It’s not about gold, it’s about sending a message

The Olympics have finished, and we finally have a chance for retrospection. The Olympics have finished, and we have lost.

Don’t tell me we have the most medals, list us first and pretend that matters. Don’t tell me we still got second and ought be pleased with ourselves for that. Don’t tell me the Chinese girls cheated and are younger than they claim to be and our poor 16-year-olds didn’t have a chance.

We lost, and I don’t care if it’s basketball, diving or dressage, we ought to bring home the gold. We ought to win. We’re American. That’s what we do; that’s who we are.

Continue reading It’s not about gold, it’s about sending a message

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Liberators: The truth, or some of it

I was browsing wikipedia the other day (several years ago) and happened across this picture. I don’t remember exactly how I got there, really. These things happen. Immediately, I fell in love with it.

liberators

On one level it’s not hard to see why. It’s 50-freaking-stories-tall, wields a tommy gun, and has a bomb for a foot. Suck on that Optimus Prime.

On another, on the level of my political sensibilities, it may not. I’m not a fascist, leftist radical, or even anti-American. I rather like us. But, I like the picture and what it has to say about us as a nation, at that time certainly, but very much now as well.

It is racist, Nazi (well, basically Nazi) propaganda, and like all good propaganda, tells half of one truth and none of another. In this example, the United States is destroying the good Ol’ World by bombing the crap out of it. Oh it’s true, but the other half is that Germany conquered and looted it first (and declared war on America). That completes the picture. And of course the poster says nothing at all about the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews, Romani, and other undesirables. I think it neglects that state’s activities altogether.

By the standard of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it does not do well, but is it a lie, except in the literal sense that America did not possess a 50-story-tall monster? No. And that’s why I’m so fond of it.

The Second World War is widely seen as “the last good war” for a lot of Americans, probably as much for the totality of our victory than the moral clarity of the situation. But what moral clarity there was! Japan bombed us, Germany immediately declared war on us, and from Abyssinia to Nanjing to Auschwitz, the Axis powers proved themselves very bad folk. The Allies were clearly the good guys. Well, except for the Soviet Union. But they were on good behavior during the war. Except for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russo-Finnish War, mass rape of German women… Anyway, the French and the British didn’t do any of that stuff. Besides, they were democracies. Okay, yeah, they were also empires with vast colonial holdings that exploited millions kept in grinding poverty to maintain the homeland’s standard of living. But those citizens at home could vote.

America, though, didn’t have an empire then, or at least not a substantial one, anyhow. There weren’t many Hawaiians still around, and the Philippines had settled down. And hey, the vast majority of the population lived in the continental U.S., and we’d achieved universal suffrage there. Even in the South, black people could vote, they just didn’t for some reason. Or hold any elected offices. Or go to the same schools. Or drink from the same water fountains.

I don’t need to mention Dresden or Hiroshima or internment camps; those get thrown around enough, and I’ve made my point, I think. It is the same point I take from, although not intended by, that poster.

As George Orwell (I like George Orwell) said way back in 1940 and of England, “If I side with Britain and France, it is because I would sooner side with the older imperialisms — decadent, as Hitler rightly calls them — than with the new ones which are completely sure of themselves and therefore completely merciless. Only, for Heaven’s sake let us not pretend we go into this war with clean hands. It is only while we cling to the consciousness that our hands are not clean that we retain the right to defend ourselves.”

The United States then was the Klan and the gangster, the jitterbug and the banker, and the bomber and the war profiteer, and the vain woman and lecherous man, and the Zionist Jew, too. A melting pot of crime and corruption and “mongrelization” and ulterior motives. The Nazis were right to poke fun at calling a war bomber, a machine designed to rain down indiscriminate destruction on what’s below it, “a Liberator.” Sure. But that’s not all we are. We are many good and laudatory things we like to remember, and so they’re easier to remember. It’s just dangerous to forget and deceive the self. Better, better, a thousand times better to deceive yourself and believe you’re something better than what you are than to cease striving and revel in your failure, but better than both beyond compare to be honest and continue striving.

So it’s not as though the Holocaust and Jim Crow have moral equivalence or are so similar we can’t judge Germany poorly for their actions. Obviously, we must. But there is no one good, no not one, and it’s just as important to remember the concentration camps we liberated as we do the ships full of Jews fleeing the Nazis we turned away. Not because that makes us just the same as the Nazis but because by recognizing we have fallen short, rather than staying content as we are, we can be sure to get closer to the ideal.

