility of there being a terrorist network in the US, and I say “there isn’t one”, the interrogator is unlikely to believe me. I, as the interrogated, will say anything to just make it stop.

Even if successful examples of “enhanced interrogation” can be cited, wether in French Algeria or 2006 era Guantanamo Bay, it is simply not a tactic which can be justified under any circumstances, wether they be practical, legal or moral. Torture will always be more about the torturers than the tortured.

In the US, there is a very sad lack of response. Every step of the way, leading Republicans have shrugged torture off even as they hypocritically pose as guardians of good ole American values. With the release of the “torture report”, some have suggested that the lack of a virulent public response is due to the idea that “everyone already knew about it”. That’s no excuse. In practical terms, the “silent majority” of the US public is okay with torture. When allegations first appeared, when pictures from Abu Grahib exploded on the scene, where was the outrage?

So why are so many of us okay with torture, especially since we know that it is surprisingly useless as an actual tactic of national security (I would argue that the use of torture has made us less-safe in the long run). In a phrase, it is the intersection of apathy, political jockeying (whatever you do, don’t admit you where wrong), and simple revenge. There is a terrible sense that the forces in our society and in the US government which advocated torture and “rendition” will bear no penalties or consequences, and the cycle of violence is free to repeat itself. A very dark precedent has been set, and even though we can expect the Senate’s report to be published early in the new year, I do not think there will a public cleansing of the sins of torture.

A few days ago, a terrorist group posted pictures of themselves in action in Syria. Hilariously, they were using a Ford F-250 pickup truck, formerly of Mark-1 Plumbing out of Texas City, Texas. The picture shows the truck with the advertising decal on the driver’s door as a heavy machine-gun fires away. It is a simple story; just another used truck being sold down the line through an opaque series of buyers and sellers. I love this story because it is a near-perfect example of how our world actually works these days. It is a story of globalization and absurd forces pursing their own little fantasies to everybody’s mutual detriment.

If any lesson can be gleaned from the CIA’s torture programs and the interesting life of a used pickup truck, is that our world is very new and different from anything has come along before. The US’ War on Terror is as much a reflection of our new globalised world as it is the actions of a lumbering imperial power attempting to live out its super-power fantasy.

It is the same apathy that implicitly authorises torture that has made it possible for a Texas plumber’s truck to find its way to Syria in the hands of extremists.