Us and Them

I was walking through a parking lot the other day and spotted a suburban with a Nimitz football sticker in the wildshield. My first impulse was to find a rock and smash the window in.

I didn’t of course–find one–and wouldn’t have smashed anything if I had. I mean really. I’m reasonable, and I walked to my car and drove away peaceably like a reasonable person.

I haven’t gone to school at Bonham Junior High since 2002, I went to Permian with people from and even had friends from Nimitz, and where a person went to junior high hasn’t even been a meaningful thought to cross my mind in at least four years. Yet somehow those three years of conditioning have stayed with me in some form or another.

I had a friend in college who claimed he didn’t ascribe to any artificial division between people. Geographical, national, racial, whatever. Maybe he was telling the truth, well-traveled and easy going fellow that he was. Yeah, I’ll take it at face value. But if so, he’s denying himself one of the fundamental aspects, and I say joys, of the human experience.

Nimitz is a small thing, and no less or more artificial a boundary than a lot of the ones we draw between ourselves and others. But in another way, the lines are as absolute as anything gets.

“We’re playing Nimitz, and we hate those guys.”

For all our individuality, our diverse backgrounds, and adolescent sub-cliques, what we have in common is that aren’t Nimitz, and we hate those guys. What is Bonham? Owls? Blue and gray? Who can really get excited about that? We’re familiar with ourselves, and there’s not much great or special about us, but what we’re unfamiliar with, all sort of things can be attributed to them, and we aren’t THEM. We’re US.

It’s crude, but I really do think you can trace at least one strain of identity through sports loyalties. Odessa High vs. Permian. Odessa vs. Midland. West Texas vs. East Texas. Texas against all other states. The South vs. the North and West Coast. America versus the world. When our alien overlords arrive and want to play a game of basketball, humanity will hate them, too.

It’s nice to belong, to know who you are because of who you’re not. Obviously there’s more of a draw to this as an insecure 14-year-old than a hopefully mature 40-year-old, but there’s still a lot of a draw at forty. When you’re part of a group, you don’t have to succeed or contribute anything to be a success.

“America is the greatest country on earth.”

The vast majority of people who say that have never been to more than a handful of other countries, if any. Luxemborg may be a wonderful place. I don’t know. I’ve never been. But America is number one. We can’t hear you above all the freedom.

And there are those on the Left who say patriotism is irrational and ignorant. That’s probably true, but if their chests don’t swell with pride seeing an American flag raised, if something doesn’t stir in them to hear the Star Spangled Banner or God Bless America or America the Beautiful, they’re missing out on their humanity because that “something” that stirs is wonderful.

And so long as it remains private or at least doesn’t come at the detriment of someone else, who can complain?

Marxism ceased to be relevant about the time I was getting potty trained, so correct me if I’m misunderstanding something here. When Karl Marx called for workers of the world to unite, he expected them to choose class differences as their identity. If so, he was incredibly foolish in his understanding of masses of people.

In the American South, who did poor white trash have more in common with just before the Civil War, slaves or their white masters? Economically, they were closer to the slaves. Economically, they, and the slaves, would be better off if slavery didn’t exist in the South, and all labor was free and competitive. Oh, but their human interests, their human interests lay with the fact that they were white and the poorest, dumbest, ugliest, most worthless white man in the South was worth more than any black person was or could ever be. Worth more than all of them put together. The poorest white was still white, and that made him like the richest plantation owner, if only in his own mind. That is a mighty consolation prize for having to scrape around in the mud. That’s US being winners, and THEM being losers. If your situation as a loser is better than as a winner, that’s poor consolation for winning.

The relationship between myself and Nimitz is not that. I’m not a Bonhamedan anymore, for whatever it really meant that I was then. But at a time when identity was really taking shape, it meant something not to go to school at Nimitz, or Bowie, or Crockett, or Midland Lee. Any real success of my school meant I was, and I enjoyed the illusion of superiority because everyone who went to Bonham was superior to those others schools, including me. And the hostility programmed, intentionally and otherwise, hasn’t, may not ever fully dissipate.

In all the ways I break down my world into US and THEM, surely Bonham and Nimitz are the least significant. I wonder how I’m affected by those divisions that seem more important.

Honesty

We say we value honesty, in ourselves and other people, but hard as it may be, it’s much easier to tell the truth than to hear it. “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves,” but intellectual dishonesty is as much a problem of perception as deception.

Humans are rational beings, or so I’m told. Occasionally, we gather evidence to come to an unbiased conclusion, check the facts to come to a reasoned answer. More often our reasoned conclusion is the result of irrational prejudices, or at least subjective opinions framing and coloring what information we receive and how we sort it.

In the 19th century, Quakers and Virginians were reading the same Bible so far as I know. Yet somehow they managed to come to completely opposite conclusions about the place of slavery in Christianity. God had created blacks as mentally inferior therefore their natural place was under the control of white masters. A few decades later, the curse of Ham had been replaced by the science of Darwin, now proving objectively that the Negro was naturally biologically inferior. The reasoning changed, but the conclusion remained unchanged.

Today people look at test scores and poverty rates and alternately prove that African-Americans are biologically/culturally inferior to whites or victims of a structurally racist society. “Just look at the evidence!” both sides say. “It’s plain to see.”

That’s a poor example, at least today. That’s not an issue with a 50-50 split anymore, but like writers of The Bell Curve or James Watson, very intelligent people can gather a great deal of evidence and see in it something they already want to.

A better example, or fairer one, is the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, commonly called “the right to bear arms.” On this subject, you will find Clyde Jr. of Arkansas and Antonin Scalia holding roughly the same views. They support their views with entirely different levels of complexity, but in the end, they support the same thing. Ruth Ginsberg is no less qualified a legal scholar than Scalia, has probably read all the same books, histories, and decisions as he has, but her conclusion is more in line with a pot-smoking hippie.

It bothers me very much to read editorials, most of them written by intelligent people, claiming that the Second Amendment clearly says this or that when the only thing clear about it is that when you read it for yourself, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” comes after a very clear qualifier: “A well-regulated militia being necessary.”

That muddles things. Historical context muddles things. Just to what extent “arms” was supposed to encompass then and now muddles things.

I’m phrasing things in this way because I’m actually sympathetic to the gun rights cause, and that makes me more sensitive to and critical of how they go about things.

I would support a city’s right to restrict gun rights based on my personal libertarian principles of local control and heterogeneous laws. The free market of ideas, competing sociological laboratories, etc., etc. Of course the Supreme Court ruling came on the District of Columbia, so setting that aside, whether gun ownership is a right is not an answer that can be read into the Constitution, and certainly not by the chicken-bone soothsayers running around today.

The only way to answer the question honestly is to surrender all claims of superseding authority and make the most convincing argument you can at a fair level of discourse.

That is, start with the question of whether gun ownership is a natural right. There’s no document, political, religious, or otherwise to answer this question, just your own reason and beliefs, and it’s either a yes or a no. For me, it’s pretty obviously “no” because guns have only existed for the past 500 years or so, and one would think intrinsic rights would be as old as our species. But, gun ownership may be a derivative right of something else, that is the right to self-protection and defense. Whereas in the days of Og bonking Unk on the head with a club entitled Unk to a club or rock of his own, so too a world of guns entitles us to guns for this purpose. This seems sensible enough to me.

The question, as a libertarian, is always where your rights stop and another’s begin. Where is the border between your right to protect yourself and another’s right not to be threatened? That’s an important question, and consulting the Constitution does nothing. A nuclear weapon can’t be acceptable to remain in private ownership just because the founders hadn’t the foresight to prohibit them (and I’ve heard some arch-libertarians sincerely make that argument).

I heard Scalia use as an example that when he was in high school, a fellow classmate complained about reading Shakespeare. The teacher said, “Sir, when you read Shakespeare, he isn’t on trial; you are.” In the same way, the traditions and laws aren’t on trial by contemporary measures; we are.

Well, if we are on trial, the judges are absent. The Founders with a capital “F” aren’t here, and they never really were. Jefferson’s vision of the nation is not more valid than Hamilton’s or Adams’ or Washington’s. When we try to use them to parrot our own opinions and substitute persuasive argument, we may be doing our best to tell the truth, but ultimately we’re lying.

The best way to be an honest person may just be to admit when you’re telling a falsehood. The best way to be intellectually honest, then, may be to admit your biases and work around them as best as you are able, lying as you go, but not compounding the lie with claims of impartiality.

We’re only impartial to things we care nothing for, and rarely does anyone comment at any length about things they care nothing for.

Bible curriculum

I was already out of high school when the Bible curriculum became an issue. Actually, I was a student of David Newman’s at Odessa College when the controversy first took shape, so I was in the front row if not in the ring. While I enjoyed him as a professor, and think the quality of his instruction is an incredible bargain for a community junior college, we disagreed on the Bible curriculum, or at least how to respond to it.

See, we agreed then, and I assume still do, that the Bible is the single most important work of literature to the Occident. Essentially nothing of significance composed during the past two thousand can be fully appreciated, or in some cases understood at all, without a firm grounding in Biblical theology, history, and parable. We differed slightly in that he wanted a general Western literature class that would include stuff like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oedipus Rex, and the Aeneid, while I was satisfied with a course that studied the Bible solely, so long as it was indeed study and not proselytizing (something I wasn’t convinced the original course was).

So our main disagreement was in how to express our disagreement. If he reads this he can correct me, but (in addition to protecting local non-Christians who might be discriminated against), I understand his motivation to be that if someone didn’t stand up and fight it here, it could be common and have a negative effect on our public schools.

Meanwhile I was and am of the opinion that ignoring things often does help them go away. I don’t base that on wishful thinking, but my own observations of West Texas. We aren’t actually religious or devout, we just like appearing to be. It is, after all, considerably easier to convince a Christian to wear a cross as a necklace than to give his shirt to a mugger, much easier to bless food or a sneeze than those who curse him. And as years of Sunday School and Big Church made abundantly clear, Christians want to show up as much as we feel obligated and definitely do not want to read the Bible (for ourselves).

It is my opinion that a “Survey of William Shakespeare” class would be a fantastic class for a public high school. But no more than a dozen already highly interested students would be willing to take it. Everyone else would be looking for blow-off classes, because that’s what electives are in high school. Maybe religious-devotion would make more kids sign up for a King James Bible course than Shakespeare, but not that much more.

By making it a controversial issue and a standard for the overtly religious to rally behind, all that happened was drive up interest. ‘Married… with Children’ syndrome. And even with this, at last count there were still only 38 students enrolled in the class in the whole district, 38 out of what, 3,000?

So maybe I’m being hypocritical for talking about it now without any newsworthy reason, but I really do think it’s a great idea and something high school kids can handle intellectually, although probably not religiously. What I mean is that when you stop confining yourself to Adam and Eve, Joseph, Samson, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ miracles, you get into some pretty tough stuff. I mean, interesting, just from Judges no one can say Ehud, Jephthah, or the Levite and his concubine aren’t interesting (and magnificent works of literature), but they start to bring up theological questions that aren’t in Sunday School, and in terms of content, it’s the sort of thing that gets books banned from school from some of the same people pushing for this course.

Then you get into looking at the whole process of redaction and canonization, and most Christians do not want to know about or objectively examine that. It’s gradual, it’s messy, and it’s considerably less simple than, “God wrote it here it is.” When you get away from Sunday School answers and start being honest, the Bible can be troubling. Some people even lose faith over it.

But, the benefits are worth it. When you look at the Bible objectively, understand it historically, and measure it artistically, it becomes quickly clear that whatever God’s involvement in the composition, the end result is divine. Intellectual dishonesty makes the Bible boring. But Bible study, there’s no end to that or its enjoyment.

You gain things from comparing the Epic of Gilgamesh to Noah’s ark. You gain things from looking at the Old Testament as the Tanakh, complete in itself, and not the prequel of Jesus. You gain things from looking at the development of the character of God in the Bible, and people’s understanding of Him from the “Let us” creator to someone who walks in Eden and fears the sunrise to the tribal deity that best the Egyptians and Canaanites to the still, small voice that follows the people of Judah to Babylon and judges (and forgives) Nineveh.

How nice this would be, to give Jews and Christians an insight into how the other views the verses, to give the otherwise religious and non-religious an understanding of the basis of those theologies, and to give all a better appreciation of a book spanning dozens of books, hundreds of characters, thousands of years, and God knows how many writers.

It would be nice if it was done in such a way, it is possible for it to be done in such a way, but it likely never will be done in such a way. And I will continue to be apathetic and snide about the class, hoping churches will offer Bible studies enough and of such quality that the need for them in schools will cease to exist.

Gays in the military

The debate on the status of gays, or more really homosexuality itself, in the military seems to be starting up again, I guess because of those hearings on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy the military currently uses.

One of the funniest things about the whole situation is that I keep seeing these commercials of the Army trumpeting the 60 year anniversary of the integration of armed forces and how ahead of the curve the military was on the issue, while it remains one of the last institutions to outright ban homosexuality today.

As is plainly obvious, this policy is completely and unjustifiably unfair, but I am reactionary enough to support it and go even further. I’ll give you two practical reasons why, and then why I’m wrong on both, plus one more personal argument.

First, and this is a very old argument going back at least to the Roman general Marius, homosexuality “disrupts the military hierarchy.” Should professional soldiers be professional enough that they don’t like the little head do the thinking for them? Of course, but 18 to 25 year olds that regularly go long periods without sexual contact are not the best candidates for this, and they make up the vast majority of our recruits. They’re going to be horny and no amount of conditioning is going to prevent that, unless we want to start staffing our army with castrati.

You’re probably saying that most of this applies to women, who are already accepted in the service, and yes, I’m against that for the same reasons above. Many women are capable of military service and some have proved or are proving it, but we’ve also seem some of these problems prove themselves as well.

So it’s not that gays can’t fight or that an attraction to the same sex makes you incapable of being a good soldier. Alexander the Great conquered half the classical world loving boys half the time. But unless we legalize and institutionalize prostitution (call them “morale officers”) sex is going to get mixed with professionalism, and that almost never works. “Almost” because the Sacred Band of Thebes is reported to have done pretty well in the ancient world, but that’s an argument for open segregation more than anything.

Anyway, if you support heterosexual women being allowed in the military, gays and lesbians don’t pose any more of a threat to cohesion and performance than they do, likely much less because they are far fewer in number. And you can say, like Texas Rep. Ron Paul, that the issue is entirely about conduct, not sexual orientation. “Don’t Ask, It’s Irrelevant.”

My second argument against allowing openly homosexual people from serving in the armed forces is that the military is overwhelmingly socially conservative. A lot of very good soldiers are going to be lost because they are religiously and/or viscerally homophobic.

Now you should say, “Sixty years ago, there were probably a lot of very good soldiers who were racist. That was no reason to stop integration then.”

And you are right. However, I would think that 1948 was a much better time to begin desegregation than 1944, and since the purpose of reforming the policy is ostensibly to drive up recruitment (not just be more fair), turning away all of those ignorant redneck boys who get looked down on so much by the open-minded left but are responsible for allowing us all the luxury of being open-minded, is probably not the best idea. However, if the War on Terror is to continue indefinitely as many argue, then now is as good a time as any.

Finally, I can’t speak Spanish and Canada is too far away, even for someone without flatfeet. When I get drafted in 2012 to help invade Pakistan, I want the ability to pull a Jimmy Hendrix so I can stay a 4-F coward at home.

But mainly all that other stuff.

Not even usual

The other day some of my faraway family came into town for a visit, and I got a chance to see my little cousins. I say, “little.” One is nine the other just turned a dozen, so they’re already pretty grown-up. Or at least I thought I was so at that age.

I can’t stand the 12-year-old. She’s started staring at people. Not to any practical purpose or to win a staring game, but just to do it.

It doesn’t bother me that she does it to me; it bothers me that she does it all. I had thought that was my thing.

Yes, I was that kid in Junior High and High School. But it was okay because I had figured out that it was socially taboo to stare at someone for a long period of time with an expressionless face, and I had figured it out on my own. By doing this simple thing, I could make other people intensely uncomfortable, which is far more entertaining that it has any right to be or you may be able to appreciate now.

But now she’s doing the same thing and for the same reasons (at least I assume), and that was my thing that made me oh so clever and unique.

She’s a cute girl, and will likely grow up to be very well-liked and well-adjusted, but I don’t think I’ll be able to forgive her this, ever.

There are some things I just don’t like to acknowledge, and my lack of uniqueness is one of them. Yes, yes, we’re all unique and beautiful snowflakes, but when you’re a child, you’re told and can honestly believe (because everyone else seems to believe it) that you’re really super special and no one else is like you. When you’re five being bright is enough to be called a genius. No one is actually talking about you, they’re talking about what you may one day become. But life goes on and potential shrinks and one day being “smart for your age” no longer matters, just being smart does. By early adolescence, you aren’t actually as smart, artistic, or athletic as you had been convinced you were, but you still want to be special. And as you exit childhood, you start to realize other people actually perceive you. If you can’t excel, one of the ways to stay special is just to do something weird.

Maybe I’m drifting off topic here, but what an amazing revelation it was then that you can affect someone else’s life by doing nothing but looking, just looking. How proud I might be of figuring it out–if not for a cousin coming along to throw in my face it’s just something some people do.

Not that I didn’t know all of this before. Working at a convenience store quickly horrified me as I (and I’m sure anyone who’s worked a customer service job) realized that people are all the same. If you place us in a given situation, we will all behave in the same way, ask the same stupid questions, and make the same tired jokes everyone before us has, all the while fully convinced of our own individuality and wit.

So I wasn’t even weird. I was just common without virtue or benefit. It’s insulting, and she insulted me whether she realizes it or not.

I’m totally not getting her anything this Christmas.